Now Playing: Artie Shaw and His Orchestra--"Carioca"
Well, it's already looking pretty bad in the Crescent City. I'm assuming my parents and immediate family are okay; Baton Rouge doesn't seem to have been hit too hard, although I saw some nasty video of Beauregard Town (of all places) on the BBC. A lot of relatives still live in Metairie and other outlying places, though--I can only hope that they managed to escape unharmed. I understandably haven't been able to get through on the phone. There don't seem to be a great many details online, so I'll definitely be watching the news tonight. This week's "Madison Post" will have to wait, as there's really no better time to share a few favorite memories of New Orleans.
Disclaimer: The following set of reminisces might contain evidence of certain misbehaviors which, however innocuous they may seem to the writer, might--oh, fuck it. Thhhhpppttth.
The Aldrich Family Funerals (1994 and 2003)
My great-grandfather and great-grandmother were a wonderful couple, and I had a great time piecing together the story of their tempestuous courtship from discussions and reminisces and general family folklore. Grandpa (Wendell Anthony "Red" Aldrich) was kind of a wild kid, playing minor league baseball all over the South in the late 1920s, allegedly striking out Babe Ruth at a spring training exhibition in Alabama (you may judge the latter's level of inebriation for yourselves), playing in the Panama Canal Zone for the Colon Silver Sprays, and then returning to New Orleans to marry Emelda Theresa Mullen, the precious and very, very cute daughter of a large, middle class Irish family. They were married for sixty-six years, and they were always my favorite relatives to visit. After Grandpa Aldrich's death, I visited "Nana" a lot, especially when I lived in downtown Baton Rouge, since she was then in a retirement home on North St. The funerals and wakes taught me a great deal on what it meant to be alive. I felt especially alive during the gathering before Grandpa's funeral, when I accidentally got my cousin Amanda in trouble for smoking. "I need a cigarette and a smoking partner," she said, and I followed, asking no questions. Five minutes later, her dad materialized outside and ordered, in a nasally threatening voice, "Amanda, put out the cigarette, and come with me." She complied, as I said to myself, "Oh, that's funny." Whatever anyone else says, there's part of Grandpa that totally would have appreciated that.
Kachina Trouble (Summer 1994)
My best friend in high school, Rob (mentioned later), and his girlfriend Jennifer went with me to the city on one of those jaunts one took when life in my hometown of Baton Rouge (memorably if inaccurately referred to by Ignatius Reilly in Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces at "that whirlpool of despair") grew too monotonous. During the course of our visit, we ended up at one of the occult shops designed to separate faithful Anne Rice readers from their money, this one on Dumaine Street. It was fun looking through the various crap on display, and the place had a collection of kachina dolls, the Hopi devotional figures that people must think look so absolutely darling in their homes. The owner, "Donn" (who, in retrospect, reminds me of Larry Cohen horror movie stalwart Fred J. Scollay), noticed me looking at them and engaged me in conversation, which veered terrifyingly into Druidism. "Why do I do that???" I asked myself after we left, somehow taking the whole thing seriously. Of the conversation itself, I remember nothing, except "Donn"'s whipcrack retort to some half-assed observation I must have made, "but who was the TEACHER????" On every subsequent visit to the Quarter, I've made damn sure to keep away from Dumaine. The Wicker Man was set in Scotland, but you can't be too careful.
Lollapalooza (17 Aug. 1994)
Lollapalooza '94 was the first genuine rock show I attended (having led a fairly low-key social life during high school). The Breeders, L7, the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Smashing Pumpkins were all there. I'd met a motley collection of people from work that summer, and we drove down in a not-very effective caravan, my brother Slater riding with me. The show was at UNO, which lay on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, and we endured nightmare traffic up Elysian Fields. We all eventually dispersed and followed our own paths; I ran into some other friends of mine from Baton Rouge and was none too unhappy to listen to a few sets with the lovely Laurel riding atop my shoulders.
What made the day, though, was the ride back. Jordan and Brandon, two fellow caravaneers, somehow found me as I searched for Slater and begged me on their knees to take them back with me. They'd apparently had enough of Tony and Susannah's semi-erotic antics on the way down. "Dude, they were making out like squirrels!" I promised to do so, as soon as I'd found Slater. The latter soon showed up by my car with his friend Dave and Dave's friend Brad, who had "lost" their ride. Brad was allegedly wired on ecstasy (easily believable, but I had no concrete proof). My car was a 1984 Chevrolet Cavalier, and we found the fit correspondingly tight. Crammed into the "burro," we got lost near UNO, scraping the bottom on a number of roadbumps. Brad claimed to have "taken care of" the bill at a local gas station, and I'm still pretty certain that I drove away with ten bucks' worth of free unleaded. Nearing the interstate, we pulled up alongside an evil Domino's driver whose fraudulent directions put us on the wrong exit. As that vile bastard pulled away, cackling his accursed head off, too late for us to try and avenge ourselves on his car, Brad launched himself halfway out my front passenger window and started screaming at the guy. "If I ever see you again, I'm gonna fucking kill you, motherfucker!!" There was worse (or better, depending on one's standards), but we finally made it out of the city and back to Baton Rouge (a city itself, but you know what I mean). Brad bemoaned his lot--a wrestling scholarship to Kansas State, apparently a fate worse than death--and brayed loudly on how he'd have to take a shower and "be clean" before he could do more hard drugs. I accidentally flicked live cigarette embers on Jordan's knee and let Brad off at somebody's house on Chantilly. "Chantilllllyyyyy!!!" The end.
"Grownup" Mardi Gras (February or March 1997)
I went to Mardi Gras every year until I was sixteen, and then had to miss four years while going to school in Virginia. As a kid, I obviously couldn't appreciate the holiday to its full potential because I (a) thought girls were "stupid" (not really, but that's what boys were supposed to say, right?) and (b) couldn't drink. We also generally watched the parades on St. Charles, either uptown or downtown, southwest of Canal. Well, during those glory days known as the early 90s, I'd not only fallen in love or lust entirely too much, but I'd also discovered the more reliably tactile charms of alcohol and nicotine. It was Sunday (I think), so that meant the Krewe of Bacchus. I went down with some of my Barnes and Noble coworkers--James, Jill, Neal, Katie, Malinda, Bruce, Greg and his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and Monica and her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend (so far as I know, neither impending breakup began the evening in question, and I certainly had nothing to do with either, although I wouldn't have minded having something to do with one of them). At this point, it's all a bit of a blur. Stopping at Jill's mom's house, parking in Algiers, taking the ferry across the river to Canal, drinking, wandering around, drinking some more, seeing open-faced Mardi Gras tits on Bourbon Street for the first time, hearing Bruce say he wanted to leave Bourbon Street because he didn't want to miss the parade, and staring him back with appalled and fascinated disbelief (and I refuse to accept the explanation--given by others later--that it was because he was Canadian; I find such an imprecation unworthy to level at the country that gave us Sarah McLachlan, Ziya Tong, and Shania Twain), drinking, smoking, drinking bourbon from a paper bag while watching the parade, zoning out to Pulp with Malinda on the way back... heavenly.
St. Patrick's Day Off (17 Mar. 1998)
Erin, at the time, was dating Rob, and was actually the first girlfriend of his to whom I was attracted. Rob had to work and couldn't go, so Erin invited me to accompany her, Jim, and Greg to the city for the day. They all spent most of the time trying to get the goods on Rob (my three companions had arrived at the conclusion that, whenever Rob finished a story with "I shit you not!", "You know he's lying"), and I came up with some entertaining high school stories. We hit the House of Blues for lunch and then some relatively generic Irish pub down towards Canal for Bushmill's and pool. Jim almost literally killed me on the way back by verbally imagining a Thundercats porno. "Cheetara! Drop your pants, you stupid bitch! Sword of Omens, give me sight beyond sight!"
Trips with James (Winter and Spring 1999)
I had a lot of friends at Barnes and Noble (and still keep in touch with two of them fairly regularly), but never got into so many entertaining scrapes with any of them as I did with James. On our first little jaunt to New Orleans, we somehow wangled an invitation to dinner with Jill and some of her family, the latter in the West Bank (across the Mississippi from New Orleans). James proposed a dastardly plan--he'd flirt with Jill while I kept Ms. Elaine (Jill's mom) busy. I thought he was joking (and he might have been), but that's exactly what ended up happening. Frankly, it wasn't hard to flirt with Ms. Elaine. We drank wine while I told her about Howard Zinn, and if that sounds like the worst kind of humanities-major cliche, she taught American history at a Catholic school, so it was somewhat relevant. Everyone had a great time (and nothing untoward happened, in case you were wondering).
At some point, a few months before or after, we went to visit James' parents, who lived in Marrero (also on the West Bank). I drove James down as his car didn't work and his large Filipino-American family was having some sort of mini-reunion. We cruised through the city, Eric Burdon and the Animals rasping out "When I Was Young" and "Sky Pilot" on my car stereo. James' family was great and tremendously welcoming. His mom, Ms. Cecile, actually tried to give me money as we took off for a jaunt to the Quarter with James' sister and her husband, an out-of-state sheriff's deputy who kept showing people his badge and getting into conversations with cops on street-corners. My most vivid memory is of us sitting in Pat O'Brien's drinking (strangely enough) hurricanes, James and I helplessly drooling over the gorgeous Liverpudlian tourists at the next table chatting with their boyfriends.
For some reason, James' presence unconsciously (I assume) attracted sexy British travelers. This, of course, is the same guy who asked the gift shop girl at some other generic Irish pub in the Quarter if they sold "IRA T-shirts." We were at Molly's on the Market in Decatur Street one night with some of the Barnes and Noble gang, and James and I found each other waiting in line for the bathrooms. The latter are worth describing in detail--they sat behind the restaurant in a lovely inner courtyard, dating from at least the early 1800s, with the Spanish colonial windows and balconies that made the French Quarter such a delight. The "ladies'" line was longer than the "gentlemen's", and we found out why when a miniskirted lovely with cartoonishly long legs and raven tresses stumbled out of the distaff can and explained in a boozy Home Counties screech: "Oh, I just had a little trouble in there! I'm British, don't you know! The British Empire! Say no more!" This was not an Anglophobic character study worthy of a Mel Gibson movie or a rogue Python sketch. She actually said it while stumbling away and, in doing so, was obscenely hot. That might be why I'm so into Sally Webster on "Coronation Street." Yeah, she's from a Manchester suburb, but still...
There were other beers, other friends, other events--I met my Roanoke friends Jen and Chris down there a couple of times, and we frequently ended up at the house in Metairie where Nana's sister, Aunt Sue, lived with her husband, Uncle Ray. Their house had my favorite housesmell ever--vaguely like cigars, but not quite. There was also the time I met my friend Jason at his aunt's house on Pontalba Street, smoked cigarettes of various kinds and woke up on the floor covered in his aunt's kittens (of which there were maybe twenty or so) and laughing hysterically. I've rarely had a bad time in New Orleans (thanks for nothing, all-night rave at the State Theatre), and I hope she recovers and that the damage to families and homes isn't too terrible.
I just got back from checking some news. "Unknown number of deaths"... that really doesn't look good.