A Sinking Feeling

NEW ORLEANS IS SINKING AT THE rate of one inch every year. The city is built over hundreds of feet of soft black mud, deposited there, over thousands of years, by the Mississippi. The mud comes from the Midwest, all the way uup to Minnesota, along with the tourist hordes who contribute their dollars and their considerable collective weight to the city's inexorable descent towards Australia. When we were there, mind you, most of the buildings were still very much visible. The locals, for their part, seemed unconcerned about the dreadful fate awaiting them in just a few brief moments of geological time. The NCAA Final Four games were happening at the Superdome, and they were busy separating the entire population of Indiana from its money.

In New Orleans they have a mechanism called Bourbon Street, designed to accomplish this separation with maximum efficiency. Tourists seethe up and down bourbon Street like muddy water in a bayou, clutching takeaway mint juleps and Hurricanes (a vile and overpriced cocktail sold only to tourists) in big paper cups. Fast talking slicks in white tuxedoes, looking like Elvis Presley's manager admitting Priscilla's age at a press conference, wait outside strip joints, holding the doors open for tantalizing glimpses of the flesh within On the sidewalks young entrepreneurs hawk shoeshines, "SHIT HAPPENS-on Bourbon St." sweatshirts, voodoo masks, even chances at the venerable shell game. And out of doors and windows on every side pour dribbles and gobs of the freshest music scene in the world.

Saturday night on Bourbon Street, after the Indiana-UNLV game. Indiana won, and ten thousand delirious fraternity boys in red T shirts were in the street, drinking heavily. Here and where we saw more subdued though equally dipsomaniac Runnin' Rebel fans, but the evening was for crewcut Hoosiers from the cornfields. Television crews were out, and every few blocks we saw big knots of people, all struggling to get an alcohol flushed face or at least a clenched fist into evening news immortality. Impassive mounted police stood at the corners, staring from under plexiglass visors while the horses suffered raucous tourists to breathe beer fumes into their sleek faces. They let the drunks lie where they fell.

Old Black men maneuvered metal grocery carts through the crowd, scavenging for returnable beer cans. French Quarter etiquette encourages you to leave your can in the gutter for these people to find--it's the only neighborhood I know that practices philanthropic littering. Outside the Royal Sonesta Hotel we saw three obliterated I.U. students trying to help a scavenger by bellowing up at the people carousing on the hotel balconies to throw down their empties. An answering rain of hard metal cans showered to the pavement, along with an inflatable sex doll on a string. Those who were sober enough to dodge did so--the others took their shots good humoredly. The three boys hugged each other, rocking back and forth and chanting "WE-ARE-RECYCLE-TEAM!" over and over. The old man picked up his cans and disappeared into the crowd, pushing his cart in front of him.

Along with the police and ourselves, the detached observers on Bourbon Street that night were the officers and men of the visiting French Navy cruiser Jeanne d'Arc, in the Quarter on liberty. We passed them in order of rank: first groups and pairs of enlisted men, wearing bell bottoms and curiously feminine white blouses with deep square necks and blue piping, and berets with fluffy red pompoms. They looked lost. Next were the petty officers, slightly less visible in summer whites but still dead ringers for Parisian pharmacists. Finally and thrillingly came the Captain and his senior officers in full dress uniforms complete with immaculate stiff shirts and white ties, striding down the middle of the street with beautiful women on their arms. They might have been reclaiming the French Quarter. Later that week we heard the Captain being interviewed on a French language radio station. He sounded sutably Gallic and urbane but slightly bored, the retired imperialist paying his colonial social dues. Indeed, New Orleans is one of the few ports in the world where the French Navy can still feel like conquering heroes. The Captain was in his glory on Bourbon Street.

For a while we sat near two more sailors from the ship in the Maison Bourbon jazz club, which flaunts an enormous banner outside the door: "Dedicated to the PRESERVATION of JAZZ." I suspect this is designed to fool gullible tourists into thinking they're in Preservation Hall, the legendary traditional jazz room across the street. By the time they realize the mistake they're too drunk to leave, having already bought three six dollar Hurricanes with the accompanying souvenir glass. Perhaps this happened to the sailors, who sat at a table near the stage surrounded on three sides by a senior citizens tour group from Florida. They kept looking at each other, then at their drinks, then back at each other, while a pedestrian Dixieland group on the bandstand honked its way through the St. James Infirmary blues. Finally they got up and left, each carrying three souvenir glasses in individual plastic bags.

We left too, eventually. On the way to the St. Charles Avenue streetcar I engaged in a brief discussion with a small boy who wanted to bet me that he could guess where I'd bought my loafers. A tall man gave me a warning glance as he passed: "On your feet, man. It's Bourbon Street."

If you stand on the levee near Jackson Square in the French Quarter, you can see the Mississippi flowing by at about seven feet above street level. It's a big, brown, mean-looking river, just waiting for the next hurricane to sweep away all the pretty, shabby stucco buildings with their fancy wrought iron balconies. Local people know this, just as they know that the city is sinking under their feet and that there aren't many jobs around now that all the oil and chemical companies are going under. But they don't seem to care much. They keep sinking with their city, and the bars stay open all night long.

The next afternoon I was standing at the urinal in a restaurant bathroom on Royal Street. An enormously fat bearded man in cut off shorts and a muscle t-shirt walked in to the next stall. He leaned one pudgy arm on top of the partition and stared balefully down at me. He spoke. "Eat good food and get fucked up, man. That's what life's about."