New Orleans after dark

Nighttime is not the right time to be out in the French Quarter, as I learned with a cop's gun pointed at my head.

Published September 15, 2005 12:14AM (EDT)

Because of the closeness of buildings and the narrowness of streets in the French Quarter, the morning light weeps down Spanish and French façades, lasting only minutes before evaporating into the afternoon. This morning, as the light recedes, so do the homeless people, who can be seen skulking through the shadows. Like the guy with a cane, who stood outside my door just minutes after the worst of Katrina had passed, somehow dry, asking me for a cigarette. Over a storefront, a Ripley's Believe or Not sign swings in a gust of wind.

Now, the homeless huddle in dark entryways, eating out of cups, content, for once, to have the city all to themselves. Even the rats are gone (all drowned, so we hear).

I have been spending my days interviewing and writing about the remaining people in the Quarter. Venturing out at night, though, is a dangerous proposition, as the streets are patrolled by police and National Guard units, hunting for looters, or worse.

On Monday night, my girlfriend Ellen and I needed to get some photos off to Salon, and my apartment is the only place we know of with an Internet connection. Problem was, we were staying on St. Peter Street in a commune, my apartment was six blocks away, and it was three hours after curfew. But it'd been a week since we'd heard gunshots and we'd been watching media SUVs rolling past every night, so we figured we'd give it a go.

I threw a couple gallons of water into the busted radiator of my flame-painted, '86 Monte Carlo SS, and we drove real slow down the six blocks to the Mississippi River, across from which my apartment stands. I'd barely turned off the ignition when a car screeched around the corner, its spotlight drowning our vision.

"Driver of the car, place your hands outside of the door window. Passenger, place your hands outside of the door window."

We poked our hands out the windows.

I watched the rearview mirror as a cop approached each side of the car, crouching slightly, guns aimed at us.

"Driver, get out."

We both got out.

"Put your hands on the vehicle!"

I did. Ellen hesitated, tried to shield her eyes for a second.

"Put your hands on top of the vehicle!"

She did.

They patted us down, then told us to slide our hands down to the trunk.

"Do you have any drugs or firearms?" asked one officer, who looked like a mustachioed umpire in his black bulletproof vest.

"No sir," I said. "You can search it if you want."

"I am going to search this car." he responded.

He began tearing through the books, magazines, empty bottles and other trash piled in my back seat. Meanwhile, the other cop handcuffed Ellen and me together and made us sit on the curb.

When the first officer had finished rearranging my back seat, he fingered through my keys to get in the trunk.

"It's the small oval one," I told him.

My trunk's a bit like your grandmother's attic. It's full of things I'd long forgotten about or even knew existed -- a bunny suit, a Santa Claus suit, charcoal, running shoes, a half-full bottle of Amaretto, and a biography of Max Perkins. When he found a couple boxes of Scat Magazine, he yanked out an issue and held it up to my face. "How'd you get this?" he asked.

"Um, I'm an assistant editor," I said.

"Who's the publisher?"


He tossed the magazine back in my trunk and looked me in the eye. "You're OK," he said. "They're OK," he yelled to his partner. "Mario's my best friend."

He shut the trunk. Mario was Elena's cousin.

"I know Mario," said Ellen in elation, still handcuffed next to me. "How is he?"

"He took off to Tallahassee before the storm." The cop proceeded to give us a report of Mario's goings-on in the past couple of weeks. I interrupted to ask if someone might unlock the handcuffs at some point. The other officer took care of that, and handed me my keys. After another few minutes of Ellen and the cop exchanging Mario gossip, the cop said he'd give us an escort back to our commune on St. Peter. I was about to drive off when the mustachioed cop came back to Ellen's window.

"Did you hear they pushed the wedding back to last Saturday?"

"Oh no, really, I was wondering what they were going to do because of the storm," Ellen said. "Well, you give him a big hug from Ellen and Josh."

"Ellen and Josh. Got it. All right, you be safe."

With that, he went back to his car and escorted us across Jackson Square and up St. Peter Street.

"Don't know any of Elena's cousins, myself," I said.

"Neither do I," said Ellen.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Joshua Clark

Joshua Clark is the editor of Light of New Orleans Publishing.

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