I feel like shit when I arrive, neck stiff and head pounding, it's cold, raining and I can't find a cab. But still I'm excited, she's waiting, and though we've never met I know that it's going to be right.
She is New Orleans, and within two hours of arriving, a breakneck ride with a Haitian cabbie, yelling French into his cell phone, of checking into my musty smelling hotel room with it's tricky door lock, of venturing out into the first weekend of Mardi Gras, I am better; my head doesn't hurt any more and when I turn it, my neck pops all by itself. People pack Bourbon Street at 10 pm, the cold rain still falling, beers or cocktails in hand. I walk into a bar with a lit cigarette, possibly the last place in the First World where you can still do that, and order a shot of Maker's and an Abita Amber. "For here, or to go," the barkeep asks.
"Ummm, to go." I answer.
I down my shot on the sidewalk and walk away, beer in hand, cigarette still burning, happier by the minute, noting the music that pours out of every other doorway I pass. Kids in their twenties pass by with the thousand yard stare, stumbling, talking lounder than necessary, drunk off their asses. I'm an accomplished drinker from 7000 feet above sea level, I will not be cheap date here, I smile at them as I move from bar to bar just long enough for a beer and a look around.
At the corner of Bourbon and Dumaine is the Clover Grill, the sign claims that this is the world's best burger. I cannot resist challenging this claim and go inside after producing two bucks for the panhandler in front of the door. Inside, it's chaos, the tiny diner has only eleven stools along the counter and a handful of tables. I pick one of the stools (always, ALWAYS, sit at the counter in a joint like this) and begin looking over the menu, breakfast or dinner? The TV is on but muted, the jukebox is playing techno at max volume and the staff is all over the place. A note in the menu warns me that if I have not been been waited on within five minutes to wait five more, this ain't New York City. I relax a little more.
Eventually I place my order and sit back and watch the cook as he spins out the orders, omelets, waffles, burgers, fries, he's doing it all and doing it fast. The patties go onto the flat top and as soon as they get a good start he tosses an old hubcap over them. Bacon goes on, then blue cheese. Within a few minutes I am eating what might be the best burger I've ever had. The sign just might be right. I finish my fries and coffee and start back down Bourbon.
Another block and I find the Jean Lafitte Blacksmith Shop, one of the only French Quarter structures to survive two massive fires in the late 1700s, it once served as a front for the Lafitte brothers' illegal activities in the area. It now serves as a bar.
The music from the juke box pours into the street and I almost don't go in, not a big Toby Keith fan, but I do want to check it out and the song soon ends, so in I go. It is dark and close in the little building, the only lights are very dimly lit above the bar and the door to the women's room (three visits later and I still hadn't found the men's), the rest of the place is lit only by the candles on each mismatched table and the flames in the fireplace. Walking toward a table to sit down I am surprised to find that there is a baby grand piano in the back, folks sitting around the piano with their drinks on it as a woman who sounds like a cross between Lisa Simpson and Bobbie Gentry pounds and belts out their requests. I stay for a bit as a group of women come in and sit nearby, most of them are already drunk, two of them begin dancing and nearly take out a guy sitting at another table as the smaller of the two tries to dip the larger and doesn't quite pull it off.
Continuing down Bourbon, looking for Frenchman Street, I pass the last of the clubs and enter a stretch of residences, a white car slows beside me, matching my pace. The man driving rolls the window down and asks if I know where Esplanade Avenue is, I point to the large intersection ahead, "Yeah, I think that's it."
I find that I am right as a I cross Esplanade and begin looking for Frenchman Street. The white car comes from behind again.
"I thought you said Esplanade up there," he points ahead.
"It was, it's back there now."
"Perhaps you are lost, do you need a ride?" He actually does an eyebrow raise.
I can't help but chuckle as I decline the offer, "No, thanks, I'm cool."
He shrugs and drives off. I decide to head back to Bourbon Street and the crowds.
The rain is coming down hard as I make it back and the crowd has not thinned a bit. They still walk, like zombies, their eyes focused hard on their destinations, trying so hard not to look as drunk as they are. In truth, I am a bit drunk now too. Moving with the crowd across an intersection another white car stops in front of me. The window comes down and this time it is a woman, beautiful and the color of molasses. "Hey baby, want to party?"
Is this really happening? Of course I want to party, but I escape with the same line from before, "I'm cool."
Like hell I am.
I head to the hotel room and start to undress for bed. I look at the clock, two in the morning, I can hear the party still going strong half a block away. Screw this, it's Friday night, in New Orleans for shit's sake.
I get dressed and head back out into the rain and noise and spend the next few hours moving from bar to bar, metal here, Zydapunk there, across the street Southern rock.
If not in love, I'm certainly infatuated with my blind date.