Saturday, 23 May 2015

New Orleans After Dark: A Journey Into Southern Decadence

“This decaying city has a hypnotic aspect that leads me through its streets ...” City of Night. John Rechy, 1963

“I was drawn to New Orleans’ decaying beauty, ripe with overgrown vegetation which both blossomed and rotted in the very same breath ... spellbound by the decadent architecture, the elaborate sprinkling of wrought iron balconies ...” Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary. Lydia Lunch, 1997

A riot of revelry, romance and roaring laughter seen mid historical hotspots in the city that care forgot - New Orleans! (Note: this blog represents the second installment of my April 2015 US trip, picking up the action from my earlier Viva Las Vegas 2015 posting) 

Monday 6 April 2015

I arrived in the torrid voodoo realm of New Orleans ‘round midnight, sun-baked, dehydrated, chap-lipped and hung-over. My friend Kevin met me at the airport and drove me to his place in Mid-City. My first glimpse of New Orleans was by night, the car zipping past ghostly Southern Gothic architecture, weeping willows and moon-lit tombstones. I crashed-out on Kevin’s sofa and slept like a corpse straight through until Tuesday morning.

Tuesday 7 April 2015

New Orleans ... After Dark!

Kevin shares my affection for Liz Renay - burlesque performer, B-movie actress, naive outsider artist, gangster’s moll, authoress of trashy volumes of memoirs like My Face for the World to See and My First 2000 Men and all-round super vixen. She’ll forever be remembered as the petulant lesbian murderess Muffy St Jacques in the 1977 John Waters film Desperate Living. Kevin has her full literary canon. (Check out his atomic-era chrome and formica kitchen table!) /

During the day Kevin took me sight-seeing by car, exploring neighbourhoods Mid-City (where he’s based), the Treme, Faubourg Marigny, Garden District, Uptown and the French Quarter. New Orleans’ humidity made me swoon like a southern belle. (Rest assured I channeled the demented melancholy of a Tennessee Williams heroine the whole time I was there).

Sampling New Orleans’ unique regional cuisine was a priority. The first thing I ate in New Orleans was dense, smoky Cajun jambalaya (with a side of fried pickles – as addictive as hits off a crack pipe) at local diner Liuzza's by the Track in Mid-City. I was practically purring with pleasure. (One of the waitresses was drinking a Tab. I haven’t seen a can of Tab since the 1980s).  

New Orleans ... After Dark!

From there we drove past the stately, gracious old-money historic mansions in St Charles Avenue and Esplanade Avenue. Some even had pillars in the front, like Tara in Gone with the Wind. But even New Orleans’ more modest architecture is distinctive and fascinating: I want to live in a lavender, sea shell pink or sea foam aqua house. Even the shotgun shacks looked alluring to me.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Me gurning amidst the crypts of Lafayette Cemetery. (In every single photo taken there, I'm chewing a wasp. Seriously. This was the best one) /

What else to wear when prowling amidst decaying crypts but a Vampira t-shirt? (Ed Wood’s working title for Plan 9 from Outer Space was Grave Robbers from Outer Space, after all). This is the historic Lafayette Cemetery No 1 in The Garden City - famous from the LSD hippie freak-out scene in the film Easy Rider (1969). (A quick Google search now verifies I’m wrong and that scene was filmed at another New Orleans graveyard, St. Louis Cemetery No 1. I was invoking the spirit of Karen Black nonetheless). Kevin pointed out to me the “voodoo offerings” left on some of the graves. How fascinating! Authentic voodoo rituals in twenty first century New Orleans! When I asked who actually practices this, his disillusioning reply was, “Mainly white women” – which conjured images of fried Courtney Love or Steve Nicks-style hippie mamas with perms wearing tie dye sundresses.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Catholic kitsch at Lafayette Cemetery No 1 /

Speaking of voodoo, back in Mid-City, I bought some candles at F&F Botanica, an authentic Puerto Rican voodoo emporium. I will be officially converting to the Santeria religion next.  (My Brazilian ex-boyfriend used to tell me about Candomblé, the Brazilian variation of Santeria). I yearned to take a photo of the spectacular display of giant kitsch plaster of Paris statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Yemoja that greet you as you enter, but was afraid of seeming disrespectful. This is a place for genuine voodoo practitioners, after all. The friendly sales assistant behind the counter complimented my Vampira t-shirt and he and Kevin quickly established they both know horror author (and long-time New Orleans resident) Poppy Z Brite (who now lives as a trans man, re-named Billy Martin). In retrospect, he probably would have let me take a photo.


/The voodoo candles I bought at F&F Botanica in New Orleans on the left. The skull glass is a Viva Las Vegas souvenir from a few years ago (everything tastes better drunk from a skull) /

Afterwards we knocked-back late-afternoon beers at Pal’s Lounge, a nicely atmospheric and laid-back little Mid-City dive bar. At one point the sassy female bartender referred to me as "sweet tits” (while asking me to flip the sign in the front door from “Closed” to “Open”). Thus christened, I felt like I had truly arrived in New Orleans.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Exterior of Pal's Lounge just before it opened for the day /

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ The men's room of Pal's is entirely papered in vintage Russ Meyer-esque Playboy centre-folds. I liked Miss October best! /

That night we had dinner and cocktails at the mondo exotica BeachbumBerry's Latitude 29 Tiki lounge at The Bienville House Hotel in the French Quarter. My potent Mai Tai arrived with a sprig of mint and a hibiscus flower floating on top.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

En route to Latitude 29 we cut through the tourist trap end of Bourbon Street which the travel guides urge you to avoid. Talk about squalor! I caught a glimpse of a wino with a sun-dried scabby face weaving down the street towards me. He was shirtless and had scrawled on his stomach with a black Sharpie “Can you suck this?” with an arrow pointing crotch-wards. Hey, sometimes the direct approach works. Vive le sleaze!

We explored the French Quarter on foot, Kevin pointing out the apartment building where Tennessee Williams once lived. (Williams called New Orleans his “spiritual home” and of course many of his plays are set there). We downed more beers at punk-y bar and music venue One Eyed Jacks. I loved the black velvet “nudie cutie” paintings in gilt frames, flocked crimson wallpaper and vintage brothel-style decor.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Above and below: bordello decor at One Eyed Jacks /

New Orleans ... After Dark!

From there we well and truly sampled New Orleans low life at The Double Play and The Corner Pocket (both known to be personal favourites of John Waters when he visits New Orleans – is there any higher recommendation?). Sampled? “Luxuriated” or even “wallowed” would be more apt. I like my low life low and both places lived down to my expectations. The Double Play is a stark, hard-edged dive bar straight out of an Edward Hopper painting.  Its clientele is primarily trans prostitutes, junkies, teenage male hustlers in the Joe Dallesandro Trash tradition and the chicken hawk older men who love them.  Try to imagine where the present-day versions of Tralala or drag queen prostitute Georgette from Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn would cadge drinks. In a jaw-dropping understatement the website Gay New describes The Double Play as “a rather "wild" neighbourhood bar that is frequented by every kind of person imaginable. Whatever is your scene, you'll find companions here.” Sweetly, the mature white grandpa making out with a mocha-skinned black kid straight out of his teens had certainly found his kind of companion. The tough-as-nails characters and anything-could-happen atmosphere at The Double Play was enthralling. If I lived in New Orleans, I’d be there soaking up the ambiance every weekend.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

The Corner Pocket was reportedly the inspiration for the squalid gay bar The Fudge Palace in Waters’ 1998 movie Pecker. If you've seen that film you’ll know what to anticipate: a stable of cute rough trade gay-for-pay / heteroflexible tattooed go-go boys in their underwear “dance”, crotch-thrust and twerk on the bar-top with their candy jiggling right at your eye-level.  The tradition is to cram $1 bills down the waistband of the dancers’ underwear and enjoy a quick grope in the process. (It’s bad etiquette to sit at the bar and not do this). I didn't actually witness any tea-bagging, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was on the menu.  A hardboiled Corner Pocket regular seated next to me filled me in on the ropes: the boys’ shifts finish at 3 am. If you want one of them to leave with you before then, slip the bartender $30. The going rate to spend the night with a Corner Pocket go-go dancer is $200. You can find their online profiles on Anyway, the semi-naked guys (a wide variety of types, some perhaps a bit stoned) were friendly and adorable (why oh why hasn't Bruce Weber swooped down to shoot these beauties for an edgy homoerotic L'Uomo Vogue fashion shoot or a Boys of The Corner Pocket calendar? I would buy it!) and The Corner Pocket is a deliciously rancid good time. Photography is understandably strictly verboten there but check out the Corner Pocket’s regularly-updated Facebook page for shots of the dancers.

/ Typical view from the bar of The Corner Pocket: I swiped this pic from their Facebook page. I definitely remember this diminutive Mohawked heartthrob from when Kevin and I visited /

At both The Double Play and The Corner pocket I felt like I was living John Rechy's novel City of Night and I reveled in it. The French Quarter gay bars Rechy cites by name (The Rocking Times, Les Petits, Sandy-Vees’s, Cindy’s, Les Deux Freres) are lost to the mists of time, but otherwise the New Orleans gay scene is remarkably unchanged since he chronicled his restless beatnik bar-hopping, S&M hustling misadventures and transvestite encounters in 1963.  In 2015 in London every last vestige of sleaze have been well and truly stamped-out. It was gratifying to see proper old-school filth still thrives in modern vice city New Orleans.

Wednesday 8 April

/ I suspect this Eric Stanton illustration depicts documentary realism of what New Orleans looks like during Mardi Gras /

On my second full day in New Orleans I wilted in the sun and got fed-up with throngs of slow-moving, mouth-breathing bovine tourists in the French Quarter. (Yes, I know I'm a tourist, too - but a fast-walking and impatient one!). Kevin warned me the annual French Quarter Festival would begin while I was in town and to anticipate a crush of people arriving. He wasn't kidding: when I got on the streetcar on Canal Street it was groaning with people and the Quarter was much more difficult to negotiate.  The French Quarter Fest is relatively small-scale – I can’t imagine how New Orleans residents cope during Mardi Gras or the Jazz Festival.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ French Quarter architecture /

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Above and below: ultra-kitsch window display at Head Quarters on Dauphine Street in the French Quarter. (Think: The Lipstick Beauty Salon in the John Waters film Female Trouble). Kevin gets his hair cut here /

New Orleans ... After Dark!

I’d intended to eat lunch at the historic Napoleon House in the French Quarter, but it was packed-solid (a coach load of senior citizen tourists arrived just moments before me) so I gave up. Starving and annoyed, I backtracked to The Clover Grill to drink some black coffee and eat French fries to tide me over in the meantime. A kitsch Jayne Mansfield-sugar-pink-hued retro diner (operational since 1939), Clover Grill is open 24-hours and a regular haunt for drunk and hungry late-night gay clubbers craving grease and carbs.  The list of requests in menu - “We don’t eat in your bed; please don’t sleep at our table”. “No talking to yourself.” “Keep both hands on the table” - hints at the raucous behaviour of their average patron.  Sadly, there were no tipsy drag queens still wearing last night’s make-up while I was there: just an average mid-Western looking family at the next table.

Clover Grill

/ The Clover Grill on Bourbon Street. (I didn't take this shot myself! Got it via ) /

A friend recommended I drink at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in the French Quarter. The history of the tavern is certainly fascinating: the building – a low-ceilinged brick cottage – dates back to the 18th century,  is one of the oldest surviving structures in New Orleans and is reportedly one of the oldest operating bars in the US.  It was cool and dark in there, but the ultra-straight crowd wasn't terribly inspiring and the loud 1980s mainstream rock music (U2, Guns’N’Roses) meant I couldn't finish my beer and depart fast enough.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Interior of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop /

Next I sank another beer just a few doors away at the much more simpatico Cafe Lafitte in Exile. It’s a pretty unexceptional middle-of-the-road gay bar today, but it’s also an LGBT historical landmark: the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the country. The likes of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were regulars in the 1950s. Apparently the balcony is beautiful, but when I was there it was daytime and it was shut, unfortunately. Big video screens above the bar play pop videos: judging by the content (“No More Drama” by Mary J Blige, Whitney Houston’s “My Love is Your Love”) the playlist hasn't been refreshed in at least fifteen years. No matter: the bartender was friendly, the patrons were boozy and mellow and the beer was frosty.

Re-tracing my steps, I finally managed to eat my first muffuletta (to a soundtrack of soaring classical music) at the elegant shabby-chic Napoleon House. It was orgasmic and worth the wait. When I was paying the bill the waiter clocked my accent and asked where I was from. Weirdly, when I explained I was Canadian but a long-term UK resident, he suddenly turned lascivious and started aggressively inquiring what Canadian girls and British girls are like. Yikes! I politely made my excuses and split.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Muffuletta sandwich (a New Orleans delicacy) at the historic Napoleon House in the French Quarter /

/ Hoochie mama! Chris Owens in her youth /

Burlesque showgirl, chanteuse, nightclub proprietoress and plastic surgery enthusiast Chris Owens – still sporting hot- pants and kinky boots and crotch-thrusting  onstage at 83-years old – has been a local celebrity and fixture in New Orleans since the early 1960s. Kevin and I contemplated going to Owens’ club in The French Quarter where she still regularly performs but didn't make it unfortunately. Her website (which looks like it hasn't been updated since the 1990s) shrieks in upper-case some pretty remarkable claims:  “CHRIS OWENS is a SINGING AND DANCING INTERNATIONAL SENSATION! Her performance is the MOST ELECTRIFYING ONE-WOMAN SHOW ON THE ENTERTAINMENT SCENE today, set to such musical genres as jazz, blues, rock, country western, top 40 variety and international, to name a few. She is a DAZZLING, TALKING, SINGING, DANCING, SPARKLING, EXPLOSION OF PERPETUAL MOTION. Her glowing personality and high-energy performance sweep the audience right into the tempo of the show. Those that have been entertained by CHRIS OWENS never tire of her and KEEP COMING BACK FOR MORE, NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, WEEK AFTER WEEK!” Who could possibly resist that? Apparently Owens sprinkles her Vegas-style lounge act with covers of Lady GaGa, Shania Twain and Jennifer Lopez songs to keep contemporary. I’ll make investigating it a priority if I return to New Orleans. But I did snap this wildly idealised statue of a maracas-wielding La Owens at the New Orleans Musical Legends Park. She’s in good company, surrounded by statues of luminaries like Louis Prima and Fats Domino.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

That night Kevin and I went to Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge in Uptown. We were joined by Pete, the brains behind superb vintage homo porn tumblr blog Cultural Dictionary of Dick (do not click this link if you're at work!). When I learned he was based in New Orleans I grabbed the opportunity to hang out with him (and pour some beers down his neck). Snake and Jake’s is surely one of the world's greatest dive bars. For one thing - it's located in a dilapidated shack! It's permanently pitch-black inside, lit only by red fairy lights. (In fact they’re Christmas tree lights. There are Christmas decorations up all year, hence the name). Snake and Jake's looks just like something out of Mortville, the derelict criminal shanty town in John Waters' 1977 lesbian punk film Desperate Living.  (Snake even boasts a raspy-voiced, swear-y butch female bartender in the Mole McHenry tradition). It's actually situated in quite a nice and affluent residential area - the neighbours must be horrified by it. The smoking ban is only just now taking effect in New Orleans so that means Snake and Jake’s patrons will basically be standing around and smoking right in residents' front yards until the early hours - which might prove awkward. As you can see from above pic, the exterior looks tiny (and bear in mind I'm only 5'6"!).  But once you're inside Snake and Jake's it doesn't feel exceptionally cramped or low-ceilinged. The graffiti-scrawled men's room was like something out of CBGBs.

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Me outside Snake and Jake's Christmas Lounge by daylight (before it had actually opened) /

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Me inside Snake and Jake's - truly one of the happiest places on earth /

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Canine customers at Snake and Jake's /

Thursday 9 April

/ Atomic-era vintage sleaze on Bourbon Street. I would love to have caught "The Cat Girl" Lilly Christine's act! /

By my last full day in New Orleans I had indulged in so much day-time bar-hopping in the French Quarter I was starting to recognise the faces of the winos, wizened barflies and rent boys when I passed them on the street. (I spotted one particularly cute scruffily-bearded, sandy-haired young hustler I'd seen playing pool at The Double Play on Tuesday night walking past Cafe Lafitte in Exile holding hands with a man old enough to be his grandfather- truly another City of Night moment).

Committed to ticking New Orleans culinary specialties off one-by-one, I ate gumbo at Eat New Orleans on Dauphine Street. It was heavenly. (By then I'd already devoured a shrimp po'boy. I left New Orleans having never managed to eat red beans and rice or a beignet or drink a Sazerac - another reason to come back!).

Afterwards I sank a beer at trashy compact gay bar The Golden Lantern (dubbed “The Golden Latrine” by locals).  It’s known for hosting drag performances by night. Of course I was there in the daytime – but I did pass the sparkly little stage en route to men’s room. I also paid one last visit to the Double Play – nicely shabby and peeling by daylight.

/ Above: this campy homoerotic poster hangs in the men's room of The Golden Lantern, probably intact since the seventies or eighties. Weirdly enough, this picture cropped up on my tumblr feed a few weeks later / 

That night Pete and I went to Paulie’s Pub and Restaurant, a weird little queer punk bar where they were blasting surf music at ear-splitting volume. (In my dreams Paulie's would have made an ideal Lobotomy Room venue).

Friday 10 April

I flew back to London that afternoon.  En route to the airport the affable cab driver confided his life story. He came to New Orleans from Pakistan thirty years earlier and now couldn't imagine living anywhere else. He was displaced by Hurricane Katrina but returned as quickly as he possibly could. He swore to me I’d revisit. “Once you've been to New Orleans, you’ll definitely come back.” He may well be right. 

1 comment:

  1. Glad you got a personalized tour of my favorite city and the Golden Latrine is my dive of choice. Go Clorox Bleachman! BTW my mom carries a six pack of Tab in her purse, she says, "You never know when you might find yourself stranded in an airport where they don't serve it!"