Absinthe and Chicory: Sixteen Hours in New Orleans

New Orleans, LA: March, 2017

“No strippers” I said again, and Derek, in charge of the planning and more bashful than most when it pertains to the indecorous, was immensely relieved. Carter on the other hand flashed a wry smile, the facial equivalent of air quotes and repeated, “gotcha. No strippers.”

“We mean it, Carter. No.” said Derek, seriously enough to reinforce the point.

A bachelor party in New Orleans was platitude enough without slippery poles and wasted money, and I was much more interested in visiting someplace interesting and having drinks with friends than an evening of fragile manhood. We only had sixteen hours in the city and presumably some of that would be spent sleeping, so each moment had to count and we weren’t about to allow Carter to take control of the planning stages.

It was March and sleet was falling in Cincinnati as Derek, my then-future brother-in-law Joe, and I departed early to pick up Carter in Mississippi. We watched the snow turn to rain and the rain turn to humidity as the first signs of spring unfurled from the spindly oaks just south of Birmingham. By the time we reached Mississippi, Derek’s car, a flashy two-door he bought new the previous fall, filled with the air conditioning unit’s maiden gust. I drove from Carter’s house southward, and as we arrived in the French Quarter, I was irritated that it took several minutes to wait for an opening in the constant sidewalk queue and pull into the valet. My pedestrian activism subsides when the seatbelt clicks.

Afternoon

New Orleans was bedlam by day, and the streets were already closed to traffic as we ventured out from the hotel in search of dinner. Things we saw during the short walk to a seafood place included: An Italian parade featuring red-white-and green painted gladiators along a street so narrow you could block it with outstretched arms provided you had a friend; discarded purple beads draped over a wrought iron fleur-de-lis like a scarf left over from Mardi Gras three weeks prior; schoolchildren encircling a bird-stained statue of Andrew Jackson; day drunks dropping half-full hand grenades.

Derek had preordained that he would buy our meal but I didn’t realize how much of a gesture this was until we arrived at the restaurant, our jeans clearly unmasking us as outside people. Despite this, t wait staff treated us like the rest, turning serving into a game of high stakes. Throughout the meal, our crew of four stood twenty feet away in the corner like antsy sprinters bent over starting blocks.  As soon as the slowest eater had finished with one course they were ready with the next, along with new silverware and a new napkin.  The attentiveness became stressful.  Were they judging us at how slow or fast we ate? Did they get together after their shift and tell hilarious stories about how long it took the guy in the blue shirt to finish his gumbo?

For God’s sake it’s just broth at this point! I’m sure one thought.  Slurp it and let’s go. Each time we glanced over, they were looking back reassuringly as if to say Alright now, chew, chew.  Good job, nice technique.  We’re here when you need us.

I thoroughly enjoyed my almond crusted tilapia, and the rest had finished their entrees and, familiar with the process by this point, we looked over like expectant puppies, ready for dessert.  But they didn’t move, and instead they kept looking back at us as if waiting for a cue.  The staff was prompt to the point of hovering for the entirety of the meal and now twenty minutes had past and they were all standing there staring at us, unwavering little half-smiles on their faces like a child waiting for the school photographer to click the shutter.  Then an idea came to me.

“Joe.”  I said, lips not moving as if I were a spy warning him there was someone behind him but not to turn around. “Finish your wine…”

Joe picked up his glass and took a small sip and set it back down.  He didn’t want it poured in the first place but now our desserts, and by extension our evening, counted on it.  He knew if he let it sit there we would spend the rest of our time in New Orleans at this restaurant surrounded by upside down chairs on tables and a faint smell of cleaning solution, doomed to miss out on the entire night of debauchery waiting on crème brulee.  He took one for the team and quaffed down his remaining Pinot and before that last drop hit his lips the team came to life, snatching our glasses and replacing them with bowls of flaming custard.  Derek tipped well, and this positive affirmation probably caused them to repeat this most excellent service on the next poor lot. We walked back to the hotel to regroup and pregame, allowing the sun to sink into the bayou.

Evening

During our short time back at the hotel, the street life had changed considerably – schoolchildren replaced by adult children, day drunks by evening drunks, sightseers by sororities and other sundry bons vivants. After representing the socioeconomic dredges at the restaurant, Bourbon Street delivered high speed cultural whiplash as we slid from rags to behavioral riches without changing clothes. We let Derek choose the first bar after planning and financing much of the night, and as such made our way to one of the many wallholes that serve drinks to go, including the famous Hand Grenade. To make the local favorite, clear and melon liquors are poured into a fluorescent green plastic cup that looks like the head of a bong coming out of the top of a Mario ghost, which is then transported to the hands of many a French Quarter stumbler. It is, from what I had heard, hangover fuel and not the tastiest drink in the city, but it was a local legend, Derek’s choice, and not at all bad.

My choice was a French style absinthe bar that served American absinthe, blending culture and revelry at a price high enough to keep the kitsch away. My one sojourn with real absinthe was the most crystal coherent drunk, as if the green fairy herself was prying open my eyes and whispering directions. Nothing U.S. sold had replicated the effect or had led to anything other than an early evening, but I do enjoy the taste in moderation and the atmosphere of a New Orleans absinthe bar would be worth the effort. The drinks were poured after we each selected one of the many brands on the menu, and the serving was a production in itself. The absinthe was poured into a fountain with four spigots, trickling downward when the latter turned, the semitransparent green liquid changing to the color and clarity a pre-tornadic stormcloud upon contact with a flaming sugar cube and a glass full of ice. The anise taste is mitigated by the other ingredients, but only just, and those who leave the black jelly beans in the bag would struggle through a sip. Joe, who was still nursing a Hand Grenade, tried a sip of Derek’s drink and nearly hit the ceiling.  Once his feet were back on the ground, it was his turn to choose our next destination.

Joe opted for a second trip to Tropical Isle, the place where they sell the Hand Grenades, and I was happy to comply as I had misplaced my cup somewhere at the absinthe bar and wanted a second chance at a souvenir. Instead of retracing steps, we visited one deeper into the French Quarter and walked away from Canal on either Bourbon Street or a lane parallel, my recollections muddied less by the concoction in hand than by the Quarter’s indistinguishable dissimilarity. Few buildings look alike, yet the variety prevents any one from standing out amongst the pastel and brick colonials with curved corners and dangling potted plants. Clinging to most structures were thin, iron-railed balconies with beams bent akimbo holding back single file crowds, who under dim, reflected lamps took on the colorful twilight of a Fauvist painting. Street level merrymakers and building height dwindled as we neared Marigny, until the street ahead was completely empty except for an old woman alone on a stoop. We gave a greeting but she looked past us as we turned around and ventured back into the fray.

Somewhere on this return trip, we misplaced Carter. The crowd was burgeoning and he was whisked away, though against his will this stunt was not. He had slowed his pace to take a call from a girl he knew from before, who had instead fallen asleep before they could meet, robbing Carter of his remaining phone battery and leaving him to wander the French Quarter with neither friend nor inamorata. Derek and I are used to Carter’s antics, and while I am often humored by the spectacle and the stories he brings, Derek quickly exasperates. He suggested we go to some bar that is known for fried alligator and let Carter figure out to go back to the hotel and wait. Joe wanted a third Hand Grenade and I, not yet knowing about Carter’s phone and romantic demises, tried a few more attempts at calling him. While making one such call I nearly had my legs knocked wonky by a man in a Rockets jersey being thrown from a doorway onto the pavement, his full beer exiting the cup in a counterclockwise semicircle like water from an Instagram model’s hair flip. Having had enough of the French Quarter for the night, we started back toward the hotel, hoping to intercept Carter like parents to a lost mall child. This too was cut short when we spotted him line dancing in a flash mob at some intersection, a group of several dozen turning in tandem to a Chainsmokers song. We pried him away and the night came to a swift conclusion.

Morning

7 AM on a Sunday morning in the French Quarter is a strange place to find oneself, a place likely seen by fewer than nearly any in the lower 48. I woke to a humid morning and left the hotel looking for beignets and chicory coffee. Shockingly lucid, I had no ill-effects from the previous night, a gift at any time but I especially appreciated the universe’s largesse on the heels of a twelve hour drive. I quickly discovered that if one was hungover, the short walk from the hotel to the bakery would do in even the most sure of stomach. Bourbon Street was a gently flowing stream, garbage wafting fore and aft like toy boats over a mixture of hose water and whatever party byproduct came out of people’s bodies the night before. Bored looking bar proprietors aimed pressure washers at every wall, sidewalk block, and raised surface on the street and the entire neighborhood smelled as if bleach and next morning beer were poured into an industrial grease trap. A group of old men sat outside the walk-up McDonald’s window and passed around a bottle of something whiskey colored while unwrapping sausage biscuits. One shouted something incomprehensible and accidentally made me step into the curbside exodus of ground gunk I had been fortunate enough to avoid until that moment.

Around one corner, two women who appeared in their early twenties were screaming and clawing at each other surrounded by a semicircle of at least a dozen engaged onlookers of all ages recording the fracas on their phones. One girl connected on a pretty solid blow and the crowd gasped. Neither the belligerents nor the audience looked as if they regularly participated in this kind of early morning event, but the language and intensity of their movements illustrated that the passion behind the punches was real. I walked one more block to pick up the breakfast, the return trip through the goopy fray all the more challenging with two paper bags of pastries and four coffees in a cup carrier.

The harsh, near mintiness of the chicory coffee and the powdery sweetness of the beignets complimented both each other and whomever decided they were New Orleans morning staples. The steam from each twisted together like a sailor’s hitch, filling the room with a balanced fragrance that replaced any memory I had of the walk to acquire them. Miraculously, no one in the group was having a rough morning, allowing the coffee to be savored rather than guzzled as a necessary step toward sentiency. It felt good to sit still for a moment, and I imagined what I would do if I had more time there, likely some non-drinking activities outside the French Quarter to start with, but the experience was everything I was hoping it would be, and not be – absinthe and friends, absence of hangovers. We packed while sipping and headed north, our whirlwind one-night trip complete before the coffee went cold.

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