A New Orleans memory: heavy weather

I didn’t know it then, but I would soon be leaving New Orleans. I would go to New York for eight months, where I would share an apartment with a call girl and get my first job as a bartender; then I would come back for a second, longer, and much happier stay in my favorite city.

But at that moment I was sitting in the empty kitchen of a barge, rocked by heavy weather in the Gulf of Mexico. We’d been out for a week, I think, when a tropical storm made the grade and became a hurricane, stalking the Gulf with evil intent. The barge was turned around and heading back to Corpus Christi, Texas. We’d secured most of the pots and pans, the tin cans and plates and coffee mugs, in the kitchen, where I worked as a cook. We’d removed the napkin dispensers and the condiments from the tables. Still, sometimes something would come loose and the pitch of the barge would send it clamoring to the floor. We sat there and tended to it, me and whoever was off duty, eating  saltine crackers and gulping dramamine.

We were told it’d take the better part of two days to reach port. Rumors of the hurricane’s location and trajectory were the coin of the realm; no one knew anything except what the captain told us, and no one believed he was telling us everything. I remember one of the roustabouts, young and terrified, claiming that he’d heard that the waters here were shallow enough that if we were caught in the trough of a big enough wave the barge could hit sea bottom and split its hull, damning us all. In retrospect it’s outlandish, but at the time it seemed an inevitable truth.

I thought about my best friend, an Australian expatriate who’d moved into my one-room apartment with me following the dissolution of his marriage. We’d been close for years, and I’d never had a better friend. We both applied to be offshore cooks together, and though we were both hired, he chose at the last minute to decline the job, staying to work in the city instead. At the time, I congratulated myself for taking the more interesting path; now I pictured him watching The X-Files on my couch, unpitched by the earth, tables level and static, and I envied the hell out of him. He was moving back to Australia before I was scheduled to get home, but was planning on returning in a year. I had given my thirty day notice on the apartment we shared; I’d come home with just enough time to pack and move out.

There was a girl back home, too. I’d only been seeing her a short time; before starting work offshore I worked in a bookstore in the French Quarter. She did too. She was small and lovely, funny, and very smart. She had short, wavy dark hair and a hard-edged femininity that made me think of a character from a Hemingway novel. I am always slightly amazed when a woman chooses to be with me — a walking, talking tangle of fear and neurosis — and I was amazed then: dumbstruck with fortune.

I would be moving in with her, and her roommates, when I got home. The storm held no fear for me. A new life was about to begin.

It was the last night on the barge, and I was in my bunk, trying without success to read. It was Henry Miller, I believe — Tropic of Cancer or Quiet Days in Clichy. The wild, urgent poetry of the book and the heaving of the ship boiled me in a cauldron of romantic fervor. I couldn’t concentrate. I lay back on my thin little mattress and it occurred to me that I was in a storm at sea, a beautiful and terrifying experience, and I didn’t even know what it looked like.

So I got out of bed and I went outside to see.

The world was a calamity of wind and rain and risen sea. I stepped over a snarl of heavy ropes and stood at the railing. It was night, but it would have been as dark at any hour. The sky boiled with black clouds; the wind and rain were a horizontal blast of beautiful fury. The sea moved like muscle: huge, shifting energies, spraying mists of foam and water into the sky.

In the midst of all of this tumult, out over the waves, were a handful of tiny birds, turned against the brunt of the gale, seemingly hovering in place a few feet above the water. One would dip down every now and then and skim the surface of the water, angling up again a moment later to rejoin the others.  I don’t know what kind of birds they were or whether they were in any danger. But they seemed serene: points of stillness in the upending of the sea and the sky. It remains one of the most astonishing and beautiful things I have ever seen.

Soon I would go back inside and go back to my bunk. The next day we would reach Texas safely, and I would board a bus that would take me home, where I would discover that my new girlfriend and my best friend had discovered each other and started a relationship of their own. He would already be in Australia by this time and beyond direct confrontation; she would be as kind as she could be, but, as they say, the heart wants what it wants. I wouldn’t fault her for it. I would move in with another friend instead, work offshore for a short while longer, and soon be offered a place to stay in New York. Sick of New Orleans and sick at heart, I would accept, and leave it gladly.

I would mourn losing her, but because our time together had been so short it was more the promise of her than the reality of her that I’d mourn. The true loss would be my best friend. I loved him and I would miss him terribly. They would end up getting married, and would stay that way — which I would come to regard as a happy ending.

That was all a day or two away, though, as I stood at the railing, watching those tiny birds glide through the storm, as untroubled as stones in a brook.

A New Orleans memory: Pterodactyls

The Tavern, where strippers and cabbies go for their 4 am constitutionals

Across the street and about a block down from The Avenue Pub is a twenty-four hour diner called The St. Charles Tavern. This is where I worked for the first six months or so after my return to New Orleans from New York, before moving to the Avenue Pub. It is, in every sense of the word, a dive. The food was ordinary, the bar sparsely stocked, and cleanliness, like most places in New Orleans, was not of paramount concern.

Nevertheless, for the locals it is one of the most beloved locations in the Lower Garden District, and deservedly so. The staff is eclectic and friendly and suffused with that affable variety of shiftlessness unique to New Orleans, and when you’re drunk in the middle of the night and need some chili cheese fries stat, there is really no better place to go.

I worked the graveyard shift when I was there. I’d get in at 11 pm and leave at 7 am. After work Ed and I would walk down the street a little ways to The Audubon, a scary, industrial-themed little bar with a grungy hotel overhead, where you could rent out rooms by the week (I spent a summer there; more on that some other time). All the kids who’d been riding high on X and acid all night would be draped over couches like Dali timepieces when we got there. We’d have a couple screwdrivers, get nice and toasted, and head home in the early morning sunlight to go to sleep.

New Orleans is the only city I’ve ever known that has a true twenty-four hour cycle. (NYC, the City That Never Sleeps? My ass.) We’d have a regular dead of night crowd. A lot of them were waiters or bartenders from other places; we got a ton of business from United Cab, which was located right around the corner; we got the strippers coming off their shifts in the deep morning, and cops, and prostitutes, and tweakers. Standard midnight crowd in New Orleans.

One of my favorites was this ancient black man named June. He was short, always impeccably dressed, and he wore a hat I’ve always heard called the Gatsby Golfer. He didn’t have any teeth, so he was sometimes difficult to understand, and when he spoke he articulated with his hands as though he were casting spells; he would sort of wave his fingers at you like anemones. I don’t think he had any idea he was doing it. So he’d come in pretty regularly, drink a few Scotches and milk at the bar, and head on home after a few. He was quiet and sweet, and he liked to talk to me and Ed. We liked it too.

We had another guy who came in for a little while. He was homeless, always broke. Old man. He’d come in and ask for coffee, and we always gave it to him even though he didn’t have any money. Normally he’d get it in a styrofoam cup, go to one of the tables and grab a sugar dispenser — one of those big glass ones that will last you through a busy dinner shift — and literally dump over half of its contents into the cup, until his coffee turned thick as river mud. Then he’d amble out into the street to attend to his mysterious obligations.

Except on the nights when he didn’t. Then he’d drink that sludge right there at a table and within three minutes he was talking and he would not shut up. Obviously this was the sugar at work. But he would keep up this steady monologue and he would not pause to take a breath. It was like Al Hirt playing “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Uncanny.

“You ever been to Los Angeles?” he would ask. No one troubled to answer because he didn’t really give a damn if you had or not. He had a warning to deliver. “You got to watch out if you go to Los Angeles because they got pterodactyls.”

Ed would cackle. Ed was the cheeriest guy I’ve ever known, and he adored this exchange. Every time. “WHAT?”

“Oh yeah man, big pterodactyls rip off your goddamned head.”

He would go on and on in this vein for quite some time. I heard it so many times that I came to believe him. I will never go to Los Angeles because I don’t want a pterodactyl to rip off my goddamned head.

Usually this guy came when the place was empty, or when the other people there were just as crazy, so I never worried about it bothering anybody. We would ask him to stop talking, but we might has well have been asking a bowl of cereal, for all the attention he paid us. We’d asked him to go, but he ignored us, and we never enforced it. I had kind of a reputation there as the guy who loved to throw people out — and oh, I deserved it, because I did love it so — but this guy was harmless. He just wanted to drink his coffee and help people out with some good advice about dinosaurs.

But one night June was there too. There might have been a few other people, I don’t know. So this guy got his coffee and pulled out a chair and prepared it the way he liked it. June was at the bar with his back to him. The guy sucked down some of the sludge and within moments he was off about the pterodactyls.

After a few minutes of this, June kind of looked over his shoulder at him. June was always stoic; the only way you’d know if he was feeling strongly about something is if he’d widen his eyes just a fraction when he was talking to you, or if his fingers reached a little closer to you when he was gesticulating. He looked at me and his eyelids lifted just a hair. I shrugged my shoulders.

Then he got off his bar stool and sat down at the table next to the man. The man got quiet. Understand me when I tell you that that had never happened before. I didn’t even think it was biologically possible. June leaned in and whispered something. The fingers of his right hand were waving like fronds under the sea.

The man seemed to think a moment. Then he got up, took his coffee cup, and left the building. In utter silence. We didn’t see him for a week afterwards.

Ed and I were agog.

“June!” I said, when he resumed his place at the bar. “I can’t believe it! What did you say to that guy?”

He inclined his head a little, his eyes fixed on his Scotch and milk, which he started to stir. “Oh, you know,” he said, “I just said a little something to him.” Then he looked at me, and the fingers of his right hand reached out, clasped, and drew back, like he was pulling something invisible out of me. “One of these days I might say a little something to you.”

I was genuinely unsettled. “Um, please don’t,” I said.

And that was that. A few months later I was snagged by the Avenue Pub, and shortly thereafter I convinced them to hire Ed, too. June came down to visit us once or twice, but The Avenue was not the Tavern. It just wasn’t his place. He went back to his old haunt.

After a while, we just stopped hearing about him.

A New Orleans memory: the shapeshifter

The Avenue Pub, where I worked for seven great years

It was a weeknight at the Avenue Pub. I was behind the bar and the usual crowd was there: Monte, Maura, Neal, Jim, and a few servers from Bravo and Houston’s, the restaurants across the street. Not to mention the standard flotsam of the city, strangers and stragglers who wash ashore onto any barstool on any given night. The tv was muted and tuned to ESPN, and the jukebox was cranked up loud. People were playing pool. It wasn’t busy, but it was steady, like any good weeknight in the Lower Garden District. It was around 10 pm; I had a good four hours left before Darren came in to relieve me for the graveyard shift.

The way the Pub is set up is kind of strange. The bar itself is on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Polymnia Street, but the parking lot is about a quarter of a block down. You had to walk a little ways in the dark to get there, and that was sometimes a risky proposition. Not often, but muggings had been known to happen. Most people parked along the street right outside, or used cabs or the streetcar, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped.

So when one of the waitresses from across the street came back in only minutes after having paid her tab and left, saying there was someone weird out in the parking lot, we all paid attention.

“Have you seen him in here before?” I said, walking around the bar.

“No. He’s some old dude. He’s standing out in the open and he’s got a big stick.”

Well, hooray.

I have this thing — it probably would have gotten me killed eventually, if I had stayed a bartender — but I rarely feel fear. At least, not from physical confrontation. I’ve found that most people will back down when directly confronted.  Nobody wants to get hit. I’m a peaceful guy, but I remember I used to look forward to stuff like this. Something in me wanted the confrontation. But the idea of being brained with a stick managed to dampen my enthusiasm.

Monte and the waitress came behind me (I wish I could remember her name). The night was warm, but not hot. It must have been early spring. Clouds scudded across the sky: a cloudless night in New Orleans is a rare thing. We walked down to the parking lot and sure enough, there was this old guy, clearly homeless, standing in the middle of the parking area with the massive branch he’d yanked from some luckless tree. He was peering into some bushes with his back to us.

“Hey!” I said, walking toward him. “What’s going on?”

I stopped outside of the reach of his stick. He turned to look at me, squinted for a minute. “You’re not one of them,” he said.

I’m pretty good at speaking Crazy. I’ve spent a lot of time around it. (Which was a lucky thing, because my experts in the dialect — Sunbeam, Naked Mary, the lady who lit fires to magazines and warned of the robot uprising, or any of the others — were not there that night to be consulted.) I intuited right away that not being One of Them was a favorable condition in which to find oneself. “No, I’m not,” I said. “You can’t be out here, man. You’re freaking people out.”

He ignored me. “Do you see it?” He gestured to the bushes with his stick. “It’s a shapeshifter.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“Well it was there a second ago.”

“He probably ran away when he saw that big-ass stick.”

“You’re not one of them,” he said. He looked back towards where the parking lot met the street, where Monte waited beside the waitress. “She might be though.”

“She’s not. She’s my friend. I can vouch for her.”

He nodded. “Okay then,” he said.

“If you stay here, someone’s going to call the police,” I said. “You’re scaring people.”

“Okay. I don’t want to bother anybody.”

“Can I have that stick in case it comes back?”

He handed it over. “Be careful, brother,” he said.

“I will.”

He ambled off into the night. The waitress got back into her car and drove home, and Monte and I went back inside and knocked down some Jameson’s. I would say normal life resumed, but it was never really interrupted.

New Orleans is brimming with deranged people. Often, there’s nowhere for them to go. A lot of them are homeless, and are just trying to survive in whatever strange manifestation of the world their illness presents to them. As with most people who are on the edge of doing something stupid, talking to them with a hint of reason and respect will sometimes bring them back down.

I guess it was just dumb luck that he didn’t think I was a shapeshifter and try to brain me with that great big tree branch of his. But it was probably little more than dumb luck that allowed him to stand there in the night, white-bearded and stout, holding the monsters at bay with nothing more than a stick in his hand and a vigilant heart.