New Orleans and Me

Today is “Fat Tuesday” – Mardi Gras.

When I lived in New Orleans, Mardi Gras was my nightmare.

Mardi Gras meant being trapped in my apartment, sitting on the balcony, and watching the idiots below. I literally was unable to get to work because there were so many people congregated in the five blocks it took to walk there. A random Tuesday night in April was busy enough! Why bother dealing with the morons that came to the French Quarter specifically to get drunk and puke this one night of the year?

Today, I found myself wanting to revisit the scene of the crime, and watched some of the festivities via live video. (Amazing, this thing we call the Internet.) If you’ve never experienced Mardi Gras, and read this post on Tuesday night, be sure to click the link and find the “BourboCam”. It’s a riot! (and if you read this post on Wednesday morning, you can see how filthy the streets are the morning after)

I lived in New Orleans when I was just a kid, 18, 19-years old. The drinking age is 21 in Louisiana, however, for some unknown reason you’re allowed to drink alcohol at 18 in the French Quarter. I lived with my high-school sweetheart, Jason Chalaire, in a studio apartment on Rue St Phillip, about a block from Bourbon Street. The apartment was small, but tidy, and had a fantastic balcony that faced Johnny Gi…’s place.

Johnny was the epitome of an Italian Mafioso; handsome, silver-haired, drove a Maserati. He lived above his bar, Gi..ov..anni’s, which was open 24-hours a day. It didn’t even have a door, instead, you walked through clear, plastic strips to enter the lounge. It kept the cool air in and the bugs out, he said. Johnny was cool. So cool, he was scary. He paid off the nearby hotel valets to park his Maserati in their lot, and they’d even fetch it for him when he’d yell down from his balcony.

Whenever Johnny was out on his balcony, we’d talk back and forth from across the street, and one afternoon, he invited us over. His place was amazing. Hardwood floors, original antique furniture, vaulted ceilings, and wine racks in every room. He made Jason a drink without even asking – scotch on the rocks. Jason pretended to be far more mature than his 19 years of age, and sipped it slowly. Johnny offered to make me a martini, and when he pulled the ice bucket out of the freezer, he pulled a clear plastic bag full of white powder out of the bucket. He proceeded to make my martini (my first ever) while ranting about those Damned Valets That Park My Car Near The Gate. All I could think about was the cocaine on the table. Jason kept stealing my glance, motioning for me to look away. We took our cocktails out onto the enormous balcony, and I’m assuming we talked. I can’t remember. All I can recall now was how fast we raced down the stairs when we left, wondering if we were being photographed by FBI agents staking out the building. Johnny was definitely too cool for us.

We lived next door to a very strange couple – Tom, and I can’t remember her name. Tom was a self-proclaimed “Mardi Gras Clown”, and she was a mime of some sort. Both of them were nutso. They’d drink heavily each night, scream at each other until the wee hours of dawn, and then be hunky-dory in the morning. Tom would put on his makeup, get into costume, and walk the streets of the Quarter handing out beads to tourists for a dollar. He made a decent wage, too, bragging that on some days he’d pull in two-hundred, three-hundred dollars.

Tom, the clownThe mime next door

Lots of photos to follow by clicking

I worked as a front desk agent at the Bourbon Orleans, a gorgeous hotel with crystal chandeliers and enormous ballrooms. I once checked in Julia Roberts. I didn’t recognize her, though, until after she had walked away and a co-worker pointed out the obvious. I was too busy concentrating on operating the computer correctly. I didn’t last long at the hotel, realizing that the money wasn’t found in lodging, it was in alcohol.

I was 18-years-old, slinging drinks at a bar. I worked at a daiquiri shop on Bourbon Street, where the machines were constantly swirling icy concoctions of Banana, White Chocolate, Black Cherry, or the infamous 151 Hurricane.

New Orleans Daiquiri Machines

The place was out of control – sometimes filling up to unbelievable numbers of people pushing their way to the bar for a drink. The music was turned up to full volume, and taking a drink order consisted of figuring out which machine they were pointing to and indicating SMALL? or LARGE? with your hands (it was never SMALL). The place was loud. Busy. Annoying. Sometimes we’d take a break, all of the bartenders at once. The customers would be standing there, shocked, as we’d each pour each other a shot of vodka (or two) and chase it with a taster cup of daiquiri. So much for customer service.

I left the daiquiri shop to work at the largest bar on Bourbon Street – the Wild Horse Bar & Grill. I was a cocktail waitress, and it was the most frustrating job I’ve ever had. Hundreds of people, each drinking dollar long-neck beers, clamoring for their turn on the karaoke stage.

Bourbon's Best Bar

Wild Horse Bar & Grill New Orleans

My boss at the Wild Bar was a large, sweaty man. He’d sit upstairs in his swivel chair and count money. Once, when I was in his office and he was counting my cash-out balance, a uniformed cop walked in, unannounced. My boss didn’t say a word, walked over the the wall safe and pulled out a wad of cash. He handed it to the cop, who then turned around and left. No words were exchanged, and my boss went right back to counting my money like nothing had happened. Riiiiiight. That seemed normal.

The French Quarter is notorious for encouraging excessive consumption of alcohol. Happy hour is Every hour, and the locals know where each of the best drink specials are at any given time of the day. 3-for-1 happy hour– order a beer, and the bartender gives you three! Order a shot of tequila, and three shots will be put in front of you. Dollar beers, twenty-five cent Kamikaze shots, fifty-cent draft beers, swallow a cherry bomb in five seconds and your next one’s free! The nightlife in the French Quarter consists of drinking, drinking, and more drinking. The only difference is your choice of atmosphere in which to drink.

Jason once took me to the scariest bar in New Orleans, The Dungeon. Imagine having to walk through a one-way, skinny alley that looks like this:

The Dungeon, New Orleans, French Quarter

Be sure that no one else is walking out, because there’s just not enough room for two. Shoot, there’s not enough room for one if you’re over 200 pounds. That would be a tight squeeze! We walked into the Dungeon, and I was not in a good place.

Skull Bar at the Dungeon

Innocent cheerleader-type girls don’t belong here. I stood out like a police officer at a college party. All eyes were on the sweet girl. I ordered a Witches Brew off of a tabletop menu sitting on the small bar, and asked what was in it. She said, “I don’t know” and kept right on pouring it. Again with the customer service, eh?

Witches Brew, The Dungeon

Whatever. It tasted fine, and I didn’t die. No “Kill the Cheerleader” venom in this drink! (I found the photos above by doing a Google Image search, as I didn’t have my own photos. Absolutely NO PHOTOS are allowed while in the bar, and this is strictly enforced by big, scary looking men wearing sunglasses {in the dark?} and earpieces)

The Dungeon has numerous rooms of varying sizes, some of which lead to other rooms, others that are a dead-end. I kept ending up in the dead-end rooms, and finally Jason led me out of there the same way that we had entered.

My favorite bar in the French Quarter was the Alibi. The Alibi is not cool, not trendy, and not a place you’ll find many tourists. In fact, you won’t find it at all unless you’re really looking for it. There are no prominent signs and no open doorways. It almost looks like an apartment complex.

The Alibi

This was the place that I’d visit for a drink after work at about 4 a.m. Everyone from street performers to bartenders to dancers to drag queens would be crowded around the bar, eating deep fried foods and drinking one of the 100 beers they offered. It was a mellow place, and the bartender made ridiculous amounts of money catering to the industry workers.

Living in the French Quarter was definitely a learning experience. I didn’t drive a car at the time, and walked everywhere I needed to go. Groceries were bought at the small A&P, where you could smoke a cigarette while picking out your produce. The homeless people in the Quarter shoplifted here on a regular basis. Once, I was dressed in dirty sweatpants, a stained t-shirt and a stocking cap when I went in for a few items (I’d been cleaning), and the store clerk followed me until I was so uncomfortable I left to go home to change.

A&P Market, French Quarter

Many mornings, I’d visit Cafe Du Monde (really, it’s not just for tourists) and drink dirty coffee while burning my mouth on steaming hot beignets.

Cafe Du Monde, French Quarter, New Orleans

I once inhaled powdered sugar in my nose while eating one of these delicious donuts and had a five-minute sneezing fit, to the amusement of the other patrons.

One of my other favorite foods was the Muffuletta sandwich (pron: Moof-Uh-Lot-Uh) at Central Grocery. I’d have physical cravings for this monstrosity, and walk a half a block from our apartment to order “a half”. The secret was in the spicy, tangy olive salad spread that was made from scratch. Oh-so-good.

Central Grocery, French Quarter, New Orleans

Muffuletta Sandwich 

The workers would yell at each other, and throw salami and peppers at each other much in the way that you expect at the Pike Place fish market in Seattle. Only they’d yell in Italian, and watching them slice, dice and wrap these warm pieces of heaven was well worth the price of the take-out meal.

The St.Louis Cathedral in Jackson Squareis one of the more famous sites in the Quarter. It’s the stomping grounds of many street performers, including tarot card readers and musicians.

Jackson Square, New Orleans

St.Louis Cathedral, French Quarter

I’d pass out socks at Jackson Square. Jason wouldn’t wear socks that showed even the slightest amount of wear. So I’d take the old socks, wash and bleach them, then stuff my backpack with rolled up socks. I had been told by our crazy neighbors that socks were a commodity for the homeless people in New Orleans. Their feet begin to rot from the damp air, and clean, dry socks were hard to come by. They’d wash their socks in the fountain at the Cathedral, and lay them on the concrete to dry during the day. Fights would break out from claims of stolen socks. The first time I handed out the socks to the homeless people in the Square, I was nervous. After the first time, however, it was appreciated by the regulars. They’d point me out to their friends that didn’t score a pair the week before. One time, a tourist asked me what I was doing. After I explained, he was shocked. He said he couldn’t believe that these people couldn’t afford a pair of socks, and gave me a twenty dollar bill to go and purchase more socks to hand out on his behalf. The smallest act of charity can work wonders.

Our rent was $400 a month, and included utilities. We didn’t have a checking account, so once a month, I’d take the cable car to the landlord in the Garden District.

Cable Car, Garden District, New Orleans

Cable Car tracks, New Orleans

The homes in the Garden District are magnificent.

Garden District, New Orleans

The only other time I’d leave the French Quarter were on the rare occasions that Jason would take me for a drive outside of the city. We had a Volkswagen van (until it was stolen) and would take off for a day-trip to the swamps in Houma or to visit his relatives in Slidell or the St.Bernard Parrish. Driving over the Lake Pontchartrain bridge was an event in itself. The bridge is about 23 miles long.

Lake Pontchartrain Causeway

New Orleans will always have a special place in my heart. I learned so much about their people, their culture, and I learned so much about myself while living in it’s Quarter. After Hurricane Katrina hit, I was obsessed with the aftermath and the photos that I found online. Hearing the debate whether or not to rebuild this city, it crushed me. Would it even be a question if it were San Diego, Portland, Rhode Island, or Seattle?

Flooded New Orleans

Enjoy your Mardi Gras tonight, and keep a little piece of N’awlins in your heart.

(PS: Johnny Gi…o…v…anni’s was intentionally written that way. I did a search for the guy, and couldn’t find anything, but juuuuust in case…….. I don’t know if I’d want him to stumble across this post, if ya know what I mean)

This entry was posted in All About Us, Food, Friends, funny, Giving Thanks, random, Restaurants, scary, shopping. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to New Orleans and Me

  1. christina C says:

    hay shannon, its jasons little sister, i lost all contact, can you tell him to please contact me

  2. Pingback: Things I’ve Done That You Never Have « Untrained Professional with OCD

  3. nancy says:

    I used to work at The Wild Bar! Crazy times

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