Several years ago, I took a flight from Germany to visit my sister Rose in New Orleans for the annual Mardi Gras, a cultural and traditional celebration in Louisiana and other parts of the South. I was relieved when the plane touched down at Louis Armstrong Airport. Although the 9-hour flight had made me tired, all I wanted to do after seeing my sister was hit the sack.
As the jet taxied down the runway, an unbearable heat swept through the cabin in seconds. I felt as if I was trapped in a sauna in the middle of an active volcano.
When the plane stopped, I jumped up and grabbed my bag from the overhead compartment. Then I got in line behind the passengers who were slowly getting off the plane.
As I hurried down the ramp, I dragged my bag behind me and weaved my way between passengers who weren’t moving fast enough. When I reached the airport, I scanned the crowd to see if Rose was waiting for me. I was bummed out because I didn’t see her. But then I heard my name, “CO, oh CO!” It was Rose. When I saw her, I ran to her, fell into her arms, and cried like a baby.
As big sisters do, she calmed me down and gave me a Kleenex to wipe away my tears. Then, we headed to baggage claim to get my luggage before taking the elevator to the parking garage to get her car. The sun had already set, and the high humidity in the parking garage made me sweat like a pig. So I knew that tomorrow’s weather would be a scorcher.
MY VISIT AND THE FOOD
I was glad to be back in New Orleans. I was born and raised there and still call it home, even though I no longer live there. I always looked forward to seeing my sister for so many reasons. Of course, the most important reason was to eat some of her amazing food.
After my long flight, I was too tired to eat anything. Jet lag had set in, so I didn’t even bother to unpack my suitcase. I kept nodding off like a drunk while she quizzed me about my trip and what I wanted to do first. So I took a nap in her bed for some much-needed rest.
Every morning, Rose prepared my favorite breakfast to perfection. Her grits, scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, and warm toast always hit the right spot. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I was a child prodigy and had so many advantages as the baby of the family. My parents and grandparents spoiled me rotten in so many ways. Rose contributed to that permanent psychological advantage I enjoyed all those years by spoiling me with my favorite dishes.
I loved pigging out on her spicy gumbo, jambalaya, and red beans and rice. Rose also treated me to hot, spicy crawfish. After buying bags of those mudbugs, she dumped them on a table covered with old newspapers. We all dug in and ate until we were stuffed more than Thanksgiving turkeys. Um, um, um.
A SIDE TRIP TO SHOP
The following day, I had rested enough to roll anywhere with my sister. Both of us were itching to hit our favorite haunt, Harrah’s Casino, at the foot of Canal Street. But after breakfast, Rose took me to a mall on the outskirts of New Orleans. I didn’t buy anything, though. I was still antsy because my mind had zeroed in on the one-armed bandits at the casino. Rose kept telling me to pipe down because the machines weren’t going anywhere.
HOOKED ON SLOTS!
Speaking of slot machines, I’ve been obsessed with the one-armed bandits for a long time. When I was in the Army, I flew Rose from New Orleans to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, so she could attend my graduation. From Arizona, we drove to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for my next assignment. On the way to California, we stopped in Las Vegas, Nevada. I got us a hotel room on the Vegas Strip. Naturally, we had a blast gambling all night long. So that is the short sordid history of how this slot machine addiction started for me.
PARADES AND TRUCK FLOATS
Along the way to the mall, we caught glimpses of a few vibrant, colorful floats and gaudy truck parades scheduled to roll through the city that day.
Although Mardi Gras was a few days away, I wasn’t as excited to see them as I used to be as a kid growing up in New Orleans. I had followed more than my share of parades and had caught enough beads and trinkets to fill an entire football stadium.
The next day after breakfast, Rose and I got dressed early. She smiled when I told her I was suffering from a case of itchy palms. She knew that was my signal for us to hit the slots before I had a nervous breakdown. LOL
THE BUS RIDE TO CANAL STREET
Rose knew the traffic would be bumper to bumper, so she decided that we would catch the bus and then transfer to the streetcar on Canal Street.
So, we walked to the bus stop a short distance from her house. I felt so funny riding on a bus, which was something I hadn’t done in ages. I was not prepared for how dirty the bus was. And the sickening stench almost overwhelmed me. I couldn’t wait to get off!!
TRANSFERRING TO THE STREETCAR
After several stops, we transferred to another bus to get to Canal Street. From that bus stop, we boarded a streetcar waiting for passengers on the tracks in the middle of Canal Street. Rose and took a seat not too far from the operator, a heavy-set Black lady about 45-50 years old, and I’m being kind estimating her age.
THE STREETCAR PASSENGERS
The first thing I noticed were the other passengers scattered in seats throughout the streetcar. They looked like stone-faced statues. None of them appeared to be under 70.
I wondered to myself if this streetcar was earmarked for senior citizens only! Anyway, I was sure they were heading to the casino, too. I wasn’t going to bother with those old geezers. I just wanted to get to the damn casino. I was ready to fight with that bandit.
SITTING IN THE STREETCAR
Sometimes, I thought that maybe I was suffering from ADHD. In a split second, I got tired of just sitting on that streetcar in the middle of Canal Street. I couldn’t stay still to save my life.
Since the operator hadn’t yet started the streetcar, I was tempted to volunteer to drive it if she was too tired. But I realized that she had a specific schedule to keep. So, I left her alone.
I knew the streetcar would stop at the end of Canal Street, so we wouldn’t have that far to walk to get to the casino. From where the streetcar was parked, I thought we could have walked the rest of the way, but it was too damn hot, and the rowdy drunks were thicker than the hair on my head. So, the streetcar was still the quickest and safest way to travel down Canal Street.
FINALLY ON THE MOVE!!
A few more minutes had passed when I heard the metallic whine and screech of the gears as the driver set the streetcar in motion. It took all I could muster to keep from jumping up and yelling, “YES! About damn time!!!”
To be honest, I was excited to be riding in that old streetcar with my sister. I felt like a kid again and was happy to be in the middle of the wild carnival celebration spreading all over the city.
As the streetcar ambled down Canal Street, I looked out the window and noticed that a healthy mix of tourists and locals had populated both sides of Canal Street.
Alcohol really does bring out the worst in us. People lose their inhibitions and will do almost anything out of the ordinary during this raucous pre-Lenten season. I spotted a multitude of weird, frightening, unbelievable, and outrageous sights. I OOHed and AAHed at the makeshift creative costumes, garish makeup, and wild pranks and antics of people who felt no shame and had no inhibitions at the things they did in public. I knew these free street freak shows would get more reckless and audacious as the rambunctious crowds grew louder and louder the closer we got to the French Quarter.
And Bourbon Street! Lord! All the streets crisscrossing this famous French Quarter street (Iberville, Bienville, Chartres, Dauphine, Dumaine, Conti, Toulouse, St. Peter, etc.) were teeming with throngs of boozers at different stages of drunkenness. I saw a few partiers who had too much to drink. Some were sprawled out on the banquettes (sidewalks), knocked out and oblivious to the numerous merrymakers and other drunks stumbling over and around them.
As far as I could see, traffic was at a standstill. A few motorcyclists managed to squeeze their bikes between the cars inching along bumper to bumper. Such is the madness of the Mardi Gras season! I felt sorry for the drivers who dared to venture through the jam-packed streets in the Vieux Carre (French Quarter).
As the streetcar continued down the tracks, the old timers on board remained unmoved by the wild party atmosphere spreading through the city. Like me, I guess they probably had seen and heard it all, many, many times before. Today, two days before Mardi Gras, amounted to a been-there-done-that day.
THE STREETCAR PASSENGERS
And back to those damn passengers! I found it strange that they were all neatly dressed in normal everyday clothes, despite the Mardi Gras tradition to dress as outrageously as one dares or cares to. One old guy was dressed neatly in a blue and white plaid short-sleeved shirt buttoned up to his neck. He wore a straw hat with a short brim. An old lady sitting in the seat behind him wore a purple and white flowered dress. Her hair was in a neat bun at the back of her hed. But one thing she wore was weird: a string of pearls. WHITE PEARLS!!! In that heat!! Who does that? Maybe that was her idea of a Mardi Gras costume. But what did I know?
Even stranger about that elderly crowd was that they were quiet. Too damn quiet. No lively chit-chat among them took place. New Orleanians are always friendly and talkative, especially to strangers. They speak to you even if they don’t know you. It’s part of our French culture and inherent good manners. But there were no conversations going on in this car. I wondered to myself if any of these passengers were even still alive. The inside of that streetcar was quieter than the city morgue at midnight. Very strange indeed.
THE WILD CROWDS ON CANAL STREET
The high-pitched metallic whine and squealing sound of the streetcar’s wheels on the tracks blended in with blaring car horns, whistles, and party kazoos outside. The combined noise was loud enough to wake the dead in the nearest St. Louis Cemetery!
Still, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t figure out how the old geezers on the streetcar remained stiff as ironing boards as the raucous merriment of the crowds tore through the graveyard stillness in the streetcar. SMDH.
Although it was only 1:00 in the afternoon, many revelers were already juiced up way past their limits. But as is customary during Mardi Gras season, they still had plenty of time left to sober up, eat, and drink until the cows come home to reach their personal level of inebriation. I grinned, thinking that everyone, especially the tourists, were in New Orleans, where anything goes, and they were having the time of their lives. With the great food, Dixieland music, and party-ready people, no one could sit still in The Big Easy. No one.
THE STREETCAR PASSENGERS (AGAIN)
But back to the zombie passengers. It still looked unusual for them to be sitting in stone-faced silence amid all the craziness and high-pitched racket filling the streets. Everybody outside the streetcar was partying their asses off. I thought the passengers’ reticence to chat with each other was due to their age. Maybe they were highly medicated or just as juiced up as the crazy crowd roaming the streets. Again, I tried to ignore them, because I had that bandit on my mind.
THE BROILING TEMPERATURE
New Orleans is known for its sweltering tropical temperatures. On that sunny day, the temperatures rose to a pre-boiling point of 98 degrees! I could actually see the heat spiraling up from the banquettes (pavement) like cobra snakes rising from a wicker basket. Y’all know what I’m talking about.
To make matters worse, the smell of sweaty bodies, stale alcohol, strong urine odors, and some nauseating funk rushed through the opened streetcar windows. All that stench made the air almost unbreathable. Though a breeze intermittently wafted through the open windows, it wasn’t enough fresh air to keep me comfortable. Thank God, the streetcar had only a few more blocks to go.
THE WILD CROWDS ON CANAL STREET (AGAIN)
I looked out the window again at the throngs of crazy people living it up like there was no tomorrow. Many carried go-cups filled with beer or potent alcoholic drinks. Probably some go-cups were filled with the famous New Orleans cocktail, the Hurricane. I was sure some college kids had yet to discover the potency of the Hurricane drink. Although the Hurricanes taste like Kool-Aid, they would sneak up on those kids and kick their butts, especially in that heat.
AN UNSCHEDULED STOP
About two blocks from the casino, the streetcar slowed down to an unscheduled stop. That was unusual, because it stopped in the middle of Canal Street. No passengers got on or off. Puzzled, we all waited for the conductor to make an announcement, such as, “THIS IS AS FAR AS WE GO, FOLKS. YOU’LL HAVE TO WALK THE REST OF THE WAY.” But that announcement never came.
I thought the streetcar had broken down, but I could never tell with all the noise it made rolling on the tracks. But again, the conductor made no announcement about any mechanical failure. I looked at Rose and then around at all the passengers sitting rigid in their seats like crash test dummies. I couldn’t figure them out, but in my mind, I was upset because this unplanned stop was cutting into my gambling time. I wanted to scream at somebody, “What the hell is wrong with the streetcar? Why ain’t we movin’?” For a few seconds, I didn’t say anything.
I leaned over to one side to look out the front window of the streetcar to see if there was anything on the tracks that would prevent the streetcar from continuing. Nothing. The tracks were clear, so I didn’t understand this sudden stop.
THE NOPD MOTORCYCLE POLICEMAN
Since no one else was moving, I got up and went to the conductor to find out what the problem was. I heard Rose chuckle as I left my seat. I leaned down to the conductor’s right ear and asked her in a civilized, normal tone, “Ma’am, what’s the problem?” She turned and looked at me and answered as if it was no big deal, “Oh, just a police motorcycle blocking the tracks.”
I’m thinking to myself, “Well, DUH !! Is that it??? A policeman’s motorcycle??” I didn’t say anything…just yet. I just frowned at her like the nitwit I thought she was. That cop with his motorcycle on the tracks was cutting into my gambling time! I was angry not so much with the cop, but at the fact that the conductor didn’t try to do a damn thing to take care of the situation to get the streetcar moving again.
Actually, I wanted to yell at the conductor, “MISS, DO YOU SEE HOW BIG THIS FUCKIN’ STREETCAR IS??? Why don’t you get off your fat ass and go tell that cop to move his damned motorcycle, which is ON the tracks and in YOUR way!!?? If he doesn’t move his cycle, just push his shit outta the way!! You could even run over him and his motorcycle, and no one would find his body for days especially in this crowd!” Fortunately for her, I remained silent, but only for a few seconds.
I stayed in the front of the streetcar and looked back at the passengers sitting there like dumbasses afraid to move, I guess because that cop was a white NOPD cop blocking the tracks.
I NEVER TOOK MY ARMY BOOTS OFF
Now, I have had tons of experience correcting soldiers’ SNAFUs (Situation Normal All Fucked Up) in the United States Army. Confronting that cop would be a piece of military cake for me. So, with the battle courage of General Patton, I decided to take action.
But before I got off the streetcar to address the policeman, I reminded myself that I am a US Army Veteran and a Retiree. I receive disability benefits and take several medications. NO FEAR!! If the cop tries to blow me off or shoo me away, I’ll just pull out my blue Retiree ID card and flash it in his face. If that doesn’t work, I’d drop to the ground, roll around in agony for a few minutes, then fake a faint worthy of an Oscar. I bet that would get EVERYONE’s attention and teach that brain-dead conductor a thing or two about taking charge. Besides, maybe I might even make the 6 o’clock evening news.
I decided not to act like a crazy person, but I kept that brilliant idea in reserve just in case things got out of hand with the cop.
I heard Rose cracking up as I stepped off the streetcar. The rest of the passengers remained silent. I went over and stood right next to the policeman. Amazingly, that pasty-faced jerk was sitting on his motorcycle, chatting away on his cell phone as if the massive steel and wood streetcar, just inches away and breathing down his neck, posed no problem to him.
His inaction told me that he intentionately parked his motorcycle on those tracks. There was no way he didn’t hear or sense that hulking streetcar looming over his shoulder.
After swallowing hard to maintain my military bearing, I tapped him on his right shoulder with my index finger. Still holding his phone to his ear, he turned to me as he told his party on the other end to hold on. I had no idea what to expect, but here’s what happened.
THE NOPD COP: “Ma’am, can I help you?”
ME: Yes, “You can, officer.”
Instead of screaming at him like banshee, I politely asked him in a friendly tone of voice, which was against my better judgment and cut all the fun out of my response.
ME: “Could you please move your motorcycle outta the way so that the streetcar can pass?”
He looked back at the streetcar as if this was his first time seeing it!!
ME: WELL, DUH!! I said to myself.
THE NOPD COP: “Why sure, just give me a minute.”
ME: Well, DOUBLE DUH, jackass!! (Thank God he didn’t hear me.)
After promptly ending his cell phone conversation, he quickly started his motorcycle up and sped his ass away.
‘Man, that was too easy,’ I thought. I didn’t even have to get rowdy with him.
ALWAYS A SOLDIER
Throwing my shoulders back and my chest out, I got back on the streetcar. Tepid applause and some accolades from the dimwitted passengers surprised me. ‘Too late, scumbags’ was on the tip of my tongue. But I said nothing to them. The fat-assed conductor offered, “Thank you, ma’am.” I was seconds away from telling her to stuff it, sister, followed by a slap across her face to drive home my point!
I wanted to tell her that we’d still be sitting on the tracks if it wasn’t for me. But I just looked at her like the moron that she was. All I could muster in response to her was, “UH HUH!!” She was lucky she wasn’t in my Army because she would have had hell to pay for her indecision!
I sucked in a deep breath through my teeth and walked back to my seat. Rose tried to contain herself as she said, “Girl, you’re crazy!” I smiled and said, “Yeah, that may be true, but I got us moving again.” She was rolling hard.
And so, we were on our way, just two blocks short of my guilty pleasure and free drinks.
I gotta admit that I hit big after beating a one-armed bandit to the ground that day. Rose did pretty well, too. Clearly, Karma paid me back for my good deed that day: challenging a white NOPD cop and surviving without a scratch or going to jail. And yes, Mardi Gras was a blast, but that’s another story. LOL