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Monday, 9 February 2009

Letter from New Orleans

Gay Bars, Dining, Wine, and Tits -- Without a Hat

By Andrew Hamilton, Junto Wine & Food Writer

New Orleans.

I've been trying to figure out what this wine business is all about. I've been pouring different vintages into different glasses, tasting them in an effort to sense the strawberries and the bananas and the oak. So far I haven't been able to taste anything buy wine alcohol, but I do get a little drunk, like right now for instance. I got a bottle of cheap Côtes du Rhône going. A young, robust vintage from the roasted côtes alongside the Rhône. It has a taste not unreminiscent of that of ... wine.

So my Panama hat is coming in the mail any day. I pungled up $250 for a superfino Montecristi to wear to Marseille this spring, and it's coming in two weeks according to my man in Nicaragua. Is there any place in California I can get this thing blocked if it's not right? Maybe Cable-Car Clothiers in San Francisco, per chance? Is $250 too much to pay for something they sell as a superfino on the Internet? I swear I'd buy one at Brooks Brothers, only Brooks Brothers don't sell such hats any more, and there aren't any hat stores, except the ones that sell baseball souveniers.

Yo, is New Orleans about puke on the sidewalk? Not so much after Katrina, maybe. First thing, I drug my boy onto the free ferry over to Algiers, which I believe is where the cops came out and stopped Katrina refugees from coming over the bridge. It was inauguration day, and when the ferry pulled in you could see this little fake slave village the people built on the outside the levee, and they were having an Obama party. Everyone was going down into there, all friendly-like, like New Orleans is supposed to biracially be, and they were playing saxaphones and electric keyboards down in there, and there were placards about the West African roots of the slaves, mostly sort of ignorant, but good hearted.

There was one poster explaining different words that might have been used for okra back there in Africa. I could have told them that the word for okra all over West Africa is 'goumbo,' no secret about it. You get to be my age, you learn to treasure these secrets to yourself.

Got a Haircut

We came to a barber shop after the party, and went inside and, surprise, I got a haircut. They talked in New Orleans accent patois, and my friend who lived in Vicksburg a while and got into gumbo cookery grilled the barber on cooking. They wanted to know what the Californians though of Obama, and they grudglingly allowed he might do better than the last guy. Barber was a white-haired ole guy, explained his gumbo secrets, told a dirty joke about a goat with his neck caught in barb-wire, and explained that he wouldn't eat possum ever since the cow died on his uncle's farm and when the kids went to look at it, and found three or four possums inside the cow.

Back up in tourist New Orleans, this was January, of course, we walked around, had the beignets mounded over with powdered sugar, had some good food, walked into a bar every now and then. Walked into one bar where the people were mellow and friendly but then my friend discovered a fish-bowl full of rubbers by the door and decided it was a gay bar and wanted to leave. Later that afternoon, I had to piss and went into a bar for the toilet, ordered a bourbon and water and looked up at the walls and there were these animated electronic placards of large throbbing penises all around.

I asked the bartender, who I noticed was wearing a frizzy purple fur vest and a necklace, is this a gay bar? And he said why, yes, it was. When I asked him, he explained the boundaries of the gay section, buy I was only thinking of a way to leave without seeming prejudiced against the queer life-style, and I didn't memorize anything.

We went to some famous new pork restaurant over in the warehouse district and it was pretty good. Not half so good as the next day, though, when we went to the Acme Oyster Bar for both lunch and dinner. Nothing fancy about those foods, just raw oysers and oyster dope you mixed up out of the condiments at the table. Oh, my, it was good.

What's left of New Orleans above flood line includes the French Quarter, which is where we were most of the time. We walked down Bourbon Street a bunch of times. Pretty tatty, although not enough vacationing Presbyterians had dropped by to leave puke on the street. I kept seeing these African masks from my own Africa home towns in the vooddoo stores. I'd go in and ask the shopgirls where they got the masks, because I used to have friends in the business, and they either didn't have a clue, or said it was some wholesaler in Ghana. They had fair copies from all over West Africa, but all they were using them as bait for the rubes.

Shaved Armpits

This guy I went with is about my age, bald with a frizz of white hair, a guy I used to work with, a kind of middle-American cornball whose wife is happy to let him travel on his own, and who gets a kick out of touristing. I went to France with him a few years back, and he marveled at the fact that the people didn't stink the way they're supposed to, and maybe the women even shaved their armpits.

So we're walking down Bourbon Street before it is even dark, and this babe about three feet away looks at him and pulls her shirt up and shows him her tits. This woman was unaffiliated with any bar or club, and I think she was just doing it because she thought that's what you're supposed to do when you go to Bourbon Street. She saw it on television, on 'Girls Gone Wild,' or something. Pretty tatty, as they say, but not unwelcome and no harm done. Nice tits, if the truth be known.

Never did walk down to see the drowned places. They were nearby, but I felt as if it would be getting off on someone else's misfortune, so didn't make it.

On the whole, New Orleans looks like a fairly convenable place, especially over the river in Algiers, but nowhere near as calm and clean as Philly. I'm thinking of motorcycling there next summer and cruising up through the other southern cities, only because the motorbike is easy on the gas and I can sleep on the ground, at least in the West. If I'm lucky I got another five to fifteen years before incapacity, and there might be a good American town to pass the five to fifteen years in.

Otherwise, I've been trying to work up an explanation of how there used to be a train station where you could take trains out of San Francisco. It's not coming together.

(Staff Writer Andrew Hamilton lives in northern California).