The morning was no fun. We were both tired and reluctant to rise, because of said tiredness and also because rising meant packing and saying goodbye. But A.’s airport shuttle would leave at seven and we eventually accepted the inevitable. While we gathered her things, I turned on NPR on the radio. I did this with a certain amount of trepidation, since I hadn’t really followed any news since leaving Baltimore. What had I missed? A local politician was being interviewed about Louisiana’s impending cockfighting ban. There was “mysterious bubbling” in a lake in the northern part of the state. Some bombs had exploded, and some people had died.
A. and I said goodbye at the door to the room and I watched her walk away down the hall, her duffle bag slung over one shoulder. The only thing for it was to keep busy, so I finished my own packing and did a little typing before checking out at eleven and locating our friend, Tracy, who was coincidentally on the same flight as me. For some reason, we had both arranged to depart from the New Orleans airport rather than Baton Rouge’s, and we had decided to join forces in figuring out how to get down there. A cab ride would cost $130, I had learned from guest services, so that was out. The night before, I had reserved a car from Thrifty; with taxes and “drop fee,” the drive would cost us only about $65. Thinking I might want to spend the day sitting in the hotel typing up my last notes from the weekend, I had ordered the car for two p.m., but Tracy convinced me that we should get it early and maybe knock around the French Quarter for a couple of hours. (Our flight was at six p.m.) So we caught the eleven a.m. airport shuttle. At Thrifty, they didn’t have any cars of the size I had ordered (economy). If they hadn’t had any at two p.m., the upgrade would have been on their dime. But since we were requesting the car early, we had to pay an extra $14 for a PT Cruiser convertible, which – surprisingly – was the cheapest rental they had on the lot. Since the only other option at that point was to sit in the Thrifty waiting area until two p.m., we decided to go for it.
We studied the driver’s manual for instructions related to the convertible top before leaving the rental lot. Not exactly rock and roll of us, I know, but then, neither are our bank accounts. Mainly I wanted to know if you could put the top up and down while moving, as it looked as though it might rain. (You can’t.) There was a ZZ Topp Memorial Day rock block on a radio station we found and we were blasting the rumbling instrumental bridge of “La Grange” as I accelerated onto the main road. I had visions of booming along the Lake Ponchartrain levy with the top down, but I couldn’t take the sun beating down on my sparsely forested skull after about 15 minutes and gave up. Tragedy was narrowly averted, too, when we stopped at a drug store for some cortizone for Tracy, who must have brushed some poison ivy on Sunday’s bayou stroll. We were just pulling out of our parking spot when a warning ding sounded; a little readout flashed “deck.” I had no idea what this could mean, but after a few fruitless minutes with the owner’s manual I decided to check the trunk. It was ajar, and a chill ran down my spine. An open trunk on a sedan is no big deal, but a PT Cruiser convertible’s trunk is accessed through a vertical opening in the back of the car, meaning that – if it is open – there is nothing but a little lip to keep the contents from sliding right out the back, like jeeps being parachuted out of the ramps in the rear of those massive Air Force cargo planes. I remembered closing and checking the trunk at the rental lot. Had someone popped it open while we’d been in the Walgreen’s? I opened it and Tracy’s roll-on suitcase tumbled out into my arms, which is what I guess it would have done on the road the first time I accelerated sharply. Nothing was missing, though the mystery of how the trunk had come open remained. We decided we were too paranoid to risk it and piled everything on the back seat before buttoning up the top one last time. As we drove, I tried to keep track of the billboards that involved plays on laissez le bon temps roulez (e.g., “laissez le profits roll”) but lost track after about six or seven.
In the French Quarter, we parked in a valet garage in hopes that this would keep the luggage safer (adding nine more dollars to the tab for our “cheap” method of getting to New Orleans, but of course a cab ride to the airport wouldn’t have allowed us to stop for lunch in the FQ) and set out on foot. A sidewalk hawker in a plaid shirt and striped tie tempted us into The Alpine, “a Louisiana Cajun Bistro” that turned out to be owned by the same people who run Oceana, the delicious seafood restaurant where our group hat eaten on Thursday night. During lunch, I noticed a headline on the TV: “Police shoot 80-pound lizard – unclear if it’s dead or just wounded.” Our po boys were delicious. We asked them to pour the last of our beers into “go cups” and set out to stroll the quarter. I wanted to at least look at Preservation Hall, a historic jazz venue that my dad, the jazz writer, had urged me to check out. (I see now, having just gone hunting for a link you could follow to learn a little more about the place, that I didn’t find the right one. I found someplace called “Maison Bourbon – Dedicated to the Preservation of Jazz” and assumed that perhaps the name Preservation Hall Jazz Band had simply adapted part of the name of the establishment. But I can see in the Wikipedia article’s photo and in the real Preservation Hall’s virtual tour that the building looks different from the place I found. Oh, well, pays to do your research ahead of time, I guess.)
We walked the narrow streets and took in the sights, the neighborhood seeming to blink in the bright sun. The sights included beautiful, time-ravaged old buildings, a splash of vomit by a bench, a “statue guy” performer posing as a football player in mid-pass, and strippers arriving at a club for an early shift. When we couldn’t take the oppressive heat and still, fetid air any longer, we struck out for Jackson Square Park, which turned out to be less shady than I expected. There was a guy selling prints by fence on the Riverwalk side of the park. At first the primitive, blocky designs looked appealing, but, when he started showing us how many different sizes and colors he had of each print, it all started to feel a little too mass-produced to be worth $30-$40 a print. We moved on after he asked me if I were studying creative writing “to impress my girlfriend.” “That’s not my girlfriend.” “But you’re still studying creative writing to impress a woman, right?”
It was getting late and we had neglected to mark the precise location of our parking garage, so we picked our way back from one landmark to the next. A bar called Frat House. Hustler Hollywood, “home of the Hustler Honeys,” in case you’re ever looking for them. A balcony with a large papier mache head suspended from ropes. Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House, which does not serve absinthe.
Back at the garage, Tracy went in search of a bathroom while I ordered up the car. As I waited for a valet to drive it down, his honks at blind turns echoing down through the levels of the garage as he got closer, a woman with an expensive-looking hairdo and wearing a black suit sat on a bench waiting for her own car, smoking a skinny cigarette. Another garage attendant, a heavy black woman in a sweat-soaked red polo shirt emblazoned with the name of the garage, asked the woman how it was going. Her tone did not give me the impression that she cared to hear much of an answer, but the blonde was off and running. “Well, I just got back from a business trip and they took us to a golf tournament and I didn’t know how to behave, I mean I guess you got to be real quiet and stop walking when they’re putting, I don’t know but I was about to get myself booted out of there.” The attendant nodded slowly, staring into space and fanning herself weakly with her hand. I had the distinct impression that, while the attendant might not have known how to behave at a golf tournament either, common ground had not exactly been established.
On the way out of town, next to the I-10 on-ramp, a giant billboard tempted drivers to a casino where they might win “one out of fifteen John Deere tractors.” In only slightly smaller print at the bottom of the billboard was the required advisory as to where to call if you have a gambling problem and want help stopping. In heavy westbound traffic, we found ourselves stuck behind a truck with a hand-lettered sign on the back: “Ladies go topless.” But in case you might be tempted to take offense, the driver had drawn a smiley face on the sign, too, so you would know it’s just good clean fun. We stopped at the edge of the airport for gas ($13, bringing our “cheap” ride to a grand total of a little over $100) and then had a hell of a time finding the Thrifty drop-off, which was not mentioned on any of the airports’ rental-car return signs. But we had allowed plenty of time, as it turned out, and arrived at the airport with a good hour and a half to go before our flight. I had trouble in security because I’d forgotten to remove the two bottles of water I’d taken along from the hotel room that morning, plus they also said I looked cold, calculating and dangerous, but I get that all the time. I talked my way through before too long. On the way to our concourse, Tracy asked if I had noticed the man ahead of us, traveling with two boys, who had carried his “go cup” of beer right up to the verge of the metal detector before downing it in one long chug. It was a shame about my water bottles, as I’d been dying for some water since leaving the French Quarter and hadn’t realized I’d had some all the time. I bought another one in the concourse for $4. I had to ask the clerk to repeat the price when she said it. I haven’t gotten that ripped off in a long time, but what are you going to do?
The walk in the quarter had exhausted me and left me grimy and sticky. I would have given anything for one last afternoon nap in a soft hotel bed but had to settle for sinking into a bench seat in the gate area. These seats looked soft but weren’t and only supported me up to about my middle back, as if they had been designed to discourage you from sitting in them for too long, which just seemed cruel under the circumstances.
My flights home were largely unremarkable, but I offer the following two findings for the sake of the permanent record:
1. Either I had the same pilot as when I’d departed Baltimore, or AirTran pilots in general really do favor especially sharp ascents from takeoff and long, dramatically pitched banking turns above the airport. Exciting!
2. Leaving your cell phone on during flight does not cause the plane to crash. I discovered this the way all true scientific research is done, by hazarding myself (and my fellow passengers) in mad pursuit of knowledge. Actually, I was just reluctant to turn the thing off because it does not reliably turn back on again, in which case I was afraid I might not be able to find my brother at the airport in Baltimore. I was reasonably confident that I would survive this experiment for two reasons.
a. The pilot, in his announcement concerning such devices, said “discontinue using” them, as opposed to “turn them off,” and I figured he would have more precise knowledge of the nature of any potential problems than would the flight attendants, who favored the “turn them off” formulation.
b. If cell phone signals actually posed a hazard for the plane, why on earth would we be allowed to bring them on board? You’re telling me I can’t bring a five-ounce bottle of mouthwash but I can carry a deadly communication device that will send the plane screaming toward the ground at the touch of a button? As we were circling Baltimore, I almost chickened out and turned the thing off, though, when it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t be gambling my life based on policies set by the federal decision-makers responsible for the nation’s safety and security, who do not generally seem to be what you would call “sensible” or “good at their jobs.” But I held out and before long we were safely on the ground.
At the baggage carousel, my suitcase popped open when I grabbed it from the conveyor belt. The AirTran packing tape I’d wrapped around it was broken, I noticed. I later found out that this was courtesy of TSA, who’d left one of their random inspection calling cards behind. I also found out later that the gift jar of “crawfish jelly” I’d packed inside was broken, although fortunately I had put it in a Ziploc and hardly any of it had leaked out. I want to blame TSA for this, though I can’t be sure it was their fault. I guess I just will blame them anyway.
We piled my belongings into my brother’s Ford Taurus and made our way home, seeming to hit every red light possible on the way. After my restless sleep the night before, the 1,000-degree hike through the French Quarter, and a layover in Georgia, I was barely conscious by the time I crawled into bed, leaving my unpacking for Tuesday.
It wasn’t as soft and fluffy as the bed in the Sheraton, by the way.