Featured Stories

Who Is She

When Bourbon Street’s most famous cocktail purveyor came after me

Lauren LaBorde
Jun 7, 2018 · 14 min read
Illustration by Liz Beeson

I was 29 years old, I was living with my parents, and I was the worst person in my dance fitness class. I went to this class for free — I got a lot of things for free in New Orleans — in exchange for promoting the class on social media. But I was a terrible ambassador for Dance Trance. I would spend the class panting and embarrassed, grape-vining in the wrong direction to the current Top 40 hits, before leaving New Orleans proper and heading back to the suburbs.

In my life outside the dance studio, I was also sweaty and flailing. It was summer in New Orleans. I had recently been “laid off” from a job I was completely wrong for and very bad at. It had been my first career risk, leaving the old-fashioned-but-no-bullshit world of publications for an internet marketing job at an office with standing desks and a lax dog policy. After eight months of fuck-ups I was unemployed.

I declared in a triumphant Facebook post that I would now be “creating a life on my terms,” starting a freelance career. I would stitch together an income out of various writing jobs, joining the ranks of the untethered workers of the “gig economy” who love making their tax returns as complicated as possible. The comments section of the post was flooded with messages of support and job leads.

A few months into my freelance foray, however, my small, hot apartment near Audubon Park — an apartment that had holes in the floor that opened straight to outside, which, I’m convinced is how I, a human with no cats, contracted fleas — felt even smaller and hotter. Going to coffee shops was expensive and fraught with passive-aggressive encounters over space and power outlets. My severance was waning and, despite having doubled the number of jobs I had, it was getting harder to pay rent. Most people spend months or years preparing for a freelance career; I jumped right into mine.

One night, I was walking down St. Claude Avenue when a kid on a bike zoomed along the sidewalk and shoved me. “BIIIITCH!” he shouted to the chorus of his laughing friends. I think under previous circumstances I would have yelled back “HEY NOW!” and moved on with my life, only slightly bruised from being owned by a teen bully. But with my miserable apartment and freelance career, like New Orleans itself I was fragile and defensive, ready to crumble at the slightest push.

I called my mom sobbing that night, and she said the words I both dreaded and desperately want to hear: “You know, if you need to move back home for a little while…”

In Chicago, where I live now, I tell people I’m from New Orleans, but I’m really from Metairie, a suburb. It doesn’t matter to people outside Louisiana, but I know that even though I went to high school and college in New Orleans, lived most of my adult life in New Orleans, lived in New Orleans apartments and voted in New Orleans elections, dealt with New Orleans experiences like my car flooding (twice) or getting mugged (also twice), and woke up at 8 a.m. on Fat Tuesday every year to make mimosas to-go and head to Zulu and the walking parades in the Marigny — to most New Orleanians you are not truly one of them unless you were born and raised in a New Orleans zip code, and I was not.

This strict litmus test was especially important after Hurricane Katrina, when people were moving in, scooping up cheap real estate, and trying to remake the broken city in their image. In the years after the levees broke, I remember a parade of charlatans moving to New Orleans, wanting to make the city a tech city, a fashion city, a film city — the list goes on. New Orleans has one of the strongest cultural identities of any U.S. city, yet a lot of these transplants wanted to make the city into a cheaper, dirtier version of the coastal cities from which they came. While I ridiculed their pitches for the “Netflix of…” and the “Facebook for…” at bars near the start-up incubator that caused media to dub the city “Silicon Bayou,” I did enjoy the craft cocktail bars, the third-wave coffee shops, and the other hip amenities that accompanied the new arrivals.

Even though Metairie is just a 15-minute drive from New Orleans and its rich culture, I had a fairly normal suburban childhood in which chain restaurants figured largely. (I became a feminist when McDonald’s had Happy Meal toys that were gender-specific — Hot Wheels for boys, Barbies for girls — and I threw a fit over the inequity as my mom and I sat in the drive-through.) People are mostly correct in their assessment of Metairie as your typical culture-less suburb, but I champion its underrated qualities. It’s the home of Ellen Degeneres (who will probably also say she’s from New Orleans when asked) and Al Copeland, the Trumpian restaurateur who decked out his Metairie mansion in an impressive holiday light display every year, and who founded Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits. My brother invited him to his fifth birthday party (he did not attend). Metairie’s main public library has the best selection in the Greater New Orleans area, and Fat City, once considered the Metairie outpost of Bourbon Street, today is an impressive enclave of ethnic food.

Metairie is also a place where pro-Trump signs dot front lawns and SUVs with “Ya mamma was pro-life, dawlin’!” bumper stickers cut you off in traffic. After that bully pushed me over the edge, it would become my home for a year while I figured out my next steps.

During this period, my income came from a variety of odd gigs: editor for an architecture and real estate blog (I would criticize homes on the market while I lived rent-free in my parents’ house), arts writer for a local magazine, and social media director for Rube Goldberg (yes, of the machines). I wrote for my university’s alumni magazine (clearly an exemplary alumna myself), I wrote website copy for a criminal defense attorney, and, as a contractor for Marriott Hotels, I wrote easy tourism listicles.

At my parents’ house, I leaned into the comforts of an adult home: powerful air conditioning, OnDemand television, and no fleas. But the house did get crowded. My dad works for himself as a general contractor and would stop home between jobs, eating lunch, loudly talking on the phone, then sprawling out on his La-Z boy for a nap, complete with violent snoring and CNN screaming in the background.

So I would leave the house to work, often heading to the aforementioned public library, where I would settle in one of its many quiet corners, confident that I would never see anyone I knew. I felt the same safety of being surrounded by stacks of books that I had when I had volunteered at the library during high school (I mostly read “The Babysitters Club” books the whole time). To procrastinate, I’d walk around Lakeside Mall, where I had seen many tenants turn over through the years, reliving memories from buying Jewel’s “Foolish Games” CD single at Warehouse Music in elementary school to my first job here, at age 15, at Build-a-Bear Workshop. Sometimes I’d go to Lafreniere Park, where I’d dodge intimidating teens playing Pokemon Go. They reminded me of my high school days of wearing Hot Topic clothes and loitering with my other poser-punk friends at the AMC Palace multiplex.

I was definitely hiding out in Metairie, which was unlike me, but I was embarrassed that I was living at home and was afraid someone would bring it up. I had been one of those people who “knew everyone” in New Orleans — not because I was especially cool or well-liked, but just because once you live there long enough it’s inevitable. It was true what my friend Megan said, that New Orleans was like “living in a giant hug.” New Orleans has its tight, sweaty grip on you whether you like it or not, whether you’re really from there or enter its orbit only briefly.

One Sunday night I began my favorite rituals of living at my parents’ house: making a charcuterie plate from our latest Costco run, grabbing a freezing La Croix from my parents’ generous sterling silver fridge, and watching “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” with my mom. I was half-watching the show when a message from one of my college journalism professors popped up on Facebook messenger: “You probably should see this if you have not already.”

Attached was a link to a report from the worst-rated local TV station. The headline read: “Tropical Isle vs. Marriott? Why is popular hand grenade spot upset with hotel?” The TV report opened with the owner of the Bourbon Street bar Tropical Isle, known for the Hand Grenade novelty cocktail, sitting on a wrought iron French Quarter balcony. Draped in a chartreuse scarf — the color of a Hand Grenade, the color of lemon-lime Gatorade, the color of toxicity — the owner was holding a printed-out copy of one of the tourism listicles I had written for Marriott Hotels.

One of the articles my editor assigned was “New Orleans tourist traps to avoid.” They told me to emulate the voice of New York gossip writer Michael Musto, so I went full-on snark. In the lede I said, “New Orleans sometimes gets the reputation as a decadent Disney World, a less flashy Las Vegas where you leave smelling of sour Hand Grenades and regret” and, for my first pick of places to avoid, I chose Bourbon Street. One of my many reasons was the “overpriced, sugary cocktails that have been festering in dirty plastic vessels for God knows how long.” Looking back, it’s probably not fair to claim without evidence that these Bourbon Street bars were engaging in unhygienic practices (although have you seen that New Orleans episode of “Bar Rescue”?), but my editors didn’t flag or remove it. They said they “loved the voice” of the piece. My money from the article came through PayPal. The first time I saw the article was on that TV report, as the owner of the Tropical Isle’s jeweled finger grazed the lines from my listicle.

At one point in the segment, the reporter asked the owner, “Who wrote this article?” (A true softball question.) She responded, “The article was allegedly written by a Lauren LaBorde, and I’ve tried looking her up and I can’t quite figure out who she is.”

The reporter claimed to have called Marriott, and he said the hotel responded that they don’t hire freelancers and have “no idea how this ended up on the site.” Knowing the reputation of this particular TV station, I’m pretty sure the reporter just called up the closest Marriott hotel and sought comment from the front-desk person. He reported that the Marriott social-media team was “looking into it,” as though it was a suspicious package left at an airport.

I posted the link to the report on Facebook, which elicited an enormous response. Commenters were most fixated on the owner and reporter not being able to confirm my identity, despite my being eminently Googleable. People latched onto someone’s comment — “but who is she?” — and the catchphrase turned into a local meme.

Messages from strangers started to appear in my Facebook inbox. In one message, someone called me a “bimbo hater.” Was he calling me a hater of bimbos, or a bimbo and a hater? It was unclear, but I didn’t like the implication either way — I love bimbos! Many of my friends are bimbos! The name of the message’s sender sounded familiar, and I realized that he himself was the subject of a local TV news report that had gone viral: he got caught scamming people by posing as a homeless veteran. And, although I can’t confirm this, I believe he was the person who tipped off the TV station to the fact that the owner of Tropical Isle was pissed about my listicle.

“Unbelievable that you would publically trash local businesses… truly unreal!” he said in the message.

The local news station that ran the report also posted the story on their Facebook page, which filled with comments from people dissecting the bio they found on my personal website.

“Ha, a quick search and her bio on her blog specifically states she’s a writer ‘in’ New Orleans, not from New Orleans,” one conspiracy theorist posited.

“I know for a fact she doesn’t work for New Orleans Magazine or any Publication associated with Renaissance Publishing. Please post correctly,” another wrote, referring to jobs listed on my resume.

I felt gaslighted by these comments — had I possibly imagined my career working for semi-popular local publications? BUT WHO IS SHE?

Illustration by Liz Beeson

Meanwhile, my online network had a field day with this mini-scandal: Photoshopping me as Joan of Arc waving a “Bimbo/hater” flag, my steed galloping over a Hand Grenade; me on CNN talking to Wolf Blitzer; a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag with the coiled snake holding a Hand Grenade in its mouth; my round face superimposed onto a Hand Grenade, soft and green like an apparition.

Illustration by Ian Hoch

I began to play along. “Okay, fine,” I responded in a Facebook comment to someone questioning my residency. “My official residence is an airstream in Portland, Oregon, but when my airstream is being used for the mobile bike-powered smoothie business I own, I do come to NOLA and split time among three Airbnbs to work for various content verticals.”

“The list seems like it’s written by a gentrifier who now considers themselves a local after six months,” one person wrote. Many people shared this suspicion, assuming that I was some hipster carpetbagger trashing New Orleans from the comfort of my Brooklyn loft.

Illustration by a friend who wishes to remain an anonymous artist, like Banksy

As many of the arguments concerning the city are, the debate caused by my article seemed to be about what counts as the real New Orleans. Real locals don’t go to Bourbon Street, so why should tourists? But then there was another group who believed that my criticizing what is perhaps one of the most recognizable businesses on Bourbon Street, a business that had no chance of ever dying, would somehow destroy the tourism industry, which, after Katrina, was increasingly vital to the city’s economy. These commenters suggested that by directing people away from Bourbon Street and toward Frenchmen Street, which I said in the article was a more “authentic” New Orleans experience (although even that claim is up for debate these days), I was directing people to unsafe parts of town. (And yet, there had been a recent uptick in shootings on Bourbon Street during crowded times; a few months after this incident, I narrowly avoided one after seeing a show at Preservation Hall.)

This whole conversation swirled around me as I sat at my laptop in my parents’ kitchen in Metairie. I was a Joan of Arc figure for the “authentic” New Orleans, yet I was also a fraud: I lived at my parents’ house and I was actually from Metairie. Moreover, around this time I had been considering moving elsewhere completely. Like many people who leave New Orleans, I wanted to make a go of it in a big city, somewhere I’d be anonymous, and what better time to take the leap than when I didn’t have a lease or full-time job holding me back.

Reading endless Facebook debates and seeing myself as a meme was funny and confusing until I got an email — a cease-and-desist letter from Tropical Isle demanding I take down the article (something over which I had no control) and issue a public apology.

The reporter in me saw this threat as posturing, but I marinated on the thought. Could they really sue me? Could my living at home, which my kind parents had assured me was no burden, result in them having to relinquish all their assets to a novelty-cocktail purveyor? I imagined myself in a video, kneeling and soaked from being waterboarded in that toxic sugary swill, holding up that day’s newspaper, with the Hand Grenade mascot pointing a gun to my head as I apologized and admitted I was, in fact, a bimbo hater.

It turned out that the cease-and-desist had been sent in vain. My editors at Marriott — with whom I had had zero contact since this kerfuffle began — removed any Hand Grenade reference from the article and tacked on this little disclaimer at the end: “Marriott Traveler invites local residents, travel aficionados, or other experts to share their experiences, advice, suggestions, and opinions about a particular destination so others might experience the city ‘like a local.’ The opinions shared on Marriott Traveler are those of the contributing authors and do not reflect the opinions of Marriott International or the local Marriott hotels….We sincerely apologize to the owner of Tropical Isle, or anyone else that may have been offended by the article written by Lauren LaBorde.” In other words, “We really don’t know this townie, she’s just some rando from the internet, sorry!”

The scandal died down, which helped my anxiety , but, secretly, I missed the drama. These mixed feelings were typical of my life in New Orleans, where being well-known was fun but also felt undeserved and overwhelming. How would I do living somewhere that didn’t have me in its tight hug? Would I slip through the cracks if no one was there to catch me?

Some weeks later I was at a crawfish boil when I spotted a man in shrimp boots, khaki cargos, a Saints jersey, and a fedora. “Oh my god, Lauren,” my friend Sally whispered. “That’s that lawyer who sent you that cease-and-desist letter.” Of course.

We were introduced by another friend, and when he said “I feel like I’ve seen you before,” I took the opportunity to tell him, “You might know me from the cease-and-desist letter you sent me on behalf of Tropical Isle.”

Oooooh!” our friends responded.

The lawyer and I had a funny chat. “Gotta get those billable hours, man,” he said, nudging me with a koozie-couched beer.

New Orleans is way too small. But now that I’m not there, that’s what I miss about it.

Illustration by Ali Becnel Solino

I eventually set a date to get out of my parents’ house and move to Chicago. My one-way flight to Midway Airport took off almost exactly one year after my move back to Metairie. On my last day in town, instead of going to one of the many bars or restaurants in New Orleans, my parents threw me a beautiful brunch at their house, after which my friends and I went to Oscar’s, a divey Marilyn Monroe themed pool bar in Metairie. It was my first time being to a bar in Metairie.

I cried when I left my friends, I cried even harder when I left my parents, and I cried intermittently until I landed in Chicago. I worried that I’d never be loved anywhere like I was loved in my hometown, with parents who let me move back in with them without hesitation, with friends who rallied around me and kept me laughing when that silly scandal erupted, with a city that always gave me joy, even if I wasn’t a true native daughter.

It’s hard to build up a social network from scratch as someone in her early thirties in a city with almost three million people (compared to New Orleans’ 400,000). I’ve had clumsy moments of misinterpreting social cues, going to parties alone, timidly reaching out to see if someone I met in the back of an Uber Pool wants to get coffee sometime. But there’s also something freeing about starting over where no one knows you. It’s a lot of exhilarating embarrassment and flailing, sort of like being the worst person in your dance fitness class.

Lauren LaBorde

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Lauren is a writer and editor originally from New Orleans, currently living in Chicago. www.laurenlaborde.com