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The Big Easy – Then and Now

BOURBON STREET NIGHT SCENE – Photo by George Cunningham

The first time I went to New Orleans was in 1964 with my brother Chuck.

I was 23, he was 17. We had enlisted together under what the Army called the “Buddy Plan.” We had just finished basic training in South Carolina the month before, had been home on 30-day leaves, and needed to catch an Air Force flight from Tampa to New Jersey.

I don’t know about today, but back then if you were in the military, you could hitch flights aboard military aircraft if one was going your way.

We waited most of the day around the base with no luck, then somebody said they had a Navy P2 Neptune sub-hunter headed for New Orleans and they had room for a couple of passengers if we were interested. We jumped at the chance. First we had never ridden in a Navy sub-hunter, and second, we had never been to New Orleans. Seemed like a win-win.

We got in late, but somehow got a ride to the French Quarter with a couple of other GIs. The minute we got out of the car, we started hitting the bars and the strip clubs. That’s where I saw Lili St. Cyr, a famous strip tease artist of the time. I had read about her in the pulp men’s magazines of my boyhood – magazines like Stag, Saga, and Battle Cry.

What I didn’t realize at the time – and I’m glad I didn’t – was that the very beautiful, very sexy, very wicked Lili St. Cyr was one year older than my mother. But the lights were low and we were all high on the Schlitz 7–ounce Little Joe beers that the bartender kept selling us at the outrageous 1964 price of $3 apiece.

Ms. St. Cyr did her part, pointing to us individually and giving as a shimmy and a bump-and-a grind to keep us engaged. But when she finished her set she left alone, and if not alone at least not with one of us.

So like a million young men before us, we staggered home from a strip-tease club, whooping and a hollering at the moon, full of youthful passion and unfulfilled desire. We had spent most of our money and had little to show for it besides an experience that I clearly remember many decades later. That’s how it was back then. It may be different now, but I suspect not as different as many people believe.

The next morning, we caught an Air Force flight to New York in a large cargo plane and reported as ordered for duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

As for Ms. St. Cyr, she retired from being a dancer in the 1970s, opened her own mail-order lingerie business, the “Undie World of Lili St. Cyr.” In her later years, she became a heroin addict, existing on the kindness of friends and the occasional sale of old photographs. By the time she died in 1999 at 81 years old, she was a toothless recluse, living with her cats in a cluttered and dingy Hollywood apartment.

Sad, but true.

The next time I went to New Orleans was four years later, this time during Mardi Gras with my friend, Eddie Arnold, who I served with during the Vietnam War.

We went, as young men are wont to do, with almost enough money for gas, looking for both fun and trouble. It was at a time before the country was completely crossed and sectioned by interstate highways, and most of our trip was at night, through little Southern towns and two-lane blacktop highways, cutting through the Florida panhandle, across a strip of coastal Alabama, along the Gulf shore of Mississippi, and through the lowlands of Louisiana to New Orleans.

By the time we got to the city, the party was already underway. We parked a couple of miles away – the closest spot we could find – and hiked down to the French Quarter, where we proceeded to buy a pint of whisky and started drinking.

My memory of what happened next – after all this time – is somewhat out of sequence and lacking in detail, but it involved good-natured wrestling, shoving, and grab-assing in the streets over the beads being tossed from the parade floats. Nobody seemed to mind very much, it was basically part of the show.

At some point we got arrested, ordered to pour out our booze, put in a police bus, and then turned loose – after all it was Mardi Gras. The cops didn’t want to ruin anybody’s good time.

We got a couple of paper cups and started clowning around, panhandling folks for free booze. Saying stuff like “can you folks spare a little booze for two vets?” “Got any bourbon, rum, whisky, gin, tequila for two thirsty veterans?” People started laughing and pouring us drinks out of their bottles.

I think about how young and strong I was back then. Eddie passed out sometime after midnight, and I carried him fireman style over my shoulder back to the car. We left the next morning, picking up hitchhikers along the way and collecting any money they had to help fill the tanks.

We stopped by Florida State University in Tallahassee, flirted with the girls there, and gave out our hard fought-over Mardi Gras necklaces in exchange for their spare change. We got home, exhausted but happy, full of bruises and tall tales.

That’s the only time I ever visited New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and probably the only time I ever will. But, I have gone back several times since.

One time I went with my wife Carmela, who had a speaking engagement at a conference to talk about a book she wrote, called Information Access and Adaptive Technology. When the sky cap at the airport checked our bags at LAX, Carmela poked me to give him a tip, but I refused. The smallest bill I had was a $20, and I felt that was too big a tip for putting some tags on our bags.

Carmela was not happy, but she kept her peace, until we arrived in New Orleans at just after midnight. The temperature was near a hundred, and it was raining. That’s when we realized that our bags had somehow been sent to Hawaii. She had to go speak at the conference the next morning in the shorts, top, and wedgies she had been wearing on the plane. I will never forget that story, mainly because Carmela is always there to remind me if I do.

Despite the problems, our suitcases did finally arrive and we spent the next couple of days eating red beans and rice, po’ boy sandwiches, jambalaya, and having chicory coffee with beignets for breakfast at the Café Du Monde. We listened to Dixieland, jazz and the blues, enjoyed cocktails at the various bars, and wandered around poking into art and antique shops. On subsequent trips we rented a car and traveled around the city and took the bridge across the Pontchartrain to explore the countryside. But love New Orleans as we both did, over the years, we watched the jazz and blues clubs being replaced by rock, rap, and pop-music venues. That music is OK, but it’s just not the same as Dixieland and the blues.

We have taken four of our nieces – on two separate trips – to the city, and always we have had a good time. But as time went by and the French Quarter changed, it lost much of its sleazy charm and has become a garish tourist mecca with block after block of cheap bars selling Kool-Aid type blended alcohol drinks in ever-bigger containers, and of scores of souvenir shops selling identical cheap and vulgar t-shirts and strands of Mardi Gras fake jewelry – the kind Eddie Arnold and I fought over in the street 50 years ago.

Times change, and I’m OK with that. Bourbon Street was always bright and vulgar with just a hint of danger down the side streets and alleys. But now it seems almost a caricature of itself, kind of a Disneyland recreation of the Barbary Coast.

Carmela and I have returned several times over the years, watching the transformation of the Quarter.

On our visit last month, the Quarter was crammed with students on spring break – doggedly determined to have a good time, standing in long lines at restaurants, and posing for selfies.

And suddenly, I’m wondering if I’ve just gotten too old for Bourbon Street. Certainly that’s a part of it. Let’s face it – the things that I thought were fun years ago, just seem silly now. But Carmela and I asked ourselves this time around. Did we have a good time on our visit to the Crescent City?

Yeah – kinda. Despite the frustrations and disappointments, it was still like visiting an old friend. We found an outdoor patio where we listened to a jazz combo do Sinatra songs. In the middle of one of those sets, a rat, about as big as a small Chihuahua ran across in front of the stage.

“I’m from Chicago,” said a woman at the next table. “That’s nothing.”

We listened to some other music – a jazzy singer doing old standards and a Zydeco band playing Cajun and Creole tunes about life in the lowlands of Louisiana. It wasn’t that we didn’t have a good time in New Orleans, because we did.

But something was missing. I think it was that wicked, vulgar beauty that we had both fallen in love with years ago.

George Lee Cunningham

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