30. ROBBED AT KNIFEPOINT

I’d promised Marita, the girl I’d left behind in Seattle, that I’d call and write. Her letters to me had been filled with longing, promises to wait until I’d return and suggestions that she come to New Orleans to be with me. I was more vague and ambiguous in my return letters. Assuring her of my continued affection but also describing my attempts to forge a better understanding of where my future would lie.

The French Quarter apartment wasn’t quite available yet. I’d told Marino about it and he was insinuating that maybe we could share both places. It’d be convenient to have someplace to sleep uptown that was closer to my new job as well as a place in the historic quarter where there were more clubs, galleries, coffee houses and cafes. I’d explored the French Quarter pretty well and had even come to know a few of the street artists who peddled their pictures around Jackson Square. One fellow, named Cassidy, seemed to have a decent business going. He had a prime spot, close to the Café Dumonde where he’d display his paintings and offer portrait sketches of tourists to a never-ending stream of potential customers.

I had first met him at Jazz Fest. It was the biggest celebration of music and culture that I had ever attended. Two years earlier, I had traveled cross-country on freight trains and hitchhiking to be a part of the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in Michigan. There was plenty of blues and jazz in New Orleans of course but also Zydeco, Gospel, Funk and hybrids of all musical tastes. Lisa had joined me on the second day and we’d come to know each other better while dancing to the already legendary Fats Domino and having lunch of crawfish pie and pralines. I was nearly as ambivalent about entering an exclusive relationship with her as I was with Marita and felt conflicted over loneliness and my desire for independence.

Cassidy had asked me to meet him at the Acme Oyster Bar on Iberville Street in the French Quarter. It had been a long week at work. I’d changed transformers on signs on Canal Street and painted and installed enormous billboards in some of the outlying neighborhoods. Cassidy had told me that he was going to score some ganga and I’d given him some money to get me some as well. After an hour, he still hadn’t arrived and I was killing time playing the pinball machine in back. A weekly contest for the high score was counting down with the winner getting a bottle of Kentucky Bourbon. After a few games I got the hang of the machine and after a few more I had topped the high score posted. The bottle would be presented within the hour and I lingered near the door with dwindling hopes that Cassidy would show.

The nighttime crowds were starting to file onto Bourbon Street and the hawkers at the strip clubs were encouraging patrons to enter by flashing the doors open periodically in order to show the carnal pleasures within. Heavily mascaraed, semi-clad young ladies with silicone enhancements and dyed hair strutted on stage and gestured to the crowd outside the door. I’d had a few drinks and also had the likelihood of having a few more if my high score at pinball lasted for a while longer. A Dixieland band was playing in the next club over and I sat near the entrance and tapped my feet for a couple tunes.

I gave up hope for Cassidy to show and went into the oyster bar and received my winning prize of a pint of Walker Evans and took a big swig. “Psst, Hey man, wanna buy some weed?” whispered a short black man to me as I stood in the open doorway ogling the exotic dancers. “I dunno”, I replied. “I’ve only got five bucks on me”. “That’s okay bro. I can split it up. C’mon, this way”. Since Cassidy had let me down and my inebriation had clouded my judgment I foolishly went along. We walked down a side street and into a darkened corridor. It didn’t feel right and red flags were waving all over but I ignored them and followed the dealer deeper into a secluded courtyard.

“Right over here”, he said smiling, showing a gold tooth. I came and stood near the wall where he was reaching into a fissure for the bag of herb he said he had. Instead, he pulled out a nine-inch long kitchen knife and held it at my stomach. “Gimme your wallet!” he said as threateningly as possible. “Oh, Shit”, I said and instantly sobered up. Mechanically, I reached into my back pocket and held out my flimsy plastic wallet. I hadn’t lied, I only had five dollars and it seemed a petty price in exchange for not having my guts spilled in a French Quarter alley. He snatched it out of my hands and started walking off. Once there was some distance between us I called out, “Hey man! Go ahead and take my money but leave me my I.D.” “A gracious robber, how nice”, I thought as he stopped, opened up my wallet and started flipping my various cards onto the ground. “Don’t come out of here for five minutes”, he warned and turned and disappeared into the darkness.

My knees gave out and I slid down the wall and sat on the ground and pulled the pint from my other back pocket. I took a slug to steady my frayed nerves. “What an idiotic thing to do”, I chastised myself and shuddered at the thought of lying in a pool of my own blood.