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Friday, December 3, 2010

The City of Refuge (Part 1)

(Intro note: From 2003-2004 I spent a year living in New Orleans. It's a hard place to explain to people. Often when I try to describe what it was like to live there, it seems as though jumbled words get in the way. The first two things that come to mind with most folks that have never been there are Mardi Gras, and of course, the tragedy of Katrina. Those two aspects are entwined deep into the culture, but there's so much more to the city. It's unlike anywhere else I've ever spent time in. I only saw a small glimpse of what was there, but I'm thankful for the time I had. Even years later I have to laugh as I look around my apartment. A fleur-de-lis sits on my bookshelf. A record of Rebirth Brass Band in the front of my collection. A picture of a street musician playing a guitar on Royal St hangs in my bedroom.

A while back I decided to record an interview with my friend Eddie who captured a lot of the spirit of New Orleans with his photography. Basically we just let the tape roll and talked about the people and the times we had, some good, some bad, with the city and the part of the 9th ward we lived in.)

Early sunrise cutting in through the windows…the sound of the rhythmic beat of drums and a trumpet, a trombone, a tuba, out there wailing somewhere in the distance, gradually becoming louder, like an approaching freight train gathering more steam. Carol is out on the corner of Lessups and Burgundy in her short shorts and flip-flops, drinking gin out of a large softball mug and screaming profanities to the ghosts of morning. She’s the Bywater’s rooster. It has similarities to the familiar Cock-a-doodle-doo except down here in the 9th wooard the rooster screams “You stupid shit motherfuckers!” The older fat man at BJ’s is dressed in his pajamas and rather oblivious to her, sweeping the sidewalk and bringing out the bottles from the night before.

Much of the neighborhood is still asleep as I open the front door of my shotgun and pull back the shutters that just barely hang on to the hinges. The music is now crossing St. Claude, coming back from the ghettos like a restless thunder, a slow wave, a heart-beat, the bright notes lifting into the air and being blown by the soft hot wind in the direction of the Mississippi.

Down Burgundy I see a crowd approaching, mostly high-school age black boys and mothers who look too young to have children. Behind them a brass band. They now take up the whole street and are dancing chaotically over the cracks in the asphalt and sidewalks, waving their hands around, hopping onto cars. One boy is holding up a stick. On top of it sits a large-sized photo of a boy who can’t be more than fifteen. R.I.P. Another brother dead. There’s no eulogies or prayers or packed churches to cry over with his senseless shooting. Music and dance and a fair amount of booze. This is how New Orleans sheds tears.

The funeral march continues and a couple of kids jump on my car no more than a few feet away. We stare into one another’s eyes and there are no words to be said, just an acknowledgment, a sense of remorse, a feeling of pain and the release necessary to keep moving on. Breaking free. I do a little nod of the head and one the boy’s just stares at me. He then hops off the car with no damage done. The music follows along as the crowd parades down to Poland St. and then turns towards the direction of the river.

As the music fades and the fog thins, out comes the sun. It’s a reminder of awakening in the wake of death and how way down here the two constantly walk hand in hand; with light, with movement, with life. Down the street comes George, the 9th ward’s thrift store on wheels. The spokes of his bicycle creak and as he balances a large television set on the handlebars. Like the man on the trapeze, with the greatest of ease. He’s brown-bagging it with his other hand. George looks over at me with his contorted face and mouth that seems to stretch all the way up to the bottom of his eyes. He smiles and gives me a big one, bright and full of color. He shouts, “Heya’ Pyaaainter!” “Heya George,” I shout back. He brings the 40 to his lips and miraculously still keeps a hold on the television set. I marvel at his dexterity as my emotions transform from sorrow to laughter. I wave and then watch him drift off towards the French Quarter.

Me: You remember George?

Eddie: Yeah, he was staying in a little old house behind his mother’s house. His mother was a nurse. She was really religious. He was too and sometimes he’d stop what he was doing and I’d see him because I worked at that house over on Poland for that writer lady.

Me: Yeah, what was her name?

Eddie: I forgot.

Me: Mary?

Eddie: Harriet Swift. She helped write a Vampire book. She was a ghost-writer. Anyway, I’d be working inside her house. I’d periodically go back and forth and I’d see where George lived and sometimes I’d see him on the ground praying. He was really trying to change his life around, but then you’d see him coming and going with something on the street he’d find.

Me: I’d always see him with his big bottle of beer, riding down the street.

Eddie: Yeah, he’d try not to drink around his mom, but.she would go to work and then the party was on. Hah hah hah.

Me: He pretty much sold everything, right? TV’s, books, chairs?

Eddie: Yeah, anything he found on the street. You remember when he picked up that chair and rode around on his bike with it on his head? Those people saying, “Now George, how you gonna carry that?” And he said, “Just watch me.” He’d do that all the time. I seen him with coffee tables, you know, and he’d come back and sell it to somebody, a big old lamp or something and then he’d be drinking his 40, all smiling and happy. (laughter)

Me: Didn’t he work in the French Quarter somewhere?

Eddie: He told me he did, but I don’t really know exactly where. I know he did some sweeping for a store, think some antique place, but I don’t really know. Sometimes he did gardening. I saw him with gardening tools.

Me: Do you remember why his face was so messed up, you know the way he talked?

Eddie: I’m not really sure. I don’t know if he was in a fire or what happened to him. He never really talked about that. I sat down with him. You remember how he’d sit down with you and have a beer? He did the same thing with me sometimes when I got off of work. But I never really asked him about his face. I don’t really know.
To be honest, I was always a little cautious of that guy. If he was your friend you knew your house wasn’t going to get robbed so that was kind of cool. (Laughter). Oh, oh, I remember one time he came up to me and said, “Hey Mr. Eddie man, what’s with all these bones in your backyard?” This was before you moved in. The guy who was living in your place went to a slaughterhouse and got a bunch of skulls and types of, you know, cows and stuff.

 Me: Like Voodoo shit?

Eddie: Yeah, like voodoo shit. This lady that lived in the back told him to do that. She told him she did the same thing and that people worry about going back there. So he says to me, I had the long dreads back then, “You’re into that Voodoo shit and stuff, aren’t ya?” but I didn’t say anything because I was kind of scared when I first moved there. To the day I moved out he thought I was into Voodoo.

Me: Well you were.

Eddie: I know. Isn’t it weird? He’s not the only black guy that said something. I’d walk by some other folks and they’d say, “He’s into Voodoo.” It’s weird how they’re scared if you’re involved with it or they think you’re into it.

Me: What about Mr. P? You remember him, shuffling all around the neighborhood? “Hay, hay, hay.” (shouted in high-pitched nasaly voice)

Eddie: Mr. P. Everybody treated him like royalty. I know he’d been in the neighborhood forever. That guy was cool. He always had younger women around. He must’ve been 98 years old.

Me: For some reason I have boxer and bluesman with question marks. It was a mystery of who he really was.

Eddie: Yeah, he must’ve done something. I remember when he went into Vaughn’s because everyone would buy him beers.

Me: BJ’s too.

Eddie: Yeah, they’d get up off the stools and let him sit down. (Mystified)I really can’t, man, it’s weird you brought him up because to this day, I don’t know what he did.

Me: (laughter) A man of mystery. I remember he lived around the corner down by the railroad tracks.

Eddie: Yeah, I don’t know what he did. I don’t know what he was about. I’d ask questions and no one would really tell me. A black guy over at Vaughn’s told me he was somebody at one time, but he never really put it into detail.

Me: Ah, maybe he was nobody.

Eddie: Nah, too many people knew him. I don’t know what the hell he was. Maybe he was a player at one time.

Me: He was a pimp.

Eddie: Yeah, he was a pimp. He was a pretty cool guy though.

Me: All I remember ever hearing him say was (in high-pitched voice) “Hay, hay, hay.”

Eddie: “Hay, hay, hay, hay,” like Fat Albert. “Hey Mr. P, Where y’at?” (laughter.)

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