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Greyhounding America’s Southern States


BIG BOO-BOO IN LITTLE ROCK

You can’t even eat your breakfast in peace. I’d just taken a pew, with a plate of cooked breakfast set down before me, and there’s a bold rat-a-tat-tat on the bus terminal’s widescreen restaurant window. A man’s stood outside, mouthing that he needs a couple of dollars. Have I got anything to spare? I shake my head, hoping he’ll get the message and scram. But he stays where he is and knocks again. I’ll be honest – I’m getting sick of this now. Getting sick, that is, of being constantly hassled, from dawn till dusk and beyond. I don’t know why it is that panhandlers single me out from the crowds, believing that I’m a rich man who might have money to spare. In reality, I’m not unlike them: a desperate man, blowing his meagre life’s savings, travelling on the tightest of budgets and living like a pauper.

Again, a knock. I wave him away. At least I meant my wave to indicate I wanted to be left alone, but a minute later he has darted inside the terminal and is sitting beside me, attempting to swipe a bacon rasher as well as lightening my dubious financial load.

After I’d donated a handful of small change, and polished off the sliver of my breakfast that he’d kindly left (which came complete with what resembled mashed potato, but what must have been ‘grits’ judging by the harsh taste), I hit Memphis running. It was 7:30 a.m., and still raining. Looking at the sheer amount of stagnant water on the roads, it must have been raining most of the night.

A couple of blocks from the central bus station lay the most famous and well-visited street in the compact city: the neon-lit Beale Street, rife with old bars out of which came history-changing and life-enhancing music, along with an array of captivating shops. This is where Elvis and BB King both enjoyed pre-fame recognition. Indeed, Beale Street to Memphis is what Broadway is to Nashville. Although it didn’t look up to much at first light on a damp Tuesday morning, I wagered that on an evening affairs really hotted up.

The actual layout and feel of a small part of Memphis reminded me immediately of Buffalo. Memphis’s Court Square has concerts staged there just like in Buffalo’s Lafayette Square, and in Memphis as in Buffalo the tram-served Main Street is located adjacent to the pretty square.

As I continued exploring, the weather began to let up and shards of blue sky pierced the grey, although the Mississippi River looked pretty damn dark and deadly. Providing a natural boundary line, it still managed to look a little more innocent than I thought it would. A steamboat docked at the water’s edge was being replenished with food and drink supplies in anticipation of the next evening cruise. Gazing beyond the steamboat, an island languished in the middle of the river. Dubbed ‘Mud Island,’ the stranded tract of dry land began to form in the early part of the last century. Access to the island can be gained by taking a bridge, or via a monorail carriage which actually hangs and moves beneath the bridge in style. Over on Mud Island there are various attractions for visitors, and even an amphitheatre. In a shop window I’d noticed a poster advertising a one-day mini-festival due to be staged there in October. It was poised to present one of my favourite American rock bands, Hootie & the Blowfish. Depending on where I was in the same week, and how much money I had left, I thought I might just make a beeline to attend.

Jefferson Davis Park provides one of the best vantage points from which to view the river, along with the numerous bridges that span the beast. Cocooned in an attractive riverfront area awash with trees and seats, the park is named after the President of the Confederacy who called Memphis his home from 1869 to 1878. As I sauntered through, a group of homeless men were also drinking in the view. Quite literally.

Named after the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis has its very own pyramid in the form of the Pyramid Arena, a striking multi-purpose venue that’s played host to conferences, basketball games, and many a famous band over the years.

Music, after all, has long coursed through the city’s veins, with Memphis being most famous for its connection to Elvis Presley. Even though Elvis was born in Tupelo and didn’t move to Memphis with his family until 1948 when he was thirteen, it’s safe to say that a huge number of visitors to Memphis are drawn here purely and simply because of the Elvis connection, especially since he lived in his Graceland home for twenty years – from when he bought the house in 1957, until his death in 1977. Elvis didn’t, however, have the house built for him; Graceland had been built in 1939, long before the Presleys moved to the city. A far cry from its days as a quiet and secluded family home, Graceland is allegedly the second most-visited house in the US after the President’s far-from-humble abode in the lavish White House.

Graceland is only a short ride away for die-hard devotees in the mood for seeing where the rock ‘n’ roll legend was laid to rest. I would have been interested in going to experience Graceland for myself, but the house is some five kilometres from the city centre and I didn’t know how to get there. In any case, I was enjoying wandering aimlessly around Memphis too much. It’s a beautiful place, and even more so if the sun comes out to play as it did when I walked a line down Front Street. Squeezed between Main Street and the river, Front Street featured prominently in the John Grisham book ‘The Firm,’ a thrilling novel set in the city. As I walked, a set of twins passed, a coincidence that served to remind me that Elvis was an identical twin. His brother, Jesse Garon Presley, arrived thirty-five minutes before Elvis saw the light of the day. Unfortunately, Jesse Garon was stillborn.

Aside from the city’s associations with music and movies, Memphis is also revered for being the birthplace of the self-service grocery trade. Founded in 1916, at 79 Jefferson Street, the ‘Piggly Wiggly’ store soon became a nationwide chain. At its peak, the company operated a staggering 2,660 stores, making the quality of food packaging and brand recognition hugely important in the process.

Come lunchtime, I was making my way to Little Rock in the neighbouring state of Arkansas. I didn’t know anybody who’d ever visited the place, but I harboured every intention of stopping off in the city for a few hours at least.

As the bus swung into the station, the city looked to be an exhilarating place to look around. But once inside the terminal I realised that I should have stayed on the bus I’d just got off, bound for Dallas. The bummer was that the Little Rock terminal locked its doors every night at 8 p.m., so there was no chance of slyly sleeping there for free. My Plan B had been to chill out in Little Rock for a few hours and then catch a ride south to New Orleans, but it seemed I was now in an awkward position to do so. Only a couple of Greyhound service routes darted directly to New Orleans; one of those departed from Dallas, the other from Memphis. I was told if I wanted to get down to New Orleans so bad, I should have caught a direct service when I’d had the chance.

Well, now I knew. Hell – how was I to know that no route south from Little Rock existed? I’d learnt something there, and promised myself that I’d buy a comprehensive map highlighting Greyhound routes across the bulk of North America in order to better aid my impromptu planning. No such maps were for sale in Little Rock. I was now stuck literally between a rock and a hard place, forcing my mind to make a decision about what to do next pronto. Tickled by my predicament, the Greyhound clerk told me to ‘Have a nice day’ regardless. Clearly rejoicing in her role as the bearer of bad news, her demonic grin chilled me to the bone. Have a nice day indeed! ‘I have other plans,’ I grumbled, unconsciously echoing Joan Didion’s riposte.

Five minutes later, after realising my mistake, I was sat tight on a nine-hour journey even further west, through the rest of Arkansas and into Texas… to Dallas. Rob Howarth would have no doubt found this farce hilarious. What I should have been doing was habitually ringing the toll-free Greyhound Information line to find out departure and arrival times for all services instead of being such an itinerant chancer.

As soon as I’d reboarded the bus, I was in trouble. And big trouble at that.

Because I’d got off and had wasted time getting an onward ticket, somebody else had nabbed my original seat. Consequently, I made myself comfortable on the first vacant seat in sight. It just happened to be right at the very back of the bus, covered in a dazzling assortment of food wrappers and drink cartons. One carton had been propped upright in the middle of the three-in-one seat, giving the impression it was standing sentry. It was drained, so I kicked it under the seat in front for safekeeping. I did so just as the restroom door beside me creaked open and a Big Momma of a lady stepped out. Not looking at all happy, she bellowed ‘Where’s my cup at?’ as though I’d committed a grave crime in banishing her big-gulp carton and that I should feel guilty. I explained that I’d stowed it under the seat and apologised for sitting in her place, even though a trio of travellers should theoretically have been capable of sitting in the space she seemed hell-bent on reclaiming as her own. Intimidated by her size, grouchy attitude and demonic glare, I knew when I wasn’t wanted, promptly relocating myself without further ado… next to a cap-sporting Mexican hombre who didn’t speak one word of English! As you might imagine, our conversations were none-starters and never got off the ground, but he did offer me a palmful of salted peanuts after he’d alighted at a rest stop to buy some. It was a small gesture, but a genuine gesture of kindness. And I thanked him profusely.

Since we’d edged into the Lone Star State after passing through the sleepy settlement of Hope in Arkansas (which was Bill Clinton’s birthplace, according to one sign I spotted at the edge of town) and the state border settlement of Texarkana, the countryside had begun to open out. Instead of the road being claustrophobically hemmed in by trees, the views had developed in an ever-expansive manner. Now you could see for countless miles over flat fields, dying to belong.

As the sun shot itself down in a blaze of glory and slumped into hiding for another day, the few scattered trees and bushes close to the road became silhouetted in an unforgettable manner. I wondered how the same sunset looked down by the water in Key West, and if the people watching in wonder there had got such a great view of the life-giving orb slowly going under.

Between sunset and pulling into Dallas, I fell asleep. As a result, the spectacular skyline of the city came as some head-turning, neck-snapping shock. The tight cluster of downtown skyscrapers looked amazing, and I was glad fate had brought me here far sooner than expected. Hell, if I hadn’t jumped back on the bus, I might have been stranded and destitute in Little Rock, either lying on the bus station porch or walking the city’s streets in futile search of accommodation.

I hadn’t eaten a sausage since breakfast, save for the aforementioned smattering of peanuts. I liked Dallas all the more when the smart, modern terminal was stationed opposite an appetite-appeasing McDonalds. The most bizarre yet chic McDonalds I’d ever visited, it had Frank Sinatra records playing on the jukebox. Thus, songs such as ‘Young At Heart’ and ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’ swung with soul out of the speakers as I tucked into a ‘Big Mac Meal’ from heaven.

As much as I do have serious issues with the fast-food giant’s ethics when it comes to provoking deforestation to provide more room for cattle to graze, if I’m really starving I do pay them a visit. And it was in Dallas that I saw root beer on-tap at the self-service drinks counter for the first time. ‘Right,’ I thought, ‘I’ll have some of that!’ But regrets surfaced instantaneously. The stuff was foul and precipitated a fit of hiccups and stomach cramps so intense that unwanted attention was attracted from both fellow customers and staff members alike.

So much for having dared to sample the stuff as part of a phase I was going through, whereby I was trying all manner of foods and drinks that I’d never tried before, hoping to discover something that I loved into the bargain. So far, revolting thirst impressions had lasted.

Back at the bus terminal I sat near a guy struggling to come to terms with the fact that Greyhound had somehow lost his luggage. He was livid, and three security guards were summoned over the PA system to escort him away from the customer service desk where he was making a scene: a scene that wouldn’t have been too out of place in a dramatic, emotion-soaked stage-play. In turn, the alarmed security team called the boys in blue down at the DPD. Such boys showed up in good time, as though this disturbance was the first of the night. It’s not as though the passenger was being physically aggressive or acting as though violence was primed to erupt. He was simply venting his anger by shouting, yet before he knew it he was slammed hard and fast against the nearest wall and cuffed. At this point the action was spiralling out of control no more than five yards away, and the collection of documents and an ID card he’d been clutching flew in my direction. Doing my bit, I shuffled them together and picked them up as he was bundled towards an awaiting police cruiser. To be fair to the guy, he was undeniably manhandled and treated like an animal.

Whilst being cuffed he kept repeating, ‘I am not resisting you, I am not resisting you,’ mantra-style, in hope that he might be treated a touch more lightly and with an ounce more respect. At the end of the day he’d done nothing wrong. The passengers sat nearby all agreed once he’d been forced to leave the building. The police had acted with heavy hands; I was disgusted by their attitude towards the man. I just prayed that my backpack wasn’t lost by Greyhound in the future. I’d react exactly as he had, and I’d probably get arrested in the process myself. Then I’d really have a story to tell.

Meanwhile, a couple of plasma screen TVs, hung high in the terminal’s waiting area, allowed CNN to inform the USA at large about how New York’s Port Authority bus terminal had been evacuated earlier in the day after something suspicious had been found. I just hoped that one of my dirty socks hadn’t slipped out of my backpack unbeknown to me when I’d last slept on the floor there. To untrained eyes, one of those odour-ridden bad boys could quite feasibly strike mortal fear into the hearts of even the bravest of men.
I was all set to stay in the terminal for the rest of the night, but I didn’t feel tired. Unafraid of the dangers, I went for a walk, unable to wait until morning to get a feel for downtown Dallas. It’s a city famous for many things, not least the Dallas Cowboys American Football team, the legendary 80s TV series that blagged the city’s name for its title… and, er, a certain movie entitled ‘Debbie Does Dallas.’ I’m pretty sure the latter was a notorious porn movie. In fact, I’m almost certain.

After an hour of stretching my legs – even in the dead of night it was wonderfully warm on the lifeless streets – I returned to the terminal. Instead of counting sheep to induce sleep, I tried to count how many buses I’d so far taken: a gargantuan task which left me dazed, confused and more alert than ever. I knew that if I failed to sleep, I would be exhausted the following day. Even so, the ‘Travellers Grill’ café was still open, and I felt like a coffee, wondering all the while how the guy who’d been arrested was getting on.

One thing was certain. He’d missed his next bus.NO PLACE LIKE HOME

I’d always thought Kansas City was in the state of Kansas.

Well, it is… and it isn’t. A city of two halves, half belongs to Kansas, while the eastern side of the city is found over the state boundary line in Missouri. Just to confuse matters. The Greyhound terminal is located in Missouri, and not in the most savoury or safe section of the city either.

I was so eager to escape the Kansas City station after the long overnight haul from Oklahoma City that I exited by the wrong door and wound up in the life-threatening heart of the bus park itself, just as two buses were speedily swinging around a blind corner into my path.

‘Hey – what you doing, man?!’ volleyed a frantic call across the yard.

‘I’m trying to kill myself,’ I jokily countered. For some reason the Greyhound baggage handler believed me, shrugging his shoulders and sloping away to attend to other matters.

Like Dallas, Kansas City doesn’t appear to offer the visitor that much on first sight. The bus terminal was closest to the Government District, which wielded some impressive and frightfully imposing buildings. As for the nearby Downtown Entertainment District, that was in a right state, undergoing a major renovation which was due to be completed by fall 2007. Eyeballing the area in its bombsite-resembling state, much work had to be done, with what was to become ‘The Power & Light’ District being pretty much on the level as foundations were duly dug. The architecturally splendid Mainstreet Theatre was right in the thick of things; in spite of being boarded up and out of action, it was due to be restored and saved.

The view from atop Quality Hill provides the best way to appreciate just how large a geographical area Kansas City covers, but with the Entertainment District being effectively non-existent whilst work raged on, the visitor to the city – at least when I dropped by – had little to do or see, other than stroll around the adjacent Financial District.

I was still hellbent on dragging my heels down to New Orleans, so I caught a bus across to St. Louis, deeper in the state of Missouri, from where I could commence an epic ride south… back through Memphis, into Louisiana, and via Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

Waiting in line to board at the K.C. terminal, I got chatting to a ginger-haired guy called Dan, returning home to Lexington, Kentucky. He’d been living in Kansas City for five months, and admitted he’d only been ‘downtown’ a few times; there really was so very little to do there. Dan had been born in Ireland, but his parents decided to emigrate when he was two. The rest was history, yet he hoped to travel to Ireland some day in order to better understand his roots and where he came from in terms of his birthplace and family genealogy.

I asked him at what time he was due to arrive into Lexington. His sarcastic chuckle suggested it wasn’t for quite some time yet.

‘If I took an express bus,’ he explained, ‘I’d have been home today. Because I’m travelling by normal service bus, I won’t be home until tomorrow, following a nine-hour layover en-route.’

Our four and a half hour journey to St. Louis, meanwhile, left not one seat spare on-board. I got seated beside a Nashville-bound chip-muncher who couldn’t stop staring at my lap, as though the meaning of life might reveal itself if he stared long enough. At St. Louis I couldn’t get off the bus fast enough… not that I intended to check out the city after being expressly warned by three people about the run-down area in which the terminal was located, along with the very real possibility of getting mugged or shot if I ventured out alone. At the rear of the station was a small compound for passengers awaiting buses to hang out in, enclosed in such a style that even Greyhound – as a responsible company – was subliminally suggesting that to venture any further would be a gross mistake… not even the twenty or so yards to the alluring KFC across the street. But hunger was striking, so I edged my way through the main entrance inch by inch, expecting an ambush from both sides upon stepping clean away from the peripheral vision-restricting porch area. When I did, there was nothing. Nobody was there. So, the disquieting rally of derogatory comments I’d heard about this patch of St. Louis had been pure hokum. Even so, the immediate surroundings were hardly poetic; if I’d been born here like T.S. Eliot, I’d have probably been prompted to ultimately settle in England, too.

Back inside the terminal, my hunger pangs suitably satisfied, a crop-haired girl strode with purpose across to me as I queued to get a ticket printed for the next bus to New Orleans.

‘Didn’t we just meet?’ she asked, cocking an eyebrow.

‘Well, no,’ I said, stunned. ‘If we’d met before, I’d remember – and I’m sure you would, too.’

‘Oh, okay,’ she replied, before stating the obvious: ‘You’re not from around these parts, are you?’

It was only right to admit that I wasn’t, before explaining what I was doing and where I was going. Once she’d caught sight of my shiny blue ‘Greyhound Discovery Pass,’ there was no getting rid of her. Her advances couldn’t be shaken, for she had herself a dilemma and needed a ticket bad for California. She couldn’t afford one, so she seemed to be just hanging around until someone took pity and helped finance her quest.

‘So, you’re telling me you can get a free ticket at the counter to anywhere you want in the entire country?’ she asked, a twisted smile materialising.

‘Hell yeah! That’s the way the pass works,’ I replied with gusto: a huge mistake.

‘You’ve gotta to be kidding!’ she beamed before asking the inevitable, as though I alone had the power to solve her predicament.

‘If it was that simple, I’d fix you up with a complimentary ticket to California in a flash. But there’s a snag: on every ticket I get printed, my name is also printed, so unless you could somehow convince the drivers inspecting the tickets that you’re called Stephen Rudd, I’m afraid this little stunt, nice idea that it is, can’t be pulled off.’

I told her fair and square, destroying her hope within seconds, and feeling awful as a result.

‘Hey, I can pretend I’m a guy no problem.’

With the haircut she sported, I didn’t honestly doubt her.

‘Perhaps you can,’ I mused, ‘but the drivers also check a form of ID such as a passport in order to make doubly sure that no scam’s going down.’

‘Right,’ she pondered. ‘I guess there’s only thing to do then, and that’s for you to give me your passport.’

The disturbing thing was, she seemingly meant every word she uttered, and all this as I gradually crawled forward in line towards the ticket desk. On the verge of buckling under her persistent pressure, I had no choice.

‘Sorry, but I can’t help you,’ I seethed firmly, and she finally realised that I really couldn’t. In any case, her receding hairline wasn’t half as harsh as the one I sported on my six-year-old passport photograph.

Ready and waiting to board the bus, a guy behind me struck up a conversation that had him believing I hailed from Australia. I told him that the majority of people I spoke to thought the same. He laughed, before saying ‘Welcome to America, bro.’

‘Hey, thanks,’ I said. ‘That’s the first time anybody’s actually said that since I arrived in the US. In all my naivety, I expected the guys and gals at the airport Immigration desks to be all smiles and good cheer and to say just that. But far from it. So it means a lot to finally feel welcome.’

A minute later, the boarding call screeched over the tannoy. Amidst the ensuing madness I lost sight of the guy, never to see him again.

At last, I was on my way to New Orleans, eager to observe to what extent the so-called ‘Crescent City’ had recovered in the wake of the debacle caused by Hurricane Katrina. The city was only 747 miles distant.

I slept in fits and starts, staring out the window when unable to sleep, amazed that a fleet of stars could be seen – not that I recognised any constellations. The bus stopped at Sikeston on the way, where there was a tiny, intimate station inside which a chirpy lady called Wanda was called upon to microwave hotdogs en-masse. Almost all fifty-five passengers aboard disembarked, nursing and cursing their fiercely rumbling stomachs. Given her name, Wanda reminded me of the British crime-caper movie ‘A Fish Called Wanda,’ along with one of the actors who starred in the smash-hit. An actor called Michael Palin: a natural comic genius who went on to become a traveller’s traveller in due course, he was one of the people who first inspired me to chuck my job, grab my backpack, and hit the road.

I seized a hotdog for myself, along with a tongue-singeing black coffee and several sachets of sweetener to aggravate my already-aching teeth some more. In a rush to re-board the bus before it left, I hadn’t been paying enough attention when pocketing the sachets. This resulted in my coffee being a tad saltier than expected. Well, at least my teeth wouldn’t suffer, though such a blessing in disguise was sure to have done little for my blood pressure.

The bus eventually rolled to a halt in Memphis at midnight. What I desired right then more than anything else was a proper coffee embellished by sweet sugar. As a result, I made an immediate beeline for the restaurant, where I picked up a coffee and took a seat. Then, to my dismay, I heard an all-too-familiar rat-a-tat-tat on the window…

CHEAP BOOZE, CHEAPER GIRLS, AND GIDEON

Following a killer seven hour layover, during which I caught some sleep on the Memphis bus terminal floor, I boarded another bus set to escort me all the way down to New Orleans, via Jackson in Mississippi, and Baton Rouge, due into ‘The Big Easy’ early in the evening.

Once on the bus, I barely stopped talking all day, first to a Chicago guy – fresh out of prison for crimes he seemed unwilling to disclose – travelling south to Pensacola to meet his estranged son: a son he’d not seen for fifteen years since the ex-con’s wife had left him. He said he was nervous about meeting his son, having no idea what type of person he might have grown up to be. He was so nervous, in fact, that he’d attempted – and failed – to get blind drunk the previous evening, hoping he might be able to sleep through the long journey south without worrying too much about the reunion looming on the horizon. Instead, he talked for America, and even though my eyes often strayed to survey the pretty Mississippi countryside shooting by outside, my ears remained pricked so long as his mouth worked overtime.

After he debussed at Jackson for an onward connection, another guy from Chicago sat beside me, bound for Baton Rouge (the state capitol of Louisiana) where he worked. He talked objectively about a mixed bag of subjects, all of which seemed to be coincidentally laced with political connotations relating to his overriding lack of respect for George Bush Jr. since the President had decided to intervene in Iraq’s affairs. He was disgusted that Bush seemed more concerned with Iraq than with issues that lay right on his doorstep, such as homelessness. As we got closer to Baton Rouge, and the road traffic thickened accordingly, he then started to convince me that visiting New Orleans was a bad idea, saying much of the city was still in turmoil and that bodies were still being found beneath levelled buildings over a year after the hurricane had dealt its deadly blows.

On the back of what he said, I considered alighting at Baton Rouge, until I saw the area surrounding its terminal swarming with groups of juvenile delinquents looking for easy pickings from any tourists or travellers that might be passing through. Behind the terminal, near a tree-shaded bench, a stark question had been graffiti-sprayed across a wall: ‘Where do we go from here?’ It intimated that times were somewhat desperate, especially since a large proportion of New Orleans residents left homeless in light of Katrina had fled to Baton Rouge in search of shelter and work, thereby depriving local people of homes and jobs. Sitting tight, I prayed that what I found in New Orleans wouldn’t be as bad as I feared it might be.

It was a two hour ride east from Baton Rouge, with the road flying over the Louisiana wetlands as we neared New Orleans, courtesy of a series of bridges that reminded me of the exhilarating approach to Key West. With nobody to talk to, I read: ‘Music For Torching’ by A. M. Homes. Having devoured her debut novel ‘Jack’ when I was sixteen, I was familiar with the satirical way in which she rips apart the fabric of the American Dream, positively feasting on the misfortunes of the families at the heart of her books. Her riveting writing style reminded me of Rick Moody’s way with words, not to mention Bret Easton Ellis’s explorations into human nature at its darkest. I’d been a fan of such authors for as long as I could recall. They’d all taught me an invaluable lesson, which was to never judge a book by its cover. Unless it was of Mills & Boon heritage.

The New Orleans terminal might have been well located, right in front of the Superdome and close to the downtown area, but it didn’t boast many late departures should anybody have needed to escape in a hurry via public transport at night. I recognised the huge sports stadium immediately. It featured in the background of a haunting photo in Al Gore’s book, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’: graphically depicting a dead child lying facedown in the post-Katrina floodwaters, that one image alone was enough to haunt me.

The quantity of Amtrak trains departing after dark was also minimal. Given that the last bus out of New Orleans left at 4:15 p.m., there was no reason for the terminal (where I’d planned on staying the night) to stay open late. That meant I had to find a room… or a dorm bed, at the very least.

I dragged out the address of a HI-hostel. It was allegedly just two and a half kilometres from the terminal, but I didn’t fancy walking even that short distance down unfamiliar dark streets, especially since there was a significant chance that the hostel had been destroyed in the hurricane: a hurricane that had been destined to wreak havoc from conception. Lying in reclaimed swampland between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, it would be difficult to imagine New Orleans being in a more vulnerable position.

In most Greyhound terminals there’s a Visitor Information board dominated by a map of the area and a public phone, along with a host of adverts for hostels and hotels in the respective town or city.

Considering my options, I dashed across to the board upon spotting a man on the phone making contact with one of the advertisers. Once he’d hung up I asked which establishment he’d rung, and if any rooms were waiting to be filled. As luck had it, there were rooms available at the Empress Hotel – the cheapest place advertised. To save even more money, we conspired to share a cab to the hotel at 1317 Ursulines. The fare still came to an extortionate $12, excluding the tip that the driver hinted he deserved. We’d only travelled about two miles from the station. Despite having been clearly ripped off, we didn’t argue, happy to have secured a room each for the night.

The guy I’d unwittingly hooked up with was a fifty-five year old Dutchman who’d been travelling around the states for the past month by rail. He’d actually been trying to leave New Orleans, but he’d missed his train and was now well and truly stuck.

The rooms cost $35 per person per night, excluding a $10 deposit for the room key in case it was lost. Stifling a sigh, it was high time I broke into my first $50 bill. Having so far blown $500 in three weeks, I had $900 left to last the remaining five weeks. Desperate to join some canyon tours once I hit the southwestern states, I realised I needed to stop wasting money on fast food when I wasn’t even that hungry half the time. I simply deluded myself into believing I was perpetually ravenous because food was so easily accessible everywhere I went.

At the hotel, the Dutchman and I were led down the ground floor corridor, fringed by two unnerving walls of mirrors. His room was opposite mine, right at the far end. The place had been flooded on the back of Katrina, hence the doors took some opening due to the wood frames having warped out of shape. A good kick helped.

He went his way and I went mine, only to discover that the room wasn’t half as large or luxurious as the lady on the phone had promised. But, appreciating the difficulties Hurricane Katrina inflicted, we didn’t say a word. It can’t have been a cheap exercise to clean up and re-open the hotel after the floodwaters subsided, and the preceding year must have been a living nightmare for all New Orleans residents. I had a roof over my head; what more did I want?

I’ll tell you what I wanted, what I really, really wanted… and that was to nip downtown and check out the head-spinning decadence of the world-famous Bourbon Street at the heart of the French Quarter. Prior to stepping out of the hotel’s front door, I recalled what the Dutchman had said about it being unsafe to venture out alone after dark, particularly in this city of all North American cities, due in part to its association with voodoo that embedded itself when the city became the landing point for slave ships out of Africa.

‘What?’ I’d blustered. ‘How can the fact that some people here practise voodoo affect me walking down the street?’

He seemed obsessed by the possibility that unseen dark forces might whisk me away without trace. As per usual, I was more than willing to take my chances, however compromised they might have been.

I asked the hotel receptionist if she could point out on a map where the hotel was in relation to the French Quarter. She wasn’t sure, telling me that if I turned left out of the hotel and kept on walking, I would eventually see the neon lights and be drawn by the deafening music as I headed deeper into the city centre. And she was right, as I hit Bourbon Street much sooner than expected once I’d negotiated the busy Rampart thoroughfare.

I’d previously been mesmerised by the high-kicking energy of Buffalo’s Chippewa Street and Key West’s Duval Street, but Bourbon Street booted both into the shade. It was 9 p.m. on a Friday night. The party atmosphere was infectious as I strolled down the reveller-packed street, eyes and ears wide open to the action occurring everywhere I turned my head. Bars, nightclubs and unsubtle sex parlours lined both sides of the street, with live bands belting out cover versions of classic rock numbers with just as much passion, if not more, than the original bands that penned the songs ever had. At the ‘Krazy Korner’ bar, a band performed a note-perfect rendition of Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way.’ It seemed highly appropriate: the song is alleged to be about losing one’s virginity. Down Bourbon Street, which becomes pedestrianised at night, it’s possible to lose far more than that; for starters, a handful of guys ranting and raving on various street corners had seemingly lost their minds.

The widespread availability of ‘huge-ass’ beers on the cheap ensured that many groups of revellers were slaughtered, staggering from one bar to the next as though they really needed more to drink. One guy galloped out of the ‘Funky Pirate’ club for some fresh air just in time, letting loose a Louisianan wave of vomit, spraying both the pavement and his designer pumps. Either the blues band playing inside had sickened him so, or his alcohol-flooded stomach had begun to beg for mercy.

Many of the buildings gracing Bourbon Street possess balconies. Gaggles of glamorous girls flung colourful beads and necklaces from those belonging to the sex-selling establishments. Two of the most popular girl-graced parlours were ‘Little Darlings’ and Larry Flynt’s ‘Barely Legal,’ with a steady (and unsteady, depending on how intoxicated they were) stream of men edging into and striding out of both.

Malingering beneath one balcony, straining to catch some souvenir beads, a group of four college students closed in on me, looking intent on taking me down. They appeared angry, as though I’d committed some unspeakable act to upset their karma. Thankfully, they approached me armed with pens and clipboards, not with knives or guns. I meekly hid my newly procured beads behind my back, assuming that such innocent strings of fake pearls might be the root cause of the altercation that seemed set to unfold. Slyly slipping the beads into my back pocket, disposing of the evidence in style, I thrust up my arms in surrender, desperately trying to inject an ounce of humour into proceedings. The group of four, all of them girls, now surrounded me, impeding any escape attempt that I wished to execute.

‘What does God mean to you?’ one of the girls asked, her fabulously dated spectacle frames forcing me to make eye contact with her all the more. Taken unawares, I had no idea how to respond. I was down one of the most hedonistic streets in North America, and these students wanted to discuss God. All around, barely dressed girls flaunted their flesh, well-dressed drug dealers pushed their contraband merchandise on unsuspecting tourists, and beer-guzzling animals spewed their rotten guts into the gutter. The students had purposefully picked this location for that very reason, perhaps presuming that nobody found on Bourbon Street could believe in God to any extent if the behaviour down there was anything to go by.

Lost for words, I could hardly say ‘God means everything.’ Even though I wasn’t actively participating in any of the sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll distractions on offer, by being there I was still in a way supporting what was going on down Bourbon Street. After all, my curiosity had got the better of me.

The girls clearly wanted an answer, however banal. So, swearing to God in the most respectful manner, I said that I wanted to believe in God, but that I couldn’t. In turn, they argued that if I wanted to believe, I could. To them, it really was that simple.

‘Okay, so why are you in New Orleans, down here on Bourbon Street?’ another girl chimed in, seemingly desperate to psychoanalyse my motives, realising I had trouble expressing my feelings about faith in a higher power. ‘Are you here to sin?’

Hearing what I wanted to hear, I replied, ‘Why, yes!’ And, as the final verse of ‘Start Me Up’ slammed out of the nearest bar’s deafening PA system, I burst into song. It was the first time such a mood had taken me, but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to tell the world, yes – I was there to sing!

Mortified by my attitude, the God-fearing girls fled. I’m convinced one of them yelled ‘Damned fool’ back to me as she scooted, but then my ears could have been deceiving me. Again.

At the western end of Bourbon Street streaks Canal Street, another busy thoroughfare crammed full of souvenir shops, plush hotels, and fast-food restaurants. Head south down Canal Street and you’ll soon hit the Mississippi River, an amazing sight by day and night. The relatively low waterline rendered it impossible to imagine what the river must have looked like at bankfull stage, immediately prior to spilling over and wrecking havoc across the city.

After a short stroll beside the silent but deadly beast, I returned to Bourbon Street, past the truly beautiful cathedral in Jackson Square. I walked down the street from end to end one last time, savouring the lust for life that every last person in eyeshot appeared to possess. I realised full well that the street would be partying hard into the early hours of Saturday morning. As much as I’d have loved to fling myself headfirst into a stomach-churning bar crawl of epic proportions, I knew if I stepped inside one bar for a single innocent drink, once I got the taste for alcohol there’d be no stopping me. I’d wind up spending not a small fortune, but quite the opposite. I had a $50 note in my pocket; if I started drinking, I’d continue to do so until not a cent remained. I was that kind of person, and so proud to have so far resisted alcohol altogether in America. In my early twenties I had a serious addiction to drink, to cider in particular. This led to some wild nights out that I came to regret in due course. One such night resulted in me leaving a trail of lettuce around my house after picking up a burger from a takeaway, running home to eat it, and dropping the generous salad dressing all over. I was that drunk, and had scant idea what I was doing. I woke up the following morning with a half-eaten quarterpounder lying beside me in bed, looking somewhat pleased with itself. Gasping in horror, I hoped I’d had enough sense to use protection in the heat of the moment.

I strolled back to my hotel past Louis Armstrong Park, an expansive tract of land. This area of the city was once known as Storyville, where legalised prostitution brought many lovers of lust to their knees.

At the hotel, I switched on the TV, which was balanced precariously on a movable arm that looked set to snap any second. The arm was bolted to the wall in such a manner that the only way you could watch TV in bed was to stand up. However much I wrestled with it, the arm refused to tilt downwards. Too exhausted to stand, I made do with the awful angle that I could obtain, craning my already-aching neck to its fullest extent. I chortled like mad at ‘The Late Show,’ especially when ‘Jackass’ stunt maestro Johnny Knoxville literally dropped in to chat with David Letterman. I did so whilst chewing on a Hershey Bar: a revolting piece of candy which had been damaged in the wake of Katrina.

The next thing I knew it was 7:30 a.m.

I’d clearly fallen asleep pretty much as soon as my head had touched the pillow. The TV, naturally, had played to itself all night long.

A CITY-WIDE HANGOVER

‘This hotel is haunted! This hotel is haunted!’ croaked the travelling Dutchman, rushing to reception to check out in my wake. As far as I was concerned, he was speaking Double Dutch. I’m sure any bumps in the night he might have heard would merely have been people making love in the next room to his; the walls were worse than paper thin – they were tracing paper thin. I humoured him regardless, bearing in mind that New Orleans is reputed to be the most haunted city in North America.

I was back in the heart of the French Quarter early, munching ‘soul food’ in the form of a hoecake, surveying the abominable mess that covered Bourbon Street: a flood of litter. Masquerading as the cavalry, road sweepers were hard at work, clearing up the debris and hosing down the pavements in preparation for the coming night’s party.

I was just glad I’d witnessed the street in all its nocturnal glory, because Bourbon Street by day, when all shuttered up and quiet, pretty much resembles a street like any other: lifeless and soulless. At night, it’s a whole different story.

By day, I had a better chance to see to what extent the downtown area had recovered following 2005’s hurricane. Most places had reopened, though a large number of buildings remained boarded-up and abandoned. The tourist industry also appeared to be back on its legs, with camera-toting groups of all nationalities either participating in guided tours or guiding themselves around. In light of the hurricane, post-Katrina tours were all the rage. At least one T-shirt manufacturer was making light of the situation by mass-producing T’s emblazoned with the crude but tongue-in-cheek slogan, ‘I got blown by Katrina.’ During hard times, the ability to look on the bright side is a vital virtue. New Orleans had even been christened the ‘City of Hope’ in tribute to how well – in some respects – the city had risen, not so much like a phoenix from the ashes, but like heaven dredged from the depths of hell.

The state of the outlying suburbs, however, away from the areas seen by tourists, allegedly told a different and far more appalling story. I was told that many areas of the city still looked as though the hurricane had landed yesterday. I saw none of this though, uncertain about exactly which areas were reputed to dwell in such an unbearable state.

IN WITH THE OLD, OUT WITH THE NEW

‘Whoah-ho, would you take a peek at that Po’ boy?’

Through the bus window, I saw a single white male loping along the side of the road as we bounced out of the station. Weighed down by a goldmine of bling, and jawing into a tiny mobile phone, the guy outside looked to be far from poor. Turning back to my man on the inside, I asked if I’d heard him right, but his attention was focused on a young woman chomping on a sandwich in front. Clamouring for clarification, I asked what exactly he was referring to. As suspected, the “Po’ boy” arousing his interest wasn’t a ‘Poor boy’ at all; it was strictly non-human. ‘Aww, check it out – that is so, so sweet,’ he blushed, pining for a bite of the woman’s baguette, its flaky crust producing a flurry of crumbs. ‘What is it? I asked, eager to understand why drool was threatening to flood down his chops. ‘You never heard of a Po’ boy?’ he wheezed, bizarrely delighted by my ignorance. ‘It’s a traditional submarine sandwich from Louisiana, fit to bursting with meat or seafood that’s usually fried. It sure ain’t healthy, but it sure is tasty!’

‘Sorry – I presumed that Po’ boy must be an abbreviation of Poor boy,’ I said.

‘That’s a cracker!’

‘Huh?’

‘That’s a cracker!’ he repeated.

Incredible. I was suddenly been treated to dubious impressions of an Irish comedian. In America’s Deep South.

‘Are you a big fan of Frank Carson?’ I ventured.

The man’s blank expression impressed upon me his confusion.

‘Nope – never heard of him. Now I’m referring to the local term for ‘a poor white boy,’ which is ‘cracker,’ but you’ve gotta be careful when you use it; it’s deemed derogatory, that’s all.’

I learned much from the Texan man sat beside me on the long ride west to Houston: a man who’d personally been working in the thick of the devastation caused by Katrina. His name was Ronnie. Hailing from a town called Lufkin, he worked as a project manager in hurricane-hit parts of the southern states, organising various relief operations as best he could. His main train of management focused on the swift removal of trees uprooted by hurricanes, along with the safe felling of trees deemed unsafe.

‘There’s a mountain of money to be made in my line of work,’ he enthused, scratching what was visible of his forehead beneath a weather-beaten cap.

Obviously at certain times of the year work dried up if no hurricanes were hitting, therefore as much money had to be made when work was available. A lifelong workaholic, Ronnie had been based in the New Orleans area for over a year, since August 2005, stressing that the situation was so dire in certain sections of the city that it seemed the job was destined to be a never-ending chore.

As the bus raced towards the magnificent Houston skyline, he joked that he’d love it if a hurricane were to sweep through the city. That way he’d be guaranteed plenty of work a little closer to home, coming clean in admitting he was dog-tired of undertaking the long haul down into Louisiana, much preferring to work in his home-state of Texas if possible.

Upon entering Texas some hours before, Ronnie had pointed out various rivers, and the huge oil refineries lining their banks. One such river was the Sabine, semi-familiar to me because it prominently featured in many of Joe R. Lansdale’s books, set in the backwoods of East Texas, which I was such a huge fan of.

Ronnie hadn’t been into Houston’s city centre for five years. The purpose of his last visit had been to see his father on his deathbed. Consequently, it wasn’t as though Ronnie was very fond of the city in light of such depressing recollections. Another thing he revealed during the eight-hour journey was that he’d never before travelled by bus. Anywhere. Ever. As a result, he’d been getting confused at the few bus terminals he’d been through during the day, with Ronnie having travelled from much further east of New Orleans before we’d met. He subtly suggested that it’d be nice if I hung around with him for a minute or two at the Houston terminal to ensure he found the correct gate for his onward connection to Lufkin. However, as soon as we got off the bus and claimed his luggage, it became obvious that the task of locating Ronnie’s gate was to be far more difficult than expected.

We were in Houston… but by God we had a problem.

There’d been a power-cut inside the terminal a short while before we arrived. Everybody was either being guided about by a guard armed with a super-powered torch, or they were fending for themselves, stumbling around with their arms stretched out in front of them, accidentally bumping into other people as they went, blinder than bats. I dreaded to imagine how people who were desperate to use the restrooms coped.

After managing to locate Ronnie’s gate and having seen him off, I slumped down at one side of the waiting area, discreetly, to sleep. The darkness provided perfect cover… until, somewhat typically, full power was restored ten minutes after I’d laid my body to rest. Not that I moved a muscle in response. I was instead lulled to sleep by a couple of bearded vagabonds who fancied themselves as musicians. Pioneering a new genre of music in the form of Folk-Rap, one played harmonica while the other twanged a banjo. It was nothing like sweet music to my well-trained ears, but so long as they continued to make a racket, the security guards would surely avoid complaining too much about how I was treating the terminal like a hotel.

It’s not as though I asked for a quilt or a wake-up call in the morning – even if I did have a cup of hot chocolate to hand.

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