by Storey Clayton

Summer Thursday.  Maybe 1:30 in the morning.  I am summoned by my Uber app to one of two tattoo parlors on Frenchmen Street, the two-and-a-half-block stretch of authentic New Orleans music clubs just outside the Quarter.  I settle in to wait for my rider(s) to emerge.

Frenchmen Street is what people imagine Bourbon Street to be before they’ve actually visited New Orleans, what Bourbon Street allegedly was like twenty years ago.  It’s full of live music:  jazz clubs, rock clubs, and dance clubs all nestled against each other off a narrow, intimate street strung with balconies and neon.  Each night, a brass band or electronic music group arrives around ten or eleven to play on one of the corners, free, amassing a crowd of over a hundred to fill the intersection and make street traffic nearly impossible.  Soon after, the trucks and trailers descend with barbequing equipment to grill up po’boys and fresh meat for the hungry crowds.

I rarely pick up an unhappy customer on Frenchmen.  Most of them are enthralled and elated by the night they’ve just had, in one club or drifting between several, soaking up the vibrant musical scene and pulsating soulful rhythm of the city they’ve dreamt of.  Local bands invite people they see and know in the audience up on stage to jam, crowds spill out onto the sidewalks as clubs fill up, revelers pause in the street to take in the stars watching over this glorious, joyful night.  The heart of New Orleans is fed by Frenchmen Street, even as locals complain it’s already becoming Bourbon:  too many tourists, too many homeless, the hustle is on its way from corporations and con-men alike.  They remember when Frenchmen was cool, just the Spotted Cat keeping watch over an empty street, something you had to be in the know to know.  Now that honor falls to the Maple Leaf, on Oak Street, clear on the other side of town, too far from the Quarter to ever really catch fire.

A standard interaction I have with pickups on Bourbon Street, so common I can predict the words by heart, goes like this:

“How was your night?”

“Eh.  Okay.”

“Not what you were expecting?”

“It’s just so… touristy here.  Trashy.  I thought New Orleans was different.

“I know what you mean.  It’s like the never-ending frat party from hell.”

Laughter, between rueful and uproarious, depending on the audience.  “That’s exactly it.”

“Have you been to Frenchmen Street yet?”

“Frenchmen?  What’s that?  Like the French Quarter?”

“Just outside it.  It’s the New Orleans you’re looking for.”

“Really?”

“Really.  Two and a half blocks of wall-to-wall jazz clubs.  But not just jazz.  Live music, busy, seven nights a week, but with a more mature crowd than here.”

And then the final line depends on what time it is and how tired my riders are and how much time they have left in the city.  It ranges from “Can we go there now?” to “Will they be busy tomorrow?” to “I can’t believe I have to be at the airport in an hour.”  Meanwhile, I know that every local from the old guard, when Bourbon was Frenchmen and Frenchmen was the Maple Leaf and the Maple Leaf was nowhere, is cursing me right now for sharing the open secret with one more person not from here.  One more set of feet to stand behind in the next line on Friday night.

But tonight is not Friday.  It’s Thursday.  Frenchmen is in full throttle.  To be fair, as long as it’s not raining and not the dead middle of summer, Frenchmen is in full throttle on Sunday night, Monday night, even Tuesday night.  It’s a well loved place.

Three riders approach my car.  Two guys and a girl, all in their late twenties.  One of the guys appears to be holding the other one up, physically, but they could just be close.  When the held-up one thuds against the car door, I know it’s worse than that.

They open doors, descend into seats.  The girl sits up front.  The thudder is in the back right, vaguely diagonal to the seat.  It’s going to be one of those rides.  I resolve to always be ready to pull over at a moment’s notice.

“Can we make a couple of stops?” the girl asks tentatively.

“Of course,” I reply, eyeing the semicognizant fellow in my central rear-view mirror.  “Is the address that’s in there the first stop or the last one?”

 She bites her lip and looks into the back seat.  “That’s me, so, uh, the first one?”

“You got it.”

It’s fifteen minutes across town, requiring some freeway.  I start accelerating.  I’m about to ask how their night was when our least conscious companion volunteers the following blurted question, as though he’d just burst into the room in a comic book:

“Guys, guys, why does my ass hurt?”

Short of alarmed, his two fellow riders burst into unrestrained laughter.  The speaker is not amused.

“My ass hurts!  I’m serious, guys, why does my ass hurt?”

“You don’t remember?” the guy in the back asks in a tone I can detect as facetious, but our drunk friend cannot.

“No, I don’t.  It really hurts!  What happened?”

“You got a tattoo!” squeals the young woman up front between chortles.

“A tattoo?”  This seems to give Blitzen pause.  “A tattoo of what?”

“Your girlfriend’s name!” howls the guy behind my head.

“Sally?  My ass says Sally?”  He pauses in brief horror.  “Did I ask her first?  What did she say?”

It’s clear that I am not currently sitting next to Sally, which, after all, was not the name on the account for the ride, though it did bear a female name.  “You didn’t ask her!” Not-Sally notes after a deep intake of breath.

“Ohmygod.  Really?  Are you shitting me?  But it really hurts!”

“Do you want to check it?”

The pained subject reaches a hand down the back of his pants and digs around a bit.  I have to imagine he’s feeling the raw contour of letters newly adorning his skin.  Or maybe there’s just a big bandage there and his horrified imagination fills in the gaps.  I do, after all, have my eyes predominantly on the road.

“She’s going to like it, right?  You think she’ll like it?”

“I dunno, man,” the sober guy says.  “She’s not really a tattoo kind of girl.”

Silence reigns for a moment as the amusement subsides slightly and the freshly punctured passenger hiccups and lets his head hit the window.  It’s like there’s a small reset button where his hair hit the glass.

A beat.

“Guys, guys, my ass hurts!”

I blink.  He sounds like a new man.  Or, more accurately, a man unaware that the last two minutes of conversation have transpired.  He seems to have just discovered his posterior pain.

“Seriously, guys, why does my ass hurt?  What happened?”

Laughter retakes the car.

“What’s funny?  My ass really hurts!”

 “You, you—you got a tattoo!”

“On my ass?  Seriously?  Of what?”

This conversation, with mild variations in diction and tone, repeats three more times on the freeway.  As we exit during one of the amnesiac resets, the guy in the back confides the following to me in a stage-whispered aside:

“We really didn’t think the tattoo place would let him get a tattoo.  He was so far gone, you know?  We thought they’d stop it.”

“Yeah,” I say, noting mentally that this seems more likely to be their role as friends and not the tattoo parlor’s role as a commercial agency offering permanent solutions to temporary problems.  One of these entities seems more likely to have the gentleman’s best interests in mind.  I am considering how to put this delicately or if I should just let the admonition go when my thinking is interrupted by, you guessed it—

“Guys, guys, my ass hurts!  Why does my ass hurt?”

It is a minor miracle that two rounds later, after dropping off the initial ride requester, Sally’s lover can manage to mutter “Pull over” in the midst of his seventh revelation that something has caused his rear end discomfort.  I know those three syllables and I don’t have to ask for a clarification.

He flings open the back door and the telltale sound of retching follows, the convulsive pre-heave, the splatter of digested contents on the patch of grass between curb and sidewalk.  There are almost as many heaves as retellings of his fanny’s fate that night.  The other remaining rider chooses this moment to tell me to redirect the ride.

“You know how we’re going to the Hampton Inn?”

“Yeah,” I say, reflexively glancing away from the vomiting man to check my mounted phone.

 “Are there any.  Are there any bars around there?”

He can’t be serious.  “You’re in New Orleans.”

“That’s a yes, right?”

“Definitely.  But, uh,” I make eye contact with the guy in the mirror and raise my eyebrows in the direction of the unholy sounds coming through the open door.  “Your friend?”

“Oh, he’ll be fine.”

“He.  He will?  He seems kind of, uh.  Not fine?”

“Boot and rally, right?”

My mind briefly flashes to a debate teammate in my care during my junior year in college, one who’d just graced the floor of a party with his own halfhearted imitation of the outpouring now underway.  He was the last person I’d heard sincerely use that phrase.  I recall the unreasonability of drunkenness, the utter irrationality of the influence.  Maybe he insisted on the tattoo against their protestation and the last hope of rejection was the person holding the needle.  I recall another friend and a whole bottle of red wine at a wedding and watching the vomit come out, pure grapey purple, unfettered by food or even bile, into a gas station trashcan.

I’m back in the current moment, blinking away the memories.  The vomiter is poking his head back in the vehicle, which makes me very nervous.

“Sorry about this, man,” he offers me.

“No worries.  Take your time.  Make, uh.  Make sure you get it all out.”

“Yeah, I think I, uh –” he interrupts himself to take my advice, mercifully out the door again.

A couple minutes pass while he sits over the pile of profusion, breathing heavily, then more steadily.  He then takes slow deliberate steps to reseat himself in the back, grab his seatbelt (previously unused throughout the ride), click it carefully and rub his face.

“You okay?” his friend asks quietly.

“Yeah, I think so.”  And then a look of terror crosses his face.  “But there’s something wrong!”

“Let me guess,” his friend interrupts, deadpan.  “Your ass hurts?”

The terror triples on his visage.  “How did you know?!

Minutes later, I will deposit them, against my better judgment but in ultimate compliance with their mutually expressed desire, at a bar near their hotel.  I will give halfhearted directions, upon request, for how to walk along St. Charles Avenue back to the hotel, knowing they will need a forklift to make the walk successfully.

This will, almost immediately, become my most told story about Uber driving, the one I supply on demand as people ask for the most entertaining or crazy thing I’ve seen in my late-night wanderings across the Crescent City.  I don’t know if it’s truly the most entertaining or the craziest, but it’s a definite crowd-pleaser.

About halfway through the ride, during maybe the fourth revelation, the blackout drunk tried to call Sally.  Not-Sally physically wrestled the phone out of his hand.  And thus I was deprived of knowing, in the moment, what Sally’s reaction actually was.  I like to think of this as a heartwarming story on the journey to the happy marriage of Sally and the Upchucker.  But, deep down, we all probably prefer to think about the first woman after Sally to see the guy’s ass.

Storey Clayton is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. He’s worked as a youth counselor, debate coach, strategic analyst, development director, rideshare driver, and poker player. His work is forthcoming in Barely South Review and Blood & Bourbon and recently appeared in Riggwelter, Eunoia Review, and Montana Mouthful. You can learn more about Storey at his personal website, The Blue Pyramid (bluepyramid.org). 

(tagged: personal essay)

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