(Click here to read Part I of Janos’s quest to party in all fifty states)
The drive from Biloxi to New Orleans on I-10 has long been my second favorite stretch highway, after the other-worldly Denver-Las Vegas connection. It is fast, swampy, and free of state patrol monitoring. Theoretically you can take I-10 all the way from California to Florida, but today I was taking it a mere 50 miles from Biloxi to Mobile, Alabama, the location of the 41st state I was going to party in, and the last Confederate state left on the list (post-Wheeling Convention, of course).
I had driven through Alabama many times, usually at night, when it feels particularly ominous, but this morning drive was pleasant as I tuned into the Spud Show, broadcast from New Orleans. Today’s topics were Drew Brees (great athlete, classy gentleman) and gun control (it’s complicated). Spud had riled up his listenership by finding a particularly anti-Breesy article posted the day after he broke the passing record, and the soft chatter of talk radio filled the air as I drove the long elevated highways that traverse the marshlands of western Alabama.
That afternoon I explored downtown Mobile and liked what I saw. Dauphin Street, two blocks from my hotel, was the only game in town, and it was lined with bars. (Southern Alabama colonized by the French, and it boasts other indicative street names like Royal, Conti and Clairborne.) Dauphin Street reminded me of Saginaw, where I’d been sent to help promote a mall store opening for the since-bankrupted Steve & Barry’s University Sportswear. I had not relished that assignment, but once in downtown Saginaw I saw the appeal of a city where every dive bar and live music joint is a hop, skip and a jump away. One bar even had a jukebox that played music videos through a video projector (“Rock the Casbah”, naturally). Small cities laid out like this are perfect for the one night layover on any road trip.
At the end of the Dauphin Street nightlife strip was a town plaza named Bienville Square. It was the most squirrely place I had ever seen. Every patch of grass was dotted with dozens of squirrels, who frolicked among the bushes and trees. Who knows how many nuts were buried here. By the edge of the park, a plaque rested in tribute to Mobile’s founder, the explorer Pierre Le Moyne de I’berville. Born in Montreal, died in Havana. Not a bad way to start or finish. In between he fought numerous battles against the British in Canada before founding Biloxi, then Mobile a year later (1701). It would be eighteen year before his brother founded New Orleans. Today de I’berville is the namesake of a small suburb north of Biloxi.
That night Cristina and I departed the Admiral Semmes Hotel and headed to a brand new taqueria that was offering half-priced wine. That’s no Silk Road Palace, but it’s a pretty good deal. Our waitress looked disappointed when we asked her for advice on hitting up the town. “Wednesday’s tough.” Most bars in Mobile were only open on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays. I bet most small businesses in New York would kill to make their rent being open three days a week. She recommended Hayley’s, though she warned us that we’d need to go through the membership process. “It’s easy, though, you’ll see.”
Sure enough, when we got to Hayley’s the bartender asked if we were members. When we explained that we were from out of town, she frowned a little. “We’ll have to have you sign in as guests.” Keep in mind this is a run of the mill dive bar. As we filled out a beer-soaked notebook with our names, she explained that while most bars had to close at 2am, at that hour Hayley’s turned into a membership club, and could stay open until 6am. “We party all night,” she proclaimed, sweeping her arm across the room, where about a dozen people nursed drinks and played pool. We threw back a few and chatted up the bartender, who was a major Mobile booster. “New Orleans will try to tell you they invented Mardi Gras, but that’s just a lie. It started right here in Mobile.” I had indeed passed the Mardi Gras Museum earlier. Mobile is also home to the Mobile Policeman Museum, which seemed sparsely attended, and the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame (ditto). The city strikes the wrong first impression, with elegant tea houses and art galleries in the center of downtown quickly giving way to abandoned buildings, including one that looked like it was from a movie set, with elaborate three-story frontage and nothing behind it.
We passed some of these on our way to the Bicycle Shop, a bar recommended by an affable patron at Haley’s who kept talking about his obsession with cemeteries, recommending some of the best ones in town. The Bicycle Shop had elements straight out of Williamsburg, with bikes hanging from the ceiling, but it also had multiple TVs showing sports, including the Knicks game. We kicked back some more drinks and watch the Knicks get their asses kicked by the Golden State Warriors. Then we ate sushi. Mobile is right on the Gulf Coast, where seafood reigns supreme. The sushi was not good.
The bartender was more than happy to talk up HopJack’s, a bar renowned in Mobile for having hundreds of drinks bottled or on tap. Things were getting a little sloppy by the time we got there, a mood compounded by another super friendly bartender who let me sample a series of beers I’d never heard of and quickly forgotten. After HopJacks it was time to call it a night. Part of me wanted to revisit the late night scene at Haley’s, but I was coming off three straight nights in New Orleans, with more adventures ahead. Alabama had been checked off the list. Forty one down, nine to go. A return to Biloxi, an oldie but goodie, awaited.
“Oh, the ragman draws circles…up and down the block…”