“Remove all metal items. Empty your pockets.”
As I patted my pockets, I felt the comfortable bulge of my flip wallet, but in a moment of sheer panic I realized that my other pocket was empty. That was because there wasn’t a cell phone in it. That was because my cell phone was in the middle console in Ross’s car.
This was either very fortuitous because I was attending a bachelor party or a cataclysmal event that could tear the very fabric of reality to shreds because the bachelor party was in New Orleans. I was nervous about the prospect of going off the grid in a city of questionable moral standing like Nawlins, but with most of my friends averaging the size of an NFL linebacker, I felt fairly certain that if I purchased a child leash and attached myself to one of them, I would make it home safely at the end of the trip.
Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is about half an hour from downtown New Orleans, and the drive made the surrounding areas seem like the suburbs of every other major US city I’ve visited; worn-down neighborhoods, strip malls, billboards advertising DUI attorneys. As we approached the city however, things changed, and in a drastic way I’d never seen before. Most cities have something unique that welcomes travelers coming into town; some feature that is unique and showcases the city. Pittsburgh has an amazing skyline. Cleveland has a Great Lake. Hollywood has a mountain with its name on it. As we bore down on New Orleans, what stood out to me was that on either side of I-10 on the ride into town, you saw cemeteries. They stood out because they were full of mausoleums.
Just like the drinks, dying isn’t cheap in the Big Easy. But I suppose that’s part of the cost of living in a city below sea level.
We arrived at the Westin downtown unscathed, sans a hefty Taxi cab bill. After checking in and finding my room on the 24th floor, I set my bag down and, like the tourist I am, desperately wanted to see my view for the next few days. Having never been to New Orleans, I had no idea where we were staying in relation to anything in town. I pulled back my blinds and was greeted with a panoramic view that was magnificent.
Now that I knew I was only a few hundred yards from the Mississippi, I was comforted knowing if I got lost, I could just float down-river back to my hotel.
Traveling with a bunch of big guys who hadn’t eaten all day, everyone wanted to seek out some food. Like a pack of wild hyenas, we were on the hunt. Now, let me preface things with this: once we left the safety of the hotel and the touristy things in the immediate vicinity and ventured out into real New Orleans, everything looked like a dive. I’m from the rust belt, so this concept isn’t lost on me. Some of the best wings in the United States are in places that have ‘tetanus shot’ listed as an appetizer. But when you’re in a big city like New Orleans with block after block of dives, it’s hard to discern between the bars and restaurants that are dives because it’s trendy and the dinginess is now a part of the culture of that specific place, and the ones that are dives because they indulge the seedier patrons of town.
Fortunately for us, our friend/tour guide survived his undergrad at Tulane, so we immediately went to the first of many palate-pleasing meals at a place called Mother’s. [Insert mom joke here] When I walked in, I knew exactly what I wanted: jambalaya. Not my traditional sodium-packed box of Zataran’s from a Wal-Mart shelf. I wanted authentic, New Orleans jambalaya. That’s exactly what I got, and let me tell you, it was worth every penny and painstakingly long bowel movement thereafter. I can’t tell you what places in New Orleans do to their food to make it taste more delicious, but there is definitely something about it that separates it from food I’ve eaten elsewhere. Every meal was either delicious in a unique way (jambalaya, gumbo, po boys) or flat out better than food I’ve had elsewhere (the burger at Port of Call is the best burger I’ve had to date). In fact, after all the meals I had in New Orleans (we ate out for all of them, obviously), there was only one that left me underwhelmed, which was breakfast at The Camellia Grill.
Day two was highlighted by my favorite part of the trip, a New Orleans Zephyrs baseball game in our own box suite. The Zephyrs are the Tripe-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins, and I actually had a chance to watch former Erie Seawolf Jacob Turner pitch, as the Detroit Tigers shipped him to Miami in a deadline deal this season. The bachelor and one of our good friends who came were both exceptional baseball players growing up, and both of them played at the University of North Carolina, so I always enjoy getting to sit down and talk about the game with them.
After watching a baseball game as a king with eight other friends, I’ll never be able to watch one at a stadium the same ever again, sitting with all those simple yokels. We had all the hot dogs, burgers, chili and chips our little hearts could desire, an air conditioned box (a wonderful commodity in New Orleans), and fantastic outside seating along the third baseline.
That night we went out to Bourbon Street. I had been preparing myself mentally to bear witness to anything for the previous few weeks. Babies double fisting mixed drinks, homeless people eating their own feces, dogs birthing cats. I was ready for whatever weirdness New Orleans’s degenerates and their decadence could throw at me. We stopped in a place called Tropical Isle and my buddy told me there was a drink there that I had to try. It was called a hand grenade and it was a staple of the Big Easy. I asked why it was called a hand grenade. He smiled, and returned with this:
While I feel the food in New Orleans is priced reasonably (i.e. you will pay $9 for a bowl of jambalaya or a sandwich, but you leave the meal satisfied), the drinks are probably under-priced. One or two adult beverages in New Orleans goes a long way.
So as we’re talking of the day’s shenanigans, our friend left to go to the bathroom. When he returned, he had a panicked look on his face. I asked him if he was okay. He said no. He said he couldn’t believe what he saw in the bathroom and that I should go check it out. Understanding that someone who has seen something that frightened him in a bathroom in New Orleans may have seen a wide range of weird or awful things, I was concerned. But curious. Eventually my curiosity outweighed my fear of the unknown and off I went.
I hesitantly walked through the bar, turned the corner down the hallway, and began my approach to the men’s room. I took a deep breath at the door, bracing myself for what I was sure would burn the corneas right out of my eyes, reached for the door, and paused to make sure that I really wanted to see what was on the other side.
In that moment of hesitation, the door opened. What stood on the other side closely resembled this:
My heart skipped a beat and there was a moment as I stood at the bathroom door staring at the devil, him staring at me, where I thought to myself, “I hope I’m not dead on the floor in front of a bathroom in New Orleans and that’s why the devil is here greeting me.” Yes, the gateway to the 9th Circle of Hell, I discovered, was in a bar in New Orleans. The devil could see the panic in my eyes as I stood there slack-jawed at the men’s room, and with a cunning grin, he walked down the hallway and out the door.
At this point I was too panicked to actually use the bathroom, so after checking my pulse, I walked back with that same dumbfounded look my friend had. He started laughing and asked, “Was he in there?”
“The guy in the red suit with horns?” I said. ”He was on his way out on my way in.”
The food and drinks of New Orleans were fantastic. The city is steeped in a rich history that provides plenty of opportunities for things to do during the day, and obviously Bourbon Street offers a wide variety of activities at night.
And while this trip overall was one of the more enjoyable and entertaining trips I have ever experienced, my favorite part was getting to see all my friends together. As we get married, get promotions, and start families as we approach and pass the thirty year marks of our lives, we have fewer and fewer opportunities to get together like this anymore. I’ve learned to appreciate the time that I have with my friends, because I know it’s a nonrenewable resource and I want to make sure that I don’t take it for granted.
New Orleans was a fun city. But it was only fun because of the people I went with. I know that when I see them in a few weeks or months or years, I have one more memory to share, and some great friends to share it with.