Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The place in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I went to give plasma looked like it had recently been a small grocery store. I had never given plasma or blood before and had no appreciation for the difference. All I knew was that you got eight bucks, which was the going rate for a full day’s labor through Manpower back then, in 1974.
A woman with a white smock and immaculately sculpted brown hair stood behind a glass case full of baloney sandwiches and candy bars. I imagined she was happy to see me and my young blood, not the old-wino blood they usually got. She seemed to have a slight vampire curl to her smile. I answered her questions: I was eighteen. I was not a heroin addict. I was presently unemployed. I had no current address. I’d bought my useless boots at an army-surplus store. The jacket too. I signed a form, and she led me to an examining table and told me everything would be all right. The tissue paper crackled as I climbed up. There were two other men reclining on tables, bundles of gauze taped to their skin, tubes running from their arms into dark bottles.
“We’re going to draw a pint of blood,” the woman explained cheerfully, as if I were a keg of Irish stout, “spin it in a centrifuge, remove the plasma, return the blood solids to your body, then repeat the process. It won’t take more than an hour.”
She smiled and cut off the circulation in my left arm with a rubber tourniquet. A vein swelled. She produced not a needle but a pipe, razor-sharp and as big around as a pencil and beveled at the end, like the stake you’d drive into Dracula’s heart. I couldn’t believe she could stick anything that big into me. I’d bleed to death. The blood in my swollen vein would splash the ceiling.
“Ball your fist,” she ordered. Then she punched the “needle” in: pain-meat-slice-burn, followed quickly by a deep, dull ache that spread to my hand. The blood sped up the tube, my dark life spinning away.
“You’ve got good-looking blood,” she said.
Who but a ghoul would say a thing like that? And we were going to do this twice? How much can I spare? I thought, skinny boy who never ate.
The woman flicked her nail at the rapidly filling bottle and asked where I was from. She had a motherly air despite the vampire curl and film-actress hair. I explained that I had recently set out from San Diego, California. I was going to New York City, where I planned to earn passage on a steamer to France, but I had gotten sidetracked: robbed in Houston and kicked off the train in San Antonio, where I’d also been treated to a pair of tickets for hitchhiking and sleeping on the freeway. A few days earlier my backpack and sleeping bag had been stolen, so I was stuck in New Orleans for a while.
She wanted to know why I was clear down here if I was headed to New York, and I told her that I had thought it would be warmer along the southern route, and that I had heard people talking about this thing called Mardi Gras and wanted to have a look at it, though it had turned out to be just parades and drinking, and I had lost interest fairly quickly. She was sympathetic, but her expression said she had heard this story many times before, and she soon had to flit off and check on one of the donors across the way.
I watched my vessel fill. If they removed all my blood and replaced it with someone else’s, I wondered, would I still be me? Seven years before, Christiaan Barnard, a South African surgeon, had given a dying patient another man’s heart without any apparent personality change. The me in me was pretty deep then, deeper than the blood, the marrow, the heart. If they took out my brain, however, I wouldn’t have had these thoughts. And I probably would have had the sense not to be lying on a table with a steel pipe in my arm. I began thinking about sex. Then my fantasies switched to potato chips. I hankered for salt. I was losing salt. I would die not from blood loss but from salt depletion. I’ll buy salted peanuts when I’m done here, I declared to myself, and red wine, good Concord-grape wine blessed by a rabbi, to restore my red blood cells. I dreamed of peanuts and Concord wine. The room began to turn. My head felt as if it were the size of an orange.
A grinning, white-faced kid entered the room. He looked a little like me, hawk-nosed and pimply, with a shapeless haircut and a wiry thatch of chin whiskers like broken zither strings: no character, seasoning, or experience, but bigger than I was by about three inches and fifty pounds. He looked first at me, then at the tube running from my arm into the glass bottle, and he fainted straight over, buckled and twirled into a heap on the tiles. A man in a lab coat scurried to help him up and outside.
The woman in the white smock glanced over. “Happens a lot,” she said to me. “Especially the big guys.” She unhooked my bottle and held it like a newborn, shining and warm. In five minutes she was back with a bag of blood solids.
“Mine?” I said.
She smiled. “I’m sure.”
She hooked the bag to the pole and let my blood drain back. Those cold blood solids may have been my own substance, but, God, they felt like the sticky fingers of the dead crawling into my arm.
“We’ll do this one more time,” she said. “Then we’ll have you out of here.”
I staggered out of the storefront plasma joint feeling light-headed and clutching my free baloney sandwich, blood money folded into my front pocket. I walked for a few disoriented blocks, the sky bright. Finally I stopped and unwrapped the sandwich and ate. White sheets hanging from a rooftop clothesline snapped in the breeze like flags. I saw my reflection in a bar window: thin, pale, and unkempt, in my laughable army-surplus outfit. A trolley rattled by, dinging its bell. Off in the distance the behemoth jungle gym they called the Superdome was going up in all its iron, trigonometric glory. The sidewalk, lifted by a tree root, heaved up in front of me like a wave. A man in the sun-blue light of a phone booth leaned over, hand clamped to his ear, as a cement truck shuddered by. A pair of aging flower children weighed down with backpacks turned into a restaurant.
I drifted to my hangout, Jackson Square, a fenced-in park in the French Quarter along the Mississippi River, where the cops left me alone and I could sleep on the grass in the sun. I had finished my baloney sandwich and was still hungry, but also very drowsy. I thought I might take a nap before starting my usual evening scrounge. The winos in their stocking caps played cards under the banana trees across the way. Most of the people who hung out in the square fell into one of five categories: lazy, crazy, drug-addicted, alcoholic, or criminal. (I hadn’t met a true hobo yet, someone who voluntarily went without a home.) Still these park dwellers mostly helped me. They told me where the soup lines were and who was handing out free what. I learned about the mission and Manpower, a temporary-labor service. It was the winos who informed me about giving plasma. They also warned me about sleepers getting knifed in the park at night, which was one reason — not having a sleeping bag to keep me warm was another — that I walked the streets most nights. The night before, I had walked four or five hours, then spent the coldest part of the early morning drinking nickel coffee at the Hummingbird Cafe, where I could beat the pinball machine with fair consistency.
My sleepless night, combined with the plasma loss, now had me exhausted, and I was dozing off when Jules strolled up. He was a pear-shaped kid with short hair parted in the middle and looked like an English grocer from the 1920s. He stood there with his arms hanging, as if waiting for someone to ask him the price of cantaloupe. Jules took care of his wealthy aunt, who had polio. He had never worked, and it looked as if he might never have to. Every day he wore a different brand-new sweater; today it was turquoise with Matisse-like chips of color floating across the chest. His almost-daily presence in Jackson Square was an oddity. Some like to play pinball in their leisure time, or read paperback westerns, or drink Thunderbird under the banana trees. Jules liked to hang with street people. I imagine his life was dull, and he lived vicariously through us. He knew all the regulars. “Hey, Jimmie! Hey, Maxie! Hey, Sailor!” he called, as if walking into a neighborhood bar. Most of the down-and-outers regarded him as a chump, and the minute he appeared through the gates they descended upon him. He cheerfully dug down deep and seemed always to have enough spare change for all.
I never asked Jules for money. I was too proud. And anyway, I was only temporarily living on the street. Soon I would save up some money and head north to find my fortune.
“You look kind of pale today,” Jules observed, arms folded across the Matisse sweater. “You OK?”
I told him all about giving plasma, sparing no gory detail. I made it seem as if I had been doing it every week for years. He listened wide-eyed. He thought of me as some sort of accomplished vagabond who enjoyed scraping along the bottom of society, and I couldn’t help but encourage that perception. The fact is, Jules and I were about the same age and had about the same amount of world experience: which is to say, none. The only difference was I had left the safe sterility of the suburbs a month before and, through the simple act of sticking my thumb out on a freeway entrance ramp and using poor judgment ever since, had made for myself a world of trouble. Still, a world of trouble was the recipe for my transformation from bland child to seasoned adult, which had been the whole idea behind the trip in the first place (and was the reason I didn’t call back to the safe, sterile suburbs for help). A boy longs to get away from home, and how much farther away can he get than being homeless? Even though I was grubby and miserable, I was proud of my resourcefulness and my stick-to-itiveness, and pleased to see the bland boy drowning in my wake.
I peeled back the gauze on my arm and stared at the coagulating hole.
“I ought to give plasma sometime,” Jules said.
“I don’t know why, man,” I said, lighting a Kent. “A lot of people faint.”
He considered this while the massive profile of a tugboat glided by a few feet away on the Mississippi. “Hey, do you need anything?” he asked.
Though I never took a handout from him, Jules often bought me cigarettes, or wine, or a sandwich. He was simply kind, not like some of the other generous types, who wanted only to get me into their hotel rooms.
“No,” I said. “I still got the eight bucks. I’m OK, man.” “How about if we go out to dinner?” he said.
I eagerly agreed.
“Where do you want to go?”
The Italian restaurant on Royal Street, I told him without hesitation. I had passed by it many times on my nighttime walks to keep warm.
He blinked a few times and scratched the back of his English grocer’s head. “Is tomorrow night OK?” he said. “I have to give my aunt a bath tonight.”
“Fine,” I said.
“I’ll be there.”
“Good,” he said. “I have to go.” And he rose and made his way out of the square, hands in pockets, a few vagrants hitting him up one last time as he strolled away.
Well, now things were looking up. But if I was going out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, I needed a shower and a decent night’s sleep for a change. And the only way to get either in my circumstances was to stay at the Baptist mission. So I bought a sandwich (at a restaurant where I could pee), a quart bottle of Concord-grape wine (to help rejuvenate red blood cells, you understand), and a pack of cigarettes (my only real friends), and killed the rest of the afternoon at the library. Then at sunset I got in line for a bed at the mission. Every night, especially during Mardi Gras season, the mission would fill quickly, and if you didn’t get there early, you’d be shut out.
I paid the $3.25 admission and trudged alongside the sour-smelling old men up the stairs to a room with a hundred bunks. I found a bed along the wall and hung my clothes over the rail. An old man approached me, his face withered like a crocodile’s. “Could you take the top bunk?” he said. I climbed aloft.
The mattress was as thin as an X-ray of a broken back. The beds all creaked, and the men all whistled and barked their stringy TB phlegm until the place sounded like a factory where harbor seals made wooden clocks. The pillow was a flat mat of straw. The sheets felt sandy and slick, as if they hadn’t been washed for months. I teetered like a mountain goat in the darkness with my small thoughts, feeling dizzy, as if I might topple. The moon was stuck in one tall, arched window. Without warning, the lights went off. I listened to the ancient ones gurgle and saw. The young people were out cavorting, and here I was in bed at 8 P.M., tired, grimy, half drunk, and feeling as old and washed up as my bunkmate. I will never sleep through all this racket and stench of unwashed flesh, I thought.
I eventually drifted off and dreamed I was Irish and no one could understand me. Then the lights were on again. It was still dark outside, and the room was cold and hung with the sour miasma of cheap wine distilled through sweat glands. There must have been some mistake. “What time is checkout?” I mumbled. The missionaries or ministers or whatever they were had all assembled like drill instructors, hands on hips, their bullhorn voices urging us to get up and at ’em. If they woke us at 4 A.M., the wisdom went, we could get a jump on finding work. Bones creaked and farts cracked. We lowered our heads and trudged naked in a mandatory line through the showers, like a human car wash. I scrubbed and scrubbed and watched the tarlike dirt spin across the tiles and down the drain. Shivering under a few swipes of a damp towel, I put my dirty clothes back on. Breakfast was a metal plate full of grits and burnt gravy. “You gonna finish yours?” said the man with the crocodile face.
Manpower was just down the street. It paid a buck an hour for the crappiest jobs you can think of: scraping barnacles, scooping cemetery muck, sandblasting brick. I didn’t want to work, but the blood money was all gone — one meal, one pack of smokes, one bottle of wine, one bed, and one shower — and I didn’t want to be broke at the restaurant that night, even if Jules was buying. So I got in line. The man in front of me suddenly broke ranks, strolled to the curb, opened his jaws, and launched a gusher of what appeared to be liquid moonlight. Then he returned to his place in line as if nothing had happened. His buddy promptly walked to the curb and vomited too. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he said matter-of-factly: “It always makes me puke when I see someone else puke.”
“My sister is the same way,” said the first.
The line began to move, and I entered a lobby full of wrecked and rumpled men, some of whom I recognized from the mission. When it was my turn to talk to the clerk at the desk, he drew a card from a file. “You know where Skaggs is?” he said.
I didn’t even know what it was. It sounded like a brothel of ancient prostitutes, or a clinic for rare skin disorders.
“It’s a department store,” he explained, opening a street map. “About three miles. You can catch the bus here — transfer here.” He stabbed the map with an index finger. “Can you be there by seven?”
The clock on the wall said six. I had a quarter, but I was saving it for food. I would have to walk. “Yeah, I can do it.”
He handed over the employment card. I filled out my information. “No address,” I said.
He nodded. “Be there by seven,” he repeated. “And you report back here with the card at the end of the day. We’ll pay you then.”
The sun was just up, but there was no evidence yet of its heat. All the elastic had gone out of my socks, and they slumped in a pile down into my stupid jungle boots. I stopped to pull them up and promised myself that today I would buy new socks. These were so old and dirty, they felt like wool.
Right, left, right. Once you got away from the Old World pageantry of the French Quarter, New Orleans became a city like any other, full of drab secretaries and barking dogs and big Chevrolets in need of paint. I stopped at a convenience store and deliberated between a bag of peanuts and a can of sardines. I leaned toward the sardines, because the bones, skin, and oil would keep me going longer, but how would I eat them without a can opener, and what would the Skaggy people think if I showed up smelling of sour old men and dead fish? So I bought two bags of peanuts, two cents change. The sun was climbing, warming to its task. It was cold at night in New Orleans in March, but the days often got hot. I ate one bag of peanuts on the fly, chewing them too fast. I ate the second bag more slowly.
When I got to the department store, I went inside to ask for instructions, but no one knew where I was supposed to go, so I was five minutes late by the time I arrived at the warehouse. The warehouse men laughed at my tardiness but were happy to see me, because they planned to kill me. A truck loaded with forty-pound bags of Friskies dog food was backed up to the dock. “Get on in there,” said one man, “and start unloading.”
Briefest job training I’d ever had. I hopped up into the truck and began to throw down the bags while the men stacked them on pallets and drove them away on forklifts. I did some quick math: ten thousand bags of dog food plus one skinny boy to unload them equaled me dead on the dusty floor in two hours. The truck’s trailer was stuffy with the warm odor of pulverized corn and slaughtered horses. My boys down below laughed and grinned at me. I’ll show them, I thought, and I began to toss down the bags. The game to end my life had begun.
Half an hour later I was already flagging. The bags were stacked to the roof, and I had to stand on my toes to drag the top ones down. I tried to concentrate on the Italian restaurant, the flecks of basil in the tomato sauce and the way warm mozzarella stretches from your teeth. The trailer was only forty feet long but seemed deeper than the Holland Tunnel. My thin arms stiffened and cramped, and I began to totter. My peanuts had been burned up long ago. I huffed and heaved and tried to think of girls I wanted to have sex with. I pretended that if I couldn’t finish the job I would be executed by a cruel queen who would eat my testicles with tartar sauce.
At last the trailer was empty. I was covered with sweat and dog-food dust, and my arms and legs burned like wires, but I’d shown those grinning bastards. I was no common street crumb or weakling sap of a suburbanite.
“Come on out of there,” ordered one of my stocky co-workers, still grinning at me. Now, I thought, climbing down, we’ll sit in the shade of the warehouse and drink lemonade for a spell.
Instead someone had backed another trailer full of Friskies up to the dock.
“How many more of them are there?” I said, trying not to sound too helpless.
“Many as you want,” he said.
For lunch I lay on a four-wheeled cart, smoked two cigarettes, and stared at the sky.
It got hot in the afternoon, with the sun beating against the south wall of the truck trailer. I had lost a few pounds and had to tie my pants up with a piece of string. My muscles were finished, cooked, kaput. I dropped a bag, and it split and spilled. My boys laughed. I dropped another bag. “Hey, take it easy, man.” “Let him take a break.” “He’s OK. You OK?” They grinned at each other.
After I fell down and cut my elbow, one of the men jumped in and helped. He worked double time, and I struggled along in feeble imitation, lifting bags that felt as if they were filled with rocks. The others had stopped grinning, however. I had finally won their respect. They respected me so much, they let me sweep the warehouse floor after we were through.
It was near sundown when I hobbled away from Skaggs, half dead and doing the Frankenstein march, one knee not cooperating, the traffic like tweedy jazz in my ear. The clouds were a numb Halloween color. Power lines crackled above, echoing my frazzled nerves. My boots flopped around on the ends of my ankles. The thought of the Italian restaurant was all that kept me from falling over sideways into the gutter. And I had worked two hours overtime — ten hours total. That had to be worth at least twelve bucks. If I played it right, I’d have (cue the fanfare) two days off.
But when I finally got back to Manpower and gave the man my voucher, he reached into the drawer and brought out a ten-dollar bill, snapping it somehow with anger as he laid it in my palm. “Here you go, son.”
I stared at it.
“I worked ten hours.”
“That’s what you get for ten hours. This is an employment service.”
“You got overtime.”
Yeah, all right. Let’s not quibble over pennies. There was a team of expert Italian cooks poised and ready for my arrival, and I could not keep them waiting. I was used to hot-dog sandwiches from the mission, carroty gruel from the soup kitchen, an occasional po’ boy or oyster muffuletta when I had the money. And I was old enough to drink wine in New Orleans. I hoped my legs would hold out.
One thing was certain: I wasn’t going to work the next day. I was going to buy myself a bottle of fortified wine and sleep in the sun at Jackson Square. The only thing that could ruin my Elysian vision was rain. It rained in Hawaiian proportions in New Orleans. I had never lived in a place where it rained so much. But it doesn’t look like rain, I thought, as a raindrop splashed on the tip of my nose. Another hit my head. I looked up.
I had a mile to go to Royal Street when the clouds just let go. It was that famous green New Orleans rain, like someone has turned a lake upside down on your head. I dashed across the street and took cover in the doorway of a shoe-repair shop. The rain came with a vengeance, dark Gulf rain with shots of silver in it. The gutters swelled. The street shone like a river stippled by sweeping sheets of falling water. I lit a Kent and watched the silver-green downpour switch back and forth in the streetlights and wondered how long Jules would wait for me. I kept pressing my face against the window of the shoe repair shop to check the clock on the wall. Finally, my margin of error whittled to seconds, I tilted my head forward and stepped out into the deluge, clinging as close as I could to the overhangs and awnings.
Slogging doggedly through the torrent, I discovered that my supposedly waterproof army-surplus jacket leaked like a fishnet. My jungle boots were designed to let out moisture, not keep it from getting in, so the water flowed right through them. I felt my bluejeans growing heavy as they became saturated. My socks were bunched in wads under my feet.
At last I came to the Italian restaurant. The rain beat a dull, spongy drumbeat on my wool-capped head and raced in icy rivulets down my neck and back. Through the rain-streaked glass I saw Jules sitting by himself at a table in the middle of the busy dining room. I stood under the awning for a minute or two and tried to stomp off some of the water. I took off my wool cap and wrung it out like a dishrag.
As I stepped up into the restaurant, the door clattered shut behind me, and all heads turned on their necks like Japanese periscopes training on the USS Missouri. The tray-toting waiters stopped in their tracks, suspended, and I suddenly felt like the woman in the leotard who stood in front of the expert knife thrower on the Ed Sullivan Show. I hovered in the entryway, shivering and dripping. I might have been the creature just emerged from the Black Lagoon. The captain behind the podium, with his twiggy French mustache, stared at me in disbelief. He would have asked me to leave, I’m certain, had I not hastily told him I had a reservation, with Jules right over there, for 6:30. And perhaps, because of my jungle boots and camouflage jacket, he mistook me for a returning GI.
I sounded like a trained porpoise slopping and squeaking my way across the room on the heels of the twiggy French mustache. This was a much fancier restaurant than my peeks in the window had indicated. The high ceilings supported spinning fans, and everything in the room was white: the drapes, the linen napkins, the tablecloths, the heat of my embarrassment. With every step, more water squeezed from my socks and flowed out the side vents of my boots. “Hello, Jules,” I said, peeling off my dripping jacket and draping it over the back of my chair. I would not have been surprised to see goldfish jump out of the pockets.
The captain made a show of setting down the menu in front of me. Jules swallowed and offered a labored smile. He wore a snazzy white sweater with Navajo geometry across the breast. His hair was more carefully combed than usual, glistening from rain or pomade. My teeth began to chatter. I took off my hat, stuffed it in my jacket pocket, and mopped my face with a napkin.
“Glad you could make it,” Jules said, giving it his best.
“Hit a bit of a storm on the way,” I explained, grinning like that big guy in the plasma joint just before he’d hit the tiles.
“I bet you’re hungry,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about this all day. It got me through eight trailers of dog food.”
He tried for another smile. For all the attention we received, we might’ve been newlywed transvestites or a pair of flamenco dancers with maracas in our hands. The vicious whispering at the other tables made my teeth chatter harder. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a gray puddle creep slowly from under our table and out across the white linoleum floor. I’d never been in a more brightly lit place. Why couldn’t I have chosen a dark restaurant? Why did we have to sit in the very center of the dining room?
“What are you going to have?” said Jules.
I glanced at the menu and set it down. “I’ll have the spaghetti with sausages,” I said.
“That sounds good,” said Jules, setting his menu on top of mine. “With garlic bread, yes? And we’ll have some wine, too.”
God bless you, I thought.
While the waiter ignored Jules’s attempts to catch his eye, I told Jules about my day at Skaggs, speaking in a loud voice so that these good people in their comfortable clothes with their wallets full of money would understand that I was not some hippie heavily influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien, but a character straight out of a John Steinbeck novel, a truthful man of the road who earned his own way, just as Jules imagined me. It hadn’t been my plan to become a tramp, and neither was it my intention to remain one.
At last the waiter deigned to visit our table. He held his chin so high in the air I feared his head would tear loose. Jules ordered for both of us while I clasped my hands between my knees and watched the terrible gray puddle spread out across the tiles.
The wine came in a carafe. I poured some into my water glass and dashed off three gulps, easing both thirst and humiliation. Jules watched me with a combination of admiration and pity in his English grocer’s eyes. The kitchen doors swung open and closed, and the waiters transported their whirling delicacies around us in planetary arcs. The gray puddle continued to advance. I squeezed my toes down into my filthy wet socks and finished my wine. I wanted to get up and use the bathroom, because there were no public restrooms, not one, in the French Quarter, and the business owners made it so difficult for anyone besides paying customers to use their facilities that I had peed my pants twice before discovering parks and alleys. But I didn’t dare stand — they would’ve booted me out for sure — so I poured myself another glass of the Italian red and tried to think of something to say.
When the spaghetti came, it looked like a four-foot-high beehive with whole, glistening sausages sticking out along the sides. With a Christmas-like euphoria, I attacked the red-tinted noodles with my fork. The spaghetti was so good I almost cried. I ate like a grateful dog. The rain pattered against the window. Jules tried to order another carafe of wine. I wanted to hold up my glass to the cooks for a toast, but at that moment the busboy came out with a mop and began to slap at the spreading gray puddle. Then one of the cooks, a puffy-eyed grouch with speckles on his face, like the skin of an overripe banana, came to mop along the other side.
I tried to ignore the moppers. I wanted to enjoy the dry warmth, the wine, the food, and Jules’s gentle company. I took out a cigarette, but it was too wet to light, so I dropped it on the table. The cook mopped with short, angry strokes and an occasional glance of loathing at me. Finally I got up and took the mop from the busboy’s hands. He let it go, shrinking away so that he wouldn’t accidentally touch me. I began to mop. The cook’s mop and mine collided, and he glared at me. I had never felt so much hatred. I wrung out the mop and slapped it back into the puddle. The cook leaned on his handle and glared while I made a few more passes and left the mop standing in the wringer, and then he snorted with disgust. I considered throwing my ten bucks on the table. I thought once more of using the restroom. Instead I left the restaurant.
Jules followed me outside, looking like a mother whose son has gone to jail.
“Sorry about all that, Jules,” I said.
“You couldn’t help it,” he said. “You can’t help it if it rains.”
The cook stuck his head out the door. “Don’t be loitering out here now,” he said with a scowl. “Management don’t want no bums hanging around the door.”
I thought Jules might offer something in our defense. This was his city, after all. He belonged to its middle class and shopped in its well-lighted grocery stores. But he only looked away.
“We’re paying customers,” I said.
“Get along now,” said the cook, flicking his fingers at me, “before I have to come out there and move you.”
I wished for a moment I were a Golden Gloves champ, but the moment passed, and Jules and I shuffled along to the next dripping awning. Standing beneath it was like being in a cage with bars made of green rain. We lingered for a minute but thought of nothing to say. I wondered where I would sleep, how I would stay warm, how I would dry my clothes, how I would make ten bucks last three days. I wondered how I would ever save enough money to go north.
“I’ve got to go,” said Jules. “I’ll see you at the square.” He almost shook my hand. I could see he wanted to do something more: give me money, invite me to sleep on his couch while he drank hot chicory with cream and read to his crippled aunt from The Wind in the Willows. But instead he walked off into the rain.
I haven’t thought much about Jules since. Once I got out of New Orleans, I never returned except passing through on my way to somewhere else. Whenever I look back on that reckless time, I think of being dirty, hungry, and cold. I think of the cruel store owners. I think of walking through a cold night and wondering if the sun would ever come. I think of eating a piece of abandoned birthday cake on a park bench and considering the invitation of a man I didn’t know to come up to his hotel room. I think of the Mississippi River slogging along, too big for itself, swirling against the rocks, the water so high the ships and barges seemed to drift by above me. I knew nothing then and neither did I care about the fragile levees or Lake Pontchartrain. I was barely aware that most of the city was below sea level.
But last year when the hurricanes came — first Katrina, and then three weeks later Rita — to destroy the city of New Orleans, dropping rain in a volume far beyond any I have ever known, I began to think of Jules again. If he’s still alive, he’s around fifty, my age, and I imagine that his aunt is dead, and that he has continued to romanticize the homeless and sponsor them in his peculiar way. Whether he evacuated or had flood insurance or surrendered to fate likely made little difference as his city went under. His home was gone — toilet, hot water, clean socks, electricity, a ham sandwich with mayonnaise and sweet pickles — and it was his turn finally to live the adventure, a world of trouble a thousand times worse than mine.