b Papa Dog's Blog: Those Are People Who Died, Died

Papa Dog's Blog

A Thing Wherein I Infrequently Write Some Stuff

Friday, March 25, 2005

Those Are People Who Died, Died

I hope you’ll forgive the fact that I keep cycling back to New Orleans. A lot of stuff happened to me while I lived there and I’ve had sufficient time to ponder that stuff and turn it into bloggable anecdotes. I just hope I don’t sound like Cliff Clavin talking about Florida.

Not everything that happened there was good, nor has all of the bad stuff that happened receded into the category of things to have a rueful laugh over now. Something that’s hard to overlook is how many of the friends I made there are no longer living. Bobby died of AIDS shortly after I moved away. He’d been living with his impending demise for a long time, long enough to make some plans for it. He told me once he wanted me to do his eulogy because he thought I could probably make the mourners laugh. I can’t tell you what a weird mixture of emotions that gave me. I was honoured, of course, that he felt so highly of my rhetorical skills – but also chilled at the thought of a world without Bobby (the one I live in now), to say nothing of a bit of premature flop sweat at the thought of having to speak in public. It didn’t happen. Nobody knew how to reach me and the funeral was over before I even got the word that he had died. They had a jazz funeral for him in the Quarter. I wish I could have been there.

Kenneth went a couple of years later to the same killer. He was to Bobby as Bobby was to me and so many others. A guide, a mentor, someone who worked always to raise the limits of one’s aspirations. He was Bobby’s Bobby. I was never as close to Kenneth as I was to Bobby, but I got to know him pretty well in the last year or so I was in New Orleans. He was the one who gently prodded me into telling my stories in front of an audience at Dramarama (yes, flop sweat ensued, but I got through it). He was deceptively soft spoken. He would make an aside so quietly and gently that it would take a moment to realise it was a barb. He was a compulsive organiser, only of people rather than things. He was always finding ways to get people to work together for some worthy goal. When Kenneth died, Mama Dog and I were in a somewhat stormy early stage of our relationship. In fact, we were in the middle of a loud argument about some stupid thing when the phone rang and I found out that Kenneth had died. You know the scene in a movie where somebody gets a call like that, and they just collapse down into a chair with a look of shock on their face? I did that. All the stress and anger was superseded by shock and grief. I guess it’s kind of awful, but I welcomed it. It was an emotion that came automatically with its own release mechanism. I guess that was the first time Mama Dog ever saw me cry. Maybe the last, I don’t know. The argument evaporated. There was no way to fight now. That’s Kenneth; mediating from beyond the grave.

Not everybody I lost there had both the time and the impetus to contemplate their mortality. At the time I lived in New Orleans, it was the murder capital of the United States. People round here think Oakland is some badass violent town. A couple of years ago, Oakland’s murder rate hit a scary peak of 28 murders per 100,000 people. In 1994, the year I really made New Orleans my home, there were 425 murders; that’s 87 per 100,000 people. It got so bad that murder was never more than a degree of separation away. If you didn’t personally know somebody who’d been killed, you knew someone who had lost a friend or a relative to idiotic senseless violence.

I mentioned Tom before, in my posts about Thomas the homeless guy. Tom was my roommate for a month. He wasn’t as close a friend as Bobby or Kenneth. I can’t say we ever had a really meaningful conversation, though we did hang out a few times and got along relatively well for people as fundamentally dissimilar as we were. He was a gentle hippy boy, and I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone. He was only 23 years old, and he still seemed in some ways unformed and childlike. He didn’t really know how to take care of himself, but he tried to take care of others. He had cats that kept having kittens and the kittens kept dying because he couldn’t afford to take them to the vet and get them properly checked out. I honestly think he died because he just didn’t understand – viscerally understand – that he lived in a place that was truly dangerous. Sure, it could happen to anyone, anywhere…there was a woman who got shot coming out of a restaurant on a busy street, and another guy who got killed waiting for a streetcar in daytime. But Tom…I don’t know, he was naïve. He didn’t think twice about wandering around the streets in the wee hours, and that’s what he was doing when some motherless fuck jumped out of a car and shot him in the face.

I don’t know why exactly, but Tom has been haunting me lately. I’ve been wondering if he had time to understand what was happening, and imagining how he must have reacted if he did. I see him taking a step back, putting up his hands in front of his face in a futile defensive gesture. I can vividly see his squint, his face screwed up in anticipation and probably disbelief. I think he probably would have been a bit puzzled. Like, “Why are you doing this?” “Why to me?” I can’t understand why either. Tom never hurt a fly.

I guess the thing that’s haunting me is that look of wounded innocence, and the reason it’s haunting me is because I’m a father now. I said to Mama Dog a couple weeks back that it made me sad to think that someday someone was bound to use sarcasm on our daughter. Really. The thought of an unkind word directed at Baby Dog makes my heart sink. The idea of anyone ever directing real violence at her…well, that’s unthinkable. As it happens, I met Tom’s father once, by chance. I was standing on a corner in the Marigny, smoking dope with Lucius and a couple of other miscreants when Tom came around the corner with an older man who turned out to be his father. I waved smoke away and made a lame joke about how some bad people had just walked by smoking marijuana. I got the impression later that Tom’s dad wouldn’t have turned down a toke, but it was too late to switch tacks by then. He seemed a nice guy, and he’d raised a nice son, and I just can’t imagine what he felt when he got that terrible phone call.

So…we have this daughter, and it’s beyond the power of any poor mortal to keep any other poor mortal safe from all injury for an entire lifetime. All we can do is teach her the best we can to take care of herself and to see the world as clearly as she’s able. And I guess we’d better get off our asses and childproof the house.


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