After being laid off from a construction job in 2015, I started driving an Uber. It seemed like a great and quick way to make money, and I’ve liked it very much—it’s fun, you make your own hours, meet interesting people. I haven’t gone back to working as a laborer. Of course, it’s not all upside. I’ve shepherded lots of weirdos, drunks, and degenerates around, cleaned up plenty of puke in the backseat, and was even once robbed at gunpoint. I’ve seen it all.
Most of my time behind the wheel has been in Chicago, but seven months ago I moved south to Louisiana for school, driving in Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Though New Orleans has always fascinated me—two of my favorite books, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, take place there—and I’ve been to many a Mardi Gras, I’ve never driven an Uber in the city during its biggest party. Until now.
Before I arrived, I expected driving Mardi Gras to be as chaotic as partying there, complete with a whole lot of horrible traffic from the parades, and some extremely high surge rates. I luckily avoided all violence and vomit, saw some nakedness, costumes, and some entertaining drunken antics. The traffic was as bad as I’d feared, especially downtown, but I learned to maneuver around using the freeway. The surge never ended.
The people, by and large, were great. Here are but some of the good folks I met down in the Big Easy. Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler (Let the Good Times Roll)!
I pick up Sean and learn he moved to New Orleans just a few short weeks before Katrina. (The storm comes up a lot in conversation.) Sean evacuated before things went truly sideways and, upon his return, was told he was lucky, his home didn’t suffer any water damage. “We were real happy,” he tells me. “Then I walked in the apartment and looked up and just saw the big blue sky. The winds ripped the roof off.” He's currently reading Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans and recommends it to anyone who may want to learn about the culture of the city.
Betsy is in her early 30s and is from Biloxi, Mississippi,. I take her to Walgreens on Canal to buy makeup she forgot to pack. She has Katrina stories of her own, many of them involving actor and heartthrob Ryan Gosling, whose first and last name she uses often in the telling of her story. “Ryan Gosling helped Biloxi so much after Katrina,” she tells me. “Ryan Gosling decided he wanted to go help in a place that wasn’t getting any media attention. After Katrina the only thing on the news was New Orleans. Biloxi flooded so bad that when the water receded all these huge ships ended up all over the city you’d be driving around and there’d be a big tanker on its side in a pharmacy parking lot.” Her father was the head of the fire department at the time, she says. “After Katrina we lived in the firehouse for 47 days.” Her days were spent doing cleanup around Biloxi. At night she got drunk with Ryan Gosling at the firehouse.
I pick up two blonds, Meghan and Megan, who say they’ve been friends since they were 4-years-old. Now 26, they live in Savannah, Georgia.
“We’re celebrating my divorce," says Megan. "It finalized yesterday.” Meghan nods.
I pick up Griffin, an 18-year-old LSU marketing student from Southern Louisiana, who declares he will never go back to Bourbon Street. “Too many drunk motherfuckers stepping on my damn feet too much!” It's only Friday, and Griffin has had a wild Mardi Gras. He tells me earlier in the night he’d been in an Uber with eight other passengers, one a girl who puked. “We’re all laying on each other and I’m like in front with people on my lap. I’ve lost all feeling in my legs. I hear this gurgling sound and I look back and she’s got puke all over her. Then a minute later this other girl is trying to puke out the window and she’s hanging half her body out. The Uber pulls over at this gas station and kicks us out in a bad neighborhood.”
Thankful I've not yet suffered the same kind of ride, I roll around downtown and find a mural of Buddy Bolden, the jazz great who is the subject of Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter. He holds his mighty trumpet, a yellow halo around his head. A nearby wall has another image of him that reads “All Hail King Bolden.”
John, Melanie, and Newton
I catch a ride out of the Convention Center, not easy considering traffic is backed way up as thousands of people flood the street. I find my ride—Melanie, John and Newton. Melanie tells me about their night. “We sat at the King’s table, George V. Rainey, King Zulu 2019. I been friends with Mr. Rainey since I was a little girl. There was 10,000 people in there. The Governor of the State of Louisiana was there. He was walking around and greeting everybody.”
Friday rolls on and I pick up more dots on my phone's screen. Hannah, Alexa, Chanel, and Candice, tell me they're at Mardi Gras to "Get drunk and punch boobs." I drop a couple off at a posh gated community who'd just returned from a fancy Ball where tickets were $200 a pop even though "The gumbo sucked." When things slow I drive the hour and a half home to Baton Rouge, where I arrive at 4:30 in the morning with $280 in my pocket. The next night I head in a little earlier, straight to Frenchmen Street, and turn on the app.
Ashley and John
The first folks I pick up Saturday are a middle-aged couple named Ashley and John. She’s excited about their plans—they’re heading to The Superdome to see a somewhat odd concert lineup of Chicago, Lionel Richie, and Flo Rida. The two now call Baton Rouge home, but lived in the French Quarter for ten years. John tells me a horrific story that partially illustrates why they moved. On his way to a grocery store in the French Quarter one morning he saw a man bleeding so profusely from his head it “saturated his pants.” He thought he’d been shot, but turned out he’d been stabbed with a broken bottle. “Half his face was gone,” John remembers. “There was so much blood the fire department had to come do a hazmat clean up.” He and Ashley wanted to have a baby, so they moved.
I drop Ashley and John off just after talk of the gruesome attack turns into where to eat great Cajun in Louisiana. (Answer, says Ashley: Nowhere. “Somebody Grama gotta cook you dat.”) Three middle-aged guys from Seattle—Greg, Frank, and Mike—hop in next. They make robots that build airplanes, they tell me. We talk about Artificial Intelligence (it’s coming for all our jobs) and Universal Basic Income (a good idea). Greg doesn’t want to be photographed.
Greg, Tom, Anne, and Tony
Next up is another Greg. He's here with friends Tom, Anne, and Tony, all college students from Saint Louis. Anne tells me they’d been to a parade with “really nice family vibes” that still managed to feature many 80-year-old men persistently coming on to her. “One of them wasn’t even trying to get me to flash my tits,” she says. “He, like, wanted me to come home with him.”
Quay, Tekeeya, and Jakahri
I pick up Quay, Tekeeya, and Jakahri. Tekeeya is young and has an interesting view of Mardi Gras.“It’s fun trying not to get hit by the beads. It’s good exercise walking around.”
Rachel and Ryan
I pick Rachel and Ryan, a brother and sister from Houston, Texas, ages 23 and 26. Ryan’s enormous beads clink like ice jostling in a glass. “I found these giant frickin’ beads on the sidewalk!," he says, exuberant. He, like Griffin from the night prior, tells me Bourbon is way too crowded to be fun. “It’s just gross."
“As a girl, you get grabbed and groped," Rachel adds. "I throw elbows.” When not defending herself from idle/drunken hands, she has been admiring the architecture of New Orleans. “No two houses are the same,” she says. “Every street is so colorful eclectic, the entrances of the houses are so big and broad and presentable with the high porches and the balconies and they’re right up on the sidewalk.”
Ryan, mind still reeling from the horrors witnessed on Bourbon, interrupts. “I saw this one couple in their mid-20s. They were just having the craziest sex down in the filth of the sidewalk. I was like, ‘Go back to your room you’re going to catch something off the street!’ I saw a few guys gets arrested for showing their penises. I saw some people get trampled by police horses. If you fuck with the horse it’ll trample you, there’s nothing you can do.”
The night winds on and I scoop up others. Alexa and Erin are two college students from Maryland who rave about the Airbnb they're staying in. Tom, Ralph, Brittany, and Alex tell me about their wild night in a gay bar. There's Michael, Kaitlyn, Andy, and Samantha—the crew of twenty-somethings pictured above whose weekend was fueled in part by an energy drink called Bang mixed with vodka. I drive others, turn the app off, and head home, $250 for the night. In total, I've made $530 for about 14 hours work. Not bad. I roll past the Buddy Bolden mural again. He seems to be beaming more proudly than the night before. Buddy, you got a hell of city here. Thanks for letting me roll through, King.
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