Notes From Naw-lins, 1978
[NOTE: I wrote this short piece after spending a week running around Louisiana, gathering background for a character in one of my books. The week, or course included a stint in the state’s main city.]
Inaptly named, it looks ready to fall. Nine-thirty, a wednesday night. Rain outside, sweat inside — symmetry of sorts. A hundred souls, give or take, packed leaf-worm-like into a cottage cheese container and more craning at the door, under awnings and balconies, trying to sneak a listen; a peek is out of the question. Smoke hangs low, its molecules hunting for a ride out of town. Mostly old folks here, mostly white, mostly quiet, and four Japanese couples with automatic cameras. Some young, smiling, ear-nibbling lovers — horny-mooners –copping feels below decks. And me.
The band: seven blacks, including one man, an afficianado from Atlanta makes a point of calling, “Hah yella.” Two whites too, who look out of place, the tokens. The music is strictly off-speed, half-speed, no-speed Dixieland, sort of let’s-make-it-up-as -we-go-with-what-we-can-remember-and-what-sounds-and-feels-good, ya know? Okay, man, gimme a key — long as it’s not no “C.” Not like the commercial stuff a football field away on Bourbon Street. Here the lips lead to the heart.
Let’s look: leathery faces like aged cardboard kept too long in steamer trunks; wispy white hair, shiny heads, yellow teeth, bulging cheeks, cracked lips —dry…cracked lips, they have to smart.
“Mistuh this what we dew, yew see? Cain’t measure no work with Mistuh Paycheck.” Led by Pair-see with no last name, a tall black man with a little bitty hump on his back and close-cropped hair, a butch. The vocalist has wash-and-wear britches torn out along the outside seam of his right leg. His right hand seems paralyzed, like a shattered branch, limp against the trunk of a tree, tied ot the greater mass, but no longer an integral part. He sits passively, staring straight ahead, seeing with his ears, like the captain on the bridge in a thick fog on the river, and the musicians around him working their way through riffs and arrangements, showing their stuff.
When his turn comes the old man rises slowly to his feet, wobbles for balance, punctuates the air with some lateral chin movements and lifts his megaphone. The music level comes down until it is barely audible. We in the cheap seats lean forward, straining to hear. The old man croons softly,more talk than melody, but his rhythm is strong: “Mah… sweet…sissah…woke…dan…tha’…stree….” His voice is washing away, yet there remains a commanding presence to it, not even a shred of indestructability.
When he finishes, the crowd hoots its approval, as much for his perserverence as for his performance. One must honor “git-it-done” types. Ovation over, he sits, swivels part way toward the band, salutes them with his good hand, unwinds to his original posture and stares out, waiting his next turn, unblinking. Show’s over folks.
Hall of Preservation: A Different Establishment
The Loo-zee-anna Wildlife Museum is housed in the Federal Court Building in the French Quarter. Open nine to five, most every day.The sign don’t say which ones. Filled with dead birds, stuffed, mounted, old specimens gray under shrouds of dust. Mud hens and wrens, some terns and a dilapidated Baltimore Oriole. Snakes in big blue Mason jars, their tongues frozen mid-flick. An iron-jawed Mississippi River snapper grins at passers-by. A half dozen of Loo-zee-anna’s finest bullfrawgs are lined up on a counter, awaiting kisses. A whitetail doe and fawn stand sentry duty at the door; their glass eyes don’t match. A mountain lion is frozen in the pre-strike position, to reach forever and never catch — a kind of hell, I imagine for such a predator. Snowy egrets, blue egrets, and other hue egrets. Pelicans, thrushes, pats and quail (is the bobwhite here a Bobby Joe White?). Morning doves, one snipe (with no burlap bag in sight), a robin (I’m guessing he didn’t get home to the north that spring), blue jays faded gray from time and dust accumulations, geese and regiments of ducks brung in by Cajun hunters from dem bayous. On the door leading into the display room there’s a small, hand-painted sign. It says: “No Pets.” Hmmm. Look around you, boy. These here people done mean what they say, son.
Look he-uh, Ole Wilfurd’s driving the limo. Seems like he lives over’n Jeff-son Parish an yestahday when he get home his old lady done greeted him in tears since the rainwater almost up to the f’ont poach. Wilfurd sweats profusely; there’s a magenta carbuncle on his neck, sticking out of a field of pink acne scars. Wilfurd likes ta tawk, ya see? He relates as how the big rain done come yestahday and has drownded the city and subjected him to extreme po-fessional hardship. “Was drah-vin in fum the ay-ya-pote with fav fay-uhs and theys watah up to ev-body’s yew-know-whut. Git to this one spot out on tay-in and trah’s ta creep mah way trew it –onny bout haffway mah motah starts a rump-rump-a-rumpa and I see raht they h’its all ovah, gone have a a-bandon shee-ip, yessuh. Waded t’rew that watah to call me a wreckah. Thin ah call mah boss an tell em ahm headin home onna-count ahm soaked up to mah ass and ketchin me the chee-ill. Thin ah call mah ole lady who asts me ifn ah want mah waders and ah tell ‘er,” Hail no woman, what ah need is a doggone row boat!” At the airport I give him a big tip, having just witnessed great performance and Wilfurd he say, “Thank-ya suh, ah sure dew hope yew injoyed yo rad this af-noon and yew have yewerseff a safe trip home, yew heah?
He added ominously,”One day rain gone come Naw-lins and we ain’t gone have no funny stories to be tellin.'”