I’m on my way to New Orleans this morning, leaving out of Nashville, Tennessee. They’re always having a good time down on the bayou, Lord, them Delta women think the world of me.
— Allman Brothers, Ramblin’ Man
My two competing claims to fame were that I: (1) ate bacon for 21 days straight once; and (2) I went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans 8 years in a row. Close call, but I think the latter is the winner. I always listened to that song, Ramblin’ Man, on my way to the airport, or in the car ride down – sometimes multiple times. I love “The Big Easy” – but only tourists call it that. Locals call it, “The City that care forgot.” But I’m a tourist, as much as I hate to admit it. Therefore, my motto was always: “When The Big Easy calls, you gotta accept the charges.” I took that collect call many times, but it has been too long since I made the trip to the swamp.
Recently I had a friend, of Cajun descent no less, take his first trip to NOLA over Mardi Gras weekend. He invited me but I could not make it, and that saddened me. The last time I was there for Mardi Gras (MG) was 2005 – the only reason I did not return in 2006 was due to Katrina. It isn’t that I didn’t want to go back, quite the opposite; it was simply that over time it became harder and harder to recruit people to go with me. The bigger a krewe (Cajun spelling) you have, the better the weekend is. I’d had a couple visits where there were only three of us; those were admittedly the least fun. Your krewe needs to be big enough to split into two and have adequate numbers still to be a formidable force. Then, later when those two smaller krewes reunite, it is like a typhoon of debauchery and revelry. It is awesome. Well, as the years wore on, it became harder and harder to recruit folks to make the trek. And after Katrina, well, those that I used to be able to rely on just thought it wouldn’t be the same. So the streak was broken. And the rest, as they say, is history. What I actually heard from acquaintances was that the post-Katrina MG was one of the better ones, largely for two reasons: (1) there were less people there, especially tourists. And (2) there was a spirit of rejuvenation and rebirth in the air after the tragedy and the government’s horrible response to it. So much had been sacrificed, and so much of the culture was threatened that the most dedicated knew this was not going to be something else they would let slip through the levees. And I missed it…
I’ve been to NOLA several other times as well, not just for MG. I’ve been for New Year’s Eve and The Sugar Bowl (my alma mater got pounded by LSU); St. Patrick’s Day weekend; two bachelor parties (March/October); and one random trip in August which is probably the worst time to go. My last trip was in the spring of 2013, so I am way overdue. However, I have a conference there next September, so I know I’ll be back. In fact, I wouldn’t be going to this professional conference if it weren’t in NOLA. I’m actually not sure how much time I’ll spend at the conference, unless it happens to be on Frenchman St (hipster locals), the Bywater (normal locals) or Bourbon St (hipster tourists). I’m a diplomat; I’ll rabble-rouse with anyone.
So this most recent Fat Tuesday found me feeling as if I was missing out. To be honest, on the MGs since 2005, here and there I’ve tried to raise the spirit, but mostly I don’t. It never measures up. Sure, I’ve heard Biloxi, MS, St. Louis, MO, and especially Mobile, AL all do a solid MG, but I’ve never lived in any of those places and if I were to travel for MG it would be for the real deal – NOLA or bust. Though I would love to try Carnival in South America, I cut my teeth in the dirty south, so that is where I long for most. Anyhow, on this most recent day I dug through my oversized tub of shirts looking for one in particular: my purple (symbolizing justice), gold (power) and green (faith) polo with “Mardi Gras” emblazoned over the heart. Before I found it I saw a shirt my friend made for MG 2001 which read, “I was conceived at Pat O’Briens.” For the uninitiated, POBs as it is affectionately called, is the meetup location for many in the French Quarter. Centrally located, it is a great place to both start and finish your day(s) (daze?) of drinking. Overprized drinks, gnarly bathrooms, shoddy service and questionable food be damned; this place has character.
Two interesting stories from my time at POBs: (1) (and this is really a string of connected incidents) every time I was in NOLA, regardless of the season or the reason, I ran a little “scam” at POBs. They charge you a deposit for most glasses there, and people are either too dumb or too drunk to realize this by the end of their boozing session so they leave behind their $3-4 deposit glasses. Well, I find a nefarious waiter to collect all those glasses and bring them to me. I return them and get the deposit, then we split it (well, they usually got about 30-40%). That way my night of drinking usually came closer to breaking even. Not bad, huh?
(2) The last time I was there in 2013, we were hanging out during the daytime and two of my friends who had moved on to becoming whiskey snobs ordered Jameson on the rocks. Well, neither felt their drink was very powerful. One owns a series of bars in Chicago and both know their booze well enough. Besides, we had only just started drinking, so it is a little easier to tell when something is watered down. They told the waiter who said it wasn’t possible. Then they asked to speak to the manager who said the same. Eventually we were asked to leave because my friends wanted the stiff drinks they paid for, and wanted whomever was adulterating the brown syrup to be penalized for misconduct. New Orleans, at least near the French Quarter where the clueless and drunken tourists play, can be awfully shady. I was once fake-stabbed. Another time I was an assumed dupe for a three-card monte scam; I was too clever to fall victim to that one.
During MG of 2000 I was doing my best to drink the city out of beer. Come about 4pm or so in the afternoon on the Saturday of MG weekend I needed to take a leak. Even though there were bars everywhere, I decided the best place for me to do this would have been in the open on a crowded street. I asked two friends to watch out for me. Facing the wrong way on a one-way street, I was apprehended shortly after tapping off my appendage. I looked at my friends with a “WTF” face and all they did was shrug. Apparently the cops came on too quickly for them to make a squeak. They took my massive stack of beads – which are worth more than gold down there at that time of year – and threw them in the garbage, followed by me into the back of the patrol car. They hauled me down to the precinct, and eventually put me in a holding cell. I was in the cell, which had no door, with a few other people. Locals in there for real crimes, and tourists in there for vagrancy, disorderly conduct and public indecency. All I wanted to do was get out. All I needed was another drink. Well, one of the guys in there with me, another tourist, was flying on some sort of illicit substance, complaining about all he needed was some water; he had cottonmouth. As we didn’t have a door on the holding pen, he wandered out to one of the cop’s desks and grabbed a soda sitting there and chugged it. Then out of nowhere, 3-4 cops rushed him and tackled him. They roughed him up. It was spooky. Not too much longer they took a group of us, maybe 12-15, into a larger, darker room and told us all to strip down. We then were told to face the wall and spread out butt cheeks so they could look for contraband. Fortunately I had none. Off to my cell, thankfully by myself, I waited and wondered. In the year before cell phones really started to be omnipresent, I had no way to contact my friends. Thankfully they were being proactive and gathering the necessary $500 for my bail. Six hours after getting my buzz ruined, I was back out on the streets. A friend gave me his beads – Bourbon Street Credit – another handed me a “Huge Ass Beer” (32 oz. of fuel), and thirty minutes later I was taking a leak on the street again, this time shielded by the dark. Some people never learn…
I paid my friends back after we got home a few days later. Six years later I got a notice and a check from a class action lawsuit for roughly $2,500 – apparently it is illegal to do mass strip searches for misdemeanor crimes. I went on to spend that $2,500 and then some on the handful of trips I’ve taken back to the Crescent City. I’d gladly pay that again for another couple shots at the “City that care forgot” – only I’ll never forget that city. Let the good times roll!