• The Big Easy

  • They sat in the open-air section of Café DuMonde enjoying a light breakfast and watching the people. Their conversation wandered. Just outside on the sidewalk, an attractive middle-aged Hispanic woman was dancing by herself while her older companion was taking a cell-phone video. Her conservative casual top, her “mom jeans,” and her short ponytail contrasted with her movements as she rolled her hips like a Latin dancing girl. She was having a good, easy time. 

    The girl said, “Poppy, that old church we saw last night was not like the one I go to with Mom and Dad. It seemed like the seats were close together and everything was plain except the windows. I guess it’s old-fashioned.”            

    Poppy regarded the girl with his soft eyes and said, “You may not believe this, but it wasn’t so long ago that churches didn’t have basketball courts and rock bands. Most didn’t have kitchens or gymnasiums. Now we have ministers wearing microphones like Broadway stars, moving back and forth across the stage as they preach. ” 

    The girl said, “This is boring. Let’s do something. ”

    “Gracie, for age twelve you are a mature, young lady. But I wonder if sometimes you don’t irritate people with your candor.” 

    “You mean like you do, Poppy?”

    “Yeah, like I do,” he sighed.  

    “By the way, you know I’m called Grace now.” 

    Poppy said, “Just let me call you Gracie for a little while longer. I promise I’ll call you Grace soon enough.” 

    He gazed at her. He didn’t know how to handle the feeling that came over him, didn’t know how to behave. He wanted everything to be easy, like the dancing mom.

    “Well,” he said, “let’s go before the sun starts bearing down, before it gets too uncomfortable for of walking. You are not likely to see New Orleans again for a long time and I want you to learn about the river. Finish that beignet and let’s go.” He signaled to the waiter for the check.

    He said, “After Mom and Dad finish their business meeting, we’re taking a streetcar through the Garden District.” 

    They sat on the grass of the levee and looked across the river at Algiers Point.  A tugboat was pushing a barge upriver. The steamboat at the dock was loading tourists for a sightseeing ride. 

    He talked about the years of so-called water management. How aggressive pumping of storm waters takes the water table down, creating greater subsidence, making potholes in the streets and causing buildings to lean and crack. How windows and doors won’t close properly. He said, “This city is sinking, making the flood problems greater. In addition, pumping all that water during a big storm creates problems of its own. The canals back up and the pumps get overwhelmed.”

    He knew he was talking to himself again and risking another accusation of being a bore, so he changed the subject.

    He talked about the river and the city, the history, the music, the unique cultural stew. They watched a young couple spread a blanket on the grass of the levee and begin placing items on it from a picnic basket.  

    He continued, “All you have to do is talk to a few folks here, and you’ll see how different they are. A lot of them don’t have anything, but they smile and banter as though they own the world. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place where I could feel its soul so strongly. It feels like the dead are all around, still enjoying the city.”

    Poppy looked at her. “How ’bout that?”

    She said, “Are you going to die, Poppy?”

    He paused, in thought. “Of course I am. And so are you. Neither of us knows when, but I expect to die long before you do. It’s not something to think about a lot. Better to concentrate on living. Let’s go see the French Quarter. There’s not much there for a kid your age but you ought to be able to say you’ve seen it.”

    It was still early in the Quarter, and the crowd was light. People were drifting in and out of shops and looking in the windows of restaurants and antique stores. The corner bars had their folding doors open, airing them out. Some were serving the few early drinkers.  Others were not open for business yet, and men were hosing them out across the sidewalk and into the gutter. Stepping into the street to avoid the water, Poppy and Grace turned onto St. Ann Street and began to hear spirited music getting louder. They stopped in front of a corner building providing shade from the sun. 

    Across the street, two musicians had set up with portable amplifiers. The violinist was a young Asian woman, and the guitarist was a black woman about the same age.  Several people sat on the curb watching, a few more standing behind them. The strong tempo and dynamics made their rendition of “Classical Gas” inspiring even though it wasn’t a New Orleans sound at all. The next number was a traditional Cajun waltz, with sweet chords that had people smiling.

    The girl said, “Poppy, may I give them some money?”

    “Sure.” Poppy handed her a five-dollar bill and she crossed the street to drop it in the guitar case. 

    She came back and said, “They have some CDs for sale.”

    “Do you want one?” he asked.

    She looked at him for a few extra beats and finally said, “No, thank you.”

    A lanky black man of indeterminate age had been standing near the musicians, watching.  He crossed the street and sat on the curb among the small audience. He wore denim bib overalls and no shirt. The bib and the straps bore numerous decorative pins, some of which might have been military decorations or replicas. 

    He looked up at Poppy and Gracie, expressionless. “That’s my granddaughter over there,” he said. “Nothing makes me feel good like sitting here watching her play.” 

    His eyes focused somewhere above their heads. “I don’t have nothing to my name, but God watches over me every day. I never have to worry. The Vet’rins don’t do nothing for me though. I seen things and done things in Vietnam I never talk about. I tried to make peace with God but I still can’t help thinking about that jungle all the time. I don’t know if I’m forgiven. The only time my mind’s at ease is when I watch her play. Ain’t she something?” 

    They watched in silence for a moment. 

    The man in the overalls looked at the Grace and said, “I know your name.” 

    “You do?” she asked.

    His face turned to the musicians. 

    Then he turned back to them and said, “She knows.” He tapped above his right eyebrow while he looked at Poppy’s own forehead.

    “But it’s all right,” he said.

    They turned to walk away, but he said again, louder, “It’s all right!”

    The girl turned back and demanded, “What’s my name?” 

    “Gracie,” he said.

    She corrected him. “It’s Grace.”

    “What does Poppy call you?” The man smiled and looked back across the street at his own granddaughter. 

    They walked back toward the hotel, her right hand holding on to two fingers of his left.  They walked past the fortune tellers in front of St. Louis Cathedral and then through the artists’ exhibits in Jackson Square. She said, “How did that man know my name? How did he know yours?” 

    “I can’t answer that. Things like this always happen to me in New Orleans. Sometimes I wonder if my mind is going. But that happened, didn’t it?”

    “What did the man mean when he said, ‘It’s all right’?”

    “I think he could see us, really see us. I think he can see the unseen. There’s nothing we can’t handle. So it’s all right.” 

    “I heard Dad talking to someone about the tumor on the telephone. He said it doesn’t look good. I wish you could always be with me.”

    “You may not be able to see me, but I’ll always be around. I’ll encourage you and tell you when to be careful.”

    “And remind me not to be a smarty-pants.”

    “Like me,” he said.

    “Yep, like you.”

    They walked silently past some people on park benches.  He said, “Gracie, you are an original.”

    You are the original.”

    He felt the stab of emotion again. His throat tightened, and tears formed in his eyes. She didn’t seem to notice.

    The girl said, “Do you remember when I used to think it was pronounced ‘ornigal’?”

    “Of course I do.”

    They smiled and looked at each other. 

    The black man’s words were still in the air.

     

    It’s all right.