The Big Not So Easy

by Mark Chandler

01/06/2014

Don’t believe what you have heard. This ain’t an easy place to live.

People warn you when you are new to the city: take it easy. Veterans of the NOLA lifestyle tell you horror stories of well-intentioned people who move here and lose control.

They don’t have to tell me—I’m living it.

It is 4 a.m. and I am sitting at The Saint, a dive bar once owned by Rob Zombie’s bassist. I look to my left and see two stools down is a Caucasian girl dressed like a Japanese geisha—ornate kimono, whited-out complexion with faint red circles under her eyes, twigs and flowers in her up-do. She wears a nose ring. The geisha takes a slug of a Miller High Life and drags on a Camel Light.

To my right is my girl, Soph, dressed in a V-Day victory dress circa 1945. Tall, raven-haired girl. Looks like Bettie Page. She carries a switchblade in her purse. All the girls here carry switchblades in their purses. Someone told me: if you meet a girl without a knife scar, watch out. She’s a bad woman to mess with.

Mardi Gras is in full swing. Today was the Thoth parade. It’s been a bad day.

We are about to freebase Green Chartreuse. We light the liquid on fire, blow it out, cup our hands over the glasses with straws between our fingers and inhale. Vaporized alcohol goes directly to our brains, and then the liquid alcohol goes to our stomachs.

* * *

This is LA, not L.A.—as the saying goes. It’s true. We live on another planet. Our sovereign nation-state called New Orleans.

Everything is different here. The air is thicker and this makes it harder to breathe. People mention the slower passing of time, a commonly discussed phenomenon in Southern parts. Something that happened last week seems ages ago. Even in winter it’s still quite humid. You sweat in your sleep, but it’s cold. You feel clammy, like when you are sick.

Then there are the nightmares and vivid dreams. I have not had a solid night’s sleep since I moved here. There’s a general sense of malice in the air and a nameless feeling of dread. Everyone drinks to avoid thinking about it and to sleep soundly. Ninety-nine percent of all social life takes place in bars.

And there are insects. You’ve never seen so many strange insects. Poisonous caterpillars that burn the skin to the touch drop down on you from the trees. It’s like a bad episode of 1960s Star Trek. My boss has a three-year-old scar on his leg from an encounter with one at Audubon Park. According to TermiteSurvey.com, there are the termites that swarm the city once a year and will infest your home if you leave the lights on. Of course, there are cockroaches. They’re the largest ones you will ever see. They hiss and run toward you without fear. If you move here, pack a suitcase full of rolled-up newspapers.

Mardi Gras is in full swing. Today was the Thoth parade. It’s been a bad day. 

Walk into a random bar in the Bywater like the AllWays Lounge, and you may be witness to a party of dwarves performing a play, an acrobat troupe, or a group of marked-up girls line dancing in Drysdales get-ups.

There is something to be said for a major metropolis that gives itself over once a year to a larger-than-life party, a city that accentuates having a good time over being able to get to work, pay your bills, or even mail a letter. Here, parties move as you play. They don’t last a day or a weekend. They last a month. The city shuts down. When it is all over, everyone you know will be tired and sick for the following three weeks.

* * *

This morning I unwittingly left home to drive to the drugstore for supplies. I had forgotten that today was the Thoth parade. I was immediately ensnared in a labyrinth of police blockades, parade traffic, and rerouted streets. A rookie mistake. I found myself in my car eddying farther and farther away from home in a Minotaur maze of gridlock and no place to park. Unlike most inner-city mazes, this was New Orleans—there very well may be a Minotaur at its center.

At one point, my car moved through a sea of people, moving parallel to a marching band. I briefly considered abandoning the car altogether. As I crawled at a snail’s pace through a neighborhood, I saw all of my co-workers at a crab boil in the front yard of a house. I rolled my window down and several of them lined up to give me high fives as I passed.

Five hours later, feeling foolish, I ended up at a gas station on the far side of town near the Chef Menteur Highway. New Orleans had its way with me. I took a much-needed respite. I bought a Red Bull and a Powerbar, juiced up the car, slammed my Minotaur testosterone, and headed back into the maze. I figured out that if I went far enough west I could loop around the parade routes and head back home via Tchoupitoulas (pronounced CHOP-ah-TOO-luhs).

Apparently, Wayne had decided to go home after someone busted his nose. 

I followed a logical plan. I headed north and went down Jefferson. Everything seemed quiet until I hit Tchoupitoulas. Then I remembered: Mardi Gras world is on this street. I hit a traffic snarl and got stuck for another two and a half hours. By then it was early evening, and I desperately needed a drink.

My experiences here have taught me a healthy respect for parade culture. Even among those that live here, there are those who choose to avoid them. Parades induce mass hysteria and chaos in the crowds when they roll down St. Charles toward the Quarter. Day parades, like Thoth, are friendlier; night parades can be grotesque and frightening.

Exhibit A: The Knights of Perseus Parade. I got together with a guy who worked in the kitchen of my restaurant. Wayne and I decided to meet up where Tchoupitoulas meets Napoleon. This is where the parades begin. When I arrived Wayne was on the other side of the parade route with his bicycle. He started to cross where a high school band was standing in place preparing to march. As he rolled his bike into the street, a man blew a whistle that hung around his neck and shouted, “No, sir! Nobody crosses my lines!” A phalanx of parents materialized out of thin air and formed a human wall that enveloped Wayne and violently hustled him back into the crowd. I never did catch up with him that evening. Apparently, Wayne had decided to go home after someone busted his nose.

Later, as I meandered up St. Charles toward the circle (which I was later informed is one of the roughest stretches of the parade route), stopping occasionally to take in parade sights, things became more and more menacing. A lady turned to abuse me verbally for no reason whatsoever. Someone watching the parade from a trellis above threw a handful of beads roughly at the back of my head, one string of which wrapped itself successfully around my neck. I looked up behind me and everyone there was looking in a different direction.

I moved on down St. Charles and was nearly trampled by a horse when it bucked its masked rider and charged the crowd. Screams rang out in unison, and people threw up their hands and darted in one direction or another. I never had a chance to react. Each horse had a handler who walked beside it, and one of them grabbed the spooked horse by its reigns as it reared up on its hind legs a mere three feet from me.

As the parade resumed, a float satirizing President Obama’s healthcare plan rolled past, throwing beads to the crowd. A general rule of thumb when frequenting the parades is to never take your eye off the passing float, for fear of being hit in the head with something heavy—such as the coconuts they used to throw from the Zulu parade. In my case, I looked away for a split second only to see a cup full of water about to descend upon my head, but it was too late. I did not see who threw it. All of the men and women on the passing floats were wearing masks to protect their secret identities and their twisted smiles. All of this, aside from the initial incident involving Wayne, took place in the span of about 10 minutes.

My mood dampened by the crowd, I began to feel a mean- spirited energy. I decided to head home before things escalated into actual violence. As I walked home I noticed a man break away from the crowd behind me. He followed my path street by street. As a restaurant worker accustomed to walking home from work with sums of cash on my person, I am more alert to this sort of thing than most. I doubled back to the parade route one last time and lost the interloper.

After my long drive in the labyrinth of the Thoth parade, I hit up my girlfriend, Sophie, and we agreed to meet at The Saint. First, I needed to stop in and see how my roommate was doing. Since we arrived in New Orleans he has been slowly losing his mind. This is not an exaggeration.

I met my roommate, Collin, when I was eight years old. We were close friends throughout high school and college. He played soccer and ran track. He spent a year at Oxford and two years in the Peace Corp. After that I didn’t see him for 10 years until he contacted me about rooming with him in New Orleans. He was moving back to the United States from Indonesia. Shortly after he arrived, he started going completely sideways. He tried to make furniture out of paper. He did experiments with “light and smoke,” as he called it. He “ritually” cleansed our trash can with incense. He stopped using his right hand. He believed that if he trained himself to only use his left hand it would open up a higher range of cognitive ability. There might be something to this. I suggested he wear a blindfold for 24 hours to improve his senses. He’d been making chakra necklaces, believing they would cure his diabetes if he wore the right combination of crystals. I strongly discouraged that idea. He ate five meals a day and still looked malnourished. He had a crazy look in his eyes. In less than two months, New Orleans had unsettled his mind. He was deranged.

You begin to lose your mind, and you also begin to feel smarter living here.

Sophie thinks he was slowly becoming one of the eccentric street-people you see on Bourbon Street. There is a girl there who sits on the ground and simply stares through an empty picture frame for hours. I imagine the girl’s father: “Honey, your mom and I have the resources to send you to college.”The girl replies fiercely: “This is what I want to do with my life, Dad!”

In truth, Collin expressed this concern to me himself. He had been walking around Bourbon Street, and all of the street freaks had been approaching him and welcoming him as one of their own.

You begin to lose your mind, and you also begin to feel smarter living here. As a writer, I have started to feel as if my brain is overclocked. The creative energy of the city is working on me as well, but I feel that it could easily get out of hand. It was already happening to Collin.

At The Saint, Mardi Gras revelry is in full bloom. Sophie is monologuing in a continual loop at my ear:

“Motha Nola accepts us! You can’t choose to live here; NOLA has to embrace you. They worship the Greek gods here! That’s why the city hasn’t sunk into the ocean. I have my immortality plan—I’m going to live forever! We are growing younger here every day! When the apocalypse comes the Four Horsemen will lead a parade of the damned down Canal Street! Praise be to the graveyards under my skin!”

(Repeat)

I look over at the throngs writhing on the dance floor. There is a shirtless man with a Minotaur headdress dancing with a mostly naked girl, except where her head would be is a microwave oven. A man in a gold lamé suit does the moonwalk. I look at Sophie, who continues on her daily prayer to her religion of living here. I look up and my witchy woman, my favorite bartender, wants to know if I want to go again. I nod emphatically and shake my wrist in pantomime of downing a shot.

The night gradually fades out, like a scene in a film, to black. I dream that I have part of my brain removed in an operating theater. In the morning I wake up and cannot find my left shoe.

* * *

The night I met Sophie Thompson, aka Sophie Collins, aka Sophie Williams, aka Olga Sophia Giardina, the estranged daughter of a West Coast Sicilian family with ties to organized crime, I was sitting on Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite stool at Le Bon Temps Roulé, a bar in the Upper Garden District. It was 3:45 a.m. I noticed a young woman who appeared to have the insignia of Hunter S. Thompson tattooed on her arm, the word “Gonzo” with a dagger through the center—except hers depicted a corkscrew instead of a dagger.

This gave me only momentary pause: for years I have jokingly followed the advice of Coach Bobby Finstock from the terrible Michael J. Fox vehicle Teen Wolf. The advice goes like this:

1. Never get less than 12 hours of sleep.

2. Never play cards with a man who has the same first name as a city.

3. Never go anywhere near a girl with a dagger tattoo anywhere on her body.

 

Sophie, with her corkscrew substitution, just barely scrapes by.

I start talking to her without thinking. Our shared background in restaurant work cemented our connection. We agreed upon a lot of things and we had both worked in restaurants called Zin.

It was then I realized that I had foreseen her coming six years previous, when I worked at my own Zin. I had been looking up my restaurant’s menu online and had accidently clicked on hers. At the time, there had been a photo of their sommelier, Sophie Collins, on their website. I had seen the girl who I would meet six years later in the middle of the night at a dirty bar in New Orleans. I had been sitting in a comfortable townhouse in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2007 when I first laid eyes on my future love, who was waiting for me with a shot of Wild Turkey 101 in the year 2013.

Our first date lasted 72 hours, with short intervals of sleep. We found ourselves at d.b.a. in the French Quarter as the first nervous rays of sunlight quivered over the city. Sophie started to have a panic attack about getting home, as if she were a vampiric Cinderella. We found ourselves out on the curb as she tried to flag down a cab. I scanned the streets for my parked car, but didn’t see it anywhere. I told her to hold tight as I ran down a side alley to a neighboring street. In a bizarre twist of New Orleans creepiness, the alley I ran down led right back to where I left Sophie standing—a Möbius pathway. Time was up. She had to get home. I left my car to be swallowed up by the Quarter.

Thankfully, I found my car the next day, but the spell was just taking hold.

I never really went back home ever again. Sophie and I had strange adventures. We almost burned the neighbor’s house down in the middle of the night when she decided to set off a Roman candle at 3 a.m. I jumped a fence with a garden hose and put out the flames, just barely getting back inside her house before the neighbors arrived on the street to investigate the noise.

Sophie had a number of interlopers who would appear and had to be driven away. Once we found ourselves sitting on her front step in the middle of the night with a nickel-plated double-barrel shotgun waiting for an individual who threatened to come over. Shadowy individuals laid claim to the attentions of my Sophie for reasons she would not divulge. She began to occasionally let slip small details of a past life in other places. She talked of outlaws, unsolved murders, and outrunning curses. Hats on beds, she would say. When the newspaper hit the front door in the early morning hours, she would bolt out of bed in a panic.

* * *

The torrent of Mardi Gras rolled through the city and left behind a landscape indicative of the end of the world. The passing away of the season marked the day after Mardi Gras, the beginning of Lent, as the appropriate time for life to return to some degree of normalcy. There would be no more processions of carnival gods, no more dancing until dawn. I imagined that the frenzy of our courtship was due in part to the chaotic nature of that time of year. In New Orleans, the parade season only subsides when the temperatures rise in the summer months.

Within a week of Fat Tuesday my roommate, Collin, had disappeared. I learned later he had returned to Indonesia on impulse, packing only a small backpack, presumably because he could not abide the psychedelic nature of living in New Orleans. As I now had no roommate and no place to live, I accepted Sophie’s offer to move in with her on the condition that we would look for more suitable housing right away. I agreed to move all of my earthly possessions into a storage unit in her name, not thinking twice about it, and I moved myself into her ramshackle shotgun shack off Magazine, which had just barely survived the previous year’s hurricane season.

There was only one neighborhood in the world in which she wanted to reside. She referred to her digs at the time as “the plague of Uptown.” She wanted us to move to the French Quarter.

I had my doubts about this, but Sophie and I discussed it at length while we waited to file a restraining order at the courthouse the following week. It would seem that she had taken a boarder during the previous Mardi Gras who had believed himself something more. The man had become enraged when she had left for three days without notice over Mardi Gras weekend, and she subsequently kicked him out. He had been harassing her for a little less than a year, culminating in a recent threat of physical violence. He claimed she had kicked him out and stolen his possessions.

While we waited to speak with the authorities, we discussed the move. Her driver’s license was about to expire and she could not renew it, she explained, because she had no way of proving her identity due to the fact that she had falsified it many years ago. For this reason, all of her spare money had to be conserved to forge new documents. I urged her to hire a lawyer to sort out her identity issues, but straight thinking was not in her nature.

This conversation did little to assuage my concerns, but her lifestyle also seemed perfectly normal for New Orleans. Sophie was dangerous, intriguing, and the epitome of Southern Gothic. She lived like a vampire, collected bones, had more weapons than a 10-year-old boy (two samurai swords, a blow gun, a crossbow, knives of various description, nun-chucks, brass knuckles, mace, the shotgun, and, of course, her switchblade knife). Despite all of this, it would only be fair to mention that she was also the sommelier at a billion-dollar restaurant on Canal Street.

She was better read than me and had an immense library that she referred to as her “graveyard of dead authors.” I had never met anyone like her before. She was the whole reason I had moved to New Orleans to begin with, at least in theory. Like the city, she possessed a dangerous charm that was alluring and unsettling.

I had seen the girl who I would meet six years later in the middle of the night in a dirty bar in New Orleans. 

We eventually found a picturesque Quarter apartment with two bedrooms, classic French Quarter window shutters, and a pool for a ridiculously low price thanks to some connection she had made. I put up the deposit and made arrangements to rent a large van. The task of moving her to the Quarter was daunting. Not only did she have several rooms of heavy Victorian furniture, but she had accumulated 20 boxes of Mardi Gras “throws” in her two years here—not to mention a previous life’s worth of miscellany, Halloween decorations, and vintage clothing.

In order to move to the French Quarter, you must first bribe a police officer. Parking and traffic flow in the Quarter are very serious matters. The streets are narrow and parking is limited. It is technically against the law to bring a truck into the Quarter. Attaining a permit would take considerable time and energy. Instead, you call the police precinct and request to bribe an off-duty police officer to block the street for you for a number of hours. This can cost as much as $150 an hour. I briefly considered making the move in the early morning hours, when the Quarter is quieter. My boss discouraged this tactic. He told me, “The police know when they are not making money.”

On the day of the move, Sophie had a panic attack on the way to retrieve my possessions from storage. When we got to the locker, an unusual lock was on the unit and the manager had to come up to the fourth floor to unlock it. The manager explained that this was because the unit had been left unsecured, even though I had watched Sophie secure it. As the manager opened the gate a feeling of uneasiness washed over me and I distinctly remember, as the empty locker was revealed, hearing the disappointing trumpet noise from TV game shows that announces that someone has lost. Soph burst into tears and began yelling at the storage manager.

My first instinct was that Sophie had something to do with this, but there was no way of knowing. A person could easily have rented two lockers and moved the items into a second. As it stood, the locker was solely in her name, and so I had to be content to let her talk to the management about the incident. In the end, the contents  were irretrievably lost to the Bermuda Triangle of the South. That was the day I first noticed Sophie was wearing a wedding ring. I was certain I had not seen her wear it before.

In the following few weeks I realized I knew very little about the person with whom I roomed. Like most people, she had shown her best side in the first few months, but sooner or later everyone reveals bits and pieces of their true selves. She intimated that she had fled California for her life. She spoke of running a large West Coast drug ring, of not being allowed to join “the family.” When questioned for details, she maintained a position of angry reluctance to speak of such things. As a man trying to grasp what I was beholden to, I found myself increasingly alienated. The difficulties our relationship suffered in this interim began to seem as if by design. Things between us seemed carefully orchestrated as she became more distant and steadfast in her attitude.

I realized well in advance where I was heading. I knew in my gut that the outcome had already been decided, but I was trapped by circumstance. I suspected that I was being played by a true master, but I still had doubts. I wanted to believe in New Orleans. I wanted to believe in Sophie.

I had managed to move all of Sophie’s possessions to the new digs within a week, but in a fortnight it would all be for nothing. St. Patrick’s Day was approaching and another round of city-wide debauchery. She and I made various plans for the celebration, but on the morning of St. Pat’s she was gone. The other proverbial shoe had dropped.

When I did not see or hear from her for a period of four days I decided that this was my cue. Sitting amidst a warehouse worth of brown cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling I realized there were two possible outcomes. I could either accept I had been played and move out quietly or engage in the inevitable argumentation that would ensue. I decided to wait it out. When she finally returned, it was not pretty.

I was confronted with the age-old argument that a grown person is allowed to do what they want, essentially. This was not something that can be argued against because it is a fact. We waged a verbal war with each other over Wild Turkey 101 that culminated in my prediction coming to fruition: I was asked to leave. I never did find out where she had been during those missing days.

I packed my few remaining possessions and set out from the Quarter toward the familiarity of Uptown and settled in for the night at The St. Vincent Guest House. The establishment had once been an orphanage. Now it is a youth hostel.

I explained my situation to the front desk attendant, an older lady who had lived here for many years. She said, “This town can sometimes be a rough ride. Some people come here and do a face- plant on the sidewalk and never get up.” As she told me this, the Donovan song “Season of the Witch” played audibly from the lobby speakers. I thought of the large witch tattoo on Sophie’s left bicep. “You’re lucky you got out of that situation, sounds like, but I’ve heard your story before.”

And so had I, it would seem. As I smoked a cigarette on the balcony of the St. Vincent a revelation came over me. The man Sophie had filed the restraining order against so many weeks previous had the same story. He had lived with Sophie, claimed she had stolen his possessions, and had subsequently kicked him out. I wondered if there was already another “mark” being ushered in from the wings of this tawdry melodrama. As the sun set over the Lower Garden District several things became apparent. I needed an investigator, for one. I had no money after sinking most of it into the opulent apartment in the Quarter, I had no possessions, and now I had no place to live. I knew then that I was not long for New Orleans.

I had a friend in Austin who specialized in investigative services. In less than a day she provided me with three of Sophie’s aliases and her birth name, Giardina. Criminal checks of her known aliases came back negative, which did not surprise me as she had mentioned she had “swept it under the rug.” A portrait of a seemingly idyllic California childhood took shape. Her father had made a career as a civil servant, a job in which Sophie had told me he accepted envelopes of cash from men in “shirts”—a reference to the style of dress popular in a long-running Mafia soap opera of some years back.

I have never been one for ghost tales or Voodoo curses, but decided to go to the Voodoo Temple on North Rampart and seek a blessing. 

She had been married once, but her ex-husband was deceased under mysterious circumstances and a single child of that marriage had been removed from her custody. After hearing this chilling news I decided that I had gone as far down the rabbit hole as I wanted to go and told my investigator friend to focus on getting my money back.

In the mean time, my boss had come to me and explained that he had been through a very similar circumstance once and offered to let me stay in his spare bedroom. I was introduced to a home that had fallen into neglect many years back, presumably after his wife had “gone insane,” as he termed it. In my room on the second floor there was an empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the floor as if someone had played a game of spin the bottle long ago. Several discarded beer bottles and old clothes piled in a corner were in attendance as well.

I had grown very tired. I began preparing to return to Tulsa. I simply did not have the energy to move again or face the uphill struggle of repopulating an apartment with the accoutrements of daily life. I needed about a month to sleep off the grim aura of New Orleans. I put in my two weeks notice at work. I spent my days riding around on my bicycle, thinking of recent events.

My investigator friend intervened on my behalf with the landlord at the French Quarter apartment. She had discovered a Craigslist ad soliciting the sublet of a spare bedroom at the address of the apartment. French Quarter property is serious business. When brought to her attention, our landlord informed Sophie and I separately by email that under no circumstances was anyone other than the two of us to reside at that address. My response was direct and to the point: evict us. The landlord decided that it would be in her best interest to refund my deposit and pro-rated rent to me directly.

Sophie had worked out some kind of deal. I had some of my expenditures refunded to me, but with them came several final cryptic messages from Sophie. She warned me that I was now bound by a powerful curse. I explained to her that meeting her had been curse enough for anyone. So ended the season of the witch.

I have never been one for ghost tales or Voodoo curses, but I decided to go to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple on North Rampart and seek a blessing. Voodoo Spiritual Temple was maintained by an elderly Creole woman named Priestess Miriam, whom I found to be very gentle and kind. She explained that it was unlikely that Sophie had been able to find a Voodoo practitioner willing to put a curse on someone. Most of the practitioners in the Quarter practice “white magic” and are not interested in the darker side of the religion. Of course, everyone knows a guy who knows a guy who lives out in the swamp who will cast evil spells on people, but most of what goes on in the French Quarter is “tourist-friendly.” Priestess Miriam gave me a blessing and sold me a luck candle.

I went to the grave of the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau, located in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Legend has it, if you scrawl three X’s on the tomb and turn around three times you will be granted good luck. The tomb was indeed covered with X’s and people had discarded all manner of miscellany on the altar. Someone had even left a walker for the disabled. Among other things, people had left house keys in great number. In a final reverent moment, I removed my house key from the French Quarter and left it on the grave. I was going home to T-Town. On the way out of the cemetery, on the bustling streets of the Quarter, I found a twenty-dollar bill on the ground. Good luck, indeed.

The next morning, all of my possessions fit neatly inside the cab of a four-door sedan. I left New Orleans and traveled across the bayou, through Shreveport, and over the austere back roads of Texarkana to arrive back in the known world of Oklahoma. As I traveled, I felt the strange feelings ebb away. The calmness of rural routes slowed my heart rate. My inner clock was dialing back to “Tulsa Time.” I ate a chicken-fried steak at a diner in Bogata, Texas, at 2 a.m. while the employees watched the movie Psycho on a big-screen TV. In the months that followed, my life became very quiet and uneventful.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 23. Dec. 1, 2013.