All Hallow’s Eve in Voodoo City

'Something, something, the pain of being a man...'

27OCT07 – Alexandria, VA – There’s just something about the view from the roof of my building. Looking out over the traffic lights is like trying to read the mind of the city computer, watching an endless wave of little red lights bob along the river of night. Some of those lights seek pleasure, some of those lights are working, and some of those lights have nothing else to do, and nowhere else to go. Somewhere is a man who can read those tail lights like Braille. Maybe it’s just me, but in another lifetime.

I’m packed and ready for tomorrow, though I’m not sure what to expect. Everyone I’ve talked to seems excited for me. “New Orleans? Oh, you’ll have fun! You can walk around naked with a cold drink in each hand, and no one will stop you!”

It sounds a bit overwhelming, to tell the truth. My knee jerk response is to lock myself into my hotel room, order a pizza and watch the Sci-Fi channel, occasionally peering through the blinds at the mayhem far below. Large groups of drunken people make me nervous. I’m always worried that I’ll be the victim of a pickpocket, or find myself cowering in the filthiest corner of a dead end alley, arms around my head, surrounded by an organized gang of inner-city sixth graders as they take turns puncturing my chest with a homemade knife, my plaintive cries for help drowned out by bad rock music and shouts of “Take it off!”

None of that seems possible tonight, not in this silence. The sky is on fire, a perfect progression of golden orange that fades to silver and midnight blue. Far overhead, the cold black of deep space is looking back at me, monstrous, terrible, beautiful and ancient.

Watching stars and planes/
drawing quadrilaterals/
on the night’s blackboard.

I used my last $10 to buy a greasy double bacon cheeseburger and a large order of fries from a place called Five Guys located just down the street from me. I know I should’ve saved that money for something else, but I can’t help think that one day I’ll be too feeble to eat anything more than gruel. In a sense, that’s a small part of the meaning of life – sometimes you just gotta eat it over the sink.

Next morning, riding the Yellow line train towards Ronald Reagan International Airport, carrying enough gear to start an invasion – or document one, anyway. A sign above me reads: “Words can’t describe what your eyes bring to life.” I think that’s the secret of language, why a picture is equal to a thousand words and not the other way around.

It’s raining finally, the reset switch on a weird week. Nothing tangible about it, not in any measurable sense of the word. I suppose your high-powered business execs would be quick to point out that if you couldn’t measure it, it didn’t really exist. I beg to differ. Suppose that ‘Weird Feeling A35’ influenced you to make ‘Impulse Decision Q36’. Since one is a direct result of the other, doesn’t that make it measurable and therefore real?

Now on Flight 3419 to New Orleans – somebody said something to me at a party a few nights ago. “Washington D.C. will make you mean.” I’m starting to understand that a little. Some son of a bitch on this plane smells like they threw up in their seat and tried to mop it up with a wet dog. Thankfully, it’s a short flight and I’ve been asleep for most of it.

(I’ve been dreaming about a strange machine lately; a low-slung thing with a centerline cockpit that handles like a Mini Cooper and takes the straightaway like a Formula One. It requires a special suit and helmet to keep you plugged in, and the reflexes of an 8-year-old jacked on pure Colombian marching powder just to drive it. With large tires and a short wheel base, it’s meant to negotiate between large numbers of similar vehicles, jockeying for position as they run like hell toward a finish line that never seems to appear. I’ve been driving it in my head, building it bit by bit on the way to work each morning. It makes a high pitch whine, and it can be refueled on the fly. Does that make sense?)

28OCT07 – Bourbon Street, New Orleans. Sitting in a derelict doorway hunched over my journal, the ink pen in my hand doing a furious little St Vitus dance in an attempt to keep up. It would seem that the Big Easy has returned home. The sights, the smells, the sounds. All of it. I’ve seen very little proof of the Flood. Walking along this ancient avenue is like writing out a shopping list for a Good Time. It’s all here; music, drinks, laughter, good food, bright colors, and the wall-to-wall promise of sex. But going grocery shopping when you’ve already eaten makes all of these seem like an impulse purchase, mints and magazines at the register. Love has finally found me, and I walk peacefully at the side of my lion.

Signs of this city’s age are everywhere, but what seems ancient to us is but infancy to Western Europeans. I scoured the Voodoo stores looking for something different, but found nothing that caught my eye, nothing one-of-a-kind. And who’s left to believe in Voodoo when we’ve got WiFi and cell phones? All of science has its backwoods roots in redneck magic, like the MIT grad student who returns home to the hollers of West Virginia from whence he came. Eat the pies, meet the nephews, pay your respects and get to the airport on time, back to this century as fast as humanly fucking possible. So I skipped on the plastic trinkets for tonight, placeholders for a greater emotion. And besides, when the hell would I wear a t-shirt that read ‘Fuck you, you fucking fuck – New Orleans’? A state dinner, perhaps.

The streets are crawling with a spectrum of spectators. In a way, they’re like boat riders. The young bow riders sit way in the front, their face full into the swamp and spray, searching for a cheap thrill. Brash bold ignorance is bliss to those who’d trade every clean pore on their bodies for the promise of a good time, determined to live each night as though it were the Last of the Fun.

Then there’s the well-heeled convention attendees, sitting safe amidships; the type of person who’d send their food back at a fine restaurant in order to impress a client. They make idle talk about this and that as they stride carefully down the middle of the street, avoiding the barkers but peering carefully in through the doorways. Their gold-ringed fingers trail the water in search of something shocking, something dirty, something unbelievable. They seek scandalous cannon fodder for the water cooler face-off come Monday morning, stories of decadence designed to make their corn-fed co-workers shake their heads in disbelief. “Can you imagine? What are these people thinking? What ever happened to Jesus?”

Far and beyond, the strangest animal in the zoo is the Roman, the streetlight drunk, the burned out local, stumbling from place to place with one hand out for spare change and nothing to offer in return but a slurred grin and a funny story, a ragtag figure not entirely certain of his own name. When the Hopefuls and the Well-Heeled retire to their air conditioned rooms and busy schedules, the Roman will still be here, stumbling down these beer-stained cobblestone streets with a few crumpled bills in his hand, his synapses half-firing like an old engine.

Still, it’s no place to judge. People have always sought distraction from the drudgery of the Big Machine, and Bourbon Street is where you find it.

31OCT07 – Lobby of the Marriott, Canal Street, New Orleans. No matter what I do, where I go, I tend to dress as though something were going to happen. Bring a camera, bring pen and paper. Bring a bottle of water, some mints, a cutting and prying tool of some kind. Carry a lighter at home, matches when I fly. Tie my shoes tightly, check my pockets. Be aware of my surroundings, maintain situational awareness. Keep a clean bandana in my right hip pocket, fully charged cell phone in my left, wallet in my right. Take only what I need, leave the rest with my tickets and my passport hidden in my hotel room, the door locked. My clothes are clean, but non-descript. My shoes fit most occasions; comfortable enough to walk in and sturdy enough if I have to run. I am the product of a lifetime spent watching spy thrillers. Remember to have a good time, but keep your head screwed on tight…

Tonight is no exception. Halloween on Bourbon Street – I’m bringing my camera, and emptying my bag except for the basics: flashlight, blue and red lenses, a small First-aid kit, a black towel to cushion the camera (it’s a big universe – you’ve got to know where your towel is!) pens, and my notebook. Wear the bag high on my body, easy to protect in the crowd. Cell phone in the pouch across my chest, so I can feel the vibration of an incoming call like a tiny heart attack.

The air in the lobby is civilized – it’s only 6:45. By 10 or 11 p.m., this place will be a heaving madhouse of a drunken freak show. I want to be in a position to harvest the data, and document everything. I should look into getting a balcony, and in hindsight, I should have brought the Nikon. Just didn’t feel like carrying all the extra gear.

It’s funny how we see the same people over and over throughout our lives. Across the lobby, I can see a woman I thought I worked with back in 1989, my first job at a movie theater on the east side of Columbus. Kathy Something? I’m not sure, but I know she was dating some scrawny little fuck named Billy. That’s all I remember, and even that I’m not sure about. I suppose if I walked over, the mirage would fade away and I’d look bit of a stalker trying to re-acquaint myself with a perfect stranger. Time passes, memories shift, and you can never step twice in the same river. You can never go home again – you have to call it something else.
I walked the length of Bourbon Street about eight times that night, my head moving from side to side in search of Weird, or anything that caught my eye. My Fuji was too slow to catch the true light, and again, I kicked myself for not packing my Nikon; it’s a faster camera, takes better images, and comes with more options. Either way, there was too much to see, and no end in sight.

There were masks and costumes representing every color, sexual appetite, and television and movie personality; an endless throng of inebriation, novelty, originality, magic, blood and horror. Sheep fuckers to the right of me, dirty nurses to the left, pregnant nuns on the balcony, and werewolves in the gutter.

Professional wrestlers clogged the sidewalk taking pictures of Mexican wrestlers taking pictures of the Jedi knight in the crosswalk. I posed with a deceased Gonzo journalist on one street corner, and photographed zombie cheerleaders on the next.

I saw wizards falling from their barstools, Gypsy queens smiling back at me, breakfast cereals throwing beads to Crayons on the prowl, fresh fruit kissing, giant bongs laughing, and I stepped aside just in time to avoid a getting run over by a fleet of leather men roaring past on brightly lit Harleys, the growl of their engines rattling windows for blocks around. I spoke to demons, and watched a group of men dressed as housewives screaming for topless cowboys who danced for bottomless businessmen who drank Martini’s, while the Pope served Hand Grenades.

I was nearly run over by horse-mounted patrolmen. There was a sudden sensation of something large and ominous breathing down my neck, and I turned around just in time to see this giant fucking beast taking yet another step toward me, with no where to duck, hide or run to. Too fast, even to get a shot. I gave money to and photographed performing robots, southern belles, tap-dancing children, dead musicians, Norse gods smoking cigarettes, and was personally flipped off by the vice-president. I watched a tall, thin drink of a girl dressed as Rainbow Brite draw hungry stares from every wild-eyed dyke who passed her.

It seemed that there was always a bigger wave just behind the next one, and soon I lost track of the individual. It was like watching the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Fox News, CNN, HBO and QVC all together on one perfect plasma screen, each channel howling for attention, battling for supremacy of your eyes and ears, and it didn’t stop till 4 a.m. I, however, called it quits at 11:45, too tired to walk any further, and too goddamn over-stimulated to care.

01NOV07 – Mothers Restaurant, 401 Poydras St., La., a diner steeped in tradition. The menu on the wall dating back to 1944 and signed by the owner recalls a time when black coffee was black coffee, and it only cost you a nickel a cup. Basic eats; good food. I had a Creole shrimp omelet with a side of grits, a cup of strong black coffee, and a piece of pecan pie.

Later that day, my companions and I found Café Du Monde, which promises and delivers café au lait and fresh bignettes twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The thought that you can have fresh elephant ears and a strong coffee at any hour of the day or night is a comforting thought, and I entertained the thought of a three-month stay, living in a tiny apartment somewhere in the French Quarter with only the contents of my suitcase to comfort me as I documented the stories of a handful of these tragic Romans. Incidentally, I’ve asked my cab driver, the doorman at my hotel and a number of street vendors what it was like during Katrina, but they all told me that they came later.

I spent my last day in New Orleans walking the streets with a pocket full of dollar bills to give to the street performers in exchange for a good picture.

P.S. They serve soul food in the departure lounge.

TWM

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