Whiskey With A Stranger, New Orleans

The hurricane battered facades of the French Quarter evoke a strong feeling of timelessness. The different coloured shutters, their decades of paint peeling to reveal decades of older coats underneath, hang loosely on weathered hinges. Each building boasts its own style, its own pastel shade and its own ornamental windows. An orange house with its mint green shutters and long trellised windows is slightly smaller than the other buildings, defiant to stand out. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop’s crumbling exterior walls come into view, a piece of New Orleans history that had survived nearly three centuries of tropical storms and hurricanes. Stumbling from its doors are college frat boys with their trophy girlfriends, laughing and shouting. I take a right onto Bourbon Street.

Mardi Gras spirit hits like an acid-trip wave of colours and sound. Jazz mingles with modern techno, curdling into an inaudible gaudy tune that’s hard for the listener to digest. A half-naked cowboy sporting Calvin Klein boxers dances tirelessly in a bar doorway. Strings of beads litter the floor: reds, gold, purples, and greens; a mess of colour waiting for the 4 a.m. street sweeper. These party favours intermittently drop from balconies either side of the street. The patrons that line them look down at the crowd and let loose with a barrage of poorly aimed ring tosses. The lucky winners get greeted with a flash of a nipple.

Louisiana is hot, too hot for English blood. Sitting at the bar of Pat O’Brien’s, my brow is uncomfortably sticky and my lips cracked. The bartender, dressed neatly in a crisp white shirt and black dickey-bow, acknowledges my thirst with a flourish of his hand and a nod of his head. A paper napkin skims the bar with finesse and settles in front of me. The barman thrusts his head forward so that he can better hear my order. Irish whiskey and Coke, the words barely audible to me, send the seasoned bartender into a flurry of activity. I tap the bar to an unknown beat, taking in the dimly lit room packed full of an over-dressed crowd. The plethora of modern fashion set against the backdrop of red-brick walls, mahogany furniture and antique bric-a-brac is difficult to stomach. Whooping and hollering bursts from different groups at their own specific moment.  The colonial charm all but dead, I pay for my drink and leave the dollar change on the bar.

Drinking Irish whiskey in a New Orleans dive bar seems like sacrilege, but the sweet, malty combination quenches my need for charm and familiarity. As I place my near empty glass on the bar, I notice a man join on the stool next to me. His attire makes him look like a member of staff, yet his shirt isn’t nearly as white or crisp and his bow-tie is creased. He catches my gaze and beams a toothy smile. “First time in Nawlins?” I nod. His black hand thumps the bar. “Whatya drinkin’?” I gesture to my glass and he gives a knowing smile. “Now that’s a real drink.” I smile back and call the bartender over, this time holding up two fingers, which produces a wide grin and another thump on the bar to my right. A second paper napkin spins across the bar in front of my companion. The bartender continues his routine and returns with two freshly made whiskey and cokes. After paying, I raise my glass to my fellow single-malt drinker and we share a brief toast.

Sharing that small moment in time with that stranger cleansed the atmosphere of all crassness. His honky-tonk tone, jazz riff mannerisms and genuine smile were a salve for the nauseating colours and sounds of commercial tourism. The embodiment of New Orleans didn’t lie only in the charming buildings, ornate lampposts and jazz clubs, but in the toothy smiles of whiskey drinking patrons.

*Post by guest writer Alex Matless

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