Robert Klein Engler

Poet ~ Writer ~ Photographer



Justin the Pirate  

The Mississippi River is muddy by the time it twists and turns past New Orleans. Some say it is muddy to begin with, way back at the headwaters in Minnesota. I can't believe that. I believe it begins back there as clear as a raindrop or as crystal as a tear. It's just the long flow of life, the flotsam and jetsam of the world carried to the ocean that muddies the water. I believe you know that, too. If you have lived long enough to see a child become a man, then you know what the long roll through time does. What a remarkable transformation of nature, just the opposite of what we might expect: the course of a man's life sees the butterfly become the worm. If you know about rivers, then you know about life. Do not be surprised then, that on the banks of this muddy reservoir, in the City of New Orleans, young men find all they need to save or damn their souls. Do not be surprised that in an overlooked block down river from the French Quarter, in a rickety and dilapidated room, Justin Gresham wakes up to the early morning fog of another January day.

Justin's room is on the third floor of what used to be the slave quarters of a larger house on Burgundy Street, down river from Esplanade. The room is hot in summer and cold in winter. Clothes are scattered here and there on the floor, and after a while even Justin cannot remember which shirts are dirty and which are clean. He has a Mardi Gras poster on the wall of a large, smiling green alligator. He is uncertain where it came from. He thinks now it was one of the things his father left behind when he walked out on him and his mother. From his window Justin can see the top of a red brick wall and the uppermost green fans of a banana tree. In winter when a cold front comes down from the North, the green leaves rustle and toss wildly in the wind like the ears of a stampeding elephant.

Justin does what he wants now. This morning he decides to sleep in. Last night was stressful, so he says to himself he needs the rest. His mother no longer calls, "Justin, get up! It's time for school." She has learned now to mind her own business, and lets Justin come and go whenever he pleases. Maybe she was out late last night with her new boy friend, so, she is sleeping, too. It wasn't always like this. His mother cared once. When Justin was a junior in high school, his mother complained to the social worker, "What's wrong with my son?" Just out of college, this agent of the state told Justin's mother, "He's having an identity crisis." Like most who work in public education, this social worker is twenty years behind the times. It has not dawned on her yet that in our postindustrial society many young people do not have identities to begin with. "Oh, I see," Justin's mother replied, uncertain what an 'identity crisis was,' but reassured because Justin's problem now had a name.

Once Justin decided the nonsense of high school had gone on long enough, he left school to spend his time on the street. Like many his age, Justin's was guilty of peccadilloes. He stole cigarettes, had a fake ID made so he could buy and drink beer with his friends, he even stole a bicycle once, only to abandon it the next day near where he knew the owner would find it again. It was on the streets that Justin began to take seriously the looks some men gave him. It came as a revelation to him that they would pay him for sex. Because he wanted money, Justin decided to hook up with Nick. Nick told him how to act, how to make sure he got paid, and what kind of weakness to look for in a trick. Justin was on his way to becoming a member of the counterfeit royalty, one of the free spirits that haunt Jackson Square, a hustler who is free the way a runaway slave is free.

Nick Haymon is a different breed of hustler from Justin. Nick was mean before he decided to sell his body, and he will be mean if he ever gives up selling it. They say Nick is from Baton Rouge, where tar-black smoke from the refinery sickens the sky. He came to New Orleans because he was tired of his father beating him and tired of being poor. Nick's philosophy of life is simple and straight forward: if someone likes you, use them! There is no wisdom in hunger for Nick, no patience in going without, no charity in being poor. Justin knows Nick is mostly up to no good, but he has survived and that is admirable in Justin's eyes. He has likewise seen Nick beat up guys who crossed him, so Justin is careful. Once, Nick showed Justin a watch he stole off some rich guy from New York. To Justin's inexperienced eyes, it looked like gold and seemed expensive. Justin concluded there was money to be made hustling. Nevertheless, the first time he let a man's mouth touch him, he took the money and ran off without a word. He got as far as St. Ann Street, and then bent over clutching his stomach. He had to lean against an iron poll and vomit into the gutter. Nick saw this, came over to Justin, slapped him on the back and called him a "pussy." "What's da matter," Nick asked, tauntingly, "My little pirate don't have da stomach for dat?"

After a few more encounters, hustling became easier for Justin. He would shut his eyes, let his mind go blank and swim in an ocean of sensation. Sex became just a job for him, a job that paid well but had late hours. Nick pointed out to Justin that you can treat a trick badly, even take their money and not put out, and "What day gonna do 'bout it, who day gonna complain to, da cops?" Once he mastered the tricks of the trade, Justin stopped hanging around with Nick. He set out on his own, making up his mind to exploit one particular scenario. Justin would be the high school athlete some older men dream about. This specialized market meant an investment in a wardrobe, but it was well worth it. Justin bought an assortment of gym clothes; baseball hats, team jackets, sweatpants and T shirts. The sales clerk at Home Team Sports Wear on the second floor of Jackson Brewer Mall was always happy to see Justin walk in. He would never leave without buying something.

Justin would hang out in front of Oz or Parade on Bourbon Street, dressed like a high school basketball star or football player, and size up the men who left the bar. When he saw one he could approach, he would ask about the time, and then either walk or take a cab back to their hotel. He worked the streets every other night of the week. He can live this way until he loses his youthful good looks. Justin thinks maybe he will try to sell drugs after that. Crack cocaine is now the drug of choice in the Quarter, and there is a lot of money to be made selling it. This is a dangerous line of work, however, and Justin does not know if it is worth the risk. Rumors have it, Nick is already selling cocaine, making a lot of money and a lot of enemies. Among the hustlers of New Orleans there are many who are afraid of Nick now and go out of their way to avoid him. Some even wish he were dead, but are afraid to act on that wish. The Talmud says that when a bad man dies, it is both good for him and good for the world. Many are waiting for the good of Nick's passing.The closest thing they have to snow in New Orleans is the powdered sugar sprinkled on top the beignets served at the Café Du Monde, that, and the snow covered ornaments they sell at the Christmas-All-Year-Long shops like Santa's Quarter, scattered through out the Vieux Carré. Tourists go to those shops to buy a memento of the city. There also come from the North to escape the cold and snow of winter. That is why Henry Harding left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is now planning to cruise the streets of the Big Easy late on a Saturday night.

Henry Harding was let go from the high school where he taught drama for twenty years because his principal thought it best not to have him on the staff any longer. After Henry's arrest at the Interstate rest stop for soliciting sex from an undercover state trooper, too many mothers suspected Henry was also seducing their sons. Fortunately, Henry's case was thrown out of court on a technicality, so now, without a job but with some savings and an expected pension, Henry travels when he can and broods over his dismissal.

As Henry sips his coffee at the Café Du Monde he reflects on his shattered life in Pittsburgh. When he looks down at the floor, he notices the pigeons that weave their way through the chrome legs of the green vinyl chairs arranged haphazardly around the room. These tables and chairs remind Henry of the set his mother used to have in their kitchen when he was a boy. What do the pigeons find under the tables, among a forest of chrome legs he wonders; scraps of dough, a burnt crust of toast, sugar dust? That is not enough to live off, let alone fly.

This winter in New Orleans every other person seems to have a cough. The couple at the next table are to be numbered in that group. Their coughing annoys Henry, who expected to come here, sip coffee and quietly plan the few days he has to spend being a tourist. Maybe this cough is something brought up river by the cruise ships, maybe the tourists who flew in from Europe brought it, Henry wonders. It is hard to say where it came from. Call people on it, remind them they cough, and they will say, "Oh, it's just a little hair ball in my throat." But who knows. Regardless, for Henry it does not portend well. He decides to leave the cafe for the bars.

When Henry walks past the Cathedral, he forgets about the coughing, and absorbs the atmosphere around him. The French Quarter is just so beautiful at night: one, two, three, four black iron posts in a row, a gas lamps flickers in the fog, carriages clop by, a flagstone sidewalk shines with light and mist. Across the street, a man stands in the doorway of his shop and smokes. There is a halfway light about him. This city is so moist and fecund, like the womb Henry will never touch again. For a moment a cloud of smoke from the man's cigarette hovers in the air, then disappears with the rush of a breeze. Who said memory is all? Surely it is a frail thing, this body with it's gossamer desires.

Henry spends a few hours at Parade Disco, drinking and looking at the TV screens that broadcast music videos. He has little idea what all of this music means except it is loud, sexy and sometimes violent. The bodies of young men and woman move through a world where silver and lights, the oil of compression and a chrome immortality infuse the air. When he has had enough to drink, when nothing catches his eye coming in or out of the bar, Henry decides to leave for his hotel. He stumbles to the doorway, and misses the step, then trips down on to the banquette and bumps into Justin.

"And who are you?" Henry asks boldly with being drunk, and assured his prosperous look will get him an answer.


"Well, Justin, what's up?"

"Say, Mister," Justin said almost automatically, "can you help me out with money for cigarettes."

"How much do you need?"

"Oh, twenty-five dollars maybe."

By now the two men have sized up the situation. Henry realizes that Justin is not what he is looking for. Even though Henry is almost drunk, no amount of vodka can make Justin more attractive to him. For his part, Justin sees Henry as a source of income, but as he looks into Henry's eyes he sees something else, too. The way Henry talks, his slur of words, reminds Justin of his father. Unexpectedly, Justin's heart goes out to Henry, not so much because he pities Henry being drunk, but because he sees in Henry something of his father who abandoned him. Justin realizes he likes Henry because he needs to like an older man.

"You don't understand, Justin," Henry says, "I am on my way home. You're not my type."

Justin feels the sting of those words, but insists anyway, "I'm going that way, too. I'll walk with you."

"That's OK, I'm not interested."

"Are you sure?" Justin says, conflicted now whether he should reach into his bag of tricks to score, or to let Henry go on his way.

"Look," Henry says apologetically, "I am not interested, OK?" Henry begins to walk away, but then turns and points unexpectedly at Justin. "OK, meet me tomorrow at Jackson Square. Three o'clock."

"I'll be there, don't worry," Justin shouts back.

Justin is certain now he can win this man over once they are alone together. The live oak tree, dressed in resurrection ferns, never looses all its leaves in winter, while the bald cypress always does. Justin thinks he is a live oak, then stops himself from thinking this, and for some reason unknown, he imagines that Henry is his father, and that they are walking home together from drinking all night and talking over the affairs of the world. Justin is speechless for a second with that image in his mind. With such a pause, Henry turns and walks away. Justin follows him with his eyes down Bourbon Street, until Henry's shape disappears into the traffic and neon lights.

When Gregory the Great wrote, "The word 'angel" describes an office, not a nature," he wrote from a wisdom that only an uncluttered time could understand. Can we ever hope to match that blaze of insight in our day cluttered with its gadgets and virtual reality? A stone room, ink, quill and vellum, one or two books, the Bible and the barbarians at the gate, that is the prerequisite for Gregory's theology. Yet how many men have the station in life or the leisure, learning and talent to conclude disputes like Gregory the Great? The whole truth may be in some celestial Summa, but ordinary men like Henry, Nick and Justin live day to day. They must rely on worldly tokens; they light candles, pray to icons, carry rosary beads, surround themselves with pointed arches and polished stones, or hunger for money and love.

It is a little past three in the afternoon of the next day. Henry sits on a cast-iron bench in the square, with the cathedral to his back. The events of last night are a blur in his memory. When Henry looks across the square he can see a young man approaching from Decatur Street. The boy wears a white T shirt and tan jeans. His hair is cut short. Without a doubt he has the victim look about him, just the look Henry admires in a young man. He is reminded now of Justin and knows that is why he did not pick him up last night. That sports outfit did not appeal to him the way this boy dressed in a T shirt does.

As life would have it, the young man sees from across the street just what he is after as well. The wolf knows by a limp which elk to take down. Likewise, hustlers know in their own predatory way where to score. Henry catches Nick's eye, and Nick returns the favor. Nick walks toward Henry with his mind made up. Like all criminals, Nick is refreshingly free of illusions. He has seen through the myth of the state. Nick has concluded that if you take Carnival seriously, all royalty is make believe. Except for greed and his lack of brotherly love, criminals like Nick would be men of admirable insight. Instead, today Nick is a desperate man. His appointment last night did not work out well. The two black guys he met pulled a gun on him and took all his crack and his cash. Nick is going to get even now. Henry is his way to that revenge.

Here is one scenario of how choice and emotion may shape the world later that afternoon: Henry slumps over in a pool of his own blood, dying from a gash in his forehead. Nick hurriedly goes through the hotel dresser draws looking for money, a watch, credit cards, anything of value. Then he goes to the closet and searches through all the clothes pockets. Satisfied he has taken everything he can use, he walks out and slams the door. Later, he stops for a po-boy sandwich. He gulps it down in big bites, hardly chewing. He hadn't realized how hungry he was. Above the St. Louis cathedral altar these words are written in gold letters: Ecce Panis Agelorum.

In time, the police come and then the coroner. Reports are written and evidence collected. Henry's body is removed to the morgue and then sent back to his family in Pennsylvania. A few days later, the black cleaning woman is let in the room with her mop, bucket and rags. It takes a while to clean up the blood stains on the cypress wood floor, but she persists and does a good job. She scrubs the floor with the rags and wrings them dry over the galvanized bucket, all the while singing to herself. She is uncertain of the crime here, but blood is no secret to her hands. She has seen enough of it giving birth to four children. After the rags are wrung dry, she takes the brown water and pours it down the bathtub drain. From there it flows to the bowels of the city and may even end up again in the muddy Mississippi. Perhaps a part of it churns under the propellers of the ferryboat that makes its way back and forth from New Orleans to Algiers. Nick may even taste of it when he drinks a glass of water in his humid prison cell at Angola. In the dim past men thought of blood as something that held the soul of life. Just so did the God of Israel forbid the drinking of blood from all that was slaughtered.

Nevertheless, grace may rewrite events. Justin may chooses what we lest expect, and the world move toward something else. That afternoon Justin decides to keep his date with Henry at Jackson Square. To his surprise he sees Nicks approaching the bench where Henry sits just as Justin walks past the gates in front of the Lower Pontabla building. Justin knows immediately something is not right. He hears Nick ask, "You got the time?" as he walks closer to the bench where Henry sits.

"About three," Henry says, trying to mask his expectation.

Nick stops in front of Henry. He is just about ready to commit to Henry's proposition, when suddenly he hears Justin's voice come from behind."Get away from that guy, Nick!" Justin shouts angrily.

Henry stands up surprised. He recognizes Justin now, and remembers his proposal from last night. Justin looks even less attractive to him in broad daylight.

"What's going on here?" Henry asks anxiously.

"You heard me," Justin says to Nick, forcefully pushing him to the grass.

Fearing the police will come at any moment, Henry starts to walk away from the two young men and towards the fountain. He hears Nick and Justin arguing loudly. Henry does not know what it means, but then he hears Nick shout, "Fuck you man, fuck you!" Henry turns around to see Nick walking off and Justin standing alone, his baseball cap lopsided on his head from the struggle.

Out on the river, the red paddle wheel of the steam boat Delta Queen churns up the muddy water. The sound of a trumpet singing in a jazz band, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," carries across the current. In a blue pool at the riverside aquarium, a shark glides by. Its sliver body is the metal color of an old radiator. Its mouth is open. It stares blindly, gills fanned like the underside of mushrooms caps. Forward it goes with the wave of a lazy "s," wondering why ahead the water turns to glass. In the next chamber, jellyfish sew up light with the threads of their red tentacles. Above the river, a gull banks, then circles slowly, looking for something to scavenge. The wind picks up now from the North, and blows clear, dry air across the city. A speck of dust tips the scales. Something in the world has shifted.

Uncertain what to do next, Henry looks Justin in the eyes, and asks, "What was that all about?"

"Just personal shit, that's all," Justin replies.

"Well, see you around then."

"You heading home soon?"

"I fly back to Pittsburgh tomorrow?"

"Cool, well, see ya then."

Peter Abelard argued that a man is not condemned to Hell by a single action, but by the shape of his entire life. Nevertheless, we may wonder about the gesture that saved the life of Henry Harding, and ask if it is not enough to merit Justin's salvation and earn him a share of the world to come. Every generation must have its just men, or the world will crumble. Perhaps it is only a belief in a past foolishness to look for such men today. The great, electric Babylon rolls on. To suggest otherwise is to be accused of living in the past, living with the old symbols. Living this way means we move with the matter of muddy rivers. The parade goes by. The one we love but cannot have wears a mask of feathers. Talk to people around here and they will tell you, how hundreds of years ago, down river at Chalmette, the pirate Jean Lafitte helped save their city from destruction.

Henry walks away, past the fountain, through the cast-iron gates, down the stone steps, and across the plaza to his hotel. Tomorrow he will be on a jet high above Louisiana. Justin stands by himself now, his heart pounding. A honeymoon couple, hand in hand, walks past him. I wonder where my father is today, Justin asks himself? For a moment he looks up and sees the cross atop the highest steeple of the cathedral, silhouetted against the afternoon sky.

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