RTC Travelogue: New Orleans, Part IIPosted by jstevrtc on April 4th, 2011
RTC’s John Stevens covered the Southeast Regional in New Orleans last weekend, and wrote a travelogue about his time in the Big Easy. Part one of his adventures, if you missed them, can be found here. Part II is being published during the national championship game…to minimize potential readers. When last we left the story, he was in the French Quarter on the middle Saturday, and had just found a spot to watch the Kentucky vs Ohio State game.
Having attended concerts, visited friends, and been to basketball and football games (don’t judge me) in both Lexington and Columbus, I know both towns well and therefore found myself adored by both pockets of fans at Storyville as we all watched the UK vs OSU game (and I chowed on an unreal hot sausage po’-boy). While chatting, I had given an OSU fan one of my extremely handsome RTC business cards, and as he passed it around, it became evident that supporters of both sides had heard of us. One of them even quoted me from a post I had published, not knowing I was the author. That earned him a free beer on the RTC expense account (which doesn’t exist).
Despite my lack of affiliation to either side, when William Buford’s last-second three missed and the Kentucky victory was sealed, I was carried around the bar by the UK supporters who assumed that because they had won I was going to write all kinds of great things about them on the site. When I let it be known that I was in New Orleans to cover the Southeast Regional and would not be writing about the East, the love affair was over. Seriously, what an I idiot I can be sometimes. But I will say here that they were all incredibly friendly and did nothing to dispel the observation that Kentucky fans live and die by and root for their team more passionately than any other fan base out there. And I’ll give credit to the Buckeye fans for taking the loss rather well. In their minds, it was football season the moment Buford’s shot bounced off the rim. But they didn’t carry me around at any point or buy me free Abitas.
The games over, I wandered out to see what the rest of Bourbon Street had to offer. There’s no way I can describe the prevailing spirit of merriment and lawlessness, so you’ll have to go there yourself at some point if you haven’t been. As you can tell, I highly recommend it. And don’t think that you need to go during Mardi Gras. Bourbon Street and the rest of the French Quarter will be happy to accomodate you at any time. A few places down the street I was engulfed by a bachelorette party and forced inside a bar that, to this day, I couldn’t find again if my life depended on it. It was at that point that the aliens — in the form of several more Abitas, a Hurricane, something called a Hand Grenade, and a couple more walkabout Newcastles — took me away.
* * * * *
Upon returning to my hotel — how I got back there, I had no idea — I evidently decided to watch a little Masterpiece Theatre, because I woke on Saturday morning laying diagonally across the bed with the remote in my hand, aimed at a television blaring the local PBS affiliate. With the slowest head-turn ever, I saw that the bedside clock read 8:50 AM, leaving me ten minutes to get downstairs to the lobby and take advantage of the free breakfast promised me by the hotel. On a normal day I would never have used such an option, but the first thing I wanted as soon as my eyes opened — besides a gun — was a very large omelette. You see, most people think that the key to hangover eradication is to drink as much water as you can after getting up. This is incorrect. You should do that BEFORE you go to sleep. After awakening, you need water, but what you need more is grease and caffeine, assuming you don’t choose to go exercise for about an hour (this will work, but shockingly most people don’t go that route). Two years ago, in a total impromptu change of my diet I made for health reasons and with absolutely no advice from a physician, I swore off soft drinks and decided I would consume as little caffeine as possible. I hadn’t had any in almost a year.
The lobby was full of people in similar condition. The made-to-order omelette guy couldn’t fill his orders quickly enough and had apparently been going at it for two hours straight. I am not ashamed to admit that I devoured two omelettes filled with one of every possible filler item and as many cheeses as he had, and downed about four glasses of orange juice. I even kept my sunglasses on the entire time. It didn’t help. I decided that the third jewel in the trifecta of post-awakening hangover curation — more sleep — was the correct prescription. I had several hours until Butler vs Florida, so no danger there. I walked up to the front desk, ripped a sheet of paper from the notepad sitting in front of the clerk, and responded to his bright and sunny, “Good morning, sir! May I help you??” by scrawling the following on the paper and sliding it to him:
“No housekeeping. Wake up call, two hours. If no answer, consider paramedics.”
He looked at me with disbelief after reading it. I tapped the note and added with a whisper, “I’m not kidding,” and repaired to my room, every cell in my body begging for some semblence of caffeine.
The wake up call came perfectly as ordered and I woke up enshrouded by my blankets but with immediate improvement. With many more neurons in my brain now firing, I began trying to piece the previous night together. I had fourteen texts on my phone and had sent twenty. I found a cab receipt. I suddenly remembered taking over the dance floor with many members from that bachelorette party — this never happens, though I am the best dancer you’ve ever seen — and many of the members of the wedding party had texted me their phone numbers and sent me Facebook friend requests. I had some text messages in French, and had sent half as many in that language, so evidently I had spoken it last night with some native female New Orleanians even though I’ve never studied French in my life. The photos on my cell phone helped jog my memory on that encounter. I recalled sitting in an Irish pub called the Erin Rose and striking up a conversation with a guy in a chef’s outfit who had just finished catering a banquet, and I grilled him (pardon that) for an hour with what were, at the time, honest and truly concerned questions about how I can cook passable Cajun food at home (this will never happen). I remembered speaking with a couple of gentlemen from a Middle-Eastern nation that is currently percolating with the possibility of revolution, and somehow convinced them that the overthrow would succeed only if they bought more rounds for yet another bachelorette party that had taken over half the place, which they did while singing their national anthem. I slowly began to also recall persuading a fellow who wanted to meet as many women as he possibly could on that night that the best thing he could do to get the attention of every attractive girl in the place — and win $20 from me — was to go up onto the little stage where the band was playing, stick out his chest and place his hands on his hips in a proud pose like a conquering hero, look off into the distance…and urinate on himself. He did so, which got him no attention from anyone at all except the band’s guitarist, who pushed him politely off the stage and back to his seat beside me at the bar. I ponied up the $20 and he used it to by me a Hurricane. At the time I thought he was being nice and doing me a favor, but it turned out to be revenge, the weasel.
The greatest alarm was when I listened to my voicemails and remembred that an insanely beautiful girl who SAID she was a Florida cheerleader had accepted my proposal of marriage. After exmaining my cell phone pictures, I didn’t regret asking her, but I hastily pulled up my bank account online to make sure there were no transactions at any local jewelry stores (there weren’t, thank God). I haven’t heard from her since, so I don’t know if she’s going to hold me to it. I’ve decided to let this play out and, if she or her mother starts e-mailing me or calling with china pattern suggestions or queries about possible venues, I’ll deal with it then.
Eventually I caved on the caffeine situation. I knew the only way I was going to get from my current 75% status back to full strength and fully eradicate what the Quarter had done to me — note how I deflect the blame outwardly — was to order up a nice steaming pot of coffee. Room Service had it in my anxious little hands within minutes, and after consuming half of it I immediately felt as giddy as Kelvin Sampson with an Unlimited Calls and Texts plan. I regret nothing. I probably wouldn’t have caved, though, if not for a voicemail I received while sleeping from a friend that morning. He called me a sad cliche’, but then added, “I like how po’-boys, hot sausage, fries, loaded omelettes, muffalettas, and a night in the French Quarter all fit into this clean-living righteousness of yours — but caffeine doesn’t. Real nice.” I erased it. He was obviously wrong. I hadn’t yet had a muffaletta.
After a shower and a shave it was like I had never even been on Bourbon Street, and I still had a lot of time before the game. I made good on my promise to hit up one of those Warehouse District restaurants I had passed by on Thursday, and the one with the sweetest aromas on Saturday was a Cuban restaurant called Liborio. I had heard that New Orleans did Cuban food even better than Cubans do it, and the smells coming from that doorway again on Saturday gave me no cause to doubt. They set me up with the Lechon Asado, or Cuban-Roasted Pork. I also got a yuca (I’d been wanting to try one of these for a long time, and it was excellent), black beans and rice, and the whole thing was smothered in Mojo Garlic Sauce. Ridiculous.
As I continued the walk to the media hotel, I saw something that made me want to punch a collection of strangers. There’s a lot of construction going on in the Warehouse District, both on the roads and some of the buildings. It has absolutely nothing to do with Hurricane Katrina. As I ambled (a stomach full of Cuban goodness tends to slow one down) past one of the buildings being worked on, six ladies ranging in age from around 16 to 60 were discussing whether or not they were looking at a Katrina-damaged building. They didn’t know anything about the building, and didn’t seem to care about what was inside of it. They bugged a couple of the construction workers, asking them, “Was this a Katrina building? Sir? Oh, SIRRR…really, is this all Katrina damage?” The workers just blew them off without an answer, but the ladies convinced themselves that they were now part of the tragedy. They decided amongst themselves that they were indeed standing beside a piece of the surreal story of New Orleans in 2005. Wanting to preserve this moment of fake history, probably so they could dine out on the story back wherever they were from and tell everyone how much horror they saw and “how much work really still needs to be done down there!” they sent one of the girls across the street to take a photo, and the others posed with sad eyes, pursed lips, and folded hands beside the building. This was their great statement, their New Orleans catharsis. I imagine New Orleans still gets a lot of people like this. I’m sure there are scads of tourists who make the trip to this town to get crazy, then take a photo by a construction site, either thinking they’re witnessing part of the “reconstruction” of New Orleans or wanting their friends back home to think that’s what it is when they show their friends the photo. Friends, New Orleans does not need or desire anyone’s fake pity.
I didn’t have time to berate them, and didn’t really have the right since I was a tourist there, myself. There was basketball to watch.
* * * * *
I’ve written often on this site about something everyone already knows, and that’s the glory of Gus Johnson. I won’t get into that again here, except to say how cool it was to sit behind the CBS broadcast team, because even though Gus was sitting in front of me I could still hear most of what he was saying, meaning I got to watch the game while hearing Gus’ LIVE call. As I watched that amazing Butler vs Florida game, I continuously examined Brad Stevens. The guys from Sports Science should put a Holter monitor on that guy. I bet his heart rate never gets above 100. I was compelled, though, by watching him interact with his players. During huddles or individual teaching moments in games, and remembering every interview I’ve ever seen of him, I noticed how Stevens genuinely seems to like his players. At the same time, the players obviously acknowledge him as an authority figure. Stevens is only 33, so he should have no problem relating to his guys in either manner. During a game, you watch and you see him as an authority. Then he does a flying chest bump with his players and you think, “Oh, he really is more of a friend to them than a coach.” Is it possible to do both? History has shown that both methods can lead to success, though the all-time wins list is filled with names that fit the authoritarian mold more than the best-friend one. But I wonder what kinds of relationships legends like Knight and Krzyzewski and Smith and Rupp had with their players when they were only, say, 11 years older than the kids they were coaching? More important and more interesting to me, though, is the issue of liking your players. I think every coach recruits kids they think they’ll like as people, but those relationships sometimes deteriorate, which is no surprise. Listen to Stevens talk about his players, though, and the man speaks in such glowing terms about all of his kids. Either he’s a great actor, or he really feels that way, and I’m going with the latter. When I interviewed Stevens last summer, I asked him to define The Butler Way. He gave a fair answer, and admitted he was unable to define it entirely, though he was still confident that he knew what it was and it guided him as a coach and a person, almost as if it were an instinct. In terms of basketball, part of it is that they recruit kids who have had success at the high school level, kids who “know how to win,” since winning itself is a skill. If I ever speak with him again, I’ll have to ask him – or any coach – if it’s easier or harder to coach kids who you genuinely like as people, and if it entails a greater chance of success. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Stevens admit that it’s part of his very coaching/recruiting philosophy, because he talks about his players like he’s talking about his own sons.
After the game I shuttled back to the hotel – my hotel, since the man driving the shuttle agreed to take me the few extra blocks to where I was staying, a courtesy he was under no obligation to provide – I told the driver, an incredibly friendly and informative fellow named Omar, about the group of ladies I saw taking that photo by the non-Katrina damaged building in the Warehouse District and how it got to me. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, you see some of that. I’ve gotten used to it. That’s part of our past, but it’s not us anymore. Plus, all of the damage was down to the Ninth Ward, over to East New Orleans. That’s where it was real bad. And yeah, I don’t want to turn this into some racial thing, but it happened to be where most of the black people lived. There was damage downtown here, sure. There were beds flying out of hotel rooms twenty floors up. But all this down here has been pretty much rebuilt.”
I asked him if he was affected or if he had to evacuate, to which he replied, “Oh yeah, yeah, I live close to there but not down in the bowl where all the floods are worse. I was in the ‘Dome for two days until my boss took me and my kids in for a week, then I was able to get back down to my house and start cleaning it out. None of us were hurt but yeah, I helped some of my neighbors carry…carry out some folks, you know.”
He meant dead bodies. A few seconds of silence that felt like an hour passed, and I asked him, “So you stayed, and you got through it. How does one get through something like that? I can’t conceive of it. And if you tell me there’s not enough time on this bus ride to give me a full answer, I’ll understand.” I added with a laugh, “But I’m willing to sit here on the bus as long as long as it takes for you finish your answer.”
He smiled and said, “How did I get through? Like anyone would get through. They way we all got through. You find something you love, and you latch onto it. You let it get you through. Back then all I thought about was my kids and my job. I’ve worked for years at a couple of these hotels down here. I wash dishes in the kitchen, or drive this shuttle, I even work the front desk sometimes when someone takes off sick and they give me a blazer to put on. I can do about anything they need me to do. And after we got hit, I remember thinking that I have to keep going to work. Even if I didn’t have a place to sleep, I had to make sure my kids did and I knew I could not miss a workday. I wasn’t worried about getting fired. There was a feeling of, you just gotta do what you know. My kids and my job, that’s what I new best and loved the most. In that order. So I didn’t think about anything but those two things for about two weeks. I felt, we ALL felt, that if we just did what we did best for as long as it took, all that misery would just go. And now here we are. Some people chose the wrong things to latch onto. And a lot of them are either dead or in jail.”
That last comment puzzled me, so I asked, “How do you know what the right things are?”
“Like I said, that’s where you find out who you are. I chose to latch onto what I love. I’m still here. And it’s your instinct that tells you what you love. If you like to get an edge on people or take advantage, or be dishonest, that’s what you did. You were deceitful and you took what you could get because there were no laws here for a while. And if you got nailed, you paid the price, or you will later. Or you could find what you love, and hold onto it. It’s whatever your instinct tells you. That’ll get you through anything.”
Omar dropped me off, shook my hand, and – even though I felt bad for attempting – he would not even hear my offer of a gratuity for him going out of his way. I’m glad. I loved the conversation we had, and I felt strange sullying it with an exchange of money. It’s plainly evident that Omar knows more about the world and about people than I do, so I bet he understood, and forgave me.
It was still early by New Orleans standards, and it was Saturday night. I was long past feeling any effects from the previous night (seriously – grease, caffeine, nap), and after watching post-game coverage in my room for over an hour, I decided that, though I’d had enough of the French Quarter for this trip, I couldn’t let a Saturday night in New Orleans just slip by me. I walked outside with no destination in mind, and followed a combination of the sound of music, the din of people, and the smell of food down the road to a corner spot called the Howlin’ Wolf. This place considers itself the best venue for live rock and roll in the city, and the rock/ska band playing that evening would have done even the Mighty Mighty Bosstones proud. They even have a brass band play there every Sunday morning (exactly what you’d want after a hard night in the Quarter, right?). As the band closed a set, I took a seat at the bar and noticed that the red-headed bartender had a constant look of “Oh, my gosh! How did I get to be this hot? I never asked for this!” on her face. Every move she made and word she spoke made it look as if she were apologizing for hitting the genetic Powerball. When I was finally able to avert my eyes, I managed to bleat out an order for a bowl of alligator and chicken jambalaya and yet another smoked sausage sandwich. When she brought it, she also brought over some fries that I didn’t order. I told her I didn’t ask for them, and she informed me, “Right. But they’re on the house. Because you and I are going to split them. You have to have some, too, because then it’ll look like I’m just picking at your food and we’re just good friends sharing fries.” She giggled and added, “We’re good enough of friends to where we can do that, right? I don’t want to jump ahead too far in our relationship too fast, though.” If I had brought them, I would have given her the keys to my car at that point, let alone a few free french fries. By the way, it was my first time with both alligator and jambalaya, and it won’t be my last, though I imagine I’d have to get back to New Orleans in order to find anything that rivaled what the Howlin’ Wolf provided me. And this was in a live music venue, a place where the kitchen is a comparative afterthought.
My bartender picked at the fries every time she passed by, and she helped me continue my virtual tour of the Abita brewery, trying the ones I hadn’t tried while on Bourbon Street or didn’t remember trying (my favorites: Restoration and Jockamo IPA). When my sandwich was gone, the last Abita was drained, and the final french fry had been pilfered, I took my leave of the Howlin’ Wolf, but not before my favorite New Orleans redhead joked with me that I should return tomorrow around dinner time because that’s about the time she’d be getting hungry. And she said everything with that bone marrow-melting drawl that combined the Queen’s English with Louisiana Cajun, an accent that would have made Bob Knight blush. I told her I doubted that she’d have a problem finding anyone to split a plate of french fries with her – or in my case, a house in the Hamptons, if she wanted – though what I really wished to say was, “Why don’t you pour yourself a beer to wash down those fries, then we’ll dance to a couple of ska tunes and maybe find a preacher?” It then occurred to me that, even though I’d never felt like getting married in my life, I had either proposed or considered proposing to two different women since I arrived in New Orleans. I needed the protection of my hotel room despite a friend texting me (he called while I was eating and heard some of my interactions with the bartender), “Dude! It’s 3-and-1, you’ve got a runner on third, and the pitcher just tipped what he’s going to throw. Time to swing for the second deck.” I had been in this spot many times before, though, so I sent one back saying, “Brother, she works for tips,” and waddled back to my room full of alligator, sausage, and Abita. I was asleep within seconds.
* * * * *
I had all of Sunday to myself, with only three things on the agenda, and even though applying for a job at the Howlin’ Wolf was not one of them, I thought about it. First, I had to change hotels, because changing my flight from Sunday to Monday and switching hotels actually saved money on Priceline (like I said before, there is no RTC expense account or sponsorship, so as we travel we have to save cash where we can). Second, I had to get settled in plenty of time because I wasn’t going to miss a second of Kansas vs VCU or Kentucky vs North Carolina. Before that, however, I had to check out a New Orleans institution that I was pretty much ordered to get to by no less than five of my friends and my sister. The Cafe Du Monde claims to be the Original French Market Coffee Stand, and a Sunday morning seemed to be the proper time for beignets and coffee, so I had put this off until the Sunday of my stay. It was another beautiful 80-degree walk to the edge of the French Quarter and, with two games to watch and my assignments finished, I was in a good mood. Even the half-hour line to get into the Cafe Du Monde couldn’t spoil it. This is the type of place in which, even though there’s a line to get in, when a spot opens up you better take it because the person behind you in line will try to slipstream you if they see an open table. It’s futile to try and describe the tastes of food over an internet connection, so I won’t try, just as I haven’t tried anywhere else in this travelogue, but I’ll let a photo once again do the talking for me:
When I’m in a city that’s new to me, I dig places like this where I can enjoy the chatter of a crowd while having a coffee and a snack, but most of all I’m still a sucker for a local paper. Plus, this was not a place for the ol’ laptop unless you want powdered sugar to get into it and eat away at your motherboard. I didn’t need electronics. In Fathers and Sons (my favorite book of all time), Ivan Turgenev wrote that “time often crawls like a snail and at other times flies like a bird, but a man is particulary blessed when he is completely oblivious to whether time’s passage is fast or slow.” With my cafe au lait, three begnets (just…wow), and my Times-Picayune, even though it was crammed with tourists, crying kids, and shopping bags, I spent 30 minutes in the Cafe Du Monde in exactly that state.
I was in my new hotel in plenty of time for the games, both of which I unsuccessfully predicted. My flight home was thankfully uneventful, though one of my stopovers was at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport, a place I landed about 12 hours after the Kentucky team that had just beaten UNC had landed, so I felt like the guy who comes onstage after twenty performances by the Beatles. Waiting for my next plane, I wondered about people who had been to or lived in New Orleans might read what I’d eventually write in this travelogue and think either, “You only went to touristy places, you don’t know that town,” or “You didn’t go to any of the places you’re supposed to go in New Orleans.” When traveling somewhere for the first time, I think one has to check out those “must-see” places to some extent, but you also want to have your trip, you want to learn about a place on your own terms. There’s no way to completely get the feel for a city like New Orleans in just a few days, so I used my instincts (and a couple of Twitter recommendations) to guide me to where I should go. Brad Stevens used his instincts when he inexplicably inserted Crishawn Hopkins into the Butler lineup with a few minutes left and his team down by ten, and that decision helped get his team to a Final Four and maybe even a national championship. Omar used his instincts to figure out what he loved most in the world and it got him through an indescribable two weeks of heartbreak and hardship. I don’t know if my instincts are as honed as those of those two gentlemen, but I used mine during my trip to New Orleans and I experienced a remarkable place, one that I hope to return to whether it’s basketball-related or not (the Final Four is there next year, you know). And if I experience something that makes me love it and want to learn more about it, then that’s always a worthwhile journey. I had my New Orleans. I will have more.
Oh, and as for that Florida cheerleader to whom I proposed – she wasn’t anywhere on the sideline when I looked over there on Saturday afternoon. Hmm. Maybe she was on the dance team.