ACROSS THE Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans is an area called Algiers, and I lived there for a while. Following is a true story that I published online years ago, but I like it still, so here it is again. I first wrote it in the third person, so I’ve left it that way, but the “he” is me.
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He downed four cold Dixies in the bar on Canal Street during his lunch break as the sun pounded the pavement outside. It was sticky summertime.
Fortified, he rode the black BSA back to the office and bid the boss goodbye. Four years at the desk were quite enough.
But he still had to eat. You can’t dodge that.
Yellow Cab hired him for the early shift, leaving him work-free by mid-afternoon. He always walked the heat-cracked sidewalk to a close-by tavern from his shotgun duplex on Verret Street. It was Algiers Point, a ferry ride across the murky Mississippi.
Every afternoon he sat in that bar inhaling cold Pearls and quail eggs, blowing the taxicab tips. The air-conditioning was terrific.
The duplex was dusty, stuffy and sparsely furnished. A table and two chairs adorned the kitchen. A fridge chilled cold cuts and gin. The ceiling was old pressed tin, and the windows were very tall.
There were two rockers on the front porch for air and a mattress on the bedroom floor. That completed the Louisiana decór.
A wanderer girlfriend visited now and then. She was eye-bogglingly beautiful and sat cross-legged on the floor in the darkness combing her long blonde hair as Leonard Cohen sang Suzanne.
(He ran into her again a few years later at a news stand. She was Easyridermagazine’s cover girl. A photo spread inside showed her half naked dancing atop the bar in a tavern somewhere in the Gila Desert of southwestern Arizona.)
Two months later a call came from the Caribbean. A better job. And soon after, the BSA swayed in the hold of a Sealand freighter churning toward San Juan in the Antilles.
And he was flying high, skirting the Bermuda Triangle and sipping a cuba libre the silky stewardess had sold him.
(The following is a true story. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent because who is innocent and who is not is unknowable.)
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AT A CONSIDERABLE distance in the past, I lived alone in a slave quarter apartment on Dauphine Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Alone as far as human companionship is concerned, which is not to say I lacked human companionship on occasion, especially of the female variety because this being decades ago I was young and quite the manly looker.
I still hold my own in the geriatric category.
I lived with a fellow whom I kept in a cage. He was a small parrot, and his name was Tube Steak. I don’t recall his specific species in the avian world, but he was smaller than your usual parrot, but about twice the size of a parakeet.
One morning, on leaving for work, I left the kitchen window open. It must have been a pretty day, and there were banana trees in the small patio that grew up to my second-floor apartment, which consisted solely of one largish room, a small bathroom and a tiny kitchen. A bachelor pad. I was between wives.
There was a small balcony that overlooked the lush patio, and I occasionally purchased a burlap bag of oysters, invited friends over, and I’d shuck the mollusks, which we enjoyed with cold Dixie beer.
Tube Steak exhibited no interest in raw oysters or Dixie beer.
But, as I said above, one morning I went to work, leaving the kitchen window open, not thinking of the cat that I knew lived in the patio below. Neither did I think of his being a second-story man which, of course, all cats are.
When I returned in the afternoon, the cage sat on its side on the floor, the sliding bottom was open, and Tube Steak was gone. I reached the logical conclusion that the cat had entered via the kitchen window and made off with my bird.
Sadly, I retrieved the cage and stashed it in the closet.
About two weeks later, I was sprawled on the bed for a nap with the French doors opened onto the balcony. It was not an oyster-and-Dixie day. I was alone.
And then I wasn’t. Tube Steak walked through the door from the balcony. He did not fly in. He strutted in, right there on the floor. He seemed no worse for wear. He appeared unconcerned, offering nary an explanation.
I pulled the cage from the closet. Tube Steak hopped in, and life returned to normal with one exception. On leaving for work, I shut the kitchen window from that day forward.
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(Note: What brought this to mind was another bird yarn that I read yesterday, The Myna Bird by Ray Clifton, an Alabaman who wanders in the woods and writes good stories to boot.)
THERE ARE LOTS of positive aspects to Mexican life. Food ain’t one of them.
Basically, here’s what we eat. Rice, chilies, cheese, beans and stuff made from corn. Pork chops are like old, thin, shoe soles. Beef is gristly. We do fairly well with chicken, especially roasted chicken.
We cannot make a decent salad, and when we make one we offer no dressing. We’re expected to squeeze lime juice on top, period. The Mexican table, at home or in restaurants, will have salt. It will not have pepper.
Here’s a partial list of what I miss from above the Rio Bravo:
Grits. A great way to start any day is a mound of grits next to runny eggs, white-bread toast, butter and jelly. You’d think that, due to Mexico’s love of corn, we’d have grits, but we have nary a grit.
Muffuletta sandwich. This is primarily a New Orleans thing. A good muffuletta is a religious experience. There is an Italian whiff about it. Get it to go, and walk down Decatur Street to Jackson Square. Sit on a bench.
Sausage like andouille, Italian and, especially, boudin. I do love boudin. Andouille and boudin are Cajun items. I lived in Louisiana for 18 years. Sausage in Mexico is usually greasy chorizo. It can be tasty. It can also spawn a heart attack.
Boiled crawfish. What I would not pay for a plate of spicy boiled crawfish and a couple of cold Dixie beers. If you say crayfish, please step away.
Po-boys. Best ordered in New Orleans. My favorite is Italian sausage, but since there is no Italian sausage here … I also used to eat fried-potato po-boys. Greasy French fries inside sliced French bread. Carb attack! But tasty!*
Boiled peanuts. Leaving Louisiana now and moving east. It’s a seasonal thing you’ll find in Georgia. Probably Alabama and Mississippi too. I could eat these things till I’m sick to my stomach.
Raw oysters. You can find raw oysters here sometimes, but not the big, plump ones. I wouldn’t eat them anyway. Not now, not anywhere. I don’t want to commit suicide. I ate my first raw oyster one afternoon in the bar of Schwegmann’s supermarket on Airline Highway in Metairie, Louisiana. I had quite a few beers in me or I wouldn’t have braved it.
Vietnamese pho. When the war ended, lots of refugees settled on the Texas Gulf coast. Houston is full of funky Vietnamese restaurants, and I used to eat in one almost daily. My favorite dish is something called pho. You’ll find no pho anywhere near me now, sadly.
Paella. This is a Spanish dish, not Mexican. Finding paella in Mexico is not difficult. Finding good paella is almost impossible. The only passable paella I’ve encountered was here in Ajijic. I used to frequent a wonderful Spanish eatery in Houston that served a killer paella. You had to phone in advance.
Fried catfish. Another Southern specialty you won’t find south of the Rio Bravo. I do so miss it. My child bride loves fried catfish after that evening we ate in a restaurant near the Howard Johnson’s motel on an interstate in central Alabama about 12 years back.
Alas, I am condemned to live out my life with tacos, tortillas, skinny beef and pork, rice, beans (never beans & rice like you get in New Orleans), and stuff swimming in melted, white cheese.
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* I weighed 50 pounds more when I lived in New Orleans.
ONE SWELL THING about multiple marriages is that you get a recess between wives.
My recess between Wife #1 and Wife #2 was five years, and it was a great recess out there on the playground of naked women.
On the other hand, the recess between Wife #2 and Wife #3 was a spell of much misery and lasted seven years. Recesses can vary in tone.
One of the many happy things I did in the first recess was learn how to fly small planes.
A favorite activity during that time was landing a Cessna 172 at the New Orleans Municipal Airport right next to Lake Pontchartrain after an hour or so of fun flying over the swamps of south Louisiana or maybe a jaunt over to cornpone Mississippi.
During steaming summers, I would park the plane, hop aboard my 1977, black, Harley-Davidson Sportster, and haul butt about a mile south on Downman Road to a sprawling clapboard tavern that kept the air-conditioning in the neighborhood of 35 degrees year-round, or so it seemed, and it was sweet.
I was often alone and wearing cutoff jeans and a T-shirt that said San Juan. The best things about that bar, the name of which escapes me, aside from the air-conditioning, were boiled crawdads and chill Dixie Beer.
Not being rich enough to have my own plane, I joined a flying club, which basically was a bunch of folks who banded together to maintain a few small planes, and each of us paid a fee per hour to take one up. It’s how poor people fly, but in time even that system got too rich for me. By the late ’70s, I was a retired flyboy.
Much of my life back then was haphazard. My first flying lesson took place on July 23, 1974, with a lanky, hillbilly instructor named George Gunn. He was an inch taller than I am, and I’m 6’3″, so it was quite a squeeze in the cockpit of the tiny Cessna 150 training plane.
I first soloed on June 28, 1976, which was quite a spell later. I must have been paying more attention to Dixie beer and crawdads than I was to flying lessons with Gunn.
The last time I took a plane up was November 9, 1978. I still have my logbook. Later, I went up in a hot-air balloon, parachuted once and put in some training hours in gliders.
There were only two times I ventured far from the skies over South Louisiana and Mississippi. Once was a Christmas when Wife #2 and I flew to Southwest Georgia to visit my parents and sister out in the boonies.
Due to a menacing weather forecast, we left early to return to New Orleans on Christmas Eve morning.
We were forced down, hair-raisingly, in rain and buffeting winds at the airport at Dothan, Alabama, where we spent the night in a motel, not much of a Christmas, trust me.
The second venture was down to the border where I flew with two friends to visit the sins in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. This flight too presented problems. First, I neglected to adjust the altimeter to the higher altitude of the airport in Laredo, Texas. As I entered the pattern to land, a birdie whispered that I was quite low. I didn’t understand why until after I landed and a light bulb ignited over my head. Whoops!
* * * *
Radio out, overshooting runway
Flying back to New Orleans from Laredo the next day, the plane’s radio went out. I could hear transmissions directed at me, but nobody could hear my response. But before that happened, we were forced to land at Galveston, Texas, due to bad weather, again. I did not have the proper license to fly in bad weather.
I was a fair-weather pilot.
Two of us spent the night in a motel, but the other companion decided to return to New Orleans in a bus. He said he was in a hurry, but I believe he’d just lost his nerve, the panty-waist.
Early the next morning, we took off again, one man lighter, and it was over Southwest Louisiana that the radio went out. Some airports allow landings without a radio. Some do not. New Orleans is one where you cannot.
Just north of Lake Pontchartrain is a small airport in the piney woods. I needed to land there to phone the New Orleans control tower to let them know to expect me. That’s one solution to not having a radio.
Here’s how I landed at that airport in the tall piney woods: badly. Due to those tall trees, you must come in rather steeply and level out at the last moment. Alas, it was a very windy day. To offset that added peril, I came in faster than usual and landed farther down the runway than I would have done in a perfect world.
When the tires finally screeched down, halfway down the short runway, my passenger and I watched as the trees at the other end got nearer and nearer with alarming rapidity. I braked like nobody’s business.
The concrete runway ran out.
And we were still barreling along — through high weeds. But we stopped short of the trees.
We taxied to a hangar where I phoned the other airport. An hour later we landed in New Orleans uneventfully. I believe that flight was my last. I decided to stick to motorcycles, crawdads and Dixie Beer.