Friday, July 29, 2016

After a 5-minute deliberation or a 15-minute drivearound, I parked the car on Esplanade by North Derbigny. It looked safe enough to escape a parking ticket, yet shady enough to warrant an overnight break-in. At this point, I rated the former over the latter. I got out of the car and looked around. The driver of the car behind ours was inside and gestured at us. He was about to rest the case on both parking tickets and safety. He was to be the Damiel, watching over Wim Wenders's Berlin. 

He came out of his car and asked for some change. I gave him the four quarters I had in my pocket and turned to him to add: "I only have four quarters in my pocket." 

He replied, with his thick Southern accent: "I need the cash for the tank, man. I need to get to my job." By this point in the trip, I was able to articulate a fair ratio of the Southern accent thrown at me. By this point in life, I was able to articulate largely how genuine such requests were meant. But I only had four quarters in my pocket and I gave him all.

I knew exactly which direction we needed to be headed. I played dumb to waste time, so I could observe the man's next moves. If he were to break into the car and even if that took place hours later, I had a sense I could be able to tell, if I observed long enough.

I turned to Z. and pretended to check our destination on Google Maps. Damiel came forth and asked if we needed help. We didn't need any help. Not from him, nor from Google Maps. I knew exactly where we were going. 

I turned to him and said: "Sure, we are trying to get to 623 Frenchmen." We were following the advice of S. who was going to host us the next evening, whom I had not seen since we finished Uni. The Spotted Cat was one of his favourite in town!

Damiel knew. He lifted his head, quickly turned his slender body on his feet and walked back towards his car, murmuring: "just hold up, I'll walk you there."

"You don't need to bother man, but as you please" was a redundant British politeness. The Creole kindness swiftly ignored it.

We crossed the street and started walking south. By the next block we were already back in French Quarter keeping our direction until Burgundy, one of the few southeasterly crossing diagonal streets into Frenchmen. He exchanged greetings and handshakes with a few people on the Esplanade. I asked him about the devastation caused by Katrina. He told us everywhere around us flooded except for Bourbon Street: "the rich are always protected!"

He wanted to make sure I knew exactly where we turned left and then right again, so I could find our way back easily. But we weren't walking back to the car at the end of the night. We didn't sleep in our car. He did.

Damiel was a 53-year old man who occasionally did labour work. Whenever he could find one. And whenever he could put together enough money to put gas in his tank to drive there and pay the $10 upfront to secure accommodation and shower for the three days he would spend out there. He had three daughters, aged 31, 29 and... before he could tell us the other's age, he got interrupted by a local. They've had a quick chat.

"Aaahhh, you want to know more about Katrina", he said half jokingly when I asked him another question. He hadn't seen his daughters in many years. They lived in Texas with their mother. Did they now also have a stepfather? He was living to see them again, as soon as he could. He lost them, as he lost all else to the storm.

"If I came to your town, I would want locals like you to show me around. That's why I am walking you to your destination" said he, while pointing out at a few restaurants and bars he said we could check out. We knew exactly where we were going. He knew exactly where we were going. He was sharing his life, and his city with us. 

He didn't mix Turkey with Kentucky when I told him where we were from, unlike that young police officer on the highways of Mississippi who stopped me the day before. That officer had advised me "to watch yourself in New Orleans; it can be a dangerous place." So far, it was nothing but a city watched over by angels.

"Are you Muslims? I turned to Allah one day" he exchanged. He would later leave us with an "alhamdulillah".

15 minutes had passed since we started walking. The mild tunes of jazz had started to mix with the progressive drum beats as the scent of gumbo was merging with the stench of running sewer. We were treading less carefully to avoid the dirt. His large feet were on auto-pilot. His large smile would reveal his missing teeth. His large soul kept us company all the way through.

We exchanged hugs and went on about our dues. As Damiel left us, he noted: "You left your car in a risky spot. But for tonight, it is the safest in town."

A gig followed the dinner. We ran into K. that evening and talked about how New Orleans made us feel. She'd been there for a few weeks, we had, for just over 24 hours. Z. and I shared the mutual feeling of magic. Post-Katrina gentrification had so far taken little out of it.

I made the quick walk next morning to pick up the car. Z. was preparing to check out of the hostel. It was yet another very warm and humid late-May morning. The previous day's long walks through Treme, Bayou St John, the City Park, Mid-City and Algiers would leave way to a very long drive via Alabama coastline and Selma to Atlanta. The city was preparing for the Memorial Day and the long-weekend holidayers were slowly getting ready to hit the roads back. The river breeze washed over the fresh beignets.

Most of the cars parked around ours had seemed to have left long ago. Ours was  intact. Damiel's was behind it. He was sleeping in his car. I hesitated. I struggled to leave without a goodbye, I struggled to decide whether I should wake him up to offer more money; not in return for his company or even guardianship, but because he said he needed it. I thought better of waking him up. How difficult was he finding to fall asleep? 

How little did I know about the sleeping rituals of a man who had to make a habit of living in his car. He was under a blanket and that is when I had realised, in broad light, how crowded inside of his car was. It was as I was leaving him I realised, we never learned each other's names.

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