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.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I Hate Mardi Gras - Part I

Thirteen harrowing hours strapped to the side of a World War II cargo plane in 1958, enroute to Germany, permanently sidelined my father from any future flights. The Cadillac idea was also quickly shot down as my father had narcoleptic tendencies(he swore the genius Thomas Edison napped frequently) which required many rest stops. A twelve hour drive could quickly turn into twenty-four. Since the "City of New Orleans" train only took eighteen hours, we hedged our bets and bought two Amtrack sleepers. It was August 1989 and my parents were taking their first born daughter, their "princess", their "Bull," who was "born thirty," to report to freshman year of college at Tulane University in New Orleans.

A future chef, my kid brother made us these amazing meals for the train ride. Giant Italian submarines, on the good bread, with cold cuts from Conti Di Savoia Deli on Taylor Street with home made giardinere and a brown paper bag he wrote "chips" on. We had one roomette and one bedroom. I was initially supposed to share the bedroom with my Mother, but forced my divorced parents to give me the roomette. I was starting to freak out a little about the prospect of leaving home for the next couple of months and I needed to wrap my head around it. I was missing my girlfriends from home who were still in high school SO much, but took comfort in the fact that I now had many friends who had gone away to college, even flourished, so I deep down knew I would be okay.

My Dad was like a kid in a candy store when he got on the train. He just loved the adventure of travel, especially a train ride, just like his old man, the Jazz drummer O.B. He loved all the "do-dads" you could find on the train like the miniature soaps and even the table that you folded in and out of the wall to place your coffee cup on. Anything that was not strapped down would be coming home with us. "Whats this we got here?" he'd coyly ask and I'd be like "Thats the Attendant button, Dad, to call the Attendant if you need something. See, it says right there: ATTENDANT." Although we were stuffed from the subs, he swore the dining car meals were pretty good and we made a reservation for dinner late that night. The train left Chicago at eight pm and would arrive to New Orleans around one o'clock or so. My Dad had two new spy-thriller paperbacks in his hands that I knew he would be finished with by dawn. When we met our sleeping car porter, a four foot eleven black octogenarian male, with a ten thousand dollar wrist watch, I thought I would not be able to ever get my father off the train once we arrived in New Orleans. It was like his father, O.B., had risen from the dead and found a home in this sweet, ultra-proficient, GI-like porter, another "road man" who had seen everything a man needs to see on this train and in this country for sixty some years. My Dad brown nosed this black porter so badly, he would have bagged him up and taken him home in his suitcase if he could. I was like "Enough, already," "Let the poor man do his job!"

Yes, my Dad enjoyed the comfort of the sleeper car and being waited on hand and foot, especially the free coffee and cookies by the stairwell. But in all honesty, he would have been much happier in the bottom coach car, playing pinochle or craps with the porters, speaking in his
southern black man dialect, getting a good scoop on any games or "joints" he should check out once he got to Louisiana. His repetitive use of the words "coon ass" was a little grating at times, but I just smiled in response. At least one person was excited about this trip.

After an enormous platter of steak and mashed potatoes, hot fudge sundae and my father having laid out at least a hundred dollars in cash tips, I locked the door of my roomette. The porter had taken the lower bunk down for me and had turned down the bed. It reminded me of at best a cot and it was completely at horizontal level with the train window. I kept my clothes on - in case of an emergency - of course I would be the first off the train and be able to last for hours in the dark forest I imagined. I turned the lights off and turned on my auto reverse cassette tape playing Walkman which allowed me to listen to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" for at least six hours non-stop. I laid my face and body against the cool window and squinted as I tried to make out the objects hiding in the dark that we quickly passed by.

I cried a lot that night. I did not know what to expect going away to college, and I started to miss my parents already, even though they were well fed and happy sleeping just a few feet away from me in the bedroom next door. My whole life flashed before my eyes - first day of kindergarten at St. Clements, when the principal, an ex-nun, and two other teachers had to hold me back from my mother, as I was so hysterical and crying watching her walk away from me, down the long basement hall from the classroom, gray pipes hanging from the low ceiling, truly leaving me alone for the very first time. I remembered my now divorced Dad coming to watch my basketball games in middle school, one of only two girls on an all-boys team, him being the gaudiest, loudest parent in the bunch and falling asleep, as per usual, in intervals, in the fold up chair on the sideline. The kids would all be huddled by the coach discussing our zone defense and I could hear him yelling "How fucking LONG this game is." I remembered my grade school graduation at the little church in the Seminary at DePaul, and the high school graduation in the Parker auditorium when I wore sparkly white Keds gym shoes with my dress. I remembered all the times I forced my kid brother to let me sleep on his bedroom floor as I had terrible, vivid nightmares on a regular basis. I would miss all of the nearly fatal battery bombs and booby traps he would leave for me throughout our apartment(the bow and arrow that met my forehead when I opened his door being the most potentially life-threatening). I remembered it all, especially how proud they told me I made them and how I wanted to continue to make them. The flashing lights outside the window and the high speed jerking eventually lulled my swollen with tears face and seventeen year old virgin body to sleep. It was as if I was looking out into the magical Carlos Castaneda light filled horizon of my dreams.

When we arrived at the train station, late of course, the first things I noticed about the town was the unbearable humidity and the smell of raw sewage. We took a cab to the Hyatt hotel nearby on Poydras Street and set out to get a good meal. Oysters were our first priority. Poppy, my maternal grandfather, was a commercial fisherman in Florida and my Mom grew up on fresh oysters. She had taught me about the rule of only eating them in "R" months. We took a chance as it was the final days of August. My parents had always let me try all of the "adult" foods and therefore, clams, oysters and especially escargot were my favorites. I would try almost anything. I would order duck with cherry sauce at the "Bakery" restaurant on Lincoln Avenue and frog legs at the "Half Shell" restaurant on Diversey back in Chicago. We took a short cab ride to Bourbon street and went into what my Dad would later refer to as a "stiff" joint - i.e. a high priced tourist trap, but we all agreed the food was delicious regardless. That was one recurring theme throughout my years in New Orleans - whether it be a neighborhood grocery store making three dollar po-boys, the upscale Commander's Palace, or a beer stand on Bourbon Street slinging red beans - it is extremely rare to not get a tasty meal in this town.

The first day that we woke up, we took our rented Mustang convertible down the scenic St. Charles Avenue past all of the beautiful homes to the Tulane University Uptown campus. I showed up to twelfth floor of Monroe with my Laura Ashley purple comforter and shower caddy, feeling like all the other kids were so much more comfortable being there, like they had been living here for years already. We took the elevator up to the top of the building. It was a coed dorm and boy's rooms were to the left and girls to the right. The "RA" or "Residential Advisor" I met was a Pillsbury dough girl looking blond woman with a Boston accent who I witnessed first hand grabbing a girl's gold Rolex still on her wrist in the elevator and putting it in her mouth and biting down to decipher if it was a fake or not. I was utterly disgusted with this woman's bravado. The fact that it had been MY fake gold Rolex given to me by my dear father had nothing to do with the fact that I kept this RA at a safe distance for the rest of the school year and never wore the thing again. Damn you, luxury goods that fall off of a truck!

I had already spoken to my new roommate over the phone that summer. We had both filled out a personality questionaire and some computer, or some puppet master with a sense of humor, put the two of us together. We were both academics who wanted to study political science, but after that, the similarities ended. She did not drink, and had not even kissed a boy as far as I knew. I had at least made out - once - four years before. She was a straight A student(as was I that first year) and extremely hardworking. She would wake up every morning at five am to begin her work study at the Reilly Center athletic building. I don't think she went out - even once- to a party or to have a drink or bite to eat the entire year. She was a scholarship student-I was not-yet-and she dreamed of going to Georgetown - a dream realized her sophomore year - the Poli Sci major's wet dream.

So my freshman year roommate would not be the type to drag me out of the room to explore a new city, hit every bar, every fraternity party, an adventurer. I am a follower, not a leader, so I kind of missed out there. I was lucky in as much as there were no strange boys sleeping in our dorm room or vomit ever on the floor, but it was kind of almost too boring, as I did need someone to help get me "into" college life. There were a few telling points about my roommate I do remember, and feel free to make your own conclusions: a. she had multiple stuffed animals on her bed b. her favorite cd was the soundtrack to David Mamet's film "About Last Night" which she played with a frequency that would make even a Soviet Gulag warden shudder and c. the most important - she came from a family of industrial spies.

Oh, I have no problem with businesses trying to recoup lost revenue, and I imagine it hurts the smaller ones more than the corporate giants like a Gap. What I do have a problem with, unfortunately, is a "Rat." "Always keep your mouth shut and never rat on your friends" is kind of the theme of the Scorsese movie "Good Fellas," but this had long been my families' credo. I grew up learning that you are not supposed to "rat" on anyone, your family especially. I am one quarter Sicilian, and loyalty is everything, especially when you don't have all that much money. "Blood is thicker than water" is frequently emphasized. The vetting that takes place of strangers coming into our family is legendary, making me question the accuracy of both the Republican and Democratic parties. I have hundreds of relatives on my father's Italian side and weddings always take place in grand halls with wall to wall people. "I don't know nothing about nothing" is a familiar refrain. "What really happened back in the parking lot in the fall of nineteen forty nine?" a cousin might get teased. "I have no idea what you are talking about".

Our loyalty - i.e. not "ratting" - comes ingrained as our family patriarch -my great-great-grandfather was the victim of a rat. In the second half of the nineteenth century, to be a Mafia Don, which he was - had more of a Robin Hood aura to it- as Dons existed to help provide food, shelter and justice for the small villages as the landowners and police had little sympathy for the drama or politics of the peasantry. The Sicilian mafia filled a need- bandits in the beginning- albeit a glorified one.

So, the landowner-controlled police bring my great-great grandfather in, as he was tricked by his nephew who ratted on him and took a cash reward and ran off to America. Rather than be dragged through the streets from the back of a horse and tortured, my great-great-grandfather hung himself in his cell. His son, my great-grandfather, devastated by the loss of his father and motivated to avenge his death, soon made his way through Ellis Island, changing his name, and fulfilling the vendetta against his cousin, the "rat."

My great-grandfather liked Chicago and settled there in the late eighteen eighties. He bought himself a house and provided well for his children. He was a quiet man, a "working stiff" and did not want any drama or politics here in his new life in America. He thought that chapter in his life to be officially closed. When a member of the "Black Hand" showed up to his wooden house saying "it would be a shame if your house burned down" my GGF told the man he would just be a minute to get the "insurance" money from his house. Instead he came out with a big stick and beat the man on his porch, threatening him if he ever came back.

As the story goes, "special" meetings had to take place as my GGF had assaulted a lackey extortionist for the "Black Hand," the first Sicilian mafia here in the States. But once they identified who my GGF was -a son of a Don in Sicily - they apologized and let my GGF be for some time. Because his father was a Don in the old country - which held some prestige - and also because the son of a Don might pose a potential threat for local power in the future - the "Black Hand" took my GGF out for a night of dinner and drinks to persuade my GGF to join the "Black Hand"- or else. The three Mafia members walked under the viaduct with my GGF, and after he refused their request, tried to kill him. My GGF was badly hurt, but ended up killing one of the assailants, with the other two "hit men" running away. My GGF did have to go to jail for a short time, but because it was self-defense, he got released quickly.

My GGF couldn't eat or sleep while in jail. A pal tipped him off where one of his conspirators was now hiding, and shortly after my GGF's release, he left home, again, for a vendetta. He was only gone a short time and when he came home, he was able to eat and sleep again and all was well with the family unit. Over a card game a year or so later, one of the guys bragged how their friend, the last assailant, had made a new life for himself out West. Again, my GGF could not eat nor sleep knowing this traitor was out there, having tried to kill him. So my GGF just disappears one day, this time for a few months, leaving his family all alone, to avenge the last person living who had made an attempt on his life. He returned home, was able to eat, sleep and raise his family, and never made a peep, or a mysterious trip, again.

So, I guess my point is that I never felt completely comfortable around my freshman year roommate nor trusted her. I couldn't get over the fact that she would pretend to befriend the staff of some clothing store, only to betray them later, by "ratting," even if they were guilty. If this girl would go so far as to assume a different identity simply to nab a teenager stealing a thirty dollar sweater, what on earth would she have in store for my family of hustlers, degenerate gamblers and at least one murderer(that I know of)? So, I did what I do best, I kept my mouth shut. Forward, my father would only be known as a "small business man."

My final drop off in front of the dorms was a hard one. My Mom had already returned to Chicago and my father drove me back to the Monroe Hall dorm to officially "leave" me at college. It was not like that first drop off at St. Clements, back in Kindergarten, as this time, my Dad was the one crying and I held back my tears in a giant lump in my throat. There we were in the convertible, with the top off and air conditioning on, sweating through another set of clothes since we had arrived in this town. Pops hands me one thousand dollars cash in small bills and a plastic "Hyatt" laundry bag filled with mini ketchups, a half eaten filet mignion and enough salt and pepper packets to last me the next four years. He assures me these will come in handy sometime. He reminds me that when you are starving, everything tastes better. He tells me to have fun, and that he loves me, and to be sure to hide my toothbrush and my razors. Ah, the paranoid Sicilian at his finest, I thought to myself. I had a bit of a walk from the parking lot up to the dorm. It was only when I reached the front doors, that I turned around and saw my Pops still sitting in the car sweating, and wave to me a last goodbye.

Since I figured out, off the bat, that my freshman year roommate and I would not be hanging out all that much, I began my search for some new friends. The first friend I made was with a cute Jewish New Yorker across the hall. I liked her familiar look- especially her Elsa Peretti Tiffany Heart Necklace. She was looking to bum a cigarette and was also very loud, so you couldn't miss her when she walked down the hall. Jena was an Aquarian like me, innocent, a romantic, and also like me, the first to go away to college. She grew up in the suburbs but was well aware of city life, and I could relate my Chicago city stories to her New York city stories. It was a keen match. Her father grew up in Brooklyn surrounded by Italians, and had that old timer, too cool for words voice with Rat Pack lingo thrown in, just like my Dad. Her Mom grew up in Queens so her parents were without airs, self-made, with street smarts, and the most engaging couple I had ever met. Sharing a cup of coffee with them in New City or out to dinner, was like watching an elaborate Broadway show. And yet, they were also great listeners. People fascinated them. They were so welcoming of all kinds, just like their daughter, that I loved to hear all about their New York - just loved it. And since many of my best pals growing up were Jewish, I felt incredibly comfortable around Jena, as if we had been friends in another time even. This was not too far fetched as she was a believer in mysticism, past lives, and a frequent dialer of psychic hotlines. With Jena I learned that all acceptance in society was relative. There was always a higher level people aspired to. I thought she had it all - two Mercedes, and a house with a pool in the suburbs; but it "wasn't Park Avenue," she joked, but not really. I should have loved our Lincoln Park apartment, even with the broken down furniture, but it wasn't a house in the Gold Coast. I owe Jena a lot for giving me some perspective, showing me how another up-and-coming family was doing it on the East Coast, and how silly we both were to compare ourselves to anyone else, as our parents adored us, and we felt comfortable to talk about almost anything with them, so we truly had it made.

Jena and I were both merely social smokers in high school, never buying our own cigarettes, but then all of a sudden, that freshman year, lonely, nervous, and with the ability to charge cartons of cigarettes on our student i.d. at the "Bruff Stuff" campus store; the freedom to smoke in our dorm room and the library, regular smokers we became. As Jena was busy rushing a sorority, this is how I branched out and made more friends. One day that first week, a bunch of the girls on the floor, seemed to all meet up in the carpeted corner at the end of the hall. Everyone was nervous, introducing themselves, noting where they came from, afraid of being judged; hearing their two-minute life story aloud for the very first time. Some of us pulled out cigarettes and since I chose a non-smoking roommate I spent a lot of time down in the smokers corner of the hall. Somehow, not surprisingly, the subject of Mardi Gras came up.

I remember reading the Princeton Review guidebook to colleges and under "Tulane University" one of the pluses was that you get to experience Mardi Gras four times(note - this if you were able to actually graduate in four years). I had seen coverage of Mardi Gras on the news once or twice so I had some idea that it coincided with the beginning of Lent. From pictures you could see there were parades and parties. The Princeton Review had a picture of a "krewe" with a extremely large, some may say frightening, giant jester head atop a float with thousands of revelers waving their hands in submission. I was never one for dressing up at Halloween or for clowns- used to cry at the circus with my father - but I had to imagine this big city party was probably loads of fun. Right?

"You can't even say the words Mardi Gras to my best friend from home" the seen it all, done it all, savvy as she was pretty, Lisa, the New Haven, Connecticut local began. "Mardi Gras is fucking crazy, man. People get killed" she warns, lighting up her Camel Light and taking a long drag. At first I thought it was an off the cuff joke, but I could see the anxiety in her face. She then proceeds to tell me how her friend drove down to Mardi Gras for a once in a lifetime experience to go to the country's "Biggest party" and ends up getting run over by a streetcar. It was hard enough knowing that New Orleans and Washington D.C. were currently neck and neck in a battle for our country's murder capital, and now I had to worry about Mardi Gras. And I would have to endure it "Four times" according to the guidebook. My Dad had prepared me for every hustle in New Orleans, and I chuckled to myself as every day that first month of freshman year, coeds would come home to tell their story of how they were swindled one way or another in the French Quarter. Some by the "Shell" game or by being asked "Bet I can tell where you got your shoes?" "Where?" the mark asks "On your feet!" the hustler answers. I carried my money in three different places in case I got mugged, held my keys between my knuckles to stab a perpetrator in self-defense. Would I make it through Mardi Gras?

A month into school I still did not have any regular, close friends. I buried myself in my studies, writing letters home and making sure I achieved the freshman fifteen. My first big exam was in Political Science, a class taught by a rather well noted, middle aged professor. I took the test one early afternoon and was convinced I had done poorly. I ran out of the building, Gibson Hall, which is directly behind the big illuminated "Tulane University" stone sign on St. Charles Avenue. I cross the street over to Audubon Park, home to the most beautiful old Oaks and Weeping Willows. It is probably the largest area of shade in the whole entire town. I sat on an old bench, watching the streetcar go by, to begin an identity crisis. Ok, I told myself, if I am not the "smart" girl, then what girl am I? I could not be the rich girl, nor the pretty girl, nor the hippie girl, nor the druggie girl, nor the anorexic girl, nor the slutty girl, so what was left? I figured every girl had a stereotype, an i.d., and if I was not a good student, I was really unsure of who I was. Everyone has their "thing," and I thought school was my "thing." I was looking at a terrifying trifecta - or so I thought - unpopular with the boys, not really rich AND a poor student? I was stumped.

I stopped crying, slung my black leather backpack I bought at Loris Shoes before leaving Chicago, took a deep breath and walked a few blocks to the local college bar, on the corner of Oak Street and Broadway, called The Boot. It was around one or two in the afternoon and the bar was open, of course. I went to the adjacent Boot "Store" to buy a fresh pack of cigarettes from the short, freaky and bald man better known as the Boot "Troll." I took the secret passage way into the bar and went straight up to the bartender, a Harry Connick Jr. dead ringer, dressed in Levis, shit kickers and a t-shirt. He says "How ya doing?" in that super-friendly, New Orleans speak. "A pitcher of Rum and Coke" I answer and he looks at me and says, "Sure, Darlin'" And then he makes it for me. Here I am, seventeen years old at two o'clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday, ordering and being served a PITCHER of Rum and Coke no more than thirty feet from campus. No hesitation, no nothing, he just serves me the damn thing. Gotta love this town, I thought to myself.

So I take my pitcher, plastic cup and fresh pack of smokes and settle down into a booth by the french doors opening out into the sidewalk, facing the Newcomb chapel. I proceed to put pen to paper in my trusty, yet completely annoying, journal, spending a good forty-five minutes feeling sorry for myself, crying softly, smoking like a fiend and emptying the pitcher. I guess you can tell I wasn't used to ordering cocktails for myself yet. I had grown up making rum and cokes at a girlfriend's house, while their parents were out, in high school. In fact, my fake i.d. had the name "Alexis B. Ryan" on it. The "B" initial stood for Bacardi rum and the Ryan for Jake Ryan, dreamy teen heartthrob from the John Hughes film "Sixteen Candles." The pitchers had to do with all of the pitchers of margaritas we would order at La Canasta Mexican restaurant in Chicago. I was just so used to drinking in large quantities, I guess.

So I am making my way back to the dorms, having to cross the entire campus in daylight, unable to walk in a straight line and "blind" drunk from the powerful New Orleans sun. I am sweating up a storm and hiccuping. A very unflattering, "victim" record plays in my head, but my feet know I just have a little bit longer to go to make it back to my bed to pass out. I finally make it to the entry way of the dorms and enter the elevator at the same time as Derrick, a very tall, black Christian from New York, who happens to live on my same floor. He laughs at me a little and asks what's going on and I mumble something like "I'm failing out of school." I proceed to lean against the elevator wall, sliding all the way down to the extremely filthy floor, until I am completely on my back, looking up at the light, head spinning like a tornado. Once we hit the top, the twelfth floor of Monroe Hall, Derrick keeps the elevator door open and yells "Need some help here."

A few seconds pass and in comes Eddie, aka "The Beef" from our floor who was in love with Lisa from New Haven and the two of them carry me - reeking of B.O., too much Yves Saint Laurent "Paris" perfume, Finesse shampoo, alcohol and cigarettes. Derrick takes my arms and Beef takes my legs, as if I were a steer heading to the butcher, giggling, to the right, onto the girls side of the dorm. Let me remind you - this is three o'clock on a Tuesday, hardly one month into freshman year of college. People are staring at me and I am still mumbling to myself that I am a failure. I make it to my bed and a bright and smiling face - Lisa's- shows up to see how I am doing. I tell her what happened and she tells me I'm crazy "Aren't you the girl who does her homework two weeks in advance?" she asks. "Well, yes" I admit, head about to explode. "I'm sure you did just fine," she tells me "I'm sure I'm failing French" she comforts me further. Lisa and a few other girls continue to check up on me, and I seem to have finally found my new best girlfriends. Talk about making an entrance. At least now they all knew my name. People asked me about that day for weeks after, and introduced themselves to me. I had broken through, no longer looking too snobby or too prude, which I may have been coming off as. I was just another freshman in college; insecure, stupid, and half way out of my mind.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I Hate Mardi Gras -Part II

Highlights of first semester 1989 include the fifteenth anniversary season of the "Saturday Night Live" sketch comedy show, showcasing the hilarious "Wayne's World" characters, Wayne and Garth. These misfit suburban teenagers clearly resonated with our "Party on!" generation. Fifteen years seemed so long at the time, especially for us seventeen and eighteen year olds. The prospect that such a large amount of time had passed, made even us feel aged. The twelfth floor Monroe Hall girls and I, huddling around Natalie's five inch black and white T.V., had fun during the premiere reminiscing about watching John Belushi at slumber parties on Saturday nights as kids, following the Aaron Spelling classic "Fantasy Island."

The San Francisco earthquake was kind of scary, as Lisa's roommate, Natalie, already an intense young woman, adamantly vocal in regard to having to make lemonade out of the lemons from her life, was from San Francisco, and cried her eyes out in near hysteria, as the phone lines were out, and she could not get in touch with her grandmother. That December, the U.S. invaded Noriega's Panama, causing one of the South American aristocrats from the boys side of our floor to warn: "Jshu don't mess with Panama. Dey fuggin' kill you, man. Dey got bazookas and shit."

Most importantly, the Berlin wall, that giant symbol of repression, tyranny, communism, and many a television movie of the week, fell; and the world did start to feel slightly less paranoid, as if the imminent threat of nuclear war that us eighties kids grew up with, was finally dissipating, and a more relaxed, laid back, free-love period was sprouting. Although we were already living in the college "bubble," the cold war was quickly forgotten. The materialistic eighties of writers Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney came to an end. Musicians were inspired; strumming guitars and penning songs that would shortly be coined the "Alternative." Tapestries, LL Bean flannel shirts, ripped jeans and long hair would slowly be making a comeback. As the US economy began to falter, people were getting back to basics. Goodbye "Poison" perfume, hello Patchouli. Young and old began to take a collective deep breath for the first time in a long while.

By second semester freshman year in college, survival of the fittest sets in, and the halls are a little thinner than they were back in August. GPAs fall. Scholarships, along with parental patience and brain cells, simply dissolve. Anti-depressant prescriptions increase. Dorm room doubles become singles, and there is a little less of a wait to style your hair in the mirror of the communal bathroom. By January of 1990, I still hadn't fallen head over heels in love with Tulane, mostly because I hardly went out at night nor participated in any of the fun, socializing events that were, to the point of ridiculousness, always available. No excuse is a bad excuse to have a party in New Orleans, or so I would learn.

Floor seven and a half from the Charlie Kaufman written film "Being John Malkovich" says a lot about my state of mind away at college. Strange, uncomfortable, hard to get to, and stuck between two perfectly normal universes(or floors). Max Fischer, from Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" is dearest to my heart. Like Max, I also created grandiose personal histories and barely survived an elite private school. I would have killed for an ending just like "Rushmore." Finally making peace with myself, my life; having others love me back, as my art brings a bizarre mix of family and friends together to dance joyously to the closing credits. I spent a lot of time, throughout college, sadly day dreaming like Scarlet Johanssen's character, and, I'll say it, Bill Murray's too, in Sofia Coppola's film "Lost in Translation." So incredibly lonely, aimless, and hoping to meet that other person who wordlessly understands and accepts. Half of me was this totally concrete, grounded, solid person, and the other half was just floating up in the Aquarian air, with an unclear, sometimes shameful; fuzzy history, future, and identity.

I did not rush a sorority, nor dated, although I would have liked to. I rarely left campus except to walk up to South Carrolton to buy cheese fries at O'Henrys on the streetcar line. When it came to the city of New Orleans, I had barely scratched the surface. On the upside, I became a reader for "fun." Since I could charge nearly thousands of dollars worth of luxury leather goods, work out clothes, alcohol and cigarettes on campus with my trusty Tulane i.d., I began to buy books from the UC store - the first of which was Ernest Hemingway's "A Movable Feast." I read it in a single day in the smoker's corner at the end of our dorm hall. The story of which, only compounds how I feel now, looking back, nearly twenty years past, knowing deep down in my soul, that living in New Orleans as a young person turned out to be the best gift, I did not expect.

My Mom sweetly sent a bottle of champagne for my eighteenth birthday, that January 1990, which I drank by myself, crying(a chronic problem), in my friend Grace's newly minted single, a short respite from my cultish roommate. Grace put the two twin beds together to make one big bed. She asked me to go out to a party with her with pals from the Sailing Club, but I politely refused; too much on my mind, turning eighteen and all. Grace's former roommate, Mary, was nearly six feet tall and only around one hundred and ten pounds when soaking wet; with long, thick, choppy, reddish brown hair. She entered Tulane via ROTC which was hard to believe, as she was so feminine, bone thin and almost frail. She looked as if she could fracture easily. On the contrary, Mary drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney, swore like a sailor and ate like a horse. She was taking Russian to supplement her ROTC experience and her language tapes were titled "Making Progress in Russian." Mary had a large sense of humor and every time she spoke in her nasally Russian voice I would crack up, even snort a few times.

Mary's mother and step father were Mormons who worked for an oil company in Saudi Arabia. Mary had been having an affair with a significantly shorter, thirty-something, non-Mormon, engineer at the oil company compound she called home. Due to its inherent isolationist nature; black market alcohol, unable to drive American women being hit on by Arab men in Bentley's, conservative politics, and wife swapping; the compound "culture" fascinated me tremendously. Tales of Saudi Arabia compound life were more riveting than an episode of the nighttime soap opera "Knots Landing." Apparently Mary's affair had been made public knowledge, even she admitted her beau's love letters quoting Pink Floyd's "Wish you were here" were cheezy, and she was shipped back home to face a Mormon tribunal, or something like that. As a result, Mary's departure left Grace with a most coveted, double dorm room all to herself.

Winter in New Orleans is quite mild and still sunny which I did like a lot, coming from Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome" like Chicago snow, darkness and icy freeze. Two of my closest friends were flying in to spend my first Mardi Gras here in New Orleans with me. I was hoping it would be a good one and that nothing too disastrous would befall us. For some lucky reason, my roommate left town the week of Mardi Gras - a vacation week at Tulane that year - so I could accommodate my guests. The first guest was my best friend from Chicago, still in high school, Anne; and the second, our older, best guy friend at the time, who was living at, but secretly not attending, a small, private, liberal arts college in New York. His name was Reilly, and with his Tevye beard he still wore from his iconic role in "Fiddler on the Roof" in high school, looked at least thirty. Reilly was the ultimate performer, a descendant of theater people, and I thought he would truly appreciate the large performance of Mardi Gras we were about to take part in.

Anne and Reilly were the perfect guests for my first Mardi Gras as both were down to earth, self-deprecating, and always up for something new or fun. You would not call either one a prude when it came to drinking or nudity, so we were alright there. A misguided "Last Tango in Paris"/"Midnight Cowboy" double feature rental over Christmas break with Anne only compounded this point. I hardly knew my way around New Orleans once outside the Tulane campus grounds, so this first Mardi Gras would be my tamest, but still an adventure.

Obviously the first thing young guests notice in regard to their visit to New Orleans is the drinking age. In 1990, that drinking age was only 18. Even though Anne was still seventeen, no one actually carded anywhere in the city except strip clubs, and even if you did get carded, any i.d., even of someone of age of a different sex, would do to get you past the bouncer. I had heard the reason for all of the extreme number of potholes in New Orleans was due to the fact that the federal government would not appropriate funds for street paving there until the drinking age was raised. Either that or the potholes were used as a deterrent for drinking and driving as riding over those holes was painful and almost always guaranteed hitting your head on the ceiling of your car and/or a flat tire. The side streets were so filled with these concave gravel pits, it appeared as if we were living in a war zone and that numerous grenades had been set off throughout the city. I wondered why there were so many SUVs on campus.

The closest places to start drinking, other than "The Rat" bar located in a dark basement below the school cafeteria, were two local bars off of Broadway. The first was called "The Boot" and often had live music and townie girls trying to hit on college guys. The second, one block away from the other, was called "The Metro" and had two levels, outdoor seating, and a most amusing, pool table. Eighty five percent of my first Mardi Gras was spent at these two establishments, but perhaps for having a first Mardi Gras, that is good thing.

When Reilly first arrived all I heard coming out of his mouth was "Bourbon Street, Party, Beads, Bourbon Street, Party." He was extremely pumped up. For Anne, it was her first time visiting a college campus and I think she was soaking in the lifestyle - dorm rooms, cafeteria, quads. Our dormitory hall was jammed with lots of strange guests that weekend. I made sure to keep the door locked.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mardi Gras, a giant succession of Greek God and Goddess themed parades roll through St. Charles Avenue down to the French Quarter every night and day for around ten to fourteen days through Fat Tuesday, the day prior to Ash Wednesday. Supposedly all the sinning that takes place during Mardi Gras will be forgiven on Ash Wednesday, or so you hope. Shirt tops are raised, beads are thrown, mayhem ensues.

Being the freshman loser that I was, I took Reilly and Anne to my always reliable "O'Henry's" tavern and restaurant for cheese fries, as I had very little to offer in terms of New Orleans culinary delicacies. We did make it down to Canal Street for one night of parades which, although I was fearful of violence, ultimately paid off, with all of the exhilarating people, lights, music and energy that enveloped us newbies. It truly was unlike anything I had ever seen. We kept our tops on this year, but were more than satisfied with the loot of "throws" we caught from the slow moving parade floats. My pals especially loved that you could legally drink outside in New Orleans as long as it was in a plastic "to go" cup. In fact, I think that is like the number one souvenir for youthful visitors - the branded plastic Mardi
Gras cups you take back to your home town once the giant party is finally over.

Never in a million years could I have predicted that Reilly and I would become the two biggest pool sharks on Tulane's campus, running the table at Metro for an unprecedented seventy-two hour period. We did not have to pay for a single drink or ounce of food that entire weekend, and only stopped playing at dawn Mardi Gras day due to pure exhaustion.

When I was eight or nine years old, my father asked me if I wanted to be the #1 female pool player in the world and I politely said "No, thank you." Although I had watched hour upon hour of Pops playing pool he had never actually given me a lesson. My brother on the other hand was an accomplished pool player and started going to the pool halls with my Dad to play at night at around age ten or eleven and could have easily become a world champion. So, I had no formal pool training, I mean, seriously, the only thing my Dad every taught me was how to properly hold a cue and that was it. When questioned about the use of "English" or "Banking" I would return a quizzical look. Even though my father was a one-pocket and bank pool champion of the world, I was just a below average bar pool player, or so I thought.

Compounding the fact that I had no formal training playing pool, I had also somehow managed to lose my eyeglasses and could hardly see a few feet in front of me, even before the mass drinking occurred. I even tried to LOSE a game, just so I could get off of my feet and sit awhile as the constant Mardi Gras music in the jukebox was starting to attack my nerves a little bit. Reilly was having the time of his life, maybe second only to his two standing ovations at the curtain call at "Fiddler" three long years past. He loved to compliment - but really patronize - our competitors, and say things like "You were robbed, man." As the son of actors, he really oozed genuine empathy for the sad sacks we took down that weekend. He would then give them this disappointed look, a big handshake or hug goodbye once they lost. "You'll get us next time" he'd offer as a condolence, acting like a Rick Rubin bearded, Zen sage of the pool universe.

Reilly was always bouncing up and down, smiling and singing, chain smoking. It appeared as if he were on amphetamines, but he was really just buzzing with happiness and pride for his game. It would be one of these events that would go down in history, like the giant fish that gets away, that only Anne and I would witness, but that he probably had wished his "boys" were there to see him accomplish. Reilly would choose the most difficult contortionist positions to take a shot from just to prove he could. I would even close my eyes taking a shot on the eight ball and make it. With dawn approaching, Reilly, happy that we had just won our team another round of beers and an order of potato skins, gave me high five and proclaimed me his "hero." The bartenders were even buying us drinks. Okay, perhaps we did have an advantage, as all of our opponents were a little more wasted than we were, and possibly on hallucinogens, but, who cares? We were Superstars, running the table all weekend long, in New Orleans, during Mardi Gras no less; a weekend we three would never forget.

Anne just barely packed her suitcase in enough time to make it to the airport. Running late for her flight, she begged the cabbie to put a rush on it. Decked out in beads and Tom Cruise "Risky Business" Ray Ban sunglasses, this sun burned, pony tail wearing cabbie, with an empty Daquiris container in the front seat, just laughed at us amateurs: "Its Fat Tuesday morning in New Orleans, honey. There's no getting anywhere quickly today!"

Lesson one that I learned during Mardi Gras this first year was - DON'T look in the mirror during Mardi Gras - EV-ER. Even if you are able to remember to wash your hands after taking a leak, do not look up after rinsing with soap. That image will burn a hole in your soul. Better to stay in denial.

The second lesson I learned is that alcohol only numbs the pain for so long. A week after Mardi Gras, my right foot began to swell so bad that I could not even walk on it. This propelled my first visit to the handy Tulane Health Center. This place was like the FAO Schwartz for pill poppers. Menstrual cramps? Here's a sixty day prescription for Vicadin. Headaches you say? Here is some Demerol. Anxiety? Here is some Valium. If you walked out of there WITHOUT some narcotic, something must have really been wrong with you.

So, I show up to the clinic only to find out that I have a serious infection as I have had a piece of glass in my foot for sometime. Those canvas Unisa sandals I was wearing had a giant hole on the bottom, a probable result from all my awkward dance moves to Neneh Cherry's "Buffalo Stance" at The Boot bar earlier in the semester. Somehow during my Metro pool run, I must have stepped on some glass unknowingly.

A mere seven days ago I was innocently singing along to the Meters' "Fire on the Bayou," banking the nine ball into the side pocket. Now a nurse is rolling my limp body into an operating room; my sore, swollen, and gangrene foot having to be cut open and disinfected. I lay there, looking up at the ceiling, acknowledging that even though I played it safe, staying on campus nearly the whole time, Mardi Gras WAS dangerous, and I was happy to have made it out that first year alive. In the back back of my mind, I imagined my short lived popularity once I hobbled back to the dorm, with the new container of pain pills, guaranteed to be in my possession.

Friday, February 5, 2010

I Hate Mardi Gras - Part III

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.

Goosebump Goddess

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