The old woman turned and smiled, just long enough for me to miss seeing the thick walking stick she swung toward the side of my head. I should have known better than to get so close, as it was a common reaction on her part, well known by those who inhabit or visit the French Quarter on a regular basis.
In your effort to help someone in trouble, to break through the reflections of their experience, it’s a common danger more often than not, that they will fight to control some semblance of their world, regardless of who is making the attempt to help them.
When I first came to New Orleans it was a surreal experience. I stepped off the Greyhound bus, it was early evening, late August, the heat was dissipating and the surrounding tree covered grounds, were paved with cardboard boxes, the bed of choice for the average homeless person. It’s sad to say what become’s average at times for some souls.
It was a sultry night with the expected drunks, and dope heads, but the unexpected presence of children alone or with friends, and homeless families, all seeking some level of peace and rest from the day’s efforts to survive.
The Bus Station was a sanctuary. A place away from the river, away from the dangers of the boardwalk, and away from the Quarter where anything could happen, and usually did at one time or another. It was the circling of the wagons from the violence so many thought to escape, even if for just a moment.
The old woman; Gabbie, as I like to think of her, had a voice that reminded me of a children’s movie I remembered from years past. Trembling, high pitched, a falsetto of innocence hoping in every note to find beauty in the life yet to come.
I stepped back, ducking Gabbie’s manic swing, just barely escaping another lump on the side of my head. On the days that I was able to find her, she didn’t always miss. I had a meal tray with me and I was in danger of spilling it as I stepped back to give her space and time to calm down.
From the look of her, Methuselah would have called her grandmother. Five foot plus an inch would have been a generous estimate. Her cloths were tattered and she carried a burlap sack slung across her shoulders with her life’s possessions, a doll with a grubby face and one eye missing, trinkets, pretty stones, a blanket to sleep under and a paper bag filled with McDonald’s hamburgers, now starting to mold quickly in the humid air.
Her hair was ratty and grey and she wore Vietnam era jungle boots on her feet. Where they had come from was anyone’s guess. Spindly legs, scarecrow arms, the walking stick she carried almost as thick as her arm and taller by a foot then she was.
She constantly smiled a toothless grin, singing or humming a child’s song I recognized from Wee Sing’s Big Rock Candy Mountain video series. A song sung with two imaginary friends, playing together in a valley filled with friends, adventure and always filled with love and “care”. Music I had enjoyed with my daughter as we sat in the hospital together, each day wondering about her future and the hopes we had to save her.
Gabbie had a high pitched voice that was soulfully disconcerting in my mind’s eye of my own daughter when she was four years old; cute, happy, and playful, as she enjoyed just being a child.
To hear the clear sweet voice of a child, coming from the aging, decrepit wreak of a woman-child in front of me was an anathema that I couldn’t escape. The contrasting images in my mind were an assault on the senses as I struggled with the pain filled memories of my own long lost battles.
It was a surrealistic burden to my soul to see and hear her each day walking by, surviving on what she found, or on what others gave her. A lost soul marking time in the quintessential struggle to not only survive, but to live within what dreams she might still have.
Oddly she was the most interesting, but also most tragic figure I was to see during my time in New Orleans Louisiana. It was 1996 and the whole state was in something of an economic slump. The oil boom had peaked for a time, and was raging towards the bottom, moving quickly past falling fortunes and broken dreams.
New Orleans, “The big easy”, a unique city warring on the extreme edges of church oriented ethics and a manic need for individual and group debauchery. It’s a place where the graft of its officials is accepted; even applauded by the majority, in the actions and reactions of their lives.
New Orleans is “The City that care forgot.” Locals like to say it refers to the carefree lackadaisical pace of the city, compared to the no-nonsense frantic tempo found throughout the rest of the country. To others it means a city of self-involvement, a place where the abuse of oneself is an art form of self-indulgence, even self-destruction.
It’s a place where a bum drops his pants to take a crap in mid-traffic, where a fat woman pushing six hundred pounds, walks back and forth on a reinforced second story balcony, doing a strip tease to the yelling and screaming mobs on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.
A place to take romantic walks along the river at night with your girlfriend, enjoying the moonlight and then laughing hysterically as a six foot five Tranny in a short bright orange skirt and heels, pops up out of the shadows with an aging five foot something pasty white fat guy, each trying to put their individual equipment back into something resembling proper storage.
Unlike Vegas, what’s in New Orleans does not necessarily stay in New Orleans, as many of the local free clinics would attest to. It’s a place tourist’s come to from all over the world, often at the expense of the locals begging or nurturing a meager existence from their visits.
Tourists come to New Orleans to gamble, have sex, eat and get drunk. It’s a place where just about anything can be had for the right price. If you’re a pedophile in the nineties this was the place to be. Abused children from all over the country and even a few from Europe came here to escape abusive homes or some other form of abuse.
They ran in packs, living in empty broken down houses easily pointed out by the ministers I worked with, who worked hand-in-hand with the Baptist and Catholic Charities. They toiled to bring three meals a day to literally thousands, while working to push back the boundaries of chaos the city had succumbed to.
The children and young adults lived on the streets with friends, brothers and sisters, new acquaintances, each moving through a hand-to-mouth existence selling themselves for the chance to survive. It was survival they hoped for, but living and loving that they dreamed of.
Life on the street for a child is a catch-22 situation. When they ask for help, they’re put back with the abusers they ran away from. If they don’t ask for help, they control some part of their world by choosing if and when to be abused for money. It’s a terrible choice, even tragic, but one that’s understandable from their prospective.
After being in the area for some weeks watching Gabbie, and others walk up and down Bourbon street, Royal street, or sometimes the River-Walk. I came to find many of the same habits in myself, that I noticed in the locals.
It’s a habit for most locals walking through the city to keep quarters or other change in their pockets. It pays the block to block toll when walking through the Gauntlet of homeless people that are always there, and lately, seemed to outnumber even the tourists.
Paying the toll made you feel good, but the practical nature of it allowed you to get to work on time, or just see the sights in leisure. As much as you felt sorry for them, there was only so much you could do to help. No one can listen to so many sad stories daily, without starting to drown in the spiritual quagmire that sucks you in without any hope of escaping emotionally intact.
Throughout my wonderings in New Orleans I came across a lot of unusual sights and sounds. Well? Unusual in most places I’ve been; but not unusual for New Orleans.
The city ran out of money to support many of the normal resources that the poor and lost looked to for help. The free clinics were the first to go, but then the hospitals cut back, the food bank, unemployment offices shut down. The only ones happy were the prisoners who somehow found their sentences reduced from ten years, to time served or worse.
It was a given that the rapes, murders, and shootings; every type of crime in between, sky-rocketed. The year I spent there, hundreds of drive by shootings spread throughout the city, forty of them resulting in deaths, a large portion of them children.
The local mental institution closed, the doors were opened and patients as they became hungry wondered out, and gravitated to places they were familiar with. Others just wondered around, some to be lost to anyone’s knowledge, those lucky few found garbage to eat, handouts, or were stable enough to find some sort of work.
We had the want-a-be preachers on many corners in ragged pajamas with the state asylum logo on it. They would preach a while, drink a while and then explode into an almost rabid stream of gutter language, arms flailing, eyes painfully searching for things they themselves did not even know or understand.
There were the ever present perverts, thieves, murderers and everything in between that walks the streets in dark alleys, abusing the abused, stealing from the lost, disappearing into the night as they took the hope of so many with them.
It haunts me the memories of what happened to the many people I met while I was there. I look at my daughter who is now twenty-three; but the mind of an eternally happy, but sometimes frustrated four year old. Her mother is gone now and I wonder sometimes of the old-young women Gabbie, as I wonder for the future of my own little girl.
What happened to her parents? Were they also terrified of what would one day be the life struggle of their baby girl. Were they like many who put them away, forget about them, their lives at the beck-and-call of unseen armies of civil service accountants and other thieves in the night who turn them out to fend for themselves.
I see in my mind now as I approach the coming of my own time, the old-young woman singing, swinging her stick, screaming, yelling, whining for her parent’s love, a love that will never come.