Knowing that this benchmark birthday was coming, and maybe trying to head off my anxiety (fear) that I’d have no one to celebrate this “big life event” with, I booked myself a flight and hotel room to New Orleans. Yup, myself.
A solo journey. Maybe partly an act of rebellious independence. I was used to being alone, so why not travel alone? Maybe I would meet someone new? Or someone kinda new.
At the time I was “involved” with a woman who I met in a chatroom. As one can imagine, those curvy quotes around the word involved suggest something far more than friendly conversation. (Albeit just online.) She had confessed to me once that she was married IRL. So there was always the chance of her husband discovering this. Which only fed into the taboo appeal of it all the more.
I was young (dumb). I scoffed off her dalliance to nothing more than idle curiosity. I was merely the cyber equivalent of a warm body. I could type nice things to her about the female form and I had time to pay attention to her. And really, it was “just online.”
But then maybe it could go offline. I don’t remember where she lived, but I remember thinking the possibility of a New Orleans rendezvous with her was not completely out of the realm of chance. In one of our chats, she offered to get me a discount on my hotel since she worked for a chain. The discount never happened, there was a hotel mixup and I had already settled in and liked my proximity to The French Quarter, so I stayed put and paid little mind to the extra cost. The chance meetup never happened either, but I paid little mind to not seeing her; IRL wrongdoing averted.
Off to take in the town solo, mostly to take in its food into my belly, I hit the ATM to get some cash and then enjoyed a lunch at Lucky Cheng’s. (Why I frequented a drag queen nightclub in the middle of the day I will never know, but I made far stranger choices on this trip.)
The weather seemed nice enough to walk around Bourbon Street and see what the Louisiana afternoon had to offer me. Apparently, what it had to offer was drugs. No, check that, it provided me with what amounted to a suggestion of drug use. “You got any papers?,” a local denizen had asked me as we crossed paths.
Here is where that very stupid question, that far stranger choice and maybe a smidge of social awkwardness all come back into play. Instead of simply shaking my head in the negative and walking by this obviously-not-looking-for-idle-conversation gentleman, I decide to engage.
Let me also add one small preface to this story before I divulge my foot-in-mouth verbal spew: I was not only JUST turning 18, I also had never drank, smoked, had sex or any kind of drugs in those entire 18 years. So you may be as baffled as I was to hear these words that came out of my young, clean-shaven face:
“No. Do you know where I can get some?”
All I had to do was stop at my one-word utterance! “No.” Perfect response. And I would have gone on to enjoy the rest of my NOLA days in sweet, innocent peace. But no, the new independent Ernio had to continue with the stupidest, strangest, most non-sensical, 8-word question to ever leave his body.
My one-man audience seemed to take this in stride. Obviously a complete stranger, a young tourist he’d never met before, would make a great companion for his journey to paper enlightenment. He agreed to help me acquire some of our “shared” pasttime and I… walked aimlessly beside him.
What was my plan? How far would I follow this guy before I kindly… remembered something else… I had to do? Would I simply renege on my desire? Was I going to purchase him some of his wanted “papers” in return for the favor? What in the fuck was I thinking?
We walked up Bourbon and turned down a sidestreet, my sherpa chatting me up with charming Southern small talk. We were headed out of The French Quarter and I had yet to come up with anything resembling an exit strategy. Surely, there was a beignet at Café du Monde with my name on it, no? Come on, Ernio! Well, I guess a trip to where real locals frequent would be fine. Right?!
We crossed Rampart into definitively non-tourist territory and my guide had me wait at a corner while he got me “hooked up” with who-even-knows-what? It would be rude of me to simply leave at this point, no? [SMH, facepalm, etc.] So he returned to the corner and said his friend told him there was a guy just up the block.
I followed him. (Sure!???) I followed him into an abandoned house. (What could possibly go wrong!?) I followed him through an abandoned house into a backyard where — wouldn’t you know it?—there was no “guy.” Just the friend he had talked to moments ago.
At this point, my curbside acquaintance begins to playact being worried that his friend is going to shoot me. (Nono, don’t fret.) Worried that his friend is going to shoot me through the front pocket of his jacket (really, no worries). Shoot me through his jacket pocket with what is obviously his finger in the shape of a gun.
Is this really happening to me?
Now (oh NOW?!!) clearly seeing no way out of this, I give over all my cash and show them the wallet where there is nothing left. My scene partner reveals that he took me for some kind of cop attempting to entrap him. That’s why he walked me by the police station to see if any of my fellow boys in blue would recognize me. I assured him and the lone fingerman I was just from out of town here on vacation. As a gesture of good faith, I even emptied out my pockets of all the change I had gathered in my days there. “That’s all I have.”
Luckily, I made it out of there with nothing bruised but my ego. I headed back through The French Quarter with my tail between my legs and returned to my hotel room without further incident. I showered and napped, trying to reset the day.
That night, I entered into adulthood slightly wiser. My wild, teenaged recklessness rolled up into one trip somewhat behind me. I ordered a shrimp po’boy from room service and stayed in watching TV until I fell asleep. Happy birthday me.
An older neighbor and I happened to be leaving my old apartment building at the same time, so we rode the elevator down…
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