by The Critic
Lessons that can be learned while skipping school as edited for TWAU publication.
In The Park
The city is filled with city sounds and smells. The towers of steel, glass, and concrete loom large overhead, sometimes creating wind tunnels that channel the billowing, gray, cloud-like forces of nature that pass through their deep
trenches. All day long, they take turns blocking sunlight and casting shifting shadows. The buildings, the pavement, the streets, the rooftops, and the sidewalks absorb the heat from dawn until dusk. The city is like an oven that someone forgot to turn off.
The city bus stops awkwardly on an angle to allow me to step out and down onto the sidewalk. Cars are always illegally parked, blocking bus stops. The City of New Orleans spends a small fortune making ugly signs advising motorists of the parking fines, and the motorists spend a bigger fortune paying the parking fines. Soon the tow trucks will arrive and start towing vehicles. Sometimes the tow truck drivers install a massive, metal boot that prevents a driver from moving the vehicle. I have never been able to understand what factors determine which cars get towed and on which cars the tow truck drivers install the boots.
At this moment I am enjoying my freedom. I am glad not to be encumbered with a car, which would give me worries about where to park it, its cost, insurance, the price of gas, or any of the other multitude of worries you have when you own a vehicle in a huge, bustling city like New Orleans.
It is barely 5:00 a.m., and I am free to explore the city today. My book bag contains only a pair of jeans, because my bright, white, school uniform shirt will do fine. In a few short months, I will be eighteen and moving into a
college dorm room somewhere, but today I am just free to be me and enjoy the sights and sounds of the city. No classes. No nuns. No class bells dictating the hours of my day. Suddenly, I realize how fast I am walking. I slow my gait and my breathing. Draping my book bag over one shoulder, I start on my trek again, deeper into the heart of the French Quarter, more relaxed this time. Strolling slowly now, I allow myself to gaze into the various shop windows. As I casually pass, I cannot help noticing all the gaudy, Mardi Gras-style, decorated windows, done
up that way mostly to attract the tourists, I hope.
Jackson Square is a park-like refuge from the steel, glass, and concrete buildings of the modern city. This is exactly where I want to start my daily adventure. The French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, more specifically
Jackson Square, is bounded on two sides by the Pontalba Buildings. The Pontalba Buildings are home to unique shops and restaurants on the ground floor, while the above floors are occupied by colorful, local residents, just as they have
been since the 1850s when the apartments were built by the Baroness. On the backside of the park, there are the famous St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo. Every public or private school student in New Orleans has taken one of the countless daily tours once a year since third grade. Most of the tours that are offered at all of the historic sites are located within walking distance of Jackson Square. The front entrance of the park is located directly across from the levee that keeps the Mississippi River from flooding the city. It is also where a dozen or so mule-drawn carriages gather to take tourists on
thirty-minute tours of the French Quarter.
Jackson Square is completely surrounded by an elaborate, wrought-iron fence, which has large, ornate gate openings in the middle of each of the
four sides. Its front entrance is where I first see the old peddler everyone simply calls Joe. A very old, rag-tag-looking man, his face has so many lines on it that it looks like a map. His features are almost indistinct, lost to the years of lines that cross his face. He is almost scary-looking. He sits on a wooden bench under a fully-grown tree that will provide shade all day,
directly across from the giant, oversized statue of Andrew Jackson eternally tipping his hat while mounted on his rearing steed.
On many of my daytrips into the city and the French Quarter over the years, it has been common to see homeless street people wearing multiple layers of clothing, and Joe's attire today is no exception. Why do people let themselves get like this? Soap and water is so cheap. “Cleanliness is next to godliness”. Isn’t that what Sister Mary Richards always said?
I deliberately pick a bench to sit on that is upwind from Joe, I notice that, although he never looks directly at me, he soon seems aware of my presence.
“How are you doing, Missy?” His voice is gruff and deep. He has to be speaking to me as there is barely another soul stirring that could have gotten his attention.
I do not dare respond. I just want to study him. I have never seen anyone so old and appearing to be so dirty. I am skipping school by myself for the first time. Usually, when a group of us would skip school, we would go to a mall or ride the trolley to Tulane University and pretend to be college students trying to meet young, freshmen boys. Today, I just want to have an adventure in the city, to pretend to be an adult with a day off of work rather than just a kid skipping out of school. I want to spend the day meeting the artists that gather in the Square selling their artwork. I want to sip coffee at Café Du`Monde in the crisp morning air. I feel so alive.
I notice that the old man has a large, straw bag snuggled up against his side. The straw bag is newer and cleaner than the rest of his outfit. I wonder if it is really his.
“I would dance to entertain the folks that visited the city, but I haven’t been able to do that in a hundred years.” His voice cracks with age and then kind of trails off. I wonder if he is talking to me or himself, since he appears somewhat feeble.
As I look at him, I almost believe it could have been a hundred years since he danced for people. Even today, it is common to see young people on
French Quarter streets with beer caps stuck to the bottom of their shoes, tap dancing. There are some that seem to be quite good showmen. They can tap out recognizable old, popular, show songs for visitors who toss coins in a hat or box they have close by just for that purpose.
I notice another old man, pushing a small, homemade cart filled with all sorts of fruits and vegetables, coming our way. The wheels squeak horribly, causing a gathering of pigeons to take flight, only to land again a few yards away.
“You late, Blue.”
"Nay, I ain’t, Joe. How would you know, anyway? You're blind as a bat,” Blue says smiling. I can tell, from the tone of his voice, that he is intentionally antagonizing his old friend. He is another old man with a face that looks like a roadmap. Unlike Joe, Blue is dressed in clean blue jeans with a shiny, ironed look to them and a bright, white, short-sleeve shirt.
The businesses around the Square are just beginning to open their doors for business. Workers are sweeping the trash left by the revelers on the sidewalks the night before. The massive street-sweeping machines can be heard approaching, as they make their early daily
Other local street peddlers are starting to arrive and set up their displays to sell their wares. Soon, there will be somebody selling
something every ten feet around the whole perimeter of Jackson Square. Tourists and locals from the suburbs will be out in full force to greet them with their fat, cash-filled wallets. It is certainly a sight to behold.
I feel an ache in my belly. I start to rise to walk over to Café Du`Monde to get coffee and beignets (donuts) before the crowds arrive.
Before I can stop myself, my good Catholic upbringing causes me to ask Joe and Blue, “Would both of you like me to get you some coffee and
beignets?” They both look stunned, but I hear Blue clearly say, “Yes”, though I am sure I hear some reluctance in his voice.
As I hand Blue their orders of coffee and beignets, Joe speaks up, “Why, thank you, Missy. How much does Blue owe you?”
Blue coughs, and I quickly realize it is just to
keep from saying something to Joe that he does not want me to hear.
“Nothing, sir. My pleasure.” I walk back over to the bench that I have temporarily claimed as mine while I enjoy my café au lait and beignets.
I watch as Blue carefully hands Joe the hot cup of coffee. For the first time, I realize that Joe really is blind. Joe’s fingers carefully feel around the rim of the cup, and he very slowly moves his finger towards the hot liquid inside. His finger meets the hot liquid about half an inch down and stops. Then, just as carefully, he lifts the cup to his mouth.
“She’s wearing one of those private school uniforms, ain’t she, Blue?” Joe asks.
“Naw, but she was before she went and got the coffee and beignets. Now, she is just wearing blue jeans.”
“I really doubt that she is wearing just blue jeans!” Joe says with that same teasing tone Blue had used with him earlier.
“Will you just stop that right now, you blind fool. You know what I mean.” Blue has to swallow his mouthful of hot coffee fast to get it said. Blue looks annoyed, but I cannot tell if he is annoyed with Joe because of what he said or from swallowing a mouthful of hot coffee too fast. I decide it is probably a combination of both. I continue to eavesdrop on these two, obviously long-time, old friends, for a little while longer.
“Yea, them nuns teach them manners. Most kids today don’t have manners. Most adults forgot the manners they had. What you say, Blue?”
“I say that I put your two cold drinks and two bottled waters in the ice chest along with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I am going to be late for work if I stay here and jabber-jaw with you all day. That’s what I say, Joe.”
“Okay, Blue, I’ll wait for you.”
“Yeah, I bet you will.” And with that, I watch as Blue hurries off.
People start to approach the brightly painted cart to buy Joe’s fruits and vegetables. Joe would get a paper bag and with one quick snap of his wrist, then he would pop the bag open and begin filling it with what the customer selected. I watch in awe. How does he know what they are buying?
I wander around the perimeter of the park most of the day. Touring one side of the Square, I stop to view each vendor’s wares, and then return to my bench to watch Joe sell more of his fruits and vegetables. Only once, during the entire day, do I return to find my bench of choice occupied.
Luckily, there are many other benches on which to rest.
I encounter several mimes. They seem like an odd sort of characters. I watch as the mimes refuse to speak to anyone that speaks to them. One man, on a dare from his rowdy friends, offers one particular mime a hundred dollars just to speak one word. It is comical to watch as the mime follows the group for half the block obviously wanting to find another way to earn the money. This mime's ability to communicate through
facial expressions and body movements is uncanny. How brave or crazy does someone have to be to make a living as a mime? Are their parents proud of them? I guess they consider themselves to be performing artist. How does someone grow up to want to be a mime? Their dress is almost like that of a circus clown, and they definitely stand out in a crowd. These street entertainers get my attention during their sporadic performances most of the afternoon. Their antics range from cute to
hysterical. After one particular mime's performance that I think is very entertaining, I toss a well-deserved five dollar bill into his hat that he passes around like a Sunday collection plate.
I watch the parade of mule-drawn carriages at the front of Jackson Square. Each mule wears a decorated, straw hat. Having seen these straw hats all my life, they look quite ordinary to me, but I listen to the tourists as each group has something different to say about each individual mule's hat. They obviously find them truly unique. I wonder where are all these people come from that they do not have mules that wear decorated, straw hats and pull carriages? I think that this is quite common. I have been on several of these carriage rides myself.
The carriage drivers are actually much more interesting than the mules. They are surely performing artists, too. Each carriage driver is similar to a stand-up comedian, except these men are more like historians and professional
lecturers. They all tell some interesting stories that will not be found in most history books, at least not the way they tell them. I probably would be able to stay awake in class if my teachers could take presentation lessons from the carriage drivers in the French Quarter.
By the end of the day, I return to my bench in Jackson Square. I notice that Joe’s cart is almost empty. My youthful curiosity gets the best of me.
“Yes, Little Missy.”
“How did you do that?” I ask.
“All day you sold fruits and vegetables to people, and never once did I hear you have to ask anyone what they were buying? How did you know, Joe?”
“'Cause I pay attention, Little Missy.” He says, seeming amused.
“Walk over here, and I will show you.” I guess I am moving too slowly because Joe then says, “Come on, Missy. I don’t bite.”
I stand next to the wooden cart across from Joe. “Now close your eyes, and hold out your hand.” I do as instructed. I feel something
slightly warm and round. It is slightly larger than my hand, and heavier than I expected.
“Keep your eyes closed, and tell me what it is?” Joe says.
“A tomato?” I ask.
Joe laughs. “No, Missy, a pomegranate. Now try this.”
Again Joe places a large, slightly warm, heavy object in my hand. I sniff at it. Again, I have no clue. All the aromas of all the fruits seem to meld together, and everything smells like fruit salad to me. It is hopeless. Everything is warm from being outside, including me.
“I give up, Joe”
“That’s the problem with you young people today. Ya’ll give up too easy. Someday you won't be able to just give up. Then what you gonna do?”
I look at his thickly calloused hands, his dirty-looking clothes, his face that looks like a road map, and I listen to his aged, rough voice that sounds like a distant foghorn. I see the many decades that separate us. I am only just beginning to grasp what he means when he says I need to pay attention. I notice, too, that his clothes that look dirty from a distance are actually very clean. And I realize for the first time that there had been no reason to find a bench upwind from him when I first arrived at the park.
“Yes, Missy?” Joe's voice is a little softer.
“Why do you dress like that?” I almost whisper because I certainly do not want to insult him.
Joe seems to be studying me, but I know that he is blind.
“You ever had a job?” Joe asks.
“Not yet. Mom and Dad are scared it will interfere with my education,” I reply quickly.
“Work is the best education there is.” I realize that his broken English has suddenly improved. “Missy, I dress like this because people expect it. I sell more fruits and vegetables dressed like this. About fifteen, no, twenty years ago now, when I started losing my vision, I use to come here only on weekends. I
had a very nice, commercially made cart. I dressed rather well. Tourists and locals would walk right past me. I realized that I needed a gimmick.”
“Oh, so you're not homeless?” The words just popped out of my mouth. Both of my hands immediately go up to cover my mouth in a knee-jerk reaction to hearing what I had just said to this old man. In shock and disbelief, I just
stand there not knowing what to say or do.
“Excellent. That is exactly the image I want to portray.” The amusement in his voice is not what I expect.
“You cannot believe everything you see. Just like you cannot believe everything you hear or read. Little Missy, I have done quite well in my eighty years. I do not have to work. Blue doesn’t have to work either. I saved my money. Blue and I
have been working since we were six years old.” Joe seems to be counting. He is not as feeble as I originally thought him to be.
“I have a nice home on Esplanade Avenue, just a good stretch of the legs walk from here. Blue lives just down the street from me. I am here selling my fruits and vegetables every spring and fall, weather permitting. Blue has a soul food
stand on Bourbon Street. When I am not here, I am there.” I can hear the pride in his voice as Joe tells me this.
“Yes, Little Missy.”
“Did you get to graduate from high school?”
“Missy, I graduated from Tulane University with a Marketing Degree. Blue was a lawyer until he retired.” Joe speaks quietly, but with an element of pride that he cannot hide.
“Joe, you ready to go?” Blue says just as he walks up to the cart.
“I think the cat got little Missy’s tongue, Blue.” Joe almost seems to sing the words.
“Joe, I think it is more likely that you let the cat out of the bag, you old fool,” Blue says laughing.
“I just couldn’t help myself, Blue. Just because she is going to skip school, I didn’t think that that meant she should not learn anything.”
Blue turns to look at me and says, “He gave you a lesson on perceptions, didn’t he?”
“If you mean did he give me a lesson on not believing everything I see, hear, and read, then I would have to say, yes, he gave me a lesson on perceptions.” I answer in my best student-like tone.
“Well, let me add that that does not mean you should ignore your instincts. You know, that internal voice that only you can hear,” Blue
adds to the day’s lessons.
“That is the lawyer in him talking,” Joe adds.
“Joe, we gotta go or our wives are going to have our hides, and that is a fact,” Blue says as he directs Joe’s hand to the side of the cart and they prepare to leave.
“You be careful going home now, Little Missy. Be sure you get out of the Quarter before dark.”
“Okay, Joe. Thank you. I had a wonderful day.”
And with that, I turn and start to walk towards the bus stop. I certainly have a lot to think about. My memories of this day's adventure,
the sights, and the sounds of the city, and my misconceptions about people will keep me busy writing in my journal for weeks and months to come.
I know that I will come back to look for Joe and Blue again the first chance I have, but I need some time to think about what I have discovered today. The city is full of adventures. I have never been disappointed by what I have discovered, but this is the first time I got
an education that makes me realize that I need to stay in school.