What Has Happened to Charmaine?
Bobby is not an evacuator. He’s usually low on cash, has two dogs and no car, and seems faintly precarious outside of his habitat. More than ever before, New Orleans is the water, and Bobby is the fish.
Not long after turning thirty, I decided I needed a break from my life. I had a short list of places to go for a while, and at parties or during long distance phone calls, one kept emerging from the rest. Faces lit at her mention. Love was sworn. Voices changed tenor and pitch. I was given names and numbers to call, exultations of meals eaten and music heard. When the ex-girlfriend of one friend secured me a carriage house, and another promised me her parents as surrogates, I loaded up my Honda with my clothes and computer and fat cat Jack, and hit the road. There was no choice to be made. New Orleans it was, without question.
Before leaving, I asked Jonathan, a New Orleans devotee, how I was going to buy marijuana. He pulled out his phone book and gave me Bobby’s number. “He’s a really good friend,” Jonathan told me. “He’s a great guy.”
Last week, four plus years later, I dialed that number over and over again, day after day. Of course, I wasn’t looking for pot. When I was lucky enough to get a ring -- rather than the efficient mantra, All circuits are busy -- I tried to picture an actual phone ringing at Bobby’s place, two blocks from the Quarter, slightly below street level, and therefore, I calculated, no more than a foot under water.
In the great expanse of time before the harsh wind known as Katrina blew ruin upon the Gulf Coast, Bobby lived in a beautiful, warm, sensual city, whose offerings -- music, food, freedom -- immediately brushed along one’s nerve endings; there were no laborious paths through the intellect. “We’re about the lower chakras,” he once told me. In this city charged with sex, deep into flirtation, and kept afloat in alcohol, Bobby’s life ran on cash and paid no taxes. Its base of operations lay behind a tall picket fence, thickly covered in flowers, which served as a visual obstruction to the traffic of quotidian illegalities which were the source of his income. To enter this fortress, you pulled a string through a hole in the door connected to a bone (Bobby’s nickname is “The Bone”) which caused bells to ring and his minipincher to bark. Bobby might eventually answer this call, depending on his mood and whether or not he was conducting business and with whom that business was being conducted. In the parlance of his native city, Bobby’s home was known as a “shack,” and this shack was part of a pipeline supplying goods to the fine people of his city. While passing time in the shack, underneath a string of tinkling bells, hanging bones, costumes, feathers, and ornate clocks which no longer worked, I met a former mayor’s brother and the musicians I saw perform the night before and a girl who ate fire for a living. I learned about astral projection, and I listened to hours of deliberation on politicians and Palestine and human nature, on motorcycles and gurus and the art of winding speaker cords. The air in the shack was filled with the sounds of WWOZ, spinning records, eight track gospel recordings, and improvisational strummings; grown men crooned along to Earth Wind and Fire and Tammy Wynette and Earl King’s Trick Dog. On more than one occasion, Bobby leaned back and crossed one skinny leg over another and commented, “Hard day of work. Sitting here, playing music, making money.”
Bobby was, of course, a musician. Long curly blond hair gone a bit to gray, sideburns like the ends of lightning rods, slight goatee, stubble. When I met him, he was in a hipster cowboy phase and wore a straw hat, purchased down in the Quarter and curled just so atop his ponytail. Black prescription sunglasses with the lenses tinted dark blue; rhinestone bone dangling from his neck, fingers full of rings. Sometimes he wore his hair out, a billow of curls; a smile showed teeth slightly parted like the Red Sea. One night, when he had a gig at Checkpoint Charlie’s, he wore red leather pants with blue stars up the side, a tight white t-shirt, and his fleur-des-lis keyring hanging from his pocket. With his collection of guitars and his penchant for strut, the stage was his most unshakable addiction, the place where his raw soul shot out on the arrows of loud southern rock. Bobby liked to talk about the evolution of his music, as well as his different looks, and the phases of his life they represented. When I met him he was wearing a lot of white. Not long after the break-up with his shiksa babe wife, he’d gone to a spirit man – a reader of bones – who’d instructed him to stay away from black and wear as much white as possible.
What can be better than being in love in a land of sunshine where the buildings have grille work and the trees drip forsythia? Bobby opened doors and rolled perfect joints. He was a backyard philosopher, a brilliant thinker who never finished high school, read everything which crossed his path, and had expansive opinions continuously informed by new ideas. He called me Baby and Darlin and so what if it was New Orleans and everyone called everyone these things? He picked me confederate jasmine and bought me oysters at Felix’s and pralines on the ferry to Algiers; he took me to see the Indians on Super Sunday and once, when I slept over at the shack and the next morning realized I had therapy by phone in ten minutes, he took the dogs out for a walk so I could talk about him in private. When he returned -- his phone battery dead ten minutes already -- he found me talking to my therapist on the payphone on Frenchman Street, and he brought me a cup of coffee and a chair. “Don’t worry, Baby,” he said. “It’s the neighborhood’s living room out here.”
Bobby’s perimeter was the bikeable radius from the shack. For the first month I knew him, I lived in The Lower Garden District, and though we saw each other nearly every day, he never set foot in my place. I biked through the Garden District, the CBD, the Quarter, and a block of the Marigny to pull the bone in Bobby’s fence and have him open it and call me Baby. But the day I moved to a rented shack of my own in the Bywater, Bobby was there. “You’re finally on the right side of Canal Street,” he explained.
When I first met him, Bobby’s VW bus was parked outside the shack, and the city of New Orleans had stuck a notice on it some months before telling him it had to go. The problem was it couldn’t. Anywhere. Bobby also owned two motorcycles, Hondas, but those didn’t move either. He got around on foot, usually at the tail end of two leashes, or by way of his bike – a cruiser so low with handlebars so high that the first time I saw him on it I could not remove my eyes nor stop laughing and ran my own bicycle straight into a metal garbage dump. Bobby got rides to band practice, and I was the one, once or twice a week, who drove us over the Mississippi to Pho Tau Bay in Gretna for Vietnamese food.
Inside his perimeter, Bobby couldn’t turn a corner without seeing someone he knew. What up? Where y’at? What’s happening? People were always coming by the shack. Bobby’s was a stop – for some a daily stop -- in the living of their lives. Our friend John declared the shack the closest thing New Orleans had to a New Amsterdam coffee house. In addition to the regulars, there were people like me -- people who periodically activated a connection to New Orleans -- people for whom a visit to New Orleans included, by necessity, a visit to Bobby.
I fell in love -- first with New Orleans, and second, with Bobby – and after a while I didn’t know the difference. At the end of three months, I left. I came home to the north, to the land where people work a lot, and where we make plans to meet for dinner two weeks from Wednesday at 8 p.m., not knowing if we will be hungry when that hour arrives. Men did not open doors for me. No one called me “baby.” People walked by without making eye contact -- even when I looked cute, even on the day my bicycle fell on my leg and blood ran down to my ankle.
I feel just awful using the past tense. These days, when otherwise thoughtful conversationalists use the word “if” in reference to the rebuilding New Orleans, or when they terminate their comments with question marks, or even when they declare how unharmed the French Quarter was -- the anger and sadness rise in me like all that putrid water. In place of the politicians I’d like to tongue lash are these people, powerless citizens like me, residents of a country whose indifference and/or incompetence has caught us all off guard. They are speaking logically, but New Orleans was not a city built on logic. And what may not be substantial to them, but what I’m so terrified of loosing, is the living organism, the hive, which is New Orleans. Bobby, and New Orleans’ vast cadre of iconoclastic denizens, cannot survive long outside their habitat. They are fragile flowers kept alive by a gumbo of sunshine and wickedness and creativity which is the Crescent City. Left too long out on the vine, they will wither and die.
What has happened to Charmaine, who yelled and cursed, night and day at the top of her lungs at no one at all, save the demons she could see, from the corner of Mazant and Burgundy? What has happened to the old woman on the opposite corner, the one who lived in the pink, shuttered double shotgun, who opened those shutters once a day, and once a day only, to throw scraps of bread to the pigeons? What has happened to 49 and 64 – two men with bad hips and porkpie hats -- who refused to explain their names, who I met on the stoop of John’s house on North Robinson in the Treme? What has happened to Jason, the young, sweet, blond hoodlum who lived on Dauphine next to Vaughn’s?
One day in the Bywater, long before Katrina, Jason sat with me on my rented lawn. Overhead, the live oaks spread wide under the five o’clock sun, and across the way, Charmaine was ranting. Jason smiled, and full of love, declared, “Charmaine.” In his ninth ward accent, which sounds like South Brooklyn on Southern Comfort, he said it plain: “Wouldn’t be New Orleans without Charmaine.”
What has happened to Charmaine?
When I called Bobby from New York, it was usually land line to cellular.
“Evie, baby,” he answered, long after I’d ceased being his baby. “Striker! C’mere boy.”
I pictured him perfectly, walking along the neutral ground on Esplanade, the wide patch of dirt separating the Quarter from the Marigny, shaded by live oaks and smelling of sweet olive and honeysuckle; his mutt Striker ambling by his side, smelling, peeing; his minipincher Simon pinging from tree root to shrub to passing car, barking at every sign of movement, adrenalinated like a fly on cocaine.
“Are you happy?”
“You ask the weirdest questions.”
It was two thirty in the afternoon his time, and when I’d called, Bobby told me he’d just woken up. I could feel the humidity over the phone line, and I pictured Bobby’s long curly hair set into a ponytail, his fingers without rings, fresh from sleep, not yet on anything save a cup of chicory coffee.
“I like the way I have evolved,” he said. “As an individual. Spiritually, metaphysically. I like who I’ve become. But the infrastructure could use some work.”
I thought of his cracked walls and concrete floors and the kitchen sink whose water never ran. I didn’t ask if he still had rats. Once upon a time it all seemed so romantic. What you get out of life, given good weather, when you don’t work too hard. What you need -- so that you can enjoy life, so that you can make music and art and mischief. For Bobby didn’t spend his energy building stability; he spent it living. Crafting, playing, performing, partying. This disposition -- what my friend Chris refers to as “the Caribbean mentality” -- makes New Orleans what it is. The lifestyle that created jazz. The environment in which music, until just a short time ago, was as ubiquitous as air. It’s why people outside call it “The Big Easy,” why we flock there to revel or relax or be something new. Bobby’s way of life is a bargain made with fate: trade in stability for possibility, for serendipity, for the miraculous. He makes the sacrifice; we get to visit and enjoy.
Given his line of work, Bobby thought about what-ifs. He’d spent nights in jail. He knew how to play it -- how to yes officer, of course officer. One time he summarized the essentials of evacuation, what to grab in case of emergency: “The stash, the cash, and the dogs.” But this life preserver will only last so long.
Days passed and I’d heard nothing. I dialed numbers in the 504 area code and trolled web sites for information. Jonathan and I convened in Brooklyn, and he assured me that Bobby was fine. “He’s a survivor,” Jonathan reminded me. And though I knew this, I worried. Reports of shootings and bands of thugs with guns filled the newspaper stories, and my anxieties lapped over the sea walls of my senses. I finally tracked him down via his sister-in-law in Texas. Bobby was alive, and well, and still in New Orleans – in the Quarter, in fact -- living “on the edge of civilization” with ten other people.
“Having the time of his life,” his brother shouted in the background.
I was right about one thing: Bobby wasn’t an evacuator. Not even Katrina could get him out of his habitat. It was easy to picture him cavorting in the aftermath. Bobby loved being an outlaw. He fantasized about getting a pilot’s license and becoming a smuggler. He thrived in the fuzzy margin between what you’re supposed to do and what you can get away with. Clear that space away, and Bobby disappears.
Eliminating the likes of Bobby might be okay for some people. People who chose hygienic, orderly Singapore or Houston, people who are fine with gum being illegal, or who are happy without the squeegee guys. But I like a bit of mess in my life. That gritty, messy part is where the art comes from, where the intellect gets fed, where ire and resolve grow strong as weeds. In the margins, there is the time and there is the freedom from expectation to create the unexpected. I don’t want a world without mess, without creativity. I don’t want a world without New Orleans. I can’t even bear to think about it.
The latest news on Bobby is that he’s back in the shack and blasting music by way of a generator from the balcony upstairs. He’s calling it “Radio Free Marigny” and his straggle of remaining neighbors, along with the 82nd Airborne and the border patrol, love it. All this I learned on a blog and via email, for there’s still no power, no phone lines, no running water. But thanks to resilient Bobby, son of New Orleans, once again, there’s music.
I love Bobby, but that’s not why I’m writing about him. I’m writing about him because I’m a preservationist, and at present, he’s an endangered species. The line between romantic dilapidation and misery currently seems slim. Having slid into one, can you reclaim the other?
We are Americans; we don’t suffer nature lightly. No hurricane will drown one of our cities!
I can practically hear the chauvinists cry already. The city will, in some fashion, be rebuilt. But as what? This container called New Orleans holds a very particular cup of life. Through sunshine and neglect, New Orleans had a habitat where you could be yourself without having to work too terribly hard to support it. There was always housing to be found, albeit a bit rotting and tumble-down. You didn’t need heat; you could go without air-conditioning. It was a fragile ecosystem, but it functioned.
Sure, Bobby will survive. He’s resilient and resourceful and full of pluck. But where will he flourish? On top of the thousands of lives gone and still precarious, there is this to worry about: the collective. A New Orleans ecosystem is in peril.
What will happen to the soul of New Orleans, inhabited by all those people, sent hither and thither, with little prayer of coming home to a home that is anything like what it was? Forgive all the tenses. Time has jumbled into a knot. What will become of Bobby? What will become of them all?