The stuff you do when you’re in college and mostly funds-free! Boy was an architecture student and I was majoring in art history at UT Austin. One Saturday night, over Mexican food and too much beer, a bunch of us decided we really needed to see Mardi Gras up close and personal. For my part, my only forays into Louisiana had been with the redneck relatives in hot pursuit of Elvis Daddy and his tart of the week, so I was all about seeing swamps and bayous. Out came checkbooks, pencils, and calculators so we could figure out how to finance this expedition.
There would be nine of us in all, and we would take only two vehicles to conserve on gas. Since I had a VW bug with the best mileage, my car was bestowed the honor.
Lodging was going to be a huge budget buster, though. Our friend Beau told us about his parents’ huge antebellum mansion on a tree-lined street in the historic district of New Orleans. “They have a huge basement with plenty of room for all of us, and there’s even running water”. Lodging problem solved. Coolers were filled with bologna sandwiches, and nine eager bodies were shoehorned into one tiny VW bug and Boy’s blue 1970 Plymouth Barracuda.
No matter the amount of joie de vivre we set out with, by the time we arrived nine cramped, sweaty hours later, we were more than ready to stretch our legs and get unpacked in our basement digs, and let the good times roll. As we emerged from our cars my mouth dropped open at the grandeur and opulence of the houses on this block. These must be seriously wealthy people. From his attire and manner of speaking, we assumed Beau had a comfortable upbringing, but never imagined anything like this. Beau’s stock just went WAAYYY UP!
The meticulously coiffed lady who opened the door for us was Beau’s mother. She wore an elegant silk shirtwaist dress and pearls and was oh, so very proper and refined. Her attitude toward the bunch of us standing on her front stoop was rather like that of a mom whose young child is standing holding a rabid skunk in its arms. Did we really smell that bad? Eight strange hippie flower children gathered in her foyer must have been a shock to her delicate system, but nothing to compare to ours when she escorted us to our “digs” in the basement. “House Hunters” fans are familiar with the term ‘unfinished’ basement; this was more like a cave dwelling. There was cement on the uneven floor, but the walls were earthen and exuded the most ungodly stench of musk and decay. There was not a single stick of furniture in sight, and the ‘running water’ turned out to be from the rusty toilet sitting out in open space with a bare light bulb hanging above it. Eight mutinous faces slowly turned in Beau’s direction; things were about to get ugly. Beau’s stock just went WAAAYYY down!
After we trussed Beau up and hung him from the rafters, we hightailed it out of Dodge and headed to the French Quarter to figure out our most pressing problem. Where to stay on $27 per night for eight people? With the puppy-like confidence and the arrogance that is youth, we assumed we could manifest rooms where no one else before us could. So, with bellies full of overpriced, watered-down Hurricanes, we set off on our stubborn quest. Apparently our query of “Do you have any availability for rooms $27 or under?’ was so hysterically funny, that I’m surprised HBO didn’t offer us our own Young Comedians Special. After hours of aimless and fruitless wandering, a nice old gentleman directed us about 25 miles outside of New Orleans, to LaPlace, Louisiana. We had learned the hard way that beggers can’t be choosers, so off we went.
Dusk was descending when we arrived, and we were so exhausted after our long day of adventures, that it didn’t really faze me when I read the sign that said “LaPlace Snake Farm and Motel” I would happily have had a three-way with a boa constrictor and a python just to have a place to hang our hats for the next three nights. Sadly, the two rooms he had available were $45 each, and therefore, way out of our reach, if we wanted to eat on this vacation. When asked if he might offer any alternatives, this kindly, endentulous old gentleman, unfolded his tall, lanky body, hitched up the imaginary belt on his farmer’s coveralls, and motioned for us to follow him out front. With a piece of hay stuck between his non-existent teeth, he stretched out a long arm and pointed to the right, “Well, down the road a piece, a ways, really, say about eaddy, eaddy-five miles or so, y’all kids will come to my cousin Leavon’s place. He meybe will ,meybe won’t, have some place. Cain’t call him, though; ain’t got no phone way on out there on the bayou”.
Priscilla, one of our gang of eight, blond, blue-eyed, and newly pregnant and just beginning to show, immediately burst into tears. She had decided that walking between corridors of wire-enclosed cages filled with poisonous slimy creatures in order to reach a motel room was preferable to driving 80 miles out into the bayou in a strange place in the dead of night. Leavon’s good cousin looked stricken. “Now, now, little gal, that’s no reason to cry. Let me go talk to the little missus and see what we can fix up for y’all .” He was soon back with the news that if we could manage, he would let us have one of the two rooms for $27 per night. This was how eight bodies, plus one fetus, managed to live for three nights in a tiny motel room with one double bed, and with nothing but snakes, gila monsters, and all manner of lizards, for chaperones. Adaptability + college students go together like white on rice.
The only other thing I remember about this trip was that I developed a fear of crowds. One night, as we were walking down Bourbon Street with the herds of humanity, I was crushed between so many bodies that my feet literally could not touch the street for about a block. The press of human flesh and the lack of autonomy in choosing which way to go was terrifying. I was sure I would be crushed to death, suffocated by that writhing mass of flesh.
Silly, and perhaps a bit sad, that my one and only memory of New Orleans is of a snake farm and its inhabitants. I’m sure there must have been raw clams and oysters, hot sauce, breakfast at Brennan’s, bare boobs flashing for free drink beads, and many other adventures during the ensuing three days, but darn if I remember anything except those snakes! And many hours spent debating, “What the hell was Beau thinking? Running water, really? From a rusted toilet?” Suffice it to say that upon returning to Austin, Beau was unequivocally outside our circle of trust, where he remained til the end of time. Priscilla gave birth four months later to a beautiful baby boy we promptly nicknamed Snake. Boy and I, in a moment of utter madness, sold both my trusty VW and his Barracuda, in order to purchase a restored 1955 Mercedes convertible coupe whose engine turned off the moment it entered a highway.
A tip of my hat to my blogging buddy Kim from “stuff southern people like” for pushing this long-buried memory to the surface when she posed the question “What’s the best thing you’ve ever caught at Mardi Gras? No STD stories please”.
Uncork a nice bottle of Chianti next week, ladies, when we return to Milan for more adventures of “Texas Toast”.