Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Zagats for Faggots: New Orleans continued…

In the last post, I mentioned most of the gay bars that I’m very familiar with, but there are a few other places of note (bars and otherwise) that should be mentioned before moving on.

If you continue away from the hullabaloo walking down Bourbon St., you come to an area where the streets go at different angles and don’t quite line up the same way after you cross Esplanade Ave. Welcome to the Marigny. This might be my favorite neighborhood. Close to the French Quarter, but still off the beaten path, this neighborhood has some beautiful houses and really cool little bars and shops. I like my bars, but if like anything more it is bookstores and you can find my favorite one here. Faubour Marigny Art and Books is at the corner of Frenchman and Chartres and it is that super small, super local kind of bookstore that is getting harder and harder to find. While you can find all kinds of books there, it also caters heavily to a gay clientele and I always find books there that I can’t find anywhere else. The fellow that runs the store is this charming gentleman Otis who is always ready to help you find a book, or talk literature or just about the neighborhood and New Orleans in general. I have a fantasy of Ben and I moving to New Orleans and taking over the bookstore when he retires. He told me when I visited there last time that there are a line of people eagerly eyeballing his location and at least one who regularly comes by and asks him if he’s ready to retire so he can snap up the location. Unfortunately none of the people seem remotely interested in keeping the site a bookstore. But let’s not think of endings; the store remains and the owner is far from retiring, though he did say he is going to start shutting down for a month or two in the summer and just hang out at the Country Club or travel.

The Country Club (634 Louisa St., between Royal and Chartres) is a place I am kicking myself for never discovering before my most recent trip. I’d heard of it, but never quite knew where it was and it is well out of the way if you are on foot (though truth be told, I did walk there from the Quarter and didn’t regret the ramble), so I hadn’t ventured there. This last trip my friend Nicole mentioned having heard of it and never having gone and the bookstore owner told me about it too, so I resolved to venture a little farther this time. It did not disappoint. It is in this kind of grand house in a quiet residential neighborhood. What make it unique aside from its location are two things: food and pool. In the front is a fairly nice restaurant. Nicole and I went and grabbed dinner there one night and I’ve got to say I was pleased with the food. In the back room there is a bar, and this was also fairly pleasant and I should say the bartender was attentive and super friendly. What makes this place popular in the summer is that it has a clothing optional pool out back. Now, I image this becomes quite an intense scene, particularly during the big celebrations, but I was there in January when an arctic cold front was running through and had dragged the temperatures down in the 20’s and lower so you would be correct in assuming it wasn’t hopping. But they had a hot tub and they had heated it up, so it seemed an appropriate escape from the cold. I went back one evening and snagged a glass of wine and headed back for a dip. It was just me (bare ass naked) and an older lady (in a frilly floral swim suit) for a while, though another guy did come join us after a while. While I not describing a rollicking party time, and it wasn’t, I really did have a super pleasant time chatting with those two and sitting beneath palm trees pretending it was warm and wondering if it might start snowing. I’d go back on a similarly empty night in a heartbeat, but I do want to go when it is livelier sometime. Another note, that while this is ostensibly a gay bar, at least on the slow nights I was there, a majority of the customers were straight. Just an observation.

As I was walking towards the Country Club, I passed a bar called Friendly Lounge (Chartres St at Marigny St). It is back in the Marigny and I’d passed it before and seen it advertised in Ambush. I had needed to pee since well back in the Quarter and still had quite a walk ahead so I decided to give it a try. The bartender has to buzz you in, but once inside I’ve got to say it lived up to its name. There were a couple of clumps of friends at either end of the bar and everyone was smiling and laughing and the bartender immediately introduced herself and started talking to me like we were old friends. I had a couple of drinks and felt guilty having a different destination in mind and leaving so quickly simply because the place was so welcoming and friendly. High on my list of places to revisit. It definitely seems to be a local place that tourists stumble into only occasionally.

Having said before that the straight end of Bourbon Street is filled with the worst kind of irritating tourists, it is worth pointing out that other neighborhoods have some pretty amazing bars and nightlife. These bars I tend to get taken to by friends so I don’t remember really well the names or even necessarily how to find them, but a couple of neighborhoods stand out. I’ve already mentioned the Marigny. The one fun straight bar I do remember the name of is there and is called DBA. I remember this 1) because there was a live band and people swing dancing and it was basically super awesome, and 2) because this is also the name of what seems to be a sister bar in New York of the same name, but the New York bar is so annoying my friend Michael and I speculated that the initials must stand for DoucheBagAlley. The one in NO, go to; in NY, avoid. There are also other cool bars in that proximity so is worth wandering around there.

The other neighborhood that is more local and cool and less tourist trap is around Magazine Street. Lot’s of hip little bars and stores and restaurants. I couldn’t name one off the top of my head but if you go to the general area it is easy great places and a welcome break from the French Quarter madness.

Before I wrap this up, it might be worth mentioning accommodations. I’ve tended to visit when I’ve had friends living there, so I’ve mostly couch surfed. This is, of course, always the best way to go. The one time I did have to find my own accommodations, I stayed at the India House Hostel (124 South Lopez St near Canal). I can’t say enough good things about the place. It is in midtown, away from the Quarter, but close to a cable car so getting there is easy enough. The place has a super friendly vibe and a little front porch and a big back yard. The rates were reasonable and they have shared and private rooms. I’d happily stay there again.

Oh, and a quick note on getting to the Big Easy. My family lives in Alabama, and my brother discovered that it is a quick and easy train ride from Birmingham to New Orleans, and pretty cheap, too. This is also true from Jackson or Memphis or Atlanta.

Please feel free to leave any suggestions of your own in the comments.

Friday, February 12, 2010

zagats for faggots: New Orleans edition

When not in Alaska, I pick up various odd jobs. One of the gigs which has come my way via the dazzle employment network is helping change out the window display in a 5th avenue store. Working late into the night during the last window change, we were discussing going out in different cities around the country and I found that I had something to say about the nightlife in every town we named, and after giving a detailed history of a gay bar in Honolulu, one of the guys commented, "What are you, like, Zagats for faggots?"

Which I, of course, thought was funny.

So why not collect some of that boozy expertise here. It would probably make sense to start with New York since I've lived there longer than anywhere else, but I was recently in New Orleans and Ben is down there visiting right now, so we're gonna start with the Big Easy.

The first time I went to New Orleans was for a school trip in high school. They took us there our first weekend at ASMS, and I didn't know anyone and was going to just wander around by myself. This would have suited me fine, I like wandering around by myself in new towns, but a guy who was afraid of walking around by himself asked me if I wanted to wander together. Our day was bland and uneventful. The guys who later became my best friends all travelled in a big group and seemingly had a blast. The take-away story from the trip and the only reason I still remember this trip was the comment made by this kind of sheltered red-neck fellow (who studdered when excited) when they wandered in a sex shop: "H-h-h-h-hey guys! L-l-look at this! A t-t-t-triple ripple v-v-v-v-vibrating butt plug with three rotating heads! I-I-I-I ain't never seen nothing like that!"

(The Golden Girls is playing in the background and makes staying focused difficult)

In general, Bourbon Street and the French Quarter is the first thing people think of when they think of New Orleans. I've got to admit, I kind of totally love Bourbon Street but it is kind of a different place for gay people and straight people. I say this because we tend to flock to different ends of the street. The straight end is the super touristy area. Strip clubs and bars and tourist trap stores, it is interesting to walk through on occasion but not really where you want to go out unless you are a drunk sorority girl with a feather boa or some d-bag dude on spring break. Really.

But at the corner of St. Ann's, something changes. The crowds thin out, at night is is just a little darker as soon you pass this corner. On either side of the street are the two big clubs, Bourbon Pub and Oz. Before I ever visited New Orleans, I had heard of Oz. People in other parts of the South talked about it as this awesome club, the coolest gay club they'd ever seen. Then you get there, and, eh. I've had fun there, but as a general rule it is usually pretty lame. The drinks aren't particularly cheap and the vibe is a little too clubby and too tourist. It is dead in the afternoon and at night there is usually a cover. Late at night the dance floor devolves into a cluster of muscle men seemingly drugged out and leaning against each other in a sweaty mass. The only time I've really enjoyed myself there is hanging out on the balconies outside and talking with people. It does have good balconies. I was met Christopher Rice there, when the person I was talking to turned out to be his friend. Mr. Rice seemed nice but a little flighty and kept going in and out and eventually took off his shoes and left them under my bench. He forgot them when he went to leave (when his limo arrived) I pointed this out to his friend and he thanked me. He also lost his wallet when it fell out of his pocket. I found it beneath a bench and returned it to him also, but having suddenly recovered two items that went missing, his friend looked at me like I was a pickpocket, though I don't know to what end he could have thought I stole and returned them.

Bourbon Pub is a little more likable. There is a downstairs bar that is open to the street. It is a reasonably pleasant place to have beer in the afternoon and gets lively at night. There is also an upstairs which can be fun. There are frequently shows in the upstairs area and you can see anything from a deliciously tragic drag show to live comedy (in my experience, just as tragic) to a sex show. Or sometimes it is just clubby, but the bar as a whole is more interesting than OZ.

Alone, any of these bars is kind of silly, but what makes the Quarter fun is that there is a dense concentration of then in close proximity. If one is boring, you pour your drink in a to-go cup and try another out. The best thing about New Orleans is wandering the streets and looking at the houses and people anyway. When bored with the two big clubs there are two directions to go.

If you take a right out of the Pub and walk up St. Ann's, Good Friends is on the left at the next corner (St. Ann's and Dauphine). I have nothing bad to say about this bar, but I have to admit that it isn't always my favorite place. It is friendly, and seems to attract a more local crowd, and it has drink specials and karaoke nights; which are all things that tend to make me like a bar. Still, it always seems harder to start a conversation in there unless there are a ton of tourists in town making it more lively. I imagine it would be plenty fun during Mardi Gras or Southern Decadence, but during an average week I tend to walk past it more times than not.

If you do keep walking past it, Rawhide is in the exact same spot on the next block (St. Ann's and Burgundy). Rawhide is exactly what you would expect it to be. It is pretty small and dark and kind of sketchy, but it's sketchiness is a friendly sort of fetishy, off-color sketchy. I've never been there when it was too crazy, though I'm told it can get pretty nuts on the right night. Almost every time I've been there it has been pretty dead, but people are usually friendly and the bartenders charming and gregarious. My favorite memory of time spent in New Orleans revolves around this bar. It was a hot summer day and I had been walking around in the sun all morning and gotten a bag of crawfish at the farmer's market which I ate sitting on a stoop and watching people walk by. I finish and start wandering and the sky goes dark and just completely opens up on my head. I'm soaked to the bone in a matter of seconds and the friend I am staying with is at work and I can't get in his house til he gets off work. To escape the rain, I duck into the Rawhide. It is the middle of the afternoon and I'm the only person in there except the bartender. When I say I'm completely soaked, I'm not exaggerating. I'm sitting shivering, so the bartender offers to try to dry my clothes for me. I can't remember if he hung them over a radiator or hung them over a stove, but I hand him my soaked clothes and sit in my (also wet) tightie whities and have a few drinks. The rain doesn't last very long, but it takes a while for things to dry out and I've got nowhere to be so I sit and talk to the bartender and the various people who drift in and out for a few hours. People who walk in seem a little surprised but mostly just amused. Eventually, he gives me my mostly dry clothes back and I head off to meet my friend, but thinking about that afternoon always makes me smile.

Burgundy Street is quieter than Bourbon Street, but there are several gay bars dotting it. If you step out of Rawhide and take a left, you will come to the Corner Pocket at the corner of St. Louis. There are a couple of other gay bars along the way, but they are kind of sketchy and not in the good way. New Orleans is crawling with grifters and hustlers and these other bars aren't places that I really have ever had a good experience with. Ben is down there now and tells me that to warn people against going to doubleplay after an experience of brazen thievery.

Now, if you do wander along and go to the Corner Pocket, you will find yourself wondering what kind of crowd is in these other bars if they are too sketchy for my taste. This is my point exactly. Be careful everywhere in New Orleans, at all times, but some places are sketchier than others. The Corner Pocket is a sort of fun trashiness. It is a gogo bar, with trailer park boys dancing on the bar in their underwear every night. Some nights are amateur nights or wet jock contests, but any night after nine there are almost naked boys dancing for dollars. On slow nights there are often more dancers than patrons, but the place can get really packed. It is of course a place you want to watch your back, but the biggest danger there is getting talked out of cash by hung twinks. They are running their own scam so more dangerous types are mostly kept away by the management. It tends to close earlier than other bars, so don't wander down there expecting it to be open after 2am (again, this may not be true during big events).

If you hadn't turned up St. Ann where it intersects with Bourbon but instead had continued down Bourbon, Lafitte's in Exile is on the next corner (Bourbon and Dumaine). This bar/club tends to be friendly and fun. I like going there for happy hour. Usually not too packed in the afternoon, it can get really lively. There is an upstairs section that isn't open during slower times, but all around this can be a pretty fun place. They claim to be the oldest gay bar in the U.S. Across the street is the Clover Grill, which is always open and has great food. It can get pretty packed at the end of the night.

Another block down is Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop (Bourbon and St. Philip). I've never quite gotten a straight answer on whether or not this is a proper gay bar. The crowd has always been mixed when I've been there and usually feels like it is more straight than gay. That said, it is a cute little piano bar and I've always liked it, though I usually think of it as a place to go with friends rather than a place to meet new people. They claim to be the oldest building in the country used as a bar. It really is charming place. I like getting fruity mixed drinks here in the afternoon.

I'm going to take a break here and continue this later. I've been too long-winded and this is taking forever and I need to escape the computer.