Monday, October 25, 2010

8hr Layover: New Orleans 1995

I'd been accepted three places for graduate school: the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Colorado State in Ft. Collins and Florida International in Miami. I'd been out to Ft. Collins and loved the place, but was unsure of the program. I'd been to Fairbanks way back in 1983 and, thinking how I had a wife and two little little kids (ages 2 and 4) I ruled out Alaska. We--my family--drove down to Florida and I found the writing program at FIU to be much better then expected. Still, I was not sure. Was torn between Colorado and Florida, with the idea of living and possibly settling down in one of those states, cities. I was looking to get my MFA (in creative writing, fiction), though I had already been to the Iowa Writer's Workshop (and had subsequently withdrawn from there for reason to ignorant to account here). So? So, I decided to take a train ride down to South Florida, on my own, for one last inspection of FIU.
And, that loooong Amtrak ride had an 8hr layover in New Orleans.
I don't know if you've ever ridden the train, ridden it long distance. It's clanky, somewhat spartan (somewhat not, as well), makes plenty of stops and it's hard to sleep on (I had no sleeper car, was doing it about as cheap as possible). But you do, inevitably, end up talking to people.
I met and talked to a lot of folks, but towards the end of the first stretch, before I got to NOLA, I met this guy who I'll call Ferris. (I can't quite recall his name.) He was older than me by a little. He was from Detroit and on his way to visit his brother in Pensacola. He was big and black. I'm white. No, this is not a big thing, of course, this racial difference, but it's also a bit interesting. You'd be surprised, perhaps, how places and people will divide themselves along racial lines--in neighborhoods and bars, in public places and while traveling. But, Ferris and I sat together and started talking and we slowly got to know each other pretty well. We opened up a bit and I found out that he had played football at USC--was the running back behind James White, a guy who was very talented but lost it all to drugs and abuse--and that he had been given a writer's card by some screwed up Hollywood producer (or some such) and that other members had asked to see the card and then promptly burned it, right in front of him. Ferris was not from places I had been, not from a comfortable neighborhood in Detroit.
But, we got along well. And by the time we stopped in New Orleans, we were pals.
He had not been to the Crescent City before, so I suggested--since we had 8hrs--we go to the French Quarter. And he was good with that. So, we stepped out of the big old train station in New Orleans and tried to get a cab. We found one--and older black guy as driver--and got in the backseat and then Ferris said something about money or some such and the cab driver promptly tossed us out of the cab. Huh? I didn't get it. So, undaunted, I said we'd just walk.
I did not know the city that well, but I recognized a few landmarks, I knew sort of where to go and knew if got to Canal Street I could probably figure it out. And . . . I did. It wasn't such a long walk, really and then there we were in the Quarter, wandering and looking and drinking. Yes, we drank. We drank hurricanes and beer and ate meat-on-a-stick while wandering Bourbon Street and Charters Street and Royal and Decatur and Governor Nichols and all others . . . we went to the French Market and there they had tons of vegetables and fruits on display, candies and souvenirs and other items. "All this color, the smells, the sensations," Ferris said. He was happy. I was happy. We were pals.
We went to Pat O'briens--one of the few places I knew--and sat at the inside bar, near the entrance. The place was pretty crowded and we had our drinks and we were animated, talkative, drunk. There was a group of people--all white, of course--sitting with us and they liked talking to Ferris. Like I said, he was a big and little bit rough-looking guy (I'm kind of big, also) and this was where the racial differences became sort of acknowledged, not in a bad way but in the sense that Ferris knew these genteel white people wouldn't be talking to him except that we were together, that he was okay because he was with me. He even said, out loud, "I'm here with my white buddy" and he clasped me in his arms and laughed, inferring that he was safe and accepted. Ah. And I admit I enjoyed hanging out with him because he was a big black male, because we worked against type among the revelers in the Quarter. A woman with the group even began flirting with Ferris--much to the chagrin of her male companion. It was a bit awkward, but again it was because he was deemed a nice guy. We both enjoyed that conception. But then, we were both nice guys.
We kept drinking. A cabbie told us of a good, out-of-the-way strip joint to visit. We went there. It was a little hole in the wall, cheap, dirty, very French Quarterish (except for the cheap part). We didn't spend too long there, just enough to pass out a few dollar bills, just enough to say we'd done it while in New Orleans. then we were off to other bars, other drinks, making jokes, enjoying ourselves. Then, we had to be getting back to the train. We found a cab. The driver did not kick us out.
On the train, we were still giddy. It was late at night. The train had few riders. Now it was time to settle down, to come down from our French Quarter shenanigans and dissolve into the coming hangovers. We exchanged phone numbers and addresses. Ferris asked if he could borrow twenty dollars. He was broke and wanted to get a beer, a sandwich or something. Ah. I knew I'd never see that twenty again, but, sure. I gave it to him.
The train started. It was night--well past midnight I think--and off we went, lurching sideways through the South.
I didn't see Ferris again.
The train stopped in Pensacola very early in the morning. I woke but did not see him from my window. The train went on again and, after many hours, I made it to my stop in Ft. Lauderdale. (I'd chosen to stay in Ft. Lauderdale over Miami--I still did not trust Miami, but that's a different story.)
I took the train back after a few days. Another looong ride. No long stop in New Orleans. I played cards on the train, hung out, I made it a point to integrate myself--I think, because of Ferris--and everyone was friendly.
I think it was close to a year later--maybe only six months, I don't recall exactly--when I got a phone call.
It was Ferris. He was at home in Detroit. I could tell he was a little drunk, that he was with friends. But it was good to talk to him. He was laughing and recalling all the things we did in the Quarter. Then he said, "You know, that was the best time I had the whole trip. My brother was so serious, he was telling me I had to get a good job, had to do this and that. But New Orleans, that was fun, that was something." And I said it was the most fun I had had, too. And it was.
I never heard from him again. I never got my twenty dollars.
But that's okay--it was worth way more than a simple twenty.

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