The Makings of a Book. . .
When you spend a week or more in a quiet house, alone in New Orleans, the city can depress you. To escape such emotions of lonliness, I left the sleepy streets of Algiers to seek excitement in the city.
I met a crooked girl with cigarette burns on her arms and bruises on her knees who taught me how to score free drinks at the casinos. All you have to do is slip in a dollar in the slots, order off the screens of the machines, and generous bar-keeps deliver free rounds of drinks of your choice. I ordered a red wine. She ordered bourbon. We sat at the slots and spoke, making our dollar back without effort.
When I gave her my pad and pen to compose her number, she opened it to a page where some writing was already sketched. She read a poem I’d written about sadness and New Orleans.
“Aw. . . you’re sad?”
“This city just gets to me”
Immediately, she dug through her purse for “something that’ll help.” She shoved a Valium into my palm. “They say don’t mix this with alcohol. . . but you know. . .” She smiled at me with squinty eyes, having already swallowed two.
That same night I was invited to a potluck in the ghetto of the Bywater across Saint Claude Ave. The 9th Ward. We sat on the stoop in the darkness and grazed on chicken and pineapple off the grill. I listened to everyone speak of tapeworms, blobfish, and little parasites that sweetly spoon as a couplets in your blood stream. A big dog fight went down as I left.
I saw, at The Spotted Cat one evening, a film crew setting up to record some scenes for Treme, an HBO show about New Orleans.
I met a fellow for coffee who made an award-winning documentary about train-hopping and its subculture of hobo’s, gutter punks, and trust fund gypsies. We spoke about travel for an hour or so before he took me back to his place to give me a copy of the Crew Change – a hard-to-come-by railroad map for hoppers. I snuck to Kinkos to make copies.
Sunday and Monday nights are when the swing kids emerge and take over the bars. On Sunday, my final night in New Orleans, I made it to Frenchman St again. At DBA, The Palmetto Bug Stompers stomped the brick hall with great New Orleans-style jazz– tubas, trumpets, trombones, guitars, and washboards. The floor was a wild rumpus. And when they’d go on a break, everyone would dart across the street to The Spotted Cat to take over the floor as Ben Polcer and The Grinders pumped out swing from their own tubas and trumpets. Club to club, we’d scoot to keep up the energies of the dance. I got to talking to some really fine dancers (11-16 years of experience) and made some friends. One girl lives in San Francisco, and will be there while I’m passing through sometime next month. She offered to show me around the dance scenes of Frisco.
I usually don’t spend much time on Bourbon Street, but since it was my last night, I crept on through the crowded mayhem of it in search of Preservation Hall to see the jazz band play one last time. It was a comfortable change of pace from the strip clubs, daiquiri joints, and repulsive cover band bars along the rest of the stretch.
Monday morning I left Algiers after grabbing some fruit and canned oysters at the small grocery on the corner. I crossed the Mississippi one last time with full breaths of gratitude to the ferry, and took the 47 street car to The Cemeteries near Midtown. Haunted graves and stained tombs consumed my sight. I walked up City Park Ave and cut left down Canal Blvd where a loop of buses stood idling, waiting for me. I took the E-1 public bus to Veterans Blvd. It was 15-minute ride. On it, I was tapped on the shoulder by a fellow wearing horn-rimmed glasses. He had a backpack on the seat next to him.
“You hitchhiking out of here?”
We talked across the aisle, and ended up finding a generous on ramp to I-10 West. He was escaping New Orleans to Arkansas to spend a couple weeks sleeping in the Ozarks alone. He’d found work cooking and turned me on the possibility of finding work as an extra on movie sets around the country.
“They pay about a $100 a day,” he said. “And they hire just about everyone because they need as many extras as they can find. I was in a Will Ferrel movie, once.”
We ripped up some cardboard to make a sign and stood with our thumbs out. Dozens of cars and trucks roared by, shaking our shirts with wind. It was refreshing to be out of New Orleans and back on the freedom of the American road again.
“Once, in California,” I said, “I was picked up by a guy in that same kind of truck right there. He looked just like George W.” Right as I said this, the red Ford truck pulled off onto the shoulder and flagged us over. The driver was a Brazilian fellow who’d lived in Boston for 7 years before making his way down to New Orleans to rebuild houses after the hurricane.
Baby Got Back played on the radio as we sped across Lake Pontchartrain and the steamy swamps of Louisiana. The windows were wind-screaming. We dropped off the hitcher at the intersection of I-10 and I-55 so he could thumb north to Mississippi and over into Arkansas to roam the forest alone. He smiled big at me as he left.
An hour later, the driver dropped me at a busy intersection near Baton-Rouge. I grabbed some cheap tacos, then walked to the on-ramp leading straight to the bulge of Texas. The roads were so busy, I predicted waiting no more than 20 minutes for a ride out of Baton-Rouge.
But it was another case of being sun beaten and tired and questioning humanity on the highway again. I’d been standing for close to two hours on the same road when a decrepit old Buick curved off the ramp and into the dust of the shoulder. A very tall young man, surprisingly only 19 (just graduated high school), stepped out to open his trunk for me. He’d never picked up a hitchhiker, and if his mother knew, she’d flip out.
“Where you heading?” I asked, throwing my bag in. I was sure I was going to sleep on the side of the road somewhere in Texas that night.
“I’m going to Austin.” His voice was cheerful, and fluttered with excitement. “I saw your sign, and thought, ‘I’m dreading driving 7 hours back home from New Orleans, and I’d really love the company.’”
If my sign hadn’t read Austin, he wouldn’t have stopped.
His trunk was full of fine gator skin shoes and suits. Pressed, pleated pants hung in the back seat with polos and hats. He wore a blue polo shirt tucked into brown shorts and leather loafers over white tennis socks. He didn’t quite match the crud of his car. We spoke madly and breathlessly of all affairs through the final miles of Louisiana and on into the gigantic, graceless land of Texas.
Driving through Houston, I realized how massive the city actually was. It spread out over miles and miles, seeming endless. In the heart of it, during the rich sunset, it began raining hard. The cars up front were splashing dusty gusts of glittery rain from the road. The wipers were sprinting across the windshield in shaky fury. But instead of a gloomy grey sight ahead of us, the evening sun was glowing deep orange through the heavy clouds, shimmering golden against the glass with each drop containing secret messages of the storm. It struck us, and our talk ceased. Strangely, out of the passenger window, a brilliant hue of blue fogged the glass and cooled the contradicting redness of the rain ahead. As we escaped the dread of Houston, the rain stopped and we sped on with no worry and kept talking.
His loafers were heavy on the metal pedal– we rushed through Texas on 1-10, then cut up TX-71 as night fell. The speed needle was pulsing with the rumble of the engine, flirting with 100. He’d crash through small towns, busting through the intersections at 70 mph, yelping with excitement to get back home to his girl, then kick it back up to 90. We made to Austin in under 6 hours.
By the following day, a dramatic influx of work came up. I only intended to stay in Austin until the weekend, but as it turns out, I may be here until next week.
My second night here, I found myself crashing a swing dance at a huge plantation-style mansion off Lamar St. Three stories high, this brick castle stood in the face of the American flag flapping on its sunset lawn. Inside was elegant. Dramatic curtains draped down overwhelming windows, crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings, and intricate white molding framed the walls and plush rugs of the wood floors. It was unreal.
Lessons were held in various rooms about the house. My first was a collection of variations for tandem Charleston held in a gigantic ballroom. It was so big that the instructors, Sally and Johnny, had to use hands-free microphones to be heard in the echo. The second lesson was a smaller crowd in a smaller room– my very first (real) Balboa lesson. The steps, I already knew; but within the hour I learned the Come Around, Lollies, and a simple, yet stylish, turn coming out of Lollies. The instructor of the whole deal usually doesn’t let strays join the classes so far into a series, but he was so fascinated by my story that he let me in. City #3 on my lindy hop list.
I left the dance early because my hunger was growing rapidly. The only place to eat nearby was a Mexican restaurant, which is a fantastic thing, but this one was severely overpriced and infested with frat boys and their girlfriends watching big screen basketball. So I ditched it. I only walked about one block when I came across a tupperware container with its lid off, fallen across the sidewalk. And on the grass, pristine and ant-free, were six chocolate chip cookies scattered around. I picked up three and went on my way to the bus stop, satiated for the night. The driver let me take a ride for free.
My first days of work were with a landscaping crew in a neighborhood of nothing but over-manicured lawns, and houses that belonged on cookie sheets. (Keep Austin Weird is Austin’s slogan, but having just lived in New Orleans, Austin is tame.) The landscaping company specializes in conversing water by planting only drought resistant native plants. Last summer was the worst drought in Austin history.
I worked with two fellows– an intelligent Israeli who has a tremendous book collection, and a big, burly, mute fellow who is excellent at playing the wind-chimes. For ten to twelve hours in the Texas sun, we hauled thousands of pounds of autumn-blend limestone, lugged 9 tons of soil and compost granite, and I learned how to build retaining wall terraces. I worked with various tools: pick axes, rakes, levelers, and a wheelbarrow named Betty Badass, but most often shovels. I shoveled dirt like a coal man and pushed wheelbarrows like a mule. I sweated and smiled.
Having seen the spectacular vision of Machu Picchu, where the Incas built hundreds of vast terraces along the sides of some of the steepest mountains in South America with rocks they supposedly retrieved and carried up the mountain from the Urubamba River, I’m boggled by their tremendous strength and intellect so many centuries ago.
We ended the rough day back at the house with a feast of bloody marys and talk in dirty jeans and beat hands.
I also worked on a small homestead for an unschooling family in east Austin, sorting piles of wood, crafting tomato cages, repairing fences, and catching chickens.
Being a migrant worker, and doing heavy, real work with my hands in the warmth of the traveling sun is a reward.
Written in Austin, TX 2012