ropped my bags on Dave's hardwood floor, glanced around the living room and told him everything still looked the same. He said, It should, no one's been over since you came last Mardi Gras. Walking into Dave's apartment is like walking into my apartment, everything's black—the bookshelves, the bedsheets, the futon sofa, the dishes—but Dave has way more albums and books and videos. In his walk-in closet hangs one suit, maybe eight shirts, a half dozen pants, the rest of the closet is full of 45s and VHS tapes. Dave is the closest thing I have to a doppelganger—tall, skinny, long hair, middle aged, black leather blazer and peg-legged Levi's and Beatles boots, music collector, worked in record stores all over the country, never answers the phone and doesn't have a cell, political news junkie, Hong Kong film buff, very tidy but not overly clean, certain organizational habits ingrained by years of filing albums. We both like black western shirts and I unzipped my bag and handed him a long sleeved Wrangler my brother gave me for Christmas and said, See if this fits you better than me. It did and I told him it was his.
hen Dave lived on Esplanade we used to eat at Mona's on Frenchman and I asked him if Mona's Uptown was any good and he said, I don't know, I haven't been there. Well I'm buying, let's go, you want to walk over there? Hell no, let's drive. We climbed in the boxy old geezer Buick sedan Dave's dad left him and drove to Mona's and both ordered lamb. Afterward we cruised down Magazine Street which seem to have more shops open this year. Back at Dave's I connected my laptop to the spotty citywide Earthlink wi-fi and we drank Guinness and watched YouTube until late then went to sleep.
ave lives Uptown a few blocks from St. Charles heading away from the river—north and south don't mean much in a town that curves around a bend, everything heads toward or away from the river, either toward the Uptown side of Canal or toward the French Quarter side. His neighborhood could charitably be called the edge of the Garden District, bordering Central City, whiter and more affluent heading toward St. Charles and blacker and poorer away from it, nice large homes giving way to small wood frame houses leaning sideways, tilted at precarious angles—one good earthquake would level them—some well kept and some rundown, a few empty lots and weathered ruins of abandoned buildings, sidewalks cracked and buckled from roots of ancient trees jutting the concrete blocks upward like ski jumps, where there are sidewalks—some streets are asphalt strips bordered by dirt or gravel or oyster shells and grass yards. Dave's apartment is in a two story house subdivided into four units, the ground floor—sort of an aboveground basement—has two apartments, and stairs climb from the front yard to the front porch on the second story. Dave's place claims the front door, the other second floor neighbors enter their place on the side of the house. Dave is the only white person in the building. The neighbors sharing his wall rocked the house last Mardi Gras, partying every night until daybreak, but eventually moved and the new tenants were quiet, no problem falling asleep this year.
ednesday afternoon drove to Whole Foods and blew a hundred bucks on groceries. There's a Whole Foods three blocks from my place in San Francisco and another one two blocks from work, and having one in New Orleans is a comfort. Unloaded the groceries back at Dave's and that was the last time he drove while I was there, parking in the Quarter is expensive and he commutes on the streetcar, which recently resumed running the entire length of St. Charles for the first time since Katrina. Poured some cereal and asked Dave, Should I use up the rest of your milk before I open mine? He said, Is yours organic? Looked at the label, No it's from Smith Creamery, a small Louisiana dairy farm that doesn't homogenize and slow pasteurizes its milk at low temperature so it tastes extra creamy. Lumps of cream came out and I told Dave, Fuck your milk.
alked down Napoleon to Magazine Street, bought a striped black and white shirt at Funky Monkey, discovered La Divina Gelateria which makes its own gelato from fresh local ingredients, bought a skinny black tie with white piano keys at Buffalo Exchange for five bucks, walked all the way down to Jim Russell's Records, a funky rundown music store that was around when I lived in New Orleans twenty years ago, and thought about Matt and Primo and other soul DJs in San Francisco who pay a pretty penny for singles at Rooky Ricardo's on Haight Street and would flip if they saw the walls of cheap 45s gathering dust at Jim Russell's. The sun went down, the wind grew cold, walked back to Dave's and hung out until after 9, put on my leather jacket and black jeans and since there were no parades down St. Charles rode the streetcar over to the French Quarter for the first time since Katrina—Katrina bisects time in New Orleans the way Canal Street divides neighborhoods.
rom Canal walked down Chartres to the Chart Room where I figured I would find Freeman and I did. Grabbed him by the shoulders from behind and said in a deep voice, Hold it right there buddy. Freeman looked around and gave me a bear hug. Freeman was so thin last year I almost didn't recognize him, but appeared to have been laying off the exercise bike and looked better. When did you get in? Last night, right now I'm on my way over to the Hi Ho to see the Zydepunks, you heard of 'em? No, but hell, I'll go with you.
reeman paid his tab, said goodbye to his drinking buddies and we flagged a cab and rode through the Quarter, past Esplanade and up Elysian Fields to the Hi Ho Lounge, a neighborhood dive at the corner of St. Claude and Marigny. Paid Freeman's way in, the doorman handed me two wristbands, and Freeman was so drunk I put his on for him. Inside a wood bar ran down one side and on the other sat booths and a go go dancing cage on the floor in front of the stage in the rear. Freeman bought me a Guinness and threw his arm around my shoulders and said, Good to see you bubba. Freeman gets affectionate with a few drinks in him. A band called Pariah Beat—guitar, fiddle, accordion, bass and drums—was onstage and had a cute girl bass player.
fter a few songs Freeman said he needed to get a taco or something. Freeman needs to keep eating in order to keep drinking, but we weren't in the Quarter and that meant walking around the neighborhood in search of food and we just got there so I told him to hang on for a little while I checked out the band. We moved closer to the stage and Freeman leaned back against a support pillar that ran from floor to ceiling and closed his eyes. I've seen him pass out on the bar for a while then wake up and keep drinking, but I hadn't seen him do it standing up before and was worried he'd keel over so I stayed next to him.
he audience was a working class Ninth Ward bohemian art punk goth crowd like you would find at Nightbreak or Zeitgeist in San Francisco before the dotcom boom hit and rents went through the roof and repopulated the city with postsuburban kids in Pumas and mod haircuts and gradient tint sunglasses all with jobs at CNET and Yahoo. New Orleans may be the last bastion of bohemia in America, where roots music and folk art are celebrated and walking around in expensive threads is like wearing a neon sign that says ROB ME, forcing fashion to take an antistatus-conscious turn toward edgy low rent fusions of punk and carnival and hippie and goth and formalwear from bygone centuries. A girl with blond dreads and a pierced nose danced next to me spinning her black beaded skirt up in the air and casting friendly glances in my direction. Saw a girl at the bar—dark mascara and wavy black hair and black jeans with horizontal silver zippers across the thighs and knees—look my way a few times but when I caught her eye she turned away or talked to her girlfriend sitting on top of the bar next to her.
reeman was still propped against the post with his eyes closed, every few minutes I'd grab his shoulder and yell, How you doin' Freeman? and he'd say ok so I figured I could leave without him falling over. After the band finished I ran into the bass player outside and told her I liked her band. Reached in my pocket and took out a CD and asked if she had ever heard Jelly Roll Morton. She said, Yeah, man, and I said I sorted through his 1938 Library of Congress recordings and made a mix CD of Jelly's dirtiest songs—turn of the century Storyville whorehouse tunes so obscene they weren't released for over fifty years—and Jelly telling stories about life in New Orleans back then, the brothels and honky tonks and neighborhood parades and how people dressed. Handed the CD to her and said, This is for you, I ran off a bunch of these as Mardi Gras favors. She smiled and said, Sweet, thanks a lot. Asked her where her band was from and she said Vermont. Have you guys been to New Orleans before? No, this is our first time. What do you think of it? Oh it's awesome. Are you sticking around for Mardi Gras? No, we're touring, we have a gig somewhere else. Oh man, cancel it, you can't miss Mardi Gras day, you've never seen anything like it. She laughed and said she wished she could, but she'd be back some day. She said, It was nice meeting you, thanks for the CD. Told her it was my pleasure and we went inside where she showed it to her bandmates and pointed in my direction.
reeman was still plastered against the pillar when the Zydepunks came on sporting not one but two accordion players along with fiddle, bass and drums, sounding like a cross between the Pogues, zydeco, and a thrash band. Poked Freeman and asked if he needed to go eat and without opening his eyes he said, Naw man I'm checking out the band. Every few minutes, eyes still shut, Freeman would raise his hand and grope around in the air, reaching for god knows what. Once he grabbed onto a guy standing in front of him who looked back to find Freeman with his eyes closed clutching him by shoulder and I reached over and took Freeman's hand and pushed it down to his side.
fter the Zydepunks finished I wanted to stay for the brass band up next, when the real dancing would start, but figured I better get food into Freeman and yelled in his ear, Let's get out of here, and he opened his eyes and said ok and we headed for the door. Passing the girl at the bar I asked her if I would find bare skin under that zipper over her knee and without a word her girlfriend reached over and unzipped it for me and flesh was indeed displayed which I touched with my finger and she didn't seem too overjoyed until I laid a Jelly Roll Morton CD on her and then she broke a smile and said, Cool, thanks. Girls like presents and I'm not above bribing them into saying hello to me.
sked the doorman if there was food around, he asked if it was after midnight and I said yeah and he said the only place open was a po boy shop on the corner of Elysian Fields. Freeman and I walked there and were the only white people in the place. An elderly black woman took Freeman's order and we sat down at a table. Freeman said he wanted to leave New Orleans and live somewhere else. Like where? I asked and he said New Zealand. Fifteen minutes later all the customers there when we arrived were gone, and a few more had come in after us, ordered, and split with their food. Told Freeman his order was taking a hella long time, and he said, That's the way it is down here since Katrina, if it's not ready in another few minutes I'm gonna leave without it. Couldn't tell if we were being messed with because we were white but Freeman thought so. What goes around comes around, for many decades racist New Orleanians have made life so miserable for blacks that some of them take advantage of the opportunity to send some hate back the other way. Walking up Canal once on Martin Luther King Jr. Day I saw a gang of black teenagers erupt from the Iberville housing projects chanting WHITES OFF CANAL STREET! and they stomped down the sidewalk beating up white folks in their path. Cops arrived on horseback swinging batons and busting heads, one more in a long line of race riots in New Orleans stretching back for centuries. Jelly Roll Morton talks on his Library Of Congress recordings about a race riot started by a guy named Robert Charles in 1900 that raged for days and only ended when a prominent white ammunition dealer threatened to arm the local black populace if white people didn't stop killing them. In the South being Pollyannaish about race can be hazardous to your health, even with good intentions it's hard to keep it in perspective, to separate prudence from prejudice, when shit goes down there's no choosing sides, you don't get to say Hey wait, my name is James Brown, I'm a blues singer, I love black people—bonk! that bottle is still gonna bounce off your head.
reeman's po boy arrived eventually, he gave me part, we ate then walked down a deserted Elysian Fields, cut over to Frenchmen, down Decatur to Molly's which was nearly empty. Ordered a round and I asked if I could borrow keys to his place in the Quarter and crash there Monday night so I could get an early start Mardi Gras and he said sure. Freeman was up for another round but I decided to head back to Dave's, although I wanted to go back to the Hi Ho but the brass band would've been about over by the time I got there. Flagged a cab on Decatur and rode Uptown to Dave's and fell asleep.
oke up around noon, ate and walked down to Magazine for gelato, then hopped the Magazine bus to the Quarter. Bought a black Robin/Kato style leather mask with a low brow to fit under the brim of my top hat which I wore the entire plane ride because it would've been crushed in my bag—no wonder society folks had to lug around dozens of steamer trunks. Wandered around antique shops on Royal looking for a French walking stick with a harmonica in the handle, over to Decatur where I bought black Lip Service jeans that laced up the side at a goth shop called Wicked Orleans, and at a trendy teenybopper shop I bought a hoodie. I don't usually wear hoodies but it was black with silver zippered pockets and snap lapels like a motorcycle jacket so I had to get it.
alked down Decatur to the Music Factory where Dave and Freeman were at work. The Krewe of Muses parade that night had been cancelled due to an impending thunderstorm and after saying hey to Dave and Freeman I walked a block over to Canal Place since I hadn't been inside in years. Landmark Theaters still occupied the top floor and the mens department of Sak's was a joke compared to the five story Sak's mens store in San Francisco. When I walked out of the mall a heavy rain was pouring from booming black thunderclouds and jagged flashes of lightning illuminated sheets of water whipping across the street. Opened my umbrella and hopscotched over miniature rivers flooding the streets on my way back to the Music Factory. The roof of the store's five story building still had broken skylights covered with blue FEMA tarps after Katrina and large barrels positioned underneath them to catch water when it rained.
ave was off work in an hour and I went next door to Olivier's for dinner. No one in the place and I sat by a window and ordered crawfish étouffée and watched the rain. Olivier's Creole cuisine is tasty but I got a thimbleful of étouffée over a tiny dollop of rice and was bugged at still being hungry after spending thirty bucks. The rain stopped by the time Dave locked up the store and we walked over to Canal to wait on St. Charles for the streetcar which arrived and rattled us back to Dave's where I watched a Canadian documentary on DVD called Legendary Sin Cities about the sexual decadence and libertinism of Berlin, Paris and Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s.
bout 10 threw on my leopard print jeans, top hat and tail coat, filled my hip flask with bourbon from Dave's bottle of Woodford Reserve and called United Cab. Called back every fifteen minutes until a taxi arrived forty-five minutes later and drove me down St. Charles to a block before Lee Circle where I pointed at a red lantern hanging out front of a building down Clio Street. The driver hung a U turn and dropped me on St Charles and I walked down Clio to the Big Top Gallery to catch a burlesque show by the Storyville Starlettes. Small audience inside, I settled into the back row and watched two girls seated at a table onstage wearing lingerie and playing strip poker to a Tom Waits song—click on the picture below to see the routine videotaped at the Big Top a couple of years ago.
he girl on the right, introduced as Madame Mystere, floored me—long wavy brown hair, svelte legs and a tantalizingly round derriere that gave way to a small waist and a wonderfully full bosom for such a thin dish. Her comely face was perched atop a long slender neck, playfully smiling red lips sandwiched between round apple cheeks, arched eyebrows cocked mischievously over twinkling brown eyes, naughty but nice, like the demure bespectacled hair-in-a-bun bookstore clerk in a Humphrey Bogart movie whose hair falls to her shoulders as she takes off her glasses and laughs and takes a bottle of whiskey from under the counter, suddenly transformed into the most impossibly kittenish sexpot you ever saw.
ought a drink at the bar during intermission three acts later and relieved myself in the unisex bathroom. The Big Top has the only unisex bathroom I can recall using, and I don't know what girls think about it, but listening to them pee and talk to each other as they brush their hair and fix their makeup is a kick. During the break I sat down next to a sharp looking gal—shoulder length black hair, tight black sweater, black pumps, black stockings and a leopard print skirt—as she talked with her friend, a cute blond with a short bob, and placed my leg close to hers and said, Birds of a feather or cats of a spot or something like that. She looked down at our matching ensembles and then smiled and said, Indeed. Her name was Sam, a Midwesterner transplanted to New Orleans a few years back and now an actress rehearsing for a role in a local theater production. She said she used to do burlesque around town, and looked like she'd be at home twirling a tassel or two. We chatted for a few minutes and she seemed tickled by me somehow and kept glancing sideways at me with an amused smile when she resumed talking to her friend.
he show continued with skits and strip teases, the emcee was entertaining, the Storyville Starlettes all cute and fun and curvaceous, and though no one broke Madame Mystere's spell over me, one good looking gal with bangs, big dimples and colorful tattoos across her chest and arms named Roulette Rose took the prize for the most unabashedly lascivious hip grinding of the evening. Afterward I was standing by myself when she came over and thanked me for coming to the show. I said, It was my pleasure, you certainly know how to shake your groove thang, and twirled my hips in a circle to show I knew what I was talking about. Why thank you, she said. I asked her name and she said Bonny and asked mine and I said James. Said I was from San Francisco and told her about the burlesque scene there and a club called Little Minsky's at a bar on Haight Street. Gave her a Jelly Roll Morton CD and asked if there was anything going on around town I should know about, and she said the Saturn Bar had a mod 60s dance night and tomorrow night Quintron was playing at Spellcaster. Said I hadn't seen Quintron in years and asked what Spellcaster was. She said it was Quintron's club on St. Claude across from the Saturn Bar. That sounds like fun, what are you up to now? She said she was going over to the Hi Ho Lounge and I said I was there the night before and was heading that way and asked if I could hop a ride and she said her boyfriend was driving and I said, Okay, cool, nice meeting you.
pied Madame Mystere by the stage in civilian clothes sans makeup, looking fresh faced and fetching. Walked over and told her she was marvelous. She thanked me and I asked her name and she said Marcia and I said mine was James. Told her I used to be a go go dancer and she said, Oh really? and I said, Yep, at a club in San Francisco called Bondage A Go Go, I wore leather hot pants and fishnets and motorcycle boots and danced in a cage. No kidding, she said with a laugh and I said, I'm a really good dancer and sort of an exhibitionist, and she said, Me too. Gave her a Jelly Roll CD and she seemed delighted with it. She said, I should give you some money for it, and I said, Oh no that's ok, and she said, Wait, and ran backstage and came back with a five dollar bill and a tiny yellow plastic chicken about an inch long. She handed me the five but I refused it and she said, Well then take this, and put the miniature chicken in my hand and I laughed and said, Ok the chicken I'll take, thank you. Keep it next to your heart, she told me and I said I would. Told her about the burlesque scene in San Francisco, she was so nice, sweet and friendly and I talked with her until I couldn't politely prolong the conversation any longer and said it had a been wonderful meeting her, and she said, I'm sure I'll see you around again before you leave, and she smiled and shook my hand and I said, I hope so.
alked through Lee Circle after leaving the Big Top, struck by my genial reception from Sam and Bonny and Marcia. I like burlesque, it's fun to put on sharp clothes and go have a drink and watch good looking gals disrobe while performing whimsical dance routines and hit up the guys in the band for a gig. But the Storyville Starlettes were much friendlier than most burlesque dancers in San Francisco, where the audience isn't a bohemian art punk carnival crowd like in New Orleans but mostly uptight retro fashion snobs, skeptical of life outside of their circle of trendy scenester acquaintances. Give me New Orleans where drinking and dancing and grooving to music and celebrating in outlandish costumes are not just the province of underground club kids but revered intergenerational rites that bond young and old, where folks don't trip about unfamiliar faces or inelegant attire, where you're not guilty until proven a boor, where self-consciousness gets kicked to the curb like an empty whiskey bottle, and you can be yourself.
cab came around the bend and I flagged it. The driver was a young black kid who looked at my top hat and tails and asked if there was a Mardi Gras ball around somewhere. Said I'd been at a burlesque show and he didn't know what that was so I tried explaining it, you know, old school strippers, vaudeville, fan dances, comedy routines, stuff like that but he had no idea what I was talking about. Dropped me at Canal, walked to the Chart Room, no Freeman, headed to the other end of Decatur, bars completely empty, same deal on Frenchmen Street, a few days until Mardi Gras and the place was dead. Remembered there was an 80s dance club at One Eyed Jacks so I walked back through a dark and deserted Jackson Square—footsteps echoing on the cobblestone, wind rustling through the oak trees, cathedral bells chiming, mules clopping back to the buggy stand, a steamboat blowing its whistle out on the Mississippi, if I closed my eyes it could've been another century—over to Toulouse where One Eyed Jacks was packed. Well here they all are, paid my money and went in.
he club was crowded with college kids, not out of town frat guys rampaging on spring break but locals from Loyola and UNO, hardly anyone in costume so I ditched my tailcoat and hat in a corner behind some chairs and hit the dance floor and worked up a sweat to some standard 80s hits. Spotted an awesomely cute girl dancing with friends, nearly as tall as me and thin but with hips and a booty and long straight brown hair with bangs covering her forehead, wearing jeans and sneakers and a T-shirt and when "Lets Go Crazy" by Prince came on I reached over and grabbed her by the hand and pulled her toward me without a word and she looked around and smiled and began to dance with me, bopping around with a lot of energy, twisting all the way down to the floor when I did, no suggestiveness in the way she moved, just a bouncy happy all American kid. I shouted over the music, My name is James what's yours? and she said Erica and when the song ended I asked if she lived in New Orleans and she said she attended Loyola and I told her I was from San Francisco and said, Wait I have a present for you, and ran over to my coat and grabbed my Valentine's Day mix CD and gave it to her and said, Here this is for you, it's all of Prince's sexiest songs on one CD, and she seemed both pleased and uncertain about this turn of events, so I thanked her for dancing with me and watched her go back to her friends.
anced by myself for an hour or two, occasionally rendezvousing with the flask in my coat pocket, a couple of girls came over and danced with me but I wasn't inspired to approach anyone besides the tall brown haired girl who I saw across the club dancing with one good looking college guy after another. Eventually the crowd began to thin out, my flask ran dry, about 3 in the morning I grabbed my coat and hat and walked out of the bar and saw Erica and a girlfriend coming up the street. I said, It was nice meeting you, Erica, for my money you were the prettiest girl in the place, and her friend went Aaaawwww and Erica smiled and seemed embarrassed and said thanks but sort of kept her distance so I said goodbye and hopped a cab back to Dave's thinking that dirty Prince songs probably weren't the best way of introducing oneself, but decided if a girl isn't jazzed by dirty Prince songs then she's probably not the girl for me.
oke up after noon, ate, refilled my flask with Woodford Reserve, donned my top hat and tailcoat and walked down to Magazine for gelato. Stopped by the Music Exchange looking for guitar strap locks because I was parading with a Pignose amp on Monday and my shoulder strap was flimsy. Hopped the streetcar to the Quarter, jambalaya at Coop's, by then it was getting dark, wandered over to a wood paneled bar on Frenchmen called dba and checked out the Hot Club of New Orleans, a Django swing combo better than similar groups I've played with around the Bay Area, except for the time I played "Minor Swing" and "Nuages" with the Hot Club of San Francisco whose guitarist is outstanding. Listened to the band a while, they called a boozy old geezer from the audience onstage to sing and you could tell he had a good voice once, put a couple of bucks in the tip jar and requested "All Of Me" but the guitarist said they already played it.
alked to Jackson Square and found Laura assembling the Krewe Du Faye, a fairy—as in winged creatures—parade I stumbled into last year, encountering a guitarist who had been invited by Karissa, the other leader of the krewe. I was hoping to jam with him again this year, but Laura didn't know if Mike was coming. Laura, sporting blue feathers in her hair, outfitted me with a groovy pair of black fairy wings adorned with white skulls that had glowing red eyes and introduced me to a couple of drummers and a fellow playing a Hohner melodica, sort of an oversized plastic harmonica you blow into and play with a short accordion-style keyboard. The melodica player and I worked out keys and chords while more fairy revelers arrived including Karissa, in a plaid pink coat, along with her hunky Latin lover and a couple of his friends. Asked about Mike and she said he was tending bar at the musicians union that night.
fter a half hour we set off parading, drummers holding forth a second line beat while the melodica player and I blew riffs together. We strolled through Jackson Square and down Decatur and Karissa yelled at me to sing so I sang Well I'm going to New Orleans, I'm gonna go see the Mardi Gras loud as I could, like Big Joe Turner shouting from behind the bar without a microphone, lungful of air, mouthful of attitude. When we reached Esplanade the melodica player and the drummers split for a gig over in Treme and we resumed strolling, as sole music maker I blew swinging dance chords at a walking tempo. We turned on Royal, I talked with Karissa as we paraded down to St. Anne, hung a left and heading toward Jackson Square I was pressed into service singing again so I bellowed Slim Harpo in call and response with the girls Well there's new dance then blew harp as the girls answered back Well there's a new dance, And it's going around / And it's going around, singing "Shake Your Hips" all the way to the square and then over to the Moon Walk—named not after Michael Jackson but former mayor Moon Landrieu who built the boardwalk along the river—where Karissa distributed copies of her fairy blessing for this Mardi Gras and we all chanted it together.
Magic of the elements
Light of the fairies seen and unseen;
We summon thee
Through the astral forest take us
Beyond the ever-light of Luna's dream
And grant us the key
To the city of the stars
Givers of life
Upon the never-ending sky
Gods and Goddess of the Earth and Sun Bright
This New Orleans bless with your light
Let love and bliss enter here
No hate, no fear
Hear us, hear our call
This great city shall be standing tall
May its music touch each and every wall
May kindness and honesty here befall
May all harm that comes this way
Be turned away
Powers of beauty and might
Forever keep us in your sight
With eternal warmth as the candles burn
Peacefully shall the wheel of seasons turn
e took pictures until certain fairy bladders could hold out no longer then set off for Pirates Alley Cafe. Walking by the mule and buggy stand a trio of punky street urchins playing beat up instruments caught my ear with a creaky rendition of "Hey Good Lookin" and I stopped and asked an adorable short ragamuffin of a girl playing mandolin, short blonde hair poking out beneath her wool cap, what key they were in and she smiled at me and said G. Pulled out a C harmonica—crossharp—and joined in, the two guys playing guitar didn't seem too thrilled but the girl kept her eyes on me on the whole time and when the song ended she said, That was great, play some more with us, and she was so cute I almost did but said I was on my way to meet some friends and asked if they were going to be around all Mardi Gras and she said yeah and I said, I'm sure I'll see you guys again, and she stared me in the eyes and said, I hope so, and smiled. Walking down one side of the cathedral I noticed Pirates Alley didn't live up to its other sobriquet, Piss Alley. Boy, what a slow Mardi Gras.
ll fairies had regrouped at the cafe, ordered drinks and queued up for the bathroom—tip for tourists—one of the nicer single occupant restrooms to be found in the Quarter. Three of the girls were from Mississippi and fun to talk to, absinthe was drunk, fruit and cheese eaten, told Laura I liked the song she sang on her myspace page and gave her a Jelly Roll CD and she said one of the Mississippi girls was a big Jelly Roll Morton fan and I gave her one too and she knew where the whereabouts in New Orleans of the house Jelly lived in. After a couple of drinks made my goodbyes and handed my wings back to Laura who told me to keep them.
ound a cab and told the driver St. Claude and Clouet. He was a Middle Easterner who warned me to be careful when he let me out because it was bad neighborhood. I used to stay at Harold's on Louisa Street when I visited and walked around the Bywater at all hours and never had a problem, although I heard stories and walking across the railroad tracks at night was always creepy. Hopped out across from the Saturn Bar and looked around for Spellcaster Lodge, saw costumed revelers going into a house decorated with music notes through a street door and figured that must be it, but the door was locked by the time I reached it, and a couple walked up behind me and told me to follow them and we walked around one side of the building to the backyard where a guy was charging admission. The ground floor of the house had been converted into a nightclub you entered from the patio in back, passing through a cluttered utility porch with a washer and dryer behind which I stashed my fairy wings.
A small doorway led inside to a long narrow room with a bar and bathrooms and walls decorated with campy nautical stuff like fishing nets and round brass submarine windows with water bubbling behind the glass. Another small door at the other end opened into a larger room with aqua walls topped by little peaked ocean waves that ringed the room just below the ceiling as if the place were underwater, which it was after Katrina hit. Wood and glass cabinets displayed figurines made from pine cones and upholstered aqua benchseats vibrated with built-in woofers, in one corner sat a big stage and in another a sound booth and next to that Quintron's performing rig—keyboards and weird bulky homemade noise gadgets assembled facing a seat situated behind a radiator grill from a car and headlights and tires and a bumper with a Louisiana license plate that said QUINTRON all assembled to look like the front end of a Lincoln sawed in half and stuffed with primitive electronic synthesizers.
fat guy with glasses and a beard was onstage singing sort of and playing loud distorted noise guitar. Almost midnight and lots of people there, almost everyone in some sort of costume, mostly young kids, a few drag queens. A girl in a 50s cocktail dress joined the guy onstage and sang a couple of tunes, afterward I talked to her and learned she just moved there from San Francisco where she had been couch surfing the Tenderloin, the type of penniless urban slacker that can't afford San Francisco anymore. She asked how I found the place and I said a stripper told me about it and I didn't know a soul there. That's cool, she said, you're not caught up in all the local drama, and I said, Well a little drama with the right person might be alright, and she laughed and said, So mingle, mingle. I laughed and said, Ok, see you, and I mingled, but mostly with my flask.
ext up was a guitar band from New York City that took the stage wearing matching red band jackets and a wacky assortment of hats. Watched them for a while and then went outside for air and then went back in and watched the band and went outside again, digging the scene until the place was packed shoulder to shoulder and navigating from the stage through the two narrow doors at either end of the bar and outside to the patio became a contact sport that took a long time. Talked to Quintron and told him I hadn't seen him perform since I caught him many years ago at a warehouse in the Bywater called the Pussycat Caverns. Three girls who drove over from Dallas and all had the exact same haircut handed me a cellphone and asked me to take a picture of them. Eventually my flask ran dry and I was going to have to wade through mobs of people, wait in a long line and blow lots of dough if I wanted some cheap booze. The crush of bodies and lack of exits made me claustrophobic and I decided to get out of there for a while, retrieved my fairy wings and split, intending to hang out across the street at the Saturn Bar then go back to catch Quintron's set and dance, but when I walked out to St. Claude a taxi pulled up and disgorged a couple of girls and since it was right in front of me, on the spur of the moment I hopped in and headed back to Dave's. We were all the way to Claiborne when I saw the clock on the dashboard said 2:30 and thought it's Mardi Gras, I should have stayed longer, I can sleep some other week, oh well, got home and passed out.
arades ran down St. Charles all Saturday afternoon and evening, after waking up I walked to Magazine, darting between floats along the way, ate a quesadilla at Juan's Flying Burrito and got gelato. Afterward watched the parade, milling about amidst a sparse crowd of college kids and families ranging from toddlers to grandparents, didn't catch any beads because I was standing by myself, not yelling or waving my hands, not near a group of people and no one noticed me, which struck me as a metaphor for my life sometimes.
ave turned on the news when he got home, the lead story was about five people wounded by gunshots on Canal Street that night after Endymion, the third shooting along a parade route in four days, following a guy on St. Charles who was shot in the arm by a man he was arguing with on Friday, and a guest at a Holiday Inn in the Quarter who was hit in the head by a bullet fired by someone in an argument outside on the street on Wednesday. I told Dave that San Francisco had banned last year's Halloween celebration in the Castro after nine people were wounded by gunfire the year before, and people wrote letters to the editor of the newspaper to complain, pointing out that New Orleans doesn't cancel Mardi Gras just because a few people get shot every year.
it the Quarter that night and hung around Frenchmen, sat outside on the window ledge of the Spotted Cat and listened to the Jazz Vipers playing inside, another Django swing combo that included two guys from the Hot Club the night before. Pulled out my bag of harmonicas and serenaded passersby by playing along with the songs in major keys, no sharp or flat or minor harps on me. Ran into a friend of Harold's who once owned a jewelry store in the Quarter, I'd hung out on the balcony over his shop on Fat Tuesday quite a few times, said hello and asked what happened to his store and he launched into a vehement denunciation of his ex-wife and a lengthy account of how she had taken him to the cleaners, and said now he was renting an apartment from Harold and avoiding generating income as much as possible. When the band took a break I talked to one of the guitarists and asked him how many of these swing combos were playing around town besides the Hot Club and the Jazz Vipers and Vavavoom and he said that was about it, except for some punk buskers that weren't very good.
fter their last set I wandered down Decatur and into Molly's and found Erica at the bar talking to a friend. I tapped her on the shoulder and said hi, and she turned around and seemed surprised and not unhappy to see me. Slid onto the stool next to them and ordered a drink, and Erica introduced me to her friend, a pretty black girl with glasses named Jeannie. Asked if they went to college together and they said yeah and I asked them what they were majoring in, and her friend said she was an actress and a theater major and Erica said she was a creative writing major. No kidding, I said, you're a writer? and she said yeah. Told her I majored in creative writing at UC San Diego which had a progressive writing department big on modernist/postmodern criticism and experimental avant-guarde writing, language poetics and stuff like that, and that I published my own handmade literary magazine and hung out at parties with Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsburg.
sked Erica if she was a poet or a prose writer and she said prose, asked if she wrote more in first or third person and she said third and her professors gave her a hard time because she liked writing in the voice of a male narrator, which made me curious to read some of her stuff to see how well she pulled it off. You can't judge a book by its cover, years ago a teenager came over to me at a dance club and told me I was a good dancer and introduced herself as Dania, and we became friends and she told me she was an artist and went to the Art Institute, and I've seen so many kids carrying giant portfolios around San Francisco attending art school because of affluent parents rather than artistic talent that I didn't really take her seriously until I saw some of her work, which blew me away—amazingly detailed pen and ink pictures stylistically a lot like traditional Japanese line drawings, and I pestered her for a print for years until one day after she moved to Hollywood and became an art director she mailed me a family portrait she'd drawn of herself and her mother and sister.
sked Erica if she grew up in New Orleans and she said her family was from Houston and asked if I'd been there, I said I'd ridden through it on a Greyhound bus, seemed like rings of suburbs around suburbs until you finally hit a kind of bombed out downtown, and she said that sounded about right. I asked if she planned on graduate school and she said she was more interested in publishing than academia, I said she'd have to move to New York or Los Angeles, and she said she'd rather try London or Paris, and I thought boy I hope she's got some dough.
ventually they decided to go dancing at the Whirling Dervish down the block and I asked if I could tag along and they said sure. We hit the dance floor and they danced with each other, and I danced together with the two of them but Erica seemed reluctant to leave Jeannie on her own and dance with me, so I spun off and did my own thing. Watching Erica dance reminded me a lot of Ally, a dance club pal of mine in San Francisco and the unrequited love of my life since we met last year, an adorable girl from Boston who like Erica strikes me as having not wrapped her mind around her sexuality yet, seemingly unaware that she has matured into a stunningly seductive woman with long legs that won't quit and glamorously long wavy sandy blond hair and a shy smile that's to die for, who unlike other girls so attractive doesn't calculate the hormonal havoc she wreaks when she says hello, a sincere woman with the guilelessness of an earnest kid, a devastating combination of youthful beauty and a heart of gold, and great at doing the twist. Ally and I were dancing together at a bar on Valencia Street one night when I said to her, You're the kind of girl I want to give my heart to, someone kind that I can trust to be careful and take good care of it, and she blushed and said that was the sweetest thing anyone had ever said to her, and she wasn't kidding and neither was I, certain my admiration would be received in the spirit it was intended, a perfect little moment that wasn't any more or any less than it should have been—considering I'm too old and she's dating some other guy—and it endeared her to me forever, and my heart aches every time I see her.
s I twirled around the dance floor, having fun and happily possessed by the same spirit of inebriated good will that sometimes inspires Freeman to bear hug every patron in the Chart Room, I wanted to let Erica know what a lovely kid I thought she was, and a bear hug was out of the question so for some stupid reason having to do with me drunkenly imagining that writers all think about themselves too much, on my way to the mens room I leaned over and said in her ear, I don't know what your image of yourself is, but I think you're beautiful. She didn't take flight when I returned and we danced some more until finally she said they were leaving, and I said I hoped I got to hang out with her again before I left and she told me to look for her at Molly's, I'd find her there.
fter they left I danced by myself until the sun was about to rise on Super Bowl Sunday then caught a cab on Decatur. The driver was an old white guy who started talking about the game and I didn't even know what teams were playing and he went on about whether one of the quarterbacks was the best in the league and every once in a while I'd toss out some random sports cliché like yeah well it helps when you have a good front line and he's not getting sacked all the time, and the cabbie said, You're absolutely right there, and I got out at Dave's laughing because I had no idea what I was talking about.
unday afternoon during the Super Bowl I went trashy tourist junk shopping through the French Market and down Bourbon Street, then headed back to Dave's and returned to the Quarter that night in tails and top hat to catch the Krewe De Noir goth parade and a country singer named Kitty Something Or Other at Tarantula Arms across the street from the Music Factory. The band hadn't set up at Tarantula Arms when I walked by and only a few goth kids had assembled over at Flannagan's, so I started out for the Chart Room and along the way ran into the Krewe of Eris—renegade Bywater goth art punks—reveling through the Quarter in winged insect costumes and antennaed masks and hoisting aloft on poles all sorts of bugs including a fifteen or twenty foot caterpillar thingie with flashing eyes in celebration of this year's parade theme "The Swarm."
umped in dancing and eventually wound up back at Flannagan's where Krewe De Noir came out to watch and wait for Eris to leave again so they could start their own parade. In the crowd I saw a gothish girl I met last year, slender with long brown hair and a face that reminded me of a china doll, round cheeks and cute dimples and pursed little lips smiling knowingly and merry eyes, a face that should be painted white with bright red cheeks and lips and a button on the nose. I said, Hi you probably don't remember me but I met you at Krewe Du Poüx last year, and she didn't remember me but was nice anyhow and said, Hi I'm Laura. Told her my name was James and I was visiting from San Francisco, gave her a Jelly Roll CD and a guy in the band came over and stood next to her and they sort of seemed like an item and the guy asked if he could have one too and I only had two more on me and figured he could borrow it from her, so I said I had to give them to someone I was meeting later—which was true except I didn't know who that would be aside from someone cute and female—and Laura handed the CD to him and said, Here you can borrow this one.
friend of Laura's joined us and I remembered her too, she was so similar to Laura in height and build and dress—long straight auburn hair, pierced eyebrow, big brown eyes, narrow pretty face with a quiet watchful expression—that they looked like sisters. I said, Hi I met you last year too, I'm James, and she looked quizzically at Laura and Laura shrugged and said diplomatically, I think we met him at Poüx last year, and her friend looked at me and said, Hi I'm Star. Talked to them until the band started again and I said nice meeting you then danced through the crowd as the parade wound over to Esplanade and stopped in the middle of the street.
aw Laura and Star again, Laura said they were roommates and both from Baltimore and I asked her if it was like a John Waters movie there and she said kind of. Laura said she was a yoga instructor and I said I was a paralegal by day and a musician and dancer by night. Gave Star a Jelly Roll CD and told Laura since her pal ran off with hers she could have another CD and gave her the Prince mix. NOPD showed up and herded everyone out of the street and onto the neutral ground, and Star kept looking at the cops standing behind us and said Let's move over there, they make me nervous, so we walked down the median and I told her I'd had a bad experience or two with New Orleans cops myself.
tar worked as an assistant to a veterinarian who made house calls around the city treating sick pets, and said she didn't make lots of money because his customers couldn't always pay. She had a compassionate animal person vibe and I immediately took a liking to her, and she pulled out her cellphone and showed me pictures of animals she had treated recently. I asked if she was going to the Noisician Coalition parade the next night and she said yes. If she had said no and I had thought I wouldn't see her again then I wouldn't have split, but the Krewe De Noir parade was ending at the Whirling Dervish and I wanted to go dance, so I told Star I'd see her tomorrow and said goodnight and walked to the Dervish where I found Erica and Jeannie and four of their friends at the bar and said to Erica, Hi wanna dance? She pointed at her friends and said, We might be leaving soon but if we do I'll come say goodbye.
it the dance floor for a few songs then bought a bottle of water at the bar. A goth woman on the stool next to me cigarette dangling from her mouth criticized my beverage selection by yelling, Oh come on it's Mardi Gras! Told her I had a flask in my pocket and she got angry and said, Hey I'm a bartender and I don't make any money from that, and I told her she probably made more on a three dollar bottle of water than a five dollar shot of whiskey and walked outside. Didn't see Erica anywhere and went back in and the woman at the bar glared at me and threw her lit cigarette at my feet. Danced for a half hour then left and wandered over to the Dragon's Den on Esplanade where the sign outside said klezmer band five bucks, and suddenly Erica tapped me on the shoulder from behind and said, Hey I'm sorry I didn't come say goodbye, I sort of got stampeded, and pointed at her approaching friends. That's ok, I said, are you guys going in? She said she thought so and caucused with her friends and said, Yep, see you in there? and I said yeah and they went inside.
hought again how much she reminded me of Ally, who always finds me and says goodbye before she leaves, and I stood there thinking about Ally, thinking how I wished she were there, thinking I needed to stop thinking about Ally so much, when I saw a bellydancer I met a few Fat Tuesdays ago across the street. Walked over and handed her a Jelly Roll CD and said, Hey this is for you, remember me? and she said, James Brown, how are you? Her name was Jeni and she was from New York City and had a tall stunning figure, jeans and a cowboy hat and long black wavy hair and dark almond-shaped eyes too large for her face, reminding me of a gothic waif in a Margaret Keane painting, modelesque eyes that looked exaggerated in person but photographed like dynamite.
eni said she was on her way to meet her girls and invited me along and we walked down Frenchmen to Monaghan's 13 and sitting at a table inside were four more bellydancers from NYC—Yasmine, Heather, Sira and Layla, all much shorter and curvier than Jeni. Jeni introduced me and we sat down and talked about writing—she had seen my webpage and I knew she was working on a master's degree in literature—and Jeni said she was writing a history of her family and its Italian roots in New York back through the generations.
old Jeni that New Orleans was the first city in this country that Italians immigrated to in large numbers, because of the similarity in climate to Italy, and the docks of New Orleans were one of the first places the Sicilian mafia took hold, and in the 1890s the police chief began investigating them and got gunned down on his doorstep execution-style and before dying whispered that the Dagos did it. Police indicted a group of local Italian mafia leaders but the jury was intimidated by the mob and refused to convict them, and the locals in New Orleans were enraged and a lynch mob of eight thousand people stormed the prison and murdered the suspects before they were released and roughed up a lot of other Italians as well, and it became a big international incident and there was talk of war and the city wound up paying reparations to Italy, and after that Italians avoided New Orleans and began immigrating to New York instead.
waitress brought the girls food and somehow the conversation wound its way around to Heather telling us that as a kid she grew up in a small isolated town in the central valley of California because her father had been an undercover federal agent. She said he would be gone for months at a time and they had guns all over the house. We asked if she had any idea what his job was and she said no, but she remembered that her dad told her if anyone she didn't know tried to talk to her that she shouldn't say anything and should go home right away, and one day she was walking down the road and a guy passing by asked her a question and she took off screaming through a field, and she wondered to this day what that poor guy thought.
he girls pooled their money, paid the bill and left, and out on the sidewalk Heather stood close to me and fingered my coat and asked Is this wool? I said it was polyester and told her I also had a vintage wool tailcoat but it was too heavy and warm to wear for Mardi Gras. She smoothed the fabric over my chest with her fingers and said This one is nice, and polyester gets warm too. The other girls flagged down taxis and I said goodbye to Heather and Jeni and they all piled into cabs and drove off into the night and I found another taxi and followed them.
onday I woke up, packed my bag and hopped the streetcar to the Quarter before the parades started. Stopped by the Music Factory, Freeman gave me keys to his place and I ditched my bag at his apartment, a tiny studio on Chartres down the block from the Ursuline Convent. Ate at Coop's then wandered around Decatur and Frenchmen where everything was quiet. Stopped by the Chart Room and had a round with Freeman after he got off work, then walked to the Bywater and bought ice cream at a grocery store and asked some kids out front if Krewe Du Poüx was having its shopping cart demolition derby in Architects Alley that night and they said no, they were having it in a warehouse over on St. Claude near the Industrial Canal and gave me directions.
tood on the sidewalk and ate my ice cream, trying to decide if I wanted to go. If I'd had a bicycle I would have ridden over there, but it was kind of a walk and even if I took a cab, in that neighborhood it wouldn't be easy to catch one back. I felt really out of it and realized that after partying all week I had hit the inevitable wall, but before Fat Tuesday instead of afterward as usual. On top of buying drinks in bars, I'd emptied an eight ounce flask of bourbon every night since I hit town, keeping a mellow buzz going without getting falling down drunk, and now felt slightly poisoned from the accumulation of alcohol in my system, not to mention tired from staying out until all hours of the morning, and lonesome from hanging out alone and trying to meet people and wandering in and out of bars hoping to find a friendly face. I missed running around with my buddies, but Harold had grown too eccentric and Dave pretty much stopped going out and Freeman's drinking habits were too sedentary—I enjoy a round or two at the Chart Room but I'm too restless to sit in one spot and drink to oblivion, I'd rather go watch bands and dance with girls. Dave and Freeman have little interest in women anymore, and I can dig it, I'm going to be 50 in a few years, I don't have lots of dough or look like Brad Pitt, and giving up on the dating scene would only mean deciding that the usual disappointment of hoping you appeal to strangers just ain't worth it anymore and accepting your solitude, and I think that's where Dave and Freeman are, and some days I feel like I'm right behind them, although occasionally I have one of those nights where I walk into a club and some astonishingly good looking girl comes over and says hi and throws her arms around me and we dance and I press my hips into hers and lean forward and kiss her and she kisses me back and we dance until last call when she grabs her coat and says goodbye and we hug and I don't ask for her number because if she saw me walking down the street she wouldn't give me the time of day. Those nights make me crazy.
uck it. Walked back to Freeman's and passed out on the floor for a few hours and woke up feeling a little better. Walked around the block to the Dervish where the Noisicion Coalition—a krewe I'd stumbled onto last year and later described as goth kids dressed in red and black, producing an ungodly amount of noise by pounding metal wash tubs, banging plastic water bottles mounted on poles against the pavement, and blasting sirens and bullhorns in an earsplitting cacophony that sounded like your worst nightmare of screaming ambulances and fire trucks and squad cars accompanied by drums—was gathering for a parade. Went back to Freeman's and put on a black and red checkered shirt and grabbed my battery powered amp, hoping the cheap guitar strap wouldn't slip off during the parade. Back at the Dervish the band—so to speak—fired up its strange homemade electronic noise instruments, and the percussionists—many of them cute girls—kicked in, and I plugged a plastic Shaker harmonica microphone into my Pignose and blared along. The noisemakers jumped up on the bar and I was standing on a table next to a guy playing a metal pot with drumsticks who decided to jump to another table, which flipped over when he stepped on it and the guy fell backward and on his way down smashed his head really fucking hard against the table I was standing on. Bystanders rushed to help but he pushed them away and rolled around on the floor holding his head for a few minutes and then staggered back up and into action again.
he band went outside and I asked the guy who fell if he was okay and he told me to feel the back of his head which had a giant knot. The parade started down Decatur and I marched near the front, amp hanging at my side on full volume but not as loud as I wanted.
We reached Flannagan's and everyone piled inside and blasted the place for a while then stopped for a drink. Standing outside in the street I heard someone yell my name and saw Jeni and Yasmine and Sira and Layla waving at me in the crowd and went over and said hi. The band came out and cranked up and marched over to St. Phillip and invaded One Eyed Jack's where I spotted the blond street urchin mandolin player standing out front. As I approached she said, Hi we met before, and I said, I played harmonica with you the other night, and asked her name and she said Sara. I had seen her that weekend hanging out with homeless buskers on Decatur and wondered why such a nice looking girl had thrown in with such a hardscrabble lot. Asked if she was from New Orleans, she said she'd been there several weeks and that she traveled around all over the country, staying in one city for a while then moving on to another, a wandering itinerant punk street musician. I asked where she stayed and she said wherever, she or her husband usually turned up a place, and I said, Your husband? Do you two travel together? She said yeah, she and her husband had a very unconventional relationship, and her direct, matter-of-fact interest in me and the unabashed, straightforward way she studied my face as we talked made me ponder the implications of that remark and whether she was a liberated artistic free spirit or a grifter, and I decided she sure was cute, that's what she was, and beyond that I didn't want to find out.
he band came out of the bar and I said goodbye to Sara and as we started down the street I held my amp under my chin, a couple of inches from the microphone, generating as much feedback as possible and suddenly I was twice as loud, screeching and howling, cutting through the other instruments and the metallic pounding of the drummers, and I blew the most dissonant jarring chords I could find, freed from keys and scales and melodies, who needs all that, just give me a beat and let me scream, it was a total blast to embrace feedback instead of battle it. We paraded through Jackson Square and over to the streetcar tracks by the river and then to Decatur and back to the Dervish and inside for one final eruption of noise, everyone up on the bar, and as it ended I pulled the shoulder strap over my head and one end slipped off my amp which crashed to the floor with a thud, but still worked when I turned it back on.
aid hello to Matt, one of the leaders of the parade, and thanked him for letting me march with them, and met a pretty photographer named Katya who had snapped my picture in front of Central Grocery, and as we talked she said, I have to go outside, I'm epileptic and these flashing lights are bothering me. Out front the drummers started a dance beat for the bellydancers, and I said hi to Jeni and told her I had a Valentine's present for her and gave her a Prince CD, and she said thanks but obviously wasn't thrilled by the flirtatious nature of my gesture and after that gave me the cold shoulder, making it clear with an efficient brusqueness at which exotic dancers are often practiced that I shouldn't bother her with such attention, certainly not in front of a crowd of onlookers and better looking men. The girls formed a dance circle and started doing their thing and I danced with them but when I came anywhere near Jeni she turned her back to me and moved away.
itched my coat and music gear at Freeman's then back to the Dervish to dance. Later stopped in Angeli down the block and found Yasmine and Sira and Layla and Jeni who was sitting on the lap of some young guy, and I sat down next to Yasmine who pushed her plate toward me and said, Have some of my sandwich. Took a bite and she said, No sweetie have some more, and she reached across the table and solicitously grabbed napkins for me, and we talked and I asked her about dance clubs in New York City where I've never visited, and she rested her head on my shoulder and I put my arm around her and thought how wonderful life would be with a girl to care for me every day with such regard. Eventually it was 4 in the morning and we all needed sleep before Mardi Gras dawned and I kissed Yasmine on the cheek and said goodbye and walked around the block, disappointed I hadn't seen Star at the parade, climbed the stairs to Freeman's apartment, set his alarm clock and fell asleep on the floor.
he alarm went off at 8 and I staggered up and shut it off. Ate some fruit I brought from Dave's, popped in my contacts and put on my Mardi Gras outfit—tails and top hat, black leather mask, leopard skin jeans, purple wing collar tuxedo shirt, black satin bow tie and glittery Mardi Gras vest with a purple gold and green harlequin pattern. Around 9 headed to the R Bar a block from Esplanade but didn't find a big crowd, wandered through Jackson Square which was still sleepy as well, Fat Tuesday was off to a slow start, stopped back at Freeman's and found him in his armchair watching a program about New Zealand on the Travel Channel. Asked if he was going out and he said he was going to stay home and do laundry. Felt bad for him, I don't think Freeman is too happy, lately he keeps talking about moving somewhere else—like New Zealand—but I can't see him leaving New Orleans.
atched TV with him for an hour then walked back to the R Bar where the street had come to life with costumed revelers waiting for the Krewe of Saint Anne parade to arrive from the Bywater. When I stayed with Harold we would have breakfast and drinks at whatever house the parade assembled, but if you're not a friend or neighbor of the krewe then the R Bar is a good place to wait for it. I set off down Royal in search of the parade and ran into it crossing Elysian Fields, a couple of blocks long with a brass band in the front and an assemblage of drummers toward the rear. Jumped in behind the brass band and started dancing—to me it's not Mardi Gras until I'm second lining. Paraded back over to the R Bar where everyone took a break, and a half hour later the drummers were ready to go and they led the parade into the Quarter while the brass band stayed behind to drink.
anced in the street ahead of the drummers, across Esplanade found myself parading next to a masked woman about my age with straight sandy blond hair and a nice figure, voluptuous ass squeezed into a skintight black sequined gown so long it drug the ground, bare arms and shoulders covered with dozens of lipstick kisses. Looks like somebody had a good time applying that lipstick, I said to her and she laughed and said, I have some lipstick with me if you want to add some more, but I said I would leave mustache marks. We danced along in the crowd and she wasn't with anyone, whenever I looked her way she was watching me and flashed me an inviting smile, and I decided to ask her to go have a drink when the parade ended, but right now I was too busy dancing. I suppose my love life has been lacking but I wouldn't trade the best time I ever had dancing for the best sex I ever had.
eaving through the crowd I saw a girl wearing black leather ankle boots and a Medusa wig with black rubber snakes and not one thing else except for white body paint from head to toe. She had airbrushed a black stripe across her eyes like Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner and had small pert breasts and a flat belly and a round ass and her cooch was slung way back between her thighs and I couldn't see anything but a small triangle of white painted pubic hair. She wasn't with anyone either, a naked girl parading through the French Quarter alone on Mardi Gras, and everyone checked her out with interest but no one bothered her, and at one point I was dancing behind her and she looked back over her shoulder at me a few times in a not unfriendly manner and I thought of that Candid Camera movie What Do You Say To A Naked Lady? and the only thing that came to mind was Hi I'd love to take you in my arms but you'd ruin my clothes.
aw a girl wearing a dress made of exposed rolls of 35mm film, and since I didn't have any shots of myself in my Mardi Gras outfit I handed her my camera and said, You look like you're qualified to operate this, would you take my picture? and she did. A couple of blocks from Canal the drummers turned down a side street and quit, and I looked around for the woman covered in lipstick and she was gone, I'd just seen her a block before, and I circled back down Royal but couldn't find her. I did however find the brass band which had apparently finally left the R Bar and I paraded back over to Canal a second time.
fter the St. Anne parade ended I walked down Royal and saw Star standing in the street dressed as a fairy with palm fronds for wings and paper maché ram horns in her hair. She said hi and pointed at a young guy wearing red face paint disappearing into an apartment building and asked me if I wanted to go to a party. I said sure and followed her through the gate, back to a courtyard, up some stairs and into an apartment with a balcony overhanging Royal Street. Inside on a table sat humongous bottles of gin, bourbon, rum, and vodka with ice and assorted mixers and next to that pancakes with syrup and bacon and ham and sausage. Star walked into the kitchen to talk with her friend so I headed for the balcony and as I walked through the living room a girl wearing a purple fur bikini and hat and Ugg boots got up from the sofa and handed me a joint and said, Hi I'm Denise. Out on the balcony I watched the costumed revelers and marching bands swirl around in the street below, marveling how Mardi Gras in New Orleans—aside from being America's most European street festival—is the most astonishing populist eruption of working class jubilation and civic good will, mostly spontaneous and decentralized, alcoholics in the Quarter, church-going families out in the wards, black and white, everybody loving thy neighbor, some because of religion and others because of the soul affirming qualities of great R&B music and dancing and rich food and really tying one on.
eaded back inside, on my way through the living room said hello to a tall skinny goth woman with a pierced lower lip and black dreadlocks and a heart tattooed over her heart named Raven who used to live in San Francisco. Star and her friend were still in the kitchen, poured myself a gin and tonic and piled food on a plate, and Star came over to talk. She spoke in an unhurried, thoughtful way, sometimes considering her answer a moment or two before she spoke. I asked if she and Laura knew each other in Baltimore, and she said no they met in New Orleans, and I asked what other cities she had lived in and she said Detroit, Denver, and San Clemente, where she had worked at a reptile sanctuary. I asked if she'd had friends in all those places beforehand and she said her sisters had lived in some of them. Asked where she grew up and she said in New York on Lake Ontario, literally on Lake Ontario, the front yard of her family's house sloped down to the lake, and she remembered playing in the water with her sisters as kids during the summer, and I said it sounded pretty idyllic, and Star stared out the window and thought for a second then nodded her head and smiled and said, Yeah, it was.
e stood on the balcony for a while, next to a machine blowing bubbles out over Royal Street with a sign on it that read "Not as entertaining as a barefoot hippie chick blowing bubbles but a lot more reliable." Star went inside and Denise came over and stood next to me and we watched the crowd and talked about how fun Mardi Gras was, she was a nice girl who always had a smile on her face. Went inside for another drink, Star was talking to her red faced friend again, I talked to Johnny—a grey haired guy with a friendly drawl whose apartment it was—as he sat at a desk in the living room fiddling with iTunes on a giant G5 iMac that was blasting the music at the party through a line out to a rack of sound equipment and speakers. He said he'd just hooked up all this audio gear recently and didn't know how it all worked yet. I checked out his set up and noticed XLR inputs and asked if he had recorded anything using a microphone yet. He said didn't have any software for that and I wrote Audacity on a post-it and told him it was a good audio recording program I used all the time that he could download for free.
ack on the balcony I raided a giant bowl of Hershey's miniatures and talked more with Denise and watched a gang of pirates down in the street pulling a pirate ship mounted on wheels and outfitted with a swivel-mounted cannon constructed from a long narrow plastic tube with a hefty elastic sling at one end, an oversized slingshot for firing piles of Mardi Gras beads up at third story balconies, which they stopped and proceeded to do WHAP! and nailed the street window of Johnny's apartment, beads smacking it so hard I thought the glass would break. The pirates below cheered and yo ho hoed and congratulated themselves on their marksmanship and continued down the street.
tar came back out on the balcony and I asked if I could take her picture and she said ok but didn't seem too thrilled and turned her head to one side while I was focusing and stared down at the street so I would take her picture in profile.
Out of the blue she told me she had been very shy as a child. I asked why and she said her mother was reclusive and avoided people, their house on Lake Ontario had been pretty out of the way. She said she came out of her shell in college when she met a girl who became her closest friend and fairy sister. I felt a big soft spot for Star right then, touched at her offering such a confidence, venturing something personal amidst Mardi Gras frivolousness—while I might look outgoing playing music or dancing, at heart I'm a wallflower, drawn to the shy girl at the party. I asked if she moved away from home when she went to college and she said yes. I said I became a much different person when I stopped living with my parents, and told her I understood about her mother because my mom was schizophrenic and didn't get along with people either. Hell, I said, even my grandma never set one foot outside the house or yard for decades. Star asked, Why do you think she was that way? Well she was a simple Tennessee woman, I said, she was nervous around strangers and she was kind of bossy and didn't like being around people who didn't let her have her way.
tar went to the bathroom and I talked with Denise and watched the crowd carrying on below, and as much as I was enjoying Star's gentle company, I began to feel an increasingly urgent need to dance crazily around in the streets again before daylight was gone, and I hoped Star would go with me and when she returned I asked if she was thinking about splitting and she said maybe, and checked her messages on her cell and then asked what I was up to and I said, Well I don't have anyone to hang out with so I'm happy to just follow you around but if you get sick of me just let me know. She told me about a dream she had involving her friends and a musical piece she learned as a child, and what I mostly remember about it now was staring into her brown eyes and wondering how I'd come to meet so many fairy women lately without being much of a mystic myself.
tar said, I think I want to hang out with my friends, which I took to mean she wanted to stay at the party and thought maybe was a hint I should go, so I took that as my exit cue and said I thought I'd split. She asked, What are you going to do? and I said, Oh go wander around, let me thank Johnny for his hospitality. Johnny shook my hand and said, Hey man you always got a place to come on Mardi Gras—a good old boy, literally. As I said goodbye to Star, Denise came over and said, Hey do you guys want to go to a ceremony some krewe is having in front of the cathedral at 4:20? And Star said sure and they looked at me and I thought cool I can hook up with them then and said, I'll meet you guys there.
s I stepped out onto Royal Street a five piece brass band strolled by swinging its ass off and I fell in dancing behind them. They were blowing for a small parade of about a dozen people in yellow T shirts that read Krewe of Coleen, pushing an elderly woman—Coleen, I assumed—seated in a brightly decorated grocery cart sporting a tall yellow banner that read "Hail Queen Coleen, Pushin' Since 1974."
She was heavy set and seemed intelligent and gracious and her demeanor reminded me of Dorothy. The parade was led by a woman in a leopard spotted cat costume and as I danced the Kitty Kat lady saw me and came over and playful meowed at me and clawed my leg. A bystander watching the parade walked over to Coleen and said, I don't know if you remember me but you were my lit professor. I bopped over to Kitty Kat and asked if Coleen taught writing and she said Coleen was a writer and a faculty member at UNO, and every year her students past and present came together at Mardi Gras to take Coleen for a parade through the Quarter. I told her I had a degree in writing and asked if Coleen had published any books and she told me Coleen had written three books of Louisiana storytelling. She said the parade was ending at Coleen's apartment on Chartres Street and I should come with them and go to Coleen's, it would be very special and I would really enjoy it, which sounded like a cool change of pace and I said I would like to and I danced along with them for several blocks until the parade paused in front of One Eyed Jack's where cute female vikings wandered over from the bar to dance with us.
he band, five young black guys, were blowing in the middle of St. Phillip when a car drove down the street, two cute young black girls inside, and the band refused to get out of the way and forced the car to stop, and the musicians sat on the hood and trunk and lasciviously gyrated their booties to the beat, playing and humping the car, and everyone got a kick out of it including the girls inside who laughed and covered their faces with their hands in embarrassment until eventually the band let them drive away.
he parade stalled there for a bit and I asked Kitty Kat what Coleen's last name was so I could Google her, and she told me it was Salley and seemed concerned I was going to run off and said, You really should come with us, I think you'd have a nice time, and I said I planned to but had to go somewhere first—I wanted to run back to Freeman's and grab Coleen a Jelly Roll CD with its spoken word stories about New Orleans—so I wrote down Coleen's address and she said if the gate was locked when I got there I should ring the apartment on the intercom and ask for Kitty Kat. I said I would and left, contemplating how New Orleanians befriend strangers and how you never knew who you would meet or where you might end up on Mardi Gras.
alked to Freemen's, grabbed a Jelly Roll CD and then swung over to Frenchmen where I found the NYC bellydancers dressed in sparkly costumes dancing in a circle in front of Yuki next to Cafe Brazil.
Layla was dressed as a white unicorn in a Madonna-esque bustier, Sira was a red fire fairy, Yasmine was a glittery white and blue snow fairy, Heather was also a white unicorn, and Jeni was a green absinthe fairy except she was drinking a bottle of something red. I hugged Heather and Yasmine and danced with them, and forgot I wasn't supposed to bother Jeni and told her about Coleen but she was annoyed at the interruption and said, That's interesting—just dance, ok?
alked back down Royal to the address I had written down, but the gate was locked and I couldn't find apartment 9 on the intercom, it listed apartments 1 through 8, skipped number 9, then listed apartments 10 and up. I backed up and checked out the front of the building to see if the apartment had a separate entrance but it didn't, so I dialed #9 and #09 on the intercom but didn't get an answer.
was standing in the middle of Royal Street, looking up at the balcony for someone to holler at, when Star and Denise and the boy wearing red face paint along with a couple of other kids from Johnny's wandered down the street and Star came over and said, Walk to Frenchman street with us. I was happy to see her and said ok and as we strolled I told her about Coleen and how I wound up standing there when they passed by. She said she listened to part of the Jelly Roll CD and asked what a naked dance was. We talked about animals and I told her about the dog I had as a kid which wouldn't let my mom spank me because every time I was being paddled the dog would paw at my mom and growl at her to knock it off and after this happened a couple of times my mom never spanked me again. Boy, you can't ask for a better dog than that, I told her and after a moment Star said, Your stories remind me of things from my life sometimes.
e arrived at Frenchmen and joined the crowd dancing to music blasting from various mobile sound systems in the street, and Star asked if I wanted her to take my picture and I said ok and she snapped one of me dancing and I asked her how it came out and she looked at the display and said, Contrived, and showed it to me and it was. We ran into Star's roommate Laura, wearing lots of feathers and—surprise—fairy wings, hanging out with her musician friend and as they all talked I noticed Laura from Krewe Du Faye behind me and I walked over said Happy Mardi Gras and told her I'd emailed a picture from the parade to the krewe's myspace page. Here, I said, I'll show you which one, and took out my camera and found the shot I sent her. Cool, she said, send me the other ones too, and I said I would.
ejoined Star and her Laura, who were standing by themselves talking and Star motioned with her hands for me to come closer and I did, but they weren't talking loud enough for me to hear them over the music. The red faced boy stood next to me and I stuck out my hand and said, Hey I'm James, and he said, I'm David, and we talked about Mardi Gras and I told him how San Francisco cancelled their Halloween party because a few people got shot the year before, and he said that when decisions are made in New Orleans considerations of public safety are never a big factor, which made me laugh. I hadn't spoken to him at Johnny's, thinking maybe he and Star were involved, but he was a sharp kid and a nice guy. While he and I were talking Laura and Star kept looking over at us and then suddenly took off through the crowd. Where do you think they're going? I asked. I dunno, David said, probably to find a bathroom. I asked, Think we should follow them? and he said, I'm going to, and I told him, Tell Star I said goodbye if I don't see her again.
andered over to Jackson Square checking out costumes then down Decatur and poked my head into Molly's looking for Erica. Back at Frenchman ran into Laura and asked where Star was and she said Star and David were down the street getting food at the market, which reminded me I was hungry. As I talked to Laura I noticed Marcia from the Storyville Starlettes standing several feet away with a guy who looked like her boyfriend, and when he wandered across the street I took out the tiny plastic chicken which was still in my pocket and held it up between two fingers until Marcia looked in my direction and saw me and laughed. Happy Mardi Gras, she said, Happy Mardi Gras, I said back, you having a good Fat Tuesday? She said she was and asked if I was and I said I was too. We exchanged pleasantries at a polite distance, I didn't want to drool over her in front of her guy, and I told her to drop me a line if she ever made it to San Francisco and she said she would. When I turned back around Laura looked really peeved and exclaimed something under her breath, and I said, What? and she gave me a saccharine smile and said, Oh I was just talking to myself, and then pointedly walked away, leaving me to stand there wondering why she'd gotten so bugged at me for saying hello to Marcia.
aw Karissa talking to Krewe Du Faye Laura and said happy Mardi Gras. Walked to the market and saw Star and David inside waiting in a long line, so I hung around until they came out and I told Star I was going home to grab something to eat and I wanted to tell her in case I didn't run into her again that I really enjoyed hanging out with her and I was very glad we'd met. She nodded but didn't say anything, and I thought she'd still be around when I came back but she wasn't.
reeman was in his armchair, a big pile of laundry on the bed, still watching TV, I ate some cheese and bread and ditched my mask and shirt and tie and coat, and in my vest walked back to Frenchman. As night started to fall I ran into Sira and Yasmine, who hugged me and said, Come with us we're going to find the others, and Sira pulled out her cellphone and called Jeni who was off somewhere with a friend then called Layla who said she and Heather were at Sukhi Thai a block away on Royal so we walked there and found Heather and Layla and Layla's brother and his girlfriend sitting at a table out front. They were finished eating and Sira and Yasmine and I ordered pad thai and cleaned the place out of the last scrap of food it had left. The girls discussed where to go next, Heather and Layla and her brother wanted to go back to dba and dance more, but Sira and Yasmine complained they'd been dancing on Frenchmen Street all day, and Yasmine looked cute sitting there all glittery and tired and sort of down, like she'd hit the same wall I hit the night before. Jeni arrived with a friend and Sira excitedly said, Look Jeni it's James Brown! and Jeni noticeably less enthused said, Hi James Brown, and the Thai girls from the restaurant came out and asked us to leave so they could go home, so we ate up and Jeni said she wanted to go change her shoes and Sira and Yasmine decided to go with her and the others split for dba and I gave Yasmine a hug said my last goodbye to the bellydancers from New York City.
alked back to Frenchman where I ran into Harold looking stylish in a white tailcoat matching his white hair and beard, a purple scarf and his signature pole up the back dangling a leaky beer can with which to accost people who passed within his radius.
We hadn't talked since last Fat Tuesday when I ditched him because he was so drunk—getting into fights and thrown out of bars—that he was bumming out my Mardi Gras, but this year he seemed pretty mellow and I was glad to see him. We hung around until he spied some girl to dance with and disappeared into the crowd after her.
andered over to the next block where a mobile DJ was playing groovy 70s R&B like Funkadelic and "Car Wash" by Rose Royce and the Quincy Jones theme from Sanford And Son. Danced for a while then walked to a cafe on Royal called Havre where I found David and Denise and friends but no Star, and Denise had been so friendly all day that I hugged her, and she was soft and cuddly and her bare skin felt good pressing against my arms and I said, Wow you're very huggable, and she wrapped her arms around me and we stood there in an embrace until I felt like letting go. A Latino singer sat on the stoop of the coffee shop playing guitar and I felt like jamming and said I was going to get my harmonicas and walked to Freeman's and grabbed my harps and came back and Denise said, Let's see your harmonicas, and I showed them to her and she said, You really did go get them, I thought it was just a cool exit line. The guy sang "Who Do You Love" and I played along with him but after that he called it quits.
said bye to everyone and headed back to Frenchman and saw Harold talking to Laura and came up and put my hands on his shoulders and told him he'd lost his purple scarf and Harold said, Shit man, I found that scarf in the trash. Harold told Laura I used to be a go go dancer and Laura said, Yes he told me that the other night. I reminded Harold that he had a go go dancing gig once too and Harold said, Yeah but I was like the comedic relief in between the really built guys. Harold said bye and left, and it started to rain, and I wondered whether Laura really was dating that horn player and almost asked if she wanted to get a drink, but Star was still on my mind and I told Laura that Star seemed like an intuitive, heartfelt person and that she must be glad to have such a cool roommate, and Laura said she was. I asked Laura to tell Star that I thought she was a great girl and hanging out with her was the best part of my day, and Laura said she would. She smiled and waited for me to say something else, but I was tired and decided I was ready to split, and told her I was heading back Uptown and I'd never catch a cab if it started raining harder so I was going to call it a Mardi Gras. I said, Thanks for letting me bend your ear, and she smiled and said, No problem, and I walked down Frenchmen then turned and looked back and she was standing in the street all by herself watching me and she smiled and waved and I waved back and she looked so adorable I almost went back but I didn't and later wished I had.
ack at Freeman's I packed my shit and threw my bag over my shoulder and said bye to Freeman and walked to Decatur where I caught a cab driven by a Middle Eastern guy who cursed black people the entire ride. He started in about the shootings during the parade and said he had never been around blacks before moving there and New Orleans had made him hate black people. Magazine was clogged so he detoured down Tchoupitoulas along the river and on the other side of the CBD a car of black guys roared up behind us and began honking at him to get out of the way. Fucking niggers! he yelled and pulled over so they could pass and then sped up and got right on their ass and began honking his horn at them. Hey those guys might have a gun in the car, I told him and he yelled, I want to see where they think they're going to go those assholes! Another car was in front of them, but they swerved into the oncoming lane and passed that car too and the cabbie yelled in his thick Arabic accent, Fucking niggers I hope you all die! Arrived at Dave's without further incident and found Dave watching the news, Hillary and Obama split the Super Tuesday primaries that day and tornados tore up my mom's hometown of Jackson, Tennessee. Outside a thunderstorm rolled in as I stripped off my sweaty clothes and took a shower and ate and sent my friend Chad, a New Orleans native, an email needling him for bartending at a trendy dance club in San Francisco on Fat Tuesday.
ednesday I spent most of the day going through Dave's CDs and burning copies. I had lugged a mixer all the way from San Francisco to hook up his turntable and record some vinyl but never got around to it. Dave was home on his day off and picked out a bunch of traditional New Orleans jazz CDs for me. Spent part of the afternoon sitting outside at Havre in the Marigny, drinking tea and writing and trying to remember what all I'd done the last several days and hoping that Star or Laura would ride by on her bike, but hardly anyone was out in the Quarter except for a few tourists doing last minute shopping before they left town and locals with ash marks on their foreheads.
oke up and packed, my bag bulging with new clothes, showered, called United, waited outside on the porch, sitting in the warm sunlight, fifteen minutes later a cab pulled up, I locked the front door to the apartment and carried my bags down the stairs and threw them in the backseat of the taxi which was driven by an absolutely beautiful dark young black girl with long curly hair and I thought holy cow, climbed in pulled the door shut.
Guess where I'm going, I said.
I don't know, she replied with a cheerful melodic singsong accent and I immediately knew she was from Africa somewhere.
The airport, I said and as we started down the street I asked if she had a good Mardi Gras.
Oh I worked every day.
That's too bad. Did you get to have any fun at all?
I am saving up money working right now because I am going to Ethiopia next month and I will have my vacation then.
Is that where you're from?
Yes it is.
Have you been in the US long?
I have been here six years.
Do you have family here?
No they are all in Ethiopia.
How long since you've seen them?
Six years? You haven't seen them since you came here?
No I haven't.
Wow. You aren't that old, you must have been young when you came here.
I was 16.
Good lord. So you're 22 now?
Yes I am 22.
Have you lived in New Orleans the whole time?
Yes the whole time.
How did you end up here?
Well when you apply to the US immigration it's like a lottery, and they picked me and said I could come to the US.
You came here by yourself?
How did you wind up in New Orleans? You must have known someone here.
My father has a friend here and he was my sponsor. You have to have a sponsor to be responsible for you when you come to this country, so I lived with him and his wife and kids.
Did you learn English in Ethiopia?
No I didn't speak English at all when I came here.
You're kidding. How did you talk to people?
I could not. It was over a year before I could speak English enough to be understood a little bit. They put me in the ninth grade even though I was supposed to go into the tenth grade, but that was ok. It was hard. I would get so lonely.
On the dashboard of the cab was a picture of her in a prom dress hugging a heavy bald black guy in a tux. I asked, Is that your boyfriend?
That is my husband.
You're married already?
Yes we have been married four years now.
Is he from New Orleans?
Yes he is.
So he's never met your family?
No but he is going to Ethiopia with me next month, he will meet them then.
How will he communicate with your family, will you translate everything?
Oh no, he speaks Ethiopian.
How did he learn Ethiopian in New Orleans?
His ex-girlfriend was from Ethiopia, so he speaks it real good. A lot of people get mad at their lover's ex but I am proud of her, she did a good job with him, he speaks Ethiopian good.
Is that why you married him?
Yes, it was so nice to have someone to talk to in my language, you know, and he was nice in the beginning when we first met.
In the beginning? Is he not nice now?
No, he is not as nice now. He is his real self now. He was pretending when we first met.
Pretending to be nice to get you to marry him?
Is he mean now?
Oh yes, very mean.
That's terrible. Is he abusive?
Yes, very abusive.
I mean, does he hit you?
Yes he beats me sometimes.
You need to leave him. Right now. Right away. Once someone hits you, you should get out. Period. End of story.
I would like to but I can not.
Don't you have anyone you could stay with?
Oh yes I have friends but my husband is a bad man. He said he would kill me if I left him.
He's just trying to scare you.
I don't know, I don't want to die.
Jesus. You have to leave him sooner or later, you can't stay with a guy like that forever.
Well right now I am in nursing school, and I will finish in a year and then I will find a job somewhere else. I talked to an attorney about it and he had a friend who was a policeman and the policeman said I should let him put my husband in jail for a year or two. My husband he's into bad things, and he said if I said anything and his boss found out and he lost his job he would kill me. So it's better this way for right now.
Fuck that's horrible.
Yes he watches me all the time, he's very jealous. He heard the dispatcher call me sweetie one time, he calls everyone sweetie, but my husband got so mad. And I am young and I like to go out and dance but he is old, he's 37, and he doesn't like to go out and he won't let me go out either. He is not nice at all. And he already has kids and doesn't want to have any more. I want to have a daughter but he will not.
I'm 45 years old and I go dancing almost every night.
When I was growing up in Ethiopia girls were not allowed to go out unless they were married, so I had never gone out with any men. I was inexperienced, you know, I did not know any better, and when I came here he was the first man I met and he spoke my language and he seemed nice so I married him. Boy did he fool me.
Yeah, once you start dating you realize people aren't always how they seem at first. For years I liked this girl in San Francisco and when she finally broke up with her boyfriend I asked her out, and she's a very stylish person and I was joking with her and said I wouldn't embarrass her in the fashion department because I bought some sharp clothes lately since I'm not young and good looking anymore. And she told me I should never put myself down like that because girls like confident men, and that I should act that way even if I had to pretend. I thought it was a weird suggestion, fooling people into liking me, but I guess that's how lots of people are.
She laughed and said, Well your friend is right that girls like confident men, but you shouldn't pretend, you should just be yourself.
Well it's not like they won't figure me out sooner or later. So can you put up with your husband until you finish school?
When we go to Ethiopia next month my family will talk to him, they will straighten him out.
You think they can?
Oh they will, trust me, they will.
She seemed pretty sure about it but I wondered to myself if she wasn't setting her hopes too high. Man, this girl was breaking my heart, and as we pulled up to the curb at the airport I told her that I felt so sorry for her. She put the cab in park and turned around in her seat and reached her hand out toward me. Thank you so much for talking with me, she said and she gave me the warmest, most open sincere smile of all the wonderful girls I'd been privileged enough to have smile at me on my visit, not flirtatious but kind and human and I took her hand in mine and said It was wonderful meeting you, you're a lovely person and I'm sure things will turn out great for you, and she said, It was wonderful to meet you too, and as I unloaded my bags I badly wanted to give her my number and tell her to come live with me in San Francisco and I would take care of her, but I was afraid her husband might find my card and god knows what would happen. Take care, I said and she said she would with that sweet optimistic sounding Ethiopian lilt in her voice.
slammed the door and she drove away and I walked into the airport, cleared security and sat down at the gate. I like the New Orleans airport which caters to tourists more than business travelers, past the metal detectors were no restaurants or gift shops, no televisions blaring 1984ish cable news propaganda, just one snack cart and loudspeakers piping in cool New Orleans music by various Marsalises and Batistes and Nevilles and Louies Prima and Armstrong, and I sat there listening to a slow, mournful jazz trumpet instrumental, feeling bad for the cabbie whose name I'd never know, and I thought of all the girls I met at Mardi Gras, and thought about returning to San Francisco where, to loosely paraphrase Mark Twain, the summers are cold and the women colder, or certainly at least tepid compared to New Orleans. San Francisco, where the only ones with rock and roll hearts—god bless 'em—are teenyboppers, where women my age are found in wine bars eating tapas and looking for a husband that's not a footloose musician and middle-aged dance club habitué, where streets that used to give me a buzz now feel tired, and sitting in the airport I didn't want to get on the plane, I wanted to stay and live in New Orleans with just the sack on my back like I did twenty years ago, back when folks still called it The Big Easy, and I got choked up for a second there but I didn't cry.