majestic oaks and magnolias cradle st. charles avenue under their twisted green arms. spanish moss hangs from the branches like dead gray fruit. the tangerine glow of sunrise is softly filtered through the ancient canopy. of all the roads i’ve been down, st. charles is the most stunning.

as the streetcar clatters down the eastbound track and crosses louisiana avenue, the garden district on the right, i think about the café au lait and beignets waiting for me at the café du monde. the last time i was in new orleans, while waiting in line outside the french market, my ass was nearly whipped by a mob of bead-laden tourists. that was about midnight on a cool, breezy fat tuesday. another tuesday, another coffee and doughnut, hopefully not another knock-down drag-out.

the trolley stops for a light at washington, picks up a few more passengers, and continues on its noisy way towards canal street. a young professional sits down next to me in his typical gray suit, white shirt, silk tie. i stare at him a moment too long…he stares back with cold blue eyes, his hair combed back exposing the beginnings of a receding hairline. he grins at the dark side of himself…me. in my eyes i see the laughter. ‘this could have been you.’ i stare at myself, at the me i chose not to be…if i would’ve finished school…if i would’ve cut my hair and laid off the pot…if i could have conformed. the me worth 160 thousand dollars tells the me worth 160 dollars that it’s not too late, all i have to do is step across that line. put down the backpack and pick up a briefcase. the bmw, the tailored suits, the beautiful wife, the house…same as it ever was.

the trolley rides past the ponchartrain expressway, then goes around lee circle…surrounded by vagrant hotels. the ghost next to me fades away; both of us knowing deep in out heart that this is the only way for this half of me.

oh, ho ho…the french quarter. vieux carré. the capital of debauchery, confusion central. getting off the street car and crossing canal street isn’t the same as walking across your average city street…it’s more like stepping back in time. as clichéd as that sounds, it’s truer here than any other place i know. there aren’t too many living museums comprised of 28o year old buildings that can take the constant abuse dished out by millions of drunken revelers, year after year, in nightly bacchanalian frenzy. and oh what a lovely place it is with its european style and its shuttered doors behind wrought iron balconies overlooking streets laid out in the 1720’s.

it all started in 1682, when this guy, rené robert cavelier, sieur de la salle, first visited the indian tribes of the area. in actuality, without even bothering to learn enough of their language to properly introduce himself, he claimed the entire mississippi valley for france. that would be the same as if i walked into new orleans and claimed it for the martin family. absolute foolishness….

but anyhow, who cares. in the spirit of absolute foolishness, i, jeff martin, sieur de nowhere in particular, claim this stinking, festering wound of a city as my home for the next 24 hours or so…or as long as is fiscally feasible. and considering that the bars are open so soon after sunrise, i get the strange feeling that i’ll be lucky to leave here with five dollars in my worn out leather wallet.

but let me tell you about the smell. new orleans, the long term residence of corruption, slime, and filth, does have a heart…a rotten perverse one known as vieux carré…the french quarter. no, it wasn’t named for its olfactory relation to frenchmen. it’s just mere coincidence that it happens to be a cornucopia of vile fragrances: beer, piss, fermenting trash being the most prominent. people have been drinking, pissing and puking on these streets since shortly after 1718 when jean baptiste le moyne, sieur de bienville established a french settlement here. i’m not a bit surprised at how similar the smell is to everything greyhound stands for. if moral decay had a smell, it would be…

“excuse me?”

“what!?” i shout, my train of thought derailled by…a whore.

“who’re you talking to?” she asks.

“nobody…myself, i guess. just thinking about the pleasant aroma of the quarter. what happened to your head?” i ask her.

“huh?” she says, and then gingerly touches a finger to the eggplant colored crescent under her left eye. “oh, you know. so where are you from?”

“france.”

“really?”

“no.” i get a puzzled look from her, so i quickly shoot off a question before she does. “what do you want? why me, at this hour of the morning?”

“huh?” her.

“nevermind. what’s up?”

“not too much. i was just wondering if you wanted a little company this morning?”

hmmm…other than the shiner, she’s not a bad looking woman…5′ 4″, maybe 110 lbs., long blondish hair tied back in a ponytail, “what are we talking about?” i ask casually.

“maybe you loan me thirty bucks and we go to my place. i run a ten minute errand, come back, we get comfortable and then i’ll cook you breakfast.” she cocks her head to the side and smiles. “how does that sound?”

“well,” she frowns as i say that word, “i’ll be totally honest with you. this isn’t exactly my thing. and i’ve only got 27 dollars with me. other than that, all i’ve got in this world is in this backpack.” i tug on a shoulder strap to emphasize. “your offer sounds great, and i’d even smoke a little weed with you, but i have to get out of this town. i don’t wanna be completely broke…not here.”

i seem to have struck a sympathetic nerve with her. she looks up to the sky, thinking, and then restates the terms of her offer. “look, i’ll be totally honest with you. i need 12 dollars to get some dope.” i can see the need in her eyes. that nervous longing that can’t be settled without ‘the drug’.

“just twelve bucks?” i ask in a solemnly lowered tone. she nods her head. “okay, let’s go.”

we get to her place. her place is not what i expected her place to look like. it’s a third story flat at the corner of royal and orleans. i look out the windows over royal and down cathedral (or is it pirates alley? i always get them confused.) towards the square and the river. the view is beautiful. the apartment is furnished with some not exactly cheap imitations of frank lloyd wright’s furniture designs. and there’s this funky purple chaise lounge against one of the walls…very hip. “hey, um, what’s your name?” i ask.

“mary,” she says. “you’re probably wondering about the place?”

“um, yeah you could say that. by the way, i’m jeff.”

“hey jeff, lemme get that money and we’ll talk when i get back. okay?”

i hand her the $12 and she walks out the door. looking out the window, i see her make a right towards canal street. this is way too strange for a transplanted floridian expat like myself. is this her apartment? hell, i don’t think she’d leave me in a place like this for just twelve dollars. the cd collection alone is worth 10 times that much at a pawn shop. i can’t help but wonder if i’m about to be robbed. not likely, with just $15 in my wallet. this is crazy. what the hell am i doing here?

i glance along the walls of the dark studio. she has two toulouse lautrec prints hanging on the back wall facing the windows. i recognize one of them, the 1899 poster of jane avril. there are three pictures of mary next to the kitchen. one, of her in a bikini, holding up what looks to be a 20 lbs. snook. wow, she looks good in a two-piece. the other two are of her and some big latino dude, one taken on her balcony during mardi gras it seems, and the other is one of those old west type photos you can get at the state fair. mary is beautiful in the pictures. a big difference from 7:30am, with a swollen head, needing a fix.

i’m sitting on the purple chaise when she returns. “hey,” she says.

“hey. everything go okay?” i ask.

she sits down across from me on a purple beanbag chair. leaning forward, she reaches under the coffee table for this little jewelry box which she sets on the glass top. “yeah, everything went good,” she says. “look, i gotta fire up. you can watch or turn around. it doesn’t matter to me.”

“i’m cool. go ahead.”

she sets a tiny bag of what looks like heroin on the table. she opens the box and removes a small red candle and sets it on the glass. out comes a stained silver spoon, a bic lighter, an insulin syringe, and a brown shoe lace. mary takes out a pair of cuticle scissors and cuts a small square of cotton off one of those pressed cotton pads that women use to remove nail polish. from what looks like a visine bottle, she squirts a bit of water into the spoon. with surgically steady hands, she cuts the top edge of the baggie and ever so gently taps its contents into the spoon.

she bites her lip in concentration…my palms start to sweat.

the candle is lit. the flame dances slowly under the ceiling fan. the water yellows as the powder dissolves. she sets it down after the water bubbles, then drops the cotton square into the juice. drawn up into the syringe, the dope looks darker…more sinister. held up towards the window, three small bubbles are tapped to the surface and expelled…ready for liftoff.

a loose lock of her dusty blond hair hangs over her right eye. mary blows out the candle and glances up at me, looking incredibly sexy in some depraved way. i try to smile, but i know it must look forced. tough…it’s the best i’ve got.

her hands seem so smooth, the fingers thin and agile, the nails manicured. she can’t be over 25. the grimace as she taps the needle into the crook of her arm makes me wonder about the duality of pleasure and misery, and why we go through what we all do. neil young’s ‘needle and the damage done’ is playing on the soundtrack in my head. a curl of red spirals into the amber…let go of the rope…watch the plunger fall, draw back, fall again…eyelids flutter, shoulders relax.

in the words of don king, the fix is in….

lesson #71, understanding the female psyche. we’re standing on her tiny wrought iron balcony, talking and staring down at st. anthony’s square…the cathedral garden. mary lives a 7 on a 1-10 scale of shitty lives…ten being the worst. her boyfriend, big latino in the pictures, gave her the eyepiece that coincidentally matches the furnishings and draperies in the apartment. mary is a dancer, big latino is the manager at the same club, explaining the nicer than expected pad. mary does dope, big latino bangs her up. big latino says no work for her until the bruise is gone. he leaves for vegas. takes her money, i.d., bank cards, etcetera…tells her if anything comes up missing….

so what does mary do? three days, $40 a day habit, eight bucks in change on day four at 7 in the morning, dope sickness…

mary finds me.

“see that window above the garden?” she points. “that’s where faulkner wrote his first novel…”

“soldier’s pay.”

“yeah, you’ve read it?”

“uh huh,” i nod, “a couple of years ago.”

“remember the rector? his rose garden? i like to think he got the idea for it lookin’ out that window.”

“sounds reasonable,” i agree. “you want any more of this joint?”

“nah. go ahead.”

i take a few more puffs, then put the roach out on my tongue and drop it in my cigarette pack. “smoke?” she grabs one and i light it for her. the smoke lingers around our heads in the still morning air. “i’ve always loved that garden. it’s like an oasis in the middle of…” i gesture with my hands, “all of this.”

“li’l bit of paradise, ain’t it.” a bit of sarcasm.

“do you know why they call it st. anthony’s square?” i ask her. “it’s something i’ve wondered about.”

“i think they named it after an old priest that died,” her brow wrinkles in thought. “i do know the garden was built in memory of the french soldiers that died nursing yellow fever victims a long time back.”

“you do know the history of this place,” i tell her. “live here long?”

“i’m a genuine citified coonass. been here all my life.”

“coonass?”

“coonass, cajun, same shit. that’s what everyone calls us in these parts.”

“answer me this,” i ask. “why does everybody down here sound like they’ve got a  new yorkish accent?’

“i sound like a new yorker?” she exaggeratedly drops the r’s.

“no,” i say laughing, “your voice is mixed…more southern than northern, but little hints of both.”

“i dunno. my best guess is ’cause we come from the same ethnic groups: french, english, irish, german and so on.”

“the same melting pot, eh? chowder up there, gumbo down here?”

she smiles, “yeah, it’s a little spicier down here.”

“no doubt. how about that breakfast you mentioned?”

mary cooks up some scrambled eggs, croissants from a can, bacon and grits. with her heroin and my joint…truly the breakfast of champions. at 9:00 i make my way down to rue royal. the quarter’s coming to life.

j.m. 2000-2002

…an excerpt from my unfinished autobiographical adventure thing.

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