Dateline: Gretna, Louisiana. (OK, I admit it, I am not still there.)
The time my wife JoAnne and I spent in this gritty outskirt of New Orleans is a far more interesting tale than my recent column about doing laundry (HLP February ‘05).
We had tasted the French Quarter (metaphorically immersing ourselves in deep fat), ate beignets at Cafe du Monde, spent a long weekend in Lafayette, and wandered the Garden District before checking into “the only room left in the greater New Orleans area” (in the words of the cheerful Hotels.com representative). Let’s not quibble over who neglected to see if the largest non-Mardi Gras event had just hit town. Let me just say that one of us figured that midweek there would be plenty of rooms.
Besides, in this person’s defense, we did get a room in an Econo Lodge, which, we had a vague recollection, was a national chain whose logo featured a cute little bear in a nightshirt and cap holding a candlestick. Furthermore, Gretna sits just across the Mississippi River, a scant four miles from Bourbon Street. To top it off, the guilty one added that Gretna was the birthplace of Hall of Famer Mel Ott, the feared New York Giants slugger of the 1930s who seemed to rear up on his back leg when he swung, and who hit 511 steroid-free homeruns.
The Economy Lodge (that is not a typo; that is what the sign read) we pulled up to clearly had no affiliation with the national chain, unless there had been a coup. Smiling at me behind the counter was a nearly toothless and fully barefoot man for whom English did not appear to be one of his top three languages. He did not seem to be the type to wrest control from a powerful corporation. The more likely scenario seemed to be that he had stumbled in from the Quarter years ago and, unable to pay his bill, had been sentenced to serve as manager of Dante’s waiting room. Glancing around the dirty, shabby, and threadbare lobby, we were eyeballed by a fellow lodger whom we soon dubbed “Sugarman” for his curious habit of using twelve sugars in his coffee and making way too much eye contact.
When the proprietor asked if we had reservations, I was able to answer, “Yes quite a few.” This line usually gets a chuckle or at least a hollow laugh. JoAnne was too frightened to respond. The proprietor, now joined by his wife, who had almost twice as many teeth, smiled hopefully. Only Sugarman was laughing like Ed McMahon, although he had begun to chortle long before the witty banter began. I mumbled something about not judging a room by its lobby. We checked in and drove around to our room at the far corner of the court. As we unloaded the car, Sugarman ambled over and attempted to talk with JoAnne, who was not speaking to either of us.
In our thirty-some years together we have camped out, slept in youth hostels, and stayed on the floor of a friend’s barely finished basement. Despite being older, I like to think we have not become bourgeois burghers and that we still possess a spirit of adventure. But this setting clearly violated tenets of the Geneva Convention. The air conditioner had been ravaged and was held together by mildew. The smoke alarm hung by a wire, the furniture would not have been accepted by Goodwill, and the bed was so concave that the thin spread touched the mattress only at the sides. Although it was a non-smoking room, there were ashes on the floor of the bathroom.
When I turned on the hot water faucet I expected cold, rusty, or Mississippi River water. Instead there was absolutely no water. When JoAnne spotted the bullet hole in the wall and then the smear of a brown-red handprint not far from it, we both reached for the phone to call the airline. Needless to say, the phone didn’t work. I broke for the lobby, leaving JoAnne to put the bags back in the car. When the ubiquitous Sugarman, in his unofficial role as host/neighbor/welcome wagon approached her, she abandoned the task and hurried to join me in the lobby. I was having no luck with the proprietor, who was not versed in how to dial out on his Marconi 300 phone console, circa 1934. He explained that people contact him for rooms and he did not know how to make a long distance call. He graciously invited me to come around and attempt to dial this exotic 800 number myself while he watched until he lost interest and sat down on the floor.
JoAnne arrived to find me behind the counter and seemingly the person in charge. After fifteen frantic and stressful minutes, through a stroke of luck I was somehow able to reach United Airlines, whose options had recently changed. (Why does every organization claim to have new prompts –initiated during the Carter administration– that will streamline service, yet are guaranteed to increase your wait time?) JoAnne paced in the lobby and, as if on cue, Sugarman came in and began to fix himself another cup of coffee.
It was rush hour and we still had a rental car to dispose of, but there was a 7:00 PM flight to LA with a couple of seats available. I thanked the United Airlines representative profusely, handed my key to the helpful if bewildered manager, who probably wanted me to teach him how to use the phone system as much as he wanted us to stay. JoAnne and I hurried past the sludge-filled swimming pool, threw our suitcases in the car and peeled out. Sugarman saw us off.
We gave up two extra days in The Big Easy, but felt that we got away with our lives. It was great to see the Mississippi again, but it felt wonderful to return to our adopted home.
Tom H. Cook is the HLP West coast correspondent. A Hotels.com representative refunded our money after hearing an abridged version of our tale. JoAnne wishes to thank everyone who has sent her string for the Thread Project. If anyone else wishes to have their threads in the project, it’s not too late to send them along: PO Box 1187, Torrance, CA 90505. If you have questions, you can email JoAnne at firstname.lastname@example.org