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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Napping at the beach

Napping at the beach
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 698

It has long been my custom to nap at the beach, and I doubt I’m all that different from most other people in that regard. Where the difference might lie is the location of my beach naps, as I’ve never encountered another napper there, but that’s not a problem because naps are not really meant to be shared, at least not in my world. My nap is for me, and me alone, with the only noteworthy exceptions being those spontaneous, unplanned, and certainly unscheduled naps that accompanied, more like they followed, story time with the dudes directly after lunch. Those naps, we shared, especially when a faculty meeting was planned for the afternoon.

My nap spot at the beach is in the water and beyond the breakers, way beyond the breakers. I wade, then swim, through and past the breakers, and keep going until the surface is a gently rocking crib, the sounds mostly absent except for the occasional seagull that could probably use a nap too. Ending a nap in a collapsing curl full of sand and froth is a bit like not fun, and that’s why I mean way out, not just sort of way out. You’re far enough out when you can only see the shore at the top of a wave when stretching up and treading water as much as you can.

By the way, most lifeguards don’t like this kind of nap. To that end, I avoid guarded beaches for my napitury purpose, saving the guarded beaches for sight seeing, especially if the distant bar delivers, or the beach is non-American with better dressed guards.

This time, we’re camping at Huntington Beach State Park, the one with the castle, fresh water mullet, and alligators. We had spent the day before at the statuary park across Highway 17, and that meant today was a slow day. The rules require a slow day after a busy day, just as they require Jimmy Buffett to sing a slow song after a fast one.

Rules are rules, I suppose.

I have noodled away during the heat of the day while the others sawed logs. I am not going to nap to the tune of chain saws; there is just not that much wine in the grocery store. I emerge from the trail at the north end of the beach where people go to sun their buns, what with the lack of lifeguards and rangers. However, bun sunning was not my intent, though I did spend a little time watching heads and other things bobbing in the dunes.

My intent was to be the freak alone for one minute this day.

I waded, then swam, into and past the breakers, taking my floater with me, a small floater more often used for body surfing, which is an activity better replaced with Nair for hair and skin removal. At some point, I could no longer see the shore, much less the bobbers in the dunes; it was time to lean into the floater, soak up some sun and water, bob lightly in the swells, and drift slowly in the long shore current while an alternative consciousness swept my cares into the Gulf Stream.

Time stopped. Bliss ensued. My hair floated. Yes, I had hair then. Limbs dangled. Salt water lapped and left. Gentle swells rocked me with aperiodicity. Time was gone. Space was endless. Thought was null.

God loved me, and I napped.

A single thread of reality pushed its way, unwanted, denied, but unrelenting into the nonexistent space between my ears. I said, “No.” It said, “Yes.” It won, and my eye cracked, neurons firing with reluctance.

The triangular fins sliced the water beside me with what I registered as surgical precision and then alarm.

Visions of Jaws, first read, then watched, rose to fill my now alert brain. I was awake, nap cut short by the citizens in whose realm I visited. I rose. I walked on the water as the Savior, but likely with a faster pace. Let’s just say that I ran. That’s what I remember anyway.

The floater stayed.

On the shore, I turned to look back. The dolphins rose, twittered, and swam away.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Egg salad

Egg salad
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 2105

Finding the eggs

You’re going to need some eggs. What can I say? It’s the prime ingredient. Where do you think the name comes from? To fetch the eggs, you head out to the garden in the cool of the morning, preferably while the coffee is making. If you wait for the coffee, you’ll want to take the cup with you, and that means you’ll need three hands, two to hold the coffee cup and the egg basket, the other to pick up the eggs.

The hens will have nested in the green beans. You’ll want to walk the rows slowly so as to not miss a hidden nest while you listen to the morning birds awakening as the crusted soil, still moist from the evening’s dew, crunches lightly under your bare feet.

In cooler weather, the hens will nest in the hen house out under the Crepe Myrtle tree in the back yard. You’ll want to wear shoes in the hen house even if the weather is still warm enough to make a quick scoot outside with bare feet. The reason is that you’ll have a substantial foot washing coming at you, way before a Sunday, and you’ll have to do it outside in the cold with the hose because if you track chicken poop back through the house, someone will want to talk with you.

You’ll also want to leave the coffee in the kitchen instead of taking it with you to the hen house. If you take a cup to the hen house, you’ll encounter that recurring problem with your third hand, which will motivate you to put the cup on a rafter. Now, in and of itself, putting the cup on a rafter is not so much a problem; rather, it’s that the rafter bears a protective coating of chicken poop, which will be fresh from the prior evening’s hen party, and the poop will crust over the bottom of the cup, leading, in turn, to unnecessary discussion when you return to the kitchen, regardless of how many eggs you have in the basket.

Another concern in the hen house is that in the spring and fall, you’ll find that snakes like to sleep under the hens. The snakes would probably sleep in the hen house in the summer except that the hens usually sleep in the beans then. Of course, you might wonder why the snakes don’t just move out to the garden with the chickens during the summer, and science has not yet figured the why behind your possible wonderment. Maybe the snakes don’t like beans. Maybe the snakes prefer to sleep under watermelons during the summer. It remains a mystery.

I suppose sleeping under the hen in the cool of the year makes a snake’s breakfast easier to find, and that makes sense if you consider how tough it must be to chase down a frog or mouse while crawling on your belly. The thing is that when you reach under the sleeping hen to pull out the eggs, you’ll find the snake, probably pull it out because you’re still sleepy from the lack of coffee that you left in the kitchen, drop the snake into the egg basket, and then return to the kitchen with a snake in the basket eating all the eggs you gathered. Bringing snakes into the kitchen, especially if their tummies are full of eggs, usually leads to unnecessary discussion.


Alternative egg location

Now if you don’t happen to have a flock of hens out in the backyard, you’ll have to find an alternative egg source. The FoodLion down the street makes such an alternative. I suppose other grocery stores carry eggs, but I rarely enter the competition. It doesn’t seem prudent, which means it might be a law or something. The eggs in FoodLion will be in the back left hand corner as you enter the store.

I usually make a loop around the store starting on the right hand corner as I enter. That way, I can pick up some mayo and Texas Pete along the way. If I’m feeling extravagant, the mayo will be Duke’s, but more likely, it’ll be the FoodLion brand. Regardless, it will not be lite may because lite mayo is an abomination. Do not get a knockoff of Texas Pete, and do not get less than a quart. You’ll need both items to make the egg salad, except under rare circumstances.

Noodle on to the back corner where the eggs are. I usually pick up two cartons when I’m there. You can get the dozen-sized cartons if you’re feeling cautious, but if you get the 18-count cartons, your egg stores will last longer, which will keep you out of the FoodLion longer, which will save you some money, as you’ll only have to return for more beer. Speaking of beer, you’ll find that a few steps beyond the eggs. Get some, probably one beer per egg, but no less than a 24-pack. The beer is an essential ingredient.

Returning home

Leave FoodLion after paying for the eggs, beer, and whatever else you picked up in there because leaving after paying leads to a lot less discussion. It’s very hard to leave and then pay in any form of pleasant manner. While you’re headed home do not flounce around with the bags no matter what is playing on the radio, not even Sweet Home, Alabama. Neil Young will remember with or without the flouncing. Not only will you break the eggs, but you’ll also shake up the beer. Opening freshly shaken beer will lead to discussion, especially if you do that in the house.


Back in the kitchen

Restrain from opening a beer. It’s been shaken somewhat during the trip from the store, and it’s also probably a little warm. Put the beer in the fridge. Warm American beer is an abomination. Put the eggs in the fridge except for one carton. You can put that carton on the counter. You can have a beer in a minute. I promise.

Search around in the cabinets until you find a large pot. I prefer an iron pot, cast iron, but the materials of the pot’s construction are not germane to making egg salad. However, I will point out here that cooking with anything except cast iron is an abomination. You might want to pause here, head down to a decent hardware store, and buy some cast iron pots and pans. I’ll wait until you return if necessary.

Put the eggs in the pot. Careful here; store bought eggs can crack if they drop more than a millimeter. Eggs from the backyard can drop an inch or so before cracking. Arrange the eggs on the sides, and then add cold water to fill the pot about half way. The eggs should be well covered. Put the pot on the stove. Turn the stove eye on high. Make sure the lid is on the pot.

Now you can have a beer. When the pot reaches a rolling boil, get your second beer. When that beer is gone, turn the heat down to a simmer, and fetch another beer. Turn the heat off when that beer is finished, and let the pot cool for two beers. Dip the eggs out of the pot, and let them cool for another beer. This last step is important because you probably did not buy enough beer to promote your recovery from handling hot eggs.

Once the eggs are cool, they need to be removed from the shells. This step is not to be skipped because shells do not enhance the salad, though they do make a crunchier sandwich. Mostly, the shell only holds the egg together. I usually hold the egg in one hand, and pop the blunt end on the counter. Store bought eggs crack open easily; the eggs from the back yard use Portland cement for the shells, and you’ll have to pop that blunt end hard, but not so hard as to promote discussion for making too much noise.

Peel the shell away from the egg, leaving as much egg intact as possible, but not sweating the loss of a little egg. The dogs will eat the shells later, and the lost egg will contribute, about an hour after the eating, to the spontaneous eau de pooch. Do not throw the shells to the chickens in the back yard. Doing that will insure that you’ll never have another egg until you replace the flock.

Rinse the peeled eggs, one by one, under a running faucet. Make sure the water is warm. If it’s too hot, it’ll burn your hands. If it’s too cold, you’ll get aches in your joints, and you probably didn’t buy enough beer to recover from either trauma. Leaving the water running will produce enough ambient sound that is loud enough to give you the excuse to say you didn’t hear the offer of discussion regarding the noise from the popping of the eggs against the counter.


Making the salad

After all that work, you’ll need a rest and a beer, and that’s fine, go ahead, but at some point you’ll be hungry and needing some egg salad. Here’s what you do to make a single serving of two sandwiches. If you have company, multiply accordingly. If you find you don’t have enough eggs to feed your assembled herd, order pizza. Domino’s is fine, but I generally use Papa John’s. I order online so that (1) I don’t have to deal with the language barrier, and (2) so I don’t have to use up my cash. While you’re at it, order enough to have leftovers, and while you’re waiting for the delivery, send someone for more beer. Neither pizza service will bring beer, which is a serious problem in North Carolina, but that’s another matter for another day.

By the way, I have just learned that Papa John’s contributes my pizza money to conservative religious groups. If that trips your trigger, go for it. If I confirm this alarming news, I will be changing my pizza business. Let’s hope my informant is ill-informed. The Papa John’s deliverymen are often cute, if somewhat slow to get here. Note: I have just confirmed that alarming news. ¡Adiós, Papa!

For me, two sandwiches make a single serving. That means I need three of the eggs, which I hope you put in the fridge after the peeling. If you didn’t throw out what you have, and start over with the trip to the FoodLion because you’re gonna need a lot more beer now. However, the mayo and Texas Pete are probably still OK.

To get started with making the salad, you have to smoosh the eggs. Some people do this with a store bought egg chopper. I find these hinged contraptions far too dangerous to keep in the house. When I nick my finger, there’ll be trouble when I need to grab the shotgun behind the door.


Eating the salad

I use a fork, generally. If a fork is not available, I use a knife, though doing so means I keep the 911-speeddial loaded on the phone. Somehow, by whatever means works safely for you, chunk and smoosh the boiled eggs beyond recognition. Get out some of the mayo that I hope you put in the fridge, and smoosh it all around in the smooshed eggs. Yes, it takes a whole lot of smooshing to make egg salad. It is permissible to sip the beer during this process.

With the mayo in, I have to make a decision. It’s either time for a splash of Texas Pete or a sprinkle of red pepper. Oh, I forgot to mention getting some red pepper at the FoodLion. This might be a good time to send someone back to the store for pepper and beer. Careful: Black pepper is an abomination unto the salad. The red pepper needs to be powdered cayenne, which you could scarf from those Papa John’s packets that I’ll never see again.

If I’m feeling fat, such as happens when I step out for an evening with my buds, or when I accidently try to wear last season’s 501s, I forego the mayo in favor of straight Texas Pete. Using Texas Pete makes the salad especially good when eaten for breakfast. Keep in mind that I rarely bother with the bread. Bread is just one more thing that I usually forget, and that would require another trip to FoodLion, which is unnecessary unless the beer is out. I just eat the salad with a spoon or fork, whichever comes out of the drawer first.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A nickel in the road

A nickel in the road
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 547

How that nickel came to lie in the middle of the left lane, all scuffed and scratched, still smiling, still tender, calling to me as I sit waiting at the light is a mystery to me. I doubt it fell from the pocket of a pedestrian; a pedestrian would have left a body on these six busy lanes. Perhaps a workman had noticed a door ajar, and eased it open for a quick slam, with just enough crack and pause for an errant bit of drive-thru change to rattle into harm’s way.

Perhaps an overstuffed, ill-mannered, residually angry middle management patron of the Chinese food restaurant some half-mile up the road staggered from the first twinge of a deserved headache, and dropped the change he should have left for the waitress, the one whose failing language produced the wrong order, the nickel rolling faster than the reaching hand, escaping through the parking lot, across the drive, down the road, and to the intersection where the smiling Fates of Nickels Lost introduced a wobble and then a teeter that ended the roll with a rattling, spinning fall neither heard nor seen.

Now, that nickel called to me, sitting there, driving to work, third in the lane, and I wanted to pick it up, roll it in my hands, not for the five cents of commercial value, but to add it’s luck and wealth to my jar of foundling coins, to revel in the accumulated quart of now claimed luck, but I sat tight, still, hands gripping the wheel, eyes mostly forward, peripheral vision denied. There wasn’t time to shift to neutral, set the brake, open the door, hop out, fetch the coin, and undo it all before the car approaching behind me crested the hill, entered the lane, and crushed the life from my greedy body.

I knew the car was coming. I could feel the rumble in the pavement. I squinted at the imagined glare from the polished hood ornament. I dared not act, dared not risk life and limb for the five cents that would hardly buy the bubble gum that I could already smell untwisting, dusty, from the waxed paper wrapper, that I could feel crushing, cracking, hard edges turning soft between my amalgam-filled molars, that I could already taste turning stale after only one minute of chewing satisfaction. I waited, and the hated, feared car arrived, taunting me further in fact as it had in mind, coming to rest in the nickel lane. I sat still, safe, knowing, not admitting, that I’d had all the time I needed.

The nickel sang to me. I didn’t move. The light would change before I could complete the task, and the car behind me would honk in righteous anger. The nickel screamed it’s final chorus across the car-filled lanes. Space, time, life curled before me, urging me to leave the lane, turn around, left or right, return the other way, park by the road’s edge, sprint through the traffic, kneel briefly on the morning’s warming asphalt, seize the bright shiny, absorb it’s five-fold gift of God-sent luck and wealth, feel the weight in my right pocket where it would spend the day before it settled into the jar with all the other lucky money, our fates merged.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mall, walking, dawn

Mall, Walking, Dawn
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 112

It calls me across One day, stepping past,
the space, the time between us, eyes left, wall right, I dare not;
demanding my soul. too young to die, now.
When dare I listen? My name is not there,
Moan or scream or siren’s call, yet we both know it should be.
they are all the same. Death cheated, denied,
I saw it, drafted, another day, I look
a model on a table, beyond the wall, the children,
Black specter, my friend, pausing by my place,
it was, it is, now, rubbing someone’s name,
the death I should have known then, remembering someone’s face.
but by a breath, missed. Dry tears, silent cries.

Eruption

Eruption
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 43

World spinning away
From me; fumbling, aimless,
Knees hitting the deck.
Coughing, strangling, bile
Staining the planks beneath me.
Unanswered prayer,
Productive heaving
Cleans my belly; lumps, froth, smell
Disgust those watching.
Rising, stumbling on,
Steaming leavings wafting still;
I am better now.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tootles and the Grasshopper

Tootles and the Grasshopper
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 1445

This story was first told on 31 December 1995 as a bedtime story. It was told once more on 21 March 1996 at the first chapel service of spring held by Greensboro College. The dudes required fresh stories every night; repetitions were not allowed. I had to apologize for the repeat of this story, even though it was a chapel service.

Note: Thbpt is that rude noise we refer to as a “raspberry.”

It was a warm mid-morning in early summer toward 1961, and Grandmother, already dusted in White Lily self-rising flour, was busy in her kitchen getting lunch, what she would call dinner, together. The entire family was coming in today for some reason I don’t remember, probably because I was too little then to remember details outside my own world of precious stones and toads.

The nine-pane window over the double sink was open, and the morning breeze fluttered the yellowed curtain, tugging lightly from the sash where Grandmother had tied it earlier that morning while the first streaks of dawn painted the sky.

She hummed to herself, sometimes in tune with the birds in the pecan grove by the house, sometimes with last Sunday’s choir, but never in tune with strange and unfortunately familiar thbpting sound that drifted through the window, a sound laced with the other, sweeter, sounds of summer’s morning.

Had she not been so busy with the big lunch for her family, she might have taken time to investigate that thbpt further, and if she had, she would have found, yet again, it was Tootles, the blue and green Muscovy duck, chasing a grasshopper through the garden. Seeing Tootles taken with honest labor would have warmed Grandmother’s heart toward the old duck, and Tootles needed all the human sympathy she could get, especially sympathy from Grandmother, but she didn’t investigate the sound, she didn’t see Tootles hard at work debugging the garden, and Tootles missed a golden opportunity to win a kindly thought and perhaps a morsel of table scrap.

This morning, Tootles was ready for a snack. No, she needed a snack! She’d had a big breakfast of corn sprouts that morning, and Grandmother had not yet noticed the missing sprouts even if they were in the first row of the garden. The bean sprouts planned for lunch were waiting in the next row. Tootles needed her mid-morning snack, just like everyone else on the farm, and she had her eye on a grasshopper, one just the right size for a hungry and hard working Scoby duck.

The problem was that the grasshopper had his eye on Tootles. He also had a rascally bent about him, something not uncommon for a grasshopper, and he was not inclined, not in the least, to be a duck’s snack, but he was inclined to tease a hungry Scoby duck, and that was just what he was doing this morning.

Tootles was hunkered between the beans, stalking, as best a duck can stalk, this green and brown grasshopper, one she knew would make a crunchy tasty morsel before her mid-morning nap in the garden. Her big feathery wings stuck straight out, her large webbed feet stepping through the sand and dust in slow motion. You could hardly see her breathe. She might as well have been a Ninja Duck.

The Grasshopper was not unaware of Tootles’ shenanigans this morning. Au Contraire, he was in complete control, and poor Tootle didn’t know it. How could she? She was a hungry duck. Just before Tootles was close enough to nab her crunchy snack, the hopper would twitch his fuzzy bottom. (No, science doesn’t not yet know why hoppers have fuzzy bottoms. It’s still a mystery.)

Well, that was just too much for this easily excited and very hungry duck, making her lunge and thbpt just a step too far away, giving the ornery hopper all the time he needed to jump off the bean, spread his hoppery wings, fly away on a looping arc, and buzz down on another bean on another row where he munched on his own snack while waiting for Tootles to find him again. Boy hoppers can be rascally that way.

Jump. Thbpt. Buzz. Jump. Thbpt. Buzz. Jump. Thbpt. Buzz. What a concert it was! A drama extraordinaire, it was, all morning long.

In the house, we had all gathered to eat lunch, though it was more a feast. If you can imagine it, if it were food, if you could find it in or near the garden, Grandmother had cooked it. Collards, turnips, corn, snap beans, butterbeans, and garden peas. Biscuits, cornbread, and hush puppies. Chicken, ham, and turkey. (But alas and alack, no duck.)

In the middle of that table, surrounded by all that food and a gaggle of hungry people, were two beautiful, white coconut cakes for our desert. We ate with a vengeance, like soldiers on a mission, and the object of our culinary battle was those two cakes, placed before us all, unattainable until we had cleaned our plates, twice.

Out in the beans, Tootles was at her limit, her ducky patience about gone. She had caught onto the hopper’s evil plan, and now she had one of her own, a design surely to get that crunchy bug in her beak, to end the rumbly in her tumbly. She took bigger steps. She lifted her head less. When the hopper wiggled his fuzzy bottom, she waited to lunge, just a tiny bit, and then she did it.

She lunged and thbpted like no other Scoby duck in all the history of Muscovy had ever jumped or thbpted before, but this time, with Tootles’ beak so close, the hopper suffered a shock; the kind of shock from which a hopper dates! A close brush with mortality can do that for a bug, and he spread his brittle, hoppery wings and flew like the wind, or as best to like the wind as a locust can fly. Just behind his fuzzy, now flying, bottom was Tootles, first running, then jumping and flapping, finally just flapping, thbpting on every stroke of leg or wing. She wanted that bug!

The two made a fine summer symphony of buzz and thbpt, and they were headed straight for the open kitchen window.

We had finished with lunch, and were admiring the cakes. Grandmother was standing to the side of the table preparing to slice the first one, smiling at the empty bowls and scrapped-clean plates spread before her. We had done our job well, declaring that we just didn’t know where we’d find room for the cake, knowing full well we’d eat a slice, maybe two, even at the risk of exploding.

So taken were we with the moment that no one noticed the little hopper sail through the window., but we all noticed Tootles as she spread her wide Scoby wings, put on her feathery brakes, let out one last giant thbpt, and then land perfectly on the table, one foot in each cake.

Grandmother was not amused.

We all sat at the table, frozen in surprise. Tootles was stepping in the cakes, puzzled by the sticky frosting clinging to her feet, legs, belly, and wings. She was nibbling a few beans off my plate when Grandmother attacked her with the broom, a handmade broom of straw gathered by my grandfather from the field across from the house. She swept that duck across the kitchen, over the refrigerator, under the counter, knocking dishes from the drainer to the sink, touching every base, and making a tremendous mess in the process.

Finally, the pair, sweeping, thbpting, flapping, thbpting, and molting were at the top of the backdoor stairs. Grandmother pulled back the broom in a form from which Arnold Palmer could have learned, and she swatted Tootles square in her feathered bottom, launching the poor, still hungry, duck through the gap in the pecan trees, high above the garden, and down to the round pond towards the end of the field.

Tootles barely missed the pigs rooting in the mud at the edge of the pond as she plomped down without ceremony into the shallow water, telling the pigs that she meant to do that. It took a while to wash the icing from her head, wings, and tummy. Her feet took longer. The pigs, being just a notch above Scoby ducks on the evolutionary ladder, were much amused by the incident. The fish in the pond enjoyed the special icing treat.

As for the grasshopper, he flew back out the window to the beans in the garden, enjoyed his lunch, and settled down for a long siesta under a shady leaf.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What color is the sky?

What color is the sky?
Copyright: Jim Penny, 2008
Word count: 614


The sky is blue in patches, in places, at times, and the shade varies by circumstance, season, and time of day. There is that deepest, most mesmerizing blue of the welcomed cool that signals the end of summer when the first push of Canadian air since last March shoves the resident Bermuda high into the central Atlantic, replacing the languid Caribbean humidity with a bracing pre-arctic chill, and there is the faded blue of the day just before when the air was nearly saturated with briny vapor brushed from the edges of Montego Bay, the Yucatan coast, and the teal phosphorescent waters of Bridal Cay where the clawless lobsters grow.

At dawn, the sky can be black with a red, yellow, sometimes orange, glow on toward the east greeting the birthing of the day, the waning of the stars, and the coming of sun, streaking, staining the angled, crumpled, stretching, hanging clouds; all sailors take warning. Sometimes the sun just rises without ceremony, witnessed by the grove of pine occluding the early glow, the black fading to gray, to blue, to bluer, to day, the stars erased from east to west, the dreams of fading slumber, embracing lovers, floating on the cool breeze of the morning, new again to burn to cinder and crumble in the piercing rays of risen sun.

Dusk, a dawn from the other side, is often more intensely colored, perhaps because the depleted air of ending day is warmed by the whispered despairing of mortal prayer, perhaps because the eyes of those who stop now to search the fading glow for what they missed in the light of day, perhaps because the upward lifting faces of the oh so many more who see, sharing, shining, blending, lending aura of the many human colors, tint the ending day, setting sun, holding hands, entwining fingers, and coming night, melding hues afresh, anew, each day.

The sky is gray in steady rain that falls and chills the silent bones of stalking winter hunters, that falls and warms the wiggling toes of laughing summer children chased by dads who warn of grass carp, that falls and whispers lurid taunts of long denied afternoon repose, that falls and lulls the morning sleeper back to dream again the colored thrill before the pain of morning light invades the sleep-filled eyes.

The sky is green and black and yellow and brown when summer storms hang moaning, low in the early afternoon, boiling, filled with wind and lifted summer ice, streaking fire; swirling, washing, rending, forcing unwanted focus to sentient thought, no longer glancing, leaping, rock to rose, now the simple point of ragged survival, an uplifted empty opened beak, screaming, sitting, rocking, off at an angle in the garden path, cracked eyes seeing shades and shapes, whispers of feathers that will never fly, wondering, wordless, the heartless strangely intense and newly felt radiant life giving warmth that will soon reduce the heart to dust.

Many colors make a sky, evolving verse and human condition, punctuated by cloud and star and bird and vapor trail, written on the skinless underbelly of heaven, calling for an early morning read by the few who can shake the spell of dreaming sleep, settling for the short lived glance in day of those who haven’t the time to read between the lines, spreading gentle solace to the fevered brow that needs just one more promise before the one day, and bundling tight the children sleeping and entangled lovers, who dream of one more day to play and love.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My Guide to Partying in New Orleans

My Guide to Partying in New Orleans
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 2450

Where to stay

If you’re staying at Bon Maison, this is going to be a lot easier. Mind you, I’ve never spent an evening at Bon Maison, though I have gazed longingly through the gates onto the courtyard. Most often, I stay in the hotel that the people paying the bill tell me to stay in. Occasionally, I’m using hotel points. Regardless, Bon Maison is on my list for a visit one day as it’s situated right in the middle of where I need to be.

You’re more likely staying at a mainstream hotel such as a Hilton affiliate. I have no problem with the regular hotels, and they generally work quite well, especially when I’m there for work, but they’re also a bit more removed from where I want to be in the evening. Sometimes, that bit of distance is not a bad thing, especially if something out of the ordinary is going on. Other times, I find myself wondering if I’m going to make it back to the hotel after a long evening of ribaldry.

The Doubletree at the bottom of Canal Street works very well if you have the money or Hilton Honors Points. The view across the water can be a delight. The bartender there saved my life with his Healing Bloody Maries on a New Year’s Day after I ate a rare burger to be described anon.

I generally use the Hilton Garden because of the oh-so-fine breakfast they provide, always prepared to my exacting specifications, and always cooked with a smile by a handsome Cajun man who likely learned to scramble my eggs at his grandmother’s side. This hotel is about a half-mile walk from the good stuff, and I find that, when coupled with the magical breakie, well worth the hike.

More to the point, you step out the door, walk a block, turn left, and head up to cross Canal Street and enter Bourbon Street, which means your return trip is very easily negotiated, and that is important because you probably aren’t thinking clearly, much less walking straight, not that I ever walk straight, at 4 a.m.

However, the entrance to this hotel is weird and difficult to negotiate when sober, which is why you should have the cabbie stop at a drive-through hurricane kiosk on your way from the airport. The door is off the side of a parking deck, and the signage is minimal. Registration is up somewhere towards the 11th floor, and that can present a challenge at times. The rooms are even higher. Very high. High as a Georgia Pine.

There is a Hampton across the block, and it’s equally convenient to Bourbon Street. I’ve never stayed there, mostly because I don’t want to be exposed to the risk of the Hampton breakie while I’m in New Orleans where bad food is especially difficult to find.

You can also make use of the Embassy Suites way down on Julia Street, which will involve a long hike down Tchoupitoulas Street to reach Canal near the Doubletree. Having stayed at this Embassy Suites several times, I can report that it’s a perfectly reasonable place to take one’s evening comfort. In addition, it’s a straight shot over to the French Market and, of course, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, which comes up for review a little later.

I can report that on one of my visits to New Orleans, I was walking back to the Embassy Suites at about 2 a.m. when a friendly woman called me from across the street. She wanted to know if I needed some company for the night. I explained a few details to her, and she remarked that I must be undercover. I spent some time on the rest of the walk wondering how to amend my wardrobe. Apparently, a brown leather jacket over 501s and GI-issue jungle boots was broadcasting the wrong signal. However, I’ve never been particularly GQ material, and I let the matter drop.

There is also Le Pavillion. It’s a perfectly fine, upscale hotel, and it’s conveniently located to a smoothie shop that I cannot remember much about. I’ve stayed there twice while spending Other People’s Money, and now I receive the unending emails to prove it. The web site comes with music; click fast. One attraction here is peanut butter sandwiches in the late evening, something that I do not get. Go the New Orleans for PB&J? Not likely.


Where to eat

The Clover Grill is my favorite place for quick food, prepared under a hubcap, and served with a smile that lets you know a tip had better be forthcoming. The trick is to find the place, and many never quite get there.

You’ll most likely step onto Bourbon Street where it intersects Canal Street. Most people do. Walk down the street. During the day, you’ll want to use the sidewalk. Make mental notes of where you want to stop for a drink and some music. Be mindful that there are more places to visit than you can accommodate, and you want to weigh each in the balance carefully.

On the second block from Canal, on the right hand sidewalk as you’re walking, stop in the middle and cast your vision to the concrete. This is the spot where I encouraged a street hustler to sit down and to take a load off. You see, as I was walking along aglow with a tum full of cheeseburger, the kindly gentleman walked up, told me that he could tell me where I got my boots, and proceeded to put his arm out to grasp my opposite shoulder.

As he spoke the ruse, I dismissed him because I already knew where he was headed. I got my boots on the sidewalk of Bourbon Street. The follow-up reach brought my attention back to him, all up close and personal. As he reached for my shoulder, I took his wrist in the one hand, rotated the arm, and applied knife-hand undeniable pressure to the back of his elbow with the other hand, encouraging him to sit upon the pavement and rest a spell. He seemed content to remain in place as I walked away.

Keep walking down Bourbon Street. Maybe stop for a beer or hurricane along the way. At some point, you’ll cross into the 800 block. You are home free now, and you’ll notice this by the change in scenery. In particular, rainbow flags and shirtless men will be in abundance. Drink it all in. You are all welcome here. Sidestep the occasional wingnut ministry; they are not worth the trouble, though they can make an interesting diversion when viewed from a balcony with beer in hand.

The Clover Grill is on the 900 block, on the right side as you’re walking. Step in, say hello, and have a burger as the Deity intended: Cooked under a hubcap. Get extra fries. Get a milkshake. You can diet when you return home. Get anything on the menu. It’s all good.

Do NOT order the burger rare, no matter how much better rare burgers are. I have been there and done that. Rare commercial burgers lead to an all-too-interesting 36-hour follow-up. Remember: You’re in New Orleans. Codes are different there, and if you want it, you can generally have it if you can pay for it. Have beer for breakfast if you choose. There is no way you want to pay for a rare commercial burger. The hotdog kiosks on the street are less risky, and the dogs are excellent, I must add.

At some point, you might want a culinary change in venue. Any kitchen in New Orleans, as best I can tell, is worth your time and tum. One spot of interest is Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville near the French Market. I try to stop by once a trip for a Cheese Burger in Paradise.

Do understand that you’re at risk to have a cute, if cretin, waiter here. He will not likely know what you mean when you ask for the cheeseburger the “way Jimmy likes it.” In that even, let me encourage you to lead the other diners in a rousing rendition of Cheese Burger in Paradise, complete with table dancing, and remember to leave a good tip for the mess you’ll make.

I generally eat at the bar when I visit Margaritaville. That’s because the bartenders are often cuter than the waiters, and they are always more adept with flirty chat. This means that my appetizer is, usually, one or two Incommunicados. I have one more with the Cheeseburger in Paradise, despite the song calling for a cold draft beer. For desert, I order one more Incommunicado, and then a double to go. Yeah, it makes for an interesting stroll through the French Market.


Music in the Quarter

With all my passion for Jimmy Buffett, I have never been to an evening’s show at Margaritiville. Instead, I preferred to start with the Corner Pocket, unless I’m sufficiently distracted by a group at another bar. The Corner Pocket is now far different from what it was two years ago when last I visited. The scenery has definitely improved, but I suspect the music has gone downhill. Think disco and techno-tribal.

When last I visited, the Corner Pocket was a straight bar with friendly wait staff and excellent southern rock. Now that it appears to be a twink bar, I’ll just aim for the nearest strain of “I hope Neal Young will remember…” Besides, twink bars don’t start rocking until after midnight.

My favorite band in the Quarter, At Fault, appears to be no longer in existence. I might require counseling now. They have entertained me countless hours, both in person and by CD. The world is lessened in their absence.

At some point, there’s the need for something different. One inviting place is Parade upstairs from the Bourbon Pub. The trick here is to pay the five bucks and go upstairs to sit on the woofers while the twinks dance under definite chemical influence. The energy they produce is not natural in the human species.

You might want some earplugs before you go in. I find the foam plugs work well, and it’s not like you’re going to miss much in terms of sound. How the nails stay in the walls of the 200-year-old building, I have yet to understand. If it is of interest to you, the couches with the velvet curtains have been replaced with tables and chairs, representing a definite source of depression for me.

Finally, it’s time for a settee. That’s why we have Jean Lafitte in Exile. You can stop by the café if you’re hungry, though I never have, what with being smitten with the Clover Grill across the street. Instead, I step into the bar, smile at the cute bartenders who always smile back, find the stairs up, which is not a minor feat, and go to the second floor. At the top, I grab a drink from the second cute bartender, and noodle along to the balcony, where I set up camp for an evening of people watching.

While you’re at Jean Lafitte in Exile, show some respect: You’re drinking with Papa, Papa being the shade of Ernest Hemingway. Prepare to express yourself in short, pithy, declarative sentences that drill to the core of human existence. Save the best ones for the occasional street minister attempting to save your soul below on the street. Don’t throw the cup, no matter how much you want. As your drink grows short, revisit the bar, and tip my favorite bartender well. Remember the bathroom off to the side. Don’t make a mess as I use that one often. You can leave the seat down.

Jean Lafitte is likely the best bar in the known universe. Casual. Unassuming. Accepting. Judgment free. All forms of human life pass through the doors and along the street below. You are advised to follow suit and make no trouble here. There are bears about. I also need to mention that at 8 a.m., they serve the medicinal Bloody Mary, which you’ll likely need before your visit ends.


Drinking in New Orleans

Alcohol is available 24/7 in New Orleans. Abuse the convenience, and you’ll rue a day or three. Don’t be like the young man I encountered at 4 a.m. in a doorway by Bourbon Street. He was a veritable fire hydrant of puke. I crossed the street to grant him some privacy and to save my boots.

Remember that the average human can process about one ounce of alcohol per hour. Have two drinks in the first hour, and one drink per hour thereafter to manage your buzz. Eat something occasionally! Limit the amount of sugar you snarf. Sugar is a stronger poison than alcohol in humans, and your liver will focus on the sugars first, leaving the alcohol to ride through your blood stream and oxidize, at some point forming carboxylic acid, which will seriously perturb your blood ph, leaving you with a hangover that will last for days. Trust me: I once taught organic chemistry.

Also, remember that New Orleans has both drive-through hurricane kiosks AND open container laws. It’s not an open container until you remove the lid or you put a straw in it. However, I wouldn’t pretend to drive in New Orleans. I did that once. It’s better to park at the airport, and then take a cab to the hotel.

I have yet to meet the municipality that would not benefit from following a model such as we see in New Orleans.


Halloween and New Year’s Eve in New Orleans

Mardi Gras is over-rated. You’ll be knee deep in street crap, and yards from the nearest bartender who can hear you. Halloween is better, followed by New Year’s Eve. Go for it. The crowd is smaller, and equally boisterous. Remember you can flash above the waist for beads, male or female. Flash below the waist, and it’ll be fun, but you’ll likely be visiting the county lockup, which will be less fun because the county lockup does not come with a bar.

Men wearing kilts receive far more attention than any other gender and dress combination. Oh yeah, I know this for a fact.


Note to Da Dudes

Years ago, I promised both of you a trip to New Orleans when you turned eighteen. One of you has reached that age and more; the other is on the cusp. My promise remains, though I think you’ll enjoy the visit more at 21. Regardless, my requirement of trumpet and trombone screaming “When the Saints Come Marching in” remains in effect. It’s gonna be a moment from which I date.


Necessary links regarding partying in New Orleans

1. Bon Maison: http://www.bonmaison.com
2. Doubletree: http://doubletree1.hilton.com/en_US/dt/hotel/MSYTCDT-Doubletree-Hotel-New-Orleans-Louisiana/index.do
3. Hilton Garden: http://hiltongardeninn.hilton.com/en/gi/hotels/index.jhtml?ctyhocn=MSYORGI
4. Hampton: http://www.hamptoninn.com/en/hp/hotels/index.jhtml?ctyhocn=MSYDTHX
5. Embassy Suites: http://www.embassyneworleans.com/
6. Le Pavilion: http://www.lepavillon.com/
7. Margaritaville: http://www.margaritaville.com/
8. The Clover Grill: http://www.clovergrill.com/
9. The Bourbon Pub: http://www.bourbonpub.com/
10. Cheese Burger in Paradise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oq69l32DCKs
11. Incomunicado: http://www.margaritaville.com/index.php?page=drinkrec
12. Jean Lafitte in Exile: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g60864-d146957-Reviews-Cafe_Lafitte_in_Exile-New_Orleans_Louisiana.html