Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Christ on Bourbon Street

[Judy Tenuta voice]
Yeah, it could happen
[/Judy Tenuta voice]

I went down to Louisiana a few weeks ago to see a friend take his first vows with the New Orleans Province Jesuits. And I did what every devout Christian would do on the subsequent Friday night before my plane left for Washington on Saturday -- spent it in the French Quarter, specifically one street. (Hey ... I did spend the early part of the day doing the respectable tourist stuff like the D-Day Museum.)

Over the space of about five hours -- well, I drank and ate and drank and drank some more as I walked down America's most famous 24-hour orgy for the second time in my life (the other was a New Year's Eve when I was there for the Sugar Bowl). Hand Grenades, Hurricanes, Jell-O shots, a seafood dinner (it being Friday and all), $1 beer, $3 shooters from street vendors. But even there, God was watching.

Practically the very first thing that happened to me in the Quarter, before I was even on Bourbon Street proper, was that a strip-club owner invited me ("sir," he called me) to come in for a free drink with a lap dance, while an exaggeratedly sexy young thang was spilling out of her T-shirt next to him. I politely said "not interested" as I walked past him. It was all I could do to avoid saying "are you ever barking up the wrong tree."

After dinner, I headed northeast along Bourbon Street, away from Canal Street, when I reached the end of the carnival-light section of Bourbon and, having just finished my drink, I went into a bar for another. And for the second time in my life, I unwittingly went into a gay bar -- Cafe Lafitte. I didn't see the rainbow flag walking in (this end of Bourbon Street was quite dark) and the clues didn't register with me until after I had ordered and started drinking a bottle of beer and so couldn't leave easily. Needless to say, I was still pretty uneasy just sitting there, trying to maintain my usual unflappability and sangfroid.

It wasn't the objective behavior of the clientele, at that time anyway (though to judge from the pix on their site, I must have caught them on Chaste Night). There were lots of queeny mannerisms on display, of course, plus diva dance remixes (Bananarama, Gwen Stefani, etc.) on the video screen and sound system. But as randy as it got that I saw was having a condom stretched over the lips of a cup of carbonated soda. Nobody was shirtless; I saw no PDAs stronger than a peck on the cheek; nobody propositioned me; nobody was garlanding beads as rewards for gawdknowswhat. I saw much more (and much-more) wanton sexuality elsewhere on that street. But, at least personally, I can consume as campy comedy, e.g., a woman sashaying her hips as she stands on top of a bar while her husband/boyfriend takes her picture. Precisely because it doesn't threaten me because she doesn't interest me. I slinked away as soon as I finished my one beer. I wonder if the bartender or the two guys sitting on either side of me noticed how queasy I was.

Going back the other way down Bourbon Street, I happened to look down a side street to my left and I saw an obvious shadow -- a Jesus statue on the wall. Probably looked very like this image (photo taken by a St. Louis architecture buff from his trip to New Orleans from about the vantage point I would have had). I was near the Cathedral of St. Louis.

I can't not go there, so I do ... grenade in hand (no, not THAT kind ... this kind), but with no particular plan. The Cathedral is locked up, so I can't go in. Which I understand somewhat -- the adjoining well-lit square had an interesting cast of midnight characters. I had been to confession a couple of days previous and, for complicated but good reasons, had yet to actually say my penitential Rosary. This seemed a perfect time and place, and so I go to one of the park benches before the main door (at the back edge of Jackson Square; this poster here shows where I was) and say it under my breath and keeping track on my fingers. I'm only interrupted once that I recall, by a street person sitting next to me on the bench who asked if she could have a swig of my grenade ("sure").

Then, walking back toward Bourbon Street, with more drinking on my mind, I'm convinced God sent me an angel. A man stopped me as we passed each other while walking in opposite directions on one of the side-street sidewalks. He stopped me and said, "excuse me, sir, but can you spare me some money?" At that moment, I really couldn't say no. I had just come from church (sort of) and was heading for a site of orgiastic consumption. I did ask him if he needed me to buy him some food, and he said he wasn't really hungry but might be tomorrow: "I live day to day," he said (and his appearance let me believe him very easily). I reached into my pocket, and as it happened, the outer bill on my fold was a ten. Which I gave him automatically. He thanked me, and I said, looking him in the eyes, "God bless you." He returned those words and then said something I've never heard in such situations.

HIM: Would you pray for me?
ME: Sure.
HIM: I mean right now.
ME: Yes.
HIM: I'm from Arkansas and having a run of bad luck.
ME: Sorry.

I put my arms around his shoulders, and he puts his around mine. If he had harbored ill intentions (a thought which did occur to me), I'd have been completely at his mercy. But I trusted. I said a simple "Our Father." He didn't say the words, but at every one of the natural pauses in the prayer as I went through it, very slowly per my custom, he let out a soft ejaculation, in the Charismatic style -- "praise the Lord!" "hallelujah!" or the like. Our faces were touching, we were locked in an embrace, a block off Bourbon Street. In prayer. And at that moment, nothing else mattered to me. Or to him, I suspect.

When I finished, he asked me, "are you a preacher?" It was all I could do not to laugh as I said "no." I repeated my offer of food. He said he was fine, and nodded his assent when I said "well, just use well the money I gave you." We hugged again before parting.

Somehow, after this encounter, another few hours of drinking no longer seemed so attractive. My confessor, who has warned me about my drinking in the past, was a bit disappointed (I am inferring) that I didn't get this man's name when I told him what had happened.

I met him by pure coincidence and the confluence of a hundred accidental factors of timing, but the most immediate of which, though, was my side journey to the Church upon seeing Christ's shadow. To send me in the direction of His shadow again. My night began by being accosted by a strip-club owner after my money and ended by being accosted by someone else after my money some, sure, but after something more also.

I walked backed to the edge of Bourbon Street to Canal, stopping only to browse and buy a couple of gifts for friends. Driking some soda. And going home for the night, praying for this down-on-his-luck man, and making a mental note to do it often. Whatever his name.


Jeron said...

What a neat experience! I was last in New Orleans for Mardi Gras '93. I saw a knife fight; stumbled myself into the gay section late at night; and witnessed a miscreant get chased into a building's wall by a horse patrolman. Never going back.

Steve said...

WOW God is so amazing! He can anyone or situation to turn us around.

Claude said...

I am chastised and encouraged by your post.

And I thank you for sharing these thoughts and events.

Adam Villani said...

Great post, CM. I have family in N.O. and it's such a fascinating place, where all sorts of collisions of that sort come into play. It's the human condition written in bolder colors.