I’ve met three US marines in New Orleans and each encounter has been as fun and formidable as I always hoped it would. The first was in a little Irish pub just off Bourbon Street, where a crazy bartender called Emily regaled us with the tale of how she once called up Cingular (a big American mobile network) and demanded to know whether they could back up their advertised claim to have the ‘fewest dropped calls’.
There was a motley crew propping up the bar and none of us was remotely interested in the outcome of this story. But Emily’s manic approach of emphasising her points by clattering glasses down in front of us and firing drinks in every direction to head off any potential interruptions had everyone too terrified to move, so we laboured on to the end (which, you will be pleased to know, resulted in her being kept on hold for two hours only to find out the relevant research had been carried out by a company owned by Cingular). Basking in her single-handed triumph on behalf of neurotic consumers everywhere, Emily departed swinging her towel triumphantly in the air. Relieved to have survived the ordeal with relatively few glass-shard related injuries, conversation gently returned to our corner of the bar.
Before long my companion (seated on my right) began speaking in increasingly vociferously and slurred tones, as people generally seem to do over here, on the subject of George Bush. The remarks became steadily more hostile and a few references to the Pope were chucked in for good measure, before the man to my left – a 60+ mountain of pasty flesh who up to now I’d assumed was a scenic prop – suddenly rose up off his stool (no inconsiderable feat), slammed down his quadruple whisky, thrust his arm across me and pointed at my friend. “I,” he thundered, “am a Republican, a Catholic and a former US Marine.” He stood there palpably shaking in fury with his accusatory finger fully outstretched, before darkly concluding: “and I don’t like your tone.”
As introductions go it certainly wasn’t a bad one. The two if them ended up drunkenly swapping gossip about the Green Bay Packers, and all further mentions of Papal fascism and retarded Republicans were studiously avoided. I was still recovering from the experience the next night when, out of the gloom of a Frenchmen Street jazz club, another marine approached me (thankfully this one was young and still serving, so lacked some of the bile the older generation appear to have stored up). With a worryingly passive-aggressive series of twitches, furtive eye movements and delirious grins, he confided in whispers that he was a liberal who played the mandolin, a fact that he could never reveal to his soldier comrades for fear of getting lynched. “I’m the fucking outcast dude!” he exploded into my previously strained ear, causing me to leap back in undisguised panic into an unsuspecting couple behind me. His friend, also a marine, soon joined us and walked me through a step-by-step tutorial on how to procure illicit alcohol if stationed at a US airbase in Afghanistan. “It’s all about the federal mailbags man,” he kept saying whilst pouring us more drinks. The pair eventually started dancing before the liberal passed out. The other one cheerfully dragged him into a taxi, all the while mouthing ‘mailbags’ to me and offering anyone within earshot several varieties of hard drugs.
The national guard patrols much of New Orleans parish down here, as the city police are overstretched as it is by rising violence in the past year. There is also a large army base over the river on the West Bank, the result of which is that military types are not in short supply. For entertainment value alone, based on these three specimens I can’t help but feel such a presence can only be a good thing. After all, who can tell when the vagaries of Afghanistani contraband might come up in a pub quiz?