Everything I’d feared so far, had mostly not come true. In only two weeks I’d ridden trains from Los Angeles to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, Seattle to San Francisco, San Francisco back to Chicago, Chicago to New York, New York to Washington DC, and DC to New Orleans, all for five hundred dollars. In every city I’d arrived in, except for Los Angeles, where I’d started from, I’d found a hostel for around fifty dollars, meaning I hadn’t spent more than a thousand dollars to see a huge portion of the country and some of its most famous cities.
Still, I’d spent most of the trip worrying, often paralyzed with terror. Small things, like my trains to Miami getting cancelled, or losing two sections of my Rail Pass, had upset me greatly, causing me to curse my life. Yet here I was in New Orleans, I’d just bought a bus ticket to Miami, so I was going there anyway, and the UPT streetcar was sitting right outside the station door and could drop me two blocks away from my hostel. I went to get on it and the few people waiting on it seemed friendly. In a few minutes the driver jumped on and we went lurching down Loyola Avenue.
In my early twenties, I’d spent about eight months in New Orleans, thinking I was there to make music, but mostly drinking and lying in bed depressed. At one point, desperate for a job, I’d gone to bartending school and gotten a job in the French Quarter, at a famous restaurant called Antoine’s. The place that I was staying was just two blocks from Bourbon Street, so as soon as I checked in and got my things put away, I headed over to the Quarter. Back then, it had easily been the most exotic and intimidating place I’d ever been to. By now, it was just another place. A mobile DJ had parked a party bus on Canal Street and was leading a line of women through a booty-shaking dance. Right past him a guy was selling gold balloons and bunny ears.
I walked past the Bourbon House and the Cigar Factory. Two guys were playing chess on the sidewalk. Some group had hired a brass band for a private party and were dancing in the middle of street, lifting white umbrellas and scarves, as a man on stilts, in a top hat, looked down and waved his hands. There was Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club and Voodoo Blues. A kid playing a plastic pail with two drumsticks berated me for taking a picture, and then just glared when I only dropped loose change into his can. I saw Big Daddy’s Topless, still in business after all these years. Then, there it was, just down Saint Louis Street. I walked half a block and stopped outside of Antoine’s.
We never know what will make a good memory or story. Back in the day, the job had been just another grind. I’d been making five dollars an hour, with no tips, mixing drinks for the waiters in the kitchen, but how many times had I brought up working there since. I’d worn my small apprenticeship in the city like a badge of honor for over thirty years. Now the evening shift was ending, and the employees came streaming out the side door. A lot of them were just kids, about the same age I’d been when I worked there. I waited to take a photo of the sign above the door, but two couples had posted up there, and seemed to have no place better to go. Neither did I, so I just waited.
After finally getting my picture, I headed up Royal Street, behind the cathedral, home of the famous Touchdown Jesus, then walked around to the front of Jackson Square. A few fortune tellers were still doing business, but outside of the homeless rolled up outside the church in their makeshift beds, it was empty. It wasn’t late by New Orleans standards, but it was late for me. I walked as far as Armstrong Park, and then started back up Bourbon Street.
A woman on a balcony had some beads she was looking to unload. I walked up right beneath her, and she shouted down to lift up my shirt. I did, but only went so far as to flash one nipple. That was good enough, apparently. She tossed down a necklace of gold beads, and I put it on and continued into the night.