- What Has Happened to Charmaine?
Bobby is not an evacuator. He's usually low on cash, has two dogs and no car, and seems faintly precarious outside of his habitat. More than ever before, New Orleans is the water, and Bobby is the fish.
Not long after turning 30, I decided I needed a break from my life. I had a short list of places to go for a while, and at parties or during long-distance phone calls, one kept emerging from the rest. Faces lit at her mention. Love was sworn. Voices changed tenor and pitch. I was given names and numbers to call, exultations of meals eaten and music heard. When the ex-girlfriend of one friend secured me a carriage house, and another promised me her parents as surrogates, I loaded up my Honda with my clothes and computer and fat cat Jack, and hit the road. There was no choice to be made. New Orleans it was, without question.
Before leaving, I asked Jonathan, a New Orleans devotee, how I was going to buy marijuana. He pulled out his phone book and gave me Bobby's number. "He's a really good friend," Jonathan told me. "He's a great guy."
Last week, four plus years later, I dialed that number over and over again, day after day. Of course, I wasn't looking for pot. When I was lucky enough to get a ring—rather than the efficient mantra All circuits are busy—I tried to picture an actual phone ringing at Bobby's place, two blocks from the Quarter, slightly below street level, and therefore, I calculated, no more than a foot under water.
* * *
In the great expanse of time before the harsh wind known as Katrina blew ruin upon the Gulf Coast, Bobby lived in a beautiful, warm, sensual city, whose offerings—music, food, freedom—immediately brushed along one's nerve endings; there were no laborious paths through the intellect. "We're [End Page 99] about the lower chakras," he once told me. In this city charged with sex, deep into flirtation, and kept afloat in alcohol, Bobby's life ran on cash and paid no taxes. Its base of operations lay behind a tall picket fence, thickly covered in flowers, which served as a visual obstruction to the traffic of quotidian illegalities that were the source of his income. To enter this fortress, you pulled a string through a hole in the door connected to a bone (Bobby's nickname is "The Bone"), which caused bells to ring and his mini pinscher to bark. Bobby might eventually answer this call, depending on his mood and whether or not he was conducting business and with whom that business was being conducted. In the parlance of his native city, Bobby's home was known as a "shack," and this shack was part of a pipeline supplying goods to the fine people of his city. While passing time in the shack, underneath a string of tinkling bells, hanging bones, costumes, feathers, and ornate clocks that no longer worked, I met a former mayor's brother and the musicians I saw perform the night before and a girl who ate fire for a living. I learned about astral projection, and I listened to hours of deliberation on politicians and Palestine and human nature, on motorcycles and gurus and the art of winding speaker cords. The air in the shack was filled with the sounds of WWOZ, spinning records, eight-track gospel recordings, and improvisational strummings; grown men crooned along to Earth, Wind and Fire and Tammy Wynette and Earl King's Trick Dog. On more than one occasion, Bobby leaned back and crossed one skinny leg over another and commented, "Hard day of work. Sitting here, playing music, making money."
Bobby was, of course, a musician. Long curly blond hair gone a bit to gray, sideburns like the ends of lightning rods, slight goatee, stubble. When I met him, he was in a hipster cowboy phase and wore a straw hat, purchased down in the Quarter and curled just so atop his ponytail. Black prescription sunglasses with the lenses tinted dark blue...