Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Pieces of America: New Orleans

New Orleans Adventure

We headed into New Orleans after finally getting out of Alabama. L. is driving like a madman at night-around 11:30. He said he felt as if he were in NASCAR, navigating the treacherous I-10. We were going to stop as soon as we got to the LA state line, to rest, but we were so close to New Orleans!! We were determined. So, we pumped L. full of hot black coffee, driving 90. I began lighting cigarettes for him. Almost there! More coffee for L.

It should be noted here the reason why only L was driving. It’s quite simple, really: neither J nor I had our licenses. Even if we did, L wouldn’t have let anyone else drive anyway- “It’ll just be faster if I do it” as he claimed early on in the trip. It’s best not to argue with such stubbornness. It gets you nowhere.

Crossed the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. The bayous, dark, mystical New Orleans!! I-10 is busy, even at this hour; L. drives at 90 just to avoid any accidents, ironically. We see the sign for the Business District. This is the first exit off the maniacal highway we needed to get off of fast. Excitement fills the air. WE ARE IN NEW ORLEANS!

Little do we know, our excitement is about to fade pretty quickly.

Our first mission: get to a casino and have some fun! Harrah’s loomed invitingly in the distance. Found a place to park, changed our clothes-surely we couldn’t go in with what we were wearing. I change into the ‘Valentine’s Day dress’, a little number that left both L. and J. breathless. I’ll admit, I took some satisfaction in that. In the midst of our excitement and miscommunication, the doors were slammed shut, about to take off, when the realization came: the keys are locked in the car. Ah, to hell with it, we’ll deal with that later. We had primo gambling at our fingertips!!

Off to the casino we go all smiles and feeling a bit euphoric. Flashing lights, valets- the air conditioning hit us like an arctic breeze. Step up to the security counter, the smile immediately fell from my face: I don’t have my I.D. I decided to try anyway. Put on my sweetest face, talked my sweetest talk. It didn’t work.

“You don’t look 21, darlin, ’” the security man says.

Shit.

I was 22 at the time, but you would never have guessed it.

End up going back to the car with a collective sigh. First, we thought we’ll go to the cops and see what they can do for us. What a joke!! Cops? In New Orleans? Actually helping out? Not a chance. There were none to be found anyway. Although, just minutes ago, it seemed as if they were all over the place on the main drag. Must have been snack time. So, we had to deal with the locked car on our own. It was only a minor problem. A hanger should do the trick. Found one by some odd chance and the boys went to work as I looked on (again). Within seconds there was a pop and the door was open. Got everything we needed and made sure we had the keys this time before we locked it. Excitement is up again and feeling confidant, we step once more into the arctic breeze.

Security: “I.D.’s please.” A little soured in the voice.

Okay. Alright.

Basic procedure.

There is a woman sitting at her podium in a red shirt and black pants, the standard attire for the casino worker. She is on the more plump side and looks as if she has worked here too long: The disgruntled employee? J. walks up and hands her his ID.

“Mm-uh. I cain’t take this.” Lips pursed and shaking her head disgustedly. “Not U.S. issued.” She continues in a very deep southern accent mixed with something else-French-ghetto?

She hands it back without even cracking a smile, eyes flat and shiny as a snake’s.

“ ID, please.” She sticks her hand out for L’s id and runs it through the machine. It issues a little beep as she hands it back.

“Cain’t take this.”

I am already starting to get irritated at this woman’s attitude (not that mine is something to be praised) and the fact that she wasn’t even looking at the damn ID in her hand. I ask her to run it through again.

“Says it eckspyered.”

“It is not possible that his ID is expired,” I say. “He just got it last month.”

Again, she ran it through. What do you know, it went through. She actually looked at it this time, though dismissively. Hands it back to L. with a thoroughly disgusted look on her face, as if she had eaten maggots for breakfast. Finally, it is my turn. She just glances at the card and announces:

“I needs to get secur’ty for da bot o’ you.” her head bobbling back and forth with eyebrows raised just as her fingers did the accusations.

I’m about ready to go; I’ve had enough of this. I don’t know why we just didn’t leave in the first place.

It takes awhile to get security and all we can do is wait. I see this huge black man come waddling out of some doorway, chest puffed out, hitching up his pants as only an overweight man can do, one hand on his ‘secur’ty’ baton.

Obviously, a man who takes his job a bit too seriously.

“What’s tha prob’m heyar?” huffs and puffs, glasses, which are too big for his face, sliding down his nose.

The podium woman kind of waves her hand dismissively at J. and I: “I.D.s ain’t in tha book,” she says.

THE MAN takes my I.D. in hand first and just stares at it (seemingly with great importance, as if it were some great document) under a light for longer than necessary; examining it back and forth, his head tilted back to get a better view. Isn’t there a book of state ID’s that you could easily look at, I think to myself? Doesn’t just about every business have them? I suddenly wonder, judging from the experiences encountered in Alabama, could this whole dramatic episode be some sort of thinly disguised discriminatory act? Maybe so…

Me: Supremely irritated now, pacing back and forth, and not saying anything yet. I could see the others getting antsy, possibly ready to do something that could get us banned for life, or worse. There was one thing for certain: I did not want to end up in a New Orleans jail. So, I grab my ID away from this man bent so studiously underneath the light and said, “Thank you. Have a great day,” through gritted teeth, stormed out of the casino, bitching and letting out a stream of expletives only a sailor could envy.

Southern hospitality was nowhere to be found in this great city of New Orleans. As we left, THE MAN yells out to us: “Ya’ll come back now, hear?” This is what I heard. L, however, heard something completely different: “Ya’ll don’t come back now, hear?”

Whatever was said, it was unanimous: Ain’t never comin back here…

We were not deterred from finding another casino, however. The search went on. We wandered around the Business District a bit more, sure that there is another one in this part of town. This was New Orleans, after all. We had to ask four different people for directions to a casino and got four different responses; among them, a cop who wasn’t the friendliest.

We finally find Bally’s of our own accord (a billboard on the side of I-10), but this was a couple hours later-like 1 a.m. On our quest for Bally’s (we were determined), we got lost in the ghetto of New Orleans. Driving around on some street, we find we are going in circles. We pull up at a stoplight and a cabbie pulls directly next to us. We are tired and quite irritable by now. I roll down the window and ask where the hell the casino is. ‘Down by the airport.’ That’s what everyone seems to be telling us, but we never got there from their directions. So, we are sitting right in the heart of the ‘hood: drug corners, people selling crack (or whatever) on the streets, bars on the windows, everything. You definitely would not want to roll down your window and ask for directions here. Yet, we did. You see, that is what kind of trip this has been.

We finally see a way out: the exit for I-10. On the bend, there is a car burnt and shot out, completely, in the very literal sense. I, and the rest of the crew, was just glad to get out of there. A big sigh of relief throughout as we see the sign for Bally’s. All right!! We make it there, we know it’s late. Ooooh, it looks as if it’s closed. We walk in, doesn’t seem as if anyone is around, but they must be open: we are in. Ah, here comes someone: a security guard. It turns out this lobby was closed, but the riverboat is still open. He leads us there, one of the nicer people we have met so far. Even the ID process went off without any problems. The woman at the podium actually looked at the ID book this time. So, they were a bit smarter than the ones before. (Or was that something else, a slight racial hit?)

J had a small problem with his, however. Yeah-not U.S. issued. He just went though his wallet, pulling out everything: hospital card, Social Security, anything he had. The manager had to be called up-surprise!-he saw everything was actually cool, gave the usual: “Well, I don’t normally do this, but I’ll let you in this time.”

Oh, gee, thanks so much, I couldn’t help but think, sarcasm getting the best of me. I got the feeling The manager only did this because J put on such a show.

So. We are in!! On the riverboat. We sit down at the bar and immediately order drinks. We pay with a $50 bill. The bartender gave us extra change and a free roll of quarters (for the slot machines). Was this intentional? I don’t know. Didn’t really care. I saw this as our just right after all that bullshit of before. At the bar, there are electronic gambling games: card games such as poker and gin. I became seriously addicted to these. The best thing about it was in playing the games at the bar, the drinks were free!!! Yeah!!! Needless to say, I stayed at the bar most of the night. I was even amazed at how much I won. At my first try, I won $50.L wondered how I did it. Beginners luck? I don’t know, maybe. He’d come over to the bar periodically to see how I was doing-every time he did, I’d lose that game, then winning every other one that he didn’t oversee. Should I go so far as to say he was a bit of ‘bad luck’? J was over at the slot machines doing his own thing. He came over to the bar and told me to pick one for him. He won on nearly every one I picked out. I jokingly said: “You know I require a fee. I expect a percentage of that.” Actually, I wasn’t really joking…

After the initial excitement of winning so many, your luck tends to run out. I found I was immensely tired-it was something like three in the morning; time to round up the kiddies and head out. I came out with about 20 bucks. Not too sure about J, but I know he acquired a fair amount. It suddenly occurs to us: Where are we going to sleep tonight? We sure as hell were not going to push our way to Texas now. Wayyyy too tired. I knew L. couldn’t go anymore. We end up in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart down the road. I was nodding off, as well as everyone else in the car by this point. Out like a light, we were. I don’t even remember falling asleep. I do remember, however, being rudely awakened by some clerk yelling at us to ‘roll up and roll out!’ I know you’re not supposed to park in Wal-Mart parking lots overnight, but-well-it had to be done. Needless to say, I was not in a very good mood until I had some coffee flowing through these veins. This was probably about 6 a.m., if not earlier.

Out of the Wal-Mart parking lot. We decide to go back into the heart of New Orleans and scout it out some more. We get to the Business District again; find out that the French Quarter, which is where we wanted to go in the first place, was only a block away from where we were the other night (the ghetto, with the burnt out car, remember). We go check it out, but there isn’t anything going on because it is only 7 in the morning. It is eerily quiet. We head down to famed Bourbon Street: what a disappointment. It was just a glamorized strip club-the whole street-sex novelty shops in every other ancient building. Royal wasn’t very exciting either: antique road show. Everything is closed and the only people on the street are the clean up crew hosing down the streets.

We stop in Krystal (fast food at its finest!) to use the bathroom, and find out that you have to buy something just to use the bathroom. Ridiculous. I have never thought much of this style of thinking. J ended up quite sick to his stomach after eating that tasty burger.

Through the media, people have romanticized the city, made it into something so fantastic and mystical that you are either severely disappointed by it- having had the image built up to near idolatry, then seeing the absolute reality of it- or you aren’t and are living in that fantasy as well.

Jackson Square, Decatur, St. Anne, and Toulouse Streets, tourist shops on every corner, novelty shops wherever you turn; it was not as impressive as I thought it would be. You think: Ooo-New Orleans: home of the Vampire Lestat, Anne Rice, Voodoo, the completely beautiful architecture, the diverse cultures, intrigue, mystical, exotic, even. But, all of this can make for a very tightly knit, suspicious people wary of anyone who is ‘not from around here’ and ruled so fervently by Neptune who stands defiantly in the middle of the city, a guardian to this Crescent City.


Next Stop: TEXAS

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