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.

My first taste of SoCal, courtesy of Old Town San Diego

09.15.2017

I’m finally having a Southern California experience.  The idea was to wander all the way to the water, to the Ocean, for a spiritual Pacific sunsets.  The ones where pinks and blues stain the coarse sand grains as waves crash over igneous rock formations.

I realize in the middle of writing that sentence how far in the past my imagination was.  My venture began for nostalgia, remembering a Big Sur sunset, one from more than two years prior.

My instincts don’t lead me to far though, about five blocks from the hotel.  I zigzag along the streets looking for Old Town San Diego, guessing its location by the directions of well dressed Californians.  Women wear long flowing dresses with round-brimmed straw hats and sunglasses, and men sport short sleeved button ups and loafers or sandals.  The energy that flows through their small groups is magnetic like the start of every great Friday night. It allures me to follow.

It’s Friday anyway and though most all of my teammates are back in the hotel playing games, swimming, or sleeping, I thought it best to get out and away for awhile.  I invited Sal along, but she was enjoying the pool to much to venture with me.

I knew I was getting close when I noticed locals with handmade ‘$5 parking’ signs on the street pointing in their driveways.  It only took a couple more blocks North before the street I’d been flanking ended into Old San Diego square.

The beginnings of it underwhelmed me, a candy shop and a cafe and a couple others selling taffy and popcorn.  There was more sidewalk space between them than I’d seen in a historic area ever. The sidewalk was concrete and for pedestrians only, but wide enough for at least two lanes of traffic.

Then as I noticed a man ‘cawwing’ back to his running partner, I realized that I’d stumbled right into the grassy knoll of a historic square, just the way I’d known them.  A grand old tree leaned towards me at the corner and up into the air more than two hundred feet, extending its canopy out over a wooden picnic bench where no one sat. I told myself I’d go back and sit with the tree sice it’d spoken to me so clearly, but for now, it beckoned me forward.

I continued along slowly, trying not to lose the tree, but not ready to stop quite yet, while making mental snapshots of beige stucco buildings with low awnings and ceramic red roofs.  Looking up at their roofs, I notice the hills of houses around Old Town and their contrast of scenery, lush green palm trees and assorted hues of cacti.

The square ended so I made a right, noticing a man snap a photo of an overgrown bonsai underneath which his friend sat posing.  I overheard them compliment the beauty of the bonsai tree.

I strolled past a Mexicali restaurant smelling heavily of hot peppers and spice that lacked a single open patio table.  I gazed in as a pair of patio patrons cheersed one another and took a sip from their oversized margarita glasses. I caught glimpses of others grabbing bites of fajitas between the tortilla that lined their fingers.  Then the real attraction.

Casa de Reyes.  Fiesta de Reyes.  Tienda de Reyes. I entered another era beneath a log decorated archway announcing its contents.  Immediately I noticed a stage at the center of the block where people were beginning to fill in the split log benches.  Half a wall and low height garden alternately divided the center section of music and food from the perimeter shops. It was impossible to see the world beyond this, the authentic Old Town square.  Shielded by pepper trees and wooden awnings, the stucco buildings only broke to the street where I’d just entered and then barely at the corners. Even the hills and houses that had hung above it disappeared.  Stone walkways gave way to brick ones and then back again. Lush palms and cacti stood testament that anything could grow here.

I walked slowly still, peeking into the shops on the north walk, hearing more Spanish than English, loving the rich colors of blankets, pottery, and hand painted tile for sale.  I found my way around the square and up to a blue Southwest patterned rocking bench, taking a seat to write, just as the band started playing.

Now couples poured in alongside families.  Most of the seating inside the courtyard was already taken, but none of them were deterred.  The garden surrounded them carefully like a barrier from the wanderers. These people knew what they wanted.

A few times, families arranged themselves in front of me for a photo op.  My bench was just barely offset from the grand archway of Old Town, but even now that I’ve lost my seat, I’ve found another nook for tourists photographing.  There are no places hidden from the eye of a tourist here, not even a place to sit and write.

Where I sit now, two vases painted vibrant colors sit on a stone ledge, leaves and latice lay below them.  Wrought iron handrails adorns tiles stairs that lead up to some private place with a little awning for peeking down at the stage.  It’s perfect for a full body photo, for the young and old alike to remember, at least a part of their stroll around the square.

A few minutes ago my pen ran out of ink.  This is how I lost my rocking bench, the first place to write, but the man at the tile shop was kind enough to give me another.  It was the second time tonight he was kind without uttering a word. It seemed he chose only to communicate in head nods, even when I tried a little Spanish with him.

The band really got me going for a little while too, first with a transitions perfectly executed from “Oye Como Va” to “Black Magic Woman.”  I fell in love with them on my way back from the tile store though, singing in Spanish again to a bachata beat, while the women spun beneath their partners lead hands.  Others moved without rhythm. Others still kept along, awkwardly with their hips, but keeping their feet moving patterned with the salsa.

Here is culture.  I am surrounded by it, and though I am different here, I am surrounded by something that intrigues me.  I can’t say it’s not American, but it isn’t strictly something else either. It’s a split, it’s a meld, it’s Californian.

Memphis Part 4: All Good Things Must End, but if you can, end them with Booze and Rugby

His friend and assistant coach owned the loft on the river where we were going to watch the game.  Tim enthusiastically explained to me how they would often banter back and forth, casually arguing about the logistics of the game.  Dickie was a retired Eagle.

The kid inside of my head was losing his mind, had lost his mind, I was so excited to have found rugby people and to be having such an easy connection with a stranger. That’s how rugby is though. Rugby is family, no matter where you go.

The All Blacks vs Ireland game, at a loft, overlooking the Mississippi River in the home of a retired Eagle.  I was freaking out. And Tim shared my enthusiasm. As we bounced back and forth in conversation, our energies increased. We talked faster and more vividly. We made more bad jokes and laughed heartily.

“…yeah, and there’s a rooftop desk and we’re gonna have mimosas.  We’ll go up on the roof during halftime. And there’s a beautiful white couch…,” he joked, “…a beautiful white couch that no one’s allowed to sit on,” and he laughed, teasing about his assistant coach.

We talked and talked and talked some more, as continuously as possible while also eating, which is pretty continuous for a couple of rugby players.  We talked so much that his girlfriend was no longer involved in the conversation. There was a break for a minute, and I looked over at her,

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I pleaded a bit with her, knowing she couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Tim said, “Yeah, she’s used to it.  It’s ok.”

She laughed pleasantly and nodded her head telling us that she knew when this man started talking to someone about rugby that he wasn’t going to stop, and she knew that with whomever he was talking also wouldn’t stop.  There’s an intensity about rugby players that I’ve never found in another group of people. It’s a passionate subculture, no doubt.

 

As 3 o’clock approached we paid our tabs, and got ready to go.

“How did you get here? How are you getting anywhere?” he asked me.

“I walked here,” I told him, “I had an uber drop me off in the Square earlier.”

An idea popped up and the expression on his face changed, revealing it.

“Do you wanna come with us? You could just catch a ride to the match with me.”

“Yes! Of course!  That would be so great!” I can’t believe how everything is lining up so well.

I grab my pack full of clothes, and follow him out the door.

I thank them both over and over, excited about the great opportunity and how wonderful it was that I found them, so kind and welcoming

“I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” I continued, “I mean, Saturday’s a rugby day.  I wanted it to be something, ya know?”

We piled into a Mini Cooper in the parking lot.  Before I realized what car were taking, his girl climbed into the backseat.

“Are you sure?” I asked her.  “I don’t mind.”

“Yeah yeah,” she assured while pulling the front seat back towards her, clicking it in place, “I’m small.  I fit back here just fine.”

We take the Cooper back to their house, Tim telling me, “We gotta get my car.”

I chuckled to myself and decided to tease a little, “Oh, so this isn’t yours?”

He laughed back at me, motioning to the backseat, “No, no, this is hers.”

 

Their house is a rancher in a cute suburbanish neighborhood.  It doesn’t seem like the city.

As I walk in the door, I’m greeted by a couple of dogs, wagging their butts and tails simultaneously.  One is young, and jumping up and down. I calm her, kneeling down to petting them both while I wait for Tim to get ready to leave.

He comes back out from the kitchen carrying a six pack with four left.  He’s ready to head to the loft. I tell his girlfriend it was very nice to meet her, which she reciprocates.

“Have fun,” she tells us, “I know it’ll be a good time,” smiling at us both.

Outside, we hop in his early 00’s Jeep Wrangler.  The top’s off. It’s a two door with no back seat, so I toss my pack over the frame and nestle it into the bed by the wheel well.  He jumps in, cracking a beer and offering me one. How can I say no?

He’s drinking Fat Tire.  I point it out, “Even you, there with your Colorado beer, New Belgium.  I see you.” We cheers to that.

On the way to the loft, we chat more about rugby.  Parked, I grab the two leftover beers in their cardboard cradle and the one I’m still sipping on, and my pack.  I wasn’t sure if it’d walk away. Maybe it wouldn’t have, but I thought it best to bring it with me.

At the bottom of what appears to be a warehouse, we ring the buzzer.  Dickie responds over a crackly speaker, buzzing us in.

Inside, we walk through a foyer area and up to the third floor, and into a beautiful pad with the kitchen and the office at the center of the layout sitting about four feet above the living and dining rooms which surrounded them.  On the opposite end of the loft, the living room and the beautiful white couch that is not for sitting.

It isn’t long before Tim sits down on it, crossing his legs out in front of him and extending his left arm across the back.  In his right hand, he raises a beer to his lips. It was all definitely a joke with the couch, now fully confirmed.

Behind him, a huge panoramic window, from ceiling to floor, overlooks a couple blocks of downtown and out to the Mississippi.  We’re only a couple blocks from the water, and seated high enough that we have a clear view of the sandbar and the bridge and the white foam that topples over itself on the river.  A dark green forest across the banks complete the scene.

Tim introduces me to Dickie, and I give a short overview.  I thank him so much for having me. I recognize his Irish accent.  He dismisses my appreciation in an accepting manner, waving his hand at me in a way that makes me know that he thinks I should expect such hospitality.  He’s probably 65 years old, maybe older, small and just a tad bit frail. He’s in good shape though, just past his hayday. His hair is stark white and he wears black rimmed glasses.  He’s proper.

He walks up into the kitchen and stands where the sink overlooks the living room.  He asks if we would like a mimosa.

“Of course,” I tell him, standing to receive it from above.

Throughout the match, he makes sure our mimosa glasses stay full until he run outs of champagne nearly at the end.  He doesn’t realize he’s running out either, until it’s gone and he’s already told me that he’s going to make me another.  He apologizes profusely, as I try to telling him it’s ok, but Tim saves us,

“Oh no, don’t worry, there’s another beer in the fridge.”

 

A few of the Memphis women had shown up and were drinking and watching with us.  One has a kid. She’s about six, an adorable blond headed girl. She runs around some, but also watches rugby wit us.  We chat back and forth about the game and our clubs, and I tell them that they should all come out to Denver to play or just hang out sometime.  I tell them about our D1 side and how we’d have a good match.

At halftime, we take the moment to climb the stairs up to the roof of the building.  It’s a flat roof, the kind of building that the stairwells ascending are the only thing that breaks the uniformity.  Now we’ve broken it too, leaning on the balconies at the edges where we gaze out on the Mississippi. We’re just south of a big accidental fork, where a road bridge splits the river.  The side closest to our bank is muddy, a dark khaki color, the surface water hugging tightly against the sandbar. The opposite side of the leg is deeper, wider water, still foggy but much more diluted.  The far bank is wooded, and sticks and branches are floating along with the river.

I am half drunk just staring at the water, in awe of its sheer power.  Down the balcony from me, a few of the girls are playfully chatting and the coaches are having a conversation of their own.  I look up to see this and for a split second feel very isolated and alone, but I am used to this feeling. It is something that I often inflict upon myself, but in this moment it is a contradiction.  I realize this quite quickly without having any deeper thoughts about it, and time saves me. I begin to walk towards the girls, thinking I’d like to be part of their play, but the coaches signal that it’s time to head back downstairs for the second half so we all follow.

The rest blurs by.  We settle into the white couch, watch parts of the game, and spin off into talking points concerning some game play or referees call as our little 6 year old friend takes turns sitting still and hopping up, to which her mother commands her back down.

Now, we’re nursing our beers.  We’ve all had quite a bit to drink.  We’re loose. We’re all friends now. That’s the real beauty of the rugby community.  Yes, there’s too much binge drinking, but it’s used as a tool for forming community. I can only qualify that as a redeeming quality.

Once the game has finished, the girls ask me what I’m doing, but I tell them I have a flight to catch back to Denver.  Kindly, they offer to drop me off, but I ask more than once if it’s out of the way, because I don’t want to be an inconvenience to them, but they insist.  I am so grateful for these wonderful people, especially in this moment, at a time when I didn’t think I could be more full of gratitude.

I realize that my experience of isolation on the roof was in part a feeling that I was separate from reality.  The magic of my afternoon was unbelievable, like nothing I could have ever dreamed up, and that I felt separate because I couldn’t realize that it was real.

 

At the airport drop off, I reach in my pocket and pull out the little bit of weed that Sal and I hadn’t smoked.

“Hey, do you want this?” I casually ask as I extended my arm into the front seat towards the girls.

One of them quickly grabs it from my hand, trying to keep my car seat bound backseat companion from seeing it.

“Yeah, thanks so much!”

“Nah, it’s nothing,” I reply, “Thanks so much from dropping me off.  It was so great to meet you all and your coach. I just can’t believe all that really happened.  I had such a great time.” I probably rambled on a bit more, saying we’ll see each other again soon, and make promises to come through from the Mardi Gras tournament.

“What’s that mommy?”  the little girl interrupts me.

“Oh nothing,” she replies, “…just some candy.”

I shut the car door behind me and wave back to my new friends as they pulled away from the curb.  Inside the airport I am full of joy, so much that I could’ve floated home to Denver on my own lightness.

 

Memphis Part 3: Alone but Never Lonely, A Survey of Rugby Culture

Saturday morning we woke up late with throbbing heads and we ventured out of the house, our packs on our backs, away from our tiny cottage towards Overton Square.  We’d heard there may be a rugby game going on in the adjacent park, but in asking around what we must see, Overton Square kept coming up. Our uber driver dropped us off on the corner of a block lined with restaurants, and we walked north to the park.  

We wandered through the park from one corner to the opposite and around the rest of the perimeter, but found no rugby field.  Beautiful old trees hung above our heads, their trunks spaced out, sharing the sunlight in the canopy above and providing geometric patches of shade along the great lawn.  

Sal’s flight left much earlier than mine, so she was really in the last moments of the trip.  For both of us, hungover was an understatement. We were really only getting by because of a special green plant, the realest of all hangover cures.  High, we floated around the park looking for a rugby field into our last moments together. We knew the airport was small, so she hung around longer and later than we could’ve back in Denver.  

We’d been trying to make Saturday a rugby day, to extend our adventure just a little bit longer, but to no avail.  It was the day of the first Chicago weekend, the All Blacks flying in from New Zealand to face off against Ireland.  No doubt it would be a hell of a match, and I was set on finding a place to watch it later, but now we were just trying to find some local teams.  Rugby undoubtedly fosters a wonderful community all across the States and we wanted to find them. We’d even heard about Overton through a women’s rugby group on social media.  We had to give it a try.

As we meandered, I told her the story of the night before, asking her what she’d already forgotten.  We laughed about the silly things. We wondered in awe about the crazy things. I asked her about her long conversation with the dishwasher.  She reminded me of our plan to go to the gay club. We giggled and giggled, sharing a wonderful lightness of existence that only two great friends can share.

There was a certain understanding between the two of us.  It had set in almost immediately at the opening of the trip.  The whole thing was gonna be easy. The two of us were gonna be easy.  And we were just gonna go, just gonna flow, with whatever energy led us around Memphis.  We were both completely fine with being out of control, with exploring and probably diverting from whatever loose plans we had set.

Suddenly, it was time.  Sal left.  I was alone.

My phone had started acting up.  The battery was dead or dying all the time.  And as was trying to message someone about finding a rugby match, but my phone died completely.

Sal had asked me just a few moments before, “What’re you gonna do for the rest of the day?”

I hadn’t really thought about it until she asked, but after a few moments I responded, “I dunno.  Maybe I’ll just get drunk.”

Now that my phone was dead, it seemed like the most reasonable thing to do.  I’d go to a bar, sit down, have the bartender put my phone on charge, and have a beer or two.  I decided to wander back down to the Square. We’d made our way nearly all the way around the Park, but I still hoped to find a hidden rugby field and a match.  Worst case, the end would drop me back down at the Square. I headed south.

Parts of Overton reminded me of Baltimore, at Patterson Park, the people out enjoying the day and the overall arrangement of things.  I reminisced a bit about laying in the grass on a blanket with old friends. I caught myself before I went too far. I was set on not being caught up in the past moment or in the future.  I wanted to be present.

One more block below the park, catty corner across the intersection from me, the sign for Huey’s broke up brick building faces.  It had been recommended to us more than a few times when talking to the locals. It wasn’t a barbeque place, though, so our interest had slipped out of the foreground.  Everyone said, ‘if you want a really great burger, you gotta go to Huey’s,’ so I shrugged my shoulders and hoped for a kind bartender.

Inside it was busy, most all of the dining tables and high tops were taken.  There were only six open seats at the bar, all singles between pairs, except the corner of the bar in front of me, where three chairs sat empty.  Initially, I lay my pack down below the bar and sat in the middle set of the three so that there was then a consistent checkered pattern of empty bar seats, but after I ordered a tall Wisacre IPA, I decided to move over around the corner, to leave the two seats open together in case another couple came through.  

It put me next to a pair of older women catching up over mouthwateringly juicy burgers, talking of very mild domestic things like their plans with their children for the holidays.  I only eavesdropped briefly, and with much lack of interest.

The bartender was cute, but I hadn’t started a conversation.  He was busy. His smile was kind, with dark eyes and dark hair, and a little button nose.  He was probably in his early thirties with no ring on his finger, but I was high and I was hungover and I wasn’t concerned.  I knew that three o’clock that afternoon, the most important rugby game in the US was about to be played, at least for 2016, and I really, really wanted to find the Memphis Rugby team before the game, because I knew they’d be watching it somewhere.  I sat there wondering what I would do. There were a couple bars that we’d been told would be playing the game, and I resolved to go one of them if I didn’t make any other headway.

For now, I sat and drank my beer, looked over the menu, and hoped my phone would charge and hold a charge long enough for me to survive the rest of the day.  There was a dull din of conversation around the restaurant, but no trigger words pulled my attention to listen. A nice blues mix played above us, floating around the restaurant, about the din of conversation.  

I ordered a burger with a fried egg on it, medium rare, because at what real burger joint should you get anything other than medium rare?  I mean, medium is acceptable, if you’re conservative burger eater, but I had no respect for those who order their burgers well done at a place that knew how to cook burgers, and dammit, if the locals were telling me that Huey’s knew how to cook a great burger, than I was gonna give it the best go.

Not long after I’d ordered, a couple came in and sat down at the two seats next to me at the bar, and I was happy that I had moved over leaving a place for them to sit.  By that time, I had started to try to entertain myself by staring up at the television where a college football game was on. It didn’t do much for me, but I thought it made me look a little less weird sitting there by myself, not talking, just drinking.  The bartender came by at the right time in perfect intervals, just to make sure I was ok, and when I needed a new beer. I was dull, but he was still very attentive.

In feigning interest for the football game, I couldn’t help but notice the couple beside me was a handsome pair.  She was quiet, but precise. I hadn’t yet figured out what they were talking about. He was very enthusiastic, a passionate man.  She often just listened to him speak.

I hadn’t made eye contact or given them a once over yet.  It’s a hard thing to do discreetly at a bar when someone sits down beside you.  After a while, I heard the ultimate trigger word, ‘rugby,’ and I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm.  

My burger had just come out, as had theirs.  We were eating together.

“Did you say rugby?” I asked the man.

“Yeah,” he said back.

“I’m a rugby player,” I told him.

“Really,” he asked, “What’re you doing later?”

“I don’t know,” I started, “I’m here visiting from Denver.  I wanted to see a match at Overton Park, but I didn’t find any.”

He replied, “Oh yeah, they don’t play there anymore,” breaking eye contact to look at his burger.  “They used to… But there weren’t any games today because of the All Blacks match.” He picked up his burger.

“Yeah, I did hear that,” I told him, “But I was still hoping to find a game.”

“Well, there was one at the college earlier,” he told me as I nodded to him affirmatively.  The conversation paused as we simultaneously bit into our burgers. Then he continued, “Wait! What are you doing later?  We’re going to my friend’s house to watch the All Blacks match.”

My face lit up.  I mean, my face had already lit up just to have someone to talk to about rugby, but the illumination grew when he mentioned the real spectacle, the event, the connection, the community.  

“You should come, you should come,” he invited me with vigor, “Here’s the address.  You should come!”

I beamed a smile at him.  “I would love to. I would love to,”  I repeated myself out of excitement, “I’m not doing anything.”  

Then we started in on all of the rugby talk, like we were old friends catching up.  We talked front row technique, comparing new and old. We spoke on East Coast rugby.  I apologized to his girl for being so dominant of the conversation, but she dismissed me.  I learned that he was the coach for the Memphis D2 women’s team. We formally introduced ourselves between burger bites.  He told me that some of his players were coming to an apartment on the river later to watch the game with his assistant coach.  He was so excited about the apartment and the match, and I was ecstatic to join.