We walked up Tchoupitoulas Street towards the French Quarter in New Orleans. The sky? Blue cotton candy. The breeze? A cool sheet. The streets? Alive and beautiful and carefree.
We walked up Tchoupitoulas Street towards the French Quarter on that day between Good Friday and Easter and I noticed a man sitting with his back against a vacant building. Crumbling, hollow, condemned: both the man and the building. They seemed to hold each other up. They seemed to weigh each other down.
He nodded at me, right there on Tchoupitoulas Street, his politely parted lips revealing an inexplicable assortment of gold, silver, plaque, and empty spaces. For some reason the richness of his brown skin immediately made me wonder if he was a grandfather. My youngest daughter, if she would have sat on his lap, would have loved his skin. She would have pulled on it and pinched it and asked him why it was so brown, why it was so freckled. She would have asked him why his teeth were gold, or where the missing ones had gone.
But what did he see when he looked at me? Just another person walking by? A young man blessed with money and a nice family?
A rich young ruler?
I stopped, and New Orleans was quiet. My wife looked back over her shoulder. My four children stared at the man, wondered about him, wondered why I stopped. I never used to give money to people without homes, people without jobs, people without hope. “They’ll only use it for drugs or alcohol,” everyone used to tell me. Then I read something by CS Lewis:
Another things that annoys me is when people say, ‘Why did you give that man money? He’ll probably go and drink it.’ My reply is, ‘But if I kept it, I should have probably drunk it.’
I reached into my pocket. A quarter. That’s all I had. Twenty-five cents.
“I’m sorry, man,” I said, plucking the quarter from my pocket and reaching towards him. “This is all I’ve got. I wish I had more.”
You would have thought I had given him a $100 bill.
“Bless you, brother,” he said through a smile verging on tears in a Louie Armstrong voice.
“Bless you, man,” I said, turning away, feeling a new weight of sadness, as if I carried that building away with me, on my own back.
* * * * *
We spent $40 at a place called Mother’s on an amazing lunch. Jambalaya. Red beans and rice. Shrimp. French Fries. Grits with melted butter. And for the kids, pancakes with butter and syrup. We usually have leftover food when we eat, but it was a late lunch, and we were hungry, and we ate every last bite. And we drank every glass of water at the table.
And it felt so good, being full, and strong, and breathing in the city.
* * * * *
We walked down Decatur Street in the late afternoon, leaving the French Quarter behind with its beauty and its voodoo and its narrow alleyways. The sun? Glaring and hot. The river? Brown and slow. The clouds? Huge and harmless.
We walked down Decatur Street then turned on to Port of New Orleans Place, a broad sidewalk that flows beside the river. Huge empty stages waited for open air concerts to inhabit them. Docks waited for boats to possess them.
Sitting on a bench was a small woman holding a baby. She held a cardboard sign that read, “My baby and me are homeless.”
Probably just a heist to make some money, I thought to myself.
We walked past and I held my breath the way I always do when I walk past someone like that, waiting for lightning to strike me. Then another thought.
What the hell is wrong with me?
By then I had six bucks in cash, so I turned around. Again. Always turning. Always stopping. When I walked toward her, her eyes opened wide, as if I was going to beat her for sitting there. Then, when she saw the bills, she jumped – it literally scared her – as if that was even more startling than the fact that I looked at her.
“Thank you, thank you,” she just kept saying over and over again. “Thank you, thank you.” And I had no reply. Not to her. Not to her child. So I turned my back on her thanks and walked away, shaken.
* * * * *
Along the river there are those huge binoculars that sit on small pedestals, the ones you have to pay 25 cents to use. The ones through which you can’t really see anything.
“Daddy, daddy, we want to look into those things!” my children cried out, their sandals slapping on the concrete as they ran and pushed and vaulted a small wall to get to the magic.
“Awww,” Cade complained. “It costs money. It costs 25 cents.”
I reached into my pocket, then I remembered where my last quarter had gone.
Oh, the joy that accompanies empty pockets.
* * * * *
The winners of Mark Hughes’ book, Sons of Grace, were Michelle Woodman, Donna Tallman, Andrea Ward, Ken Stewart, and Anne Bogel. Please email your mailing address to email@example.com.