The human memory, like a raven, is attracted to singularly bright objects, those that shine in the mind. Months later I remember tasty food, every dish a gumbo of spice and sauce, and cheap but strong cocktails, even outside of Happy Hour (starts at noon in some bars), and of course, the jazz. Three or four bands a day per club on Frenchman Street. And busking bands that sound like they should be getting $20 a ticket at a decent size music hall.
But I forget the density of the homeless, not even curled up in doorways, just sprawled on the sidewalk like a chalked crime scene on a piece of cardboard, still asleep at noon. Locals call the young ones gutterpunks. The name fits, unlike the layers of drab green or brown clothes. Tatoos hide under encrusted street dirt. Some plunk on small guitars hoping to reach a soft-hearted tourist recently trained to tip musicians. Unlike up North, the beggar come-ons are mostly gentle, the chief strategy to get folks to answer, “How ya doin’?” by stopping to listen to their story. Unlike the Bourbon Street hustlers who verbally halt you with, “Five dollars I can tell where you got them shoes.” Or the young veteran who brandishes his ID, then shames me for not serving, and when I keep on walking, yells back, “People like you make me sorry I served.”
After a play about the challenges of Louis Armstrong’s life, we are sitting with friends at a nice wine bar – table for four on the sidewalk. Ten o’clock brings on Bacon Happy Hour and great deals on fine French wine. Groups of tourists, some in matching T shirts, head to or from Bourbon Street, loud for a moment, then back to our quiet conversation. We see a guy in bright Mardi Gras fancy-pants carrying a milk crate, and figure he’s a successful street performer. He slows at the corner to scan the trash cans, opening each lid to root around for something to eat. The other morning we saw the guy with the ladder-to-nowhere act, usually on Royal Street, sleeping on the sidewalk, all his props in a shopping cart in the gutter.
After we pay our check and walk away, we see an old lady in a white straw Trilby open our tab folder and look inside. We go back to protect our transaction, and she says she is one of the owners of the wine bar, just checking to see which server neglected to grab the folder before we left the table. Skeptical, I get her talking, and, up close, she looks almost 90. I then notice the waits defer to her. I shift to compliment her on the Grapevine, one of my favorite French Quarter getaways, and she offers her hand, “I’m Pam.” Turns out she is also a partner in other bars, and one of the inventors of the Hand Grenade, which has displaced the Hurricane as the tourists’ sweet and powerful cocktail of choice, served in a tall translucent green plastic grenade. She reaches to her necklace, feels around, and shows me a gold hand grenade. It is common for a New Orleans lady to wear around her neck something like my mother’s charm bracelet. I knew the story behind each of my mother’s wrist charms, some of which were my presents to her. In this city where the mementos are usually silver, Pam’s are gold. How could I not believe her story, and want to hear of the others clanging together with her gold grenade?