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.”

Memphis Part 2: A Tromps Around, from Sun up to Sundown

We woke up spry the next morning, cooked up some bacon and eggs we’d grabbed at the dollar store for breakfast, and readied ourselves for a day around town.  We walked a few blocks north to the University of Memphis campus and wandered through it. We found an adult sized playground among the botanic gardens and took the opportunity to play a bit and take pictures of each other.  I attempted to build a structure out of flat, but life-size lincoln log-esque wood. I played sailor atop a wooden ship. The lush greenery around us framed every photo. Somewhere in there we’d gotten hungry so we stopped in Brother Juniper’s for a meal.  The hours passed by without our knowing.

We weren’t quite hungry, but Sal and I had decided that it would be a travesty to miss out on Memphis BBQ, so we headed to Central and each ordered a full tray of food.  Collards, coleslaw, mac and cheese, brisket, pork, chicken, beans and a little banana pudding for me. It’s nearly impossible for me to turn down banana pudding.

We ate our hearts out, to the point of uncomfortable bloat.  I was thankful for the little extra room in my jean shorts, all kudos to the union of elastic and cotton.

 

Now there was no turning back.  We were stuffed full of food and ready to be out for the night.  I really wanted to hang out around the blue clubs. We started at the open air bar on the corner where a middle aged man with dreadlocks sang raspy blues and old pop hits.  The night before he’d been playing “Down By The River” as we’d walked up to the place. I couldn’t get over it. It made me remember the Neil Young concert I’d attended at Carnegie Hall a few years ago.  He was killing it. He killed the guitar line. He sang with his heart. It was beautiful.

The night before we’d found a great chocolate stout from a Tennessee brewery called Wiseacre, so we ordered a couple talls.  We sat at a high table outside the bar, watching people walk by, listening to the music. During our first drink, we tried to figure out our game plan for the night.  After Rum Boogie, we didn’t have much else to do, but I wanted to walk by a couple other spots. There was a patio with an outdoor stage that Elena and I had hung out at a couple summers ago when we came through Memphis.  

After the first drink, we walked down to the patio, and recognized that the drink prices were twice as high as those at our comfortable corner spot so we walked back down and got one to go.

Back at the patio spot, they wouldn’t let us in towards the stage with outside drinks, so we stood on the sidewalk talking about life and living, a little bit of quantum theory, a little bit of fate and religion and energy, or lack thereof, if you will.  The band wasn’t as good on the patio as the last time I’d been there. It had been the first place I’d head ‘Mississippi Boy’. I’ll never forgot it either. An old black man had sang it, dancing a little bit in his hips, his big belly hopping along with him. ‘I’m just a Mississippi boy/Mississippi mud in my boots/I’m just a Mississippi boy/Gotta get back to my roots.’

Sal and I had heard it the night before by a band on the outdoor stage at the park underneath archways where spray paint artists sold landscape images.  There was a whole lot of talent around, and quite a bit of drunkenness too.

We walked back down to the corner bar after trying to check out Rum Boogie, but there was a high cover just to get in.  Fifteen dollars. Neither of us thought it was worth it. Don’t get me wrong, the place was great, but fifteen dollars just to stop in there for a minute, maybe ten, maybe twenty minutes, it just wasn’t worth it to either of us.  

From the outside, we could see the guitars hanging from the ceiling and hear the music too, but they weren’t having a blues jam.  There was a country band playing inside, which was exactly why I didn’t want to go to Nashville. I didn’t want country. I wanted the blues.

So we walked back down to our corner bar again.  This time there were a couple spots open at the bar so we grabbed them.  We each ordered another tall stout. And they were tall, let me tell you.  They must’ve been 60 ounce cups. Those things were huge. We sat there bullshitting a little bit.  

We’d decided earlier that after we were done fooling around on Beale St that we’d find a gay club and go try to pick up women, to whom I was affectionately calling ‘lil bitties.’  Earlier I’d said to Sal, “yeah, yeah, let’s go pick up some lil’ bitties,” and she laughed at my dated slang.

We googled up a couple spots.  We had an idea about where to go.  There was a place right around the block.  We were about ready, just waiting for the right time to go.  You never wanna show up at a club too early. Eleven o’clock was early enough, but now it was just getting past nine.

So we’re sitting at the bar, drinking our drinks, listening to this old man sing his heart out.  He has to be the resident musician at the bar. Somehow I’d felt that he’d been there the last time I was in Memphis too, but I don’t really know.  I could’ve been mixing him up with someone else, anybody else really.

As we’re chatting, a tall, blonde, handsome boy comes up to the bar.  He’s cute, really cute. We catch eyes, and I smile at him, but I don’t say anything.  He gets the bartender’s attention and orders as I get up to pee. I’m overfull of beer.  I’m a little drunk too, but a good drunk, ready to go, ready to have a fun night. When I get back from the bathroom, he and Sal are chatting, and I slide into the conversation.

He asks us with a little Southern drawl, “Ya’ll ladies want shots?” smiling a big grin at us.

“Hell yeah,” I say as Sal nods.

“Alright, well here’s the deal,” he says, making eye contact with both of us, “I’ll rock-paper-scissors you for them.”  I giggle at him and look over at Sal.

She says, “You gotta do it,” and looks back at me.

I agree, “Alright,” nodding along and readying myself, “alright.”

“Best two out of three,” he says.  I nod again and have my left hand out, ready to pump.

“Alright let’s go.”

‘Rock-paper-scissors-shoot’. We pump adjacent fists on our palms in rhythm together and throw our best.  

I win.

The second round now.  “Rock-paper-scissors-shoot.”  We throw.

I lose.  

Now the pressure’s on.

We smile at each other and pause for a second.

“Alright, alright, let’s go,” I say.

“Rock-paper-scissors-shoot,” one last time in unison.

And I win!

“Damn! Yes!”  I laugh and throw my hands up in the air.  “Yes!”

He hangs his head briefly, but perks back up quickly, and asks, “What do you want?”

“Oh, I dunno,”  I say and look at Sal.

“Well, I’m a wimp,” he starts, “I’ve been doing Fireball.”

To which I reply, “I can do Fireball, that’s fine with me, if you’re paying,” smiling and laughing.  Sal’s expression when I won still lingers in her smile.

He buys us a round of shots and begins to introduce himself, but first he asks, “What’s your middle name?”

“Leigh,” I say, spelling it out, “l-e-i-g-h, what’s your middle name?”

And he replies, “Keith.”

Sal chimes in, “Wait, I don’t know your first name!”  And we all laugh.

“Tyler, my name’s Tyler,” he says.

“Georgie.”

“Sal.. I’m Clarissa Luc..,” she starts but I cut her off.

“Sal, just call her Sal,” I say.

Then he asks, “where ya’ll from?”

“Ah, we’re from Denver.  Just here visiting for a few days. How bout you?”

“I live here.  This is a bit of a local spot, really,” he tells us.

“I didn’t know that, but it’s cool.  It’s nice here.”

“So how long ya’ll here?” he continues.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I say.

“Well, so you want me to show you around Memphis a little bit?” he asks, “The local way?  The good way?”

We both agree, enthusiastically nodding our heads.

He names off a slew of places that we’ll go.  The list seems quite impressive, honestly. We resolve to leave once Sal and I finish our huge stouts, of which we’ve only drank about half, so we chat some more and make rounds to the bathroom while getting to know our new friend and tour guide.

On our way back up Beale St towards the club, 152, I nickname our new friend affectionately as ‘Tyler the Creator’.  I’m both shocked and impressed when he gets reference, playfully arguing with me, “Nah nah, you gotta call me Cool Keith, I don’t wanna be Tyler the Creator,” but all night I’m playfully calling him Tyler the Creator and he’s playfully correctly me to call him Cool Keith.

We head upstairs into 152, after a high class entrance through two bodyguards and an empty queue defined with gold banisters and red velvet ropes.  

Our tour around the place reaffirms my opinion that you can’t show up to the club too early.  The place is classy, but dead. Tinted neon lighting highlights features around the clean white walls of the room, pulling a little bit of brightness out of the windowless club.  It is adorned with lounge chairs in places, more than one booth for VIP, and a few private rooms, but it’s totally dead. There’s almost no one in the whole joint so Tyler says, “We gotta go, we’ll come back here.  This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”

I buy us a round of shots before we leave, and we ask what he does for a living.  He tells us he works in marketing, as a designer. He really likes it, too. His face lights up when he talks about it.

The next stop is a moonshine bar off South Main St, which reminds both me and Sal a little of the 16th Street Mall in Denver.  It’s a street that isn’t really a street. It’s a street that’s really a mall. It’s a street just for tourists.

South Main embodies the charm of the South.  Cobblestones line the street and the sidewalks in a medium brown hue.  The sidewalks boast planters of gorgeous deciduous trees, mossy oak and willow, whose branches hang above us seemingly luminescent against the glow of the setting sun.  Trolley tracks run down the center of the street breaking up the cobblestones.

Across the street, we enter the moonshine bar and up a few stairs, where a baby grand piano backs up to the foyer banister.  No one is playing the piano, but it shines gloriously against the exposed brick wall of the rowhouse. Tyler tells us that sometimes they have a performer to play the piano, but that we aren’t lucky with it tonight.  Then he takes us to the bar and orders us a round of cocktails. The moonshine mixes into such bold flavors that they are forced to melt together. It feels like Tennessee tradition, smooth and sweet and hiding a strong punch.  

Then Tyler says to us, “We’re only staying here for one drink cause I wanna take you to BarDog.”  He’s really excited about this bar, continuing, “We gotta go there. We gotta have breakfast shots,” and he asks me,  “You ever had a breakfast shot before?”

“Nah,” I answer shaking my head, “I don’t know what that is.”

“Well, we gotta have breakfast shots,” he nearly cuts me off and he keeps on talking about these shots.

All the while going on, he is interrupted when he sees some people that he knows.  Their names and faces disappear in my memory, but they are awfully nice and cordial towards us.  Then we meet Neil. He’s older, a skinny, little, gay man; some of my favorite people. He is so friendly and kind, and we tell him about how we’re gay, and we just talk about random things and Denver and Pride and it is great and really fills me up with joy.  We found a little piece of community there. Neil is wild, and we leave him too quickly for my liking, but we’ve got to get a move on.

We suck down our moonshine really quick since Tyler wouldn’t stop going on about the breakfast shots.  And it’s moonshine, so shit, it just slides right down. You don’t even know how easy your glass is emptying.  You don’t know a damn thing about moonshine until it catches up to you. Thirty minutes later it hits you like a fucking brick in the head, and all of a sudden, you’re drunk.  You’re wasted. And you say to yourself, “holy shit, how did this happen to me?” So anyway, we finish our moonshine and float out the front door.

Before BarDog, he takes us by his office.  It’s just around the corner in an office building on the fourth floor overlooking the city.  Panoramic glass windows line the walls in one of those new age style offices where they have a ping pong table and open space and lounge areas, because it’s a design and marketing office.  They want to stimulate your creativity with things like games and cushy lounge chairs and views of the city. There’s cork boards and message boards everywhere with random ideas and notes written on them.  

Tyler shows us his office.  He shows us his work, things he’s drawn for the company.  It’s all very impressive, and he’s humble about it. He says, “yeah, it’s cool.  I just gotta work my way up.” We go in his boss’s office. It’s twice as big as any bedroom that I’ve lived in.  Sick. Ridiculous. We grab a soda out of the cooler, and head back downstairs.

I ask, “So when does this place close?”

“Never,” he answers quickly, “It never closes.”

And I stop and I look at him because I don’t believe him, “Are you serious???” and I pause and then, “Tyler the Creator, don’t lie to me.  Tyler the Creator!”

And he replies, “Maaaaan, I’m Cool Keith, I’m Cool Keith!”

 

As we approach, there’s a dishwasher standing out in the alley beside BarDog and Tyler knows him.  They start talking and he introduces us. We walk into the bar through this back door, through the kitchen, and out onto the floor.  Sal strikes us a conversation with the dishwasher. I decide the moonshine must’ve hit her a little harder than me. I keep looking over to check on her, but she is engulfed in conversation.  

Then I’m sitting down with other people after I get a beer in a corner booth that backs up to a stairwell.  I am chatting with people about who knows what, sipping very slowly on my beer. Occasionally still, I check on Sal behind me, but she and the dishwasher are just going on and on in Spanish.  She is smiling and laughing and I wonder if the dishwasher will ever go back to work, but I’m not mad about it. I don’t even know what they were talking about. She doesn’t even remember talking to him, so I know she doesn’t know what they were talking about.  I was having fun and she was obviously enjoying talking to him, smiling each time I caught a glimpse.

Tyler gets my attention because he has finally gotten to the bartender and has ordered us breakfast shots.  On the bar in front of me I see six plastic shot cups lined up in pairs. Three full of orange juice and the three others with a liquor that looks like syrup.  He tells me it’s maple flavored vodka and he hands me a lemon.

I get Sal’s attention.  She’s reluctant, but I have to break her away from the dishwasher.   I pull her over and I realize the moonshine’s really got me now. I am happy, but I am really drunk.  I am the easiest, happiest drunk, talking to anybody about anything and a whole lot of nothing.

Tyler tells us, “Lemon, then orange juice, then shot,” or maybe a little different.  I can’t quite remember. Alcohol will do that to you. We take our shots, and they’re good.  It tastes like a bite of pancakes with a swig of orange juice to wash it down. Breakfast shot, the perfect name.  So, so very tasty. But after that, my memory gets brown. Nothing bad happens, but I just have spots, blank spots in my brain of my memory that I’ve lost.  

Like I’ve been transported into a film, the next scene opens and I’m sitting at two-top table upstairs at a bar that I think is still BarDog which is also in a rowhome, just like the moonshine bar.  It’s not just one bar though. It’s an entire rowhouse of bars, three floors of bars. Or maybe just two, but I know now we are upstairs. Tyler and I are sitting to the front of the building, and in this room there is a saxophonist playing his heart out, jazz melodies with a backup track behind him playing on a little stereo boombox resting on a bar stool.

He’s playing Misty.  ‘Look at meeeeeee, I’m as helpless as a kitten in a tree,’ I’m singing along a little bit, and Tyler’s talking to me about something but I’m not really sure what.  I ask him, “Where’s Sal?”

And he reassures me, “Ah, I don’t know, but she’s here, she’s here.  She’s in the other room, but I’m sure she’s fine, but I’m not sure where she is.”  He goes on talking about something else, but all I hear is “Mistyyyyyy, I go misty just holding your hand,” and I’m not sure if I’m singing aloud or just in my head.

We’re talking and talking and finally I stammer.  “I gotta go find, I gotta go find Sal.”

He concedes, “ok, ok,” he says, “ok that’s fine.”

“But, Tyler the Creator, maaaaan you’re it, man.  You’re the best.” I tell him.

He chuckles at me and shows a half smile, correcting me one last time, “I’m Cool Keith, I told you.”

And then I laugh too.

In a split second, I flashback to us following him down the street, down South Main, with the mossy oaks hanging over our heads and the street, where the red brick rows of building contrast nature’s beauty surrounding the trolley line, and it’s all symmetrical, the setting sun hiding red brick stones where our feet trample.  

But now, I’ve gotten up from our two top and I’m finding Sal, not sure of where Tyler is, but I find her in a bar that runs the length of the second floor.  I walk in there, and she’s just chatting her heart away, talking to a couple people, standing with her arm draped on the bar. Once I’ve found her, he leaves, but not before asking us if we’re ok, making sure we’ll be safe, and I reassure him.  “Yeah, yeah, we’re good.”

At this point, I decide we need to get some weed, cause I am just drunker than a skunk and we’d run out, and I knew she was really drunk too.  I know as long as we stick together, we’ll be fine. She’s talking to this guy Brendan that we make friends with, and he tells us, “yeah, I’ll help you get some weed.  How much you want?”

“Just a twen-,” I start, “like a dub. Dub sac. Twenty bag.”  I am drunk but still awkward.

“Ok,” he nods.  I’m browning out even harder now, because I’ve constantly put alcohol into my system and my liver couldn’t possibly keep up with it even if I had the liver of a 300 pound man.  There is so much alcohol in me. We leave the bar with Brendan but I don’t remember it, and then my memory is back. We’re in the backseat of Brendan’s car, taking us to get weed.  I remember that getting into his car was awkward when we both got into the backseat. He says, “Really? You two really just in the backseat though?” And I laughed and respond,

“Yeaaaaa, man, we’ve been riding ubers around.  We gotta stick together.”

So we are riding along, each leaned against the passenger down but I’m not quite awake until I realize Sal is puking in the backseat of his car.  Brendan is so kind with us as he pulls into a gas station and gets paper towels to clean up a bit and I try to help him clean but mostly I am consoling Sal because she is upset about puking and I am attempting to clean her off a bit.  I keep apologizing to Brendan but he isn’t even mad with us, and he drops us off at our little cottage and we awkwardly say goodbye.

I know that in different circumstances we would’ve smoked with him, but things have turned so sour that I am just trying to get us in the house in one piece.  We already added each other on social media and I tell him to hit us up if he ends up in Denver and that we’ll have to get together sometime when we’re back in town.  I thank him some more for being so great and it feels like an awful way to end our little friendship but I don’t know any other way to do it. We get in the house and pass out, on top of the covers and fully clothed, sprawled like toddlers deprived of their afternoon naps.

Memphis, Part 1: Getting there and getting lit

I waited around an old, small airport, laying on the carpeted concrete floor next to a outlet where my phone was plugged in for about an hour, waiting for Sal’s flight to land.  She’d told me that I could go on to the AirBnB without her, but I thought it was silly for us both to spend the money for a ride. It wasn’t like either of us had anywhere to be at any specific time.  

I stared up at the white foam panels of the drop ceiling studying how the spectrum of beige concrete columns grew out of them and extended down to me.  The airport had the feeling of an school house built in the ’70s, but they’d added some upgrades here and there. Staggered between the rows of plastic chairs were electronics charging towers, fitted with standard electric plugs and USB plugs too.  

I filled up my water bottle at a large ceramic fountain, the water basin an oval carved into a long rectangular base.  It reminded me of the ones in black and white photos from the south in the past, where above one a sign hung reading ‘colored’ next another to another with no sign.  Here now there was only one, and to my surprise the water pressure was great. I was able to get the bottle filled completely without having to tilt it, directing the high arching stream into my container.

I laid back down and put headphones in, humming to myself in an empty room, just waiting, until airport staff began to show up at the gate.  They slowly rolled in wheelchairs and took seats, reminding me that time was passing. None of them sat beside one another. I noticed that among them, there was not a single young person working, and that they were all people of color.  I resumed stared at the ceiling, contemplating the next 48 hours.

 

A couple weeks before, Sal and I were sharing dinner, talking about women, when she mentioned that she had an airline voucher that was about to expire.  She told me she’d mentioned it to a couple of friends over the past few weeks, but hadn’t gotten any solid takers for a weekend trip.

“Shit, I’ll go,” I told her.  Here face lit up. “Where?”

“Really?” she questioned me, answering, “I don’t know.”

“Hell yeah, man.  You shoulda known.  I’m always down for an adventure.”

She nodded, smiling, but not speaking.

“Where do you wanna go?” I asked again.

“I don’t really know.  Where do you wanna go? Where have you been?”

“Maaaan, I’ve been everywhere…” I started, dragging out my reply, “I mean pretty much…”  I left it open ended, “But I’ll go anywhere really. Let’s find somewhere cheap for me to fly to.”
“Ok,” she agreed, then added, “I was thinking about Nashville.”

I bounced off her idea, “Nashville? Wait, wait how ‘bout Memphis?” I asked.  “I was only there for a couple hours last summer… Well, I guess it’s two summer ago now… Anyway, yeah, how bout Memphis?”

“Ok,” she agreed, “I don’t know anything about Memphis, but yeah sure.”

“I just love the blues, man.  We can go down Beale St…” I started to reminisce, “There’s this bar that has a blue jam every night, man.  Oh, it’s so great.”

Settled on a place, we picked a date, and I looked up ticket prices.  They were stupid cheap and the next day, I bought mine.

 

The airport workers had started to move around a bit, and I noticed the gate door had opened behind me, so I packed up my stuff and stood up.  I swear every other person got off that plane before Sal did, but eventually, she came out of the tunnel.

 

After a cab ride to our house and some fumbling around in figuring out how to get inside, we stood in a small living room, attached to an even smaller kitchen in a cottage she’d booked us.  It wasn’t much bigger inside than my one bedroom apartment back in Denver, but it was cozy and despite there being two other rooms for guests, we were the only ones there.

We wanted to explore the backyard, but only found an exit door through one of the other bedrooms, which seemed to be permanently locked.  I fiddled around with the handle and the deadbolt for far longer than seemed reasonable, but Sal found another way out, through the front door and around a wooden gate to the side of the house.  She met me on the other side of the door and we fiddled a little more before abandoning our efforts.

I hopped out the front door to join her in the backyard where a huge beautiful oak tree had grown, towering over the suburban cottages, whose leaves had fallen mostly and speckled the yard.  They seemed to take up all the extra space left between sparse grassy patches. We sat down on the small patio next to the door that doesn’t open and schemed on the next few days. We didn’t have any solid plans, but we’d come up with some wandering to do, and we decided to make our first adventure to get a six pack and a lighter.

“Did you see a gas station on the way in?”  Sal asked me.

“No,” I responded, “but I wasn’t really paying attention.” I told her.

“That’s surprising.”

I nodded and agreed.  She knew as well as I did that directions and location were heavily ingrained in me.  Part of my identity was keeping track of where I was, and where other things were too.  The map in my head was steadily growing. I resolved with myself, deciding I was ready to be lost for a little while, unabashedly willing to let go of the daily controls of my life.

I let google lead the way.  As we approached the cross street of our quiet neighborhood, a stretch of commercial buildings reminded me of the east coast city where I’d grown up.  Just across the street, a neon sign glowed against dark tinted glass of a hookah bar. Sal and I both noticed it, wondering if it was actually open, but continued on our mission.  A new dollar store stood alone between two dated strip malls. In the next strip, a tobacco shop was open despite the darkness of the night, between a nail salon and a restaurant who’d already closed up.  Train tracks ran diagonally through the street ahead of us, leaving jagged edges in the asphalt.

On our left across the street, an unbranded gas station was marked with a dingy yellow canopy and header around the building.  The tall glass windows and the front door were barred by dark steel. Cigarette and beer price posters tempted behind them. Catty corner across the tracks, on our side of the street, the green lime lights of a BP station shone brightly.

“Which one do you want to go to?”  I asked Sal.

She shrugged, looking over at me, “I don’t know.”

I took another look.  

An old Pontiac had just pulled up to the gas pump at the unbranded station and parked.  Next to him, two young black man exited the store, gesturing playfully at one another as they conversed.  The BP station looked dead.

“Let’s go here,” I nodded towards the unbranded station, “It looks a little more real.  I like that.”

I paused for a second, because we had been wondering if we could buy beer at the convenience store.  I pointed out the advertisements in the window which had spurred another question as to whether or not it was full alcohol content.  I told Sal that I had never heard about the reduced content beers in grocery stores until I’d moved to Colorado and that frankly I thought it was pretty uncommon and weird.

I waited for a couple cars to pass then led Sal in a jaywalk across the street and through the parking lot.  We walked around the back of the Pontiac, up on the sidewalk, and through the doors of the store as a bell jingled above our head.  The cashier stood in a plexiglass cage that had become opaque, a collage of cardboard cutouts from tobacco products had been taped up, facing outwards, a menu for the patronage.

We moseyed down through an aisle of junk food towards the cooler at the back of the store, but not without first noticing a locked display case of paraphernalia.  

At the beer coolers, I eyeballed the tall boy cans, considering a malt beverage for the night.  I was shocked at my inability to remember the slang term for the extra large cans, and I asked Sal if she knew.  The only help she gave me was the term in Spanish “caguama” which I resolved to adopt into my vocabulary.

They had all the basic six packs- Bud, Coors, PBR, Miller, Busch- all varying degrees of piss water.  I was looking for something made in Tennessee, telling myself “When in Rome…” We had two options, but decided on the pilsner since Sal isn’t a fan of IPAs. At the front counter a brown skinned man checked us out, adding a gray lighter and a black plastic bag to our purchases.  He quickly moved on to the customer behind us before we had evacuated the tiny counter space, but neither of us was mad about it.

 

Back at the cottage, we hung out in the back yard for awhile with our Tennessee beers and a little weed.  We looked up tourist spots to check out. We were right around the corner from University of Memphis so we decided to get up in the morning and romp around campus a little.  We found a botanical garden nearby for another option. We did a little searching to figure out where the best Memphis barbecue joint was, deciding to have lunch at Central BBQ the next day.

By the time we put together a rough game plan, we still had energy to go out, and even though it was a Thursday I convinced Sal to check out Beale St for a couple of hours.  

Really, I was searching for what I’d found there before.  In one way this is an odd thing to do in, but in another it is so natural to a traveler who is revisiting.  The nostalgia I felt remembering Elena and I hanging out for only a few hours on Beale St on our cross country trip is highly romanticized in my head in a way no other place is and no other time is.  We were really free in those hours and we were really enjoying every moment of freedom that we had, trying to hang on to them whilst knowing that our trip was coming to an end.

But Sal and I didn’t stay long on Beale St.  There weren’t many people out and although there’s always music, we decided that we didn’t want to stay out too late.  We wanted to be ready for a full day of exploring, so we checked out a little corner bar, had a few beers, and then we ubered back to our neighborhood.

The idea of the hookah bar resurfaced so we decided to take a walk there.  Both of us really enjoyed smoking hookah though it wasn’t something we did often.  Sal had indulged more in the past, back in college, and she went on lively about the hookah setup she’d had in her college house.

The dingy strip mall hookah bar was cheap and mostly empty.  Two booths of patrons sat in the smoking room. We chose a black leather couch up against the shaded windows where the neon sides had flashed outside.  A waiter brought out the glowing ember and a hookah for us. As we sat down on the couch, we sank through the springs nearly to the floor, the wooden board at the front of the seat couch pressing into our hamstrings.  

Across the room from us was a group of black kids smoking and playing music.  I couldn’t’ help but watch curiously as one girl casually gave another a lap dance.  We chatted a little between hits but were quiet more often. One of the friends across the room was DJing.  He was absolutely killing the set. He’d been playing tracks from the new Chance record, some Kendrick, Cole, and Tribe, really giving an overview of the best hip hop from the year.  

Sal noticed my familiarity with the playlist.  It was undeniable. I’d been shoulder dancing along in my seat and singing along with all the hooks.  I’d even gotten a couple verses in, but rapping is hard for me.

Eventually he came over and sat down on the couch between Sal and I.  We shared hookah with him, trading shotguns of smoke back and forth. When Sal got up to use the bathroom, he tried to kiss me.

I didn’t try to make it awkward when I didn’t let him but it still was.  He apologized, but I explained to him that I wasn’t mad, but that I just wasn’t into it.  Soon thereafter he rejoined his friends.

We finished our shisha and decided to turn in.  We walked back home giggling, a little tingly from the tobacco, but mostly buzzing on each other’s energy and ready for our next day of exploring.

A Glimmer of Energy

“I love Prague.  The sun is coming up and although I just rode home in an uber with my homies, I can’t stop thinking about making out with Anna in the club we just left.  The birds are chirping, a choir to ring in a new day and a new gay Prague with double Ds and a pretty face, brown hair and a mole above her upper lip.  A girl that wants to show us Prague like a local.  She was born here, but for half the time I was straddling her I thought she was from California.  That kind of girl.  I’d still be there if my homies weren’t ready for bed.  But I sit now, listening to the birds and reflecting.  They said it was a night to be weird.  I took it to heart.”

From Berlin: 06/28/17

The setting sun casts warm shadows across the beige stucco and red painted iron balconies of the resident apartments across the street.  The view from the forth floor window ledge of our hostel room isn’t anything spectacular but it holds an allure, maybe about the days to come or about the regrowth of this city since the last world war.  The sky is small here, even more so than in Amsterdam, as the long, wide buildings reach across blocks of downtown nearly touching each other.  Despite its size though, the powder blue of a late summer’s sunset now deepens to periwinkle, boasting beauty and with it, shedding a stillness in the air.  Cars roll by on the street below, but none disrupt the stillness here, just as the babbling of a few men in the room next door do not disturb.  We are all peaceful, ready to spend the night inside and around the hostel.  Our roommates are ghosts for now, a nice touch, and we decide to hang around and do laundry.

Five hours spent in the Duisberg train station last night was generally uneventful.  By the time we’d arrived at the station it was after midnight, so the only people around were beggers, drunks, and a handful of backpackers like ourselves.  At the entrance to the station, four rows of benches were nearly crowded by us, our friends, and a handful of others, who all seemed to be waiting for the train the next morning.

With thirteen platforms and double that may shops, only two were open upon our arrival.  A baker stood at one open counter, his thick German accent I’d hadn’t adjusted to when I’d asked where the bathrooms were.  I repeated my question and understood his answer the second time. Charley swooned at the pastries in the glass case, and I couldn’t help but reciprocate.

Our friend who’d confirm the suspicion that we’d missed our train at the Arnhem station was still tagging along and we finally introduced ourselves.  Her name was Claudia.  

I walked right past the bathroom at platform ten, stopping at the bottom of the stairs, and not listening so well, Fati had to repeat herself twice before I realized she was pointing at the bathroom entrance.  It was covered in bright royal blue and yellow graphics without a door handle, but next to a coin machine, asking 1 euro for entry.  I stuck my hand in my right pocket, rattling around the change I’d collected through the day.

“Well, we’re all in this together,” I annouced, and I dropped a 2 euro piece in the coin slot, expecting change, but not getting it.

Surprisingly, the four of us and all our packs fit comfortably inside the bathroom.  Fati thought that maybe we could’ve just slid in and out as the door opened for each of us, and though the forethought was good, we’d already begun.

From there, we wandered to the other end of the station, where we found the entrance, the boys, and the rows of seats.  They were navy blue and shared armrests, just like the ones in American airports.  

We stopped next to the only other open concession stand in the station, a McDonalds, eyeballing couch bench seats as a decent place to try and sleep.  We had five hours ahead of us to fill, and considering it was midnight, sleep seemed like the mostly viable option.

Stood in a circle, Fati suggested having a smoke and I concurred.

“Weed or tobacoo?” I asked.

“Well, we’re not in Amsterdam anymore, so I don’t think we can just smoke anywhere.” she replied.  I nodded in agreement, but wondered where we could go.  

To my left, just outside the glass doors of the station, a small group of drunkards and vagrants leaned, stood, and sat against an information kiosk covered by a gray tarp.  They looked harmless, but still, I didn’t know anything about the German people.  Matter of fact, I had still thought we were in the Netherlands, and I didn’t know much about their people either.

What I did know was mixed.  Most of the couch surfing accounts Fati had looked into for us in Berlin seemed weird: off-beat humor and interests, so I found and booked a hostel.  Hostels in Berlin were cheap, most around 25 euro a night, but we found one for 19 and I jumped on it.  

I also knew that a few people in Amsterdam had told us that the German people were a bit mean and unaccomodating, but then, from another momentary friend, were told how great the city was.  On the last platform, Claudia had expresses to us how much she liked Berlin, though she hadn’t been there on as a tourist, but visiting friends outside of City Center.

Then, she taught us something else. “Oh, you can,” she nodded, making the motion for smoking with her hands while nodding.

“We can smoke outside?”  I asked her, and she nodded in response.

“You can here.  And in Spain too.  Just when the police come…” she motioned extinguising a joint on the sidewalk, “It’s ok.”

So we walked outside to the end of the entrance patio, which stopped at sets of large stone pottery filled with dirt and plants and benches attached to the sides.  We formed a circle again, facing inwards on each other and dropping our packs in the middle.  Charley’s day pack fell to the outside of her left foot.

“Watch that man,” Fati pointed at it while she spoke.

Charley moved it between her feet.

We chatted for a bit in English, while Fati packed a pipe of tobacco, but as would happen again the next day, Claudia asked for a single world translation to English, which spurred them into a side conversation in Spanish.

I had the pipe, had remembered again how to smoke tobacco out of it, and was thoroughy enjoying the whisps of tobacco in my mouth, even as they escaped.  I handed the pipe back to Fati.

Inside, Claudia had told us she’d never smoke weed from a pipe before, so once we finished the tobacco, Fati packed a bowl up and we set on instructing her.  Fati handed her the pipe, while telling her, but she attempted to light it without having the hitter in her mouth and pulling.  

Fati continued to explain, but after another failed attempt, I put my hands out, asking to take it from her, to show her how to do it.

She’d told us that none of her friends smoked this way, but that she’d mostly smoked joints, and a couple times out of a homemade bong.

“Made with a plastic bottle?” I asked enthusiatically, to which she nodded and laughed, exhaling the smoke.  I laughed rotundly too, hopping up on one foot and throwing my right arm out pointing.

“Yes!”  I exclaimed, “It’s a universal experience.”  We all laughed a bit.

A few minutes later, Fati asked Claudia if she spoke Catalan and we diverted into a conversation about Catalonian history.  Though she spoke fluent Spanish, she also spoke Catalan as her native language, and we asked her what it sounded like.

“What do you want me to say?”  she giggled a little through.

“The sky is blue.”  I responded, to which she interpreted and rolled off her tongue.  It sounded a bit French to me, with maybe a bit of Spanish as well, but Fati thought it was more French than anything, with a little Portuguese.  We asked her a bit more about Catalonia.

She explained to us the old world movement to succeed from Spain, but that it was undesirable for her to vote for such a referendum because she didn’t want to lose her EU citizenship.  Makes sense, I thought.

Then, as I had mentioned earlier that Fati and I had originally planned to begin our trip in Barcelona and move up the French Rivieria, she told us that the Rivieria wasn’t much to see anymore.  She said that maybe ten or fifteen years ago it had been beautiful, but now, it was overdeveloped with all large buildings.

She stuttered trying to expand in English upon her idea, but stopped, agreeing with me when I asked her if it was just like a resort, and agreeing, but saying, “I cannot explain because I would compare it to other places in Europe, but you do not know these places.”

I nodded, accepting the explanation.

Fati and Claudia broke into a Spanish conversation, of which I tried my best to listen and understand, but was soon lost, just trying to pick out words then, when Charley caught my eye, shifting her weight onto her toes, popping up and asking, “Can we eat?”

She hadn’t been loud enough to interrupt our companions, but I nodded agreeing it was time for a snack.  That was one big blessing for the trip- we were all on the same eating schedule.

After a request to the others, a bit of waiting once conversation took a turn and then died down, we trompsed back inside to the bakery, where Charley and I picked out a sandwich and a pastry quickly.  I pulled more euro coins out of my pocket, paying less than two euros for my chocolate vanilla square.  It was good too, and fresh.  Charley gnawed into a sandwich on baguette.

Fati had seemed a bit undecided about getting anything, but as Charley, Claudia, and I began to wander away, she hollered out to us, “Hold on guys,” and grabbed the same pastry as me.

She bit into it, thinking aloud, “I shoulda just gotten the chocolate.”

We meandered back to the rows of seats.  McDonalds was now closed, so retired in the empty spaces next to the boys, we all took turns napping, uncomfortably with our heads laid over sideways on our shoulders or slouched down so far in the seats that most of our asses hung off.

The rest is a blur.  I awaken sharply in the station, my contact lenses glued to my eyes.  I rub them to create some tears.  Upstairs, we boarded the train, and quickly fall back asleep.  Claudia’s head folded down on the table between our seat like that of a tired school child and I wedged myself perpendicularly across the seat up against the glass window outside.

Hours later, we arrived in Berlin, all still sleeping.  Luckily, the boys woke us up when we arrived.  Foggy eyed still, we exited, thanking the boys and taking the escalators up to the main level of the station, where we parted ways.  It was five stories tall, full of open shops, the morning sun bursting through the glass-paned exterior walls of the station.  It was time to wake up, if only briefly, and find our way around a new city.  To Tiergarten we’d head, after dropping our luggage and grabbing groceries for lunch.

A bunch of lesbians at Camp Dick

Yesterday morning I woke up at a normal hour to feed the cat, because he’d been harassing me about food for at nearly thirty minutes.  Once he was fed, I crawled back in bed, burying my head under the flat sheet in effort to shield my eyes from the morning sunlight peeking around the curtains.  I figured I’d give myself a couple more hours to sleep off the soreness in my neck muscles from hooking the entire game and the  general achiness of rugby and dehydration that still lingered in my bones.  Being outside in the summer sun the entire day didn’t help my fatigue.

The morning had slipped away by a matter of minutes by the time I woke up again.  I opened the french doors to friends up and dressed at the dining table and the invitation of warm cinnamon rolls.  The smell of breakfast filled the house, complementing their smiling faces, like it had the last three mornings.

“You still wanna go camping?” Zoro prompted, adding, “We’re gonna leave in like an hour.”

I dug the side of my fork into the soft dough of the cinnamon roll as she asked, but didn’t answer before I’d had my first bite.

“Backpacking?” I asked, wanting to go, but knowing that my backpack had seen better days.  I remembered the heaviness of it on my traps through the last days of Europe, and still haven’t figured out if the strap mount is repairable or not.

“Nah man, just car camping.  So she can be at the airport in time tomorrow,”  Zoro responded nodding at Ariel.

I looked up from my plate and at the crew, who all looked at me now, anticipating my answer.  I pursed my lips and nodded slightly as I answered, smiling, “Yeah.”

What better place that to spend a night in the woods with like-minded friends, a cooler of beer, shish kabobs, a little bit of whiskey, a ukelele, and a new campfire song stolen from Liv’s mom and her kindergarteners?

‘Goin’ on a bear hunt/Goin’ on a bear hunt

I’m not afraid/I’m not afraid

Sittin’ round the campfire/Sittin’ round the campfire

Hangin’ with some babes/Hangin’ with some babes’

 

And a poem for good measure:

 

Campfire songs and goofy jokes

Illuminated our cheeks in between

The ebb of our burning wood

Left us silhouettes in the night

 

‘New relationship, who dis?’ & ‘Damn, Gina’

Thrown around lightly as each of our

Outfits became more and more gay

With the setting of the sun (warmer too)

 

Five camp chairs and a cooler for our leisure

Synchronized standing to replenish our drinks

Swing dancing in the crescent moonlight

Until a dip ended up as a fall

 

We all laughed, often and loudly

Our voices overflowing the air around us

Louder than the fast rushing whoosh

Of the creek behind our campsite

 

Ukulele accompaniment and campfire songs

We made plans for karoake later in the week

Being thankful for each other’s company

Embracing already new good people in our lives

 

I wandered away from spot 10 each time

More comfortable with the darkness

Less worried about the black bear who’d made

Camp Dick his home, taking time

To look up at the twinkling stars

The crescent moon, our fire that burned

Like a beacon over my shoulder

Leading me back to my home for the night

 

Knowing tomorrow

It would be home no more

Next summer

We’re going to Alaska

Can’t life be like this always?

Charley just looked down at me from the top bunk and said,

“Nap or read? I’m just so busy right now,” while rolling her eyes for emphasis.  We both giggled.

“I’m writing a blog post about that right now,” I told her, as I stood up and crossed the room, headed for the open locker where my most valuable items are locked away while we’re gone.  “You inspired me.  That doesn’t happen so often.”  I smiled back over my shoulder at her, resolving to put on a sweatshirt cause it’s cool in our room despite the intense heat outside.  I laid my laptop down on the brown covered couch in our room of six bunkbeds and one queen size that Fati and I are sharing.

“Can it be the title?” she asked me.

“Maybe,” I answered her, pulling the Redskins hoodie I stole from my mom over my ponytail which hangs loosely to the right side of my head, “but it’s definitely the opening line.”

It’s three in the afternoon in Budapest, our first morning in another new city.  We’ve been gone for three and a half weeks, but we only just made a shared album on Facebook so we can share photos (I’ll post the link at the bottom).  It’s been awhile since we fucked anything major up, like getting caught hopping trains without tickets or missing a connection all together and being stranded at a nowhere train station for the whole night.  I dare say we’ve got a good routine figured out.

This morning we all woke up around 9:30, stirring quietly amongst our three suite mates who came in well into the morning, now snoozing, the backs of their heads and various limbs hanging out from underneath each one’s single flat sheet.

We were out of the house a little after ten and headed to a park on the corner of our block, that we’d noticed on the walk from the train station last night.  It proved unsuitable for exercise.  The only open patches of grass were being watered by a gardener and adorned with signs that I could only assume said “Keep Off Lawn” in Hungarian.  The rest of the small park was just a very well designed playground teeming with kids and parents.

So we headed for the National Museum, which appeared to have a lawn on the map our receptionist gave us last night, across one of the major streets in Budapest’s city center.  The high metal gate around the building, our rumbling stomachs, and the heat of summer sun cooking the sidewalks below us nearly nixed our workout plans, but we’d finally gotten in a groove and I wasn’t willing to let it go.  The girls bucked up and we found a patch of grass and the coolness of shade under a cluster of trees, next to a statue of someone important to Hungarian history.

Doing ankle PT, I wasn’t sure if I’d offend anyone by using his base for calf raises, but I peaked around the ground and decided it was worth the risk.  There didn’t seem to be anyone around to offend.  An hour later, we’d sweated enough, and went on the hunt for food.

Following the receptionist’s advice, with our map, we headed back towards the hostel and towards the river, passing numerous restaurants with mostly outdoor seating.  On the way back, I noticed kebap for 450HUF (about $1.75) and promised to have some later. [Mom, you need to come out here if for nothing less than authentic tsasiki] But now, our hearts were set on breakfast

Approaching the river, our stomachs grumbled the last of our patience out, and Charley resolved to check Google for a market.  I stood next to her, pointing out to Fati the shiny ceramic tiles on the massive building across the street from us that were similar to those on the Viennese cathedral.  Charley’s map loaded.

The building was market! With various meat and produce and textile vendors through three rows, a loft upstairs, and an Aldi downstairs, we spent the equivalent of 10 bucks on fresh food for breakfast and dinner, and headed back to the hostel to cook.  After a plate full of potatoes, peppers, cheese, over easy eggs, and couple pieces of toast, some yogurt and a banana, we were back to ourselves, feeling full and fine.

“This is the life, man,” I said to Charley, as Fati cleaned up our plates.  She nodded in agreement.  “Why can’t I live my life like this always?”

The three of us brainstormed for a little while before retiring to our room for showers and afternoon naps, not coming to any complete answers.

There’s one thing I do know, though.

I won’t stop until I figure it out.

 

 

 

 

Amsterdam ~ Berlin ~ Prague ~ Cesky Krumlov ~ Vienna ~ Budapest

Posted by Sus Kitchen on Tuesday, July 18, 2017