Scroll down to "The Beads" to begin from the beginning of the NoLa trip.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
I grew up knowing about Preservation Hall. My grandfather, Percy Smith, owned a bazillion records, then a bazillion cds, of rare jazz, blues, swing and big band tunes from every generation. His people, my people, are from Mississippi, and he felt connected to the music on an almost compulsive level. I knew “Dream a Little Dream” before I knew “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
So of course, we stopped by Preservation Hall. Right off Bourbon, this small square, wooden bench setting acts as a one room schoolhouse for those about to be taught some real music. On our way to line up for entrance, the rust colored sky broke open, and soaked us with a cold November rain. It was the first sign of weather since our arrival. We ducked under an awning and watched water shoot out of gullies and downspouts, silently imagining what had been. By the time we found our spot on the floor of Preservation Hall, the room smelled like damp basement, cold metal, and German tourists.
We stayed as long as our cold jeans allowed. They played “Petit Fleur” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “St. James Infirmary.” The drummer spent the 60’s and 70’s in Ray Charles’s band, the trombonist kept pretending to knock the front row squatters in the head, and the bassist worked with his eyes closed. The clarinet player’s cheeks puffed like a puffer fish, then flattened out, showing layers of intricate muscles. The lead for the night, a kid named Mark somebody, spoke with reverence and humility, and played trumpet with power and speed.
It whet our appetites enough that the next night we decided to go track down the next generation of New Orleans musicians. On a tip, we headed out to Frenchman Street, behind the French Market. We found a little dive called the Spotted Cat, and walked into the year 1928. A slender brunette and her loose tie wearing partner waved and swung and kicked and swirled around a tiny little space on the concrete floor, while a five piece band played fast and loose with swing tunes. The lead singer snapped her suspenders on her slim frame; when she threw her head back to belt out a note, you could see tattoos covering her torso. More and more souls wandered in the open bar door. A jaded bartender flung beers at patrons while hiking up her strapless bra. “These things are a bitch,” she said. No one in the room (minus us) appeared over 30 years old.
When my grandfather lived, he loved to buy me music. One of his favorite gifts to me was a copy of the first Squirrel Nut Zippers cd. Because I was in this town, and because I miss Percy, I asked Husband to go over to the trombonist and request a song from that album. He looked at me with those “don’t get sappy on me” eyes, and walked over to the edge of the platform. I saw the trombonist lean close to listen, then lean back and laugh. I saw him come in to Husband and say something, and then Husband leaned back and laughed.
“Wisconsin Trade Federation?” I asked when Husband returned.
“He won’t play that song,” said my love. “He said he only plays that song with his other band.”
Okay, I said “What’s his other band?”
“The Squirrel Nut Zippers,” he said.
Oh, Percy, I thought. Glad you could join us.
Our hotel in the Quarter meant we spent a fair amount of time walking up and down Bourbon Street. Barkers yell beer prices for something called a “Big Ass Beer,” goosepimply underage girls saunter back and forth in front of the nudie clubs, and tattooed women encourage you to share what I called “swine flu shots.” They have these little test tubes of neon colored liquids that are supposed to be liquor shots. A shot girl will find a willing victim, usually an underage and wide-eyed boy, and stick the closed end of the tube in her mouth. He’ll suck on the other end, drinking the shot, until their lips touch. For this pleasure he pays $3, and she pays in future years of regret and self-loathing.
The guy who ran into me probably had a few swine flu shots. As I stepped down off the sidewalk, a much taller individual in the usual frat-boy uniform of untucked button-down shirt with jeans lost his equilibrium. Several things happened at once. The full weight of his shoulder cracked into my eye cavity. I yelled and covered my face. Husband grabbed dude’s elbow and held him up with a death grip, and the two cops standing not two feet away yelled “Hey!” and took their hands out of their jacket pockets.
When I looked up, I looked directly into dude’s face. His eyes wandered around in his head, completely unable to focus. The only thing holding him upright was Husband’s death grip, but he held dude out the side a little bit, like you’d hold an unwanted varmit, while he focused his attention on my poor little eye. Dude was a lost cause—he didn’t know what he’d done and might not remember it until several days later, when he was brushed with a faint sense of guilt and he couldn’t identify the five dots of deep bruising on his right elbow. I pulled Husband away and left Dude to mumble at the cops.
For the rest of our visit, my eye continued to bloom with various shades of red and purples, a crescent-shaped smudge matching the crescent of the Mississippi that so bruised New Orleans. I felt kinda like a bad ass, really, and we made up a few stories whenever anyone asked. On the levee one morning, eating beignets and drinking café au lait from Café du Monde, a trio of polyester pantsuits asked us to take their picture, which Husband did. “And can we return the favor for you two?” asked one of the women. Then she looked at me again, double-take on the eye. “No thanks,” I said, “we don’t want any evidence out there.” They hurried on while Husband giggled at my outright lying meanness.
Without industrial waste sites festering all around Rome like underground bowls of fermenting fruit, Husband and I would not have been sitting in the oldest bar in the nation on Monday, sipping on Class 5 Hurricanes and acting as counsel to a young, Matt Damon-esque bartender with personal issues.
(This year, New Orleans hosted the government-sponsored Brownfields conference. For him, this annual gig means several workshops over several days on how to clean up and move on after someone knocks over a big glass of crap on your city. For me, it means a petite getaway with the man of my dreams, plus a few hours to myself during daylight hours. For the kids, it means a chance to spend some quality time with their grandparents.)
The pirate bar, as we call it, is actually a former Blacksmith shop run by the in/famous pirate/politician Jean Lafitte. When I say “former,” I mean like as in 1770’s “former.” On the corner of Bourbon past the “gay block,” as one local put it, the place looks as low and sagging as a round Hobbit house. The copper-topped bar covers dark, oil shined wood. All around the walls behind the bar, nooks and niches hold bottles of Jameson or Bombay Sapphire, Cuervo varieties and gazillons of flavors of Vodka. The original blacksmith fire pit makes a little sitting spot in the center of the bar, and on this night, a group of couples leaned in around the pit and yelled at each other over the din of music and bar chatter. A baby slept in a stroller next to one of the women, who kept one hand draped over the baby’s stocking foot.
Husband used to tend bar. He watched Matt Damon try to tuck a bottle of Dewar’s back into its place in a triple-stacked line along one wall of the tiny bar. “That’s got to get old,” he said to Matt. “Yeah,” says Matt. “You should see how we have to get the kegs back here. I told my uncle every one of us has back problems now, but the old man won’t spring for a longer line or a handtruck.”
Turns out Matt’s uncle owns the bar. Matt’s sister is the sole cocktail waitress, and their best friend/roommate also tends there. They live across the river, near Gretna. When we asked them where they went to school, they said “Gretna High.” That seems to be as much school as school gets. We dropped the subject. Husband asked about another drink, and Matt cocked his head at us. “Have you had a Hurricane yet? Let me make you a real one. I’m going to take care of you, sir. I’m going to take care of you.”
Rather than tip in the cheap well brand of rum, Matt loaded up Husband’s glass with Bacardi 151, a faint dash of sweet red mix, crushed ice and sliced oranges and cherries. He set it on the bar in front of us. “That’s done right,” he said. (Apparently it was done right, because later that night Husband got the idea that he could move people off the sidewalk and out of our way using telepathy.)
Matt’s little sister made her rounds between tables inside and out in the little courtyard, then back to a dim piano bar in the hull of the place. (About the piano bar, there was a moment with a biker dude and singing priest, but I’ll save that story for later). The sister and Matt spoke in hand gestures and nods, most of which seemed to center around the theme that she did not do her fair share of work around the place. At one point Matt asked her to go get a bucket of ice, and she stuck out her lower lip at him. Just then, an old black man appeared at Matt’s sister’s side holding a red garden rose. She smiled and crinkled her nose at Matt, and Matt rolled his eyes. “Hey Smooth,” he said.
“Whatchu need fuh me to do?” said Smooth. Matt’s sister asked him to get the bucket of ice, and he handed her the rose and shuffled off to do it. “That’s Smooth,” smiled the sister, before turning to take a tray of beers to the couples at the pit. “He brings me a red rose every night.”
Smooth looked like a sixty year old man living in the body of an eighty year old. Deep gullies ran down both cheeks, and he leaned to one side like he’d been thrown into a wall and never quite straightened up. Matt told us he served many years in the state pen. They don’t know what he did—he won’t talk about it. Because he was so good at showing up at the most advantageous times, he earned his nickname. After release, he went to work as a bodyguard for one of the sheriff’s deputies, and if you have to ask why a lawman needs a bodyguard you’ve never been to the Big Easy.
I looked up from my own drink to see Smooth nod at me, then turn and walk away. I forgot about it until we were almost ready to leave. I turned on my creaky, rusted barstool to find myself face to face with Smooth holding a pale white garden rose. The stem curved, with two long thorns, and an unopened bud branched away from the full bloom of the fragrant flower. “I brung you one, too,” said Smooth. “But I brung you a white one, cause you’s married.” I kissed his wrinkled cheek, and he chuckled and shuffled away.
“Yeah,” said Matt. “That’s why they call him Smooth.”
She looks good, the old girl. We cross the Pontchartrain Causeway into Canal Street, fretting a bit, feeling like kids come to visit an old aunt in the nursing home—will she look unwell? Will she be unkempt or confused? Will she remember us? But by the end of our visit, Husband and I settled on the belief that on the surface, New Orleans seems okay. No fresh wounds, and she’s done well to cover her scars. Below the shiny plastic surface, however, is a whole ‘nuther story.
On the balcony overlooking Bourbon Street, we ate oyster po’boys at Johnny White’s and watched the second half of the UGA game. Husband watched the TV. I peeked over the edge of the wrought-iron balcony, ogling the clusters strollers below. If you visited even before Katrina, you know Bourbon Street long ago shifted away from the historic jazz-and-blues nightclub format that made it famous. Now it has all the charm of a frat house bathroom: drunk blondes, cheap porn and lots sticky fluids.
Still, I love to watch people. Even on a Saturday night in the middle of November, middle aged women seemed willing to forgo dignity in favor of a set of plastic beads. I sipped my beer and watched an older woman in stiletto boots wobble along the center of the street, gripping her beau’s arm. He wore a mullet and white jeans. They walked with their heads tilted back, scanning the balconies for permission for what they seemed to come here determined to do anyway. As soon as someone hollered at her, as if calling on an eager pupil, she popped up her top to reveal her goodies. After some modest yelling, someone tossed down some beads. The couple continued their evening stroll, and I turned to Husband. “I don’t want any beads the whole time we are here, okay?” I said to the side of his face. “Mm,” he said.