Moving to Louisiana was John's idea.
My first newspaper job was in Hoopeston, Ill. A college classmate had grown up a few miles away. We had worked together on the Daily Egyptian at Southern Illinois University. John graduated a semester after me, and with my recommendation he got a job for the same chain of small-town newspapers.
We made a pact about Louisiana, John and I. Whomever got there first would bring the other down ASAP. I never understood how the chain (Nixon Newspapers) got a hold of a paper in Hammond, La. Their other papers were in Central Illinois and Indiana. I started in 1978, and all across the farm belt all I heard about is how nobody had any money. But Louisiana was pumping oil. The Hammond Daily Star was huge.
So after eighteen months in Hoopeston, I moved to Hammond. I had written and edited a daily newspaper with one other staffer and a high school kid who developed our film and printed photos for an hour before going to school every day. At the Daily Star in Hammond I was one of a 12-man staff. All they wanted me to do was write.
This wasn't the only big change in my life. Professional life in a small down had forced me to alter my intoxication routines. No more weed, certainly no pills. So I drank more efficiently. I hadn't yet mastered the art of maintenance drinking. I often worked at night, and had to be at work early, so I had to get drunk fast. I feared my all-out drinking might compromise me. I covered public education, which included desegregation, and it was pretty hot shit. Both sides assumed I couldn't be trusted. Lots of fear and loathing.
Drinking efficiently meant drinking at home, with store-bought, rather than in bars. I drank more than the other Yankees, so I didn't fit well with them, and was treated with outright contempt by many of the locals. So, like George Thorogood, I drank alone.
Soon enough a spot opened at the newspaper and John came down to join me. I looked forward to having a close friend nearby. We agreed to get an apartment together. John was dismayed to see how I had been living, in a crappy motel room. I had planned to get a better place after arriving in town, but had never gotten around to it. John found a nice apartment for us, but began to keep me at arm's length. I figured later he may have had some up-close experience with alcoholism and wasn't overjoyed at the prospect of doing it again.
Guys like me always assume everyone else is like me. They aren't. Even folks who like to really light it up figure it makes sense to call it a night at some point. I never did. And the progression of the disease escaped my notice, particularly the increasing isolation. I was respected at work, but had no friends. I lived within an hour of New Orleans, on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain. All those celebrations began to eat away at me. Why was everyone here but me having so much fun?
My despondency increased after a brother got married in October. I was happy for him, of course, but had used my only week of vacation to attend his wedding. I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas alone. I would manage to spend my entire year there without getting close to a girl. I scored three times on my week at home, which made my continued struggles in the South more unbearable. I retreated into the madness that gnawed at my soul. Me and Johnny Walker, and his brothers, Blackie and Red.
I looked forward to the end of the 1970's. Perhaps 1980 would be more kind. John and I and another Yankee from the newspaper staff made plans to celebrate New Year's Eve in New Orleans. John had a sister in the city. We drove across the Causeway to her home. I met her husband, a medical student, just before he departed for a double-shift in the emergency room at one of the city's public hospitals. He was in for a long night and warned us not to stray from the French Quarter.
We left the car at their house and hopped a bus. John went over the instructions again and again, should we get separated. They lived within a block of the end of the bus line. We had only to get on the right bus to be dropped near the doorstep where we would spend the night.
"Face it," he said. "We're probably going to blow all our cash. But save a dollar to get on the bus. Whatever you do, save a dollar to get on the bus. You can't walk through these neighborhoods at night. Trust me, you won't make it."
I got the message. The neighborhood was all black. It wouldn't do for one of us to wander through. Not at night, certainly not New Year's Eve.
All I can think about when I try to recall this night is a scene from the movie "Angel Heart." Mickey Rourke doesn't know who he is and gets hopelessly lost in throng of revelers in the Quarter. There's a look of terror and bewilderment on his face. I assume that's what I looked like under the mask I tried to show the world.
I was a walking blackout. Of course I got separated from my friends. As the money got low I hit a liquor store and got a bottle of Johnny Walker, Black Label. Had I settled for the Red, I would have had another dollar for the ride home.
I found the intersection where we had gotten off the bus. I thought I could probably mooch a buck, hell, sell the bottle for a buck. I would have been transported to within a block of John's sister's house. Instead I got my bearings, made sure of my directions, and stumbled away from the neon and into the night.
I was in the neighborhood in a few minutes. Sullen stares from porches asked what the fuck. I walked fast, switching from one side of the street to another whenever I approached a group of guys standing together, laughing, smoking, drinking out of paper bags.
A guy approached from my backside and walked alongside me, a kid maybe 18 years old. A big floppy hat obscured his dark face. He smiled and asked where I was going.
Just goin' home, man.
You know where you're goin? I can hep get you there. Where you going?
I stuttered the famous last words of every dumbass white guy walked into the wrong neighborhood.
Hey, man. I don't want any trouble. I just gotta get home, allright?
You ain't nowhere near home, brother. You need some hep. I tryin' a hep you.
I stopped walking and turned to face him. I didn't know what to make of this guy. If he wanted to jump me, he could have done so. I told him I got too fucked up in the quarter and don't have any money for the bus. I know where I gotta go. It's a long way, but I just keep going till the street ends, and that's where the house is.
What's in the pocket?
I pulled out the Johnny Walker.
Man, you rather walk through this shit with a bottle of Black than ride a bus without it.
He took a swallow and smiled.
Well, maybe be allright. I'll walk you part way. C'mon.
I wondered if he was going to lead me somewhere where he had some friends. It didn't make sense. He wouldn't need them.
What was you thinkin?
There's just no other way to get home.
You picked a good way get yourself robbed.
How can they rob me? I don't have any money.
Then they shoot you for wastin' their time.
There were even fewer streetlights ahead, and more guys in the street. Shouts. Guffaws. More stares. I heard a snapping ahead. Firecrackers. As the sound drew closer I knew it wasn't firecrackers. Pop pop. Pop pop. Raucous laughter. We crossed the street, away from a group of six or eight guys. Two had pistols. They were firing them into the air.
Pop pop. Fuck you.
Pop Pop. Fuuuuck you.
Pop pop. Aaaaaaaaashit.
We made it past, but I noticed the popping was everywhere. Left, right, front, behind. Pop pop pop pop pop, puncuated by shouts, screams. Fuckinmotherfuckingyoufuck. Pop pop.
My guide walked faster. When he glanced at me, I saw he was more terrified than me, likely because he was less drunk and knew where he was. The gunfire and shouting was behind us ninety minutes after leaving The Quarter. There was no one on the streets. He stopped.
You almost there. Two miles maybe. The road ends up aways, like you said.
Thanks for helpin' me out, guy.
I didn't want to appear ungrateful, but I had to ask.
Why the fuck you do this?
He kept shaking his head.
Don't know. Maybe I get lost in you neighborhood next time.
He hustled back toward the gunfire.
It was daylight when I reached the house. The other guys were pouring coffee, chatting with John's sister. The doctor arrived, exhausted. I told my story to rolling eyes. The doctor shouted.
"I've been pulling bullets out of guys for 12 hours. You just walked through a fucking firing range, except all the guys with guns are drunk."
He and his wife looked at each other and shook their heads, exasperated. My pals did the same. I was alone in a crowd, again.