The Man in New Orleans

The Man in New Orleans

Today I have a story for you from 2001. In December of that year, I took a month off from my job and flew to New York, where I hired a very expensive car. The car itself was nothing special but it turns out that being under 26 adds a significant surcharge to car rental, as does returning the car from a drop-off point on the other side of the country. My plan was to drive around the US for 30 days on my own. Well, my plan had originally been to drive around the US for 30 days with a couple of American friends, but after the World Trade Center attacks that September, they took fright and decided that being on the open road was too scary. I, being South African, deliriously young, and completely fearless, had no such concerns and I blithely hit the road and headed south.

Don’t worry: I don’t plan to bore you to tears with a travelogue. Suffice to say that a week or so later after adventures in places like Charlottesville, Virgina; Charleston, North Carolina; Savannah and Tybee Island, South Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Memphis then Nashville in Tennessee; and a plethora of tiny towns and side-of-the-road stops, I landed in New Orleans, Louisiana where I planned to see the site and stay for a night or two. As an aside, my father later told me that I had been conceived in New Orleans in 1977, when he and my mother arrived to find that all the hotels were booked out because of a conference. They ended up negotiating with a local brothel for a room for the night and the rest is history, but that’s a story for another day.

After arriving, I headed into the city on foot. I wanted the whole “New Orleans” experience – the music, the dancing, the food, the Beignets, the architecture, the con artists, the folk lore and history, the graveyards, you name it. It was much colder than I had expected – it must have been December 23rd or thereabouts  and for whatever reason, I had decided that seeing as I would be in the South, it would be like South Africa. In other words, warm. As in, summer. I quickly learned that the South and South Africa were miles apart and once the sun went down, I ducked into a bar, then a restaurant to eat, enjoy some live music, and warm up.

There’s only so much time that you can spend in a restaurant on  your own, though, and eventually I decided to head to bed. Before doing so, I took a walk around the city. Yes, yes, terribly dangerous, I know, but that’s what I did. It was pretty quiet. I have no idea where I walked but at some point, a homeless gentleman joined me in my walk and we started chatting. At this point I have to admit that I felt a little bit uncomfortable: I didn’t really know where I was, it was relatively late in the evening, and walking the streets with an old (he was probably in his 30s and I was all of 23 or 24 – perspective is everything) stranger wasn’t part of my plan. But, he was talking, seemed nice enough and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to be rude and offend him.

He was very curious about me: a white South African who didn’t seem to have a problem walking along and talking with a down-and-out African American. Obviously I wasn’t what he expected. Thankfully.

His story was interesting, too: he had a degree, had a family and once upon a time had a so-called good job somewhere in the north of the country. Something went wrong – I can’t remember what – and one day, he packed a bag, kissed his wife and kids goodbye and instead of going to work, he started walking and to that day, hadn’t stopped. He’d not spoke to his family in years, and had learned to live on the streets. Our conversation ranged far and wide, from politics to religion, philosophy to ethics, and even included his must-see travel stops on my US road trip. Eventually, we came to the gates of a cemetery, freezing, I decided that I’d had enough for the night. As we wound up our conversation, I pulled out a $20 note and handed it to him, thinking that it might be useful.

I’ll never forget how he stopped talking. Refused to take the note. And how he then went on to tell me that the worst thing about being homeless was not the uncertainty or the cold or lack of comforts, but the lack of conversation. How people simply wouldn’t look at him in the eye. How people pitied him instead of treating him like a human being with thoughts and opinions. And how our little conversation had been the best Christmas present he’d had in years.

I shook his hand, and a couple of days later, left the city, but I’ve never forgotten what he said. And to this day, whether I give money to a homeless person or not, I always try to make eye contact, no matter how uncomfortable that makes me feel. I always make a point of greeting beggars and street people, although that’s sometimes seen as an invitation  to demand money. And if someone strikes up a conversation, I try to keep my natural suspicion in check, along with my pity and guilt and whatever other emotions come up, and I try to remember that no matter what someone’s circumstances are, being able to talk to someone and be recognised as another human being is invaluable.

I don’t always succeed, but the awareness is there, and 18 years after I met that homeless man in New Orleans, the memory of that that evening is still vivid in my memory and it’s a holiday gift that I often share with others.

And now I’ve shared it with you to do with what you will.