Driving to New Orleans

Ellen Schoenberger Day and I stuffed everything we owned in my 1966 VW bug in the summer of 1973 when we began our move to New Orleans after attending graduate school in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Probing my old brain this afternoon here in rural North Carolina as I wander through my memory palace almost fifty years later, I happily report that I can still vividly recall driving into northern Louisiana in our un-air-conditioned Beetle in early July and remarking to my young wife, "Man, it's really hot."

Speaking of hot, did you ever wonder about what's really in hot dogs?

I got curious about this once because there was a time in my life before I hopped on an extended health kick when I found nothing more delicious than a hot dog on a bun smothered with onions, mustard, and a generous serving of cheap chili.

"I can't believe you eat hot dogs," the lovely Ellen Schoenberger commented one date night after a movie when I pulled my VW Bug into the local fast food joint for a post-cinema treat. This, of course, occurred before we roped together at the hitching post in 1972. "Are you not curious about the real ingredients?"

Well, actually, no.

No, I wasn't at all curious.

As far as I was concerned, ignorance was bliss regarding Ft. Collins' local Wienerschnitzel, an American fast food chain founded in 1961 and well known by aficionados as the World's Most Delicious Hot Dog Chain.

I mean, seriously, if one got too curious, eating a hot dog or jellied moose nose or a brick of liver mush one might realize that consuming such delicacies might even gag a maggot.

Indeed, that kind of curiosity has been the downfall of many gourmets over the centuries.

And, of course, you know what happened to the cat that got too curious, don't you?

Well, according to "Schools and Schools," an O. Henry story, "Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat; and if emotions, well recognized as feminine, are inimical to feline life, then jealousy would soon leave the whole world catless."

But I'm wandering too far afield of where I'm supposed to be heading, aren't I?

Back to wieners and what's really in them.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): "The raw meat materials used for precooked-cooked products are lower-grade muscle trimmings, fatty tissues, head meat, animal feet, animal skin, blood, liver and other edible slaughter by-products."

So much for ever enjoying a tasty chili dog again, eh?

Anyway, so Ellen Schoenberger Day and I have just driven through Shreveport, Louisiana, and we're on a straight course for New Orleans, and I'm bitching about the heat, constantly complaining, "Man, it's really hot. Can you believe this heat? Hell can't be more than eight degrees hotter than this. And I bet you a dime to a donut that the humidity down there is less than what we're experiencing. Seriously, it's really not. I mean, seriously, can you believe how hot it is? Feel my forehead. I'm burning up. I'm having trouble breathing."

I recall my young wife's evil smile as she sympathized, "My poor baby."

Ellen, you see, had earned her BA from LSU, and both of her parents were from Louisiana, so she knew (but didn't proffer full disclosure to me when she decided to do her doctoral work at Tulane) the kind of heat and humidity that we had in our future.

As we drove further and further south (it's 327.3 miles between Ratchet City and The Big Easy), I'm fantasizing about life in a blast furnace and thinking, "Thank God we'll cool off in an air-conditioned house before nightfall."

Speaking of air conditioning, I bet you didn't know that a guy named Stuart W. Cramer coined the term "air conditioning" in 1906. Well, he did just that in a patent claim as an analogue to "water conditioning," which was at the time a well-known process for making textiles easier to process.

Water, ah, yes... well, back to our journey to New Orleans...

Three hundred twenty-seven and point three miles later, I've lost maybe 18 pounds of water weight from sweating, and we pull into the driveway of my wife's Grandmother's home in Old Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans.

Nana Beydler, you see, owned a lovely old shotgun home typical of this part of New Orleans/Metairie.

For those not in the know, a shotgun home is a long house built for the three days a summer in southern Louisiana when a slight breeze cuts through the unbelievably brutal heat and humidity and passes through the front door and straight out the back door.

If you find this hard to visualize, let me put it another way: you could enter Nana Beydler's shotgun home and walk a straight line that'd take you from the front porch, through the living room, through the dining room, through the kitchen, and out the back door to a small yard. In Nana's home, the bedrooms and bathrooms were off to one side of the long barrel of the shotgun.

Anyway, as I stumble out of our VW in Ms. Beydler's driveway, now thoroughly dehydrated and slightly crazed from carping for hours and hours about driving through humidity a man could cut with a butcher's cleaver, I remark to my wife, who has -- unbelievably and extremely annoyingly for me -- not even broken a sweat, "Thank God! Finally, I can breathe some cool air."

Then, lord love a duck, as I literally stumble up three steps to the front of Nana's home, I realize that only a screen door separates me from the porch and the living room.

And NO cool air is issuing from that living room through the screen door.

None.

Not even a wisp as tender as a first kiss.

"Can it be true? Can this actually be happening?" my fevered brain screams to itself. "WTF! She doesn't have air conditioning! Arghhh!"

And then this lovely little old white-haired woman comes to the screen door, opens it, and bends down on one arthritic knee to help me find my feet from where I knelt in agony because of the heat and humidity, and says, "You must be Chet. I'm so happy to meet you. I'm Nana Beydler."

I try a polite greeting in return, but by now I'm so dehydrated my tongue is the size of a brisket and only weird Lovecraftian sounds come out: "Drkaj ughs mysls..."

"He's pretty hot, " my wife translates, "and he's been grousing about the heat and humidity ever since we drove through Shreveport. What a baby."

"Oh, then let me put the air conditioner on," Nana replies. "I wasn't going to waste money using it today since there's such a nice breeze blowing through the house, but if he's not man enough to take the heat..."

Her voice trailed off and she kind of shook her head while tsk tsking to herself at her granddaughter's poor choice in men.

Ellen and Nana each take one of my arms and pull me to my feet.

At this point, I'm gravitating between guilt over Grandmother Beyder's next electricity bill and gratitude for the inventor of air conditioning -- while simultaneously pondering heat stroke and possibly even death at the tender age of 25.

So they lead the now distracted and deeply ruminative me to an armchair in front of a window unit that is soon blowing cool air over my fevered self.

I'm now thinking about offering to pay one-thirtieth of Nana's power bill when it next comes in, but since Ellen and I only have $430 to our name I selfishly decide to let a sweet old woman drop part of her monthly social security check to help keep her new grandson-in-law from melting like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Speaking of the Wicked Witch of the West, Wikipedia reveals that "She has a pack of wolves, a swarm of bees, a flock of crows, and an army of Winkies" at her disposal.

Learning this information from my favorite online resource kind of freaked me out because when I was a boy, a kid down the street used to refer to a certain part of his anatomy as "his fun-loving Winkie." Yeah, seriously, he had named a part of his body with such pride one could hear the capitalization of the W in the name from three blocks away when he was bragging about it.

Anyway, after four hours in front of the window unit, my core temperature started to return to normal and I started to come back to myself.

Interestingly enough, I personally have no recollection of those four lost hours, which to my dying day I shall always believe reveals just how close I came to shaking hands with the Reaper.

Speaking of hands... on the other hand, my wife gets a real kick out of telling strangers at parties that during those four hours when I drifted in and out of consciousness, I periodically ranted about Richard Nixon's visit to China, the launching of the Copernicus satellite, the miner's strike in the United Kingdom, and various deontological moral theories with a peculiar emphasis on the works of Immanuel Kant.

I'm pulling your leg about Kant, of course, since I've never had the smarts to read, much less understand, his many contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics.

Lack of smarts notwithstanding, I will pat myself on the back for surviving our July drive and subsequently living and loving the next twenty-four years of our lives in New Orleans, the Crescent City that has wonderful people, fabulous food, and amazing ambience.

Finally, speaking of New Orleans, I hope you'll treat yourself to one of my three novels (kind of creepy thrillers), each of which is set in my beloved city. Dropping a few bucks on my fiction will help keep me and the still lovely Ellen Schoenberger Day in beans and ginger ale this coming week.


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