Bourban Street

by Marcie Swartz

The banks of New Orleans confine the flow of the Mississippi River. One can
pass over the river, and see it ambitiously wind toward its delta to spread out
into the Gulf of Mexico. There, the pressure of coursing a path through a nation
is relieved, as memories of the river’s message take on a diluted form.

Buildings confine Bourbon Street, New Orleans. Standing on the balconies of
these buildings, one can watch the constant flux of people pushing in both
directions. This flow has two ways out, and two ways in. Two deltas to relieve
crowd pressure. With not enough sewers to drain and filter it, Bourbon also
assumes a diluted form.

Bourbon is pedestrians’ only, so the taxi drops all 9 of us at the end of
this world famous block. It is the height of Mardi gras season at 2 a.m. and
things are just picking up. People swamp the street to immerse themselves in the
nightlife. Swept up in activity, we must go with the flow. There is no turning
back. No one lives here. There is no place like home.

There is little variety in places of business. The bars are filled to
capacity, and patron overflow is a deluge into the street. The bars offer drinks
that are extremely high in alcoholic content called “Hurricanes”. For storm
chasers, they are poured into special foot long neon green and orange souvenir
plastic cups. Alcohol is also sold at take out windows. There is no law in this
quarter of New Orleans to stopper open containers. In defiance of an inevitable
drenching, people revel in flaunting their right to be publicly inebriated. Taps
burst open, geysering forth their goods to course through veins and suck
moisture out of bodies. Intoxicated with desiccation, dams of inhibition
collapse. The street is below sea level, but only spilt alcohol douses the
pavement with its makeover treatment, and cleanses clogged minds of purpose.

My heart races as I struggle to ground myself in this place. Carnality
replaces civility as order is thrown out with the heaps of garbage literally
coating the street and sidewalks a foot deep at some points. There are no
receptacles, and thus, people rain empty bottles, food containers, as well as
contents of their full bladders onto the street. The air reeks of alcohol. It is
hellish because it seems everyone but me wants to be there to say they’ve done
it though they won’t quite remember it. An initiation that serves as a rite of
passage into desecration, with loyalty insured by excessive torrents of
justifications that slick dry fragile gills with grease. Commonality is debased
to amalgamate togetherness with bonds of distortion. Hostile denial seals the
deal that blindly propels all forward toward submersion in a desert of loss.

Bright Casino lights flash asking to dissolve my money. Opaque windows of the
strip joints distort silhouettes of those dancing fluidly inside. All nude, all
the time. A set of men stumble out of one as we pass. Drinks nourish their
laughter to germinate seeds of desire. Wild, glassy eyes stray toward me as they
yell “SHOW ME YOUR BOOBS,” the accepted trademark babble of Bourbon’s current.
If a female flashes her bare breasts to a male, he gives her cheap, plastic,
metallic colored beads; a fair exchange of resources in this ecosystem. I feel
topless by association. I won’t lift my shirt, but many will.

As I clutch the chain of hands my group has linked together, groups of men
swarm me, spewing antagonism as they gauge my impedance.

The colors in drab and bright clothes run together against the black of
night. My group is absorbed into a doorway to buy drinks. Left outside, buoyed
by Bourbon’s surface tension, I stare at faux feather boas floating in a gift
shop window. A man drifts between the shop and me. His expression placid as dark
blood drips down the side of his face. My stomach churns. I jump back, almost
knocking a large Budweiser out of someone’s hand. I look up and see a group of
bikini-topped women leaning over a railing that is rooted to a rooftop. Their
arms branch out, and twig like fingers dangle beads provocatively to tantalize
the men treading in place below. The sky is in clear view, but this is not the
place to stargaze. I must stay alert to what is beyond the peripheral. If I
coast at all, I am tossed adrift by waves of those whose pace is driven by a
craving for the reputed thrills of this party town. Unpredictable rapids jostle
me as I employ strokes of sidestep, leap, and swivel with my arms pinned tight
to my body. I am aware of the tips of every hair on my head. Even they protrude
too far from my body in this congested place. Soberness has left me parched. I
twist and turn to avoid saturation. Slippery when wet, I am sinking into the
depths of concentrated rationale; terrified that someone will grab me. I fight
to solidify my vulnerable skin from Bourbon’s germ soaked flotsam and jetsam.
Disassociation seeps into me to with its deceptive life raft, as I stream into
the whirlpool of sensation overload. My lungs fill with run-off.

We reach the end of the street. My feet hurt. Some in my group want to return
the other way. It seems the sun won’t ever come up. Hidden by the night, all
that there is to do here is happening concurrently with constant repetition. I
hail a wave and swim for shore.

It is a slow taxi ride away from Bourbon. Horns are blaring, and no one is
moving. Drunken passengers in my car cheer as my driver angles his car into the
line of traffic ahead of us to cut someone off. The driver of that car gets out
and approaches my driver. He demands my driver apologize. My driver does, and
tension diminishes as we pull away.

We cross the river again driving back to our hotel. The river speaks its
aspirations without a translator, content to surge along side the small alley
that stubbornly exerts its unbending force on the land. In this swampland,
flooding threatens, but does not prevent Bourbon Streets’ manufacturing. Contact
is avoided until the time is right for the river to subdue it, spreading Bourbon
much farther than we could take it on foot. In this intermingling, we’ll
understand that one drowns the other.


Copyright © – Marcie Swartz 2003