Becky says things about … an American road trip – PART 6: New Orleans

Our Airbnb in New Orleans was a two-bedroom apartment in a Victorian doll’s house, in a quiet leafy street ten minutes from the madness of the French Quarter.

It had an enormous balcony. It is important that you understand some crucial facts about this balcony, the significance of which will become clear later on:

  • The balcony overhung the pavement, which ran underneath it, 10 feet below
  • The only access to the balcony was either through the French doors in Sarah’s bedroom, or the French doors in my bedroom
  • If you wanted to access the balcony from the pavement, you would either have to climb the nearby tree, or scale the side of the building. Neither option was possible to someone who wasn’t Spiderman.

We managed to resist the urge to buy eight cases of wine and spend the rest of our lives drinking them on the balcony, and delved into the tangled criss-cross of streets in the French Quarter.

It was like any picture you’ve ever seen of New Orleans: the wooden Victorian houses were slapped in every colour of the rainbow; hanging baskets dripped from balconies that were held up by spindly, cast iron supports; strains of jazz wafted on the hot, humid air.

But it was when we came across a jazz band in the middle of a street who were playing a jazzed-up version of The Flintstones, watched serenely by a dude in a red tailcoat and a top hat relaxing on a kerb, that I really felt we had arrived in New Orleans.

We then came to the joyful realisation that, as we were no longer in Tennessee, we didn’t have to eat BBQ ribs anymore. Prior to this trip I didn’t think it was possible to not want to eat BBQ ribs every day, but it turns out it is eminently possible, and even vital to your physical and psychological health. Happily, New Orleans offered something else on which we could endlessly binge: shrimp.

So we went to Johnny’s Po Boys and shared one of these bad boys.

Shortly after this we found ourselves at the mad end of Bourbon Street.

Bourbon Street is the street that comes up in Google Images if you search for ‘New Orleans’. It runs right across the middle of the French Quarter. At one end – the end nearest our apartment – it is quiet, lined mainly with residential doll’s houses; there’s a cluster of gay bars as you get to the centre, then jazz bars, and gradually the jazz bars outweigh the apartments, then as you get nearer to the skyscrapers of the city centre, the jazz bars become full-on clubs with names like ‘Jubbly’s’ and ‘Smokin Tits House of Fun’ and ‘Sloppy Cocks’, and then suddenly you’ve unwittingly joined a bachelorette party and you have downed 37 shots of unidentified alcohol for $10 and you’re lying face-down on the putrid floor of a pulsing club and a bare-chested man is simultaneously dry humping you and trying to get you to come to the club next door where they have live bear-baiting and everyone is naked.

So I exaggerate. But it’s not far off that. The mad end of Bourbon Street was a cross between Blackpool, Brighton and Croydon on a Saturday night, with lashings of Las Vegas spewed over it for good measure.

It was hideous.

We decided we would avoid it at all costs and stick to the jazz and wine bars. This decision doesn’t make us old, just civilised.

Due to road trip fatigue, we decided to make fajitas in the apartment and get an early night. So by 11pm we were both in bed, looking forward to a long, refreshing sleep.

This long, refreshing sleep was, however, not to be.

I was awoken at 2am by what I first thought was thunder.

Upon fully regaining consciousness a few seconds later, I realised it wasn’t thunder. Thunder doesn’t go BANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANG.

I realised with horror that it was the sound of someone trying to get into the front door of our apartment.

Not half a second later, I realised, with considerably more horror, that it was actually the sound of someone trying to get into our apartment through the French doors of Sarah’s bedroom – which, if you recall, led directly onto the balcony.

No sooner had I realised this appalling fact, the BANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANG suddenly stopped.

I briefly wondered if I was dreaming and had made up the whole mad banging thing.

This brief wonder was unfortunately very quickly smashed to pieces as the BANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANG started again, and this time 100 times louder on my French doors, three feet in front of me.

Here are my French doors, at a more peaceful, less terrifying point in our stay:

The only way I can describe to you the urgency and violence with which my French doors were being shaken is that it sounded like Godzilla desperately trying to escape a nuclear apocalypse. The measly door knob immediately flew off and the door was being held only by the tiny single bolt at the top, and the rest of the door flapped and shook like a sail in a hurricane.

The illogical part of my brain was going:

The logical part of my brain decided that if this was a burglar or an axe murderer, it was the worst burglar or axe murder in the history of time. The logical part of my brain also realised that if I didn’t do something pretty quickly, the door would fly off its hinges and whoever or whatever was trying to get in would burst through into my bedroom, the prospect of which was undesirable.

So I leapt towards the door, yanked aside the shutter, and came face to face with a guy in his mid-twenties.

In a tone and pitch I had never heard come out of my mouth – which I now know to be the ‘terror’ setting – I yelled ‘What the FUCK are you doing??? I DON’T KNOW YOU!!’

To which the guy replied ‘Holy shit – am I at the wrong place?’

And disappeared.

Silence.

With my heart having some sort of awful 90’s rave, I crept into Sarah’s room where I found her in bed clutching her sheets to her face.

After both agreeing we were shaken up like marbles in a cup but essentially okay, we heard voices from outside. I listened at Sarah’s French doors (she forbade me to go out onto the balcony) and heard the unmistakable sound of drunken arseholes from the pavement below. These drunken arseholes remained laughing and talking loudly for the next hour.

Using our combined training from years of watching True Crime documentaries, we came to the conclusion that our intruder was part of the group of guys staying in the apartment downstairs, who had clearly got absolutely wasted and locked himself out, and had mistakenly thought in his drunken stupor that our balcony was part of his apartment. Whilst this was fucking irritating, it was a relief to decide our intruder had not been a mad drooling axe murderer running amok on our street.

After a few fitful hours’ sleep, we awoke in the morning to the unmistakable sounds of drunken arseholes yelling and laughing in the hallway downstairs as they left for the day, presumably to go and get utterly bollocksed and drink each other’s piss out of pint glasses.

We called our Airbnb host, who turned up an hour later with two handymen. As we surveyed the scene on the balcony, I proudly showed them the exterior handle of Sarah’s French door that the drunken arsehole had yanked off the night before, and which I had spotted in next door’s gutter.

As we speculated how the hell the drunken arsehole had scaled our balcony, and one of the handymen exclaimed in awe that ‘Motherfucker’s got some upper body strength’, they repaired my broken French doors and assured us that, as they also owned the apartment downstairs, they would contact the drunken arseholes to give them a serious warning and to let them know that they had nearly caused the two women upstairs to give birth to their entire digestive systems.

We discovered from our host that the drunken arseholes were in the US Army, and were from out of town. This was ironic, considering that everyone we’d met on our road trip had warned us to ‘be careful’ in New Orleans as it could be ‘dodgy’ – where in fact we experienced nothing but friendliness and kindness from everyone in New Orleans, including the people on the street you might consider ‘dodgy’ – and here we were, having drunken out-of-town arseholes from the US Army getting smashed off their faces and trying to break into our apartment.

Our host left us with an assurance that we were perfectly safe, and that we would get some money back on our stay to make up for nearly dying of shock and terror.

We then did what any normal human being would do when recovering from a heinous shock: we had shrimp in a hollowed-out baguette, and got horrendously drunk.

We hit the gay bars in Bourbon Street with a mathematically impossible 1,000% enthusiasm.

A brief summary of our night, in useful bullet points:

  • Drank beer, not like it was going out of fashion, but like it was coming back into fashion after a lengthy period of absence
  • Watched jazz and drank beer in a Wizard of Oz-themed bar
  • Sat on the balcony of a gay bar and drank beer and listened to a man inexplicably playing bagpipes in the street below
  • Got an emergency hot dog from a street stall
  • Drank double Southern Comforts and lemonade on the balcony of another gay bar, and got chatting to a young girl who was in town for a work convention; when she went to the toilet and said ‘You’ll be here when I get back, right?’ we nodded, after which Sarah immediately went man-down and said ‘God I am so drunk we need to leave’. So we left.
  • I was so overcome with guilt about abandoning the lovely girl, that I propped Sarah up outside and went back up to the bar to say goodbye, and found the girl wandering around looking bemused and holding three huge shots. I did a shot out of politeness, apologised, wished her a long and happy life, and left.

When we returned home at 2am it was all silence from downstairs, but we had not only forgotten about the drunken arseholes, it was entirely possible that we made so much noise clattering about and drunkenly laughing and dropping things that we woke them up. Whilst this would have been a satisfying payback, waking up and thinking ‘I wish those idiots upstairs wouldn’t tread so heavily’ is not quite on the same level as waking up and thinking ‘OH MOTHER OF GOD SOMEONE IS TRYING TO BREAK IN AND GUT ME LIKE A FISH.’


The next morning, Sarah was woken, not by someone trying to break into her bedroom, but by the sound of me retching into the toilet.

I did not feel well, my friends. Not well at all.

And so our road trip ended with us dragging our feet round the streets of the French Quarter, stopping briefly in a rainstorm to chat to a homeless guy (‘I don’t like Hilary Clinton, but you know, bitch was right all along about global warming’), and collapsing in front of the TV on our last night with some pasta and, bizarrely, the Downton Abbey Christmas special.

Conclusion: New Orleans is beautiful, generous, and super friendly. New Orleans is completely bonkers. If you go, go at the end of your trip, not the beginning. You will need all your strength to do it justice. And to kick the shit out of the drunken out-of-town arsehole that tries to break into your bedroom at 2am.

 

 

Becky says things about … an American road trip – PART 5: Memphis

Our first evening in Memphis was textbook: we went to BB King’s Blues Club.

In the bustling, low-lit club we ate yet more BBQ ribs, drank beer and listened to the utterly fabulous BB King All Stars (for the measely cover charge of $5, which, next to the $5 I spent on the Golden Girls magnetic bookmarks in Gatlinburg, was the best $5 I spent all holiday).

In the sax and guitar-pounding room, as the beer flowed, I got completely carried away by the cool-as-hell blues and decided that I could – nay, would – become a famous blues singer-songwriter, and how difficult could it be to shove together a funky baseline, an electric guitar and some devilishly saucy drums, and finally I’d worked out how I was going to make my fortune, and it was all going extremely well in my head until the All Stars did Purple Rain, complete with the 8-hour finale, so incredibly brilliantly, that I had to go to the toilet to recover, and I became so distracted by the inexplicably huge gap in the toilet cubicle that I forgot about being a blues singer.

Let us talk about this for one moment. Please can someone from the Department of American Toilet Cubicles and Urinational Privacy (DoATCUP) explain to me why  you must have colossal gaps in your toilet cubicles? Every single toilet we went in on our trip – be it a bar, restaurant, or that scarily remote gas station in Georgia – had a door that sort of hovered in an open space, attached to the frame by a uselessly massive bracket. In one toilet in a bar in Nashville, I sat on the loo and literally made eye contact with a woman’s reflection as she washed her hands at the sinks. I didn’t feel violated, as such – just confused.

Anyway.

The next morning we thought we’d go and see what the toilet cubicle gaps were like at Graceland, abiding by the little-known 178th Amendment ‘He who visits the City of Memphis must visit Graceland, irrespective of His feelings for or about The King, or He shall be considered a wierdo and a loser’.

So we entered the Graceland compound – a Hollywood set-style street of museums, diners and gift shops – and queued to buy tickets, then queued to enter a small room to watch a short film about Graceland, then queued to get on a mini bus that drove us across the road  to the house itself, where we queued to get through the front door. Whilst you Americans do like to make an industry out of what could be a relatively simple process, we Brits did appreciate an effective queuing system.

Here’s the old boy’s gaff:

Nice front room, where he did the crossword and watched the news:

Kitchen, where he cooked microwave dinners and drank tea:

And here’s the old dude himself:

If you love Elvis, go to Graceland. If you don’t love Elvis, you still have to go to Graceland because if you don’t then the people who love Elvis will stare at you like you have a watermelon for a head and celery for arms.


We now need to talk about ducks. Why? you ask, quite fairly. Because they are a Really Big Deal at the stately Peabody Hotel in Memphis.

So, legend has it that in the 1930s some cowboys smuggled in some ducks to the hotel (the crucial ‘Why?’ in this story was unclear to us), and chucked them into the fountain in the grand, palatial lobby. The next morning, the manager apologised to the guests for this unexpected mallard invasion, to discover that, actually, the guests were thoroughly enjoying watching the ducks mucking around in the fountain.

And that, my friends, is all that is required to start a 90-year tradition.

Every day at 11am and 5pm, the Peabody hosts the ‘Duck March’. Which is conducted by the Peadbody Duckmaster. I am not joking. This is the most coveted position in America next to the guy who seals up the gaps in toilet cubicles.

So there we were, at 10.50am, hanging over the balcony in the Peabody lobby, eagerly awaiting the appearance of these ruddy ducks.


Yes, that is a red carpet. For some ducks.

At 11am on the dot, the Duckmaster – clad in a red tailcoat and a top hat – grandly announced in a faux English accent that in a few minutes’ time the ducks would descend in the lift from their suite – yes, their suite, the suite for ducks on the top floor of this five star hotel, I hope you’re grasping the magnitude of the duck situation here – and they would proceed to waddle up the red carpet and hop into the fountain.

And a few minutes’ later, that is exactly what they did.

There they are.

I mean, underwhelmed is the wrong word – I have had no previous experience of this sort of duck ceremony on which to base my expectations – and there was obviously something delightfully charming about the gravity that was bestowed on this event – so I’ll just say that watching some mallards waddle up a red carpet and cock about in a fountain left me simply whelmed.

 

Later that afternoon, we spent an incredible four hours at the amazing National Civil Rights Museum, which is built around the shell of the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. If you’re in Memphis, go. It is astonishing. And, in case you spend quite a lot of time wondering why the initials ‘MLK’ are stamped on pretty much everything, I can inform you that they quite clearly stand for Martin Luther King, and are not a peculiarly mis-spelt announcement for MILK, which was the misapprehension under which my road trip-addled brain was labouring for a good two hours, until the realisation hit me like a massive and wholly justifiable fist.

We then spent an hour driving around the centre of Memphis trying to find the Hertz garage to return our trusty little car to her rightful home. It took an hour, because the Hertz garage felt that a sign the size of a thumb that was half-concealed by a window frame behind seven concrete pillars, was sufficient to alert people to its existence.

It was during this frustrating circular drive, and our subsequent walk back to our hotel, that we experienced the city of Memphis in all its bustling glory.

And when I say ‘bustling glory’, I mean absolutely silent and deserted weirdness.

I have been to many cities, and a usual characteristic is an abundance of traffic and people. You know, the things that make up a city. Life. But Memphis had none of these things. We walked a mile back to our hotel through the ‘centre’ of the city, and saw three people, one tram, and a dog.

Even when we had walked to and from the Civil Rights Museum in Downtown Memphis – Downtown, which normally signifies the place where all the busy cool stuff happens – there had been merely a dribble of cars and the odd pedestrian looking a bit lost.

Either there is a good trade on invisibility cloaks in Memphis, or everyone was at Graceland. They are the only two feasible explanations we came up with for the spooky emptiness of the city. It did mean that there were no queues when we stocked up on provisions at Walgreens, but if anyone has any explanation as to why Memphis is so creepily deserted, I’d love to hear it.

Due to an ungodly early start the next day to catch our AmTrak to New Orleans, we had an early dinner at the famous Rendevous restaurant – more ribs; I mean, by this point we were starting to take on a shiny BBQ hue – bid farewell to the blues bars on Beale Street, and hunkered down in our hotel room to pack and watch Con Air. 

Conclusion: The blues are fabulous. The museum is fabulous. Hell, even the ducks are fabulous. But, as a city, Memphis is… peculiar. If you go, stick around Beale Street. Because apart from the ready availability of invisibility cloaks, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot else going on.

Next up: Jazz, shrimp, a very drunken evening, and a dramatic home invasion escapade in New Orleans.