On our second morning at the Dauphine Orleans, we bestirred ourselves in time to go down to the breakfast lounge together. A. made waffles while I hovered over and then secured an outside table by the pool, as soon as it was abandoned by a European-looking man chain-smoking cigarettes with very long, white filters. I moved his ashtray and trash to one of the small tables by the chaise lounges and then proceeded to make approximately five dozen trips back in and out of the lounge. Hardboiled eggs? Yes, I’ll take some of those. Oh, and how about some mini-croissants. Slices of cantaloupe. Oops, forgot napkins. And forks. As I banged in and out of the door, I heard snatches of the phone calls being made by a man in the corner, his laptop open on the table in front of him. He’d been there Thursday morning as well, loudly barking something like “well, I won’t have it in front of me at the conference call, so you should just be like, ‘Dave, remember, you said da da da da da.'” His cell phone seemed to be set to make the loudest possible beeps when the keys were pressed, as if he wanted to make sure that everyone noticed when he did so. “Can everyone tell that I’m dialing my phone?”
It was a beautiful, clear morning and I did finally feel as if I had gotten caught up on sleep, even if I had been awakened briefly around four a.m. by what sounded like dumpsters being emptied and then repeatedly slammed against the truck to get every last scrap out, in the street below our window. I wrote up the diary before check-out and then we met Erin and Greg and their Austrian friend Felix (currently based in Bucharest but working in Istanbul) in the garage, crammed everyone’s luggage into a white Buick that turned out to be missing essential components of its suspension system, and set out for Baton Rouge.
Traveling through New Orleans in the daylight, I was alert for signs of destruction, remnants of the storm. I couldn’t convince myself that I saw any, but the town definitely has an off-kilter feel to it, weirdly empty in some blocks and then suddenly choked with traffic around the corner. At a stoplight, the driver of a mini-van kept staring at us. Or maybe he was just lost in thought, not really looking at us at all, but I began to think about the menace of the south. Such a higher concentration of people down here who know how to shoot and gut things and may even have the necessary tools close to hand. I kept my eyes straight ahead until he pulled away from us after the light turned green.
The first half of the drive was along the long, straight raised causeway that skirts the swamps and the edge of Lake Ponchartrain. The first glimpses of the lake were of small inlets interrupted by heavily wooded areas, more of a maze than a lake and not really all that impressive as bodies of water go. Then we got out along the edge of the lake proper. It looked muddy and the wind was whipping up small whitecaps; huge pylons carried power cables through the middle of the water, which now looked plenty wide enough and deep enough and potentially angry enough that you definitely wouldn’t want it draining at speed into your neighborhood.
Past the lake, the terrain turned into the standard suburban sprawl you find near any American city. The only obvious signs we weren’t in Maryland were the palm trees and the armadillo roadkills. Religious country, but what isn’t these days: massive white crosses of the trinity loomed over a Hummer dealership; a contractor’s trailer we passed on the highway displayed crosses as well, worked into the logo painted on its side. As for the wages of sin, a massive billboard advertised for candidates to become correctional officers. The main selling point, in large, eyecatching lettering: “$1,530 per month, plus benefits.” We passed a massive water park at the cloverleaf exit for Erin’s parents’ house. The Hooters where Greg once worked as a cook. The house was far removed from this kind of detritus, though, and sat back in a quiet cul-de-sac, massive old trees looming overhead and a backyard that stretched for perhaps a quarter mile before hitting woods. Erin promises to show us the bayou back there on Sunday, at the post-wedding crawfish boil. Tiki torches lined the front walk. There was a smell of many different kinds of food cooking and the kitchen was supplied as if for a siege. A small girl was introduced as a flower girl and hid her face at the terror of meeting new grown-ups. (Wait, is that what we are?) Back in the car and off to the hotel. The bride and groom had things to do.
The Baton Rouge Sheraton contains a convention center and a casino, just to give you a sense of the place’s scale. The glass-roofed atrium lobby looked large enough to hold some cathedrals I’ve seen, with plenty of room for bars, restaurants, seating areas. The only thing missing was some sort of fenced-off canopy at the top, up by the roof, full of rain forest plants and monkeys, or maybe sloths would be more practical, less disruptive. It would be nice to sit with a drink as the sun sets, listening to the plaintive songs of the sloths, if only sloths would in fact sing. Maybe they would if they could live in a Sheraton. You know, out of gratitude for the essential decency of the human race. But no such luck. The potential is wasted.
A bellhop took us to our 10th-floor room. We needed to use our room key card in a slot in the elevator in order to be able to select our floor, up on the “club level.” View of the Mississippi, over the top of the U.S.S. Kidd Museum. We changed and headed down to the pool, first stopping by the front desk for the yellow armbands necessary to prove our right of access to the pool. We also stopped by a bar, where they poured our frozen drinks and then poured us each a second glass, saying “here’s the rest of the drink.”
Out on the pool deck, the armband thing seemed to give the other guests trouble. No-nonsense guards passed by frequently and challenged anyone who wasn’t making the right display. The guests and the guards seemed equally frustrated, and, in defense of the guards, there is a sign explaining about the armbands on the door to the pool deck. But an old man sunbathing with his shoes on was chased back up to his room when he could only produce his room key (meaningless; apparently, anyone might have one of those, but no one except registered guests could possibly get one of these little plastic armbands), shaking his head in disbelief. It is strange to charge people these kinds of prices and then hassle them when they are trying to relax by the pool. Seems like an example of a company passing its problems on to its customers. There may in fact be a problem of trespassing at a place like this, but it’s not our problem. Figure out how to make it work, don’t bother us, and can you bring us another round of daiquiris on your way back out? That’s how it should work, seems to me, but I wouldn’t be the first to note that the world can sometimes be an unjust place. Nothing to do but soldier on, keep to the code, non illegitime carborundum.
In the evening we piled into Kevin’s car for the drive to the rehearsal dinner. We picked up Felix at his hotel and were hardly late at all, though this is a distinction without much meaning for Germans, an obsessively punctual people. At the party, there was gumbo and potato salad and people playing with fire out in the wide, flat backyard, under the power lines. The evening was cool and pleasant and there were no bugs, due to a specially-ordered custom pesticide application. (Otherwise, the city takes care of it, sending poison-spraying trucks through on a regular schedule.) A mimosa tree was in bloom with blossoms like pink cotton candy. The blackberries were ripe in the garden patch, where a tomato plant loomed over everything, fully seven feet tall and three feet around. In late May, mind you.
As the darkness deepened and the burners put away their flaming hula hoops, I drifted into the kitchen for more gumbo. The cook, a friend of Erin’s parents, seemed to have been perfecting his art as a sort of life’s work. “I love cooking gumbo. There’s about fourteen of us get together, every month or so, and I’m always trying to make it better. I didn’t make it real spicy, so the out-of-towners could season it how they want. I don’t like boiling the meat off the chicken. Some people do that, but I use a deboning knife.” I asked him if that’s hard. “Well, it takes a lot of practice.” I dashed some Louisiana hot sauce on my second bowl and the cook’s eyes widened. “Whoa! You like it hot, huh?” I told him I did, although I wondered if I had erred and would soon have sweat streaming down my face. But the sauce was about as hot as the tabasco sauce it resembled and the gumbo was heaven in a paper bowl, one spoonful at a time.
The fire show that had taken place earlier had been put on by a friend of Greg’s and the friend’s wife. She had danced in flaming hula hoops, while he had “blown fire,” gulping in big mouthfuls of paraffin oil and blowing out across a flaming torch. Her act involved the real skill; his had the feeling of a parlor trick that anyone could learn and wasn’t all that impressive after the first few times. A. and I found ourselves talking to him and he was full of advice. “You have to get a good mixture of air in the fuel.” (Maybe to keep the fire from running backwards to your mouth? Not sure if that was his point.) “Try it with water first. When you get the point where can blow out a big cloud, instead of a stream, you’re ready.” At least they paid attention to safety. One audience member had been assigned to sit close with a fire blanket, and an ABC fire extinguisher stood close to hand. But it was hard to take the safety talk seriously when the fire-blower still wore a beard, which just seemed like kindling under the circumstances.
Back at the Sheraton, we decided to check out the casino. We followed the arrow on the huge sign in the lobby, expecting that the casino would be in the next room, but instead found ourselves walking through long passageways and riding up and down escalators as we followed the well-marked route to what we later realized was a casino boat, though there was at no point any sign that we had entered a boat and never any sensation of movement. I figured that it was only technically a boat, i.e., a building that wasn’t actually attached to the ground at the bottom of the river, but the next day, from the window of the hotel restaurant, I could see a mast and a radar antenna. We passed through a security checkpoint, where we had to show ID before entering. The guard stared at Felix’s passport for a long time before looking him in the eyes and solemnly intoning, “certified!”
It’s an awkward feeling, walking into a casino when you have no intention of gambling. Greg, Kevin and Felix wanted to play a little blackjack, but A. – though she knows the game, courtesy of an uncle who is something of an expert in these matters – said she didn’t feel confident enough to play at an actual casino table, and I figured that – if I discovered any money that I didn’t want – it would be faster and easier to just set it on fire. So we were like the people who keep their clothes on at an orgy. “Oh, none for me thanks, just watching.” I must say it was not the most uplifting spectacle. Most of the boat’s four levels were given over to slot machines, which must be the most solitary and alienating form of gambling, with not even the pretence of social interaction you get at a card game. The gaudy lights on the slot machines lit everyone’s faces with a neon glow, like daylight times two. I could see how, if you wanted to gamble, this kind of decor would keep your energy up and might even look good when you first walked in. The smoke of a thousand cigarettes hovered in the air. Video monitors showed fictional images of people winning, young attractive couples pumping their fists in the air, a smiling white-haired woman just glad to be able to afford more ribbon candy for her grandchildren. Such scenes did not seem to be playing out on the floor of the casino, however. I don’t remember even noticing anyone smiling. On the way in, there had been a “winners’ wall,” photographs of the actual victorious, identified only by first name and last initial. Purses ranged from $4,000 to $1,317,204, although my eye was caught by the oddly precise $745,131.84 won by one Debra O., with something about her eyes that suggested that this payout had been a long time coming.
We left the boys to their blackjack and headed out in search of a last drink; the casino wouldn’t serve you unless you were sitting at a game. But no one else wanted our money, it seemed. It was only just midnight, but the hotel’s restaurants and bars were all closing up for the night, palisades of upside-down chairs and stools fencing off the seating areas as mop crews set to work. “You could get a drink in the casino,” said a guard, in what sounded like a practiced line. No thanks, and off to bed.
Possible epigraph for the evening: “Tell me something you’re really good at. Besides bullshitting.”