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New Orleans: School Night on Saint Claude

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Fire dancer Mistress Kali mesmerizes the crowds at Siberia, in New Orleans.(Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

I like going to bars where I’m afraid of the people at the bar.

And I like going to bars where my feet stick to the floor.

I like ordering dinner from a lady with a skull tattoo on her ring finger who’s actually really cool, though I’m scared if I order the wrong thing she’ll cut me with the butcher knife that’s lying on the counter next to a pile of decapitated onions.

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“Kitchen” restaurant, serving Slavic Soul Food in Siberia on St. Claude in New Orleans. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

The Cyrillic neon spells “Kitchen” in Russian, but somehow this feels illicit, eating a po’ boy with kielbasa on it.

“Slavic soul food,” they say, but that’s just redundant. Potato pierogi were never intended for the sweltering swamps, though they still taste incredibly good. Moreover, they’re really authentic (I actually know this, I spent two years eating pierogi in Ukraine).

My friend Vanessa says the secret of New Orleans is good music, good food, and good drinks. If you don’t have all three, then you might as well shut up and move north.

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Kielbasa “Pol Boy” at Siberia (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Siberia opened after I last left New Orleans, as did hundreds and hundreds of new clubs, bars, shops, and lounges. It’s really anyone ever talks about these days—all the changes in the “new” New Orleans—and I remember back when St. Claude Avenue felt like Siberia compared to the French Quarter.

Now it’s a curious happening at any hour of the day, any day of the week. Already I’m sad that I missed the joke-telling contest at Red Haus, and I’m so sad that missed the “All-Star Covered Dish Country Jamboree” that involves potluck, square dancing, and the musical magic of The Wasted Lives—all on a Tuesday night at another lounge down the street. Now it’s Wednesday and I’m in Siberia, clustered with friends around a table the size of a plate, knocking knees with a boy named Dicky while the Raveonettes sing from the speakers until the show begins.

Siberia sits on St. Claude Avenue, not far from the Elysian Fields—not the Greek afterlife for heroic mortals but the double-wide boulevard that separates one up-and-coming neighborhood from another.

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Mistress Kali dances with fire on stage at Siberia (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

The first act showcases the fancy dancing of Mistress Kali, a pyromaniac princess whose skin looks unblemished despite her proclivity for the hopping orange flames. Creamy and smooth, her own body moves like a flame, twisting and dipping, rising and falling with the hot fire.

If her corset were pulled any tighter, I think, I’d have to publish my photos in the other magazine.

We applaud Mistress Kali for her beauty and skill on stage and for one small moment, I think it’s a hundred years ago and I paid a nickel to see the vaudeville, but then Eric gets up and begins swallowing coat hangers.

Multiple face tattoos are not Eric’s most interesting feature. Nor are the swords that he drops down his gullet with ease (although that’s pretty amazing, too). It’s his cheerful smile and nonchalant banter before he licks the blade, or the googly eyes he makes before ramming a nail up his nose. This is a man who likes to make people wince and he is particularly successful on this count when he asks a lady to pull a twenty-inch sword out of his stomach.

We wince and then we clap and whistle and holler. It’s a wild Wednesday night on St. Claude, but I am still the perky journalist with pen poised over my notebook, rushing up to Eric as he steps out of the spotlight.

“What advice would you give someone who wanted to start sword swallowing?”

“Don’t,” he says, and moves on to the bar.

It’s rather solid advice and I return to my seat for the final act, a colorful cabaret number by a man with pink hair and green lipstick, and fishnet tights under striped socks with glossy black, shin-high combat boots. By the end of the song, Dicky is wearing a beehive wig and asking me if I know that blind French accordion player that plays in the quarter.

I don’t, but Dicky insists that I go hear him play, and to ask him about Edith Piaf.

New Orleans proves problematic for the indecisive among us. There is too much happening too often. This is not a town where you can schedule an evening—one can merely wander through the geography of coolness, directed by fairy lights and text message and the migration patterns of one’s hipper friends, up to the Elysian Fields and beyond, to Siberia . . . on a school night.

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Siberia, one of the many new and outlandish clubs opening along St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

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