We hitchhiked into New Orleans on the tails of a hurricane, the gun-metal gray sky limpid on the land along a Gulf coast moonscape. Our driver lets us out on neon electric Bourbon Street at an Orange Julius stand where I had my first “California Burger”. “Hey Hippie,” he yelled to a passing freak, “Y’all always talkin’ ‘bout brotherly love … these fockers need a place to stay!” Just like that, New Orleans was offered and we let her take us in.
In those days, poor boys like me could score copies of the underground newspaper—such as it was—at 1212 Royal St. (seven for a buck) and sell them to inebriated tourists on Bourbon Street for whatever we could get. You could get the first seven fronted to you if you were broke. We’d get beans and rice at Buster’s on Burgundy for 27 cents. Picture it: public phones a nickel, take the bus for a dime. Eventually, we got a studio on Dauphine—with pool—for 90 a month.
I got a job waiting on tables at the Andrew Jackson Restaurant on Royal Street, across from The Monteleone Hotel. Six months later, another waiter, my wife, and I opened a small café on Conti and Exchange Alley. The licensing was 20 bucks, the rent was 200. We built the tables and benches and slapped together a concept. When the health inspector came, we left a 20-dollar bill on the counter and walked away. We got approved, no questions asked (the $20 had vanished).
Six months later, the restaurant belonged to everyone who worked there and we all moved in together. The restaurant moved to Barracks Street in a four-story warehouse. Ground floor: theater; second floor: restaurant; third and fourth floor: living quarters (12 to 20 of us). The rent for the entire building was 500 a month. There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air. Bands, on their way to the big time, came and played for free in the park. We had spiritual leaders, celebrated life, became a “family”, made love, had babies.
Times were tough and the guys took jobs at demolition or sweeping the streets for the French Market Corporation. One afternoon, the restaurant burned down (the landlord later was charged with arson). The family was split up and went separate ways.
I took a job as a one-man kitchen at Johnny White’s restaurant on St. Peter Street. There was a flamenco club across the street, a bar where Jackson Square artists hung out, and on the corner, a place called Crazy Shirley’s where Papa French’s band—Bob and Henry French and Ellis Marsalis, among others—played until the wee hours. I took massage classes and studied shiatsu.
I cooked at Hullihan’s on Bourbon Street and at Commander’s Palace with Paul Prudhomme. We rented an abandoned dry cleaning plant on Frenchmen Street when it was virtually empty of businesses, and built it into a restaurant named Valentines (where Snug Harbor is today). Again, the rent was only 200 bucks. We lived upstairs on the mezzanine, bought a pick-up truck for a hundred bucks, and named it Lazarus. A thousand words could be made out of each of the above sentences and, relatively speaking, this was not that long ago!
The point of the story … two points, really, are these:
1. A lot of us elder folks are not envious of the younger generation and the prospects that they have for their future, and to them, we say: The game is rigged. You will have to work for everything that you get and there will always be someone ready to take it all away at less than a moment’s notice. Wherever you are, whatever you do, there will always be someone in power above you and, for the most part, they cannot be trusted to be fair. Try not to let it get you down.
2. We’re essentially ashamed of our governments and the slipshod way that they are taking—or not taking—care of our citizens. The main difference between the then and now, as we geezers will tell you, is that we (pretty much everybody) knew where we stood in the scheme of the American dream of life and living. Now candidates and elected (so-called) leaders alike will tell us that they know what’s best for us and that they have a “plan”, an “answer”, a “solution” to what ails us. That they’ll give us “transparency”. This is bull dung.
What we know is that all people just want enough, not a lot. We want the basic necessities: food, clothing, and shelter. We want security in our living conditions for ourselves and our children. We want to pursue and make a living wage for what we can achieve using the talents that we have. We don’t want to be lied to by people whom we put faith and trust in by word or inference. We want to be able to expect those things.
Would I go back to the 60s and 70s? Like a friggin’ shot! Even at the age that I am now, I’m pretty certain that I’d get a fairer shake than in the 21st century. The mood was better, the food was better, the music was better, there were more outlaws and fewer criminals. We went on a grand adventure. We knew what to expect.
And to that gang of mine, wherever you are, I have two questions: when did you get so conservative and greedy? And … why?