First of all, let me clarify something. Those equines you see pulling carriages through the Quarter are not horses. They are mules. We use them because of their superior strength and their ability to withstand heat. And (at least at my company) they are some of the most pampered animals you will find anywhere. A real driver loves his mule like he loves his dog. There is a bond, a trust, between them. But this bond can take weeks or even months to develop. And until it does, things can go wrong, in a big way.
I was recently "adopted" by a young red mule named Little John, or as I prefer to call him (this being New Orleans) "Petite Jean," my usual mule and compatriot, Buster, being on vacation at the farm. Now a big part of developing a relationship (does that sound weird?) with a new partner is learning what will "spook" him into headlong, white-noise panic, and what will not.
Well, I'd been driving Jean for a couple of weeks, and was (I thought) starting to get to know him pretty well. You know those rolling trash bins that the SDT guys drag around? He hates those, as some ladies from Pittsburg and I found out. Jackhammers? REALLY hates those.
But what he really, really, really hates are parades. I did not know this.
Until last Friday, September 7.
Jean and I were assigned to a "special," which means instead of parking down at Jackson Square and cajoling tourists (God bless 'em) into your carriage, you are reserved in advance for a special event, like a wedding, or a convention. You never really know until you get there.
Our instructions were simply to line up behind the Sheraton on Canal with several other buggies and wait for our passengers, in this case a group of cardiologists. No big deal, right?
After rounding the corner onto Common Street what should we see, but several marching bands, floats, and all the other trappings of a parade. Jean was not happy, I was not happy. We managed to make is past the bands without incident. But when we went to pass the floats, that's when the poop really went into the bag. Jean was not having any of it. He'd never seen a float before and wasn't interested in learning about them. Not at all. No way. Not happening.
There are few things, pound for pound. stronger then a mule. And even fewer stronger than a frightened, pissed-off mule. Luckily our yard manager/mule trainer Cicero was there and he could see all the leaping, jumping, bucking and general bad behavior as I struggled to maintain some kind of control. Actually, I think the first thing he noticed was the crowd screaming and fleeing in all directions.
Cicero came running up, grabbed the lead-rope and managed to lead him forward to where he could tie him to the back of the buggy in front of us to get him past the evil floats. It worked, and Jean calmed down...a little. The three of us caught our breath and waited for the parade to begin.
Right about then the bands decided to warm up a little. Whumpa Whumpa BOOM crash Whumpa whumpa BOOM crash whumpa whumpa BOOM crash.
Jean is unhappy again, but at least he's tied to something now, greatly reducing the odds of any fatalities. We decide to leave him that way for the duration of the parade.
Finally the cardiologists come staggering out of the hotel and climb into the buggies, with lots of beads and plastic footballs to throw to the ever-growing crowd. Strangely, none of them seems to want to get into my buggy. Go figure.
The parade gets off to an abrupt start, with Jean bucking and fighting the whole way, and Cicero
holding onto his neck in a vain attempt to slow/calm him .
Jean, Cicero, the doctors, and I are the second buggy in line. The mule pulling the first buggy (evidently no fan of parades himself) bolts away, untying the lead rope that had been holding Jean more-or-less in check. In no time at all, the buggy in front of us is at least 100 feet ahead.
Through sheer fear and determination, Cicero and I are able to hold onto Jean, for about 30 seconds.
Now, for those of you who may not know it, Canal Street is the widest street in America. Which means there is plenty of room for people to spill off the sidewalks to dive for beads and footballs thrown by drunken cardiologists.
Now Jean decides to bolt, dragging me, Cicero, and the doctors along with him at a full gallop.
Cicero's feet are touching the ground once about every twenty feet or so (mule surfing) and he is screaming "SLOW HIM DOWN SLOW HIM DOWN!" No Shit. Never would have thought of that. And since Cicero is looking at me, he doesn't notice that we are headed directly for a crowd of oblivious bead divers. My mind is instantly filled with images of trampled children, and tv cameras. (Runaway mule kills 200-film at 10:00!) I have no idea what the doctors in back are doing, of if they're even still there. And I don't care. I am just repeating like a mantra "please don't let me kill anybody, please don't let me kill anybody."
When a mule has really lost it the best you can do is try to run him into something, like a pole, a building, or (last choice) a parked car. I have none of these options. So, rather than trample the crowd like a deranged Cossack, I aim for the back of the buggy in front of me. The people in that buggy are staring back at us with eyes as big as muffalettas, but here we come. KABOOM! right into the back of the buggy. Cicero by some miracle lives and manages to hang on. Jean, though momentarily stunned, is uninjured. Cicero uses this time to secure Jean to the front buggy, and we manage to finish the parade.
After catching our collective breath again we go through the valet tunnel of the Sheraton and back onto Common Street. I suggest we go up Common to Rampart and head for the barn, because I am DONE. Cicero agrees. I'm sure Jean agrees.
But apparently Cicero's compass got knocked off its axis in the collision with the other buggy, because he proceeds to lead us down St. Charles Avenue instead. Pretty much the opposite direction of what we wanted.
Here's another piece of street trivia for you. St. Charles has street car tracks, and the grooves in those tracks are approximately the same width as your standard buggy wheel. And If your wheel gets caught in one of those grooves it makes a noise that can sometimes spook a mule.
Especially one that's already nervous and tired and more than a little jumpy.
So off we go. Only now we have options. Lots of solid, non-human, things to run into. I choose a pole. A big sturdy pole on an office building or bank or something. But Jean has made his choice, too. He has selected a shiny new car. Poor Cicero doesn't get to choose. I haul back on the lines hoping to stop, but not really expecting to and brace for the impact.
But it never comes. Jean, by some miracle stops with his nose an inch away from the back window of the car, his neck over the trunk. Of course the sudden stop has caught Cicero by surprise and he bounces off of the car and lands on the sidewalk. We stare at each other in amazement. And I am just elated that I won't have to buy somebody a shiny new car.
Cicero and I decide to tie Jean up and have a smoke. Our hands are shaking and we smoke without speaking. Finally I say, "Let's go home." Cicero agrees.
Of course by now we are somehow pointed the wrong way down St. Charles Avenue and blocking traffic. Horns are honking and people are cursing, oblivious to what we have just been through. Fuck 'em. I manage to execute a really slick three point turn and we all head off down St. Charles, on the side AWAY from the tracks. I drop Cicero off at Jackson Square so he can finish his shift and Jean and I head for the barn.
When we get there I go through my Zen routine of unhitching, undressing, washing and brushing Jean, all very calming for the both of us. And as I put him in his stall, I swear I hear him laugh.