Bullets, Barbecue, and Kermit

Here in New Orleans my life thus far has been strangely pristine. I live near a couple of beautiful private universities, in a part of town almost completely spared of any blemish from Hurricane Katrina, oil spills, or any sort of economic disadvantage. I feel a little bit like I live in a doll house in a neighborhood full of doll houses. Don't get me wrong, I love where I live. It's the definition of picturesque, with all these historic buildings and mansions, quaint shops, artsy restaurants and cafes. It's convenient, being next to a bike path, and right off a streetcar line. And it's safe, being in one of the high ground areas (meaning flood safe), with mostly students or affluent people living in the neighborhood, not much of a crime rate to speak of.

But there's a part of me that wonders where the action is. Sure, I love roaming around the French Quarter, pristine and well-preserved historic buildings, or the funky warehouse district with its big galleries and museums. And the Lower and Upper Garden Districts near me are also neighborhoods with a lot of aesthetic. But demographically, this town is 67% African-American who I haven't seen much of. Music is everywhere, and I've seen it, but mostly in college venues, or the trendy Frenchman Street clubs. And of the 20 or so people I've met, about five of them are actually from New Orleans, and of those 5, 4 of them are maintenance staff for the building I live in. I'm definitely living like a tourist right now.

Save for tonight, when I ventured out to Bullets Sports Bar. It got a cameo on HBO's Treme series, but Bullets was first recommended to me by an Alaskan musician friend of mine of the old school breed. I was informed that local trumpeter Kermit Ruffins grills up some ribs before stepping on stage for some tunes. A little wore out on the hipster music scenes, I recruit Joe, my new 64-year old friend and maintenance man, to explore with me. Joe is quirky, fun, trustworthy, and one of New Orleans' many ardent music lovers. He agrees to venture out to Bullets.

I googlemap the location to learn that it is located in the terribly unfashionable 7th ward, not so close to downtown as I previously thought. Joe decides to drive and our route necessarily takes us through part of the city I haven't yet had the opportunity to explore. It is the part where most of that 67% of the city's population I never see lives. Houses are small, but well-kept. Neighbors are talking to one another from their stoops. There are mom-and-pop corner stores selling po-boys and cajun seafood and liquor.

We arrive at a tiny bar which looks like a converted shotgun house situated within a completely residential neighborhood. I'm surprised that zoning would allow for it but the neighbors are out and will not be complaining. The city is out and alive. Old women are with their grandchildren and there are a couple grills on. There is a school half a block away. People of all ages are milling about.

Joe and I walk in and comprise part of the 10% non-black patrons in the bar. Women are in their clubbing clothes, skin tight shirts and hotpants showing off bulbous rear ends. But instead of ear-wrenching techno or top 40 hits, the sweetest old school jazz standards are being thrown out by Kermit on trumpet, a keyboardist, drummer and guitar. They appropriately call themselves Kermit and the BBQ Swingers.

Joe and I go outside and wait patiently next to a behemoth grill for barbecue plates. For $15.00, on my styrofoam take-out tray are three no-skimp ribs, and a chicken breast and drumstick, sitting on top a bed of baked beans, a side of baked macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and a slice of bread, all home-made. The smokiness of the meat is perfect, the sauce tangy and not too sweet. The sides are made with love. We take our loaded-down foam containers inside where we equip ourselves with a beer and a soda each. Kermit is playing the Treme theme song of his alma mater Rebirth Brass Band. Passers-by jokingly threaten to steal our plates. Middle-aged women greet eachother with big hugs. One friend fixes the other's bra-strap. The chefs give us a big smile when they notice that I have won the clean plate club, and the woman who took my money gives me a big hug, appreciative of my appreciation.

The stage itself is nothing but a little space at the front of the bar, not even a platform of any sort. Closer to the stage, the dancing is strong, but never rude. A man in his eighties has on high-wader pants belted just below his chest. He is wearing one of his best button-up shirts, a bowler hat with a feather tucked in the band, and shiny white patton-leather shoes. His objective is to strut his stuff, and boy does he, with all the young ladies near the stage. Kermit is right there with us, dancing as his trumpet sweetly hollers. He lets one of the waitresses get on stage with him who raps while the band backs her up with old-school/classic jazz beats. This band is on.

A belly full of warm soul food. Great, traditional music--world famous music. Tonight, Joe and I in every way, shape and form were outsiders. But I've never felt like such a welcome outsider, in this unimpressive-looking neighborhood sports bar near a local high school, a far cry from any tourist attraction. What a great New Orleans night.


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