Almost on impulse, I revisited New Orleans for a dozen days this spring, and Joe joined me for a third of the time. It was my 12th visit and first in 25 years that was not for Mardi Gras. It was Joe’s seventh and first ever not during Carnival. I had seen New Orleans in summer and winter, but this was a first trip in the springtime. “The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la,” I must have been thinking, but was not taking into account that spring also means Spring Break—which meant crowds almost as crazy as during Mardi Gras.
In the course of 12 visits, I’ve stayed in just three different places, all just paces from one another—two on Bourbon Street, off Dumaine Street, and the other on Dumaine, off Bourbon. My first three stays were at the not-quite-grammatical Les Bon Maison (835 Bourbon Street); my next two and the current one, at Jay Tyburski’s Bourgoyne House, next door (839 Bourbon Street); and the other six, at Marc Anthoni and Cowboy Dave’s Bear Trap, which no longer exists (736 Dumaine). Three places, all off one intersection—made me think of my parents, who lived for 45 years in three different apartments in Woodside, Queens—two practically next door to each other and one around the corner, all facing Windmuller Park. I am truly their son.
I said almost on impulse, but this trip had actually been in mind for nearly three years. When my best friend Greg Klosek died in 2013, I promised myself a getaway once the probate of his will and work of the estate were completed, which they weren’t until this past December. This was meant mostly to be a rest-and-recovery trip, perhaps with some louche excitement on the side. Some people would check into Shady Pines: I went to the Big Easy. There would be events, to be sure, but this was not to be a time ‘crowded with incident.’ There would be time devoted to admiring the flowers in Jackson Square and spent sitting along Moon Walk, contemplating old man Mississippi River, sitting in the sun, and reading. There would be returns to familiar restaurants and shops and discovery of new ones. And there was, indeed, all of this and more, but there turned out to be two drawbacks as well, one annoying and one serious.
I got my first cellphone ever on the day before departure, once I learned that there were no longer phones in the guesthouse rooms, and pay phones are, of course, as scarce in N.O. as they are in N.Y.C. I learned to do many more things with it than I expected to, as I never got a WiFi signal in the French Quarter the entire time that I was there. I even paid a visit to the local Computer Geek (4409 Magazine Street, off Napoleon Avenue), uptown in the Garden District, to see if some damage might have been done when TSA at Kennedy Airport poked extensively around my laptop. Other than on the phone, I was not to have WiFi at all, except in Brian’s shop, and in two places in Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, in Kenner, on the morning of my departure. Much sadder, though, our older cat Sonyetka, once Greg’s cat, passed away while we were away, which certainly put a damper on our trip.
Back to lighter concerns, though, I have still never been to New Orleans when there wasn’t a parade: Fourth of July and Bastille Day, on my first visits; the Mardi Gras parades, of course, highlights of the majority of the visits; and this time, the Gay Easter Parade around the French Quarter, with the Krewes of Armeinius and Lords of Leather, the First Unitarian Universalist Church, the NO/AIDS Task Force’s Food for Friends program, queens, gay men, lesbians, leathermen, and Easter bunnies, on horse-or-mule-or-even-unicorn-drawn floats, accompanied by brass bands, marching past my door on Bourbon Street, tossing beads, candies, and other throws to the cheering crowd. My treasures were an LED string of beads, a rubber seahorse, a couple of silk flowers, and a lollypop, which I traded for a handkerchief adorned with a vodka company logo, for waving in a parade’s ‘second line.’ I saw a couple of familiar faces in the parade and met resident and visiting Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence beforehand. Apart from that, I also saw a couple of wedding party parades, with brass bands, and some bands parading by themselves.
I revisited the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (One Canal Street, at the River), which I first saw when it was new, and fell in love with the handsome white alligator, leucistic—lightly pigmented—and blue-eyed, rather than albino and red-eyed, all over again. Other highlights were the seahorses, the penguins, the new Great Maya Reef exhibit, the Amazon Rain Forest, and Parakeet Pointe, where people join the birds in a huge outdoor cage and get their attention with feeding sticks laden with bird food. I bought and wrote out postcards at the aquarium, which I expected to mail at the post office at Two Canal Street, which turned out to no longer be there. As street mailboxes are scarce, since Hurricane Katrina, my quest took me up Canal Street to St. Charles Avenue, to Poydras Street, with a left turn to Lafayette Square park at Maestri—rhymes with pastry—where the Federal Government Buildings are. As the post office is inside one of them, it meant removing shoes, belt, and anything else metallic, and passing through a metal detector, just as at the airport, to enter and mail my cards.
Two museums were on the agenda. The first was the Cabildo (701 Chartres Street), once the seat of the Spanish government in colonial New Orleans, and now the history museum, where portraits of Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and transgressive performer Adah Isaacs Menken particularly caught my eye—we also had our major tiff there: the men’s room has just one stall—TMI? We also paused at the neighboring St. Louis Cathedral (615 Père Antoine Alley), which abuts the Presbytère (751 Chartres Street), once the seat of the French government, and now the Mardi Gras Museum. The other museum that I visited was the old US Mint (400 Esplanade Avenue), where US coins, with the O mint mark, and Confederate coins were once minted, and now housing permanent jazz, numismatic, and other exhibits. On display were, in a temporary tribute to Louis Armstrong, his first cornet, his final trumpet and mouthpiece, photos, awards, and a 78 rpm record. I also saw Fats Domino’s white Steinway piano there.
We went to Le Petit Théatre du Vieux Carré (616 St. Peter Street) production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” with Actors’ Equity Association members in three of the four roles. The computer system was down, so we didn’t have printed tickets and couldn’t pay with a credit or debit card, and the manager offered to let us in for free, which did not agree to, and led us to seats in the last row of the tiny theater’s balcony, which was fine. While it was good to make re-acquaintance with Williams’ “memory play,” it was during intermission that we learned that our cat had died, so, needless to say, Act Two didn’t have our fullest attention. I was reminded of the old sick joke, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” Next on tap for Le Petit Théatre is Stephen Sondheim farce “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” running from May 20 through June 5 (www.LePetitTheatre.com).
A highlight of the almost-daily pilgrimages down to the river, for sitting and sunning, reading and people-watching, was seeing and listening to the woman on the upper deck of the Steamboat Natchez (docked at 600 Decatur Street) play the steam calliope, taking pictures of her in action and singing along with the familiar songs. Another musical venture was participating in Wednesday night Kafe Karaoke at Café Lafitte in Exile (901 Bourbon Street), co-hosted by our friend “X” (Gerald Vance) with "Cane" (Denny). I sang “Unchained Melody” in an unfamiliar arrangement, “I Am What I Am” to a very familiar track, and to Joe, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” our song, in the arrangement for which I own sheet music, and won a $25 bar tab for nearby Good Friends Bar (740 Dauphine Street), under the same management.
Favorite places where we ate included Eat New Orleans (900 Dumaine Street)—the crawfish bisque, the blackened catfish, the baked eggs de Provence!—formerly Quarter Scene Restaurant, a Williams hang-out, and 801 Royal (801 Royal Street)—the crawfish fritters—formerly a grocery store, and both a bit more than a block away from Bourgoyne House—I ran into Rita George, third Miss Fire Island, outside 801 Royal on my vacation’s final night; Italian restaurants Mona Lisa (1212 Royal Street) and Angeli (1141 Decatur Street); West African restaurant Bennachin—the Nsouki Alyse, chicken, shrimp, and cashews in brown gravy, over rice!—(also at 1212 Royal); “down-home Cajun-Creole style soul food” restaurant The Praline Connection (542 Frenchmen Street, in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, across the street from Faubourg Marigny Art & Books, the longtime LGBT bookshop)—the jambalaya!—and 24-hour diners Déjà Vu bar and grill (400 Dauphine Street) and Clover Grill (900 Bourbon Street). We indulged in beignets, French doughnuts, fried and liberally powdered with confectioners’ sugar, at Café Beignet (334B Royal Street) and the all-night Café du Monde (800 Decatur Street), and no-less-sugary pralines at Praline Connection and from Rouse’s Market (701 Royal Street, corner of St. Peter), formerly the 24-hour A&P. We inevitably hung out at the leather bar the Phoenix (941 Elysian Fields Avenue), which now also houses a leather shop, up the street from where Stella and Stanley Kowalski ostensibly lived (632 Elysian Fields). Bars in New Orleans, remember, stay open for 24 hours a day.
We bought hats at Meyer the Hatter (120 St. Charles Avenue, off Canal Street), where Joe found the perfect green dress chapeau for next St. Patrick’s Day, and Wicked New Orleans, formerly Gargoyles (1201 Decatur Street), where I bought a black derby and Joe bought fedoras in black and white. I bought t-shirts at gift shop Bourbon Pride (909 Bourbon Street), one, adorned with a fleur-de-lys, proclaiming me Papa Bear, and one for Sherri, with a map of Louisiana, proclaiming her one of the Lesbeaux. One day, Joe got his hair trimmed at Head Quarters for Hair Salon (906 Bourbon Street). I revisited five favorite bookshops—the aforementioned Faubourg Marigny Art & Books, Arcadian Books (714 Orleans Avenue), Beckham’s Books (228 Decatur Street), Dauphine Street Books (410 Dauphine Street, on the same block as Déjà Vu), and the Faulkner House (624 Pirate’s Alley), once William Faulkner’s home, and purchased a total of nine books, from three of them.
We’ll be back—stay tuned.