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!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Horses, honkys, mules and asses

Out on the carriage line I often overhear heated discussions concerning the taxonomy of our animals.

"Lookit that horse!" says one fellow.

"That ain't no horse," retorts his companion. "That's a donkey!"

Sometimes I'm called upon to referee the debate. Or more often, I jump in uninvited. In either case I explain that both parties are half-right. "This is a mule. A mule is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse."*

My colleagues and I generally explain to our passengers as a matter of course what a mule is and why we use only mules. We tell people that mules take the heat better than horses and that we are required by city law to use mules. The part about it being city law is only partly true. The law actually specifies the use of mules only during the summer months and then only during daylight. But given that we have to use mules for three months of the year, there's no good reason not to use them year round. Maintaining and moving two different types of animals would mean extra expense and logistical headaches for the carriage companies. Besides, a lot of my co-workers who have experience with both horses and mules insist that mules are stronger, smarter and superior in pretty much every way.

Not everyone who takes the tour needs to be educated about mules. There are plenty of people who have experience with equines and who consider it an insult to their intelligence if you try to explain to them what a mule is. With a carriage full of strangers, it's hard to know whether to aim high or low. If there's a child on board, then it makes it easier to educate the ignorant without offending the expert.

"You see Rock there?" I say addressing myself to the child while everyone else listens in. "See his ears? He's got his daddy's ears. His daddy was a donkey, and  his mama was a horse. Do you know what that makes him?"

There was one little girl who quickly did the mental calculation and came back at me with a brilliant answer, though not the one I was expecting: "A honky!"

As you can well imagine, we carriage drivers hear (and tell) all kinds of ass jokes, over and over, day in and day out. Here's a sampling:
  • One carriage driver colleague, in the course of educating her passengers, likes to tell them that a mule is a "half-assed horse." While this may not be the most hilarious of the ass jokes, it's the only one that is wholly accurate. (An ass is another name for a donkey. Actually, if you want to get really technical, donkeys are one of several subspecies that fall into the category of  "ass".) 
  • A pedicab colleague is fond of pointing me out to his riders and telling them: "That's Mark. He has the best ass in town!" This one is wrong on so many levels, that I hardly know where to start. Apart from the aforementioned fact that Rock is only half ass on his sire's side, he's far from the best mule in town. They say that back in his heyday he really was one of the best mules in the Royal Carriages stable. Nowadays, I love him to death, and he really loves to get out there and work. But he's almost 30 years old, and truth be told he's a plug. (See number 9.) As to the flip side of the double entendre... Well, let's just say that Rock's pushing 30, and I'm sneaking up on 50.
  • A carriage driver colleague, trying to load up his buggy, shouts at passers-by: "Come on, people. Put my ass to work!"
  • One African-American carriage driver points to another and says: "Look there folks. That's something you don't see every day: A black man with a white ass!" I love this one, but as an honest-to-goodness honky, I don't think I could get away with using it. 
  • And finally, my very own ass joke. When discussing my two jobs I like to tell people, "When I'm working the carriage, and someone wants to feed my ass a carrot, I don't have a problem with that. But when I'm on the pedicab, it's another matter." Call it a double standard if you will, but that's just the way I am.

* Just in case you're wondering, the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey is called a hinny. Hinnies are harder to produce and are generally considered less desirable than mules.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A real American hero?

A hero's serenade

So I'm hanging out in front of Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop last night waiting for a fare, and there are three college kids hanging out there as well. One male and two female. Good-looking kids, from Alabama if I remember right. Not wasted, but drunk enough to be pretty happy.

We start chatting, and they mention the name of a pedicab colleague and ask if I know him, and I say, "Yeah, I know who he is but don't really know him very well."

And they say, "Well, he's a real American hero! And so are you. So are all you pedicab guys."

And I say, "Really? What makes us heroes?"

And they say, "Because you save lives!... That and your calves."

And I ask, "How do we save lives?"

And they say, "Because you take drunk people home so they don't have to drive."

They ask me if I know the real American heroes song from the Bud Light commercial, and I say, "No, not really. I was out of the country for a long time, so I probably missed it.

One of the girls says, "Well Nate here can sing it for you. Can't you, Nate?" (I'm calling him "Nate" here, but I don't really remember the dude's name.)

And Nate says, "Sure!" And he serenades me with the advertising jingle -- cheerfully and badly.

And I say, "Well sometimes I don't feel so heroic because a lot of times I get drunk people on the pedicab who want me to take them to their car, and I really don't know what to do. Because the right thing to do is probably to take their car keys from them and throw them as far as I can, but I don't really have the balls to do that. So I always end up taking them to their car, and I worry about it. What do you think I should do in those situations?"

And they say, "Wow, we hadn't thought about that! That's a tough one. We don't know what you should do in a situation like that."

And I say, "Well, I write a blog about this job, so maybe I'll write a post about this and see if my readers have any wisdom to offer me." So here it is, dear readers. Jump in.

Playing the hero

Later that night I'm back in front of Lafitte's, and this drunk guy walks up. He can barely keep his feet.

"Where's Ursa...Ursa..." he stumbles, trying to pronounce "Ursulines."

"Ursulines Street?" I prompt. "It's just one block over."

"What about Bourbon Street?" he asks.

"You're on Bourbon Street," I answer. "This is Bourbon Street right here!"

"Oh," he says. "Life's a bitch", and he wanders off while I stand there wondering what the connection might be between Bourbon Street and "Life's a bitch." Who knows? Anyway, I'm not sorry to see him go.

Then he apparently changes his mind and wanders back in my direction. "How much to take me to Ursa...Ursa...?" He still can't get his tongue around the word.

"Which block of Ursulines do you need to get to?" I ask.

"The Empress Hotel," he replies, his speech so slurred that I can barely understand him. The Empress is a notoriously nasty place in a sketchy neighborhood. Actually, it's so bad that the reviews make really entertaining reading!

I'm counting up the blocks in my head to quote him a price, when he plops down in the seat of the pedicab and says, "OK, how much just to ride around?"

It makes me nervous whenever drunk people sit down on the pedicab before we've worked out where we're going and how much they're going to pay. But I answer him respectfully. "Well that would be a dollar a minute. Twenty dollars for a twenty minute ride, for example."

"OK, I'll give you twenty dollars just to ride me around." He takes his wallet out and fumbles with it for a couple of minutes. Finally he turns it upside down and shakes the entire contents out on the seat of the pedicab: a couple of business cards and a single dollar bill.

"OK, take me to an ATM," He says.

Against my better judgment I agree to do the ride. Along the way he blurts out, apropos of nothing, "You gotta pay the piper!"

"Um, yeah," I say to be agreeable. "You've definitely got to pay the piper."

He mumbles something else, the only part of which I catch is "I just want to be left alone."

I'm sure that this is not directed at me, so once again I decide just to go along. "Yeah, we all want to be left alone, don't we?" I say.

I take him to a little daiquiri shop on Decatur Street with an ATM just inside the front door. I sit outside and watch as he stumbles up to the machine, pulls his wallet out, and fumbles with it again, this time dropping the contents onto the floor. He shuffles through them, unable to find the ATM card. Finally he chooses one of the  business cards and stands there stabbing at the ATM slot, so drunk that he lacks the dexterity to actually insert the card.

By this time, it's clear to me that there's no way I'm not going to get paid for this ride. I consider riding away. I don't owe this guy anything, do I? To the contrary, he owes me! I'm supposed to pay $155 to lease the bike tonight, and I can't afford to be wasting time like this. On the other hand, this guy is now several blocks farther from his hotel than when we started our little ride. And if I don't take him, how's he ever going to get back?

I watch as he finally gives up on the ATM and walks up to the counter to talk to the bartender. I sit there stewing while they converse for a couple of minutes. It's obvious that this isn't going anywhere. What was he expecting the bartender to do for him?

Still tempted to cut my losses and run, I'm remembering those college kids earlier who said that I was a hero because I take drunk people home. So I decide to live up to their estimation of me and be a hero. I'm going to get this guy back to his hotel. As I walk up I hear the bartender telling him, "You need to leave. You're so drunk that you don't know what you're doing. I'm sorry, I can't help you."

"Get on the bike," I order the drunk guy. "I'm taking you back to your hotel for free." Looking defeated, he stumbles along behind me and collapses into the passenger seat.

Along the way he suddenly blurts out with some new-found (and completely unfounded) resolve, "I'm going to pay you! I'm not going to let you take me for free."

"Well I would love to get paid," I admit. "But I don't see how you're going to do that. Anyway, don't worry about it. I'm going to get you there one way or the other."

When we arrive at the Empress, he instructs me to wait. "I'm going to pay you! You can't leave. Wait right here."

I really don't want to waste any more time. I hand him my business card and say, "If you think about it later and want to get in touch with me and pay me, that would be great. But it's no big deal. Anyway, have a great night. I need to get moving."

"No, no" he says shouting. "Please, I can't let you leave without paying you. I'm going to pay you. Just wait two seconds! Just two seconds!"

"OK, I say. Two seconds." I watch as he walks up to the counter and begins talking to the clerk, apparently a replay of the conversation with the guy at the daiquiri shop. It's been two seconds. I start pedaling away. He runs out after me yelling, "No, no I've got to pay you!"

And just then he reaches in his back pocket and pulls out his wallet again, and this time he pulls out an ATM card, which apparently had been in the pocket but not in the wallet. "Look!" he exclaims waving the card in my face.

"Glad you found it!" I say, riding away as fast as I can pump the pedals. There's no way in the world I'm letting that guy back on my bike to go searching for an ATM. If it were possible to peel out on a pedicab I would have done it.

Aiding and abetting 

Later that night the hypothetical dilemma that I had discussed with the college kids presents itself. Two forlorn-looking young ladies are sitting on a dark sidewalk. I ask them if they need a ride, and they say, "We need to know where St. Louis Street is. We're parked on St. Louis, and we can't find it. Everybody keeps telling us different stuff, and we're totally lost!"

"I don't know where exactly on St. Louis you're parked, but St. Louis Street is just two blocks that way," I say, pointing.

"Are you sure?" they ask. "Because every time someone tells us somewhere to go we just end up more lost."

"Get on the bike," I tell them. "I'll take you there."

They protest that they don't have any money, but I'm in hero mode now. And anyway, St. Louis really is very close. "It's free," I say. "Hop on!" They obey.

Along the way, they offer me booze, Adderall, and cigarettes in lieu of cash. I turn all of these down. It soon becomes apparent that, while they're not nearly as drunk as that other guy, they're clearly not in any condition to be behind the wheel. Nevertheless, I deliver them safely to their car, hoping fervently that they won't hurt themselves or anyone else on their way home.

What really happens

Thinking back on the sweet college kids and their flattering assessment of my colleagues and me, it occurs to me just how wrong they are. The scenario they described -- driving drunks home so that they don't have to drive -- rarely if ever happens with a pedicab. When it comes to taking intoxicated people places, here are the actual scenarios that we regularly encounter in our work:

1. Transporting drunks tourist back to their hotel rooms, e.g., the guy at the Empress. In this case, I'm preventing drunk walking, not drunk driving. I heard a guy on the radio one time arguing that, statistically, drunk walking is more dangerous than drunk driving. So maybe in this scenario we really are saving lives. But  saving the life of an irresponsible person (the drunk pedestrian) seems much less heroic than saving the life of an innocent person (the drunk driver's victim).

2. Transporting drunken locals home. This would almost always apply to those locals who live within the relatively small radius in which pedicabs commonly operate: the French Quarter, the Marigny, the Central Business District, and the Warehouse District. In other words, these are people who haven't driven anywhere in the first place. Once again, we may be preventing drunk walking, but not drunk driving. New Orleanians who live in more far-flung parts of the city would invariably take a taxi home rather than a pedicab. As much as it pains me to admit it, taxi drivers are the ones who are doing the heroic work of keeping drunk drivers off the streets.

3. Transporting drunks (locals or tourists) between bars, strip clubs, the casino, restaurants, etc. This is a big part of what we do, but not much heroic here.

4. Transporting drunken locals to their parked cars, e.g, the two young ladies. This is the troubling scenario in which we may actually be enabling drunk driving. Whatever hero status we might legitimately claim for numbers 1 and 2 is canceled out by this. But how can we avoid it? Once again, I'd love to hear from my readers.

Back to those three college kids at the beginning. I think that they were right about at least one thing. We pedicabbies do have some heroic calves!