New Orleans, once the Paris of the Deep South, is now the languid City of the Lost, dedicated to a quest for oblivion...
Daisy was a computer programmer from the Houston suburbs. She was an ageing cheerleader type the sort of blonde, clean-limbed woman who, 20 years ago, probably broke many a redneck heart during football season.
"How'd you know I was a cheerleader?" she asked, sipping tentatively on a vodka gimlet.
"Just a guess," I said, calling for a beer. "Bet you married the quarterback too."
She laughed a bleak laugh. "You are one astute guy. Married Jack right out of school, supported him through college, helped him get his Honda dealership off the ground, gave him two beautiful girls, and how does the guy thank me? Runs off with this 19-year-old fluff-head he meets behind the cash register in the local 7-Eleven. Class act, Jack. An A-1 jerk-off.
She paused and took another tentative sip of her drink.
"Pardon my language," she said quietly.
"Another gimlet?" I asked.
"Oh Lord, no," she said. "I'm not used to all this alcohol. I mean, this is my second drink tonight."
I smiled and asked her that time-honoured barroom question: what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? For here she was - Little Ms Suburban Wholesome, with her gee-golly-gosh careful language, her sensible shoes, her monogrammed Land's End polo neck and matching jeans - drinking cheap vodka in a joint where the jukebox favoured bands with names like Carnage, and where the majority of the clientele looked like they were known to the police of at least three states.
"D'you see Dee and Sharon over there?" she said, pointing to two fellow members of the bungaloid classes hovered over a battered pool table, giggling loudly as they succeeded in sending a cue ball into orbit. "They're my bosom-buddy best friends, and we all decided it was about time we had a weekend away from the kids. So we called in the grandparents as babysitters, hopped into Sharon's car and came here two days ago."
"Not exactly a place for rest and relaxation," I said.
"That's not what we were in the market for."
With that, a 6'6" goliath emerged from the gents. He must have weighed 25 stone, his body was encased in a mud-splattered boiler suit, and he had a grey beard that cascaded down to his navel. Thor, King of the Behemoths. He sidled up to the bar, plonked himself down next to Daisy, put his arm protectively around her, and gave me a look which essentially said: Die, scumbag.
"Doug," Daisy said, "I'd like you to meet my new friend Merle."
Merle. I extended my hand. He didn't take it.
"This creep bothering you?" he asked Daisy.
"No, honey," she said. "We were just talking."
"Buying you drinks, was he?"
"He was just being real friendly," Daisy said. "Real nice."
"I kill friendly people," Merle said, and led Daisy off to another table. She smiled weakly as she followed him.
Chet the barkeep set another Coors Gold in front of me.
"Think you made a new buddy there," he said. "Think he really liked you."
"They're not really an item, are they?" I said.
"Shit yes they are," Chet said. "Met here two nights ago. And I'm presuming that they'll remain an item until she goes back to her nice little kids and her nice little home."
"Looks like she got more than she bargained for," I said.
"She got exactly what she wanted."
"No, man. Danger. Cheap thrills. That's what she's doing with a Godzilla like that. That's why she came here. In fact, that's why everyone comes to New Orleans - to run away from what they are for a couple of days and go native. Sleep all day, drink all night, get sick in the street, fuck who they want, and not worry about the neighbours watchin' 'em.
Y'know every city in these United States got a function; Detroit it's cars; New York it's money; LA it's all that film star shit. Know what the function of New Orleans is? To be the place where everyone can come to blow off steam. And I tell you, boy - we're real good at our job."
It's always been considered a separate city-state within the American republic - a metropolis more touched by foreign influence than by traditional Dixie values. It has always had a certain haughty countenance - that inherited French manner of looking down its nose at its unrefined neighbours in a geographic region more noted for its Neanderthal sensibilities than for its appreciation of les beaux-arts.
And, of course, in an American South so dominated by Christian religious hucksterism (that "I command thee in the name of jeeeesssus to cough up that malignant tumour" school of Bible-bashing), it has always prided itself on its fragrant Catholicism; that incense-and-bourbon aroma of the mystical and corrupt.
Indeed, that deeply Catholic delight in the complexities of sin permeates New Orleans. The city has always gloried in its venal politics. And as everyone in the know will tell you, a very small elite that even extends into such blue-collar endeavours as rubbish collection and cleaning the streets controls the place.
"You never cross anyone in this town," a bookshop clerk told me during the course of a chat, "because you can be sure that, even if he's a guy who washes windows, he's a member of about five families who've been washing every window in this damn city since the French left town. We're talking serious tribal stuff here."
To most middle-class residents, New Orleans is an intricate mixture of New South hustle and old Dixie allure. Drive through any of its upscale inner suburbs, and you'll find yourself in the sort of stylishly funky areas where young lawyers and stockbrokers congregate in a stripped pine world of antique shops, and cafe latte emporia, and the sort of "food bazaar" that sells 12 different varieties of sun-dried tomatoes.
But when you drive down a boulevard like Elysian Fields, you find yourself in the Dixie equivalent of a Third World shantytown - where the city's sizeable population of poverty-line residents eke out an existence in substandard wooden shacks, and where there is always an undercurrent of malevolence in the sultry night air.
And then there is The French Quarter - a geographic Chinese box of narrow backstreets and baroque architecture that has always promoted itself as a sort of louche theme park with jazz.
But when you enter The Quarter, you don't simply enter a so-called "historic district" with all the usual touristic trimmings; you actually venture into another country entirely. For here, you say hasta la vista to the encroaching Puritanism of contemporary America, and its Health Nazi preoccupations. In The Quarter the food is always fried, a beer gut is considered a prized possession, and (as Chet the barkeep memorably put it) "even fat people get laid".
For The Quarter is, without question, the last true bastion of hedonism in the United States; a place where the object of the exercise is to temporarily detach yourself from the manic pursuit of upward mobility and material security, and spend a few days falling into the gutter. New Orleans exists to remind Americans of a salient fact of life: every so often, even the most upright of citizens needs to get drunk.
"What you doin' with that bottle on the street?"
This was a cop talking - and talking directly to me. It was two o'clock on Sunday morning and The Quarter was as packed as a Tokyo train. There were corpulent tourists in Bermuda shorts; and local jailbait in jeans as tight as surgical gloves; and a handful of broken-down hookers whose arms bore more track marks than a German railway map; and the usual bevy of winos, a brown bag of Thunderbird wine in one hand and telltale signs of incontinence decorating their tumbledown trousers.
On Bourbon Street, there were also at least three establishments featuring the worst excesses of karaoke imaginable (you haven't lived until you've heard a drunk with a speech impediment try to negotiate his way through a rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel").
In fact, the sonic volume of Bourbon Street was so shrill, so exuberantly irrational that it was almost impossible to hold a conversation with anyone passing by. Unless, of course, you shouted directly in their ear - the tactic employed by the cop who stopped me and barked:
"What you doin' with that bottle on the street?"
The cop was a rail-thin dude in his early thirties with serious don't fuck with me eyes - eyes that were currently staring down at an offending bottle of Bud in my right hand.
"I thought it was all right to drink out here," I said.
"Yeah, it is... as long as your drink is in a plastic container," the cop said. "Bottles on the street are a real big no-no. So dump it now, ya hear?"
I immediately tossed the bottle into a rubbish bin.
"Now go on and have yourself a good time, sir," he said.
I thanked him, and then tried to engage him in chat, quizzed him about what it was like to police The Quarter.
"Ain't as mad as ya think," he said. "Course we have the occasional bit of badass crime [like the appalling murder of a British tourist a year ago] - but, by and large, we're pretty liberal about things like drunkenness and general stupidity, as long as folks ain't harmin' each other. I mean, you gotta do something real bad to end up in one of our jails."
"Like what?" I said.
"Like punching me," he said.
Maxine played piano in a joint off Bourbon Street. She was in her late forties; a large Big Mama type dressed in an oversized black caftan, with a massive mane of frizzled black hair, and the sort of perma-exhausted eyes that had probably seen one sunrise too many.
"Evening, Y'all," she said to her audience of five. "Anyone gotta request they'd like to hear?"
Silence from the crowd. It was dose to 3am, and all five patrons were so tanked, so thoroughly zonked that it was like playing to a private audience of zombies.
"How 'bout a little Billie Holliday?" she said. "Kinda appropriate at this time of night, don't you think?"
With that, she broke into a rendition of "God Bless The Child". Her voice was so gravelly she sounded like she'd just undergone a tracheotomy, and her pianistic skills didn't exactly inspire awe. But she did have the one requisite of every first-rate blues singer: she sounded very much like the emotional equivalent of seriously damaged goods.
I sent her over a shot of Wild Turkey on the rocks and ended up buying her another snort of bourbon when her set ended.
"Can't talk for long," she said. "Got one more set before the night's out."
"You always play till five?" I asked.
"Yeah, six hours a night, three nights a week. I'd like to find more gigs, but they're kinda thin on the ground these days."
"And you can make a living just playing three nights?"
"Eighteen bucks an hour is what they pay me - so that's like $320 a week before tax. Which, quite frankly, is shit money these days. But I got me a cheap place - same little one-bedroom I've been living in since I came to this damn town 17 years ago. And I got no one to support but me... so, yeah, I get by. just."
She was originally from Texas. A Dallas girl who spent ten years on the coffeehouse circuit in her home state before she came to New Orleans, determined to make it as a big-time blues singer.
"Drove into town in 1977, thinking it was only a matter of time before I became the next Bonnie Raitt. Started getting gigs right away. Cut my first album on a local label six months later. Thought to myself. this place is easy. Gimme a year or two, and I'm outta here. Off to Nashville or LA. Off to the Big Time."
She smiled and chugged back a little more Turkey.
"But it sorta kinda didn't work out that way."
"What happened?" I asked.
"Oh, you know, the usual New Orleans story. Couple of bad marriages. Finding this town so damn cozy that you keep telling yourself, 'Next year I'll go'. And then another year passes. And then another. And then..."
Another smile, another belt of Turkey.
"Y'know they call this town The Big Easy. And that's what it is - easy. So easy you never wanna leave. Until it's too late."
The Quarter was full of Maxines: folk who drifted into town one day, found themselves seduced by New Orleans' languid rhythms, put down temporary roots, and then suddenly woke up one morning and discovered that a decade or two had passed them by.
"Because there's such a strong musical tradition in this town," a local journalist told me, "New Orleans is choc-a-bloc with wannabe singers and pianists and session men, most of whom (as long as they're half-good) find some sort of work round town, since just about every bar in The Quarter features music. The problem is, this is a small town... and there's only so far that you can go here in the music business. So all the real talent eventually split after a couple of years."
I asked, "And what happens to those who never leave?"
"They play The Quarter until they die."
After three nights prowling he Quarter, I began to think: this place is Never-Never Land; a playground for anyone who wants to sidestep all those big-time commitments that accompany adult life.
"You lookin' for a job tending bar, I can probably find you one," Chet told me one night.
He was the ultimate McJobber. Thirty-five with a degree from the University of Chicago and a novel he'd been writing for the past six years. A preppie from the lush suburban playing fields of Greenwich, Connecticut, who'd lost his educated accent and had gotten caught in that repetitive New Orleans groove - that dangerous ambience of unreality which informs life in The Quarter and which makes you start thinking, why grow up?
"Great place for a writer," Chet told me. "Rent in The Quarter is still pretty cheap, you can sleep all day, you can party all night, and no-one gives a shit about how much money you make or how well you're doing."
I wanted to say, "I bet no-one here gives a shit if you ever finish writing anything either," but decided that I valued my front teeth. But I also thought how easy it would be to disappear here. For, like Key West or Hawaii or West Cork or any other alcove on the globe which attracts refugees from the hard-edged workaday world - The Quarter was yet another escape hatch; a bolt-hole which also offered a uniquely salacious attraction: non-stop carousing.
And on my last night in town, I stood in a joint called Checkpoint Charlie's and watched as a babe in cut-off shorts and a tight black halter turned to a guy at the bar, pulled up his T-shirt, and squeezed his nipples until he howled.
Then I wandered down Decatur Street, and passed a busker playing a most original percussive instrument: three upside-down oilcans, which he hammered with a pair of sawn-off broomsticks. Halfway into one number, a Kurt Cobain look-alike appeared out of nowhere, playing a saxophone, trying to improvise a tune to match the drummer's driving rhythm. But the husker wasn't amused by this intrusion and suddenly shouted:
"Fuck off, man. I already got me a horn player."
A couple of streets away, every grunge in town was camped out in a place called Artillery Park and in the midst of all these tie-dyed kids was an astronomer with a huge oversized telescope, offering glimpses of the planets for a buck-a-look.
"We're spotting aliens on Venus tonight," he shouted to no one in particular. "We got a great view of the first Taco Bell on Mars."
A black derelict tottered by, screaming, "I jus' killed Elvis. I jus' shot his fat white ass."
Nearby, a 15-year-old girl was losing her lunch in a rubbish bin, gagging so loudly that she disturbed some unfortunate dude who was camped out in a cardboard box next to the bin. And he popped his head out of his home and screamed:
"Take your fuckin' barf elsewhere and lemme sleep."
Meanwhile, another busker was strumming a beat-up guitar, singing an impromptu blues:
"I wonder how you gonna look, babe, when I put my gun in your mouth..."
"Crazy night," I said to the astronomer guy with his telescope.
"Full moon," he said. "And ya know, a full moon in New Orleans means terminal weirdness. All the fuck-ups come out to play."
"You're certainly right there, I said. "What's your name, by the way?"
Galileo, he said.
The Galileo?" I said, playing along.
"The one and only," he said.
"Aren't you supposed to be in Italy?"
His answer was pure New Orleans.
"One day I'll get there. For now, it's easier to hang here"