The Big Sleazy in My Eye
By Robin Attwood
Photos by Horatio Baltz
From within the garden party sang merry voices and calls of joy between people young and bright, with music in their blood. The table was smeared in melted ice, and a spilt bowl of hummus and salad drooped off one edge. Beneath it, Sula the dog awaited hungrily with soppy smacking chops. Joey was singing a song from beneath the yard’s green umbrella: “Beer and whiskey and wild, wild women!”. He reeked of pot and floated nakedly over his guitar, while Badonna handed out parting gifts labeled A Hallmark Moment. This was the going away party for a few friends and myself on our way to New York and then on to Europe.
The spinning flies finally left our saucy plates, as Sarah placed scented tea candles around the outside living room. The scene was lit with white Christmas lights hanging from the branches of trees, illuminating all from the dining table to the large green umbrella over Joey. Every forehead was sweating great beads of salt in the humidity. This day it had been 104 degrees and typically the humidity lingered at 90 percet. My pal Ryan was losing his mind, his eyes spinning, nonsense rambling, mumbling in a guttural tone to himself, yet engaging others in a somewhat sensible conversation on his side of the wooden bench we sat at.
He finally got a job again, now working for Emeril’s chef company uptown, and in so doing had to break up a dog fight during his interview. And for one reason or another he decided to get wasted immediately afterwards. When I swung by his place earlier in the day to drop off my suitcase full of books and instruments, he wasn’t in his usual garb of tattered clothes, a shirt with a transgender on a cross labeled Jesus, or his three year old gray converse. No, today Ryan wore a white chef’s smock and black satin pants and a wide grinning smile that stretched to his shoulders, as if he were the Sheik of Araby. It was an hour or two after this that I met up with him at the garden party in the upper ninth ward – he was still just as creepy and grinning wildly like before… my friend Ryan.
A few weeks ago, Ryan and a fellow I met a number of years before, who was visiting New Orleans on his way up to Georgia, were asked to paint a mural on either side of a van. It was a long white box van, shiny and asking for detail. I never saw the finished pictures, so Ryan gave Chris, the owner, a call to come over to the France street house and show it to us. Ryan and I waited in the lamp lit street across from a red brick apartment complex filled with crack heads and screaming children. But tonight, most were quiet on the block of France and Urquart Street, which can make a person’s skin crawl, pinch up like a cat’s back, and make you aware of every slight noise in every direction for miles and miles of the sprawling New Orleans Ghetto. Eventually a small grey Ford came tumbling over the block’s pot holes, and I recognized Chris’ genuine smile and tall approach of innocence. There was a girl beside him smoking a cigarette, puffing on the tedious bit of tobacco left before the butt. She eyed James and I up and down as if we were to be hung…. And then, she cracked a witty grin introducing herself as Laura from New Jersey. I could tell she had an East Coast accent with a large hook nose and a Sinatra like face. Laura was classic and I needed to find out if she had anything to do with Chris.
Turned out Chris had misunderstood Ryan’s message about bringing his white van with the mural on it. Ryan was not stoked, as he put it himself. We walked back inside the garden pushing open the wooden fence of the property, entering through the back and tip toeing over my friend’s garden beds. I handed out the rest of our Schlitz from the freezer and popped the cork of my wine bottle, sharing it with some others cross legged on a plank of wood near the house. Not long after, Ryan stood up proposing we leave to the St. Roch Tavern and pillage a few pitchers, and in doing so, get as fucked up as possible, continuing our evening romping about the neighborhood dives.
The St. Roch Tavern lies in the 8th ward neighborhood, one block away from Music Street and two blocks away from Arts Street, resting comely on the corner of Mirais and St. Roch Avenue. It’s fun enough. Some nights there are special deals on drinks, like Cheap Pitcher Night, or on Saturday it is bounce night, when DJ Rusty Lazer plays New Orleans’ favorite hot jams. I prefer the local Abita Turbo Dog to all the rest on tap, which is mostly piss beer in a cup. All of the young punks, weirdos, travelers passing through town, and other creative folk come here. It’s probably one of the better known dives for travelers to come to in the country. It’s the real thing! Fights break out all the time, you’ll see scores of gambling tables in the wintertime, and outside across the street there is an art gallery open from time to time. Not the place you want to go if you’re avoiding the scene, but on the nights when you’re up to it, the St. Roch Tavern can be a great way to begin the evening. To your right in the front is a small seating area devoted to the St. Roch Café, which is more or less a restaurant serving typical bar food like burritos, hot dogs, nachos and cheese fries. Towards the back is a small square stage with a carpet on top of it. All types of music can be heard here. Anything from a shitty old time band to a local soul group, or some mix of circus and performance art with an Eastern European flare. Also in the back is a pool table, janky, but it’s got all its balls unlike the old hang out, The John.
Before there was St. Roch Tavern there was a crusty dive at the bottom of the Frenchman Street strip called The John. It used to be the spot, until the management replaced the pool table in back with a ping pong table. It was also the place to find your guy you’d been waiting on around the corner. But all has changed. However, The John is still known for its stiff drinks, smoky red lit atmosphere and toilet bowl shaped seats. The bartenders use Mason jars filled near to the brim, no kidding, with alcohol and just the top of the drink is touched by mixer. I do have to warn you about the John. My friend has developed two ulcers in the past year from drinking their whiskey sours. You can find this smoky oasis on the corner of Frenchman and Burgundy Street just outside the French Quarter.
Ryan really wanted to find some pot for the tumbling evening ensuing, and sure enough after we hit the tavern I bought some from a friend of mine at Mimi’s in the Marigny. Before all this and two pitchers of dark Abita, watching the punks, the crust lords and neon lights glow to a dark and doomy jukebox – a mix of metal and Motown – I talked my friend Carrie, who had been sitting at the bar, into driving back to her place so I could pick up some aderall. Carrie used to study at Oberland in Ohio and ended up becoming the largest scammer of aderall there. She made a wicked living off of it. She is full jewish and knows how to handle money and people well – her honesty is a useful tool. I bought a few orange pills from her and so did Laura. Ryan was out of his mind as he and I began crushing the orange pills into powder, and then railing it up our noses with a twisted dollar that had been laying on the living room table. Laura was going to save hers and stand back, as Chris smiled his beaming happiness all over the night, and Carrie waited for us with beautiful drooping eyelids and a bright full mouth among a head full of black curls. After this we left soon, dropping Carrie back off at the tavern. I gave her a big smooch yelling goodbye, and then someone brought up the idea of paying a visit to the bar Mimi’s.Jessy Carolina, New Orleans
Mimi’s is a great neighborhood red-lit dive with a pool table and dartboard downstairs, a gourmet restaurant upstairs and a haunted floor of wood you can stomp and shake a leg on. Once we got there I bought Laura a Highlife, fairly cheap for how cheap it is and how cheap this town really is: two dollars plus tip. I remembered it was a Monday, and that my friend’s brass band was playing upstairs. Every Monday before Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns play, my buddy Peter and a girl Miya teach swing dance lessons in lieu of Meschiya’s band at ten o’clock. The Little Big Horns are a revolving group of great musicians, with great senses of humor, that spin in and out of many other traditional jazz bands in town. Playing everywhere from Frenchman Street to Bourbon Street, these musicians work hard around town every night to spread an age of American music well forgotten into the 21st century.
The four of us walked upstairs and found a table, and then sat down to polish off our cold drinks. We got there right in time to catch the last song of the second set. As the Big Horns dismantled I walked up to my friend Steve, who plays a steady washboard, and asked him where I could get some pot. His slicked back hair and bristly black moustache glistened in the dim lamp near us towards the back window. While Steve motioned us outside and down the stair well, I noticed he had a cuff of tattoos wrapped around both his ankles above a pair of cream colored Dixie stomping shoes. Outside we passed around a one hitter and talked percussion history with our buddy Christopher Sax. We’re all stoners, us musicians, and the rhythm only gets worse the more we’re unable to pay attention to time and space – or anything. But all in all, nothing beats a joint and the writhing groove of splash and brass, with Meschiya’s voice of melting butter in the crackle of her ageless microphone.
We listened to their last set, and before Steve left I asked what he was doing after the show. He said going back to smoke at his place, which turned out to be the childhood home of a great jazz composer by the name of Jelly Roll Morton. By the time the group had finished their pints, Steve and Chris Sax had already left. But I had been to the Jelly Roll house in January, with a blues musician and a minstrel and a house full of swing dancers, so I remembered very well how to get there. It was in the ghetto, of course, of the seventh ward. Down Frenchman Street, past St. Claude Avenue, almost to North Claiborne Street, Jelly Roll’s home has been preserved in its red brick painted ambiance on the corner of two streets crossing. The four of us walked in, and I saw tattered brass instruments tacked onto the walls, old posters of dance nights from Los Angeles to Istanbul, 78 RPM records glorified in frame and a number of worn through washboards hanging by the stairwell in the back of the Shotgun home. Steve and I got into it about washboard players, seeing as I am one myself, and started poking videos to play online on his glistening bright laptop. While passing around weed, weed and more weed.
By this time, night was beginning to crawl into morning and the others we’d come with wanted to go home. Chris and Laura dropped Ryan and I off in the Marigny outside his house on Spain and Chartres Street. As barges pushed silently the world’s industry along the river, seagulls flew over head and a train sang along the tracks in the distance between the Marigny and ninth ward, awakening the beginning of another day at the port along the Mississippi.
Ryan and I were talking completely incoherent to each other now, sitting in his living room contemplating the last orange pill, and then decided it was my last night in town and we had better do it all for satisfaction’s sake. Ryan’s house is a two room shotgun of wood floor and decorated walls covered with his charcoal and oil pastel paintings. A number of his photographs taken in New York and Georgia hung on the wall in strange display. The faces and actions of old friends hung like psychedelic trips captured and put up for show. It was just another evening gone wry with beer in our belly and a number of joints to the head. We were lucky Ryan’s girlfriend decided to spend the evening uptown so we had the place to ourselves. Although we railed that one last aderall, I passed out shortly after, as Ryan described something silly to me in his mumbles.
There are many beautiful sights to this city and all its neighborhoods, hung in deep vine and sooty dampness, cobblestone paths and lamp lit buildings, but there is a reality as well, one in which the passing tourists from around the world never gets to see. When you’re all fucked up from Bourbon Street, and all you know about this city is what you saw in the French Quarter and what you heard from the historic buggy rides – it is nothing like what this town is actually like. Bourbon Street, the heralded walk of booze, strippers and shitty Zydeco music, is incredibly expensive. Along Bourbon many of the clubs sell what are called Hurricanes and Grenades, which are essentially bright neon colored mugs of alcohol and toxins whose soul purpose is to make money and waste away people’s vacation stays in the Quarter. Families, I do not recommend bringing your children down Bourbon Street. It is a horrible place full of idiots and sour mornings.
I do have to say, living down here is joy, perilous joy, inspiring and lots of work. Neighborhoods are rough, the bars are full of drunk punks and interesting artists, but something haunts this city. As if in the humid air there breathes both life and death. I would say that a fine line exists sharper in this city than anywhere else. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina still lingers about like a weed that can’t be pulled, and the history of this city’s poverty cries out so loud it breaks a person just to visit.
When I awoke later that day, it was ten o’clock or so. I found Ryan sitting up in the corner of his bed stroking his two cats, shaking slightly kind of frantic with a look of wild space in his dry eyes. I guess he hadn’t gotten any sleep and was waiting on his girlfriend to come home and take care of him. I nodded, understanding what a fucked up evening we had had and left through the front door, unlocked my bike along side the neighbor’s fence, and left. New Orleans is such a seedy place and a reality with no rules but to party. At this hour of the morning there is a real innocence to the Big Sleazy, as if the night before had never happened, or was now just another wounded bout of lust.
Locations in New Orleans
St. Roch Tavern
1200 Saint Roch Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70117-8305
2040 Burgundy Street
New Orleans, LA
2601 Royal Street