by Daren Wang
NEW ORLEANS — I am walking to the Napoleon House on Chartres Street to drink a Sazerac when I run into my pal Shari Smith and her friends Jana Cromartie Sasser and some guy named Radney Foster.
They agree to join me for a round. We take a table near the door.
You’d expect a punchline to this story, but there’s not one.
Instead, the same Radney Foster who has put dozens of records on the Billboard charts talks about publishing his first prose collection, “For You to See the Stars.” He talks about how the music business gave him a leg up in the process, but how publishing his first book feels like starting all over. And in that way, he’s like Jana and me — the three of us trying to launch our first books whatever way we can. Jana’s book “Gradle Bird” is her novel/almost-memoir of growing up in in a truckstop off Interstate 16 in Georgia. The book is by turns dead serious and drop- dead funny. Just like her.
We order Sazeracs.
The night has begun.
I have been waiting for this. I’ve had some fine cocktails on this trip, and chatted with some fun folks, but this is what I’ve been looking forward to. A Bar Bar.
The book that inspired me to drink my way through the South on book is Jim Atkinson’s “The View From Nowhere: the Only Bar Guide You’ll Ever Want — or Need,” a travelogue of 150 American drinking bars—“bar bars,” as Atkinson terms them.
The copy I bought in 1989 is as marked-up and stained as a rookie quarterback’s playbook, and I’ve judged every bar I’ve walked into since then based on the Atkinson Scale. Ten factors make up his scale, and with a little updating, they still apply.
What You Feel Like When You Get There: first impressions
Yuppity-Doo-Dah: prevalence of yuppies (fewer is better)
Oh Say Can You See: How dark is the place?
Crapola: What is the place decorated with?
Holding Forth: quality of conversation
What You Feel Like After Three Drinks: self-explanatory
Just a Little Something to Wash My Drink Down With: food
Old-Fart Factor: prevalence of grumpy old men with strong opinions (more is better)
What You Feel Like When You Leave: self-explanatory
You Go Figure: What is bizarre and memorable about the place?
The Napoleon House is the first Bar Bar I’ve been to on this trip.
Up until now, all these drinking establishments have been lacking a certain something. When you tell a friend that you are looking for an outstanding bourbon cocktail, people guide you to places with mixologists and “cocktail programs.”
Bar Bars do not have cocktail programs. Bar Bars do not vie for James Beard Awards. Bar Bars do not have subtle ambient lighting with curated playlists on the house sound systems and cheese boards with locally sourced bleus.
Instead, they have bartenders and a decent burger from a cow who never saw the light of day and incandescent light bulbs in fixtures that have a solid layer of dust on them. There might be a juke box, but probably not these days. The most exotic cheese is cheddar. The regulars at the bar might still be complaining about yuppies, even though they haven’t seen one in a couple decades.
The Napoleon House is a Bar Bar, without question. I can barely see the back room through the dim light. There’s good quality of holding forth all around. I look around for an old fart, and realize that I might, in fact, be him. If not, I’m certainly in training. An apprentice fart.
The Sazeracs are made quickly and without fuss, and put down on the table in front of us unceremoniously, with no heightened sense of performance art. They are perfect. Iceless in a simple rocks glass, the licorice and herbs of the absinthe offsetting the sweetness of the rye.
The bartender looks like the kind of guy that would throw me out if I asked him if rye qualifies as bourbon. I might as well ask him how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Instead, we all toast, willing each other toward The New York Times best-seller list.
The menu is simple. Perhaps a little too simple. Someone at the table needs a gluten-free meal, and no options exist, so my new friends decide to move on just as the fellow drinkers I was planning to meet arrive. Tad Bartlett and Maurice Carlos Ruffin take the seats across from me. I feel like I’m doing job interviews.
Tad and Maurice are both practicing lawyers, paying the bills as they write their way through the world. They talk about their upcoming Bitter Southerner co-writing project, “Kings of the Confederate Road,” to be published in November.
I’d gotten into some trouble earlier in the day complaining about the squalor of the French Quarter, and how it come to mean all of New Orleans in my mind.
“I grew up in New Orleans East,” Ruffin says. “No one really writes about it — it’s the suburbs, quiet. A nice place to grow up.”
His novel, “We Cast a Shadow,” is due next year. It’s a near-future story of a professional black man in a Southern city obsessed with a procedure that can turn his biracial son white. It sounds like a cross between “Brave New World” and “Invisible Man,” and I want to read it right now.
We talk politics and drink to our bright futures.
Maurice looks out the window and points. “They sold slaves in that building — up on the second floor, right there.”