Hard Times in The Big Easy
I needed a beer. I needed a smoke. I needed a good-luck broad to blow on the dice.
A week in the solitary confinement of one’s soul staring at a blank screen, typing, then hitting erase – delete, slamming the case shut, and walking away only to come back to the same blank screen – the same thoughts forming from words in your mind – knowing that once you put those words out and hit the big send button they can’t be taken back. Lives will change, the perception of paragons will shift…
What I had was a cold cup of chicory in the non-smoking section of Café Du Monde and a large, angry man heading my way.
“Hello, brother,” I said.
Tim didn’t answer.
“Let’s try this again. Hello, brother.”
He set the satchel on the table and took a seat.
“Sorry - Hello Samuel.”
“What crawled up your butt,” I asked?
He didn’t answer, not verbally in the way one would expect a brother to answer a brother when they haven’t seen one another for over a year. Instead, he pawed inside the case.
He took a single piece of legal-looking paper and slid it my way.
The air from the circulating ceiling fan of the open-air section of the café caught the edge of the paper Tim had slid towards me. It rose with a little puff, like a magic trick, and stayed suspended for a second before gliding back to rest next to my plate of beignets.
I reached for it before it had a chance to change its mind.
My shirt peeled itself from the back of the wrought-iron chair as I reached for the paper, the fan sufficient for turning a single sheet of 8.5 x 14-inch legal bond into a magic carpet was sorely lacking the ability to accomplish its intended task.
Nine in the morning and the air was already liquid.
Tim removed his hat. He snatched up a napkin and mopped sweat from his forehead. His eyes shifted to me as I read the document.
I read it once, quickly, scanning the bold print with my fingers. “Jeff Davis Monument, corner of Canal and….yes - Robert E. Lee, St. Charles…umm – Beauregard…okay…
I hadn’t finished when he said, “You don’t seem surprised.”
“Should I be?”
“Big news here. This far south,” he said.
“Nah, think about it, brother.” I had, long and hard and often during the year I’d been away. Seen it first-hand too, up in the Carolinas, Holy City, Queen City - Charleston, Charlotte – monuments removed - history erased. That’s the story I was going to write when I left the Times-Picayune with my assignment. You know the angle I was after - How’s this destruction of National Treasures - this mob mentality - this uppity me, me, me, rioting - going to do anything but rip what little common thread we had left holding us together apart, with no hope of stitching it back together? We’re barely hanging on as it is. Didn’t they get that?
That’s the story I wanted to chase.
That’s not the story I wrote.
“Think about what?” Tim asked.
Lost in thought I didn’t answer.
He grabbed a beignet from my plate. When he finished the triangular donut, he licked his fingers. Some of the powdered sugar had fallen on the document. I brushed it away with my fingers, careful not to make a smudge.
“Logical step, don’t you think,” I said.
“By gad, Sam, it’s history. Things happened. Can’t go erasing history.”
“People know, they’re always gonna know. What we don’t need is a constant rub in the face. How would you like to walk your kids past a statue of Hitler every day?”
“That’s not the same and you know it, little brother. Those Jews were…”
“Really, Sam! That’s what you think. No, you’ve never had to think about it, or you’ve just plain chosen not to,” I said.
A rag-tag street band marched down the street, heading from Jackson Square to the sidewalk next to the café. They struck up the tune When the Saints Go Marching In. I leaned in for his answer.
“I don’t remember you being so high and mighty about this before. What happened to you while you were gone. Meet some new friends, maybe carry on…”
“What happened is I opened my eyes.”
“Sounds like something, or someone opened them for you.”
It had been a little of both, I was in Charleston taking my evening bourbon on a stroll around Calhoun Park when I saw her. Her skin shining the darkest shade of ebony I had ever seen. I could embellish and tell you she was tall, willowy, with graceful movements that reminded me of ballet when she walked, and that when she smiled her perfect teeth gleamed ivory white. I could tell you this, but the truth is, she wasn’t. She was as plain and ordinary as any human I knew. Another face in the crowd trying to make ends meet.
I don’t know what, maybe the bourbon, maybe the lack of sleep from my work, caused me to watch, but watch I did as her husband came beside her, a child clutching dutifully at each hand.
I sipped and slid close enough to hear as she pointed to a monument, “Tomorrow,” she said, “tomorrow they’re gonna tear this thing down, and we’ll be here when they do.”
One of the children, the older of the two asked why - wanted to know what the man had done that nobody liked him anymore. Statures, like this, were reminders of great men who did great deeds, of heroes. She said she had learned that in school.
They sat down at the base of the monument, the little family did, and I listened and for once heard what the father said. When he had finished, he said, “That should set you straight.”
And when he put it that way, it muddled the waters of what I’d been taught to feel, the way that’s only normal for the human-animal to feel when a big batch of people from a different heritage move in. I understood. Trouble is, they didn’t move in, not in the traditional sense where they made the trek willingly, looking for a better life, eye on the prize, a hard, sometimes ruthless journey untaken with the goal of more on the other end. No, they were, hunted and herded and bought and sold to live and die at the discretion of those that had no more use for them than a sack of flour, a piece of chalk, a….fed only to keep them sturdy and strong enough to labor, bred to one of the Masters choosing- to produce not a child, but a tool to be used, or a commodity to be sold.
That’s what he told his children and I was close enough to see the horror in their eyes and the tears in those of his wife.
I went back to my room at The Mills House, sober, took out my laptop, and began banging on the keys.
“Read your column in the Times-Picayune, Sam. Caused quite a stir with the old man. Momma said it was a right good piece of writing though,” Tim said.
“Don’t know how good it was, but I do know it was right.”
I pointed out beyond the café, beyond the street…
“Jackson Square, what’s wrong with ole Andrew?” he asked.
“Same as the others, Tim, same as the others.”
“Got your wires crossed, Sam. Totally different war.”
“Same war, Tim. Just a different time.”