Opposites In New Orleans

If I’m going to be stuck at home for the foreseeable future, I might as well tell you a little story. It was back when you could hop on a flight and only be anxious about crashing into an icy mountain or tumbling into the sea. Now, I’m worried about a plague, all alone, in front of a computer. Don’t call me a pessimist, but now that I’ve found the time to sit down and actually write this, you’ll be graced by the best thing to come out of this crisis.

Just after New Year’s, my girlfriend and I decided to take a trip to New Orleans. See, last summer, we both worked the same internship that in one way or another, provided us with unhealthy amounts of Southwest flight points. In our state of limitless possibility, a state I do miss, we decided, fuck it. Why not? Another kind of decision we grossly undervalue.

We leave the blistering cold of a Chicago January on a Friday afternoon and land safely. Friday night consisted of average New Orleans things: dinner at the Chartres House, a casual walk down Bourbon Street, a nightcap in a pub. Saturday morning we walked from the Marigny to Cafe Du Monde, and ate beignets in Jackson Square before visiting a plantation. Later that evening, we enjoyed a beautiful picnic in Audubon Park as the sun was falling through the willow trees. We were both absolutely overcome by how beautiful of a city New Orleans is. While incredible, these were our expectations for the trip. Jazz musicians on every corner, streets crowded with drunks, unique but quaint architecture… We intended on experiencing all of those things. We did not expect to encounter the personification of polar opposites.

On Sunday evening, we followed a tour through the French Quarter. The guide took his time detailing some of the horrific things that have happened in New Orleans; topics included vampires, serial killers, and black magic. Your regular stuff.

Afterwards, we found ourselves at a bar on Frenchman Street. Irish themed with punk accents. A long oak bar but walls plastered with rock imagery. The bar was fairly empty, so we hung out quietly and kept to ourselves. After a few drinks, the middle aged couple seated near us began a conversation. I don’t remember what it was about, something on TV. Naturally, we asked them where they were from, and vice versa. Turns out, they were visiting from Mount Prospect, a northern suburb of Chicago. As soon as they uttered those words, the bartender sprang over and told us he grew up in Mount Prospect. So we had ourselves a small Chicago reunion happening in a tiny bar in New Orleans.

For a while, we drank and talked with the couple and with Cookie, the bartender. His head was shaved, tattoos adorned his arms and neck, and he dressed in black. While the jazz bars were fun, we were looking for something different. Something a bit more out there. So we asked Cookie. He told us about a punk bar about 15 minutes away, so we said our goodbyes and took off.

After a few wrong turns through unlit back alleys, grassy paths leading to nowhere, we heard thumping sounds in the distance. Groups were huddled outside an anonymous black building, smoking cigarettes and talking. My girlfriend and I, we’re not punks. We’re not really anything. We dress without eccentricity. Just normal looking. But in this crowd, you’d pick us out like sore thumbs. We were the only ones without cool piercings or knee high combat boots, or shaved eyebrows. The door guy had a bone stuck through his nose and a face covered by ink. He was a nice guy, though. While checking out my ID, he kept asking me to pronounce my Irish middle name. Nice guy.

It’s dark inside. The place is entirely wood, but painted black. The bar is directly across from the door, and covered in sheet metal. Some parts are painted over. Otherwise, the place looks like an average pub. But there’s no music on. So we decide, fuck, it’s time to get the shot-beer-combo going. We’re from Chicago, out of place, out of town. It’s too quiet in here. Time to let go of inhibitions.

That’s when the music starts. Behind the bar, there’s a small back room. The stage is almost visible through one of the tiny doors, off the right side of the bar. The music is definitely audible. The guitar is thrashing. I haven’t ever heard music this loud. The drummer is pounding like he’s wielding Thor’s hammer. We can’t talk to each other. So we sit and watch from a distance. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve never been in a metal bar with a bunch of metal people before. But we were having a hell of a time. The energy was infectious. So we’re sitting there, bashing our heads, to the loudest music in the universe, enjoying our beers. This is fine. This is even fun. I could get used to this. We’re in a different town, a crazy eccentric one, and we’re doing something we usually don’t do. So yeah, it’s a good time.

My girlfriend eventually needs to use the washroom. She walks across the bar and I’m left alone. For what feels like an hour, I listen to the thrashing guitars and the pounding drums and sip my beer. This is fun, remember? But I’m tossed from my trance when my girlfriend rushes back, grabs my shoulders and tells us we have to go. This is never a good sign. Especially since she keeps looking back over her shoulder.

Back outside, the cigarette smokers are still crowding in the dozens and a haze is floating above us in the humid night. I light one too, to fit in just a little. Now that we’re safe, she explains.

“Okay, so I’m walking back from the bathroom, minding my own business. I see some black combat boots walk past. Not Doc Martens. A different kind. Fuck, I forget what they’re called. But the Clash used to have problems with them. So, you shouldn’t wear them, basically. And I look up, and this man is towered over me. No. No. He’s not doing anything. He’s just walking past. But as my eyes track up his body, I eventually get to his face. As you tend to. There’s a swastika tattooed on his forehead. Then, I look at all of his buddies. Their faces are branded too! That’s why I had to come get you and get us out of here.”

No arguing with that logic. That’s not somewhere I want to be.

We set back out, through the unknown neighborhood of thin streets and unlit grass pathways, away from the marked folks, fairly drunk and concerned.

“Let’s get back to the AirBNB. Regroup a little… It’s still early. Yeah. We can make a couple drinks. Head back out. Yeah. That’s perfect. Maybe eat a little food.”

The streets soon become filled with parked cars, the streetlights are back on overhead, the houses morph back from shacks. There are distant shouts still, distant music. I have noticed that there is always sound in New Orleans at this point. So here we are, marching down the street and the boulevard where our apartment resides comes into view. But hey, there’s a bar across the street. Why don’t we stop in there? It's kiddie corner from our place, it’s reasonable to grab one drink really quickly before going into brainstorm mode and figuring out the rest of our night.

Three men are standing on the corner, smoking cigarettes. They immediately warn us that the bar is closing and to come on over and hang out with them. I light up a cigarette and we get to talking. One of them is a Ukrainian immigrant, his accent is still thick. But they are welcoming, warm, and kind. They begin giving us advice. Which spots are all right, which places to stay away from with a ten foot pole. Like the bar across the street. Apparently, people get shanked there.

After ten minutes or so of shooting the shit, they invite us out with them. We quickly decided we would, since they were so nice and welcoming. Why not? We don’t have friends here. But only once we’d eaten.

Hours later, at the bar, they are each going through their phones, showing us pictures from their latest show. Turns out they are drag queens.

#NewOrleans #QuentinForberg #travel #coronavirus #punk #jazz #dragqueens