Up, up and away

Balloons, bars and bands in the Big Easy.

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It's around 11 on a Saturday night when our buddy Gorman squeezes his Beemer into a spot on Royal Street in the Bywater neighborhood, part of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, near the Mississippi River. I get out, with a half-finished beer in my hand and a knife in my pocket, still feeling groggy from the nap I took following a long day spent in the sun and mud at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Our pal Chandler appears droopy, like he might already be feeling the Molly, a popular new form of the club drug Ecstasy, which he took before we left. My buddy and former co-worker Tommy hauls a book bag packed with cans of beer, bottle of liquor, weed and various smoking paraphernalia.

It's going to be a long night.

We arrive at Frenchmen Street, which borders the French Quarter, and find a block party of epic proportions. Live funk and jazz pours from the numerous bars. Musicians busk on the street corners. Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A., one of my favorite new artists, is playing at a club called 619 Frenchmen. She's not supposed to perform for a couple more hours, and there's already a line outside the door. We scratch her from the night's itinerary.

Thousands of people from just about every age group, ethnicity and sexual orientation meander from one nightspot to the next, consuming various forms of alcohol and drugs along the way. The few cops present are too busy directing traffic and making sure nobody gets murdered to mess with the folks smoking bowls in plain view. Nor do the police shut down guys on the sidewalk manning tanks of Nitrous oxide, which they release into giant purple balloons and sell to throngs of thrill-seekers.

"Frenchmen is like Bourbon Street for locals," Chandler tells me.

We follow Tommy, who's tall and walks faster than most people jog, through the giddy crowd. There's a tent set up at the end of the street where venerable trumpeter and Ninth Ward native Kermit Ruffins plays a gorgeous cover of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." I'd like to stick around for Ruffins' set but don't wanna lose our gang, which now numbers about a dozen and is bent on finding a bar where they can catch the end of the Hornets' playoff game taking place a few miles away at the Superdome.

All the people I'm with are in their mid-20s, friends from their days at Loyola University. They either still live in New Orleans or are in town — crashing on sofas and floors — for Jazz Fest. I'm staying with my brother Joel and his roommates Tommy and Chandler. They live in the Uptown neighborhood, and last night their three-bedroom duplex slept eight. People come and go at all hours. I'm so exhausted I feel like I'm floating.

Tommy and the rest of his crew nab a table at a little bar called Monaghan's. Chandler and I stay on the sidewalk, drink from Tommy's book bag and admire the women in miniskirts who brush past us. The Hornets' victory heightens the excitement level, and Tommy becomes dead set on us doing a balloon.

"Come on," he says. "If I buy you one, will you do it?"

I'm so fucked up from not getting a good night's rest in about four days that I figure a blast of laughing gas can't hurt. Tommy's pal Smoky talks the Nitrous vendor into selling us three balloons for $15. A deal, he says, since they're going for $7 a piece. I position myself against a wall and the three of us inhale. "Breathe in and out of the balloon and get a nice long hit," Tommy says.

I suck away and then catch myself smiling; a nice tingle overcomes my body, but I'm still lucid and can stand straight, something I wasn't able to do when I spent too much time at the nitrous tank we had at a field party back in high school.

"How ya feeling?" Tommy asks, beaming.

By 2:45 a.m. we're at a house-turned venue called the Dragon's Den. Almost everyone on the back patio is hitting a bowl. I've been to New Orleans and Frenchmen Street several times before, but never recall the drug use being so brazen. It's a beautiful thing. The masses are stoned and mellow. We walk up a steep, winding stairwell and pay $5 each to see a New Orleans band called Gravity A.

We go out on the balcony, which feels like it's made of cardboard and ready to collapse at any second. Tommy leans on the rail, which is about 3 feet high, and begins to sway. I grab his shirt and pull him into a chair. "Get down before your dumb ass lands on the street," I bark. He giggles.

Gravity A takes the stage at 4:30 a.m. During their 5:30 a.m. set break I return to the balcony and share a balloon with a complete stranger. We finally gather everyone up around 6 and head home. I plop down on the air mattress in my brother's room and try to fall asleep as the sun creeps in through the blinds. Good times, I think to myself, but I'm getting too old for this shit.

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