My hotel was near Lake Union and the path near the lake was perfect for early morning walks. I also explored the Center for Wooden Boats which is located on the lake. I would have gone to the Museum of History and Industry, but ran out of time.
The Center for Wooden Boats is like a museum for boats, but they also believe in teaching through direct experience which I think is pretty awesome. They offer boat rentals – sailboat, canoe, rowboats, and pedal boats – by the hour. If I lived in the area I would love to take woodworking, sailing, and boat making classes. They also offer free boat rides on Sundays. Viewing the boats along the docks at Lake Union was a perfect rainy morning excursion.
“The air smelled like Bayou Teche when it’s spring and the fish are spawning among the water hyacinths and the frogs are throbbing in the cattails and the flooded cypress.” ― James Lee Burke, Creole Belle
The minute I heard of an upcoming work conference in New Orleans, my first thought was not of Bourbon Street and sanctioned drunken revelry, but the small southwestern Louisiana town of New Iberia. As a fan of writer James Lee Burke, I have been reading about New Iberia for more than a decade. Burke writes for the senses. His lyrical descriptions of place make New Iberia itself a character in his novels — every bit as much as the recurring Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell. For a book person, this was something of a pilgrimage. I wanted to feel the morning dew on my arms, to smell the rain, to hear the birds, to taste a cup of coffee at Victor’s, and to watch storm clouds build in the distance.
I did all that and more.
In Burke’s books, Dave, Clete, or both, often make the two-hour-plus drive from New Orleans along US-90. His words came alive as we passed swamps, broken down trailers, agricultural fields, and rusty looking bars. We drove through Morgan City, and before we reached New Iberia a storm gathered and the clouds seemed full-to-bursting. The rain finally came, and I was in heaven.
Pulling off of the highway, I was initially disappointed by the strip malls and fast food joints in New Iberia. I was expecting something untouched and idyllic. We found that just ahead, once we reached Main Street. While “progress” has reached the area, much of it remains intact. We turned onto Main Street and found Teche Street just to our right.
At the end of the road we found our accommodations for the next three nights – Bayou Teche Guest Cottage. When I started planning the trip I was thrilled to find this place. I had figured on a shady motor court just off the highway, like where Clete might stay, but instead I found a cottage nestled along the Bayou Teche
When I called to make reservations I spoke with the owner, Ms. Gayle, who told me to just bring a check – no credit cards and no pre-payment required. This somehow spoke to the New Iberia I had read about. We arrived and met Ms. Gayle. She lives in the house on the property. When I fessed up that the whole reason we were there was James Lee Burke she told me that his grandfather used to own the property and that the film crew for In the Electric Mist had rented out her house and the cottage. We then conspiratorially agreed there had never been a truly successful film adaptation of his books. When she said she had a pirogue for us to use I may have gone all giddy. May have. Definitely did. Might have squealed.
The storm was moving out, leaving sun showers in its wake, and we walked into town on the Main Street that James Lee Burke has described as the most beautiful in the country. I had reviewed a map provided by the town that highlights spots to check out.
We walked past the Burke House, the sheriff’s station, Books Along the Teche, the local library, Evangeline Theater, and Victor’s Cafeteria. As we turned around there was a rainbow over the town. Are you fucking kidding me? Well done, New Iberia Chamber of Commerce!
We stopped at a local bar, but the smoke and dead-animal heads were a buzzkill after the rainbow, so we took our “go-cups” of scotch and soda and strolled around town. They are amazingly lax about imbibing in Louisiana.
I loved the cottage. Each morning, I enjoyed my coffee on the porch and then drifted down to the dock along the Bayou Teche. I was surrounded by cypress knees and dripping trees, and on the second morning I saw a nutria swimming near the bank. We took the pirogue out for a little while one morning, as Dave often does in the books. I wanted to go out again that afternoon, and we managed to experience both a leech in the boat and a torrential downpour. Both of these were amazing, each in their very different ways. The leech explained why we hadn’t seen anyone swimming.
The afternoon of our last full day we stopped by the drive-thru daiquiri trailer (again, something mentioned in the books). I should note that I am not enough of a devotee to either go completely dry or on a bender; Dave’s drinking problems are his own. I learned that daiquiris are legal and do not violate open container laws because there is tape on the cup and paper on the straw. Tape and paper = totally legal. Did you know you can get ticketed for jaywalking in Washington, D.C.?
We also stopped by Books on the Teche. We browsed, and while paying for our books, I found out that the store offered signed first editions of “Jim’s books.” The proprietors knew him from way back, and he only does this for Books on the Teche and a bookstore near his current home in Montana. “Jim.” Giddy alert level 7. I pre-ordered his latest book, Wayfaring Stranger, despite the fact I was in the middle of reading an advance copy that a friend acquired for me.
We got up early on our last day in Louisiana so we could go to Victor’s Cafeteria before heading back to New Orleans for our flight home. They are open for early breakfast (6 a.m. – 10 a.m.) and lunch and we arrived a little after 6 a.m. The coffee was good. Watching the locals have breakfast before heading to work, I had no trouble imaging Dave amongst them. They even have a mock bait shop in the restaurant as homage to the character that has made the place famous.
Louisiana felt very alive – something I had to experience to truly appreciate. There is something about the air, water, and rain that are tangibly vibrant. The people there also helped make the trip – from the woman at the Goodwill with an accent so thick I had to translate for Patrick to the young cashier at Simoneaud’s Grocery & Market who carded me (yes!) and seemed pleased to hear how much we liked the area.
New Iberia was everything I hoped for and more. I traveled there because I wanted to experience a Louisiana that I knew I might not find. I was basically stalking a fictional character and written descriptions of a place. James Lee Burke’s power as a writer made every day feel like it was imbued with the magic of fiction. The place was real. So yes, the trip was about writer James Lee Burke, Dave Robicheaux, and Clete Purcell, but I loved southwest Louisiana well past those literary connections. And now I understand why Burke writes about it with such love, respect, and concern.
The only thing that could have made it better was if Budget had had an old convertible Cadillac to rent.
Davida and I first traveled together in January 2000, when we took a road trip around the United Kingdom, which took us from London to Brighton; Hastings to Dover; Whitby to Edinburgh; and Glasgow to Cardiff. We stayed with friends and friends of friends, sleeping in guest rooms, a cold-water squat without any heat, and at least one night in the car upon returning to England on the last boat from Calais.
A mix-tape I had prepared for the trip accompanied our odyssey, which neither of us could rightly afford, although somehow we did. At the time I would never have guessed that it would be the start of a tradition of compiling a soundtrack for every major joint trip we have taken since. Lux Interior once said that he considered each Cramps album a postcard, of sorts, from a particular time and place. And while our playlists are now digital and capable of including far more music than was ever previously possible, many of them, for us, have likewise become postcards that by association evoke the nuance and feeling of an especially magical moment or place.
Following their final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte on the plains of Waterloo, Belgium, in 1815, the British sent the former French Emperor into permanent exile on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena. But even a remotely imprisoned Napoleon remained the best bet going for many with a bone to pick with the Brits (and there were many).
Among these was one Nicholas Girod, a former New Orleans mayor whose cooperation with Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812 had as much to do with his hatred of the British as any pro-American sentiment. In 1821, Girod went so far as to offer his house at 500 Chartres Street in the city’s French Quarter as a residence for Napoleon pending the success of an alleged plot to break the exiled emperor off the rock and bring him back to New Orleans. However, Bonaparte died before any such effort could take place.
But his would-be association with the house at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis Streets lived on; nearly a century later, in 1914, the Impastato family opened the Napoleon House Bar and Café in Girod’s former home. Today, Napoleon House remains a throwback to a twice-bygone era, where the white bust of the former French ruler that stands behind the bar holds court over the locals and tourists alike who are drawn to its decayed old-world ambiance.
The café serves Euro-Creole-inspired cuisine such as muffuletta, boudin, and a variety of salads. But the real draw, for me, is the bar’s house drink, the Pimm’s Cup. The concoction’s base ingredient is a gin-based, herb-infused liqueur that can be mixed with anything from lemonade and club soda to ginger ale or champagne, and typically served in a Collins glass garnished with a cucumber slice. It’s a most refreshing libation in the paint-warping heat and humidity of a New Orleans summer; to be sure, meted out, one might drink it all night long to maintain a pleasant buzz without ever feeling any adverse effect.
If you’ve never had a Pimm’s Cup, Napoleon House is a great place to acquaint yourself. Indeed, over the years, it has become ritual for me, upon arriving in New Orleans, to drop my bags wherever I may be staying and head straight for Napoleon House to plot my next move over a Pimm’s (or three) within the peeling walls that once might have housed the man who first sold the city to America.
Napoleon House Bar and Café
Address: 500 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA 70130
Phone: (504) 524-9752
Hours: Monday: 11:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday – Thursday: 11:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Friday – Saturday: 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
Bar Hours: Bar open till.
Do not go expecting to be a voyeur. Drag shows are participatory live art/theater and no two shows are alike. You may end up on stage. Personally, I can’t sing or dance worth a shit, but just looking like you are having a good time contributes to the vibe. And if you aren’t having a good time, leave. That’s right, I’m looking at you, scowling middle-aged guy; when you do that we all just think you are having stirrings in your loins you can’t control. If you are there to mock or be an asshole it is like blood in the water and you will leave humiliated.
Bring plenty of $1s and $5s. You are expected to tip the performers and the waitstaff. Respect them; this is how they make a living. But remember, your sweaty $1 does not entitle you to a grab the tits or the tackle (or both), unless of course you are encouraged to do so.
Do not make assumptions about the crowd. People are always surprising.
Ladies, do not spent the whole show making deliberate physical contact with your boyfriend/spouse. You will not somehow keep him from liking boys dressed like girls this way. You look silly.
Show some respect and it will be shown to you.
Wear clean underwear. That is always a useful tip. Sometimes especially useful.
The best music will evoke the most cinematic qualities from any landscape. The musical gumbo of southern Louisiana is infused with a variety of cultures, including French, Spanish, English, and Afro-Caribbean, to name just a few. Rock and roll, jazz, zydeco, New Orleans rhythm and blues – each speaks to the syncopated rhythm of life in a particular time and place.
And so it was that, still haunted by the first season of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE, we fled the Crescent City for the swamplands of Iberia Parish, the brassy strut of urban jazz soon yielding to dusty folk rhythms and the lonesome twang of a blues guitar…
The New Orleans Bingo! Show – “New Orleans”
Huey “Piano” Smith & His Clowns – “Little Chickee Wah Wah”
Ernie K-Doe – “T’aint It the Truth”
Earl King – “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights”
Ike & Tina Turner – “Too Many Tears in My Eyes”
The Handsome Family – “Far From Any Road”
Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks – “Southern Love”
Brian Tyler – “The King’s Highway” (BUBBA HO-TEP soundtrack)
If, in the world of outsider art, Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) represents the hip urban neighborhood where Chihuahuas sip their own six-dollar lattes, Louisiana’s Abita Mystery House is the somewhat sketchy part of town that still draws local creative-types for its cheap rents and lack of pretense.
Don’t get me wrong – I love AVAM; it’s a truly unique space in the art museum world that celebrates untrained artists whose work is generally born of very personal and singular obsessions, and a must-see for anyone visiting Baltimore.
But I can’t help saying it: in presentation and form, the Abita Mystery House is better than AVAM.
Situated in the hamlet of Abita Springs, a few miles north of Lake Pontchartrain and about a 45-minute ride from New Orleans, the Mystery House is a rough-hewn, meandering compound of buildings that include a century-old Creole cottage and vintage filling station, all packed with (and covered in) the work of local artist John Preble, utilizing recycled ephemera and cultural detritus drawn from just about every facet of modern existence. Road signs. Circuit
boards. An Airstream trailer. Here, visitors will also find the likes of a Feejee Mermaid; a two-player piano; a 32-foot alligator; a crashed flying saucer; and sundry animated miniature scenes, including one that depicts a New Orleans jazz funeral. (TIP: Bring quarters for the fortune-telling and souvenir-token machines.)
Yet, for all of this strangeness, there is certain sincerity evident in everything on display; nothing feels like it’s trying too hard – not too shiny, not too “forced”. Even Preble himself is not the overtly misanthropic and slightly deranged hermit one might expect to find behind the curtain, but rather a genuine, quite affable fellow as quick to strike up friendly conversation with visitors as hand them a leech (really).
And the gift shop is no less engrossing than the museum itself, stocked with everything from very cool screen-printed AMH t-shirts to reasonably priced matted prints of Preble’s incredibly detailed woodcuts depicting various animals (including a nutria); select quotes (“If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.” – Charles Dickens); and blues legends like Slim Harpo and Bessie Smith.
Indeed, the Abita Mystery House is a lens through which visitors may vicariously view the world as seen by a most unique and talented artist, exemplifying wonderfully bizarre Americana in the tradition of such obsession-built roadside attractions as Rock City and Coral Castle. Like those places, AMH offers visitors an experience that will long outlive any chain restaurant meal or mass-produced trinket.