This past weekend I went back to New Orleans for the first time in over five years. When I passed through Mobile and hit the I-10 going west, the landscape flattened, the air and the light changed. I could feel the nearness of the Gulf in my blood, and the nearness of my city.
I was there to attend a wedding, and therefore my time in the city would not be my own. I did not have the chance to steep myself into it the way I would have liked. It will take me a little time to decide how I felt about being back there, and how I felt about the changes.
I went back to the Avenue Pub and it was like walking into a new place altogether. It’s mostly a beer bar now, catering to an upscale crowd. On the first day of my visit they had scheduled a bourbon tasting for later in the evening. In my day a bourbon tasting would have consisted of a lined row of shots of Jim Beam. I saw a few familiar faces — Vickie, Beth, Eileen, and Karn — but otherwise it was a new place, with new people. That bar was my world, once. I owned it, and it owned me. Now I felt like a stranger.
I was received coolly by the new owner, who takes a dim view of the Pub’s earlier, grungier incarnation. Beth, who was a regular when I worked there but has since been hired as a bartender, introduced me to one of the new bartenders on duty, and told her I used to work there. This new bartender asked me what I’d like, without making eye contact. I told her I’d take a Guinness.
“We don’t have that anymore,” Beth said, apologetically.
“You can get that at any bar, so we don’t carry it now.”
Oh. Beth recommended another stout, which I tried and thought was all right. As the new bartender (whose name I can’t remember) placed it in front of me, I made some half-assed comment about how the place looked very clean. Trying to be friendly.
“Yeah, it’s really gone downhill,” she said. Still not deigning to look at me.
“Just the opposite,” I said.
“I was being sarcastic.”
“Yeah. So was I.”
I spent the next few days trying, when I could, to find my home again. I saw glimpses of it. There were times I felt the city open to me, and welcome me. And there were times I wondered if she had turned her back on me forever.
I’ll need a return visit. I’ll need more time. I’ll need to look with more care, and more thoroughness, to see if she remembers me. To see if she’ll still show me her secret face.