As If Hell Were A Real Place – first chapter of The Donkey Show (McSweeney’s. 2001).


This week I started working a busboy job on world-famous Bourbon Street. It’s the first time I’ve worked since three and a half months ago, when I quit my job at the newspaper in Tampa, sold my truck and took off for Costa Rica to get stoned, swim in the ocean, chase gorgeous Latin prostitutes and write for six hours a day. I was living my ideal life, the one I’ve dreamt of. Coming off of that dream and back into the nightmare of scraping half-eaten mashed potatoes off of tourists’ dirty plates feels degrading and soul-curdling.

To get to work, I have to ride my bike through the hood, in the heat, which is far worse than Florida, and arguably hotter than the rainforest of Costa Rica. I sweat worse than I ever have. At 1 a.m., the air is barely cooler and no less humid, and I fear for my life on the ride home. New Orleans is notoriously rough, though I haven’t seen direct evidence of it. Everyday I hear another senseless crime story that leads me to conclude that it’s only a matter of time before I’m shot off my $89 Huffy Men’s Comfort Cruiser.

The worst is when my chain falls off my bike. A couple of weeks ago, as I pounded the pavement looking for a job I didn’t really want, my chain fell off every few blocks. I showed up at every job interview sweaty, with oily hands, as if I went down a water slide and then performed a brake job on a VW bus. I’ve since tweaked the chain so that it only falls off every twelve blocks, and with so much practice, I’ve become fast and efficient enough at hooking it back up that I somehow manage not to get my hands dirty. I don’t know how I can grab the chain and not get my hands filthy; it feels like a religious miracle.

Regardless, it’s still terrifying to have to get down on my knees and fiddle with tiny gears at 1 a.m. in a neighborhood where one person is killed every day. If there are people haunting the sidewalk when the chain falls off I keep pedaling freewheel with no chain, pretending everything’s okay, just to trick them, to make them think nothing’s wrong, that I’m not a wounded animal ready to be eaten, until I can coast far enough away, hide behind some dumpster, fix it and get out.

At the restaurant there’s a small oven where we busboys bake, for twenty seconds, garlic bread, to bring out as appetizers for our esteemed patrons. Helping me operate the oven is a twenty-four-year-old black kid named Duwayne, who punctuates every sentence with, “You dig?” He’s a sweet kid, but he spits out a lot of sentences. Duwayne recently started believing in God and reading the Bible, so as I’m heating up garlic bread for people who have no problem paying $6.75 for a bottle of Coors Light and then throwing away a whole, uneaten redfish filet, Duwayne tells me about God. My first night on the job he regaled me with the story of Noah’s Ark as if he’d only recently heard it for the first time. He explained every tedious detail to me and since he’s so nice I couldn’t tell him to shut up. I just listened, thinking, “And how old are you?” I did learn that after the Ark was full, the doors were so big that only God could shut them, and that He came down Himself and closed the doors for Noah. I like that image, the huge hands of God slamming shut the giant doors.

Duwayne’s scared of Hell as if it were a real place, and he tells me about the things he’s doing and avoiding so he doesn’t end up there. One time, as he talked about God and Hell while pulling some garlic bread out of the oven, he burned himself and yelled, “Ouch!” and then turned to me and said, “Man, if this is hot, I can only imagine Hell. You dig?”

The rest of the staff is mostly black guys, which I like because Florida was so segregated. The staff offers a pretty good illustration of race relations in New Orleans; half the black dudes are the sweetest, friendliest, most good-natured people I’ve worked alongside, much nicer than most of the stiff, white jerks I worked with at the paper in Tampa. But the other half either ignore me as if I’m dead, stare me down as if they wish I were dead, or bully me as if they might eventually help me be dead.

Then there’s Bourbon Street. I was told before I moved here that Bourbon Street would be deserted in the summer, but every night outside the windows of the restaurant there’s a constant wave of the worst kind of people, staggering, barely holding on to their plastic cups of beer, puking, pissing. Outside of New Orleans people assume this behavior is limited to Mardi Gras, that the idiots descend when the weather cools, but in fact the season runs year-round. Men go down to Bourbon on any night of any week during any month and buy beads at the corner souvenir shop and then walk around, baiting and begging women to lift their shirts in exchange for a plastic necklace.

Meanwhile the staff inside the restaurant tries with all their might to manufacture some illusion of elegance. As the sun sets, the crowd outside doubles in size. It’s distracting to try and pour water and serve bread and clean and set tables while flocks of people migrate by the windows. It makes me seasick.

When it’s dark and the sky ceases to change, time seems to stop. Eating a breath mint seems to serve the purpose of “something to do as we wait to go home,” as in, “Well, the mint is gone, how long did it take? How much time did it burn to eat that thing? How much closer am I to going home?” It’s at these moments, while I wait anxiously to pull tiny loaves of bread out of a small oven, that I realize there’s plenty of proof that Duwayne’s Hell is real.

Saturday night, as I stood by the scorching oven, my boss came into the kitchen to get some bread for himself. He reached for the tongs in my hand and said, “Let me see that tong.” At which point I burst into song, singing, “Let me see that tong, tong, tong!” The humorless bastard didn’t even smile. Later, the same night, when, for a second, I managed to muster the tiniest glee it takes to whistle, my boss told me, “Whistling is prohibited in the dining room.” Duwayne heard everything, and we came a hair’s breadth from talking each other into just walking out and never coming back. But I have to pay rent in a few days. I’m at the mercy of all of this.

– – – –

To complicate matters, yesterday my parents visited. They drove up in a rented van from Ft. Myers, Florida to bring me my stuff. As testimony to how wrong things have been between me and my parents, consider that my mother’s last words to me before I left Florida were, “I hate you, you little son of a bitch. You’re the worst disappointment of my life.” Over the course of my first week in my new home, they called up and left happy messages on my answering machine, as if it never happened. I know they don’t mean it and that they’re just simple-minded farm people with bad tempers and sloppy mouths, but needless to say, I didn’t want them to come up and visit me.

When they called and left messages that they were coming up anyway, I didn’t call them back and hoped they’d get the hint. They called a bunch of times, the last few times threatening not to bring me my stuff, and really, I would have rather slept on the bare floor of my furniture-less apartment than see them. I’m sick of their temper tantrums. I’m sick of forgiving them without ever hearing an apology. They raised me to throw temper tantrums, and I grew up to yell at my ex-girlfriend Carrie and torture her with the same behavior they torture me with. Of course, Carrie was as screwed up and mean as my parents and I, but maybe I could have calmed her instead of antagonizing her and making everything worse.

Anyway, yesterday, it was gorgeous, and the afternoon was relatively cool. I was sitting outside, at the peaceful little coffeehouse across the street from my house, typing on my laptop, when I heard my name being called. My parents had arrived. Something inside of me allowed me to be happy to see them. We unloaded the van. I got all my music stuff back, my guitars, my xylophone, and the paintings of drunks slouched in corners that my friend Marcus gave me before he left for New York. My parents told me they loved my place etc. Then I asked them to drive down to Magazine Street to pick up a couch I’d paid for but hadn’t been able to transport home. We all climbed into the van. We were all smiling.

Traffic freaks my dad out. A couple of years ago, my parents got in a big wreck, and now he operates a car as if death were around every corner. He slams on the brakes whenever he even sees another car on the road. So it scared him to drive here with all the crazy tourists, and to make it worse, he was counting on me to direct him, when I hardly know my way around. He was getting pretty wound up. When he started cursing, which is unlike him, I became scared that he was going to scare himself into wrecking, so I said, “Dad, easy on the cussing.”

At that he blew up, yelling at me, “Don’t you fucking tell me how to fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fucker fucker! You, you son of a bitch. Fuck! fucker!”

I kept my mouth shut. He quieted. Then he started again. “Fuck you!” Then he stopped. Then he started. “Don’t you fucking tell me!” Then stopped. When he started again, I opened the van door and got out. Walking fast in flip-flops is hard, so I took them off and walked faster. When I was a block away, my mom called to me out the window of the van, but I just waved them on, thinking of poor Carrie and how my parents taught me to take my anger and frustration out on those I love. No more. No more ever. I walked and sweated and stopped in a bar. Since it’s not cool to ask for change unless you buy something and since you can walk anywhere you want in New Orleans with a glass of alcohol, I bought a beer to go, and got change for the bus. Standing at the bus stop drinking my beer, I slipped my feet back into my flip-flops and realized that the asphalt was so hot I’d burned the bottoms of my feet. They were covered with boiling, water-filled blisters.

When I got home my parents were waiting for me at the coffeehouse across the street. I tried to sneak into my apartment, but they saw me and followed me over. As they knocked on the door outside, I was sitting on the living room floor calmly returning e-mails. I didn’t answer their knocking. I stayed calm and ignored them. I will not participate. I am not an animal. They want a fight. I don’t. I want peace, forever. After a half-hour of my ignoring their knocks, they eventually left and drove the thirteen hours back to Florida.

– – – –

A couple of hours later I rode my bike to my job. It was hot and yes, the chain fell off. When I arrived, I ran upstairs to the bathroom to wipe away the sweat and change into my busboy monkey suit — black pants, tuxedo shirt, black vest, maroon bow tie and stiff black shoes. As I tied and buttoned and fastened things, elevator jazz played through the broken bathroom speakers, distorting and overdriving and transforming even the worst, most tepid light jazz, into insane, manic beauty. The crazy music echoed off the bathroom tiles, and I turned myself into a busboy. At that moment, after such a day, it was the best music I’d ever heard.

As I bent down to slide on the shoes, I came eye level with another, identical pair of black wingtips under the bathroom stall — another employee, taking a dump. The smell of his shit wafted out and hit me in the face. Right as I gagged and hurried to get my shoes on, whoever it was in the stall asked me, “It’s like a tradition, huh?”

What he meant was: It’s too hot to wear our monkey suits on the way to the restaurant so all the employees, when they arrive, show up in plain clothes and change in the bathroom with the distorted jazz. But with that smell hitting me in the face his question seemed to say: shit in my face, everything shitty, everything smelling like shit and being shit, it’s a tradition, huh?

Regardless of his intended meaning, I chuckled and said to whoever it was, “Yes.” I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked good all dressed up. Clean. Being at work, it didn’t seem as bad right then. I spent the next seven hours on my blistered feet, surprisingly happy, but suppressing my whistle.

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