New Orleans 1989
The French Quarter, 1989

I recall the late 80’s with unusual clarity. I hit New Orleans in 1985 driving a beat-up 1965 Cadillac convertible with exactly $1000 in cash in my pocket, all the money I had in the world. I had been more or less on the run for several years before that – from the ignominious end of a first marriage back in New York, from a small town on the East End of Long Island that had closed in on me in a fogbank of steamed vodka, from a book contract with a publishing house that had collapsed pretty much at the same time I did, from a series of relationships that served the sole function of taking up the time of day and night I should have been using to write.
In those days, a grand in New Orleans could take you a ways. I used to eat red beans and rice and drink a Dixie beer on Mondays in a joint called Busters up on Burgundy Street for $2.00. Wonderful brain-chilling martinis at the Napoleon House were $2.50. You could get a three course meal at Miss Ruby’s Café on St. Peter Street for $8.00. A shrimp po’boy as long as your forearm and a goblet of draught beer at Domilici’s uptown was $4.00.
I ran through the grand in in rent and booze over couple of months and hit the phone calling every stable, married person I knew and put the touch on them. I remember waiting for the mailman down on Royal Street and thumbing eagerly through a stack of IRS notices and lawyer letters from New York looking for a check for $300 somebody from Ohio had promised me.
Bail myself out with work? When the word escaped my lips, I sounded like Maynard G. Krebs. Use up the good time of the day and night in New Orleans to…work? Nobody else was spending a whole lot of time at it. Serious, big-time law firms emptied their offices every day at 5 p.m. On Fridays, they knocked off at noon and a good portion of the legal elite of the city would be found down at the Napoleon House, bent over a Pimm’s Cup, arguing about whether Crystal Hot Sauce was better than Trappey’s, their previously starched white shirts plastered to their bodies with sweat, laying plans to go see the Radiators that night down on Frenchman Street in a dive where the cover was a buck and a beer was 50 cents, or maybe you’d just sit there and drink until the riverboat President was ready to pull away from the dock around 9, and you could get on board for $5 and stand a foot and a half away from the feet of Aaron Neville as he fronted his brothers on a three hour cruise and concert up and down the Mississippi. If it was a good night, and many of them were, and you happened across the right girl, she would pay for the drinks if you were willing to produce the prodigious quantity of sweat necessary to keep her out on the dance floor until the boat docked.
When you came down the gangplank, somebody would give you a handbill advertising the Allman Brothers and Emmy Lou Harris playing at a club about a block away. Three bucks at the door, a buck a beer, and 3 a.m. would come and go and they just kept playing and you kept dancing and drinking and you’d find yourself wandering back down Magazine Street headed for the Quarter with a plastic cup full of gin in your hand. More than once I was approached by an individual inquiring after the whereabouts of my wallet and launched the cup of gin into his face and took off running. Bombay gin should run an ad campaign: tastes good, goes down easy, and useful as a weapon.
That was before a big gun show rolled into town and I wandered over to the convention center and picked up a .357 magnum for $85. Why not? Every girl I went out with carried a weapon in her purse. One time, a girlfriend’s car got stolen and I took my .357 and drove around the St. Thomas projects with the gun stuck between my legs until I spied her car and called a tow truck. Recovering the car was a better deal than making up the difference in what the insurance company would pay her, and so what if it took a .357 to get it back. Wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in New Orleans.
There used to be a killing or so every other day where a woman’s ex-boyfriend would come to her house looking for her, and she’d shoot his ass dead, and the cops would show up and say something like, who was this Luther to you? And the woman would say, Luther be a no-good motherfucker who beat my face, and the cop would say, we need you to make a statement. The woman would answer, I told Luther to leave my ass alone, but here he comes breakin’ the window lookin’ for my goodies, so I shot his ugly ass, and the cop would say, the coroner will be here in about 30 minutes to pick up Luther, and how about a cup of coffee?
New Orleans was that kind of town. There was a bar about three blocks from my apartment that was called the Club .38 Special. Some of the best soul music in New Orleans (one of the last cities in the country where actual soul music is still played) could be heard there if you were drunk and stupid enough to pass through its doors, which was not out of the question at all. I remember one night going up into Treme, a neighborhood just north of the French Quarter on the nastier side of nasty to listen to Gatemouth Brown at a little club with no sign outside. It was owned by two lesbians with dyed blonde hair. The place had Christmas lights up year-round. In fact, quite a few places put up Christmas lights and never took them down, which was probably a comment on both the Catholic nature of the city and the general unwillingness to expend the energy to remove lights that came to look pretty good up there anyway.
I was with some very good friends I had met the night before, as I recall. One of them had a houseguest from overseas who was blind, and I sat with her and talked into her ear all night, giving her a running commentary on what was going on visually around us – drinks being delivered to tables of mink-bedecked pimps and their ladies, blue drinks and green ones and purple ones with big straws sticking out of them. A fight at the next table between two women over a guy with about three teeth, the two women going at it like he owned the City National Bank or something. Finally around 2 a.m., Gatemouth took the stage with this band of guys who seemed to have wandered in off the street wearing little chintzy-brim hats and sharkskin suits and popped cuffs and red ties and pomade hair under a single spotlight on a stage about a foot high about 10 feet away, and then this pounding steam-engine sound blasting from the stage with the drummer sitting up there with his eyes about half open just pounding the shit out of a tiny snare and bass drum set, and the bass player looking like he had been recently salvaged from a flood, and the guy at the piano with 15 inch wide hands beating the keys like he had been called upon to wake the dead, and Gatemouth sitting there on a stool looking out at the crowd and saying with this wide smile, welcome ladies and gentlemen to the Welcome Club, and he reaches for a tall glas of gin and takes a swallow, and the band kicks it up so the glasses on the table are vibrating and dancing and Gatemou9th starts wailing and screeching an old blues tune from a guy down in the Marigny called Drinkin’ and Stinkin’, and I’m sitting there yelling into the ear of the blind woman describing all of this, and the next afternoon I wake up and figure, Jesus, if I can pull that shit off, I can start writing again. What a concept. Work.
Not much time would pass before I got married and moved into an apartment on Dauphine Street, and not much more time would pass before I signed a book contract for a new novel. Now what you’ve got to understand is that a book contract is evil, nasty business. What happens is, you sign this long legal document and then you go into a room and you close the door and they let you out when you’ve got about 800 pages of manuscript with you. Book contracts and publishing houses should probably be consigned to the same circle of hell reserved for music labels and record contracts and movie companies and screenplay contracts. Book publishers, record company executives and movie company production chiefs, all of them sit in restaurants and use diamond nail files to sharpen their teeth while private physicians perform mobile laser liposuction on their necks and hair replacement surgeons slice and dice their tanned pates, inserting fuzzy follicles removed secretly from newborn baby Odawallas that very morning. That’s the kind of people you’re working for when you agree to go back into your Writing Room and work. People who scare Frank Sinatra to death.
So I am settled down and I am responsible and I have gone back to work for these people and I am in my writing room and I am writing this goddamned endless book and I am missing Gatemouth Brown at the Welcome Club signing Drinkin’ and Stinkin’ and the Neville Brothers out on the riverboat playing Fiyo on the Bayou, and I have not had a martini at the Napoleon House in a year, and I know that the rest of the city of New Orleans is out there in their sweat-soaked shirts boogeying and having the time of their lives, and where am I? I am in my writing room and I am writing. Now I ask you, what kind of life is that?
Oh, the depths to which I had sunk, and I remember the night I hit bottom, I remember it well. It was early in 1988, and I had just gone to bed around 2 a.m. when I heard a violent crash on the floor below, right down in the goddamned writing room I had just departed. I got up and went downstairs to find the source of the crash and found nothing. I thought at first the cat must have knocked something over, but then I knew it couldn’t have been the cat because it happened in my writing room and therefore it had to have come from evil.
The next morning in the light of day I found a broken window on the north side of the writing room. Upon further examination, I found a copper-jacketed .38 caliber round on the bottom cushion of my desk chair, and above it, an indentation on the leather back of the chair. The bullet had clearly been fired from somewhere north of Rampart Street up there in Treme, probably somewhere around the Club .38 Special. If I had remained at my desk in the writing room for another 15 minutes or so, the .38 caliber round would have struck me right in the breast bone, having made its journey across the rooftops of the French Quarter and through the window of my study, and I knew from whence it came. It came from evil, from those book publishers. They were sitting out there in a limo, sticking their freshly hair-plugged heads out of the sunroof firing at the window of my writing room because they knew I had left it. It was a warning shot, and it’s one I have not forgotten.
That .38 caliber copper-jacketed round resides today in a glass topped table in my house as a reminder that this country has devolved into what the military has always called sectors, which is to say divisions which can be identified by discrete levels of threat. As the 80’s progressed, I was awakened at least once or twice a week by the whirling thwap-thwap-thwap-thwap of helicopters hovering nearby, and I knew who was in those helicopters. Seated on plush leather cushions were book publishers and movie production executives and next to them where hair-replacement surgeons and their leggy big-breasted medical secretaries, and as they hovered, they trained hugely expensive Nikon binoculars on the windows of my writing room as tiny scalpels sliced into their bald spots and the fuzz of infant Odawallas was inserted into their scalps.
I ended up leaving New Orleans for Hollywood to find work, more work that would pay bigger and better bucks to pay for less and less red beans and rice. Which I guess describes the country we live in, these many years later. Here is what it was like: you signed these evil, nasty book contracts and movie contracts and you went into your writing room and they hovered outside in black helicopters and they didn’t let you out until you were laden with pages, fairly dripping with the things, and then they sent you back into the writing room so that months later you come out with even more pages, and they paid you amounts of money that would buy even less red beans and rice, and did not get to go on the riverboats, and you did not get to go to the Welcome Club to listen to Gatemouth Brown anymore, and you did not get your drinks bought for you because you were willing to sweat on the dance floor until the sun came up, but what you did get to do was, you got to go back to your writing room with the black helicopters outside the window in order to produce a prodigious amount of pages that would buy you less and less red beans and rice.
Were the fucking 80’s fucking fucked or what?

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  1. Ray Hancock

     /  January 26, 2014

    Gatemouth Brown was one of the best. Loved by many. His final resting place is here in the east side of Orange Texas overlooking the Sabine River.

  2. Tom Fitzpatrick

     /  April 5, 2014

    Love it! You make the life of a writer seem like condemnation to eternity in the inner circle of Hell. Thanks to you, I’ve finally overcome my jealousy of those who write for a living. 😉

  3. Mike Altee

     /  November 23, 2017

    I saw possibly Gatemouths last gig in Nola….possibly last gig ever. It was known he was sick as I watched him tune his guitar from the Balcony at HOB in French Qtr. As it turned out, he was only months from death.

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