The Fifth Annual Bloody Mary Festival
Learning what it means to miss New Orleans on long, bad date
I sat waiting outside the festival venue, a window-filled Prairie-style building along Lake Michigan. It was October in Chicago, one of the last chances to enjoy outside before winter took hold, and the lake sparkled under the sun. A text from “Maybe Andrew?” appeared on my phone. I was enjoying this recent iPhone update that allows me to avoid adding Tinder dates to my contacts for as long as possible.
“I have the worst Uber driver in the world. Running late.”
I typically schedule first dates at an easily escapable location (a coffee shop) at a time that doesn’t carry much weight or expectations (2 p.m. on a Saturday). After enough dating app meet-ups I realized I needed to be able to flee if someone tries to explain to me the difference between mead and cider, lecture me for not caring about “The Simpsons,” or not ask a single question about myself. Similar to that iPhone feature, I saw setting these parameters as another small way to dull the constant disappointment of online dating.
Given his text I was expecting to him arrive in a flaming Toyota Corolla operated by a blindfolded stunt driver, but the Worst Uber Driver in the World dropped Andrew off uneventfully. I waved and walked toward him and we weakly hugged. He apologized again for the terrible driver — whose main flaw seemed to be that he couldn’t go back in time and make Andrew not late for this meet-up— and we went through the standard first-date smalltalk.
As we got acquainted I felt the energy between us wilt as the disappointment of encountering the real-life human you’ve only known through a screen set in. His black hair was oily but his beard was coarse, he was pale and thinner than me—but at least a foot taller—and when I saw his teeth I realized why he smiled with a closed mouth in all his photos. He looked like a wet Father John Misty.
In my best Tinder photo, the one the “smart photo” feature dictates as the first one person see as they swipe through profiles, I’m dancing in the second line at my friend’s wedding in New Orleans, where I lived before this. I look lively and thrilled to be there, captured by a wedding photographer’s kind lens (and gently enhanced on Photoshop) in a green cocktail dress and with wavy blowout-bar hair. But today, in real life, I — a 5’2 Midwest-thickened pale brunette dressed in a turtleneck sweater, Madewell jeans, and uncomfortable high-heeled DSW booties — looked like Kelly Clarkson if she went to grad school.
I was excited to meet Andrew was because he had an affinity for New Orleans; he told me he wanted to go to this bloody mary festival because there’d be a brass band playing. I grew up right outside that city and lived there for most of my life. When I asked him what he did the last time he was in New Orleans, he rattled off what began as the standard tourist itinerary: Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar, 25-cent martini lunch at Commander’s Palace, a swamp tour, going to a sex club.
“Wait, a sex club? Please elaborate,” I had asked in our Tinder chat. I didn’t know anyone in New Orleans who went to sex clubs (although I did know someone who met her boyfriend in the sauna at a clothing-optional pool, and another guy who got his testicles waxed in front of a crowd at a party — but something so formal as a sex club? Never!). He told me he went to a swingers’ haunt outside the French Quarter, where he and his then-girlfriend performed oral sex on each other for an audience. To me, this admission signaled he would be interested in having sex with me (“DTF” as people say), and his New Orleans resume at the very least meant he’d be OK getting trashed on a Sunday afternoon and seeing where that takes us.
But in real life, as we stood talking about his ride here, this reedy man was low-energy and soft-spoken. He had no detectable verve. And he’s the type who complains about perfectly OK Uber drivers. We needed to start drinking.
I was surprised to find out that the fifth annual Bloody Mary Festival would be held inside. Despite sunlight flooding through the venue’s lake-facing wall of windows and the festive theme of the event, the vibe inside felt more like a convention. Booths from restaurants all hawking their version of bloody marys packed the space, while staff passed around lukewarm biscuits, wobbly deviled eggs, and other breakfasty hors d’oeuvres. We were supposed to try all the bloody marys and vote for our favorite — an unscientific method, considering people would probably just get drunk and pick the last one they had, or the one from the restaurant where their friend’s husband works. And then that restaurant would have “Voted as the Chicago’s Best Bloody Mary at the Fifth Annual Bloody Mary Festival” on their websites in perpetuity. A strong tomatoey smell filled the space, and already garbage cans piled high with plastic cups dripping red liquid. Cheese cubes, cauliflower florets, pickled green beans, entire tiny hamburgers, and other absurd bloody mary garnishes littered the floor.
I would have never attended something like this in New Orleans. I hated the seemingly endless parade of corporate-sponsored outdoor food festivals (po-boy fest, beignet fest, gumbo fest) and, after almost 30 years of living in the area, I rolled my eyes at any broad, tourist-targeted displays of New Orleans culture (brass bands, Mardi Gras beads, jazz brunches, fleur de lis everything). There’s also New Orleans’ hell-like heat and humidity and the fact that you can’t leave the house there without running into 20 people you know.
We grabbed some tiny bloody mary cups and I got a mimosa from the bar — because, it turns out, I don’t even like bloody marys that much — and then Andrew and I went outside to find a table outside and get to know each other. He’s a lawyer from a small town who was homeschooled in a religious household, and seems to be doing everything to make up for his strict past. He loves liberal politics podcasts and the Bill Maher brand of shitting on religion. He goes out almost every night and he doesn’t cook except to throw meat and vegetables on the grill occasionally. He rents an apartment in one of the new, pricey “transit oriented developments” in my neighborhood.
“I’m just doing what I can to gentrify Logan Square,” he said.
I squinted at him through the sun as he told me this, thinking about how I’ve made it my mission to locate every person in my neighborhood selling tamales out of ice chests and patronize them using my Duolingo level-one Spanish.
New Orleans, which he’s visited several times, seemed to represent a reaction to his conservative past. He throws a Mardi Gras party every year and showed me a website on his phone for a Chicago Mardi Gras club he joined. The site was a sad Wix page for a “social aid and pleasure club” — a term typical used for black organizations in New Orleans that throw both funeral second lines and Carnival parades, which I assumed he doesn’t realize — decorated with fleur de lis clip art, stock images of Carnival beads, and images of white revelers in capes and masks.
We got talking about his sister, who remains religious and got married before she was 20.
“All she does is like, hang out at her cabin on the lake and pick apples. That …”
“Sounds fun — ”
“ — is so boring,” he said, cutting me off.
I often fantasize about quitting the charade of living in a city, moving somewhere I can afford a house and abandoning my creative aspirations to spend my days testing Funfetti cake recipes for my baking and lifestyle blog, so his sister’s lifestyle seemed idyllic (aside from the Christianity).
He asked “What’s your favorite brunch place?”
That was like asking me, “what’s your favorite EDM festival?” or “what’s your favorite cruise line?” or “what’s your favorite way to stand in line outside in the summer?” Brunch is just something I don’t do anymore. I love food, and I love restaurants, but the idea of spending $50 before noon on bad chilaquiles and three drinks (coffee, booze, juice) while talking over loud people in rompers was something I’ve happily aged out of.
“I don’t really go to brunch,” I said. “We had brunch at my friend’s house recently; I love a home brunch.”
He nodded and looked down at his drink. We chewed on our plastic cups and took turns staring at the lake. When a lull set in for too long, right on cue a bee would swarm our table and we’d make a show out of dancing around it and moving to another table to sit in silence some more.
I imagined Andrew will make someone who loves Trevor Noah, subsists on Uber Eats, and still goes to concerts with 10 p.m. start times on weekdays very happy. If this was a coffee date I’d probably make my excuses and leave, but instead we had what seemed at the time like 30 bloody marys to go so we could cast an educated vote for the winner of the Fifth Annual Bloody Mary Festival.
For the rest of the festival, we’d go from booth to booth, exchanging few words in between, and retreat with our drinks to an outdoor table and move when the bees showed up. There wasn’t enough food and whatever I had wasn’t good, and all the acid from the tomatoes and alcohol began to corrode my stomach. As the day went on, I became increasingly unable to feign interest in his New Orleans-philia. Every time he brought up the city I became more protective of it, always finding a way to remind him of its social problems. He said he was considering buying a place in New Orleans, and I ranted about all the out-of-town lawyers who were buying part-time properties in the city, AirBnb-ing them for the rest of the year, and driving up property costs for actual residents. I could hear myself becoming increasingly insufferable; I was no better than that guy who told me wanted to punch me because I had never seen “The Simpsons” (well, maybe a little bit better).
Mercifully, we heard the muffled sounds of music from inside. “Ooh, the brass band is starting!” Andrew said. My ears perked, too, because this meant we had to be near the end of this date. We had been there for at least three hours.
We walked in the venue to behold the brass band, a group of white guys wearing shirts bearing the four stars of the Chicago flag. The convention vibe of the event persisted even during the music, as people nodded their heads and tapped their fingers on high-topped tables.
The band tore through the brass-band-for-hire repertoire, with songs like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and other standards I recognized but couldn’t name. Then I heard a familiar thudding from the sousaphone — I knew it had to be by the Rebirth Brass Band. But before I could identify the song, one of the guys stepped up to the mic:
“I feel like like funkin’ it up feeeel like funkin’ it up!”
Suddenly I ached to be in the sweaty crowd at Maple Leaf Bar seeing the real Rebirth Brass Band. I hate football but desperately wanted to be day drinking at a bar for a Saints game, eating something out of a Crock Pot crusted with maroon sauce plugged in near a pool table. I wanted to be eating room temperature Popeyes on the curb of St. Charles Avenue watching a parade go by. Fuck, I’d even pay $13 to go to the Beignet Festival Presented by BP and eat hot dough in the sun with everyone I went to elementary school with. Did I, as the Louis Armstrong song goes, finally know what it means to miss New Orleans?
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I told Andrew, not waiting for a response before walking away. I walked past the row of overflowing trash cans to the shit-smelling hallway where drunk women queued up for the bathroom. I noticed a back door; I could run out of here and onto the lake and escape via an architecture tour. But I couldn’t date and dash.
After the brass band, we decided to call it a day. We both had spent too much time with each other, so there was no energy for niceties or lies about making plans to hang out again — I knew “Maybe Andrew?” would never be “Definitely Andrew.” We just said goodbye, exchanged another weak hug, and he pedaled off on a bike-share bike. I lingered by the lake. The downtown skyline glistened in the background; It really is so pretty here. While I miss New Orleans, I love Chicago, too. New Orleans can never be Chicago, and Chicago could never be New Orleans.
I got on the nearest bus and stewed in my homesickness and the empty feeling of a bad date. And also actual emptiness — save a few of those unappetizing breakfast bites, I had barely eaten the last six hours. Still several stops from my apartment, I noticed ahead on the route: a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Barely even thinking about it, I yanked the stop string and hopped out.