Friday, 9 September 2016

Stars & Hype - Available Now

First Time Notes On The American Deep South


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New Orleans, Part One

Newspapers read thus far: The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times (West Coast Edition), The Austin American-Statesman, the Goliad Advance-Guard, The Times-Picayune.

Someone said to me at some point prior to this trip that the Faubourg Marigny district is a burgeoning bohemian area. A little way east of the French Quarter in New Orleans, it’s home to artists, hipsters and the like, small pop-up bars and artisan shops. Still gritty and real, but only in its early stages of gentrification and so not tainted.

It doesn’t seem too gentrified at first glance though. People of dubious character (not a hipster to be seen) ramble along the steaming reach of St. Claude Avenue, others sprawled outside Hank’s where we go to buy beer, leaning against the brick walls in the shade – some with flea-bitten old dogs – drinking 40s out of brown paper bags eyeing everyone else from under low-brimmed hats and ratty hair.

A little earlier, the cab from the airport had dropped us off outside our temporary digs on Mandeville Street, just off St. Claude, a long thin stretch of concrete with tiny houses packed along its sides, an auto shop on the corner. We were met by Orly, a friend of the house’s owner, who led us down the narrow path next to the house, let us in the back door and gave us some tips on where to go, what to do. I asked him if the area is safe. He thought for a bit. Essentially said just be careful.

He left us to it and we lay on the bed under the fan and thought about what to do next, whether three in the afternoon was too early to do anything. We decided to go and buy food and so found an organic supermarket up the road down the back of a yoga studio, new age medical clinics off to the side, a hip haven amongst what seems to be a wasteland.

We go from there to Hank’s then back to the house.

I sit in the tiny back garden and sip on a can of Bud and smoke a cigarette, humid, rub my feet in the grass and wonder how this’ll all pan out. The yard is long and narrow, patchy grass and overgrown bushes on the side half hiding the rusty chainlink fence. There are a few small flower pots near the back door, flowers struggling in the heat, an old strand of fairy lights looping the rail by the steps like a translucent snake, too hot to move. The yards on either side are concrete, the one on the right with a ramshackle old shed, falling down, missing its door, most of its windows.

Despite the area’s seeming desolation however, we’re only a five minute walk from the top of Frenchmen Street, which runs parallel to Mandeville, south to the edge of the Quarter and is lined with myriad tiny bars, music of all strains booming out onto the sidewalks, people wandering about with plastic cups of beer smoking and laughing. Just a regular city street in a regular city late on a Friday afternoon except the street is exceptional and the city is N’Awlins, The Crescent City, The Big Easy, so it’s all different and ribald and loose, a permanent party except you’re always watching your back, no matter how far into the situation you push yourself.

Once we’ve eaten at the house, we find our way down there, navigating along St. Claude, missing the top of Frenchmen thinking it’d be a pulsating strip like Bourbon Street and so doubling back and stepping out of a seeming war zone – cracked grey pavement, roadworks, jackhammers blowing concrete dust into the thick air –  onto a leafy, tree-lined street with small, neat houses that eventually give way to one of the most famous music strips in the world. We feel at home immediately and see The Spotted Cat and go in and sit at the bar drinking bottles of Bud listening to Andy Forest play harmonica and a bit of guitar.

As I listen I look about and try and feel it, this famous venue I’ve known of for so long, the dancing cat mural on the back wall, the myriad bills tacked up behind the bar – I see an Australian five, a ten – the green walls and dark wood bar with the lip, so’s you have to reach across and down a little to pick up your beer. Two girls walk out and one stops to take a photo of Forest playing guitar on stage, but he snaps that they don’t even know his name so don’t take no photo, just throw a dollar in the bucket.

They slink off, a self-conscious laugh. We move off after a drink not long after, throw a dollar into the bucket, out the door into the fading sunshine, left and across the road, where to next? Wherever sounds good.

The night carries on in this fashion. Chance Bushmen’s Rhythm Stompers at Bamboulas, dusty rag-time, tap-dancin’ jazz ‘n’ jive; Higher Heights at Café Negril, all funk and groove, good for dancin’, good for swingin’.

We head down to the bottom of Frenchmen at one point and onto the start of Decatur which leads into the Quarter proper and find a tiny, dark hole in the wall where we grab two seats at the end of the bar, order beers and shots of Jack Daniels. The bartenders are switching shifts, the place is open 24 hours, the clutch of people down the front are regulars. The bartender getting off is shitfaced drunk. The one coming on is a jovial gay guy who ain’t takin’ the last guy’s shit, but you can tell they’re friends. They both joke with us and it’s a comfortable little place despite the dinge and dark, the noise and the smell. Feels comfortable. I sit out the front for a smoke, on a small wooden bench, and watch a few kids doing tricks on a skateboard outside the shop next door.

We walk back to Bamboulas and sit out the front at one of their two tables and smoke more cigarettes and drink cheap beer watching the tide of people wander past, listening to snatches of conversation wondering where people are from and where they’re going.

We head home reasonably early, via the night market, back up Frenchmen and along St. Claude, slightly oblivious to the danger – is there any danger? – past the Hi Ho Lounge which has people spilling out onto the street, past another small bar blasting out some decent heavy metal.

After dark, the bohemian element is obvious. It’s almost like during the day the area belongs to the downtrodden and broke, the hungry and desperate. Once the sun goes down however, the music starts and the temperature cools and people come out to play, a bit of money in their pocket, op-shop boots and long, slim cigarettes.

We keep walking, around the corner onto Mandeville and to the relative quiet of the back garden for another beer or two, more talk, where to next, tomorrow.


We sleep late. Eventually we rouse ourselves and I have a shower and then sit out the back in the shade for bit. It’s so quiet, still. The sun beats down, not a cloud in the sky and everything is trying to soak it in, let it accentuate its colour, but it’s almost like it can’t quite get there.

There’s a sense of gloom over this place. A sense of danger just under the surface. A sense of desperation. Perhaps a hangover from Katrina, a decade ago, perhaps just the normal daily feel of a poor neighbourhood that doesn’t deign to be anything other than it is. And so it feels gloomy, scary, somewhere we shouldn’t be. The feeling sits in the pit of my stomach, a dull object in my gut like I need to shit but can’t. That feeling of being out of one’s comfort zone, a long way out. I smoke more than I usually do.

We leave the house a bit before lunchtime and head back down Frenchmen, onto Decatur towards the French Quarter. Our surroundings gentrify and the feeling lifts a little. Soon we’re thrust into the Quarter itself, its own little city, twelve-odd square blocks of sin. A man drives slowly down Toulouse Street, leaning out his window shouting verses from the bible. We see him later down by the river, standing on a busy corner, shouting his bible verses. Not to anyone, just to everyone. One man trying to make a difference. Claire asks if I think he thinks he is making a difference. I shrug, maybe. We don’t see him again all weekend.

We wander around the Quarter for a few hours, just looking and watching. There’s a college football game on this evening, Florida State, The Gators, in town to play LSU and there are fans everywhere decked out in jerseys and t-shirts. Flags are flying, it’s a fierce rivalry but the feeling seems good. So the place is full, it heaves despite the early hour, expectation is in the air. We catch bits and pieces of the game later that night. Louisiana State win by a touchdown.

By then, we’re back on Frenchmen Street, but we spend the day exploring the Quarter. Even at one in the afternoon, Bourbon is teeming, college kids wandering about in packs with fishbowls and hand grenades, huge fluoro coloured drinks of god knows what clutched in tanned hands, male and female, some already stumbling and crooked, others well on their way. Bourbon smells like vomit and young exuberance gone stale and wan. Piss and the desperate remnants of last night. Stains the back of your throat.

No one gives two shits though and the bars encourage it and the drink flows and a normal Saturday afternoon on Bourbon Street carries on. The sound from countless horn sections booms from open doorways and floats up on the vague breeze enveloping the fern-laden balconies above. The music is high-octane, designed to move your feet and fill your glass.

We sit for a while in Congo Square, somewhere a bit quieter, over in Louis Armstrong Park. The grass is green and thick and I kick off my boots and look through the info pack I’ve been left at the information centre by the media people at the tourism bureau – maps, brochures, badges, a few passes to things. We throw most of it out, but keep the bits that interest us. We watch a few homeless guys wander past. We watch a tattooed and shirtless guy trying to land various flips on his skateboard as his girlfriend sits in the sun, bored. She claps when he lands something though.

We decide to head back into the Quarter and so duck back across Nth Rampart and onto Toulouse, down towards the river. We line up outside Café du Monde, famous for its beignets, but don’t actually get in. We stand and listen to a small trad jazz combo – sax, clarinet, drum, fiddle and guitar, with a self-conscious fiddler who sings but is embarrassed.

We wander the streets and generally get a feel for the place, its old-time influence, its party prevalence, countless voices from then and now bouncing back off old stone walls, a cacophony, buildings seemingly growing out of each other, a mass of architecture climbing up from the narrow streets. French doors open onto sagging balconies above our heads. Halloween decorations festoon across front porches and around ground floor windows.

Because of the football, we find a small bar serving fifty cent oysters which we have with Cajun calamari and some local beer for a few bucks before heading back to the house, have a shower and sleep for a while, smoke a cigarette in the long, overgrown yard prior to heading back out to wherever the fancy takes us. Who knows? Not us, by no means.

We end up, after dark, in the lounge at the Hotel Monteleone which has a revolving carousel bar. It’s fancy and we order cocktails. I try not to get distracted by the football being shown on a dozen screens around the room. Claire’s heard about this place, and so we come here to seek out a bit of the opulence prevalent in parts of the Quarter and I order a sazerac because it’d be remiss of me not to given where we are.

From there we wander back to Frenchmen’s where we bar hop a little before ending up at our table outside Bamboulas, drinking and watching, listening to the BackBone Blues Band and then the Johnny Mastro Band, just soaking it all up, finally finding our feet in a city known for knocking one down.

I go inside for a beer at one point and come out in a bit and Claire has been befriended by a newly married couple from somewhere in Wisconsin who have been drinking for a few hours and so the four of us spend a couple more hours talking and watching and swapping stories and the like and it’s harmless enough for sure.

I switch to gin at some point before deciding bourbon is more appropriate and perhaps I’m talking to myself at this point, but everyone else seems to be in the same mindset and so we carry on, swapping stories, listening and watching the constant ebb and flow of human flotsam up and down the narrow sidewalks, cigarette butts in the puddle off the curb, the smell from the bins across the street mixing with weed, tobacco, stale beer and sweat in a city that doesn’t sleep, even when hungover, which one gets the impression is most every day.

They tell us stories of life in Wisconsin, and we ask questions and drinks are spilt on the rickety table. I can’t remember their names.

The foot traffic swells, a band finishes at DBAs so the pavement is full. A new one starts at a joint down the street a bit so traffic wanes. On the road itself, cab after cab passes by slowly, dodging pedestrians who should be dodging cars but are just rambling into the street to the place across the road, flicking cigarette butts and yelling to friends over the way, or up on one of the balconies above their own heads.

It’s a good time vibe, there’s no malice anywhere, just a general feeling of drunken bonhomie and friendship. People bump into you and say sorry quickly, a smile and off they go, into the night looking for God knows what. A Norwegian (so he says) man stops and starts talking and the Wisconsin woman rolls her eyes and lights another of her menthol cigarettes, and this guy tries to sell us small bottles of a homemade hangover cure he says can’t fail. We take a bottle so’s he’ll leave, throw it in Claire’s handbag.

I find it, weeks later, when we’re home and I don’t even read the label before throwing it in the bin.

Eventually, I call it and we wander home again and sit outside once more and then pack our bags as we’re moving into the Quarter tomorrow. We fall asleep a little more easily, the dull feeling in my gut not as urgent as before.

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$AU 20.00 (+$AU 5.00 Postage)

American / European Customers Only
The title is available from Amazon in your home territory

(Kindle, iPad, etc)

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