I was asleep at a friend's house a couple of weeks ago, trying to stave off waking up for just five more minutes, when I overheard a conversation immediately outside the front of the shotgun house. From what I could make out, it sounded like one of the guys engaged in the conversation was a neighborhood installation that we'll call, uh...Mr. G. Mr. G has been around forever; he's an elderly gentleman who's always dressed to the nines in slacks, golf cap, fancy shoes and v-neck sweater. He can normally be found outside the local corner store, where he drinks beer and greets the people on the street with a jovial "Hey Hey! Alright, Alright!"
I was having trouble, in my groggy, crack-of-noon slumber, believing that it was actually him talking, in fact, because in my eight years of seeing him around, I'd never heard him say anything besides "Hey Hey! Alright, Alright!" Also, I hadn't seen him since the storm and had heard rumors that he'd passed on.
The other issue I was having with the conversation (which, when I did get up, made me think briefly that i had dreamed the whole thing) was the subject of the conversation. Because, from what I could make out, it seemed like Mr. G (and some other dude whose voice I didn't recognize) had found a cage of guinea pigs on the street and was now trying to figure out how to get them home.
"you gonna take 'em?" Said the not Mr. G voice in a husky Yat accent.
"Yeah! Yeah!" Said the (perhaps ghost of) Mr. G.
"Well how you gonna get 'em home?"
"You gotta get a cart, or someone in a car or something."
and so on and so forth.
This exchange was just too much for my (admittedly somewhat hungover) brain to handle, and I rolled over and went to sleep. Later on, when I got up, I told my friend whose house I was in, Tammy, about the whole thing. "I think I heard that old guy who hangs out next door, Mr. G, find a bunch of guinea pigs outside your house this morning." I said.
"What? That's weird." Said Tammy.
A few minutes later, though, as I was coming out of the bathroom, Tammy called me to come outside.
"You were right!" She said as I blinked out into the bright day.
Sure enough, there they were. A bunch of scuzzy punk rockers of the patched-up Carhartts and Old-Timey music variety ( you may have seen these kids lining the sidewalks of the Quarter and Marigny) had been living on the other side of the shotgun and they'd left a bunch of crap out front on a table. Sometime in the night, apparently, someone had seen the table and thought it looked like a good place to leave their unwanted guinea pigs.
"Whaaaat?" I asked in disbelief, bending over to inspect the cage. There, behind a little sign that said, "Two Guinea Pigs and Cage-Free!" were, sure enough, two guinea pigs huddled together in an upside down cardboard box that had formerly held roast beef deli slices and read along the side, "Handle With Pride". I could barely make out the two little furry eggplant shapes and the four black eyes gleaming with total horror.
Soon Mr. G pulled up again (the Mark Twain-esque reports of his death apparently being greatly exaggerated) on an electric wheelchair, come to claim his new furry friends. He stood up and shuffled over to us, smiling with excitement.
"Are you going to take these guinea pigs Mr. G?" I asked.
He looked confused, his eyes still glowing with joy but his smile fading a little bit.
"What?" he croaked.
"Are you going to take the guinea pigs?" I said again.
"Yeah, Guinea pigs."
"Pigs?" He said again, scowling. I'm not sure what he thought they were, but I was reminded of the cartoon Bloom County, when the character named Portnoy's friends are horrified to learn that he was a groundhog and not a big hamster, as they had previously assumed. "I don't consort with pigs," huffed his best friend, a rabbit. I almost expected Mr. G to say the same thing (increasing the number of words I'd ever heard out of him by a whopping two hundred percent), and I decided to change the subject.
"Well what are you going to feed them?" I asked. Mr. G scratched his head beneath his sporty little golf hat. We both looked in the cag where I noticed that someone had tried to feed them a handfull of Nacho Cheezier Doritos, which were sitting untouched in the food bowl.
"Feed?" Asked Mr. G.
"Yeah, what are you going to feed them?" I was starting to get nervous. Mr. G looked so happy about his new friends, but I was also seeing that Mr. G was a little, uh, confused worried about the well-being of the pigs, picturing some sort of tragic, Of Mice And Men type accidental animal slaying. I was not clear, exactly, on what the protocol was for this type of situation.
"Grass?" Came Mr. G's shaky answer.
"I think you might need to feed them more than just grass," I said, ""I think you should get them Guinea Pig food." (Though after a little bit of research, I think that they might've done OK on grass for quite a while).
Mr. G stared at me for a while, then said, "Pigs?"
"Uh-Oh", I thought.
"Look, Mr. G, how about this. I'll go get Guinea Pig food from the store and come back here with my car. The Guinea--uh, the animals, over to your house. How about that."
Mr. G got a big grin, "Yeah! Yeah!".
"OK. Where's your house?"
He stared up the street for a long time, then took his hat off without saying anything.
"Mr. G? Where's your house? I know its just a few blocks away. I've seen you going in and out."
"Yeah..." he said, then, "Goddoggit! I can't remember."
I felt really nervous now about the whole thing. "Look, why don't you go figure out where your house is, I'll go get the food, and we'll meet back here."
"Goddoggit." he said, then piloted his chair away up the street.
Soon I was piloting my battered Sedan through Mid-City in search of Guinea Pig food, which I was surprised to find quite easily, in the pet aisle of Rouse's, right between Rabbit Food and Hamster Food, both of which looked suspiciously similar to the Guinea Pig Food.
Back in the car I thought, "Man, two hours ago I'd forgotten that Guinea Pigs were even an entity on this earth, and now I'm driving around stocking up on supplies for them. This is crazy."
When I got back to Tammy's house she said, "Good news!"
"What?" I asked.
Well, (Roommate one) just told me that (Roommate 2, who as out of town for the weekend) loves Guinea Pigs. She used to work at a Guinea Pig shelter, in fact, and he thinks she'll be stoked and want to keep them.
A guinea pig shelter? What the hell? Do guinea pigs get abandoned on the street? If so, why? I thought perhaps that some clueless parent had bought these guinea pigs for their kids as an easter present and then, upon realizing that they weren't rabbits (perhaps being as baffled by their pigness as Mr. G had) ditching them in the pile of abandoned gutter punk furniture.
Unfortunately, the guinea pig shelter was not in New Orleans. And even more unfortunately, roommate 2 was not stoked about the guinea pigs and did not want them. Quite the contrary, in fact. Tuns out that after working at the shelter, she had a traumatic experience with her own beloved pet guinea pigs being mauled by dogs and now can't be around guinea pigs at all. I was unsure on why it was guinea pigs she couldn't be around and not dogs, but we all have our own eccentricities, right? If I were to judge her for that then I'd probably have to stop burning my enemies' hair in the backyard, so to each her own.
Anyhoo, long story, uh, medium length, we ended up letting the guinea pigs spend the night in the abandoned punk rocker shotgun next door to Tammy's house (Apparently someone is squatting the place, too, because when I went to collect the little guys in the morning there were a bunch of torn up corn tortillas in their food bowl. Why people repeatedly try to give these little buggers shwaggy tex mex bread product is beyond me) and the next day took them over to Casey's.
Casey is our friend who is part of a tight knit community in town that have had (as so many folks have, of course) a lot of hardships lately. A lot of deaths, violence, and general crappy luck. These are people who prepare for the worst whenever the phone rings, they brace themselves. THis has kind of made Casey into someone always prepared to come running to help, to give hugs, bring beer, make food, print memorial t-shirts (as he did a couple weeks ago for Vi Landry's second line) or whatever. And this generosity he extended to the two unfortunate Guinea Pigs. I ran into him at the bar and told him the whole sordid tale. "Okay," he sighed, "Bring 'em over."
It's funny the reaction people have toward Guinea Pigs. Most people it seems, like mysel, haven't thought about them at all in a long time. I mean, if you don't hang out in Kindergarten classrooms, or at pet stores in the mall, why would you? They are no longer extant in the wild; they aren't even used for medical studies (their claim to fame), and though in other countries they are fattened up and eaten like chickens, they aren't real in-your-face around these parts. I think their whole unfortunate lot in life is summed up well by the reaction Casey got from his housemate Renee when he first told her about the new addition to the house. Renee was in her room drawing when Casey knocked on the door and said, "Hey Renee, come check it out, we got Guinea Pigs." Renee looked up at him for a long, heavy moment before saying, "Guinea Pigs? Like the animal?"
The Guinea Pigs somewhat forgotten existence makes it seem like they might be in danger, eventually, of going extinct even in captivity.
This whole thing they have going on, this mixture of tragic downfall (In prehistoric times they were the size of Volkswagens!) and laughable absurdity makes me feel like they are sort of a good mascot for our city, more so perhaps even, than their virile and thriving cousins, Myocaster Coypu, aka nutria rats (of which I have a tattoo on my butt, but don't tell anyone).
And the way that we came across our guinea pigs (which are still up for grabs, I think, if anyone wants 'em, get in touch), also strikes me as a somewhat typical New Orleans type of happening.
There is a certain flavor of bizarre situation that I like to think is only served up in New Orleans: A box of crawfish sits outside a bar with numbers written on their backs in white-out so that the patrons of the bar could while away the previous night betting on crawfish races. The staff at a gas station on Esplanade gets a fancy LED light sign to announce deals on cigarettes and whatnot only to realize that they don't know how to program the thing and resign themselves to the test message that the guy who installed it (apparently named Mike) programmed in: "MIKE", it flashed, "MIKE, MIKE, MIKE". Nagin laughs as he points an M4 rifle at police superintendent Warren Riley.
This is the stuff that we tell each other over beers, the hilarious antics of the city that keeps us going despite all the sadness we endure, the bureaucratic bs we've come to be familiar with, the violence we feel threatened by and all the other crappy things about living here that I know I don't need to remind people of. I mean sure, there's the music, there's the food, there's the parades, there's the stuf you see in guide books, but the real character is so much deeper than that, and it wells up at unexpected moments on random street corners. It reaches out of unexpected places, like the wild excitement in an old man's eyes, like the absurd mirror you turn on yourself when driving around mid-city looking for Guinea Pig food.
And maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this stuff happens other places. Maybe right now someone's finding a terrarium full of ferrets on the street and going, "Golly, isn't that just so, so...Kansas City?" Hmm, it could be, but I don't think so.
If you want some Guinea Pigs get in touch.