I poured whiskey in a glass and added some rocks and put it on top of a black napkin, just in front of Chip. Chip was having two drinks to his buddy’s every one. His buddy was tanked. Two old white guys from the neighborhood who always came in a half an hour before we shut down for the night. If they had the bar to themselves they were ok. If there were people in there, particularly young people, they got cranky and annoying. Tonight, they had the bar to themselves.
Chip put money down and said, “This son of a bitch is leaving us.”
“Z’at true?” his buddy asked.
“How can you leave New Orleans?”
“You fucking kidding me?” I said.
“No, seriously,” Chip said. “Where you going?”
“California? The fuck’s in California.”
“Plenty of things are in California. Last call for one.”
We all laughed. Trudy was barbacking that night. She was off to the side, polishing some glass ware. She looked over at them, smiling benevolently.
“Fellas, the thing is, you gotta have discipline to live in this city. I had that in the beginning. It was only me. Me was all I had to care about. Those first years, sweet Jesus, they were really great. I knew when to stop, I knew when to go. I was doing all the things I said I was going to do. Living by myself. I’d reached a peak. I was dangerous. I was fast. All these kinds of things you know. And then I met this girl and I hated to admit it, I resisted the truth of it, but I knew. I just fucking knew.”
“There just couldn’t be anyone after her. I mean, of course there could be someone after her. There can always be someone else. But I don’t want anyone else. She’s it. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the gravity of such a statement. This world is a big place, and it gets bigger every day. Nowhere is untouchable. Possibilities are limitless. I don’t pretend to live in that old timey world where there are soulmates and shit like that. Me and her, it’s still a gamble. It’s hard work. But right now, standing here before you, I’m letting you know she’s the best thing this world has given me thus far, and I’m not letting her go.”
“But is she a good lay?” Chip asked.
“And you wonder why you’re a lonely old man,” I said. His buddy laughed. “This fucking guy.”
“So you’re leaving because of her? She wants to leave?”
“We both want to leave. This is a hard town to be in a relationship in, man. At least for me, it is. I said before, I had discipline when it was just me. I gotta learn something completely different now. And that’s OK. She’s worth it. We’ll get out there, live healthy, she’ll do yoga, I’ll black out less, hopefully say less dumb shit. We’ll drive out to Joshua Tree. It’ll be nice.”
“It’s nice here too. This is a beautiful city,” Chip said.
I sighed, putting both hands on the bar and leaning forward. “It is a beautiful city. I was thinking that today, you know? I was on my way to work, gliding underneath those trees, Spanish moss hanging down like it does. I thought about falling in love in this city. Not just with my lady, but with life. The magic, you know? There’s no other city in the world like New Orleans. No other place. But you know what? New Orleans is still in the South. And I fucking hate the South.”
“Things are kind of bad right now,” Chip’s buddy said.
“Kind of bad?” I straightened back up, making a face. I poured myself a shot of whiskey and took it fast. “Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s tough everywhere right now. But especially so here. People are getting murdered every day. By people that are supposed to be protecting us. The kids are almost as scary. Health care is a fucking joke. I don’t know anymore what’s a conspiracy and what isn’t. It’s like the Wild West mixed with the Matrix. And you know what I hate the most?”
“That there’s these classes of people here that make sure nothing ever actually gets better. You got the people who are mad at how things are all the time but don’t ever go out and actually do anything. They just complain all the time on their social media and drink their shitty beer and let their lives dwindle like sand in an hourglass,” I held up a second finger, “The transplants that don’t say shit because they figure, hey it’s how things are here, we don’t want to publicly disrupt that, we just want to quietly gentrify and subvert everything. We’ll just write some articles about how cool things are here and never actually talk to a real black person. We’ll just video tape ‘em dancing around in their costumes. And then the worst of the worst, and I really hate these ones. The motherfuckers that just say ‘That’s New Orleans.’ They throw their hands up and smile and shrug and say ‘That’s New Orleans.’ You know what I’m talking about? Someone gets shot, someone gets mugged, and these fuckers just say ‘Hey! That’s New Orleans!’ Like that’s some fucking answer. Like we should all just accept that we’re getting murdered and having our houses taken away and that a pothole the size of small planet sits in the middle of a street for half a year. This is not normal shit, man.”
The two older men had leaned back in their chairs during my rant and blinked a hint of soberness back into their doughy faces. His friend finally said, “See, that’s why we need people like you to stay. People who have the voice. Who think like this.”
I held my hands up and shook my head. “No, yeah, I get it. I’m a smart young black guy who has great and diverse taste in music. You know… I’ve thought about getting involved with the community. I’ve been in the protests. But the thing is: none of it matters. Those protests were hardly a blip on the news. We stopped traffic. That was it, man. See, I’m not from here. Maybe a part of me wishes I was. But I’m not. And the truth is, as much as I love New Orleans, New Orleans is still in Louisiana. I can’t fight for this place. These aren’t my people. You guys are sitting here, agreeing with me, saying yeah, it’s not right. You guys have been here the whole time. And now you’re old. What have you done? Why haven’t you stepped up?”
The two of them just kept looking at me but they didn’t say anything else. I shook my head. “I’m gonna smoke one, fellas.”
I came around the bar. Trudy was staring at me. She looked sad.
“Watch the bar, would you?” I asked her.
The air was warm outside. I took out a cigarette and lit it and exhaled into the sky. I heard music suddenly, and it was coming my way. Down the street, I saw a little old black lady riding a tricycle. She was playing music from some speakers she had hooked up in a basket on the back of the bike. It sounded good. I smiled big, watching her ride down. She was smiling big too, and once she saw me, she waved. I waved back. I felt an urge to grab my own bike and just follow her to wherever she rode for however long her music would play. Follow her right into the night and watch the sun come up and be reborn. I never did that anymore. How the hell had I grown so old?
The little old black lady passed by, waving, disappearing into the night, playing her music, generous with her love and that magic I’d found in no other city before. I pulled out my phone and texted my girlfriend. I told her I loved her. She was probably already asleep. But she’d see it in the morning.