Monday, May 14, 2018
To Wrestlemania and Back: A New Orleans Journey-Part 1
The idea came, as grand ones often do, after the drinks began to take hold. My girlfriend and I were drinking what could fairly be described as an excessive amount of alcohol for a Monday night, while watching the extremely appropriately-titled WWE Monday Night Raw. We had been discussing the possibility of going on vacation soon, when serendipitously enough, a commercial advertising the upcoming WrestleMania event howled across our television screen. Held in New Orleans, a city we both had long desired to visit, could this event be the unlikely inspiration for our next adventure?
Long story short, yes. The plan was simple: we would spend a week in the Big Easy, starting with WrestleMania and moving on to sight-seeing, exploring, drinking, eating, eating and eating over the course of the following days. And so, mere weeks later, we departed a gloomy, drizzly San Francisco and headed down south.
Our flight was largely uneventful, save for the child behind us who found great amusement in repeatedly saying "Ahhhh! The plane's gonna crash! We're all gonna die!" On the other hand, I experienced joy in its truest form when the flight attendant informed me that my canned Moscow Mule would be complimentary. A more encouraging omen I cannot imagine.
The plane landed in Louisiana amidst much the same weather we left in. If one were judging purely on atmospheric conditions, they could be forgiven for thinking we had never left our home state. But the sudden abundance of pralines and hot sauce at every airport kiosk made our arrival in Cajun Country undeniable. The plethora of massive WWE advertisements all over the walls and columns served as an electrifying reminder that we were less than twenty-four hours away from a sports entertainment spectacle for the ages! Or so we hoped. In any case, first thing was first: we needed to find our hotel.
I was every bit the gawking yokel during the cab ride into the city, pointing out pipes and buildings like they were ruins of a Martian civilization. "Look, it's a Michael's!" I said at one point. "Just like where we live!"
We arrived at our hotel during a break in the rain, and the receptionist immediately surmised that we were in town for WrestleMania (a dubious honor, perhaps) and scoffing at my half-joking desire to take a nap. "This is the Vegas of the South!" she said. "Get outta here with a nap." And fittingly enough, we soon did have to get outta there, because we were in the wrong hotel. We had foolishly mistaken the Courtyard Marriott Near the French Quarter for the Courtyard Marriott French Quarter, and the price we paid was a few blocks' walk that exposed the wheels on our suitcases to things no wheels should experience. Still, our detour gave us a chance to get a sense of our new surroundings, see a number of obvious fellow WWE fans walking the streets, and FINALLY catch a goddamn Corsola in Pokemon Go.
Our actual hotel was a comfortable retreat with the odd feature of its only window looking out into the hotel itself rather than outside. Though this was admittedly jarring initially--I didn't expect to see a twenty-something man drinking Mountain Dew outside the window when I first drew back the curtain--it was a bug that became a feature by offering perhaps the truest blackout curtains I've ever seen. Time became malleable as, so long as Sheila and I were physically within that room, we were granted the ability to pretend it was any time of day or night we desired to suit our circumstances. This would come in handy numerous times during our vacation. In any case, for the time being, we closed the curtains and shook off our travel weariness with a few Red Bull and vodkas. This is probably where I should note that this is a recounting of a personal experience, not a how-to guide.
Famished and let loose in one of America's culinary epicenters, we were nearly overwhelmed by a myriad of choices for our first official New Orleans meal. So as we headed out into the suddenly quite vigorous (but warm) rain, we opted for convenience and headed into a nearby restaurant that seemed quite popular: Willie's, a fried chicken joint with a few other locations in town. The heavenly aroma of crisp chicken skin and the whirring churning of daiquiri machines were clear indicators that we had made the correct decision. Now it was merely a matter of deciphering the somewhat unintuitive menu. Fortunately, I had essentially decided on fried chicken and jambalaya before walking in, and there was a suitable combo meal on the board to accommodate my desires. But what should we get to drink? Each individual 7-11-Slurpeeeqsue drink machine had a piece of paper taped to it with the name of the drink and some of the components therein. Think Everclear and Bacardi 151 in the same drink, a.k.a. the feverish nightmare of a college freshman. We were intrigued.
"Excuse me," Sheila said to the girl at the cash register, "what's in that orange drink over there? The 190."
"OK, but...what's in it?" she persisted. "What kind of drink is it?"
Apparently it was the Area 51 of drinks, a closely guarded secret with details provided only on a strictly need-to-know basis. "Um, alright," said Sheila. "I'll get that one."
I went with the Willie's punch, despite the seemingly toxic nature of the labeled liquor blend within. You can seldom go wrong ordering an item with the same name as the establishment.
In any case, despite the enigmatic nature of the ordering process, our dining experience was excellent. The food was exceedingly moist and flavorful, with the jambalaya an instant favorite between us and the drinks as potent and tasty as they were mysterious. As we dined, we noted the plethora of wresting shirts adorning the chests of our fellow diners, feeling at one with our fellow travelers. This bond was cemented when the Jay-Z/Linkin Park mashup masterpiece "Numb/Encore" played on the restaurant sound system, and I found myself singing along to it with the table next to us, a group of grappling connoisseurs headed to the Ring of Honor show that night. Truly, we were all travelers on a strange, strange journey, and one last time, we all needed to roar.
After that, the weather died down again and we decided to use the evening to explore the French Quarter. Our movements were swift and somewhat blurry, and details were unimportant. We would ascertain some markers on our wanderings that would provide bearings for the rest of our vacation, like a hot dog cart that looked good but which we never patronized, a Walgreen's that would become our source of gallons of life-saving Ozarka water in the days ahead, and a statue of Jesus that cast an imposing shadow.
The final bar we visited that evening, purely by chance, was the historic Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, a structure that has existed since the 1700s and is one of the oldest bars in America.
A truly lovely and striking venue, it felt like the original concept that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was based on. I made a toast to buccaneers past with the first of many (many) bottles of Abita Amber we would consume during our trip. It was damn near magical. But then, we were seized with an inevitable impulse that would draw our night to a close. In short, we were hungry.
We ventured toward our (actual) hotel room, fueled by the twin realizations that we were due for additional sustenance and that we needed to not feel like absolute death in order to fully enjoy the next day's WrestleMania festivities. So we preemptively checked off one of the boxes on our figurative tour checklist: visiting a Popeye's in New Orleans. Based on an article we had read in anticipation of our trip, we were operating on the information that while visiting a fast food chain restaurant touting Louisiana cuisine in its home state would seem on the surface to be heresy, it was actually an example of a franchise elevating its food within its home state. As fans of Popeye's, we had to test this theory, and it ended up being true and then some. It was not only elevated, it was just...different.
Any Popeye's I've ever been to in the Bay Area has a standard fast food restaurant setup: you order at the counter, and when your food is ready, they bring it out of the kitchen and serve it to you at that same counter. This Popeye's ran on a different system. You ordered at one counter, paid for your food at a second counter, and then went to a third counter for condiments and food bagging. It was a lot for us to process, particularly in our somewhat foggy state of mind, but at the very least it seemed a clever way to provide more employment opportunities in the fried chicken industry.
We ate our Popeye's in our hotel room, on top of a towel we spread out on the bed. It was every bit as delicious as we could have hoped, and was sure to prove a valuable ally in the anti-hangover wars ahead. Sleep came swiftly soon after.
We awoke with no clue as to what time it could be, feeling surprisingly less than terrible. Some combination of poultry grease, Texan bottled water and excitement for the event to come fortified us for the day ahead. Still, we needed some breakfast, and so decided to try out the restaurant across the street from our hotel, Serio's Po-Boys. As it happens, we would end up eating here multiple times during the trip, yet neither Sheila nor I ever actually purchase one of the sandwiches for which the establishment is named. The blame for this falls squarely at the feet of the most unexpected foodstuff we encountered during the course of our vacation: the muffuletta.
The muffuletta is a sandwich as delicious as it is difficult to spell. A combination of soft ciabatta bread, Italian meats, Swiss and provolone cheeses and a truly impressive olive salad, this particular version of the muffuletta apparently was judged to be superior than that of esteemed celebrity chef Bobby Flay. I can certainly see why...it was a remarkable dish: tasty, tangy, meaty, huge (I don't believe I've ever seen another sandwich you can purchase by the quarter, half or whole) and unique. Yelp turns up only one restaurant around San Jose that serves these, but after my experience at Serio's, I'm definitely motivated to go try it and see how they measure up.
Our bellies full, the time had come for final Wrestlemania preparations. Our remaining Red Bull supply served us well as we shook off the lingering effects of the previous night's frivolity and, with the NXT TakeOver special that had taken place just hours before playing on the iPad, we donned our Shinsuke Nakamura shirts and prettied ourselves up. The Superdome awaited.
Contrary to popular belief, the first match of Wrestlemania was a battle between Sheila and stadium security over her clutch allegedly being a quarter of an inch larger than stadium regulations allowed. Sheila insisted that she had looked up said regulations in advance and measured the bag with a ruler to ensure compliance, but the lady at the gate was having none of it. What she did have was a stick she was using to measure bags. It had no units of measurement on it, or really any markings at all, but she assured us that it was an accurate gauge of clutch size, and said gauge showed that we were in violation. Sheila vehemently disagreed, and given the length of the line and the sheer amount of time we had already waited in order to gain access to the building, the proposed solution of leaving the line and buying a new bag at the team store was not exactly ideal. The people in line behind us were less than sympathetic for our cause, grumbling that we should just leave the line, but after some increasingly strained back-and-forth, the gate attendant grabbed her supervisor, who quickly cleared up the situation and had Sheila empty the clutch and put it in her pocket as a condition for entry. There was no championship belt awarded for our victory, but the sweet taste of triumph was reward enough. Plus, you know, we didn't have to wait in line again.
For as long an event as it was (as I recall, it clocked in at somewhere around seventy-three hours, give or take), I don't have a ton to say about WrestleMania. Part of this can be attributed to our seats being situated right by the liquor vendors, who were more than happy to suggest we make our every vodka/soda order a double (for efficiency's sake, of course). This added immeasurably to our enjoyment of the event while detracting immeasurably from my ability to recount it in detail, but frankly there are a million write-ups of the show online, and I'm writing this a month after the event, so I'd hardly have the most timely analysis anyway.
What I would like to note, though, is the feeling of being at WrestleMania. When we walked in, we were greeted with a view of the gorgeous set.
Now, unless you buy some absurdly expensive tickets, any live viewing of Wrestlemania will likely include you squinting at the ant-like size of the in-ring performers from your vantage point before finally giving up and just watching things unfold on one of the big stadium screens. In a sense, you're probably missing out on some things by being there. If you were watching the show at home instead, you'd likely have a clearer picture of the action and the benefit of running commentary (annoying though the commentators can be at times) to give context to the action.
But what this ignores is the feeling of being at WrestleMania. You're in a giant Stadium, watching the Super Bowl of professional wrestling with excited fans from all over the world. Everyone mutually rejoices when Daniel Bryan comes back from retirement to wrestle as though he was never concussed into a forced exit from the ring for years. You join the chorus of applause when Ronda Rousey proves herself to be quite capable and formidable in her in-ring debut, and sort of murmur when massively popular (and just plain massive) Braun Strowman selects a random child from the crowd to be his tag team partner in a championship match. Yes, the second half of the show was largely lacking in comparison to the first, ending with a main event that no one was excited about due largely to the perceived predictability of its outcome and the lukewarm enthusiasm for the characters involved.
Even when the finish of the match went contrary to nearly everyone's expectations, the gasps of surprise were somewhat mitigated by the sheer exhaustion of the crowd. But in a way, individual match results are nearly beside the point. WrestleMania is an entity far bigger than than any individual match, or even any one year's card. It is a spectacle drawing on decades of history, fueled by the enthusiasm of fans from every corner of the globe who just want to spend some money to see people beat each other up in elaborate and dramatic ways. And until Cirque Du Soleil starts allowing powerbombs, there truly is nothing else like it. If you ever get the chance to experience a WrestleMania for yourself, I highly recommend it.
Oh, and you'll want to get seats close to the booze and the bathroom. Trust me on that.
Back at the hotel that night, we were thoroughly drained from a full day of watching other people being athletic, and grappled with the idea that we really needed to eat something approximating dinner before we went to bed. As we stood at the elevator, waiting to go down to street level in search of grub, a child and his father passed by, on the way to their room. As they did, the boy turned to Sheila and me, gestured toward the paper bag his father held and declared in a surprisingly intense monotone, "We got Willie's." Then the pair departed. Laughing on the way down about the child's Village of the Damned-esque personality, we nonetheless drew inspiration from his unprompted statement and, well, we got Willie's. For the second straight night, flakes of deep-fried chicken skin would nestle among the fibers of a bath towel draped over the foot of a hotel bed. As is only right and proper.
Joey Marsilio would like to remind you that by purchasing his novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior, you are not only getting yourself a great book to read, but also adding to his "traveling to places and then posting inane musings about it online" fund.