(New to this blog series? Read New Orleans. Part One.)
Looking back over the past twenty five years, I can spot certain moments where a choice I made altered the course of my life entirely. This is one of them. At the time, I thought I was simply running out of money.
Such is the mystery of the Crossroads.
Part Four: “You’ll be a’right.”
Looking up at the sign, I just had to laugh.
So this was the “Le Bon Taun” Leilah Wendell had recommended to me a few days previous:
Le Bon Temps Roulé.
The sign was a glass box, the kind that illuminates from within. The tobacco brown letters were rendered in an old West script across milk-white glass. The name was a slight abbreviation of the Cajun French phrase I remembered from my New Orleans guide book:
Laissez les bons temps rouler, or ‘Let The Good Times Roll’.
Now, assuming you didn’t know French (Cajun or otherwise), you would still note how the name arched over an illustration of a fiddle on its side. Printed beneath the fiddle was “Bar & Sandwich Shop”. By my reckoning that was at least three different ways to signal to any visitor to “Come on in.”
On my limited budget, “po-boy” sandwiches quickly became a necessary (and apropos) lunch staple while I looked for shelter and work. My love affair with the city’s signature sandwich began with this low-key neighborhood bar.
I arrived at Le Bon on a weekday afternoon. The entrance to the kitchen was off to the side. I admit to being a little dubious of this place at first. The brick-red building, while charmingly dilapidated from the outside, seemed “iffy” as a safe lunch spot.
But after a moment’s hesitation, I invoked “When In Rome”, walked inside, leaned over the deli counter and ordered a po-boy. Hot ham and cheese.
I sat at a table near the door. It turned out to be a great place to steal occasional strands of river breeze (arguably as precious as water on Dune). A small walkway connected the kitchen area to the main bar which carried the echo of television chatter. I was likely the only patron in the bar at that hour.
A few minutes later the cook called out my order. I’ll never forget that first bite. The warm buttery french bread, the dressing… it was all good. Really, really good. Score one for Leilah.
This is one of the last few pleasant memories I have of the that brief two week stay. Sadly, the search for shelter wasn’t going so well. The job hunt wasn’t going at all.
As my funds dwindled so did my lodging choices. I didn’t have online resources back then, such as “Airbnb” or “Craigslist”. Ditto for work, which wasn’t augmented by “Monster”, “Dice”, or any semblance of placement firms for entry level talent. In 1995, it was flipping through newspapers, fishing out quarters for phone booth inquiries and word of mouth leads. That reads curmudgeon-y in print, but I actually feel wistful writing it. With the proper resources, the outcome might have turned out quite differently.
At first the shelter hunt was a walk-around venture. Some newspaper ads listed the street address, some didn’t. I followed up on those that did. The first of these led me to a neighborhood in the lower Garden District. After some map tracing and asking around, I walked up alongside one of my circled finds: an elongated shotgun cottage. The renter lived on the premises, but it was mid-afternoon so I knew I had a 50/50 shot of reaching someone. I walked up the short steps to ring the doorbell. My finger had barely depressed the button when a hoarse female voice shouted out behind me:
“She ain’t home!”
Ah. So the landlord’s a “she” then.
I looked back at the house behind me. It was another cottage, rattier than the one I stood beside. The agitated voice seem to originate from one of the side windows but the screens were too dark and dusty to actually make out a face.
Glancing back at the prospective landlord’s doorbell, I thought “fuck it” and rang it anyway. The gesture was one part wishful thinking, one part refusal to acknowledge a graceless asshole.
The window behind me blasted again:
“I SAID SHE AIN’T HOME!!!”
Lower, I heard: “Shit.”
I waited a few minutes in silence. I have little doubt that the faceless woman across the street was choking with apoplectic rage at being ignored. It was for her benefit that I waited a few minutes more before slowly (very slowly) walking on.
And as I walked, an elderly woman approached from the opposite street. I’m not sure why we stopped to chat, only that it seemed natural that we did. I tend to read people fairly quickly, and got an immediate good vibe off of her. We traded easy jokes about the debilitating heat before the subject of my apartment hunting came up. I confessed it wasn’t going so well, but I was “nothing if not persistent.”
A few moments of silence passed between us. Not tense silence, just enough silence to let the insects buzz as they do while you think things over, the kind of silence you enjoy with a friend while sipping iced drinks on the porch. She seemed to be sizing me up.
“Well,” she said at last. “You seem like a nice young man. You’ll be a’right.”
I thanked her for this gentle vote of confidence, and we continued on our respective ways.
Then, as now, I get a lot of mileage off a few words of simple, genuine kindness. I still remember her fondly.
Sadly, my “a’right” days were a long way off yet. Once I saw the inside of some of these apartments, I began to more fully grasp the oddball appellation “The city that care forgot”—except where these rentals were concerned, I would replace “forgot” with “flat out ignored.” I wasn’t expecting much on my budget, but wow. “Dejected” didn’t begin to cover it.
First, there was the living room on the lower end of St. Charles:
When I say “living room”, I mean just that: an isolated living room, walled off from the rest of the house. No bedrooms or bathrooms, only an adjoining broom closet-sized kitchen with unhooked appliances. For once, I was glad my best friend wasn’t there to see this.
Mind you, this room wasn’t entirely unfurnished. The west wall was home to a hand-carved hutch with an antique mirror whose dust-coated surface was flecked by black spots. Mold from the humidity most likely. A simple crystal chandelier hung from an ornate ceiling medallion. Seeing it made my heart ache a little. The medallion looked like those hand crafted from horsehair and plaster during the antebellum era. The aging flame-tipped light bulbs of the chandelier cast a dull yellow glow over the living room carpet. The crystal “tear drops” descending from the chandelier’s base were nearly opaque due to heavy smudging and dust, and could do little to refract the already weakened light.
This room could have been elegant if rejoined with the rest of the house and refurbished some. Alas, in 1995, it was simply a stifling, neglected room. The curtains were always shuttered, mostly to protect the room from baking in the midday sun. I think it ran a meager $20 or so a night, so there wasn’t much for me to bitch about.
I left it for an admittedly impractical reason: the room filled me with crushing sadness.
There was the Youth Hostel on Carondelet:
Leilah knew of a couple of youth hostels in the area. One was definitely much better than the other. I ended up finding the “other”.
Writing this, however, I have to shrug. At the hostel I had a bunk bed, a compartment (sans lock) to throw my duffel bag in and a shower. Now that’s three things I didn’t have in an empty room, so… “upgrade”. I don’t recall why, exactly, I left the hostel after a day or so, save for general discomfort with my current bunk mates and theft concerns.
After looking at some additional rooms, some quite nice (and therefore well out of my budget), some comically scary, I finally agreed to rent a room on Prytania Street. In hindsight, I should have stayed on St. Charles. Or slept on a bench in Jackson Square.
This daily rental was a living room of sorts, but recently converted to a front bedroom. The bedroom door opened out to a long hallway with creaky wooden floorboards. It carried the echo of every stuck door and booted footfall. A shared bathroom awaited upstairs, a place I frequented just enough to maintain a reasonable standard of personal hygiene. A paper thin wall separated me from my first floor roommate. He coughed incessantly. I spent my last few nights in New Orleans with the lights on, since turning them off meant watching the carpet writhing with cockroaches until dawn.
It only took a few nights of this to decide I had enough. Clearly I still didn’t have the necessary funds to pull this off in a way that made sense to stay.
I walked to a nearby Burger King to use a pay phone. I dialed up an old Navy friend of mine, Steve, who was currently stationed in Hawaii with his Filipina wife and two young daughters. I just needed someone to talk to, someone I trusted to give me some perspective on how best to manage the hole I was in.
So I dialed Steve up and he listened. Historically, Steve’s candor usually tended toward the rough, “sucks to be you” interpretation of misfortune. As such, I expected some mild teasing followed by a few strategic suggestions.
Instead he offered to fly me to Hawaii to stay with him and his family long enough to recover. From there, I could pick up a temporary job and raise enough money to come back to New Orleans or wherever. So long as I paid him back for the price of the ticket, he said, anything I earned beyond that was mine to build up my savings.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
The exit plan was simple. Steve set up a time for me to call him after he had purchased the one-way ticket out of New Orleans. Until then, I just had to wait it out at the Prytania Street rental. “Do you have enough to get by until then?” He asked. I said I did.
So long as I stuck with po-boys I thought I’d be a’right.
So I was going to Hawaii. I walked around in a fog of preoccupation about what that venture would bring. And as I did so, my immediate surroundings began to blur, as did my memories of them over time. I think I needed that. It took some of the edge off being forced to leave.
What I remember more clearly was saying farewell to one New Orleans friend, and meeting a new one.
I made the trek to Westgate on Magazine Street and explained to Leilah that I “had” to go. She looked disappointed but unsurprised. I cited the obvious: no shelter, no work, running out of funds, and as I did so I wondered how often she had heard this tale before. No matter. I couldn’t force what wasn’t working. That was my new “line” with everyone: I would retreat long enough to save up enough money to return “properly”. I honestly didn’t count on anyone believing me.
I made my way back to the French Quarter. I’m pretty sure I was of the mindset to commit at least some parts of the city to memory since I knew it would be some time before I could see any of it again. It’s been too long now to be absolutely certain what I did and did not do to wait out those final days, but I would bet on one last trip to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip for a drink, an appropriately haunted structure built between 1722 and 1732.
Lafitte’s prior to Hurricane Katrina:
Lafitte’s post-Katrina, following city mandated repairs:
I would also bet on one last longing stare at the spires of St. Louis Cathedral, still too fairytale-like to be real.
It was during these meanderings that I eventually made my way back to a shop on Decatur Street I had visited once or twice before. Long before Hot Topic became a household name, “alternative” clothing shops were pretty hard to find and, as a business venture, even harder to hold on to. I don’t remember the name of this particular one but I can picture it easily enough: a creaky wooden staircase leading up to a nearly claustrophobic display of overstuffed clothing racks—the usual gallery of black t-shirts with band logos and sly counter culture slogans, leather jackets, and studded… well, everything. Looming over this forest of clothing were staggered wall displays of boots, sandals and gleaming stilettos. Dressing stalls with flimsy curtains were provided for anyone willing to try on more risqué items, of which there were plenty.
Filling in what little floor space remained were elongated glass cases safeguarding decorative pipes, silver (and only silver) patina-grooved jewelry and other easy-to-pocket accessories. Taken as a whole, it was three parts apparel to one part traditional “head shop”, all crammed into a single floor. It was just the kind of niche shop Decatur Street was becoming known for.
This time around, I ran into the same guy I met from a prior visit. Shamefully, I don’t remember his name, or much of what he looked like apart from being a slender white guy with dark (brown?) hair. We first met by striking up an awkward conversation about a pair of classic “yellow stitch” Doc Martens propped against the window display. I suspect it was pretty transparent that I couldn’t afford them at the time, but he didn’t seem to mind. Other specifics about him escape me, but I do remember that he used to be in the Air Force, had great taste in music and just gave off a genuinely “good guy” vibe. He was one of the city’s rising number of transplants as well, but had beat me to New Orleans by a few years. For the sake of convenience, I’ll call him “Jason”.
When I returned to the shop to tell Jason I was leaving and why, he suggested a different route: would I consider sharing a place with him and his roommates just long enough to get myself settled in the city? For the second time that week I found myself gobsmacked by someone’s unexpected generosity. I also got the sense that I was coming to a fork in the road.
I asked a few questions about his apartment setup. I was waiting for the “catch”, but all he seemed to care about was that I didn’t drag my feet on finding work and contributing a little to rent prior to moving out. All perfectly reasonable expectations. This way, he reasoned, I could just focus on finding work without the added worry of ending up on the street. The only stipulation was that I meet his roommates first, out of respect for them, and to gauge their comfort level and mine. Again, more than reasonable, so I agreed to meet them the following evening.
The next time I sat down at Cafe Du Monde for beignets, I was more than a little heartsick.
I could go to Hawaii, save up a good deal of money and come back “triumphantly”. But who knew how long that would actually take. It could be years of saving above and beyond rent, utilities, etc—especially with my meager earning power at the time.
Or I could stay here, rough it out and invoke the necessary tenacity needed to hunt down the elusive job, as well as the non-scary apartment to call my own. Then this trip to Cafe Du Monde wouldn’t have to be my last. Far from it.
If I have to be entirely honest here (and as writers, we must) I had already made my decision. The sorry mood I was in while sipping cafe au lait was the realization that I had already ventured the “irresponsible” route and found it wanting, even with this eleventh hour offer to crash with a new friend. I wanted to try out the “responsible” route.
On a far deeper level — deeper than I would have been able to admit to at the time—I also had to “test” my need to return to the city.
It was for this reason that I almost didn’t meet up at Jason’s place, but I felt obligated to see this meeting through. The 20-something couple he shared the apartment with seemed nice enough. The place itself had the appropriate bohemian spirit. It was minimally dressed with a few bits of functional stick furniture, mini stereos and several stacks of compact discs. No drugs that I could see. Just a quiet group of nice people. Apparently I was green-lighted after I left. All I had to do was say “yes”.
The next day I thanked Jason for his generosity but respectfully declined. I didn’t know when I could return to New Orleans, but I had little doubt that I would. And return I did, almost two years to the day I left.
What I couldn’t know at the time is that I would not be returning alone.
New Orleans. Part Five.