May 20 – Just a quick sketch of our weekend in New Orleans:
On Friday night, we took Max on a stroll through the French Quarter. He got to see a little of the decadent wonder of Bourbon Street without having his little soul entirely corrupted. Along the way we met a washboard player/hustler named Windex Pete. I was such a poor interviewer that I neglected to ask Pete Pritchett where he got his French Quarter nickname. I asked if he ever played anywhere else, and he looked up and down Bourbon Street and said, “All I need, baby. All I need.”
After he collected the few singles we had in our collective pockets, Pete went on to perform a rendition of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” which, considering the circumstances, struck me as somewhat hilarious.
Our Bourbon Street walkabout concluded without incident. We tried to counsel Max to study the faces of passersby for puckering cheeks, glassy eyes and other signs of imminent projectile vomiting. I was heartened to smell the peculiar Bourbon Street redolence of puke and piss once again.
Having seen about as much as we cared to see, we returned to our impromptu campground on the 1400 block of Governor Nicholls Street alongside New Orleans African American Museum.
This just in: The standard rate for a night in the French Quarter RV Resort is, drum roll please, $96. We stayed three nights on an ordinary street in the Treme, beneath a comely canopy of live oaks, and saved ourselves $288 (not that there’s any way we’d ever spend such an exorbitant fee to park the Behemoth. We’d commute to Mandeville and back before dropping $96 to stay in a macadam campground.
We played a round of Monopoly Junior and then repaired for a fitful night of sleep in the steamy spring heat of old New Orleans. On Saturday, we got up, drove to the Whole Foods in Metairie and stocked up for the day. We came back around noon and set out on a stroll through the French Market.
We drank in the ambiance and tried not to get washed away by the river of tourism money flowing all around us. Max, as is his wont, found one or two pretty girls to befriend.
We wandered about with no particular purpose and spent a good bit of time lounging on the bank of the Mississippi River. It’s good to get up close and personal with such a wondrous natural icon, even if proximity forces you to bear witness to the wholesale disregard we have for our landmarks. That poor Indian in the old commercial, he’s still weeping. He is weeping like a motherless babe. The Mississippi and its banks are a disturbing cesspool of human detritus. Still, it’s an impressive sight and it gives you goosebumps to consider the natural and human history that has flowed in and around this majestic waterway.
We left the river’s edge and started retracing our steps, gazing in storefronts along Decatur and doing little of any purpose. I checked out a few earrings at The Copper Goat at 1132 Decatur, being careful to keep at least one foot on the sidewalk. My reticence was foiled by the proprietor, who waved me in with a warm smile.
The Copper Goat is Lalo Flores’s workshop, Lalo has another store, Lalosh Silver, less than a mile away in the French Market. He grew up in Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico, though he says he can’t tell you how old he is. He only knows he was born on Valentine’s Day.
As a kid, he spoke the native Zapotec. The Indian features are strong in him, as is a love of learning. He learned to speak Spanish, then English, and now says he wants to go to Quebec to work on his French.
In 2005, he left New Orleans the day before Katrina hit. He wasn’t going anywhere until police forced him out. The drive across Lake Pontchartrain to Slidell, which takes a half-hour on an average day, took him six hours that day.
He holed up in Hot Springs, Ark., and very nearly stayed. He was offered incentives to open a shop in Hot Springs, but the insouciant magic of New Orleans drew him back. I spent a good hour chatting up Lalo until he became tired of my presence. I bought a pair of earrings for Becky, silver danglers that include stones of amethyst, obsidian and river pearl. Quite elegant, if I do say so myself, and the cheapest option I could find at $18 a pair. Very nice, Lalo. Very nice.
We got out of Lalo’s way and returned to the Behemoth to prepare for a little picnic at Tuba Fats Square on North Robertson Street in the Treme. From Frommer’s to Yelp to the French Market, you hear a lot of hysterical things about the Treme. Don’t walk here after dark. By all means, check out Kermit Ruffins’ speakeasy, but be sure to take a cab. We spent four peaceful days in the Treme. No one threatened to hurt us or insult us.
Along the way to our picnic we met a very dangerous character, a delightful 90-something named Jessie Varnado. Jessie lives along North Robertson. As Max scootered past, she recalled her days of scootering.
Miss Jessie grew up in Franklintown, about 70 miles due north of New Orleans across Pontchartrain. She’s a sweet old black lady with reddish hair and gold-capped teeth. She is a walking, talking representative of a bygone era. She grew up in the country, picking cotton till her fingers bled.
I wanted to know more about her, of course. Thankfully, Becky forgot the wine. I quickly volunteered to return to the Behemoth, welcoming another chance to charm Miss Jessie.
Well, it turns out she is immune to my charm. I worked on her for two days. On my way back to the RV, I asked if she’d mind sitting down and telling me her story. She claimed to have no story. I knew this was false. She said maybe, but not now.
On my way back with wine in hand, I was able to give her a hand as she walked up her stairs from the street. Yesterday we walked past on our way to Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy, and got talking to Miss Jessie again. Max asked if he could have a ride on my shoulders. I whispered a bribe. If he’d ask Miss Jessie to pose for a photograph with him, he’d get that ride.
What a shot, I figured. Black and white, old and young, a veritable rainbow coalition in one photographic frame. She said no! And I loved and respected her all the more.
Anyway, our picnic came off without further problems. The only violence we encountered was that perpetrated by a squadron of angry mosquitoes. We lingered an hour over cheese and ciabatta before running to the safety of the Behemoth and another round of Monopoly Junior.
Yesterday we rose with a purpose. We’d visit New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, the existence of which we heretofore were ignorant of, and get Max his coolest badge yet. Before we could get there, there was other business to attend to. Max whined for a chocolate donut. We needed to use the facilities.
I went to the nearby men’s room. After exiting, I spotted a small grocery store across Decatur. Forgetting that Becky needed the restroom, too, I tried to be a hero. Before I could get to the store, my consciousness was hijacked by a homeless man who called himself Luigi D’Angelo. Luigi is the Ricky Roma of homeless men. He has a shtick, and he is always closing.
He looked me in the eyes and asked me a heartfelt question or two about myself before starting in on his business pitch. He held a beer in his right hand. He told me he hadn’t had a beer in 26 years, but someone had bought him this one because his birthday is this week.
Hey, what’s this beer doing in my hand? The more he thought about it, the less he wanted it. It was an inconvenient prop. He set it down atop a nearby newspaper box.
Luigi said he’d been homeless for 10 months. But he had good news. He finally landed a job. He would wash dishes at Tujague’s. Ten bucks an hour. Saints be praised.
There was just one problem. You knew there was a problem. In literature, they call this the conflict. What was Luigi’s conflict? He needed a bath and a haircut. Luigi said he walked 60 blocks to a shelter yesterday, dragging his worldly belongings after him.
He needed $32.50. With that he’d get a haircut and a bath and 20 days in the shelter. Well, I was dubious, but I’m always prepared to follow a story to its illogical conclusion.
I didn’t realize Luigi expected me to foot the entire $32.50. I thought maybe he’d collect $5 or maybe $10, if he was lucky, from me and then a few other donations to get him over the top.
When I warned him I might not go in for for the entire sum, he put his hand on his heart, lurched forward and coughed. A method actor, Luigi is. His anger flared at my stinginess. Our relationship was already in peril. We hugged and patched it up. I offered to meet Luigi under the Tujague’s sign in two hours and drive him and his bags to the shelter. He nearly lost it. Luigi said he thought he’d told me he needed to be in the shelter by noon, or the whole deal was off. Again, a relationship in peril.
Yet we kept it alive. He said he didn’t need a ride to the shelter, the bus would be fine. I told him I’d pick him up in an hour. He said he didn’t trust me. Trust was breaking down on all sides. Then it all fell apart when I suggested that, for $32.50, I’d like to drive him to the shelter, get a picture of him and talk to shelter staff.
He saw this as a gross invasion of privacy. Now he was mad. He accused me of getting on and off the merry-go-round. Guess I was making him dizzy.
“A see-saw’s got nothing on you,” he said, his voice dripping with acrimony. “You’re up and down, up and down, up and down.”
He made see-saw movements with his hand.
“You’ve wasted my time,” he cried out in betrayal.
I’m sorry for wasting your time, Luigi. Mea culpa.
My head fairly spinning at having wasted poor Luigi’s time, I crossed the street in search of my family. When I found them, Becky was no happier with me than Luigi. Luckily, I had a story to soften her anger.
We moved on and met 25-year-old Leonard Rose at the National Park. Max got his badge with little difficulty. Maybe he’ll even remember the name Louis Armstrong, though Sidney Bechet and Buddy Bolden probably will be a stretch.
Leonard swore in Max as a New Orleans Jazz junior ranger, and we ambled out into the French Market. We split a plate of veggie jambalaya. Max even ate some, though he made sure to avoid the roasted peppers, asparagus, squash and broccoli.
The sun was taking its toll, but we trudged on toward the Canal Street ferry terminal. Max insisted I pull him along on his scooter. We had an accident on the waterfront and tumbled in a heap on the brick walkway. No serious injuries. We just missed the ferry to Algiers Point, and had to wait a half-hour for the next one.
We did. We wandered about Algiers Point. Max played on a playground with a couple locals. We admired the architecture. I learned about Emmett Hardy, a white cornet player who legend has it once outdueled Satchmo himself in a 1919 cutting contest. Well, legends make good stories. Emmett Hardy was born in Gretna and lived in Algiers Point before succumbing to tuberculosis at age 22.
And so we wandered wearily back to the ferry. We just missed it again, and had to wait another half our to get back to the east bank of the Mississippi.
Becky had promised Max ice cream, and she made good. She went to look for wine while Max and I found a seat in the French Market where he might eat the ice cream relatively free from disaster. I sat on a bench next to a guy. If Luigi was the homeless Ricky Roma, Vesilio is the homeless Michael Douglas, circa Romancing the Stone.
I had no intention of doing so, but I was about to infuriate my second homeless man in one day. We chatted. He struck up the conversation. I think it began when Becky returned empty-handed.
I’d given her an upper limit on what she might spend, and the cheapest bottle was a dollar above that ceiling. I muttered something about everything being more expensive in the French Quarter. Vesilio, or “V,” as he says they call him here, shook his head.
You just have to know where to go. I didn’t know if he was volunteering to be our tour guide to inexpensive inebriation or if he was simply making a point.
He was careful to say he didn’t call rubes like us tourists. He considers us rookies.
V said he’d been in New Orleans for 45 of his 51 years. He said New Orleans was a special place that rejected opportunists. I nodded when he said this.
“If you’re hungry here, you didn’t ask for help,” he said.
I asked if he knew Luigi. He knows Luigi. Luigi’s an addict looking for a fix, he said.
V, on the other hand, was just looking to pass on knowledge. I appreciated this.
“Us New Orleans boys, I mean real New Orleans boys, we’re not cock-blockers,” he said.
He said this, though I wasn’t sure what he meant. But I quote him anyway, because I liked the way he referred to himself as a New Orleans boy. He made it quite clear that he didn’t want some stranger to buy him another $1.80 Busch tallboy. He didn’t need that kind of help.
“I’m going to be fine,” he said. “I’ve survived here 45 years. I’ll be all right.”
We traded innocent palaver, but he eyed me warily. He seemed uncomfortable with my presence. I was uncomfortable with his discomfort.
I said we’d parked in Treme.
“Why did you park there?” he asked. He was quite incredulous. Just like Frommer’s and the commenters on Yelp, V considered the Treme a rough neighborhood. Becky was quick to point out that we had nothing of value.
“You’ve got your RV,” he said. “That’s gotta be worth at least three hits of crack.”
I didn’t know about this. I did know we should be going soon if we wanted to get to Kermit Ruffins’ speakeasy in time for the Sunday night performance. I shook V’s hand, and we said our goodbyes. We got about 25 yards away before Becky had to go to the bathroom. I found a seat in the little courtyard adjacent to the Gazebo Cafe while Max did a little impromptu scootering.
When Becky returned from the bathroom, V was on her heels.
He was unhappy.
“I’m disappointed you didn’t offer to share the wine with me,” he said. “I am disappointed about that.”
Having said his piece, V stalked off in disgust. I didn’t have time to remind him that we had no wine to share.
I was sorry. I am sorry. Really. I don’t know what’s going on. My people are in revolt against me.
Heartbroken, we headed back to Governor Nicholls Street. We quickly got ready and headed off down N. Robertson toward Basin Street. We said hi to Miss Jessie. She refused to let me take her photo. We made it to Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy. No one accosted us or threatened to put a cap in our collective ass.
The only disappointment? Kermit Ruffins was out of town, in Atlanta to attend his daughter’s graduation. Wendell Brunious was pinch-hitting. We were pretty worn out by the long day in the sun offending the homeless contingent of the French Quarter, but we had a fine time nonetheless.
Max was so worn out he was sleeping by the time the finale rolled around. Shame too, because it was a song he used to sing with great ebullience, John Boutte’s rambunctious “Treme,” which we came across via the HBO series of the same name. I tried to wake him up to dance, but he wasn’t in the mood. He did crack a smile and show a dimple or two, but he lacked the energy.
Well, I lack the energy to go any further on this cursory roundup of our weekend. As is customary, I’ll get around to the deeper story at some later date.