One of the inherent risks of affecting the piecemeal/hindsight philosophy towards travel writing is that you’re often stuck trying to not only tack together the actual, physical happenstance of that trip… but also playing a sort of hackneyed version of connect-the-dots with what your actual thought process was, in putting the damn thing together in the first place.
Such is the case with New Orleans, as I’ve alluded to. I’ve spent the long weekend and the spare-change days which followed picking the creases of my brain in an effort to remember why I decided that I had to go there, in the first place. I allude to the general desperation of the time, and the complete misery that I was trying to force into some bush-league sense of wanderlust—the need to “get out” and “clear my head” and do things that I’d heard others refer to, in such situations–but that doesn’t do much to explain why I wound up settling on the Big Easy as the outlet for that misguided adventurism.
It also yields few clues in regards to why in the name of the Holy Schmutz and its Three-Headed Dog I decided that this would be a great goddamned time to have my first experience at a hostel. I reach for some indication buried within the awkwardly-snapped photographs of the ten-day sojourn, pore over the shorthand notes that I kept on receipts and travel brochures, and yet… there is absolutely nil-zilch in the way of apparent motive. I just apparently up and figured—through some hasty self-inventory—that despite my issues with germs, people, my debilitating sense of social jitters and my generally miserable ability to cope with strangers, and the fact that I was nearly thirty years old somehow meant that this was an idea whose time had come.
Reason dictates that some of this was probably due to Exene’s decision to meet me in the Crescent. One of the great genetic jokes of our siblinghood is the fact that we match each other’s’ basic human deficiencies in a brilliant fashion: my sister makes friends on every continent that she touches down on, while I routinely fear being punched in the face by random people on sidewalks and in the galleries of public transportation. She’s had about one retail job in her entire life, while I’m the type to obsess over nickels and my SEP IRA. I have issues with sleeping on any mattress which isn’t mine, whereas she could knock out soundly on a pile of dirty frathouse laundry… and on it goes. Between the two of us, there’s a magnificent human being: however, much like the Martian beast-twins in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, those finer qualities have been split soundly down the middle, thus ensuring a hideous and hilarious symbiosis.
So: somewhere in there, it’s safe to say that her infectious enthusiasm for getting to know the new probably played a part in this whole hostel thing. The natural conclusion being that her charm would bring me up to her level, rather than me sinking her to my twitchy sub-basement of social paranoias, like so many lead bars and bones. It seemed sound, and—even as I write this—it looks good on paper; like a sure bet, or a soft option.
Of course, it was—for the record—not.
Which isn’t to say that we didn’t get things off on the good foot: in the midst of a whirlwind touchdown, we first stopped at St. Vincent’s Guest House, which was/is an old converted orphanage (!) just outside of the Garden District. The trappings were basic, but they also did a fairly decent job of aping what you’d expect at a Motel Six: we had our own room, a serviceable bed, a working air conditioner and a battered old fatback television—no bigger than fourteen inches and monochrome—with its dials ripped off. It was everything that a bare-fare crashpad should be, and considering that it was seriously somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-two bucks a night, there wasn’t much room to complain. Even after we’d discovered that our veranda would immediately become a wine soiree for four-inch cockroaches every time the exterior lights were doused, no damper was slapped on the general mood: likewise with the slow, steady realization that the hostel was less a stopover for European travelers, and more a late-night flophouse for derelict locals. Regardless, the basic suggestion of creature comforts, and—as bed-bug infested and moldering as the trappings might have been—a setup which held a squinting resemblance to an actual motel kept any potential freakouts in a firm state of check. There seemed to be a sense that somebody, somewhere, wanted the place to strive for a sense of being good enough, and—as such—it was good enough for us.
Then—for reasons both uncleared by time and curious in nature—we decided that we needed to move things a bit further up Canal Street, to another hostel. This happened somewhere in the midst of navigating through the FQ, visiting Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras world, carving up the waterfront between the Aquarium and the Zoo and generally spending a good six to eight hours of every calendar day that we’d been in the city away from our room, so there certainly wasn’t much rhyme or reason to the fact that we were migrating a good half-mile from the heart, balls and sweet black soul of the city proper.
But we made that shift of scenery all the same, and that, my dear friends, is how your hapless narrator became acquainted with The India House.
Now, as for a matter of getting the nines straight: to a person with the proper palette, I’m sure there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the tangent that this story is about to take. In fact, nearly every hostel-related story I’ve heard from a friend mostly paints the accommodations as some coincidental liftoff point for getting blotto in Bruges or hooking up with some Australian co-ed in Antwerp: I continue to type this with the full recognition and acknowledgment that I’m doing so from behind a fixed pane of neurotic glass, wherein I’m alternately marveling at the things that normal people do, while likely being studied by that same crowd—on the other side, in a fashion befitting the best twists of the Twilight Zone—with a grotesque kind of curiosity. Sometimes, you have no choice in matters of telling it slant, and this is a perfect case in point.
Exene and I lugged our various haversacks and duffels up the stairs of what appeared to be a pleasant—if not totally underwhelming—domestic conversion, about a block and a half off of the trolley line. We hit up the counter, where the proprietor* informed us that we were a day late (We weren’t) that I’d booked for a common room bunk (I hadn’t) and assumed that we were from the Midwest (No sale). After commencing a weird square dance of mumbled apologies for everything we’d apparently done wrong, he handed us a key and told us that we’d be in the “back suites,” straight through the commons area: this involved interrupting the sightlines of what appeared to be some thirty-eight Spanish and French touristas, the whole of whom were stretched out on the floor, doubled up on the couch and chairs, their attention plastered squarely on what I remember** being The Price is Right. As I padded across the room, I began to feel my skin bristle: not from any specific unfriendliness on the part of our fellow houseguests, but just from a general, slow-burning sense of… off-ness.
This sensation explained itself in full, when we arrived at our “suite” just a few beats later. Despite being handed a key, the modified toolshed that we’d be setting up stakes in did not have an actual lock, but rather a hook-eye assembly that promptly popped out the moment that we looked at it crooked.
But on the brighter side of the moment, we had a bed!***
We had our art!****
We had a ceiling fan!*****
We had a proud chest of drawers, a hook on the wall, and a window-mounted thing that made vague noises and hums, but which failed to actually provide any flow-through of the incredibly—and I emphasize that again, with the appropriate italics—incredibly—staid air in the confines of the room.******
I off-shouldered my bag and returned to the front desk, to inquire about the key: without missing a beat—and eyeing me with the expected degree of suffrage, at having to explain such a goddamned obvious thing—the clerk explained that the key wasn’t for a lock, but rather to help us remember which room was ours. My tongue was too thick to point out that there were about three “suites” on the backside of the scummy, weed-choked fishpond that split the back half of the property—and that it wouldn’t be too hard to remember—so I just followed up with another apparently idiotic question:
“Do you have an actual lock? We’ve got our stuff in there, our laptops, and if we’re just leaving it while we go out during the day, then…”
This really was too much: the proprietor gestured bluntly, hands palming the sky in what was now hedging on full-out, 44.-caliber exasperation.
“Who do you think’s going to steal it? You think that guy’s a thief?”
The French guy who was sitting nearby—using the lobby’s antique Tandy to figure out whether or not he’d really been lied to about Louisiana’s legal drinking age—turned to curiously find the guy pointing at him.
“No,” I said. And I remember this being one of those moments where my voice—always annoying—settled into the quiet that followed, as the conversation promptly peaked. He did manage to ask if I’d feel better if he kept the “key” at the front desk, but that was the only thing that interrupted my slog back to our newly-acquired sweatbox.
Madness came on pretty damn quickly, and shortly thereafter.
Now, I can’t rightly place the blame on a single source—be it the slow suffocation of the heat, general fatigue, some sluggish regression into our pre-adolescent roles—but in the hours that followed, something very odd began to happen. Whereas I’d have expected Exene’s glorious sense of universal joie de vivre to compel me to cease with the whale-eyeing of everything and anybody through the room’s blinds, the opposite slowly took hold: we both started to sag into a strange, manic state of shitfaced giggles and decidedly misanthropic insanity.
It started with the breaking of the “bedframe”******** and quickly gathered speed, as we found a dog-eared old Danielle Steel********* paperback and began reading passages to one another. Hours passed. The musty heat of day gave way to the ruthless burn of a black Louisiana night. And yet, despite brief rumblings of emerging to see the French Quarter in its full evening blossom, we continued to hide in that makeshift rubber-room of our own design, growing hoarse and bloodied about the tonsils from the gibbering laughter. We systematically reviewed every embarrassing mishap of our mutually stupid youth, made up careful nicknames for the friends we’d had**********, and—at one point or another—wound up calling some poor guy named Charlie from a job that I’d had two years earlier, for the sake of me conversing with him in a poor imitation of his own voice. It was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to an alcohol-free state of total shitfacery, and even in committing it to print, I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what in God’s name we were on about.
But it didn’t stop there. Not even at four in the morning, knowing that we were due at St. Louis Number Three in just a few scant hours for a cemetery tour; by the time the smoke cleared, the India House’s repressively bohemian charm had turned us both into some kind of grossly antisocial reptiles. Lidless and seething, we clawed at those bare yellow walls, wary of any sound that might involve someone who was not us having a similarly fun time. This continued that night, and for every night that followed, every time we’d return to that gross little hotbox, until we parted ways and returned to our respective lots: Exene to California, where she’d continue to be good, and me… to an emptied apartment and the misery that I’d molded for myself.
In a rear-view sense—and peering past the infectious stupidity and property damage—I’m given to considering this: that as my first and singular hostel exposure, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I owe this entirely to the NOLA effect, at its purest; a city which embraces the notion that anything can—and should—go, and that even someone as given to frailties of confidence and social anxieties as myself can truly find themselves at home, there. If I had the opportunity to sit the scowling, sulfur-filled version of myself that had made that trip down to talk turkey on what sort of hindsight the following eight years would bring, it’d probably sound a little something like this:
Don’t change a thing. But do be nicer to the French, when you’re there. They don’t get a whole lot of that.