Bullets rained on Bourbon Street on November 27th, 2016, as an argument between two thugs escalated. When the smoke cleared, ten people had been shot, one fatally; and none of the victims had anything to do with the original altercation—none were intended targets. The shooting erupted because of a previous quarrel between the two, and took place a few hours after the conclusion of the Bayou Classic, an annual Saturday night football game between Grambling State and Southern University. It is a dangerous weekend in New Orleans; and this is my own story of tourism during, and surviving, the Bayou Classic.
I made the mistake of a trip to New Orleans during Thanksgiving holiday some years ago; and I experienced the enthusiastic Bayou Classic’s crowd first hand. I was warned that white people flee the city once Thanksgiving dishes are clean. But I wondered, how can a football crowd be so bad?
My story takes place before Katrina. My sister was in New Orleans for Thanksgiving with Bob, whom she since married. She agreed to meet me in my hotel room to sit for a portrait.
My best friend Barry was also in New Orleans with his girlfriend Melanie, to whom he also since married. Barry also had in his charge a character named Brad. At the time, Barry was a go to guy for a prominent family in Lake Charles. If the head of the household needed help at the office, he would go to Barry; if the lady of the house needed tables setup for a luncheon, she would go to Barry; if they were hosting a soirée and wanted to make their son disappear, the son would go to Barry. This indentured servitude could be a novel unto itself, but it is not my tale to tell. But when it comes to the progeny of this esteemed clan, and his limited and usually inconvenient access to me, I will tell it.
When I first met him, Brad was wearing a linen blazer, pink panties, and black flip flops; compared to him, Ignatius J. Reilly would be on Mr. Blackwell’s Best Dressed List. His eyes were glassy and as round as a hoot owl’s; his ratty hair was disheveled; his face was covered in sweat and grease; and because of an unsupervised casino visit and ensuing kafuffle, was running from the police.
His back story is simple: during high school, Brad ate 20 tabs of acid on a dare and after a particularly gnarly trip, was rendered a semi-functional vegetable who was a source of frustration for his parents who nevertheless determined it was more humane, and cheaper, to pay a sitter than to institutionalize.
His smudged face stared at me, his belly pooched out of the jacket and over his panties, and asked, like an interrogation, “Troy, did Barry tell you about my songs?”
Confused, I answered, “No.”
“Barry, you said that you told Troy about my songs.”
“I did, Brad,” he answered. “He must have forgotten.”
“How could you forget about my songs if Barry told you about my songs?”
“I’m sorry, he did tell me.”
“What did he tell you?”
“I can’t remember right now.”
“How could you forget if he told you about my songs?”
Nervously, “I’m sorry.”
“The FBI is stealing my songs.”
I anxiously tried to extricate myself for the conversation.
He continued, “If you can’t remember I’ll tell you about my songs. And how the FBI is stealing my songs.”
That first conversation was a humdinger; it went in circles; he got in my face and followed me around; and I never wanted another one. Barry just sat back and enjoyed the show.
That Thanksgiving weekend, Brad’s parents were hosting a society fete so threw as stack of money at Barry to make their son disappear—they did not care where he went, as long as he was a long way from Lake Charles. So, Barry took the money and the keys to the condo that Brad’s father kept for business in New Orleans. I was leery, but Barry promised that my interaction with Brad would be limited and that he would be on his best behavior.
Hotel LaSalle was a faded time capsule that adjoined the Saenger Theater, a 1920s era, four-story “European Style” hotel with 47 rooms. I loved it because of the good location; the rooms were furnished with antiques; and the price was shockingly low. Incidentally, that weekend, the hotel only took reservations from previous customers or for a week minimum. My room overlooked Canal Street.
Busy Canal Street forms the upriver boundary of the city’s old settlement and historically divided the colonial French Quarter from the American sector, which is now the Central Business District. Until the Louisiana Purchase (1803), Creoles resided in the Quarter; after, Americans and other cultures moved to the city, settling uptown. A canal was planned as a division between the two sections of the city, but was never built, hence the street’s name. Canal Street has three lanes of traffic in each direction and a pair of streetcar tracks at the center. The large median, where streetcars run, became known as a neutral ground; and all medians in New Orleans are now referred to as neutral ground.
It was a warm November day and when Julie arrived I opened the window, covered the bed with a drop cloth as a work surface, set up my easel and oil paints, and phoned Barry to meet us.
As I painted I asked Julie to join us for dinner that night.
“No way,” she answered. “Bob’s anxious to get out of town.”
“Everyone gets out of town before the Soul Bowl.”
I had never heard of it. “The Soul Bowl?”
“It’s the Grambling/Southern game,” she explained. “It’s the black Super Bowl.”
That is when I asked, “A college football game? How bad could it be?”
“You’ll be lucky to find a good restaurant open.”
We drank as I painted. I must have had good spirits on me that day because the session went well and by the time Barry and Melanie arrived, the portrait was done. Barry echoed the same sentiment, that our holiday would not be interrupted by something as innocuous as college football.
Barry, Melanie, and I continued touring New Orleans the following day; we walked through the French Quarter; we browsed the artists in Jackson Square and I looked for my artist friend David. And at a table on the patio of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, Melanie got to see her first Voodoo priest when the Chicken Man walked up and said, “Broussard, you better get out of town.”
Melanie’s first experience in the Crescent City, we saw as many sights as we could. We even took a street car ride up Saint Charles. But in looking around the city, nothing seemed unusual, I saw no menacing crowds, and I noticed no businesses closed. When asking shop keepers and bartenders if their business plans would alter because of the Soul Bowl, Barry laughingly explained that the football game is called Bayou Classic, that Soul Bowl might be a derogatory moniker. How was I supposed to know? But I did find that many businesses would be shuttering and that some restaurants would not be taking reservations. I have since discovered that the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) do promote some games as a Soul Bowl, but the Bayou Classic is not one of them.
After a full day we parted company; Barry needed to check on Brad; Melanie needed a nap; and I needed a bath. We made a reservation at Bacco and agreed to reconvene for dinner.
As I put the finishing touches on my dinner attire, handkerchief in the breast pocket of my blue blazer, the waning sunlight streamed through the window. Peering out onto Canal Street below is when I first got nervous. The SWAT team was assembling in the median of the boulevard, in the neutral ground.
Even though Bacco was only an eight-block walk, I worried that I should take a car. I called down to the front desk, the lobby being a two-man operation: one at the front desk and the concierge Henry who seemed to be on duty 24 hours a day.
“I think I’m going to need a taxi, Henry.”
“You won’t be getting a cab this evening, Mr. Broussard.”
“But I have a reservation at Bacco!”
“That’s very nice. But you’ll have to go some other time.”
Down in the lobby, Japanese tourists cloistered in the seating area with aggrieved looks on their faces.
The ghostly old alcoholic concierge warned, “But you can’t go out, Mr. Broussard.”
With the SWAT team in the neutral ground for most of my route which included six blocks on Canal, I assured Henry that I would be alright and made him to unlock the door.
I walked self-assuredly down Canal with purpose and haste, meandering through groups of young black men, each group of three to five guys wearing matching jackets and bandanas of various colors. From Canal I cut up Royal then over to Chartres without incident to Bacco, arriving at the same time as Barry, Melanie, and Brad. Barry had Brad well-dressed with a sport jacket, khaki pants, and his hair combed to the side with pomade.
Known for their infamous 10¢ lunchtime martinis and Lobster Ravioli, Ralph Brennan’s sophisticated Italian trattoria was adorned with white linen table clothes, Venetian glass, and a golden glow that washed the vaulted ceilings like Nero’s Domus Aurea. Usually packed, the popular eatery, except for a few sparse tables, was empty. We settled into a spacious central table and, Brad sitting quietly, we cocktailed and perused the wine list. Our waitress seemed enthusiastic to have a jovial table—or perhaps to have a table to serve at all.
When she presented our wine selection and uncorked the bottle she poured a small amount into a single glass. Barry pointed to me and she shifted the glass to my place setting.
“We ordered that whole bottle,” I blurted. “Is that all I get.”
“This is for you to taste,” she replied, confused, looking at me like I was a rube.
I burst out laughing. It was the first time I had come up with that line but would it is one I would enjoy using for many years to follow.
“Let me explain something to you, darling,” Barry turned to the waitress, “he’s an asshole.”
“So don’t mind him.”
“The wine is perfect,” I interjected as she poured for the table.
Wine flowed like the Mississippi River and we gorged on course after course. But by 10 PM we were the last remaining table and the employees were ready to close, eager for an atypical early Saturday night off. I peered out the front windows and Chartres Street did not look too hectic. So we moved on for nightcaps.
We made it a block from Bacco to Royal Street, a street known for restaurants, high-end antique shops, and opulent hotels. But the street was unrecognizable. We tried Mr. B’s but the restaurant was closed. I was sufficiently liquored and we were minding our own business, so I felt confident as we gingerly crossed through the crowds filling the street. Melanie grasped my arm so tightly I could feel her nails through my blazer. At Royal and Bienville, headed for the Hotel Monteleone, is when the shit hit the fan.
On the northwest corner, three young thugs in gang attire attacked Brad. The assault was verbal but nonetheless terrifying. As Melanie squeezed me closer Barry tried to quell the surreal confrontation, handling Brad and the toughs simultaneously.
Barry kept demanding to Brad, “Brad, look at the ground.” Then to the punks, “He didn’t mean anything, he’s retarded.”
“I just said hi,” Brad interrupted, escalating the tension.
“Who the fuck are you nigga, say hi to me?”
Melanie was so petrified that she never had time for her northern sensibilities to be offended by the gratuitous use of the n-word; she was offended as a human, however, by the threat.
Another guy was shrieking, agitated, “Stop lookin’ at me, boy! Stop lookin’ at me!”
Brad corrected, “Hey, I’m not retarded.”
“Who you talkin’ to?”
“Stop lookin’ at me!”
“Brad, shut up and look at the ground,” he admonished tersely, then calmly, “I’m sorry, but he didn’t mean anything.”
This triangle of dialogue continued in a nightmarish loop for minutes–seemed like forever.
“Imma fuck you up, nigga!”
Barry continued, “I said look at the ground, Brad.” Then diplomatically, “He didn’t mean anything by it, so if you would just let us pass, you guys can enjoy the festivities.”
The young bangers were looking at Barry like he was insane.
My good spirits must have been powerful at that moment. It is still a mystery how it happened, but another gang in darker but not matching jackets, coming down Bienville, got involved from behind Melanie and me. Apparently the two rival groups, much like the guys who escalated their fatal altercation on Bourbon Street in 2016, had a previous quarrel. My anxiety spiked when the groups began pushing and shoving and shouting expletives.
Barry yelled to me, “Let’s go!”
In a blur of adrenaline, I grabbed Melanie’s hand and hustled through the crowd to the hotel across the street. Barry and Brad came swiftly behind us.
The doorman at the Monteleone saw us coming and unlocked the front door. “Y’all get on in here now.”
Out of breath and in shock we thanked him.
“Y’all guests here?”
“No sir,” Barry answered. “But we’d like a few drinks at the bar.”
The doorman locked the door behind us.
I asked Barry, “Was that a rumble?”
“A rumble? Don’t be ridiculous—those guys aren’t Richie, Potsie, and Ralph Malph.”
Built like a gargantuan wedding cake in the ornate Beaux-Arts style, the Monteleone is famous for many reasons: it is the only high-rise building in the French Quarter; it is one of the few family-owned hotels to survive the Depression; and it houses the only rotating bar in New Orleans. The elaborate and whimsical Carousel Lounge was built in 1949 and turns on 2,000 steel rollers pulled at a rotation of once every 15 minutes. With lights, mirrors, and fanciful jester faces, it is part Merry-go-round and part Mardi Gras float.
Uncharacteristically empty, the Carousel had a handful of patrons cocktailing quietly, watching the ensuing melee through the picture window facing Royal. Barry put Brad at a corner table with a Vick’s inhaler to chew on; we took revolving seats. One of the guys sitting near us introduced himself; Gary was incredulous that we were out and about.
I asked, “Well what are you doing here?”
“I’m a cab driver,” he replied. “I took a fare into the quarter and got caught. I’m just sitting here drinking until I can get out.”
Barry’s ears pricked. “You’ve got a cab?”
“In the parking garage.”
“Can you get us out of here?”
“Are you fucking crazy?”
We began putting Gary’s cocktails on our tab and continued to ride in circles for at least an hour. I felt like a duck in one of those classic shooting games, rotating with my back toward the plate glass every quarter hour.
“So, Gary,” I said, “we’ve got $100 for you just to get us across Canal Street.”
“For just a few blocks.”
He thought about it, still hesitant, but he acquiesced. “Dammit! Alright. I’m out of business until I can get my cab out of here anyway.”
Somber and determined we followed Gary through the bowels of the hotel and through the garage to his car. Eerily quiet, the footfalls of five pairs of shoes echoed off the cement floor, ceiling, and walls. I sat in the front; Barry sat with Brad and Melanie in the back.
Out of the garage, the first three blocks were empty and smooth—but as we reached Canal Street the crowd met us. Bodies were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the half-block leading to it. And the sidewalks and six traffic lanes were packed with agitated gang members, SWAT team members standing atop their vans in a sliver of the median like boats anchored in a river of men. SWAT, like window dressing, might have been monitoring the crowd but it was a hands-off situation with no way to enforce laws or mitigate altercations.
“Holy shit,” Gary decried as toughs enveloped the car.
Melanie’s eyes grew large as we eased into the mob, the crowd slowly parting as the cab eased slowly.
“Look down, Brad,” Barry commanded. “Look down! Don’t look out.”
Melanie clutched Barry’s arm as dark faces with angry eyes peered into the car. Fisted hands intermittently pounded onto the hood and roof.
I have always contended that what separates New Orleans from a third world country is refrigeration; if it weren’t for ice, New Orleans would be on the level of some mysterious African capital or volatile Caribbean isle. But in this moment, in the pandemonium, I truly had the sensation of fleeing the violent overthrow of a government, of a revolution.
It took several minutes but the crowd let the car proceed and we breathed a collective sigh of relief as we passed the neutral ground and entered the deserted Central Business District.
“Where to, guys?”
“The deal was to get us across,” I answered. “You can drop us at any bar.”
“I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
“Columns Hotel, Barry?”
“Yes, we’ll go to the Columns.”
The ride up St. Charles was quiet and contemplative for everyone after, what was, the most harrowing experience of my life. And for Melanie’s first trip to New Orleans, she saw sights that no one intended for her to see.
When we arrived at the Columns, a lumbering 19th Century mansion known especially for its massive Doric columns, Gary refused our money.
“I had to get out of the French Quarter anyway,” he said. “And that is a story for the record books.”
I asked as I examined his car for fist dents, “Would you at least come in and have a drink with us?”
“I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on.”
The Columns was used for interior scenes for the movie Pretty Baby. It has always been one of my favorite hotels; and the bar is one of my favorite bars. In the dark, paneled lounge we spent the hundred dollars earmarked for Gary on nightcaps and told the bartender about our traumatic journey as other patrons listened in horror.
Once our nerves had settled, Barry took Brad and Melanie back to the condo; and when the bar closed, in avoidance of Canal, I got a room upstairs for the night.
The next morning I rode the streetcar back to Canal, back to the Hotel LaSalle. The street seemed back to normal. And when I went through the front door, Henry was relieved.
“I thought something happened to you, Mr. Broussard.”
The guy at the front desk interjected, “Henry was worried all night!”
We had an awful fright but we emerged from the evening safely. And we were warned. We just underestimated the intensity of the crowds. No matter the event or economic condition of New Orleans, the French Quarter has traditionally been a safe place, and it is disconcerting for a city to allow itself to be overrun.
250,000 visitors descend upon New Orleans for the Thanksgiving weekend football rivalry, a series that began in 1932. With 68,000 people in attendance for the game in the Superdome, that leaves almost 200,000 people showing up to make trouble. These additional 200,000 visitors are not sports obsessed families, loaded into station wagons, spreading quilts for picnic lunches in the park. Many are rather an amalgamation of small town gangs from across the south.
A 2015 petition to New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu stated, “Every year the Bayou Classic comes to our city and destroys the city and turns the streets into a war zone. We, the citizens of New Orleans, demand that you stop allowing this event to take place in our city. Let these schools host this event in their own city’s and in their own stadium. Let their tax payers fund the overtime for police and security.” But that is between the mayor and his constituency.
In today’s contentious and increased racial division, we would have been pulled out of that car and torn limb from limb. Unless you are an avid Grambling or Southern fanatic, my advice regarding tourism during, and surviving, the Bayou Classic is to stay away from New Orleans at Thanksgiving.