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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Conversation of the Week

The conversation was after hearing a fabulous jazz rendition. I would be willing to bet that some of the best jazz performances in the country, no, in the entire world, have taken and still continue to take place at the Preservation Hall in the heart of the French Quarter, New Orleans.

Well, I happen to know that the chairs are limited and that they lay pillows out right smack dab in front of the jiving, thriving jazz band, where horns are blowing and the musicians are sitting, standing, swaying, thrashing about in a frantic fever there, unleashing their instruments. I happen to know that if you come in towards the end of the line, and all the chairs are taken you can claim these pillows, before any of the other guests realize that they're there for the taking and they make a fine close-up seat. That night, the sax player would blow his horn nearly directly in my face. There is no better way to experience jazz then by a live, close-up performance.

I hapharzardly sat next to this cute girl who happened to be French. All the way from Paris just to see how French America can get. This brought her to New Orleans. Actually she had been living in New York awhile working with poor children in Harlem. We talked during the intermissions, she was 26 and a Civil Engineer. Though remarkably young looking and very cute. Her English wasn't all too sharp. I was hoping that she might've misunderstood me when I invited her to go for a drink afterwards...in the fact that she said, "No, I'm sorry...I must get back."
I mean. Her body language and her incessant conversation told me that she could not possibly say she couldn't hang out. Maybe she really had something really important to tend to. So I wandered down the street thinking about her. How embarrassing, how shameful it all was. Her and her dark eyes and complexion. She looked more Arabic than French. I guess she was Mediterranean French, though a Parisian. Oo la la...Oh well...
But there was one place I knew that would make up for the loss and that was at this snug little joint, the Pirates' Alley Cafe...where interesting conversations are always abounding, and these have yet to fail in interest or entertainment. (This was the very place I had in mind to take the French girl. But enough about her.)
I walk in and I was left with a lady bartender in her 40's. Maybe older. And a bar fly about the same age. This bar fly happened to be a street artist that sells her paintings in Jackson Square, she had actually grown up in Jackson Square, or so she bragged, her mother a street painter before her and her father owned a strip joint on Bourbon. She drank her cocktail and began describing her life growing up as a wretched little street urchin in the French Quarter. As though letting loose children on these streets makes them sow their wild oats early and also makes them crazy. I was so immersed in the conversation, I hardly dared to speak at all. I found this lady ever willing to let flow these stories, sometimes about long ago, other times about some awful crime scene that had just taken place. Danger and Wonder were two dominant themes in her conversation. Maybe with a twist of Crudeness thrown in there. I wonder if these elements ever featured in her artwork. Or was she just a commercial artist, painting pretty pictures of old buildings without tapping into the themes that she was painting right there before me with her words.

Just then, when the conversation seemed unable to to get any more ideal and picturesque, this pirate walks in. Yes, a full-fledged bucaneer with a 3 cornered hat, fluffy shirt, sword, musket, and all. No parrot, no eyepatch, and no missing limb. But the finest dandy of a pirate that sauntered the streets of the Quarter. He was a street performer. I had seen him earlier on Bourbon St. a still life effigy of Jean Lafitte, Lousiana's pride and persona of self-indulgent heroism. This street performer got his bacon, bread, and of course, as I was witnessing, his beer, by simply posing in the middle of the bead-wearing, grenade-guzzling crowd. Lively spectators some with romantic notions of New Orleans history, most of them just drunk and amused, "Look, Farley and Hud, a piirate!" Then they'd swarm about him, as he stood still as a statue, camera flashes going off and somehow or another this forerunner of Jack Sparrow would earn enough to live off of. He sat down at the bar, still in full costume, though he flung off his hat, and seemed agitated about something, but also willing to moisten that agitation a bit with a drink or two, while he counted up his earnings for the day. All during the conversations, I kept eyeing his flintlock pistol, wishing that I could have an excuse to carry one around with me.

The barside chat went around from all 3 participants. Sometimes, I felt as though I was a ghost intruding on their talks. Because I hardly uttered a word not wishing to take the conversation from its delightful course, as though it was a continual flow and anything that I might say could easily disrupt its naturalness.

Both street artist and performer were from New Orleans born and raised. The bartender was originally from the Southside of Chicago. All 3 had an altogether different upbringing and life's experiences when young than I had had. I kept thinking that I was interviewing them for a documentary or something similiar. As though they were speaking and the cameras were just rolling capturing the color and confusion of their Bohemian lives. Their speech and subject matter was so rich, though coarse and bawdy, but still, it was alive. They began talking about how years ago it was very apparent you could hear a tug boat, maybe an ancient relic of a steamboat, or maybe just a mundane barge would sound its foghorn as it glided by in the nearby Mississippi. It was not loud nor abrasive, but faint and always far off. They said it still occurs from time to time even nowadays. A sound of enchantment from a time since gone. One of the ladies was talking about how soothing it was to be taking a shower or something or other and hear this far off cry of nostalgic river days.

They often talked of well-known folks in the area; celebrities or legends of the French Quarter. One of the most striking was when the street artist lady spoke up, "Oh and then there was the big deal about Perry the Clown. You remember?" And she would go on about this famous or infamous, Perry the Clown who dressed up like a hobo clown. And the children and their families would flock around him and he'd do his clown bit. He had this rubber chicken with him at all times, and wasn't it a big surprise when the cops busted him for carrying his large stash of dope inside the rubber chicken, and selling it to his many buyers all around the Quarter. So poor Perry the Clown ended up serving some time in the slammer.

Then there was the story of the tapdancers. How years ago there'd be a bunch of black boys who'd get money by tapdancing. The cops in those days were big jerks and just for kicks and maybe because of a complaints of panhandling. -Maybe they were pestering people, they'd approach the boys, get them to hand over their shoes and then they'd use a knife and pry out the metal from the soles of the tap shoes, which never came cheap. So the boys would be without tap shoes and couldn't tap dance. But one clever boy took it into his head to nail old metal Coke bottle caps to the soles of his shoes and away he would dance. Other tapdancing boys followed suit. And when the police came around again, tearing the bottle caps from their shoes, the boys could always get new bottle caps. So the police just gave up.

There was some curious story about a handicapped woman who could hardly do anything of talent. Couldn't play an instrument, didn't care to paint, and I guess Tarot and fortune-telling were not her thing, so she would put on this gorilla suit and sit on Decatur Street. The people would pass by thinking, "Look, a gorilla!" and they'd drop coins in her bucket. She wouldn't do a thing. No banana act. No grunts or anything, just sit in a chair in a gorilla suit and would take home about a $100 a day. Or at least that's what the pirate said. Then the 3 of them began to talk about sex which I have the decency to leave out of this narrative.

All during these conversations, I began to realize that I was not an intruder of their stories, I was their main audience. It was as though each knew each other's stories and they were merely performing for the ego boost that I was giving them by sitting on the edge of my barstool attentive and polite to everything they said. I was listening to the voices from the street instead of contributing to it. Which rarely happens among the tipsy hubbub or the excited hurly burly that clamors raucously down the Quarter. What's a Bohemian without an audience?

The bar was closing. And they invited me to go with them to another. But seeing how I didn't want to get drunk and I had to get to my hotel, I declined their offer and left, I would've like to have heard that distant foghorn being sounded far off down the Mississippi, but I didn't.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have often played with the notion of actually penning a book one day myself. I have thought that a book compiled of the interesting and very honest slices of the lives of everyday men and women would be a great read, or it would be for me anyway. I sm certain that even the soberest and quitest human holds within himself or herself a chapter well worth reading.

9:03 PM  
Anonymous Brian Harrison said...

Yes, I've always thought the same. It's a matter of getting to that inner realism. In truth, I often find so many interesting people around me. (I fool myself thinking that no one else will find them as interesting as I do; so I don't write about them.) It's the uninteresting people, who I fear, are not being honest with themselves. They exchange who they are for who the crowd is. Or who so and so is. Well, a true person who lives as him or herself no matter what profession, or hobbie, or location..no matter how "normal" that person is...I think is interesting enough for a book. It's when reading about a character and there's that spark, "Aha, I know what its like feeling that or thinking that"...that's where the connections are met between author, character, and audience. Yes, you should write about yourself in all its perceptions. By the way, who is this?

10:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is me. I am merely a human strolling through life and continually bumping into things, correcting myself if possible heading ever closer to the great cliff. I do not believe there is one person that has lived to be at least 30 or 40 that has not had more than one tremendous experience within the drudgery of life that would be worth recording for others to read with avid interest. Each person that we meet is am entire book of both good and bad occurances, if only they would or could remember the emotions and details of the time and unabasedly re-tell the tale. Bad memories are best left untold...or are they?

9:08 PM  

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