2055: A Much Newer Orleans

22:30 March 14, 2016
By: Austin Niel

It was 9:00 on a Sunday morning in a mid-December New Orleans, and the city was just beginning to come alive. Peddlers and pushers were out in the streets preparing their carts and kayaks. Stores, markets and coffee shops just opening, leftover drunks in bars from the night before, businessmen and hardhat construction workers in an angry hurry to get to work on time. And there was a slight overcast of clouds in the sky that surrounded a beautiful sun, which sat in such a spot that light reflected from it off the water flooding the streets. It streamed in through a bedroom window and straight into the eyes of Charles Prierto, waking him up as he tossed and turned a few more times in bed, thinking of excuses to return to sleep before finally rising. 

Charles was 81 years old and had lived in New Orleans his entire life. He had never been anywhere else in the world and had convinced himself long ago that it was not safe outside his city. Most people of the city considered Charles Prierto to be nothing more than a crazy old man who talked to himself and saw things that weren’t really there and who was always blanking out. Therefore, he did not have many friends except for his sister, Julianne. He didn’t leave his house often other than to go to work (when he used to work), the bar, the bank or to the corner grocery store that his family had owned for many years where Julianne worked, and which he would visit most mornings. Upon getting up from his bed, Charles made his way to the kitchen and made himself a cup of coffee. He turned on the television and watched a few interviews with the presidential candidates of 2055. Most presidents and other politicians that had been elected previously within the past 50 years had all been celebrities. Charles was not familiar with major figures in pop culture and contemporary entertainment, and had not voted since 2024 when all of the Backstreet Boys had been elected as presidents of the United States. After turning off the television, Charles got dressed in the same dirty clothes he had been wearing every day for the past week and then departed from his house in his paddleboat. 

Charles always looked forward to this part of the day-- feeling like he’s doing something productive by leaving the house just to stroll through the French Quarter in his boat and to see his sister at the family grocery store twelve blocks down the street. Charles was very well-known around the neighborhood. But he still was able to almost enjoy the pleasure of feeling like a stranger while paddling down the street he’d lived on all of his life with the newly-renovated, multi-colored houses or the organic markets he couldn’t afford to shop at seen in a new place every other day on the street. A boat ride into town was always an adventure to Charles, for there was always something new to be seen each time. 

About three blocks from his house, a small wake began to stir up in the water around him and his boat began to rock back and forth. Charles was trying his best not to fall down as he held onto the steering wheel as it flung him back and forth in the boat. During another big rocking of his boat to one side, his glasses fell from his face. He scrounged around the floors of his boat blindly, looking for them in a panicked worry as he had his hands out in front of him searching. Just as he found his glasses and was putting them back on his face, a big splash of water blasted him straight in the face from a raft full of trust-fund pirates that all sped by laughing. Trust-fund pirates were mostly from other cities and had rich parents whom they’d deserted when they were much younger.  They had hopes of establishing the most exclusive and grooviest land for pirates after other lands of theirs became too well-known and heard-about. Once Charles was able to wipe his glasses on his shirt-tail and saw their raft almost a block down the street, he clenched his fists and mumbled a few cuss words to himself. After ringing his shirt out over the side of the boat, he pushed his accelerator forward and let out a big sigh as he made his way further down the street and docked his boat in front of a meter outside the store and put a $100 bill inside of it.  

When Charles entered the store, as if she had expected him to walk in at that exact second, Julianne immediately greeted him with “Well, it’s official. We’ve gotta be out of here in 12 days for the store to close down,” slamming a stack of papers down on the counter in front of him. “Jerry next door say’s they’re putting some kind of restaurant here.”

“What?!? How could this have happened,” Charles said. “We’ve been paying bills on time haven’t we?” reaching for the papers, flipping through them.

“There’s nothing we can do, we’ve been bought out by some restaurant owner from New York and they’re going to make a fortune here!” Julianne said with a few small tears running from her eyes.

Charles lifted the papers up close to his eyes but could not make out any of the words on them. “I can’t even read this small type! It’s as if they do that on purpose so that I can’t!” Charles shouted. “Get me a pack of cigarettes, sis,” he said, reaching into his wallet then handing her $47.62. A few seconds of silence passed. “What are we going to do?” Charles said. “What are ​you gonna do? This store has been here for 55 years and you’ve been here for 25, and now they’re gonna close us down! You don’t know how to do anything else, what’ll you do for pay money?!”

 “Oh, shut up, Charlie, you haven’t worked a single day in 15 years!” Julianne said.

Charles paused for a moment and then said, “Well I used to know this city like the back of my hand, and now I feel like I’m the tourist in a city that’s so remote to me!” Julianne was ignoring him and was flipping through the pages of a magazine while a few moments of silence passed. Charles wandered up and down the aisles, acknowledging the grocery store he’d known since he was a young man working in the back, unloading boxes and sweeping the floor as his first job his parents had given him.  

After exiting the store, Charles lit one of his cigarettes, untied his boat and began to paddle away. He looked into the window of a bar as he passed by and saw a few people sitting inside drinking beers. Just then, everything slowed down for Charles and time almost stood still. He heard the sound of faint jazz music slowly start in his head as he now was sitting at the bar in the very same spot as the people he saw, smoking a fat cigar indoors while enjoying a beer. There was a band playing on a small stage in the corner of the room. The place was filled with people dressed in clothes from older times, some with cigarettes between their fingers that emanated small streams of smoke into the air, trailing up towards the ceiling in slow motion. Charles looked around himself in the bar and saw all of his old friends sitting around him, laughing and snapping their fingers, inhaling and exhaling, some shouting at a football game that played from a television behind the bar.

Charles sat there with a smile on his face while smoking his cigar for a few short moments when he was brought back by the sound of people shouting at him, “Old man!” and “You friggin’ idiot!” He swerved in his boat out of the way of a seahorse pulling a carriage of tourists behind it and let out a sigh of relief. He continued paddling on in his boat and was thinking about the jazz music he’d just heard in his head. With a quick change of direction, he turned his boat around, paddled back towards the bar and docked his boat.

He entered the bar with much confidence and with his head held high. His head dropped again shortly after when he noticed that he was the oldest person in the bar. He did his best not to be very noticed by anyone as he quietly made his way to a stool at the bar and ordered himself something to drink. There were more people in the bar than what he could’ve imagined on a Sunday morning, and they all looked to be much younger than he was. He gazed around the room in confusion as two people a few seats down communicated with one another by watching the little screens on their phones project what was going on around them.  

Many people communicated this way in these times other than speaking face to face. People’s social skills had decreased so drastically since the latest software updates and communication controls had popularized so much.  People now mostly communicated through their phones or computers or through whatever other kind of rectangular black screen they could find. People didn’t speak with their mouths often and Charles had never been able to work such complicated machines. His eyes were so bad that he could not see the small things on the screen anyway, so Charles refrained from speaking when he could. He heard the sound of wheels coming closer in his direction from behind the bar as the bar-bot approached him and startled him by waving an electronic device in front of his face. Charles slightly jumped in his stool and turned his shoulder to see the bar-bot standing across the bar from him focusing its small, red light-bulb eyes on him. It asked in its robot voice, “HOW. CAN. I. HELP. YOU?” and then waving the electronic device in front of his face as a red line of light scanned over Charles’ face. “CHARLES?” it continued. Upon hearing his name mentioned by the bar-bot, Charles felt frightened and panicked, looking around himself aimlessly, trying not to look too hard into the red light-bulb eyes. He peeked over the bar at the beer taps and the bottles on the shelf and couldn’t recognize any of the labels on any of them.

“Uhhh… just one second please. You can take their order and then come back,” he nervously replied, pointing his finger down the bar to a group of pirates who sat on the other end waving their swords and digging through trash cans. The bar-bot’s red eyes lit up even brighter as it rolled away repeating “WHO. DAT. WHO DAT. WHO. IS. THAT.” Charles pulled his handkerchief from his back pocket, wiped sweat from his forehead and departed before the bar-bot could return to him, muttering cuss words under his breath. 

The wind had begun to pick up a little more than it had been blowing earlier in the day, and his boat was rocking a little more roughly than it had been before, giving Charles a very slight dizziness as he continued down the block. He made his way further down the street where it met at Esplanade Avenue and came across a group of floating construction cones advertising a closed road.  So he turned his boat around and decided to check out the French Quarter on the way back to the next route he would be taking. Charles still kept the rhythm he’d heard from earlier and was now whistling a soft jazz melody as he floated down the block. Smells of alcohol, dead animals, puke, poop and pee began to make their ways into his nostrils, exciting him for the party he’d been missing in the French Quarter and he began to accelerate faster out of his eagerness.

He made his way over from Chartres Street to Bourbon Street and through the admission tent that began at the beginning of it. He had not seen the French Quarter in such a long time; it was as if he were there for the very first time in his life. Down the entire block, Charles could see lights flashing, people shouting, trash floating in the water, people selling things and people fighting each other; absolute chaos from what he’d last remembered of the Quarter.

There was a police-bot handing out tickets and collecting money under the tent that Charles made his way through. “FIFTEEN. FIFTY.” it said. Charles then reached into his pocket and handed him two bills and a few quarters and took his ticket from the police-bot. “WHO. DAT. WHO DAT. WHO. IS. THAT.” it said as he floated past. Just after the admission tent, there was a small parking lot in which a valet-bot docked people’s boats for them when they arrived. Just a few feet over sat a table that had people behind it who were sticking needles into other people’s arms, injecting them with a bright green liquid coming from a syringe shaped like a hand grenade. Next to the table was a diving board on top of a small ladder, and people were jumping into the water after they were injected. Charles pulled up to the side of the lot and exited his boat as the bot made its way into the boat and started it up to park for him. Before the valet-bot departed, Charles asked it, “Well, what do I do now?” The bot looked at him for a few seconds after not understanding him, turned its head slightly crooked and then back forward, taking off in his boat without answering him. “You better bring that thing back or I’ll rip the wires out of your head!” Charles shouted after the valet-bot left in his boat, swinging his fist in the air above his head.  

Charles turned around and made his way over to the table to see if he could get himself something to drink. Once he made his way up to the front of the line, he started to say, “Excuse me, do you have any…” when suddenly two robots violently interrupted him, grabbing him by his right arm before he could finish speaking. The robots then pulled his sleeve up a few inches above his elbow and waved electronic devices in his face. “What the hell is going on here?! I’d like to see a manager!” Charles shouted before the needle was jabbed into his arm. The bright green liquid began to ease into his bloodstream, intoxicating him with a sugary rush of sloppy drunkenness and upset stomach. Red lights were flashing in his face, robot voices shouting things on top of other robots shouting other things. The sound and color brought Charles into another hallucinatory loss of control in his body. Charles waved his arms, trying to catch his balance as he then felt himself being pushed off the edge of the diving board. He fell slowly through the air and into the floating trash that collected in the waters of Bourbon Street.  

When Charles opened his eyes, he was face-to-face with a small, rectangular screen that flashed a bright light in his face. There were people standing around him who all moved back a few inches in awe once they saw he was awake. Upon lifting his head, he spat out a human finger he’d swallowed and choked on in the water. Charles wiped off his glasses, stood up and began to push his way through the crowd of pirates, robots and other people surrounding him, making his way to the elevated sidewalk that led to the parking lot, all while muttering more cuss words. Behind him, robots followed and shouted things at him: “MUST. CHECK. VITAL. SIGNS. MORE. GRENADE. WHO. IS. THAT.” Charles ignored them and luckily spotted his boat right on the end of the parking lot. He got in and took off back down the block. Charles was still in an extreme panic and his hands, gripping the steering wheel, shook with fear.  

Once the awful stench of the Quarter had faded away, he was able to calm down again and lit himself another cigarette. He had surely gotten what he’d wanted out of the day-- to see something new he hadn’t seen before in the city, to be reminded of his southern surroundings of New Orleans that he’d not been up to par with in such a long time. He was now off to return home where he would not be leaving again for a good while, he told himself. But still, he wondered where everything had gone. Nothing had ever been forgotten about: the food, the jazz melodies, the alcohol, the tourists, the water, the neighborhood bars and the rest of the spirit were all still alive somewhere. But where? Times had never completely changed, they’d only gradually grown to become more and more of what they were before in one specific direction of evolution.  But, he wondered, how could such a line have been drawn from the past to the present in such a manner?  

The wind began to pick up heavily again and blew in the direction that his boat was moving. After a long, deep breath, Charles slowly lifted his chin up high again, faced the dirty New Orleans sky ahead and closed his eyes. A smile eased its way onto his face slowly as music began to play in his head or his ears or somewhere.  The faint sound of footsteps in the background moved to a familiar rhythm that he knew too well, with the sound of fingers snapping in the distance somewhere far away.  

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