Naturalistic novels portray the corrupting influences of society, on an individual. Most importantly, or at least in Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" and John Dos Passos' "USA" trilogy, an increase in materialism or money directly causes a decrease in morality. For my sophomore year at Tulane, an increase in popularity meant a decrease in academics. Whereas freshman year I rocked it grade-wise, a pretty hectic seven day a week drinking schedule made a mockery of my hard earned gpa. Not too bad, but I just could not balance my life as a nightly liquor special follower, to my rather easy class schedule. The popularity was not my own, but rather, my new roommate's, Lisa, a young Julia Roberts Doppelganger, who was dating a Fraternity guy. I was just along for the ride. A repressed, bitter, but profoundly more innocent Elizabeth Perkins playing Demi Moore's roommate in the film "About Last Night."
My second partner in crime sophomore year of Tulane was a girl from our freshman year floor named Suzanne. This four time Prom Queen winner could annunciate perfectly even when under the influence. Suzanne was my own personal Trent Conway from "Six Degrees of Separation" who instructs Will Smith's character to use the word "sofa" instead of "couch." Teaching me all of the rules and affectations to the East Coast, Mid-Atlantic, WASP life. I felt like Eliza Doolittle under her care and nurture. Her blaring white teeth, golden blonde hair, perfect posture and manners were good for me to be around. It was quite interesting for me to compare her background to the nuveau riche Midwestern society I had grown up with.
I was always so irate with Suzanne's complacency when it came to others who were rude or had bad manners. "Don't you want to punch him in the face? Slash his tires? Don't you NEVER want to talk to that girl AGAIN? Don't you want to scratch her eyes right out of her head?" I would beg, Sicilian blood boiling "Don't you know how to hold a grudge?" I would ask. She knew not of this-she only knew how to shine, smile and not be reactive, regardless. I envied her self-control. Suzanne only slipped a few times, when she must have been truly upset with someone's behavior, and only in those instances, could pull out a deadly arsenal of backhanded compliments to disarm her enemy. Wow - this was a new way to operate, I thought, as I always wore my heart and emotions on my sleeve - taking other people's words and actions way too seriously, as a personal affront on my being. Sicilians know nothing of the term "you get more flies with honey." I wished I had met Suzanne earlier, I could have used her help years before.
Lisa and I had a corner room on the top floor of Irby Hall and shared a bathroom with six other girls. Suzanne had a single in the JL - a girls only dormitory hall set in a timeless old gothic building. Whereas my dorm had the charm of a Motel 6, Suzanne's JL was like a B&B. She had a sink in her room and a huge window with a billowy, sheer drape on the second floor overlooking a green lawn. Before leaving for the night to party, Suzanne would set up her room like a scene in a Harlequin novel; open window, dimmed light and music playing on low. She really could set the mood. Jena was busy between rushing a new sorority and her new, older boyfriend, but also lived in JL. Our good friend Grace, was also MIA sophomore year, having transferred to West Virginia to be with her boyfriend, a major step down for the talented Grace, but she wanted to give her love a chance.
Sophomore year was all about enjoying the nightlife of New Orleans for the first time, and having crushes. I think we all had crushes on a revolving group of guys - some just known as "bagel guy" or "math guy." If we were really good, we could estimate what time said boy left class and from which building to ensure we were geographically situated correctly to cause a run-in. It was a good thing for me to have crushes as I had no interest in any boys on campus at all freshman year. The one date I was asked out on fizzled quickly as I was supposed to meet the guy, another innocent freshman from the south, by the pay phone in front of the UC. Since I had lost my glasses and had no spare, I guess we both stood out there in the dark without noticing the other. Or at least that is what I would like to believe.
Tulane was over 50% Greek, so a lot of your friends did belong somewhere, however, Lisa, Suzanne and I were "Independents." Lisa's boyfriend, Matt, was a super tall, broad shouldered, blond architecture student one year ahead of us and hailing from Chappaqua, NY. He was in a pretty heterogeneous fraternity with guys just as happy not being in a fraternity.
Matt's fraternity had recently been kicked off of campus, due to disobeying the national order not to host their annual "Pit" party, an enormous insurance risk. The "brothers" would dig a giant pit in their house's backward on Broadway, fill it with water and grab unknowing victims off the street and throw them into said "Pit." I was one of those victims, but due to my forethought, managed to throw my brand new pack of cigarettes out to Suzanne just in time so they could stay dry. Even at only $1.60 a pack, smokes were still held at a high premium. We even kept a "butt box" back at our dorm room which held a collection of cigarette butts with a little bit of tobacco left in them in case you were broke and having a nic fit.
Since Matt had a whole year on all of us, he did have an incredible knowledge base of what was fun to do in New Orleans and how to do it right. He introduced us to the Levee, music shows at Tipitina's, the funk band The Meter's, Thursday nights dollar beer at Les Bon Temps and of course, Mardi Gras. No hanging out at O'Henry's eating cheese fries this year. We would be out on the town and doing it right. This would be my most participatory Mardi Gras and I appreciate that as a roommate and friend, I was brought along for the ride.
Matt called me "Meshuga" for having crushes on many of his friends, on most of the campus actually, and my sixth grade sensibility - the last time I actually had a date having been at the St. Clements dance where I spent five minutes on the floor break dancing - was indeed annoying. But Matt did have a giant heart and thought I was cool for having a pool hustler for a father, which was one of the first times I realized I could actually get some street cred for my father's profession rather than hiding it, which I normally did. When Matt actually met my father, he was nervous, excited and respectful.
Sophomore year was all about drink specials. Every night of the week, either for the fact that I was a girl, or just out of whimsy, I could drink until I drown for only $3-$5. Every Wednesday night I would imbibe enough Seabreezes to win an America's Cup. When the "spins" began, I would step outside the bar, paint the sidewalk pink, rinse my mouth out with ice water, chew a piece of Wrigley's spearmint gum, smoke a cigarette and begin drinking again. Every Thursday night, in order to avoid the long line for the restroom, I would pop a squat and pee in the same dark gangway a block down from Les Bon Temps. After Les Bon Temps, we would risk our lives on a merely one block walk over to Benny's bar(shack).
The colorful Benny's had some great bands but was a magnet for those looking for cheap and dirty drugs like crack and therefore arbitrary violence was always a threat. There were bullet holes in the two wooden posts that I swear kept the ceiling from crashing down on us while we danced. There was no cover, but you would have to throw in some money in a water bottle they passed around for the band. You did not go there to have drinks - there was nowhere to sit. The front of the shack was completely open to the street. You came for the live music. Especially the Blues offerings of Walter "Wolfman" Washington and the crunchy/funky "Smilin' Myron." Benny's was on a level at least two notches beneath what you would call a "dive bar." It was like a saloon in the old Wild West. Drink choices at the bar were limited; broken glass and cups on the floor. Everyone there was out of control, dancing, sweating and smoking. Poor black locals and rich white college kids found some harmony and shared the dance floor. You knew no one back home would ever be able to understand nights out at Benny's. It would be your secret pleasure when you got older to think back and remember.
Lisa, Suzanne and I were experiencing freshman year antics as sophomores, but we didn't care. It was fun to go to Tulane, and to live in New Orleans.
Mardi Gras sophomore year began with Lisa's boyfriend, Matt, showing up to our dorm in the middle of the day Friday before Fat Tuesday. Barefoot, wearing cargo shorts, a dirty t-shirt and carrying a half-filled bottle of Boone's Farm, he yells at us to get ready: "Come on, its Mardi Gras!" So, us ladies grab our necessities - Tulane i.d., ATM card, lip gloss, sunglasses and comfy shoes. Lesson # 3 that I learned about Mardi Gras is that try not to drink hard alcohol during the day. Boone's farm wine or light beer is fine for daylight hours as Mardi Gras is a twenty-four hour experience.
We climb into Matt's red Ford Festiva which is kind of like a clown car. Especially due to the fact that Matt and his roommate, John, were way over six feet tall and touched the roof with the top of their heads while driving. The Festiva is stick shift with what looks to have only enough room for around four midgets. I had a feeling his father purchased it in order to discourage him from making it a party car. We would carry at least ten people in this tiny but reliable vessel the rest of the weekend. Matt opened up the hatchback and at least two people sat facing the cars directly behind us, feet dangling out into the street. We head straight to the campus bar the "Metro."
Metro had a twenty-five cent cocktail special that ran from five to seven pm on Fridays.
We each gave the bartender a dollar or two and walked our drinks back to our tables and began to play pool. We had at least two tables completely covered in short plastic cups filled with well brand cocktails. Suzanne guarded her eight gin and tonics by throwing her hands around her cups in a protective fashion just to make sure no one accidentally knocked them over. There was also boiled crawfish which I found absolutely delicious and would hear the crunch of their sucked dry carcasses beneath my feet the rest of the weekend.
Sufficiently buzzed, we all loaded back into the red Ford Festiva and headed down to the Garden District to watch our first night time parades from St. Charles Ave. Some of Matt's Fraternity brothers specifically rented out an entire house on St. Charles and Fourth Street and it became the official Mardi Gras hangout the entire weekend as the parades would pass by right in front all day and night. This was quite a coup.
There were Mardi Gras parties going on all over the city hosted by other Tulanians and we made our rounds in the little Festiva. The first party I remember was on Dante Street. This really seemed like a bad neighborhood. But when we got out of the clown car and walked around out back, I saw a swimming pool, lots of familiar faces, great music and booze. It felt like a Hollywood party from the nineteen sixties. Handsome and pretty coeds dressed in beads and costumes, emulating the final scene in Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I stayed as close as I could to Lisa and Suzanne as I had no idea where we were in the city and everyone was so intoxicated or on various drugs. Apparently sounds are important when on mushrooms and I heard at least a few monologues on this fact. I did feel like I was seeing the Mardi Gras I was meant to see and it was an amazing, magical world for my eyes. I definitely felt like Alice through the Lookingglass.
The next party we made it to was thrown by Matt's fraternity brothers, it was upstairs and outside with Christmas lights everywhere. Jena's boyfriend was there and she was in the middle of an ecstasy freak out. I felt so bad for her and it confirmed my fear of drugs- they were not for me. I think the police showed up and we all had to climb into the Festiva - this time to Miss Mae's bar where there was an excellent chance you were being served rubbing alcohol or anti-freeze. Frank Sinatra was playing and we crowded into the back by the pool table. I saw these amazing beads on this guy outside the bar and was willing to even lift my shirt up for them. He gave me a pass with his hands and pointed down to his pants zipper and I just looked at him and said " Fuck you, asshole." I just never really rubbed the right way with men - ever!
Lisa, Suzanne and I did make it to a few bars on our own that weekend, and these bars had "shot" bars set up in the back. This just meant if you raised your top you would get a shot. I became so used to lifting my shirt, I would do it without thinking as soon as I walked up to the bar. I would do anything for a free drink.
Fat Tuesday morning was spectacular. Matt and our caravan of friends all made it to the Levee to smoke a joint and watch the sunset. It was quite beautiful and I was thrilled to have survived yet another Mardi Gras. I liked the companionship that Mardi Gras created. Strangers on the street and out of towners could quickly become new friends. There was this amazing musical aspect to Mardi Gras as well. We took pictures that Mardi Gras morning and I felt I was truly documenting a special moment in my life. We stumbled into the Festiva for our last drive up to the Fourth Street House to watch the famous Zulu parade which I heard was the best.
Matt's best friend from New York was with us and he had a dark yellow stain on his hand from smoking so many cigarettes. This couple, who were seniors, could barely make it up the front stairs of the house to reach the keg. Everyone's hands were shaking from the "DTs." I just sat on the top of the stoop watching this couple desperately try and walk up the fourteen cement stairs to get to the keg without falling or spilling their drinks. It was quite comical. It was like they were an elderly couple and needed canes. They just could not make it up the stairs. They could barely keep their eyelids open for that matter. I think the boyfriend took a nap while standing on the stairs. This, I would remember. I began to hear the live music, the drummers and other musicians from Zulu. Covered in beads and wearing my trusty sunglasses, I chugged a cold draft beer and ran down the porch to St. Charles. This was Mardi Gras, for real.
A Pool Hustler's Daughter grows up in subterranean America. She dreams big, hustles daily and loves her Daddy. With empathy, fascination and grace she navigates and inhabits every tier of society; sees beauty and hope and magic in all things; respects and lives by the "mitzvah."
A Pool Hustler's Daughter calculates the trifecta payout at the racetrack, hides money on three parts of her body, has an arsenal of "Uncles," and keeps a baseball bat by the front door. She values friendship, loyalty and experiences over "things." Like her father, she seeks to learn "The secrets of the universe" and believes "Life ain't on the square." She applauds the self-made and those who learn to "overcome" their circumstances. Her door is always open for a sofa to sleep on, a hot meal, or an eager listener for a life story.