This is the moment I remember most vividly.
He rode up from nowhere, set down his bike, and filled the empty street with song. After collecting a meager tip, he rode off into the day, leaving nothing but the echoes of a voice I’ll never forget. A voice that demanded to be heard.
I felt so thankful for that moment with my husband, children, and parents.
We were in the middle of a cross-country drive, a family trip to my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. This stop in New Orleans was a highlight … on so many levels. Delicious Bloody Mary’s, plates full of every culinary form of Crawfish imaginable, a first taste of Oysters Rockefeller for my children and, ohhhh! The beignets and cafe’ au lait from Cafe Du Monde! It was a feast for the palate and the senses, an experience with family that remains unrivaled, and a life-moment that stands firm in my memory.
It must be mentioned, it was also the time my son saw his first “lady of the evening”, albeit, it was ten o’clock in the morning. Framed in a peeling-painted doorway on Bourbon Street that Sunday, she was a vision. Dressed in a filmy, white peignoir, cigarette in hand, long dark legs crossed just so. My twelve year old boy was mesmerized, as was I. She was a canvas of haunted loveliness that seemed, at once, out of place and also right at home on that historic street still holding the sights and smells from the previous night’s bacchanal.
It’s surprising anything else could rival that first sight in NOLA but a riverboat excursion across the great Mississippi River, a tour to see old Mardi Gras Parade floats, loads of silliness with street performers, and our day was almost complete. The final act was performed by a man whose name I’ll never know and whose fate I’ll always dream about.
From nowhere he came and in an instant, he owned our attention. I didn’t recognize the song but I remember how it made me feel. It filled that empty street with it’s raw power and I was humbled in its enormity. With his remarkably soulful talent, why was this beautiful gift of a man living so tattered a life? Why was he not performing at Carnegie Hall, on Broadway? Why was the tip of a few dollars enough for him? Most importantly, why did I let him leave after only one song? It was the blink of an eye and he was gone.
It’s as if he was almost never even there and because of Katrina, I’ll never know his fate.
Less than one month later, Hurricane Katrina horrified the French Quarter and much of New Orleans. It was the day after my son’s 13th birthday. I remember standing speechless in front of my television, watching news of the waters taking over the city we had just left. I felt it in my gut and in my heart. I worried over my family and my friends who were directly impacted. I watched it all, riveted. We were so far away and there was so little we could do.
By the time displaced NOLA residents were arriving in Phoenix, we had joined in to collect and deliver basic health and wellness items and were rallying ongoing support. Such contributions were helpful and appreciated by those in need but the fact was, it couldn’t rewind the clock. The losses were huge and the memories became sacred. For us and for everyone affected by the wrath of Katrina and the destruction of a city that was so very loved.
For a long time, as computer-saved photos would cycle on my screen, it seemed that more often than not I would look up to catch the photo of this favorite memory from New Orleans. The man who sang to us on an empty street. At some point, this man I never really met became my association to Hurricane Katrina. He represented all of the complexities of that moment in time. It was raw and it was complicated but it all meant so much. And so did he.
With the 9th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaching, along with my son’s 22nd birthday, I’m feeling the need to finally share the story of a man who has become a part of my consciousness. A man I’ll never forget from a city I’ll always love.
When I go back to New Orleans, and I will, I’ll have his song in my heart.