What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain
Rained real hard and rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
The river rose all day
The river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood
Some people got away alright
The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
They’re tyrin’ to wash us away
They’re tryin’ to wash us away
They’re tryin’ to wash us away
They’re tryin’ to wash us away
President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand
The President say, “Little fat man, isn’t it a shame
What the river has done
To this poor cracker’s land?”
–“Louisiana 1927” Randy Newman
I have spent the week in stunned anguish, watching the reports from New Orleans. As most people know, it’s one of my favorite places to visit, and felt like home to me from the first. I had always assumed I’d live there at some point in my life and had even applied for a job with the “New Orleans Times-Picayune” newspaper a few years ago, though I’m now having second thoughts. I could not handle living in the apocalyptic “28 Days Later”/ “Mad Max” world New Orleans has become.
I stayed up waiting on the storm until about 8am. By then my eyelids were heavy, and a reporter from one of the cable news channels, who had been trying to see how long he could stand out in the winds before they blew him away, was reduced to speaking in the slow, monosyllabic speech of the truly exhausted.
A web-cam on Fox News was aimed at a bus shelter on Canal Street as the storm blew in. I knew that bus shelter all too well.
In March of 1991 I was living in a co-op, a sort of student-run boarding house, in Austin. One of my house-mates, Tobias, was about to return to his home in the Netherlands, and many of us in the house wanted to give him a proper send-off by taking him to Mardi Gras, the ultimate American party. Now Tobias affected the pose of the aloof European, who criticized “stupid Americans” and their lack of culture, but he clearly had a ball while he was on these shores.
I have been to New Orleans four times, but the first trip was the best. I only had $25 on me, though the trip’s host and organizer, Tim, owed me some money and agreed to pay me back in meals. And while Tobias was not the kind to lend a guy money, he also could not abide the sight of a friend without a beer in his hand.
During all these trips my house-mates and I stayed in a house owned by Tim’s aunt, which she had on the market for several years. Tim would call her a few days before we’d head down, she’d turn on the utilities, and we were set. There was a fold-out couch in the living room, a bed in the master bedroom, and lots of floor space for everybody else, but it suited our needs.
One morning the peace of the house was broken by a blood-curdling scream, followed by a noxious green cloud that floated from one room to the next. It turns out Tim had given his girlfriend a “Dutch oven.”
Our first night in town we made the perfunctory visit to Bourbon Street, then adjourned to a run-down blues bar called “Benny’s” on Camp Street. The story goes that Aaron Neville used to live a few doors down, but moved because the bar stayed open too late and generated too much noise. The joint occupied what looked like a former corner grocery store; a wall had been knocked out of a back storage room to make the “stage,” but the 2×4 studs had been left in place.
We left Benny’s at 2am, when the band finished its first set, but not before I had drunkenly patted a $5 bill into a cop’s shirt pocket, as a protection bribe against the misbehavior I was sure I would commit during the course of the weekend. The cop smiled at my drunken performance, but he also kept my money.
Saturday was our last full night in town, the night of the huge Krewe of Bacchus parade, which is known for bringing in celebrities every year to serve as King. Not long before the parade commenced, my friends ran across Canal Street, the broad boulevard that separates the French Quarter from the Central Business District, and stopping in the median, climbed atop a bus shelter.
I was much slower than the rest, and not so convinced of the safety of their perch. But I too ran across, and awkwardly hauled my fat ass to the top of a steel crowd-control barricade, then got a hand up to the roof of the shelter.
Our vantage point proved excellent, but the roof was quickly covered with spilled beer, swill, broken strings of beads, and all the other detritus of a Mardi Gras parade. The last parade float was followed by a fleet of police cars with sirens shrieking, several street-sweeping trucks, and an army of men who were quickly grabbing the steel barriers, disassembling them, and loading them onto the backs of trucks.
My swifter and more svelte and athletic friends climbed off the shelter roof just before these men came by. Again, I failed too move as quickly as the rest. And I found myself stranded, about ten feet above the ground, with nothing for a foothold, and no one down below willing to risk a hernia from catching me if I jumped.
My “friends” broke out their cameras. One of them pointed out a sign on the edge of the shelter’s roof; I read it upside down. It said, in effect, that the shelter roof was an electrical danger when wet, was not designed to support the weight of human beings, and that the City of New Orleans would not be held legally liable for injuries incurred by anyone who tried to climb onto the structure.
As my face began to register bemused, drunken horror, tourists started to gather, and they too took pictures of me, exclaiming, “God, I only thought this kinda thing happened on TV!”
Since clearly no one was going to help me, I finally grabbed the edge of the roof and tried to lower myself down, but I cut open my wrists and palms in the process. While everybody else was still at the shelter, laughing, I rushed to the men’s room off the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel (the former Roosevelt), to wash and bind my wounds.
After that we went in search of a bar. Now I realize that might sound ridiculous–how hard is it to find a bar in New Orleans, for Gods’s sake? But we were looking for a real bar – not a frat bar, sports bar, theme bar, tourist bar, gay bar, country bar, fern bar, or biker bar—but a bar bar. Just a dark place to drink–no muss, no fuss.
After a prolonged search, we thought we found a place, but a couple sitting on a stool by the front door was about a third of the way through the act of sexual congress, so we decided not to interrupt them. We finally settled on Evelyn’s on Chartres, a friendly little dive with an owner who looked like Imogene Coca.
I had been sitting at the bar for hours downing Dixie beers and discussing writing with my friends Tobias, Cosme, and Collin, when something that had been buzzing in my ear finally came into sharper focus and I said, “Why is it I’ve been hearing that goddamn song all night long?” “That song” was Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to U,” and I soon learned Tobias was the culprit. Beer cost $1.25, so every time Tobias bought one he’d hand the bartender $2.00 and put the .75 in the jukebox, ordering up that same song each time.
And Tobias drank a lot of beer.
We were run out of Evelyn’s when it closed for the night at 5:30am. I was feeling no pain, and was extolling the city’s architecture. Reliable sources say I announced, “This city is great! These buildings are great! Look at this wall! Isn’t this a great, brick wall? I wanna rub my penis against this wall!”
When we came to Pirate’s Alley alongside the Cathedral, I had a flash of drunkard’s inspiration, and ran down to the fire hydrant, unzipped, hiked my right leg like a dog, and began pissing on the hydrant. Tim and Cosme thought this a brilliant idea and followed suit.
We made it to the Café Du Monde, which is open 24/7, and ordered chicory coffee and beignets. Tim, Tobias, and a few others from our group got into the massive line for the restrooms. Tim grabbed Tobias by the collar, pulled him from the line, and announced, “This is our friend Tobias. He’s from Holland and he’s uncircumcised!” Further up the line, another guy popped out with a friend in tow, and said, “And this is our friend Josh. He’s uncircumcised too, and we call him ‘Mr. Cheeseburger!’”
Tim and I stole some waiter caps and began mingling amongst the tables, taking orders from tourists who were too drunk to know any better. Two drunk frat boys got into a fist-fight and we began sporting event-type coverage, with me providing color commentary. The cops soon arrived and broke the fight up.
One of the frat boys was made to leave, and as he did, he defiantly announced, “You haven’t heard the last of me! When I get home I’m gonna sue the Café Du Monde, the New Orleans Police, and the City of New Orleans!” A waiter called back, “Yeah, partner. Go try and sue the City for something that happens during Mardi Gras. Good luck with that!”
New Orleans was a city Tobias could understand, since it’s more European than American in look and flavor. All day long Tobias had been trying to sneak cigars out of my shirt pocket and I finally let him have one. As we smoked our cigars and drank our coffee, taking in the sounds of horse hooves on cobblestones, groaning ships on the Mississippi River, and the controlled pre-dawn bustle of a city shaking off sleep, Tobias nodded in satisfaction and said, “Dis is Holland!”
Little did he know….
I woke up Monday night and began monitoring the news channels and the Internet. Initial reports were guardedly optimistic–the shit-hammer by-passed New Orleans and crashed down onto Mississippi and Alabama instead. But as the minutes passed it became quickly apparent that even if the situation in New Orleans was “not the worst-case scenario,” it was still pretty fucking bad.
Ten thousand people were being sheltered in the Superdome. Others were stuck in their attics or atop the roofs of their houses. But some rescue crews said they were unable to navigate their boats into many of the flooded areas.
Dogs and cats were stuck in back yards, crying for their lives. Other dogs, still living, were spotted entangled in masses of live electrical wires. (A special circle of Hell should be reserved for those selfish cocksuckers who left their pets behind to drown in order to save their own sorry asses.)
Friends with New Orleans families e-mailed me, wondering if their family tombs had broken open and their grandparents’s remains were floating around town.
Tim said his mom had sent him to New Orleans a week before to secure a rent house she owns near Tulane. He said he now thought his efforts were about as useful as arranging deck chairs on the “Titanic.” He didn’t go out and get drunk Friday night, so he woke up early and got one of the last flights out of town. He added, “I lucked out and was able to change my flight from Monday at 3:30 to early Saturday afternoon. I almost missed my flight and if I had I would likely now be residing at the Superdome or would have caught a ride with my crazy aunt back to Austin. The latter would have been more hellish than being in the Superdome with no power, no food, no water, every New Orleans gangsta, and rising water filled with sewage and chemical plant runoff.”
He later wrote, “Count yourself lucky that we fished your ass off that bus stop all so many years ago. If not you would be a tourist attraction like that Pali that has been stuck in the Paris Airport for the last 20 years. Tourists would feed you Lucky Dogs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and you could make a good living selling the beads people gave you for a peek at your tits.”
By Tuesday a bureaucratic cluster-fuck resulted in key levies on the north side breaking open, pouring water from Lake Pontchartrain into the city. The aerial footage was appalling. I tried to make out familiar landmarks. I recognized the old Fairgrounds …
A few weeks after my first trip, I returned to New Orleans for JazzFest, this time with Tim and two of our house-mates: Tony, a jazz musician, and Scott, a short, skinny layabout who was mistaken during the trip for my son. I’d actually loaned Scott $75 so he could come along. I figured, correctly, that he would be valuable as comic relief and as a whipping boy.
We blew into New Orleans at dawn on a Thursday in a driving rainstorm. I had brought along $500. By sundown Saturday I was so broke I had to hit up Tim and Tony to pay for my dinner. I should explain that I didn’t spend all that on Dixie beer and gumbo–while the guys slept it off at the house during the day, I would go out sight-seeing and buying old books and 19th century prints. That’ll piss through a bankroll pretty quickly, let me tell you.
Friday afternoon Tim heard a spot on the radio advertising a bar near the Tulane campus that was offering “Penny-a-Pitcher” beer. Since the JazzFest had been rained out for the day we had to go check that bar out. But we were having trouble finding a place to park.
We found a Catholic girls’s school, but all the parking spots were marked as being reserved for parents of the school’s students. The playground was clotted with tartan skirts and pigtails, so I rolled down my window, and in my best “Hoyrish” accent, called out, “Hoy’m here for me daughter, Mary Margaret!” About a dozen little heads popped up. I got out and craned my neck in the direction of the front gate, and my friends slipped out of the car undetected.
The New Orleans Museum of Art was hosting a traveling exhibition of Sigmund Freud’s personal collection of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities. I had to go see that, so while my friends went to drink, I crossed the Tulane campus and tried to flag down a cab.
One finally pulled over and two guys and two girls in their mid-twenties got out. One of the girls was a leggy blonde who was unwrapping herself from the front seat and laughing and calling out something to the driver. As she rounded the back of the cab she gave me a mocking “come hither” look and poked a finger into my Buddha belly.
I got into the cab to find my slap-happy black driver beside himself, hooting and squawking like a parrot: “You see that blonde? She was sittin’ up front here with me, and all the way from the airport she had her hand inching up my leg and finally rubbin’ on my crotch! Man, I didn’t know what to do! I was fin’ to climax all over myself!
“Man, when I get you to your destination, I’m gonna go home and call my girlfriend. She my girlfriend…we got three children together, but we don’t have an intercourse no more. When we get together now I just go down on her and she…pleasures me orally. We don’t have an intercourse no more.
“But I gotta do somethin.’ That white chick was drivin’ me crazy. I gotta take a cold shower or jack off or somethin.” I fin’ to climax all over myself!”
I got to the Museum only 15 minutes before closing, so I decided I had to go back the next day and examine the show at a more leisurely pace. Fortunately, the Museum was a few blocks from the Fairgrounds where the JazzFest was held.
Scott was in rare form Friday night. That little fucker sure could drink. At one point we went over to the Fairmont to use the men’s room, which was located on a mezzanine level off the lobby, atop a short semi-circular flight of stairs. When we emerged he started howling and cursing loudly and I told him to shut the fuck up, that I didn’t want to get arrested.
He cursed again and I slapped him hard upside the back of his head.
“Goddammit! …FUCK!!!” Then he spat on the carpet.
Bad move. My hero, Huey Long, used to live in this hotel. Elvis rented an entire floor when he was in town filming “King Creole.” This punk was not gonna spit on the floor.
I gave him a sharp kick directly in the crack of his ass. What I hadn’t noticed was that he was standing at the top of the stairs. The kick knocked him to the bottom.
We spent a few hours at Evelyn’s, then stopped to piss in Pirate’s Alley. Scott was so out of it while pissing he lost his grip on his pants and they fell to his ankles. He bent over to pull them up and pitched over onto the sidewalk. Once he got his pants back on he held his arms straight up in the air like a little kid who has decided he’s too tired to walk any further, so I had to pick him up, sling him over my shoulder, and carry him to the Café Du Monde.
The guys said that since I wasn’t going into JazzFest the same time they were I’d be unlikely to find them in the crowd, and so should just meet them at the gate when the event was over. When I finished at the Museum, I went over to the Fairgrounds, wandered around, saw a bit of the Los Lobos set, all of B.B. King’s, then caught a gospel choir from a housing project. The guys had expressed interest in seeing zydeco-rocker Zachary Richard, so I made my way to his stage.
Years ago I read a backstage history of “The Tonight Show.” One night Johnny Carson had told the story of the Fukawi Indian tribe, the most savage Indians in the Old West. They attacked pioneers, burned settlements, spreading violence and fear wherever they went.
Finally, an elite troop of cavalry was sent to track them down, but had no luck. One day when the troop found itself riding in circles the colonel drew the column to a halt and turned to his scout and said, “We have crossed prairies, mountains, and deserts, looked high and low, and have had no success. So I have to ask–Where the Fukawi?”
For years whenever Carson’s jokes bombed he or Ed McMahon or Doc Severinsen would look at one another and make veiled, inside references to the Fukawi Indians. And if you knew that story and heard them talking, you’d be in on their inside joke too.
After about 30 minutes of searching for my friends I worked my way to the back of the crowd. From their midst rose a flagpole, bearing an enormous standard. In the center of the flag was the head of an Indian chief with a feather headdress, surrounded by the words, “FUKAWI NATION.” I ran towards them, gleefully screaming, “There the Fukawi! There the Fukawi!”
Wednesday night brought news of looters trying to break into nursing homes and a children’s hospital. People were suffocating to death in their attics. The flooded streets were crowded with corpses, coffins, feces, urine, sharks, industrial waste, gasoline.
The President finally cut his vacation short and condescended to make an indifferent fly-over of three of the nearly-obliterated states he was elected to govern. Federal presence in the city, especially in the form of National Guard members, was negligible at best at this time.
The Superdome no longer had electricity or air conditioning. Its toilets didn’t flush. As many as 30,000 people were said to be there now. Various cities in Texas, including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, agreed to provide emergency housing to the refugees.
The violence and desperation that beats just below the city’s easy-going surface was beginning to bubble up.
For the 1992 Mardi Gras we took groups from both Austin and Houston, and I stayed for the first time all the way until Fat Tuesday. Our first night in town we went to the F&M Patio Bar. The F&M is the sort of college bar you see in bad 1980s slap-and-tickle movies on Showtime late at night. When you drive up to it you see people dancing on the roof. Inside they have sheets of plyboard on top of the pool tables so you can dance on them too.
I got drunk enough that I, yes, even I, danced atop a pool table. Later that night at Benny’s I danced with some girl to “Sweet Home Chicago” and we both tripped over our feet and fell down on top of each other on the dance floor. Then Tim ran over and piled on top of us.
Throughout the weekend I prowled the Quarter wearing a suit and a Nixon mask, bumping into people intentionally and growling, “Pardon me. Pardon me.” I don’t know how many people actually got the joke.
By Monday (Lundi Gras) most of the people we’d come to town with had gone back home. I was exhausted and decided to take it easy so I could save up my strength for Fat Tuesday. I went to a coffee house in the Faubourg Marigny, and sat outside writing postcards. I used to dress rather foppishly back then, and on this day I was wearing a tweed jacket and a bow tie.
A trio of goths walked past and aimed languid gazes my way. These weren’t your garden-variety goths, though. They were 19th century Lestat-wannabes.
They walked on and I returned to my writing, but a few seconds later, their leader, a tall young man carrying a walking stick and wearing a cape, returned.
-My friends and I think you look interesting. Are you a local?
-No, just in town for Mardi Gras.
-What’s your name?
-(Too shocked to think up a lie) J__ B___.
-(Extending a bony hand with long fingernails that were sharpened to a point.) Hello, J___. My name is Vincent. What are you doing later tonight?
-Um, uh, I’m supposed to meet my friends at the Cathedral at midnight.
-Well, my friends and I have rented a boat at Wharf # ___ and we’re having a party there later on tonight. I’m sure you have interesting friends. If you all would like, you should come to our party tonight.
-Uh, um, I’ll definitely consider it.
-Remember, Wharf # __.
I put the conversation out of my mind and spent the evening wandering the Quarter alone. A little before midnight I went to the Cathedral and sat on the steps, waiting for friends that never showed up. I looked around for signs of them, then noticed to my horror the three goths sitting on a bench fifty feet away. That creeped me out and I got the hell out of there.
Oddly enough, I passed them again later that night, but they looked straight ahead and didn’t seem to notice me.
God, had I gone to that party those freaks could’ve cut my still-beating heart out and ripped out my spinal cord in some ghastly vampire sacrifice. I need to be less friendly to strangers.
As it was, our partying caught up with us and Tim and I overslept on Fat Tuesday and missed all but the last, small-scale parade of the day. Canal Street and the Quarter were too crowded, so we went to ritzy St. Charles Avenue. A local radio station had a remote going on in front of the most exclusive funeral home in town. They had enormous Marshall amps set up on the funeral home’s portico and were blasting Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil.”
The crowd of refugees at the Superdome was estimated at 60,000 souls by late Thursday afternoon. People were now shitting on the floor there. There were rumors of rapes at the Superdome, murders at the Convention Center. Police were photographed looting. People dropped dead on the march to shelter, and their bodies were left where they fell on the elevated freeways.
Apparently the initial estimates that 80% of the population evacuated before the storm were incorrect, and the number’s closer only to 60%.
I heard the authorities were pulling police and others off search-and-rescue missions so they could combat the looting and general lawlessness at the city’s center. There were rumors the frustrated, angry, and hungry locals might soon riot.
The “Chicago Tribune” reported that some people managed through all the floods and storms to save their pets, only to be told today they couldn’t bring them aboard the evacuation buses. Cops pried pets from the hands of crying refugee children who had nothing else left in the world. One kid cried so hard he started vomiting.
Anyone that would make such a draconian order is a vile cocksucker!
The Feds finally swung into action, but it seemed far too little, far too late. I can’t help but think the government has thus far been much too blasé about this.
My last trip to New Orleans was for Mardi Gras 1993. We were only going to stay from Friday night until Sunday morning, so I decided I would just have to get by with only one hour of sleep. This was a bad idea, and I got so exhausted I feel asleep in a crowded restaurant a block off Canal, around 11 or 12 on Saturday night. I was taken back to Tim’s aunt’s house and slept for 12 hours, waking right before we packed up to leave. I missed much of Saturday night’s festivities.
But while I was still awake I made the best of my time. Friday night, I was sitting in the Maple Leaf Bar listening to zydeco singer Rockin’ Dopsie, drinking a foul Black Mamba beer. Tim sauntered in, claiming he had just seen Jimmy Page across the street at the Muddy Waters Bar, ripping through a selection of Zeppelin tunes.
Tim is a compulsive liar, but not in a bad way–he just loves to stir shit up. So I didn’t believe him. A few minutes later some of our other friends came in and started raving about Jimmy Page. I still wasn’t sure–maybe they were in on this with Tim.
“Bullshit,” I said. “Mason Ruffner’s playing across the street–I saw the sign.” “But,” they explained, “Jimmy Page was there playing with Mason Ruffner.” I decided to investigate. When I got to the door of Muddy Waters, I heard total strangers talking about Jimmy Page and realized I had indeed missed the show.
Page was seated up in the mezzanine, but his manager allowed us to come up and pay our respects and get autographs. I had privately hoped Page would write down some obscure Aleister Crowley spell on my scrap of paper, but instead he just scrawled, “Rock on, J__.”
For months after the ‘92 trip I kept hearing various people, who did not know one another, tell me I reminded them of the main character in the book “Confederacy of Dunces,” Ignatius J. Reilly. My ego was aroused, so I read the book and was embarrassed by how on-target it was in some, but not all, particulars. I will not, however, explain which points apply and which don’t. Suffice it to say that when I crossed Canal during the ‘93 trip I was tickled when I heard some tourists gasp, “Is that Ignatius J. Reilly?”
I made my way to an old pipe shop in the Quarter. At the time I smoked cigars, pipes, and cigarettes at a heavy rate. The man who founded this particular shop used to make pipes for Jefferson Davis. His grandson made pipes for William Faulkner, and later, for me.
But this was a real pipe shop. There weren’t any bullshit gifts cluttering the place up–no ceramic figures, no wooden walls clocks with decoupaged pictures of the flag and the American eagle. The walls, ceiling, windows, and glass display cases were all stained nicotine brown.
The owner, Mr. Edwin Jansen, an octogenarian then, discouraged quick drop-in business. He preferred that you spend an hour or so in the shop, talking with him, taking your time to select which of his handmade pipes suited you best.
Once you picked a design that felt good in the hand and the mouth, he’d take a rag and wipe a dollop of honey inside the bowl, then twist in his own pipe tobacco mixture in a corkscrew motion, and hand it back to you with a box of matches so you could give it a trial smoke. By this point you were so relaxed and blissed-out you were ready to purchase anything he wanted to sell you.
Late Saturday afternoon found my feet sore and swollen, so I went to sit on the Cathedral steps. Then some grunge kids walked up to me.
-‘Scuse me–Are you a local?
-No, but what can I do for you?
-Dude, have you ever seen “Easy Rider”?
I immediately knew they wanted directions to the cemetery where the acid trip scene in “Easy Rider” was filmed, so they could recreate it themselves.
-You’ll want the St. Louis Cemetery #1. It’s six blocks that way. But it closes at 4pm, so you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.
They were gleeful and amazed that I’d somehow read their minds and knew exactly what they wanted.
Later that night I was standing in a crowd of several hundred thousand people packedthisclosetogether on Canal Street, watching the Bacchus parade. Most of my friends were closer to the front of the crowd than I was, but I was loaded down with bags of my day’s purchases and wanted a bit more breathing room.
Some guy ahead of me turned to his right and got the attention of a young woman. “I like your white beads,” he said. “What could I give you for them?” “Whaddya got?,” she said.
He unzipped his fly and pulled out his pecker. She reached out and began working it. And I was thinking, “This guy is getting beads and a hand-job? What’s she getting out of this?”
The guy’s eyes began rolling back into his head. I began to worry that I was going to get more than beer spilled on me this year. But just before the critical moment, the woman let go of the pecker, and turned to her right, picking up a conversation with her friends as if nothing had just happened.
The guy was shocked and horrified. He zipped up, then turned back to his left, where his girlfriend had been standing all along, obliviously watching the parade. He began kissing her violently, passionately. And apart from him and the young women, I was the only person in the world who knew what had just gone on.
I hate to think such a perverse, weird, and disturbingly charming city may be gone forever.