As I sit at a patio table in front of St. Roch Market, sipping my kombucha with an iced latte back, patiently waiting for my goat cheese and sun dried tomato tart, I can’t help but look down St. Claude Avenue and remember when.
It's like some sort of "Ghost of New Orleans Past" story. All those overly priced yoga pants wearing ladies morph into my very drunk and slightly drug addled friends stumbling out of the Hi-Ho Lounge, from decades past. They are squinting their eyes as the daylight hits their face like an unwanted relative knocking at your door. All they can think is to run away. Some manage to straddle their bike and the others have accepted that the only way they are getting home is with two wheels and two feet on the ground. Most are heading home but there is always at least two who think themselves champions and head off to find their new battleground. A new barstool is their night's rest - new stool, new day.
Who this couple would be was an ever-changing cast of characters. We all took our turns. Sometimes it was decided for you. You biked into a minivan of church ladies? You, sir, are off the list. You have shown that you will not be a good partner, no caretaking allowed. If you couldn’t take care of yourself you were tossed out the Colosseum. Take your sandals and go. You are not the gladiator we are looking for.
Then there were the times when you realized it was you. You are the gladiator they are looking for. Slowly the realization would wash over you. It was never spoken but you could feel the pull. As the weak ones dropped off you could feel the magnetism with fellow warriors. The requirements for a partner only be that you are at least acquaintances. I am not saying that strangers have never had all-nighters but usually, that involved multiple parties. These gauntlets were run by souls who’s goals had all of sudden become one singular purpose. To keep the fire going till another pair of champions showed up to take over the duty. Downtown New Orleans back then resembled the Olympic Torch Relay. As soon as one team started to fade and the flame started to flicker out, another team came in to keep it burning. As a bartender, it always amazed me that they didn’t even realize what was going on. It was like the fading, flicker in their eyes was some sort of Bat Signal to their fellow bar patrons - it is your time now, I kept the stool warm for you.
One night while sitting at the HI-Ho Lounge, waiting for Bailey to stop chatting and bring me my cocktail, the feeling started growing in me. Was it because I wasn’t bothered by the giant pile of poop a dog had left on the threadbare stage? Or maybe accepting a dance challenge with a toothless hooker was my first sign? Or Bailey yelling, “No pole, Jolie! That's too far.” (When your friends, who aren’t at all Polly Annas are telling you to watch your self, it is a sure sign you will not be calling it an early evening.)
As the night went on I remember bits and pieces. There was some sort of altercation where I called a man a “khaki pants moron” and proceeded to get him kicked out the bar, simply because I found him obnoxious. Who was my partner that night? I don’t remember. I remember "khaki pant guy" vividly but my 24-hour drinking buddy? No recollection. As per the times, I had multiple marathon buddies and they all sort of jumble into one entity. Strangely enough, I do have picture proof of that night. It seems at one point we found a costume store. I have one picture of the event. My fellow gladiator, in a wife beater and creepy plastic mask.
Now, as I watch the tourists pour into the St. Roch Market and the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed bike riders whizzing by I get a little sad. I'm feeling that melancholy for times past, when the streets smelled slightly of urine, you had 50/50 chance of getting home in one piece, your best option for food was a Gene's Poboy or trudging your ass to Checkpoint Charlie's for some overly fried jalapeño poppers. Those days of knowing if you just sat there long enough your buddy, whoever it may be that day would show up. Together you would write your "Choose Your Adventure" tale and never actually remember how it ends. Those days are long gone. Now I am sitting with kombucha in hand, watching three of my fellow gladiators open the doors to each of their businesses. Seems they didn’t leave St. Claude, they found permanent residence there and settled down. They go to bed by midnight now, so they can open the bar for the new recruits. The street is nicer now and smells better but all hope is not lost. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a very large woman trying to get her scooter to the order window at Rally’s Drive-In, and a young man that has fought the good fight (drunk) valiantly tries to help her. As she swats at him, profanities streaming out of her mouth, his fresh batch of seasoned fries plummets to the ground. He looks around, looks down at the ground and grabs a handful of fries, now with a healthy amount of grass and dirt and God knows what else clinging to them, shoves them back in his box and heads off. Off to his new coliseum, to pass the torch. Off to make their own hazy memories.