There are many things that stick in my mind about New Orleans, none more so than the myriad of misfits, hip hippies, swing dancers and the abundance of freaky beatniks that I came across in my 3 months there.
Take Adolfo- the shadowy figure that literally rose out of the vapours one very late night as we fell out of The Apple Barrel (A.K.A The Barrel- one of the sassiest bars around, more about that later) I fumbled for my umbrella as hot rain was coming down fast at 2am, out of the corner of my eye I could see a little dot-like flare following my field of vision up and down, I realised it was a cigarette and someone was leaning against the wall cloaked in plumes of smoke. “Why don’t you just staaay?” he drawled
“What? Are you…Spanish?” I whispered. “I’m Adolpho and this is my place” he waved the cigarette smoke arc to the stairwell and I remembered there was a restaurant above the Barrel that I had never been to. “It’s Spanish Southern fusion. I know plenty of people who came and never went home- Irish, Germans. Find a nice boy, why don’t you just stay..?” he’d clearly seen the likes of me before, head over heels in love with the City, wafting from venue to venue trying to absorb as much music as possible, making friends with the locals along the way.
The night I discovered the Barrel I was in New Orleans’ equivalent of Ronnie Scott’s- Snug Harbour- the ultimate jazz spot. That morning, I had started talking to an enigmatic 70 year old photographer who captured jazz greats. He and his friend Connie insisted I come with them to see Ellis Marsallis play piano (part of New Orleans music royalty, he passed his musical gifts to four of his sons who spread the New Orleans infused jazz sound far and wide) It didn’t disappoint-Ellis played some marvellous piano perfectly backed up by bass and kicking drums. Afterwards, we wandered down the magical stretch of road called Frenchmen Street that houses some of the finest music venues in the whole of the South. I heard a strange sound emanating from what appeared to be a hole in the wall- we popped our heads in and saw it was actually a tiny bar with a guy playing 3 guitars at the same time- one with his feet. I was hooked and decided to stay a while. As I ordered a drink I could see a guy and a girl looking at me from across the bar, fighting all my typical Londoner instincts to avoid eye contact, I looked at them squarely and saw they were smiling, happy folk- the boy asked “Could I give you the phone book to read? Your accent is amazing” that was my introduction to Cory – ex-Marine, owner of 3 guns, complete pussycat and all round Anglo-phile having spent some time on our shores (we would later have fights about the politics and philosophy of gun ownership and weeks later he completely floored me as we drove around the Lower Ninth Ward –where most of the hurricane damage occurred and he asked so openly “Kate, what are your dreams?”) Tara, the girl with him, was a Tennessee bred Southern belle- but with tattoos (an awe-inspiring multi-coloured gypsy wagon that covered most of her upper arm) and a free-thinking, independent spirit to boot. Something about their open, witty remarks ensured I had made some new friends I’d be seeing a lot of in the upcoming weeks. They took me under their wing and through them I met Dave- a lovely, Basquiat type character with great knowledge of music, of no fixed abode propping up the Barrel on many a night. This is a picture of my name written on a dollar bill stuck in the barrel- a way of immortalising punters they liked.
Another true gent who stands out is Steve- owner of Dauphine St books- one of the best second-hand bookstores I’ve come across in the States. He transplanted himself from California after falling in love with NOLA- gentle, worldly, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of writing and indeed the ordered chaos of the piles of books adorning his cavernous shop, spread along solid oak shelves built by him. Feeding my book addiction on any given afternoon you could find me amongst these shelves coffee in one hand, nose in Southern writing. I became such a regular fixture he showed me the house he owns attached to the store and the out-house (known as the ‘slave quarters’) where Tuba Fats lived for many years. Working with him was the exotic looking Katherine*- full of stories recounting her time ‘importing’ jewels around London and beyond or the San Franciscan mansion she lived in where ‘Interview with a Vampire’ was filmed and the multimillionaire cowboy she almost married..New Orleans, I discovered, is a beacon for those who don’t quite fit elsewhere; who can’t or won’t conform and they all either have a story to tell or one to be eked out once they hear yours.
*name changed to protect the innocent