Fifth in a series.
Oasis Motel in Gretna, Lousiana
Thanksgiving weekend in 1998, I lived in Austin, Texas, working as a contractor for Apple Computer. It was my first-ever Thanksgiving weekend away from my family. The Wednesday before the long weekend, I sat with a bunch of work friends in the backyard of some bar whose name escapes me and Google. It was a chilly night, in the mid 50s, and drinks were flowing. A bunch of us were trying to figure out how to spend our time off. I had no idea, but my co-workers were concerned about finding me a place to spend with friends and food. I got several offers to come over for turkey and all the trimmings. It was nice to feel so wanted.
But the best offer was when I found out that Chris and John were planning a road trip… to New Orleans.
I had never been to New Orleans, but it had captured my attention more than once in books, songs and movies. The Big Easy! Crescent City! Mardi Gras! Let the good times roll!
I asked them if I could tag along, and they agreed. Splitting costs three ways was cheaper than splitting it two ways. Since John didn’t have a great car, and neither Chris or I had any car at all, we were taking a rental car.
The following morning they picked me up. It’s a 500+ mile road trip, give or take, from Austin to NOLA, or about 8 hours of driving. Luckily, we had a four day weekend, and three drivers to take the wheel. I remember driving through San Antonio, though we did not stop there. To this day I’ve never been. When we passed through Houston, we stopped at a Denny’s for dinner; I remember the oil-covered canal and the huge oil derricks pumping oil and burning off the extra, making the landscape look like a watery Hell.
East Texas was green and swampy, very much unlike West Texas, which is dry desert. And southern Louisiana is, of course, the Bayou, a lush green dense wetlands.
The trip itself was largely uneventful, but once we got to the city proper, it was late and we decided to get a motel first. We drove through New Orleans and over the Ponchartrain Expressway, to the land on the other side of the Mississipi River, into the suburb called Gretna, before getting off the highway. We first came to the Oasis Motel, the improbably-desert-themed resting point for our two night stay.
We were three cheap guys, so we all shared a room. One on each bed and one on the floor, I volunteered for the floor first. Chris and John joked about cockroaches, but I was too punk rock to care. The room was just like every other motel room you’ve ever been in: smelled of stale smoke and sweat, beige in spirit if not in color, mismatched bed clothes and curtains.
Once we dropped off our bags, we drove back across the toll bridge to explore the wonders of Bourbon Street. It was a foggy night, and the streets were home to wandering groups of tourists. I marveled at the fact that we could get our booze in to-go cups and walk out into the street; just another way that New Orleans was different than my hometown.
The architecture was different, as well; tall townhouses with large wooden double doors, and balconies that looked out over the street. Chris explained that those balconies were filled with women showing their breasts for strings of beads during Mardi Gras – another idea that was new to me, but as a lover of breasts, I approved.
It looked crowded to me, but the bartender at the first place we stopped that night made mention that it was dead due to the holiday. That’s right! It was Thanksgiving! I ran into the back to find a pay phone and called home.
My mom and dad could barely hear me over the music and noise of the bar, but I shouted a Happy Thanksgiving to them and happily explained that I was fine even without turkey and stuffing. And then, my family duties discharged, I went back out into the perpetual party that was Bourbon Street. We worked our way down the street, one bar at a time, until we reached the dark end, where Lafitte’s Blacksmith Bar and Grill lay. The oldest building in use as a bar in North America, it was purportedly built by the pirate Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre, back in the early days of the Union. Inside it was black as pitch and lit only by incandescent bulbs made to look like candles.
We stayed out almost all night, and Chris and John had a hard time getting me awake the next morning, because the tradition was to have coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde. I wasn’t a coffee drinker, and I was hungover, so I was grumpy until John patiently explained that I was harshing his groove. “This is a tradition. You don’t have to understand it. Just go with it.” Since I preferred much more substantial breakfasts (something with eggs and bacon) selling me on light fluffy dough-y things was a bit difficult, but eventually I got into it. Well, I got into it when the coffee and beignets were there in front of me and ready for devouring.
We wandered the city the rest of the day, and in the evening decided to take a vampire and ghost tour. On the drive back to the motel room, we got lost in the thickest fog I can recall, and made many loops of the freeway system around the city before figuring out how to get back across the river into Gretna. And the following morning we toured a Mardi Gras museum, filled with old floats from many past parades.
We probably spent about 10 total hours in that motel room over the course of our stay. That fact, and the huge amount of food and alcohol I ate and drank account for my lack of memories of the place, specifically. But that trip sealed my love for that city. I’ve been back once but would love another trip someday.
Maybe even during Mardi Gras.