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Encounter: A long ago revelation on a ferry boat ride across the Mississippi River
Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” Indeed I do!
As the years pass without a visit back to the city where I was born and lived for the first 21 years of my life, I tend to think of it less often, except for when I see something about New Orleans in the newspaper, or read a magazine article, either online or in print. Often it’s not good news, if it’s news only. For instance, the brutal heat and humidity that I remember so well from my high school years mowing lawns, is worse than ever with global warming. For nine days last month the heat index hovered around 115 there. Even being young and healthy I cannot imagine working outdoors in those conditions. Also crime and high poverty rates bring endless woes to the fabled tourist city, which during Mardi Gras season becomes “The City That Care Forgot,” ironically. But it’s history, food, unique blend of cultures and architecture , and the sheer fact that there’s no place remotely like it anywhere in the country, lure millions of visitors every year. It’s all something I grew up with, but only now do I really appreciate what I am no longer surrounded by. And that appreciation is from afar.
Despite the fact that it’s been 30 years since I last visited that beguiling old city on the banks of Mississippi, it still frequently haunts my memories and dreams of childhood and growing up there. My formative years were spent there, for better or worse.
As I’ve written before, it is a city whose sights, sounds and smells can be frightening and appalling to those uniniatiated in the ways of the world, as I certainly was as a teenager. I’m not just talking about the infamous Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, but the whole of downtown New Orleans, with its misfits, miscreants, and other deluded and forgotten souls who wander in search of their place in the world, if, in fact, there is any place for them. I’d come home and be depressed for days sometimes by what I saw and heard in the midst of that chaotic stew that surrounded the city’s main thoroughfare, Canal Street. I’d hurry along the narrow streets of the Quarter, my inquisitive 16-year-old self trying to absorb in quick flashes of insight, the lessons of the street. I wondered how the Lucky Dog hot dog salemen could tolerate dragging those big, heavy and hot metal weiner-shaped conveyances all around the Quarter; why people went into those sleazy bars with the come-on barkers at the doors; and why legless men were sitting on the street selling pencils.
I wondered who could be living in those upper floor apartments of the old wrought-iron, balcony-festooned buildings that lined the streets of the Vieux Carre, as if in some exotic European quarter. I always imagined that was what it might be like to be in a foreign country. New Orleans was and is very foreign in many ways, and I sensed that strongly, even as a child and teenager.
At the same time, I was drawn downtown because of the excitement, the noise, the bustle, the stores, the endlessly fascinating architecture, the crowds of people. But, again, I remember being frightened and giving a wide berth to the raving, drunken and belligerent people you’d occasionally hear shouting at the top of the lungs into the sky, cursing their own darkness, but I couldn’t imagine what had caused them to be that way.
And then there were the chance encounters and mysterious people one almost always saw riding across the Mississippi on the Algiers-to-Canal-Street ferry. This was an adventure when I was young. The river was so wide that you really got the feeling of being away from the city for awhile, out there on that roiling, deep muddy water, watching big logs, driftwood, and other junk and detritis rapidly funneling downstream on the currents. Once, when I was in college, I rode that ferry and observed what was going on with one individual in particular, and was affected so strongly by what I saw and perceived, that I wrote about it in my journal. I include that entry here:
From my journal, July 31, 1971, New Orleans, Age, 20:
Last Friday, my brother and I were going to have dinner at a Chinese restaurant with some family friends, and we parked the car and took the Algiers ferry across the river. There were few people making the trip over on this particular run, but one of them was a hapless, elderly-looking man about 60, although the hardships of life showing readily on his sad face could have aged him well beyond his actual years. He held a worn paper bag in his hands, carefully, almost reverently, clutching it at times as if it contained a priceless possession. His entire appearance, from clothes to mannerisms, could have personified skid-row. Something he did, though, struck me as strangely, but pridefully tragic.
I noticed that shortly after we had left the landing, this old man began walking slowly from one person to another, requesting, I surmised, small change. With a hesitant, but still apathetic feeling of disgust, I looked away, pretending to ignore his approach. He mumbled something to my brother and I, which I could not understand, in what must have been his slowest, saddest asking tone, perfected by years of mechanical inflection. When he looked at me, I instinctively said I had no change (which happened to be true in this particular case, though I probably would have said the same thing regardless), but my brother abruptly indicated that he wanted to know if we had a cigarette. We had none, of course, but I was caught in an unexpectedly embarrassing situation, and again had to refuse the man something I would have willingly given him. He passed on impassively and requested, I assume, a cigarette from someone who must have been only about 18, holding a sleeping bag under his arm. No cigarette there, either.
When he sat down again, I could notice a look of frustration on his face. He was once again oblivious to everyone around him and seemed shrouded in the bitterly degrading search for a used butt on the floor around his feet. He picked one up and brushed it off, checking the amount of tobacco still left on the crushed out cigarette. The slightest glimmer of expectancy passed away to failure once again as he dropped the butt on the floor. I was staring right at him, and he suddenly looked up. I quickly averted my gaze and could only sit there opposite him thinking depressing thoughts of what utter loneliness must be like.
As the ferry approached Canal Street, he got up slowly and walked toward the exit gate, giving the illusion that some destination awaited him. The ferry jolted to a final stop and the gates were thrown open. The old man was one of the first out, but he trudged very slowly and despondently up the ramp. Everyone had soon passed him by, hurrying on their separate ways, and as I passed, I wondered how many people had given him a second thought.
Two hours later, we returned on the ferry at sunset, having enjoyed our delicious Chinese food. Getting off on the Algiers side, I spotted the same old man, slightly hurrying to the ferry landing to make yet another trip across the river.
How can these people survive? They are regarded as bums and subhuman, but I am sure they have cherished memories of carefree childhoods just like the rest of us. They are errant, unfortunate human beings, cast aside and spit upon by society beacuse they “don’t find work.” We are so ignorant of their real plight. I wonder whether behind their fascades of acceptance to a way of life in which they have grown accustomed to merely surviving, each in his own way longs for some chance of rebirth, if only the mere recognition of his or her basic humanity.
I really need to return to New Orleans before I get too much older. Sheer willful stubbornness about doing any more traveling is holding me back. I could spend weeks there just photographing the people and street life in the crowded French Quarter alone. Not to mention the many diverse neighborhoods I am familiar with, but never explored when I was younger. Then there’s my favorite food of all time, which fortunately I can get a few samplings of here in Charleston to bring back memories of good times. And despite all the bad times, I do have many memories to hold onto and cherish because, after all, I grew up there.
The immortal Louis Armstrong