Mardi Gras Day 5: Fat Tuesday

Fat Tuesday arrived and I skipped the big parades (I had enough beads, thank you very much) and headed over to the Bourbon Pub to watch the Bourbon Street Awards.  Hosted by bitchy drag queen Bianca Del Rio, the event puts a big stage on the street and judges give away thousands of dollars in prize money to vary categories like Best Costume, Best Drag,  Best Leather, Best Group, and Best in Show.

The streets were packed with costumed folks enjoying the festivities:

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I had bought the VIP package at the bar, which includes access to a balcony overlooking the stage but by the time I got there at 11:15am it was already full.  The street below was wall-to-wall people so  I wandered back downstairs and took up a position next to the bar where I could sort of, kind of see out through the windows.

That’s when I ran into Mathieu, a guy that I used to work with at a bar in West Hollywood 20 years ago.  He fills in at the Bourbon Pub on Halloween, Southern Decadence, and Mardi Gras and he immediately started shoving cocktails in front of me.  Figuring it was noon somewhere I started my day of drinking.  This is me and Mathieu and below is a picture of drink #5 or 6, which was somewhere around 2 in the afternoon.

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I don’t know why I took a picture of the drink.  Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Although I could hear the whole thing, I couldn’t really see the awards happening just outside the nearby doors.  Plus, my photography skills were compromised by the alcohol, but I got a couple worth sharing…

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At some point I muttered “I need to get something to eat” and wandered off in search of food.  I’m not sure what time this was but it was later in the afternoon and I had been drinking for hours on an empty stomach because Mardi Gras.

The streets were still packed.

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I wandered around for awhile before finally settling on the Clover Grill, a tiny diner that has been in business since 1939.  Since they claim to have the best breakfasts in the Quarter, and because I was in the mood for drunk food, I ordered an omelet with ham, cheese, and onions plus hash browns and sourdough toast.  It was perfect but I don’t know if I would think that if I hadn’t been drinking for hours beforehand.

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From there I went to a couple of additional bars and then back to the Bourbon Pub where the free alcohol was still flowing (make friends with a bartender – just saying).

After that I went back to the casino and gambled and drank more until the wee hours of the morning.

And so ended by lusty tales of adventure with Mardi Gras.  The next day it was back to LA (surprisingly hangover free) and then back to work.

But I have beads… lots and lots of beads.

 

Mardi Gras Day 4: I’m Just Wild About Harry

So it’s freaking cold today or at least my definition of cold.  Something like 50 degrees with wind advisories because of the gusts up to 40 mph.  I know those of you sitting in the bone-chill bullshit that is the north and east are calling me a wimp, but I still say that those of us who were smart enough to move to sunny climes get to complain when it’s cold and those of you who stayed behind don’t.

The weather is important since I spent the vast majority of the day outside.  It started with a jaunt over to Cafe Beignet, a small shop on Royal Street in the Quarter, which isn’t the famous one that does beignets (that would be Cafe Du Monde) but is still quite popular as evidenced by the long, long line that stretched out the door.

I was there because it was the starting point for a walking tour I had booked (before I realized how cold it was going to be) but I was hungry so I stood in the ridiculously long line and eventually got a muffaletta sandwich and a glass of fresh lemonade.  The former usually includes some combination of ham, mortadella, salami, mozzarella, provolone, and olive spread on a bread that is close to the ciabatta family but not quite the same.  This one was mostly ham, which was fine with me, and quite tasty despite the fact that it was pre-made, wrapped in plastic, and served cold (I didn’t have time for a fresh, heated one).

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I managed to get down about half of it before the tour started, run by Historic New Orleans Tours, a company headed by Rob Florence who was friends with Mary.

My tour guide was a lovely, young French-Canadian woman whose name I have forgotten already (Claudette?  Claudine?  Celine?  The cold wind blew it out of my head).  She had only been living in New Orleans for a little more than a year but she knew her stuff backwards and forward.

We started with a general New Orleans history lesson in the courtyard of the court building then walked up to a house near Rampart that had been the home and business place of a woman of “ill repute.”  It’s here that we learned all about Storyville, the red light district just outside of the French Quarter, where prostitution and other vices were embraced until the early 1900s.  From there it was on to a St. Louis 1, one of the most famous cemeteries in New Orleans.  Interesting to note that you are no longer allowed to visit the cemeteries on your own – you have to go with a registered tour company.

This being the day before Fat Tuesday there were roughly nine billion people in the cemetery so getting to specific tombs was challenging (we heard about reputed voodoo priestess Marie Laveau but couldn’t get anywhere near her tomb).  Still, got a few pictures…

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Below is the Italian society group tomb.  According to our guide, the statue there was seen in the movie Easy Rider when Dennis Hopper climbed up on it and sat in its lap.  Since then, the Archdiocese has not allowed any filming in the cemetery.  Understandable.

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Below is the future resting place for Nicholas Cage.

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Needing warmth, I went back to the hotel and spent some time in the casino before heading for dinner.

I visited a cool restaurant called Legacy Kitchen, located in the Warehouse District just a few blocks from my hotel.  Nice space – vaguely industrial, fitting the neighborhood – and a menu of modern American food.  I started with the Cajun Queso; tortilla strips served with a bowl of spicy cheese and smoked tasso ham.  Yum…

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And then moved on to the fried chicken and waffles.  Double yum!

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That maple syrup was fantastic and it provided a perfect counter-balance to the Memphis hot chicken.  I was very happy with my choice.

The night wound up with the parade from the Orpheus Krewe, one established by Harry Connick Jr. in the 1990s.  I got a good view point right at the turn from Canal onto Tchoupitoulas and enjoyed the first few bands and floats, one carrying Harry Shearer.  Then about a block up from us, the parade stopped.  Then a fire truck came in.  And then two energy company trucks came in.  This is what it looked like from my vantage point for the better part of an hour…

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Things finally got underway and I totally overdid it on the beads.  It’s like heroin – you just have to have more.

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One of the strands in there was thrown by Harry Connick Jr.

I finished off the night with a few cocktails, not knowing that I should have given my liver a break (insert dramatic foreshadowing here).

More parade pics…

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Mardi Gras Day 3: Part 2 – BBQ & Boobs

I’m breaking the post about Day 3 into two parts because it would be too long otherwise and you might suffer from emotional whiplash.  Part 1 is a ruminative look back at a dear friendship while part 2 is about BBQ and boobs.  If you’re more interested in one or the other, feel free to skip around.

On my drive I encountered a Mardi Gras parade in Long Beach, Mississippi, which was apparently an excuse to bring out the confederate flags.  If you look closely at this picture, there are at least a half dozen of them visible and this was one hurriedly snapped photo along miles of spectators along the route.  Yikes.

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But instead I saw a giant pig on top of a car advertising the restaurant Slap Ya Momma’s Barbeque.

I suddenly forgave Mississippi the confederate flags.

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A pulled pork sandwich drenched in sauce on a delicious bun (kinda like ciabatta but not quite) and a side of mac and cheese with grated cheese added on top for extra cheesiness.  Happiness ensued.

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I headed back to New Orleans, a drive that took a little more than an hour… and then it took me 90 minutes to get from the freeway to the hotel… and I didn’t actually make it to the hotel.

I thought I was timing it so I’d get there after the afternoon parades and before the evening Bacchus parade, but I totally forgot about the whole “let’s start whenever we damn well feel like it” timetable and there were street closures and what can only be described as complete gridlock.  I sat on one street without moving for a solid 30 minutes.  People were walking around, talking, taking photos of the traffic jam.

So I finally get to Poydras street, directly across from the hotel, and I can’t get to it.  I can see it… it’s right there!!!… but that side of the street is blocked off and there is nothing I can do but go back around the block again.  I finally gave up and begged the valet guy at the Harrah’s Casino to take my car.  The only reason he did is I think he feared I was going to hurt myself or someone with it if he didn’t.

Dinner was a complete failure.  We shall not discuss it.

I caught just a tiny bit of the Bacchus parade, complete with giant floats and laser lights.  Impressive – but I was late getting to a party thrown by Harrah’s at the Cornet, a restaurant/bar along Bourbon Street.  Invited guest were given a big bag of beads and, after signing a waiver saying you aren’t going to jump, ushered out onto the balcony overlooking the bacchanalian hordes.  I armed myself for battle…

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Perfectly framing the Jesus/Hell sign was purely coincidental.

I wasn’t great at it at first and I suffered flashbacks to junior high when I was the fat kid picked last for every team sport.  Aim is not my strong suit and I think I may have poked out an eye or two.

But I got the hang of it – it’s more of a swing and drop kind of thing than an actual toss unless you have more athletic prowess than I do.

And despite the fact that I wasn’t asking, lots of women showed me their boobs.  This woman had just shown them to me before moving on to the people down the balcony from me to do it again…

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I tried to get better pictures of people catching the beads I was tossing but it was everything I could do to not kill them or myself or drop the phone in the process so mostly I just got blurs but this one turned out okay…

nola_03_17The bearded guy just got my throw and the woman next to him was next.

More bar hopping took up the rest of the night.

Tomorrow it’s off for a Voodoo and Cemetery tour…. until then!

 

 

 

 

Mardi Gras Day 3: Part 1 – The Friendship Oak

I’m breaking the post about Day 3 into two parts because it would be too long otherwise and you might suffer from emotional whiplash.  Part 1 is a ruminative look back at a dear friendship while part 2 is about BBQ and boobs.  If you’re more interested in one or the other, feel free to skip around.

In order to understand what happened today I have to go back in time to look at a couple of snapshots from the past.

It was September 9, 2006 and my best friend Mary and I were on the last day of our inaugural Plucky Survivors See America road trip, a 2,500 mile journey that visited six states, went to the biggest ball of twine and the Britney Spears Museum, and saw me turn 40 in a depressing room with a suspicious stain on the wall in a Rodeway Inn in Hot Springs, Arkansas (just as I always dreamed it would happen).

We were winding our way to do a drive of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi back to New Orleans, one year after Hurricane Katrina, and this is what we saw…

This entire stretch along the Gulf, from Ocean Springs, through Biloxi and Gulfport, down to Long Beach, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian (some 40 miles or so), was all but wiped off the map by Katrina’s fury. We were at a disadvantage; foolishly, we hadn’t seen it in its pre-storm glory, but we could imagine.

Along the north side of Hwy 90 stood glorious Southern mansions, some dating back to the 1800’s, set amongst mighty live oaks. So it’s the best of the South, the most beautiful a beautiful region has to offer. And on the south side was the wide, wide Gulf of Mexico with warm waters lapping at white sand beaches. We looked at this, and said “Well, who wouldn’t want to live here?”

And now? The beaches are still there, but on the north side of the street, a broken driveway, a column or two, a ruin, but mostly….nothing. Mile after mile after mile of nothing.

Our final official stop of the trip was at the Friendship Oak at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast campus. This live oak is 500 years old (it was a sapling when Columbus landed!), its trunk’s circumference is over 18 feet, and its branches spread out 156 feet.

Mary and I sat on a stone bench under the tree’s mighty limbs, the plaque at our feet reading: I am called the Friendship Oak.  Those who enter my shadow will remain friends through all their lifetime. 

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Mary died in February of 2010 – on Fat Tuesday, as it turned out.

On September 3rd,  2010, I came to New Orleans for my birthday.  It was the first year that I wasn’t doing a Plucky Survivors road trip with Mary, but I took a drive anyway.  I wrote this…

I turned 44 today.

That’s a mostly unremarkable occasion except for as it relates to many of the birthdays that came before it. I spent my 43rd birthday getting inked at the Baltimore Tattoo Museum. 42 came with a 250 mile journey into West Virginia to get a hotdog. My 41st I powered through nearly a pound of BBQ at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City. And of course 40 involved breaking into an abandoned dinosaur attraction in Arkansas and the Biggest Ball of Twine in Branson, Missouri.

Birthdays 35 through 39 were spent singing karaoke and eating bacon wrapped hot dogs. Before that, well, who knows really? I’m getting old and the memory is not what it used to be. But I know on many, if not most of them, I was taken out to dinner, usually somewhere involving Italian or steak.

The through line on all of those birthdays was Mary. I spent them all with Mary.

I left New Orleans at around 10:30 this morning, driving east under crystal clear blue skies. Getting out of the French Quarter by car is no easy feat, but I managed to not run over a single pedestrian, which I think earns me some sort of Big Easy cred.

US 90 is called the Chef Menteur Highway, although why is apparently up for debate. French for “Chief Liar,” there are some who say the region got its name from the local Choctaw Indians who were annoyed at governor who reneged on a treaty. Others say that it has to do with the Mississippi itself, all crooked twists and turns.

But whatever, the road is two and four lanes that cut through the eastern part of Orleans Parish, then up a narrow sliver of land between Lake St. Catherine and Lake Pontchartrain. It crosses a bridge and then meanders through the extreme southeast corner of Louisiana before passing into Mississippi and eventually becoming the highway that runs right along the gulf coast to Biloxi.

To say this area was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina is like saying said hurricane was a bad storm. In many areas Katrina literally scrubbed the earth clean, taking houses, buildings, trees, roads, bridges, and everything else and throwing it all a few miles inland. The devastation caused by the flooding in New Orleans was horrific; stomach-churning in a “this can’t be happening” kind of way. What happened east of New Orleans was unimaginable. It’s almost impossible to wrap your brain around it.

Five years and a few days later, it is still easy to see the legacy of Katrina. Some of the buildings that were left standing are still there, abandoned hulking ruins with the high-water marks still visible, like a dirty ring on a bathtub. In other places, especially as you move further east, there are driveways to nowhere – places where there used to be something but now all that is left are weeds filling the cracked pavement of parking lots.

But in between that are new beginnings. I didn’t drive more than a couple of miles at any given time without seeing some sort of construction going on. And there was much more that had been complete for years obviously. Shopping centers, restaurants, apartment buildings, houses, condominiums, schools, and more, outnumber the ruins these days.

And as you get out on that tiny slip of land between the lakes, dozens – hundreds – of new houses, all up on stilts 15 or 20 feet high, seeming to point toward the open waters saying “go ahead, I dare you.” I think, at first, that it’s crazy. There will be another storm someday and it seems foolhardy at best to want to come back here; to build here; to try to live here. But then I remember that I live in California where, at any moment, the “Big One” could come along and swallow the entirety of Los Angeles and I think, “Who am I to judge?”

But it’s more than that, really. It’s what we do, us humans. We get knocked down and we get back up again. Our homes get knocked down and we rebuild, hopefully stronger than before. And eventually, yes, there will be another storm, but we’ll rebuild after that one, too.

Mary and I always looked for themes, analogies, and metaphors for our Plucky Survivors trips. I had the better part of 70 miles worth of them driving along Highway 90.

It was just past noon when I turned off the highway into the Gulf Coast campus of the University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach. It is a metaphor in microcosm. Many of the buildings are still abandoned, their empty windows staring out almost plaintively, their foundations and walls still cracked and crumpled. But elsewhere there are brand spanking new buildings and rehabilitated old ones. The campus is starting its new chapter, slowly, but surely.

I parked and grabbed a few things from my backpack, and walked across the lawn until I got to the plaque.

“I am called the Friendship Oak. Those who enter my shadow are supposed to remain friends through their lifetime no matter where fate may take them…”

There is more grass around the tree than when Mary and I visited as the final stop of our very first Plucky Survivors trip in 2006. More grass and more leaves. The tree looked a little battered but basically intact a year after Katrina but now it looks alive, healthy, and ready for all of the students to come back to the school around it.

A few weeks ago, Mary’s sister Deborah (Plucky Passenger 2007!) sent me a photo she had printed out from the website. It was of Mary and me, sitting on the bench next to the plaque under the Friendship Oak. She had put it in a cow-print frame, of course.

I took the photo and the frame, along with the beads I was wearing on the day Mary died, and placed them gently into a crook at the base of the tree.

Then I opened the plastic baggie that Steve had given me and began to sprinkle some of Mary’s ashes.

There was a bit of a breeze blowing in from off the Gulf, and the ashes floated in it. The sunlight cutting through the leaves of the tree caught them and they seemed to sparkle, like they were infused with microscopic diamonds.

When it was done, I stood there, my eyes closed, listening to the air moving around me, through the tree and the grass. It whispered softly. Gently. It seemed to be saying, “It’s okay. You can go on now.” I didn’t even notice I was crying.

A car pulled up and two women got out, one in her fifties perhaps and the other a bit younger. They walked around the tree and started taking pictures of each other in front of it. I walked up to them, trying to wipe away my tears, and asked if they wanted me to take a picture of the both of them. They said yes, so I had them sit on the bench and framed the shot just so.

“Are you two friends,” I asked?

The older of the two hooked her arm in the other woman’s and pulled her close.

“Best friends,” she said.

I took the picture.

and then I walked back to my car and got back on the road.

So today, February 7, 2016, a couple of days before Fat Tuesday, nearly six years since Mary left, I took a drive again.

The highway is much the same, although of course 10 years later there are fewer scars of Katrina still visible.  Most of the buildings are newer and the bridges were washed out have been replaced.  And people are still saying “I dare you”…

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For miles there are the pristine white beaches on one side…

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In some ways, it is like the hurricane never happened and yet you know it did.  You can still feel it in ways both big and small, from the huge new levees built along the highway to the occasional abandoned building, rotting in the sun a decade later.

The Oak is still there and seeing it was like seeing an old friend.  This is hallowed ground to me and I stood amidst the limbs and placed my hand on the trunk and stood in the place where I sprinkled Mary’s ashes.  I sat on the bench – now metal instead of stone – and gazed around the reborn campus, the previously gutted buildings now rebuilt but quiet on this beautiful, sunny, blue sky of a Sunday.

Those who know me know I’m not a religious man, but moments like that are the kinds that will give even the hardest of cynics a moment of divinity.

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Mardi Gras Day 2: Ava Gardner Was a Wise Woman

We begin today with a quote from legendary screen siren Ava Gardner.  She was quite a character and enjoyed carousing almost as much as she enjoyed men.  I read this – spoken affectionately about her friend Esther Williams – while having dinner in New Orleans and it seemed apt…

“A party isn’t a party without a drunken bitch lying in a pool of tears.”

So true… Now on to the recap:

In general, I’m not great at sleeping when I’m not in my own bed and don’t have a fan to provide white noise for blocking out ambient sound, so you can imagine what it’s like here in the Central Business District of New Orleans, which I have decided is the loudest place ever.  Trains horns, ship horns, car horns, sirens… lots of sirens… I’m going to have to drink more to get myself to sleep.

I started my day with a stroll through the Quarter, snapping a couple of pictures in Jackson Square along the way.

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From there I went to the Voodoo Museum, a small, rickety place with a couple of rooms overstuffed with various photos, shrines, and ephemera.  I have been fascinated with voodoo for a long time – I even wrote a TV show about it – but there wasn’t much here to lock onto.  It was mostly just a bunch of stuff that didn’t have any context or meaning.  The good news is that it felt authentic – whether it was or not is beside the point.  Sure, it’s a tourist joint but it didn’t feel like one.

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Then it was off to lunch at Yo Mama’s a bar that I remembered as having amazing burgers.  I was not disappointed… loaded with bacon and served with a baked potato also loaded with bacon (and sour cream, chives, butter, and cheese).   I’m pretty sure this picture is in the dictionary next to the word cholesterol.  Or heart attack maybe.  Whatever… Mardi Gras is French for “no calories.”

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In the afternoon it was another parade – the Krewe of Iris, this time. It started with this, which I have decided is the worst parade float ever…

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Note the woolen cap and scarf and heavy coat on the person in front of me.  Yes, it is that cold.

Lots of pictures down below but here are the throws I got – some good ones including beads with purple babies and a really nice one with an Iris badge and more:

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I had hoped to catch the Endymion parade, which I’m told is a really spectacular one, but again, the idea of starting on time seems to be something that people look at and then shrug at.  So by the time it was getting down to the area where I could’ve gone to see it, it was time for me to head off to dinner.

Oh dinner… Commander’s Palace, widely considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world.  I had a table overlooking the back yard garden….

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They sent out an amuse bouche of a goat cheese and onion tart on a small piece of garlic ciabatta bread.  I was officially amused – seriously, the flavor packed into that little two bite teaser was insane.  This is how you know you’re at a place where the chef knows their way around a kitchen.

I got the chicken and andouille gumbo, which was spicy as a hell but amazing…

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Then the filet, topped with mushrooms and onions on a bed of the creamiest whipped potatoes in the history of the world.  The steak was perfect – cooked expertly, juicy, and tender.

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By the way, this is one of those “pictures don’t do it justice” kind of things.  It looks kinda gross but trust me it was fantastic.

Then I capped it off with the strawberry shortcake and all I can say is that despite the fact that I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to eat very much of it after that huge meal, I managed to devour at least 75% of it. This is what it looked like before I dug in…

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I waddled back to the room and then finished my night off with more alcohol at a local bar, because I was hoping to run into that drunken bitch making it a party.  I wasn’t disappointed.   This is New Orleans after all.

Parade pics – note the Riding Elvi!

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Mardi Gras Day 1: The Things People Do For Beads

I’m not sure what made me decide Mardi Gras was a good idea.  Perhaps it was the free hotel and free airplane ticket from Harrah’s.  Well, free is probably not entirely accurate since they give me stuff like this because of how much money I waste in their casinos.  But still, it was “free” and I’ve never been to Mardi Gras and I’m turning 50 this year and I’m apparently trying to prove something to myself and there would be free alcohol at various places and if you do that complicated little bit of math, it adds up to Laissez les bon temps roulez.

Harrah’s New Orleans is fine – probably on par with, if not a little nicer, than the Harrah’s in Las Vegas.  Rooms are generously proportioned, clean (although dusting doesn’t appear to be housekeeping’s strong suit), and about as bland as you can.    The only strong demerit I can give them is that the hallway on my floor smells like someone was murdered out there and the killer used 10 gallons of bleach to cover up the crime.  It was so astringent that it made my eyes water.  The other floors don’t smell like that (had to go find a vending machine) so not sure if the murder theory is correct or not but something happened that required some heavy duty cleaning.

I have a view of the Mighty Mississippi, although it’s hard to tell at night.

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I got in about 7:30 and immediately downloaded WWL’s Parade Tracker app.  The local CBS station puts a car at the head of every single parade so you can see exactly where it is.  With dozens of them happening over the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, and a generally casual relationship with the concept of starting on time, an app like this is a must.

I wandered out into the streets around the Central Business District, which was thick with revelers although not as many as expected.  There was plenty of room along the parade route to get up to the barricades.

With many blocks between the Hermes Krewe parade and me, I decided to find something to eat.  Choices were limited and I was hungry and desperate so I kinda failed by walking into the first thing that said “Po’Boys” – a loud joint called Serio’s.  I ordered a roast beef and they told me to pick it up at the end of the counter when they called my name.

“But you didn’t ask my name,” I said politely.

“Oh,” the cashier said handing me a receipt, “Well now you’re Brent ‘cuz that’s what I put on the ticket.”

Okay.  Brent it is.  Brent’s Roast Beef was not great, for the record.

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Then the parade, with some colorful floats and lots of bead tosses.  I got a few but wasn’t as aggressive as I could have been.  It’s pretty cut throat out there.  People will cut a bitch for beads.   Pics of the parade at the end, but here are my throws…

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After I had my fill of the noise and fury and the cold (it’s down to the low 40s at night and only 50s during the day), I made my way down the quiet, calm, respectable little road known as Bourbon Street.  Mind you this was about 9:00 on Friday night, so it hadn’t even really gotten started yet.

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It’s nothing but loud, drunk people on the street screaming at the other loud drunk people on balconies overlooking the street who are yelling “show us your <insert body part of choice here>!”  And of course, people did.  I saw more bare breasts in 20 minutes on Bourbon Street than I have seen in 20 years of reviewing Las Vegas showgirl productions.

But I finally made it to the far end of Bourbon where I got VIP passes to a nightclub, the Bourbon Pub and Parade.  It came with free drinks so I had a few and got this picture from the balcony.

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Saturday it’s going to be a little bit of sightseeing, some more parades, and some much better food including dinner at Commander’s Palace.

As promised… parade photos…

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