I lost my pride on Decatur Street.
This isn’t one of those, somewhere, sometime, thangs, either. Hell no, I know precisely where and when I lost it, my pride that is.
It was liberated by a buccaneer, a pirate, on Decatur Street, in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Thursday the 23rd day of March, 2017.
When I say ‘buccaneer,’ I ain’t talkin’ about a swashbuckling, sea-legged pirate, either. Nope. He was a Land-Pirate, a Boot Buccaneer.
The Story Begins…
On our first trip to the Big Easy–our only trip so far–Paysh caught a nasty stomach bug, which I mentioned in another article on Lafitte’s Blacksmith Bar. The bug, or whatever it was, really knocked her down on the second day of our trip, and while it subsided somewhat during the week, it was a factor the entire vacation.
By the next to last day, Thursday the 23rd, she was feeling a lot better, if not quite 100%, and we headed down to the Quarter in the afternoon to stroll around, eat dinner, and see the sights.
We had dinner at The Gumbo Shop, which was quaint. I had the jambalaya, which was pretty good. Paysh–thanks to her gut parasite–opted for mashed potatoes, which really sucks ass if you’re in New Orleans at a place called The Gumbo Shop.
It was a very cool place, though, with an open courtyard in back with plants and palms and a fountain and sculptures.
We sat in what was probably the colonial kitchen on the backside of the courtyard, a brick structure with French doors, old wooden tables, the remnants of the fireplace, a gumbo pot on the old, brick stove next to the fireplace, and pots and pans hanging on the walls. The setting was superb.
After dinner, we strolled around Jackson Square looking for a mule carriage to ride, but had very little luck finding one.
No matter where we went, we seemed to have just missed them, kind of like surfers seeking the perfect waves, “Shoulda been here yesterday, man.” Ce la vie.
A Pedestrian Pirate Attack
New Orleans is reknowned for its pirates. Pretty much everyone knows of Captain Jean Lafitte, spelled with an ‘i’. But have you ever heard of the most famous pirate of all? Larry LaFeet? spelled with two ‘e-s’? Probably not.
Here’s the story…
We had pretty much given up on procuring a carriage so we decided to walk up and check out Artillery Park , overlooking the Square, when I was attacked by Larry LaFeet the Land-Pirate.
Artillery Park is a raised area overlooking both Jackson Square to the north, and the mighty Mississippi to the south, and was the position from which Big Easyites in a more violent epoch, could fire flaming cannonballs at approaching, hostile ships sailing up the river to attack the city. Some of those ships were flying Union Jacks, and some of them Jolly Rogers.
On this fine evening, however, the cannons were apparently un-manned, because one of those pesky corsairs slipped the net.
As we were climbing the ramp up to the park, he sprang from the dark cover of a palm tree, on to the path.
“Hey brother!” was the shot across my bow that alerted me to his presence.
At that point, he was flying friendly colors, though he had a Jolly Roger in his back pocket, as I was to learn soon enough.
“Those are some nice shoes!” was his second shot, closer to the hull of the ship, but still friendly.
My suspicions were both eased AND tightened at the same time, if that’s possible? I was disarmed somewhat by his amicable nature, but suspicious of his admiration for my footwear.
They were just Red Wing boots: nothing special about them. They were certainly not worth shanking me to steal them, which lessoned my alarm, too. But why would he give a rat’s ass about my shoes?
To say I was taken off guard is a gross understatement. I wasn’t knocked to the floor, but nothing in my upbringing had prepared me to respond to surprise compliments from a Cajun pirate.
I say he was a pirate, not because he was dressed as one or anything. He didn’t look like Captain Jack Sparrow stumbling along with a finger hooked in a bottle of rum. I’m not sure what he was wearing, actually. It was pretty dark.
“Thanks?” I replied.
“How y’all doing tonight?” he followed, quickly.
“Uhh, pretty good,” I was beginning to regain my composure, I thought, and asked the obvious question, “What can I help ya with brother?” Hey, I was in his city, so trying to be polite and give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m that kind of tourist. The kind that doesn’t request Piano Man in a touristy bar, or treat the locals like a nuisance.
“Those are some nice shoes,” he repeated, “Betcha I can tell you exactly where you got’em, the state, city, and street where you got’em! I betcha. Hey, this is how I make my livin’ man, ya know, I don’t beg, or sell drugs on the corner, I got kids to feed at home, I’m just out here shinin’ shoes and talkin’ ta people ya know, whatcha say? Betcha $20 I can tell ya where you got them shoes!”
Now, let me just say in my own defense, that you’re reading this stuff at your leisure, so don’t judge me too harshly for what happened next. I wasn’t reading this shit; I was trying to follow his offer, challenge, whatever it was, in the dark, taken off guard, and he wasn’t waiting around for me to ‘get it’ either. He was a mutherfuckin’ fast talker, and I mean really fast. It was mostly a blur of syllables flying by of which I caught only every 4th or 5th.
I’m quite certain that the dialogue I remember is faulty as hell, since I didn’t hear or comprehend 90% of it, even as I was hearing it for the first time. My memory of what transpired is colored by the aftermath. In retrospect, I have cobbled together what I think was his tactic:
- Catch me by surprise. CHECK
- Keep me off guard. CHECK
- Always keep the initiative. I never had a chance.
Once a pirate has you against the gunwales, you’re fucked.
And I was definitely about to walk the plank.
I was shark food, chicken of the fuckin’ sea, even if I didn’t know it, yet. He had me in a corner, and there were fins to the left, and fins to the right.
“Whatever, man,” I said, half out of breath from trying to follow his turbo rant. I was thinking to myself, He can’t possibly guess that I got these from Robert Street in West Saint Paul. My accent definitely doesn’t give it away. I’m not from Minnesota, and you can get Red Wing boots, anyfuckinwhere.
“Betchatwentydollars and if I’m right you owe me twenny and twenny for shinin’ yer shoes too. Whatdayasay? ThisishowImakealivindon’tchaknow? Got kids to feed, I ain’t pushing drugs or robbin’ nobody? It’s an honest livin’ whatcha say?”
I’m tellin ya, he was throwing cutlass jabs and firin’ hot lead as fast as he could sling it, and I was starting to smell like blood in the water. My brain was reeling from the barrage of questions and his speech was almost hypnotic.
I felt at this point that we had somehow ‘bonded’ though that doesn’t make any fuckin’ sense, I know, especially in the post mortem. But in that moment we were two dudes understandin’ one another, I think? Fuck if I know.
The Curse of Pride
This is where my pride got me, I think. It was all about pride.
I pride myself as a pretty smart guy, usually. And my mother raised me with a very acute bullshit meter—though she would never call it that. I can smell a scam a mile away, or so I’ve always thought.
But this time, the pride I’m talkin’ about isn’t in my ability to catch the con, it was in my general affability, sense of fair play, and belief in the basic goodness of humanity.
The problem with that pride, in this instance, was that I was in a fencing match with a pirate in a dark alley, and he had the advantage, because he knew something I didn’t, and he was a master of language, as you’ll see.
Larry LaFeet the Land-Pirate had engaged me in a conversation, or at least that’s what I thought at first. But the speed of that exchange was such that I never had time to gather my wits. He came out of the dark, opened the exchange and took complete control of all of it. At no point did I ever really regain the initiative. He was a master of conversation.
Or at least the ‘con’ sans ‘versation.’
He employed all his wits and training to maneuver me, my sense of humanity, and my pride to the edge of the plank, with salt water and tiger sharks swirling in the surf under my feet. Metaphorically speaking of course.
The magic of Yes
Every great salesperson knows that the key to closing the deal is to get your prospective buyer to answer a series of simple, no-brainer questions in the affirmative. If you can get them to say ‘yes’ several times, then it becomes increasingly difficult to put a stop to it, and one more ‘yes’ is almost assured.
At this point, I’d said ‘yes’ too many times to say no.
I had been tricked into giving away several yeses by Larry the Land-Pirate, without even realizing it.
It was like subliminal messages in a 1970s movie that make you want to eat ten pounds of popcorn and become a diabetic drinking five gallons of Coca Cola to wash it down with. Larry had included several tiny, barely noticeable questions in his rapid-fire con-versation:
“I’m just makin’ a living right?”
“I’m not on the street sellin’ drugs, know what I mean?”
“Everybody’s gotta feed their kids, right?”
By the time he got around to the final thrust on the origin of my shoes, I said,
“Okay, Bring It! Deal!”
And the tigers of the sea feasted well that night.
The word deal had no more rolled off my tongue when he ran his cutlass through and I tumbled into the salty, sea, encircled by sharks, and staining the waves a crimson hue.
There was no hesitation in Larry LaFeet the Land-Pirate’s victory lunge. He didn’t wait for me to change my mind, deliberate on the question, or to scream for help. The sands of the hour-glass had run out.
His sword was like a flash of lightnin’:
“You got them shoes, on your feet, on Decatur Street, in New Orleans, in the State of Louisiana!”
As the word Louisiana came out of his mouth, he lunged to the ground with a squirt bottle in his left hand and a rag in the other, squeezed some white-ish looking foam on the toes of my boots and proceeded to ‘shine’ them with the cloth.
I was struck dumb and motionless, like some troll in a Tolkien tale, caught by the sudden onset of the sunrise and the spell of a wizard.
“FUCK!” I said, utterly flummoxed.
I had fallen victim to a simple play on words.
Because I had been taken by surprise, and kept off balance, and given too many yeses, I’d paid no attention to his choice of verb.
There are at least two definitions of the word, got.
One, is the past tense of ‘to get,’ to obtain something in other-words, and that’s the one Larry had implied in his initial challenge:
“I betcha I can tell you where you got them shoes.”
I knew precisely where I had obtained them: on Robert Street in West Saint Paul, and was supremely confident that there was no fuckin’ WAY that he could deduce all of that.
But what I should have done—and would have if I hadn’t be on the ropes the entire time—was to remember the other definition of got: to possess something, or to have something in your possession: i.e., I’ve got shoes on my feet.
There I was, a writer, fuck, a best selling AUTHOR, standing in the dark, on Decatur Street, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, outwitted with words by a con-man land-pirate.
I was out of my depth at that point. I had been taken by a simple play on words, something that I do to other people all the time. Hell, I do it almost every evening at the dinner table. I learned it from birth.
My dad is a pun artist. He lives by the pun. If there’s an obvious, cheesy pun lying on the table, he’s always gonna pick it up. Doesn’t matter if it’s a can of Cheez Wiz, or stinky bleu; Sam Bivans is always gonna pick it up and voice it out loud. He did it every single day of my childhood. He’s still doing it. And I learned the art from him, though mine are usually a fine cheese: like Irish Cheddar or Brie.
But there I was, on Decatur Street, out-punned, out-witted, and out-worded by Larry LaFeet the Land-Pirate, a boot buccaneer with maybe a high school education. Hell, he might not have even finished that!
Of course, he might be an out of work English professor as far as I know. He didn’t look like one, but I don’t actually look like someone with almost a PhD in history, either.
To Pay or Not To Pay?
I really wanted to squelch on that bet, since I had obviously been bamboozled.
But he had appealed to my pride, to my sense of humanity. I mean, he had kids at home, or at least he claimed to have them. Who fuckin’ knows if he actually had kids. But I’m quite certain that he was banking on the chance that I might.
Nothing plays on a parent’s emotions like the thought of kids going without in a hard world.
Kids or no, I tried to wiggle out of paying him for the shoe shine part of it, since I couldn’t really remember if I had agreed to that part or not. I can’t accurately convey the confusion he invoked in my mind. He sounded more like an auctioneer than anything else I could liken it to. It was machine-gun like. So, I tried to get out of half of the bet,
“I’ll give you twenty,” I said without conviction, “but not forty.”
“Nope, the deal was forty dollars, man. Everybody gotta feed their kids.”
If I had pushed it, he would have had little recourse, short of violence. But unless he had a gun on him, he was gonna lose that fight. I had 150 pounds on him, and if it came to that, he would see a different side of Steve Bivans….the Blackbeard side. I’m secretly a land-pirate, too.
But my pride and sense of fair-play–even if I felt I’d been hornswoggled–won out in the end. If I reneged on the bet, I would have had to relinquish all of that pride, and that wasn’t something I was willing to do.
After a second or two, I turned to Paysh—who was probably just as shocked as I was that I’d been bested in a game of words—and said,
“Give him the forty, bebe.”
I was defeated and confused.
I’m still trying to figure out how anyone could possibly con ME out of $40. And he tricked me with a play on words, a simple fuckin’ pun.
I somehow managed to survive the sharks in the water, though I was definitely limpin’ around on a stump, Captain Ahab style. I’ll be limpin’ for awhile, I reckon.
Sans my pride, Paysh and I walked to the top of the hill to see Artillery Park, took selfies of ourselves with St. Loius Cathedral in the background, and then consoled ourselves with beignets at Cafe du Monde, which is a pretty good place to massage a bruised ego. Nothing a few donuts covered in mounds of sugar can’t cure.
At that point we realized that there were no more mule carriages carting tourist, pirate-bait around, so instead we opted for a bike taxi tour.
The funny thing is, that the next day, on Friday, we were back in the Quarter, and no less than two times that day, I was approached by land-pirates with the same opening thrust,
“Hey man, I like your shoes!”
Ha! I think not.
“That only works the first time, man. Good try though!” and I kept walkin’.
So, if you’re ever on Decatur Street, in New Orleans, in the State of Louisiana, especially at night, keep an eye out for Larry LaFeet the Land-Pirate and his compatriots.
Then either leave your pride at home, or wear some ugly shoes.