Should Gambit ever get around to publishing its long-awaited "Worst of New Orleans" issue (line up now, advertisers!), the rare, truly deplorable aspects of Crescent City living -- you know, the little things like public education, political corruption, criminal prosecution and Guy's Po-Boys closing down -- all would be competing for the honor of runner-up. Because there's no mystery as to what the worst thing about New Orleans is: It's the motor pool.
How do I hate thee, NOLA motor pool? Let me count the ways. We have roads no Third World country would be proud of. Potholes that can swallow smart cars. Insurance that costs more than a Kia. Our drivers have blood-alcohol levels higher than their liability coverage, and our civil engineers couldn't engineer themselves a sandwich. Let's face it: We're 10 years away from being able to make a legal left-hand turn, 20 from any hope of an HOV.
I place the blame squarely on early city planners, who -- when presented with all the shapes in the known universe from which to choose -- decided on "pie wedge" as a layout pattern. The French Quarter is a perpendicular grid and it was designed by people who drove to work in wagons. Why do the rest of New Orleans' roadways resemble drunken doodles on Google Earth?
My first knee-jerk reaction upon moving here was to rid myself of my dependence on automobiles: I was to become a bicyclist. Sounds good, no? I thought so. But unless you have hamstrings like Lance Armstrong's, pedaling yourself to Metairie and back is a major pain in the butt -- and the thighs, and the calfs. Far more revelatory is my most recent fetish, the 150cc bundle of love I've come to know as Vespa.
Piaggio's mini motorcycles aren't just for gays and Europeans anymore. They're fast (up to 60 mph), practical (better than 70 miles per gallon), relatively cheap (around $4,000), not terribly unsafe (OK, that's not true) and a hell of a lot of fun to ride. Mine's fire-engine red, a color choice I hoped might convey something along the lines of "Please don't kill me!" to spaced-out speeders caught up in cell phone conversations. He even has a snappy name: Scooter Libby.
It took only two days on River Road's straightaway to tame the little guy. Now I'm zipping around Mid-City's meandering streets and the Quarter's blind corners like Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. Commuting in New Orleans takes on a whole new life when you go from four wheels to two; the sights, sounds, smells and police sirens all become more vivid when there's no windshield between you and the city. It's the difference between seeing a Broadway play and starring in one. And we happen to live in a place offering plenty of drama on a daily basis.
Why, just last week on my way to and from work, I had a front-row seat to a high-speed chase on St. Charles Avenue, a drag race down Claiborne Avenue and a guns-drawn, NOPD raid of a house on Louisiana Avenue. Was my safety endangered, absent the reassurance of an airbag, door locks and reinforced steel encasement? Perhaps. But was I entertained? Now you're getting it.
More crucial to my survival has been retaining muscle memory on the location of new craters that pop up like pimples on New Orleans' face every week. Hit one of those doing 50 mph on a Vespa and it's a death sentence I'm afraid not even Scooter Libby could dodge.