While our airboat is going 30 miles or so through the swamp the guy in front of me cracks open a Coors, releasing a gravity defying arc of beer that streams directly into my face. Our yellow headphones which dull the thunder of the boat also drown my pleas for the can to be shifted and this cartoon of a scene plays out for a full ten seconds before it’s rectified, leaving me beer soaked and cackling hysterically. It’s New Year’s Day and I was loving every stupid second.
Two days ago we touched down in New Orleans. Our countdown to this beer-y swamp day being:
Hug our party comprised of long time friends from Philadelphia and San Francisco, as well as new friends from Denver.
Scarf down the original muffaletta sandwich from The Central Grocery on a confectioners sugar coated bench in Jackson Square.
Take a long nap to fight off jet lag in order to stay up till the wee hours.
Grab a hurricane at Friendly Bar in Marigny. When you walk into Friendly Bar everyone turns and waves. When you mention you’re from out of town you’re invited to a Saints football potluck where shots commence whenever a touchdown is scored. When at the Friendly Bar the regulars write local food and drink recommendations on napkins as they sip the stiffest pink lady cocktails five bucks can buy.
Share a po’boy, etouffee and fried okra at Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street, the absolute best street in the city. No, Bourbon does not even compare and if you think it does then go home because you’re clearly drunk.
Watch a shaved-headed singer at the BMC Blast Outkast as the black lace cocktail dress she’s donning slowly rides up her hips to reveal bicycle shorts underneath; her black cowboy boots and shoulder length chandelier earrings all blending in with her black skin. She’s fluid in her movements and smiling the widest smile. Never have I seen someone look so sexy while having so much fun.
Pop into the intimate and tiny The Spotted Cat. We agree to pay cover because we were told The Kottonmouth Kings were playing next. I’m not familiar, but Carl’s eyes widened upon hearing this news. If ever I’ve seen a “shut up and take my money” moment it was here; He all but threw his wallet in the bouncer’s face as he raced in. While The Kottonmouth Kings are a high school favorite of Carl’s, The Kottonmouth Kings were not playing that night. The Cottonmouth Kings were; a local jazz band. It did seem too good to be true that 90’s psychedelic hip-hop group was playing in a jazz club, but so it goes.
Listen to a guitar duo in The Apple Barrel. The Spotted Cat is small; The Apple Barrel is smaller. It’s lit in crimson and the windows are fogged on a balmy night. Here we have whiskey nightcaps to a soundtrack of twanging strings.
GO TO BED.
Eat beignets from Cafe Du Monde (the contributor of the sugar coating Jackson Square Park), washed down with cafe au lait. I’m pretty sure they won’t let you back into New Orleans if you don’t eat at least one beignet your first time in the city.
Streetcar to the Garden District on our way to Lafayette Cemetery #1, passing multi-million dollar homes any of which could be Jim Williams’ mansion from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The century old gravestones are cracked and stained and covered in Mardis Gras beads, with yellowed books of poetry and bourbon bottles resting delicately on top of headstones.
Suck menial bits of meat from crawfish heads in a 90-on-the-spicy-scale crawfish boil while drinking suicide beers (that’s a beer culminating from multiple taps, poured at the bartender’s discretion).
Impromptu stroll by the New Year’s Eve parade. Only after passing high school band number six on the sidewalk did it dawn on us that the parade was heading our way. Full disclosure, in my frenzied attempt to catch beads from a passing float I accidentally took out a few hairs from the woman’s head in front of me. It’s likely she was inebriated though, as she neither turned nor flinched at this faux pas.
Awake to Kendrick Lamar blasting three stories down in our carriage house airbnb. Shower then apply the NYE appropriate unicorn face of glitter and charcoal eye shadow. (Unicorn face is reserved for new years eve, birthdays and halloween so obviously it’s a big night).
Strut to Bamboula’s on Frenchmen. Already busy at 8:00pm, our 13 person party descended upon empty tables like locusts; hovering next to those with near finished drinks and checks on their tabletops then pouncing when the seats were finally vacated, forming a front row cocoon of tables. Dancing commenced hard by 10:00pm, and by 11:00 one of our own was on stage singing with the band and counting down to the midnight baby drop — they don’t drop a ball here, they drop a gigantic paper mache baby.
Happy New year y’all.
Dance more. Hug those nearby.
Break into mini groups by 12:30, venturing out in search of the next spot. Three of us pop over to the BMC, which while packed yesterday, now has less than a dozen patrons. On stage is an early twenties ginger gentleman. He scream-asks the crowd if we’re ready to rock and I cannot remember the last time I’ve been this uncomfortable. In response to the lukewarm claps of the other bar-goers and the overly excited shouts from our trio he whips out an amazing cover of No Scrubs filled with guitar solos I didn’t even know were possible to conjure from a TLC song. In Orleans I saw beautiful bands, gorgeous singers, soulful trumpeters and totally badass spoon players, but this pubescent looking boy was the most talented. Overall the scene is a bit too sad though, and one beer later we’re ready for The Friendly Bar
Receive a sparkler from a passer-by in the rain, simply by commenting “nice sparklers”.
Order a round of White Russians with a side of coke, adjusting the cola levels in each drink until the perfect kahlua/cream/coke ratio is reached. Harmonize to Always Be My Baby by Mariah, one of us covering the “doo doo doot, dow’s” with unparalleled devotion. The rest of our group trickles in behind us and by the time the fireworks start over the Mississippi it’s pouring outside. Together we light our sparkler and sing Auld Lang Syne. Lightning breaks behind us, taking turns with the fireworks to illuminate the sky.
GO TO BED
Eat the fattiest breakfast humanly possible at Horn’s Cafe (a recommendation from Rusty, a regular of The Friendly Bar). I order a pulled pork benedict with cornbread in place of the traditional english muffin. Paired with several cups of black coffee I finally begin to feel like a human again by 11:00am, just in time to head to the swamp.
Pile into a van to journey into the swamplands, being sure to stop at a local grocery on the way to load up on beer and Zapp’s chips.
Beebop, the boat driver and guide on our swamp tour was hungover from finishing a handle of Crown Royale with his cousin the night before, so he politely declined our offer of a beer saying he’d normally accept, but had enough liquor still flowing in his veins that a can of Coors was not needed.
A Marine Biology major in college, Beebop shared his disappointment with the show Swamp People’s depiction of Louisiana residents, lamenting that once a tour goer commented how he was “more educated” than she thought he’d be. He lets out a sigh as he recounts this then tosses marshmallows to the gators surrounding our boat, luring them in for our amusement.
Drive back into the city at sunset.
Wait in the rain for a table at Coop’s Place, a tourist-happy French Quarter establishment. The line looked long when we first got into it, causing our group to trifurcate. Some went for beignets, others for to-go daiquiris — “to-go” being a verb in New Orleans, meaning to get a drink for the road. If you’re half way through a cocktail and your friends are itching to move on you simply walk up to the bar and ask for a “to-go”, at which point the bartender nods and presents you with a plastic cup. We ordered a to-go in an oyster restaurant without our server batting an eyelash so make no mistake, this is a city-wide habit rather than a dive bar go-to.
Stroll down Bourbon. With post-dinner bellies we took a walk down Bourbon street to see what all the hubbub is about. It’s bright, it’s loud and it’s very very drunk. Sidewalks are coated in vomit and discarded daiquiri cups. The inebriated stumble out of one bar immediately into the next; moths to the neon signs which silently shout “no one is too drunk to be served here”.
Witness football rivalries in full swing. Football is a big deal here. The Peach Bowl closes down restaurants. Expensive restaurants. Hotel balconies were chock full of College Football fans with hotels seemingly segregated by team. One balcony would cry out the name of the school they were repping with Stellaaa like devotion, while the hotel adjacent to them would try and top their screams. All of this while booze was thrown on passers by who taunted or mocked this undying love.
Drink sazeracs at a hundred year old absinthe house tucked away in a quiet alley where the absinthe is the perfect shade of Mr. Yuck green.
Say hello to centuries old oaks in City Park. Under a gray and overcast sky we visited trees with storied histories. There’s the Dueling Oak, under which many squabbles were resolved (there were initially Dueling Oaks but the companion was lost during a hurricane in the 50’s), Hangman’s Tree, whose name comes from the innumerable suicides its branches have seen, and the Anselmen, 800 years old and knotty as can be, held up by dozens of stilts. Spanish moss rests in piles throughout the park and naturally we adorn ourselves in layers of mossy finery. Minutes after we depart the sky opens up.
Seek refuge from the rains in Jax brewery, football playing on one side of the bar as rain pounds in through the open doors, spraying onto tables and chairs as servers eyes are glued to the game.
Browse through books at Faulkner House. Last nights absinthe tavern happened to be stationed next to William Faulkner’s old apartment, since converted into the most intimate of book stores. As an avid reader, book shopping is the only shopping I partake in while travelling and I never leave a new city without checking if there’s a can’t miss shop. The entire place is less than 500 square feet, immaculately curated, and in the very middle sits the proprietor. She reads through ledgers at a small desk and you can barely pass by her without knocking into her chair. It all feels very library-like and I whisper to Carl as we read through titles. We land on a worn and rare copy of Isaac Babel short stories, request a plastic bag for it, then venture back into the rains.
Venture to Ooh Poo Pah Doo bar, which I accidentally yet consistently refer to as “Oop Boop Be Doop”. This place is my recommendation for all of New Orleans. Here you’ll drink beer because there’s no tonic water. Here semi-deflated balloons adorn the ceiling. Here the bar owner has crockpots full of home cooked gumbo and red beans and rice in the back. Here the owner herself will stop and ask you where you’re from, then will have the band (which she sings in) dedicate the next song to your city. Trumpeters have mutes made of blender caps and neighborhood retirees are backup on spoons. Here, in short, you’ll grow your soul.
It was love at first everything. First song. First sip of beer. Just love.
And it was this feeling I took on the plane with me the following evening. Granted I did catch the stomach flu on the flight and spent the next 7 hours vomiting into bags, but it’s Ooh Poo Pah Doo, and not the taste of bile that I remember now.