This blog was created almost two years ago as a way to share some of my experiences as a sportswriter, a way to chronicle those years of my life that my sons are too young to know about. With the Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans approaching, I’ve been reminiscing about some of the times I had in the Crescent City, including one night when a fellow sportswriter drank deeply from the chalice of French Quarter life. Come to think of it, this could all have been a dream. The names have been changed, but the events are faithfully recorded as they might or might not have happened. See you soon, New Orleans.
That night in New Orleans began at Mulate’s. As the Zydeco heated up and the Abita cooled us down, Sam finished his second hurricane of the night and addressed the table in that gravelly, frog-like voice that always made me think of Owen Meany.
“HEY,” said Sam. “WHY DO YOU GUYS WEAR YOUR WEDDING RINGS ON THE ROAD?”
The married men among us looked around at each other and pondered how exactly to answer a question like that. We were sportswriters, all of us, in town to cover an NFL game the next day at the Superdome between the Tampa Bay Bucs and the New Orleans Saints. This particular question from this particular sportswriter demanded a moment of contemplation.
He was right, of course. If we were married, we wore our rings. At home or on the road. The implication behind Sam’s question – that the road was a place for unbridled hedonism, especially in the Crescent City – was laughable. Yet, no one laughed. We all just looked at each other in the dim light as the Zydeco music jammed on and Sam signaled the server for another drink.
Finally, Craig, one of the married men at the table, spoke up.
“Gee, I don’t know, killer,” Craig said to Sam. “I guess it’s because we’re married.”
This seemed to confuse Sam, who glared at Craig incredulously before downing half of his huge hurricane, his third of the night.
“YOU’RE MARRIED?” said Sam. “I KNOW THAT. BUT WHY DO YOU WEAR YOUR RINGS ON THE ROAD?”
And so the tone was set.
There were eight of us at supper. Two broke off from the group and returned to the Intercontinental Hotel for the night. The other six of us, including Sam, moved on to the next stop – Harrah’s Casino. We walked in one by one, Craig in his trademark dark blue blazer, the rest of us dressed like married sportswriters on the road, complete with rings. Except for Sam, who remained unmarried and was the only one of us stopped by the Harrah’s security guard and asked to produce ID.
“WHY ARE YOU STOPPING ME FOR?” said Sam. “THAT GUY THERE LOOKS YOUNGER THAN ME!”
He pointed at me, and the security guard looked my way. Sam was right. I did look younger than him. That’s mostly because I was younger than him by about 15 years. Yet, of course the guard let me through, and OF COURSE she stopped Sam. That was just how things went for Sam, who seemed to bring such indignities upon himself everywhere he went. Sam’s voice even gave gigantic NFL defensive linemen nightmares. It was the voice of a man who made a high art form of expressing outrage.
“I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE STOPPED ME,” said Sam as he joined the rest of us near the high stakes poker dais. Craig, still wearing his blue blazer, already had broken off from the group and was innocently peering over the shoulder of one of the poker players when two security guards converged on him and politely asked him to desist.
“Oh, man, yeah, sorry about that, killer,” Craig said, as the guards escorted him off the dais.
We stuck around for a few minutes, long enough for me to lose $20 at the slots. The six of us left together, but the Saturday night crush of Bourbon Street split us into two groups of three. Craig and two other writers fell behind me, Sam and Graham. Graham was a brilliant columnist, a nationally known talent whose particular gift was turning conversations into sparkling vignettes that perfectly captured the essence of a story. The three of us strolled along Bourbon, peeking into Old Absinthe House, taking in the sights and smells of debauchery, when Sam had an impulse.
“HEY,” he bellowed. “WHERE CAN YOU GET A CIGAR IN THIS TOWN?”
I remembered the Cigar Factory on Decatur Street from an earlier trip to New Orleans, so we made our way over there. I bought us all Davidoff cigars and Graham led us over to Napoleon House bar. We found seats at the bar and ordered our drinks – another hurricane for Sam, Jack and Coke for me, gin and Seven-up for Graham. Graham immediately fell deep into conversation with a man at the bar whose heavy parka, wool stocking cap and tattered backpack gave me the vague impression that he might be a fugitive serial killer or train robber from the Pacific Northwest. Sam took out his Davidoff and gestured to the bartender.
“I NEED SOME MATCHES,” Sam said. “DO YOU HAVE ANY MATCHES?”
The bartender brought a book of matches to Sam, who broke one off and tried to strike it. It fizzled and went out.
Sam dropped the bad match and tore off another. He struck again, and again it fizzled and went out.
Three more times I watched it happen, each time punctuated by that distinctive “DAMMIT” as Sam’s face turned as red as Andouille sausage and the cigar remained unlit.
“Sam,” I said, and pointed up. “You’re standing under a ceiling fan.”
He looked up at the whirling blades a couple of feet above his head.
“WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME BEFORE?”
He went outside and lit his cigar, and we smoked and finished our drinks while Graham and D.B. Cooper spoke in hushed tones down the bar.
It was almost midnight. Time to head to the Original Dungeon.
The Original Dungeon, it was said, was where Trent Reznor and Eddie Vedder liked to hang out when they were in town. It opened at midnight, not a second earlier, which gives you an idea of the kind of place it was. And still is, I imagine.
The three of us stumbled through the door and up the dark stairs, where we found a bar, an impossibly small dance floor, and people crammed in from skull-encrusted wall to skull-encrusted wall. The music was so loud and the bass so deep that those walls and their skulls shook and the only way to communicate was by hand gestures or shouting directly into the ear of the person next to you.
I gestured toward the bar and got thumbs up from Sam and Graham, who waited by the wall while I bought us all more drinks. Or, Graham waited. When I got back, Sam was out on the dance floor. With a woman.
I handed Graham his gin and Seven-up and downed my own Jack and Coke in two swallows. It was loud, it was late, and I was ready to head back to the hotel. Graham and I just stood around sweating, ears already beginning to ring. Sam danced like a mad man, and the woman danced with him. Every now and then, he would lean in and shout something grating and probably incredibly inappropriate into her ear. After awhile, he abruptly stopped dancing and came over to us.
He leaned in and shouted into my ear.
“I’LL SEE YOU GUYS AT THE GAME TOMORROW,” he said. Then he took the woman’s hand and walked back down the stairs and out into the throbbing French Quarter night.
Graham and I caught a cab back to the hotel. Sam was late to the game, settling into his seat on press row moments before kickoff. He grinned and deflected our questions.
“WHAT WOMAN?” he said.
The Bucs won. They would go on to end their season with a loss to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis, where Graham and I enjoyed an after-midnight cocktail with the Man Show’s Jimmy Kimmel in the hotel lounge. But that’s another story about another city for another time.