The rain is coming.
Sunday morning and early afternoon, taking my last jaunt through the French Quarter of New Orleans. I am here to enjoy and take in the Tales of the Cocktail, the annual spirit’s event held here since its inception in 2002. As a member of the Wilson Daniels team, we are now back in the craft spirits business, which makes it absolutely necessary that I attend.
I am here to enjoy and take in the Tales of the Cocktail.
I started my morning packing bags. At 10 a.m., I had the realization of caffeine deficiency. Coffee and beignets were required. I cut off the access band I have worn the past 4 days like a badge and a curse, and walked out of the Hotel Monteleone, heading south and east to the river. TOTC (or simply Tales), arguably the greatest spirits symposium in the United States, has now spread across the world on their Tales Tour, lastly making a stop in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro sold out with a line around the building.
In NOLA, it is 90 degrees by 11 a.m. Decatur Street is packed with tourists. Heat usually rises, but this morning, it descended upon my back and brow. I wiped my forehead with my shirt, which was not much use after a while. I thought of the crowd in Rio, waiting for the chance to see the historians of the hooch, a spectacle somewhat like the Cafe du Monde queue this morning. Hungry, sweating, and in one of my smarter moments, I opted to leave the line behind and backtrack away from the river. The humidity was creeping up; I was in need of something cold.
Heat usually rises, but this morning, it descended upon my back and brow.
On the corner of Dauphine and St. Ann is the bistro, Pere Antoine. A drink to go is just what the doctor ordered. The house punch—a mixture of rum, coconut, pineapple, and citrus—is just enough south without going to the Caribbean. Refreshed and revitalized, I headed down Bourbon Street to the New Orleans Musical Legends Park across from the Hotel Sonesta, one of the two hubs this year for the festival, and to Cafe Beignet, not as celebrated as du Monde, yet worth the lack of wait. The ambience here was more true of the Quarter. The park is outdoors and cooled by mist fans; the patio was half-empty. I sat and waited for my food to arrive. A delightful low-key jazz guitarist was playing both originals and covers of the Brazilian legend, Joao Gilberto. I couldn’t think of a better way to enjoy a beignet and cafe au lait.
Then, the rain.
If there is a thing to be said of the climate of New Orleans, it is the heat and humidity. “I hate it when it’s sticky” is a term that aptly describes a traditional day in NOLA, hence the inhabitants’ ability to look on the bright side and make light of the regional challenges. There are countless occurrences of yellow fever, dysentery, and pestilence wiping out large populations of the city during the 18th and 19th centuries. No wonder the old cemeteries have become a tourist attraction; the natives have endured and seen their mortality lose to the elements time and time again.
There was a trickle, then a deluge. My table, along with the one next to it, was protected by two large umbrellas. This was prime real estate. A young man, absolutely soaked, asked for cover and a seat at the table. I obliged. A sense of community, of sharing, comes naturally in this neck of the woods. This is the definition of Southern hospitality. To gain a respite from the elements, it is expected to take one in, out of the weather, and start a conversation. I found that he was from Biloxi, Mississippi, 15 years old, arrived with his uncle for the day and night to see Jay-Z and Beyonce play at the Superdome. I mentioned my daughter, around the same age, yet she with no appreciation for hip-hop or R&B. He was energetic, excited to see a large city for the first time. He had a barrage of questions, not to kill time, but to glean it. He requested a selfie. Again, I was happy to oblige. I told him to experience as much as he could, to see the world; for there is an awful lot of it, with very little time to take it all in. I bid him and his uncle good day, for I had a date with the dead.
A sense of community, of sharing, comes naturally in this neck of the woods.
Unfortunately, the rain.
Drenched, I made it as far as the corner of Bienville and Bourbon. Needing a break, I walked into the Old Absinthe House. This tavern, though not as old as Jean Lafittes’ down the road, has every bit the character and history. Much like the rest of Bourbon Street, early Sunday afternoon meant a relaxing shift from the night before. I ordered a Sazerac. Well-made, I struck up a chat with the bartender. My neighbor, a regular named Jerry, had three bags full of party gimmicks and favors ranging from horns to mini drums to a rather dirty devil’s fork with flashing lights. Jerry said he was Pocahontas. Every few minutes, he would dart into the street, tossing these items to passers-by. Rain continued to pummel the road; it rose, began to run as a river, overflowing the drains.
The bartender obviously liked me. Perhaps because I wasn’t a typical drinker, or that I didn’t try to run out on my tab like the group on the other side of the bar. She made me one of her recent favorites, a Monkey Gland. Made with gin, orange juice, grenadine, and a splash of absinthe with an absinthe rinse, it is a very dangerous cocktail. Sweet, spicy, and enough earth from the gin and absinthe make for a delicious beverage. There is a tradition of leaving one’s business card behind on the walls of this tavern. I left mine behind in a cluster of cards stuck in the door trim; they looked as if they could be a day or a decade old. The rain subsided. I asked for directions to the St. Louis #1 Cemetery, the oldest in the city. She said it was a 15 minute walk, but to be careful; the cemetery, located across the street from the Iberville projects, could be sketchy.
There is a tradition of leaving one’s business card behind on the walls of this tavern.
I like sketchy neighborhoods.
I left and went north and west, away from the river, to the high Quarter. Boarded-up doors and windows portray a different story to the energy of Bourbon Street just a few blocks away. It wasn’t long before I made it to the cemetery with its white wall enclosing the tombs within. The rain had picked up. Unfortunately, I was unable to enter. Due to vandalism and the graveyard tour business, general admission was from 9 a.m. until noon. Peeking in through the locked iron gate, I saw above-ground graves of all sizes and shapes. Single tombs and family tombs, both elaborate and plain, meant to portray remembrance and legacy. I felt angry that there are those who would desecrate and destroy; I sipped my Pimms’ Cup and found a moment of clarity. I came to realize there was no fear of people, or of the projects. Though there may be folk around the world willing to pay handsomely for artifacts, the air is too thick with the history of those still here to take it completely away.
There was only one place I needed to be, out of necessity for soul and body.
I picked up the pace; the rain would not let up. There was only one place I needed to be, out of necessity for soul and body. The Hotel Monteleone, birthplace of the Vieux Carre, and where my luggage was being stored (my hotel for the last four nights, absolutely awesome). It was fitting I end my stay in town here. I needed to dry out, and a dram to warm the soul. I walked into the Carousel Bar and grabbed a table by the window with a pair of high-back leather chairs. The Vieux Carre arrived quickly. Looking out the window, I realized the importance of the rain. Water or humidity is understood to cause heartache and destruction, especially when considering yellow fever or Hurricane Katrina…and the effects are still here. But, it also cleanses, wipes clean, and washes away the sweat and dirt of the night before.
Maybe that is why the people of New Orleans never complain about the rain.
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