We got into New Orleans as it was getting dark, with no idea where to sleep. As Zara drove, I rummaged through her bag and found the card from the Holiday Inn we’d stayed at the night before and called their national helpline, aware that the battery on my phone was seconds away from torpidity and getting lower and lower.
I frantically navigated my way through the help menu options, stabbing at the buttons and praying that the battery would find a last ounce of charge.
At this point in time, I may or may not have been visualising Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of Terminator 2.
Finally, I was connected to an operator.
‘Hi!’ I said, and rushed through my mentally-rehearsed spiel. ‘Hi! We just need a place in New Orleans!’
The operator, halfway through her narrowing down of the options (‘First, sir, what hemisphere are you in?’) snapped her lips shut on the words she was reading off a computer screen.
‘OK,’ she said. ‘You want to head to Some Number, Something Street, French Quarter.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘what was that again?’
‘Some number, Somet-‘ and my phone died.
‘What did she say?’ Zara asked.
‘Uh…’ I said. ‘Let’s just keep our eyes out for the French Quarter.’
We found our way to La Quinta and, once again, hauled our bags out of the car and into the lobby of a hotel.
The girl behind the counter warmed to us instantly.
‘Most people,’ she said, chattering at a thousand miles per hour as her fingers danced over the keys of the computer in front of her, ‘most people don’t take any interest, they just stand there, but you guys are all smiling and happy and asking me how I was, and I get anxious sometimes when people just stand there and stare at me, so it’s real nice to have someone come in and ask how I am, especially when I haven’t had a cigarette for a while…’
She kept going. I was tired.
I’m not exactly sure what she’s saying, my brain commented, but that accent’s hot.
Agreed, I noted.
‘Now,’ she said, when she’d signed us in. ‘You gotta have a Hurricane, and you gotta have a Hand Grenade. You can get ’em anywhere. You’ll see people walkin’ around, drinkin’ ’em.’
Once again, we dumped our luggage in our hotel rooms and rendezvoused in a hotel lobby. The only difference between this and the last dozen days was that this time it was to head out to Bourbon Street.
Everything about New Orleans was like Vegas, if Vegas hadn’t been carved out of the desert by mobsters to bilk fools of their money and traveling women of their misgivings about selling their vaginas.
The lights in the night aren’t overwhelming – rather, they’re a mix of lit and unlit streets and stores. The noise here is organic, uncontrolled. It’s more raucuous, but it’s the kind of raucousness that speaks of life, not of the zombie-land of vacant-eyed tourists shuffling from casino to casino.
No, here the vacant-eyed tourists shuffle from strip joint to gin joint, and that’s just fine by me.
A street band was performing on the corner of Bourbon. They threw themselves into it – sweating and grinning and shaking their bodies, they called up soul and jazz and passed it from trumpeter to saxophonist to drummer and back again. Young black guys danced in front of them. A lone white woman out of a crowd of onlookers grooved to the music in the middle of the street. When a guy came around with a big cardboard box, soliciting donations, many of the tourists suddenly breezed away to other places, and I thought Man, you assholes.
Bourbon Street was a wash of people, moving forward and back, gaggles of young men hooting and drinking, older couples walking more sedately under the old balconies. We stopped in to eat and while Zara got the ribs, I couldn’t go past the alligator poboy.
It was delicious.
At a table across from us, a beautiful woman sat and listened to her less beautiful, but way, way, way more drunk friend laugh. The drunk friend, without realising it, knocked her handbag over with her foot and her purse fell onto the floor. As we left, I coughed.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘I think you dropped your purse.’
The drunk friend leaned back on her chair, snapped her head around, and saw her purse. Then she rested one elbow on the back of the chair, and looked me in the eye.
‘I do believe you’re right!’ she said, and we went back to Bourbon Street.
Strip clubs, cheap whiskey, music. There was life there, swimming and weaving through the air. The next day, when we talked about Mardi Gras, I realised that this was only a fraction of what the city was used to.
As we circled around and back to the hotel, we heard a voice roaring though the streets.
‘Daaaaaaaaaaaaay-o. Day-ah-ah-o. Daylight come and me wanna go home. Day! Me say-day-me-say-day-me-say-daaaaaaaay-o!’
A lone busker stood a block away from Bourbon, and I suddenly realised that as soon as we’d turned a corner, the noise had vanished. Strange thing, but it meant we could hear this man’s incredible voice perfectly.
Once back to the hotel, I was out of it. The more I think about it, the more I realise how much of that trip I spent sleeping.
It could have been worse. Zara woke up early and headed to Cafe du Monde for breakfast. And got caught in a rainstorm coming back. I found her in the lobby, drenched.
‘A guy in a truck gave me some plastic!’ she said. She’d used it to shelter herself from the rain as best she could.
Once again, we packed our luggage back in the car, aware that we were, well and truly, on the last legs of the trip.
Another place to go back to.