It’s that time of year again. Jazz trumpets in the air, the smell of Beignets frying and Jambalaya cooking. New Orleans is alive, almost an entire personality unto itself. Mardi Gras is my favorite time of year here for obvious reasons. I don’t even mind the fact that tourists flock here in mobs this season, because the way New Orleans dances is so worth it.
This morning, I’m going to get a little before lunch snack in the French Quarter when something stops me. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, in fact its over-ordinariness is sort of why I notice it. There is an old woman standing on the side of the road, crooning out the hook to “Summertime” by Billie Holiday. Behind her, two black men are playing bongos and singing backup.
For some reason, the woman seems so familiar. Maybe it’s the atmosphere, but I for some reason feel compelled to stop and put change in the cup she’s holding out. When I really get a good close-up look at her, I notice the woman is albino, with one black eye and one blue.
What should be a normal day gets even less normal after she says the last thing I expect.
“New Orleans is a magical place, isn’t it?”
I nod, obviously very uncomfortable. As I’m looking around, I see men and women bedecked in brilliant red, orange and yellow costumes, stilts, the whole deal. Finally, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I turn back to the old lady and her street performers.
“Can I buy you something to eat?”
She smiles, and nods without saying a word. I invite her and the band into the cafe I was going to anyway. Inside, the restaurant is like its own little world: the noise of Mardi Gras died down, and the people inside were going about their business like nothing was happening outside. A waitress who looked like she was Creole or possibly Hatian came up and asked us what we wanted.
“Hello, my name is Monique, and I’ll be your waitress today. What can I get for you?”
I order us all a round of hush puppies and some soup and coffee to start.
“So, tell me about yourself,” I implore while Monique is off getting the food.
The lady again tells me one of the last things I’d expect: She was once a singer in a traveling Jazz and Blues band. They’d gone on the road, done a ton of shows, and had what most people would call success.
“So, what happened?”
As I’m asking this, Monique puts down some bread and the hush puppies.
“If y’all need anything else, I’ll be over there,” she says, pointing to the far-right corner of the place.
The woman eats a few hush puppies before she responds.
“Ugh, what didn’t? Fights, drama, scandals, you know how it is.”
I nodded. I had no idea how it was, in truth, but didn’t want to interrupt this fascinating story. I listened intently as the woman told me every in and out of her entire career, from the start to their dramatic fall.
“I’m really sorry to hear that.”
She chewed on a piece of jalapeno cornbread with honey butter. I watched her intently, still trying to figure out why she seemed so familiar.
“It’s okay. Things happen for a reason, you know.”
I smiled. Suddenly, I was thinking of New York, the city I’d moved from before I lived in New Orleans. Similar name, entirely different feeling. New York was…somehow colder, and not just in temperature. I thought of the girl I left behind and what might have been.
“Things do happen for a reason. And I believe we met for a reason as well.”
The old woman smiled and nodded. She finished her cornbread and looked at the clock. I suddenly became curious about what her next move was going to be.
“I think so, too. We’ll discover that reason soon enough. Shall we go somewhere else?”
I bit my lip. Maybe I would regret this, but….
“Want to come to my place?”
Sure enough, the woman agreed. A short time later, we were in my 500 sq foot apartment just outside the French Quarter.
“So, this is it. Not much, but it’s home. For now.”
She smiled, and seemed to think my apartment was one step down from the Palace of Versailles. I gave her a quick guided tour, and she smiled with amazement from everything to the fridge and microwave to the couch and shower.
“I’m glad you like it.”
She nodded, and made herself comfortable on the couch. I took the remote off the table, and let her flip through the channels. Before long, though, I was growing bored of TV and city noise.
“This might be a lot to ask, but do you think you could sing me a song?”
The old woman’s face lit up like I’d just told her she was a candidate for a Nobel Prize or something. She smiled, and took out a harmonica.
“I can definitely do that for you.”
As she began to play, New Orleans moved and grooved below us. I might have spent hours or days listening to her song, I really couldn’t tell. All I knew was that the city didn’t seem so bad anymore.