HOUND DOG SWAN SONG
I skipped coffee and breakfast Saturday morning—my groceries were still packed up!—but didn’t want to show up before 10:00 since Debra bartended until 3a.m., so instead pulled out my acoustic guitar and sat on the porch serenading John Fohl’s dogs one last time (though they had eventually tired of howling at me). Monday night I had stopped by Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar to watch John perform while I still lived nearby. He stopped by to chat before the set and caught me again a few days later as I was getting in my truck. When I asked him about that gig, he revealed he’s held it down since moving to town over a decade and a half ago. Impressive! Felling ballsy, I asked him about his solo career after parting ways with Dr. John—he’s busy gigging with other artists—and we fell into a conversation about the quirkiness and difficulty of musicians. A few years ago I had formed a ‘living room band’ with a close friend. I was fully aware of our limited talent and potential, so was shocked when egos tore us apart. Perplexed and depressed by the experience, I fell in with a small blues and R&B band where I could hide from sight and sound on rhythm guitar yet again egos and musician flakiness took their toll. I commented that if egos could be strong in such extremely amateur settings, I couldn’t imagine dealing with truly talented professionals. John just shook his head and laughed as if to say, “If you only knew…” He seems to be that rare person who is as nice as he is talented and I’m embarrassed that he’s heard me so many times on the porch fumbling on guitar; hopefully he was asleep as I serenaded his dogs one last time.
ONE MORE ABODE ON MY LONG & WINDING ROAD
Even though Debra had said any time after 10:00 would work, I was determined to be right on time. Thus I was fully packed by a quarter after 9, having sheepishly asked a neighbor’s roofer to help me load my futon. Thinking yesterday was my last day, I had already completed my final errand by asking Nancy the meaning of a painting hanging above the toilet that had perplexed me for months every time I went to urinate: a wounded and bandaged female reproductive system captioned “Down But Not Out” (the local female painter had said it was a general feminist statement about home much more women suffered and endured); thus I simply slid the key under a porch ornament and said farewell to yet another temporary abode on my life’s long & winding road.
As I drove away, I slightly regretted choosing front porch strumming over a trip to Slim Goodies, so drove through McDonalds for an egg white McMuffin and a much needed large coffee. The windows were down and morning sun hanging low in the sky, and as I drove toward downtown’s small but striking skyline I glowed with optimism.
Later I would be grateful for that small sandwich as it would be many hours and misadventures later before I’d eat again.
TURN RIGHT & CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE GLOBE
With its one-way streets, pedestrian blockades, and switching directions the French Quarter is difficult to cross even on a bike and I was moving to the opposite side near Marigny so I cut to the north and took Rampart Street. This, too, can be a challenge as left turns are outlawed in New Orleans like so many other cities, as if turning right and circumnavigating the globe is the logical alternative!
Traffic was thick. It was a gorgeous, surprisingly temperate Saturday morning and crowds were already pouring in for the oyster festival down on the river so when I pulled up onto Decatur Street, there was no place to park. There is a loading zone right outside my new building but a large white van was nested there in blatant disregard. I parked illegally around the corner and called Debra who advised me to do another (painfully slow) lap of the block and park on the sidewalk across the road, adding that her downstairs neighbor Jake would perhaps hold a spot if it opened up. I’d considered this as I drove by but doubted the cafés there would take kindly to my big truck blocking their doors during prime brunch hours. Debra assured me that she does it all the time.
After I parked and turned on my flashers, Debra dropped me the keys from the balcony and I started rushing items through the narrow, dark service hall where air conditioners spilled condensation onto the filthy floor. The winding, slanted, and narrow wooden stairs to the apartment were tucked in back around the corner from the courtyard that held a hidden cottage—likely an old slaves quarters. I piled my stuff at the bottom of the stairs, hoping to move my truck before I got a ticket or the flashers drained my fading battery.
Stacking my possessions, though, became a tricky tango; Debra’s friend Jake was still moving her and her daughters stuff out as I moved in. When I asked is she knew anyone who could help with my futon, she said Jake would be glad to if I gave him $10. “God knows he could use it,” she added. It struck me as odd that her downstairs neighbor whom she had mentioned, Jake, could afford a trendy French Quarter apartment and yet be so hard up for a few dollars. Moreover, Jake looked more like one of the young ‘gutter punks’ (albeit older, as he was around 50) living on the streets outside and playing guitar for tips. He was nice enough but had darting eyes, a roughly shaven head, baggy and faded black and white clothes with skulls and other street images, worn military boots, and a few missing teeth. It would be a while yet before I’d realize there were two Jakes: the downstairs neighbor and Debra’s friend who had shown up sick, jobless, and homeless from Africa and who I was inheriting as an unexpected roommate. When it comes to finding housing in New Orleans, nothing is as it seems.
N.O.L.A. FOR AFRICA
I wasn’t quite finished unpacking when Jake said he was ready to help with the futon. It’s a light piece of furniture, but because of its moving parts and the tricky, narrow stairs moving it would prove to be a challenge. It took several twists and turns to navigate each turn and I tried to steady the futon from opening with one hand, but it would collapse each time I’d try to readjust my grip. Screws rattled out of place and a few cheap bolts broke off (that quality futon construction!) Despite my caution, we scraped and banged at every turn as it caught on a stair, railing, or corner. We were drenched with sweat and huffing when we finally made it into my room. As I handed Jake his $10, he complained that he still wasn’t over the bug he’d caught in Africa helping his brother-in-law, who had abandoned him when he got sick, film his documentary. I didn’t entirely hear grasp his explanation, though, because my mind was busy trying to work out what the downstairs neighbor was doing in Africa.
Nevertheless, I was eager to finish unpacking, afraid my battery was going to die. During two recent service visits (oils & tires) I’d been told my battery needed replacing and I’d since had to jumpstart it twice. Debra, though, naturally took a few minutes to run over some particulars and peculiarities about the apartment such as the refrigerator needing a firm bump with your knee to seal completely and the shutters to the balcony needing closed when it rains or it would leak downstairs angering Jake—who I thought was standing beside me yet remained quiet on the subject.
As matters turned from instruction to conversation, I tried to get away but stopped when Debra informed me that Jake would be staying there ‘for a few days.’ Now I was really confused. What was wrong with Jake’s room downstairs? Had she left open the shutters and flooded him out?!
CAPTAIN CLUELESS STRIKES AGAIN
Finally breaking away, I rushed back downstairs to quickly finish emptying my truck, then slid in and turned the key only to be rewarded by a hollow click. Sigh.
Stuck on a sidewalk on a narrow one-way street in the French Quarter, I pulled out my jumper cables and tried to wave down help, but was ignored for a good ten minutes. Finally a large white van (not the one still parked in the loading zone) slowed down and offered to help, but he couldn’t stop traffic or turn around to face me. He did a lap and then slowed down to suggest I push my truck around the corner when Jake appeared and said offered to retrieve the keys to Debra’s car. I look up to see her on the balcony watching. I sighed, once again feeling like captain clueless.
Jake soon managed to swing Debra’s car around on the sidewalk without holding up anxious tourist too long. It started up right away, but once running I had to give the battery time to charge so I left my possessions sitting at the bottom of the stairs and drove to mid-city to pick up my bike that I’d dropped off two days prior for repairs, passing an Auto Zone along the way. So, after picking up my bike after a slow getaway from the overly-chatty libertarian proprietor, I stopped by to get the battery replaced, afraid of a repeat episode—yet another expense as I try to pinch pennies.
TWO STEPS FORWARD, DRIVE 1/3 THE WAY BACK
By the time I returned the Quarter at least an hour and a half had passed. It was now well past noon and as I drove up and down streets armed with my new parking pass there wasn’t a spot anywhere. Debra had assured me parking is usually easy, but apparently not during a downtown festival. After a half hour I tried to find a spot she’d mentioned in Marigny but it was packed as well. Next I drove up Esplanade past Treme where it appears safely residential but, alas, vague road construction had most of the on-street parking blocked for miles.
I next tried Treme, where I’ve heard of some people leaving their vehicles, but even driving around far north of the neighborhood gave me a bad feeling. Although there is little to steal in my truck, I can hardly afford the deductible to get the window replaced. Well over an hour had passed and I gave up, diving back into traffic to head Uptown towards the Lower Garden District, eventually parking miles away on a residential street about 1/3 f the way back to where I’d left that morning!
Fortunately I had my bike, and it was about a fifteen-minute ride back. It was pushing 3:00 and I’d had nothing since my McMuffin early that morning so I was starved. Arriving ‘home,’ I tossed my bike into the courtyard and rushed across the road to grab lunch in the Magnolia Café before Debra had time to tell me every restaurant on the block was infested with rats, including the ever-popular Coop’s. In fact, by the time I ate and started lugging my stuff upstairs, she was long gone.
AS THE FRENCH QUARTER TURNS
I was sweaty and exhausted by the time I carried the last load up the difficult stairs, yet noticed my futon mattress was soaked despite carefully placing it to avoid a/c condensation. (I checked again later and still have no idea how it got wet. Yet another mystery!) I felt like collapsing for a nap, but instead, uncertain of what French Quarter fluids it could have soaked up, grabbed my Spray-n-Wash and started a thorough cleansing.
Once the futon was put together, I took a cool shower and collapsed for a few minutes. Unpacking could wait. I didn’t stay down long and got up to check the place out, noticing that Debra’s room was empty. Jake had wandered back from helping Debra move and when I mentioned it he said, “Oh, she’s not coming back.” As he started talking very possessively about the place, and his uncertain plans for the future, I began to suspect, though not realize, that this may not be Jake from downstairs. It wouldn’t be until the next day that Debra would explain he was an old friend who showed up with nowhere to go and she couldn’t turn him away so he formed a small pallet in her abandoned bedroom and settled in. In my agreement with Debra, I had agreed to pay the majority of rent and utilities since I would mostly have the place to myself, and it would later occur to me that I had paid someone to help me move 1 piece of furniture so that I could subsidize his rent and utilities.
A couple of days after that I had to laugh when neighbor Jake popped his head in looking for Debra. She said the dishwasher was leaking and he was a handyman. He was the exact opposite of friend John, less of a Tim Allen than the brownstone handyman from some daytime soap resembling a long-haired Don Draper but with that Mad Man’s ‘alpha male’ masculinity replaced with a softened metro-sexual flare that would likely win over a lot of female daytime soap fans and not a few males of alternative persuasion. Who needs to be a fiction writer when you keep stumbling into such amusingly bizarre drama!
IT’S 5 O’CLOCK THIS WHERE!
But I get ahead of myself. Saturday night, as I was still puzzling over the Jake myster, a friend had offered a spare ticket to a cocktail tour of the French Quarter, and though it seemed quite a touristy thing to do, it felt like a good way to christen my first night in the Quarter. Besides, by now I needed a drink!