Thursday, April 28, 1994...
A long, hard day of driving, which ended in one of the worst motels I've ever visited. This only reconfirms my earlier suspicion that New Orleans is as close to Hell as anything I ever want to experience.
The day started well enough -- I was on the road, stuffed with all the cholesterol a Shoney's buffet could provide, before 8:00. US 90 remains a nondescript road the entire way across Florida; the only towns of any size I hit were Tallahassee (where the state capitol isn't even marked!) and Pensacola, where it enters from the east on "Scenic Highway," which runs right along the bayfront for several miles. In several spots along the road, long-faded signs indicated that the strip in question had been named for or dedicated to some local personage.
The road maintains its second-rate status across eastern Alabama before crossing Mobile Bay on a series of bridges so long that the parallel I-10 bridges cross over 'em twice. 90 then runs into downtown Mobile through the Bankhead Tunnel, named for the same powerful Alabama Senator (and father of actress Tallulah Bankhead) who was also honored with the Bankhead Highway. As Government Street in Mobile, it fronts on a long array of imposing old homes before becoming a commercial strip on the west side of town.
But US 90 really comes into its glory in Mississippi: first passing the Pascagoula shipyards, then crossing onto the long island or peninsula which contains Biloxi and Gulfport, both of which have been transformed by the recent addition of casino gambling. The "riverboats" which house the casinos are nothing more than waterborne versions of Atlantic City gambling houses; they never leave the docks. The funniest juxtaposition comes in Gulfport, where two gaudy new casino boats flank the docks on which dozens of trucks wait for shipments of Chiquita Bananas.
Anyone who thinks the Civil War is over has never visited "Beauvoir," the house where Jefferson Davis spent his last years, on 90 in Biloxi. The guide to this "shrine," which is owned and operated by the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, speaks of Davis's service to the "War for Southern Independence," and its Stars and Bars Gift Shop sells two dozen publications proclaiming the legal and moral superiority of the Confederate position beneath a display of bug-eyed, big-lipped "Mammy" rag dolls. But for those damned Northerners intruding with their notion that blacks are people, they imply, strapping buck niggers would still sing their happy songs in the cotton fields. The property also contains the Confederacy's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and a sign for the "Jefferson Davis Highway" on the front lawn. (No self-respecting Southerner would ever drive the Lincoln Highway...)
West of Gulfport, the commercialism fades while the road continues to run beachside for miles. The region becomes perceptibly less prosperous as the road heads for Louisiana, but nothing compares to the horrors on the west side of that border. In Louisiana, US 90 runs for thirty miles through impoverished bayou lands. Everyone here has a boat as well as a car, and that boat's usually parked in the waters abutting one side of the home. Many of the houses have colorful nicknames posted by their mailboxes.
The poverty doesn't abate in the slightest as New Orleans is neared; in fact it may even get worse. I was arriving without a motel reservation, but as 90 came closer to New Orleans, I decided without even slowing the car that each of the first dozen motels I passed was unsafe. But there's a music festival in New Orleans now, and I was fast approaching the historic district, so when I saw several motels clustered at the junction with I-10 I jumped at the Family Inns of America sign. I'd seen this chain elsewhere...looked to be sub-Motel 6, but the sign promised AAA approval.
Ha. If the AAA had set foot in my room any time since around 1978, it would have failed. The room was big, the air conditioner worked and the mattress wasn't too bad, but that exhausted the good points. Cigarette burns covered the tub and one of the chairs -- there was even a cigarette butt stuck to the wall behind the phone! My TV promised cable but delivered only the audio portion of ESPN; the phones were hard-wired to the wall so I couldn't connect the modem; and while I was using the phone, two silverfish crawled across the bed. The motel parking lot was completely surrounded by barbed wire, with one entrance permanently blocked and a security guard sitting in front of the other entrance. When the sign said "Family Inns," I hadn't expected the Manson Family...
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