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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Origin of 'The Howler'

When my friend, Lee, and I first moved to New Orleans in 1991, it was like we had landed on a different planet. I had never been anywhere even remotely like it, and haven't since. It has its own look and feel. Hell, it even has it's own atmosphere. I'm not talking about it's attitude or the personality of the place, I'm saying it had it's own atmosphere. When you enter New Orleans you can feel the very air around you change, not to mention the smell. That's not to say that it's always unpleasant, like the piss and vomit odor that is always present around Bourbon Street (except in the summertime when it smells like piss, vomit and armpits), it's just different. It even has it's own aura; it's never completely dark in New Orleans, at night the sky is a weirdly glowing pink color.

The people who live there are why New Orleans such a wondrous place, but you have to be there for a while and be accepted before you really understand that. New Orleans has the face that tourists and casual visitors see, but when you live there and you get to know some of the characters, you get the feeling that you've been allowed behind the curtains at the world's most bizarre freak show. That's when you start making friends with some of the hustlers and screwballs and you begin to realize that all of them aren't really crazy, sometimes that's just their job. One of my early-morning coffee buddies had, at one time, been a CPA. She was working, during the time that I knew her, as a hooker around the Shrewsbury-Airline Highway area of Metairie. During tax season she would revert back to her old ways and do tax returns for some of her clientele...for a fee. One of the more memorable things that I remember her saying to me was one morning when we were sitting outside drinking our coffee when, out of the blue she said, "I'm so sick of all this fucking coke. I really wish some decent heroin would hit town".  As far as I could tell, there was no response necessary; I couldn't even think of one that qualified. Or like some of those strange, outlandish characters in the French Quarter that you can make donations to and then take their picture or have your picture taken with them. We got to know a couple of them and hung out with them on occasion, and the face paint, masks, beads, baubles and costumes was just their job. They go stand in the French Quarter and let people take pictures of them for money. Then they go home and take off their costumes and have a whole other life that most observers never consider. Some of them make very good money doing this, by the way.
There are characters in New Orleans though, who are far too crazy to be allowed within reach of you and we encountered one that we named 'The Howler'. Our first encounter with The Howler scared the hell right out of us, mostly because it was so shockingly unexpected. We were in Lee's car and had stopped at a traffic light, we had seen the man when we pulled up, he was black, wore dreadlocks, dressed a little scruffy and was carrying a plastic shopping bag. The windows were down and we were just enjoying being where we were at the time and all was right in our world. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an angry scream punched it's way into the interior of the car like a rocket-launched grenade. We both jumped like rabbits and looked at each other like we were trying to figure out which direction to bolt while I scrambled to roll the window up and get some glass between us and this menace. I guess the poor fellow must have been suffering from some fiendish tourettes-like affliction because he just kept standing there yelling and screaming incoherent obscenities in the most frightening way imaginable. The light finally changed and we were able to leave the intersection without further molestation. We continued to see The Howler around town occasionally; always dressed the same, carrying the shopping bag, and always walking down the sidewalk screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs. It was intimidating as hell but we sort of got used to it.
Live music is a huge part of New Orleans life, that city is music. We used to attend every show that we could possibly manage. We went with a group of friends to see a show at the RC Bridge Lounge one night in the middle of the week. There was a pretty large group and everyone split into about five different vehicles to make the trip. We drank and jumped around in the mosh pit and slammed into each other and, in general, had a great time. As the night wound down our group began to filter out. I'm guessing (hoping) that each of my friends who had driven that night assumed that I would be riding with someone else because when the night was over, I was alone. I was drunk, exhausted, sweaty and stranded. I also had to be at work in Metairie at seven o'clock in the morning, which, by this time was only about three-and-a-half hours away. So, I began walking. Let me stop here to give a the reader a description of myself to set the scene. I'm 6'3 and, at the time, weighed around 240 lbs. I had very long hair, which was sweaty and hanging in my face. I imagine that I was sort of an imposing sight, especially in my old army field jacket, jeans, t-shirt and combat boots. So, there I was, walking and thinking about my friends who had left me in this situation. I didn't have enough cash for a cab and it was a fairly long walk across town. At four or five in the morning, New Orleans streets are sometimes still pretty populated so there were a lot of people around. The more I walked and stewed, the madder I got. Before long I was muttering a pretty steady stream of obscenities, punctuated occasionally with a loud, “FUCK!” or “GODDAMMIT!” and I began to notice people shying away on the street ahead of me, giving me nervous looks and refusing eye contact. Couples were crossing the street to avoid me. Then it hit me, “Holy shit! I know what's wrong with The Howler, somebody brought him down here and left him, and he's walking around still pissed-off about it.”

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