Paxton carries a bent photograph of her in his wallet that he will produce with no provocation. Sylvia. He loves her tremendously and righteously and will, over drinks that he buys for strangers, quote the lyrics of songs that are applicable to their doomed love.
This is how Paxton spends his time, banking off a self-imposed $300 a day allowance of mysterious origins and commiserating with locals at a dive bar on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. He ordered us doubles of our choice, but what the ‘tender pours more closely resembles a quadruple.
“Y’all count funny around here,” I say. He smiles, adds a splash of soda, and hands the booze over. My guy attempts to pay for the drinks, but Paxton refuses. He is, perhaps, the loneliest man in New Orleans, and two drinks are his thanks for an hour of conversation.
This kind of perpetual give and take fuels New Orleans so much that even the legacy waiters – the ones who have decades of service engrained in their hands – offer calling cards to their favorite customers. Everyone in the French Quarter counts on the transient permanence of people wandering in and out but always coming back.
My guy and I do just that, returning year after year to see the same sights in an entirely different way. It hits me the moment I enter the Quarter: A beautifully blurry meeting of cultures, where elaborate ironwork balconies rest atop dirty drinking establishments and centuries-old restaurants.
Bike bells compete with jazz notes for attention as you walk down Royal. This is my favorite street in the Quarter. The Monteleone rises at the far end with faded black letters dropping down the side of the hotel. Our first cocktail of the day comes from its Carousel Bar. We start early, of course. We laugh as we order drinks, light daytime drinks that have more fizz than punch, because the hour is still before noon. Half of the Quarter has already felt our footprints since dawn, so the drinks feel earned.
I like to wake with the Quarter. Even after three hours of sleep I will prowl the streets with the rising sun. There are few people out. Just the cooks in their striped pants and aprons or the men hosing down the sidewalks. They all smile as we walk past, greet us warmly as if they know us, and then return to their whistling, hosing, and work. Occasionally we find a line at Café Du Monde. We may head to the back then, where the waiters will take orders and bring your beignets in a small steaming bag.
There is no donut that can rival a beignet. Its fried, crispy exterior gives way to a chewy inside that tastes lightly of vanilla. The powdered sugar is heaped with a heavy hand so that it is impossible to not make a mess. I suspect that water is provided at the table for washing as opposed to drinking.
And still, even after rinsing and daubing, my fingers leave powdery prints on my drink glass at the Carousel Bar, which revolves like a dying merry-go-round. Fifteen minutes gives us one spin around the room. If I drink enough, the room will spin on its own. But somewhere before enough, there’s a pocket of just right, where the spice of my Pimm’s Cup and the bar revolutions meet in a blissful haze that makes me wonder.
I carry it with me down Royal. There is garlic and brine in the air as we walk past the Royal Oyster House. During the day, we may stop for fried alligator. A left turn takes us to Rue Bourbon, the foulest street in all of the Quarter. Deceptively sweet booze shots are hawked in doorways starting around noon on most days and giant signs proclaiming “Huge Ass Beers” and “The world’s strongest drink” lure passersby.
For every bar there is a different band. And for every band, there is a man who is not in the band but still stands in the club with a steel washboard strapped to his chest and spoons over his thumbs. He adds a zipping, rattling raucous, somehow making every song, even those without an accordion, sound vaguely like zydeco.
I would never suggest looking too closely on Bourbon. Decades of grime and smoke cake the bar walls. Palmetto bugs congregate in corners. In between it all, however, there are small, stunning respites, a holdover from the Spanish influence of the past. They always surprise me. Even the dankest bar can hide a lush courtyard behind it, complete with a wishing well fountain, wrought iron fencing, and, like at the Court of Two Sisters, a ceiling of twisted vines and leaves so old and so thick it keeps the courtyard in a state of uninterrupted dimness.
We’ll spend a few hours on Bourbon, starting in the light and returning again after dark. When the crowds become too thick, we will follow Orleans Street back to Royal. We’re looking for something more quiet now, more moody and dark and suited to the evening.
The back of the St. Louis Cathedral marks our turn toward Pirate’s Alley. We stumbled on it once by chance, which is how most people find it, and now follow its cobblestones to Absinthe House.
The sazerac is the “official” cocktail of Louisiana, a drink built off rye whiskey and the lightest coating of absinthe. This is my dinner drink. But for late nights I prefer a full absinthe. I admit, it is partly the ritual of absinthe that I love. I ask the bartender to see the bottles she keeps in the back and order for us. My guy leaves this to me; he knows how much I like to participate in this drink preparation.
She pours two ounces of absinthe into a glass then starts the water drip. A slow swirl begins as the oils separate, circling the glass, clouding it, then changing the liquid from murky green to milky. Three ounces of water, slowly dripped, no sugar, and our drinks are ready. We take them to the courtyard where we can watch the wind.
Tennessee Williams wrote that an hour in New Orleans isn’t just an hour but a drop of eternity. As we continue our trek down Royal Street, it feels like we do, in fact, have an eternal night before us. There are lights on the balconies over us. The faint glow illuminates sprawling greenery of palms, elephant ears, and wild hibiscus. Galleries are open late for wanderers like us. They welcome us with walking glasses of wine and theories on art. Sometimes we buy, other times we walk away with a new friend to call on. But always, we keep walking.
Eventually Royal Street runs into Frenchmen Street at the very outskirts of the Quarter and the start of the Marigny neighborhood. This street is decidedly more funky, home to many of the people we meet in the Quarter. It’s all artists and music without the touristy callouts of Bourbon Street and we eventually make our way into a red-tinged bar that doubles as a laundromat. Paxton is there, seemingly waiting for us. So we sit. We talk. And slowly, we are absorbed into New Orleans.