Jazz Fest Friday, 3 AM. Second weekend. One of the busiest times of the year, falling somewhere below Mardi Gras, Halloween, and arguably St. Patrick’s Day, but above most other festivals and happenings that dot the landscape of New Orleans’ social calendar. Jazz Fest is not, primarily, jazz music, instead attracting some of the largest rock acts in the world, including (this year alone) Dave Matthews, Tom Petty, Stevie Wonder, and Maroon 5. Thousands descend on New Orleans from all over, but this year they mostly seemed to come from the Bay Area. Having lived seven years in Oakland and Berkeley myself, I have a lot to chat about with folks from the Bay. It seems like they have most of the money to spend in contemporary America – on travel, housing, and everything else. Though our primary discussion topic tends to be how expensive it is to live in the Bay Area.
I’m on the West Bank, having deposited recent Jazz Festers from the Bay in their hotel on the south side of the river. It being a Jazz Fest Friday, my rides have been queuing up all night, one after the next, so I’m called to a random address near the Harvey Canal that bisects the West Bank. I pull up, under the high arc of the bridge that crosses the Canal, a pillared bridge that ascends altogether too high (95 feet) for the meager offering of water it transcends. Indeed, the entire US highway, locally known as the Westbank Expressway, stands elevated at a height well above what seems necessary to offer safe passage above the canal.
To my right is a razor-wired fence, behind which is an automotive shop, lit up from every angle but looking deserted. I am dubious that my riders are at Tek Automotive and after two minutes send them a text confirming this location. I can’t imagine where we are even near that could be the actual pickup spot, so I’m half expecting a night-owl grease-monkey to emerge from the shop when I get the reply text. They are, apparently, at Tunnel Club, a place I’ve never heard of. I plug it into my map app and learn it’s around the corner.
The Tunnel Club is a new place, so named for its proximity to the Harvey Tunnel, the original way to get around the canal before they built the oversized bridge. The bridge was completed in 1984; the tunnel in 1954. Before that, presumably, one had to caulk the wagon and float across the canal.
Two very large guys paired with two extremely small women are standing outside the club. The size differential here is both comprehensive and comical: the guys are both extremely tall and overweight; the women both short and underweight. They start to pile in, the guys giving the car the standard skeptical once-over I’m used to for the Versa Note before its TARDIS-like interior is revealed. I confirm their name as they enter and one of the guys introduces himself and then one of the women as his sister. I’m confused at first, because the couples seemed to be romantically engaged, but it becomes clear before long that the siblings are with each of their spouses. And shortly thereafter that one of these spouses is Not Okay.
It seems like standard-issue drunkenness at first. She is eerily quiet in stark contrast to the other three’s boisterous, almost celebratory fervor. They are on their way to eat at a late-night spot, the Wego Inn, in Westwego, salivating as they discuss the foods that await them. Not a peep from Quiet Girl. In a brief pause in the revelrous conversation, I hear the telltale ominous hiccups of the about-to-spew. I’m not the only one and her husband asks if she’s okay. She snaps in reply. He tries to soothe her with the upcoming food. “I’m not hungry,” she mopes back. “Why can’t we just go home?”
“We’re all hungry,” he insists. “Aren’t you hungry? You’ll be hungry when we get there!”
They discuss Jazz Fest, the bands they saw, the long night of drinking that’s followed. They explain that one couple is in town from Mississippi, that they come down every year, get the family together, see the music, hang out late. The guy in shotgun, husband of Quiet Girl, is the loudest, telling me corny jokes and asking me how long I’m driving tonight, if I like driving for Uber. I say I do, I say it’s an adventure, that you never know what you’re going to get.
“Assholes like us, you mean? I bet you pray you don’t get us!”
“No, no,” I reply quickly. “I find it entertaining. I drive the overnight in New Orleans, man. You have to be entertained by people.”
“By assholes like us.”
“You’re just having a good time.”
“Damn right we are!”
There is a sense in the car that we are blasting music even though the radio is silent. This happens sometimes: people try to recreate the atmosphere of the bar they just left in the car, especially if it’s crowded. They don’t want the party to end.
“Hey man, what do we do if we get stranded?” the guy in shotgun asks me.
“It’s Westwego at fucking three-thirty in the morning. We’re not gonna be able to get an Uber out here.”
“I mean, we might if we’re lucky. But what would it take for you to wait for us. Wait maybe… twenty minutes?”
I don’t say anything for a few seconds.
“It’s gonna be more than twenty minutes,” his sister said. “By the time we order and wait and eat and everything. And with this one?” she must be indicating her semi-comatose compatriot. “There’s no way.”
“Hm. Is that true?” he addresses me. “Is there no way?”
I don’t relish spending twenty minutes of my waning Jazz Fest Friday languishing on the deep end of the West Bank, as far as possible from the surging downtown. Much less the fifty minutes it will probably actually be. “Well, if ever you can’t find an Uber, you can try Lyft? Download Lyft and they’ll always give you a ride.”
“Is that through Uber?”
“No, it’s a different app. Works the same way. But Uber only gives drivers rides within ten, maybe fifteen minutes sometimes. So you can get stranded. Lyft will give you a driver from anywhere: twenty, thirty minutes away. So you can always get a Lyft.” Look at me, being part of the problem.
“We don’t like Lyft!” the sister chimes in. “We like Uber. We don’t like that other app.”
It occurs to me they might be Trump voters. Or they had a bad experience with a Lyft driver, or didn’t like waiting twenty-five minutes for a ride. Or, longshot perhaps, they just don’t like pink.
“Well that’s an option, just for this ride,” I suggest lamely.
Boister continues to reign in the car until we start to pull up in sight of the Wego Inn. And then everyone gets quiet all at once. The guy in shotgun swears, “Goddamit. It’s closed. Now what?”
“Waffle House!” exclaims his sister. “I told you we’d end up there.”
“Since when does Wego Inn close this early on a Friday?”
“They probably close at three.”
“All right, turn that shit off,” he indicates the GPS which he’s been encouraging me to ignore anyway, despite duplicating its instructions. “Just keep straight here a few miles.”
“It is not a few miles,” his sister retorts. “It’s just up there.”
Sure enough, the welcoming yellow sign, among my favorite icons in American eating. They have no idea how I feel about Waffle House, of course, but I get a sense how this night is about to unfold. Call it a premonition, or maybe it’s just the siren call of hashbrowns on a grill, long since committed to Pavlovian association with pending satisfaction.
“Say,” the guy in shotgun breathes in sharply, building up to a sales pitch aimed my way. “I don’t suppose you’re hungry? Want a little breakfast? We could buy you breakfast and then you could drive us home, maybe?”
“Leave the guy alone,” his sister scolds. “He does not want to come into Waffle House with us – he can’t wait to be rid of us!”
“See, he’s not even listening.”
“I’m thinking,” I correct, a grin spilling onto my face in the darkness, now exposed to the harsh white light of a highway streetlamp.
“He’s thinking about it! Hoo boy! We will buy you breakfast and tip you good!”
I put my turn signal on to enter the parking lot. I’ve just been building a little drama for the inevitable. “I’ll do it!”
“I’m in. Let’s go get some breakfast!”
They actually high-five me in the parking lot once we’ve arrived, three of them in turn, made all the more awkward for the fact that I don’t know these people, that we haven’t seen each other really, that they are all comically taller or shorter than I am, that it is very late and they are drunk. One more than the rest. The one who does not high-five me. She scowls as she trails the rest of us into the overlit restaurant, glaring at the waitress who welcomes her to Waffle House over the mild din of the dishes she’s washing. I sense trouble brewing, but I am too excited about hashbrowns to pay it much mind. The guys quickly decide on the counter and the guy who’d been in back, not the brother, gratuitously indicates my stool on the end of the group. “Order anything you want,” he says to me. “And thanks so much for doing this.”
“Thank you,” I smile. “I love Waffle House.”
Menus are distributed and they love the fact that I don’t need one, that I know what I want before even settling in. I’m the only one who orders water instead of a soda or iced tea, the only one who doesn’t gaze in a vague stupor at both sides of the menu. The drunker woman is the vocal one now, complaining about being here and how long this will take, complaining about the lack of options at the House. Her companions are just hungry.
As soon as orders are in, the guy next to me, big enough to block out any ability for me to see the other folks we’re dining with, makes small talk with me about where in the city I live, how long I’ve been in town, where I grew up. He’s enthusiastic and genuinely friendly. He’s also the local, part of the hosting couple in the party of four, but he re-explains all their relationships and adds that he’s best friends with the other guy, though it’s not clear if that pre-dates marrying this friend’s sister or not. I’ve really only caught his name clearly of the four, but I’m bad with names in the best of times (the product of having a very unusual and memorable name myself) and while driving for Uber, there’s a part of my brain that just is overfull from other stimulus and can’t internalize names for long. Granted, I’m not driving in this moment, and the surreality of that is kind of hitting me in waves. I take breaks at Waffle House maybe once a week, but it’s always a solo experience, with a book or my phone, my standard late-night loner approach. It’s very different not be observing the overloud drunk crew that comes in (the guy next to me actually carried his beer from the car into the place and was, surprisingly, not asked to throw it out) but to actually be, in some way, of them.
A small cockroach darts from the little cubby of condiments and napkin dispenser that’s holding up the menus, tilts its antennae searchingly in the middle of the counter, and then breaks toward the edge of the counter in the direction of the drunker woman. She sees it, finally, screams, swats at it errantly with a menu, and it drops from the counter either to the floor or on her. She howls like a wounded wolf incoherently, flees for the door, and stands at the edge of the door. “Did you see that? Did you see that? I’ve got to get out of here!”
We all saw it.
“Don’t leave, honey,” her husband says, perfunctorily. “It’s just a little bug.”
She flees wordlessly.
The other woman looks pointedly at the young waitress, who is standing there frozen and unsure what to do next. “Food’s free, right?”
“Um,” the waitress says.
The guys come to the waitress’ aid. “It’s just a bug,” her brother says. “I mean, you’re in the South.”
“I was born and raised here, thank you very much,” his sister retorts. “And I can’t stand ’em.”
“But you ain’t running out the door, are you? Jesus, do you see what I have to put up with?”
“I know. I know. But she’s just had too much.”
“It’s like this every time with her. You’ve seen it. I have to deal with this all the time.”
I think about my own fiancée, how she responds to roaches in our own apartment, wonder how I can tell her this story later without her swearing off Waffle House forever, which she has already nearly done. I wonder if mentioning something about her aversion to bugs and how she would have done the same in this situation will help or hurt. I decide on help shortly after the guy who is not the fleeing woman’s husband volunteers to go out and try to calm her down. I relate my fiancée’s perspective to the woman who remains.
“I was born and raised in the South,” she repeats. “But I hate ’em. Just those. I can deal with snakes, sharks, you name it, whatever. But I’m with her. I hate ’em.”
“But you’re still sitting here and you’re gonna eat your food, ain’t you?” her brother inquires.
They begin a sidebar about how to deal with the absent woman’s drinking in that kind of half-hushed tone of people trying to have a private conversation in a context that utterly disallows it. I feign distraction while trying to listen. There is something about the woman’s parents agreeing with the guy that she’s a mess when she drinks, an ongoing monologue about how important it is to be able to have a good time without getting like that, the layers of denial that happen every time she sobers up. I am trying to be as neutral an observer as possible, but I’m unsure I’ve seen anything too unwarranted in her behavior other than being somber when others were jubilant and desiring to go home instead of eat. The bug did come at her, after all.
I let my mind wander, feeling a little sheepish about the eavesdropping, however inevitable it is. The other two have been gone an awkwardly long time. The food arrives. I start to eat. It occurs to me that if this were a movie, the other two would be out having sex behind the Waffle House dumpster, continuing a torrid periodic affair that they clandestinely conduct under the noses of the siblings they married. It occurs to me that this is not out of the question and I desperately hope it’s not true, for many reasons. By the time the remaining woman actually goes outside, I have considered this scenario to the point that I find myself actually bracing for her return.
But everything’s fine. They come back in, resume their seats, the woman who fled pushing her food away and literally turning her nose up. The guy next to me digs in heartily and there’s a tenuous silent peace, punctuated by another howl from the drunker woman.
“A hair! Do you see that?! There’s a hair on my plate. Oh, fuck this.”
She runs away, double the pace at which she fled the bug. The guy who’d left to talk to her before shrugs, mouth full of eggs. “I give up, man. I tried. It took me twenty minutes to talk her back into coming back in.”
“What should we do with her food?”
“Box it up. Someone’ll eat it later.”
“She sure as hell won’t,” her husband mutters.
“How’s your food?” the guy next to me asks me. “Glad you did this?”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “It hit the spot.”
It’s twelve more minutes before we’ve all finished and the guy pays the check in cash. I hope they’ve tipped well, but there’s really no way I can possibly check without it being too awkward. The woman is seated on the concrete half-curb outside, where I have to imagine it is quite likely there have been bugs recently. I unlock the car and one of the guys tries to say something vaguely rousing and encouraging. Stony silence is his answer. I have been wondering whether to turn the app on and ask them to officially request the ride, but that seems both ungrateful and inappropriate to the mood, so I just hope we’re close to their place and don’t bother. If they tip, great. If not, they did buy me breakfast and I had to get back toward the city anyway.
It proves to be a short ride, about two miles, out to a development that was as earlier described by the woman who lives there. She’d mentioned how isolated they were, how they have one of the only six homes in this not-that-new development. I have to wonder if it was built in 2008 or if it’s just still too far out into the suburbs to be successful or if there’s something else wrong with the area. Her brother tersely navigates and then I leave them at the only house in sight, which they still gratuitously describe as we approach as “there, by all those parked cars.”
They are grateful as they get out, all but the woman who ran twice, who bolts for the door like there’s a bug behind her. The guy who’d sat next to me peels a twenty from a wad of cash in his pocket and hands it to me.
“Thanks so much. And sorry about everything.”
“Thank you. Thanks for breakfast too. And no problem. Hope everything’s okay.”
“She’ll be fine in the morning,” he responds, hand on the top of the door about to close. “She always is.”
This is an excerpted chapter of the in-progress book tentatively titled Driving for U: Behind the Wheel of a New Orleans Uber by Storey Clayton. If you are in the publishing industry and would like to contact Storey about this book, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.