Within an hour we were on our way to Louisiana. Carynne had left me some specific notes about our route through Alabama and Mississippi, where to stop for food and such. Don’t Fuck Around she had pencilled in block letters on the page with the route outlined and although I didn’t figure she meant it literally we spent the minimum amount of time necessary to do what we had to in rest stops and at roadside restaurants.
There really are Denny’s in every conceivable corner of this nation. We’d all gotten to the point where we knew what day of the week was for which soup and I was actually looking forward to the next vegetable beef day.
Eleven hours is a long fucking drive. I almost wanted to spend more of it driving than riding because I seemed not to get as bored, although I got more tired. While driving, in my head I’d do these little calculations, like, if we drove from Boston to New York, how many times could we have gone back and forth in eleven hours? That was to New York, back to Boston, and almost all the way back to New York again. That was driving between Philadelphia and my old house more than seven times.
There’s a lot of nothing in parts of Louisiana.
I had no idea what to expect when we pulled up to our hotel in New Orleans past midnight. Some cities would have been shuttered up by then and we’d be lucky to have one sleepy, overnight clerk check us in.
Not here. A whole bunch of brass-buttoned door men and bell hops (all black, I noticed) stood like an idle army around the driveway and in the lobby, some of them coming alive as we pulled up, while others waited in reserve (in case there should be a mad midnight rush to check in?). The lobby was lively with people in everything from elegant formal wear to tacky French Quarter T-shirts, cameras around their necks. A fountain bubbled, people laughed, and what I thought at first was piped-in Muzak turned out to be a jazz combo of piano, stand up bass, and drums in one potted-plant-secluded corner of the open air bar.
I made Kevin handle check-in while I hovered around the three bell guys handling the bags and instruments. Every now and then one of them would catch me looking and tip his hat at me and smile. Then they started asking me questions, where were we playing, how long we were staying, that kind of stuff, and I told them and they seemed to genuinely care about the answers, chiding me for not spending more time in the city and telling me I’d be back soon once I’d had a taste.
This banter continued right up the elevator and into our rooms while they set our bags down where indicated. We had three rooms at the end of a hall, one bigger than the others and two connecting on either side. I tipped the three of them out of my pocket cash and then went to the wide window in the suite. It looked over some kind of low shopping mall on the Mississippi River. Boats were pulled up to a pier there, some kind of pleasure river boats, their railings lit with tiny white bulbs. I could see people walking along the plaza and down the main street parallel to the river. The sound of cars reached me.
Midnight appeared to be a fine hour for New Orleans.
Ziggy and Bart both came up to the window.
“That’s pretty,” Ziggy said.
“No lie, bwana,” Bart added. “Should we go out? What time do we have to be up?”
I yawned but felt more tired than sleepy. “We don’t have to be anywhere until tomorrow afternoon.”
Ziggy. “Let’s go then.”
Bart was already headed for the door. “Where are we going?”
“In this town, you don’t have to go anywhere. Let’s just have a look around.” Ziggy dug into his backpack and pulled out a black tank top. He traded his T-shirt for it and ran his hands through his hair.
I was in high tops, jeans, and a T-shirt and had no intention of changing. We collected the other three but once we got moving into the French Quarter we only loosely tried to stay together. Our hotel was at the western edge of the Quarter and we started at that end of the infamous Bourbon Street and walked east.
Bart stuck close by me as we went past shops selling mardi gras masks, tchotchke, and T-shirts, T-shirts, T-shirts. We passed bars with live jazz, reggae, karaoke, country and western, R&B, you name it pouring out their open doors into the street. I’d never heard so much live music crammed into so few blocks before.
Neatly groomed young men, both white and black, with flyers in their hands, invited us into place after place with promises of “no cover.” The hand-painted signs hung in most doorways that read “two drink minimum per set” kept us watching from the middle of the street with large groups of other tourists. There were people walking everywhere, in both directions, carrying drinks in plastic cups, laughing, looking at each other.
Bourbon Street reminded me more than anywhere else I’d been yet of the Jersey Shore, of the way people walked up and down the boardwalk at the Shore, not really doing anything other than walking and enjoying themselves by being there. Of course, you couldn’t carry booze on the boardwalk, and you had to imagine all the pinball arcades replaced with female impersonator strip shows, the ice cream stands with Hurricanes-in-cups stands, and the games of chance replaced with live music venues one next to the other. However, the vibe was similar, and the T-shirt shops were about the same, tacky and densely placed enough to make you wonder if they really could all stay in business.
As in the lobby of the hotel, people here were in everything from tuxes to bermuda shorts. Brightly painted mule carts went by filled with wide-eyed families. “Hey, shouldn’t those kids be in bed?” Chris joked. “It’s one a.m.!” Nobody seemed to mind. Bart eventually declared himself thirsty and pulled me into a place where they were playing real jazz, and we sat at a little table and bought club soda and root beer for four bucks each and sat through the rest of the set sipping slowly and me thinking, jeez, what a life. The musicians played hot and yet it was clear they were playing for themselves–most of the glassy-eyed tourists in here wouldn’t have known good jazz if it bit them on the proverbial ass. These guys were mostly young, not wizened Mississippi blues guys but mid-thirties, some black, some white, trading licks and having fun. I wondered how many sets they had to do a night, or per week, to get by. When they were done, a different band set up and we moved on.
We hooked back up with Ziggy in a weird, crowded little shop where they sold voodoo paraphernalia, occult supplies, and tourist trap stuff like good luck charms and Voodoo Queen post cards. Ziggy was buying some of the post cards and haggling over the price of a Mexican prayer candle. I put a hand on his shoulder then, shaking my head like I couldn’t possibly have heard right. “Were you speaking Spanish?”
“Claro que si,” he said, in what sounded to me like a natural accent. “You bet.”
“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.”
He looked at me sideways. “I guess there are a lot of things you don’t know about me, huh.”
I suddenly felt as if he were several feet away instead of right there, leaning on the counter next to me. “I guess…” I began but didn’t finish. He was so far away and I felt cold even in the pressed heat and crowd of the shop. I did not move.
He turned back to the clerk (who had agreed on his price), took the brown paper bag, and handed over green cash. Then he jerked his head my way and I followed him out of the store.
We walked a few more blocks, not talking, and the crowd thinned a bit. But I could see more lights and people ahead of us, and hear the throb of dance music. We passed a corner diner that kept late hours and some locals sitting on the curb in the dark sharing a cigarette. “How you doing?” Ziggy asked me as we walked.
“Fine I guess.” A general answer for a general question.
“Good.” He gestured with his paper bag. “The Quarter is basically a big rectangle, with the river on the south side. Our hotel is at one end, the touristy end. The other end,” he pointed ahead of us, “is the gay end.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Came here once a couple of years ago with some friends. Crazy friends, we drove here in a car with like almost no money, driving for days, just determined we’d get here and once we did we’d have a great time.”
“And we did. Have a great time.”
Now most of the pedestrians were men, some with appraising eyes, some in pairs, in hooded sweatshirts with the sleeves cut out, in dapper jeans tucked into black boots, in mesh shirts double-dotted with dark nipples. Some were shirtless in the humid warmth, their shirts tucked into a back pocket or tied around their heads bandana style.
They were mostly white and I wondered if they were tourists or locals. Maybe by being in the gay part of town, gay tourists became like locals and anyone not gay, whether from here or elsewhere, became a tourist by default. I felt like a tourist, and looking at the way Ziggy swept his eyes back and forth over the crowds of men spilling out the doorways of two big club/bars on either side of us I got the feeling he felt like one, too, which surprised me. Men were leaning over a second floor balcony, sometimes whistling to other men on the street, waving to guys they knew or commenting on passerby, but they were mostly silent, the silence I associated with DC park benches and East Village bars, the silence of waiting. Generic disco pulsed in the background.
“I think I’m going to head back the other way,” I said in a low voice.
“You sure? I thought you said we didn’t have to be up early.” He did not look at me, his eyes continuing to scan.
“You don’t have to come back with me.”
His gaze passed through mine then for an instant. “I was wondering if I should ask you something.”
“Do you think you’ll be up when I get back?” He was now looking behind me, as if making eye contact with someone back there. He took a step toward them, and me. Then another, until we were almost touching shoulders. “I’ve been meaning to … I mean, it’s been a while since we gave it a try, you know.”
The ever elusive “it” again. “Does that mean we should?”
He looked at me now, our faces close. “You sound bitter.”
“So do you.” I didn’t really have anything I was burning to say to him and yet I wasn’t going to just turn and walk away. “Let’s not start this again.”
“Fighting.” I stuck my hands into my pockets to keep from making fists. “We don’t have to argue.”
He closed his eyes and made his voice soft, almost plaintive. “Please just be there when I get back.”
“How long will you be?”
“Not long,” he said, looking past me again. “Not long.”