Author’s note: My favorite travel story of all time is Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. If you’ve never read it, you should. It really puts things in perspective.
Because my son Vincie the Wonder Poodle (don’t you wish I was your mom so you could have a nickname like this?) will soon be moving to NYC for graduate school, I cooked up a reason to make one last pilgrimage to visit him down in New Orleans: the 26th birthday of his longtime girlfriend, Shannon, who lives here in Baltimore, in April. So the traveling party was me, Shannon, and bringing up the rear, Vince’s sister Jane, a fifteen-year-old trying gamely to overcome dark memories of indigestion gone very wrong during a New Orleans visit of her childhood. (Believe it or not, the culprit was K-Pauls, otherwise a very good restaurant.)
I met Vince’s father at Mardi Gras in ’83, lived on Royal Street for three months, and have returned dozens of times, becoming known among my associates there for such behavior as removing my shirt during a Rockin’ Dopsie concert at the Rock ’n’ Bowl and “breakdancing” on the sidewalk in my sequined skirt during the Bacchus parade. As I approach 60, I have given up stripping and “breakdancing,” but I am still considered something of an authority on how to enjoy oneself in New Orleans, and am frequently asked by conventioneers and others bound there for my tips.
Though a lot of my original tips got washed away by Katrina, Vince and his friends helped me update the list, and the following is my long-winded attempt to write it down before I forget it all.
When to go
If you want actually to get seated in restaurants, find a table at bars, and avoid being trampled by drunkards singing “Born in the USA”, consider not going during Mardi Gras, Jazzfest, Voodoo Fest, French Quarter Fest, Southern Decadence or any more recent inventions of the New Orleans Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Non-festival periods are what the locals live for and you will too, once you try it.
Possible exception: the St. Patrick’s Day/St Joseph’s Day combo in March. This is a parade of horny old Irish guys throwing free cabbages and carrots on Magazine Street followed a few days later by a parade of horny old Italian guys throwing fava beans in the Quarter. For a kiss, they will give you a carnation made of red or green tissue paper and wire.
Where to stay
No problem finding a place to lay your head in this city of a zillion hotel rooms — the boondoggles of my freelance salad days included three excellent spots in or near the French Quarter: Soniat House (thank you, American Airlines magazine), the Westin Canal Place (thank you, Texas Monthly), the Frenchmen Hotel (thank you, Tymlabs Technologist newsletter) — but this is 2012, y’all. I mean 2016. Whatever. Boondoggles are over, and freelance is a shadow of its former self.
Vince lives in a one-bedroom apartment tucked underneath a lovely house his landlady, like many other shrewd New Orleanians, hawks on Airbnb and moves out of when she gets a bite. It’s in the somewhat secret but centrally located Fontainebleau hood, but you can find good short-stay rentals all over town.
Having a whole house is great if you want to throw a party while you’re in New Orleans, as I did, right after we got there Friday night. We picked up some of the necessary supplies at Cajun Seafood, a top-notch if dingy take-out for po’boys and crawfish, always full of crackheads, drag queens, yats, and other hard-bitten locals. They know Vince there.
Vince had a quick rehearsal for the following night’s show with 27 Lights, his band since they were all 12 years old in rural Pennsylvania. So we were chauffeured to Cajun Seafood by his crazy friend Adam, a red-headed, sharp-witted, good-humored, trouble-making, bar-brawling, womanizing maniac he met in college at Loyola New Orleans, which has both a conservatory and a music business program. Adam and Vince hated each other back then but have since realized they are soulmates. They have a band called Me Nd Adam and are also behind the failed political movement, “Make America Chill Again.”
Adam drives just like Vince. I clutched the butcher-paper-wrapped twelve-inch sandwiches to my bosom as he careened around corners, yelling at him as if he were a member of my family.
Since I entered one of my periodic non-drinking phases a couple of months ago — one last impromptu “poetry reading” at a friend’s birthday party inspired my retirement; I only thank God no “breakdancing” was involved — the many six-packs of beer that filled the fridge were consumed by Vince’s friends. There were boys there he’s known as far back as elementary school in Austin, Texas! Vince has always been an entourage-builder. Among the other mood enhancers at the party was the excellent herbal supplement from Southeast Asia, a little thing called kratom which I first learned about a while back from a former writing student. Which, if you don’t mind eating spoonfuls of what looks and tastes like dirt, is the greatest thing since Percocet. And it’s legal. And it won’t kill you, though it’s too late for my sweet Prince.
Also in attendance at the party were two friends my age, Jack and Sue, both lawyers. They also go way back with the Winik family. They got my first husband out of jail and introduced me to my second husband, but I have found it in my heart to forgive them. If you plan to visit New Orleans frequently, you too may find you need legal services. Contact them at the Jernigan Law Firm.
At midnight the celebration of Shannon’s birthday began, but shortly after that Jane and I collapsed in exhaustion, sending the intrepid twenty-somethings off to a late-night dive tour. No one seemed to remember much about this outing in the morning, but here are the names you should know: The Prytania, Ms. Mae’s, The Kingpin, Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge. Adam and Vince have been thrown out of all them at one time or another, it seems.
Where to eat and drink
We had breakfast on Saturday uptown at the counter at the Camellia Grill, touristy but eternal. Get the waffles, eggs and grits, the chocolate freeze, anything with a straw so you can experience the classic antebellum straw-offering ritual the countermen are famous for. They are also famous for long lines and dirty bathrooms, if those things freak you out.
After that, we went down to visit Vince’s friend and longtime bandmate, the musical prodigy William Beckett Fletcher III, at his new job. Bill is working as a bar back at a boutique hotel that just opened in the CBD (Central Business District) on Union Street near Baronne, the Catahoula, named after the state dog of Louisiana.
Shannon and Vince tried a Pisco sour, a chilcano and something magical in a coconut shell while Jane and I had a delicious non-alcoholic chicha morada, made from purple corn. It was much better than the one we had on her class trip to Peru. The night before we had ridiculed Bill’s reports of the “ice program” – like a “coffee program,” except with frozen water — but hipsters will be hipsters, and they know how to mix a drink. We toured rooms – unfinished brick and plaster walls, rainfall showers, and turns out hipsters also know how to make a bed. Our tour included the rooftop terrace with tiki bar and plans for summer grilling.
Before we knew it, it was time to get ready for dinner. There is little time for anything besides eating and drinking in New Orleans, though I’ve heard good things about the World War II museum and used to love to take the kids uptown on the streetcar to the Audubon Park Zoo.
Vince had reserved a table at Doris’s Metropolitan, near Jackson Square in the French Quarter, for Shannon’s official birthday dinner. New in 2013, this steakhouse has two locations: the other one is in Costa Rica. I hope to check it out. Steak and service were both great, and there were a surprising number of vegetarian appetizers for Jane (beetroot stuffed with six kinds of melted cheese and walnuts!) They also seemed inclined to let Jane sip the wine I’d ordered for Vince and Shannon. I stared mournfully at the bottle. Fine dining is the only time I miss drinking really bad.
Where to get in a fight
It was for the best that I had remained sober so I didn’t add to the drama later that night when the insane brouhaha known as 27 Lights’ last show (maybe; there could be a few more last shows before Vince leaves town and then there will be reunions, I imagine) went down.
We went early to the Black Label Icehouse, a newish barbecue and music venue located in a sketchy neighborhood near the Garden District, for sound check. Too bad for Vince’s drummer Bobby that I tasted a bite from his plate of brisket because it was literally as good as most I’ve had in Texas, and he was too slow to stop me from eating it all. I further compensated for my abstinence by purchasing tequila drinks for Shannon and a Shiner beer for Jane, at this point lulled into believing that underage drinking was hunky-dory in the City That Time Forgot.
We were three games into our gin rummy tournament when a hard-eyed, black-lipsticked shrew in spaghetti straps came to throw us out. My pleading and Jane’s tears and our promises to behave made no dent. Apparently no one under 21 is allowed in the club, even if their mother did not buy them a Shiner, so after we were thrown out, so were half the other people in the place. But as I explained to the shrew, I had come all the way from Baltimore, Maryland to see this show and would do so even if I had to stand outside.
Vince’s attempt to support our cause failed miserably due to his liberal use of profanity and the fact that the shrew recognized him from a previous incident at Tipitina’s where she had called him a “douchebag.” Now, she went with “entitled dick.” She said he could just take his band and go home if he wanted.
We dragged a bunch of chairs onto the sidewalk and posted up with all the other ejected patrons. A major party ensued. At some point, an Uber pulled up, and Adam stumbled out, still blackout drunk and awake from the night before. Almost immediately he attempted to pick a fight with another club employee whose girlfriend he’d accidentally had sex with. (It turned out later that this was just the tip of the iceberg.)
Before the bands went on, a nice young man with a nose ring — actually the very employee whom Adam had just tried to provoke — came out to tell us that he understood and sympathized with our situation and was going to let us back in for Vince’s set, as long as I would refrain from getting Jane any further cocktails. He was a musician too, he explained, and knew about mothers and their pilgrimages. Of course, our readmission almost caused the shrew to spontaneously combust.
27 Lights’ set was great, but by this time they’d thrown so many people out of the bar that only the girlfriends and family members of the band remained. Us, and a drunk and disgruntled regular who shouted “You suck” at the end of every song.
As the show ended, Adam reappeared from somewhere, still ready for fisticuffs if need be. By now, Vince was really very upset due to all the difficulties of the evening; he also wrongly believed someone had thrown a beer bottle at his car. All the tension and chaos caused Shannon, who had had too many tequilas, a full-on anxiety attack. Things were looking really bad for a minute there. Adam and Jane and I sat in the back seat of Vince’s car holding hands like little kids whose parents are fighting – Adam actually tried to make this joke, which was brave of him – but somehow things settled down. When we got home, people split the last Coors Light, and I had the teetotaler’s Xanax gummy bear. Shamefaced, Adam revealed his carnal backstory with the shrew herself, which explained a lot.
At this point, Shannon thanked us all for her birthday celebration but said she was ready for bed.
More ways to spend money
Okay, that was Saturday! The next day we joined our lawyer friends for brunch at Russell’s Marina Grill, a venerable spot out on the lake – i.e., way off the beaten track. No line, lots of parking, Bloody Marys as big and as good as the famous ones at The Corner down in the Quarter and three dollars cheaper. This place is quite a find, with their alligator sausage grits cake, sweet potato beignets, and pecan-smoked bacon. Lots of outdoor seating, okay to bring dogs.
Sunday afternoon we went for a Quarter wander, stopping in the gallery of the prodigiously talented Chris Roberts-Antieau, whose pictures made out of quilted fabric I first encountered in Baltimore’s Visionary Art Museum and am deeply in love with. At 927 Royal St., the gallery is two blocks from the slave-quarter apartment I lived in with the late great Tony Winik, so I tend to get a little weepy there anyway.
I swear I am going to buy one of these canvases one day, but I wish I could want one of the little ones priced at $450 instead of this one, called “Welcome Home,” which is four thousand something:
Next, Jack and Sue took us across the street to look at photos of New Orleans houses and nighttime swampscapes by Frank Relle. So beautiful.
The second-to-last thing we did was recover on the spacious front porch of what will always be the loveliest and coolest bar in town, found at The Columns hotel on St. Charles Ave., the setting of Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby,” in which the young Brooke Shields plays a 12-year-old hooker.
And the very last thing was roast beef po’boys from R&O’s out in Bucktown. If you can’t get there, here’s a list of other great roast beef po’boys.
With a flight home at 5 in the morning, we spent our last night at Jack and Sue’s because it’s close to the airport. When I came downstairs at 3:30 am to make coffee, I found Sue in a kimono at her kitchen table watching “Hannah and her Sisters,” playing Solitaire on her phone, and reading the Sunday New York Times, having never been to bed. Her hair was blond, her eyes were red, she had to be in court in a few hours.
Sue has been in New Orleans a long, long time.
The preceding article was read and approved by Vince Winik. Yes: the ban is lifted! Vince’s mother, the University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik, is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and other books. Visit marionwinik.com to sign up for a monthly email with links to new installments of this column, other essays and book reviews.