Friday, July 22, 2011

My New Orleans

No matter who you are, it can be difficult to espcape the cliché stronghold of a city as iconic and evocative as New Orleans. As flamenco is to Spain and chocolate is to Belgium and clam chowder is to New England and hash and hookers are to Amsterdam, so Po’ Boys and Muffalettas and jazz and beignets are to New Orleans. But like anywhere and anything, there is more to a story than just the sum of its parts.

When you vacation, you try hard to absorb all that you have always heard about, within the confines of three or so days. You see them in droves, perambulating sweatily through the Quarter, searching, usually in vain, for that New Orleans. . . .  Something.

For the hanging pots of gumbo, for the Mufalettas piled high, for the brass bands and the voodoo priestesses. And its all there, but most of the time in some sort of Disneyfied, antiseptic shadowbox designed to separate unsuspecting fools from their dollars.

New Orleans is no place for testy itineraries, packing it all in, or airconditioned rental cars. Also, there are two New Orleans. . . One for tourists, and one for locals. I’m tenuously straddling those two cities. . . .

[Actual exchange on the streetcar:

Lumpy, reddened tourist in fruit-patterned Capri pants: “How many minutes before we get there?!  

Answer: “Lady, minutes don’t exist in New Orleans time.”]

No, this city is better left to unfurl before you. It’s what happens in the intercities, when you’re not looking, and in the least-expectedness. Minutes don’t exist in New Orleans do, but it is a city defined by moments.

When you’ve been to Central Grocery for their world famous Mufaletta and they’re closed for the third day in a row, despite their posted hours; when you see that the bubbling pot of sidewalk Jambalaya is nothing more than seasoned water designed to lure you into a tourist trap, when you’ve been hustled for the fourth time today, when your Antoine’s Oysters Rockefeller proves inedible, when your ankles are blistered from walking in cheap shoes, and you think your head might explode from heat and your spirit is defeated, just sit down and wait. Wait a little bit longer now. Take this walking tour.

Wander away from the French Quarter. You needn’t go too far. Stumble upon Feelings, with its crumbling building that looks as organic to the landscape as the rocks and the trees. Go inside for a cocktail in the courtyard. A courtyard so luminescent with natural light, that the copious movie shoots that occur there do not even bother to light it. Watch the lizards traverse the hot concrete, listen to trickling waterfalls and chat up the charming old queens who own the place. Admire their extensive Elvis and Monroe collection. The weight of the world will be lifted from you.

You’ll be hungry now, so meander over to Schiros. Admire the blocks and blocks of old Creole cottages dating to the 19th century, locally known as gingerbread houses, painted all the colors of fairytales. Lavendar, pink, other pink, coral, hot pink, iris blue, toenail polish, candy. Watch your step—the tree roots are taking over, and the pavement giving way to nature’s demand. Also watch out for the copious toads and hopping frogs the size of your baby fingernail. Their otherworldly croaking will act as a soundtrack when the sun sets.

Schiro’s, like all good places in New Orleans is in an ancient edifice on an unexpected bend in the road. Inside, it’s all craggy and cracked and lived-in in all the best ways. The been-there-forever patina is an irresistible, unrecreatable blend of charm and goofy that invites you to sit right down on one of the ripped leather cushions of a barstool.

But wait. What is this place? It’s a restaurant, yes, but it’s also a wine shop and a Laundromat (“washeteria” in New Orleans parlance) and a convenience store (which they jokingly refer to as an “inconvenience store” with odd selections like ancient bottles of Anicin and lemon flavored Hubig’s Pies). It’s also a guesthouse, so if you never want to leave, as I often don’t, you can book an inexpensive room just upstairs. To my mind, Schiros is the best value eatery in New Orleans. It’s both an Indian Restaruant and a Creole one too (is your head spinning yet? Don’t worry; somehow it all comes together and works). The owners are Bangladeshi, and their curries and vindaloos are top notch. But if you’ve come to New Orleans hell-bent on local cuisine, they do that well too. Groaning platters of fried catfish, beans and rice with sausage, and po-boys can be yours for such little money, you’ll never want to spend your dough in the quarter again. From four to six daily, there’s a rotating food special—something homey and hearty and prepared with care-- a Carribean style stewed chicken and rice, a good spaghetti and meatballs, a chicken parmesan, for around seven bucks. The best part? Choose your bottle of wine from the store, bring it to the bar, and they’ll cork it, ice it down, and serve it to you, for nothing more than the price listed on the bottle. All of this, and you’ve barely spent a twenty-spot. Don’t forget to tip your faithful, friendly barman.

Now that your belly is full, you’ll want to work off some calories. Louisiana humidity is enough to weigh you down. Wander on over to the Country Club, a dollhouse version of the real thing, all whitewashed porch with pillars and torches burning friendly so you can find the place. Enter and you’ll find a decidedly gay vibe, though all respectful parties are welcome. Grab a cocktail, pay the $8 night pool fee, and head on back. (Or, you can stop and nosh on their respectable menu, play a game of billiards, or just enjoy the oontz oontz tunes on the sound system and visually undress the yumyum bartenders).

Out back, you’ll find a scene straigt out of some fantasy you had once. Or a hundred times. The torchlit pool is populated with people of every size and shape and color and sex and persuasion. Some nude, some topless, some fully clothed, but everyone having aquatic fun in this clothing optional oaisis in the middle of the city. Don’t worry, there’s a bar back here too, so you’ll never need to go far to stay refreshed on the inside as well as the outside. Some nights, movies are projected on the huge outdoor screen overlooking the pool. Call it a swim-in movie.

Once your fingertips are pruned, if you can bear it, drag yourself out of the pool and get dressed. (Sadly, you can’t troll the streets naked, but on the upshot, you can stroll and drink, so don’t forget to ask for a go-cup). What’s left now, but a good bit of dancing? Make your way to Mimi’s, and go past the divey, smokey bar area, and find the staircase leading upstairs. There you’ll find good, authentic live jazz trios or quartets, or sometimes even better, a DJ dance party. Here you’re bound to find a good old fashioned New Orleans freakshow lasting well into the night. It gets so hot with people inhaling all the airconditioning, you’ll swear it’s a thousand degrees with a million percent humidity.

Boys will jitterbug with one another, and girls will grind. Couples, and even strangers, might sink down into a corner sofa and kiss. Like I meantioned, its hot. But, I bet you won’t even care. You can do this until the sun comes up, if you’ve got that kind of constitution.

Tomorrow, you’ll need coffee. I’ll tell you tomorrow about Flora’s. But for now, let the good times roll, all over your body.

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