It was the biggest gun I’d ever seen. It was a thing of beauty. And not just because of its size. It gleamed; a malicious radiance throwing off sparks of danger, a miasma of silver and blued metal that held promise of protection. Or evening a score. Or ridding your life of an obnoxious pest. Like your neighbor’s little yapping dog. Dirty Harry would’ve been jealous.
Its owner was the blackest lady I’d ever seen. She had one of those sharp, angular faces that casts shadows on itself. With hair piled high to add substance to her stature, jaundiced yellow eyes should have completed the drugged out crack whore persona, but hers were as vividly white as a winter moon, a permanent twinkle having taken up residence giving lie to the menace projected by the enormous pistol cradled in her hands.
Of course, with a gun like that you can afford to have a twinkle in your eye. “Welcome to Naw’leans honey,” she purred in a deep souther drawl that made molasses seem quick. “Hop in.”
A candy apple red Cadillac of vintage age sporting ginormous fins, slung low on a set of tires so bald that the Hair Club for Men would deny them membership, idled at the taxi stand fronting the Louis Armstrong – New Orleans International Airport. Her inviting ‘Hop in’ sounded a bit too much like the come-on from a trench-coated sleaze ball plying a child with an offer of a free piece of candy.
The car’s eerie resemblance to Christine screamed, “Don’t Do It!” But that twinkle bespoke an earthy friendliness surely capable of warding off the malevolence that hovered in the fetid southern air; the pucker factor eased with an assumption that any town that lived off touri dollars frowns upon those soon to be bilked out of their last buck meeting death and disfigurement at the airport. Those were frequent flyer miles not to be awarded until a traveller’s arrival in town. San Francisco may entice you to leave your heart there. New Orleans will settle for nothing less than your gonads.
A destructive hurricane of low morals, greed, and total disregard for the value of human life insured New Orleans’ top ranking as the murder capital of the country in each year’s listing of the places where you are most likely to die. Even before Katrina’s visit.
Violent crime isn’t a way of life in New Orleans, it’s a passionate hobby enthusiastically embraced by its citizenry. Katrina’s waters only served to wash away the most recent layer of grime, crime, blood, and sin. And to show how ineffective the federal government can be when it runs up against the twin blunt force traumas of a natural disaster and Southern politics.
But Katrina was but a zephyr riding the jet stream, years away from gathering her full force, when my buddy Dave and I made our first trip to the Big Easy. Having successfully navigated the puke filled gutters of Chicago’s Rush Street and a death-wish trip into the city’s south to pay homage at Buddy Guy’s blues club, we’d decided the trip needed a hard shot of high octane sleaze to finish it off. And Bourbon Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter fit the bill.
New Orleans is a town filled with characters; a southern gothic novel of incest and insidiousness brought to life. The front desk clerk at the hotel was worthy of a chapter of her own. Her greeting carried none of the southern charm the cabbie had oozed. But then she wasn’t armed either.
She squinted at us, attempting to bring her blurry world into focus as smoke from her cigarette snaked toward her receding hairline. She was a tough looking woman, all creases and folds, like an elephant’s wrinkled ass. What remained of her hair straggled down the nape of her neck in wispy yellowing strands. Too red lipstick glared a freak-show smile that had more to do with the pleasure of fresh meat than it did of welcome.
We’d selected a hotel in the French Quarter. With no plans other than to hang out on Bourbon Street, an outlying hotel didn’t make much sense. We wanted to be within walking distance of the town’s hot spot. And were. Though we quickly found out that that walk could be the last one we’d ever take.
Gnarled hands shaking from lack of sufficient drink, she attempted to smooth a cheaply copied map across the pitted countertop. The hotel’s location, marked with a big X, was encircled by large areas of the town angrily backed out. It was a grade school child’s drawing that called for a battery of psychologists and social workers to prevent a life from spiraling out of control and ending in a dank cell surrounded by dead men walking.
She nodded sharply at the crumpled paper, confirming its accuracy and her memory that it was in fact a map, and belched a mouthful of smoke that included the cheerful greeting of, “Here. You don’t go.”
“Um, at night? We should stay out of those areas at night?”
She fumbled for a red marker, knocking over the cheap glass jar she used as a home for a collection of pens and pencils as motley as the lobby’s faded decor, the spillage of no concern. It wasn’t like it was a glass of whiskey that had been spilled after all. Holding the map flat with one arthritic claw, she scribbled a wide zigzagging path that covered an additional quarter of the map’s white space. “No,” she grunted pointing out the two color coded areas. “Black. Never. Never. Never. Red is where you don’t go after dark.”
Seems tourism in the Big Easy prefers the safety of a circling the wagons approach, the danger not from red skins, but from sons of the south whose lifestyle relies upon a steady supply of fresh blood enticed by Po’ Boys, sugary beignets, chickory tainted coffee, and the carnal pleasures flaunted and embraced by the citizens of Sodom, Gomorrah, and New Orleans alike.
Everything you’ve ever heard about Bourbon Street is probably true. It is unique; a blight of grimy historical buildings, their colors faded from years of sin, booze, greed, and lust. Southern hospitality along the world famous boulevard dictates that you do not have to actually enter a bar to grab a drink, walk up bars serve take away shots in plastic cups, the alcohol content higher than John Travolta’s libido after spotting the juicy plump ass of a Hollywood hopeful willing to trade his flesh for his dreams.
Old buildings still stand along narrow sidewalks, survivors from last time the town burned down. Wrought iron railings encircle feeble balconies overflowing with nubile young women who compete for the chance to bare their tits for a handful of cheap gaudy beads. Their numbers are legion, a disgusting display of flesh saved by the occasional cute college boy drunk off his ass and willing to show his willy for the same cheap reward. Too many tiny guys brave the display and earn nothing more than the sound of derisive laughter. The guys with more to show get their beads. And usually a bed for the night, too.
Enjoying Bourbon Street is not about adopting a New Orleans state of mind, it’s about leaving your mind back at the hotel; the brain cells you take with you will never survive the night. Drinking is rampant; overindulgence is required.
Every corner boasts a live music club, the sound of the electric twang of southern blues, the syncopated beat of zydeco scrubbed on old wash-boards, and the blaring brass of jazz compete for space with the steady call of, “Show us your tits!” Street musicians, many more talented than their paid brethren, add to the cacophony, the tinkle of coins dropped into open cases serving as a reminder that nothing in New Orleans comes without a price.
The women are cheap, the boys are sleazy, the drunken melee that passes for tourism firmly anchored at one end of the trash strewn street by a smattering of gay bars, their patrons throwing their own brand of sexuality back into the faces of the unsuspecting visitors from America’s fly over states. Raise you glass. Toast the town. Salute the DD cups displayed overhead. There are too many reasons to celebrate the decadence that fills the air on Bourbon Street.
New Orleans celebrates, embraces, and promotes all seven of the deadly sins. Many will tell you the town is all about drinking, about getting drunk, smashed to the point where the Quarter’s piss filled gutters look like a cozy spot to rest your head. Others will tell you it is about sex, naked breasts exposed for the titillation of those passing by.
Music lovers, perhaps getting it almost right, will tell you The Big Easy is all about the soul of the South floating in harmonic melody, the never ending beat of live bands offering visitors the chance to boogie the night away. While each of those are a worthy cause, the deadly sin New Orleans embraces to its chest is gluttony. In New Orleans food is not a necessity of life, it is life. And sometimes death, too.
We’d eaten our way through the French Quarter, wolfed down warm beignets frosted with enough powder sugar to kick start a dead man’s heart at Café Du Monde, dined on steaming bowls full of crawfish, sucking the juicy meat out of their little heads, and slopped our way through Po’ Boys filled beyond capacity and washed down with Dixie longnecks. But by day #2 of our trip, it was time to get in some serious dining.
We headed out to Emeril’s, a world famous landmark restaurant squatting outside of the touri infested French Quarter. The food was known to be sublime, the location had as famous of a rep. It was a place for an early dinner, catching the first seating was recommended. Not dawdling over the meal was also recommended. The word was, enjoy your meal but get the hell out of that part of town before the sun sets. Failing to heed the warning could mean your most recent meal would be your last.
The food at Emeril’s was worth the risk of life and limb. Cooked to perfection, served with equal amounts of pizzazz and aplomb, the cute waiter readily befriended the gay boys he’d landed as customers – even though the more flamboyant of the pair was straight – and willingly passed on the recipe for what would quickly become my go-to dish to serve when trying to impress guests back home.
We survived Emeril’s choice of location, survived another night of staggering our way through Bourbon Street’s watering holes, survived another early morning of the sugary confection that Café Du Monde serves with a side of beignets. And then met death yet again at what passed for breakfast for us and brunch for the other dinners who we joined at one of the French Quarter’s numerous upscale eateries the next day.
The food anywhere within the city is so incredible trying to remember one meal from the next is impossible. Our brunch that morning was memorable for the decor: small french-style black cane tables covered in starched linens as white as sin forgiven, twinkling cut glass chandeliers echoing the scene from above, bowls of southern blooms adding their heady scent to the tempting aromas wafting from the kitchen, and the refined service of dignified black men of an age gone by set that meal apart. As did the sideshow of a fellow diner having reached the pinnacle of her dining life, and with no reason to go on, deciding to give up the ghost while her dining companions sipped oil-black chicory coffee from bone white china.
It wasn’t the uniqueness of a fellow patron’s passing soon after the desert course had been served that made the meal stand out - though that has got to be a fairly unique experience even in New Orleans – but rather the combination of apathy and clam, collected efficiency in which the mournful event was handled by the staff. A dead body or bread crumbs, neither was reason for concern. Both as easily dealt with, both requiring nothing more than a quick sweeping away of the debris, a new table cloth spread, and menus passed out to the next group of hungry patrons. “Hi. My name is The Grim Reaper and I’ll be your server today.”
The minor stir caused by her death at the table went largely unnoticed. Her dining companions, obviously locals used to death making its appearance at odd times daily, moved off to the bar to raise a glass in the old biddy’s honor, plans to be made for enjoying one of the city’s famous jazz-infused funeral marches later in the week. Not used to death being such a normal part of daily life, to us her passing was a sobering event. Which meant a quick jaunt back around the corner to Bourbon Street’s conglomeration of bars to rid ourselves of our new found – and not long to last – sobriety.
New Orleans is a city of excess. It brings out the best and the worst – or at least the most venial – in all of its visitors. And we, or at least I, were no exception. Dave and I had been buddies for most of that year, had become BFFs, partying together nightly back home and travelling to the more famous dens of iniquity spread across the American mainland frequently. You can’t suffer rock fever in Hawaii if you leave often enough; time your trips right and the specter of living on a tiny island with nothing much other than going to the beach to do is camouflaged by nursing a hangover that lasts longer than your most recent trip abroad. We’d become friends, familiar drinking buddies, and travelling partners. And at least one of us was in lust.
New Orleans’s magical mix of voodoo and vodka whispered in my ear late one night as we lay in our separate beds waiting for the room to quit spinning so sleep could come. We always spent those times deep in debate over philosophical questions of morality and ethics. Like, “If you had to chop off an appendage, which would it be, and how much would you be willing to pay for a replacement on the black market?”
That night, Dave made some unremembered comment that presented me with the perfect opening, a comment undoubtedly about the gay bars strung along Bourbon Street, ‘cuz I picked up on the cue and matter of factly announced, “Yeah, well, you known I’m gay . . .”
Dave didn’t bat an eye. He ignored my comment, and continued making whatever unimportant point he’d been trying to make. Shit. I’d just come out to him. The first official time I’d ever done so in my life. Normally, I don’t push the matter, but rather allow friends and acquaintances to make that discovery on their own. Usually when I show up at some event or gathering with a boyfriend in tow. But this time I made the announcement. And was ignored.
At the next opportunity, I tried again. Agreeing with some point he’d made I said, “Sure, but as a gay man, blah, blah, blah . . .”
Still no takers. WTF? Were his brain cells too frazzled, too drenched in alcohol to realize what had been said? Was the boy going deaf at such an early age? Did the hunk not know he was supposed to announce his own leanings toward bedding men and immediately jump into mine, offering his ass to be used into the early morning hours?
Dunno. He failed to respond, failed to acknowledge my brave confession, failed to provide me with the orgasm I desired. My coming out story was a failure. A single ticket sold for the event, reserved for someone who couldn’t be bothered to show. Perhaps I should have gone with the ‘boy was I drunk last night’ routine instead.
We spent another few days in New Orleans nursing cheap bottles of rot gut whiskey at night, nursing monstrous hangovers by day, my coming out churned over and spit out like the muddy brown waters of the Mississippi coursing through the paddles of the river boats whose horns announced their presence just off Jackson Square. It wasn’t until our last diner in town that Dave showed that he’d heard what I’d said.
Southern boys can be quite dreamy, a mix of races that highlights the best from each, their slow southern drawl as enticing as a strip tease in a 50s burlesque show. Our waiter that night was the epitome of the best the South had to offer, southern charm and Cajun hotness perfected, his attentions made obvious that he played on my team. But of the two of us, his sights were set on the gay acting straight boy. Dave was not amused. “Why am I the one he wants?” he whispered across the table. “You’re the gay guy, not me!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his upbringing had resulted in a few too many effeminate gestures in his repertory, that my gay friends who’d met him all agreed their gaydar pegged into the red over his unmanly mannerisms. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d made the same assumption, or that I wasn’t really buying into his ‘I’m not gay’ claim either. “Shit, dude. It’s Naw’leans. Maybe it’s time you tried a little southern decadence on for size.”
Dave wasn’t convinced. He passed on the waiter’s advances and ordered another double shot instead. New Orleans may be known as the Big Easy, but getting Dave to walk on the wild side wasn’t going to be an easy chore. Dave failed to live up to expectations, at least the gay ones. But New Orleans responded in spades, becoming one of our favorite hangouts when we hit the mainland to kill off some brain cells before returning to the tropical malaise of the islands.