Today is Christmas Eve day and nearly everything in New Orleans is closed. I walked down Magazine to a pub with it’s gas lamp lights on and went to open the door but it was locked. I looked inside (imagining it to be a mistake since the gas lamps were so inviting and shouted ‘Yes, we’re Open!’) and actually saw the bar littered with dirty glasses, linen napkins and a variety of silverware. It was like I was walking around Pompeii after the eruption except without the people. Maybe they’ll be back soon, I thought, but it didn’t seem all that likely and I was hungry and wanted to find a place that might serve lunch.
So I kept walking and came across another place on Sophie’s Choice Street (it’s not actually called that, it’s Sophie-something-something I can’t remember) and saw all the lights on in a cute Italian trattoria on the corner. I could go for a nice hot plate of something Italian, I thought. Given the experience with the gas lamps minutes earlier, I cautiously approached the main window. All the chairs were on the tables, but the lights were all on, thus reinforcing the Pompeii thing. The sign on the door casually mentioned the restaurant would be closed on Christmas Eve day and Christmas Day, but clearly the people who own the restaurant must have cousins who run the Louisiana Power and Light Company.
A few doors down from the Italian place is a bar called Down the Hatch. Now, I don’t drink alcohol (not even beer or wine, and I never have, I’m not a recovering alcoholic either…) and so I’m not in the habit of frequenting bars. In fact, I tend to avoid them as they usually contain drunk people, and there’s nothing less fun for me than hanging around drunk people I don’t know.
This bar, however, had an alluring wooden sign hung out front with a cartoonish bar-maid holding up two plates of cartoon hamburgers with cartoon french fries. It would have been good enough for me if the sign had a bar maid with one cartoon hamburger with fries, but this one had two. It was all too promising in my famished state, a veritable oasis in the Pompeii desert. Along with that there was evidence (although somewhat dubious) the bar was open because all of its neon beer lights in the window were on. Given the penchant that people have for leaving closed, empty establishments well lit, I walked a little closer and heard music eminating from within and actual people sitting at actual tables.
I went inside and sat at the bar and ordered a hamburger with french fries (the non-cartoon bar maid suggested hamburgers were the best thing on the menu at Down the Hatch and who was I to argue her point, especially when she was agreeing with the cartoon sign outside.) Not only was the hamburger good, it was excellent. The fries too were well seasoned and had just the right amount of crunch to soft potato ratio.
While I ate, and for a good deal longer after I finished, I read the David Sedaris book When You are Engulfed in Flames. I should have known better than to bring a book into a bar and then sit at the bar and read while eating a hamburger even while 3 muted televisions hang over the bar.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when two rednecks (both wearing camo ballcaps) came in, ordered Pabst blue ribbon in a can, and asked the nice bar maid turn on the sound on the football game. She said to them very politely twice (loud enough for me to hear both times) Not everybody wants to watch the football game, fellas.
Yeah, damn straight they don’t. We Yankee college types with no place else to go on Christmas Eve Day don’t want to watch the damn game in a damn bar while finishing our damn David Sedaris books. But they turned the volume up anyway and I did my best to ignore them and the Jets vs. the Giants on T.V. (Don’t think for a minute the irony of THAT is lost on me, by the way…)
Then, just when I think it can’t all get a little bit better … in comes Willy. Actually, I have no idea what his name was, but he reminded me of Willy Nelson. Willy had that naturally weathered skin you get when you are in your 60′s, probably alcoholic and probably spent a lot of time outside. Other than that he was fairly short had well groomed white hair, an old dirty zip-up sweater and uh, distressed blue jeans. Let’s add in that Willy had a certain eau de toilette that was more toilette than eau. And that’s when I decided it was time to go.
The thing is, in any southern city, things take time. Getting your check isn’t obvious to anyone, not even the bar maid, when you’ve been sitting a while innocently drinking your diet coke and reading your book. Just because you put on your jacket doesn’t mean you don’t want to sit at the bar and talk to the homeless guy for a few minutes. This is New Orleans after all, almost anyone (including me on some of my worse days) could pass as homeless. And everyone is expected to be friendly. It’s just the way it is here.
So here we have me and Willy sitting at the bar, and the bar maid asks how he’s doing (because that’s the equivalent of hello in New Orleans and the only proper answer is “Awright.”) But Willy answers that he’s not so good because his wife died six years ago on this very day, but he’ll be okay, especially after the bar maid gets him a drink.
So old Willy looks at my book (which I’ve put down on the bar and closed, with my jacket on to desperately signal the bar maid I might want my check) and he looks at me and says, I’ve never heard of David Sedaris, who is he? And I say, Oh, he’s a humorist. Willy says, I prefer pencil and paper. I’ve written three books too. Yeah, I thought, I bet you have. Oh, I say, have any of them been published? But Willy has a quick answer for that and replies, The first one is still being edited professionally, and I don’t care how long it takes. The other two haven’t been published either, it shockingly turns out.
Then in a non-sequiter move he says I’m a hobo, I’ve lived outdoors all my life. I used to ride the rails all over. Now I have my donkey and my mule, and my shepherd who I call Dog. Oh, and I have a lamb too. I nodded and did my best to have a detached but vaguely affirmative reaction to these statements. Here in New Orleans? I asked casually, pretending he really told me he drove an old Ford pickup. Yes, he said, but we’re going to California soon. Yes, of course you are, I thought. and then I slipped and said, You’re not going on the highway, are you? I don’t know why I said that, because that’s obviously just egging him on. Of course not, he said, we’ll go over the fields and across the mountains.
Well, that’s just crazy, I said in the same even tones I had been using all along. Yeah, he said, it is.
Then we had another side bar chat about the fact that Willy has lived in New Orleans for 27 years and he likes it a lot better than San Francisco and New York, but Amsterdam was really nice, he says. I ask him if he’s lived outside for that whole time and he says yes, even though his family has more money than god.
You have a good heart though, he says, I can tell by looking in your eyes. Can I buy you a drink? he asked. Oh my god, I thought, I’m being hit on by an old, smelly homeless guy in a bar. This is reason numero uno I don’t drink, I silently reminded myself.
Oh, no thanks, I said and gave no indication I saw him sizing me up, I’ve got to get going. The bar maid finally caught on to that and got my check, which I promptly paid.
Here, I want you to have this, Willy said and slid a quarter across the bar to me, which under any circumstances is a wierd thing to do. It was like he was tipping me for agreeing to talk to him or something, and entertain his crazy comments. No, I couldn’t, really, I said – but he got a little mad, and said, I’ll be really insulted if you don’t take it. Soooo, I took the quarter and said thank you and put it in my pocket, embarassing as it was for me to be taking money from someone who obviously needed it more than I did.
It was nice meeting you, Willy said, and extended his fist for me to bump.
Now in the circles I grew up in, we didn’t fist bump, we shook hands. It seemed like the only sensible thing to do was to extend my hand to shake his, but he continued to offer his fist for me to bump, so, okay, I bumped his fist. But I had waited too long while keeping my hand extended and so Willy felt obligated to comment.
People don’t shake hands anymore, he said, they fist bump because I don’t know where your hand has been and you definitely don’t know where mine has been.
That little comment made me want to vomit on his shoes right there, I have to tell you.
That’s very true, I agree, I don’t know where your hand has been, I said, feeling a bit distressed.
Willy laughed at that, and it was just about then I noticed he had one of those tyvek emergency room bands around his wrist, peeking out from underneath his dirty sweater.
Okay, I’ve got to get going, Merry Christmas, I said.
Merry Christmas, Willy replied, and god bless you.
As I walked home, I wondered if it would be possible to run my hands under boiling water – just for a few seconds – to burn off whatever leprosy Willy didn’t want to spread to me? I got in the door and washed my hands, twice for good measure, under bracingly hot water, and I left the quarter at the bottom of my pocket to be Germ-X’d later with alcohol gel.
Should I write all this craziness down on the blog, I thought? No one would believe it, I answered myself. But after another half hour of David Sedaris chastising me in my head for not writing down what was obviously a good true-to-life nutty experience, I relented.
So there you have it… Merry Christmas, from New Orleans.