Hustlin' New Orleans
Hustlin' New Orleans
Jon and I broke our silence along the causeway over Lake Pontchartrain, slipping into New Orleans. He yawned and ran his fingers through his hair, looking around, orienting.
“How long was I out?” He asked, “Damn, where are we?”
“On the causeway into New Orleans. You needed it,” I said.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
After Jon stretched himself awake we switched driving again. Good thing. My eyes were getting droopy. We had travelled together long enough that I felt relaxed and natural sitting in the passenger’s seat next to him, and I had several favorite positions in the seat. Jon preferred to drive. He liked the control of driving and I liked leaving that control to him, of kind of curling up and reading until something came up along the road.
“It’s about survival. And at what level one wants to live, isn’t it?” Jon said, looking down the highway and then at me. “We have to learn to survive as we go, don’t we?”
“I have money from teaching last year.”
“I mean it’s easy enough to go into a bank and write a check, isn’t it? We could do that. Or we could survive on our wits. We could start in New Orleans. Each day we could start at zero. Have to make our way on our wits.”
“I guess,” I was dubious. It had simply intended to have fun and see the sights.
“I mean, I think we will learn survival skills we will always need.”
“Make the trip kind of like a metaphor, you mean?” I asked.
“Yeah, if you want to look at it that way—but make it real. Find odd jobs to make a few bucks. Depend on ourselves and our skills. Face what comes along. Yeah, it will be an adventure.”
“Okay.” I said. “I guess I could go along with an adventure. Maybe.”
Approaching New Orleans, I could hear in my memory the flat rounded tones of Katherine Hepburn’s voice as Violet Venablee slowly descending in a French elevator, hearing her voice as she appeared, arriving into the well-groomed jungle her son, Sebastian had created before he himself was devoured by those he sought to devour in the Tennessee Williams’ play, Suddenly, Last Summer. The setting of the flim was a jungle filled with flesh-eating plants. Williams and Mrs. Venable and Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, my guides to the Big Easy. I had thought Williams was a genius in placing his desperate characters within a jungle but Jon and I now found ourselves entering New Orleans with the landscape of that same jungle and its bayous. Here we would learn to survive, here we would learn to hustle.
In the French Quarter, everyone has a hustle.
At the Café du Monde we sipped chicory coffee combined with hot milk and paged through the Times-Picayune. Jon found a small ad in the classifieds that read “Lucky Dog Push-cart Sellers Wanted,” and an address in the Garden District on Saint Charles Avenue. Where at three in the afternoon we showed up to become Lucky Dog vendors.
The Lucky Dog carts, shaped like a hot dog on a bun were kept in a large garage just off Lee Circle. There was a small kitchen area where we vendors stood at a stainless steel table chopping up several large Bermuda onions and picked up long sausage-shaped packages filled with chili. We picked up a single burner. We poured enough water under a stainless grate the hotdogs cooked upon, heated the chili and warmed the buns.
Gradually, more and more men, some young, some middle aged came into the garage to prepare their carts. Most of the guys were infrequent regulars—guys you might not hire for a job demanding daily attendance. Several of the older guys had rheumy eyes and hoped to earn enough to pick up a bottle after work. There were blown-mind hippies wearing tight denim bell-bottom jeans that made them look clownish with their angel-boy faces above the red and white striped coats we wore along with an absurd Lucky Dog paper hat to keep the health department at bay. They might have been stoned wielding chopping knives, splitting, quartering and then chopping the huge white onions. One guy took off a leather motorbike jacket exposing Navy tattoos on his shoulders and neck, pumped biceps and a dirty torn wife-beater before he put on the striped coat. Several gave us advice on what boosted sales and kept us safe on our corners:
· Always give the cops freebees. They are your best friends while you are selling.
· Pour a beer into the chili, but don’t get caught or you’d land in jail for unlawfully selling booze.
· Know where the nearest police box is, so you can call if there’s trouble.
· Disregard all sob stories.
· Everyone loves the Lucky Dog carts and sellers. They are the most protected people on the street.
Our Lucky Dog coats and hats were equalizers turning us as a group into human Lucky Dog logos. We toted a metal container of karosene to refuel our pump burners and we pushed off into the street, turning onto Saint Charles, a long boulevard that ended at Canal Street, trolleys running its length on a grassy median—yes!—the streetcar named Desire running into the Vieux Carre. On each side of the eloquent avenue stood other mansions and other gardens perfumed by begonias, gardenias, lilacs and hydrangea—no Venus flytraps. It was a steamy walk. It had rained the night before and every afternoon for the week we sold Lucky Dogs it rained suddenly at about four o’clock; a sudden downpour that lasted all of fifteen minutes, just enough to steam up the Garden District. Jon and I got out of the rain and drank a root beer in a corner grocery then pushed our wares thirteen blocks until we reached the French Quarter.
The Vieux Carre is the steamy heart of New Orleans. Like the Mississippi Delta, where all flotsam and jetsam eventually float and drift down the great brown god—the runoff of the great Eastern river systems including the Missouri and the Ohio Valleys flowing inevitably south to the Gulf, building a delta of bayous with its floods of debris and silt seeking their lowest natural level and finding it here. New Orleans since its founding became the inevitable city of sin and sex where eventually humans hoping to blow off steam land. Influences of French and Spanish cooked in Creole style, the city is the steam valve of a culture steeped in fundamentalism, tradition and lost causes, the tension of these released only in a place that has no limits regarding human behavior. We crossed Rampart Street and entered the Vieux Carre. My appointed location was the corner of Rue Royale and Rue Iberville.
Jon pushed his cart over to Canal Street. I set my up stand, lighting my burner and placing it under the heating area, rolling out the dogs and placing the buns and the chili in compartments where the buns would stay warm and soft and the chili would heat up to be spread across the all-beef franks. I checked on where the closest police call box stood—about three yards away hanging on a light pole, where male hustlers in white tank tops who waited in a gay bar between tricks leaped just past my cart and swung their taut muscular bodies (light and athletic as Gene Kelly) out over where men in dark sedans pulled up and unlocked their street side doors to them, and they, after a brief negotiation, drove off into the night.
The quarter gradually filled. Tourists heading for dinner at Brennan’s further down Royale or over to Pat O’Brian’s on St. Peter’s. The soundtrack of the Southern summer began blaring out of bars and strip joints: “There is a rose in Spanish Harlem” – the Ben E. King version—Temptations, Aretha demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Janis’ Me and Bobby McGee, Al Green “Tired of Being Alone.” From the empty top window of one a naked woman on a trapeze pulling a long red sash flew overhead about half way down the block across from the defunct Playboy Club-boarded up and dark. Across from me a young man in a business suit—maybe a dropout from Tulane—hawked land in Florida while catty-corner a blond boy in a light blue sparkly Nehru jacket hawked his wan body. Back and forth between them and on up the street and back again a black woman wearing a golden wig, wrapped in a sheer white dress—I was drawn to her dark breasts, her nipples, and the space between her ample thighs—paced along the flow of the crowd, stopped, applied lipstick, entered a bar, exited minutes later, moved to another block.
I became a part of the hustle, one with the constant blare of the Motown soundtrack, hustling my dogs. First to a cop who told me his name and pointed up to the call box and told me he was just five minutes away. A Tulane coed, dragging a middle-aged man over to the cart (traveling salesman? Local from the suburbs? Defrocked preacher?)’ demanded a Lucky Dog. He was holding two Hurricane glasses from Pat O’Briens, a doggy bag, and a drooping bouquet from a street florist and he fumbled for some change. He’d bought her dinner and now, anxious for his reward, she pulled away from him and descended into a cab that pulled up to buy a dog, locked the door and whisked off to campus. A young man with a chiseled, bare chest, passionately embraced and kissed his girlfriend taking his time, feeling her body over and over, then one last exchange of tongues. She hurried off to a bar about mid-block where later I saw her naked body torqueing in the window. Her boyfriend turned, his back completely tattooed in the shape of the seal of the US Marine Corps, and entered the gay bar.
One of the boy-men who swung himself over the street and into a car now walked toward me but turned into the same bar. A way station between tricks. The boy in the blue Nehru jacket crossed diagonally over to me. He rested his elbows on the far end of the bun and looked up.
“I just can’t sell my baw-dee tonight.”
His voice was reedy and whiney. He was more emaciated than I had suspected. A blond scarecrow. He had bleached his hair so much that it looked like straw, spikey, sticking out of his skull, dark roots. His wrists were skin covering bone.
“Wanna dog?” I asked.
“Naw, I can’t do that.”
“Damn, I’m so hungry, man. I haven’t made a nickel all night.”
He stood up straight and eyeballed me. He told me that most nights he can trick at least three times, but I didn’t believe him. I think he might get lucky now and then if the john was drunk and horny. He was just off being good-looking—maybe his nose was too long, or maybe his chin jetted out, or his eyes were too close to his nose. Maybe he had snorted too much coke. Maybe it was just that once he chose to let his body be used he became an escort to a living death, failing to take care of himself. Maybe it was the dead look in his eyes that I broke the “no sob stories” rule. I laid an extra thickness of chili on his dog and handed it over.
“Don’t tell anybody,” I said.
“Who would I tell?”
“I don’t want it to get around I’m an easy touch.”
He took a bite of the dog, mustard and chili running down the right side of his mouth. I handed him a napkin.
“I’m Billy. You’re not from down here.”
“Ric, from Kentucky, Louisville.”
“Cassius Clay. I’m mean Muhammed Ali. He from there.”
“You come here to stay?” He asked.
“Naw, just passing through.”
“Out west next. As far as the left coast. I think. That’s the plan.”
“I wanna go out there. Maybe Hollywood. Maybe do some modelling.”
He finished the dog and wadded up the napkin. He made like he was shooting a basketball and tossed the wad into a metal waste can on the other side of the corner.
“I’m asking too many questions,” he said. “Traveling alone?”
“Naw. I have a buddy.”
He seemed to consider this.
“He your boyfriend, that jock you walked down here with?”
“No. Naw. Nothing like that.” I was surprised how quickly I answered him and I felt an odd feeling pass through me.
Billy smiled suddenly.
“You want me to blow you?”
I stop breathing.
He pulled a rumpled Marlboro pack out of a hidden pocket and lit up with a Zippo like he might be a sailor on watch in a breeze or an oiler on a rig, his hands wrapped around the lighter. He took a drag and let the smoke come out of his mouth blowing a ring.
“I would let you do me but I might get lucky later, later on when it’s way late and the drunks come out of that bar over there,” he says. “I cummed already once. Earlier.”
It shocked me to be propositioned. I felt hot and flummoxed and didn’t know what to say for a minute. I had never been looked at for sex that I knew of by anyone before. I had made out with girls and came close to fucking once or twice but we were drunk. I had to be drunk to do anything sexual. I felt somehow violated but somehow curious. I was stunned by the reality of intimacy that usually was only fantasy in my head. Something other guys did with their girlfriends, maybe. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Only guys who everyone said were gay because they acted like girls and might have been. I stayed away from those guys. I was scared of being thought gay. I was scared when guys, mean guys in middle school and sometimes in high school called me a faggot. I never knew why. I was scared of the gay scene I had been around all night at the corner of Rue Royale and Iberville. Scared of the tough guys hanging from the streetlight one after another, the one in the white tank top, the one with the Marine Corps seal across his back, the dark men in dark cars taking them to dark places for sex. I was afraid of the feelings I sometimes felt for other guys, for Jon. Scared that I might be one of these guys—not those guys who were flamboyant—but those who looked regular. Who looked like straight guys who slid into the darkness of gay bars.Scared that I might be me. I didn’t want anything to do with that.
“I know a place just around the corner, not far from here. It’s safe.”
“Why me? What makes you think that I would do that?”
“Just an offer man, don’t get pissed. You’re kind to me and ain’t no one kind to me much down here,” he said.
“No. No, no, no. No. I don’t want to do that.” I could feel my hands whiping the image out of my head.
“Not with me?”
“Not with anyone. I mean, not with another man. Cripes. It’s fuckin’ disgusting,” I lied.
“Yeah, maybe,” he said. “Whatever.” He took a final long drag and crushed the butt out with his ragged cloth running shoe. “Thank you. I mean it, Ric, I mean it sincerely.”
“It’s okay, man,” I said. I looked across the street at the young man in the suit. I caught him looking at us and wondered what he was thinking.
I feel a shudder. A relief. A fear.
I watched Billy jog back to his corner.
“I’ll take a dozen.” Her voice startled me.
Her hair was piled up and pinned on the top of her head. She was wearing a night gown with a pink chenille bathroom covered in roses loosely thrown over her bulging cleavage.
“Midnight snack,” she said and laughed. “The works.”
“Six dollars, please.”
While she rifled through her purse and counted out a combination of one’s and quarters, I fixed the dogs and wrapped them up in aluminum paper and exchanged the dogs for the money.
“Thanks, hot stuff,” she laughed and pulled away.”
It was my biggest sale and my last. Ben E. and Aretha and the Temptations still blasted out onto the street and the girl on the trapeze still flew but it was way after midnight. The tattooed hustler and his girl locked lips and walked arm and arm past the cart. I cleaned up the cart and joined Jon up on Canal Street and we pushed our carts back up to Lee Circle.
“You survive?” asked Jon.
“You’re kinda quiet. You O.K?”
“O.K.” He paused. “I been thinking maybe a movie.”
“O.K.” I said, “Maybe.
“Maybe’s good enough for me.”
We cashed out and walked back to the Quarter. Jon and I found an old movie palace that ran movies continuously all day and all night. Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. We sat close down to the screen with an extra-large popcorn between us. Up on the screen was Rowdy Yates, my boyhood TV cowboy hero. Lean. Rugged. Silent. In a poncho. A stogy at the side of his mouth. Clint Eastwood. Ready to gun down all my demons.