Batters Up: Running From ‘Bulls’ In New Orleans
Bending over for just a moment to catch my way over-the-legal-limit breath was a horrendous idea. Another mob pushes forward on the New Orleans street, forcing me to continue the brisk jog that’s supposed to resemble running, even though my throbbing head and burning lungs are telling my brain to pull the red handkerchief from my neck and wave it like a white flag of surrender.
As I gallop with the herd, a vomitous burp that tastes like the two loaded hot dogs I devoured before bed warns me of the jabbing pain that’s about to envelop the entire left side of my rib cage. This is all the proof I need to know that I’d never survive the actual Running of the Bulls in Spain. I can’t handle fart pains from a couple of Hebrew Nationals.
My buddy Bosis snaps, “I hate you for fucking waking me up to do this.” His hungover face is even whiter than his V-neck undershirt.
Hey, if one of us should be hating the other, it should be the other way around. I’d been more than settled into my post-single life of neighborhood block parties, reality-TV marathons, and politely abstaining from organized events of drunken debauchery. But, much as he’s done in all the years I’ve known him, Bosis convinced me to indulge, this time “once more, for old times’ sake.” We’d headed off for a friend’s bachelor-party weekend of booze, beads, and Bourbon Street, culminating in an early morning trot through the streets of New Orleans for the fourth annual Running of the NOLA Bulls. Bosis had convinced me that getting pummeled by a barrage of plastic-bat-wielding roller-derby girls (the “bulls”) would somehow be a vacation from the 3 A.M. feedings and long days of being a stay-at home dad to my four-month-old son. Truth be told, the evening before the bull run had indeed been the first full night’s sleep I’d had since bringing the baby home from the hospital, although it did involve sharing a bed with another grown man.
RULES OF THE RUN
Run at your own risk.
Do not touch the bulls.
If you go down, stay down.
Do not stand still.
Children under ten, use the sidewalk.
“Run! Vamanos! The bulls are coming!” yells a stranger in an outfit that looks more Vegas magician than bull runner.
Another stampede pushes us down Dauphine Street, with more than a few runners screaming “Olé!” and other phrases that I vaguely remember from two semesters of high-school Spanish. A head full of vodka is not helping my recall skills. The shooting pain up my side stops me in my tracks in the middle of the street again. I’ve gone maybe a quarter of the less-than-a-mile run, but I’m ready to — WHAM!
A taped-up, and possibly loaded, Wiffle bat spanks the soft spot of my left leg, right where the thigh and buttock meet. The shot catches me completely off guard. In my attempt to stand up straight and not blow chunks all over the hot pavement, I’ve totally forgotten that women on roller skates are giving chase, looking to administer a severe welting to stragglers.
The ridiculously large and intimidating Big Easy Rollergirl yells, “Ha! I got that pussy good!” to the crowd of runners ahead of us, possibly as a warning not to be dumb enough to stop in the middle of the street. As I rub my wound to get some of the blood flowing, I tell myself that chasing down the rollerbull, disarming her, and giving her a taste of her own medicine would make me look like a complete lunatic who doesn’t understand that this is all in good fun. Just as I’ve talked myself off the proverbial bead-tossing-balcony ledge, I feel a gentle tap to the small of my back. It’s another bat, but it wasn’t swung with the typical venom and fury. I turn to find an older rollergirl, all smiles but without roller skates, who must have been witness to the first hit and took pity on my ass. Literally.
I’m not the only person struggling from the heat and his own stupidity. While there don’t appear to be any serious injuries, and certainly no gorings like in the real Running of the Bulls (those loons deserve everything they get), this event isn’t without its casualties: A couple of people tumbled to the concrete in the commotion, a few scrapes to knees and hands have been acquired, and a small number of drinks have been dropped. One of the rollergirls — I’ll be a gentleman and call her a “fun” girl — is lying down on a curb after only a few blocks (on roller skates, mind you). I contemplate joining her on the sidewalk, buying her another cold beer, and filing this story from the viewpoint of an innocent and hungover bystander.
Scampering drunk through the streets of the French Quarter while being chased down by rollergirls dressed as bulls (complete with horned helmets) is what happens when grown men get tired of the standard bachelor-party activities like golf outings, Vegas weekends, and brief stints in the county lockup. As for why the San Fermín in Nueva Orleans even exists, well, that’s what happens when a local named Mickey Hanning (affectionately known as El Padrino, or “the Godfather”) decides that the city’s standard festivities aren’t enough. During a drunken Mardi Gras discussion, he told friends that he wanted to coordinate a running of the bulls in New Orleans for the same time that real bulls are trampling thrill-seekers and lunatics in the streets of Pamplona, Spain. (The San Fermín festival in Pamplona runs from July 6 to July 14; the New Orleans festival is a weekend-long event, with the 2011 bull run on Saturday, July 9, at 8 A.M.)
“Running with the bulls in Pamplona was something I wanted to accomplish in real life,” explains Hanning, “and I had the chance to do it. It was an unreal experience. One night I made a joke that it might be fun to attempt a bull run through New Orleans. I never really thought it would turn into this.”
The event has exploded since the inaugural el encierro (bull run) in 2007, which drew fewer than 200 people, mostly friends of friends and word-of-mouth entrants, and one team of rollerbulls from a local league. By 2009, there were about 3,500 runners, more than 80 rollerbulls (four teams from three different states), and hundreds of spectators. While the run is the highlight of the weekend, the celebration also includes a traditional San Fermín theme party called La Fiesta de Pantalones (the Pants Party) and a Hemingway skit competition. In 2010 there was also a public screening of the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands.
“We were thinking around 6,000 people might show up in 2010,” Hanning said, “but my count is usually way off and we end up getting many more people than I expect. It’s amazing the type of people that the run attracts: families, some with kids in strollers, and even some older participants.” The total, according to the New Orleans police, was almost 8,000 runners.
Running among the participants — and it easily could have been 10,000, since I was seeing double and everyone was dressed similarly — it seemed as though every person in the crowd knew all the others, possibly having met at the tapas dinner the evening before. Or it could just be that feeling of camaraderie that develops when thousands of like-minded individuals participate in the same juvenile chicanery before breakfast on a summer Saturday. Carts on Burgundy Street were surrounded by people drinking the proffered beer and sangria, rather than the typical morning coffee or tea, and seemed like a great place to meet new people before running alongside them, screaming, through the streets.
Bosis and I meet up again on the turn down Tchoupitoulas Street, somehow managing to run into another bachelor-party attendee, the Marlin. Considering he ingested just as many drinks as we did the previous evening, he looks surprisingly refreshed and well-rested.
“This is awesome,” the Marlin yells, gliding through the streets like a man on his morning jog before a cup of hot coffee and heading to work. The rest of our group are no-shows, all choosing to sleep in until the hotel’s pool bar starts serving.
The end of the run brings a gauntlet of rollergirls, for all those masochists unhappy with the amount of abuse and hind-hitting they received on the run. Looking to get the full experience (because that’s what us stupid writers do), I trot through the line and take more than a few vicious shots to the ass and small of the back. On the plus side, I get a better look at the rollergirls, many of whom are incredibly attractive.
At the conclusion of el encierro and the whipping line, runners are welcomed by trucks of cold beer and drinks, amazing homemade Spanish grub, and a live band; it’s the perfect atmosphere for anyone who wants to continue sweating his face off by dancing, grinding on new friends, or just spinning around drunkenly — the favorite dance of most of the crowd. Bosis, the Marlin, and I conclude the run with a frigid cup of Stella Artois, which goes down about as smoothly as a Hurricane Katrina joke in a crowd of locals. Nothing refreshes like a beer at 8 A.M. after running almost a mile, except daggers.
The Marlin ushers us to a local breakfast spot that he insists we try for a feast of Louisiana home cooking. I get queasy just reading the menu while standing in a line out the front door. No offense to those who call the bayou home, but my stomach isn’t about to allow anything called “debris” to enter. This time my body and mind won’t wave the red hankie in surrender; they’ll work in unison to choke me to death with it before I take one bite of anything resembling grits. My stomach has taken enough abuse over the past day and a half from assorted liquors and spirits, airport food, hot dogs, and half a bag of gumdrops left on the dresser by the third occupant of our hotel room. Bosis and I leave the Marlin in line, his curses and taunts wishing us well, and venture out in search of more familiar breakfast fare. There has to be a Denny’s in this town. I spot the fallen rollergirl catching a cab not far from where she went down.
Later, as we wait for our egg-white omelets, coffee, and a jug of water, I wobble off in search of the men’s room. I stare at my face in the wall-length mirror that spans the row of urinals. In my heated and booze-induced condition, I swear I spy a rollergirl over my shoulder, waiting to strike my ass mid-stream with one last smack before I leave town. Maybe this is when I’m supposed to yell, “Who dat?”
(Originally published in Penthouse magazine, February 2011)