Monthly Archives: August 2008

I Can See It In My Dreams

I had never been to New Orleans before the flood.  My deepest emotional connection to the city has always been Tom Waits’ brilliant ballad, I Wish I Was In New Orleans, which is the song used in the montage above.  I had know particular opinion of the place, except that I wasn’t much interested in the notorious debauchery of Mardi Gras, and I suspect a lot of exaggeration in terms of the seedy, dark side of the city that so many writers have so enthusiastically given their verbiage to.

My good friend Andy, who gave birth to the Do They All Die? series on here, has been living down there for the past year, aiding in the rebuilding project.  It’s hard work, what he’s doing there.  Work that burns out a lot of the people who try to do it.  Andy has signed on for a second year of rebuilding.  We’re proud of him up here in the northeast corridor. He’s been encouraging me to come and visit him in New Orleans all year.  Before that, he spent four years trying to get me visit him in Toronto.  Which I never did.  He called a few weeks ago and explained that he was coming to Philly, and I could hitch a ride down with him, splitting the cost of gas, and then I only needed to pay for a plane ticket back.  I agreed.

We left two Sundays ago, on August 10th.  The plan was to drive to Pittsburgh, spending the night at our friend Jess’ place.  On Monday, we’d drive to Tennessee, having dinner with an acquaintance of Andy’s, and spending the night.  On Tuesday, we’d get into New Orleans.  I’d fly back to Philadelphia at dawn the following Sunday, giving me roughly four and one-half days in the Crescent City.  The plan went off pretty smoothly on Day 1.  I met up with Andy a bit later than hoped, but we made good time to the ‘Burgh.  Jess took the two of to a friend’s birthday party, for free food and drinks.  Andy and I are dazzlingly charming fellows, and somehow, both Jess and the birthday girl, Sarah, were talked into joining us on the trip.  We thought as late as Monday morning that they weren’t coming, and, then, they bought plane tickets.  We decided we were now running late and twice as populated, and thus too much of a burden on some stranger in Tennessee who I can only imagine as being achingly beautiful.  We elected to drive straight from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, a 1200 or so mile drive, getting into town around dawn.

TC, Sarah, Andy, and Jess.

TC, Sarah, Andy, and Jess.

That’s us there, sometime early on Tuesday, probably somewhere in Tennessee or Alabama, two states in which we spent a lot of time.  Upon arriving, we met up with Maura, Andy’s better half, who made us pancakes as she and her roommate Caitlin prepared to eat their weight in ice cream, later that day.

Maura on the left, Caitlin on the right.  There were no survivors.

Maura on the left, Caitlin on the right. There were no survivors.

During the day we slept and took it easy.  That night, however, we went to the Maple Leaf, for Rebirth.

Andy had been talking about the Rebirth Brass Band for a while to me, and I was excited.  But to talk about Rebirth to people who haven’t seen it is like trying to explain the Sun to owls.  Rebirth Brass Band are eight or so black men.  They’re dressed like they belong in amateur rap videos.  Flatbilled, crooked hats, wifebeaters, jeans.  The Maple Leaf is dark, but they’re younger than you’d expect a 25 year old band to be.  The youngest members are probably in their 20s, and the oldest are, perhaps, in their 50s.  In the back of the stage stand the drummers, two of them, I believe, and the sousaphoner (sousaphonist?  sousaphone player?).  The front of the stage is all brass.  A couple of trombones, a sax, and a lot of trumpets.  Anyone in the front row may sing, apparently, but singing isn’t really the point of Rebirth.

Rebirth is shockingly loud, for starters.  Our ears rang all the next day.  At times, if you stand close to the stage, the volume is so extraordinary my ears couldn’t handle it, I heard the horns like they were coming through blown speakers.  They are, in fact, unignorable.

They are demanding, as well.  Tuesday nights at the Maple Leaf allow no room for dissenters, for the indifferent, for the analytical or critical.  You go, you hear, you dance, and there is nothing else, anywhere.  You are with us, or you are someplace else.  They’re a tradition with all the passion and energy of a revolution.  They’re beautiful like fire.

The next day we awoke slowly.  It was raining, and our plans involved a bit of a tour of the city, so we had nowhere we needed to be.  The tour is a strange thing.  Of course, New Orleans, as a city, post-Katrina, is a strange thing.

New Orleans has a remarkable and distinct identity, geographically and architecturally.  It gets hot, but, at least during the week I was there, the heat was bearable.  As so many have said before, however, it’s not the heat, but the humidity that gets you.  In and around the Bayou, the humidity is so fierce that every time I stepped from an air conditioned building or car, my glasses fogged.  The humidity means it also rains, at least a little bit, just about every day.  The drainage system in New Orleans is absurd.  The rain water falls into a drain, from which is it pumped into the nearby Lake Ponchartrain.  When Katrina hit, Ponchartrain flooded, and the water in New Orleans had nowhere to go.  That, of course, was just one of the problems that others have thoroughly documented.  Anytime a hard rain lasts longer than about 30 minutes in New Orleans, the roads start to flood.

Of course the roads deserve a brief mention.  New Orleans roads might as well be unpaved.  They’re Third World rugged.  They have cracks, bumps, potholes, sinkholes, the works.  Near Andy’s house is a road where the pavement goes up.  Like a reverse-pothole.  You can’t avoid it.  And it’s only about a foot or so tall.

In some ways, New Orleans is like a European city.  It’s not nearly as densely populated, of course.  And not nearly as old as Amsterdam or Paris or London.  But the buildings follow adhere to a style that you don’t really find anywhere else.  And the city gives the impression that these buildings have always been here.  There was never any wild swampland, any plains or forests.  There have always been these brightly colored little shotgun houses, with their ornate column and draperies and shutters, live oaks sprawling above and beside them.

Beyond that sense, the houses themselves are something to behold.  They are, nearly every last one, ornate.  Pictured below here is the Wedding Cake House, as it’s known, on St Charles Street.  The house is immaculate, and its perfect whiteness is, really, the most significant separating feature.  The rest of the New Orleans architecture is similar, albeit, usually smaller, but still with the columns and rails and the rest.  The difference is a certain amount of decay.  Sometimes the paint is chipping.  Sometimes a house almost appears to be leaning.  Some houses are painted so garishly brightly, the owner must be some kind of clown, and yet, the house fits in perfectly.  New Orleans buildings are drunks in tuxedos.  A little bit of mud on the shoes, the tophat is the top punched through, a little stubble on the chin.  Huge trees line every main street in the city, and hanging from some of them, still, are beaded necklaces from February’s Mardi Gras parades.

The city satires respectability, that old-fashioned southern aristocracy is New Orleans favorite joke.

The Wedding Cake House

The Wedding Cake House

The parody that is New Orleans architecture.

The parody that is New Orleans architecture.

We took the tour of the destroyed areas of town, which, of course, is what most people back home have been curious to hear about.  So, how is New Orleans, after the storm?  Odd.  A lot of the buildings still have visible waterlines.  In general, the visible waterline is somewhat lower than where the water peaked, as during the storm the water would reach its height, then sink, resting a few feet below the high watermark, and staying at this second line for days or weeks.  So, if you see a watermark five feet high, the water probably reached seven or eight feet.  Many houses still have the spraypainted messages from rescue workers, signaling that a house had been investigated, and what had been found there.  Perhaps no message is more famous or haunting than this one, with 1 Dead in Attic spraypainted on the front of the house.  The resident climbed into his attic to wait out the storm.  When the water rose into it, he couldn’t get out, he drowned.  There are a lot of houses with messages, though, all over the city, but especially in the 8th and 9th wards.  Most are somewhat more abstruse than the bluntness that is 1 Dead in Attic, however.

The Lower 9th Ward has gotten a lot of press, and justifiably.  But it’s hard to explain what it’s like to be there.  There is nothing.  There’s not enough left to even get a good sense of what was destroyed.  All that remains of the Lower 9th are the foundations.  There are few battered houses, signs of rubble, all that.  I remember being in New York after 9/11, and seeing the stunningly large pile of rubble, broken glass and steel and concrete, and being shocked.  Seeing the Lower 9th isn’t like that.  You could drive by it and not realize that there had once been hundreds, thousands of houses there.  There was total destruction.  Utter.  All that remains is grass.  There are a few rebuilt houses there.  A few of them are even occupied now.  And I can only imagine it’s bizarre and even terrifying at times to live within the city limits, with hardly another soul within a mile of you most nights.

New Orleans is unique.  It’s a stunningly poorly run city.  Remarkably corrupt.  Irrepressibly infuriating.  It’s also beautiful.  Dynamic.  It’s alive in a way that few cities can be.  Strangers on the street say hello.  Your next door neighbor is probably dealing drugs, but he’s quiet and friendly as anyone you’ll meet.  There are jazz bands everywhere–at the clubs, on the streets, at the midnight bowling alley.  I could live there, I think.  After all, I live in Philadelphia, so I already have an affinity for flawed, great, American cities.

Post-script:  On Wednesday night, Jess, Sarah, Andy and I were joined by our new friend David, where we went to a bar known as Snake and Jake’s Christmas Lounge.  The place opens up around 9PM, and stays open till the bartenders feel like shutting down.  This is the kind of place that can’t exist just anywhere.  The picture below is what the place looks like during the day.  At night, it’s almost entirely invisible, except that wreath is lit up.  They’ve got Schlitz for $1.50 and the other beer is, I think, $2.  The bathroom has no door.  While I still feel a little dirty from the place, I’m glad such dark, joyful places exist in the world.

Dive Mecca.

Snake and Jakes Christmas Lounge: Dive Mecca.

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Let Me Tell You About My Favorite Place

Some famous writer once wrote about their favorite bar.  About how the customers were down to earth and funny and interesting.  The beer was good.  The food was delicious.  The prices were reasonable, if not downright cheap.  The staff was friendly and knowledgeable and accommodating.  The TVs always played what he wanted to see.  The music was never overpowering, and always good.  And then the famous writer revealed that no such bar existed.  In point of fact, he had created the bar by using the best attributes of his favorite four or so bars.

My friends, this bar exists.

Philadelphia is theorized to be one of the very best beer-drinking cities in the country, if not the world.  Michael Jackson, who is, perhaps, the patron saint of craft beer, once called Philadelphia the “Brussels of the West”.  Brussels, of course, is home to so many of the great Belgian crafts.  More Belgian beer is consumed now in Philadelphia, each year, than it is in Brussels.  There are a lot of good bars here. 

Monk’s gets a lot of love for having been at the Philly beer scene from the beginning.  The food is hit and miss, though the fries (excuse, frietjes) are always pleasant.  The beer is rare and extraordinary, but because of both those qualities, it’s also expensive.  The staff has a reputation for being unpleasant.  That hasn’t been my experience, but I wouldn’t call them chummy.  Is there music or TV?  I don’t know.  The place is often crowded.  So often crowded.  It’s a place to which someone Goes.  People from other states and countries go to Monk’s. And a few other bars of taken to joining them in spirit, if not history, like Eulogy with its 300 beer menu, and in the suburbs, Teresa‘s with their high-falutin’ taps chosen special by Beer Yard owner and brew demi-god Matt Goyer.

There are places like Johnny Brenda’s and the Standard Tap, who have godfathered the Philly gastropub phenomenon.  Good beer deserves good food, after all.  And they’ll always win a few people for being diehard in their commitment to local beer.  Bands will play there (or, at least, at JB’s).  You’ll like some of them, but live music does beat the stuff piped in.  But the place is dark and the staff can be as condescending as they are funny.

Of course there are the few, the proud, the Philadelphia brewpubs.  To the Yunk likes the Manayunk Brewpub, who are known for their fruity beers.  Not lambics, but fruity and sweet.  They’re part of that college scene, and among the brew faithful, more lovely might be given to the nearby Dawson St Pub.  Then there’s Triumph in Old City.  Part of a chain of mediocre brewpubs.  The architecture and music are more reminiscent of a club than a daily attended bar, while the food ranges from disappointing to acceptable, and the staff is barely competent.  In west Philly is the newest incarnation of Dock Street Brewing, which had good (though stylistically constant) beer, and inconsistent pizza, as well as a staff that seems to undergo wholesale changes every time I’m in.  The king of them all is the Nodding Head in Center City, with its legendary staffers, its big claim-to-fame (more NH Berliner Weisse consumed is consumed than any other kind, including those in Germany), its good food and music.  The only downsides, of course, are that it’s in CC, so it’s definitely pricey, probably far, and always crowded.

There is something for everyone in Philly, or at least, there’s a beer bar for any kind of beer you’d want, especially if you like your beer big and rare.

But let me tell you about the best bar in Philadelphia.  It’s in a part of Philadelphia which, depending on who you ask, is Fishtown, or East Kensington, or Port Richmond.  It’s a decently old brick building right where the southbound 25 bus intersects the eastbound 39.  The Memphis Taproom only opened in April, I think, but it might be the best bar in Philadelphia.

I have to admit–part of this proclamation might be geographic.  I live walking distance from the Taproom, which is great if I just want to pop in for a quick, or, if I have a marathon session, I can stumble home without concern.  I imagine the kinds of things I’m about to say about my favorite bar have some variation when people talk about the Gray Lodge, or the aforementioned Dawson Street, or the South Philly Taproom, or plenty of other places.  But outside of that distance, I don’t have any special relationship to the place.  I don’t work there.  I don’t get free food or drinks there.  I don’t know the owners or the staff, except in how I’ve gotten to know them by being at the bar so very often.

The place is owned by Brendan Hartranft, who used to help run the show at Nodding Head, and who is known in Philly as “Spanky”.  The guy introduced himself to me as Brendan, though, and so that’s what I call him.  Either he or his wife Leigh have been in the bar literally every time I’ve been there.  And I’ve been there a lot.  Both of them appear tireless, and, clearly, both have lively senses of humor.  They’ve managed to find a staff of excellent bartenders, like John, the daytime fella, who is the archtypal Everyman.  He’ll chat you up, he’ll leave you alone, whatever you’d like, and he’ll make sure you always have a fresh pint in front of ya.  Jess is there in evenings and weekend, often enough, draped in a tattooed map of the world.  After she started working there I found out she lives across the street from me, and have met her beau, Verne.  It might sound redundant, but good owners beget good staff, and good staff seems to beget good customers.  This is the kind of bar you can have a seat at the bar, and jump into the conversations around you without feeling like you’re intruding.  You wanna try that big bottle of beer over there, but don’t have anyone to share it with?  Fear not.  There’s someone who will happily split both the cost and the contents with you.

The prices have been designed to compete with the Applebee’s a few blocks down.  Entrees range from 8-15 dollars, or so.  The food is, at worst, pretty good, and at best, sublime.  Hitting the highlights: their ALT (that’s avacado-lettuce-tomato) might beat any BLT I’ve ever had; the Beef and Onion Pasties combine the sweetness of beef and onion with a salty pocket that balances as nicely as the malt in hops in your beer; King Rarebit with eggs and toast of Old Peculiar fondue…immaculate; they have vegan French Toast that goes down as wonderfully as any egg laden FT you’ll find; and the Port Richmond platter is the absolute best way to over-fill your stomach in the city.

Hartranft is sort’ve obsessed with Elvis Costello, so Declan MacManus gets a lot of play in the bar.  As does musical overlord Tom Waits, and spice appears in Fugazi and David Bowie and every other band you might love.  And if you don’t, fear not.  They keep the music loud enough that you can hear it, but not so loud that you must hear it.  There is one TV, but it’s big enough, and it’s got the sound off.  And it is almost always showing That Local Sporting Club.  Phillies games, Flyers games, plus the Tour de France, soccer games, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Eagles and Sixers games show up this fall there.  But, again, the sound if off.  You don’t want the TV, you don’t need the TV.

As for the beer, the philosophy there is different than a lot of the reputable places in the city.  There’s certainly no specific regional emphasis.  Beers will come from anywhere malt gets fermented, apparently, although there will always be one tap for the Philly Brewing Co which plies their trade just a few blocks away, and Sly Fox, which is, according to the owner, the best brewer in the area.  The rest of the taps and bottles seemed to be left to uncovering hidden gems.  Which is not, necessarily, to say RARE gems.  Yesterday, the gem meant Iron Hill’s Anvil Ale on the gravity cask.  The brew is an English Bitter, with loads of floral and grapefruit hops scents, but just a hint of their bite, and a rounding sweetness.  A great sipping beer, but the style isn’t bold or exciting, the alcohol content isn’t absurdly high, and, to the best of my knowledge, the beer isn’t oak aged or wildly fermented.  It’s just a perfectly balanced, well designed, well crafted beer that should drink just as well for the beer snob with Cantillon bottles in his basement (this guy) as it would for the middle aged guy who normally drinks Yuengling (the guy next to me at the bar yesterday).

Otherwise, special beers have included the Laurelwood Deranger Red, which apparently is pretty rare, even in Portland, but, again, doesn’t sport the popular style, nor is it known for the expensive fermentation process or the high booze content.  Sprecher’s Black Bavarian black lager is a creamy, roasted malty brew, which tastes like the best Russian Imperial Stout you’ve ever had, but with half the alcohol content, not to mention a lack of sticky flavors and syrupy consistency.  The surprise beers might be brews you’ve barely heard of, but didn’t realize how good they were until you finally drink them at the bar at the corner of Memphis and Cumberland.

Beautiful people, this is the best bar in the city.  Get yourselves to the Memphis Taproom.

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