Well, I’m still not a city person. We spent four hours in the New Orleans French Quarter and came on back to our airBnB. We shopped the shops. We saw the sights. Bourbon street nightlife is off limits with a fifteen year old in tow, but that’s not much of a draw to me anyway. Kind of the opposite really.
We got our fudge at the Fudgery on Decateur, which was every bit as good as I remembered. We had very good jambalaya at the Napoleon house, a restaurant recommended by a passing pedestrian who overheard me whining at an expensive menu posted on the street that “I just want jambalaya”. It wasn’t as good as I remember it being in Baton Rouge, but I think that’s because nothing could measure up to the circumstances under which it was acquired and consumed in copious quantities there. After rescuing as much of the stuff as I could carry from a huge Red Cross food bucket at the shelter Delta One and I were sleeping in I was stuffed full of excellent chicken and sausage jambalaya, sometimes twice a day, for something like five days in a row. For free, with all fear of gluttony waived for I was duty-bound to consume it lest the donated food go to waste.
Culinary reminiscences aside, so far the most impactful thing to me from Atlanta and New Orleans was coming into contact with some of the homeless population here. At intervals the mood of my day was grounded by the sight of a wizened old man and woman asleep in each others arms in a doorwell, or a dejected guy holding a sign stating he was a forgotten marine corps veteran; or the soggy man sitting near the aquarium entrance beside the Mississippi, taking shelter under its steel and marble awning as the rain drove relentlessly in off the river. His eyes accused me as I passed in my $120.00 rain jacket, warm, dry, and treating the chilling rain as an adventure, a stroll beside the choppy brown waters of the Big Muddy through a strange city in a new place.
I have heard in my short lifetime many conflicting messages regarding the intersection of wealth, compassion, faith, and poverty, from people who value the ideals of selflessness put forth in all the world’s prevailing religions. I’ve been told, it’s not your time, you need to save for yourself; don’t give money to beggars, they’ll use it for drugs. If you must give, go through an agency, but be careful because so many non-profits are crooked. Best not to give at all, just volunteer when you can…It’s enough to take the humanity out of the sleeping forms in the doorwell, or the eyes set behind features weathered by hard times and experiences I can’t begin to understand.
As I walked past that sodden man in his dirty undershirt under the aquarium awning, I thought, he has no raincoat and I can easily afford to get another – doesn’t that mean I have one to spare? But I kept right on walking.
Why couldn’t I do something as simple and easy as giving another man a coat?
I think there’s a fear in me, a deep and paralyzing fear, one I am quick to recognize in others but slow to see in myself. It’s the fear of realizing I’ve been living wrong, of looking the truth in the face and discovering there’s a hard road behind it. I’d rather live in my little world, skimming the surface of life, content with a certain level of discontentment.
But that’s not really what I want. At some point I’ve got to take a leap. Every conviction I ever envied began when its holder decided to not only believe it, but to do something about it. I have some vague idea of what that something means to me. But the words vague and conviction are not compatible.
“I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;
I see in low life the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;
I see the wife misused by her husband, I see the treacherous seducer of young women;
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love attempted to be hid— I see these sights on the earth;
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see martyrs and prisoners;
I observe a famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d to preserve the lives of the rest;
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.”
I Sit and Look Out
Leaves of Grass, 1900