11. ARRIVAL IN NEW ORLEANS (1975)
I’d heard about Charity Hospital shortly after arriving in New Orleans. It was one of the largest and oldest hospitals in the country and served the citizens as well as tourists that fell into trouble, especially in the French Quarter.
It was late on Mardi Gras Night when we pulled into town after three straight days and nights from Los Angeles. We’d picked up another companion there. Sammy was an old friend who blew through Seattle for a couple years in the early seventies. A Filipino Army brat, he’d been all around and had a cockiness that came from wide exposure to different situations. I didn’t trust him much. He seemed to run off at the mouth and make sure you knew that he was smarter than you. I don’t know, maybe he was insecure inside or just thought he was being entertaining.
We figured Mardi Gras would last into the wee hours and after driving slowly amongst the celebrating costumers we miraculously came across a parking spot just a couple blocks from Bourbon Street. With giant grins on our faces we let ourselves be caught up with the colors, sights and sounds of one of America’s great celebrations. We had no idea and little care where we might end up. We could always sleep in the car; we’d been doing it for a few days already. The crowd got thicker as we neared Bourbon Street, now with drinks in hand from a Hurricane vendor. The music was getting louder and the throngs of people decked out in some of the most bizarre getups I’d ever seen; an emerald green alligator with a crown on its head. Three identically dressed convicts with cutaway backs that showed them naked, all kinds of masks, beads, feathers, cowboy hats, Mardi Gras Indians.
We agreed to meet back at the car if we got too split up and plunged into the bacchanal. Somebody handed me a kazoo and we improvised a combo of singers for the Doobie Brother’s song “Ole Black Water”, a big hit that year. Another favorite on people’s singing voices: “Lady Marmalade” by La Belle had everyone asking “Voulez-vous-coucher avec moi ce soir? Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”(Do you want to go to bed with me?)
Marino and Peter were out ahead of me and Sammy was somewhere behind me as we headed east on Bourbon Street. I was looking around in amazement and recognized two friends from Seattle. Stuart and Deanne! Standing on a step so their heads were a little higher than most everyone else. I couldn’t believe it! They were supposed to be in Hawaii. I ran forward and grabbed Marino’s shoulder. “Hey, Peter! This way!” I shouted past him. Marino tried to shake me off. “Just c’mon over here!” I yelled. “What?” said Marino. I dragged him back a few steps and pointed at Steve and Deanne. We ran up to them, embraced and all tried to talk at once.
“Isn’t this incredible?” said Deanne in my ear as she eased her hug. She was wearing a low-cut white tee shirt and blue jeans rolled up halfway to her knees and five-inch heeled sandals. She had a rich tan from weeks in Hawaii. Her sun-streaked hair hung down past her shoulders and she had a bejeweled pair of sunglasses hiked up on her head. Stuart was even more festively dressed in a loud Hawaiian shirt with armadillos printed on it, striped black and white pants and an umbrella that he was sporting as a walking stick.
We introduced Peter and Sammy amid the din of revelers. “Where are you staying?” said Stuart. “You know they close down Bourbon Street at midnight”. “What?” I gasped. It was already eleven. I thought for sure the celebration would last until dawn. “Yeah” said Deanne, “Ash Wednesday starts at midnight and the horse patrol will clear the streets. We can still go up to Jackson Square though”. “We’ve got a motel room out by the airport,” said Stuart, “You’re welcome to a piece of the floor if you want.”
“We were robbed while sleeping on the beach,” replied Stuart when I asked him why they weren’t still in Hawaii. “It was beautiful though, I want to go right back but Deanne wants to visit her Father in Laredo, Texas so we thought we’d catch Mardi Gras on the way” Deanne had linked arms with Peter and they were sharing his drink. We were attracted to a crowd that was gesturing wildly to the ornate balcony above. Striptease dancers from the club below were putting on a show and masked revelers were throwing strands of colored plastic beads that the girls would catch and hang around their naked tops.
Old Dixieland Jazz came barreling out of one club and across Toulouse Street a funky driving bass line emitted from a hole-in-the-wall bar. The street theatre of dazzling costumes on parade amazed the eye and buskers playing in doorways and small combos with line dancers behind tickled the auditory nerves. We could see up ahead coming down Bourbon Street a phalanx of mounted police riding six abreast from Esplanade Avenue. Behind them was a small army of foot patrol officers and street sweepers following them. We crossed down towards Royal Street and Chartres Street along with the other people now expelled from Bourbon and gathered around the saluting statue of Stonewall Jackson.
There were plenty of police here too but they were congenial and only there it seemed to keep the peace. Stuart and Deanne said they had parked their rental car down by the French Market so we walked past The Morning Call Café, “Too bad that closed last year” said Stuart over his shoulder. “I just love Peter’s British accent!” said Deanne. “When are we getting something to eat?” piped in Sammy. We’d been hearing about the terrific food in New Orleans since crossing the Louisiana border. Oyster Po’boys, jambalaya, gumbo and “Mud bugs” crawfish and shrimp. Marino passed me a warm Dixie beer that he’d been carrying. “No thanks, I’m good,” I said. Good and smashed already, I thought.
We managed to all squeeze into Stuart’s rental car, Deanne sitting in Peter’s lap and crept along Decatur Street until we got to Canal Street where Stuart pulled into a load zone and put on his blinkers. “Do you think you can find your car and drive it up here? Then you can follow us”. We took down the number for the Townhouse Motel in case we got lost and set off to find the Pinto. By sheer dead-reckoning we spotted the cross streets and halfway down the street it was found, with some broken beads wrapped around the radio antenna and crushed empty drink containers strewn around the wheels.
We piled in, Marino behind the wheel and edged into the narrow street. Crushing spent beer cans along the way we were driving only as fast as people were walking or weaving along the street but managed to turn and get onto Canal Street. “Hold it right here” yelled Sammy as he opened the door before Marino could pull over and double park next to a delivery van. “I’ll let ‘em know we’re here”.
He stood on tiptoes and jumped up a couple of times with his hands in the air towards where Stuart was parked. “They see me! C’mon!” and he ran back to the car and jumped in. Deanne gave us a big smile and waved as they caught up to us and Marino cut in close behind them. Uniformed police were directing all the traffic onto the freeway and we stayed tight on Stuart’s tail so nobody could cut in front of us.
People were still partying in the parking lot of The Townhouse Motel and had it not been Mardi Gras night the manager might have had a problem with four more people staying in a room for two. He barely shrugged as he handed Stuart the key. We unloaded our packs and I stripped the back cushions off the couch and laid them to one side of the living room floor and unrolled my sleeping bag onto them.
The room was spinning as I lay down. Marino hadn’t even unrolled his pack and was lying on the bare springs of the couch in all his clothes. Sammy had grabbed the seat cushions and thrown them into a corner and was using a bath towel as a blanket. Stuart retreated to the bedroom and Peter and Deanne were sharing a cigarette at the door.
I sat up for a moment and looked out the window to the parking lot. Other inebriated Mardi Gras partiers were arriving at the motel; a bedraggled pirate dragging his plastic sword behind him, a pair of red-wigged clowns in polka dots with a Chihuahua dressed the same and a trio of nuns in blue mini-skirt habits with fishnet stockings and high heels. I lay down on the orange shag carpet and put my hands over my throbbing head.