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Off to the Big Easy; back soon -- maybe

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001

With any luck and in the highly unlikely case that airlines are actually flying on time, I should have left New Orleans Sunday while recovering from two nights of the required debauchery that, as I get older, consists more of dietary than of other excesses.

I wound up planning a flight on Friday the 13th and a return flight on Easter Sunday because of my usual planning method of extreme attention to detail while overlooking major factors.

My friends say I will one day be on my knees inspecting the rust on the tracks when I am hit by the oncoming freight train that I failed to notice.

I am neither superstitious nor Christian, so neither day was marked on my calendar other than as days that the hotel accommodations I wanted would be available. The increased room rates should have tipped me off, but didn't.

Probably, I should be superstitious about it being the 13th, since I have had two automobile accidents in my life on Friday the 13ths, but I refuse to believe that the day of the week or month can have any influence on fate -- especially not when I am carrying my leather Ju-Ju bag full of amulets that I have collected over the years.

I know that everyone wants to go to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and I did, once, when I was much younger and didn't mind sleeping on the fold down seats of a 1955 Nash Rambler station wagon with six other Marines in various stages of cleanliness and sobriety.

Partying with fellow Marines might still be fun, if we all had separate hotel rooms.

Actually I am getting the opportunity this weekend to introduce my fiancee to the city.

Nothing feeds a relationship like being able to introduce your love to certain places -- New Orleans, Paris or Amsterdam for instance.

I consider each to be a stage of preparation for the other. New Orleans is to Paris and Amsterdam as "lite" beer is to the real thing.

European street entertainers tend to have more elaborate acts than those you see in New Orleans, although the jazz is better in the French Quarter of New Orleans than it is in any quarter of Paris.

European street hustlers are much more creative and dramatic than those in New Orleans. On eight different trips to New Orleans I have been approached by a young man (probably not the same one as he would no longer have been young the last couple of trips) who has said, "Man, bet you $5 I can tell you where you got those shoes."

You are supposed to go for the bet, in which case the hustler says, "You got 'em on your feet, that's where," and then tries to collect his $5.

The last time I heard the con, the kid recited the lines in a bored monotone, like somebody conducting his 15th group of the day through a Florida tourist trap and warning group members not to put their fingers into the cages. I gave him a dollar just to go away.

In Europe he would have slipped immediately into the appropriate language or accent, gone into a long story about how he had missed his tour bus and had left all of his cash and his passport on the bus and had to get enough money together to catch up with the tour or he would never get home.

One day I heard the same guy in Amsterdam make the same pitch in flawless American, Australian and British accents, and when I returned the following year he was still working the crowd at Dam Square.

The big attractions in New Orleans this weekend are dinner at the Monteleone Hotel, breakfast at Brennans (Yeah, I know, we're tourists, so sue us.) and a now-traditional visit to the Old Absinthe House for a White Russian in memory of my late friend and colleague, Bryanna Latoof. I still think she established the tradition knowing that the Old Absinthe House was a pretty good place to get into an argument by ordering a White Russian, but a promise is a promise.

And I'll be on vacation for the next week, so you'll be seeing those irritating little boxes that say I will return soon. Soon, with today's airline standards, may be an optimistic term, but we'll see.

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