And you tell me over and over and over again, my friend,
Oh, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
I know you’ll be glad to learn that I’ve recently returned from producing a successful corporate event in New Orleans.
Why should this matter?
It matters because my track record of producing events in New Orleans has NOT been stellar. But it’s not my fault. I’ll explain. First, though, the success.
In early June this year, a few buddies and I dragged three or four semi tractor-trailers full of gear into a ballroom of a hotel next to the Superdome, and put on a pretty good show.
There were something like a thousand people in attendance, and all the lighting cues and video projections and speaker entrances and exits went pretty much as they were designed to do. That’s the way it’s always supposed to be. When you need electricity, there’s electricity. When you need HVAC, there’s HVAC. When you need the elevators to work so that you can load in and load out your trucks … well, almost everything went well, really. For three days, we worked a light 16 hour-a-day schedule and had a whale of a time. To read more about it, you can visit the ol’ business blog. CLICK HERE.
Back in 1994, I had a smaller gig, producing a booth for a client who was exhibiting at a trade show in the enormous New Orleans Conference Center, located smack-dab on the banks of the Mississippi in downtown New Orleans. We had adopted a time-tested approach to the booth. In order to attract attention, we played a game. An actor would portray a detective whose lines were stolen almost wholesale from Raymond Chandler. The people gathered around who solved the “mystery,” would win silly prizes like free t-shirts or key chains or something. Trade show attendees are a peculiar human sub-species, and will endure almost any indignity or inconvenience if they can get even the most insignificant free trinket. It has something to do with the utter vacuousness of wandering around 100,000 square feet of high-decibel, graphics-and-video-intensive displays of innumerable vendors; they stop to look when they can put some geegaw into their (free) tote sacks. Especially if they get to PLAY A GAME.
So, I wrote this script and cast an actor from here in L.A. to play the Sam Spade role. My graphics dudes developed the onscreen stuff and we duly assembled in New Orleans to put it all into the 20′ x 20′ booth on Day 1, load-in day. The next day was setup/rehearsal day. We ran through the actor’s spiel repeatedly, getting our timing with the graphics, and tweaking the sound system so that it was just overbearing enough to capture the attention of jaded convention-goers without being so obnoxious to the nearby booths that they’d ask us to turn it down. At about 4 p.m., we considered ourselves ready for the next day’s opening of the trade show, packed it in, and headed for our hotels. I was staying not too far away at a Marriott in downtown, and my crew had booked themselves into a place farther out in Metairie, which is closer to the airport, since they had flown in late on arrival day.
In 1994, there wasn’t a lot of email or anything to go through back at the hotel. I actually had email back then, but almost no one else did, so I took care of that in about 20 minutes. I wanted to go get something to eat, but, being on my own, I didn’t feel much like wandering the French Quarter, since it was going to be a very early morning and a long day once the show got under way.
Stepping out of the hotel, I turned right on Canal Street and immediately right again on Chartres, and there I found a little hole-in-the wall place that seemed like as good a place as any to have a beer and some red beans and rice.
It had started raining. I went in.
I stepped down from street level into the little joint, got on a stool at the bar and gave my order to the guy at the counter.
This was good, I thought. I’m in New Orleans having the local Abita brew and some genuine southern food, and not in some blazing-neon cacophony on Bourbon Street; everyone here looks like locals or at least people who know how to keep to themselves. I can eat in peace, read through the Times-Picayune, and then get back to the room for a good night’s sleep before a very long, hectic opening day of the two-day show. I congratulated myself on Knowing How to Travel.
Little did I know, but this was the eve of destruction.
Outside, rain kept coming down.
I read through the national new part of the Times-Picayune and made as much as I could out of the local section. I ate some beans and rice. After a while, I looked out the open door and noticed that it was REALLY raining. In fact, there was so much rain that water was not only flowing down the street outside, but actually running in across the threshold and into the bar. No one seemed to be taking any notice, so I just assumed that this was part of everyday life in a city that’s ten or twelve feet lower than the river out there on the other side of the levee.
It kept raining.
Water kept running in through the door.
After a while, the water on the floor had pooled up and had reached the first rung of my bar stool.
I looked over at the door, and observed that the seat of my bar stool was at about the same level as the threshold of the door. It seemed crazy to even think such a thing, but if water kept flowing in, I could be sitting in two feet of water. That’s crazy, I thought, and turned back to the sports section of the Times-Picayune, which, in those benighted days, was even less significant than it is now in the age of the football Saints.
It kept raining.
Water kept running in through the door.
Finally, the water reached the second rung of my stool. It was knee deep. I figured that was enough local color for one night, so I paid my tab and steeled myself. I sloshed through knee-deep water to the door, which, by then, had a cataract of water flowing in. I stepped out onto the submerged sidewalk, moved to cross the street, stepped off the curb, and the water was at mid-thigh level.
It was raining like the end of the world.
I was glad I didn’t have an umbrella because I’d’ve looked like an absolute idiot keeping my upper half dry while my lower half was reenacting a scene out of “Platoon.”
As I waded through the water flowing east along Chartres Street, several thoughts went through my mind.
First, I thought, if the storm drains have all filled up, water pressure will have lifted all the manhole covers and I might plunge into the sewer and be lost forever until I washed up somewhere near Cuba. I moved cautiously forward across the flow of water coming from my right on Canal(!) Street down Chartres, so that I could maintain contact with solid ground.
Second (I thought) there are snakes and alligators in Louisiana, and I pictured a flotilla of water moccasins and crocodilians swarming through the water, engulfing me in a mass of biting fangs and thrashing tails. Despite that apocalyptic vision, I made it to the sidewalk on the far side of Chartres Street, once again only knee-deep in water alongside the Marriott and made my way to the main entrance on Canal(!) Street, which was flowing with water like a Class III rapids.
I noticed that if you’re already thigh-deep in flowing water in the middle of a large city, you don’t really notice that rain is falling on you in a way that it hasn’t done since Noah was in his prime.
I entered the hotel lobby. Inside, there was chaos to match the storm outside. Windows had been blown in by the storm, and the lobby was nearly ankle-deep in water. Fortunately, the elevators were working and I was on an upper floor. I couldn’t see much out through the rain-spattered windows of my hotel room, but it was a city inundated with water.
I turned on the TV, and learned that most of the city’s massive pumps were working at maximum capacity to clear the subriverine city, but in the face of the 19 inches of rain expected to fall that night, they were unequal to the task.
Yes, friends, 19 inches of rain fell within a few hours.
Meanwhile, in Metairie, a few miles to the north, my crew had gone to a local restaurant for dinner. The restaurant was on a rise of ground, surrounded by a parking lot at a lower level. While they ate, the parking lot flooded above the tops of car tires. They were stranded, and spent the night sleeping on booths in the restaurant. (I should mention that in those ancient times we didn’t have cell phones, and I didn’t learn this ’til the next day.)
The trade show never opened. The Convention Center also flooded, and the show was cancelled. Our Sam Spade never delivered his schtick to a single individual. We never handed out those t-shirts and key chains. We never got anyone to fill out the little game cards that would give us their names and addresses so that my client could follow up sales leads. It was a washout in the purest sense of the word.
A few years later, Hurricane Katrina subjected New Orleans to infinitely more misery than it experienced in that single night of heavy rain. The city and its people were utterly transformed by the events of Hurricane Katrina, in ways far more dire than anything I experienced. I don’t compare my experience to that of the people who continue to live in the aftermath of true devastation. They’re resilient people, and they have a stunning, inspiring willingness to move forward after all they’ve endured. They inhabit a beautiful, unique place that’s unlike any other part of the world, and I was glad, after all these years, to go there and see their wonderful town. I encourage you to do the same.
But, wherever you are, if the water reaches the first rung of your bar stool, wherever you are, take my advice and choose that moment to head for shelter.
Travel stories, anyone? Always glad to hear ’em!
The opening lines are from the song recorded in 1965, “Eve of Destruction,” by P.F. Sloan.
© 2012 Brad Nixon