Po Boy Views
Ball of Confusion
We hitchhiked into New Orleans on the tails of a hurricane, the gun-metal gray sky limpid on the land along a gulf coast moonscape. Our driver let us out on neon electric Bourbon St. at an Orange Julius stand where I had my first ‘California Burger’. “Hey Hippie”, he yelled to a passing freak “Y’all always talkin’ ‘bout brotherly love… these fokkers need a place to stay!” Just like that, New Orleans was offered and we let her take us in.
In those days poor boys like me could score copies of the underground newspaper --such as it was-- at 1212 Royal St. (seven for a buck) and sold them to inebriated tourists on Bourbon St for whatever we could get, you could get the first seven fronted to you if you were broke. We’d get beans and rice at Buster’s on Burgundy for twenty-seven cents. Picture it: public phones a nickel, take the bus for a dime. Eventually we got a studio on Dauphine—with pool-- for ninety a month.
I got a job waiting on tables at the Andrew Jackson Restaurant on Royal St. across from the Monteleone Hotel. Six months later another waiter, my wife and I opened a small café on Conti and Exchange Alley. The licensing was twenty bucks, the rent was two-hundred. We built the tables and benches and slapped together a concept; when the health inspector came, we left a twenty dollar bill on the counter and walked away. We got approved, no questions asked (the twenty had vanished).
Six months later the restaurant belonged to everyone that worked there and we all moved in together, the restaurant moved to Barracks St. to a four story warehouse; ground floor: theater, second floor: restaurant, third and fourth floor: living quarters (twelve to twenty of us) the rent for the entire building was five hundred a month. There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air. Bands, on their way to the big time, came and played for free in the park, we had spiritual leaders, celebrated life, became a ‘family’, made love, had babies.
Times were tough and the guys took jobs at demolition or sweeping the streets for the French Market Corporation, one afternoon the restaurant burned down (the landlord later was charged with arson). The family was split up and went separate ways.
I took a job as a one man kitchen at Johnny White’s restaurant on St. Peter St. there was a flamenco club across the street, a bar where Jackson Square artists hung out and on the corner and a place called Crazy Shirley’s where Papa French’s band-- Bob and Henry French and Ellis Marsalis among others—played until the wee hours. I took massage classes and studied shiatsu.
I cooked at Hullihan’s on Bourbon St, at Commanders palace with Paul Prudhomme. We rented an abandoned dry cleaning plant on Frenchmen St. when it was virtually empty of businesses and built it into a restaurant named Valentines (where Snug Harbor is today), again the rent was only two hundred bucks. We lived upstairs on the mezzanine, we bought a pick-up truck for a hundred bucks and named it Lazarus. A thousand words could be made out of each of the above sentences, and, relatively speaking this was not that long ago!
The points of the story, two points really, are these:
1. A lot of us elder folks are not envious of the younger generation and the prospects that they have for their future and to them we say: the game is rigged; you will have to work for everything that you get and there will always be someone ready to take it all away at less than a moment’s notice. Wherever you are, whatever you do, there will always be someone in power above you and for the most part, they cannot be trusted to be fair. Try not to let it get you down.
2. We’re essentially ashamed of our governments and the slipshod way that they are taking-- or not taking-- care of our citizens. The main difference between the then and now, as we geezers will tell you is that we (pretty much everybody) knew where we stood in the scheme of American dream of life and living. Now candidates and elected (so called) leaders alike will tell us that they know what’s best of us and that they have a ‘plan’, an ‘answer’, a ‘solution’ to what ails us, they’ll give us ‘transparency’. This is bull dung.
What we know is that all people just want enough, not a lot. . We want the basic necessities: food, clothing and shelter. We want security in our living conditions for us and our children. We want to pursue and a make a living wage for what we can achieve using the talents that we have. We don’t want to be lied to by people that we put faith and trust in by word or inference. We want to be able to expect those things.
Would I go back to the sixties and seventies? Like a friggin’ shot! Even at the age that I am now, I’m pretty certain that I’d get a fairer shake than in the 21st century. The mood was better, the food was better, the music was better, there were more outlaws and fewer criminals. We went on a grand adventure. We knew what to expect.
And to that gang of mine, wherever you are, I have two questions: when did you get so conservative and greedy? And…why?