Monday, November 23, 2009

New Orleans

I went to hell last week. It's currently in a place called New Orleans.

New Orleans is a beautiful place, replete with Southern gentility. But an evil specter hangs over the city. Katrina's hand still weighs heavy on the area.

In some places you can see the physical damage. Empty office buildings with broken windows, store fronts still boarded up. These scenes are dotted amongst thriving businesses. How did some survive and others die?

In other places, you can feel it.

As I walked through downtown on a bright, sunny day during the middle of the week, I kept noticing one recurring thing -- there were virtually no people. Sidewalks were empty, parking was available on the street and traffic was light.

I travelled to New Orleans with Andy to visit an old college pal, Billy. (Interesting that these two mid-40 year olds still go by child-like names.) Billy's an assistant professor at one of the universities and Andy and I travelled from up North just to see him action.

When I asked Billy where all the people were, he told me that "they just didn't come back." What an eerie thought, but I suppose that's true as I heard many communities of transplants have settled in Rhode Island, Arizona, Texas, and one family was even living with Larry David in southern California.

There were three conferences going on throughout the city while we were there, and still no people. It was strange knowing the city probably lost half its population during the storm. Some died but the others just fled in the exodus.

Walking through the French Quarter turned out to be a civilized trek, even along Bourbon Street. There were no offers to exchange beads for flesh, no Hurricane drinking youth carrying their elongated drinking glasses, no vomit and no lines. The last one turned out to be to our advantage as we were able to secure tables at some of the finest eating establishments without a wait.

As I mentioned, we came to see Billy teach, but that never happened. It turned the day we were there, his role was only to be a silent participant in the 200+ lecture hall. And his class started in the morning, so just like we acted in our own college days we weren't going to make it.

New Orleans is a city of dichotomies. We found this out when Andy and I signed on for a Segway scooter tour of downtown. It was the first time I ever road this two-wheeled, gyro-balanced modern contraption. It's also the first time, I was led on a tour by a 66 year-old, white-haired, former Navy woman, named Crystal. She could barely walk, but boy could she ride.

I highly recommend trying one of these machines out. A lot of fun, especially when you ditch the tour leader and try and figure out the town on your own.

The other dichotomy occurred when the three of us went out for a cocktail in the late afternoon. Billy found one of the oldest bars in the Quarter, Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop. It pre-dates our nation's independence and pretty much looks like it was when it was an operating blacksmith shop. From the outside, it looks like it should've been condemned. Inside, it's dark, wooden and lit by candles. Managing the bar of this antiquity was the hottest, blondest, firmest, 20-something-ist around.

Our one drink turned into many more as we sat in the tavern for over three hours, just staring like panting dogs at Laura. A brief smile from her direction was all we needed to keep coming up for more drinks. And, having her take off her jean jacket and expose us to her tank top clad body didn't hurt either.

The only reason we pulled ourselves up from our seats was the realization that we needed solid food. But we promised each other that right after dinner we would stumble back in to see Laura. If only Laura knew. It's amazing what can drive some men to drink hard liquor.

We went for a fantastic dinner at Nola's where everything we ate just mesmerized our mouths. (BTW, drinking Bourbon certainly helps everything taste and feel better). We finished our desserts and then headed back to Jean Lafitte's.

It was a lengthy walk, but, of course, the streets were not crowded and we had our mission to fulfill, so the walk seemed to fly by. We raced down Bourbon street to Lafitte's corner location. It was the first time I viewed a bar as a sanctuary. We made our way into the darkened room, almost feeling transported back to the early 1700s. We were looking for our wench. We approached the bar. And now, standing behind the wooden counter was Ralph, a tall bearded gentlemen, with a tattoo and piercing.

We gave up drinking after that and headed to the casino where we gave up money and dignity as well.

I was glad to have visited New Orleans just for a while. Any longer would've been hell.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Spa Castle

When I tell someone I went to a Korean spa in Queens, NY, I inevitably get a smirk and a strange back and forth motion with the hand from that person.

I don't get it. Am I missing some type of code? Koreans are upstanding people, right?

In any case, I was invited to join a small group on a day trip, and since I had no real commitments in the middle of the week, I went along.

We took the 7 train out of Manhattan to the last stop in Queens. The 45-minute trip made it seem like we had crossed the Pacific into Asia. If it were not for the a few street signs in English, you would've have thought you landed in downtown Seoul or Taipei.

There were store fronts with chickens hanging in the window, street vendors selling steamed buns and a guy who kept following us down the street asking if we wanted to meet young women. What a friendly guy.

It was a damp, rainy day and getting into a soothing spa was becoming more appealing. The only problem was our leader could not find out how to get there. Supposedly, there was a bus that was going to meet us at the train station, but nothing showed.

After circling the block a few times, we went into a bank for shelter and directions. We asked one of the tellers where we could find a taxi around the area.

"This bank, no taxi here. This bank. Get out."

Back on the street, we were fortunate enough to find a cab line. It had been nearby us all along. We hopped in and drove off.

Addresses are quite strange in this part of New York and trying to get the cab driver to understand that we wanted to go to 131-10 11 Avenue took some work. One of the riders with us, Scott, tried some newly-learned Mandarin. I'm convinced this cost us another 10 minutes of drive time.

Eventually, we arrived. It was no joke calling this place a castle. It took up most of the block and was five-stories high. It was legit (and why wouldn't it be?).

You enter on the ground floor, pay a nominal fee for the facilities amenities, and head to the locker room. Shoes get their own storage, clothes follow further down the line.

Not that I like stripping naked in front of my friends, when in Rome, do as the Romans? We all stowed our personal possessions and headed for the showers.

This place combined Asian and European sensibilities on spa life. Modern facilities provided 6 different kinds of pools with varying temperatures and water jet capabilities; a steam room, sauna, personal grooming supplies at shower stations and a nice gentlemen who offered to do body scrubs with a broom. And this was just the first floor.

Upstairs were restaurants, outdoor pools and various co-ed sauna rooms with temperatures going from 39 degrees up to 178 degrees. There was a giant nap room and finally a place to get a real massage.

I partook in a 60 minutes rub down by a petite Asian woman with hands of magic who did a fantastic job of relieving tension in my neck, back, legs, arms and gluts (yes, you can have tension there) - and that's it.

Afterward, I retreated (actually floated) back downstairs to relax further at the whirlpools with my friends. As I recounted the extra-sensory experience, I sat near a high-powered water jet that if positioned correctly probably could have cleaned out much of my insides. As I told the story, my friends offered smirks and strange hand movements as I described the situation.

As I was thrust around the pool by the cannons of water, I could only think of the strange dichotomy I was experiencing. At one point, I was getting a little taste of heaven and solitude during my muscle workout. And now, I was sitting naked in a pool of men recounting a near nirvana experience.

Only in Hell, my friends. Only in Hell.