Serious life lessons were recently learned in New Orleans, and I need to talk about all of them right now.
I woke up Wednesday morning, the no-man's-land day of Super Bowl week, situated after Media Day but before the throngs arrive, without a single clue as to what to write about. An hour later, my one idea — "Whaddaya think are the chances I can get away with writing something today about how the onslaught of on-air personality ex-athlete commentators are now the most celeb-y people around New Orleans, which is creepy and weird?" — was scrapped because I'm not trying to beef with a bunch of bigger dudes with dad strength, many of whom are sharing the same workspace and wireless bandwith.
So I was back to square one. Nothing.
Slightly panicked, I did what any wise person does when they're in a tight spot:
Yes, on the surface, "shopping" sounds like one of the more irresponsible ways to deal with deadlines, but knowing that stories weren't coming to me and I generally didn't know what I was doing (running life theme), it became clear I needed to revert back to what I'm best at: finding a thrift store, touching everything, chatting up the owner, taking 90 minutes to indecisively purchase one item for $6, and then walking out with gallons of inspiration. So that's exactly what I did, armed with a duffle bag and the entire Vieux Carré at my disposal.
Stop 1: Kitchen Witch, 631 Toulouse St. Opened after Hurricane Katrina.
(Was advised not to because handle was broken.)
(There was no hesitation.)
Favorite owner quote: "The old New York is gone. That's why so many my age left and came to New Orleans. The French Quarter reminds us of the old New York."
Stop 2: Antiques Art Collectibles, 818 Royal St. Opened 25 years ago.
(All I'll say is that it was between $60 and $500.)
(Books + birds + America; the only thing missing for perfection is cake.)
Favorite owner quote (after coming clean on my hometown): "Booooooooooooooooo."
After I was playfully derided by the antique shop owner and his daughter, and breaking down why the New Orleans–Atlanta rivalry is real, I checked my phone and saw a message.
It was from Grantland contributor/smartest man Kirk Goldsberry. Without any prior knowledge, he wrote to say I should swing by The Faulkner House book shop and pick up New Orleans Sketches by William Faulkner. While this plan sounded great, it didn't really fit in my plan of finding thrift stores filled to the brim with odd attic-worthy tchotchkes and Chic albums.
Life Lesson 2: Always listen to people who are smarter than you, because they are smarter than you.
Sometimes plans change, especially when you're desperate. So I was off.
Stop 3: The Faulkner House, 624 Pirate's Alley. Opened 23 years ago on Faulkner's birthday.
(Recently turned over a new leaf, and I've given up stealing the plaques of national landmarks.)
(Just following instructions.)
Favorite owner quote (tie):
"I'm going to put this bookmark on the Faulkner sketch that a young man like yourself should start with "
"You might be the only Super Bowl writer here on the hunt for books," the owner said, after which I smiled, thanked her, walked out of the store, took four steps down Pirate's Alley, and saw Boomer Esiason and Shannon Sharpe filming a Pizza Hut commercial.
So there's that.
Life Lesson 3: NEVER DO A PIZZA HUT COMMERCIAL.
After watching a few takes of this future television masterpiece, I realized I hadn't taken a picture of the beautiful contents of The Faulkner House, so I returned. The owner, sensing my lost mission, flagged me down and handed me a piece of paper that would prove to be my missing puzzle piece:
Not only did I have my treasure map and compass, but now there was a goal staring me in the face. Eight French Quarter bookstores to visit, and I'd already hit two on the list. I could knock this out in an hour or so and be in front of my laptop, chronicling my findings in blog form by midafternoon.
And just like that, I had a story.
Stop 4: Arcadian Books, 714 Orleans St. Opened 31 years ago.
(Yeah, almost just scooped up the whole box, because why not, MITT ROMNEY DON'T PAY NO TAX.)
Favorite owner quote: "This is from the 1940s, most likely, and you'll notice [pointing at my new-found bookstore treasure map] that the boundaries of the Quarter were the same then as they are now."
Stop 5: Crescent City Books, 230 Charters St. Two years in current location, but located in the French Quarter since 1992.
(BOOKSTORE CATS ARE SO SMART.)
(I want to go to there.)
Favorite employee quote: "Yes, you can take two of the Les MisÚrables bookmarks."
Stop 6: Librairie Books, 823 Chartres St. Located in the Quarter for more than 45 years.
(Couldn't purchase just one. It was either 45 copies or zero.)
Favorite employee quote: "I left some original news clippings in the book for you to find. I think you'll find them interesting."
Every person over 70 in New Orleans is the nicest human ever created. And they all work in bookstores.
Stop 7: The Iron Rail Book Collective, 503 Barracks St. In current location for about two years.
(Was in the section of the bookstore that operated as a library, so wasn't for sale. Only for taunt.)
(He actually let me have it for free, because he spilled lentil soup on it.)
Favorite employee quote: "You can just have it, I spilled lentil soup on it."
Weaving through the Quarter, I couldn't seem to find my second-to-last stop, Dauphine Street Books. Wondering if, perhaps, the list I was given was out of date, I stood in front of a door, and then took a closer look:
Great. Just great.
Stop 8: Dauphine Street Books, 410 Dauphine St. CLOSED ON WEDNESDAY, SO I HAVE NO IDEA HOW LONG IT'S BEEN OPERATING, BECAUSE THEY WERE CLOSED, BECAUSE THEY HATE ME AND NOW I HATE THEM.
This is how I felt, but could only really be mad at myself. I mean, right on my treasure map sheet of paper, it says "closed Wednesdays." But I didn't see that. Because I don't read things thoroughly.
Life Lesson 4: Always read things thoroughly, or else you'll be 7/8ths of the way through a great project, and then realize you can't finish it the way you wanted, all because you didn't read things thoroughly.
So, like LeBron's first ring, my eight French Quarter bookstores story would always have an asterisk. Yes, the antiques shop wasn't included on the list, so I'd get to eight establishments, but it wasn't the same. I wanted to check off each place on my list, but now I couldn't. Sulking, wet (it's worth noting it was raining for the majority of the excursion), and cranky, I made my way to the final French Quarter bookstore.
Stop 9: Beckham's Book Store, 228 Decatur St. Located in the Quarter for more than 45 years.
My intention upon entering was to be in and out in a matter of minutes. Unlike the other stops, where I searched and dug until I found the perfect item, this felt more like a business trip. I planned to carry out my duties of purchasing, documenting, and leaving not because it was fun, but because I needed to be consistent. It was almost like I felt like a journalist. Ugh.
But after 15 minutes, nothing jumped out. So I made my way to the front. To the $1 book bin.
Life Lesson 5: Never forget who you are, where you came from, how cheap you are, and how embarrassing you are to your family.
While digging through a bargain bin is arguably my truest self, something about it didn't feel right this time. For one, it was an eyesore in a regal room, filled with well-manicured books and shelves. Additionally, it was located just across from the older gentleman who ran the store. And as I dug, it felt like he was judging my very existence, especially since all of the bargain books were targeted for kids ages 5-8. I could just feel him thinking, All these adult books in here, and this poor soul is digging through the kiddie books.
Hoping he'd hop on the phone so we could make a children's book transaction without exchanging words (only patronizing glances) and I could walk out with some dignity, I waited. Eventually I gave in and picked up a basketball book called Hoop Kings, gave him a dollar, and exited, happy that I had finished the Asterisk Book Tour, but disgusted with myself in the manner in which I closed it out.
And then I actually looked at what Hoop Kings was all about.
If you've made it this far, know that this entire French Quarter walkabout and photo essay was just a giant setup for perhaps the greatest piece of sports literature ever published. Phrases like "You aren't ready" and "Nothing can prepare you for this" and "OMGLOLZZZZZZOMG" may seem cliché, but know that they are gross understatements.
Hoop Kings is the only book that matters. Forever.
At first glance, you're distracted by the blue basketball player and the semi-diagonal display of the phrase "Hoop Kings," which is unfortunate because neither is the most important part of the cover. That honor belongs to the word "poems."
Hoop Kings is a book of poetry.
After a few intro pages, we make our way to the table of contents, which begins to give clues for the roller coaster we are about to board:
These are our hoop kings. Twelve, to be exact. And with poem titles like "Allen Iverson: By Any Means Necessary," "Steve Francis: "ILL at WILL," and, the greatest, "Chris Webber: Velvet Hammer," it's clear this will be an adventure.
There's no way to know we're getting a slam poetry script, complete with creative indentations, varying font sizes, bolded words, and a picture of our hoop king, all in one foldout. I mean, you think you've read it all with:
"Crossover is nice, defenses get slice like cheese, opponents freeze—"
But then later, you're slapped in the face with:
"No fear No shame drives your one-hundred-sixty-five-pound body and six-foot frame like a lightning bug zig-zaggin' that can't be contained"
This is the stuff of legend. And that's just the first Hoop King.
The following are some things I learned about our other 11 hoop kings, through the poetry.
From "Vince Carter: Out of This World":
"Up high down hard orange orbs blast through silken nets like hammers through glass smashin' mediocrity with authority and aerial artistry causin' simple Vinsanity."
From "Tim Duncan: Money in the Bank":
"Inside and outside, right side and left side, always banking off the glass"
Not even in Hoop Kings could the prose on Duncan get exciting. That's impressive.
From "Steve Francis: ILL at WILL":
"Infectious dunks over seven-foot chumps cause aches and pains and muscular strains when then Franchise Flu strikes"
Is this public-health emergency issued by the CDC about the flu or the Franchise Flu? I just want to know how to prepare.
From "Kevin Garnett: KG in 3D":
"when KG goes di-di-digital playing triple dimensional basketball Y2KG STYLE."
I'm going to cry, this is so beautiful.
From "Shaquille O'Neal: What's in a Name":
THAT'S THE WHOLE POEM.
From "Jason Kidd: Accelerator":
"License plate: TRPL DBL"
I think this is a Drake lyric.
From "Stephon Marbury: The Cyclone":
"Buckle up keep your hands inside as the Coney Island Cyclone takes you on a ride."
I think this is a Stephon Marbury lyric.
From "Tracy McGrady: One-Man Show":
"Come one come all to witness Basketball Theater featuring Tracy McGrady."
No one has ever said this before.
From "Chris Webber: Velvet Hammer":
"Feathery fingertips flick fadeaways from far away with flair."
Classic Chris Webber Velvet Hammer. We, as a culture, have to get this nickname to stick. It's too perfect. You know, like this:
OR LIKE THIS:
And with those last words on Kobe, that is the end of the book's poetry. But not the end of the book. Not even close. There are still pages 32-35: "Poem Notes." You know, the section in which our author, thankfully, explains the method behind the madness. And, as has been the case, he does not disappoint.
If you've made it this far, know that this entire Hoop Kings walkabout was a giant setup for easily the most important back-of-book author notes we have in our literary history. There's never been anything like what you're about to read. Please, just sit down, get a cold glass of 2 percent, and let the greatness wash over you.
Three things to note: (1) These thoughts are in first person, (2) his ability to bring a point full circle is unmatched, (3) as much as I want to incorporate my own commentary, I've decided to not interrupt. I don't deserve it. I'm not great.
"Allen Iverson. By Any Means Necessary. No matter how well Allen Iverson plays, the first things people notice about him are his braids, tattoos, and heart. Controversy has a way of finding him, but when he steps on the court, he has a single mission: to score points 'by any means necessary,' a phrase used by the late Malcolm X, a man who also found himself at the center of controversy. Iverson has played through so many injuries that I liken him to a tattooed warrior."
"Vince Carter. Out Of This World. For Vince Carter, I tried to use a description that was literally out of this world. I transformed Carter from a person into an asteroid that's picking up speed, ready to turn on its trajectory and smash into something down on Earth — in this case, the basketball rim."
"Tim Duncan. Money In The Bank. Tim Duncan relies on fundamental, not flashy, moves. But this doesn't mean he can't get the job done. He can rack up twenty points and make it look easy. His 'money shot,' the one he relies on, is a short jump shot off the backboard. Since his game is traditional, I used four sets of haiku to describe him. The haiku is a Japanese poetry form that has three unrhymed lines; the first line has five syllables, the second has seven, and the last has five. I also played with words to show him 'cashing in' his money shot at the bank."
"Steve Francis. ILL at WILL. Every time I've seen Steve Francis play, I've always found myself saying how 'sick' he is. That's a slang word for intense and good. Even though he's six-foot-three, I've seen him dunk many times over much taller players. I asked myself what would make someone 'sick' and came up with the flu, and since his name is Stevie Franchise, I just used all of the symptoms to describe someone catching the Franchise flu."
"Kevin Garnett. KG in 3D. Standing at six feet eleven inches, yet performing with the versatility of someone much smaller, KG is a new breed of player. He does things that people his size normally just do not do. I call his game digital because it shows a new and improved way to doing things, just as digital technology is better than the old analog technology. Garnett's game is changing the way basketball is played for all players, big and small."
"Shaquille O'Neal. What's In a Name? What else is there to say about someone who stands more than seven feet tall, weighs over three hundred pounds, and dominates the game? I decided to focus on his unique name to describe these traits in a few simple words. The trick was choose four words that would provide the biggest punch. This style of poem is called an acrostic and is often used to introduce newcomers to poetry because of its simplicity."
"Jason Kidd. Accelerator. The point guard runs the show on offense and is sometimes called the spark plug that makes the team's engine go. Point guard Jason Kidd is like a racecar. Very fast on the court, he is also one of the few players who regularly gets a triple double — that's ten or more points in three statistical categories, such as points, rebounds, and assists. I also gave him a license plate (TRPL DBL) and a model number (JK32). Together they mean Jason Kidd, triple double."
"Stephon Marbury. The Cyclone. Stephon Marbury is from Coney Island, New York, where there is a roller coaster called the Cyclone. Having lived in Brooklyn myself, I have been on the roller coaster, and it is a thrilling ride. I liken Stephon Marbury to the ride because he is a thrilling player who takes your breath away."
"Tracy McGrady. One-Man Show. Basing my rhyme scheme on the suffix '-ator' (meaning someone who does), I chose as many words as I could find to describe the unlimited potential and skill of Tracy McGrady and his complex, ever-evolving game."
"Chris Webber. Velvet Hammer. I've watched Chris Webber play since college, and although he is a big guy with lots of power, he always has had a very light touch when taking a jump shot. On the basketball court, that translates into power and finesse — a velvet hammer."
"Jason Williams. The Amazing. It was very easy for me to imagine Jason Williams as a magician because he makes the ball disappear on a regular basis. When I went to the circus as a kid, I enjoyed hearing the "barker" shout out who was performing, so I wrote the poem in that voice."
"Kobe Bryant. The Creator. I am originally from Los Angeles and am a diehard Laker fan. Kobe Bryant is my favorite player. He has created shots on the basketball court that I have NEVER seen before. This is why I called him the Creator — I liken him to a painter, using different moves like different colors to form a masterpiece on the court."
This is Hoop Kings. I'm just the messenger, so don't thank me, but YOU'RE WELCOME.
This day began with occupational self-doubt and a desire to burn a hole in my pocket, developed into a learned stretch of book discovery, became an exercise in discovering more about New Orleans, and ended with discovering the children's book of my adult dreams. I think that's what life is all about.
Life Lesson 6: When in doubt, get weird.