It was a weeknight at the Avenue Pub. I was behind the bar and the usual crowd was there: Monte, Maura, Neal, Jim, and a few servers from Bravo and Houston’s, the restaurants across the street. Not to mention the standard flotsam of the city, strangers and stragglers who wash ashore onto any barstool on any given night. The tv was muted and tuned to ESPN, and the jukebox was cranked up loud. People were playing pool. It wasn’t busy, but it was steady, like any good weeknight in the Lower Garden District. It was around 10 pm; I had a good four hours left before Darren came in to relieve me for the graveyard shift.
The way the Pub is set up is kind of strange. The bar itself is on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Polymnia Street, but the parking lot is about a quarter of a block down. You had to walk a little ways in the dark to get there, and that was sometimes a risky proposition. Not often, but muggings had been known to happen. Most people parked along the street right outside, or used cabs or the streetcar, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped.
So when one of the waitresses from across the street came back in only minutes after having paid her tab and left, saying there was someone weird out in the parking lot, we all paid attention.
“Have you seen him in here before?” I said, walking around the bar.
“No. He’s some old dude. He’s standing out in the open and he’s got a big stick.”
I have this thing — it probably would have gotten me killed eventually, if I had stayed a bartender — but I rarely feel fear. At least, not from physical confrontation. I’ve found that most people will back down when directly confronted. Nobody wants to get hit. I’m a peaceful guy, but I remember I used to look forward to stuff like this. Something in me wanted the confrontation. But the idea of being brained with a stick managed to dampen my enthusiasm.
Monte and the waitress came behind me (I wish I could remember her name). The night was warm, but not hot. It must have been early spring. Clouds scudded across the sky: a cloudless night in New Orleans is a rare thing. We walked down to the parking lot and sure enough, there was this old guy, clearly homeless, standing in the middle of the parking area with the massive branch he’d yanked from some luckless tree. He was peering into some bushes with his back to us.
“Hey!” I said, walking toward him. “What’s going on?”
I stopped outside of the reach of his stick. He turned to look at me, squinted for a minute. “You’re not one of them,” he said.
I’m pretty good at speaking Crazy. I’ve spent a lot of time around it. (Which was a lucky thing, because my experts in the dialect — Sunbeam, Naked Mary, the lady who lit fires to magazines and warned of the robot uprising, or any of the others — were not there that night to be consulted.) I intuited right away that not being One of Them was a favorable condition in which to find oneself. “No, I’m not,” I said. “You can’t be out here, man. You’re freaking people out.”
He ignored me. “Do you see it?” He gestured to the bushes with his stick. “It’s a shapeshifter.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“Well it was there a second ago.”
“He probably ran away when he saw that big-ass stick.”
“You’re not one of them,” he said. He looked back towards where the parking lot met the street, where Monte waited beside the waitress. “She might be though.”
“She’s not. She’s my friend. I can vouch for her.”
He nodded. “Okay then,” he said.
“If you stay here, someone’s going to call the police,” I said. “You’re scaring people.”
“Okay. I don’t want to bother anybody.”
“Can I have that stick in case it comes back?”
He handed it over. “Be careful, brother,” he said.
He ambled off into the night. The waitress got back into her car and drove home, and Monte and I went back inside and knocked down some Jameson’s. I would say normal life resumed, but it was never really interrupted.
New Orleans is brimming with deranged people. Often, there’s nowhere for them to go. A lot of them are homeless, and are just trying to survive in whatever strange manifestation of the world their illness presents to them. As with most people who are on the edge of doing something stupid, talking to them with a hint of reason and respect will sometimes bring them back down.
I guess it was just dumb luck that he didn’t think I was a shapeshifter and try to brain me with that great big tree branch of his. But it was probably little more than dumb luck that allowed him to stand there in the night, white-bearded and stout, holding the monsters at bay with nothing more than a stick in his hand and a vigilant heart.