The Crescent City on $12 a Night: Hot, Humid and Buggy

A Letter from New Orleans

September 06, 1992|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

In the swamps outside of New Orleans, we pitch a tent on a hot summer night for $12, fine tune a black plastic radio to the blues on WWOZ and lie down in misery with a cooler of ice between us.

Insects bomb the thin nylon tent, ambitious mosquitoes among them finding their way to our ankles, and we hug the cooler for relief, real or imagined, praying that sleep will come before the ice melts.

On the radio a bluesman wails across the bayou: "I asked my baby if she could stand to see me cry, she said 'Ralphie Boy, I could stand to see you buried alive.' "

One more night out of a long month of such days and nights passed this summer between Baltimore and the Grand Canyon.

You have to be crazy or cheap or from another country to camp out in New Orleans as Independence Day draws near.

The price was right -- the Big Easy for $12 a night, just a few miles west of downtown over the Huey P. Long Bridge on Route 90 in Bayou Segnette State Park, a mere dozen ducats for running water and a stroll through the city that swings to the motto: "Always for pleasure."

Not bad, huh?

It was hell.

Heat, humidity and bugs.

(One of the pests, however, was beautiful, a magnificent cootie that looked like a dragonfly washed by Monet in lavender paint.)

At the campground with us were foreign tourists with "Two Mad Aussie's U.S. Tour '92" scrawled on the back of their Volkswagen Beetle and a handsome young Parisian who cut our conversation short, saying it was a surprise to meet an American who wasn't named Steve or Jeffrey, but he had to go.

He explained that the two young women escorting him on travels through the New World were preparing lunch and it was just about ready.

As Jake and I drove out of the park with peanut butter sandwiches, I glimpsed him lazing between a pair of good looking women as they set a picnic table for a meal and I thought: OK Pierre, OK for you.

Getting to sleep that night was one of those long trials where you lay flat on your back, trying to make sure no part of your body touches another while staring straight up, thinking: "I am in hell."

From this we were rescued by psychics and angels.

With guns that fired soap bubbles and hearts weak for poets, they welcomed us, strangers, into their air-conditioned sanctuary.

But first a bit of background.

Like good Baltimoreans, my son and I drove to the Grand Canyon by way of Ocean City.

Heading south, we hit every beach on the east coast -- stopping to climb the marble monument to the genius of Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kill Devil Hills, N.C. -- before hanging a right at the Florida panhandle and chasing the sun as it set beyond the gulf coast.

We penciled in two days for New Orleans.

I hadn't been to the Crescent City for 15 years, not since I sailed as an ordinary seamen on an American merchant ship the summer I graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School, hair down to my shoulders and an Army jacket with "THE WHO" smeared on the back in white house paint.

My memories from those days are also formed by darkness, heat and bugs as I stood watch before dawn on the bow of a Puerto Rican container ship navigating canals from the Gulf of Mexico to the France Road marine terminal.

I wanted to be a writer and had a vague sense that New Orleans, where both Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner had paid dues as young men with literary ambitions, was a place where it could be done.

To that end I wrote stories on a typewriter the ship's steward used to bang out menus, borrowed books from the New Orleans library that offered advice on selling stories and, while doing field work on the human condition, got my inebriated fanny tossed onto Bourbon Street by a bouncer unable to appreciate my use of the English language.

Looking back, I often wonder why I didn't jump ship, my pay envelope fat with dollars, and chase the ghosts the Faulkner and Anderson instead of returning to Baltimore to enroll at Loyola College.

Maybe I would have died becoming a writer in New Orleans.

And then I would have been absent for the thrill of walking down Bourbon Street with my 9-year-old son to watch jazz men blow saxophone on the street.

Best of all, he loved the voodoo shops.

At Marie Leveau's House of Voodoo, Jake used some of his own spending money on a small blue stone said to ward off evil spirits and nightmares but not the taunts of his older sister.

Around the corner, while milling through throngs of tourists that William Donald Schaefer would flip his size 7 5/8 lid to have, we bought snowballs as good as any sold from the front of a Highlandtown rowhouse and enjoyed shaved ice flavored mandarin orange and tangerine.

And across the street we wandered into a nostalgia boutique that provides space in the back to Lee Mietzen Grue, a writer who makes the way lighter for other writers passing through New Orleans.

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