When Ray called and told me that he was driving to Seattle once and for all and asked if I wanted to hitch along, I actually hesitated. I couldn’t figure out what surprised me more: the idea of a cross-country road trip or the fact that I didn’t jump up immediately and scream ‘let’s do it’. Anyway, it took me a second.
“Uhhhh, hell yea man let’s do it.”
“Yea, fuckin’ A man. Totally. Let’s do it.” I regained my senses. I had half the summer off from school and would be graduating from the University of Florida at the end of the second summer term.
“It was the perfect swan song.”
A month later we were off. Funeral bells rose from the Scion speakers, ringing at the hand of AC/DC as we sped west on I-10 toward New Orleans in the misty and bare southeastern morning; Two twenty-one year-olds approaching the America they had never seen in the evaporating spring of 2009.
Ray decided earlier that year that he was going to Seattle with or without a job in line. To hell with it. He didn’t even have a place out there to crash. For Ray, that was a big deal. To see him abandon his usual method of precise, often obsessive planning was like seeing some sort of repressed alter-ego break free and threaten all who lie in its way.
For years he had told everyone about his ambitions to prosper in the business world. What that was, exactly, he never really made clear. And yet, if anyone was in any position to get on his ass for ambiguity or indecisiveness, then I was last in line. I might have been twelve when I first said that I wanted to be an actor, and it wasn’t long before I decided it’d be best to keep the news to myself. I had had my fill of lectures and warnings regarding instability and practicality. Anyway, we both did our time at Florida, Ray had graduated with his business degree a year prior while I was a month or two away from fooling everyone with mine in Journalism.
We stopped at a gas station some ten minutes east of Tallahassee. Ray was a bigger sports fan than I ever was, but neither of us seemed to be of the ‘I Bleed Orange and Blue’ persuasion and as we drove by Seminole country, we were more preoccupied with getting at least a glimpse of the city. Florida’s capitol, it seemed, lie hidden behind the lush Southeastern trees.
At the station I got out and walked toward the road from which we had just arrived that led back to the highway. It was eight in the morning and not a car was in sight. The only people I could see was the attendant hiding behind the foggy glass window and, in the distance, not far from a barn that sat opposite the station, was a bigger man who sat hunched on a bench just in front of the barn door. I thought he might have been looking at me but I couldn’t be sure. It gave me an erie feeling. As we drove away from the station and closer to the barn near the highway ramp, I got a better look at the man. He might have been in his late fourties, early fifties. There he sat, looking straight at me with a grin that seemed diabolical and scheming. What did he know that I didn’t?
“Wooo-hooo, yea baby!,” Ray declared as we flashed past Tallahassee. “You ready? Gonna hit up New Orleans, get some drinks have some fun. I’ve never been there but I’m sure it’ll be pretty awesome.
“Yea man, no doubt. I want to hit up like a kick-ass jazz club or something. I wonder how big the scene is down there. What time do we check-in to that place?”
“They said we could check-in at four but I don’t think they’ll be Nazis about it.”
I thought about the country and generations past and how totally non-beat we were in heading to New Orleans only to check into some hotel for which we had reservations. Fuck. We were a new generation, one in which the Kerouacs and Cassadys had been replaced by spoiled softies and aspiring dentists. At least that was the world I saw. Anyway, Hunter Thompson shot himself a few years back. What now? Gonzo had by default been replaced with Barbara Walters.
“What is the hotel called again?”
“Place D’Armes, or something like that.”
“Hmm, sounds cool.”
Getting out of the Florida panhandle, at least for a Floridian, is like swimming through molasses to break free from some humid purgatory. We reached the gleaming bridge over Escambia Bay, the white sky nearly blotting out the blue of the Gulf, and headed into Pensacola knowing that we’d soon be out of the homeland and finally into foreign territory. Crossing the state line, the only difference from Florida seemed to lie in the marathon of mammoth bridges that stretched like snakes over Southeastern rivers and bays. We drove through Alabama and Mississippi in no more than an hour. Mobile appeared on the opposite end of the bay like some Emerald City of the waiting American Delta. ‘The Sound of Silence’ now whispered to us from the playlist as we sped through the blink of land that is Mississippi.
The double-edged sword of music is that it can inspire a lot of pain with all of the jubilation and hope. With the energy can often come reflection, which can then lead to either appreciation, nostalgia or sheer depression. This is why it’s important to never make the foolish decision to share a song with another woman–because what you gain in doing so is dwarfed by what you stand to lose. Songs can be ruined that way, man.
As the marshes of the delta made their first appearance as we entered Louisiana, all I could think about at that point was music. This was at a point in life where I was listening to it and studying it in ways that I never thought I could. It was a strange and unusual sort of pride that I felt when I realized that rock n’ roll was America’s gift to the world. The blues was ours. It would always be ours. And Jazz. Oh sweet, rhythmic, sexual and ferocious jazz. It was our music. It was America’s music, and I obsessed now over how we were heading to the birthplace of rock n’ roll’s living and eternal Delta mother.
Lake Pontchartrain seemed no less daunting than the Atlantic Ocean, and I wondered how deep we’d sink if we happened to veer off the low-lying bridge and into the water. There couldn’t have been more than three feet between the road and the surface. No matter how fast I drove on Highway 90, I still felt like Huck Finn floating on some rigged log raft.
We never talked about it that morning, but we both may have half-expected to drive into New Orleans to meet people still living on their rooftops, looting grocery stores and mushing through flooded streets. I was almost certain that at this point, its citizens would walk the Quarter in the chorus of a bruised spirit carrying an unfathomable burden of neglect and isolation. How do you find the will to search for something as precious and abstract as your own identity following its theft at the hands of God and mother nature? This was roughly a year before the Saints would march back into the quarter bringing home the Lombardi trophy.
It was 3:30 in the afternoon when we eased into those hot summer streets. The Quarter was sleeping, as though its citizens were planning for some massive event come sundown. We checked into the Place D’ Armes Hotel just a few blocks off of the Mississippi and Jackson Square. Our room still wasn’t ready so we explored the Quarter on a swampy Bourbon afternoon.
The one thing that I did worry about was the five hundred bucks in my pocket, which I was too scared to leave in my bags for someone to possibly take. This then was my solution, and it didn’t leave me feeling too comfortable.
We walked to Jackson Square after lunch and embraced the Mississippi. What a giant it was. Of course I had never really seen a river. Ferries and tugboats made their way across with cargo or accommodating tourists.
We heard a voice shout from behind us. “Hey, my man.” A black guy was speaking to Ray betting that he could tell him where he got his shoes. I couldn’t believe it. I thought this sort of thing was just a rumor. The idea was that we would answer ‘where’ and he would reply ‘on your feet.’ A friend told me how this happened to him many years ago and how it led to him getting hustled for twenty dollars. I warned Ray, who said no thanks to him and we kept walking. I should have felt happy in helping my friend avoid the humiliation of it, but I felt for the poor man. I shoved the guilt aside, choosing instead to bask in my apparent street-savvy persona.
That night on Bourbon Street, the city turned around and revealed a side of it that lie hidden during the day. The air was cool. The neon lights of the night triumphed over the grey that cried under that afternoon sun. Music played from every corner. There may have been jazz playing that night. I may have imagined it. It may very well have been heavy metal thundering from the dozen or so bars that vibrated on either side of the street. I don’t remember any saxophones or trumpets. We’d walk in and young people in polo shirts and sports caps would be scattered throughout the bar, while sexy young blondes served patrons the iced cocktails constantly mixing in the spinning machines built into the walls behind the counter. Every bar was like some sort of Superbowl pre-game venue.
The Hurricane was the signature New Orleans drink I learned. I took it without pause. Explore the fruits of America baby! Ray asked what the Jester was and we heard of how it’s loaded with vodka, everclear and a cluster-fuck of other alcohols. Ray ordered it, drank it, and looked at me like I was a pussy. For a while I believed him as we strutted down Bourbon with our two-foot-tall glasses, his being empty while mine remained half-full of the slushy fruit punch. My stomach hurt. I stood atop of lamppost in front of a gay bar and posed like Gene Kelly.
We walked back toward Jackson Square and were confronted once again by a man who knew where we got our shoes. Jester Ray turned on him at once.
“That’s not proper English, man”. The man seemed taken aback. “You said ‘where we got out shoes’, but that’s not proper English. You’d instead say, ‘I bet I can tell you where you have your shoes’, or ‘where are you wearing your shoes’.”
The man walked away after clearly having had enough. A lady came up and warned that challenging a poor, desperate man at night in the French Quarter was probably not a safe idea. We agreed, and feeling somewhat scared that the man might return with a posse in spicy vengeance, we returned to the hotel in suspended delirium. I was certain that Ray had got us into serious shit. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before the shoe man came back with a gang of French Quarter enforcers and beat the hell out of us for acting a fool.
“Only a matter of time, Ray you slippery bastard.”
He giggled madly. “What do you mean, man?”
“I mean you’ve turned New Orleans against us, man. We violated their code in your disrespectful outbursts.” Some of these feelings might have actually been genuine, if only for a second. “We’re no longer welcome here. Fuck it, let’s go back to the hotel.” Ray hung his head and mumbled his approval like a child not getting a lollipop.
Ray crashed onto his bed and began to call his old lady. I thought it a fantastic idea to start snapping more pictures of myself and a few of him trying mightily to convince his woman that he wasn’t drunk. “I’m not drunk babyyyy, I juss had one lil’–I juss had one lil’ drink.” I took a picture of him saying that, and later put the lens of the camera right in front of his eyeball and snapped the picture. Today there remains a strange picture of Ray’s foggy, giddy and confused eyeball.
We left the room one final time and Bourbon Street was now flooded with people who clearly weren’t local. Ray suddenly got the idea to go and put the moves on the plump hostess standing by the front entrance to some Cajun Cuisine, as I snapped another picture of the moment. She seemed excited.
Returning to the Armes, Ray said he didn’t feel too well. I insisted that it was karma for being a smartass to the shoemaster. He giggled a bit and collapsed again onto the bed, quickly snoring away into what must have started as a tranquil dream.
In the middle of the night I thought I heard a lion roar, maybe it was bear. And yet it wasn’t mighty sounding, having none of the royal triumph that comes with the roar of a lion. It sounded pitiful, like it was in some sort of twisted pain. Absolutely fucking miserable. I wanted it to end. What the fuck was that and why was it in our room?
I opened my eyes and could make out a light coming in from behind the closed bathroom door.
“Hey man. Everything alright?”
“They’re closed man.”
“The breakfast counter isn’t open yet, man. It’s 4 in the morning.” The poor bastard.
I went down into the room across the lobby to make sure. When I returned things had hardly subsided and I somehow managed to fall back to sleep. I woke up a few hours later and brought the man his croissant. I left it in there for him the way a warden would for some diseased inmate in a Roman citadel.
I would have felt worse for Ray had I not at that moment realized what great material he was giving me for some memoir I could possibly write for this trip. Perhaps I might conjure a nice little ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ bit from the madness I perceived ourselves to be in. It was foolish but I was on a road trip and it was exciting.
The images of it all flashed around in my head in a cyclone of flashing violet and neon green city light. I wanted the jazz. I wanted the soul. I suddenly wanted to write of this and of the epic night that I craved to unfold. This night would provide the inspiration for the novel. It would all climax here. In this city. This great cultural wellspring of America. I had walked the streets of the Quarter that night ready for anything to come at me. This would be my Vegas, and I wasn’t even in Vegas yet. How would I depict the Fear and the Loathing that I had witnessed tonight? Would I describe Ray’s 4 A.M. misery in some surreal Terry Gilliam whirlpool of hysteria? It would be perfect. It was on this night, in which two Florida kids sat kicked in the ass and passed out in a New Orleans hotel room, that the more coherent of the two first entertained thoughts of being a writer. In the darkness, and halfway between the spectrum of sobriety, I tapped these scattered notes down on an iPhone; my face lit up in the pitch-black hotel room.