Sunday, September 11, 2005

Mr. Johnson and the Man with the Dagger Tattoo

Louisiana people. More specifically, New Orleans people. They’re everywhere, at least in the limited stretch of Houston where we make our appointed rounds. Filling up the empty apartments. Trickling into the schools. Shopping at our Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market late at night, a couple of them telling us they had ridden there on a Metro bus from the Astrodome area 6 or 7 miles to the east. And there were a good dozen or so out in the shopping center parking lot last Friday afternoon when we went to make a deposit at the Bank One branch on the edge of the placid municipality of West University Place, no doubt marking a record for the number of African Americans with dreadlocks gathered in one spot in that 92-percent-white city within the majority non-white city of Houston. Many were enjoying juices and snacks from the Whole Foods Market, proving that, despite the gaping divides of race and class in America, people of all stations and skin tones enjoy overpriced health food, and they will not be deterred in their consumption by a bothersome hurricane evacuation.

We had the opportunity to briefly shoot the shit with two of the new arrivals while in line at the bank. Wanda was standing behind us with a check to cash and her Louisiana driver’s license. Shortly after we exchanged hellos she was joined by a guy who later started a brief conversation with us by saying “Heyhowyadoin,” which is as for as we got with the introductions. We initially pegged Wanda and Heyhowyadoin as significant others, but then Heyhowyadoin asked of Wanda, “You still stayin’ at the Dome, right?” (she was) and “I’m sorry--- you’re name’s Wanda, right?” (it is).

Heyhowyadoin was somewhat conspicuous in the Bank One. He was thin and tall---6’ 4” or thereabouts---and very light, light enough to have passed for Italian 50 years ago if he had felt the need (and being from New Orleans, he very well might be a fourth or eighth or whatever Sicilian). He was good looking, kind of sharp featured, with short, curly hair. Dressed in what looked like his high water clothes: A blue T-shirt, blue jean cut-offs, high tops with no socks. What really stood out, though, was the tattoo of a dagger that ran up the side of his left leg from his high tops to his knee. The same kind of dagger that the New Orleans singer Aaron Neville has tattooed on his cheek, the cheek that’s airbrushed in photos or often turned from the camera when he’s on TV. There was no blood dripping off Heyhowyadoin’s shank, no inked inscription advertising his bad-assedness. Just a plain ol' dagger.

“We gotta find a liquor store---I feel like drinkin’ some Scotch tonight,” Heyhowyadoin told Wanda. “But, ah … my mama’s made at me.” “Why?” asked Wanda. “’Cause you …?” “No,” said Heyhowyadoin, “it’s ’cause I haven’t gotten in touch with my kids yet.” “How many you got?” asked Wanda, sounding as if she remembered from a previous conversation. “Four,” replied Heyhowyadoin.

Then he eyeballed us, introduced himself and asked if we knew of a liquor store close by. We started to point him toward one in the direction of our neighborhood, then remembered there was a Spec’s much closer and in the opposite direction. We offered to drop him there after we finished our business, and momentarily entertained the notion of buying him a bottle, although we didn't make that offer (like most everyone else in Houston, we can’t stop giving). But Heyhowyadoin declined. “My people are outside waitin' on me,” he explained. (We don’t ordinarily enable others in their pursuit of inebriation, but given Heyhowyadoin’s circumstances---he’d been driven from his home by the hurricane, he hadn’t hooked up with his children, he was exposing himself to potential arrest by the Bellaire, Texas police for being a black man wantonly displaying a large dagger tattoo, and on top of all that his mama was mad at him---we thought we’d make an exception.) We wished Heyhowyadoin a good weekend, and he wished us one back.

Earlier that day at a different location we had the pleasure of speaking at length with Leonard Johnson, a retiree who fled New Orleans before the hurricane with his wife, two daughters and two grandchildren. They had quickly settled in with a relative in Houston and enrolled the two grandchildren in a good public school. Mr. Johnson was fulsome in his praise of Houston and its efforts to help those displaced by the hurricane, and we heard him repeat that praise later when he was interviewed by a CBC news crew from Montreal. But he's not planning a long stay.

Mr. Johnson told us that he had lived all his life in the Lower 9th Ward and had long owned a house there. Although he didn’t have direct confirmation, he was sure his house was “submerged.” He's determined to live there again, though. We asked him when he would be going back.

“As soon as I can,” he said. “Just as soon as I can.”

We bet the man with the dagger tattoo feels the same way.

No comments: