"When I was just a little boy, standin' to my daddy's knee, son, he said, don't let the man getcha, do what he done to me. Cause he'll getcha. "
—John Fogerty/Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Born on the Bayou"
I definitely made a geographic leap yesterday, crossing the wide Mississippi and arriving in New Orleans
. I didn't know what to expect from this mysterious city, but I figured I probably shouldn't try to sleep in my VW Passat on the streets. Besides, I'd never been there before and wanted to have some fun. How often do you get to do something like this anyway? I figured my epic adventure deserved some epic creature comforts. Or at least a decent hotel room.
Once again, priceline.com came to the rescue. I need to call these guys and get them to sponsor me, for all the great publicity I'm providing. I booked a room at the Marriott Hotel on Canal Street, in the French Quarter, for $68 per night. Yes, you read that right. And this was a nice room – 16th floor, fancy, clean, the works. I checked on line and the regular rates range from $150 to $250, so I think I got a pretty good deal.
As I was driving into the city, I realized I needed to figure out my rowing plan. I think I've been a bit too laid back about that part, but it's also part of the fun. Driving down Interstate 10 near downtown New Orleans, I Googled "Tulane rowing" on my iPhone as I dodged in and out of rush hour traffic. The site came up and the first name I saw was Bob Jaugstetter, who runs the program. "Hmm," I thought, "I remember that name – oh yeah, I interviewed him years ago for an article for Rowing
magazine about Tulane's post-Katrina rebuilding experience." I pushed the phone number next to his name and my iPhone automatically dialed it (one of the zillions of reasons why the iPhone is the only smart phone I'd ever own). After one ring he answered.
I told him my story and he said, "Oh yeah, I saw that on row2k." Score! I said I'd be in town for a few days and asked if it would be okay if I shoved off of Tulane's docks. "Sure thing," he said, "I'll drive over there and meet you." I thought, "Damn. I know my luck is good, but I didn't think it was this good." I met him there about 30 minutes later.
Not only did he allow me to keep my boat, rigger and oars at the "boathouse" (boats behind a locked, fenced-in quad
– Tulane is a club program…no majestic boathouse), he also said, "I'm glad you came – I needed to get out of the house. I have a great place to take you to dinner." I was speechless.
"B-b-but..." I protested, "You've already way outdone yourself already! Take me to dinner? I can't accept that."
"You don't understand!!" he said, in a way that only a coach with 28 years of experience coaching the club program that he built from scratch could say. "This is New Orleans. It's what we DO
!!" It's not really what they do in Boston, but I wasn't about to argue. You don't say no to Bob Jaugstetter when he's offering to take you for dinner and a full tour of the French Quarter.
When I took my first steps into the Quarter after leaving my hotel, and as I walked deeper into the neighborhood down Chartres Street, I felt like I had been transported into another space and time – like in an episode of The Twilight Zone
. I'm not making this up. I was walking on air. It was nighttime, so the architecture, which hasn't changed much at all since the late 1700s-early 1800s, was mesmerizing. After spending several days in Florida, I had entered a whole new world.
We ate at Coop's, on Decatur Street
. He told me what to get. I took one bite of the opening cup of gumbo that preceded my seafood dish and was stopped dead in my tracks. It was like when Jerry takes his first bite from the soup he just brought home from the Soup Nazi and almost falls off his chair. It was so good I was speechless.
"Pretty good huh," Bob deadpanned. I almost couldn't answer. I just kept eating. Bob knew everyone in the place and the waitress acted like the president of his fan club. I was in good company.
Bob took me all around the Quarter, showing me The River (do you have to ask which one?), the bar where French pirate and co-hero of the Battle of New Orleans Jean Lafitte hung out, and explained everything to me. It was mind-blowing. The enormous windows. The long "shotgun" houses (so named because you can shoot a shotgun through the front window and it will go straight through the back window without hitting anything), the balconies, the high ceilings, the ornate architectural details everywhere, on all parts of every building, whether it's a mansion or not. It was, as we say in Boston, wicked awesome.
After dinner he "dumped me off" on Bourbon Street
, which is actually pretty tacky-touristy. But hey, it's Bourbon Street, and it was my first time in the city. Bob knew what he was doing. But he kept warning me, "Be careful... she'll get her claws into you..." (she
being New Orleans).
I went into Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo and got my palm read and cards analyzed. It was all good stuff and she said my wish would come true (I can't imagine they tell people otherwise). But it was thoroughly enjoyable, and I liked that she knew I had two kids, a boy and a girl, without any clue from me. I also liked that I had "four jacks" in the final card reading, meaning very good luck. You can never have too much of that. I moved on, a few doors down to a bar with a German name that now escapes me. They had some fantastic Dixieland jazz, and I spent a good part of the night listening to them. Then I kept going, to more clubs, meeting more people. It was a long, long night, though it passed very quickly.
I woke up late, very groggy, having slept right through the morning row that I told Bob I'd try to make. He had texted and called me several times, worried that I was at the bottom of the Mississippi, or worse – tied up in the back room of some brothel. I slept through all his attempts but finally called him when I woke up.
"Sigh..." he exhaled, after I told him of my adventures, "You never made it off Bourbon Street." It was as though he was saying a eulogy for yet-another idiot tourist who had no idea what he was getting into in his first visit to the legendary city. We had some laughs, and he agreed to meet me at 4:30 that afternoon so I could row on the canal where Tulane trains.
I arrived at the boathouse around on a perfectly gorgeous evening
. The sun was about to set, there was no wind, and the water was flat calm. "We don't have many issues with wind," Bob explained to me, and for obvious reasons: the canal is situated within two large concrete walls
, except at the end, where it turns a bit and the walls turn into sloping grassy banks. It's about 20 minutes of steady state, in a single, for one length of the canal. I did it four times – two round trips.
It may be the best water in the world for working on technique. Long and straight and like glass. Except that every once in a while
, I heard and felt a huge "FA-WHAP!" sound near my boat. Scared the living crap out of me. It happened several times during my row. I thought… "It can't be. There's no way. Probably just some big fish. No way there could actually be alligators in this place." But it kept happening, and it was pretty scary for this neophyte Yankee. The other interesting feature were the extremely low bridges, which were quite wide. They practically scratched the top of my head. Really bizarre. But it was an absolutely fabulous row, despite the bridges and the frightening "FA-WHAPs"
I returned to find Bob waiting for me – he was the most hospitable, accommodating host imaginable – and I asked him about the weird sea creatures. "Oh yeah," he said, nonchalantly. "Those are alligators. Probably six to eight feet long. No big deal."
I was delighted and freaked out at the same time. Delighted that I'd survived the experience and freaked that I had had the experience.
"But don't you worry about them jumping up on the boat?" While rowing, I actually had envisioned one slapping himself on my stern deck with his mouth gaping and teeth gnashing.
"Nah," he said. "They just open their mouths and swim and they get filled up with all the fish they can eat." Okie dokie. I guess that if the Tulane rowers haven't been eaten yet after all these years, it was probably okay. Besides, now I can say that I rowed with the alligators. Better than sleeping with the fishes, I suppose.
After my blissful row, I was going to have dinner and then spend a mellow evening watching TV in my hotel room. "Yeah right," Bob said. "You'll walk out of the restaurant and say, 'Hmm… I wonder what that place is like.' And you'll be off and running."
He was close, but I managed to stay fairly true to my intentions. I ate at a fabulous – and somewhat pricey – restaurant near the hotel called Mr. B's. It was very crowded and very fancy, with linen tablecloths and the whole bit. There was a 20-minute wait for a table and the bar was jammed, but, being from Boston, I went into hover mode, snagging a table on the end (my favorite spot) from a few women who were just leaving. Perfect, I thought. I'll just sit here, read my New York Times, have a nice dinner, and that will be that.
It started that way, but it doesn't end that way, at least not in New Orleans. People are just too damn nice, and they are having too much fun. Everyone's opening line is, "So where are you from?" You can't just read by yourself. And once engaged, I don't mind being social, so I had a nice chat with a couple of middle-aged guys to my left who were from California. One was an engineer with an acerbic sense of humor, and his buddy was a postal worker who was already drunk as a skunk at 7:30 PM. It was interesting enough. An elderly gentleman came in with his wife and some friends and the drunk guy engaged him. He turned out to be a scientist on the Gemini space project, which was pretty cool. Another extremely attractive 59-year-old brunette (who could easily pass for early 40s) arrived with her sugar daddy boyfriend, and I chatted with her for a few minutes. She was a native of New Orleans and was as charming as she could be, and her accent was to die for.
I left there, remembering Bob's words, and thought, well, I'm not sure when I'll be back to this amazing part of this amazing city, so I might as well walk around a bit. I looked toward Bourbon Street, and simply turned away. No thank you. I wanted a quiet little place where I could get a cup of coffee and maybe some dessert, and I found just such a place a few blocks away.
Energized after some amazing homemade cheese cake with raspberry sauce and a great cup of coffee, I thought, "Hmm, Bob told me that Frenchman Street was where the really good music is, where the locals go, and I never made it there last night." So I walked the remaining 10 blocks or so down a quiet street, admiring all the houses along the way, and discovered, that, of course, he knew exactly what he was talking about. I saw four different bands, all of which blew my mind, in four great clubs. Really good bluesy/jazzy stuff in the first three, and then a killer funk/jazz/pop band in the last one. I took a cab back to my hotel and was in bed by 11, extremely happy that I'd seen such great music yet again. And also happy that I was home at a reasonable hour.
The next day, Friday the 9th of November, I packed up my car again and drove through the bayou of Louisiana, across the Mississippi again in Baton Rouge, and then headed into Beaumont, Texas, where I had dinner with a wonderful old friend, Laurie Gordon. She was busy with her NASA-engineer boyfriend that weekend, attending the Marine Ball in Houston on Sunday night, but she was kind enough to fit me in and treat me to a Mexican dinner.
I was determined to camp that night, having spent two nights in a fancy hotel in New Orleans, and Laurie helped me find a KOA campground near Galveston Bay. When I arrived a few hours later, however, it was chock full of RV's and it seemed like everyone was asleep. Finally, a rather unpleasant security guy found me and started giving me the third degree, thinking that I was trying to scam the place for a free night's stay. I told him that, no, the office was closed, and that I would pay in the morning. He asked me a million questions about everything under the sun, and finally, grudgingly, showed me to a spot under some bright fluorescent lights and right next to the manager's RV.
I said, "Look, I can go into town and get a motel room – I don't want to cause any trouble." "Oh." He said, with a sneering, TV-cop-like demeanor. "There's not gonna be any trouble." Wow. The big tough KOA Campground Security Guard has got everything under control. Sheesh, I thought. This is way more work than it should be. He knocked on the manager's trailer door and, after her dog barked for about 10 minutes, she finally came out and told me it would be $29 to stay the night. In my car. Frugal Yankee that I am, I said thanks, but no thanks. I high-tailed it out of there, absolutely fuming. Maybe if the view had been something other than endless oil refineries, I would have felt differently.
It was now close to midnight, and I was pretty tired. I looked around the lovely community of Baytown for a quiet place to park and sleep, but something about the place really gave me the creeps. Finally I got back on the highway, headed west, and found a nice truck stop about 30 miles west of Houston. Truck stops are awesome
. They are self-contained communities with everything you need – a store full of provisions, a Denny's, rest rooms, laundry, showers, and plenty of security for crashing. The cashier in the store was very sweet, and she told me I could park on the side of the Denny's and sleep there. Phew. I took some allergy meds and crashed. I slept for at least 9 hours, and I was psyched that finally, I had had a successful and free night's sleep in my car
I arrived in San Antonio a few hours later
, quickly developed a nasty cold and decided to camp for a few days before the long-ass truck across West Texas (10 hours of nothing). Hopefully I'll make it up to Austin to row, but for now, I just need to get well and do a ton of laundry.