Later, I’ll cover the train ride. I’ll talk about food and about music and the things that I will keep in an ornate box in my soul and the things that I will wake up in a cold sweat thinking about for years. I’ll cover the voodoo and the mafia hit and the Christmas trees on the ceiling and the gator sushi and the 7-foot-tall velvet vagina.
Later, I will talk about all of those things. But first, I want to talk about “The Guide”. First, I want to talk about magic.
We were saddled up at a bar called Sylvain. We’d heard good things about their sazerac’s so we walked a jagged line through the French Quarter in the failing light, jiving to the sounds of muffled jazz and nascent debauchery.
Mel and I were sitting in the cozy darkness of the bar, bopping our heads to the sound of jazz and pleasant conversation. Nipping on a happy hour sazerac, sweet, a little bitter, hint of fang to it and the room was dark and there were little candles burning languidly all along the bar. Two men came in while we were drinking and they plopped themselves down beside us, throwing a casual nod in our direction, like, I acknowledge your existence, but that will be the extent of our interaction unless something crazy happens. They initiated their own conversation that centered around people that only they knew and Mel and I did the same.
Something crazy happened.
The bartender ripped a strip of rind off the outside of a lemon, set the peeler atop a pile of fresh citrus on the bar in front of me and turned to finish the drink she was making. The peeler slid slowly down,
down, the pile of lemons, settled just above the gently flickering flame of one of the candles on the bar and promptly caught fire. Nothing wild. More of a guttering sputter than a flash and a whoomp, but enough to draw my eye.
“Oh shit,” I observed astutely, swatting at it.
The guys at the bar beside me turned, saw it too,
“Oh shit,” They concurred.
We patted out the flames, chuckling.
“Crazy,” we said, wordsmiths, all of us. But this led to introductions, started a conversation.
“You guys just visiting?” the man beside me asked. His name was John and he was a jolly, mustachioed man in his late 30’s. There was something twinkly in his eyes that had either come out of a bottle of whiskey or from a goodness in his soul.
“Yeah, we’re here for a week,” I said and he pounded at the bar, grinning.
“Yes, Fuck yes,” he said, “People always come here for the weekend and that’s not enough time to really see this city!”
John loved this city. He’d scrambled over every nook and cranny, into every back alley bar and upscale boutique and he’d come away with a desperate and feverish love that filled him all full of fuzzy fire and made him pound his fists in quiet bars. His friend Dave, nodded pleasantly beside him. Dave said he worked in the “film industry” which sounded even more porn-y when he didn’t explain what that meant. I don’t know what John did for a living. He didn’t talk about it because he was too busy mentioning everything good that New Orleans had to offer. He rattled off a dizzying list of places, bookstores, restaurants, bars, parks, that made it the best city on the planet.
“What have you done?” He asked, eyes twinkling in the flickering lights of the candles, “where have been so far?”
I was leaned towards him, twisted around on my stool, drawn to the vacuous gravity of his passion like a lesser moon in his orbit.
“I walked the waterfront,” I said, “There was a park, um,-” snapping my fingers, eyes searching my cheesecloth brain for the name of it.
“Crescent Park!” he said, head rocking emphatically on his shoulders, “fuck yeah, that place is amazing.”
“Yes!” I said, validated by this bastion of New Orleans magic. “Then I ended up in Bywater and I ate at the Bywater Bakery-”
“GODDAMMIT THAT PLACE IS SPECTACULAR.” His flat palm whapped at the bar top. People were looking at us, then. The bartenders watching with the detached intrigue of zoologists and service industry professionals.
“Where are you going next?” he asked.
“We’ve got some things on the list but we’re kinda winging it.” I said, but he was already fishing his phone out of his jeans.
“I’ve got a list,” he said, presenting his grease-smudged phone like an ancient idol there in the smoky darkness, and his eyes glowed wild and reverent and my breath caught in my throat and the smell of burning plastic and the sound of muffled jazz.
The Definitive Cultural Heritage Guide
66 dots scatter-gunned across a map of the greater New Orleans area. The description read:
Includes tangible culture (such as buildings, monuments, landscapes, books, works of art, and artifacts), intangible culture (such as folklore, traditions, language, and knowledge), and natural heritage (including culturally significant landscapes, and biodiversity).
And it was magic. It was a young lifetime’s worth of experience superimposed over a defined geographic area with cryptic little snippets of notes like: “weird bar” or “this place closed and y’all missed out and that’s fucked up”.
“Do you want this?” He asked, and oh sweet Jesus I wanted it. He leveled his sparkly gaze at me and he liked whatever he saw in there. Sincerity, maybe. A sincere appreciation for this thing he’d made. I spooled off my phone number and that map went pinging into my text messages and I promised him I’d use it and he said,
“Be good to this city.”
I swore I would.
“Please do,” he said, “ Because this city will be bad to you if it doesn’t like you.”
The bartender had floated back over to clear his empty glass and that last line set her head to nodding.
“It’s true,” she said. “I’ve met a few people that this city just did.not.like.”
“Birds will shit on you, you’ll fall down manhole covers,” Dave chimed in.
“But if you’re good to the city,” John said, “the city will be good to you.”
I absorbed this wholly. Took it as a law of nature the way a child does when you tell him about cracks in the sidewalk as they pertain to the structural integrity of his mother’s spine.
“This is a woojie city,” John said, standing to leave. He and Dave had dinner reservations at a restaurant on his list that had been labeled as “FQ brand new modern French Creole restaurant.” He knew where the chef had been working before that and what other chefs said about him and why there would be cockles on the menu.
“Be good to this city,” was his parting comment. As they shuffled to the door, the bartender said,
“How do you know that guy?”
I told her we didn’t really know him. Told her about the spontaneous combustion of a lemon peeler and the conversation that followed. A sly smile crept across her face as she scooped his check up off the bar.
“This city likes you,” she said.