Mid-way through a clean snap of tail from body, the spicy, garlicky juice of a freshly-boiled crawfish squirted directly in my eyeball.
That’s the risk that comes with attending a free-for-all, crawfish boil at 10pm on a Sunday night. But I happily rinsed out my eye in the bathroom and came back for more. My lips still burning from eating as much cajun-seasoned seafood as I could, straight off the plastic fold-out table in the middle of the dark, dive bar.
This was my last bit of New Orleans before my flight early in the morning, and I was not going to miss a minute. There was still Abita beer to drink, live music to listen to, and dancing to be done. The night was not over. Not in NEW ORLEANS.
When I arrived on Thursday night, (to surprise one of my best friends for her birthday), it was a straight shot from dropping off my bags to heading to the bars. It was a weeknight, but that just meant a normal amount of live music, and healthy amount of beer flowing. At least on Frenchmen Street.
And straight to the bars we went. Didn’t even change from my travel clothes – out in yoga pants and pink sneakers. Cutting it loose and dancing to a brass band performing “Killing Me Softly” just 60 minutes after wheels down (“Two times, two times!”). And, as one does, at one point we had the birthday girl on the stage with the MC while the crowd screamed on to celebrate her.
A tall, blue-eyed, muscular fellow with a baseball cap kept hanging around us. Not necessarily hitting on me. Just hanging around. Nearby. The whole time. Full on “Bidening” (please check out the episode of New Girl where they cover this). And it worked. I gave him my number. In my yoga pants. On a Thursday night. Here we go, NOLA.
The next morning we grabbed praline-stuffed beignets at Loretta’s. Best beignets that planet Earth has to offer. I had forgotten how much I needed powdered sugar in my life.
And as we sat for “coffee talk” with the host and hostess of the weekend (my friend’s boyfriend’s lovely parents) in the backyard of their beautiful New Orleans-style shotgun house…we learned about the architecture of the city. The history of the city. The paradoxes and complications of the city. Post-Katrina clean up. Reconstruction-era issues. Hidden treasure in buried privies. (yes, for real)
This was not the ghost tour “spiel” you hear on Bourbon Street. This was an intellectual, human, and empathetic view of an astounding city.
Now, I’m all for the tourist version of NOLA. I think everyone should experience Bourbon Street in all its glory. Catch a set at Preservation Hall. Down a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s.
But this. I knew this had the makings of a very different kind of weekend.
And since all great travel destinations center around food, the next main event was a lunch. We headed to St. Roch Market, a gorgeously decorated, hipster food court, accused of gentrifying the neighborhood, but offering unbelievably delicious local fare.
Now with full bellies and beers to go, we headed for a quick stop at the Mardi Gras Zone to peruse through beads and boas. Even bought a fleur-de-lis headband at a costume boutique. When in Rome.
And then we took a full 180 turn. Studio Be. One of the more sobering parts of the trip (in a good way), a warehouse art gallery displaying new and old graffiti, some from former housing projects. It captured a lot of the black experience in New Orleans, celebrated it, and forced you to try and comprehend the complexities of Katrina and its lingering aftermath. I remember being young when Katrina hit. I remember that George Bush did not care about black people. I remember that FEMA effed up. But living in Illinois as a teenager, tucked away in an upper-middle class suburb, I had no perspective. I felt lucky to see what I saw in this art space. I felt gratitude that art can do THAT. I highly encourage everyone to go.
But we were getting hangry. And our feet were tired. (No shame)
We knew we wanted to close the night at Bacchanal. A wine bar with food and live jazz. (Note: Bacchanal translates to “an occasion of wild and drunken revelry” – think Bacchus the god of wine ) And while our night was far more demure, the perfect weather, chilled rosé, and charcuterie board made for some merriment amongst friends.
My phone had died hours ago (a welcome unplug from the real world), and when we finally got home for the night, I saw texts from baseball cap Biden (the guy from the night before) expressing how much he’d wished we’d met up. Apparently his time in Crescent City had come to an end. He was heading home the next day. Sucks to be him.
Morning = more beignets. Loretta’s again.
And then we headed to the 9th Ward. Infamous for some of the more major levee breaks during the saga that was Katrina. Homes in the Lower 9th uprooted from the ground they were built on. Now empty lots. Many homes still surprisingly intact. Many homes rebuilt, by programs fronted by Brad Pitt, actually. It was humbling to walk the streets, some still not repaired, grass spitting up between cracks in the pavement.
We ventured to a nearby canal to checkout the water and wildlife. Seeing waterbirds and a small gator. This is all in the same city, 4 miles from Bourbon Street. Different world. But the same world, really.
Then on to another aspect of the city’s culture – the art museum. NOMA. They had quite the visually-stimulating exhibit on the fashion and influence of Alexander McQueen. There was modern art. Installations from contemporary Louisiana artists. And a gorgeous sculpture garden complete with trees dripping with Spanish moss (my favorite thing about the South).
After a sugar-free Red Bull, some takeout daiquiris, a shower and some makeup, we were ready to go out for dinner. We hit up a posh, farm to table-esque restaurant in the downtown area, called Peche. We had sweet and balanced cocktails, a whole fish, two dozen oysters, and of course dessert with a candle for the bday babe.
A fancy cocktail at the Roosevelt hotel sounded just right after dinner was over. We headed to their aptly-named Sazerac Bar for some specialty drinks including some with foamy egg whites – so you know they’re legit. And after our last frothy sip of such sophisticated beverages, we knew we needed to go to Bourbon.
A girl in the group had never been. And it wasn’t too late. Bourbon Street doesn’t really sleep.
On a whim we popped in a place, hearing “Cassanova” blaring from the sidewalk while the brass band killed it inside. And then, on to the next. We passed an unruly bar tucked away, but seemingly Spring Break embodied – complete with bouncers in life guard shirts. The Beach on Bourbon.
Birthday girl was into it. So we went. No complaints here. ; )
The dance floor was hilarious. Peak Bourbon at 1am on a Saturday night. Those who were still out knew how to party. As did we. The shot of whiskey probably wasn’t needed. The Bud Light was. But, the neon-colored test tube shot was absolutely unnecessary. Whoops.
Time was moving in a funny way. One minute it was 1. Next it was 5am. We figured some sleep probably couldn’t hurt.
And I had enough dance-offs to early 2000s hip-hop music for one night. So we headed home.
3 hours later we were up and at em. Okay, we were up. Not at em. We mosey’d our way to brunch around 2 or 3, got some Po Boys and Bloody Mary’s and crashed a bit for the afternoon.
One more stop before the big Boil. The Music Box. We got there around dusk, in time to catch a set and half from the performing bands. This place was a music lover’s (and likely stoner’s) haven – the venue itself was a mix of playable walls and huts – an infrastructure of instruments. The last act we saw had a puppet show element. Naturally.
And then it was time. Last hurrah of the trip.
Maple Leaf Bar. $10 per person. Crawfish boil. Everyone lines up along the long tables, waiting for the boil to get “dumped.” There’s a rush to eat as fast as you can, and grab your share before the person next to you does. I was warned about the locals. They might be cutthroat. Of course my spot was next to one. But I lucked out and got quite the gentleman, even offering me bits of potatoes and sausages in case I hadn’t gotten any.
I’ve never eaten such a messy Sunday supper. I’ve never eaten food straight off a table with strangers all around. I’ve never sucked out the meat of a crawfish, boiling hot amidst 30 other people.
I loved every freaking second of it. My friends caught me dancing while I ate. I couldn’t help it. A literal happy dance. My booty was shaking.
And as I wiped my face, grabbed a cold beer, and composed myself, I realized how much this weekend had changed me.
Everyone says a trip changes their life. I’ve been on such trips. They are usually abroad. Take my visit to Spain…or Italy…or Southeast Asia. It’s a true statement for all of those places.
But this short visit. This long weekend in N.O. It was a big Y.E.S.
Yes to mouth-watering food. Yes to spice in my life. Yes to taking risks. Yes to learning every day.
A song came out over the weekend that hit me hard. Drake’s “Nice for What” – ironically a New Orleans Bounce-influenced bop – and I think his lyrics sum it up perfectly:
“And you showin’ off, but it’s alright
It’s a short life”
New motto. New me. Comin atcha. Cleopatra.
As my bio says. I’m up. And still hustling. And now I’m back, baby.
Not even remotely rested, but wholly rejuvenated.