I was sitting on the curb, sweat dripping down my face onto the street out front of Big Daddy’s World Famous Love Acts. It was an August Friday in New Orleans around eight in the evening and I had just learned that trying to make money busking on Bourbon Street wasn’t as easy as it seemed.
There was a crowd, to be sure, and people would stop and watch, but the number of people who would reach into their wallet, or their front pocket, for dollars or change, was negligible. In my duffel bag were the clubs, balls and knives that I’d been throwing into the air for the last several hours with a hat out on the ground. Now that hat was tucked between my legs. I counted the wrinkled bills and pocket change. My haul for the day: eighty-seven dollars, two condoms and a used copy of Slaughterhouse V. Two women dropped the latter objects into my hat early on and walked away laughing.
Don’t count your money in the street. It was a lesson that hadn’t sunk in at the time, but it had begun to in that moment, as I looked up and saw a man staring at me. He didn’t look intimidating. Just a diminutive middle-aged man, cropped receding gray hair, a loose wife beater and denim jeans. But it was the fact that he was staring that made me suddenly aware of my own vulnerability. Not wanting to risk showing the bills to anyone else, I dropped the money back into the hat and stuffed it into the duffel bag. The man approached me.
“You look thirsty,” he said.
“I’ll be alright.”
“Lemme getchoo a drink.”
“It’s no trouble. Whatcha drink?”
I looked at him for a second, no longer worried about my money, but not sure what to make of him. His face was lined and creased, but gentle. He didn’t have that abrasive, insistent quality I’d found in most of the drunken tourists I’d encountered earlier in the evening. He seemed lonely.
“I could go for a water,” I told him.
“Alright,” he said. “Anything else?”
I thought about it. I was twenty and unsure of how to answer the question. But I had just moved to New Orleans and here I was melting into the pavement on Bourbon Street, so circumstances dictated the response.
“Any particular whiskey?”
I reached for one of the only names I really knew.
He nodded and disappeared up the street.
Once he was out of sight, I contemplated moving. I was ready to go home anyway, and if he came back with a go-cup from a local bar, I wasn’t going to be brave enough or foolish enough to drink from it. But I believed he was acting out of kindness, and I believed that if I got up and disappeared before he returned, it would break his heart.
So I stayed. And I waited. And the cacophony of Bourbon Street grew louder and the revelers descended deeper into madness as I watched them pass by me on the street, and the sky was purple and pink and the neon lights shined down on the liquid slurry that flowed into the gutter. And then he was back.
He handed me a brown paper bag with two bottles of water and an unopened fifth of Jack Daniels. Then he asked if he could sit down beside me. I said he could. His name was John.
We talked a while. I told him I’d come from California to New Orleans as an Americorps volunteer, that I was staying with my brother and his wife, and trying to see if I could get by as a street performer so I could move out before his baby was born and they ran out of room for me. I told him this was my first night busking. Then I asked about him.
“I been here thirty years,” he said.
“What brought you here?”
“I came here to help my friend die.”
His friend was his lover. His lover contracted HIV in the early years of the epidemic. His lover died holding his hand in Charity Hospital.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be,” he answered. “It’s what brought me here.”
Then John put his hands on his knees and pushed himself up off the curb.
“Enjoy the whiskey,” he said.
“I’ll see you around.”
I busked in the Quarter most every weekend for years to follow, but I never did see him again.
Stewart Sinclair is a writer living in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. His work has most recently been featured in Lithub, Guernica, Creative Non-fiction’s “True Story” series and elsewhere. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of 433, an online literary journal of literature, art and politics. Follow him on Twitter @StewSinclair.