A Tour of the Historic Chicago Theater with Drew Perfilio

I’m thinking, Sinatra stood here.

I’m also thinking, I can’t believe I used to work here.

Drew Perfilio walks me across the stage. Eleven years ago, we both worked out in the lobby, tending bar. It was a pickup gig for me at times, a full-time gig at others. At one point in this city, it was one of four jobs I was working while I tried to make ends meet. I left the theater after a while, and eventually Chicago. Drew stuck with both. Now, he’s in charge of every bartender, barback, and cocktail server in the joint, and responsible for every drop of liquor that they pour.

Which is why he can take me on the stage when the theater is dark.

“I love my job.” he tells me. And that’s important, because the hours in a gig like his are brutal. When the season is hopping, fourteen and fifteen hour days are normal. He’s letting me stay in his apartment, and I watch him drag himself home at two in the morning more than once during my visit. His wife and son are already in bed when he gets back, so we sit up and do what we’ve always done in the fifteen years we’ve known each other. We talk. We talk music. We talk philosophy. We talk poetry. We’re like Plato and Aristotle, only dumber.

Drew Perfilio, who is so punk rock he prefers his own earlier work.

A love of the music and the shows is one of the things that keeps Drew committed. But he also loves the theater itself, which has been a cornerstone of Chicago’s busy State Street since 1921, when it was constructed as a high end movie palace for the Balaban and Katz Theater Company. It quickly became one of the most popular venues in Chicago, not just for the novelty of motion pictures, but because it was one of the few buildings in the city where the public could experience air conditioning during the hot summer months.

The theater also featured live music and stage shows, and became well known for the opulence of its interior, which included murals across the ceilings, its gorgeous staircase, Tiffany glass, and two fountains near the edges of the stage which would actively pour water until theater owners noticed that everyone who sat near them had to constantly dart out to use the restrooms, at which point they were turned off.

This staircase was modeled on a staircase on the Titanic.

In the 70’s, the theater fell into disrepair. Attempts to keep it running as a movie house failed. Before it was shuttered for repairs in 1985, it was reduced to showing second-run films to an audience that included drunks sleeping in the aisles and prostitutes taking care of business with customers in the shadows.

It could have gone by the wayside, but a massive development project by a preservation group saved the old dame and converted it back to its 1930’s grandeur. On September 8, 1986, Mayor Harold Washington flipped the switch to turn the lights back on. Two days later, the theater officially re-opened with a performance by Frank Sinatra.

Today, the theater focuses on stage shows by performers ranging from Jerry Seinfeld to Arcade Fire, as well as older musicals like A Chorus Line, Cabaret and, of course, Chicago.

The view from the stage. The suspended balcony provides a good view from any seat.

In 2013, the theater hosted a tribute to one of my favorite writers: the film critic Roger Ebert. For two and a half hours, friends came to offer tributes to the great storyteller who had lost his battle with cancer that April. Ebert and his one-time nemesis turned longtime friend Gene Siskel used to watch films slated for their famous show right here in the balcony. Today, a plaque dedicated to Ebert resides in front of the main entrance, while directly across the street sits the Gene Siskel Film Center, dedicated to the equally brilliant critic who passed away in 1998.

The history of the performers is written on the walls. Drew walks me down below the stage, past the various green rooms and communal dining areas for the performers. Murals of the shows are painted in blocks the walls, then criss-crossed with the signatures of the cast. At the top of one staircase, there is a door painted purple and dedicated to Prince, adorned with the symbol he used for a name during his “The Artist Formerly Known As…” phase.

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 The Prince Door. Carol Burnett’s animated likeness and signature are just to the right.

None of these are views I could have had eleven years ago. Until Drew gave me the tour, I’d never seen the lower levels of the theater, never even came close to the stage. I think I’d been inside the main auditorium just once.

Now, I could take in the suspended balcony, which so panicked the public that the theater owners placed thousands of pounds of sandbags in the seats and had newsmen photograph it so audiences would be assured they wouldn’t plunge to their deaths. Likewise, I could take in the murals on the high ceilings, the gold leaf and the ornate designs carved into the stone. I could stand on the stage where Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra had their reunion. I could sit in the box seats where the rich and powerful of Chicago have sat for 95 years.

Drew gets to see this every day, but the beauty of it isn’t lost on him. He talks through every arc of the building’s history, right down to what kind of wiring was installed when he poured his first drink on his first shift as an entry-level bartender. He can tell you the ways the different shows will be staged and which shows are going to do what kind of business. It’s his job to know this stuff, of course. But you can sense the thrill he gets from being part of it.

It’s been a decade since we worked here together, at the same level. I never would have considered moving upward, but that’s the difference between us. Drew is a Chicagoan, and there are few buildings more synonymous with the city than the theater that bears its name. For him to have a substantial role in making it run is a point of pride, and it should be. His story speaks to the work ethic embodied within the city’s DNA. By simply doing his job well, he’s become a part of this theater’s history—and by extension, of the city itself.

The Chicago Theater is located at 175 N. State Street in downtown Chicago. Their website can be found here, and has a list of upcoming shows.

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Tacos and Churros in Mexico City

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A bubbling cauldron of everything good in life.

It’s the street food capital of the world, and it hangs out its shingles for everyone. For those on a budget, for those with millions. Walk Mexico City and you see the stalls everywhere. Food stands hawking tacos and tortas. Breakfast and lunch and dinner and dessert. Guys on tricycles with speakers on the front blaring advertisements for tamales. Vendors on corners selling cups of freshly cut mango and papaya, with a dash of chili salt on top if you’re feeling that. You can find something to eat everywhere. And if you can’t find it, give it a minute and it’ll find you.

There are few cities in the world where you will see more people eating on the street. As the writer David Lida explains in his marvelous panorama of the city First Stop in the New World, street stands in Mexico City share two distinct advantages. The first is the weather, which is consistently temperate, enough so that eating on the street is a good idea almost any time of year. The second, more important reason, is that the government hardly taxes food stands. Essentially, every vendor gives the city a small percentage of their profits. This allows for an interesting experiment in democracy, with people intermingling from street corner to street corner without sequestering themselves into corner booths or tables, isolated from one another.

The other thing that makes it work, of course, is the quality of the food.

For most Norte Americanos, the food most associated with Mexico is the taco. And while it would be a mistake to call the taco Mexico’s national dish, it is probably the go-to convenience food for every state in the nation. Mexico City, being the central switchboard for the country, holds countless restaurants and food stands that cater to all of the nation’s regional cuisines. This means that you can find every kind of taco under the sun, stuffed with every imaginable combination of stuff. Everyone contributes. And Mexico City, for its part, contributes perhaps the greatest version of them all: Tacos al Pastor.

In the 1920’s, Lebanese immigrants made their way to Mexico City, and brought with them the shawarma spit. Enterprising Mexican vendors took the basic design (meat on a vertical spit with a flame toasting the side) and replaced the lamb with pork. Cured, and marinated with chili, citrus and spices, the trompo, as it’s called, rotates on the spit, turning the meat a distinctive orange hue. When you walk up and order, an expert takes a knife to the meat with one hand and slices downward, shearing off strips of meat that fall into the tortilla waiting in their other hand. Cilantro and relish are added, and often a slice of pineapple, which is usually roasting on the spit just above the pork.

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Behold, El Huequito’s Taco al Pastor. Quite possibly the best taco in the world.

Like po boys in New Orleans, hot dogs in Chicago and pizza in New York, every neighborhood in the city claims they have the best of the best Tacos al Pastor in the city. Following the advice of David Lida, I went to El Huequito. This joint’s been serving the famous dish (and a variety of other things) since 1959, and their al Pastor is legendary. They have a sit down restaurant on the inside, but you can just as easily stand on the street and chow down right by the freshly cooked meat. You also get to witness the curious honor system of the taco stands. You walk inside to pay, tell them how many you had, and they charge you. Nobody questions it, and nobody seems to lie about it, either. The street food exchange is, it appears, sacred territory, free from con artists.

El Huequito brushes their Tacos al Pastor with an orange salsa. Perhaps it’s the salsa, perhaps it’s the way the meat is cured. But when you bite into one of these, everything bad in your life vanishes. I’ve eaten my share of tacos, both in Mexico and the States, and I have never tasted one so good. It is as perfect a bite of food as I’ve ever had.

To move onto another stand is not so much about improving upon El Huequito it is about variety. Quite simply, if you can go anywhere to eat, you should. Eventually, you’ll find a few stalls you return to repeatedly.

Fortunately, El Huequito sits right next to the model of taco variety: Los Cocuyos.

Extending out onto the sidewalk with a small metal bar and a few stools, Los Cocuyos, prides themselves on, and distinguishes themselves with, their varied menu, which includes earlobes, throat, head, tripe, tongue, and eyes.

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Eye meat for the taco. Don’t knock it til you tried it.

I tried everything. Even the eye, which it should be noted is NOT the eyeball, but rather the meat that surrounds the eyeball. It was pretty good. Everything was good. But the surprising winner was the tripe, which pops with a charred smoky flavor that you would never associate with stomach. The folks at Los Cocuyos will also toss in some nopales—stewed and diced cactus leaves—which make for a nice side.

These two stands, three doors apart, make up a microscopic section of the savory street options in town. Once, coming out of a bullfight, I ate tortas that I was assured were made from cabeza de lobo—wolf’s head. I had no way to confirm this. I simply took the man’s word for it.

But if you’re feeling like a sweet option, you can get everything from fresh cut fruit to ice cream. My personal favorite, however, is the churro.

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Churro stand. A beacon of hope.

I fell in love with these sugary torpedoes while visiting Spain, where people often have them with chocolate dipping sauce for breakfast, proving that Spain is one seriously civilized country. The churro is basically a tube of fried dough, smothered in sugar and cinnamon and often dipped in some kind of sauce. On the streets outside the main plaza of the Coyoacan neighborhood, La Estacion serves these things up with a couple dozen options of sweet sauces to cover them.

My friend Chris and I happened upon this place after we may or may not have been drinking rum in a nearby cantina. I can’t tell you the hour, but I can tell you that a churro sounded like the perfect cap to the evening. Chris ordered his with a sauce made from Bailey’s Irish Cream, and I ordered mine with Nutella.

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Churros.

We got them to go, took our first bites, then turned and walked back to the stand to get seconds.

Perhaps these were the best churros on the planet. They sure tasted that way to me, even the next day when I was far more sober. But whether they are, objectively, the greatest churros ever, isn’t the point. The point is that just by walking and sampling what’s available on the street, you can find some of the best food in Mexico City. In that kind of environment, it’s advisable to never be in a hurry. Wander, graze, try a bit of everything. In the city with the greatest street food on the planet, it’s easy to have a great meal. Even if all you’re doing is going for a walk.

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Los Cucuyos is located at Calle Bolivar 54 in the Centro.

El Huequito is a couple doors down at Calle Bolivar 58.

La Polar: Mariachis and Hangover Cures

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Every country has its suggestions for how to recuperate when the previous night was too much. From full English breakfasts to the heart-attack inducing Canadian specialty of poutine to—my personal cure-all—pickle juice right out of the jar, humanity worldwide looks to certain specialties to save them from crippling headaches and sideways glances after a night of poor decisions.

In the Mexican state of Jalisco, that specialty is Birria.

Birria is ideal hangover food. Like the hangover cure of choice in many places, it centers around a bowl of salty, spicy broth. The salt helps your dehydration. The spice makes you sweat out your sinful nature. Birria chefs then pile the bowl high with shredded lamb, and the waiter brings out sides of avocado, cheese, lime, and various peppers. Even if you stagger in like the village drunkard, by the end of the meal you’ll be right with the world again. Just wash the club stamp off the back of your hand and you’ll be ready for church.

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Goodbye hangover. Hello clean living.

Since 1934, Mexico City’s Cantina La Polar has specialized in this particular hangover cure. Sitting in the Colonia San Rafael, a frequently overlooked neighborhood studded with colonial mansions in various states of repair (or disrepair), La Polar is easy to spot with its distinctive yellow and blue paint job and their logo of a polar bear walking away from an igloo where he may or may not have been feasting on the inhabitants.

The neighborhood of Colonia San Rafael was once the major theater district in the city, but sustained heavy damage in the 1985 earthquake. The area has been undergoing something of a rebirth of late, but a slow one, as other areas of the city seem to be gaining a lot more attention. The one business in the area that seems to never have slowed down is La Polar, whose busy valet parking lot speaks to the restaurant’s continuous business. This is one of those neighborhood joints that it is fair to call an institution.

Birria is more or less the official dish of the state of Jalisco, which contains the nation’s second largest city, Guadalajara. This region is famous for another piece of Mexican culture quickly identifiable to foreigners: Mariachi bands.

And at La Polar, you can order your very own band to serenade you while you eat.

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You definitely need to hire these guys.

Listed on the walls in each of La Polar’s four large, spare rooms are prices for bands. 135 pesos for Mariachi tunes. One hundred for Norteños. Ninety pesos for photos of the band, or with the band. Often, the bands walk up to your table and offer their services, but if you don’t see them you simply tell the waiter what you want to hear, and he will retrieve the band. These guys are professionals, too. You will see them tuning up in the parking lot, checking the shine on their boots and the cut of their jackets. They make a joyful noise, which might be a bit much if you walked in with a hangover, but that’s what the birria is for anyway.

This is a classic cantina, about as old school as it gets. But its a proudly local spot, off the main tourist track, and still very much as it was a few decades ago, when the neighborhood had more movie theaters than any other in the city. Despite the changes in the neighborhood, from high to low to (hopefully) high again, La Polar remains there, a signpost of consistency in a rapidly growing, rapidly changing town. Still serving the old recipes. Still bringing in live music during the meals. Still there, whether you are arriving in the highest of spirits or trying to crawl back from the dead.

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Cantina La Polar is located in Mexico City’s Colonia San Rafael neighborhood at Guillermo Prieto #129. Their number is +52 55 5546 5066. They are open at 7 a.m. every day, and stay open till 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, midnight on Sunday, and 11 p.m. every other day. More information here.

Growing to Love Miami

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A quick stop in a city that has slowly become one of my favorites…

Too many people miss the layers of Miami. It seems, on its surface (and from the myriad, often highly inaccurate portrayals of it on television and film), to be a gorgeous and vapid place for gorgeous, vapid people. A place with little sense of history and no sense of taste. I’m not so different in that I got the city wrong for years, either by acquiring distorted perceptions or dismissing it entirely. I only found it growing on me in the last several years.

Some of that was shaped, I’m sure, by when and where I grew up. Throughout the 1980’s, Miami was regarded by many in the nation with a certain fascination and a palpable degree of fear—a fear that extended into the city itself. One of my first clear encounters with unvarnished racism came during my first visit to Miami with my mother. At a gas station, we asked an attendant for directions. He advised us that as we drove through one particular neighborhood not to stop for anything, unless we hit someone with the car, in which case he advised us not to stop, but to drive faster.

There was a kind of mania around the city in those days. In 1980, riots erupted in the Liberty City neighborhood over the acquittal of four police officers who had beaten a black motorcyclist named Arthur McDuffie to death after a high speed chase, then claimed he died when he fell off of his motorcycle.  That same year, the Mariel Boatlift brought tens of thousands of Cuban refugees to the city. Some of them had been released from prisons or mental institutions, and once that information got out many people painted all the arrivals as criminals and derelicts.  And as the cocaine trade picked up, fueling the free-market go-go eighties, violence erupted. In 1981, the Miami-Dade morgue was so overwhelmed by bodies it had to use a refrigerated truck for the extra cadavers. That same year, Time Magazine ran a cover story on the violence.

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Time cover from November, 1981 (Time Magazine)

But that was adult stuff. We got the horror stories as kids, for sure. Scare tactics, advice to never go near the place. But for kids my age in the 80’s (definitely in Florida, but probably nationally), Miami was famous for three things: Miami Vice, The Miami Hurricanes football team, and 2 Live Crew.

I’m probably not the only person who had his perceptions of the city shaped early on by Miami Vice. It was the first “adult” show I could remember watching, though I can hardly recall any of the episodes today. All I knew was that it was a hot place where a man could drive his Ferrari and keep his pet alligator in peace, provided he didn’t have to go shoot some bad guys.

I was more interested in football, though, and in the 80’s, the Miami Hurricanes were a juggernaut of a football team—always in the mix for the national title, and easily the most hated team in the United States. Some of that was good old bad sportsmanship. Some of it was exhaustion that the same team was always at the top. A lot of it, however, was racism. The Miami Hurricanes built their teams off kids from inner city Miami, many of them black, which meant that anything they did wrong got magnified through prisms of class and race. The team was brash and cocky. They would hit you late and stand over you to gloat. They would score a touchdown and sneer at the camera. And most importantly, they would win. And they would win by playing fast, exciting football that drove a spike in the heart of the Big 10 style “three yards and a cloud of dust” model. They were the new thing. They would enter the stadium through that white cloud of smoke, symbolizing a hurricane, and all the adults would cluck their tongues and shake their heads. I didn’t really cheer for them (I was a Florida Gators fan), but they were always fun to watch. And at least they weren’t Florida State.

2 Live Crew, the rap group fronted by Miami legend Luther Campbell, was every bit as cocky and brash as the football team, and every bit as controversial. While the Hurricanes were vilified in the press for every misstep (and make no mistake, there was legitimate corruption in the football program, but people were definitely gunning for the team), 2 Live Crew was villfied for every raunchy lyric (of which there were plenty) in their songs. They quickly became the focal point of the Parents Resource Music Center, a morality-police group founded by Tipper Gore with the aim of stomping out obscenity once and for all, I guess. 2 Live Crew made a prime target with songs like “We Want Some Pussy” and “Me So Horny.” They even managed to get themselves arrested for obscenity in 1990 (hard to believe, today) for performing these songs on stage, which was probably the single best publicity boost I’ve seen for any band in my lifetime. Their records sold out faster than Madonna’s, faster than Prince’s. And even though I didn’t really like their music, there was still a palpable pre-teen thrill my friends and I felt as we listened to something so offensive to people older than us.

There was the sense that Miami was a secret that the adult world was keeping from us.

In a sense, Miami still does keep its secrets. They just aren’t the ones I always thought the city was keeping. I think my biggest disappointment on my first couple visits to Miami was that it seemed kind of dull. And that had a lot to do with my age and where I went. I only saw the downtown, a small sliver of Coconut Grove, and Miami Beach. I was too dumb to appreciate Art Deco architecture, too young to drink, and there were plenty of beaches in my hometown. Worst of all, it was in my home state, which I was in a big hurry to get away from. It didn’t occur to me that one of the most interesting cities in America was only a three hour drive from my dad’s house.

Miami’s biggest secret is its history. It is a fascinating town, a port city with a massive mix of cultures, stories, and histories. Like Los Angeles, it is a city sold as a dream, a balm, a cure-all for a dead-end life. And like Los Angeles, it is a town that shields its true self, and deep hurts, under a sheen of glitter and sunshine, alcohol and excess.

On my last visit—an 18-hour layover on my way to Mexico—photoI rented a car at the airport and drove straight to a local breakfast and lunch spot on the eastern edge of the Liberty City neighborhood. It’s run by a woman named Trudy Ellis, who opened up shop in 1988 when she saw there were no Bahamian restaurants in the city. The Bahamian Pot is a small slice of the community, and a meal there was perfect way to find my path into the city. Owner-chef Trudy Ellis recently moved the place a few blocks east of its original location, but the food, I am told, is the same as it ever was, with a  few additions. The breakfast of boiled fish and grits is probably the most famous meal at the place, but as I was too late for breakfast, the waitress suggested I order the oxtail with mac and cheese. “I’m Jamaican,” she said. “So that’s what I like.”

It seems odd that there aren’t more restaurants like the Bahamian Pot, considering that Bahamians were so critical in the building of Miami. At the time of Miami’s founding, more than 40 percent of the city’s black population was Bahamian. Many of the new arrivals found work in construction, especially as stonemasons, working with the oolitic limestone common to both South Florida and the Bahamas. They also found work on Henry Flagler’s railroad, which would bring thousands more transplants from the north, and eventually establish Miami as one of the most important cities in the American South. The Bahamians also brought their music, including the street bands that form the Carnival-centered Junkanoo parades, and a local drum-heavy musical style called Goombay, both of which would influence the musical sound of Miami for decades, in everything from soul music to Miami Bass.

After the meal, Mizz Trudy came out and thanked me for coming in. I told her the food was incredible, and that I drove straight there from the airport. She encouraged me to come back, and to book an earlier flight so I could have breakfast next time.

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I have my own history in Miami. Four generations of my family have lived there at one time or another. My great-grandparents lived there in their retirement years. My grandfather attended the University of Miami for a year, and helped pay his tuition by playing piano at the Tides Hotel in Miami Beach. My father moved there as a young man from North Carolina and worked as a radio DJ. And my first cousins live there now, on the very edge of Miami Beach in a small house on a hidden alleyway of a street that seems to exist only because developers haven’t figured out it’s there.

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The Tides Hotel, where my grandfather played piano for tuition money.

Miami Beach is actually a separate city from Miami itself (LeBron James’s 2010 announcement that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” led to a lot of palms to the forehead among local residents). Much of Miami Beach is built on landfill, as are the nearby, ultra-exclusive Palm Island and Star Island. It’s a beautiful place with a  lot of ugly history. For decades, the beach and all the hotels on it were segregated (though the all-white hotels still regularly booked black entertainers, who had to stay in other parts of the city). There’s a big Jewish community in Miami Beach, but for decades they were only allowed to live in a specific section of the city. Even the mayor who oversaw much of the city’s revitalization—Alex Daoud—was as corrupt as they come, eventually serving a federal term for 41 counts of bribery, corruption, and racketeering.

The criminality of the place is just as obvious today in the glittering high-rise buildings that continued to go up in the middle of the Great Recession. A massive sting operation by the FBI in 2012 rounded up a half-dozen city employees on the take, including the city’s lead code compliance officer. But an investigation by the Miami New Times showed that the arrests barely got under the surface of the city’s seemingly endemic corruption.

Miami Beach is also famous for good things, like its stunning art deco architecture, which seems to be everywhere, and its remarkably unpolluted beach. When you walk down the beach itself in the twilight, the crowds having thinned out and the evening breeze cooling the waterfront, you kind of understand why everyone from a northeastern pensioner to a billionaire Russian oligarch would want to make his home here. Although parking can be a nightmare, the beach itself is probably the most democratic institution in the city. Dip your toes in the water at sunset and look around. You could almost believe the city was built for all of us.

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The coffee stand at Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, around midnight.

After resting at my cousin’s place, I made my way back across the bridge to Little Havana, the largest Cuban neighborhood in the United States. Running like a main artery through the neighborhood is Calle Ocho (8th Street)where you can find a variety of shops, clubs, markets, coffee stands and parks where old men play dominoes and sip highly-caffeinated, syrupy Cuban coffee. And if you keep going down Calle Ocho, you will eventually reach the famous Versailles Restaurant, known to many, and with much justification, as the capital of Cuba outside Havana.

Hang around here long enough and you see everybody. Tourists and locals. Young and old. A neighborhood drunk and a state senator. There’s 44 years worth of history here, along with a heavy reputation for anti-Castro politics (owner Felipe Valls once boasted, “In that corner, they have killed that sucker at least a hundred times every day”).

To get into the history of the Cuban community in Miami is to dive into some very deep, very turbulent waters. Perhaps the first thing you should know is that Miami was never supposed to be a permanent stop for many of the people who came over from Cuba. It was supposed to be a convenient outpost to stay in until Fidel Castro was overthrown and they could return to their homeland. But 57 years and countless assassination attempts later, Castro is still around, and those people—those who are still alive, anyway—are still waiting to go home. The reaction to Obama’s move to open up dialogue with the Cuban government has been met with very mixed reactions, often split along generational lines. Many of the original exiles swear they will not return until Fidel and his brother Raul are dead. Many of the younger generation want to see the island they’ve always heard their parents and grandparents speak of as soon as possible. Nobody is certain what the next decade is going to look like—for Cuba, or for Miami.

It is a massive understatement to say that many Cuban exiles relationship to their adopted home is a complicated one. But if you come to Miami and you want to at least get a toehold in that mix, Versailles might be the best place to start.

It helps that Versailles, in addition to being a center of local culture, is also a damn fine restaurant. It’s also convenient if you have an extremely early flight and have decided to power through the night. The restaurant stays open until one in the morning most night, and later on the weekends. Even if you arrive on the later side, there will still be a crowd, and there will still be a line at the coffee stand next door.

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The Medianoche, slightly different than a Cubano. Roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard on sweet bread. A staple of any South Floridian diet.

At the coffee stand, you order pastries and Cafe Cubano, which is essentially an espresso with the sugar added during the brewing process. It is incredibly sweet—too sweet for many coffee drinkers—and can leave you jangly for hours if you’re not used to it. It’s also depressing, after having a bad reaction to it, to see old men at the counters throwing it back like water, seemingly to no effect.

For me, the effect is powerful. And since I’m not 18 anymore, I need all the help I can get for an all-nighter.

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There is still that part of me that wants the Miami I dreamt of as a boy. And although it’s not something I should be doing (financially speaking), and although it smacks of an early attempt at a mid-life crisis, I decided to indulge that part of myself by renting a convertible. It was a silly thing to do in many respects, but I have to admit that it satisfied that desire to be a character in the Miami movie that always existed in my mind.

As cliche as it is, there might be no better city in America to drive a convertible than Miami. Especially at night, with the countless lights of the overgrown city reflecting off the low clouds, the palm trees waving slowly as you go by, and the smell of the ocean around you. You cross the bridge, and ships coming into port tower above you. It’s a dream, a montage sequence from a TV show. And although everything is telling you how cheesy it is, how hopelessly you are reaching for the romantic, it is beautiful. You can’t pretend for a moment you’re not having a good time.

But it is a dream. It’s the part of Miami that fades as soon as the credits roll. If you do fall for this city, it’s not the dream that holds you. It’s those deeper layers. The neighborhoods. The endless stories that spring up from a place where the whole world has crashed together in a pool of greed and phony appeal, and managed to build communities in spite of it. On the plane out of the city, I could look down and see the shiny towers of the new developments. You couldn’t miss them. But there was no way to see the little neighborhood stores, the restaurants, the playgrounds, the schools, and everything else that makes up the spine of the city.

It’s a tough place to know for that reason. For all of the glitter, it’s in all the parts you don’t see that Miami really reveals itself. I didn’t understand that. I got it wrong for so long. I keep going back now in the hope that, eventually, I’ll get it right.

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The Bahamian Pot is located at 6301 NW 6th Avenue. Their phone number is 305-759-3408.

Versailles Restaurant is located at 3555 SW 8th St. They have a website here, and are open Sunday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. On Friday, they stay open until 2:30 a.m. On Saturday, they stay open until 3:30 a.m.

Last Days on Deslonde Street

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In the end, I decided to go forward. I decided to leave something behind. It’s been nine years in New Orleans, longer than I’ve lived in a city since I left home at 17. And in those two decades, there is no address I’ve claimed longer than the little cabin on Deslonde Street that served as my home for two years, one month, and twenty-seven days.

I’m off the map again. Nothing new, really. I recently tried adding up all the moves I’ve made in my life and came to around 45. From the split houses that came with my parents’ divorce right through to the new life I formed after my own marriage collapsed; from my first shot outward when I went off to school, to the three schools that followed that first one; through ten states, a foreign country, and all the moves and all the dissembling and reassembling that came with them, the dominant theme of my life has been movement.

And last week, once again, I moved. I loaded everything I own into a truck, drove to Florida, loaded it all into a storage locker, sold the truck, and took off to Mexico, where I now sit, calculating possible trajectories.

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My corner of the world.

There’s no way to write about what this move means for me without falling into overt sentimentality. Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. But I find I need to remind myself that this latest move isn’t about this house. It isn’t about New Orleans. It’s not a means of escape or a crisis of being. It’s simply an attempt, a hopeful and potentially misguided one, to embark on the life I want now. In nine years in the city, I learned to build a life from ground up, and to make it stick. I’ve never done that before, and the life I had at the cabin is the best evidence that it worked out the way I wanted.

I wanted to live in this house years before it became my home. There was a time when if anyone asked me where I would choose if I could live in any house in the world, this would have been the place. That I felt that way and found a chance to make that feeling become a reality is still surprising to me. Some places we live in seem magical, and maybe there’s some truth to that. But I think the bulk of it is just finding a spot that syncs up perfectly with who and where we are in our lives, as though what was happening to us internally had manifested itself into the shape of a home. I’ve rarely lived anywhere that had so much of what I needed surrounding me all at the same moment. My favorite neighborhood. The Mississippi River just steps away. A good friend to share the space with. And music, all the time, pouring out of every wall.

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One of the many backyard concerts held at the house.

When I tell people about my time here, years from now, it will come back to the music. I would lie down at night, and the music from the jazz band on the steamboat Natchez would drift across the water and sit in my room. My friends recorded single tracks and entire albums in the living room. The house was a living, breathing space where one person after another came to create their work, whether it be a new song breathed into a microphone and made permanent, or a campfire in the backyard where the songs welled up and held together in a shared space before floating away to make room for the next ones.

One of the best parts about getting older is watching your friends become who they are going to be, and to find success with that. I’ve watched people who poured coffee and sang on the street when I first arrived become international touring musicians. I’ve watched friends publish their first books, their first stories. One after another, I’ve seen the people I know find their callings and begin to live them.

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A freighter passes outside my door on my last night in town.

In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do now. Over the coming months I’ll be reworking the website and making moves for a massive trip that will consume the bulk of 2017. And I’ll continue to write, and to see how much further I can cast this net. I’ve been writing in the blog for a little over a year now, and it’s gone from a hobby to a cornerstone in what I hope will be the primary work I’m doing for years to come.

I’m not done in New Orleans by any stretch. I’ll be back in town in a couple months, and I will be staying a couple months when I return. But I will be doing it without a fixed address or a room of my own. There are larger steps to come. But this was the first one. It feels big and it feels terrifying. I have nothing to complain about with the life I’m moving from. This house was a gift, and this house was ballast. It’ll be interesting to see how well I can keep my balance without it.

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Follow the Mezcal: 72 Hours in Mexico City

Bullfight

If we were going to be climbing an ancient Mesoamerican temple at sunrise to take in the view, we decided, then we damn sure better bring something of value to offer the gods. And if we were going to bring an offering, it only made sense that the offering should be good quality mezcal.

“We’re going to need a flask,” I told Sam. “I’m not going to risk dropping a glass bottle on the stone.” Littering the Pyramid of the Sun with broken glass because I couldn’t hang on to the bottle would, I felt, make for a poor offering. It would also be kind of the most American thing I could do.

Sam and I found a liquor store near our hostel in Coyoacan and purchased a bottle of mezcal recommended to us at our restaurant the night before. As well as a couple of oranges, because we are both vigilant about our vitamin intake.

“So tomorrow for the pyramids?” said Sam.

“Tomorrow,” I told him. Because that night we had a plan. We were going to hunt down a signless, supposedly secret mezcal bar called La Clandestina. Finding it would prove to be the single most difficult thing we did in three nights in the western hemisphere’s largest city.

*     *      *

I’ve always loved Mexico City. So much so that if I were to be exiled from my home country and told I would have to live outside its borders forever, Mexico City would be my first destination. It’s like a dozen cities crammed into one. In fact, it is a dozen (or more) cities crammed into one, with formerly independent municipalities like Coyoacan and San Angel swallowed up and made part of the metro area as the city continued to grow.

It’s been a haven for artists and expats, with everyone from Leon Trotsky to Luis Bunuel to Gabriel Garcia Marquez finding a home within its spacious confines. It has produced writers the caliber of Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, painters such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, filmmakers like Oscar winners Alejandro Gonzalez Inarratu and Alfonso Cuaron. It’s a food town. It’s a music town. It has dazzling architecture and a great mass transit system. Like many cities in the western hemisphere, it has a staggering gap between its richest and poorest citizens, and a small middle class that struggles to hold it all together. And though the headlines often make it seem far worse than it is, it has a crime problem. A big one. Much of it fueled by the drug trade which brings a variety of narcotics, stimulants, hallucinogens, and various other illegal substances into the noses and mouths and veins of the gringos to the north, who continue to shake their heads at the rampant crime south of them as they lean forward to do another line.

It is also a city of neighborhoods. Some of them so rural it is shocking to realize you are still within the limits of a major city. Some of them crammed together and pressed into the surrounding hillsides. But of all the neighborhoods in Mexico City, my unquestioned favorite is Coyoacan, the longtime home of Frida Kahlo, and an oasis of calm in Mexico’s racing heart.

My traveling companion for this visit to the city was Sam Doores, singer/songwriter and driving force behind a fast rising band called The Deslondes, who Rolling Stone listed as one of the ten country artists you need to know. He’s also my roommate back in New Orleans. I met him at the airport and guided him to the Metro, unquestionably one of the best and cheapest local rail lines in the world. It covers a staggering amount of the metropolis and our one-way fare to Coyoacan ran about twenty-five cents, American.

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Locals relax around the coyote fountain in central Coyoacan.

Coyoacan means “Place of the Coyotes,” and a monument to the canines in question sits at the center of the main plaza. It’s a great place, day or night, for taking a stroll, sitting and reading a book, or people watching. And like most of Mexico City, it’s a great place to kiss someone. At least according to what I’ve seen. I’ve been to Paris, but Mexico City makes the Parisians feel positively Victorian. There seem to be couples kissing on every corner. I can’t imagine anyone would ever create a “makeouts per square foot” chart, but if they did, I’m sure Mexico City would leave Paris in the dust.

Coyoacan is also, like all of Mexico City, a great place to eat. Looking out over the fountain are several restaurants, and perhaps the best of these is Los Danzantes. I’m a big believer in creature comforts the day one arrives in a new country. One should try to settle in with a nice room and a nice meal, if possible. It’s a treat for yourself after a long trip, and it’s good way to set the tempo for the rest of your time.

Sam and I took our first meal at Los Danzantes. There are some very special meals where what you ate doesn’t seem to matter. IMG_1572I can tell you that the meal at Los Danzantes that first night was one of the best I’ve ever had, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you exactly what I ate. And does it matter? When I recommend my favorite restaurants to people, the recommendation usually includes the words “trust me.” I can tell you there was impeccable service, that every bite of the food almost had us doubled over laughing the laughter of two people getting away with something, who can’t believe their luck that they should find themselves eating this well in a place this nice. When our waiter brought out the bottle of mezcal (with black lava salt and orange slices on the side), it wasn’t even a question as to whether we would be ordering any, as Los Danzantes isn’t just a restaurant. They are also distillers, championing one of the finest mezcals on the market (it is known in the States as Los Nahuales). They serve it in house, and sell bottles around the city.

Including the bottle we would later buy to take to Teotihuacan.

It was over two hours before we waddled out of the place. If I’d eaten any more they would have had to roll me out. It was the finest meal I had in Mexico City, and that’s saying something, because it is almost impossible to find bad food here. I told Sam as much as we went home, but I don’t think he heard me. He’d been in the city all of three hours and had already been treated to one of the best meals of his life. Nothing could have spoiled his view of the city after that.

*      *      *

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I have been told by people in the know that Singapore is the world’s capital for street food. Me, I’m putting my money on Mexico City. There are stands everywhere. In markets. On roadsides. All of them turning out a lot of tacos and tortas and passing them your way for the price of a halfway-decent cup of coffee in the States.

There are also a lot of them IMG_1584in the old colonial heart of the city, and that’s convenient, because you don’t want to waste a lot of time when you are walking around the heart of Mexico City. You want to look at buildings, wander in and out of museums, eat something good, and then keep walking.

At the heart of the city is the Palacio de Bellas Artes, an extraordinarily beautiful building housing a number of murals by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. With its golden dome, marble facade, and crystal interior roof, it seems somehow escaped from a Russian novel and placed like a gem in the center of a ring here, in Mexico City.

The architecture in the historical center is stunning, and there constantly seems to be more of it. Temples are being excavated, and they sit there below street level next to colonial buildings that loom up from every direction. The historic center is highly walkable, although saving some of your energy is advisable if you want to go off in search of hidden mezcal bars at night.

*     *     *

La Clandestina, we heard over and over again, was the place. A hole in the wall without a sign. Difficult to find, but worth it. As it turned out, “difficult” wasn’t the half of it. We found three different addresses listed for the place. The cab driver didn’t know where it was. Everyone who claimed to know where it was turned out to be wrong. An hour into our search, we ran into two women looking for the same place. They followed us for half an hour and then gave up. Each point in a direction led us to a new part of the city. The three different locations on Sam’s phone led to us covering a solid four miles or so. We walked by it, we would later learn, at least twice. And it wasn’t until after midnight, as we were piling into a cab to give up the fight that I noticed a design on the side of a building that looked like an agave plant.

I said, “That has to be it.”

We jumped out of the cab, passing the cabbie a 50 peso note for stopping for us, and walked into the small entrance.

“La Clandestina?” we asked at the front. A man who was framed by a couple dozen large plastic water bottles, all of them containing mezcal, all of them feeding into a Rube Goldberg array of tubes that led to various taps, nodded. He did not smile. We informed him we’d been looking for the place for a couple of hours. His expression didn’t change.

Si, es clandestino,” he told us, and if there had been subtitles underneath him, they would have clearly added, you dumb asses.

Chilly reception aside, La Clandestina is pretty much everything you would hope for in a place of its kind. A series of small tables, dim lighting, and a list of some of the finest mezcal to be found on the planet. With each glass, they bring a few orange slices. This is not the lime at the end of a tequila shot, because you do not shoot good mezcal. You sip it slowly like good Scotch, of which it shares some of the same, smoky qualities.

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Sam Doores partaking of mezcal and beer at La Clandestina.

Two glasses and we made for home, stopping on the way back to the hostel for an order of the classic anytime-in-the-day snack of chocolate con churros—sugary branches of fried dough and a thick cup of hot chocolate for dipping. As in Spain, these can be eaten for breakfast, an afternoon snack, or a final treat before retiring.

We had a plan for the next day. We were going to take in the temples. We were going to visit Diego and Frida. And we were going to see the bullfights. It was a lot and we would need to be up before dawn. You can plan these kinds of days and have everything fall apart. Or, like it did for us, everything can line up and give you a perfect day of travel.

*      *      *

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View of Teotihuacan from the Temple of the Moon.

The bus ride to Teotihuacan takes about an hour from Terminal Autobuses del Norte. Be certain you get on a bus that reads Piramides (the one that just reads Teotihuacan can leave you a good distance from the temples), and go ahead and get a round trip ticket to save yourself the hassle on the way back. I’d taken the advice of several travelers to get to the temples first thing in the morning before the crowds descended. You will hear this a lot. In my experience, it wasn’t really necessary. The temples actually felt more comfortable once people arrived. This was once a thriving city, and seeing people wandering through it, as though the markets were still alive, seemed more appropriate than standing on a deserted relic.

There are two main temples: The Temple of the Sun IMG_1626and the Temple of the Moon. We climbed the Temple of the Sun first, and it’s steep going. If I could see one reason for going early, it would be to avoid taking the steps during the midday heat, or getting stuck behind someone who can’t clamber up the last few yards. The view from the top, as you would expect, is pretty remarkable. To those who stood atop it, it must have seemed that the whole world converged here.

The road that connects the two pyramids is known as the Avenue of the Dead, and it is framed by smaller temples, which are in turn framed by wide open plains. We poured out some mezcal on those plains, then climbed the Temple of the Moon to finish the flask, eat our oranges, and sit on the temple’s stone steps and gaze out over what was once the largest city in the Americas—a moment at the center of the world, even if it’s a world that has long since gone.

*     *     *

Our hostel, Hostal Cujia Coyoacan, is a friendly and affordable joint with three distinctive features: a sculpture of a gecko climbing the outside wall, a rooftop terrace perfect for relaxing in the evenings, and close proximity to La Casa Azul, the longtime home of Frida Kahlo—now a museum dedicated to her and her extraordinary artwork.

Unfortunately, this place can get long in the lines. By the time Sam and I arrived, a tour group had pulled up, forming a line that snaked around the block. We took our leave and made for the Coyoacan market for lunch.

There’s something special about the markets in Mexico City. You can find almost anything you want, but you’re going to have to squeeze past people down narrow aisles and, in my case, past a brass band consisting of a bass drum, a trumpet and a tuba, slowly weaving through the market and providing a soundtrack. At the lunch counter, we ordered goat stew, and the proud proprietors pulled out their phones to show us pictures of the goat we were eating at that very moment.

With Frida’s home out of the running,IMG_1791 we made our way to the home she shared with the tempestuous painter Diego Rivera. The house, designed by Juan O’Gorman, is a wonder of modern architecture, from its tall cactus “fence,” to the bridge connecting the two living spaces, to the staircase that runs down the side of one of the houses like a fire escape. Although it is billed as being the home of both Rivera and Kahlo, Frida lived here for only six months. It’s really Rivera’s space, and his studio and living quarters still exist not too differently from how he left them upon his death in 1957.

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Portrait of Delores del Rio in Diego Rivera’s studio.

I’ve been in love with Diego Rivera’s work for many years. I will never forget the breathtaking experience of seeing his massive murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts for the first time. Looking at his murals is like looking into the entire history of the Americas. The canvas seems to extend forever, and the painting’s story extends along with it. He is remembered for this, but some of his finest works are simple, intimate character studies. I once saw a painting of his of a little girl on the Day of the Dead, dressed into the colors of the Mexican flag and holding a mask whose eyes glowed yellow, and was frozen to the spot for ten minutes. Great art will do that to me. I walk by a hundred paintings and then one grabs me. I stand there, terrified, or laughing, or in tears. And afterward, I fail to communicate why.

*     *     *

I attended my first bullfight in Spain a decade ago. I went in, like most newcomers, not knowing what to expect. It is a confusing thing to behold, as the crowds react to variety of details that are completely lost on the first time viewer. Two things surprised me at that first bullfight. The first was the amount of blood—far more than I expected. The second was how much I enjoyed the spectacle (one of the bulls even survived, as the matador performed poorly and was booed into submission before the kill). I warned Sam of the violence of the event, which he expected. He did not expect to want to see a second bullfight, but he did want to see one in his lifetime.

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Looking down into the Plaza de Toros Mexico, the world’s largest bullfighting ring.

Mexico City’s Plaza de Toros Mexico is the largest bullfighting ring in the world, with seating capacity for over 40,000 spectators. Being inside is a powerful thing, with the seats seeming to pour down into the ring and giving you, always, a sense of being right on top of the action whether you like it or not. The details I remembered from my first fight came back in pieces. The bandilleros, who plant a series of small barbed sticks into the bull’s back. They do this on foot, with the bull giving chase as they attempt to evade its horns. The picador, who from horseback uses a lance to stab the bull in the shoulder muscles, weakening the animal but not killing it. And the matador, the master of the ring, who engages in a ferocious choreography with the bull, turning it with the cape, weakening it slowly until it is time for the final estocada, where the matador drives a sword between the bull’s shoulder muscles and pierces its heart. As strange as it is to conceive of, the desire of both the matador and the crowd is to see the bull suffer as little as possible at the end. The matadors risk injury, even death. But if they fail to kill the bull swiftly and prolong its suffering, they will be booed mercilessly. If you are going to engage in a sport centered around death, it seems to be agreed, you should be able to dispatch that death quickly.

The quality of the matadors in Mexico City tends to be very high. This is the winter headquarters for many of Spain’s finest, not to mention Mexico’s, and that quality was evident from the first fight, when the matador performed his entire routine from horseback, swiftly turning the horse away from the horns and leaning out of the saddle to perform his turns. It was extraordinary to watch, but nothing prepared us for the third fight, which left the crowd in tears.

You may know nothing about bullfighting. You may despise its very existence. I count myself among the ignorant and I am firmly against certain aspects of the spectacle (I would see the running of the bulls in Pamplona done away with tomorrow, for example). But sometimes you see an artist in their natural habitat, performing an act in which they step outside of themselves and become an embodiment of what their particular craft is about. One needed no knowledge whatsoever of the art of the fight or its history to know they were witnessing something special. Time and again, the matador passed the bull, the horns so close to his body I was certain he’d been gored. The crowd rose in frenetic shouts of “Ole! Ole!” Each one growing louder and louder, then turning into waves of applause as he performed the final pass of the series and turned away. The man next to us, clearly a fanatic supporter of the fights, began shaking. People around us were in tears. When the time came for the kill, it was flawless. The sword went in clean, the matador right over the horns as he thrust it in to the hilt, then turning away as the bull wobbled on its legs and collapsed. We had watched a man risk his life for this crowd, and it was impossible not to applaud.

I applauded. I shouted. And I am certain, at that moment, I would have utterly failed to communicate why.

*     *     *

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With only a few hours left in the city, we returned to Coyoacan, strolling through the crowd in the main plaza and grabbing a few pastries at a wonderful shop called Pan Napoles before returning to the quiet of the hostel roof. My flight out was early in the morning, and Sam had plans to stay for an extra week. We took the remains of the mezcal up to the rooftop terrace, and with the sounds and lights of the city around us, we drank to the neighborhood, to the bulls, to the matadors, and to the day—a single day in which we had managed to take in an ancient sport, an ancient city, the work and home of a favorite artist, and ate and drank like kings the whole way through.

This city is a country unto itself. Each piece a new city, a new slice of the nation. You can look down from anywhere here and feel worlds, even epochs, converging. Looking across the Mexico City from that roof, it seemed we were standing at the very center of all things. That we were at the very capital of the world.

*     *     *

Los Danzantes is located on the edge of Plaza Jardin Centenario in central Coyoacan. They are open seven days a week and have a website here.

The Palacio de Bellas Artes is located in the Centro Historico next to the Bellas Artes Metro stop. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Their website is here.

La CLandestina sits at Alvaro Obregon 298 in the Condesa neighborhood. Look for the agave painted on the outside. They don’t have a website because of course they don’t.

La  Casa Azul is at Londres 247, at the intersection with Ignacio Allende. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. There is an extra charge for photographs. Get Frida’s Mole Poblano recipe. It’s written on the kitchen wall. Website is here.

The Diego Rivera house and museum (Museo Casa Estudio Deigo Rivera y Frida Kahlo) is located at the corner of Calle Diego Rivera and Altavista in the San Angel neighborhood. Their website is here.

Plaza de Toros Mexico is located at Calle Augusto Rodin 241, next to the Estadio Azul soccer stadium. Bullfighting season runs from November to March.

Hostal Cujia Coyoacan is located at Berlin 268. Look for the big gecko on the outside. Their website is here.

Dining Out in New Orleans: Jack Dempsey’s (with Keith Hurtt)

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Deep in the Ninth Ward sits the local institution Jack Dempsey’s, an island of consistency in a sea of change…

Dining Partner: Keith Hurtt IMG_1950

Occupation: Attorney at Law, Tour Guide, Gentleman of Questionable Reputation.

You can find him: Drinking an Abita Amber on Frenchman Street, Zydeco dancing in your neighborhood bar, wearing better clothes than you.

 

For roughly three years, I lived around the corner from Jack Dempsey’s. It sat there on Poland Avenue, a little white cottage with no windows, no way to see if they were open unless you walked up and read the hours of operation. Over the years, I’ve found something comforting about the consistency of the place. New restaurants came in on Chartres and St. Claude. Another standby of mine, The Joint, moved a few blocks over from its concrete bunker on the other side of Poland Avenue. But Jack Dempsey’s simply sat there, marking time, always ready to receive me whenever I finally passed through its doors.

It seems entirely appropriate that when I finally made my way there, it would be with my friend and fellow tour guide Keith Hurtt. Not just for proximity (he lives within a block of the place), but because few people seem to exemplify the staying power of the New Orleans character more than Keith. A lifelong resident of the city, a former attorney with a stint as a public defender on the city payroll, he seems to know every corner, every restaurant, every person on the street. I think of myself as a pretty sociable person, but Keith puts me to shame. A life moving through every strata of New Orleans society gives him the air of a man who has seen everything. He pops up seemingly everywhere in town, an Abita Amber conspicuously attached to his right hand.

This town produces many great artists and musicians, and an overflow of brilliant cooks and corrupt public officials. But what New Orleans produces most readily, and most uniquely, is characters. The carriage driver with the laugh everyone knows. The homeless man on Jackson Square with the golf club. The fruit seller with the loudspeaker mounted on his pickup truck. Like signposts that read YOU ARE HERE, they move through the city, stitching it together with a thread of familiarity.

Keith and I made for Jack Dempsey’s just before sunset. It’s a friendly place, with the low key air of a neighborhood sports bar. The waitress called us “sweetheart,” brought us a cold draft beer (for Keith) and a cold Barq’s root beer (for me), and a plate of onion rings roughly the size of Indianapolis.

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You should see the large order.

You come to Jack Dempsey’s for steak and for seafood. And if you’re really serious like me, you go for the half and half: a choice of two dishes—shrimp, oysters, frog legs, soft shell crab, catfish, redfish—along with a side. I went for the frog legs and shrimp and mac and cheese. Keith opted for the oyster po- boy. The portions are massive, and you should get your conversation in early, because it’s going to be nap time by the time you finish.IMG_1855

Keith and I have been working together for over two years, but like a lot of people I know in New Orleans, getting to know him has been a process. Not because either one of us lacks a desire to communicate, but because New Orleans presents such an abundance of options in company, food, entertainment, and all the rest of it. It can be hard to connect regularly with everyone you want to connect with, and it’s usually an unexpected encounter that allows you to finally get to know someone you have known as an acquaintance for years.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so special when you finally start to feel like a fixture in this city. When you can walk down the street and people call out to you, specifically you, in this sea of excess, this always transient population, it makes you feel you’ve stumbled on the keys to the kingdom. When the Dixie Brewery shut down after Hurricane Katrina, Keith hunted down every bar that had an available bottle of his favorite beverage. Bars began saving their final Dixie Beer specifically for him. In an article published in the Gambit in 2007, Keith talks about the waiter at the Napoleon House who raced across the room to bring him the last bottle of beer everyone thought was gone for good. You’re in a special place when things like that happen to you.

Staying power means a lot in this town. As history sweeps over this city, the places and people that stake their claim to the territory, come hell or high water, demand respect. We’re not going anywhere, they seem to say. We’ll be right here, even if it takes you half your life to find us.

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Jack Dempsey’s is located at 738 Poland Avenue. They are open on Tuesday from 11 a.m. til 2 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursday from 11-8, Friday from 11-9, and Saturday from noon til 9 p.m. They are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Deal with it.

They have a website here, and a Facebook page here.