New Orleans, Part 2: Hand Grenades on Bourbon Street

Elena noticed a ‘For Rent’ sign above our heads just before we found Bourbon Street, with an extra plack that hung below reading ‘Not Haunted’ and pointed it out to me.  At the corner of Bourbon we stumbled upon our destination, Tropical Isle, where we made friends with the bartender, Angela.

We each ordered a hand grenade- it was a ‘when in New Orleans’ drink- and sat down at the end of an L shaped bar across from Angela. Her fine sandy blonde hair fell down past her shoulders, her pencil thin eyebrows were darkened, and her smile was a little crooked.  Her smile was nice though, charismatic and welcoming. She wasn’t young anymore, but we’d soon find out that her spirit was youthful.

At first, she didn’t speak.  I took a few sips of my frozen drink.  It was refreshing against the hot, humid New Orleans weather, and took a moment to survey my surroundings.  Across the bar from us an empty nook full of classic video games, on its perimeter, a breathalyzer test. I pointed it out to my companions and we made a few halfhearted jokes.

Behind Angela, two tall large cardboard boxes were tucked underneath the drink counter, full to the top of plastic hand grenade cups.  They were translucent, flourescent green with shape similar to that of a tall vase, but the base the impression of a miliary hand grenade.  We each held one ourselves, and they were ours to keep, if we wanted them.

I looked up at her, “So how many of those boxes do you go through typically?”  I wanted to talk.

I don’t think she expected my question, responding, “Well, that depends on the day.”

“How bout tonight?”  It was a Saturday. “I bet you go through a lot.”

“Yeah, well…” she started, thinking about it, “On a busy day we’ll go through almost ten boxes.”

“Wow,” that was a hell of a lot more than I expected.

“Yeah, it’ll get crazy in here later.”  It was only early afternoon now, and the bar was busy.  Not packed, but busy. I imagined it later on, shoulder to shoulder with tourists just trying to get close enough to the bar to talk to her.  I heard the loud hum of a busy bar.

Her manager came from out of the kitchen, opening the guide on the television.  He changed it to Half Baked, at her request. I stared at it for a minute. It was the date montage, the scene with the money counter in the corner.

“I love this movie,” I said, turning back towards her.  She nodded. She hadn’t opened up to conversation just yet.

Elena broke the silence, “So… what’s in a hand grenade?”

She smiled at us, “I can’t tell you.”

We both gawked at her, our jaws fell and our eyebrows lowered.  Ellie had gone outside to talk on the phone.

“No really,” she started again, “I had to sign a release when I started working here.  It’s patented. I’m not allowed to tell.”

“That’s so crazy!”  I exclaimed.

“Yup,” she replied, “but it’s true.”

“Will you tell us if we guess?”  Elena had the right idea.

She grinned at us, “Go ahead.”

“151?,” my first guess.  She shook her head.

“Absolut?” I guessed again.  I knew it had to be a clear liquor.

She shook her head again, “Think higher alcohol content.”  We both paused.

Elena guessed, “Tequila?”  Wrong again.

“Nope, higher.”

“Oh, oh…” she paused, the thought on the tip of both our tongues, “Everclear?”

“Bingo! And triple sec, pineapple juice, and the special mixer.”

We both cocked our heads at that one, wondering.

“Yeah, see this,” she picked up automated drink dispenser, “It’s premixed.  There’s a button for the regular hand grenades here and sugar free here too.”

“Wooooow.”

“Mmhmm,” she was proud of it.  It was very cool.

We went on, talking about nonsense, learning about her background.  We shared with her about the road trip, how much I already was in love with New Orleans, about camping on the other side of the lake.  

She was originally from Missouri, had moved to NOLA with her first husband and then back home briefly.  She couldn’t stand being home.

Then, we found out her age.  She was 37, but I swore to her she didn’t look a day older than 32.  She accepted the compliment graciously. I told her I’d been to Mexico, Missouri for a wedding a few years back, and she commented on her hometown.

“There’s just nothing to do there.  I knew I had to come back here,” she went on, “And the people…  The people here are so much nicer, they’re friendly.”

“Yes!” I agreed with her. “I love the South for that.  Nobody has a problem talking to you, even if it’s about nothing.  The people here that we’ve met, just in the last few hours, are great.”

We chatted a bit more, as the hand grenades started to set in.  It was only two o’clock, but I was three drinks in and I was feeling heavy.  

We left, but not before exchanging affections for the friendly conversation with Angela, and headed east on Bourbon St, towards a whole lot of commotion.

People were starting to flood the streets.  All of the sidewalks and the bars alike were packed full of tourists.  We heard about as many foreign languages there as we heard in the National Parks, but it was crowded and we were drunk, not quite ready for more drinking.

A humid, laborious walk, with a couple pit stops, landed us at the St Louis Cemetery, the most famous of the New Orleans burial grounds.  I tried at first to disregard the signs stating that you must be accompanied by a certified tour guide, but I was stopped by a large, tall black man.

I joked with him, “I was gonna make a run for it,” smiling goofily up at him.

He laughed, “Go across the street there,” he pointed to the grass median, “the woman in the red skirt is Jennifer.  She’s the best tour guide around.”

New Orleans, Part 1: My first taste of Magic

We woke up hazy from our late night endeavor of pitching the tent at Fontainebleau State Park.  Ellie had hardly slept, overcome by her irrational fear of bears. Elena had slept some, but me, I’d slept like a baby.  The moon shone brightly in on my face through the side window of the tent which we’d opened for air flow.

I’ve always slept wonderfully in the woods and that night was no exception, even as the temperature dropped and I curled up tightly in my blanket.  The rhythmic humming of bugs provided the perfect white noise for my slumber.

The first drive over Lake Pontchartrain was breathtaking.  Thirty miles of four lane highway across the massive body of water.  In the center, only a faint outline of the New Orleans skyline was visible.  We ‘ooh’-ed and ‘ah’-ed at it for the first fifteen miles, and for the last fifteen, spent time trying to capture a good photo of it.  I didn’t realize just how extensive the Lake was until I was in the middle of it, although the map never lied to be. The actual experience is always so much more than what a book can tell you.  We found our way into the French Quarter but first wandering into downtown and passing the St Louis cemetery on the way.

As we wandered back down to the Quarter, I was full of anticipation.  The next right put us just on the outskirts. My jaw dropped. Beautifully stylized rowhomes lined the streets, many with cast iron rungs on porches hanging above street level.  The detail in the iron work amazed me, but they weren’t all adorned with porches. I glanced down an alley between homes and was teased by half an image of courtyard with a water fountain overgrown with lush, green plant life.  

We found a parking lot to leave the car between Decatur St and the Mississippi River, which was a struggle to get into, the street flooded with tourists.  We passed Cafe Du Monde. I craned my neck around, trying to take in the white and green awning hanging above all the tiny tables. The line of people to get the most famous beignets extended down a couple of blocks.

We decided to explore around, find food elsewhere, and not lose time standing in that crazy line.  Just before the parking lot while we were stuck at the an intersection, I noticed Cafe Maspero on to our right.

“Let’s go there,” I suggested.  “My friend’s friend grew up in New Orleans and said we should try it out.”

They agreed.  

On foot and ready for a meal, a girl with beautifully clean blonde dreads greeted us at the door.

“I really like your dress,” she told Elena who glowed with satisfaction.  It was the jumper she’d bought in Daytona, which I’d approved in the beach shop dressing room.  

She seated us across the dining room against a window which opened outwards like a shutter.  The glass was frosted slightly from age. Across the restaurant a couple archways separated us from the bar, atop which two large glass infusers were full of olives, pickled onions, roasted red peppers, and vodka.  I soon learned that vodka infusions were a specialty of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Later that day at the Royal House, an infuser sat atop the bar directly next to me. Their kicker in the mix was spicy green beans.  Our lovely bartender Cindy had handed us an entire cup of them for munching.

I scooted my chair in as far as I could, shaking the whole table as I bumped my knee against it.  Soon, our waitress stood above us, young and tan, dark-haired, and smiling.

First she brought us a round of bloody marys, which were exceptionally good, the spiciness exactly what I wanted it to be.  Then our food came out.

We’d worked out quite a spread of creole dishes.  Jambalaya, red beans and rice, a famous Muffalata, and an alligator sausage sandwich.  We dug in, passing around our plates periodically, so everyone got a bit of everything.  

The food was absolutely amazing, full of flavor and authenticity, and filling us with our first NoLa experience.  Ellie stepped outside to smoke as Elena and I waited on the bill and our to-go drinks. That was a completely new, but captivating idea to me- the to-go drink.  I even learned a few days later that in Mississippi, you are not only allowed to have an open container, but you’re allowed to have it open while driving, just so long as you blow under the legal limit.  I was stunned.

We walked away from the bay, deeper into the Quarter, more wandering than anything, but hoping we’d stumble upon Bourbon Street.  We were on a mission for our first hand grenade when the bright sounds of a brass band caught my ear. I looked back at the girls with a look on my face of excitement while picking my feet up a bit faster.  

The end of the block revealed to us was an eight piece band, the lead trombonist sliding around on a solo, the tenor sax and trumpeter hitting chords behind him through the changes, as two men held down the percussion alongside a standup bass.  

My heart exploded in my chest at least twice as we stood there listening to the group play with their hearts and their lungs, all dancing a little as they grooved out notes.  The song ended and the crowd that had formed around us clapped. The bass brought in the next tune. The horns joined in after eight bars. I recognized the Ray Charles standard, as the trombonist lowered his horn and began belting out,

“I got a woman/Way over town/She’s good to me”

Elena and I danced in the street as his voice echoed off the quaint Quarter homes, leading alongside the timbre of his horn friends.  We stood still for the rest of the song, and I fell very deeply in love with New Orleans.

How to Properly Celebrate the Holidays with Friends or,

A Treatment On Leaning into Mars conjunct Neptune under a Sag New Moon

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Get off work late on Friday.  Find your best friend, who is visiting from the East Coast, at a random hole-in-the-wall bar on Colfax that is so new they haven’t yet had a grand opening.  Taste a tangerine cream draft beer out of curiosity. Have a glass because it makes your heart nostalgic for childhood creamsicles even though your go-to winter beers are dark and heavy.  Watch sea creatures do weird shit on the bar TV in between your BF telling you about the museum exhibits where she spent six hours while you were working. Casually strip off your work t-shirt sitting at the bar, after a couple sips of beer.  Notice the hinged murphy-style tables along the opposite wall and consider the creative inspiration for your to-be camper van.

Drink your beer just a little faster than you would in other circumstances, knowing that your friends are waiting for you at taco night at the local dive bar, all the way down Colorado back towards your home.  Tell your BF that you forgot to tell her that we’d had taco night planned out for weeks. Also tell her that you’re supposed to be home for a dinner party, but you forgot to tell her about that too. She’s not mad.  She knows your sense of timing is never great. Strip off your baselayer in the bar bathroom, because you decided that if you go home now you’ll never make it back out again.

Remember that The Dirty Duck is waiting for you.  Remember that your roommates are also waiting for you at home.  Get the fuck out of that little hole in the wall St. Paul’s Tavern where you could’ve easy stayed the night and hope that next time you make it out of your own neighborhood that it’s still open.  Kindly make jokes with the bartender as you are leaving. Again, realize that your sense of timing is awful.

Have silly conversation with your BF on the ride south, where she reminds you (as if you could forget) that the bartender was very attractive.  Respond casually about how you do have a thing for bartenders.  Laugh because you both simultaneously remember how many bartenders you’ve flirted with through the years.  Never miss a fucking beat in conversation on the ride so that the fifteen minute drive feels like a sixty second float, but remember you have a destination just as the neon signs come into focus.  

Announce your arrival while hoping aloud that there are tacos left.  Also wonder aloud where to park, nearly find no spot, then nearly back the car down a hidden stairwell at the back of the building.  Catch eyes with your friends through a window of the bar, where they have found a single booth in the back corner. Walk through the entryway below hung mistletoe and holly, nod at the bartender, and survey the scraps of tacos left.  Circle around the table to check the second crock pot for scraps and come up short.

Introduce your BF to your table of friends, one of whom’s name you have forgotten.  Play off the embarrassment of wrongly introducing her by resigning to let people introduce themselves.  Pause as your friends giggle and realize that you are probably slightly manic. Realize that you haven’t stopped moving some part of your body for a number of hours.  Shrug it off for now. Let it carry you on past the 12 hour shift and into the night. Never sit down, either because there is no room at the booth or because you are due home for dinner in ten minutes and you need to stop at the liquor store first.  

Leave the bar just a quickly as you arrived, cordially apologizing again for misnaming a new friend and wishing them a great night.  Buzz into the liquor store two doors down, grabbing a six pack because the logo sports a penguin and fits into your idea of a dark winter beer.  Help your BF find the soda water which is hidden behind seltzer in a run-down Pepsi cooler near the entrance. Think the fluorescent lighting in the store makes it seem dingier than it would have been to begin with.  Wait behind a pair of boys, whom you check out to try and figure if they are gay or just good bros.

Make a grand entrance at home, just as everyone is sitting down to eat.  Be assured that you are not late though, because two of the friends you left at the bar have yet to arrive.  Walk back into your room at least twice for various things, forgetting something at least once.  Help bring the last unoccupied chairs in the house to an additional table for seating.

Cheers to another successful Around the World meal and pass plates around until everyone has a little bit of everything.  Run into the other room for some Lactaid when the main dish is announced to be mostly cheese, as company laughs. Cry a little as the pickled habanero onions melt into your taste buds and enjoy it.  

Talk much and loudly with your end of the two tables that has stayed put, but get lost in everyone else’s stories.  Tell an old story about yourself getting wasted and sleeping on the streets of Baltimore for the entertainment of your BF.  Let yourself be kicked off kitchen clean up duty and find friends to listen to again. Express your gratitude that there are guests kind enough in your house to clean up the kitchen after they were cooked for.  

Drink more beer.  Help move the table out of the living room and back to its home.  Let the minutes fade by, while you jump from conversation to conversation until only a handful of friends are left in the house and one of them gives you a 10% beer.  

Don’t say ‘goodbye’ because you’re determined to stay conscious through the night even with a 10% beer in hand.  Have a conversation about racism and institutions and ancestral trauma while still sipping on a 10% beer.

Wind up in the living room on a couch surrounded by friends for a card game.  Finish your 10% beer during said card game and switch to red wine. Feel totally at home sipping red wine because she is your keeper.  Participate, but also forget all the specific reasons for full belly laughter while playing with your friends. Don’t forget the way it feels in a warm room full of laughter.  Remember honestly complimenting the good looks of one of your guy friends and the gorgeous smile spread across his face upon taking the compliments.

Eagerly enjoy the idea of drunk pilates and find yourself a space of the floor.  Begin to lose memory about half way through, but not before the keywords ‘anterior pelvic tilt’ and ‘3:30 am’ and wake up face down on the leather couch wondering why you hadn’t gone to bed.  Stagger in and curl up next to your BF who you assume must be sleeping soundly by now.

Wake up around 10 with a splitting headache and growling belly.Acknowledge you must’ve drank twice as many calories than you’d eaten the day before.  Roll over and know you’d go back to sleep if it weren’t for a fully awake human also in your bed who is asking what we’ll do today. Mumble ‘breakfast’ and roll over again, away from the door this time.

Wonder aloud what your best travel buddy (BTB) is doing and tell your BF we’re gonna try the new/reopened brunch spot across the street.  Call your BTB, have a playful conversation comparing our friendship to that of Franco-Rogen, where I assign her Franco because she’s hot and she reassigns it back to me saying I’m the hottest.  

Resolve to meet at Morning Story in 10 minutes but don’t arrive for closer to 20.  Invite your also-hungover roommate and chef of the previous night to brunch. Dress yourself most comfortably and walk casually down the middle of your neighborhood street to the adjacent strip mall.  Laugh more while recounting yourself passed out on the couch, where apparently your BF had tried tediously to get you up but you refused.

Order a trifecta of beverages, that is water, coffee, and orange juice, just like you used to every morning back in Baltimore after you’d been out drinking.  Wait a few minutes for your BTB to show up and try to grab her attention awkwardly with your hand in the air as you watch her peer out across the restaurant floor.  Let your smile extend to each ear when she sees you, as hers has done the same. Eat food and make jokes and affectionately lay your head on the shoulder of your booth-mate.  

Awkwardly add a fifth friend to the table about halfway through your meal.  Talk a little about politics and viewpoint diversity and cultural backgrounds.  Hate declining an invitation to a quinceanera in the mountains because you’re feeling so much like you need to be still, like you need to be home.  Forget your bill on the table as you go to pay the cashier and joke with the cashier’s trainer about being lively hungover women. Know that the lovely energy you’re putting out into the world is affecting others in a positive way.  

Stumble back home where you feel so full of food and drink and love that you’ve forgotten about the hangover.  Share a joint in the backyard to assure that the hangover won’t creep back in. Film your cat playing with a tarp, using his claws to bounce shriveled leaves up into the air to watch them fall.

Decide you need to spend time with the Earth today.  Feel the low winter sun on your face and see the long shadows she casts and feel witchy.  Survey the plot of bare ground at the back of the house and the tiller you snagged from your ex and the dead goat heads that invaded the garden space and know that you want to build something there.  Hug your BTB the best goodbye, regretting missing the quinceanera but knowing you want to be here now.

Express your gratitude that it’s Saturday and that there’s a whole other day of freedom ahead of you.  Ask your roommate if she wants to have a permaculture garden this year and fill up with joy when she agrees. Till the garden plot, little by little.  Imagine the plants that will grow there in spring.

Listen to your BF and your roommate talk about life, about taxes, about old relationships, and chime in when you see fit.  Spread around the ashes from the fire pit that your roommate lays in the garden plot. Switch tilling directions after some time, when you feel the muscles of your shoulder tire.  Make goals for short breaks, where you check on the fire your roommate is building and appease the desire for your BF to be involved in the creative process.

Agree to do a pallet project but choose not to lead it.  Gather craft materials from around the house and the garage with which your BF creates.  Finish tilling the garden plot, both shoulders sore now. Clean out the pots of last years’ plants.  Give the stalks of the plants to your roommate for burning and chant them back to the Earth. Continue light chanting as you pour the leftover soil into the freshly tilled garden patch.  Repeat until all pots are empty and stacked neatly by the grill.

Sit down at the patio table and begin to envision a natal chart painting that is not yet realized.  Fuck it up about halfway through with the wrong paint brush and abandon your work. Admire the recycled art your BF has made while you’ve been tilling and join her beside the fire as she elaborates her sculpture.  

Eat frozen pizza that your roommate has cooked and sit together around the fire.  Watch the Yule log burn into the night that comes so early this time of year entranced by the process of burning, and feel overfull of the wonders of the Earth.  Talk about when to start seeds and what to grow. Talk about the Solstice party you want to have in a couple of weeks. Move around the fire, soaking in its warmth on different sides of your body as the frigid night air sets in around you.  Speak of the difference in temperatures aloud while fully experiencing them.

Let the fire die, or rather endorse your roommate’s question to put it out.  Watch the embers glow faint and bright again for a few minutes, seeing all of the cosmos right there in the small fire pit.  Feel the cold run you back inside the house.

Change clothes and leave the house for an ornament decorating party.  Don’t wear a real bra. Wear your glasses. Grab a beer to go and wait for a Lyft. Chat casually with the driver on the short ride over.

See friends on the awning porch and give big full loving hugs.  Smile like you mean it because you do. Stand outside a little longer than is comfortable but eventually find your way in.  Notice the hostess across the room, slicing cured meats for the food platters that line the kitchen counter. Grab a few snacks, feeling the warmth of her smile when she sees you.  Chatter with old friends around the room about basically anything and introduce your BF only half of the time. Eagerly wait for the ornament decorating table to clear up because you still have creative juices left.  Watch friends interact across the room as you listen to other friends chat beside you.

Pull a chair up to the decorating table and get to work.  Paint five ornaments and make yourself stop because you feel you are being antisocial.  Make a new friend over ornament aesthetics, your host’s coworker, and invite her to your Solstice party.  

Join the group of friends who has begun playing King’s Cup across the room, where your outfit is not suited to sit on the floor so you awkwardly keep changing positions.  Make a mental note that even wearing boyish clothes can be uncomfortable. Chat with a friend about his foot injury and about work and about life. Remember that you are still very attracted to him.  

Tell your BF to take a nap on the couch since she is tired.  Forget that she is sleeping behind you. Recognize that within a fifteen minute window, everyone has cleared out except for a small group of rugby players who have now transitioned to On the Bus from King’s Cup.  Realize that you have an enormous amount of love and affection for every single human that is left in the room with you.

Try to play along with the card game, but continuously get hung up in a side conversation or with passing around bottles of wine.  Pour another glass of a particularly tasty cab sav that you won’t remember the name of. Ditch the game of On the Bus because you’ve have been trying to beat one round for what seems like an eternity and have barely made it past the center point.  Have your attention grabbed by a plea for karaoke requests by your host and the offbeat rapping of your friends. Try to hear the music over drunk gargling but spend half the song partially laughing and partially shaking your head for the lack of rhythm in the room.  Sing along to your favorite Christmas song next.

Come back to reality, your BF directly in line of sight with a look of agony on her face, like she is on the verge of a full mental collapse, pleading to know when you are going home.  Order her a Lyft and take the four minutes it takes for them to arrive to stand next to her and wait.

Resume Christmas caroling when she is gone and for hours on from there.  Swig a bottle out of a friend’s hand, the wonderful cab sav, before another friend hands you your own bottle.  

Kneel by the fireplace beside the hostess and wrap your arm around her as she has hers around you and sway back and forth with your bottles and your songs.  Dance along rapping to an old hip hop hit while she twerks across the room. Notice an encore of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with a beautiful closing statement from the host to “Go the fuck home” cause again you’ve made it to 3:30am and it’s time to call it quits.  

Stumble into bed a second night in the row but not after hanging your two favorite new ornaments on the Christmas tree in the living room, this time cuddling up next to your BF, and hoping that you weren’t too loud while drunkenly trying to navigate your house and your room.  Sleep like a baby whose been so overstimulated by laughter and love that they don’t wake up for 12 hours. Feel the love still when you wake up the next morning, but don’t forget to feel the hunger too. The hunger for food, yes, but also the hunger for sustenance. The hunger to connect with each other.  The hunger to be with the Earth. The hunger to be kind and to have fun and to be free, and the hunger to continuously feel the love that radiates around you, whether it be Christmas season or not.