A brief return to the city

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.

Approaching New Orleans again

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.

“What?”

“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.

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14 thoughts on “A brief return to the city

  1. Livia Llewellyn

    You’re being very polite and diplomatic about the way that bartender treated you, but I don’t have to be. What a fucking bitch.

    1. Thanks, Liv. Maybe she was just having a bad night. Maybe she’d heard one too many stories about those days and was sick of it. Maybe she believes the new owner’s position that we were all bad news. In any case, she kind of soured my mood right off.

      1. Livia Llewellyn

        And that all may be true, except: she’s a bartender. She works with the public, with customers – basically, it’s a retail job for booze. And, as I know from 20+ years working for customers in various retail venues from books to bakeries: when you go to work ,you take your shit and you set it aside, and you treat people with at the very least a modicum of fucking respect. She couldn’t even do that for you, for a single minute. So basically, she’s a shitty bartender. In addition to being a fucking bitch.

    1. Molly! 🙂

      I will definitely come back. I went to the Balcony Bar, which I never went to much, and saw the old spirit was alive and well. I also saw Auggie there; he talked to me in his mysterious language but thankfully didn’t recognize me. Or if he did, failed to understand that six years had passed since last he saw me and threatened to cut me. 🙂

  2. Neal Stanifer

    I had heard that the Avenue Pub had undergone a kind of institutional gender-reassignment surgery, but I hadn’t realized it had also been dressed in sequins and boas. One day, we’ll have to visit the city together and show the chi-chi hipsters how a real human being closes down a bar that never closes.

  3. Post-Levees Failure New Orleans is a very different place, for sure.

    Yet, so far, it remains New Orleans, unique, realer than real, fantastic, not fantasy.

    We were just back the weekend before last, for the first time since August 2010. A weekend just can’t cut into the strangeness.

    Yet, wow, the place is just jumping and crackling with much positive energy! Art! And it is still the only place that can run so much music every single day and night, and have it all be local and of that New Orleans level of excellence and originality.

    Love, C.

    1. I’m very glad to hear that. I do realize that it will take a lot more than a weekend, and I certainly saw and felt plenty of signs that the old city was still herself. I frankly think it will take a lot more than a storm and some aggressive attempts at forced gentrification to spoil New Orleans. The city is too old, and too strong. Thank god.

  4. Geez…for some reason this reminds me a bit of how I feel coming back to ASheville. It is not at all the same place I left it (remember Asheville in the 80s?) and I find I want to either 1) move right back into it and have a downtown boho loft or 2) go the opposite extreme and move to London or New York or the West coast.
    As now, I feel in between….5 hours away and not here nor there, and belonging neither place…
    I’m sorry, different situation I know,
    I think you need to write a series of short stories that take place in and around the bar.

  5. Maura

    Sounds about right. I have gotten a few rather cool receptions there myself over the last few years from the newer inhabitants (and ownership). Going to the Pub makes me kind of sad when I go back to town…

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