509 Saint Croix Street* – there we are. I stand in a lather of indecision on the damp, grotty cobbled street, while my six and eight year old boys fiddle and jangle their limbs and punch each other half-heartedly, in that way children have when they can’t sit still. Drunk people festooned with beads and gripping giant Kool-aid drinks in plastic hurricane “souvenir cups” weave their way past piles of bagged garbage, dark and grimy puddles, and my minor children and me. The louvered door in front of me is flung wide open, and the hoppy, sickish smell of a century-old bar nearly knocks me out. Inside it is dark, but I can see a few doorways through the gloom. Outside on the streetfront, there is a separate stoop under the same address, with a center-split shutter door hanging half open – one shutter stuck closed, the other drooping into the street. I can just manage to squeeze through the half-doorway and behind the shutters I find a second large plain inner wooden door that swings inward at my slightest touch. Although I haven’t been told this, I figure out that we are heading to the residence above the bar, and I have my choice of doors, none of which is marked with any kind of balloon or “Birthday Party Here” sign. It looks like the Labyrinth at the end of that David Bowie/Jennifer Connelly movie – stairs going up one way, then branching two different directions, and another door that leads to a hallway and another selection of stairs. I am pretty thoroughly knocked out by a cold at this point, exhausted, and I nearly turn us back – “Wouldn’t you rather play at home with your friend across the street?” I ask, but they whine “nooooo,” and in any case another family from Liam’s class drives up at that very minute and wave frantically at us. Looks like we’re doing this thing.
We are 45 minutes late to this surprise party for Liam’s classmate. Her mother had invited us to a party at a bounce house about three weeks ago – that party is next weekend. Then last week her father sends an email to the class inviting us to a different special surprise party at his house in the Quarter – he has hired a Mardi Gras Indian and a Cinderella princess, all are welcome, please come to this super special party. It’s either a colossal failure to communicate, or a purposeful failure to cooperate, but the entire class agrees we are all going to both, without making any big deal of it.
I had left our uptown home in plenty of time to get there, but was delayed for all the classic NOLA reasons. First, I got us stuck behind a poorly organized second line – no cops had blocked traffic, so in a big line of cars I just drove along as normal, pulled up short behind the celebration blocking the street, and then had to attempt a three point turn to back out (DOWN A ONE WAY STREET NO LESS), as everybody in front of and behind me tried to do the same. You could see us all piling up like dominos, realizing one by one what the hang-up was, and then calmly and chaotically getting out of there – no sense getting mad, and of course no order to getting extricated from the mess. Nothing more New Orleans than driving the wrong way up a one way street to get yourself out of a surprise second line traffic snarl.
Eventually I made my way around the blockage and found the address, but the Quarter was packed today and there was no parking anywhere remotely near. I crept at 2 miles an hour through the streets, windows down, usually following stumbling tourists and all the while trolling for a spot, but eventually I gave up and decided to park at my work garage about a mile away. Once parked, I dragged the boys past lovely storefronts with gas lanterns flickering, street performers tap-dancing, horse-drawn carriages clop clop clopping down the street, and Ooops let’s hurry past the Bourbon Street strip clubs, boys. By the time we arrive at the puzzle that is the labyrinthine stairs, which are located about 3 miles from my home, we have been traveling for about an hour.
Emboldened by the other mom, who seems equally nonplussed but performatively bold-for-the-children as I, I decide on the half-shutter route, and tiptoe hesitantly up some steep, narrow, dark, and slightly sticky stairs. At the top I hear children screeching, and I call down to the other mom “Got it! This is right!” I knock on the door at the top of the stairs a few times, but no one answers, so I open it. The boys rush past me and boil right into the room and disappear, and I’m relieved when I get a few steps in and see the giant Happy Birthday banners strung around the place. We must be in the right house, right? They haven’t just launched themselves into the bowels of a total stranger’s house, right?
Once inside, I spot lots of birthday decorations, a fireplace mantel with birthday presents on it, a large dining table with a spread of finger sandwiches and chips – and basically almost no other furniture. It’s one of those old creaky French Quarter residences without a hallway, so every room opens onto another room or two – you have to walk through a bedroom to get to the family room, that sort of thing. And since none of the rooms are furnished in any kind of sensible way, I’m struggling to get oriented to what’s what, to figure out which rooms are bedrooms and which are the entertaining spaces. No one greets us to say welcome, you’re in the right place, thank you for coming – I see adults in a nearby kitchen but they pretend not to see me. I’m really grateful at this point for Other Mom, whose name I think is Mary, and whose chipper “well, isn’t this a fun adventure!” attitude is keeping me from fleeing the awkwardness.
The boys run into a back room which is filled with fifth grade boys who immediately demand that the younger boys leave, and begin aggressively shooting them with Nerf guns until they flee and find another door to go through. Eventually we find the birthday girl, who is playing in a pile of chip crumbs on the floor of what appears to be the master bedroom, although it looks like maybe it should be a family room instead? But it has a king bed, plus two side tables stacked next to each other at the foot of the bed . . . and nothing else in it besides a few toys. The birthday girl, who is wearing what looks to be a dirty, tattered top and pajama bottoms, hair uncombed, takes one look at all of us arriving, and stalks into another room and slams the door. You guys, at this point I was like WHAT IS HAPPENING IS THIS THE TWILIGHT ZONE THIS ISN’T NORMAL RIGHT?
The boys are totally unfazed, and set to frolicking amidst the crumpled birthday napkins and food waste with the couple of other kids who are there, some of whom I recognize, thank God. Children thus deposited, I finally square my shoulders and make my way to the kitchen to introduce myself, whereupon I am met by a man so absolutely catatonic drunk he can barely stand. I shake his hand and he clings to me like a drowning man clutching a life preserver, then weaves in and close-talks a very awkward conversation that goes something like this:
Me: Hi, I’m [RG], Liam’s mom. Thanks so much for having us, this is great.
Him: Hi . . . . [pauses for eternity, blinks in glassy-eyed stupor at me] Have you been to the French Quarter before?
Me: Well, yes, I actually work down here, right on the edge of it.
Him: [leaning closer, forcing me to hold my breath as I’m hit with a wall of liquor-breath that would light on fire if I had a match] I’m the only living real Native American in New Orleans.
Me: [look at him, blond, blue-eyed, pale, about as Aryan looking as a guy can get] Well, thanks again, better check the boys! This is a great place you have! Thanks so much!
Him: [won’t let go of my hand for way too long]
Me: Gotta go! Where are those silly boys! See ya! Great place you got! PLEASE LET GO OF MY HAND PLEASE PLEASE DEAR GOD I BEG YOU DON’T MAKE ME STARE AWKWARDLY INTO YOUR CLOUDED BLUE EYES FOR ONE MORE SECOND I’M ABOUT TO RUN OUT OF CHIPPER SMALL TALK NONSENSE TO SHOUT AT YOU
About three years later, I manage to extricate myself from his grasp and I decide to stick to the boys thereafter like glue. The few other parents who are there all gamely make attempts to engage with Drunk Dad through the afternoon (this party is at 1pm, by the by), but it does not go well. He carries some white bottle of liqueur everywhere he goes, walking at that precipitous pitch-forward stride of a drunk man trying to stay upright. He also loudly blusters numerous pretty shocking curse words in the vicinity of the children, and while I am not by any means a prude and have been known to lob a good f-bomb myself, even I generally avoid saying C U Next Tuesday around the boys. At one point, Drunk Dad says “who’s spending the night,” and another dad says “you guys, I don’t think this is ending anytime soon, this rager is just getting started” and then I begin crafting a text to the Prof to insist he call and tell me that someone has died or our house is on fire or whatever, and I must come home immediately.
Eventually I meet Drunk Dad’s significant other, who spends the afternoon by turns having hushed, urgent arguments with Drunk Dad in the kitchen, and trying to be chipper and present for the rest of us. At one point she gives us a tour and someone asks how recently they’d moved in, gesturing broadly to the absolute chaos of the few sticks of furniture that were present, and she says “Oh, we’ve lived here for years!” There was just no escaping the awkward moments at this party.
Odd furnishing aside, the tour shows us that it is a cool place. High ceilings, original crown moulding and door casings, windows and floors recently re-done. It has those gorgeous iron gingerbread balconies, although we are not allowed out on them as they are apparently not sound and require some shoring up. It is also weirdly laid out in the way that old Quarter residences can be, designed for a different style of life. The lack of hall is odd, meaning you walk through the front den to get into the kitchen, then dining room, then the birthday girl’s room which has at least four doors off it leading into the other bedrooms. You have to go through the master to get into the mother-in-law apartment in the back, which has a separate kitchen and bathroom and appears to be where all of the furniture in the entire house had been stacked, floor to ceiling and wall to wall. If you wade your way through the clothes hung up in the master closet, there is a door on the far end that, Narnia-like, leads outside onto a sort of courtyard – really just the roof of the bar below, with no railing to keep you from taking a misstep and falling at least 12 feet to the ground floor brick patio. If you jump from one rooftop level to another and walk across a tarpaper roof of yet another building, you get to their library – a quirky and giant room with floor to ceiling bookcases stuffed with books, much like the library in Beauty and the Beast (though not quite so giant), but also stacked floor to ceiling with so much furniture and trash you couldn’t even really see the books. We clamber over various rooftop levels and concrete blocks, past gorgeous old armoires and bookcases kept outside on the roof for some reason while the whole inside of the house is stark empty, and then wander in one of the half dozen exterior doors to find ourselves in yet another wing of the place. Eventually we finish the tour, and I am left feeling certain that this could be the coolest old residence with some planning and care, and further that these are probably not the people to accomplish it.
About an hour after we arrive, Drunk Dad gets a giant, really cool looking drum and begins beating it, and eventually a Mardi Gras Indian dances in and performs for us. Now this is part of why I’m sticking it out at this party – I’ve never seen a Mardi Gras Indian in person before, and have always wanted to. The Indians are not Native American at all, but actually African-Americans who are part of a secret society. They have great beaded costumes, giant headdresses, and they parade every year at a time and place that is not announced or advertised, so you’ve got to keep your ear to the ground to ever find them. The man who performs for us today wears a giant yellow costume, with long fake black pigtails and actual gold front teeth. He struggles a bit with Drunk Dad as well – he comes in singing, then offers to tell stories or take pictures but Drunk Dad won’t quit with the drum, and so he is forced to keep singing one song after another. Stepmother holds the little birthday girl close while the kindly guy sings to her, but birthday girl is not feeling this display, and so it’s a little awkward and weird. I roll with it – it may be years before I see another Mardi Gras Indian, so I just focus on the rad costume. And even drunk, Drunk Dad is a pretty decent drummer, so it’s a neat experience. Several more times the Indian offers to take pictures with the children, but Drunk Dad rolls right past that, so we don’t get to do it because soon Cinderella is also walking through the door and then before we know it, the Indian has gone.
Cinderella is great – really sweet, engages both the boys and girls, sings songs and reads stories and plays dancing games. Birthday girl is way more into Cinderella than anything else the whole party, and finally opens up with big shy smiles that kinda hurt my heart a bit. While Cinderella has them all occupied, I start laying the seeds of an early departure with Stepmother – I have this cold, I’m so exhausted, we parked a mile away and we need to get rolling soon . . . She says “Oh, nothing worse than a cold!”, then gamely gathers the kids to sing happy birthday and blow out the candles on the king cake so we can go. My boys each have a small slice while the big fifth graders, who have returned from whatever corner of the house they’d retreated to, begin shooting us all with Nerf guns again. I really do have a cold and this is all quite a lot of strangeness and chaos for my exhausted, blocked up head to handle, so I gather the boys and make for the labyrinth exit. As we say our thanks and good-byes, I hear poor Cinderella trying to get paid and get gone, while Drunk Dad tells her “You know I’m the only living Native American in New Orleans.” I grab the boys by the scruff of the collar and flee.
The Quarter is full of people 3 hours drunker than they were 3 hours ago, and I’m about to faint from overdoing it, so I hook an arm around each boy’s neck and drag them a mile to the car. We are on a mission, slaloming tourists and street shysters and tarot readers, who tend to just set up their folding chairs and tables on the sidewalk when it’s busy like this. We eventually get to the car and I collapse in the seat, as do the boys, who are quite whiny about having been thus dragged when what they wanted to do was sit down on the filthy sidewalk and pore through their birthday treat bags. We pull up home about twenty minutes later and I tell the Prof – Oh my God, you will not beLIEVE the afternoon I’ve had, and then Jack drifts listlessly up behind me and says “Mom, can’t we do some adventure tonight? We never do anything fun.”
We’re gonna miss him. Kid had a good run.
*Fictional address – to protect the innocent.