Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Can't find the trees for the forest

When I'm out on the trike I'm always on the lookout for people standing on street corners looking lost. If I don't manage to pick up a ride, I'll at least try to leave our guests with a  impression that New Orleanians are friendly, helpful folks.

Yesterday I spotted a couple who looked like suitable targets, so I stopped to offer my assistance.

"We're just looking for a bar," they said.

"Which one?" I asked.

"No particular one. Just someplace to get a drink. "

Nice! Since my grade school days I've always had an overwhelming preference for easy questions over hard ones, and I'd be hard pressed to imagine an easier question in any field than, "Where do I go to get a drink in the French Quarter?"

Did I mention that we were just a block off Bourbon? Yep. A single city block. The bad thing is that even if I had managed to sell them a ride, it would have been a very, very short ride!

A couple of hours later, I came across another clueless-looking couple on a corner just a couple of blocks distant from the earlier encounter.

"Can I help you find anything?" I asked.

"Yes! We're so glad you came along! We've between walking for six blocks looking for a bar and we haven't seen anything. Where's the closest place to sit down and relax and get a drink?"

I helpfully pointed out a couple of bars within spitting distance, including one that they had passed just half a block back.

Today I've decided to do an experiment. As I'm riding around looking for riders, I'd like to see if it's even theoretically possible to go six contiguous blocks in the French Quarter without passing a single bar. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My riders remind me what a sweet gig I have

I know, I haven't been writing much lately. Part of the problem is that I haven't been pedicabbing much -- once a week maybe, sometimes not even that, and only on weeknights when things are slow and the people on the street are mostly sober, which naturally makes for fewer stories. My main gig is the mule carriage, which, while paying the bills much better than the pedicab, tends to produce less blog-worthy material.

Sometimes I wonder though whether these are just excuses. In the early days it seems like every time I finished a shift I had a story to tell. I used to say, "If I don't end up writing a book about this, it won't be for lack of material!" Lately I've been wondering whether the stories have really stopped happening or if I have somehow lost my ability to see them. I have a hard time admitting it to myself, but my last few shifts on the pedicab had been -- dare I say it -- boring. Perhaps the real problem is that I've lost my my sense of wonder.

Last Wednesday was about what you might expect from a summer weeknight shift -- in a word, slow. I was grateful to pick up a family of three -- dad, mom and daughter -- who needed transport from a French Quarter restaurant to the St. Charles streetcar stop.

I'm guessing that the girl was six or eight years old. Secure in her father's lap, she commented, "This is good because it has three wheels so you can't fall over."

"You're right." I said. "Look at me! I'm 48 years old, and I'm still riding a tricycle."

"You know, if you can have fun at your job, consider yourself fortunate," the dad chimed in. "I have the worst job in the world! I work for the TSA as an airport security screener."

"Oh my!" I replied. "I imagine that would be a pretty tough job." I spent 16 years in a career that involved a lot of international travel, I thought back over the long hours I spent waiting in airport security lines. If those hours seemed long to me, what about the guy who has to be there all day long, day in and day out! 

But the worst job in the world? "What about being a repo man?"I countered."I think that it would be even worse to be the dude who has to show up and take away someone's truck or TV set."

"No!" he said emphatically. "Trust me. My job is way worse."

"Well, I don't know whether or not anyone has ever said this to you," I told him. "But let me just say thank you for keeping us safe and protecting us from terrorists!"

"What terrorists?" he scoffed. "It's a joke!"

"Hey man, I'm trying to be on your side," I protested. "Wanna work with me a little?!"

"I really appreciate the effort," he said. "But the truth is we're not doing anything but creating illusions! I might as well be working at Disney World. At least there I would be creating illusions for people to love me, whereas at my job I'm creating illusions and everyone hates me."

As the conversation moved on to other topics the guy got a lot less grumpy, and we ended up having a pleasant ride. They were carrying a big bag of to-go boxes from the restaurant, and as they got off at their destination, they asked whether I might pass a homeless person to whom I could pass on the food, and I assured them that I would be glad to do that.

Not five minutes after dropping them off I saw a guy sitting on the sidewalk with one of those cardboard signs, and I pulled up beside him and said, "Do you think you might know someone who could use this food?" And he smiled and said, "I sure do!", and accepted it eagerly and gratefully.

I couldn't help thinking that this guy would probably be happy to trade places with the TSA officer. But as for me: I'm 48 years old; and I ride a big yellow tricycle around the French Quarter; and for that moment at least, I don't think I would have traded places with anybody in the world!

Monday, July 7, 2014

In which the Crescent City Pedicabby is forced to question his life choices

Coop's Place is a cool little dive bar/restaurant on Decatur Street in the lower French Quarter. Their signature dish is a jambalaya with rabbit meat. Back in February comedian Hannibal Buress went on the tonight show and did this delightful little monologue about New Orleans. In the course of his performance Hannibal told a story about Coop's involving an encounter with a rat in the restroom.

Here's the crazy part: For a month or two after Hannibal Burress' tonight show appearance every time I rolled past Coop's there was a line halfway down the block! 

I have to say that this precipitated a bit of a personal crisis for me. I have a bachelor of arts degree in public relations for which my parents and I spent a considerable sum of money. All these years later I discover that public relations is much simpler than my professors tried to make it. Apparently, all you have to do is start a rumor about a rat in the restroom and the public will beat a path to your door!

On a more serious note, I really hope that you will click on the link to Hannibal's Tonight Show performance because it deserves to be heard in full. If you take the time to watch the clip you will hear Coop's defense -- which is essentially that given the age of the buildings and the proximity to the Mississippi River there isn't a five star restaurant in the Quarter that doesn't have rats. Fair enough. Personally, I eat at Coop's and don't hesitate to recommend it to others.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My policy

If I'm going to rent a place that comes with roommates, they better be helping pay the rent!

Sunday, March 2, 2014


No, no, no! Most of the signs along the length of Frenchmen Street get it right, but this one at the intersection of Elysian Fields is all wrong. It's Frenchmen Street not Frenchman. There were SIX of them.

Here's how it all went down: In 1762 France gave Louisiana to Spain in a secret treaty -- so secret that the people who actually lived here didn't even find out about it till a couple of years after the fact. So when the Spanish governor finally showed up to take charge, apparently nobody was glad to see him. Turns out everybody pretty much wanted to be French even though France didn't want them. So they had this little rebellion, and the governor got scared and got right back on the boat. Then the next governor came and rounded up six ringleaders of the rebellion and had them shot right about the spot where Frenchmen Street now starts at Esplanade (in front of the old Mint). So Frenchmen Street was named in honor of those six -- count them, SIX! -- Frenchmen who died there because they wanted to be French men and not Spanish men.

If the guy who did this street sign had taken my carriage tour, he would have known better. He's probably one of those guys who walk by me every day, and I say, "Would you like to do a carriage tour?", and they say, "No, I'm a local."

Fun history-repeats-itself footnote: Ninety-three years after the death of the Frenchmen... Um, can we just round off to a hundred? Because it sounds better, and I'm a tour guide after all, not a history professor. So anyway, a hundred years later (more or less), the Union troops took New Orleans in the Civil War and raised the American flag from the Mint. And this local guy by the name of William Mumford climbed up on the Mint, tore down the flag, tore it into pieces, and passed them out to his friends. So there on the same spot (more or less) where the six Frenchmen had been executed one hundred years earlier (more or less), William Mumford was hanged for the same crime (more or less) -- refusing to recognize the new political reality!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Color clash in NOLA

A while back I was on this kick, riding my bike around town and photographing the street signs at some of the fascinating intersections here in NOLA: Magic & Johnson; Short & Zimple; Pleasure & Desire; and of course, this one: Jeff  Davis & Martin Luther King.

The day I took the picture I had a chiropractor's appointment, and I was telling my chiropractor about my new photography project. "In fact, as soon as I'm done here, I'm going to shoot Jeff Davis and Martin Luther King," I told him. "I'll bet they have a lot of wrecks at that one!" We both chuckled.

A couple of weeks later I heard that a carriage driver colleague had been in an accident. When I saw him back out at Jackson Square I asked him about it. He was fine, he said, but his truck was totaled. A lady had run through a stop sign and t-boned him.

"You know how everything here in New Orleans ends up being about race," my friend lamented. "Well the lady who hit me was black. She was polite and apologetic. But I think her family thinks I'm some rich, white guy who's just trying to take advantage of her."

"That's too bad!" I said. "Where did the wreck happen?"

"At Jeff Davis and Martin Luther King," my friend answered.


As soon as I got time I rode my bike back to the infamous intersection. I had burning questions that needed answering. I had to conduct my own investigation. Turns out that Martin Luther King is the street with the stop sign. So that's where the African-American lady would have been. Whereas my white colleague was driving down Jeff Davis. You really can't make this stuff up! And yes, Martin Luther King still has to yield to Jeff Davis in New Orleans. Not saying that's how it should be, but apparently, that's how it is.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The pedicab community comes to the aid of our colleague Christian with boiled crawfish

I have a pedicab colleague named Christian who splits his time between riding the trike and community organizing. He's one of the kindest and most conscientious people I've ever met. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say a bad word about him... On second thought, I take that back. I might have heard people make fun of him for his argyle socks. I, uh... might have even participated a time or two. Also, I think I heard someone mention once or twice that Christian has a bad habit of undercharging customers.

Whenever I'm driving the mule carriage I enjoy engaging in teasing banter with my fellow pedicabbies. For example, one of them rides by with a fare, and I call out to him, "Hey, I wouldn't go that way if I were you! I think I saw your parole officer down there." Or I offer my whip to the passengers: "Do y'all need to borrow this?" That one usually gets a big laugh. Often when I'm on a tour and I pass a pedicab, I point out the driver to my riders and say, "See that folks? That's the second best pedicabbie in the city of New Orleans!"

Some of my colleagues have heard this enough that they have a ready response. One of them likes to say, "Yeah, and that's Mark, the third worst carriage driver in the city!" Christian also has a comeback ready. He smiles, waves and says, "Second only to you, sir!" And he says this sweetly and sincerely without the slightest touch of sarcasm, which ends up embarrassing  me and ruining the joke. But his intention is not to embarrass me or ruin my joke. He's just being his sweet, sincere self.

It would seem that he's truly living up to the teachings of the one whose name he bears: "Bless those who curse you." The funny thing is that Christian isn't a Christian. He's an avowed atheist. Next time I hear someone questioning whether it's possible to be good without God, I'm going to say, "Can I introduce you to my friend Christian?" You can define "good" in such a way as to exclude Christian if you want to, but only at the price of robbing the word of any real meaning.

Lately, when Christian and I pass one another -- he on the pedicab and I on the carriage -- I've taken to using a different line. "Look there, folks!" I tell my tourists. "Do you see that? That right there, folks, is a rolling oxymoron! That's Christian the atheist."

A few weeks ago I had the horrifying experience of riding by just in time to see an airport shuttle bus hit Christian's pedicab. His passengers managed to stay seated somehow, but Christian was ejected and landed hard in the street. There were plenty of people around to help, and there was no way I could abandon a 1,500 pound mule and a wagon load of tourists, so I had to keep going. As soon as I got to a stopping place I called the owner of the pedicab company to inform him of what I had seen and tried to call Christian to ask if he was OK. He got back to me later that day. He had been to the emergency room, he said. He was a bit banged up and sore, but there didn't seem to be anything broken.

Christian was back on the pedicab within a couple of days, but he kept having trouble with his wrist.  Last week he went back to the doctor and discovered that the wrist had been broken all along. Now it's all bandaged up, and he's not going to be able to work for the next couple weeks.

Day before yesterday we had a big crawfish boil benefit for Christian to help him pay medical bills and make up for missed income. There must have been nearly a hundred of us who turned out -- pedicabbies and a few other friends. We all stuffed bills into a big jar. You hear the word "community" thrown around a lot these days, but I saw for myself that the pedicab community in New Orleans is a community in the truest sense of the word, and I'm proud to be part of it.

The event was held high atop the roof of the parking garage that serves as the headquarters for Bike Taxi Unlimited. The weather was perfect. As the afternoon waned, the rooftops and steeples below us were bathed in golden light. Even the infamous Iberville Housing, Project which is overdue for demolition, took on a transcendent beauty at that moment. Then I watched as the the sun set over the city, and the lights came on along Canal St.

Someone commented that the whole rooftop scene looked like a Bud Light commercial. This was a bit ironic because Christian is actually a teetotaler. (Vegetarian and vegan pedicabbies are a dime a dozen, but those who totally abstain from alcohol are exceedingly rare.) Irony notwithstanding, the observation was on target. Attractive young people dancing, laughing, and flirting. Music. Food. A beautiful and slightly edgy urban setting. If Bud Light had been there to record this scene, they probably could have used the footage to sell boatloads of beer.

There would have only been two issues: Number one, there was a lot more Abita Amber than Bud Light in evidence. And secondly, there was that one 47-year-old guy bent over with a bad back. It was like the old Sesame Street game: "One of These Things Is not Like the Others". I pictured the director of the beer commercial yelling:  "Hey, who the *&^@ let that guy get in here? Can we get the *^&$@& hunchback out of the shot, please?" And I was happy that there wasn't any director or anybody else saying that. Maybe I didn't belong, but nobody seemed to be noticing. I was sharing a good time with good friends in a beautiful place -- and all for a good cause. Life has far too few moments like these.

I only regret that Christian's misfortune had to be the occasion of our festivities. Speedy recovery, Christian. Hope to see you back on the bike soon!