New Orleans technically shouldn’t exist.
“When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up”
The Swamp Castle King, Monty Python & The Holy Grail
That’s the literal story of New Orleans – the first two attempts at the city sank into the swamp. The third attempt burned, and then fell into the swamp. The region around New Orleans was basically uninhabitable, yet the French and Spanish both fought for New Orleans as it sits at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Back then, the River was a source of commerce, shipping, food, and travel. Nowadays, the Mississippi River brings a certain rotten egg smell to New Orleans (if you’ve ever been there, you know what I mean) whenever the tides go down. I wouldn’t feed fish that came from the River to Gitmo detainees, and I’m surprised that boats can still float down the Mississippi with all the flotsam and jetsam in the water.
The centerpiece of New Orleans is the French Quarter, named because it was built by the Spanish using Spanish architecture. This is completely true – the Spanish controlled New Orleans for several decades, during which time the entire downtown area burned down. It was rebuilt by the Spanish, but was renamed the French Quarter when the French took the territory back over. To this day, you can observe the finest of late 18th century and early 19th century Spanish buildings in the French Quarter.
The Fall, Winter and Spring seasons in New Orleans are all pretty pleasant – temperatures range from the low 60’s into the mid 80’s. The summers are another story. To call them murderous would be an understatement. New Orleans is built on a swamp, so the relative humidity hits about 10,000%. People have been known to implode due to the sheer air over saturation during the summers. Because of this weather, there are very few tourists who come down to New Orleans between May and August.
Except the Germans.
I don’t know the entire story, but every year there would be a gaggle of German tourists in the French Quarter. They usually came in families, except that the fathers were constantly swearing in loud German, and dragging their crying children down the street. As far as I could tell, some German tourist agency would hornswaggle families into making a trip to exotic New Orleans – during the worst season of the year.
Because all the tourists were gone in a city whose main source of revenue is tourism (between the Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras, and Jazzfest, you get a lot of income from tourists pouring into the city each year), the mosquito season was particularly harsh. There weren’t just swarms of mosquitoes around the city – they held conventions. To top all of this off, the infrastructure of New Orleans comes circa the stone age. Because the city is situated below sea level, trees constantly grow their roots in the middle of the roads. This makes it impossible to pave the roads with any regularity. It’d take in the range of three billion dollars a year just to keep the roads paved smoothly. Combine this with an antiquated streetcar system, a lack of technology abounding (the DMV has no computers still – they run all files by paper and by hand), and the absolute political corruption and racial strife in the city, and you’ve got a city rife with completely demented people – who else would want to live there?
If you’ve never read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, go out and buy it/rent it/steal it/borrow it right now. It’s a perfect comedic portrait of a city which should not exist, populated by the damaged, deranged and derelict. It speaks of N’awlins that the most famous book about the Big Easy was written by a man who committed suicide 1969, and had written the entire manuscript on wax paper. J.K. Toole’s mother brought the manuscript to famous novelist Walker Percy after she found it in her son’s effects. Walker immediately wanted to reject the entire book because it was presented in such a shoddy fashion. History will bear out that Mr. Percy did indeed read the manuscript, and A Confederacy of Dunces is now considered a classic.
This brings us to Clay of Sardia and Serendib Jim.
Clay owned a store named Wargames and Fantasy. It was located in one of the suburbs of New Orleans, and had started carrying Magic from day one. They were far away from campus when I didn’t own a car, but were not so far away that me and some friends avoided the place once they started running tournaments. We went a few times, playing on the floor, old wooden tables, and on top of glass counters.
Clay (and his wife Deana) were definitely of the New Orleans flavor. Clay resembled Rupert from Survivor in many ways, except he was a little larger around the waist and always wore jeans overalls instead of tie-dye. Deana helped him run Wargames and Fantasy, which has been around for a decade before Magic even existed. Clay had gotten into wargaming and Dungeon and Dragons and opened the shop to be a haven for himself and his gaming friends. Many of the old school Magic players in New Orleans started playing Magic because of Wargames and Fantasy, and there was a definite rift between the old guard from D&D and the new guard who were there solely for Magic.
Clay wasn’t the nicest of people, but his lack of niceness was in a very xenophobic way. He didn’t go out of his way to be unpleasant, but he also didn’t make outsiders feel at all welcome in his shop. Instead of the Tulane crowd being welcomed at Wargames and Fantasy as new blood, we were regarded as interlopers who were trespassing on foreign soil. The wargamers resented having Magic players there. Many of them viewed Magic as a fad that took up precious space where they could be playing Warhammer or running historical simulations.
It was a shame that Wargames and Fantasy didn’t cater at all to Magic players, because they were the most game friendly shop within driving distance of New Orleans. We stopped going to their tournaments after a month or so, since none of us were having fun at the events. Eventually the store got out of Magic all together around the time of Tempest. Note this trend: every shop that has ever tried to organize Magic tournaments in New Orleans has run aground due to one or another factor. In this case, it was Clay’s refusal to accept something new.
Everyone in those days had a nickname, and Clay’s was Clay of Sardia, on account of his size. We never called him this to his face, and it was a bit of a cruel nickname. Years later, I would find out that Clay had a near death experience which left him a changed man. It would not be right to go into the details of his personal life, but I can say that people tell me he was very outgoing and warm before this accident, and very withdrawn and haunted after the fact. I hope Clay eventually recovered, because he wasn’t a bad guy – he was just hurt and in turn hurt himself by cutting himself off from others.
Serendib Jim was the opposite of Clay in many ways – he was a local college student who ran tournaments at Crescent City Comics and Cards. This shop was into comic books and sports cards long before Magic, but Jim (one of their employees) got into Magic and saw the potential for growth in that area. Jim was a friend of Alan, who was a friend of Steve Curry’s (my play partner for a few months), so we got word of their tournaments from day one.
Serendib Jim was named after, of course, Serendib Djinn from Arabian Nights. Much like the mythical Arabian merchant in these old stories, Jim was a wheeler and dealer. He wasn’t much for organizing tournaments or rules knowledge or playing the game, but he knew how to trade. Back in those days, nobody could trade cards as well as Jim. This is how he kept Magic in the store even after the tournaments there floundered – the profits he brought in from one lopsided trade after another made the owners of the business very happy indeed. Eventually Jim decided he wanted to move on to pursue other things aside from Magic, and the old Crescent City tournaments closed down… for a time.
I don’t remember much about those early tournaments in those two shops, because they were small change. The big events were at the Quality Hotel in Metarie (the main suburb of New Orleans) at 2261 North Causeway Boulevard, right off of I-10 three exits west of New Orleans proper. Tim Weissman and his Events Horizons company still run New Orleans tournaments out of this hotel. If there’s been one constant in the last decade of New Orleans Magic, it’s the Quality Inn.
The Quality Inn, where Steve and Keith ran monthly Magic tournaments for months. The first prize? A full set of the Power 9.
Until the time I finally finished first.