Friday night was my last night in New Orleans. I’d been spending quite a bit of time with my childhood friend Jason who had mysteriously appeared in the city a few days ago on a spiritual sort of odyssey in a borrowed truck. J had generously offered to drive me to the airport early Saturday morning and we were both exhausted from Thursday night’s drunken escapades that had begun uptown at a sweltering, life-affirming performance by a 10 piece brass band, and ending (for me) in unconscionable stupidity and recklessness: stumbling around the Bywater at 4 am, oscillating with my computer in search of a wireless signal like a nut on a beach looking for gold before settling down in a pile of debris, weeping, writing an email to my estranged high school sweetheart. I haven’t yet figured out how to triage this disaster but it will have to wait. Jason and I had one last order of important business around midnight last night: A mission to the French Quarter for French Fry Po-boys.
The idea of a French fry po-boy will likely shock and disturb anyone but native New Orleanians and possibly Pittsburghers. It’s a rhapsodic treatise of starch: French bread stuffed with French fried potatoes and topped with a standard array of sandwich fixings. I’d had one on my last trip to New Orleans, but this time around I’d come close to missing out, subsisting largely on fried eggs, coffee and beer. We headed to our friend Shanna’s place of employment, the Quarter Master at the end of Bourbon Street. Our order took eternity to process which gave us ample time to discuss vegetarianism with a heavy set young cop waiting in line for his bar-b-qued catfish. “Y’all is ‘try-atarians’” he guffawed affectionately when we confessed that we eat meat from time to time but usually feel guilty about it.
It was midnight and we were exhausted; too tired to even drink beer and opting for ginger ale instead. We walked to the dog park on Dauphine and Governor Nichols and settled down on some brick rubble stumps to devour our food. To our dismay the guys had forgotten the cheese we’d requested (necessary from an architectural perspective as it sorts of binds the fried together in a gooey suspension). Luckily I had managed to hustle them for two sides of olive salad, which we dumped on in oily deluges all over the desiccated messes. As we ate and chatted a strange young man pulled up a rubble heap nearby. He was also eating a sandwich and I exchanged some friendly words with him, though his erratic behavior (making clicking noises, talking half to us and half to himself) was rather annoying. He seemed like a bit of a tweaker and soon took off down the block muttering.
Jason and I were nearly done with our greasy snack when a police squad car pulled up on the sleepy corner. Tow hefty cops emerged and quickly approached us.
“What are you doing here?” They demanded gruffly.
“Just eating a sandwich and drinking a soda.”
“Where you from?”
“Where you staying?”
“You working here?”
“No, just visiting a friend?”
“Where is your friend?”
“Dauphine, 3200 block.”
“We gonna find anything on you tonight?”
Their tone was absolutely terrifying. At this point Jason, ever calm and compliant, a seasoned punk with lots of cop experience in his repertoire, quietly raised his hands. One cop began roughly rummaging in his pockets. A cigarette lighter and a box of dental floss clattered to the concrete. I stood by nervously, grateful we’d been drinking soda; grateful they wouldn’t find anything on us. These were very mean cops with an agenda of terror and things were only about to get worse.
“What are you doing to them?” A voice called. Our friend the sandwich eating tweaker appeared in the park behind us. “They were just eating a sandwich.”
“This ain’t no place to eat.” A cop barked.
“Why is that?” they guy fired back.
“Cos people get robbed here that’s why.” Said the cop, his temper visibly flaring. Adding “Who are you?”
“Get over here.” The cops demanded.
“Fine,” said the guy hopping off the brick wall, “but I felt a sure felt a lot safer before
you guys showed up.”
Wrong thing to say to vicious, crooked cops. Wrong thing.
“You feel safer without us?” they snarled and within seconds they had the guy bent over the back of the cruiser and were snapping on the cuffs.
“Help me!” the tweaker screamed. He looked at me and Jason and screamed it again
Then he started hollering and struggling and the cops knocked him to the ground and he bit one of the cops on the hand. “Fucking shit.” The cop swore, reaching for his radio, blood pouring down his thumb. “Jesus fucking Christ help me somebody! The guy screamed, “I need to go to a mental institution.” The cop kneed him in the nuts but he kept squirming. Jason and I looked on terror stricken, unsure what to do. I climbed outside my body and saw myself utterly frozen, impotent. I knew that the guy was crazy, probably on crystal meth or something, but I also knew the way the cops were treating him was wrong. Finally, I knew that their wrath was boundless and they were only too eager to rain it on everyone. And they had guns. “Jason,” I whispered panicked, “what do we do? What do we do?”
“Abby, there’s nothing we can do.”
At this moment a bouggie kind of hippy guy striding ahead of a small retinue of well-dressed friends arrived on the seen.
“What’s going on here?” He asked breathily “I heard someone calling for help!”
“Who are you?” bellowed one of the cops
“I’m a person who heard someone calling for help.” The guy said.
And they immediately handcuffed this guy too and shoved him into the cruiser. While that was going on the tweaker broke free from the bleeding cop and booked off down the street, hands still shackled behind him.
“Let’s go.” Jason whispered, tugging on my elbow. We began heading briskly towards the car in a state of utter shock. “What the fuck was that?” I gasped. My eyes were tearing and I could feel the French fry po-boy rising in my stomach. I had just witnessed a gruesome abuse of police power. “Sweetie,” Jason said, putting an arm around me as we hurried down Esplanade, “Those were very bad cops.” My stomach dipped again as two cruisers, rushed past us, sirens wailing. Inside the truck we tore up the dashboard looking for cigarettes but turning up only a butt that we smoked down beyond the filter.
J and I stayed up late replaying the scenario trying to make sense of it. Maybe they had gotten a call about a disturbance and were actually looking for the tweaker. Maybe they would have left us alone if he hadn’t shown up. Maybe they would have booked us on some bogus pretext and sent us to prison (that’s right, there’s no jail in New Orleans, only prison). I have witnessed strange and upsetting police action at protests but even that I felt could somehow be justified by desperation to control crowds. This was different. This was a totally unprovoked, Gestapo style display of intimidation. I felt like I had been tested and given no chance to do anything but fail. That impotence left me deeply disturbed.
On our way down to Quarter Master, Jason and I had agreed that New Orleans is one of the few cities in the world, probably the only one in the United States that can really be said to have soul. It’s really, really alive. More than New York, more than San Francisco, more that any other crazy place I’ve spent time, New Orleans is a whole other animal. And it’s alive because it’s just that: it’s crazy feral. It’s full of mysticism and darkness and voo doo and the celebration and the gaiety and the art and the carnival there is unparalleled in this country of ours, but that is all equal to the crime and savagery baseness that haunts its magical streets.
I love New Orleans but ultimately, with its swampy summers, and torrid sensuality, and bleakness and destruction and fevered heights and depths of desperation, it overwhelms me. I’ve remarked to people that living in New Orleans for one week right now, during post-Katrina mardi gras, is equivalent to 6 months of life pretty much anywhere else. New Orleans hardly feels like earth. Awed, elated, disturbed, I’m running to the west coast. Running, but unable to keep from peering back.