I recently saw a bunch of cute jokes about New Orleans on Facebook. They immediately made me remember one of my own wild experiences there. This essay was originally published in:
Me and the Boys and that Fun Trip to New Orleans, Dirty Chai, Issue 2, Adventureland, March 2014, http://issuu.com/dirtychaimag/docs/dirtychaiadventurelandpdf
Me and the Boys and that Fun Trip to New Orleans
Many years ago, at the invitation of a recently returned Marine vet named James, my boyfriend, Rick, and I decided to hitchhike from Gainesville, Florida to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. In those pre-Katrina days, New Orleans was a dream destination. We left straight from work on a Friday, me, a 17-year-old college student, Rick my jealous, live-in lover, and James who was older and cooler, the calm to our storm. We stood on the side of I10 waiting for rides, while a full moon cast mournful shadows all around. James told us about the war, about the terrible things he’d seen and done. As he talked, my sense of dread became palpable.
The people who gave us rides were strange. We were used to hitch-hiking, but this trip, we seemed to get all the weirdos in one fell swoop. One girl wanted to give me a foot massage. One man wanted to check my lifeline. On another ride, a girl tried to get James to climb in the “way back” with her for a little fun. We sat stoically in the middle of multiple vans, trying not to make eye contact with the strange characters who transported us. Finally, outside Biloxi, we got a ride with a group of neo-hippies who drove us to our destination, fueling our adrenaline with strong pot and rock and roll so loud conversation wasn’t possible.
As we pulled into the Big Easy, we crackled with excitement. My traveling companions had decided that I should hold all the money in case we got separated. We tried to find a hotel room, but surprisingly – after all, this was only Mardis Gras, the biggest party in the south – nothing was available. That first night, feeling like fools for not having made reservations, we slept on the banks of the lower Mississippi, in a misty, fog-like soup, with no sleeping bags, no blankets, no tent, plenty of money but no place to go.
To protect and keep me warm, James suggested that he and Rick sleep on either side of me. “No way,” Rick said. “Keep your hands off.”
“Grow up,” James snapped, the only time on this trip so far I’d heard him get irritable. “I’m not going to touch your girlfriend.” James pointed out that at 120 pounds and with flimsy clothes (hey – what else would you wear to New Orleans in February but a tank top and blue jeans? Duh!), I could freeze to death by morning.
Along with hundreds of others, we spent the night huddled in small clumps on the edge of the river. Every few hours, policemen came through and poked us with nightsticks, making us move to another section of the riverbank. In the early morning before dawn, we woke to sounds of screaming and a crowd rushed past. James leaned over and whispered, “If we get separated, get your ass on a bus and go home. Take the money and go.” I nodded in the darkness.
That morning we trudged from place to place trying to find a room, but no luck. We stopped in a few bars on Bourbon Street and I got a taste of what life was like for those who made their living on the edge of the world. Imagine dancing topless for a bunch of hung-over drunks at 10 o’clock in the morning? When James refused to tip one of the girls who draped her naked body over his lap, she brained him with her drink tray! He just shrugged. “I’m still not going to tip you,” he said.
The day dragged on. Everywhere the party was in full swing. People staggered, drunk, screaming, laughing. On the streets, people marched around with saxophones, trumpets and harmonicas, playing for the crowds. On every corner someone strummed guitar and sang. And of course, the blues in the bars perfectly suited my increasingly gloomy mood.
As night fell, I started to panic. The wind picked up and so did the mist from the river. We’d tried every hotel within walking distance and no one had a single available room. Though I was ashamed to be such a wimp, I couldn’t stand the thought of another night outdoors. I cried, “I can’t sleep on the ground again.”
Someone in the crowd overheard and said, “There’s an old church just off St. Anne’s. They’ll let you sleep on the floor.” We started walking through the back alleys off Bourbon Street, trying to find an old white church. Sunlight faded from the sky and the glare of fluorescent lights diminished as we retreated from the hub of New Orleans’ nightlife.
On a side street, we saw two men standing in front of the metal door of a car repair shop. The men didn’t notice us. Suddenly, the taller of the two, a dark figure wearing a porkpie hat, lunged at his companion, pinning him to the door. We saw a flash of silver and realized that the dark man had drawn a knife and was holding it to the other man’s throat.
I knew even before they turned towards the violence that Rick and James were fundamentally incapable of ignoring the scene, of pretending it didn’t impact them. I stood back, terrified, as they approached the attacker and his captive.
James crouched down, and Rick did his best Clint Eastwood imitation – shoulders tall, mouth firm, eyes narrowed. James barked, “Put the knife down, Dude.” The guy turned to him, waving his weapon. The captive, afraid to move, hung like a doll pinned to the door. “You boys come on,” the knife-holder demanded. “Just come on over here.”
Rick barked, “Hey, stupid, it’s three against one.”
“I got a knife,” dark one said.
James sighed, then exploded with anger. “Man, you know what?” he yelled, “I’m fucking cold and tired and I haven’t slept in a bed in two days and I’m in a really, really pissy mood. So you’ve got a choice here. You can either stick around and let me take out my anger on you, or you can get the fuck gone.”
The dark man looked at the skull and crossbones and the USMC tattooed on James’ arm, then at Rick’s wildly glittering eyes. “Sempi fi, motherfucker,” he hissed, and ran off. The captive sank to his knees, effusive in his relief. He walked us to the church we were looking for.
Inside, we were greeted by a charming, choir-boy type, with long blonde hair and a sincere smile. “Women over there, men over there,” the bot instructed, waving his thumbs in two different directions.
“Wait a minute,” I objected. “I’m not leaving them.”
“Have to. Women that way.” He pointed down the hall.
“No way,” I said, “I’m not sleeping by myself.”
“Well, we can’t have you fucking on the floor.”
So, yes, I lost it. I shrieked, “What is wrong with you? This is a church, for God’s sake. How dare you say that to me!” The choir boy stared at me in surprise, then said nonchalantly, “Okay, fine, sleep over there in the hall by the water fountain.”
Oh, the guys were really grateful to me for keeping us all together, let me tell you. They mentioned this often as we huddled on the floor beneath the water fountain, while parades of people came through, splashing water on us, gurgling, drooling, laughing as they climbed over our inert bodies in the dark church hallway.
The next day was a little better. We heard more fantastic music, had some great food, and found classier bars where no one draped their naked bodies over my escorts. But we were ready to go home. Do not ask me why, with a bra full of cash, I didn’t suggest we take a bus, or maybe even a jet, back to Gainesville. Who thought hitch-hiking was a great way to get around the country? Jack Kerouac’s tales of traveling by thumb had infiltrated our little pot-fuddled brains and we never thought to travel another way. But jeez, mostly Jack drove!
By the time we got back to Gainesville, we were so tired we could barely move. We trudged off Interstate 75, up the on ramp, planning to call a taxi to take us the last leg of the journey. Suddenly a couple of police cars pulled up, lights on, sirens roaring. Four officers jumped out with their guns drawn, and yelled, “Put your hands on the car, now.” Confused, I put my palms down on the police cruiser. James and Rick had obviously been through this drill before. They prostrated themselves on the hood of the car. One police officer picked up his radio and called something in. As he stood by his vehicle, radio in hand, I burst into tears. “I want to go home,” I cried.
“Shut up,” the cop closest to me said.
“Don’t talk to me like that!”
“Kid, do you want me to cuff you now?”
“We didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Shut up, I said!”
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was within walking distance of my house and by God, I was going home. Enough of this craziness. “Arrest me then,” I snapped, and started walking up the ramp again.
The policeman who had been on the phone came back to the group and called to me, “Wait, hang on. Hey, listen – ” I stopped. And he apologized! It seems that originally we were stopped because two men and a woman had just robbed a convenience store nearby. However, the two men had short hair and were clean cut, and the woman was a brunette. Freed by my blonde hair!
The rude policeman offered us a ride home. To my horror, Rick and James agreed. “Hey, he’s trying to be nice,” Rick said.
“Too late,” I answered, but at their insistence I let the policeman drive us home. I even felt kind of calm, sitting in that police car.
Rick and I broke up soon after. Sometimes when you have a terrible trip, you find the freedom you’ve been looking for. I was glad to be freed from his jealousy and possessiveness. But I did miss his adventurous spirit. Nobody else I knew seemed willing to stick out a thumb and take off across the country on a whim.
Still, initially after our breakup, I hovered around my new apartment, enjoying the comfort of walls, windows, safety. I went through the place touching my possessions. I took obsessively long showers and changed my clothes frequently.
After a while though, I remembered the trip with fondness. The craziness began to fade and I recalled only the music, the excitement of turning a corner and finding a street band, the joy of horns blasting through the night air, highlighting the laughter. I still remember the beauty of those street corner musicians. And even the beauty of the Mississippi shining in the moonlight.