‘Down in the treme’ is a line from the opening music from a TV show about New Orleans, Specifically about the Treme district. It is set in that district just after hurricane Katrina and follows the struggle of the people who live there. Amongst the cast, and playing himself, is Kermit Ruffins a local virtuoso trumpeter often referred to as the new Louis Armstrong. Although very successful and made more famous by the show Kermit is very much a local and has never lost touch with his roots. He still plays gigs and Bullets Bar is one of his regulars.
So we had planned to go. Bourbon Street in the heart of the French Quarter is Tourist Central. We wandered through and had a cocktail here and there. In tourist areas cocktails are a very mixed bag these days with all the mixes and potions and it’s rare to find skilled bartenders making drinks with just booze, liqueurs, bitters and fruit. The FQ is no exception. Except that they will give you a ‘free’ souvenir glass… for another 7 dollars. Anyway we were only passing through.
We were soon on Frenchmen Street a much cooler area than the FQ and after a swift beer I hailed a cab. I talked to the driver through the window. When I gave him the address he refused our business and drove away. Oh well. I’ve seen this movie before. When the next cab stopped we both got in the back, then I gave the cabbie the news. He plainly didn’t want to go, but we weren’t getting out.
‘You sure? He said. ‘That’s a long way’
‘Sure it is,’ says I, ‘and that’s why I’m taking a cab’
After about 5 minutes I’m looking at his sat-nav and thinking we’re not going in the right direction.
‘You needed to make a left about 2 blocks back.’
‘Ask these guys’. We were at a red light. There were two guys waiting to cross. I rolled down the rear window.
‘PUT THE WINDOW UP. PUT THE WINDOW UP’ he screamed. Jeez what a drama queen
‘Where’s Bullets Bar’ I asked the pedestrians. Two young local men.
‘Turn around’ one said ‘then hook a right on Dorgenois’.
Two minutes later Braveheart pulled up at Bullets
We went inside. It was about 7.30. The place was bouncing. A Tuesday night, in the burbs, at 7.30. Bouncing. Everyone was a local except me and the little nurse. We were served local Abita beers at the bar. Some people having a birthday party made room around their table and someone else gave us cake. Super friendly. The band was rocking but no sign of Kermit yet. He would be along later. His bill was on the wall. The time flew. Suddenly it was 11.00. Last Call. We had had a great night. We had been pulled from our seats to join a kind of flash mob dance to a local anthem, given cake, and generally made welcome. The crowd knew the 11.00 routine and within 15 minutes everyone was outside around the food truck which was turning out delicious Bar-Be-Que food.
The place was empty and just as we were about to leave, enter, the bold Kermit Ruffins.
‘Well, well’ says I ‘Where’ve you been’
Kermit looks across ‘Me’?
‘Yes you. I’ve come 4000 miles to see you and you’re a no show’. I said.
He came across and shook my hand, ‘Sorry man, sumpthin came up that I couldn’t cancel. Come to Vaughn’s Bar on Thursday.’ he spent a few minutes with us asking about England. He didn’t have to. Nice guy.
We couldn’t get a cab. The number we had on a card refused to come for us. We were wondering what to do when the bartender finished locking the front door. She asked us if we needed help.
‘Do you have a number for a cab. The company that brought us don’t wanna come get us.’
‘I’ll get you a cab honey’. She whipped out a cell phone. A conversation ensued. We could only hear her contribution. ‘I need at cab at Bullets bar right now please…What?…Say what?…Are you crazy?…You will send a cab. Right now…You sorry ass excuse for a …’ She was yelling and she was angry. She hung up.
‘Two drivers got shot so now they won’t come around here’, she told us. ‘Nobody died. They should just do their goddam job’.
Several people had enjoyed the show including a massive young black man we had talked to earlier, his name was Hudson.
‘Thanks for trying’, I said. ‘We’ll walk down, it’s only 30 minutes’.
She looked at me like I was a favoured idiot son, you know, kinda sideways, eyebrow raised. Then, hands on hips, she said
‘You ain’t walking nowhere in this hood’. She turned to Hudson, the Defensive Lineman, who was finishing his burger. ‘Hudson’ she barked. ‘ Go get the truck and get these people to their hotel’
Hudson looked up from his burger. He was scared.
‘I had some drinks,’ he said sheepishly.
Ah, the other idiot son, her look said, the one I’m not so keen on.
‘GET THE TRUCK. Don’t you leave me standin’ here now’. Hudson’s further protestations fell on stony ground. He walked around the corner and soon returned in an absolutely giant pickup truck. A massive vehicle. All tricked up too with the rims and the chrome and the paint job. It had a running board for ease of entry but even this was too high for the little nurse so a beer crate was produced making it three steps to get inside. We thanked our saviour profusely.
‘No problem. You folks stay safe now,’ she said. Hudson got the 1000 yard stare ‘And Hudson, you drive safe hear’
We parked a little ways from the FQ proper, climbed out, and Hudson insisted on escorting us to the brightly lit tourist area.
‘Thank you Hudson.’ I said as we walked along Royal Street. ‘Lemme buy you a drink.’
‘Gotta get back man, but thanks’
‘C’mon man, I insisted. ‘Least I can do. Let’s have Sazeracs.’
‘What’s that, Sazerac.’ he asked me.
‘Sazerac? You don’t know. You’re kidding me?’
He looked puzzled.
‘Hudson, you’re kidding me right. It’s one of NOLA’s most famous drinks. You never had a sazerac? Ever? OK we gotta fix that right now.’
We weren’t far from the famous Monteleone Hotel with its equally famous Carousel Bar. There was a liveried doorman outside the main door and I can’t imagine what he thought about the group approaching his hotel. The little nurse is about five feet two. I’m not a tall guy probably five seven. Try as we might, we look like white European tourists, and although casually attired, we are pretty smart and kinda conservative. Hudson on the other hand is almost twelve feet tall, seems to me. His shorts would be too long for me as full length trousers. I could use either leg as a sleeping bag liner. He had looked completely at home in his designer sportswear and $500 dollar trainers down in the Treme, but because of where we now are, he also looks a little out of place.
Whatever the doorman’s thinking, he’s not letting on and like the consummate professional he is, he touches his hat and grabs the door for us.
The Monteleone is an iconic New Orleans Hotel. One of its quirky features is the Carousel Bar. A circular bar which slowly revolves while the stools around it remain stationary. It’s around midnight and we are lucky enough to snag the last three bar stools. We get our sazeracs. Delicious. This is the drink that Southern Comfort is based on, but when you get one made from scratch, by an expert, it’s on another level. Hudson likes his. I insist on another round and order them over Hudson’s protestations. After those I don’t argue when Hudson says he has to go, poor guys got to drive back. I do however insist on escorting him to his truck. He protests.
‘You looked after me in your hood,’ I said. ‘You’re in my neck of the woods now.’
Without irony I protected this giant urban warrior all the way back to the truck.