Do you ever look back at a day in your life and think maybe you should’ve stayed home, remembered to lock the front door before leaving, or wonder how stupid, so clueless at that point in your life? A day that made your life change on a single encounter, a single incident, meeting the one person you’d wished you’d never met, or wished you’d met years before? I had that day on a gorgeous spring morning in New Orleans, on the banks of Bayou Metairie.
When I biked from my Bayou St. John apartment that day, I had no intention of rehabbing human beings again, just had a goal to work on my photography portfolio. My ex-fiancé, ex-boyfriends, friends, and even relatives had made me promise to give up my addiction to “helping” strangers. Most people were just fine without my meddling, but it took several disastrous situations to make me wake up and smell the cafe’ au lait. As I peddled closer and closer to City park, dodging loose dogs, distracted car drivers, pigeons and potholes, my mantra was taken absolutely breathtaking pictures today. Make money. Quit the shitty waitressing jobs and do highly profitable photography shows at exclusive art galleries. We all need dreams, right? No one ever gets anywhere without them or working on them.
My name is Ginger Drummond, and I’m twenty-four, single, no kids, living in one of the most incredible cities in the world. Parts of my hometown still look like a war zone, years after that bitch Katrina had her way with us, and yes, we’re still healing, but we’re not quitters. From the very first people settling here, New Orleanians have survived epidemics, hurricanes, war, and we’re still here, damn it.
My destination that morning was a beautifully restored part of City Park, a public park rescued from ruin after Katrina, and being given a new lease as a revived classic Creole beauty. I locked my bike up near the old casino building that morning, taking in the intoxicating aroma of fresh beignets and cafe’ au lait, the families and lovers clustered under the red umbrella covered tables of Morning Call. I sat down on the grass, and mentally put together a checklist of what I needed to photograph that day, then started wandering the most civilized heart of the park.
One of the things about me that’s always puzzled my family is why complete strangers will strike up conversations where ever I am, no matter what I’m doing. Small children, elderly people, middle aged women, odd men, every day I find myself approached and talking to interesting people. That day in the park I was like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, with children interrupting with thousands of questions, parents retrieving their kids, and tugging them away. Being nosy myself, and unafraid of talking to a stranger, is a practical skill for a photographer//waitress. It still mortifies my mother, Marie, and has gotten me in some not so pleasant situations. At times, it’s so pathetic I don’t even realize I’m doing it anymore.
That was the first day I saw August Olivier. He’d appeared in the sparse spring morning crowd of mothers, children, and old people taking in the sunshine and warm weather of New Orleans. He sat alone on the banks of Bayou Metairie, tossing out bits of stale baguette to ducks from a brown paper bag, watching them snatch and eat. He was dressed in baggy, torn, grubby jeans, an extremely large and faded Jazz Fest t-shirt, and had shaggy, dirty shoulder length blond hair pulled back with a leather string. His face was lean and tanned, and his blond beard was ragged, long, and unkempt. In other words, he looked like he’d slept wild under a shelter somewhere, and hadn’t had a decent meal or a bath in a long times. I felt that tingle of makeover superpower strength, that the urge to “help”, and pinched myself, hard. Those negative therapy technique people use. Like my old therapist told me to use when tempted to “fix” people.
This guy wasn’t someone you’d want to approach and give food or money. There was an edgy dangerousness about him, the kind that made most people want to cross over to another side of the street to avoid him.
The park crowd gave him a wide berth as they played and fished along the bayou. A backpack sat next to him, torn, frayed faded camouflage military issue. As I photographed him, he reached inside and pulled out a wax paper wrapped sandwich and apple. He studied the ducks waiting to share his lunch, slowly ate the sandwich, tossing the leftover crusts to them. They pounced and snapped the remainder of his food, eyed the apple, and then slowly drifted off to more promising prospects. His gaze followed the ducks as they swam, brushed crumbs from his hands, and pulled his backpack closer.
Out came a pair of battered military grade Oakley sunglasses, a Boonie hat, and he put them on slowly. He stood up, neatly put his trash in a nearby bin, and then brushed off his hands on his jeans. The backpack was slung onto his shoulders, and he ever so slowly turned, staring at me knowingly from behind the sunglasses. Busted again. I looked away, shoving my camera down into my messenger bag, hoping to not attract another crazy street person. When I glanced back at him, he was long-legged loping down Dreyfous Avenue towards Marconi Drive. He looked back at me once again before disappearing through the trees. I had a feeling he still might turn back and confront me, and stared after him for a long time.
For most of the afternoon, I’d been working on a portfolio of the park, with perfect weather like New Orleans has in Spring. We were in that window that makes Jazz Fest perfect later on in the month, with blue skies, sunshine, and people getting sunburned all around me. Parts of the United States would be still having winter, but New Orleans was like a beautiful girl in a new dress. City Park was perfect for taking pictures of romantic looking buildings, lakes, swans, ducks, intriguing looking people, and beautiful centuries-old oak trees. Primo people watching and photography.
Three years ago when I graduated from LSU it seemed like my whole life lay ahead of me, with a promising career in broadcast journalism, an engagement ring from Mark, my college sweetheart, and a lovely little house in Old Metairie. Photography had been my first love, and I’d hoped one day to make a name for myself in it. In what seemed like a lifetime of painful months, I’d lost my job, my fiancé dumped me for a nurse he’d been seeing on the side, and now they were living in my little dream house. Broke paying off student loans and living expenses, I was now working in a bar and sharing a small half of a house with a friend from college and her boyfriend. Not where I expected to be three years ago, but at least I had a job and a roof over my head.
I wandered through City Park for the rest of the afternoon until all my Nikon camera’s batteries were dead, and had hundreds of photographs needing to be downloaded. A few sessions of editing and I hoped to sell most of them to a stock photography agency. There was a folder filled with release forms for some of the people I’d photographed that day. The guy from the bayou was in several of the photos, and I had hoped to get his signature for a photography series on New Orleans and City Park. One of the art galleries had promised me a small showing of my work in exchange for working part time at some exhibit openings.
I walked back to my bike, hearing my stomach growling at the smell of beignets and coffee. It had been hours since eating a bowl of cereal and milk that morning, but I didn’t have any money to waste on eating out. It was growling even louder when I peddled back to our house. As soon as I unlocked the front door and walked in I could hear my roommate and her boyfriend having sex in their bedroom. It was difficult looking them in the eye after hearing some of their Saturday morning sessions, and this morning they were incredibly loud and rambunctious. I hurriedly poured some more cereal and milk, grabbed my stuff, and bolted out the backdoor to our patio for some quiet.
It was one of those rare spring days in New Orleans with little humidity, fresh breezes, and no rain in the forecast. I put my laptop on an antique wrought iron table, booted it up, and connected the camera cable to it. While the laptop did its thing, I pulled a couple of chairs over and sat down, putting my feet up on the other chair. After walking around most of the morning in the park, it felt fantastic to stay off my feet for a while. I tilted my face up to the sun trying to shine through the huge oaks in the backyard and started to relax. Everything was quiet and peaceful, and I mentally began to sort out the photos taken that day as I ate my lunch.
A few minutes later, I glanced over at the laptop, logged in, and turned my camera on, watching as it unloaded. When it was done, I scrolled through the new photographs, sorting and tagging them for editing later. I stopped when I got to the homeless guy’s photos. I realized he had been watching something else while I was watching him. One photograph showed his displeasure and surprise, and shortly afterward he’d gotten up and left. For the first time, I saw an automatic pistol tucked in the back of his jeans as he stood up in the photo. I stared at that picture for a long time.
The next day, while my roommates and I were out, our house was burglarized. All our electronics including my beloved Nikon and laptop were taken after the security system was cut and the backdoor lock kicked in. None of our neighbors heard anything of course, especially Mrs. Pienkowski, our completely deaf and extremely elderly next-door-neighbor. NOPD had seen it all before. We got the paperwork from the two officers who came out, both of whom I knew from Dirty Mike’s Bar, and we pooled our money for a new door and lock from Lowe’s. Luckily I know how to both pick and install deadbolts. I had no insurance, so the camera and laptop were a complete loss. Back to pen and paper.
At least I had the online files for my pictures or did at one time. With New Orleans Public Library borrowed computer, I went online to look at my photos and discovered my account had been deleted. Everything was lost, including the photos from the park.
End of Excerpt
Copyright 2014, All rights reserved by Beabe Thompson 2014.