by C. Charles Bley
Most proper names used in this investigation, like those of businesses, have been altered to protect my primary source’s status as an employed person. The information I disseminate here is otherwise true and accurate.
This is a story about the business of beer, and the influence of alcohol. Beneath that, if not sidelong from it, this is also a story about friendship. To immerse myself in the overlap of these spheres, on March 1st, 2013, I set off from Michigan for Colorado. Here, on and around the idyllic easternmost mountains of the American West, an old friend of mine earns his living navigating the space between brewing and drinking. His is the life of the beer sales representative.
3.5 Tuesday. It’s a leisurely 9:28 on a chilly morning in Colorado Springs. Wins sits next to me, in the driver’s seat of his running VW station wagon, stamping checks he collected from various liquor stores yesterday. He squares each amount against his notebook, page after page of which is filled with lists of his own short-hand code names for craft and micro-brew beers, alongside the amounts ordered by different stores. Winston Ernest Grant is one of my very oldest friends. Both together and separately, from as far back as high school, we have punched holes into the keg of life and guzzled what floweth out. For the next three days I’m observing him up close as he professionally and methodically pumps booze back into the system. The reciprocity of it all is staggering… I’ll wait until my morning tea kicks in, and maybe it will become more believable.
In this job, much of what Wins deals with day to day is quite mundane. He works for B.C. Foster, a Denver-area beer distributor. They are the sort of company that you probably don’t think of first when you can’t find your favorite booze at the store. Or, if you’re aware of the supply chain, they might be the first company you curse. You see, alcohol isn’t a magical substance that manifests itself out of our dreams. The road from grains and hops to brewery vats to bottles is exciting in a sense, but what it takes to get those bottles into stores (and subsequently into your hot little hands) is relatively boring, and sometimes irritating, plagued with trials and tribulations you might wish you were drunk enough to deal with.
My friend Wins deals exclusively in the stuff of smaller breweries – again, these facilities make products commonly referred to as microbrews or craft beers, which in most cases are one in the same. A microbrewery is, by definition, a brewery that produces a limited amount of beer, but “limited” is a roomy term compared to the literally billions of gallons produced each year by the likes of an Anheuser-Busch or a MillerCoors. There are over one-hundred fifty microbreweries in Colorado alone, and over sixteen hundred in the U.S. These figures don’t include the many individuals who brew at home. For many craft brewers, what sets them apart is a focus on more traditional brewing methods. Whether you own a small brewery or you brew in your basement or barn, you can choose to do so using any number of practices dating back a thousand years or more. One of the most intriguing and delicious-sounding traditional methods Wins tells me about is the horkey, an old obscure English harvest ale. The way they’d make horkey years ago was by using a bit of each of the grains they had left at harvest time. Whereas different styles of beer are typically made out of different grains, a horkey would be the perfect storm of all of them, fermented together into some kind of full-flavored, multifaceted religious beer experience. I want to try one on this trip, and in the end I won’t manage to, but one of the microbreweries in Colorado Springs does indeed brew a horkey. Maybe next time.
One of the silver linings for Wins, in his day to day work, is the scenery that makes Colorado’s front range one of the most awe-inspiring geographies in the nation. The first two days of my investigation, we were never out of sight of the great fourteen-thousand-foot Pike’s Peak, as featured on what seems to be every Colorado Springs postcard in the region. Wins’ Thursday route, I come to find out, abandons the Springs and its sprawl, and its famous peak, replacing them with more remote views of a half-dozen other massive peaks, including a behemoth named, appropriately, Mount Massive. Then there are the meandering rivers through the high farmlands, and mountain towns. If nothing else, whenever his job gets to be a real pain, I hope my friend can always glance up from his notebook and say hey, at least it don’t look like Indiana.
Around noon, we stop in at Snowcap Brewing Company, a brewpub somewhere out in the more recent sprawl of Colorado Springs. The owner, who is eating lunch at the bar, says that the person Wins came to see isn’t in. When we’re back in the car, Wins explains a bit about their brewery. Snowcap still has to buy outside beer from reps like Wins, because they don’t make enough of their own product to take up all the bar taps. He estimates they are running on a ten-barrel system, which is relatively modest. To put it in perspective, a ten-barrel system makes about twenty kegs per batch. A batch of beer takes about two and a half weeks to ferment, and it takes a couple more days of work to divvy it up. What a brewery ends up with, based on the size of their system, is a theoretical maximum of how much beer they can make per month.
“Thinking about the hostess back at that place is establishing a ten-barrel system in my pants,” I interject. Wins’ laughter reminds me exactly why I’m really on this trip.
Making the rounds, we come to nondescript liquor store called Screw & Cork, one of the locations where I’m allowed to physically come inside with Wins. There are a small handful of stores on his route where Wins knows my presence won’t play well for his business relationship. In those cases I send him in with my pocket recorder concealed on his person. In Screw & Cork, our first contact is a short fancy-mustachioed cashier in a lumberjack hat who, every day, is surrounded by alcohol. The gallons upon gallons reach well above his head on many tidy shelves. Being that it’s the middle of the day, I start to take notice of the customers, and imagine how many people I’ve seen so far who are alcoholics. That aspect of the cashier’s job – selling alcohol to people he knows he shouldn’t – seems evident. Looking at him, I’m not sure his face could make a smile. He also lacks spirit, especially in greeting Wins.
“How’s it going?” Wins says to him.
“Living the dream?”
The cashier considers this, then asks: “Is there such a thing?”
This isn’t nearly the largest store I’ll see on Wins’ route. It’s actually pretty average, but looking around me at the plentitude of drinks, I am moved at one point to ask, “Do you think you’ll ever drink this much booze in your life?”
“Oh, fuck yea.” Wins says, with utmost confidence. In reality, I’m no longer much of a drinker, and I shouldn’t compare my consumption to his, especially judging from the fifteen-hour beer party thrown (initially) in my honor the first day I got to Colorado Springs. Wins and his wife, and our other friends in town, will go through more beer in the week I’m here than the amount I’ve had since the turn of the last decade.
Our last stop of the day is a satellite location of the Snowcap Brewing Company we’d been to earlier. It’s built into what was once Colorado Springs’ first train locomotive roundhouse. Inside, I am promptly mellowed by the prominent but not overpowering scent from a very large real fireplace behind the hostess’ podium. The rest of the décor is what you’d expect of a microbrewery-restaurant: big bar, dining tables, interesting rock formations and/or wood that at least looks old, plus a high ceiling accommodating a two-story view of their brewing apparatuses. All in all, this version of Snowcap is loads more impressive than the other.
Between Wins and I, we are carrying five tall stacks of cardboard bar coasters. The job of a rep includes giving presence to the distributor’s brands, even right down to the space under your pint glass. The people who manage bars want these extras, because things like promotional coasters are useful and don’t cost the bar any money. We walk with our bounty to the furthest end of the bar, where we take a seat.
Wins is fully invested in the philosophy that I will try a new-to-me beer any time I am in a position to do so, even when it means he’s buying. The thing about me and beer is, it only takes a single pint of the right brew to get me fuzzy. My paternal grandpa, who I never met, was known in his circles as “Two-Beer” Bley, and I’ve known for a long time that I inherited his intolerance. At this particular moment, the fact is evidenced by my continuing buzz from the pint of Red I drank a few stops back at yet another microbrewery. The bartender here at Snowcap, in between talking business with Wins, has (in the sincerest manner) attempted four times to offer me a drink. When I finally speak up, he doesn’t like my answer, which I actually begin by pretending like I have to think about it. A drink, you say? Well how about that. I may be the new “Two-Beer” Bley, but I know I have to knuckle down.
“…I would do just a single whiskey.”
“What? You’re in a brewery dude, what’s wrong with you?” he says, almost with a look of concern on his face.
Wins chimes in, “Have a beer!” and claps his hands together. He had ordered one as soon as we sat down.
“I’ll have a beer,” I tell the bartender. “Something bitter, and maybe a little bite to it?”
There’s another rep here, from a whiskey and scotch distributor, sitting next to Wins at the bar. “Luis, bite him, will ya?” the bartender asks the rep, in regards to me and my request.
Wins gets up to check on the restaurant’s supply of his beers. I make small talk with Luis, who asks if I work for B.C. Foster as well. The bartender brings me an IPA, which is delicious, hoppy, with peppery undertones. It’s my favorite style of beer. My friend returns to finish his work at the bar via a three-sided conversation between himself, the bartender, and the order-making application on his iPhone. They are agreeing on the purchase of this beer, arranging a restocking of that beer… beer, beer, beer. By the time all the business and drinks are done, I’ve had my pint plus two sizable samplings of fine bourbons from Luis. At this point I may or may not be ogling the waitresses, but fortunately it’s the end of the work day. Soon we are out the door and headed home.
3.6 Wednesday. Truthfully, none of my recordings for this investigation end up capturing anything too exciting. Today in particular will not yield the material Wins hopes for. He is excited to get some audio of a little old Korean couple who run a store called Pat & Beck’s. We arrive there just after 11am. Wins is never sure from their somewhat androgynous names which of them is Pat and which is Beck, but he has built them up to be a comedy dream team. I could never hope to replicate on paper his impressions of the husband, but a staple of the routine suggests an inquisitive aging samurai who, with slow, upward inflection, regularly shows his determined interest in Wins’ stock of a local beer called Cream Stout. Unfortunately, the couple isn’t very talkative today, although I can report that their door chime is a chorus of peeping frogs.
As expected, again on our rounds I observe row after row and shelf upon shelf of all manner of alcohol, from around the world, in every size vessel from three-gallon oversized beer bottles to miniature liquor bottles by the thousands. We visit a store where every employee is armed with a handgun, and in the car, Wins tells me about a giant golden dragon in Denver with light-up red eyes, out of the rear end of which, beer is served. These are some of the extremes people will go to, in order to protect or celebrate their drinks.
We stop for a working lunch at a relaxing cantina, in the lovely nearby mountain town of Manitou Springs. Here, Wins stares intently at one of the four tap handles. “I’ve got my eye on it,” he says. His goal is to get one of his beers behind this restaurant’s bar. He has to keep on the ball every week, maintaining the attitude of a seller, paying the right amount of attention to each customer to convince them to give him more sales. Sometimes, even when it seems like he is going above and beyond, Wins will show up to a bar to find that one of his tap handles got “snaked” by another company. I can tell how much it bums him out when we discover this has happened, and I understand; getting snaked represents not only a loss in sales but a deviation in the entire relationship between a bar’s management and a particular sales rep. I’ll see Win’s disappointment first-hand tomorrow, in the basement walk-in cooler of a bar in Salida, when he discovers his keg is nowhere to be found, and the hose running upstairs to what was once his tap is now attached to someone else’s product.
3.7 Thursday. Wins’ route takes us west out of Colorado Springs, deeper into the mountains. We make it up over Ute Pass, and stop for a hot but regrettable gas-station breakfast. Our next obstacle is Wilkerson Pass, which immediately gives way to views of a great expansive plateau, surrounded as far as the eye can see by mountain peaks. Wins hops off the highway onto a dirt road which ends at a lookout point. We get out of the car to survey the absolute majesty. The sky is as clear as can be. Sunlight reflecting off of the snowy peaks burns holes in my retinas. A glittering strip way down on the plateau is the town of Buena Vista, where we have several stores to visit.
The first stop is a store called Dandelion, situated in what appears to be a long, glorified garden shed. Antique beer cans and Native American memorabilia sit dusty up in the rafters. The cashier is a pleasant guy of maybe forty-five, who asks Wins if I’m a new recruit. With my presence explained (minus the part about the running recorder in my pocket), the cashier asks how long I’ll be around for.
“Just a couple more days,” I tell him. “I been here since like a week ago. Yea, I been to the mountains and Colorado before, but never like this here.”
“This area up here, this valley, it’s the best playground in the West.” he tells me, with a real emotional investment, and goes on to describe the many physical excursions which it is possible to embark upon on and around the plateau… ones that take you up a mountain, ones that bring you back down, kayaking, even a new disc golf course that he himself designed.
There’s also a super-friendly chocolate lab at Dandelion, who, I should say, is one of a surprising amount of harmless dogs apparently being kept in Colorado’s liquor stores. I don’t recall seeing another part of the U.S. with so many dog-bound public businesses.
In the middle of the afternoon, we are making our way along the skinny, serpentine span of Highway 50 between Salida and Pueblo. Surrounded by crazy rock cliffs and riding on this region’s signature red asphalt, I pause to consider the lonely side of Wins’ job. We’ve had a lot of laughs these last few days, talked plenty, jammed out on music – in the same old camaraderie we started working on a decade and a half ago. Next week, it’ll just be Wins by himself again. I hope my absence in the VW becomes less conspicuous before too long… but the same mountain miles await my friend every Thursday, the same screwball store owners every Monday, the same long drive to Denver every other Friday for a company sales meeting.
My thoughts turn to another source of loneliness for a representative of “the little guy”, one that I saw with my own eyes, and which Wins made a point to explain.
“Did you see that guy… I saw him this morning at Buzzard’s [Liquor Outlet], and then he was in Osprey’s? Greasy looking dude, he had a shitty haircut, wearing like a windbreaker?”
“Yea.” Surprisingly, I do remember this particular unremarkable man.
“Yea, he’s either a Bud or Coors rep. I dunno which. He just gives me the shit-eye every time he sees me.”
“He gave me the shit-eye a little bit too!”
“Yea. Well, because you were with me. I see him all the time, and I say what’s up to him and stuff, and he doesn’t say anything back. Like, it doesn’t have to be like that, man. Friendly competition? We’re selling completely different products here. You’re selling this other stuff, and I’m selling beer.”
In your face, big breweries.
Sales reps for major corporate beers naturally have the upper hand, due to the fact that they sell a cheaper product purchased by more people. This divide between big and small, however, isn’t only reflected in sales. It affects the relationship Wins has with some of his accounts. At Buzzard’s Liquor Outlet, the owner acts like he’s having his teeth pulled during the five minutes he gives Wins. This apparently happens every week, and often afterwards, the owner turns right around and spends half an hour talking to some guy from Anheuser-Busch about Budweiser. These are the sorts of reps who are known to grease customers up with sports tickets and expensive neon beer signs for their stores. The breweries represented by B.C. Foster, primarily concerned with brewing quality ingredients into much smaller more flavorful batches of beer, simply don’t have the resources to compete at the schmoozer-level of multinational corporations.
A veritable Wal-Mart of alcohol in Cañon City sets the scene of Wins’ last sale for the day (although we will stop next at a store in Pueblo, they will not place an order, which supports what I’ve heard from Wins and a few of his customers, which is that Pueblo sucks). Considering the sheer size and selection of the place, it makes for an appropriate end to my investigation. There must be over two hundred yards of alcohol here. Four monster walls covered in bottles and cans create a boozy perimeter around the sales floor, which itself is laid out in row after row of fully stocked shelves. The staff, from what I can tell, is comprised entirely of women with nametags that read “BEER WENCH” across the top. Wins seeks out his usual contact at the store and they get down to business. She’s clearly one of the good customers on his route; he cares what she wants to order, and she’s interested to hear all about the products. They have a good report, so this amiable business conversation lasts almost half an hour.
“…This Angry Orchard? We can’t even keep that shit on the shelf.”
“Oh, yea, that stuff rocks,” says Wins.
“They bring me something new and I’m like… fuck… okay. Because I think this is seriously gonna be the year of cider.”
“Yea. Mike’s is getting ready to come out with two ciders.”
“Well poop on that. I don’t sell any cider. I just sell beer.”
“Yea, I prefer beer,” the wench says, “You know, we have so many women that don’t like the taste of beer!”
“Exactly, yea, and that’s why I would try to sell them something like St. Vitus… and hope that they’re gonna bite at a fourteen-dollar four-pack. Because it’s got a lot of white wine character to it.”
At one point about halfway through, the meeting is interrupted briefly by the following exchange, between our beer wench and one of her coworkers. The coworker is assisting a male customer who looks hick as shit.
“You got a Keystone keg for Johnny in there?” the coworker hollers across the entire store.
“Yea. You ordered three, and he only needed two!”
“No, I told him there was one ordered, and he said he wanted one for him, one for his dad, and one for the weekend!”
Wins and I laugh, and I say to myself, god damn, that’s a lot of Keystone. And it is pretty hick, but this issue is not at all exclusive to the poor and toothless. I like to think of getting drunk as one of the ways people of all statuses find common ground (or rather stumble into it, knocking over a lamp in the process), although that’s framing it positively. Drinking causes craziness from top to bottom of the ladder. Case in point: at the end of the day, when we drive down out of the back-country, we re-enter Colorado Springs by way of a famous and enormous luxury hotel, the Broadmoor, a testament to the power of alcohol. The resort as it is known today was built in 1918 by Spencer Penrose, a wealthy entrepreneur and venture capitalist. According to the common telling of the story, Penrose, drunken and flagrant one night, rode his horse into the lobby of Colorado Springs’ famous Antlers Hotel and demanded to purchase the establishment. When his offer was rejected, he claimed he would build a grand hotel, one that would make the Antlers look trifling in comparison. Penrose followed through on the promise – and threw in a design decree requiring the “A” in his “BROADMOOR” to always be made smaller than the rest of the letters. That diminutive “A” represented his lasting, drunken contempt for the Antlers.
Although alcohol and money are certainly not the only influences that could cause a person to invest so thoroughly in their grudges, it stands to be said that some of Penrose’s secret underground booze stash remained undiscovered for decades, likely untouched since Prohibition. What fantastic energy he must have put into being certain he (and his guests) would never go dry, even when dry was the law. Perhaps now he makes his toasts in Alcoholic Heaven with the likes of Alexander the Great, Van Gogh, Britain’s Churchill, and Buzz Aldrin… all famous drunks who managed to get shit done in the face of their consumption.
3.8 Friday. This morning, thoughts of the Broadmoor, and Cañon City’s library of alcohol, and last night, are banging through my head to the beat of my violent hangover. I curl up into a ball and aid in my own torture by dwelling on utterly joyless thoughts about the downsides of the drink: the disproportionate seesaw-like contrast, between the productivity and organization of the alcoholic beverage industry, and the legacy of the medicine they perpetually dispense to a million booze pharmacies around the country; the blasé blah of what Wins does day in and day out at work, and all the other man-hours involved; the fuel spent by sales reps, delivery drivers, customers; the resources and ingredients assigned to something so frivolous as drunken pleasure; the asinine advertisements and the thousands of alcohol-related fatalities each year; families and friendships ruined by alcoholism; the ridiculous, dangerous, illegal nonsense yielded by egregious drinking in my own younger years… and all the while in my skull the aching and pounding pounding pounding… This isn’t just about the hangover though. It begs the same question I’ve been asking people for years in broad sober daylight: how is it all worth it?
Right now, I just can’t reconcile it, as I squeeze my arms and legs and head in tighter, my ears ringing, and somewhere underneath that, I think hey, at least it's not syphilis, as I’m devolving under the weight of my own hypocritical excess, absorbing my appendages, sprouting a vestigial tail, slowly drifting off into blissful, uterine sleep, feeling the Advil kick in. When I wake up, ready do it all over again, I can rest assured that fully stocked shelves are never more than a bike-ride away, thanks in part to people like Winston Grant.
MON 3.4.2013 20:57:26
WINS: This fuckin guy, I go into his fuckin store every other week, the guy’s a shithead, he’s this giant Indian dude that just curses and yells and screams and… uh… I go in there and he’s like “I got some dated beer,” and I’m like “Ok, let’s check it out–”
CB: What town is this in?
WINS: This is in Fountain.
WINS: And… yea, most of his uh… clientele are mouth-breathing yokels, [LAUGHTER] and… so this guy’s freaking out at me and I’m like “I’m gonna get this changed out,” and… he’s like “Well go check on the other beer and then I’ll place an order,” and I’m like fuck, alright. So I go check all this other beer. I find–
CB: And that’s not your job, really, is it?
WINS: Well, you know, I sell him the beer, and I’m not obligated to do fucking anything with it after that.
WINS: That’s his god damn problem, to sell the beer. But he doesn’t seem to think so. So, I go through all this IPA, like this one I have right here, dated in the end of January.
WINS: So, it’s still perfectly good. But there’s a date on it, I get it, he doesn’t want it in his store. But it’s sitting in the middle of a bunch of stuff that’s from… that dates in April? Like way newer beer? And I’m like “Look, this is a rotation problem,” and he… at that point, he lost his shit, and he’s running around the store cursing. He walks out of the store into the fuckin blizzard, freaking out. I [UNINTELLIGIBLE] on the phone with the… with my manager like… okay… this is what’s happening. He’s like “That guy’s a fuckin asshole.” I was like “Yea, I know that, but what am I supposed to do in this situation, exactly?” He’s like “You know what, like… once again, I don’t care. Just like the account I had last week. Like, if you want to walk out of the store with both middle fingers in the air behind you, go nuts.”
CB: You’re being uh… you know… cautious and conscientious and–
WINS: Well, I’m trying not to, you know, shit in the fuckin river.
CB: You’re trying not to overstep bounds and stuff.
WINS: Yea! I’m tryin to fuckin do some… and this guy is at the same time, he’s cursing at me yelling at me how he’s a professional. And I’m like yea, ok? Whatever you say, boss. So he freaks out. I tell him I’m going to pick up these fucking cases. Then he starts yelling at me about this other beer, and I’m like “Look man, like… one thing at a fucking time here.” “I’m trying… I’m trying to help you guys out, I’m tryin to do business with you.” I’m like, man, you aren’t helping me out at-fucking-all. You’re standing around, waving your fuckin… hairy arms in the air, cursing about it. Definitely not doing me any fucking favors here. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] this other beer that’s gonna fucking date. As soon as that happens, I’m pretty much done. I’m just gonna walk. Tell him to go get fucked. Because, I mean, if he wants to do business and talk, that’s one thing. If he wants to start fuckin screaming at me every time I come in there? That’s not business. Very un-fucking-professional.
The Dog Parade That Inadvertently Saved Me From Hurricane Katrina
by C. Charles Bley
All quotes in this essay are accurate and verbatim, however, those from Ray Nagin will be used completely out of context.
At the end of August in 2005, life in New Orleans turned practically apocalyptic. At that time, the Gulf of Mexico delivered her one of the costliest, most devastating blows in regional history. Earliest reports indicate that levees along the city’s Industrial Canal were already breached by 8 am on August 28th. Cutting a path more or less north to south, the canal sits just east of the New Orleans familiar to most – the casinos, the downtown business district, and the French Quarter – and west of the 9th Ward, soon to become famous as a hollowed-out husk, and a symbol of economic and racial disparity not for the first time. Despite their nearness, these two faces of New Orleans seem half a world apart. On the morning in question, the National Weather Service predicted that flood waters on both sides of the canal might reach higher than most human heads. The warning came hot on the heels of evacuation orders from then-mayor Ray Nagin, but unfortunately for many residents, a step behind Hurricane Katrina’s uncompromising schedule.
Unbeknownst to the public, Nagin had already become corrupt the previous year, and for years after Katrina, he would continue to be so. His ultimate exposure and indictment on federal corruption charges (which involved accepting monetary benefits from contractors in exchange for massive, lucrative city contracts) only finally came down in the first weeks of 2013. However, Nagin’s misbehavior will require no major rewrite of history. When the system works, the corrupt are identified and shown the door, in the way that a human body deals with toxins or germs. Similarly, a common cold is rarely a death sentence; most bodies are able to regulate in time. New Orleans, an anomalous American city to begin with, suffered natural judgment, practically biblical; dubious honors for man-made disasters are reserved for the likes of Harry Truman, or the dummies who left the cap off the toothpaste at Chernobyl. Ray Nagin and his shady dealings will beget a mighty stack of court documents. The eventual summary added to his Wikipedia page, though? A trickle of piss compared to the entry for Katrina.
Least affected will be the spirit of New Orleans’ citizenry. Around the world, people tend to go about their daily lives, even when unscrupulous leadership propels the mechanisms around them. In the year of Katrina, I was, for a short time, just another soul getting along in New Orleans. My trajectory therein remained the same in spite of any nonsense going on under the civic surface. Yet, months before tens of thousands lost everything, I lost the comparatively paltry sum I’d worked for in my Nola, the Big Easy, the Crescent City. When the hurricane hit, I was already long gone.
In the end, my fate was decided not by some corruption or malfeasance on the part of authority, nor by the hurricane, nor by any notable failure of my own. A Mardi Gras dog parade – literally, a parade for dogs – was the nail in my coffin.
“This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.” – Ray Nagin, MLK Day, January 16, 2006
One year and three days before that famous mayoral utterance, I delivered myself into the strange land of New Orleans. A blinding clear Sunday sunrise greeted my road-weary Ford Focus and I as we skipped along towards the termination of I-55 in Louisiana. This is a surreal stretch of nearly exit-less highway, elevated above miles of bayou which eventually opens up into Lake Ponchartrain. Far across the lake, a hint of the skyline I’d been waiting to behold. The previous year, a trusted friend told me I absolutely must get to New Orleans, and I had been salivating ever since. When my time came, he had already moved on, but that didn’t extinguish my desire. Now here I was, a week after my twenty-second birthday, knowing absolutely no one in the city, having nowhere to stay, with no plan but to live in color and spice. I come from people who show little fear in pulling up their roots and dragging them behind wherever life points. I attribute this trait not only to the skewed sense of place in my immediate family due to our many moves, but to something more inherent, in the genes, perhaps manifested in my grandmother and grandfather in England when they first left their families (she at age sixteen to be a dancer in London, he at thirteen to join a circus). New Orleans was not the first nor would it be last place I sought out on my own as an adult, distancing myself literally and figuratively from Kalamazoo, Michigan, the closest thing I’ve ever had to a hometown. But New Orleans was the greatest of all my places.
For three days prior to my arrival there, I was in St. Louis, visiting my uncle. He and his band traveled the same route fairly recently to play a show. His only concrete advice was that I should try my luck in the Warehouse District. Anyone who has ever tried to navigate to some specific locally-named area, in a wholly unfamiliar city, with no frame of reference, had two real options: ask somebody, or roll the dice. This was the city I’d dreamed of as my home. Not wanting to look like a tourist on my first day, I chose the dice. Lord knows how, but at barely eight o’clock that morning, exhausted in more ways than one, I rolled a seven.
Known officially these days as the New Orleans Arts District, the Warehouse District was just rubbing the sleep from its eyes. I found a spot for breakfast. The cook stared wide-eyed when I admitted I’d blindly arrived in town minutes ago. I’m from Michigan. No, I don’t know anyone here. No, I haven’t got a place to stay yet.
“Good luck,” he said, served me my spinach omelet over the counter, and turned silently back to his griddle.
After a long unsuccessful day searching café bulletin boards for apartment rentals, I sat in my car and freaked out, alone. When I recovered, I remembered another half-useful albeit well-intentioned bit of information. A few days before I left Kalamazoo, a friend made vague references to a campground. He didn’t even have a name for it, only the general area.
“I’m looking for a campground in St. Bernard Parrish,” I told a cross-eyed police officer, later that night. I had stopped in desperation at a police station near the city limits. St. Bernard Parrish is, more or less, the entirety of the very toe-tip of Louisiana’s swampy boot, east of the city. Following the officer’s directions, I arrived inexplicably at exactly the right campground about an hour later. I stopped in the pitch black at a dark booth less than a minute after closing time, seconds before the tail-light of the ranger on duty disappeared between some cypress trees. He noticed me, came back begrudgingly, and let me register and pay. I spent three days both lamenting and relishing my insane circumstances, in a tent with an extension cord running from the electric hookup to charge my phone and power my boom box. The situation was on par with, if not more ridiculous than, the time I spent two years earlier attempting to get to Eugene, Oregon by playing guitar and singing for gas money on the streets of San Francisco. This time around, I sang only for myself. I did some crying. I called friends. I called the woman back home with whom I held an estranged but unresolved romance. I smoked some dope. I ate various po’ boys at a nearby restaurant – staffed by rural Louisianans with accents so saucy and thick and good, it was like they were pouring warm molasses in my earholes with every sentence.
The po’ boy, it stands to be said, is basically just a meat sandwich on a baguette. It looks different in different restaurants, but has a basic history going back anywhere from the late 19th century to the 1920s, depending on who you ask. The archetypal po’ boy has roast beef, and another popular version has fried shrimp, but I saw restaurants that had a whole page in the menu devoted to this delicious item and its many possible stuffings.
What I didn’t know, each hour I lay there thinking in my tent and on the picnic table, is that, back in the city, somebody had my phone number – a Michigan-native friend of the friend who had originally got me hooked on the idea of coming here. At some point in the third day at my bayou campsite, I answered a call from an unfamiliar number. Ben told me he knew where I could work, that I could stay at his place, and that there were a lot more types of po’ boys to eat. He said, although not specifically regarding the sandwiches, that I’d never know if I didn’t try. The conversation fired me right back up. My breather/freakout was over and it was time to dive again into the only city in America as out-there as myself. The dried chicken foot my mother gave me years earlier, the bad mojo of which I originally planned to shed when I got here by chucking it into the swamp, instead went back on its string, which went back around my neck.
“This is just crazy.” – Ray Nagin
At one time or another, I might have said the same thing. Not about the city after Katrina, as he meant by the statement, but of the everyday flavor of life in New Orleans. The truth about the place is that it’s probably all true, and then some. There is voodoo… if you let it be. The famous old cemeteries there are amazing, but not at all the safest places on Earth to wander around – forget about dropping acid and running around topless like in that scene from Easy Rider. You could also genuinely endanger yourself with seafood in this city. Not because it’s unsanitary or anything, but because if you love shrimp or crawdads, you could very well eat them, often fresh, for breakfast lunch and dinner, every day for a good while, before running of new restaurants and vendors to try.
Open liquor is legal not only on the sidewalk, but in the street as well, until such time as you decide to start waving your genitals at traffic. Hell, you can stumble down Canal Street (downtown’s main drag) to the Algiers Point ferry (a pedestrian and vehicle ferry which floats back and forth across the Mississippi River every 15 minutes – with a fantastic view of the skyline). Bring a pint of whiskey. Don’t even put it in a paper bag. Ask the attendant at the gate how long you can sit and drink on the ferry. That person will tell you long as you like, long as you don’t pass out. I did this at least once a week after work, right around sunset. I sat with my chest against the big guardrails, legs hanging out over the river, wrote poetry, and stared at the city until my drink was done. Sometimes, I’d go straight home from the ferry and climb around on the crazy shared roofs of my block, from which I had an entirely different angle on the skyline.
Let me change direction, because it is important to make clear that this city is not simply a bastion of drunkenness. It’s also not only the French Quarter, a locale made recognizable slightly less so by coverage of Katrina than by a series of disreputable topless videos which shall remain nameless. There are stately old Southern homes with willows in the yard, and there are slums with willows in the yard, and there are skyscrapers not too very far from swamps, and in between, some miles of industrial towers of oil refineries. A great river runs through New Orleans, serpentine, a characteristic usually only observed in old cities like London. Jazz in New Orleans is institutional, but it also sits on porches and clamors down streets. Nola has all the usual, as well: big business, colleges, sports, museums, Wal-Mart. Yet, it remains incomparable, and possibly the finest example of this is Carnival. If you live in New Orleans, it’s not just a wild weekend at Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is a day. Mardi means Tuesday. The season leading up to Mardi Gras lasts over a month, and I arrived in time for its entirety. It’s a beloved cultural party, certainly not only celebrated by flagrant tourists going wild in the streets.
During my time in the city that care forgot, I lived one block over from the notorious Bourbon Street. The first point of access to the one-room apartment I shared with Ben was a distinguished but worn out steel gate. It stood right at the sidewalk, between the doors to two random shops, under one of those famous French Quarter balconies with the wrought iron latticework. Inside the gate, there was a walkway between two high brick walls, at the end of which, if you looked up, you saw a series of questionable catwalks resembling the set of a Broadway musical about greasy urban miscreants. Our place was at the end of the catwalk on the third level, and was secured with a padlock, doorknob nowhere to be seen.
One evening I came home and, upon unlocking the front gate, found one of my neighbors, a local, a tall thin man of about forty, sprawled out in the middle of the walkway looking like he’d dropped dead. Apparently in his state he managed to make a last stop at Rouses Market across the street. He had purchased sushi, and it was everywhere. I checked his pulse and called 9-1-1. When the police and paramedics got him standing and walked him out to the street, he peed himself. They took him away in an ambulance.
The very next morning, I saw him coming home looking great, but I felt partially responsible for any trouble he may have gotten in. “Listen,” I said, “I wanted to let you know, it was me who called 9-1-1 last night. I didn’t know if you were going to die, or what.”
“Oh, it’s no big deal man,” he said with a huge smile on his face. “I had some bad X. I was in bad, bad shape.” He wasn’t in any trouble at all. Eeeeeasy. I had another neighbor on the ground level who must have been going through the worst time of his life, because at any time, day or night, he’d suddenly blast “Fall To Pieces” by Velvet Revolver on the loudest home stereo ever made. And speaking of neighbors, how could I not mention Ray?
“It's me. It's Ray Nagin.” – Ray Nagin
New Orleans is a city where, if you do it right, you can make more money per week by playing music on the street than you do at your part-time job. I got into this whole situation pretty positive that I’d make some of my money as a street performer. One of the only real barriers to this is the aggression of other musicians on whose corner you’ve accidentally set up. One night I was threatened with a severe beating, nose to nose, by a couple of guys not much older than me. Just about the only thing out of their mouths was this is our spot, man. I also experienced this territorial-type conflict from the giving end, as I’d become the adopted drummer for Mountain Sprout, a band of intoxicated, boxcar-hopping hobos from Arkansas, and one night I witnessed them begin beating another drifter in the street. He had stopped by to play his harmonica on one song and forthwith attempted to slip a twenty-dollar bill out of the tip bucket. Two members of the band left quite literally in mid-song to attack him – one an immense six-and-a-half foot tall leather-clad washtub bass player whose name I forget, who had not so much dreadlocks as long asymmetrical masses of matted hair, and Coy, our lead singer, a true con-artist, always wearing the most battered hat, who would lead us in drunken versions of songs like Ernie’s “Rubber Ducky” from Sesame Street.
My other job was at a little French Quarter restaurant which, post-Katrina, no longer existed. At Café au Lait, we served typical breakfast plates, usually with grits, coffee drinks, pastries… and real Creole fare made by an old Creole herself – shrimp etouffee, shrimp creole, gumbo – just on the other side of the little passing-window above my griddle. I was a breakfast chef and sometimes barista. Café au Lait was one of a few reasons I didn’t share in the money Mountain Sprout made. Unlike them, I didn’t have to sleep god knows where at night, nor seek out the mobile soup kitchens by day.
The money I made playing alone, however, I kept. I was new, so the earnings never truly rivaled my wage at the café. However, over the last few nights of Carnival, I played my three-piece drum set to the tune of over $200 in a total of less than five hours, not to mention the beers brought to me and numerous unsolicited bared breasts. One night, a big friendly fraternity brother dropped a bill in the pile of cash in the front of my bass drum. It appeared to be more than the usual $1 or $5, which I confirmed when I leaned over to look.
“That’s a twenty, man!” I hollered, still drumming. He looked over his shoulder at me.
“I don’t care!” he hollered back, pure baby smile on his face, as he continued towards the vomiting chaos on Bourbon Street.
“I have been bustin’ my butt!” hollered Ray Nagin, at some point.
I told the judge more or less the same thing, at my eventual parking ticket hearing. I told him I had been working so hard and wanted so badly to remain a contributing member of New Orleans society. Because I only ever had one real problem with New Orleans, and that problem was parking. Living in the center of the Mardi Gras universe, I collected five parking tickets, three of which were for expired meters and totaled close to six-hundred dollars, although apparently this was not enough of a loss to make me feel foolish. The fourth ticket had no offense written on it, and was later dismissed. I made a decent effort to avoid the tickets, considering this was basically the busiest time of the year in the French Quarter. On top of that, Ben and I walked or rode bikes just about everywhere. Even when I went to play the open mic at Checkpoint Charlie’s (a brilliant marriage of Bar and Laundromat, towards the edge of the Quarter) I would carry my hundred-pound electric piano and other equipment almost ten blocks and back. Yet, I kept moving the car from spot to spot, feeding meters, wasting more money, instead of seeking free, permanent parking outside the neighborhood.
The final ticket, the one that did me in, can best be explained by first describing the parade culture. New Orleans is rabid about its parades, the tradition of which dates back hundreds of years. In those earliest of times, parades were often spooky processions of people wearing masks and carrying torches. Since then, the universe of New Orleans parades has come to include all manner of costumes, performances, floats, elaborate Native American-style head-dresses, and those famous custom-made high-top gator-skin shoes, fancy fedoras, and brightly colored suits (for women, they are similar to pant suits). There’s a character called the Wildman, usually dressed in the way I just described, whose job it is to demand attention and participation from bystanders. He is like a jester and a king all at once. In the larger parades, there are enormous, complicated floats from which different “krewes” whip strings of beads at the people lining the streets. I do very much mean to use the verb “whip” because sometimes the beads come at you so fast, they are potentially injurious. Members of certain krewes are creepy and disguised, staring down at you in the night through what looks like a fancier version of a little kid’s ghost costume (eye holes cut in a bedsheet). The live music in a Carnival parade is typically jazz, zydeco, or the marching bands of high schools from all over the area.
Don’t underestimate how truly huge the parade is in New Orleans. While it’s good fun for most, for those who have many years of experience, it is serious business. One night, Ben and I went down to one of the smaller parades (which, in terms of size, flavor and enthusiasm, still dwarfed any small-town parade). I was wearing my Technicolor Dreamcoat, no shirt underneath, with my giant old-timey jazz bass drum strapped to my chest, a snare drum sitting on its side in the open end, a timpani mallet in my bass-side hand and a drumstick on the snare side. I was barefoot as well, which meant I’d be walking through all the filth of the Carnival streets – including fresh piles of horse manure. The parade hadn’t started to move yet, so I sought out a police officer.
“Is anyone going to arrest me if I just jump in this parade?” I asked him.
“As long as nobody in the parade has a problem with it, I don’t care what you do.”
So, I jumped in, with a marching band in front of me and another one behind me. The train lurched to life and we were off. It was splendid – people cheered me as I wailed away on my drums. Ben, a short man with a tall bottle of booze, gave me the appearance of The Pied Piper by skipping around me in circles. Although I had no idea where this parade would end up, everything seemed perfectly reasonable… that is, until a stern man descended upon us, very seriously, get out of my parade, right now. I was having too much fun, and told him that nobody else seemed to have a problem with me being there. He wasn’t having it though, and somewhat aggressively escorted me to the sidewalk. People booed, but he was obviously one of those lifers, involved in parades long enough to be in charge of one, and I understood.
My fifth parking ticket, the final and most expensive, came courtesy of a parade, but it wasn’t any of those crazy nighttime affairs. To put it in perspective, one of the most smashing parades during Carnival is called Bacchus. In all honesty, Black Velvet Canadian whiskey and I don’t remember many details about the Bacchus parade, besides that it was loud, and huge, and wild, and colorful, and crowded, and filthy – and that, although I still have my string of beads with the coveted Bacchus pendant, I don’t know that I caught it myself. I mention Bacchus so you’ll have the name in your head for what I’m about to tell you. The City of New Orleans towed my car away for a small late-morning parade called Barkus, wherein costumed dogs and their owners strut through the streets of the French Quarter. The potential absurdity of this would normally be right up my alley, but what it ended up costing me made it more like a slap in the face. I’d heard from more than one person in the city to keep my eye out for temporary parade route notices because, before a parade, tow trucks come and clear out every car along the route. From what I saw, notices typically went up the night before. Well, the bastards didn’t post signs for Barkus until after I went to work that morning. Hence, I not only missed the warning, but the spectacle itself, and cannot give a first-hand account. In my defense, later, as I stood by the spot where my car used to be, and a stranger told me there’d been a dog parade, my first reaction was not oh, a dog parade! well gee, what’s that like? I could have given a shit about a dog parade. I swore out loud and went to find a phone book.
After payday at the end of that week, I hitched a ride out to some tow lot in the swamp and found my car sitting in slightly deeper water than is good for a sedan. The total of my five tickets was now around a thousand dollars. Not fighting them was not an option if I wanted to stay.
Same as Ben told me in January, the only way to know for sure was to try. On the date of my court appearance, I rode a bike miles across town. Halfway there I was knocked sideways by a van whose driver cut in too close, and smacking me into a parked car. Nope, Nola, I still want you, I thought, as I recovered and started to pedal again. In the little courtroom, I was beheld by an old but fit dark-skinned man, wearing what was obviously an extremely expensive albeit purple three-piece suit. His ensemble included stunning purple gator shoes, and a lime-green necktie, over which dangled this large, mysterious pendant on a chain. By large, I mean larger than you’d ever think a judge would wear on the bench. We began to discuss the nature of my tickets, and I pleaded my case as best I could.
When it was all said and done, I was still responsible for my tickets. “Now, son, I feel for you, I really do. The reasons you’ve given for not wanting to pay these tickets are positive and good… but… unfortunately they aren’t a legal excuse.” He and his assistant passed some papers back and forth, and he added genuinely, “I wish you the best of luck, son.”
There was no way to make up for the cash loss in time to chip in on the next month’s rent and bills. Although I still had Café au Lait, Carnival was over, and the typically older post-Mardi Gras tourists seemed to only drop dollar bills for nice, familiar street musicians. Not for my drum-banging, neither for my hobo band, who I never saw again. I moved on, traveling along the gulf coast, through Mississippi and Alabama, into Florida, through my birthplace of Pensacola, spent a few days in Fort Myers, and then headed northwest to give St. Louis a try. A couple months after that, I was back in Michigan.
This is how I eventually became glued to a television set for one entire day that August, sometimes weeping openly, mostly staring, but quite often shaking my head at how backwards life is. Of any city I ever got a taste for, of anywhere else I ever ran off to, New Orleans was the most desired, most beloved. Losing her to something as mundane as a handful of parking tickets was frustrating enough. Worse yet – as if to say see, isn’t it a good thing you left? – some awful thing comes down and assaults her, forcing me watch, faraway and helpless to intervene. Leaving me unsure whether I should try and find the light in myself, or simply grab an axe and start chopping a hole in the roof, like Louisianans forced by flood waters into the attic....from the 2014 edition of The Laureate, a publication of student work at Western Michigan University
"Grey/Yellow" is continued on page 46.
Elimination is defined by poetic erasure as applied to articles from an official North Korean government news source. The resulting poems were originally published on this site, individually, between February and June 2013.
Enbleyclopedia is a rough collection of C. Charles Bley poetry from between 2003 and 2012. Download includes audiobook and PDF manuscript.
...a monologue from on the road, 12.24.2009 at approximately 4AM