MARCH 2017: A GLAMOR TO GUTTER LITERARY TRAVEL LOG OF FRENCH QUARTER TOURISM, WITH OCCASSIONAL REFERENCES TO A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES.
New Orleans is one of the extraordinary cities, a hybrid of old and new world cultures, the perfect package of people, architecture, attitude, and vibe. Tennessee Williams once said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” But what about Chicago? What about Las Vegas? What about Miami? The point is well made, New Orleans is unique and there is no place like it.
For a year, my friend Graham and I discussed a trip. We visited with a small group years ago, but there was more we wanted to see. Aside from the usual French Quarter tomfoolery—food, booze, and strippers—we were eager to view two historic homes: Laura Plantation on the Mississippi River and the Hermann-Grima House in the Quarter. But with demanding work schedules, it was difficult to find time to break away.
At lunch on Mardi Gras, over a bottle of Chardonnay and a platter of raw oysters, Graham handed me a flight itinerary. I, in turn, made hotel reservations, finding one of the last hotels with availability in the French Quarter. I wondered what kind of event might be happening. But despite anything else going on in New Orleans, it was official: we would be going on in New Orleans. Perhaps Bart Simpson summed it up best, “When the Big Easy calls, you gotta accept the charges!”
Ignatius J. Reilly, an over-weight, over-educated, arrogant misfit who living with an overbearing mother in the early 1960s, is the main character of one of my favorite books, A Confederacy of Dunces, which I just finished reading again. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel by John Kennedy Toole was published by the LSU Press in 1980, 11 years after the author’s suicide, and is known for its rich depiction of New Orleans and the city’s dialects. Louisianans consider Confederacy the most accurate interpretation of New Orleans in a work of fiction. It further bolstered my eagerness to treat my senses to the sights and sounds of which I had just read.
And with my visit, I anticipate the opportunity to flex my own literary muscles with an attempted prose of a personal nature—a biographical compilation consisting of 50% short story, 50% essay, and 50% travel journal. Whatever this turns out to be, the main point is for me to write.
“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” ~ A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole.
Mmmm, cheese dip.
Our Uber ride to the airport is harrowing. The driver takes us out of our way toward the wrong airport, runs red lights, and cuts out into oncoming traffic. Horns honking and middle fingers flying, I cross my fingers and keep my cool, wondering if I will end up in New Orleans or the hospital. But Graham does not seem flustered.
To say that Graham is a character would be an understatement; I have known him for over 20 years. Usually covered in expensive jewelry, he is 6’ 6 but seems every inch of 8 feet—probably due to his extroverted demeanor. Despite his usually ostentatious, sometime outrageous attire, Graham is unwaveringly honest, and has an innate ability to assess situations and to react accordingly. We travel well together and should probably have our own TV show.
It is enjoyable to have a synergetic traveling companion. Having spent most of my life as a loner, meaning single, I never mind traveling alone. My big relationship years back was intense and momentous but it ended with upheaval, leaving me uninterested in trying another. And as time passes I forget what it is like to share my personal life. I live with my dog and the longer I go without someone else, the longer I realize that it is not going to happen. Relationship Troy learned to lightly sleep on 15 inches of mattress; Single Troy sleeps with a dog, drools, thrashes, and has the occasional screaming night terror—and I suspect the possibility of acting out dreams in live action like three act plays. Not to mention the strong possibility of snoring. These are not appealing qualities. So I am, perhaps, past the point of no return and cannot foresee adapting to someone new. I have rendered myself undateable. As my favorite songbird Karen Carpenter warbled, “I’ve said goodbye to love.” I am a relationship person though—not in the romantic sense, but rather I can make and keep important friendships for a lifetime. So while I do not mind traveling alone, it is nice to have a chum for sightseeing.
As a loner, romantic encounters over the years have been rare. Not only am I picky but also quite inept in the seductive arts. It should not, therefore, be surprising that some of Single Troy’s more intimate relationships have been by the hour.
Before my friend Lisa passed away two years ago she encouraged me to write about my difficulties in dating. “Troy, you’re handsome, talented, and fun—I think people would be interested in hearing about it,” she said. I responded that I am not Carrie Bradshaw and that my blog is not Sex in the City. But Lisa was usually right about things.
That said, I found a young New Orleans businessman through an online service and texted him—and by businessman, I mean attractive Quarter rat for hire.
Whether one calls it the company jet, a flying Greyhound, or a cattle call, Southwest Airlines is an inexpensive way to leapfrog Louisiana. It is an hour flight and there is no disappointment for not flying first class.
Since its inception in 1967, Southwest has one of the highest safety records of any airline—not a single passenger has died because of an accident, which is astounding considering that the company operates about 1.3 million flights per year. In the last recent years, of 6.5 million flights transporting 675 million people, there were only a about a dozen injuries; the statistic amounts to one in 45 million passengers sustaining injury in Southwest’s charge. I like those odds.
“Southwest is always late,” Graham grumbles when we discover that our flight is delayed, which affords us an opportunity to have a few Bloody Marys at a bar in the terminal and to come down off of the Uber high.
We are already having a good time and haven’t even left the ground. But I realize that I will have my hands full with his large personality.
He asks, “Are you sure you can handle me for so many days?”
“I’m starting to wonder.”
“You know, they say that first prize is four days with me,” he replies. “Second prize is a week.”
After a chuckle I ask, “What contest from hell did your spouse lose?”
By the time the attendant serves our cocktails I feel the plane shift and we begin our descent; the pilot makes up the delay, cutting 15 minutes off the flight.
I wonder if anyone else notices that a Southwest jet always smells like cheap coffee and blue toilet water.
The perfectly located Hotel St. Marie looks like an antique building but was built 40 years ago, making it a relative newcomer to the Vieux Carré. A high-end family with expensive and well-worn luggage checks in ahead of us—they were on our flight, I recognize the bags from the carousel. The front desk staff is friendly and efficient.
It might not be the Monteleone or the Roosevelt, but we are lucky to have it. The room is adequate—a little rundown but there is evidence of renovations underway. Besides, no matter how luxurious or middle-of-the-road, every hotel room in New Orleans has been fucked in, drugged in, drunk in, and puked in. And no one visits the Crescent City to sit around a room anyway.
Our fifth-floor dormer faces Toulouse with a view down Dauphine and perfect sight of the Xiques House, the stunning 1852 Greek Revival mansion that once housed a gambling hall so decadent that the even the degenerate city of New Orleans shut it down.
We unpack, hang our clothes, and freshen up for our inaugural promenade around the Vieux Carré.
In the French Quarter, even the atmosphere has texture, the air is kinetic, and the buildings undulate with aura. The ages of the buildings amaze me, some predating the Louisiana Purchase. Within the shuttered facades are centuries of merriment, love, heartache, and despair, living history with a continued narrative. The sounds of the city reverberate off walls, echoing music and drunken laughter.
We pass through Jackson Square to see the artists, all the while searching for food; but the Quarter is so packed that every table is taken and every eatery has a line; there is an hour wait at the Napoleon House.
“I’m so hungry,” Graham declares, “I would go for a burger at that little Clover Grill!”
And that is where we head.
I once speculated that the only thing separating New Orleans from a third world country is refrigeration; if it weren’t for ice, New Orleans would be on the level of an African colony or Caribbean isle. Maybe residing in a bright and modern city like Houston has jaded me, but one look at the Clover Grill bathroom and anyone would wholeheartedly agree with my statement.
But at least the grill is charming. At the top of the menu they acknowledge, “You can beat our prices but you can’t beat our meat.”
The Dragon Masters from America’s Got Talent have a huge crowd assembled in a circle on Bourbon Street, leaping and flipping through the air to everyone’s delight. The crowd starts to disperse as they land the last stunt and start passing a bucket for money.
I pause next to a Lucky Dog cart, one of the iconic wiener-shaped kiosks dishing out the legendary drunk food. With over 21 million sold over the past 50 years, not only are the vendors famous for their distinctive wagons but one of Ignatius J. Reilly’s occupational disasters was hawking hot dogs for Paradise Vendors in the Quarter, or as he put it, “currently connected in a most vital manner with the food merchandising industry.”
On the prow of the wagon, in an attempt to attract business among the Quarterites, Ignatius taped a sheet of Big Chief paper on which he had printed in crayon: TWELVE INCHES OF PARADISE. So far no one had responded to its message. ~ A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole.
Channeling my inner Ignatius I cringe as tourists flip and flop down Bourbon; drunken idiots stumbling through horse shit, vomit, urine, and God knows what else lurking in the littered gutters, at any moment likely to fracture phalanges and metatarsals with a misstep. I wonder when flip flops became acceptable everyday apparel and at what point people could no longer be bothered to put on a pair of shoes. But then again, I consider how nice it is to know how a random stranger’s bunions are doing. And what an alluring hammertoe.
The vendor’s name is Rex the Viking, a world traveler. He is familiar with Confederacy; and I realize he probably hears about it all the time.
We stop into a bar with a lively crowd and strippers on the bar tops. In this day of mainstream acceptance, some believe that gay bars are archaic; underground gathering spots are no longer necessary. And with the advent of hookup apps, the need for meeting sites is obsolete. The advantage, however, is a specific comfort level shared by analogous individuals; more than the concept of safety in numbers, there is less self-consciousness and fewer inhibitions.
New Orleans is known for iniquity. Like every drop of water between the Appalachians and the Rockies finding a way to the Mississippi River, it travels through New Orleans depositing silt from along the way, so too tourists flow in and deposit their inhibitions and release their demons. The Crescent City has always been so, with its rich history of prostitution and vice. Even sophisticated planters of the 18th and 19th Centuries came from the country to enjoy prostitutes and placage wives. In something about the atmosphere, the debauchery become ethereal, remaining and interspersing ever after like a cesspool of depravity; the delta collecting decadence along with silt like a giant filter.
This brings to mind my scheduled date. Just because I am undateable does not mean that I am made of stone; I have manly desires. But in no way will I do dating websites or pickup apps. But why, especially with limited time, bait a hook or cast a net when one can simply turn to the Poisson list and order off the menu? Besides, I am a traditional guy—of course I would support the world’s oldest profession.
“Look at that man at the end of the bar,” Graham mentions. I regard an old guy dripping with jewelry, three heavy diamond tennis bracelets on his right wrist, rings like Liberace, and facial scarring from a string of procedures; he wears a dark sport jacket and is sipping a martini. “I think that’s me at 80.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Is he wearing every piece of jewelry he owns?”
“Something tells me there’s more where that came from.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you have more.”
After a bath and fresh outfits we are out on the town. I always wear a sportscoat in New Orleans—they allow plenty of pocket space and keep my forearms from touching germy bars.
French 75, a small paneled bar adjacent to Arnaud’s with animal print fabrics on antique chairs, is touted as one of the most beautiful bars in New Orleans. The bar does not seem germy though one can never tell. Not only elegant, the establishment is allegedly haunted. We stop for libations and nibbles, lucky to find seats at the corner of the bar.
Graham reminisces about Lisa’s 40th birthday party, hosted one of Arnaud’s private rooms. Hers is the ghost that we find at French 75 that chilly evening, haunted by her abrupt and youthful passing. We drink a toast to Lisa who is gone but forever in our hearts.
On a dark corner of a lesser travelled street is the renowned strip club Corner Pocket, named for its beginnings as a lounge where hustlers danced on pool tables. The drinks are expensive but the entertainers are young, beautiful, and lewd. The decrepit old DJ emceeing the evening’s program is the re-embodiment of Quentin Crisp.
Graham and I are directed to seats at the circular bar, right on the runway for the show. The performers pass one at a time, doing unspeakably demeaning acts for a dollar. The lecherous fellow on my left is all hands as they pass.
“All of these dancers are on crystal, huh?”
“God yes,” Graham confirms. “It’s real methy in here.”
I notice the attendant who is supplying the bar with buckets of ice—far better looking than any of the entertainers.
A wiry, tatted dancer parks in front of Graham. And as he deposits money into the G-string, $5 bills pop out the other side. Too wired to know the difference, it is the first stripper I ever saw to make change. Graham pockets the bill and inserts more in a repetitive circle like a stripper slot machine—money in, pull the crank, money back out.
An evening that began with gentility ends in the gutter.
It is late in the night and Graham is teetering like a palm in a hurricane when he has the idea for Lucky Dogs and Big Ass Beers. Rex the Viking prepares the last two of his 200 allotted wieners and volunteers to watch Graham as I trod half a block for alcohol.
As I return to the hot dog shaped wagon, Rex is cleaning and Graham is safely propped against a wall with chili all over his face. The hotel is stumbling distance.
It is morning in the French Quarter. Through the dormer, I look out over the dew darkened slate of the rooftops across Toulouse, blue tiles gradating to black nearest the gutters. The room reeks of grease from the clothing we wore to Clover Grill.
While the little coffee maker in the dressing room percolates, I open my laptop to record my thoughts, to make words on a page. I promised myself at Christmastime that I would write every day and I have. Not every sentence is literary gold, not every paragraph will find a reader, but often it is an exercise. If writing a novel is like running a marathon, then my morning wordcraft ritual is like a jog around the block. It intrigues me to write this, not knowing what it is, what it will become, or if anyone will read it.
Graham asks from bed, “How do you flush this thing?”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re going to check out now,” he replies as he crawls from the sheets to begin readying for the day. “I’ve already wet this bed.”
I laugh raucously and hope he is joking.
Hectic Canal Street forms the upriver boundary of the city’s old settlement, originally dividing the colonial French Quarter from the American sector, which is now the Central Business District. Until the Louisiana Purchase, Creoles resided in the Quarter; after, Americans and other cultures moved to the city, settling uptown. A canal was planned as a division between the two sections but was never built, which is why it is so wide. Canal Street has six lanes of traffic, landscaped neutral ground, and a pair of streetcar tracks.
Walking five blocks up Canal to pick up a rental car, I pause on the downriver side of the 800 block, now the Hyatt French Quarter Hotel, beneath the historic D. H. Holmes clock next to a bronze sculpture of Ignatius.
Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. ~ A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
Channeling my inner Ignatius, I notice a woman pushing a stroller with two bawling toddlers trailing behind, expecting another—she looks like a child herself. I think, please stop having babies! I guess that when the minx sluffs by with her taut expectant belly, sweat pants, and Payless Birkenstocks men clamor to impregnate her. I realize that it is not sport to think disparagingly about those less fortunate, even if their misfortunes equate to tarnished series of bad decisions. I watch as she and her interracial brood pass then I continue on my way.
Growing up, I never heard of Laura Plantation, but over the past couple decades it has been the buzz of Louisiana’s plantation parade, hidden in plain sight within the cluster of other notorious homes like Oak Alley, St. Joseph, and Felicity. Last year at a wedding in Houston I met Jay, one of Laura’s managers. He promised that it would be the best plantation tour I ever had; that was all the arm twisting needed. It is beautiful day for us to make the drive upriver. We even discuss seeing a second plantation, perhaps Destrehan, if time permits.
The air is cool and the sun is high in the sky. And on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Vacherie, we find the plantation, built in 1805 in the traditional Creole colonial manner; not the place for those expecting columns or Scarlett O’Hara descending a staircase.
Nothing is worse than being trapped on a tour while a teenager in a hoopskirt recites lines or a dusty old docent prattles off useless and usually incorrect anecdotes. But Jay tells his stories with humor, transitioning effortlessly between English with a thick Cajun accent and French, bringing Laura to life with tales about the owners—the Duparcs were crazy rich Creoles—and their slaves.
Descendants of some of the originally enslaved families remained on the plantation until 1977. When asked why the families stayed so long Jay answered, “Would you leave home knowing there’s a possibility of never seeing your family members again?”
Graham barked, “YES!”
When the tour ended, a young lady caught Jay and asked if the family who owned the plantation were related to the Broussard family.
He answered, “No way, the Broussards are some of the worst people you’ve ever met!” Then he chuckled and introduced me. In the main house, the curtains feature a bee motif and the young lady thought there was an association since the bee is the symbol for Broussard’s restaurant. The bee was integrated by Napoleon as a link of the new dynasty to the origins of France.
Jay would make a great guest on our show.
Graham and I left Laura satisfied, both agreeing that it was the best tour we had ever had. As to finding a second tour, there would be no way another could follow Jay’s. “To paraphrase Lawrence Welk when he recommended seeing the Finger Lakes,” Graham quipped, “see one this trip and perhaps you can get two fingers in the next time.”
Back in the city and in need of gasoline to top-off the rental car we navigate haphazard city traffic to find a station. It is a little-known fact the Valero is Spanish for white trash. The yellow-eyed woman working behind the counter, blatantly drunk or deranged, the only white person I have seen for miles, sings intermittently, “I’m getting nothin’ for Christmas…” Where is Ignatius when critical social denouncements are needed?
“The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss.” ~ A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole.
Not only was it out of season but woefully out of tune. I will never be able to enjoy that carol in the same way. The car only needs three gallons and I wonder why I did not just pay the gasoline fee, not subjecting myself to such atrocities.
As we round the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse, Rex the Viking is just opening for business. He waves and shouts to Graham, “You’re looking much better today!”
At first I thought that it was Spring Break packing the streets of the Vieux Carré, but as we arrive to the St. Marie, two busloads of active seniors are checking in. There are so many walkers in the lobby that we circumnavigate the courtyard pool and climb five flights of stairs to the room.
In need of a nap, Graham crawls into his bed with a book. I take my laptop down to the hotel bar. Not only am I anxious to chronicle the events of our tour but, as the designated driver, had not had a cocktail all day.
Vacherie is a softly lit space with French paneling with softly painted foliate scrolls and faces. I found a spot at the bar; there were two dirty glasses, a crumbled bar nap, and a two-dollar cash tip.
As I settled in the barmaid says, “Excuse me, looks to me like this seat is taken.”
I looked down at the empty glasses and crumpled bar naps. “Looks like they’re done to me.”
Rolling her eyes, she demands, “You have no way of knowing that!”
I get up and move to a small table as a couple takes the place I just vacated. I sit at my little table for over half an hour. Serving happy hour drinks to active seniors and the people who took my seat at the bar, she never waits on me. The only reason I stay for so long is the Wi-Fi; I am downloading photographs. Half an hour is a long time to sit without acknowledgement. The hotel just took a major hit in my eyes and I think, what a shitty hotel.
My blood is thickening and I am still in need of my first drink of the day. But once again, every restaurant in the Quarter is at capacity. I put my name on the waiting list for Napoleon House and we amble down Chartres in search of a cocktail. When we see seats at Kingfish we take them. I order a Tom Collins followed by another; Tom Collins is going to be my new go-to drink! The food is hearty and fresh—I have the Ginger Shrub Lacquered Pork Chop with Caraway Braised Cabbage, Carrot Puree, and Pickled Mustard Seeds. But for the expense I would have preferred a more prestigious locale like Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s, or Broussard’s.
It is a chilly Louisiana morning and, unwilling to patronize Vacherie, I seek coffee elsewhere; I remember seeing a bakery at the Royal Sonesta. I recall the Royal Sonesta as Mother’s preferred accommodations and remember that, with its marble columns, crystal chandeliers, and indoor water fountain, it was just the cat’s pajamas.
The French Quarter reeks; the cobblestone gutters are full of liquid that emits that signature funk of garbage and sewer. Crews start maintenance projects and alcohol deliveries before the streets become impassable. And homeless remain curled in doorways atop cardboard boxes; at times I step over extended legs and dirty sock feet. Some freaky shenanigans happen in the French Quarter, but I never recall so many beggars at night or homeless on the sidewalks by day—it is an unseemly display for paying guests from around the world. The city becomes more expensive to visit and less proactive in either preventing or concealing this problem. I would rather see urchins tapping for quarters or betting that they know where you got those shoes than the destitute and disenfranchised dying on the streets, begging passersby for cigarettes.
As I cut up Conti to avoid the stench of Bourbon, my gut quivers as I regard pigeons on the curb in front of Broussard’s picking chunks out of vomit. It still amazes me that tourists are willing to flip flop over such revolting obstacles.
And by the way, if an urchin ever bets that he knows where you got your shoes, the answer is never where you bought them, Allen Edmonds, Dillard’s, Foot Locker, etc.. The answer is: you got those shoes on Bourbon Street, right now.
Samuel Hermann built a Federal-style mansion in 1831, worthy of his station as a broker for plantation owners. But when the English cotton market crashed in 1837, causing worldwide financial panic, Hermann’s wealth vanished. The house was sold to Creole attorney Felix Grima in 1844. The restoration is said to illustrate the lavish lifestyle of prosperous Creoles during New Orleans’ Golden Age. I can see parts of the Hermann-Grima estate from my window.
I feel good and am wearing a blue gingham French cuff shirt with art nouveau Ostby & Barton cufflinks, a navy blazer, blue jeans, my favorite brogues sockless, and Gucci sunglasses with a Mercedes-Benz cap (I never wear the cap when driving my Mercedes, that would just be pretentious). And I spritz cologne on my handkerchief for protection against the malodorous environs.
As I finish my coffee, Graham puts me to work removing knots from a chain attached to a solid gold lorgnette (spectacles with a handle, the precursor to opera glasses). Not a morning person, I want to gnaw through the chain like getting to the center of a Tootsie-pop. But I take my time and, when done, lay the bobble out on his bed and make a hasty exit.
In the lobby, I sit quietly and read the newspaper, out of the whirlwind which is Graham dressing. The lobby is quiet—the active seniors were up, had breakfast, and boarded tour buses for plantation country long before I ventured out for coffee. I read about a Representative from Houston, one of those women worshipping abortion like a religion, who introduced a bill to fine men $100 for masturbation and mandate medically-unnecessary rectal exams for men before a vasectomy, colonoscopy or Viagra prescription—obviously wasting tax-payers’ time and money with attempts to make a point about abortion rights. It makes me want to rub one out just to spite her.
So I am happy when Graham makes his entrance. I know better than to look at news while vacationing and I promise myself not to touch another newspaper for the remainder of the trip.
He strikes a pose and comments, “Oh, you look rich.”
And it makes me feel special.
Hermann-Grima is less than two blocks away but we are unable to get out of the hotel in time. But I am not bothered by missing our tour—there is plenty we can do. We are not active seniors adhering to a schedule—yet.
“Where’s that fancy antique store that I love?”
I hold my pocket square over my nose as we cross Bourbon for Royal Street. Graham is speaking of M. S. Rau Antiques. Established over 100-years ago, Rau purveys museum quality jewelry, furniture, and art in a French Quarter setting. I live with fine antiques but this is a step above, accoutrements for the ultra-rich.
One of the consultants Deborah latches onto him and enthusiastically unlocks the protective cases showing him jewelry and golden boxes. When I catch up he is fingering a gold and enamel Cartier cigarette box, examining it closely with lorgnette in hand—only $48,500. Her show-and-tell was a tour-de-force, from Wallace Simpson’s brooch to a cobalt glass Victorian parlor fountain that works by water pressure, like flipping an hourglass.
Deborah leads us through the cloistered back rooms to see artwork. Toulouse-Lautrec, Morisot, Chagall, and Rockwell filled the walls, to name a few. It is like touring a museum. But with every piece available for purchase, I am aware that the Beltrain-Masses is $185,000; the Pissarro is $285,000; the Bouguereau is $2,750,000; and the Monet is $4,950,000.
And though the bibelots are out of Graham’s price range today, she is clever to cultivate a client; he has bought from Rau before and will see her again.
Mark Twain said, “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” He probably made that pronouncement after a meal at Antoine’s.
Antoine’s holds the distinction of the oldest family owned restaurant in the USA. Opened in 1840 by Antoine Alciatore, the haute eatery with a 25,000-bottle capacity wine cellar and 15 dining rooms, has served planters, presidents, and popes. By the time Frances Parkinson Keyes penned best-selling Dinner at Antoine’s in 1947, a murder mystery which began with a dinner party in the 1840 Room, the restaurant was already over 100-years old.
In the front room which has not changed since 1951, white table linens, white walls, and white curtains with swags and jabots with billowing white Austrian shades contrast with dark wood glistening beneath chandelier light. On the crown moldings, fleur-de-lis alternate with Hollywood bulbs, subtly inviting the eye up toward the clean white ceiling towering above. Antoine’s had a white dining room long before it was an interior design trend. But we choose to sit in the back where gothic paneled walls are covered with celebrity photographs—it is a cathedral of fine dining.
Our waiter is a seasoned veteran, Sterling Amour. When introducing the specials, he mentions 25-cent Melon Balls, “I’ll have y’all crawling out of here for less than $2.”
Who can pass up a 25-cent cocktail? The lunch special is the best deal in the French Quarter. $20.17 buys three courses from a prix fixe menu: appetizer, entrée, and desert. A price that will not buy three courses at Denny’s. I start with the Creole Gumbo, warm bread and butter, Soft Shell Crab over onion rice with Meunière, and Pecan Bread Pudding with praline rum sauce. Delicious.
After desert, Graham and I tour the private dining rooms and admire the memorabilia contained within each like visiting a museum. The historic 1840 Room has emerald green walls with gilded moldings, punctuated at the far end with an ornately carved gilt mirror etched with “Rex” across the top—a suitable backdrop for centuries of the moneyed, the powerful, the chic, the tawdry, and the lecherous; the staff is clearing it after a private luncheon. Jeweled gowns and tiaras of Mardi Gras Queens are encased in the Proteus Room along with various krewe ephemera.
Funny thing about a pricing deal at a famous restaurant; once a bottle of wine or two, an extra dish or two, coffee service, and a cookbook are added, the check arrives and clearly reflects the distinguished surroundings. But it was worth every penny.
Built like a gargantuan wedding cake in the Beaux-Arts style, the Monteleone is the only high-rise in the French Quarter, one of the few family-owned hotels to survive the Depression, and houses one of the only revolving bars in the south. With lights, mirrors, and fanciful jester faces, part Merry-go-round and part Mardi Gras float, it is a perennial favorite of mine and also on the list of the most beautiful bars in New Orleans.
As usual, the sit and rotate spots are taken—a circular swath of vanilla tourists WASPing at a speed of one loop every 15 minutes.
Several of the [crowd’s] outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul. ~ A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
We sit at the uninspired back bar, and after a condescending bartender and $30 plus tip for a couple of martinis, I realize that the Carousel Lounge is better in memory than in actuality.
Near the window is an elderly gentleman in a blue blazer and beige slacks; he is alone, reading a newspaper, and sipping an Old Fashioned. “So I guess that guy is me at 80,” I comment.
Graham looks and nods. “He could be you this minute.”
Graham naps often and I do not question it. It affords me alone time. I don my LSU cap and head out. I consider the LSU cap to be Quarter camouflage; the vagrants will look past a local, rather pestering Betty Housecoat from Boise with a neck heavy with plastic beads.
The afternoon is cool and the sun is bright. I hold a handkerchief to my nose as I near Bourbon Street. Passing the Old Opera House my ears are insulted by an awful karaoke rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody; it is live band karaoke and the music is beautiful but the singer is indescribably pitchy and flat. I cannot help but to pause and listen; such an effrontery is art itself.
Pausing against the pink stucco wall and green shutter, I am startled when a body flies out, a drunk dude hitting the sidewalk like a bag of potatoes. The bouncer screams, “Don’t come back!” I have seen this kind of thing on film but have never been so up close and personal with a forceful ejection. Had I not stopped to listen I might have been waylaid by the drunk.
Rex the Viking is setting up his Lucky Dog kiosk. He only has 80 wieners and hopes to call it an early night. I tell him that I am scouting bars to meet a date and he wishes me luck.
But each bar I visit is packed or loud or both. And I do not want a place too far from the hotel. I stop into a corner grocery and buy a small box of condoms and lament that a couple of the three will surely expire before I get another opportunity to use them.
Back at Vacherie I peer in and it is quiet—the active seniors are still on tour. There is a different lady bartender and a guy taking over her shift. I order a Tom Collins and it is brilliant. And I learn that the bar and the hotel are run separately, that they are owned separately. I soften my criticism of the St. Marie based on my previous experience at Vacherie. The hotel has worked well for us; and after a succession of midnight Lucky Dogs, those toilets can really take a punch.
So, I have found the venue for my date. I ask to reserve the table but am told they cannot; I am not use to being denied and remind myself that they do not know Troy. But Tom graciously shows me adjacent areas where, if needed or in case of active seniors, I can find privacy for an illicit rendezvous. Private rooms in bars and restaurants seem to be hallmark of New Orleans.
An hour later I return to Vacherie and I find the barroom deserted except for Tom the bartender.
“Wow,” he comments, “you are back at exactly the time you said.”
I nod and say, “I know.”
“And you got your table.”
I order a Tom Collins and start playing on my cell phone. Graham warned before I left to expect my date to be late and dirty; but neither is true. What arrives is a far better flesh than I could manage without throwing a few dollars at it. At my tiny little table against the wall we order drinks and I have a million questions: “Why do you do this job?” “How do you like it?” “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to do?” “Are you on drugs?” “Do you have any kids?” “Have you ever been arrested?” “Do you have any diseases?” “Are you worried about syphilis or HIV?” “Are you going to bash my head in and steal my Rolex?”
Everyone loves a hooker with a heart of gold; but in the end, my date turned out to be just an ordinary hooker. And it is exactly what I bargained for.
On the way down the elevator I notice Tim checking his pockets, then produces a bag of weed. He neatly rolls it up and tucks it away.
“I’ll buy a bud from you,” I offer.
He folds marijuana into one of my non-scented handkerchiefs and I slip him another $20, just one more unnecessary expenditure from my entertainment budget. But what is a budget in New Orleans anyway? The whole city is designed to separate visitors from their money. And the hooker money would have been spent on alcohol, strippers, antique cufflinks, or a painting from Jackson Square.
Graham’s eyes light up when I tell him I bought pot. But after examination he labels it Mexican dirt weed and it winds up in the trash. Okay Lady Mary. I tried.
In this era of hydroponics, sanctioned marijuana farms, and hybrid strains, I did not think that dirt weed still exists. But I thought wrong. Apparently it exists in the French Quarter.
As darkness enshrouds the Quarter, surfaces glisten by street light and moon light, reflecting vibrant colors and palpable energy off windows, cars, and puddles. The atmosphere is alive and I am invigorated. The scent of 26-year-old prostitute lingers and I am ready to cut loose, ready to get Bourbon faced on shit street.
As we search for a descent dinner, I lead us to the far corner of the Quarter toward Louisiana Pizza Kitchen—site of the gruesome 1996 massacre when four employees were shot, three execution-style in the walk-in cooler. But, like all restaurants in the Vieux Carre, a line streams out the door.
But serendipitously we discover the best Italian food in New Orleans. At the quaint and elegant Italian Barrel, my Porcini & Truffle Ravioli with a glass of Cabernet is just what a Quarter weary tourist needs for repair and relaxation.
Our best meals have been served on white linen and, while old fashioned or cliché in other cities, I recognize how tablecloths are a qualifier in third world environs like New Orleans.
We are a spectacle everywhere we go and we collect members of an entourage in each bar—special guests on our show. And as the night wears on, I peel off layers of repressed depravity like a snake shedding skin.
Carousing the Vieux Carré has many incarnations; one minute it is opulent and the next you are crawling out of a fetid gutter.
Graham announces, “You sure where an active senior last night!”
But I do not have time nor interest in an itemization of drunken antics. I must get my bags packed for the airport.
As the limo passes Bourbon I look out at Rex’s corner though it is too early for him to be vending franks. Then I recall that he has a speaking part role a movie and I wonder if it films today.
With all the remakes and crap that Hollywood churns out, why has A Confederacy of Dunces not been made a movie? I heard that Tinsel Town insiders consider the project to be cursed. Attempts to bring Confederacy to the silver screen starring John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley all ended in the deaths of the actors. John Waters aspired to an adaptation starring Divine but she died. John Goodman expressed interest in the roll but his career died. Will Ferrell was cast for the part then Katrina happened. Philip Seymour Hoffman was to play Ignatius, but he also passed away. And there are rumors of Zach Galifianakis taking on the role.
Graham is interested in the book, but after the first page he surrenders. He admits that the story about a fat, poor person would not hold his interest. Funny, as this vacation ends, those are exactly the two adjectives that I apply to myself—fat and poor.
As we hurry to the gate from the airport bar the attendant yells, “Graham and Troy?”
“Oh my God, hurry. Run!” As he took our boarding passes he reaffirmed, “Four seconds, guys. You just made it.”
Two stand-by passengers’, paperwork and luggage in hand, jaws dropped. They were four seconds away from the wild blue yonder.
As I take my seat the plane is already pushing back from the Jetway. Graham is a few rows up, wedged between Ignatius and Myrna Minkoff. I can understand why he hates to fly; his 8-foot frame does not fit the seats. I am also wedged between two passengers, feeling claustrophobic, the comingling of coffee and toilet water fills the cabin. I do not even have room to open my laptop without bumping the neighboring passengers so it is a missed opportunity to work on my narrative. But I am grateful for securing the last seat.
Hemingway once said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” And I enjoyed my opportunities to sit and write. What a life Tennessee Williams must have had, a celebrity author drawing inspiration from the French Quarter. I realize that chronicling my visit has been one of my more personal writings. I dipped my pen into that soupy gutter of feelings to reveal intimate details about my life. I wonder what Lisa would have said, if she would find this attempt to be progressive.
As the curtain closes on another episode of the Graham and Troy show I consider what I have already written and what remains to be said. Our trip to New Orleans is exactly what was expected—a typical journey of shenanigans and debauchery.
A confederacy is an alliance, connotatively formed for illicit purposes; and our alliance for this holiday is fashioned of sampling the various and plenty French Quarter vices.
Before my trip an executive with my company praised the Eat 4 Your Blood Type Diet and even sent the book. What better time, feeling particularly fat and poor, to start a new diet? And our blood testing kits arrived while I was away. Eager to begin, I follow the directions and prick my finger.
My result is “90 Proof”.
Stocking up on salad and turkey at my local grocer, things I can have on my diet, I run into my glamorous friend Wendy. She is with her trainer Cody and stocking up on healthy meal choices also. We kiss.
“Troy,” she comments, “you are so impeccably dressed. As I always say, you are the quintessential southern gentleman.”
“Thank you, my dear. But I just got back from New Orleans, and you would retract that statement if you had witnessed my shenanigans.”
She laughed. “Then I won’t even ask.”