Remember college days? Remember the dorms and the off campus apartments and the courtyards and the free-flowing kegs of beer and the booze and the drugs and the utter, exhilarating fun of being amidst a sea of like-minded individuals ‘in search of the eternal buzz’? Remember the music of all kinds blasting out each room as you walked past? Remember the possible danger and chaos that threatened to explode at any moment all around you? Remember the rowdy giddiness of it all? And remember the next day the sights of the garbage and trash strewn about grounds and the pee spots on the walls and urine puddles on the cement? And remember the next day smell of all that unbridled debauchery? Ahh yes…. it is so vivid, so clear, so fresh in my mind and nostrils, for I was there. No, not on Jimmy Leeds Road in New Jersey, but on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
I spent this weekend with a throng of thrill seeking, bead wearing partiers with outrageously large and dangerously potent mugs of alcohol, staggering from bar to bar looking for sex and more booze. God it took me back. And in fact, one night, I may have been back. I succumbed to the primal desire to escape and toss off the shackles of inhibition and became, literally, fall down drunk in the home of the Saints. But these green, red and gold colored Saints, (Who dat talkin’ ‘bout them Saints? Who dat?) guided me throughout the French Quarter, not completely keeping me safe nor unmolested, but they did ensure I found my way back home. Yeah, I guess that is part of the magic of New Orleans, the all invading spirit of the city that consumes your body, assumes control, and forces you to party like it is nobody’s business. Or perhaps, I was simply a victim of a nasty hex put on my soul by a High Priestess of the Night submerging a lanky voodoo doll into a bucket of bourbon? Either way, I guess, that’s New Orleans, ain’t it?
So, yeah New Orleans is a party town, no doubt about it. Well, more accurately, it at least contains a party street. For off this famous street there were signs of other life forms and entertainment to be experienced, but Bourbon Street is all about the party. There is plenty of booze flowing which you are allowed, and even encouraged, to freely roam the area with, but there are also plenty of strip clubs and go-go’s, and Larry Flint has a little place down there, and there are female impersonators, male impersonators, totally live and “un-digitally edited” sex acts, many fine gentleman clubs and the more than willing men and women who will do just about anything for a cheap string of beads (and boy are those damn things expensive!). So, if you are interested in stepping back in time to visit a blurry period of your life long ago when your young, impressionable mind was being formed and picking up habits it would not be able to shed for the rest of your natural life, by all means do take a stroll down Bourbon Street. Just be careful, for your stroll may slow to a walk, your walk to a stagger, your stagger to a lurching, uneven gait, and this, finally, to a fall down drunken plunge. Oh but it will be fun!
For the less party-centric, I will recommend a quick run down Bourbon Street before night falls, keeping your hands at your side and eyes straight ahead at all times, and then checking out the rest of what the Quarter has to offer. For there are other things happening. Like jazz for one thing. And, although I imagined the air of N’orlins to be filled with the bouncy, syncopated melody of Dixieland and jazz of all kinds, it simply was not. For space was also taken up by plenty of blues, washboard bands, funk, rock and unfortunately even dance clubs blasting bottom driven (and bottom feeding) crap out ungodly loud speakers. But, there was jazz to be found if you looked for it. One such place was on the Mississippi.
On the Steamboat Natchez that paddled its way up the mighty Mississippi, Mike and I sat and listened to the delightful Dixieland of the Steamboat Stompers, who entertained us for our return trip to port. A piano, clarinet and tuba was all they were, but they needed nothing more. They were my favorite band of the weekend. We sat among other passengers of this hairy steamship (hairy, for there was an infestation of small, black dragonflies that landed on the rails and deck of the boat making it look like it needed a shave. A bit skeevy.) and delighted in their upbeat, bouncy tunes. As we sat basking in the bubbly sound, a fellow passenger, a woman in her late forties, got up and walked across the dance floor to make a request. They announced their first request and began to play it. Immediately, the woman rose and walked towards the band again. Another request so soon I thought? Did they not hear her correctly and are playing the wrong song? As she reached the stage, she abruptly spun around and high-kicked her way into a wicked Charleston. Like a Flapper of old, this woman’s feet kicked out from under her, her head bopped up and down, arms flailed about and her, and her hands waived back and forth and occasionally joined up with her knees to do the crazy cris-crossing of the knee thing. She was wonderful. She got a big round of applause as she both started and stopped, and when it was over she casually walked back to her seat with a large smile on her face. The only thing that could have made that scene better was if she was wearing the little frilly dress and the snappy hat those flappers seemed to love so much.
The Steamboat Stompers were, again, my favorite, and you can only catch them on the river, but there was plenty other places to find music onshore. There were jazz clubs from the upscale to the Funky Butt, where one could sit and eat a fine dinner while watching the band play. There were street musicians at the square, on the sidewalks and standing in café’s, and the off-the-beaten path bars that were simply open to the jam, rivaled only by the unique hole-in-the-wall bars that sought to preserve not only the establishment that housed the players, but the traditional music they played.
And speaking of traditional music, and the folks that played it, I must introduce you all to “Unk”. While we sat at enjoying a band at the Maison Bourbon, a nicer club on Bourbon Street, I kept noticing the members of the band pointing and playing to an very old gentleman at the end of the bar. He was tiny, bean thin, and wore a full three piece suit and bowler hat the weight of which appeared to be crushing him. After observing him and the band and the crowd, it was apparent everyone knew who he was. People said “Hi.” and asked for photo’s and the band did indeed speak with him during their breaks. I asked someone who he was, and they told me, but due to the voodoo curse I mentioned above, I have forgotten his real name. They just refer to this old Dixieland Man as “Unk”. (I have since found him! http://126.96.36.199/search?q=cache:99UGGj5c2j4C:www.offbeat.com/feature.html+%22Lionel+Batiste,+Sr%22&hl=en&ie=UTF-8)
So, the next night, in the throes of my inebriating hex, I ran into Unk in a small bar on the edge of the Quarter simply called Donna’s Bar & Grill. There was a band playing here and the format was open to anyone who can swing and anxious patrons sat nervously clutching their instruments waiting for their turn to lay down their chops. As I sat conversing with a young guy with a trumpet, who turned out to be very, very good, we noticed Unk walk into the club. He was greeted reverently by the band with some nods and heightened riffs and enhanced notes, and then made his way to the bar. Again, I asked who he was, but again, the voodoo did the voodoo it do so well, and alas, I lost his name for the second time.
While the band played on, and the folks tapped their shoes and drank their drinks and lost themselves to the rhythm, Unk slowly, quietly, appeared out of the kitchen carrying an armful of pots and pans. He reached the stage and began to lay down his kitchenware on a table smack dab front and center to the surprise of the band. The members glanced nervously at one another, never missing a beat, and joined the entire bar in wondering just what the hell old Unk was up to. Has he lost it? Well, he meticulously arranged a large saucepan, and three pots bottoms up on the small table before him, removed an ordinary fork form the breast pocket of this suit jacket, and then waited, patiently, for his queue. When the rhythm opened for him, he went to work tapping, banging, sliding and skimming the fork against the impromptu Faberware drum set and produced an unbelievably perfect sound. Unk rocked out! He was dead on, hitting each note, bouncing back and forth with the drummer of the band, and never missing a beat all. The bar patrons went nuts, and clapped along to the music and watched Unk do his stuff, all to the delight of the band who seemed a bit nervous as to what he was up to. The trumpet player then handed Unk the mike and through an eruption of applause, Unk sang a little ditty about love and loss serenading a young woman, probably sixty years his junior. Oh, it was magical. And before anyone says it, I know the voodoo curse was coursing through my heart, body and liver, but, I could not make this one up. It was awesome!
So let’s see, I discussed the booze, and Bourbon Street, and the partying, and the booze, and the strip clubs, and the booze and then the music, and Unk, what am I forgetting? Oh yeah, the food! Picture a Delta House with K-Paul Prudhomme as Bluto. (Yeah, an arcane reference, but pretty funny if you get it.) Picture a frat house with excellent food. Now I did not have my sights set high on the food offerings for I am not one to enjoy spice and Cajun cookin’, but I guess I just never had good Cajun cooking. The gumbo was grand, the muffuletta a must, the jambalaya just jumping, and the crawfish, crawdads or Louisiana Lobsters as they are known, although out of season, were great. Because it was not prime time for the crawdad, there was no eating them steamed and no sucking of these little guys heads, as they apparently do down there, but they fit perfectly everywhere we found them; in the gumbo, the jambalaya, everywhere. Everything was great, well, except the grits. I think grits are simply the southern version of tofu. What is the point?
And there was certainly a bit of a colorful history to the town. It’s been owned by Indians, and the French and the Spaniards at one point or another. And the British took a crack at grabbing it, but it eventually landed in the hands of the ol’ US of A. And nearly all throughout, the slave population was an ever present influence in the community and to this day, New Orleans reflects the African culture more deeply than any other. This all combines not into a melting pot, but a gumbo pot, if you will, in every aspect of the city’s history and culture. It’s an incredibly unique place, certainly worth exploring on each of these levels.
And they also love their football, and their Saints. It was a very busy weekend due to it being the Saint’s – Who Dat! Who Dat!! — first home game of the season, and because the Packers were in town, Cheese Heads were everywhere. I mention the football thing here only to segue into a closing anecdote on my little story. I know a writer should never give away his secrets so blatantly as I am doing here, but, hell, I am getting lazy and this needs to be framed somehow. Plus, Mike and I got a big kick out of this, so I wish to pass it along.
We shared our return flight with Mark Gastineau. Remember him? The NY Jet’s linebacker, the lead man of the legendary Sack Exchange who pumped himself full of steroids, married supermodels and landed himself in jail for wife abuse or some other damn thing? Well, as we waited at the baggage claim area, we stood next to this still very large man, hoping our bags arrived in their proper destination. I looked down near the opening of the carousel and noticed Mike’s bag caught on something just inside the door. Before either of us could act, Gastineau pounced on the bag like a fumbled football. He grabbed hold of the backpack, put his foot up on the ledge for some leverage, and I think he even grunted, and began yanking with all his brute strength. I spoke up, hesitantly, and said, “its probably just hooked on something”. He then calmed down a bit, but for a moment there, I saw the look in his eyes as if he, like a Vietnam vet, had succumbed to the haunted visions of battle which overcame all rational thought and he was transported back again in the very heart of the trenches fighting for his life.
Yeah… no matter where we go in the world, or what he do, its always good to see that some things will never change.