When I Think of New Orleans...

by Banned Library in


Thoughts of New Orleans are coming to mind this week as the annual ALA conference comes up. I will admit, I am a lot homesick and wishing I could be there.

    Two decades ago, a friend of mine called and asked if I wanted to go on a ride, stay overnight. I said sure. Told my parents I would be at my friend's house for the night.

    They said sure. Suckers.

    That's both funny and unfair. I've always been curious how much my parents knew. I would roll in smelling of cigarette smoke and maybe booze, blow by them and go to my room and play music too loud. Cliches are cliches for a reason when they are a little too true.

    I was always curious if they smelled New Orleans on me. The town I grew up in was a hundred miles north of the Crescent City. As soon as my friends and I got a car and enough nerve, we were there. We learned a lot.

    Everything you have heard about the city is somewhat true. It's a city of survivors who got from the French a proper thirst for pleasure and from the Spanish the no bullshit attitude about enjoying it. It's a city of unbeaten paths paved and wandering and dense.

    Some nights I wake up with an existential horror at some of my youthful decisions. Take into account the night that started this column. One of many overnights that started with a need for a ride.

    "Hey, man, want to take a ride? Donny's gonna meet us."

    Donny was trouble. A good guy, a wild guy, sent to live with an aunt in Florida when Mississippi could not handle him. He was arrested one time for stealing a jet ski because he needed to get across Pensacola Bay to beat up a guy who was sleeping with his girlfriend. He also loved Michael Jackson and Superman and had jailhouse tattoos of both. I think he's got kids now, a sure sign that the universe loves drunks and fools.

    Of course I said I would drive. Four hours later I pulled into the parking lot beside Jackson Brewery. We went to meet them at Tower Records when it was down on Decatur across from Bongo's, a precursor to Hot Topic where we bought hair dye and spikes for jackets and hats.

    No cell phones. Nobody with any authority knew where we were. A hundred miles from home. It was a great night.

    We all hugged, met new friends that had driven Donny from Florida. Then we went out. Walked around, found bars that would let a group of seventeen year olds in which was most of them. We got free drinks from tourists who left their tables too long and free shows from locals who we had met on previous trips.

    We ended up in Jackson Square at four in the morning. We had met some street kids, gutter punks. One girl was balancing around on a cast because somebody had stolen her crutches. Donny and I went off to a corner store and picked up a six pack of Phat Boy malt Liquor because we were underage and the owner wanted that particular vile drink off his shelves. We drank and laughed and enjoyed ourselves.

    The girl with the broken leg took our picture. I still have it. Seven young and stupid kids sprawled out in front of the gates of the square right across from St. Louis Cathedral. We flashed hand signs that have no meaning to me now, flashed teeth and grins of the young and unencumbered. Tired and happy with the world open to us.

    Cliches are cliches and all that.

    We closed out that trip with a tradition that is the only one I really hold. If you are awake when the sun comes up in New Orleans, go to Cafe Du Monde before the tourists begin stretching. Pick up a bag of beignets, a large cafe au lait, and climb the steps and cross the tracks to the river. Sit by the river and watch the barges and eat your treat and drink that rich smooth mix of milk and chicory. Watch the river pass by and the brown turn to warm gold with the sun. Think of seven kids with nothing to lose but themselves sobering up for a drive home.

    That's what I do, anyway.

Bourbon Street: A History
By Richard Campanella