New Orleans

I am, right now, seated behind a bloody mary at a scarred wooden table in Le Bon Temps Roule, a laughing dive bar on the corner of Magazine and Bordeaux Streets on the fringe of the Garden District. At this moment it is 1pm on a Friday, and the weekend is underway.

The room is much darker than even the overcast sky outdoors, and towering next to me is the first cigarette vending machine I have seen in more than 20 years. Three gambling machines flash silently in the corner, and a handful of television sets are split between football analysis and music videos that are unrelated in any way to the 90s R&B that pounds through the air, the table, the floor. Eight or ten regulars laugh and dance around two red felted pool tables.

From the ceiling hang Saints memorabilia and the paper mache underside of a crocodile, so that it seems we’re looking up at it from beneath the murkey waters of the Atchafalaya. This is fitting, but I do not understand the skier’s legs that are suspended near the reptile’s tail.

This single block is home to at least three vacant buildings – one appears to have been a pawn shop, the other two were homes. On one of the empty houses someone has used every inch of their height to spray paint “LIES” in crude black print on the molding white siding. The other has more or less completely burned. It is fenced off from the sidewalk and the facade, still partially intact, betrays that it was once a clean, brightly colored shotgun in a row of clean, brightly colored shotguns.

On the corner is a hip-looking Israeli restaurant and shawarma stand which boasts Tal’s Pita in bright pastels. In less-bright pastels Sugar Rae’s is selling sweet pralines, and I admit to myself that I have no idea what a praline is.

Danny’s No. 2 advertises fried chicken, seafood, Po Boys, and Chinese food. It does not appear to be open and later, when we cross the road to peer through its darkened windows we will nearly be hit by a Mazeratti. Next to Danny’s (No. 2) is a retired residence occupied by a real estate broker and an Edward Jones office. The money movers are in place next to a nameless bodega shrouded in a chainmail of steel grate.

Aside our anonymous store, presumably filled with chips and beer and cigarettes is Apolline, discreetly signed and well-received by Yelp as a semi-expensive hot spot for contemporary southern fare. It is filled by immaculate table clothes and thin white ladies with excellent posture, and out front a duck-footed gay couple paces amid a cloud of cigarette smoke and argues about their future.

As they move along the block, shouting questions and ignoring answers across shattered, skewed concrete sidewalks they pass the beads, invisible at first but onmipresent once seen. They hang from trees, from power lines, from fence posts, from buildings, sunbleached ghosts from 300 years of parading through the streets.

In Le Bon Temps Roule the pool table cracks. “Like Dolly Parton,” croaks the bald white man with the cue. “All bust and no balls.” He casts a grin across the bar in search of someone to catch the joke. Now, by 2pm, the music is louder still and we have been joined by maybe a dozen more people and a single lightly colored bulldog, and here we are, at Magazine and Bordeaux, in all of New Orleans on a block.

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Christmas Trees

In Louisiana, Christmas trees more or less sell themselves. This is a truth that stems, largely, from the fact that they don’t exactly grow here. The trees (Fraser Fir, mostly), are nourished for between five and fifteen years on a few acres in rural Wisconsin before they are cut down, bailed in twine, and shipped on flatbed trucks to the land of crocodiles and gumbo. Here they are priced at something like $25 per foot of height and stand for moments before they are snatched away and tied to the roof of a German SUV. This is the brief and coveted life of a Christmas Tree, out of place.

No manner of lackadaisical salesmanship can deter a sale. The Christmas Crew, as we’re known, openly drink beer as we guide patrons through the conifer forest, and I hope that the following excerpts will illuminate that even actively dissuading a patron cannot discourage a sale:


“That tree there? That’s more crooked that a politician!”


“How was the gig last night?”

“It was great, although I’m still rolling pretty good.”

“Like, rolling rolling?”

“Yeah, we ate some MDMA and it’s still on. I had to smoke a bunch of week this morning just to straighten out. If you need me for the next two hours I’ll be in the back watering trees.”


“This one doesn’t look very healthy.”

“Well it has been cut down, it’s certainly dead at this point.”


“Is watching other people pick out Christmas Trees the weirdest thing you do all year?”

“Sir, it’s not even the weirdest thing I’ve done today.”


In fact, it has been my experience that once a man sets foot on the lot with the intention of buying a tree, you must cause physical harm to his infant son in order to change his mind. This is not so much a position of sales as it is socializing with a goal, but of course not everything can be roses all the time.

There are three positions available, each more desirable than the next, and of course the best gig is to ride along on deliveries. We sit in the pickup truck and between coffees tour the lifestyles of New Orleans old money. Tips flow easily, and the other day we were fed pasta carbonara and a beer for lunch. The music is loud, the pace relaxed.

The lion’s share of work is done out on the lot. Patrons shoehorn imported sports cars into the small gravel parking lot and peruse the selection for a moment before selecting one. Our job, then is to lay the tree over, cut a fresh drinking surface from the base, bail it in fishnet, replace the stand if they would like one, and lash it to the roof of their car. We then replace the sold tree with a similar size from the pile, and repeat the process as necessary.

Between trees we are left to either sweep up or to feed, pet, or otherwise amuse the large collection of dogs, cats, goats, sheep, ducks, chickens, rabbits, imported (legally?) tortoise and unfriendly prairie dog that call the garden center home. It is not difficult work, but it needs to be done*.

Only one task on the lot is universally reviled – hanging lights. There is something to dressing a $500 Christmas Tree for a person known only as “Miss Diana” that cannot help but stir a populist rancor  in even the most rabid industrialist.

When quitting time rolls around we pool tips and share a beer and draw our pay in neatly folded twenty dollar bills. We fan out to scour the Crescent City for gumbo and oysters, or maybe head to see a little music, and prepare for another day of moving trees.

 

 

*Or does it?

Texas

By the time we crept through Houston at four miles per hour as work let out on a muggy Thursday evening, the dog and I had more or less settled into a routine. I did the driving; he napped in the back seat and asked only that I let him know when dinner is served. It was a simple, if tenuous armistice, and if the terms broke down he would usually take it upon himself to find something to eat (old tortilla chips, bag of coffee grounds, quart of motor oil, the steering wheel, etc.). Texas was hard on both of us.

Prada Outlet Depot, Marfa, Texas (I found this picture on Wikipedia but I was there I swear ok?)

From the Prada Outlet Depot in Marfa, Texas to Beaumont is 700 miles on the nose, and stretches essentially the entire width of that once sovereign state*. We had no choice but to traverse it in a day. We wound our way through a foreign sea of No Trespassing signs and armed border guards and brutal, endless desert to land finally, safely, in the embrace of an old friend, ice cold Lone Stars, and deep fried frog legs in the mid-size refinery town of Beaumont. In the morning, Louisiana felt like home.

And hot damn, Louisiana.

I’d been in the state for less than 24 hours when I found myself crouched in a swamp, taking heavy fire from a well-positioned and well-armed band of outlaws, and creeping slowly toward the opportunity to draw against the Waco Kid. The sun had long set and the moonlight coursed through a ghastly fog that blanketed the bogs and marshlands. Shots rang out from the darkness and shadows slipped between cover in the old jail and the undertaker’s home. I aimed and fired**, and listened for the hit when the knife slipped between my ribs and I retreated to the dead zone. Final score: 198 to 56; we lost a lot of good men out there.

There is something magical about twenty grown men and women waging a full fledged bb gun melee in the middle of a meticulously recreated western town (you know it as Rock Ridge) in the middle of swamp country in the middle of the night between rest breaks for terrific food and terrible beer.

I only know them by their noms de guerre: Hawk, X, Camo, Mad Max, and they’ve been meeting in the woods to shoot each other with bbs every winter full moon since before they were sent to Vietnam. It’s a war game steeped in tradition and story telling and a demonstrated commitment to not taking things too seriously, and I don’t exaggerate when I saw that this is truly world class screwing off.

I’d spent one day in Louisiana and it was clear that things happen differently here, and I hadn’t even really been to New Orleans yet. I think this is a place I can wrap my head around.

*Of course statehood, in Texas, is understood to be ephemeral. It’s as though the people there are all in on the secret that sooner or later this Great American Experiment will grind suddenly to a halt, but that there in the south Texans will simply keep going to work and church and might just go ahead and invade Mexico out of an appreciation for tradition.

**Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle

This Is Not A Story About Chainsaws

This is not a story about chainsaws, but stick with me, because for a while here that’s exactly how it’s going to sound. It’s a good thing this isn’t about chainsaws, because if you’re anything like I was a year or two ago you don’t really know anything about those things beyond that they’re loud, and then that one scene from Scarface. Conversations about displacement, torque, chainspeed, and “yeah but what about the outboard clutch?” make your eyes glaze over, as they should if you have no use for a chainsaw. That’s pretty much where I stood for almost my entire life.

But then a couple of years ago my station in life changed a bit and I suddenly had a use for a gas-powered saw (a move I highly recommend, if you can swing it). I didn’t know anything, so I hopped on the online forums, was immediately overwhelmed, and finally just went over to Lowe’s. I think I texted a buddy “wut about this 1” or something but before he responded just pulled a Husqvarna 440e off the shelf and walked out with it. I didn’t know at the time, but it was the first step toward a maddening descent into chainsaw nerdiness.

Almost as soon as I learned to start it I wanted more power, and it turns out there’s a lot you can do to a small two-stroke to get that. I learned some vocabulary, pored over the arborist forums, and took any opportunity to bring up the power-to-weight ratio of that new 550XP at cookouts. More than anything, though, I picked up on the old-as-time rivalry between Husqvarna and Stihl. They’re essentially the two players in the game, and partisan loyalists really can’t ever seem to get enough of talking trash about the other guy:

That’s a good joke.

Now remember I’d happened to stumble into a Husky dealer, so that’s what I came away with. (Ace carries Stihl, this all could have gone a different way). And so pretty much the first thing I learned about chainsaws, from the forums, from joking on the jobsite, from gazing at the obviously-more-attractive-tenor-of-orange on the Husky’s plastic, is that Stihl saws are pieces of garbage.

Now, this is objectively untrue. But shit, I wound up with a Husky. And what happened two years later was really interesting.

The time came for the company to update the ol’ chainsaw collection, and once again we waded into the fray of “which chainsaw is the best chainsaw,” which, hell, good luck answering that question. From square one I leaned toward Husqvarna, although I could never really articulate why. I read online that Stihls sometimes struggle in the cold, and saw that happen once (nevermind that Huskies, including my own, sometimes have problem with hot starts). It was confirmation bias in action.

After many hours (days?) of research and introspection, we concluded finally that it doesn’t make a lick of difference. A thousand dollar chainsaw is going to be really, really nice. It doesn’t matter who makes it. And even with that said, I couldn’t bring myself to buy a Stihl, even if it was a few dollars cheaper for the same damn thing.

In only two years I went from knowing nothing about chainsaws to becoming a two-stroke bigot, only by making a random decision and telling a lot of harmless jokes. I literally joked my way into a real prejudice against Stihl saws. That’s insane.

In spite of an increasingly tolerant, globalized community, we’re still predisposed to tribalism. The heart of our national political conversation has absolutely nothing to do with policy or morals – it’s about beating the other guy, whoever that is. We’re eager to cite hypocrisy on the other side, but never seem to see it in our own camp. The only principle that we truly hold dear is that we’re right, and they’re wrong.

This doesn’t mean that you should do any damn foolish thing like buying a Stihl, but we need to be aware of the impact that jokes and confirmation bias play on our worldview. We’re imperfect, suggestible beings, and we’re drawn to things that make us feel right. I’m looking forward to being wrong.

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Your Trip Report Is Boring

Before we get started, I need you to know that this is not directed at you. At least, not you personally. I love all the blogs and all the stories of all my friends. This is more directed at you, in general. You, the internet. It pains me to say this, although not as much as it pains me to keep clicking on these links. Your trip report is boring and I don’t want to read it.

I get the impulse. A lot of you out there are doing some pretty cool stuff. Some of you are riding motorcycles around the world. Some of you are skiing improbable lines in exotic locales. Pretty much all of you have done something in the last year or so that’s worth sharing a beer over, and you’ve probably heard, “you should keep a trip report blog so we can follow along!”. But if someone’s going to go out of their way to pull up your story and skimread it at a red light or during their morning poop, keep in mind that there’s basically three reasons a person is interested in what you have to say.

  1. They care deeply about you as a human. This is the aunts. The Godparents. That kid you went on a few dates with like 10 years ago who, unbeknownst to you, wonders every day if you were the one who got away and scours the internet for any hint of what your life is like so they can insert themselves and wonder what might have been as they sit in traffic or drift to sleep at night next to someone else. These people are your fan base. They’ll read anything you put out there, even if it’s awful or doesn’t make any damn sense. That’s great. Cheers to the fans.
  2. They are interested in doing exactly what you did. These folks are looking for beta. They want to know whether to turn left or go straight when the trail forks at that big cedar with the lightning scar. They are completely uninterested, and starting to get a little annoyed, at long explanations of what you had for breakfast, the color of your shoelaces, and which brands are currently offering you 25% off one order a year. Honestly, a few photos and an annotated map is probably much preferred to any kind of prose.
  3. They’re interested in the story. And by story, of course, I don’t mean simply what happened, or even necessarily why. I mean the human drama. The nitty gritty. It’s not enough that you had a nice time, or a bad time. It’s not enough that the weather was bad. It’s not enough that you were right; someone else has to be wrong. It’s essential not only that you prevail in righteousness, but also that you quell the haters, which, generally, is composed by everyone else on earth.
I went for a jog after worth the other day and this is exactly how it played out. I swear.

When Homer recorded the greatest trip report of all time, The Odyssey,  he could very well have said, “Odysseus went for a walk. He got lost. The haters hated. His new caligae really had the arch support he needed to go the extra mile. He came home, he brought the drama. The end.” That’s not a very good story. He didn’t waste time talking about which brand of goatskin flasks the Phaeacians relied on to stay hydrated. And when it stormed? This was no ordinary squall. This was the wrath of deeply, personally offended gods.

Odysseus never got bonked, but his crew was drugged by lotus-eaters and turned into pigs. They were never distracted, per se, but lured toward a cold, violent death by a supernatural Siren Song. Like, 500 people died, or something. And when he got home? Ho man. No shower beer and Netflix for that guy – he got right to killing everyone who even walked on his lawn while he was out.

That’s a trip report I can get behind.

Not every hike is an adventure, not every ski tour is an epic. Almost nothing we do is really all that interesting, if we’re honest. So if we’re going to have a story, tell us a story. We’re not all that interested in exactly what happened.

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