Introducing Robert Moulton
Robert Moulton is a writer living in New Orleans. He currently will be featured with his continuing saga of surviving Hurricane Katrina … The Devil’s Slot Machine. Each month a new segment will be added, but the previous segments are available for you to read at your leisure.
To access previous segments of The Devil’s Slot Machine use this link:
October 8, 2017
The Devil’s Slot Machine – Part 15
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Katrina has lost her status as THE Hurricane. The devastating storms of 2017 have seen to that. So I have changed my focus from Katrina as a unique historic phenomenon to remind all that chaos and destruction can be visited upon anyone. Do not send to know for whom the bell tolls….
As I write, the slot machine acquires new relevance as the cone of Irma’s probable landfall drifts westward into the Gulf of Mexico. The Devil is toying with his gears, or punching the levers and flippers of his pinball console if you will. We mortals can only sit back in awe and dread and hope to have the foresight and time to run for our lives if the machine comes up three skulls.
It’s now a day later — Wednesday, September 6. Satan has apparently seen fit to bestow his jackpot upon Miami Beach early Sunday morning, although it is a bit too early to pinpoint landfall. However a cold front has pushed through to the Gulf of Mexico. There is now almost no chance of Irma hitting New Orleans. Again the conflict between relief and guilt as I feel shame at endorsing Florida’s misfortune. Crushing depression crept in as Florida looked to be eviscerated by a knife thrust up the gut. But Irma’s time over the north Cuban coast has weakened it; the impact has likely weakened from catastrophic to widespread damage. Chance, or providence if you will, seems to have intervened on Florida’s behalf. I urge you to think of Florida and Houston as you read. Shared experience equals shared humanity.
And now Maria has wreaked utter devastation upon Puerto Rico … An island of over 3 million people deprived of electricity and running water. The total destruction may surpass that done to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Katrina. If I can help the reader empathize with the hardships of the people of Puerto Rico I have done my job.
To return to my trials in 2005…. Having made almost no money without a cab radio, I made it to the radio shop as soon as it opened Monday morning. The familiar theme was evident — a collection of struggling individuals, each with his own story, handling the chaos in his own way. Mike Jamieson, the stronger half of the radio shop partnership was long and lean and muscular, active yet patient and practical. His partner Dave had seen better days — his hair and beard had grown long and ragged and his teeth jagged. He mumbled on about getting evicted. The young lady who served as clerical help/receptionist had a baby who bounced enthusiastically in a baby jumper behind her. So stress tempers some and destroys others, as one-life falters another grows.
Gene was there with his old runnin’ partner and rogue about town Johnny Funk. They spoke with the easy drawling familiarity of the New Orleans streets, a speech that sounds like Brooklynese softened with a Cajun patois. Gene spoke smoothly as a man of substance, Johnny with a raspy gravelly voice that betrayed too many cigarettes and too much alcohol. Johnny was a short stout, gnomish man as befitted his outlandish temperament. They traded genial insults; Gene derided Johnny as ‘Funkball’ and Johnny muttered of Gene’s unsavory connections and ill-gotten wealth. I would get to know their voices very well over radio dispatch in the coming months. I purchased the least expensive hand-held radio available; I was chronically short of funds and wanted to make sure that the investment paid for itself. I was eager to cash in on my new investment when Steve picked me up that afternoon.
It was s surge of new hope, crazy busy like I had never seen it. You’d get a call from some obscure neighborhood like Black Pearl, you’d think the guy was going to Bourbon Street and it would be a run to Baton Rouge. The closest fully operational blood center was in Hammond and the bare bones blood center on Tulane Avenue would send us on a $90 run to Hammond…So the roller coaster of our lives careened skyward. It was a strange fearless time alternating between despair and exaltation. I needed money too badly to be picky about my fares. That turned out to be no problem. The gangbangers came from very poor neighborhoods, and they lacked the money and resources to make it back. Even neighborhoods with the most fearsome reputations were completely safe. The criminals had all been blown out-of-town. But other dangers lay hidden. Without electricity the city gave the driver no lights to guide me, it was hard to discern what exactly lurked among the spectral shapes of houses and trees. Occasionally teeth rattling, axle-bending potholes reminded me of my peril. The Schnurrer was in markedly better spirits when he handed over the car every afternoon … 6 or 7 lucrative hours was decidedly congenial to his lackadaisical and hedonistic disposition.
Gene remained the nerve center of it all. He was never without his hand-held, dispatching from the office, from his car. In the post Katrina battle for survival he was at once strategist and tactician, leading from both headquarters and the field. The radio system was improvised, not a strict 2 way radio where only the dispatcher could hear the driver. This could get awkward when the passenger over heard the backchat from the drivers, but it generated a sense of community. The process of simultaneously driving and rebuilding our lives was exhausting and discouraging and the ad hoc community of White Fleet drivers gave us a needed support network of peers. Who else could know the chaos and craziness that we endured?
Craziness indeed. We had a particularly hapless driver from Pakistan, Mohammed by name (what else?). The guy had a thick South Asian accent that particularly enhanced his air of cluelessness. He also bore a striking resemblance to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. (If only he had Musharraf’s money and power.). We communicated almost exclusively by our radio call numbers and I will always remember his distinctive voice in the night–ONE FOUR SE-E-E-K-S!! (Six) White Fleet has a rule that the driver must be within 10 minutes of the customer when he takes a call. Alas, our worthy son of Pakistan had no conception of the geography of the city. He drove the dispatcher and occasionally the other drivers to distraction. He was hungry and eager and snapped at anything that was offered. For instance, he would cut for a load in New Orleans East when he reported for work in Kenner….
— Man, what you talkin’ about? You FORTY FIVE MINUTES away. At least….
Our Pakistani Latka provided all us with the unquestioned highlight of our post Katrina experience. As I recall he was supposed to pick up somewhere just upriver from the tracks In the Faubourg Marigny. He cruised up and down the Upper 9th Ward, getting more and more helpful suggestions along the way. With much palaver back and forth we got him to North Robertson and Franklin.
— Now turn towards the river!
— Where’s the river?
Um-m, which way is the sky? Although 146 provided us with much-needed comic relief, there was no malice in our treatment of him. He was our mascot, or more specifically our kid brother — you may tease him unmercifully, but woe betide any one outside the family who messes with him. I got to know him better later on. He is an intelligent responsible man who was simply overwhelmed by an alien language and culture. His kids have done very well in school and they are well on their way to careers in the professions.
If I may wax philosophical, the example of foreign taxi drivers is highly instructive. Here are people from all over the world, plunked down in a country with language and customs they do not understand, who nevertheless manage to make their way through life. It is oddly comforting, anti Darwinian if you will. If these guys can make it, how hard can life be?
Gene soldiered on. Steve would get up at 6 AM, and Gene was on the radio. I went to bed at 10 PM, Gene was on the radio. He was doing the work of three men — administration, driving and dispatching. Four men, if you count the work of putting his life back in order. Throw in type 2 diabetes … Gene was trying to cheat nature. Nature struck back. One afternoon he announced that he was cutting his shift short to go to spend a night in the hospital. I called him on his cell (a number I still have committed to memory) and urged him to take it easy — “We need you.” He emerged again on the radio the next morning, apparently OK. But shortly afterwards Johnny Funk and others started taking afternoon and evening shifts. It was no longer a one-man show. Dispatching shifts was another small step towards a return to normality.
Halloween has always been big in New Orleans — a sort of mini Mardi Gras that ushers in the late fall/winter Carnival season. I took an order that was booked in advance for 6:30 on Beresford Drive in Metairie, Halloween night. This is a nouveau riche, McMansion sort of neighborhood off of Airline Drive, hard by the Metairie Country Club. One of those places devoid of elegance and soul. It was dusk when I picked up the fare — a Tulane med school resident and her date. She was all tarted up to go slumming on Halloween. My interest perked up. This is an old New Orleans tradition —the elite mask to party with the hoi polloi in the French Quarter. We exchanged the usual Katrina stories and it was all but dark when I dropped them off on Conti and Bourbon. They got my phone number so I could be sure to get home after the nights festivities. The old-time Halloween spirit glimmered on Bourbon Street. Outlandish, often risqué costumes, the body painted boobies, the ancient and honored tradition of bead barter — it was all there, if in diminished form. Since almost every one had been drinking and there was a shortage of cabs, I did well that night. After taking the medical resident and her date safely back to Metairie, I got what proved to be last fare of the night. My lawyer was drunk on Bourbon Street and needed a ride home. He kept calling back every two minutes, demanding and pushy as lawyers are apt to be. When he got in the car I could see that he was well in his cups — his head lolling against the car door. His house in Lakeview was trashed and he had sold it — got out. He was now renting a house in the Bonnabel neighborhood in Metairie. As I watched him stagger out of the car it occurred to me that we had a reciprocal relationship. He took care of me for my traffic indiscretions and I took care of him after his alcohol indiscretion. Fair enough.
All told I was heartened by Halloween. It was the first clear indication that the social fabric of the city held, that its traditions survived. And the reconnection with my lawyer was yet another welcome sign of continuity.
Copyright © 2017 Robert Moulton
September 29, 2017
Gram to Me
Gram’s music always had a special hold on me — Hickory Wind and later, In My Hour of Darkness. The nostalgia, the poignancy, the regret, the vulnerability, it all spoke to me directly. I spent the first 10 years of my life in Baton Rouge, climbing trees, wading through swamps and pretending to chase the snakes that terrified me. Then I moved north to the bleak chill of Connecticut winters. I was a restless and irresponsible young man, and the Hickory Wind called me home when my restlessness led me far afield to places I did not belong. Or when my self-indulgent ways messed it up with the girl I was seeing at the time. Change ‘South Carolina’ to ‘South Louisiana’ and there you have it.
I recognized In My Hour of Darkness as a stark mournful and resonant hymn when it came out shortly after Gram’s death in 1973. But I had yet to experience my own darkness, to savor the full meaning of the hymn. I began to fully comprehend the darkness during the evacuation from Hurricane Gustav in 2008. My wife asked me to sing to liven things up. Gram’s words came easily:
Once I knew a young man went drivin’ through the night
Miles and miles without a word, just his high beam lights
Although I was 59 at the time, the image of driving alone through the darkness hit me as I was running for my life in the night. And of course:
In my hour of darkness, in my hour of need
Oh Lord grant me vision, oh lord grant me speed
My wife wanted me to sing something ‘peppy’
–Peppy? You want I should sing something peppy during a HURRICANE evacuation?
A few years later the full terrible meaning of the Hour of Darkness came when my wife died of throat cancer. Gram has always been my solace.
Later when I learned of Gram’s life, I was stunned by how closely his life paralleled my own. Gram’s maternal grandfather was a citrus magnate who owned half of Central Florida; my maternal grandfather was a bigwig at Cargill Grain who owned a dairy farm and extensive properties in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Gram’s father was immensely popular in high school and went on to study aeronautical engineering; my father was President of his high school class among many other honors and became a chemical engineer. But the parallels only go so far.
Gram’s family was consumed by alcoholism and deep Southern Gothic darkness. His father committed suicide 2 days before Christmas when Gram was 12(Christmas is hard on alcoholics.) His mother drank herself to death by the time he graduated high school. My own parents were stable sober Midwestern Methodists who lived to the ages of 88 and 93. I was a difficult child, but they gave me that priceless rock of stability. And while I am handy with words and a some time poet, honesty commands me to state that I am far beneath one of the great songwriters of our time, or any time. Perhaps part of Gram’s greatness lies in his surrender to the darkness. He allowed himself to languish in realms that produced lyrics of surpassing pathos, and he paid the price.
Copyright © 2017 Robert Moulton