I am wandering through a city about which I know shockingly little. I turn at familiar street names, most of which I learned from a cursory glance at a map the night before. I do my best to navigate with the sun, though it is lazily rushing toward high noon and east seems as viable an option as west. I find a large park with shaded benches, the perfect place to write and mentally digest the most deserved meal I have ever eaten. Cicadas sing a late summer’s song in the giant oaks and evergreens, all carefully draped in Spanish moss. It is a quarter of ten in the morning.
A well-weathered man with a wondrously tame grizzly gray beard savors a cigarillo at a table nearby, bicycle leaning safely near him. He has found an electrical outlet for his battered boombox and Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks seems specifically scored for him and this moment. I find little irony in the song, despite presently owing my dryness to an unfathomable system of levees that is only famous for its failures. His cigar drags appear in time with the haunting harmonica and Bron-Y-Raur drum echos. As if God Himself were orchestrating the scene, a muted tapping commences above my head. A small woodpecker works in languid fervor, fruitlessly percussing to the cicadas’ distant whir.
The air is so heavy it seems to muffle all sound and silently slow human progress. Long nods and drawn out greetings are the norm for strangers on sidewalks and stoops. Hurries go undetected here; my brain buzzes with chicory-infused caffeine, but my spent body tempers its enthusiasm. I take a long drink of my surroundings. The soundtrack, air, and scene approach the surreal.
Finally I am able to engage with another park lounger who is in no way concerned with appearing busy. He sits, watches, and when he has had his fill of the heat, removes his shirt. Paul is a black gentleman who navigates New Orleans on a too-small bicycle and claims he is “old enough to be my daddy.”
“Aren’t we all?” I reply, which is met with a “heard dat.”
Of all the people I have met on this trip, he is the one who asks the best and most challenging questions about it. His questions cut deep, but his sincerity and earnestness are most refreshing. Even under a thick beard and long, matted hair, I cannot hide the fact that I am not really his equal. “What is it you’re running from, brother?” I had ridden my bike alone from Florida to New Orleans without being asked anything more than where I showered or slept.
When a shaggy, delusional man whom he apparently “knew” arrived, Paul was patient as our conversation was interrupted endlessly by tales of Marines, bank robberies, and cases of mistaken identity in Manchester, Tennessee. Between semi-intelligible rants about his driver’s license and stolen gun, “Detroit” seems to be his favorite word, though his accent hails from no fewer than seven hundred miles south of there. Paul politely interrupts from time to time to ask me about how Moneygrams work. After every question comes a quip about women, some focused texting, and an immediate resumption of the sedately maniacal story-telling. There is a brother who is (was?) a cop, talk of years spent in jail, fellow transients who have grown stuck in the mire of Louisiana’s humidity and The Big Easy’s distinct charm.
Eventually Paul gets all the answers he needs, puts his shirt back on, and walks his bike out of the park in search of Walgreen’s or Wal Mart. I spend several more minutes debating the nuanced pros and cons of being related to a law enforcement officer before making my escape, anonymously boarding an open-air streetcar like some Tennessee Williams invention…
John Montesi is an undergraduate at Claremont McKenna College in California.