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Thursday, December 9, 2010

The City of Refuge (Part 4)

For a couple of weeks I got a job at a daily labor place in the Skid Row area just off St. Charles by Lee Circle.   On the way there I’d walk by where The Hummingbird, a divey hotel that used to have a diner on the bottom floor, had been.  It was now all boarded up.  I’d always get a little sad looking at that place.  It brought up old memories from years before. 

I could remember the old, haggard woman at the front desk, the dilapidated T.V. that only got one station, always something with Charles Bronson in it.  The smell of pure greese and grill wafting up the stairs, the hotel looking more like a prison with imposing doors, and only one bathroom at the end of the hall with a busted lock.   

Half of the residents were just out of OPP.  Nearly everyone was constantly drunk and on drugs.  And somehow I had this beautiful girl by my side by way of Baltimore.  We were spending all of our money going from bar to bar in the French Quarter, one never-ending drunk only to pass out on the stained sheets under the strange glow in the dark constellation that was painted on the ceiling by a previous resident.  Then I’d think back to how times can change so quickly.  Life alters in strange ways.  I’d remember the fire in the rooming house in the Treme the week after we left the Hummingbird, the old man dying as we screamed for him to jump off the balcony.  The firetrucks and the news stations.  I’d remember us boarding that Greyhound with a couple of black trash bags filled with burnt clothes and I’d just see us looking out at the window, maybe West Lousiana, or East Texas, staring out, not saying anything.

I’d stand out there on St. Charles, still in the darkness of morning, now years later, thinking about that other time, about that other life, and I’d wonder about that girl.  I’d heard she’d gotten married.  That’s all I knew.  But I wondered if she ever thought of me.  I’d wonder if she thought about that time with regret.  Maybe it didn’t even pass through her mind.  And then I thought about  where my life was.  How, despite years traveling, and countless jobs, I hadn’t really changed much.  I was still hard on my luck, scrounging for work, just barely making it.  Seemed as though I hadn't learned a thing.  Damn, The Hummingbird, just the site of it really got me in a bad place, brought up all kinds of old emotions.  I’d then walk into the labor place and sign my name on the sheet for the day.

Dressed in our blue jumpsuits (we looked like jailbirds and out of the eight, I was the only one that hadn’t done time) we’d catch a van at 5 a.m. that would take us out to swampy area across the Mississippi where we worked at an oil-rigging yard.  We’d get out to the yard and they had me and this young kid named Lamar from The Treme working with me in the recycling area.  We’d take old computers and other metals and recycle them according to whether or not they were copper, iron, that sort of thing.

All day long we’d stand at the table, an awning keeping us from melting away, listening to dirty south hip-hop that’s lyrics that seemed to center around death and guns and bitches.  Lamar tried to act tough and didn’t say much.  His mumbling was hard to understand, and when he did talk, he’d say something like, “Yeah, going to try to fuck me a white bitch.  Oh yeah.”  I’d fight with him over the radio stations, “Look, at least some Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, what the hell is this other crap?”

One day Lamar showed me all the gunshot wounds he’d received.  He displayed them for me as if they were a badge of honor.  Street cred.  Three in his leg, one in his arm, another in his side.  He couldn’t have been more than eighteen.  He’d seen a side of life I never would and he talked tough, acted tough, not because he was, but because it was what he knew. 

Well, one morning he showed up for the van and he was crying, all out balling like a little child.  He went limp in another one of the guy’s arms and the man held him for a good minute, tears dropping onto the sidewalk.  We all looked over, but didn’t say anything and he turned his eyes away, ashamed.  We knew someone close to him had died.  Mom, brother, friend, we weren’t sure.  I worked another week out at that place and never saw Lamar again. 

Eddie:  I lived there a really long time.  I was scared at first.  I lived in New York in the early 80’s, in the East Village when it was really rough, but New Orleans made New York look like nothing.

Me:  I think New York pales.  As far as the violent factor and the proximity of it all.

Eddie:  The year I first moved to New Orleans there was 352 killings.  It was crazy.  It was surreal.  I’d go out to work and come out and there’d be another two people murdered.

Me:  Were you the one that said people used to put their guns on their bar?

Eddie:  Oh yeah, BJ’s was like that.  When I worked at Café Giovanni.  We’d have the night when the two black football teams would play.  The Bayou Classic.  Everyone would close early.  All the restaurants.  Because what would happen everyone would run through New Orleans robbing people, rape, killings.  That day we’d have to check our guns in.  Make sure no one would start firing them off.

Me:  The Wild West.

Eddie:  Yeah, we had to do that every year.

Me:  Otherwise, everyone’s carrying guns around?

Eddie:  Yeah, we all carried guns for a long time.  I never did like it.  I had a license for mine.  I fired out at a range where the cops used to go.  I never told anyone though.  It was around the fourth year when I got shot at and I pretty much said, “You know, I don’t like when I can’t shoot back.” I didn’t want to hit anybody, but at least I could shoot at a garbage can and watch him run off.  It was pretty tripped out.  I never told anybody.  I never brandished it, but I always had one on me.

Me:  I figured everyone in our neighborhood had a gun so I didn’t need one.

Eddie:  Oh yeah. I just never told you.

Me:  Oh, I knew you had guns.

Eddie: Yeah, when I rode my bike around.  It’s just one of those rules.  You can’t brandish your weapon.  It’s against the law.  Of course, once I got a gun no one shot at me.  It was the weirdest thing.  I should write a book about it.  How petrified I was before I didn’t have one and then I got one and never had to use it.  It was weird.  I can’t even explain it.  I didn’t even need it.  I don’t know if I changed or what.

Me:  Maybe you had a sense about you that you didn’t have before.

Eddie:  Yeah, you don’t really know, because everyone else has them.  Maybe they can tell about your demeanor subconsciously because they grow up that way.  I worked with guys and had to tell them, hey, you got to put that on the ground, you can’t drop that when you’re working on a ladder, it was weird, I didn’t like guns.  But you don’t want to be there with no way to defend yourself.

Me:  What happened with my place after I moved in.  Didn’t the guy after me kill somebody?

Eddie:  The gentlemen that moved in after you left was this high yellow black guy.  Had a really nice job, fancy car.  He was gay.  His family was the rich, lawyer kind of prestigious family.  He liked white boys.  He’d get these crazy white boys over.  Heavy-duty in the drugs.  I’d hear them fighting through the walls.  One time I think he killed somebody.  Some other guys came and carried a body out.  That’s why I moved over to France St.  Things were getting crazy.  I heard after the hurricane the cops got him for killing somebody.  I don’t think it was his first time.

Me:  So a multiple murderer was living on my side of the shotgun?

Eddie:  A neighbor came up to me because I wasn’t there after a while and they said something was going on.  They’d seen some guys carry a big rug out late one night.  He had ties to some highfalutin people.  I left because I didn’t want to get involved.    Harold was like, “Oh no, you’re supposed to watch the house, you’re my partner.”  I told him I didn’t want to shoot nobody.  I was like, thanks Harold, you kind of saved my life, but I’m not going to die.   

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