My New Year’s Eve was a bust. A complete bust.
I had gone to a party at my old residence in Decatur, Menagerie Farms, named in a fleeting alcohol-induced moment of self-awareness, because that is who were. A menagerie, and I had just read Tennessee Williams play. We were, or had been, a rare Baptist band of gypsies. Most of the “founders”, divorced Baptist ministers and a chairman of deacons, just for grins, had moved on to new pastures a couple of years prior to this fateful eve of a new year. Living there now, a son of a founder, my brother, and a collection of other species this exotic farm let in.
I was in the second year of my doctoral course work, and feeling ancient among these pups. I would end up leaving the party before midnight in my forest green CJ-5 Jeep, in a bit of a funk.
The girl I had just started dating was a senior at the University of Georgia and she was out of town. Out of town? Hell, she was in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl with who knows who. And here I was, headed back to my Emory apartment. Alone. Naturally.
The girl I mentioned in the previous paragraph had been practically engaged to her high school sweetheart. I knew something about that predicament, my own damn self. They had dated through college and I had gotten the clear message that she was out of bounds, even though I had bumped into her on occasion at the church and at Everybody’s in the Emory Village.
After exiting Decatur First Baptist Church, after beginning my doctoral program, I had not been back for awhile. I had decided to go one Sunday morning to hear a favorite professor, Dr. L. D Johnson, of Furman, who was speaking. I sat in the balcony to keep a low profile and make a quick exit. Across , on the right side was the aforementioned girl. She was obviously home for Thanksgiving break from the University, and sitting with her parents. “Fine” is a vintage word for me, used rarely, to be savored. I used it that morning and decided to drink deeply.
After the service, I quickly intercepted her path and asked how she was doing. Smooth, don’t you think? After some “check in” exchange, I asked if she would like to go get a drink that evening. To my surprise, she said “yes”! We arranged to meet at the Lullwater in order for me and her to avoid the embarrassment of me having to talk with her father. Thank you, Jesus.
The evening went well and I found out that she was now “dating other people.” Open season for a Southside boy! I asked her out for the following weekend, and began a barrage, taking her to my favorite places like Dante’s or my go-to move of sitting in with my friend, Elgin Well’s band, Extravaganza. It was a full court press, as much as my VISA card would allow. Grad assistants are not wealthy, well below poverty, but I was in full-tilt mode. Such is the life of a romantic.
In spite of my push over the Christmas holidays, she had plans to go to the Sugar Bowl to see the Georgia Bulldogs take on the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame for the National Championship. It was hard to argue against that decision, although I did not know if she was going with her old boyfriend or some other wanna be.
As a result, I was SOL on New Year Eve, and I was figuring she was with her boyfriend in the romantic setting of the French Quarter. I was screwed.
The next day, New Year’s, I went to the new house of one of the Menagerie Founders, Wendell, to watch the football game. As the game progressed, I was allowing myself to imagine this girl in New Orleans and it was driving me crazy.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I called my dad, a Delta exec, and asked if he could get me two tickets to New Orleans. He quickly asked me, “What’s her name?” I told him that he had not met her, but would, and could he have the two tickets waiting for me at the airport. Like the prince he was, he did.
I then had to convince my brother, Mitch, to join me on this fool’s errand. As I recall, he was sitting on the end of a comfortable coach when I inquired as to his readiness to make an exciting expedition. Mitch, with a Heineken in hand, responded that “No”, he would be staying right there, drinking and watching the end of the game. It’s funny how peer pressure can be applied in just the right way. It’s called “leverage”. My friends assisted in shaming him with a variety of appellations that required his positive response to secure his manhood. We were off to the airport.
We got to the Atlanta International Airport, otherwise known as the Janet Jackson International Space Port, my favorite place on the planet, picked up our tickets, and were sitting ready to board a flight to New Orleans. The effects of the intoxicants had waned, and the reality was beginning to set, if not break in. I realized that I did not know if this damsel was with her old boyfriend. I did not know where she was staying. We would be arriving mid-evening after the game with the fans of Georgia and Notre Dame ready and loaded for some serious partying in the French Quarter.
Sitting in the infamous fitted blue seats at the gate, Mitch and I assessed the situation, I asked him a reasonable question. “Mitch, you are a brilliant Georgia Tech student with considerable mathematical skills. What are the chances that we will be able to find Mary in the crowd there in New Orleans?” Mitch replied smartly, “Do you want a precise calculation of the odds?” And I replied, “I would.” Looking off in the distance, he said, “Slim to none.” There ensued a pause. I offered a Tim Russert follow-up question, “But, if we don’t find her, will we still have a great time in the French Quarter?” It was what is known as a rhetorical question, but Mitch answered, nonetheless, “Hell yeah.” We were off.
Drinks came on the plane (I knew one of the flight attendants), we’re in First Class because we were non-revenue, meaning we’re flying free. Lot’s of space, leg room, flying on New Year’s Day.
We landed, grabbed a shuttle to a local hotel. So, just to make the point clear, we had spent no money on this Galloway gallivant. Sweet. But my investment was substantial.
Upon arrival in the French Quarter, Mitch and I engaged in the ritual of a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s, Not my first rodeo. Then, strategy, skull session, game plan. I had been thinking about it for awhile. We would make two passes the length of Bourbon Street. Mitch was assigned the left side of the street, I would survey the right. After making the two passes, if we did not spot Mary, the Georgia co-ed in question, we would simply go free-style party mode for the rest of the evening. Not a bad “worst case scenario”.
As we began our initial walk down the boulevard of dreams and drunks, I discerned that my brother did not share the level of commitment I had, so I made a tactical move to keep an eye on both sides of the street. In our first pass, I saw her on the left, on the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon, standing with a group of her sorority sisters. No sight of the old boyfriend. Jackpot.
We ambled, moseyed, sashayed our way over to where she was. When she saw me. she looked surprised, I discerned, pleasantly so. “What are you doing here?”. “Just happened to be in the neighborhood.” Cue Morris Day and the Time. C O O L…that spells “cool”.
What a night. I spent the rest of the evening with her walking the streets of New Orleans, while my brother got the spoils of my hunt. It had a magical quality, a mystical connection that spoke to my mystic soul, enough to convince me there was something special between us. Could it be love? It was, at least for that night.
Turns out, in the next few months, we both had family secrets and personal dreams that we were able to share with one another in rare moments of intimate dialogue that I used to teach about. After that crazy night, she joined me many times in my Jeep rag top, in our “tent of meeting”. Once, it even meant spending a day, driving to my special beach, Folly, just for grins, with the top down.
I would write her a song, called The Rock. It was about the love story between my witchy grandmother and my lawman grandfather. When they became engaged, he did not have the money to buy a diamond engagement ring. They just went with the love that was between them until wedding rings were exchanged. In retirement, he had saved money to buy a boat which would enable him to fish in local lakes. On the way to the purchase, he took a side trip to a jewelers, long before Tom Shane, my friend’s brother, came to Atlanta to become “my friend in the diamond business”. My granddad bought a diamond ring to give to my grandmother, just a little late to his engagement. I am glad that I come, not only from a witch, but a knight in shining armor.
I wrote the song to propose to Mary. That is the aforementioned girl’s name. How romantic, you might be saying. After a while thinking about it, she said “yes”. That was forty years ago.
Even with my epic New Orleans quest, my proposal song, there weren’t many people betting on The Kid that August day we got married in 1981. And they were smart. Like my brother assessing our chances of our New Orleans gambit, the odds were slim to none!
But, that’s just how I like it.
If you want, you can see that ring on her finger if you come to my island.
Not bad for a Southside boy. Not bad.