Shelter from the Storm
I never saw the guy coming, out of the darkness of an alley in New Orleans
By the beginning of 2020, I had been a lot of places. Kathmandu. St. Petersburg. Mumbai. Zagreb. But somehow I had never made it to New Orleans, a situation we decided to rectify last February.
I know. Cue the ominous, viral music. In my ears, it was then merely an annoying background whine, like yet another Zika or West-Nile bearing mosquito, buzzing near our ears but not yet alighted. We were aware that contagion was out there, but decided to go to the biggest party in North America, anyway.
On our first night in the Crescent City, we were headed to the Sylvain restaurant for dinner, which entailed a stroll along Chartres Street, a block in from the Mississippi River. Just past Jackson Square, I was looking up at a street sign to determine how close we were to the restaurant, when I became aware of an onrushing presence to my left. It was like everything else in 2020: an imminent threat that I managed to ignore until it was right on top of me.
“There is so much about my fate that I cannot control,” Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Eat, Pray, Love, in 2006; by 2020, fate’s tricksterism had become the most obvious thing in the whole sick world.
“But other things do fall under the jurisdiction,” she went on, helpfully. “I can decide how I spend my time, whom I interact with, whom I share my body and life and money and energy with. I can select what I can read and eat and study. I can choose how I’m going to regard unfortunate circumstances in my life-whether I will see them as curses or opportunities. I can choose my words and the tone of voice in which I speak to others. And most of all, I can choose my thoughts.”
My thoughts, as I looked up at the street sign, at the intersection of St. Peter, Chartres, and chaos: “I wonder if they’ll have Sazerac at this joint?” Unless you’ve visited New Orleans in the last one hundred years or so, you might not know that cocktail, a mix of whiskey, absinthe, Peychaud’s Bitters, and sugar, which, according to legend, was first mixed up with the assistance of a turn-of-the-19th-century apothecary.
I would soon need a prescription dose, badly.
The bicyclist came hurtling out of the darkness from the pedestrian passageway on the southwest side of the Square, and clearly he hadn’t seen me, either. By the time we were aware of our impending collision, it was too late for him to hit the brakes, or for me to jump sideways. The guy crashed into my left side, and his bike fishtailed into the gutter. Both bike and rider hit the street. Somehow I remained standing — a visiting immovable object met by a local unstoppable force.
He must have thought I was made of iron.
But still, the Unstoppable Force leapt to his feet in full outrage and came after me, as I spouted apologies and supplications. “Are you alright?” I shouted. “I’m so sorry that happened!”
Now it was his turn to be unmoved.
He got up into my face, balled his right fist, cocked it behind his head, and delivered a mighty blow to my chest. But like the sheriff in and Old West town, I was ready. My iPhone happened to be in the chest pocket of my jacket, and it fended off the blow. It must’ve hurt like hell for the puncher, who was now 0–2 in his violent interactions with me.
Now the guy’s friend entered the fray, in the role of pacifier. “C’mon man,” he said, with a hand on his buddy’s shoulder, “Let’s get out of here.” There was a fraught moment, and then my assailant cursed me, turning toward his bike. There was a scratch on the frame. Suddenly, he was a wounded 7-year old, with his most valued possession damaged. “Man, I just had my bike painted too,” he cried, ere he rode of sight. Happy Mardi Gras to all, and to all a good night.
In the wake of Ida, I am thinking of my assailant, who was Black, and his rage at the clueless white guy who dropped like a block of granite into his path. As if the bicyclist didn’t have enough to deal with in that city, fifteen years out from Katrina, with the over-heated conditions that would spawn Ida already roiling along the west coast of Africa.
In his book 9 Lives, Dan Baum summed up just who was at risk, in this city. “How many bodies were floating around, and how many more would die?” he wrote. “Not the uptown swells with cars, second homes, and wallets full of credit cards, but those who had no car, no friend with a car, those who’d never left New Orleans and weren’t about to flee just because the mayor said to go.”
If the hurricanes didn’t get him, gun violence might. A young Black man is twenty times more likely to be killed by gunfire than a young white guy. Like me. And now, even his bike was damaged.
That bike crash wasn’t my only near miss that weekend. I’d been advise by a friend to attend the Krewe of Nyx parade, where I might have a fabulous, hand-decorated purse thrown at me. Just my luck: We were on the wrong side of town when the parade kicked off. Just our luck: It turned out to be among the first super spreader events for the COVID-19.
Blacks are twice as likely to die from the virus as whites, as you probably already know. Or, should. As an Uptown Swell, I rolled out of town before the CORONA roared. I hope the bike guy survived all that.
And by the way, the Sazerac at Sylvain is highly recommended after a bike collision. Just the thing to calm my nerves.
Oh, and thanks for asking: My iPhone was just fine, as well.