I remember riding on a train and it was very hot, a dry
heat with wind like a huge hair drier blowing through my curly matted red hair,
against my bearded sunburned face and my arms. I was on the front ledge of a
reddish-brown boxcar and could see desert terrain, plateaus and sandy-colored
mountains, some capped with small patches of snow. It was over a hundred
degrees where I was, but I could see snow on a faraway mountain.
I was suffering from a bad case of DTs, alcoholic withdraws, so weak I could barely stand, so irritable I could hardly sit still, my whole body quivering, breathing erratic. It felt like bugs were crawling on me and I couldn’t stop scratching at them. Perfectly grid-patterned across my vision was a scary overlay of hideous faces, grotesque and scowling at me, taunting me from over the desert sand, plateaus and mountains. And it got even worse if I closed my eyes.
Not only was I out of alcohol, I was out of water, so dehydrated I couldn’t spit or piss. I had jumped the train in El Paso with a handle of cheap vodka, a gallon of water, some tamales and plans of jumping off in Phoenix to resupply. Singing Hotel California in beat with the clacking drone of the rail, I vaguely recall seeing Phoenix as the train approached a westering sun, a few fingers still sloshing in the bottle. Next thing I knew it was dark, awakened by the want of a drink, clutching the empty bottle. I’d slept right through Phoenix and it was now fifteen hours since my last drink, that want having long since bent to a need. Scary thing, DTs, a physical and mental self-affliction rendering one terrified of the benign and utterly inept among the simple.
Suddenly I saw a small desert town flanked by a legion of wind turbines off in the distance. Clearly displayed in red letters on the side of a tiny white building was the word LIQUOR. While the DTs had haunted me, I was irked to no end by the fact that I had money, $127 plus change. Every other time I could recall having the bad-shakes was because I was broke, out of money. Now it was because I was on a train hauling ass through the desert with no way of getting off.
Cursing myself for not buying more booze back in Texas, I glanced ahead noticing something where the tracks turned slightly skirting the base of a mountain. It was a bridge. The train was about to cross some kind of bridge, and bridges sometimes cross over water.
In a spastic lurch, I turned and grabbed my rucksack, heavy and cumbersome as I pulled it to my chest, jerkily looping my arms through the straps to wear it reverse as a cushion. Shaking like a dog shitting peach pits, I grabbed hold of the railing and stepped up on the rung, leaned out and looked to my left, the direction the train was going at 60 plus. I could see the bridge clearly now from a five o’clock angle, twenty seconds away and counting. One of those low iron jobs that stretched 100-feet over a concrete river. But I could not yet see any water. It was late May and this wasn’t Louisiana, it was the low desert of Southern California. What if there was no water?
Finally I saw it, a forty-foot-wide strip of dirty brown swill. But how deep? Was I about to die, about to commit suicide? I saw my time and jumped, the world spinning down and to the left, crashing belly first in a warm soup of slow moving runoff.
My breath was knocked out as water was forced up my nose. A strange buzzing hum reverberated in my ears, the whining protest of hydraulics. A convulsion of agony shot through my body, desperately seeking some form of anchorage. Bubbles spilled upward from my mouth, my scream muffled by the hot dirty water. Suddenly my feet found shoring on the bottom five feet below, thrusting my head up to puke water into the air. Struggling to free myself from the straps of my rucksack, I pitched sideways, then grabbed back at the pack as it nearly floated away. Coughing, swimming and choking, I found the cement bottom with my hands and pushed up. Working my legs, I moved toward the dry part of the slab, slanting upward, more shallow by the inch. Retching, coughing, and spitting up water, I pulled myself amphibious-like onto the sunbaked cement to gasp and moan. The stale smell suddenly took me back to where I’d been nine months earlier. The musty odor of havoc.
The Friday night before Katrina hit, I had to work running bicycle deliveries for a small 24 hour grocery store in the French Quarter, the kind with isles so narrow I had to walk sideways or I’d knock something off the shelf. I was supposed to be there at eleven to cover the graveyard shift, but as I poured the last of my vodka into a plastic travel bottle, I noticed it was 11:03. After a handful of ice I screwed on the lid, gave it a good shake and popped open the pour spout, squirting a generous shot in my mouth as I headed for the door.
John, my roommate, was on the sofa crouched over the coffee table digging through the ashtray looking for roaches. Cigarette butts spilled onto a table littered with empty beer cans, whiskey bottles and an odd assortment of clutter, including a Taurus 9-millimeter handgun. I paused at the door hoping he’d find a roach big enough to share and glanced at the television. That was the first image I remember seeing of Katrina, churning up the gulf on the weather channel, spinning like a bogeyman in an 80’s video game. I’d been through several hurricanes before: Andrew, Opal, Jerry and a few others. It was obvious we’d get some of her outer bands, but my guess was she’d make landfall somewhere around Mobile, sparing us the worst.
I used to wait tables and bartend for a living. Pretty good at it, too, rarely making less than a cool grand in a forty-hour week. There was a time when I could carry four drinks in one hand without my fingers touching the rim of the glass. Tote plates all up and down my arm without getting my shirt dirty. Flip bottles in the air, doing a wide array of bar tricks, and take orders and remember names without writing down a single word. A silver-tongued devil I was, so good I was often recruited to other establishments, taking my regular customers with me. I was also quite handy in the kitchen. With ambidextrous, multi-tasking prowess, I simultaneously ruled the different stations like a mad liege lord. In short, I use to give a damn back when giving a damn wasn’t as cool as it is now.
But back in ’98, I went through a bad break up with a girl I’d lived with for three years. She got pregnant by another guy and I didn’t handle it so well. Super-good-looking and white-trash-rich, the guy’s family owned trailer parks, tow trucks, a lumber yard and the local roller skating rink. He was married and had two live-in girlfriends, seven kids between the three of them. One of those harem guys. At first my girl did not actually want to leave me. She simply wanted to have this guy’s kid, but still stay with me. It was almost as if she thought I’d be impressed, her getting knocked up by the guy. Or that it might somehow enhance her status within the community, which, in a Jerry Springer-kind-of-way, it did.
I left her, but she soon started calling me, hinting that the baby she was carrying might just be mine. And like a sucker, I fell for it. I began to consider getting back with her, even marriage. A few days later, I found out the child was in fact not mine, and that she’d moved in with Casanova long before she started calling me again.
I’ve since gotten over her, but I’d be lying if I said there was no bitterness over her having gotten the better of me. And I’ve also since learned that what doesn’t kill you, does not always make you stronger. It was during this time that my alcoholism went from habitual to chronic, from a weekly ritual to a physical addiction of well over a fifth a day plus beer, rendering me incapable of giving a damn about anything but my next drink. I was also rendered incapable of working directly with the public, except of course as a bicycle delivery boy. And I was 40 years old.
I remember trying to hear what the weather guy was saying about the storm, but my other roommate, Booke, (pronounced book), was laughing out loud at something John said about the girl he’d had over the night before. John always had girls over, he was cute and cool like that. They weren’t bad roommates, I guess. I’ve definitely had worse. They made me laugh a lot, their endless banter often being the stuff of comic legend, causing me at times to feel ten years younger, and I needed that.
John was a 24-year-old, rock-n-roll wannabe from Houston, Texas, who’d moved to New Orleans a couple of years earlier. He could play guitar quite well, had a good singing voice and knew my generation’s music better than I did. (His dad was a real hippie.) But as it turned out, his funky band of grunge-punks, The Saurus, met with an unusual run of bad luck. The drummer shattered both his wrists skateboarding on the Riverwalk, pulling a Jackass down the back steps of the Jax Brewery. The bassist got caught red-handed by a cop in the back of a van with a fifteen-year-old runaway he thought was a girl, but turned out to be a boy. And the lead singer got so tweaked out on crack and ecstasy one night, he took off running stark-raving-naked down the Esplanade neutral ground, screaming at the top of his lungs, (second similar offence), earning himself a one-way ticket to OPP’s nuthouse ward.
Now John busses tables at a tourist trap on Bourbon Street and occasionally plays guitar singing for spange, (spare change), on Decatur or one of the other back streets of the Quarter. He was a pretty-boy with long dirty-blond hair and always seemed to have a week’s growth of beard on his face. He stood about 5’9”, and had a lean muscular frame with just the right amount of colorful, well-done tattoos. His purring voice and deep blue eyes made him a favorite with the hippie-chicks, holler-back-girls and even a few good girls going through their slumming phase. He knew all kinds of martial art moves; he could kick, punch and do flips like Jacky Chan, but couldn’t fight a lick. He always called me “Chief,” and Booke he called “The Maestro.” Everyone liked him despite the fact he was totally irresponsible and lazy. One look, or ten seconds with the guy and anyone could tell he’d never had a single enemy in his life.
Booke was a 28-year-old, Ignatius Reilly-look-a-like from Baltimore, Maryland, who’d blown an academic scholarship at Tulane University. (Something about improper use of lab animals and excessive flatulence.) The Taurus was his, a gift from his father before he’d come to New Orleans. He too had long hair and a likable personality, but was not as affable as John. He spoke his mind too much, lacking the filter most people have between their brain and their mouth. I never asked why, but sometimes Booke would call John “Moon Dog.” At six-feet-tall he was an inch shorter than me, but at 320 pounds, he outweighed me by a hundred. He had a thick walrus mustache, wore goofy clothes, and ate junk food like nobody I’d ever seen. Microwaved Banana Moon Pies smeared with peanut butter, topped with a layer of Fruity Pebbles. Lucky Dogs with strawberry jam and Tabasco sauce. I once saw him eat a whole box of Little Debbie’s, deftly pealing open each clear plastic package, shoving the goods into his mouth in one motion before washing it down with a generous gawulp from a gallon of chocolate milk. The whole ordeal took less than two minutes and Booke’s eyes never left the television. The Matrix Reloaded was on. Until the days right after Katrina, I rarely saw him without a Big Shot Blue Bubble Gum Soda in his hand.
Besides having an extremely high intellect, Booke was also a trivia whiz, knowing all kinds of weird, obscure facts and always knowing exactly which website to click-on to prove himself right. His father sent him money every month, but he also worked as a timeshare-telemarketer making cold calls all over the country. Booke was the guy who lured folks to the Big Easy for a free weekend so the slick-talking suit-monkeys could work their magic. I could tell he hated the job, but it helped pay his grocery bill.
“Maestro, if you smoked the last roach, I swear…….” John said as he continued to comb through the ashtray, not bothering to look up or finish his sentence.
“Swear?” Booke queried, before biting into a Hubig’s Lemon Pie, tiny flakes of the frosted crust dangling in his beard, bits of pie arcing from his mouth as he spoke, “To make a solemn statement or promise under legal oath. To curse or use profane language. I’ll assume you are referring to the former definition.”
“If I don’t find a roach in here, Maestro,” said John, “I do solemnly promise to hit ya so hard, when ya wake up, ya clothes are gonna be outta style.”
“Trend setters aren’t required to be in style, you moron,” said Booke. “We create style. Unlike yourself, a true baseborn dayboy, following the fashions of the moment. So do your worst, Moon Dog.”
“Hear that, Chief?” John asked in an attempt to draw me into their petty debate. “The Maestro thinks he’s fashionable.”
“Ah, there’s that wormy intellect of yours,” Booke sang, wagging his massive head. “So broad, yet so shallow. Fashions are set at the top by the wealth and celebrity classes, trickle-downs for tagalongs like you. Trends come from the bourgeoisie, we who have their own designs on life.”
“What’s the difference?” asked John, his attention back on the ashtray.
“Fashion is what’s being offered at the market, Moon Dog. Trends are what’s being worn, regardless of supply.”
“Gee, I’m sooo glad you enlightened me,” John mocked, acting bored with the subject because he didn’t really get it. Then he held up a roach the size of a cigar butt, glistening with dark gooey resin. “Oh, yeah, baby! Look’ee here!”
I got one good hit, nodded my thanks and left, holding in the smoke until I was out the common door of our apartment at Dauphine and Conti.
When I arrived at work, I noticed I wasn’t really high, but the pungent taste in my mouth was very fitting. After bitching me out for being late, my boss pointed at the first five deliveries of the night, one grocery and four hot-food. Most were to waiters and bartenders, friends I’d known for years who’d gotten off work and ordered from their favorite watering hole, often just around the block. I don’t remember how many orders I ran that night, maybe twenty. I think I made fifty bucks plus my $35 shift pay, pretty lame for a Friday. But summers were like that in New Orleans, especially with hurricanes roaming about.
My shift ended at 7am that Saturday. On my way home I stopped at Molly’s on Toulouse to drink and shoot pool, my morning ritual. Molly’s was an all-night dive-bar, spitting distance from Bourbon Street, well-known for its mix of riff-raff and big-time celebrities. (Shook hands once with Jimmy Page there. No shit, the Jimmy Page.) The bartender switched the television to the news and suddenly the place got very quiet; Katrina had changed course a bit to the west. It now looked as if she would hit Biloxi dead-on and we’d be getting a lot more than her outer bands. And she was one big-ass storm. Weird thing, being at one of the many 24 hour bars in New Orleans watching the morning news, made even weirder by the presence of a category 3 hurricane, a’zoom’n.
Tropical Storm warnings were now issued all the way to Texas and the Louisiana National Guard was put on stand-by, (whatever that means). Somebody played Black Hole Sun on the jukebox and the entire bar joined in the sing-a-long, acting out the lyrics as if it were theirs, lifting their drinks to Katrina as she spun away on the screen. “Won’t ya come? Won’t ya come?” A karaoke of dunces beckoning catastrophe. I stayed at Molly’s until 10am enjoying the Tropical Storm party, then went home and crashed, the last good sleep I’d get for a long while.
It wasn’t until the end of the train passed that I came back to where I was in the desert, its Doppler-effect reminding me that I was very much alone. I looked up by only lifting my head, still flat on my back, watching as it sped away growing smaller and smaller. I sat up and slowly stood, squinting in the sun. Checked my pocket for the cash I had there, fourteen wet dollar bills. Looked down at my rucksack, where I kept the rest of my money, mostly ones and a few fives. My loose change I kept in a Crown Royal bag, nearly seventeen dollars in quarters, dimes and nickels, (once used as a cudgel upside the head of a numbskull in Albuquerque who tried to take it from me). My head swam as I bent to grab the straps of my pack, lifting slowly, working them over my shoulders as I quivered. I felt an odd since of relief having safely gotten off the train, pondering the lengths I’d go for a drink.
I walked for an hour through a maze of sage brush, sand and cactus before seeing the little town again, a bit panicked thinking it might have been a mirage. Waves of stifling heat conjured images of latent death, dormant and forsaken. Faraway brown mountains moved with the sky, a montage of gloating faces. Spinning wind turbines loomed in middle-distance, a team of gigantic white mantis on the prowl, exoskeletal, hungry and searching for me. In my sick mind I could picture what I might look like to them through compound eyes. No trace of romance whatsoever. Lonely, but no hero.
Eventually I came to an asphalt road that led straight to the little store I’d seen from the train, store of the beckoning wall. To my left was a large one-story building that stretched a city block and ended right across the street from the little store. It had bricks that matched the sand, mirrored windows and was the only structure in sight that looked to have been built within the last few decades. Everything else had a Depression-era feel. I was so out of it, I didn’t even realize I was looking at my own reflection in the glass, until I stumbled and almost fell. A tall, scraggly, red-bearded tramp trudging up the road, hoping to give the appearance of a noble explorer returned from some intrepid adventure. Only to look like a tramp trudging up the road.
I gazed at my reflection as I walked, mesmerized at how unfamiliar I looked, staring at the image of a stranger. Suddenly my reflection shifted away as a mirrored door opened, a man in a sheriff’s deputy’s uniform emerging from the building. Only then did I notice the words over the door and the five-pointed-star emblem on the door itself. San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office-West Sector Headquarters. The deputy, a large, fit-looking man about 50, glared at me with casual suspicion as he walked to his cruiser.
“Plan to make yourself useful around here?” he asked, pulling out his keys, eyeing me as if he knew exactly which boxcar I’d jumped from. “Or are ya gonna cause trouble?”
“Uh, yeah. I mean, no,” I stammered, glancing at the store now ten paces away, then back at the deputy. He had a stern, handsome face that said his tolerance for bullshit was zero, but a glint in his eye that spoke of fairness. “’Bout how far is it to L.A.?” I managed.
“Eighty miles,” he said, pointing back at an offsetting angle to the way I’d just come. “Bus stops every day at the truck stop at the casino. Five-fifteen pm. Take ya all the way into the city. Twelve bucks one-way.”
“Where am I?” I asked, looking around.
“Cabazon, California,” he said with a slight laugh. “And there’s not much here but trouble, if ya don’t belong.”
“Well, sir,” I said. “If it’s alright, I’m gonna get me something to drink and start making my way to that truck stop you just mentioned.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” he replied as he got in his cruiser.
The little store was run by a family of Koreans who looked at me with fear and disgust until they saw I had money. I purchased two fifths of Skole vodka, a liter of Hawaiian Punch, a pack of Bugler tobacco, a lighter, an order of Moo Goo Gai Pan, and a 32oz styrofoam cup of ice with a lid and straw. After spending my money the Koreans became even friendlier, let me fill my water jug from their tap free of charge. Noticing it was only 3pm, I asked the fatherly-looking Korean if I could sit outside his store to mix a drink and relax a short while.
“Round back,” he said with a nasally accent, nodding. “But only little while. No sleep.”
Behind the store, hidden by a cluster of sage brush, was a tiny clearing with one of those huge wooded spools used to wrap high-powered electric cable, turned on its side like a table. It was surrounded by milk crates, a few rickety looking chairs and an assortment of trash, garbage and debris, all scattered on a patch of sand. A tattered beach umbrella protruded from the center hole of the spool, giving the little setting a cool look, but provided only a small pie-shaped portion of shade from the oven-like heat. Not trusting any of the chairs, I sat on a stack of crates already in the shade and began mixing my drink on the spool, hands trembling with anticipation. Soon I was sipping the potent ice-cold concoction through the straw, half-vodka, half-juice, feeling its medicine as the bad-shakes ebbed into the finish.
Within minutes, I’d polished off the drink and was mixing another when I realized I wasn’t alone. A little man who’d been resting in the brush emerged, giving me a sleepy grin as he eyed my vodka bottle. He wore a Chicago Bears cap, was clean shaven with a mustache and said his name was Lang. I shared my vodka and we talked a while, me asking where this truck stop was, Lang saying he would show me. I ate half the Moo Goo and gave the rest to Lang, along with a few roll-ups. The two of us then left the little clearing, taking a short cut that Lang knew, skirting around the opposite side of the store.
As expected, the vodka energized me and Lang had trouble keeping up as we zigzagged through a neighborhood of double-wide trailers. Lang pointed and directed me from behind while he ate the Moo Goo, bits of food falling to the ground as he shoveled it into his mouth.
It was a dreary, unwelcome place with old wooden fence posts bleached a grayish-white by the sun. A cow skull her and there, but no cows. Gravel front yards without grass, only a few weeds. Wind chimes made of car parts clunked in the dry air, hovering over a pack of mangy dogs. Old people leered at us, grim walker-types flaunting stillborn eyes, like the opening scene to a B-grade horror flick. And not far away were the wind turbines, now looking more like wind turbines.
When he was finished eating, Lang casually let the empty container fall to the ground, then jammed a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and asked for a light. We walked on, Lang finally taking the lead, kicking up dust that floated like a wavering blanket, a remembered effect of the earth. Every block or so I noticed a trailer that had been burned, gutted black by fire, squatters still holding court there. Retail trappings were draped over the charred remains, a vain attempt at subterfuge, shadowy figures ambling in the vestige.
“Half-ass meth labs,” said Lang, looking at the burnt trailers, but pointing up ahead with the lit cigarette between his index and middle fingers. “There’s the casino. Right next to it’s the truck stop.”
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it, a ten-story neon marquee that read: Morongo Reservation Casino, its moving lights barely discernible through the sun’s glare. At that moment I saw something else I hadn’t noticed, something that ran right between the little town and the casino. Interstate-10, its cross-country traffic slithered like a steely-gray serpent all the way to New Orleans and beyond. The desert seems to do that, it hides things in plain sight.
It took another half-hour to reach the spot. Crossing I-10, we had to walk through a cave-like underpass, emerging at the entrance of Kelly’s Truck Stop, a massive state-of-the-art outfit besieged by 18-wheelers. Another world from the dead town of Cabazon, everything on this side looked new, affluent and modern. Here, even the desert looked noble. Or was it simply less savage, trimmed back neatly from its hard scrabble?
I’d given Lang nearly a pint of my vodka, half my food, three roll-ups, and still he had the nerve to bitch when I gave him five bucks for his trouble. He said he needed more but I told him I couldn’t spare it. I gave him another swig of vodka, two more roll-ups and finally he wandered off after trying to steal my lighter, mumbling something about money he’d lost, millions buried somewhere in the desert.
I had a little time before the bus came, so after buying my ticket I went to the huge restroom. Freshening up with cool water, I took a birdbath, wiping away the country grime and changing into some partially clean clothes. Playing the discretionary advocate, I poured some vodka into the near-empty Hawaiian Punch bottle, my drink for the ride into downtown Los Angeles. A seething crack-infested center of over 30,000 homeless. An aloof madding crowd, ball-n-chained to the junk, pacing the City of Angels in its cardboard pop-culture dusk. Reservoir walkers immaculate, waiting for me.
“They’re evacuating Grand Isle,” said Booke as he sat on the sofa at my feet, waking me out of a dead sleep to watch television.
“I bet my career this storm’s not gonna hit New Orleans,” said the weather guy before going into a lengthy explanation why. Something about a high pressure system that would take Katrina west of the Mississippi, veering toward Morgan City.
It was 7pm Saturday. In the nine hours I’d been sleeping Katrina had not only changed course a bit, but she’d grown considerably larger, now an ever-blooming category 4 with 145 mph winds. The Abyss on parade gazed back at me through an angry leering eye, its beautifully defined continental presence splayed like a wondrous mare on the Gulf of Mexico. I suddenly felt stirred and frightened. As I propped myself up on my elbow, still half asleep, staring at the fluctuated image of Katrina on the television, I involuntarily uttered, “Oh, shit.”
I drink as I sleep, waking every hour or so to take a swig from a tumbler full of vodka and juice on the table by the sofa. It was empty and I could already feel that vibrating sensation deep in my bones, so I got up and went to the freezer to mix one on its ledge, the icy air bathing my hands. I stood there for several minutes sipping my courage, that first bite of the day sinking in as I stared pensively at the closed freezer door.
Booke and I were still watching television when John came in carrying his guitar. He told us he’d been playing down on Decatur, hadn’t made much money, but met a group of hot college girls from Nebraska. They’d all gathered round him he said, listening to him sing and play, clapping, dancing and running their fingers through his hair as they sang along.
“They gimme ten bucks,” he said, shrugging and raising his eyebrows, “an’ I only played two songs for’m. Man, I really wanted to hook up with this one redhead, but she said they’s catch’n a flight back home cause’a the storm. Boy, was she fine. Kissed me on the cheek an’ grabbed my butt. Or was it the other way around?”
After taking a swig of my vodka, John sat cross-legged on the floor, strumming his guitar while he sang a few lines from a song he’d wrote that day. A catchy little tune about not wanting to work at love, just wanting to make it every day. We started talking about the storm and decided to do some planning, just in case. Booke had the most money and volunteered to buy some weed and a keg of beer, said it was a special occasion whether Katrina hit New Orleans or not. I had to work in a few hours, so I gave John some cash and a list of errands to run: batteries and some flashlights, (we only had one), candles, non-perishables, bottled water, duct tape, two sheets of plywood for the windows, both cut in half at Aces on Bourbon, (surely they would be open late tonight), and an extra box of shells for the Taurus. I told him to just get wad cutters.
It was surprisingly busy that night, a constant steady flow of deliveries as I tried to keep up with a pace the city itself had set, not unlike the prelude to some grand exhibition, or an execution perhaps. The finer shops were already boarded up, but every bar had some kind of hurricane-thing, last minute homage to a moniker. A moderate crowd milled about Bourbon Street, locals mainly, out to claim what they thought was theirs. It’s easy to tell a local from a tourist here. Never do they gawk at the depravity. In this city people live their lives by the stars. And what you live by is what you die by.
Right smack dab in the middle of the Quarter, I ran into John. He was riding passed Big Daddy’s on Bourbon with the plywood strapped on back at an angle, like a small pair of square wings. Four 4x4, ¾ inch sheets were resting on his head and shoulders, tied slipshod to the rack above the rear tire. His face wore a maniacal, panicked grin as he approached weaving through the crowd, looking as if he’d peddled faster he’d take flight.
“Hey, Chief! Help me with this shit, man!” he cried and I laughed. I took two sheets and we headed up St. Louis to the apartment, so close I’d often stop by during my shift.
A bag of mid-grade sat on the coffee table and a half-keg of Abita Turbodog iced in the kitchen sink. Booke sat at the far end of the sofa staring at the television tuned to the news. In his left hand was his favorite bong, a blue ceramic Buddha. In his right was a lighter, but there was no pot-smell in the air. Just as I noticed the strange posture of his arms, out slightly, not resting in his lap as if he’d suddenly been distracted from lighting the bong, he turned to us and said, “That fucking hurricane’s coming right up the river.”
I looked more closely at the television. It was 2:11am. The last four hours of Katrina’s movements were being played in a loop. She would jump back to 10pm Saturday, her eye about 150 miles due south of the Biloxi, moving northwest at 20mph in a perfect 45-degree angle. If she’d stayed that course, Katrina would’ve missed New Orleans by a whole band width, hitting somewhere between the Atchafalaya Basin and the Texas line. But a little over an hour ago she jiggled some to the north, and had since continued on that path, aimed straight at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Sometimes I wonder what I was thinking back then, that I might somehow be discovered as a writer and an actor. That I might walk into one of those big studio offices and wow them with my brilliance, floor them with my dazzling persona. Then they would roll out the red carpet, showering me with exorbitant excesses and spoils, granting me leisure, status and first class passage on the gravy train.
After the Greyhound dropped me off in Los Angeles, I was outside the terminal when a man attempted to steal my rucksack, grabbed it and tried to run like he was snatching a purse. I jerked back hard and flung him around in a circle before slamming him face-first into a large round piling, a cool smacking-sound from the impact. (After all the abuse I’ve put my body through, I’m still pretty strong.) He staggered back, cursing me for not letting him steal from me, then ran off into a crowd of malingerers across the street. It was still daylight and two armed security guards stood watching not fifty feet away. Neither of them moved an inch, looking right at me, almost bored. One of them finally had the decency to nod and give me a thumbs-up.
Someone told me of a place called the Saint Julian Mission, where I could get a shower and a temporary bed. I just wanted to get cleaned up and rest a day or two. I found a street named St. Julian, but couldn’t find any mission or shelter there. The whole block was a huge throng of homeless people. At first I thought it was some kind of event, like a concert, but they were all just milling about in an eddying mass of drug-searchers, a gigantic, unrehearsed mummer’s farce. This was Skid Row, the walker’s lair. An open-air, come-as-you-are, no-cover-charge insane asylum. A corral of crazies. Crack whores in sundry. Glass pipes smoked out in the open like cigarettes. Syringes scattered everywhere, piled in the gutter. And the smell, a tepid urine-stench the other side of deranged. A guy in a wheelchair was shooting up, his tethered mutt-dog curled at foot. Another guy was walking around with an open hand full of little crack rocks uttering, “dimes and nickels.” A large black man dressed in a dirty suit and tie was talking out loud to himself, gesturing boldly like he was practicing lines to a Shakespearean play Suddenly, with his face turned upward, he vomited a long brown spew that swept sideways across the crowd like a lawn sprinkler. He then politely apologized, few in the crowd even noticing, wiped his mouth and continued on with his dramatic soliloquy, a billion worlds away.
Two police cruisers did a slow drive-thru and nobody, not a single soul stopped what they were doing. Everything just kept flowing in the hideous spontaneity of Skid Row. Then I saw why the cops were there; a team of Christians had come do to a quick alter call. One of them was actually toting a flimsy wooden cross with a little wheel rigged to its base. Jesus should’ve been so lucky. But a fight broke out, a couple of old blowhards tussling over a holy artifact, an unopened beer. As if it were time to eat the doughnuts, the cops suddenly left. Or maybe they were afraid they'd have to work. The Christians left, too, God-blessing everyone as they went. That’s when I finally noticed the mission. It was right in the middle of the block, its entrance obscured by a crack team of crack dealers. I remember thinking to myself, 'Someone should tell people about this.' I couldn’t believe I was still in America. Then I remembered where I’d come from.
As darkness settled on Skid Row, a city bus pulled up to the corner with a lighted sign that read: Hollywood. I ran over and got on, leaving behind a spectral image of buried talents, someday to be unearthed by the next man.
In Hollywood I slept beneath a cluster of palm trees at Sunset Boulevard’s overpass of the 101. For three weeks I worked at a small factory that made statues, cement poured into molds, then left posing at fancy apartments and office buildings. I was paid thirty bucks to clean up after the men were done working, Monday thru Saturday. Down the street was a liquor store with the cheapest prices I’d ever seen, $8.99 for a handle of Skole, my daily self-prescription.
At night I’d wander down the Walk of Fame looking at the freaks, and the stars on the sidewalk, wondering what people thought of me, or if they even noticed me. I got most of my food for free at a feed-up-line, or a church that gave it away by the box, canned goods, dry goods and fruit. One night I splurged and bought myself a huge cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate shake. Fifteen bucks, and I ate it on the Walk of Fame sitting between the stars of Lorene Bacall and Betty Grable.
Late one afternoon, I was sitting on the steps of the Mexican Baptist Church where I got most of my food, writing what I could remember of Katrina. Suddenly a car drove by very fast, chased by five police cars. I got up and crossed the street to sit under my cluster of palm trees and have a drink. No sooner had I uncapped my bottle and the chase returned, speeding back from the same direction it had just gone. My head swiveled slowly, following it with my eyes. This time there were nine police cars and a helicopter in the air, memories of a Monty Python show I’d once seen.
I soon heard the pops and cracks of distant gunfire, and turned to look across the 101 toward Santa Monica Boulevard. Three helicopters were circling there. Later that night, word was the cops had shot and captured the driver, but did not kill him. But I could still hear the phantom echoes of gunfire and helicopters.
My last day in Hollywood, I was standing at the Chevron Station on Sunset when two men driving a Ryder truck pulled in to get gas. They motioned me over and offered a hundred bucks to help move some stuff. By noon, I was in Marina Del Ray moving expensive furniture into the truck, the Pacific Ocean visible from a large window. By dark, I’d finished helping the men and they paid me, then offered to drop me off back in Hollywood. They were moving to Las Vegas to work high-tech sound equipment at a casino theater. I asked if they would drop me off at the beach just up the road instead.
I soon got work at a sports bar on Venice Beach, a great little joint facing the ocean. For $25 and a big juicy cheeseburger with fries and a cold beer, I’d clean up the mess from the previous night’s party crowd, making ready the patio and main dining area for the lunch customers. Sometimes I’d earn tips doing side-work for the servers there, an extra buck or two rolling silverware, filling ice bins or stocking beer. When I was done, I would buy myself a big bottle of vodka and some sort of juice. Devoid of ambition, most of my day was spent bumming around the beach soaking up the sun, swimming the ocean and surfing its waves, sleeping wherever my head lay, my rucksack a pillow. Made a few casual friends, nomads and other homeless folks like me, people who’d chosen to live life off the grid. In their huddled groups they’d smoke pot with me and I’d share with them my vodka. Sometimes they’d all listen to some crazy story I’d tell, a tale of Katrina perhaps. Usually I’d just sit and listen to them talk among themselves, glad to be in some sort of group. A quirky band of misfit peers.
But every evening about an hour before sunset, I’d find a spot to be alone on the endless stretch of beach. As a kind of devotional, I’d sit silently drinking, and smoking the weed I’d scrounged from my different gypsy friends. I’d jot down notes, pondering the complexities of my memory, trying to decipher the real from the imagined. Mantras, watching the sun slip pinkish-orange into the ocean.
In my prime, when I was still seeking a springboard to renown and splendor, I was often told I resembled a red-headed Marlon Brando. Growing up, I was an athlete and played a year of college football, a hard-charging blocking back cutting a path for the glory boys, some who’d later play in the NFL. Tried my hand at prizefighting, with a semi-moderate claim of success, chump-change sparring with Holyfield. Caught the acting bug and spent a summer in New York City trying to break into ‘the business.’ I’d lived and worked near Lex and 101st Street, often walking Central Park to the Westside, sniffing for tickets on the ground.
Strolling the seedier parts of Broadway, I looked up one day and noticed a small playhouse with a sign that read: Auditions for Streetcar Named Desire. My jaw dropped. I didn’t even need to rehearse. I knew every line, and I’d once been runner-up in the annual “Stella!” shouting contest in the French Quarter. I marched in the place, a pint of blood in my whiskey, and jumped right up on the stage, its thirty-foot-wide curtain drawn shut behind me.
“Ya come in here!” I began, snarling in earnest, waving my finger at a small group of men standing at the bar, knowing they’d be impressed that I didn’t just yell Stella. “Prace’n ‘round like da Queen’a Sheeba! Fancy’n up da place with ya perfume an’ ya powda’!” Then I let go, good and loud, just like Marlon did with his thumb jerked back at his chest, “DRINK’N UP AL MY LIQ’AH!!!!”
Applause clattered from the group of men at the bar. One was the director. “Excellent!” he brayed, zigzagging toward me through the empty tables as he continued to clap. He reached out to take my hand and said, “Stanly Kowalski!”
I was offered the part right then and there. And for a moment I realized I’d finally been discovered. A string of spaghetti flung on the wall of fame to see if it sticks. But it was a gay, all-male playhouse. And Stella was played by a man.
They gave me a free drink instead, and I left, turning back down Broadway. Ya know, heading for the Village, contemplating my narrow mind.
Had that damn storm really ripped through my life as I slowly pulled the pieces of it back together? Or was it completely unraveled anyway?
By late Sunday afternoon there was no way out of the city. Police had closed the interstate and all the highways. At dusk the power was still on but an ominous, dark-purple horizon loomed to the south. It wasn’t long before the night’s first gunshots were heard off in the distance, off in the hood, Katrina yet hours away. The gangster-cliques of New Orleans were jockeying for position, throwing off the gangster-cops, beating them to the spoils. In this city the good guys always win, and the cops are the mob.
The three of us went out late that night wearing raincoats and slick-boots, strapped with flashlights and the Taurus, (they both wanted me to carry the damn thing), seeking some prankster’s initiation rite as the preliminary winds whipped in warning. John had thought to buy us each a pair of safety goggles, the kind that look like scuba gear, protection for our eyes from all the shit blown around. Even after midnight a few bars in the Quarter were open, especially the ones known for staying open at all hours on all occasions.
Looking like a trio of wasted aviators, we staggered into World Famous Johnny White’s at Bourbon and St. Peter, where William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac had often plotted and schemed. Its windows were boarded up and its doors closed, but Johnny White’s was open for business serving drinks by candle and flashlight, a fitting eerie glow that moved and shook.
“Where y’at, guys!?” roared Jake, my friend and bartender, spreading his arms out wide in greeting, laughing at our ensembles. His dog, an old black lab-mix named Spoot, roamed the floor, moaning and howling at the weather outside. “Happy hurricane! Snakebites on the house!”
“Think it’s gonna rain tonight?” asked John, trying his hand at sarcasm.
“Well, yeah,” answered Freak, an old biker-wannabe, in his usual pseudo-intellectual tone. “There’s a hurricane, man.”
Freak was living proof that the inability to detect humor was an indicator of mean-stupid-dude. He was a part-time employee that thought he was security, but spent most of his life sitting at the end of the bar, his runny, pus-colored eyes peeled for trouble. He always looked so serious like he wanted to fight, the epitome of over-the-hill-small-man-complex. Long scraggly white hair enshrouded a huge matching mustache, connecting to a pair of disgusting chops, flanked with bony arms sleeved in blurry tattoos. Next to his leathers, his facial hair was his largest feature. And Freak always sneered when he served up a drink, like he thought you might run out without paying. It's rumored that he actually “came with the place,” and had his ass kicked a time or two by Burroughs and Kerouac. (I’ve searched their writings for mention of him, but no.) He looked as if you gave him a noogie it’d kill him.
“Hey, let’s start a hurricane club,” said Becky Waters, a local sexpot who slept with guys for money and special favors, but didn’t consider herself a prostitute because she only got with guys she would get with anyway. She was kind of an item with Jake, not for love of course, just free booze. She was actually a pretty cool chick, tall with long strawberry-blonde hair, a gorgeous body and that perpetual shall-we-look in her eye. She wore a cut-off Saints T-shirt with no bra and plenty of hips and belly-button, black short-shorts with long legs fit in a pair of black Sketchers.
“Hop up on the bar, baby,” said Jake, setting up the snakebites, “and start pay’n off that tab.”
She scrunched up her cheeks and smiled, utterly adorable, hotter than seven hells. “That’s not what I meant.”
Jake raised his arms part-way, shrugged and said, "What?"
"Out there, silly." Becky pointed at the door.
"Girl, you crazy."
Becky had two sugar daddies, a lawyer and an architect, that paid most of her bills, but not all of them. We’d run into each other at City Park during Voodoo Fest and spent a few hours hanging out watching Blondie, then went for a walk, just the two of us. She was only 23 and a lot smarter than I’d originally thought, but twice as jaded. At the sculpture garden behind the museum she’d subtly offered me a freebee, but something in her eyes told me she would break a boy just to see what was inside. I’d subtly declined, averting my eyes like a gentleman, and we just chatted. In truth, she was a sweet girl who was just coming to realize the power she had over men, like a garden hose over an anthill. Twenty, even ten years ago, she would’ve ripped my world apart, completely oblivious of the damage. Now I was more of the type that would rather miss the pain than the dance.
Jake was a little younger than me and had served in the Marines; Desert Storm, Kosovo and Somalia, an E-7 who’d done some spooky recon stuff. He spoke five languages and was now inactive reserve, which meant he was still in the military but lived as a civilian. After 9-11, he disappeared for a year, then showed up out of the blue with a slight limp and a ferocious tan, utterly mum on the subject. Behind the bar was a human femur bone he’d brought back with him, used for incentive if a fight broke out. Tall as me and lean as John, he had long stringy dark hair and tattoos. Looked like a bad-guy, but was actually very good. A righteous dude you didn’t dare piss off.
"I think a hurricane club is a grand idea," Booke said to Becky, his eyes ogling her goods.
"Buy me a Kettle One Cosmo Maestro, and I'll think about it," she lied in reply.
While they argued over having sex out in the weather, I went behind the bar and grabbed a beer, something Jake didn’t mind. But Freak actually lifted his upper lip bearing his teeth like a dog, though he didn’t say a word.
A dozen others were there that night, some I knew well. BeeBee was an old hippie-chick, a former war-protester who’d been at the first Woodstock. She made scented candles from beeswax, selling them in front of the Cathedral in the Square. Iko, her talking cockatoo, was perched on her shoulder nibbling pretzels she fed the bird without looking, while she chatted with her boyfriend, Jim Cutter. He was also a veteran, a tugboat captain who’d been through the Panama Canal over a dozen times. He had piloted PT boats in Vietnam, inserting and extracting Navy Seals. They both waved at me and raised their drinks, happy and at terms with the irony of one another’s past. Jim once told me Freak used to stalk BeeBee, but Jim told Freak to leave her alone, or he’d end up fish food. Now all Freak does is sneer when he sees them talking.
“Iko, Iko,” said Iko. “Hello, Iko.”
“Let’s go smoke pot at Congo Square,” said John about twenty minutes into our arrival. Since Booke's attempt to join Becky's hurricane club was failing miserably, he was up for it. We put on our goggles and bid our friends a happy hurricane, then headed out into the storm like fools, walking up St. Peter, bent into the wind now gusting from the north.
Congo Square was a favorite hangout of ours on North Rampart near Tremé, just outside the Quarter. It was an open-air motif sanctuary adjacent to Louie Armstrong Park, and was close to the apartment. We’d go there often after it’d closed, sneaking through a gap in the gate to just sit and drink and talk and get high. All around us thick, massive palm trees were thrashed by the wind. John and I held open a loose part of the gate so Booke could fit through, pelted by horizontal rain that seemed other-worldly, a continuous deafening whurr in our ears. The plan was to somehow smoke a quick bowl under our raincoats, just to say we did. Something stupid and juvenile, but for some reason I went along. I guess I did it to feel young again, a reminder of my frivolous youth.
But I should've known better since John and Booke didn't. They'd only lived in NOLA a few years, unaware of the city's many secret racial faux pas. We'd simply got lucky all those other times, and I knew it. Congo Square was semi-sacred ground, a former auction block for slaves.
We were just inside the gate when they attacked, jumped on us so fast I thought the trees had fallen. They were quick and black, a gang of teenage stompers, probably from the 4th Ward. A hornet’s nest in a hurricane, doing exactly what we’d come to do. John was beat to the ground and kicked, Booke pinned against the gate, mauled, flailing with his arms, trying to use his weight. I swung, landing punches and kicks, but still I was whipped, and I knew they’d kill us if we didn’t get away. Then I remembered the Taurus and reached for it in my belt, fumbling with it through my raincoat before it discharged. They began to run. I fired again, screaming, emptying the weapon at the fleeing shapes. Running after them, I lost my balance and feel. Katrina had surely arrived, sweeping inland, her wind gusting through lairs of the forsaken.
I’d first met John and Booke during the last Mardi Gras. It came early that season before Katrina, February and it was cold. It was the Thursday before Fat Tuesday, Thursday Gras, I always called it, when the gaudy beast of American carnival is truly unleashed. I was walking down Decatur from Checkpoint Charlie’s and the two of them were singing for spange at the wall-board-cave between Esplanade and Barracks. They were arguing over how a David Allen Coe song went, a little number I happened to know by heart. So I sat down and taught them words to the song, the perfect Country and Western song. And for a few hours the three of us became a fixture there, singing, drinking and smoking the night away as rows of passersby-the-world-over tossed us jack clinking in a bucket.
When they found out I was homeless but had a job, they offered to let me crash on their sofa. Fifty bucks a week plus helping with the bills, a little two-bedroom pad that’d once been the slave quarter of a Confederate surgeon’s house, one block from Bourbon Street. I never had much privacy, but it was kind of fun living there, like an offbeat sitcom. Got lucky a few times, too, cleaned myself up a bit and it showed. A couple of John’s girlfriend’s girlfriends took a liking to me, giving me a little love’n, sexual healing that pried loose some of the nails set deep in my coffin.
The Taurus usually just sat on the table. A friend of John’s took us out once to shoot at some abandoned cars we’d found in the swamps. Every now and then, John or Booke would pick it up and toy with it. I’d held it a few times admiring its craftsmanship, but only for a minute or two, until Katrina. And I’m still not sure if I shot anyone with it. John and Booke were two carefree good-guys who’d never been through anything harsh or bitter. Sitting ducks for the mayhem of Katrina.
I remember carrying John back into the Quarter, slumped against me, half-conscious, the wind increasing by the moment. Like toting a cart of bricks. His right arm was stretched over my shoulder, a deep gash running down the side of his head, his warm blood on my face. Booke staggered in front of me, my other hand clutched tightly to the back of his raincoat, guiding him down Conti.
Within sight of the apartment, a cop pulled up along side us, his cruiser’s back seat occupied by a man handcuffed, screaming and kicking at the window. I helped John into the front seat and was about to get in and ride double, not sure what to do about Booke. Then I remembered the just-fired Taurus tucked in my waist under my raincoat. I stood back, hesitating, the cop shouting something over the roar of the storm. I looked at Booke sitting on the curb, stunned and bleeding from the nose, battered by the winds. And as I watched the police car speed away taking my friend to the hospital, its disco lights illuminating the wicked horizontal rain, I realized never knew John’s last name.
“What just happened!?” cried Booke when we got inside. “What just happened!?”
After guzzling rum and Turbodog, I passed out and missed the peak of the storm. By the afternoon Katrina was gone, an eerie sky streaked with irony as word of the levees broke. The French Quarter did not flood like the rest of the city. There are huge pumps beneath it diverting water back into the river. It became a trifling high-ground, an island only one-foot below sea level. But there was little law and order.
I walked back down to Rampart, which was covered in a two-foot-deep rainbow-sheen of water. I stood there a moment, my eyes catching movement further down at Canal Street. Stores were being looted there in a plethora of flotsam. Sloshing down the neutral ground, my mind in a stupor, I turned to my right, my eyes scanning the Iberville Projects. Under a palm tree was a fat black man lying in the water like he was sleeping. He was huge, and still there the next day, and the next…..
Booke wasn’t hurt too bad, just a few bruises. But with no phone, electricity or Big Shot Sodas, he went to pieces worrying about John. We couldn’t find out where he’d been taken. For over a week we stayed in the city as it fell apart and drowned, sacked by the elements, held loosely together by martial law.
Expensive booze was free for the taking. Remy Martin brings such elegant spirits. MREs and bottled water from the sky. The repetitious chop of helicopters in disharmony with the distant cracks of surplus gunfire.
Occasional cadavers offering a grim dose of reality. Bullhorns blaring to leave the city. Cops morphed into psychopaths with guns and badges, patrolling the streets in boats and APCs. A hot stinking apartment without a view.
A chilling glimpse of the Superdome from the corner of Poydras and Barrone, resembling a crashed UFO, its wreckage oozing pandemonium. A hideous alien in its birth throes. Name-day turmoil. Spun to the nines, gazing in terrified wonder at the dystopia found.
Inbred rednecks in a swamp boat cruising the streets of the By-water, shooting at folks for sport.
The Louisiana National Guard was 72 hours tardy, but even in the midst of chaos there are schedules to be maintained. Iowa and Oregon State Troopers where the first to arrive, clad in fatigues, toting machine guns. “Get off the street. Open the door. Do you live here? We’ll have to confiscate the Taurus.”
We finally got a ride out of the city with some strangers taking the Airline Highway, six hours to Baton Rouge 70 miles away. At a motel Booke asked me to kill him, crying and ringing his hands. I was able to contact his father in Baltimore, telling the man his son was alright but needed to come home. I barely knew him anymore. He asked me to please take Booke to the airport where he had a ticket home waiting.
My drinking then skyrocketed, living in hotels outside my means, remnants of the wet-brain bandage FEMA had given me. But I was soon broke, lost in a daze of random travel. I vaguely recall standing on a corner in Tallahassee, penniless and shaking, in need of a drink. I approached some college students and asked if they could spare a buck or two, anything for some alcohol. It was about a month after the storm, and when I told them I was an evacuee from New Orleans, they didn’t believe me. (I guess there'd been a lot of that lately.) When I showed them my ID, they apologized and gave me $54.
I drifted city to city using my license as a sympathy-hustle to get lodging, clothing and food, but mainly for cash to buy booze. In Atlanta I jumped my first train.
In Chattanooga a man visiting from Russia asked what I was going to do with the twenty-dollar-bill he’d just given me. I politely told him I was going to get very drunk, then buy a cheeseburger. A Christian man, he said he’d pray for me.
I wound up in Memphis, then woke up in St. Louis with no recollection of how I got there. Hitched a ride to Kansas City with a rock band, earning a little cash as a roadie. Got lost, then ended up on another train, freezing, but fortified with vodka. A cold obscure holiday. Denver. Albuquerque. El Paso, where I finally learned the fate of my two friends. John was dead and Booke was in mental hospital in Vermont. His father told me over the phone.
I spent that day staring at Mexico, pouring vodka on the ground for John, drinking the rest for Booke. By dawn I was beckoned even further west, turning my boots toward the setting sun I’d once chased as a child. Seeking a train yard for my vodka chronicles.
I was born in Southern California, but raised in Louisiana and had been to Los Angeles many times. Twice I’d gone there with plans of writing screenplays and making movies where I’d portray a mosaic of many-sided characters, a clever artist whose feet never touch the ground. Both times I’d fled the city inside of a year, my shoulders hunched up, hands clutching the nothingness of a drug induced psychosis.
This time it was the October rains that drove me from Los Angeles and back to New Orleans. My simple livelihood at the beach proved quite seasonal, gone with the nomads of summer. The angst and the blur easting his way into the rising sun of Interstate-10, to be suddenly stirred from a blackout by the hard Louisiana rain. Over a year since Katrina, Halloween summons me back to Bourbon Street, turning left on the Rue Dumaine to pick up where I’d left off.
Tentative existence, meanwhile. Requiem for a walker.