I’ll never forget the first day of my gondolier gig. The day was August 30, 2005, and the place was post-Katrina New Orleans.
It was a beautiful day to be a gondolier. When I woke up, the sun was beaming on my face since my roof had blown away last night. I couldn’t stop smiling because moving my sunburned face was excruciatingly painful. Luckily, the floodwaters were at roof level, so I could just hop over my walls onto my gondola and start rowing. A few strokes out, I saw someone drowning, and I freaked out. My first customer!
I shouted, “Il signore! Traveling solo today? Or are we waiting for a special signora?” The man climbed in and started crying and shaking. He had a bad case of the lovebug and a worse case of hypothermia. Thankfully, I had just the trick up the sleeve of my thermal-insulated gondolier shirt: my Venetian barcarolle song.
“O sole mio! A wonderful day for a pepperoncino! And a hunky chunk of artichoke-o!” I learned this barcarolle from world-famous gondolier Massimo. I learned everything from Massimo during my trip to Venice, when I binge-watched his autobiographical mini-series in my AirBNB.
I was doing vocal warm-ups for my next barcarolle when another guy tried to climb aboard. I swatted him away, saying that I take uno solo customer at a time. He swam off to a motorboat packed with dozens of people. Heartbreaking to see ride-sharing services destroy NoLa’s historic gondola industry.
We arrived at my customer’s destination (the Superdome) and I calculated the fare. Including tax and my generous first-ride discount, the trip cost 400 dollars. “That can’t be right!” he shouted. Silly me: it was 400 euros, so 493 dollars. He refused to pay: he thought I was with FEMA. I told him I wasn’t a goddamn union gondolier. He could only pay with his grandma’s heirloom engagement ring. But if I played my cards right, I could trade it for the world’s finest straw gondolier hat.
Most of my customers that day wanted to go to the Superdome. One customer said he was going to “the Super” before dying of natural causes. At day’s end, I laid back in my gondola and looked up at the stars: bed time. As I tucked myself in, I said ciao to that day and ciao to the rest of my life.