The thing I always liked about New Orleans is the fact that when you wake up in the morning (ha!) and venture out into the wild world, you simply have no idea where you’re going to end up late that night. I’ve seen UPS drivers making their rounds on Decatur Street, and their routine went like this: Park the truck on Decatur someplace. Walk up to end of street with handtruck-load of stuff. Stop in first shop, make delivery. Walk into bar next door and have a leisurely beer. Go in shop next door and make delivery. Walk into bar next door and have leisurely beer. Repeat until truck is empty and you are full.
Anyway, I was down there for a show. I’ve been in NOLA a lot – even sort of lived there for a month with a certain nameless someone. So I was there staying with my friend Karen, who is beyond wonderful – and just a friend, you filthy-minded wretches. It was Mardi Gras-time. We went out to Karen’s bar on our arrival the night before and stayed out till the wee hours, which in NOLA could mean anything at all. Next day, the guys get up and go out to walk around the Vieux Carré a bit. I stayed in at Karen’s until about 1 or so; Karen was out hanging fliers for next week’s shows.
I get up hungover sometime after noon and quickly run out of smokes, so I decide to go walking until I find a store to replenish the coffin nails and maybe grab a sandwich. I’m thinking Verti Mart on Royal, which is fortunately (or unfortunately) close to both Karen’s place and a place I have friends in called the R Bar. I figure if I run into anything on the way, I’ll stop there instead. Head pounding, I walk without success in my mission until I come to the R and have an internal debate with myself. See, if I go in, I’m liable to run into someone I know and get trapped there until 3 AM. I peer in the windows and see nobody I know; I only came out with about twelve bucks in my pocket and can’t afford any drinks, and they sell cigs there, so I decide it’s safe to go in. Go in I do.
Well, the owner of the place, Tom, used to race motorcycles way back when, and still has several of his old factory Trumps, BSA’s, and Harleys, one of which is always on display on a sort of shelf over the bar. These are all late 50’s-early 60s bikes, and cool as hell. It’s been more than a year since I was in NOLA, and Tom has changed bikes on me: last time I was in it was a Triumph Daytona, now it’s a HD K-model (forebear of the Sportster – if you view the movie here, you’ll see the very K-model I’m talking about). I didn’t even know he had a K, and blurted out “Damn! Tom’s changed the bike!” The bartender, who is a stranger to me, hears this (well, he couldn’t help but – aside from some old sad-sack guy at the end of the bar, we were the only ones in the place) and says “Hey, you know Tom? He’s right upstairs, and Heidi (his wife) too! I’ll get ’em down to say hello…”
Now I know I’m in trouble. No way is Tom going to let me out of there without buying me at least two or three drinks.
And that’s just what happens. He asks me to sit down and talk a bit. I tell him I’d love to but really can’t just now; I’ve come out without much cash, I’m hungover, I just want a sandwich and a pack of smokes. Tom says, “Hell, you don’t need money here, I’ll buy. (to bartender whose name I’ve forgotten) Get him a drink! (to me) Whatcha drinkin’?”
And so another fine New Orleans day, always unique in their serendipitous discovery of new friends and new enthusiasms, begins. And once they begin, they immediately begin to segue into long New Orleans nights.
Four or five cocktails and unnumbered laughs, hugs, and fish stories later, Tom and Heidi have to go. It’s Tom’s birthday and they’re going out to some show or other. It’s nigh on 4 o’clock now and it’s a good time to make my escape. I can go to Verti Mart, grab a po-boy, and head back to Karen’s for some R&R before the night’s funtime (our show wasn’t until the next night). I start to get up, say goodbye to Tom, Heidi, and the barkeep – and in walks my friend Ab.
“You’re not leaving, surely?” Umm, guess not.
I tell Ab that I’ve left most of my money at Karen’s and need to go grab it before getting the apparently unavoidable early start on the evening. Ab says, “Don’t sweat it, I’ll buy. Then later we can head back to the warehouse (he lives in one) and get high, go by Karen’s for your cash, grab Karen if she’s home, and all come back here.” This plan sounds a lot better than it should’ve; what I’ve neglected to mention is that we have to ride out to the airport to pick up our rhythm guitar player at around 10 or so that night, and the airport’s a good little slog from where we are. It’s a damned long slog when you’re too drunk to be driving, which I’m now sure I will be by then.
But again that’s just what happens. Ab and I have a couple of catching-up drinks and then leave, go back to his joint for a joint, smoke it, and then head back out. And on the way back to the R, something wonderful happens, one of those N’awlins thangs that just don’t happen anywhere else in the world.
We’re only a couple of blocks from Ab’s place when we notice traffic grinding to a stop. He pulls his beat-up old pickup to the curb and we get out to see what’s up; cars are stopping anywhere they can now, and we’re right on a corner in one of those tight little squirrel-warren neighborhoods in the heart of the Quarter. We can hear a strange rhythmic thumping that gradually resolves itself into a Dixieland beat. Then we start to hear the brass on top of the rhythm, and Ab says “Oh, cool!” Then around the corner they come.
It’s some sort of junior-high marching band coming right down the middle of the street, stepping high, wide and handsome, elbowing rush-hour traffic out of the way using nothing but verve and attitude. They’re dressed in ordinary junior-high-kid clothes, rehearsing for one of next week’s Mardi Gras parades. The kids are almost all black, as is their director, who strides alongside them with a whistle around his neck, half-scowling as he checks those lines. Those lines are ragged, the kids are hardly in step at all, and they don’t give a damn. Truth to tell, neither does the director; they’re moving in their own way, and it’s exactly the way they ought to be moving. That sweet Dixieland jazz sound just trumps all consideration of orderliness in its relentless pursuit of joyous release. I remember one tall, lanky youth who was playing the bass drum – he was beating that kettle strapped to his chest like he’d just caught it screwing his girlfriend, and grinning like a fiend the whole while. The kids are having a ball, and so is the now-large crowd as they go by, shouting encouragement, clapping, singing, and dancing in the streets in front of them and behind them and among them. It’s just like something out of a movie, and in all the times I’ve been to New Orleans, it’s something I’ve never managed to see.
It was wonderful.
Ab and I went back to the R Bar, our hearts thumping and full of renewed good cheer, and settled in for a long night of good times, N’awlins-style. Karen and the rest of the band wound up meeting us there after calling the bar – they knew where to find me when they needed me – and we ended up making our guitar player catch a cab from the airport. He met us at the Shim Sham Club, where Karen was bartending the night before. It was Porno Night at the Shim Sham, when they show some of the crassest, most unbelievable old porn movies you ever saw on the TV’s in the corners of the bar and upstairs. Karen picked that evening’s movie fare out; what a deliciously perverted thing that sweet girl is.
Just another New Orleans day. Man, I’ve gotta get back down there soon. It’s been way too long.