Scudding rain awoke me. Even through the closed shutters, double-glazed windows and thick drapes I could hear it lashing down. I got out of bed and went out onto the sheltered balcony and breathed in the atmosphere. It was coming down in sheets. Below me in the compound, the occasional body made a run for it. Little chance of breakfast under the gazebo now. I got dressed and returned to the balcony to wait. With still half-an-hour to the appointed breakfast time, I just sat back and enjoyed the weather. The rain was warm and refreshing.
Around eight, I noticed a black man with a huge crucifix around his neck run across the courtyard. I could see that he was talking to someone, whom I presumed to be the old lady owner. He soon scurried back and began wrestling with a collapsible table below the balcony where I was stood. I went down to help and found him being scolded by an older, larger woman who also happened to be black and who was wearing a pristine starched white uniform of some kind.
As soon as they noticed me, they stopped their bickering and without missing a beat the woman smiled, greeted me good morning sir and asked if I was ready for breakfast. I said I was, but there followed some confusion about where the table should be set up. The young man ran off to check with the old lady and was sent back with his tail between his legs. He announced with a degree of urgency that breakfast should definitely be set up in the spare bedroom that I had not taken the night before.
Another black man appeared, also oozing deference. Between the three of them, I was soon installed in the bedroom behind the table that had been transformed by white linen. The whole meal was served in silence and with averted eyes. The only words were a profuse apology when I asked for the door to be left open rather than have it closed every time they came in or out. I looked at my watch to check that I was still in the right century.
It took me a while to locate the old lady after breakfast in order to settle the bill. Unlike the previous evening, she was now quite forthcoming about the town and the history of the house. She continued to move in slow motion and didn’t talk much faster. In the middle of one sentence, I found myself wondering whether I could run round the block and still be back in time for the end of it. Her family had been in Port Gibson since the late 1700s when it was part of British West Florida. She insisted on giving a number of leaflets to me but wasn’t able to fetch them all in one go. Each different leaflet required a separate amble back to her office. From handing over my credit card to getting into my car to leave, over an hour elapsed.
It didn’t really matter, as I had a short run down to New Orleans and would have time on my hands that day. I continued on the Parkway down to Natchez itself, the original capital of the Territory of Mississippi and still the venue for an annual antebellum pilgrimage. A cobbled street led down to Natchez-under-the-hill and afforded me my first proper sight of the Mississippi River. I visited the welcome centre and tried to buy a book. I waited at the cash register for ten minutes with no sign of life. I went to the T-shirt stall and asked if I could pay there, but was sent back to the bookshop. There were two others in the shop perusing the shelves and, after about five more minutes, one of them sloped round behind the till and took the book from me. It must have taken him another ten minutes to figure out how to process a credit card payment. It was evidently not possible to be in much of a hurry in Mississippi.
Although it had been among the richest of the states in the days of the cotton plantations, Mississippi was now among the poorest. I’d seen no great wealth in the parts of South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama that I had visited, but none of them seemed to have given up hope to quite the same extent that this place had. A resigned malaise permeated everywhere that I had been here, and that dynamic American punchiness that I had started to get used to elsewhere on my travels was nowhere to be found. I hadn’t even seen a single world superlative claim.
I motored south to Louisiana. The rain was falling hard as I pulled into St Francisville, the first town over the state line, so I just filled up with gas and drove through. The combination of the weather and the time that had just disappeared down the drain that morning, made me decide to push straight on to the Big Easy. The skyline of New Orleans from the Interstate presented a modern high-rise city like so many in America, but the French Quarter felt like a 19th Century village. The street where my guesthouse was to be found was inaccessible. For some reason a number of roads had been cordoned off. I had been fortunate to secure what I was told was one of the last free rooms in town for the night. For a hundred bucks, I was the lucky guest in a low-ceilinged room 8’ by 6’ with no bathroom and no air conditioning. As I sat on the single bed, I could feel the rotating fan on the ceiling struggling to slice through the thick dankness of Louisiana.
The size of the room didn’t matter because, for once, I was confident of not being a prisoner in my room. I went downstairs where a buxom black lady with tree-trunk legs sticking out of a skirt that was far too tight and far too short sat behind the desk. She was wearing a bright yellow wig (at least, I assumed it was a wig). I explained that I was only in town for the one night and asked if she could recommend the best places to go. She rather curiously asked me if I was here for decadence, so I shrugged my shoulders and told her that I supposed I was. It seemed a very unfussy way of putting it. She reached behind her and picked up a carrier bag from a pile and told me that I’d be wanting one of those as it contained all the information I could need.
I had replenished my beer supplies at the gas station in St Francisville, so I returned to my room to plan the evening over a leisurely drink. I pulled out the pack from the bag and the top sheet informed me where I could go to get my anus pierced. That sounded decadent all right, perhaps a bit too much so for my tastes. From the rest of the literature, it transpired that every Labor Day weekend New Orleans hosted a festival of Gay Pride and Liberation called “Southern Decadence” and I was here for it.
I went for a wander to see what was going on. I walked out into the street and further down realized why it had been cordoned off. It had been designated as the main meeting place, and what was going on would have been enough to make the most extreme liberal wince. From a distance, it just looked like a mass casting session for The Village People, but as you got up close and walked through it, things became decidedly more intense. Couples snogging was one thing, but openly masturbating each other in public did seem a bit impolite.
The gay concentration became more diluted as I turned into Bourbon Street. The atmosphere was still dissolute, but there were more women and more mixed couples. It was heaving with people who variously crowded to get into bars, restaurants and strip clubs along the way. I pushed my way through for two or three blocks and had reached the point where it was thinning out when a demonstration turned the corner just ahead of me and started marching my way.
It was the Jesus Army who had been shipped in from fundamentalist Alabama. This was no evangelism march though. It was a protest. They were carrying placards which ranged in malevolence from the fairly benign “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” through the confrontational “No you chose to be gay, you liar” to the slightly more controversial “Homosexuals kill your children”. Brotherly love was definitely off the agenda.
I wanted a souvenir and so went into a shop which advertised “Gifts and accessories” outside. It was a fine shop, if you wanted to buy a dildo or a strap-on, but no great shakes for the more traditional present. I found an alternative place, which seemed to stock more the fare I was after. I selected a lobster-claw-shaped oven glove with Louisiana printed on it. As I went to pay at the counter, a young lad came rushing into the store to announce that the gays were having a fight with the Christians outside. The guy who was serving me dropped everything leaving the till drawer half-open, and with a “Hey. I’m wi’ da Christians!” ran out on to the street to join the fray.
I went over to the door, still holding the oven glove. Outside a full-blooded battle was raging. This wasn’t a scuffle, it was a head on fist fight. On the far kerbside a bare-topped man wearing a leather G-string and what looked like a couple of studded dog collars around the tops of his thighs was crouched down shielding his head as someone hit him repeatedly on the back with a placard that read “Jesus hates gays”. I think he might have got the message. He might even have been enjoying it.
Some on both sides were appealing for calm and soon the movement of the crowd down the street made it impossible for the scrap to continue. On the street corner was parked a Louisiana State Police patrol car with a couple of state troopers leaning against its bonnet smoking cigarettes. You got the impression that they had seen it all before and didn’t judge it serious enough to interfere. Or perhaps they just couldn’t be arsed: “Hey bud, bollocks to Protect and Serve. Let’s have another Marlboro”.
After I finally managed to pay for the oven glove, I wandered down to the waterfront. I wanted to see the great old river at its greatest, at its exit to the sea. As I walked along the embankment, a couple of black guys on a nearby bench starting shouting and beckoning me over: “Hey! Them shoes. Wan’ me to tell you where you got them shoes? I’ll tell you where you got them shoes. I bet you twenty dollars I can tell you where you got them shoes.” I smiled and they came up continuing the banter. They asked where I was from and I told them it was London. I’d not agreed to the bet but was confident as I was wearing the trainers I’d bought in New York. “Well, I’ll tell you now where you got them shoes. You got them there on your feet. Am I right? Am I right? That’s twenty dollars. You owe me twenty dollars.”
They’d got me bang to rights. It wasn’t that they’d won any bet, they’d just out-psyched me. They knew I was white, by myself, in a strange town and down by the docks away from the safety of the nearby crowds and they’d accurately calculated that I would consider twenty dollars a price worth paying to avoid the possibility of things turning nasty. With a polite grumble I handed over the money, and they duly took out a Windex spray and gave my trainers a four-second wipe down. “Look it’s better than us robbing or mugging or pimping or selling drugs, ain’t it?” I’d been fleeced, but in about the nicest most roguishly acceptable way.
I returned to Bourbon Street and to a brightly lit corner shop akin to a 7-Eleven. Along the walls was a bank of vats turning over brightly colored drinks that looked like Slush Puppies. I ordered a red one and was given it in a waxed paper cup with a straw. I walked down the street and was surprised to find myself staggering after about three blocks. I had no idea what had gone into the Hurricane drink that I’d just bought, but it sure was having a swift effect. My next stop saw me buying something called a Hand Grenade, at the end of which I was having real difficulty focussing.
I was experiencing a keen need for ballast, so I tracked down what I thought looked like the most authentic local eatery. It had tables on a first floor balcony, and so I was able to have a bird’s-eye view of the street as I ate. The Christians were still marching, the gays were still canoodling and everyone else was still thronging. We had barely reached sundown and the noise from the bands and jukeboxes in the various establishments along the way was deafening.
The waiter was very friendly and obviously a lot more accustomed to foreign visitors than many people whom I’d met previously. The din meant that we had to shout at each other to be heard, but I was able to ask him about the fight. From him I gathered that there was little distinction drawn in the Bible Belt between homosexuals and paedophiles. He seemed unduly shocked when I told him about the police “standing around just smoking fags” but I think it was my choice of vocabulary. To the southern ear, it must have sounded like a surprisingly partisan stance.
After eating, I took to the streets once more and decided to venture into a couple of the strip joints. They were remarkably tame affairs, with a bit of topless dancing going on in the corner while an audience that was primarily middle-aged and of both sexes sat around drinking, largely oblivious to the girls. Despite explicit claims to the contrary outside, there was no full nudity on show but nobody seemed to mind. Some old folks were playing cards. It was one hell of a venue for a whist-drive.
Outside the mayhem had moved up a notch. I lurched from bar to bar, intermittently escaping to the street to nurse my bleeding eardrums and then running back into another to avoid the caresses of the throng outside. Around eleven, thoughts turned to home. The streets were now full of extremely pissed up people, and several were throwing up down side streets. I was glad that I wasn’t in the same predicament as them. I now had a much better conception of what the song House of the Rising Sun was all about. This was one poor boy who didn’t want to meet his ruin that evening. I had the biggest drive of the trip the next day, across Louisiana and half of Texas, and needed to get a good night’s rest.