As Mardi Gras season gets underway in New Orleans, Louisiana, colourful beads and characters fill the streets of the jazz capital.
He comes walking alongside us as we approach the end of Frenchmen Street. White beard, sandy coloured hat, guitar on his back, can of beer in his left hand, dog leash in his right. “They call me Chief”, he says, by way of greeting. “And my dog here is called Buster.”
We have only just spotted The Spotted Cat, one of New Orleans’ legendary live jazz bars. It is still early in the day and although it is Carnival season, music is not to start until a few hours later. Well aware of this fact, Chief decides to take us on an impromptu walking tour of the district. He doesn’t ask if we need a guide but he continues to walk next to us and simply starts sharing interesting facts about the buildings and people we pass.
Roaming the Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood streets with Chief is like following a local celebrity. Everyone seems to know him and he is greeted with a level of respect that seems almost formal. Fellow musicians treat him like old friends as they exchange the latest news on who plays where and when.
“Where y’all from?” he asks in an accent that gives away that he himself is a local indeed. We chat away about our roots and he is appreciative of the fact that we have come all the way out here to admire The Big Easy. His face is one big friendly smile, but his stories hint at a darker side of his life journey – one that has not been ‘big easy’ at all.
Growing up near the banks of the Mississippi river, Chief spent his days away from home, hanging around the nearby navy base. It sparked his interest in marine engineering but ultimately also lured him towards the rowdy life style of docklands and sailors, including –as he says- the drink and the women.
On a bench by the riverfront, he summons us to rest for a while and watch the heavily loaded coal, grain and chemical barges go by. He reminisces about his days as an engineer on the ships. Life had not always been good to him, far from it, but jobs on the water provided just what he needed, at least for a while.
“I worked on that one, and that one, and even that one”, he points out as a fully restored original steam boat passes. “Do you see that little part up there?” he asks, pointing at one of the barges. “That is a supply shop for the crew. They sell everything from food to toiletries and even blow up dolls these days.” He grins, adding that he never needed one of those himself, back in the day. He lifts up his jumper to reveal shot wounds. “My wife”, he says, only half-jokingly. “She went crazy when I went with other women.”
Our walk has no obvious goal, but somehow feels far from aimless.
We walk and talk for hours, covering a range of topics from musical history to post-Katrina tourism and exaggerated national security threats. Chief seems to have some sort of relevant knowledge of most things and when he doesn’t, he still has an interesting opinion. The sun is out, the streets are filled with colourful buildings and equally colourful characters and we are all enjoying this spontaneous encounter.
Buster the dog charms every second person on the street. “He’s only ten and a half months old, can you imagine how big he will be in a year from now?” Chief asks anyone who stops to pat the black and white dog on the back. A cross-breed between an American bulldog and a Wolf, Buster means more to Chief than words can tell, he says. “His mother got run over and died. I had her for six years. Buster has been with me from his birth and he goes where I go.”
Our walk has no obvious goal, but somehow feels far from aimless. Chief keeps apologising for his dirty clothes and ‘unpolished’ appearance. When we assure him that we appreciate his company, he shakes our hand and says he is very pleased to meet us. He refuses offers of food as we stop for a sandwich, even though we feel it is the least we can do. At a local convenience store we grab cans of beer for each of us. It will soon be Mardi Gras, after all.