Monday, April 21, 2008


He stands in the hole, cold mud past the top of his boots, leans against the stock of the sixty, and waits. The enemy patrol comes into sight, and he waits. He watches them over the top of the sixty, their breath coming in clouds as they stagger forward through the snow, closer. He knows that they are men, like him. Men with families, men who are loved by someone, somewhere, and he knows that they will kill him if given a chance.
He watches them for a moment longer, lets them get a little closer, and then he pulls back on the trigger and they disappear in a cloud of smoke and flame as he traverses the field at waist level, then at ankle. The big gun bucks and bucks and hot brass and links fall hissing into the snow and mud. He stops firing, the smoke clears, and nothing moves in front of him except snow being shed from a tree to his left. He lights a cigarette, and waits.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Something a little dark

Ok, before anyone organizes an intervention, this is old stuff. I do think that it's good to revisit places from our pasts, even if they are dark and scary...

Nearly every day I murmur, "I don't want anymore." Anymore of what? Life, work, stress? It's not as if this is a hard life, most of us in this country, myself included, don't really know the meaning of a hard life so we make up reasons to be unhappy, we hold onto and nurture them, taking them out in the darkness so we can weep one more time.
So we become less human, we inflict pain on others to ease our own and make us feel better about ourselves when we later sit down to savor the delicious guilt.
It is clear to me that I shall never be whole again, I probably never was. But I do know that I am fading, slowly and not without a fight, but every year my footprint in the snow is lighter, smaller.
Death holds no fear for me, I believe in neither heaven nor hell. The thought of returning to the earth, to finally meld with my grandparents and great grandparents through the migration of roots and earthworms, to forever be across the red dirt road from the pasture my grandpa cleared with nothing more than a horse and his will, holds a magical appeal.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Last Tango in NOLA

It’s Sunday evening, my last night in New Orleans, and I’m looking for something cool to do away from Bourbon Street. I find it at the Spotted Cat on Frenchman. There, a gypsy princess named Alli pours the drinks in front of sign that warns that cash is the only payment method accepted, a great little band, the Rites of Swing, plays loudly on the tiny stage and the spitting image of a young Sharon Stone sits at the other end of the bar smoking a cigarette. I’ve been in some great bars over the last couple of days, but this is my favorite almost immediately, it’s dark, loud and just a little run down. After a couple of beers I head to the restroom. The toilet is running, the handle broken, thank God I didn’t have to shit, and not only are there no paper towels, there’s no paper towel dispenser, or blow drier either. On the wall next to the mirror someone has scribbled, "What will your contribution be?"
"I don’t know," I admit as a I wipe my wet hands on my jeans and head back out to the bar. As I sit, Sharon and I make eye contact and we both hold it just to the uncomfortable point of needing to say something. Then I break free, she’s wearing a ring and that’s one line I won’t cross. I’ve done it before and I paid one hell of a karmic price years later. So instead I write, this town has been the easiest place for me to write, it seems like the noisier the place the better and the pages pour out of me as the band plays on and conversations are born and die around me. I write about the day, the bar, and I write a response to a letter from a friend that I shall never send.
At some point I find myself drunk and cash out, as I get up Sharon and I glance at each other one last time and I walk out.
I head to the Clover Grill and have a great waffle (no need to say more about the Clover, it’s the same at 1am or 1pm, loud, packed, and just short of exploding), then start meandering my way through the bars and shops on my way back to the hotel. I drink in a tiny metal bar, cross the street to catch a great Southern rock combo singing ’Sweet Home Louisiana,’ then find my way into a row boat sized voodoo shop to pick up a few souvenirs, the signs warn not to touch the merchandise as bad things shall ensue...I don’t.
Walking back to the hotel I think for the hundredth time what a great European feel this town has and how much I miss that. No place in New Mexico has that feeling except maybe for Santa Fe. But Santa Fe is also arrogant, a vain woman who thinks that she is hotter than she really is and even if you wanted to you’d never be good enough. Then there’s Ruidoso. She’s a whore, pretty but diseased with no interest in you but your wallet, and she fakes her orgasms. New Orleans is a whore as well, and an old one at that. I’ve seen her without her makeup on though and she’s still a looker and she honestly seems to be having a good time with you.

Over Coffee

I glance up from my coffee at the guy sitting next to the window. He is bald (the shaved kind), dressed all in black, with round black goggles hanging from a strap around his neck. The comic book villain look is in this year.
I’m at the Cafe Rose Nicaud on Frenchman Street in New Orleans, it’s Sunday afternoon, my last day in town and I can’t help but look at the place and think what a great pizzeria it would make...ovens over there, a big top over there, do it right, as fresh and as local as can be, do it the old way. This is the perfect building, beautiful windows and doors, high ceilings, a great neighborhood. Unfortunately, the view through the antique windows and doors is of one of the ugliest modern buildings I’ve ever seen. Always somethin’. Then I wonder if I’ll still have it in me in seven years, or ten, will I still want to work this hard? As long as I still smile while cooking, still care about the food, then the answer is yes, I will.
An old man enters, gets something to eat and sits nearby. He’s wearing a brass button and gold braid bedecked drum major’s coat and a battered black top hat, his hair and beard are long and white, his eyes are bright blue. He chews his food slowly his head rocking back and forth as he scans the paper and he smells of bar soap.

On a Sunday Moanin' Sidewalk

Sometime Sunday morning I awake to a blinding hangover, the sun is nowhere near up and the pain will not let me sleep, all I can do is press my head into the pillow in the vain hope that the pressure will somehow help. I take a shower, standing with my head down, letting the hot trickle of water work on my neck, but this gives only temporary relief. The clock glows 5:30 as I leave the hotel room and go down to the street hoping that the little convenience store nearby will still be open, it is not. It looks as if a giant pinata has exploded overhead, showering the street with the detritus of all parties past, the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse smells so strongly of stale beer that I gag.
I return to the hotel and the concierge tells me that the store opens at eight. I go upstairs and turn on the TV, killing time until the store opens so that I can get some ibuprofen, why didn't I bring some with me? A little before eight I go back downstairs, the store's shutters are open, but it is not. I walk to Bourbon and take a left, the intersection is now clean, the air smells of soap and there are bubbles on the wet sidewalks.
Another block down the street and there is a huge man walking the other way down the street. "Morning," I say, pronouncing it "moanin." The accent is slipping through.
"Mornin'," he replies, slowing. "You ok?"
"Those are some nice boots," he adds.
"Thanks." I'm starting to have that what-the-fuck feeling.
"I'll bet I can tell you where you got them boots."
For whatever reason, I'm intrigued. Maybe I'm still drunk, maybe I need there to be someone out there with the answers to all the hard questions I've been asking, and if the man can tell where I got my boots...
"I can tell you the street, the city and the state where you got them boots."
Shit, I'm hooked.
" ok? Your face, it don't look right."
When a total stranger tells you that you look like do.
Have you ever been hit by light? I don't mean, "Gee, that was bright." I mean every glimmer, every reflection, pierces my eyes, picks up a rock and smacks the frontal lobe of what's left of my brain. And in spite of that, I'm now smiling. This huge man is smiling too, I really don't remember crossing the street, but all of a sudden we're standing very close, conspirators, as he takes my outstretched hand and begins to tell me how he used to rob, steal, sling drugs and mug. Very briefly it occurs to me that at this distance he could have me without me having a chance and that all my cash is in my wallet.
"But I don't do any of that any more, now I hustle," he continues. "If I'm wrong, I'll give you a shoe shine. But if I'm right, you gotta get a shoe shine."
This sounds reasonable. Don't judge me, monkey. Remember, I'm likely still drunk and I've got the distraction of having the 1812 Overture blasting right behind my left eye.
"I'll can tell you where you got them boots...street, city and state."
"Ok, where?"
"You got them boots on yo feet, on Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, Louisiana!"
But I'm laughing, he's got me. Then he drops to one knee as he produces a rag and shoe creme...from where? and begins to clean and shine my boots while again reminding me of his criminal resume and I'll shake his hand again after giving him way too much money for a shoe shine. But I also got a lesson: No matter where I am, that's where I got my boots.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

That Lovin' Feelin'

After breakfast at Mother's I walk over to the River Walk. The Mississippi is a magnificent waterway, the "Rio" Ruidoso is nothing more than a creek anywhere but in the southwest, even the Rio Grande is, in spite of it's name, not much of a river anymore. A ferry moves across the water toward Algiers, huge cargo ships move at a rapid clip upriver as tourists board what passes for a steamboat (I can't help but notice the lack of smoke as the boat sits idling at the dock). Walking back toward the French Quarter along the river I hear German and French, within minutes of turning back into the Quarter I will hear Vietnamese, Spanish, and (I think) Japanese. I walk through the parks surrounding the cathedral, feeling a little sorry for the mules lined up out front tied to their cabs, but mules always look sad, so who knows.
Further west I finally find my way to Frenchman Street, it is still fairly early and not much is going on yet. I find the Electric Ladyland tattoo parlor and walk in without a second thought. I know I want something that says "New Orleans" without it saying, well, New Orleans. Thumbing through a book labeled "NOLA" I pass over countless crescents and fleur d' lis, none of them really catching my eye. Then I see it, a crawfish. What represents New Orleans, and Louisiana, better than the crawfish? Ok, a jazz band, but I didn't have that kind of money...maybe a trio. I am told that the artist who loves doing crawfish is busy, but someone will be with me in a few minutes. As I wait I start to wonder if maybe I should return when the crawfish lover is available, then a guy about my age comes out and introduces himself as Terry and takes a look at the drawing. He smiles and says, "Cool."
I decide he'll do fine, especially when he recognizes the tattoo on my right arm as a Frank Miller drawing, only the second person since I've had it to do so. I sit in his chair and soon we are talking as Terry gets ready for work, pouring inks into small cups, checking needles. He tells me that he's been doing this for five years, started in his hometown of San Antonio, and has been living in New Orleans for a year and loves it. We talk about New Mexico, where to eat, where to find a music store, as I watch the gun move around my arm, the needle too fast to see but leaving a bloody trail of fresh ink behind. By the time he's got the outline done and the endorphins are kicking in he's invited me to a free crawfish boil at a place called the R Bar, around the corner from the tattoo shop. I really want to go, but I've got a ticket to a show at the Rock and Bowl; Bonerama, a band I've been enjoying since meeting one of the players after a Harry Connick, Jr. concert. Terry assures me that I'll have time to make the boil, hang out for a bit with some locals, and still make the show. Checking my ticket later I see that he's right, plenty of time.
Leaving the shop, my arm burning and wrapped in gauze, I check to make sure I know where the R Bar is. I soon find it on Royal Street, a block off of Frenchman. Then I head back to the hotel for a bit, trim my beard, change clothes, and head back out. First to the Blacksmith Bar for a bit, then to a mom and pop (actually a pop and pop) book/postal store, where I pick up and mail a couple or postcards, and find a cookbook.
Walking back into the Quarter on Royal I pass numerous buskers, they are on every corner, tucked in behind the police barricades that block half the street to traffic. Passing a magician I can hear klezmer music up the block. At the intersection with Toulouse two people play an accordion and a violin as a dog lies near their feet, uninterested. The music is incredible, sad, alive and rich; how can two people, young people at that, be this good and not be playing somewhere besides the middle of the street? I am unable to move, three others and I stand transfixed as this couple play song after song as their dog sleeps, and the entire time I can think only of someone who would love this moment. During a break I talk to them and learn that they are Sarah and Ian, she plays the accordion, he the violin. Except for their dreads they would have fit in any urban street scene of a hundred years ago, he the young rabbi, she the paper boy. In spite of her shapeless male dress, Sarah is one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen, she is real, no makeup, not a damned thing faked. Both of them seem to be uncomfortable talking, polite, but bashful. They only appear to be at peace as they play, eyes closed or focused on each other or their instruments, we do not exist while they play. The dog is Koji, he rousts himself from the leather jacket at Sarah's feet long enough to lick my hand, then lies back down as they start another song, rolling into Sarah's foot, enjoying the contact, as she taps her foot to the fervent beat.
At the other end of the block a much larger crowd listens to a small jazz band. During a break the drummer tells us that they are the Loose Marbles and that they need our money, "For more coffee...yeah, that's it, coffee."
In this way it takes most of an hour to walk a couple of blocks, stopping to see what is going on at each busy corner. And in between? A young black kid does one hell of a job of looking like Snoop Dogg while tapping like Fred Astaire.
The boil is to start at six, I arrive around that time to find a group of men sitting around a large stock pot on a propane burner on the sidewalk in front of the bar. Everyone has a beer, and most have a cigarette, the pot is full to the brim with potatoes, corn on the cob, mushrooms, and bright red crawfish as big as the one currently burning away on my forearm. A Canadian tourist is getting a lesson on how to eat the crustaceans, he convinces his companion that here is where they should have dinner. I go inside, catch one of the last seats at the bar and order an Abita Amber. The bartender is blonde, her arms, neck and shoulders covered in tattoos. This is the first time I've had a chance to watch the locals, besides myself and the Canadians, everyone here is local and regular. They talk away in small groups at the end of the bar and around the lone pool table, the juke box playing some late 70s punk. A man sits in a barber's chair at the end of the bar and I'm told that you can get a drink and haircut special sometimes. Terry arrives and we show off his work to a couple of his friends before moving outside to wait in line for the crawfish. I luck out and get the very last of the first batch. The bar's owner, Red, is shoveling the mudbugs onto my plate with a large ice scoop. When that won't get the last of them he drops the scoop and reaches in with his hands and grabs the rest, dropping them onto the mound that is to be my dinner. Yes!
Several hours, maybe a hundred crawfish, and many Abitas and shots of Maker's Mark later I am far too comfortable, warm and happy to be troubled with having to go to any concert.

On the edge of the Faubourg Marigny I find a wonderful little park, Washington Square Park, a beautiful swath of green among the built up neighborhood. It is finally bright and warm, appropriate as it is Sunday, and the park is full of people, parents and grand parents with kids, young Bohemians sitting on the grass, strumming away on guitars, and everyone has a dog.
An off duty cook stands watching from the shade of an elderly tree. A cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, he sways front to back and I wonder what his story is. I have just put together a grand tragedy for him when a beautiful young woman arrives, kisses him and takes his hand as they walk into the sun together. I am happy for him, but my story is demolished.
The sun begins to slide into the west and the shadows begin their advance across the open ground, pushing the people further and further from where I sit. A block away a woman yells, "I hate you," and then, "Liar!"


Saturday morning dawns grey and wet. Looking out the hotel window, after wiping away the condensation, I can see the downtown skyscrapers topped with fog past the roof tops of the French Quarter. I step out and begin my way toward Mother's Restaurant at the corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas in the central business district. Upon arriving, I find a long line waiting to get in, a sure sign of good things to come. I take my place and look through a window into the kitchen where the cooks are hard at work, one of them rolling out biscuit dough, a sign of wonderful things to come. Before long a waitress comes out and, picking a point a few people ahead, orders everyone behind them to follow her. She leads us around the corner to a door marked "Mother's Next Door." This is a place usually reserved for banquets and private parties, but today it is being used as an overflow dining room, it is large but has a great feel, exposed brick, a very tall ceiling, and an ancient skylight combined with a beautiful bar and tables with white linens.
The line is moving quickly now toward a hastily assembled serving station and register.
"Whachoo want, baby?" She wants biscuits and gravy, but doesn't get it that here you get biscuits, and you can get a side of "debris", the gravy with meat scraps from the roast beef pans.
"Whachoo want, baby?"
Her words lilt, every syllable slapped playfully, I want to listen to her talk for hours.
"Ferdie special and a cup of crawfish etouffee, please."
"Aw'right, what's your name?"
"Aw'right, Eric."
I pay and wait by the counter. Everyone else in line seems to be ordering stuff from the kitchen, mine is being made right there.
"Here you go, Eric." I take my food and sit at one of the large communal tables with a couple who, it turns out, are horrible dining partners. But I have my food, they do not, and I am happy.
The Ferdi special is a Po' Boy sandwich packed with baked ham, roast beef, debris and dressed with shredded cabbage, pickles, mayo, and Creole and yellow mustard. Etouffee means smothered in French and the dish is made by cooking vegetables in a rich seafood broth until the veggies are very soft and the broth has reduced and thickened. It is the ultimate cold weather comfort food and Mother's does it right.
Hunger sated, I step out and light a cigarette and notice a cook doing the same, I congratulate him on the food and we talk about food and restaurants until he has to get back inside. I take a look back at the line of people that has again formed, tourists by the looks of 'em, wish them a good meal, and start walking toward the Mississippi River.