Thursday, November 20, 2008

Well now...

It's been such a long time since my last post that I don't know where to begin. First thing I guess is to say that I'm okay. Really. And more than just a little surprised. Like the old saying says, you can't kill bad grass. It took a long time but I'm back in the saddle again, so to speak.

And I have my trusty mule Buster ( who almost never tried to kill me) back. Things are almost back to normal. Normal being a relative term.

Second, I found out that running yourself over is a great strategy for promotion. When I was still teetering around on three legs my boss asked me if I would like to be a supervisor. Well, I did have time on my hands so I gave it a shot. Not as much fun as driving, but it was steady income. Meager, but steady. And with the economy in its present state, that's a good thing.

But being a supervisor in this business can be ( for someone like me) a little frustrating at times.

See, my last job was with a military contractor in New Mexico. We had rules, regulations and technical orders to keep everything neat and tidy and running smoothly. Sure the bureaucracy was maddening, but you learned to live with it. Sure, with my political beliefs I felt like a bit of a whore, but I formed a union to rationalize it. Then I moved to New Orleans, where nothing is neat, tidy, or running smoothly. A bit of a shock, really.

Supervising a bunch of carriage drivers is a lot like herding cats. They ( the drivers, not the cats) are an eclectic and eccentric bunch of wack jobs, myself included. Most of them are wonderful to know, and some , well, not so much.

We are a diverse bunch.School teachers, retired fighter pilots, lawyers, long-haul truckers, photographers, grad students, philosophers, musicians, magicians, and circus freaks. And some who I just don't know where they came from. And there are others who have done nothing but this their entire lives. An interesting group.

So you can see my dilemma. I feel like George Bush, trying to restore order where there never was order. Hell, the owners only show up once or twice a week. So, I've devised a plan, best summed up in one word...surrender. Surrender to the forces of chaos that govern the universe. And just enjoy the circus.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mule Surfing Pt. 2. The Horror..

I would like to say that after the events described in my last post that Jean and I have gone on to have a long and happy relationship. Yes, I would like to say that. But I can't.

Now I forgot to mention that when Jean and I were first paired up, I asked one of our old stable hands why I was assigned to him. "Because you're the only one who can handle him," was his reply. Believe it or not, that was a huge compliment, coming as it did from a grizzled old bastard who generally hates all drivers.

Anyway, in the week following the events of the night of Sept. 7, Jean and I worked together. Business was picking up, but when it was slow I would drive him all over the Quarter on training exercises, or in his case, exorcises, since he was still showing signs of demonic possession. All in all, though, we as a team were making good progress. As a rule, I like a mule with a little bit of attitude, so I was really getting to be quite fond of my boy Jean. He seemed to be willing to tolerate me.

During our training sessions my main goal was to desensitize him to the conditions of the Quarter, such as flashing lights, loud music, shouting people, garbage trucks, and impatient cabbies, and it was working. I would trot him up and down quiet streets like Burgundy and Dauphine, and once he was a little winded, I would take him to progressively louder and more chaotic parts of the Quarter and make him just stand there, talking to him the whole time. Toulouse and Bourbon was a good spot. But one of the best was the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann. There is a bar there that always has loud music, rowdy people, and, best of all, a giant glittering disco ball which throws random shards of bright light out into and onto the street. This corner has spooked many a mule, but Jean was okay with it. We were making great progress, and I was proud of my boy. But pride goeth before a fall.

I don't know if I mentioned this before, but you really have to be an optimist to be in this business, especially since the storm. While the job may look easy, there's a lot of hard work and hustle involved. We get paid straight commission and tips. That's it. And it's a small commission. So every time you roll out of the barn you tell yourself, "We are gonna roll tonight"--meaning you are going to be busy. You just have to believe it, or there's no point in even going out.

September 14th was no exception. It was a Friday, traditionally a good night, and I was excited. There was just something in the air that said it was going to be a good night. I had a reservation to pick up two couples at Bourbon and Toulouse and take them for an hour tour, so I felt like I already had a head start. I went down to the Square and picked up a tour, had a great time, and dropped them back off. Yes it was looking like a good night. Since I had about forty minutes before I had to pick up my group on Bourbon, I decided to work Jean a little more, just to make sure he'd be calm enough to stand in front of the hotel while we waited for our group. We made a couple laps of Burgundy and Dauphine and headed for the pick up point.

Jean behaved himself and our group was right on time, and they were great. It was one of those tours that turns into a conversation with people who are genuinely interested, and who ask questions, and want to know about the rest of the city and its future. We were having a wonderful time.

About half way through the hour one of the passengers asked if we could stop for a drink. Being a good host, I said,"Of course," and headed for Laffite's Blacksmith Shop. The courteous staff will actually bring the beverages out to the carriage, which always delights people.

Tonight, though, it was pretty noisy inside Laffite's, so I tied Jean to a one-way sign so I could go inside to get a waiter. The waiter, a nice kid named Josh, came out and was taking the drink orders when all hell broke loose.

To be honest, I really don't know what happened. What I do know is that just as I was untying him, something (I know not what) spooked Jean and we were off to the races. As he lunged forward, one of the shafts snagged the I.D. pouch around my neck, preventing me from reaching up and grabbing the reins and dragging me down the street. I managed to wrap the lead rope around my right hand and was struggling to grab the reins with my left hand, but it was no use. At this point I was just along for the ride. One of the last things I remember was somebody screaming "Runaway MULE!" At least they didn't call him a horse.

By now we are FLYING down St. Philip with Jean at a full gallop. I remember looking up and seeing one of my terrified passengers tugging on one of the reins. I remember looking down and seeing a blur of big shiny hooves, waaaaaay too close to my face. I remember feeling the lead rope slip from my grasp. And that's about it.

To this day I don't know what stopped that mule. I've asked around and nobody does. (Although I did learn later that the waiter from Lafitte's, Josh, had tried to run after the carriage to stop it but couldn't match Jean's speed.) I just know that we stopped almost at Chartres Street. And I know that somehow, I'd gotten run over by the carriage, although I don't remember it happening. Somebody was kind enough to help me up out of the street and plop me down on the steps of 619 St. Philip. I guess I was in shock, because I wanted to finish the tour. But by now a small crowd had gathered and they told me there was no way that was going to happen. Someone called 911. I called my wife ("Hey baby, I've had a little accident") and called my supervisor to come get Jean. None of my passengers, thank god, was injured.

Jean wound up at the barn. I wound up at Charity Hospital.

I sustained four ribs broken in 10 places and a broken foot, and I haven't worked since. My wife has never left my side, a true angel. Especially since I can be a real bastard sometimes.

I am happy to say that I am up am hobbling around, after a fashion. I've progressed from wheelchair to walker. Sometimes I can use a cane. I like to visit the stables when I can, just to get a mule fix until I go back to work, but Jean is gone. After the accident the company sold him to a farm for $300.

I hope he likes his new home.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mule Surfing: Part One

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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

In Remembrance

For further information on where we stand now, please check out Hurricane Katrina News, as well as any of the local bloggers who have dedicated themselves to the aftermath of the Federal Flood disaster known as Hurricane Katrina. They can be found on the blogroll to the right of this post.

(Remember graphic courtesy of Mark Folse. We Are Not Okay graphic courtesy of Greg Peters.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Not What We Need

Okay, This one's been eating at me for a while.

It was a beautiful pre-heatwave Sunday in the Quarter. The artists were out in force adding a brilliant splash of color to what is already (in my opinion) one of the most beautiful spots on earth. The gymnasts were doing their thing across the street. And miracle of miracles, there were tourists! Lots of them. And these were not the grim-faced all-we-want-to-do-is-get-out-of-the-sun type that we see right now. These were happy people in a beautiful place. And the buggies were rolling. The drivers were happy. The mules were happy.

Having finished a tour, I decided to walk down to Sidney's Liquors for a cold drink and a pack of smokes. As I walked, I noticed a large group of tourist gathered on the sidewalk and spilling onto Decatur street, and they were applauding. Applauding what?

Tap-dancing kids!

Now I know a lot of you may have mixed feelings about the tap-dancers.They can be a little aggressive and obnoxious. And SOMETIMES they can be acting as a diversion for pickpockets and such. But like it or not, they're part of our culture. And these kids were GOOD! And since they were just about the first ones I'd seen since "the storm" (she whose name we will not speak), I was glad to see them. The were just one, tiny sign of the city's return to normalcy.

Well the applause and laughter of the crowd were suddenly replaced by a low, rumbling feeling of discontent. Anger even. The source of this was was two of NOPD's finest riding their Vespa's down the crowded, narrow SIDEWALK, literally shoving their way through the crowd. When they reached the dancers, one of them used his black boot to crush the kid's donation box. He proceeded to tell the kids "If we see you around here again we'll take everything you've got." The crowd booed and heckled the officers, at which they replied " Yeah? Well wait until one of these little ( expletive) picks your pocket!" Oh, I see. Proactive law enforcement. Harassing and threatening someone for what MIGHT happen. Interesting approach. The kids left. The crowd dispersed. Another public relations coup for The NOPD.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not here to bash the NOPD. I have a good friend who is a cop. I feel their pain. I understand that they are underpaid, understaffed, overworked, and stressed beyond belief. Hell, I wouldn't want the job. But I feel, in this situation, things could have been handled better. First, get off the god-damn scooters. Second, OBSERVE. You guys are trained observers, right? Third, try to show a little common sense. Don't you think that Bob and Dorris from Cleveland, Ohio are going to relate this story to their friends back home? You know they will.

My dear Mother lives in Florida (In Pennsylvania it's the law. When you retire, you MUST move to Florida) and she is a great source of information on how the rest of the country views our city. And the main them seems to be our crime rate. The people I meet almost always ask about the crime. The tourism industry is struggling. Many businesses in the Quarter are barely hanging on. And it's because most people around the country are AFRAID to come here.

So here's the deal. We all need to roll out our famous southern hospitality, lay it on thick, and make people feel welcome here. We need to let the folks up north know that this is not a place to be feared. (If it was, I wouldn't have let my daughter and grandson move down here.) We need to do our own PR campaign, since city hall seems unwilling or unable to do so. We ALL need to do this.

And that includes you, NOPD.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Information Please

Okay, for those of you you who haven't guessed, I am a buggy driver. Actually, I prefer the term "carriage" but my significant other says that sounds pompous. At any rate, I meet lots of people from all over the world. Most of them are quite nice, and are truly interested in our city. I find this to be most true of people from other countries, but they are not unique. It seems that the farther away someone is from, the more interested the are. Kind of the opposite of the old journalistic standard which roughly states that a plane crash half way around the world is barely news, but a plane crash close to home is a headline.

I digress. I meet lots of people from all over, and if I'm lucky, instead of a tour, we have a conversation as we meander through the streets of the Quarter, dodging cabs and generally enjoying ourselves. But what really astonishes me is the misconceptions these people have.

Two nights ago a woman from Europe asked me "but New Orleans is okay now, Yes?" After I regained my senses (such as they are) and figured out what she was really asking me, I struggled to find a way to tell her how NOT okay New Orleans really is. Obviously, a trip to the Ninth Ward via mule was out of the question so I told her to get up the next day and book one of the motorized disaster tours for a look at how not okay the city is. I don't know if she did or not. I hope she did.

About a week before that I was lucky enough to pick up a load of college students from Illinois or Indiana or someplace who were down here gutting houses and had decided to spend their last night touring the Quarter. Now I was surprised to get them on my carriage at all because, generally speaking, these kids have no money, and what little they do have usually gets turned into Hand Grenades. But as we were rolling along, one of the girls asked me " was Katrina the biggest hurricane ever?" She was genuinely surprised when I explained to her that the damage she was seeing and in her own way ( god bless her and the thousands like her) fixing, was largely man-made. "Yes", I said "Katrina was a big one. But it was the failure of the levees and the general indifference of our very own government that did most of the damage. If the levees had held, Katrina would be just a memory, just another storm, and you, darlin', wouldn't even be here. Sure, there would have been a hell of a mess, but nothing like what we have now."

She was shocked. THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME SHE'D HEARD THIS! Levees? Army Corps of Engineers? Huh? Not a clue.

So, if there is a point to all of this I guess it is this. If the rest of our country doesn't seem to care, it could be that they are just misinformed. At least, I hope that's the case. I hope the rest of the country isn't really that cold-blooded.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A Long-delayed Step

I've always had a big mouth. I've always been opinionated, if not always as well informed as I should be. I'm kind of like our current President (god help me). I speak from the gut, although I may be a little short on facts. But he has a staff, so he really has no excuse. But I have passion, if nothing else.

I've never been a captain of industry. I've never been able to park a Lexus in the driveway as a surprise for my wife on Christmas morning. She wouldn't want that, anyway. She would think it was obscene. No offshore accounts, no stocks. Nada. Just like about 200 million other men and women out there working hard to just get by, and maybe have a laugh every now and again.

One of the "other" 98 percent, if you understand my meaning.

So I've decided, finally, to start this blog. I don't know if it will accomplish anything, but at the very least, it may prove therapeutic. At best perhaps it will spark an exchange of ideas and beliefs. Maybe it will improve my typing. Maybe it will awaken some long-dormant parts of my brain. Maybe it will spark a revolution. Who knows? But here we go. I hope somebody reads it.

I don't care if they like it. But I hope it makes someone think.