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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

City of Refuge (Part 3)

“Hey, my friend, how ‘bout a dolla’ for da’ cold beah?”

This was Horatio’s daily greeting  for me as he would hobble by my house and over to BJ’s across the street.  The man was always drunk and had senile tendencies.  His legs were all busted up, his clothes ragged, and he smelled something god-awful.  Burn marks covered his arms and neck and legs.  It was hard to ever make out much sense of what he was saying.  Usually I’d keep quiet around him just because once he got started talking he wouldn’t stop.  A lot of folks in the neighborhood didn’t like him.  I felt bad for Horatio so sometimes I’d let him sit on the stoop with me.  Eddie would always give him a couple of bucks.

“That’s a good man dare, a good man.  He always treat me a good.  You know what I’m saying?

“This neighborhood used to be rough.  Oh yeah, I remember it was all de Spanish.  Yes, we use to have da cookouts and drink da’ cold beah.  Dangerous heah.  I remember the bar got robbed, day shot someone right on dat corner.  Stealing cars.  I saw tree of da felas take the wheels off a car.  Yeah, it was a good neighborhood.  I take care of da neighborhood.  Everyone call me Amigo.  I take my gun and point it at that that guy over dare.  I almost shoot him too, but I say, no way, I’m too old to go to jail.  Ellis Island.  Eighteen months.  After dat, I never go back.  You a good man.  You quiet.  You don’t say much but you a good man.  Thank you for da cold beah.  Say, my friend, I need to get da bus.  I go over to Canal and hang with my friends.  I don’t know, my leg all busted.  My friends, dey good people.  Always give me a couple dollas’.  They say, ‘Amigo, where you been?’

I gave Horatio a dollar and watched him walk straight over to the bar.

Me:  What was Horatio’s deal, besides being totally insane?  Hadn’t he at one time been a merchant marine?

Eddie:  Yeah, he was a merchant marine.  He was a steward in the union.  I guess what happened to him was he kind of went crazy.  That’s why you’d see him walking out in is sleeping drawers.  At one point he’d been all around the world.  He’d show you swords he’d gotten from Portugal.  I think he was addicted to drugs.  Or maybe he had some kind of major breakdown.  I talked to his sons a few times and they were all scumbags.  Word was he used to party a lot, smuggle drugs, anything to make some money.

Me:  Was he black, Cajun, Indian?

Eddie:  He was Indian.

Me:  One time I woke up and saw him leaning over the porch peeing on that lady’s house next to us.

Eddie:  Yeah, the Christian.  I’d seen him walk down the street with his ass out.  Dirty ass.

Me:  He smelled like shit.

Eddie:  The guy was gonzo.  I don’t know, they probably took his house away from him.  He’d always come up to me and ask me how much a repair would be and then he’d hire these people that would rip him off. Gutters, anything, “So how much ‘dat be Eddie?”  I’d say “Well, you’re looking at probably 3400.  Maybe four grand.”  “Four Grand!”  

Me:  Yeah, but “How ‘bout a dolla’ for da’ cold beah?”

Eddie:  Oh man, you couldn’t get by him without giving him something.  The weird thing was he’d tell me interesting stories.  I liked him, but he started smelling bad after you left.

Me:  Oh, he smelled bad when I was there.

Eddie:  He never washed himself anymore, kind of sad.

Me:  Who was the Vietnam Vet across the street?

Eddie:  That’s a freaky one.

Me:  Weren’t he and Horatio once pointing guns at each other?

Eddie:  Yeah, the little short guy.  He lived with that girl.  They were on a lot of drugs, coke and pills. He was getting money from the government.  His leg was fucked up.  Think he had Agent Orange. He was in Vietnam and I think he was into some heavy shit.  Special Ops.  He was just too crazy.  There was something about him.

Me:  His hair was like Thomas Jefferson and he was all frail and walked with that cane.

Eddie:  That was a wig.  He didn’t have any hair.  That weird hairdo thing he had, that was a wig. I’ve seen him without it on.   I always thought that was his hair.

Me:  The next to him there was the guy next to him, Red?

Eddie:  Yeah.  (laughter) 

Me:  He was a drug dealer and he also drove the horse carriages down in the Quarter, right?

Eddie:  Yeah, well Red, I actually liked him.  Always jacked, always yelling at the top of his lungs, but with a weird sense of humor.   You know what I mean, a lot of the time he was tweaked out of his brains.  He was never quiet.  I’d see him at the bar and he’d gamble a lot and he’d buy me beers.  He couldn’t talk normal.  Always loud.

Me:  And then there was that quiet older Mexican guy that lived with them, I guess his lover.

Eddie:  Yeah, man, that’s the thing about New Orleans, it was so far from normal.

Me:  Let’s see, I also have Okra Man.  I don’t know if I remember him.  Just vaguely.

Eddie:  Oh, there’s a movie about him.  It’s about him getting up every morning and buying his stuff, all the vegetables and what he did to it, and walking around with a smile because people liked him.  He was sort of a fixture.  That’s the thing about New Orleans.  They back stuff up.  Especially if it’s entrepreneury, crazy, things that give color.  They promote it.  It’s kind of weird.  Anywhere else no one would talk to a guy like that, he’d be shut down, but down there they like it.  (goes into voice of Okra Man yelling through a blow-horn).  “I got  some Okra, I got some green beans.”  You do that here in San Francisco, the cops are all over you.

Me:  You’d be in the mental ward.

Eddie:  Yeah, in New Orleans they celebrate it.  I mean, shit, I’d have a hangover, passed out on the floor from drinking all night, and then I’d hear that fuckin’ screeching voice going by with that busted pa.  It was like being inside a dixie can.

Me:  Sounds like a Tom Waits song.

Eddie: It was.  (makes screatchy noice that sounds like poor radio static).  And then there was the religious guy with all the iron work on his car.  That guy would come by talking about the bible. 

Me:  I don’t remember him.

Eddie:  He came out sometimes.  He’d always talk about crack.  How the bible changed his life.

Me:  How would you say the neighborhood changed from when you first got to there to when you left?

Eddie:  Oh, it totally changed.  People were scared when I first moved there.  There was maybe six white folks.  The rest were all high yellows.  First five years I started seeing people coming down from New York checking stuff out.  Then about eight years into it the whole neighborhood was changed.  It was weird.  I wish I would’ve kept a journal because there were some wild things that went on back then.  I just can’t remember a lot of it.

Me: It was really rough back then?

Eddie:  Yeah, over at the store on Poland, the one we used to get beer from, there’d be shootings every day.  They’d sell crack and heroin.  Then you’d see those guys walking towards the pier to deal.  There was nothing over there except for the Naval Base.

Me:  By the canal.

Eddie: It was pretty desolate.  Most of the places were empty, full of squatters.  Then the city did this program where you could get a house for about 10,000.  You’d have to prove you were working, give the city 2 grand, and then after a while they’d re access the house, and you’d pay it off.  It was so bad.  If you don’t pay the city for water, garbage, then the police don’t show up.  Once the better people moved in and actually paid the bills, the police actually showed up.  It became more gentrified.  It wasn’t stable at first.  There was shootings.  There were bullet holes in your house. 

Me:  Didn’t it get weird after I left?

Eddie:  After you left that other guy moved in and that’s when I got out.  I still had my place, but I moved over to France St and moved in with that actor guy.  I don’t know, my mom got sick and I left for California a few months later.  Katrina hit and I’ve never been back.

Me:  What do you say, well, what’s your first thought when someone asks what it was like to live in New Orleans.  What do you think about?

Eddie:  Honestly, it’s like your own hidden secret because anyone in the real world wouldn’t be able to understand it.  New Orleans is not like America.  Maybe like Cuba or Haiti or something. The culture is African.  The ideology is African.  Then the French incorporated their ideals.  A different mentality.  A different personality. A different set of rules.  I don’t know, vibrations.  It’s bright.  It’s beautiful.  It’s dangerous.  It’s like looking at a crystal ball, shiny and it attracts you, but it’s like looking at a gutter at the same time.  It’s very free.  In the south it’s where you go.  In Hawaii we’ve got this thing called the City of Refuge.   If you didn’t fit in, if you were weird, if you couldn’t fit in with regular society, if you were an artist, you’d go to the City of Refuge where people were like you.  That’s kind of what New Orleans is like to me.   Beautiful culture.  A lot of freedom.  Almost too much.  A lot of self-gradulation.

Me:  Sometimes I thought of it as a fantasyland, in a weird way.

Eddie:  It is, like the Wizard of Oz.  It has nothing to do with America.  It’s in own entity.  You don’t even feel like you’re in the South.

Me:  I remember watching the news, right after Katrina hit.  They showed this clip and they were trying to get people to evacuate their homes because they were flooding.  They showed four or five people, somewhere in St. Bernard, and they were dancing Mardi Gras style and the people I was watching it with out in California were watching it thinking these people were insane.  I was watching it thinking, maybe they were a little crazy, but that at the same time that was how it was down there and I couldn’t find the words to explain it.

Eddie:  I mean I loved a lot of it.  I loved the food.  The music was cool.  At first I didn’t appreciate it, but I didn’t really know the depth of New Orleans.  If there wasn’t New Orleans  there wouldn’t be modern jazz.  If there wasn’t New Orleans there wouldn’t be a lot of the rock n’ roll we have.  I know it’s horrible how we abducted Africans and brought them to America, but without the African community we wouldn’t have punk rock.  You know it’s tripped out. 

Me:  Of any place I’ve ever been, I’ve never had a city where when you meet someone that’s from there, you don’t even have to be from there, but if you lived there and you know the places, it’s totally different than any other city.  If I meet someone from San Francisco and I say, Hey, I was in San Francisco, you know Haight and Fillmore, well it’s something totally different.

Eddie:  Well, if you look at cities and the humanity of them, New Orleans is the most human because it has people that save people in the middle of gun fights, it has people that sacrifice to help other people because they have to, life and death, human beings kind of work better that way.  Whereas here (San Francisco), it’s so mundane.  After you get some money, you get on the bus, a black guy walks on the bus and everyone stares at him.  Everyone’s got their Armani jeans or whatever they wear around here.  Staring into their new Iphones, acting like their big wigs,  talking about money, but, yeah, they got 10,000, 20,000, 200,000, but that’s no money.  More money than we got, but that’s not money.  Money’s like 6 million dollars.  You name yourself after a park, that’s money.  In New Orleans you could have nothing and still dance around and enjoy it.  You don’t have that here at all.  I was in Voodoo Lounge here, a New Orleans bar to watch the Saints in the Super Bowl, man, when I walked out of there I was so in spirit, I felt so good, people were jumping around, saying all that crazy shit, there was something really wicked magical, something magical in it.

Me:  I remember watching the game going crazy and the people I was with didn’t have any real connection to it and they didn’t seem all that into it.

Eddie:  Well, the Saints were the Aint’s for a very long time and I got pictures to prove it.  The bags.  I’d go to the games with my friends, but you wouldn’t’ even watch the games, you’d go to get drunk and push each other into the isles.  I mean how many times can you go and watch them miss a field goal at the last second?

Me:  I remember being in this bar in the Marigny.  It was called Smitty’s.  Had to get buzzed to get in.  I was watching a game there and they fumbled just as they were about to score a touchdown and lost at the last second and all five people in the place went nuts.

Eddie:  Yeah they filmed a Travolta movie in there.

Me:  They did?

Eddie: Then across was the Kitty Kat Lounge where everyone dressed in Kitty Kat outfitis.  That place sucked.  They didn’t have any beer so you had to go over to Smitty’s.  It was a white-power bar.

Me:  That’s not the same bar.

Eddie:  It’s not?

Me:  No, Smitty’s was down near Elysian Fields.  It was the small, old dive bar that had stairs inside that led to the apartments upstairs.  The owner was an old guy that had one of those voice-automators that he’d put on his neck when he talked.   He had emphysema.  It was real small.  One of the bartenders was a writer.  I forgot who I met her through.

Eddie: Oh, I remember.  I introduced you to her.  She knew all the vagabond types.  She was actually published in a major book.

Me:  The first time I went there I sit down at the bar and some guy next to me says, (in E.T. voice) “Hello,” and then I find out he’s the owner. 

Eddie:  That bar creeped me out.  I never wanted to go in there.

Me:  Then this other guy next to him had just broken his neck, fell off a roof, and he had the metal halo on his head.  He was drinking, popping pills and freaking out about the Saints game. 

Eddie:  That bar was weird, something that director from Baltimore would be into.

Me:  It was a John Waters type place.

Eddie:  And then we’d go to that soul food restaurant next to the bar.  There’s nothing going at the bar and there’s a random soul food place in the back. We’d get breakfast there.  I mean, I loved New Orleans.  Sometimes you don’t want to, I don’t know, I get sad...I loved it there so much.  I guess I don’t want to see the memory disturbed for me.  I want to take it to the grave.  My experiences there, you know, I’ve seen bad, I've seen people in jail, ladies shot, I got shot at, all kinds of things, but as many times as I said, Eddie, all right, I’m going to get the fuck out of here, something really wonderful would happen that kept me there.

Me:  I suppose it's the extreme of both worlds.  For me, I don't know that I could handle it for too long, but I could appreciate it for what it was.

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