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Conversation on the Boardwalk

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Dec. 18th, 2016 | 01:00 pm

Conversation on the Boardwalk (by Darrick Patrick)

I moved from Dayton, Ohio to New Orleans for a second time in December of 1995. At that point in life, I was dying to get out of the Buckeye State and back to Louisiana. I was in such a rush that I left Northridge High School in the middle of the school year, which made it hard to find a spot for me in the education system in New Orleans.

After a couple of weeks, I was accepted into the tenth grade of John McDonogh Senior High. It was the first time I walked into a school with metal detectors and large signs that read "Firearm-Free Zone". As the only caucasian student, I stood out to my peers. I'd say around eighty percent of the people in the school were fairly cool to me, or ignored me. The other 20% of the students made sure that I knew they didn't want me there.

I used to get "sneaked on" quite a bit. Someone would say my name, or there would be a tap on my shoulder. I'd turn my head to look and get nailed with a fist before I knew what hit me. There would be a group of guys standing over me, laughing and spouting racist drivel. Taunting me, "Which one of us hit you, white boy? What are you gonna' do?" I tried to fight back a few times, but the numbers were never in my favor.

The groups of people that targeted me knew my class schedule. So, after about a month, I quit showing up in the rooms and hallways where I was expected to be. I started spending a lot time behind the gymnasium, reading comic books and novels, banging Hip Hop cassettes on my boombox. Spitting flows and blazing nickel bags of reefer. It wasn't always free of violence in our hole behind the gym, but usually it was laid back with the smokers.

That didn't last though. Young guys started pulling guns in the smoke spot, arguing and fighting over a couple bucks or tiny amounts of weed. Constant fights and people being jumped. I began climbing the fences that led out to the street, running from fucked up situations back into the warmth and weirdness of the French Quarter. After the ninth time I had a gun pointed in my direction, I just quit going to John McDonogh altogether. The Vieux Carré would be my new school.

Down in the Quarter, it was an entirely different education. I was in the company of every different type of person your mind could imagine, as people come from all over the world to experience that side of New Orleans. I encountered fragments of the whole planet within that neighborhood, but the group of people I spent a vast majority of my time with was the gutter punks.

Homeless kids with tattooed faces, dirty dogs, and even dirtier girlfriends. Drinking vodka out of plastic cups. Asking tourists for cigarettes and spare change. Sharing po' boys from Verti Marte. Taking naps in doorways. Sneaking into metal shows. Fighting with locals. Nursing cups of coffee at Kaldi's on Decatur. Having sex in public. Squatting in abandoned crack houses. Sleeping in N.O.P.D. drunk tanks.

As a teenager, a lot of these individuals looked out for me in a street sense. Helped to keep me fed, took me to parties, shared their belongings, taught me about scams, protected me from creepers, kept me from getting my ass kicked, and generally contributed to me staying alive. They gave to me on a more regular basis than I was able to give to them.

I was always eager to chip back in when possible though. Sometimes I could provide a place for a friend to crash for the night. Every now and then, I'd have the cash or contacts to get a handful of us into a club to see bands. My mother, Rita, would occasionally cook up large feasts and let me invite a dozen pals over. Whatever I could do to contribute towards the people that had a positive impact in my environment. Which all now has led up to the actual beginning of the story I initially set out to tell.

During that time period as an underage toker exploring his reality in the middle of the 1990s, my "destitute" friends were generally burning their cannabis with me. I didn't have any income outside of the occasional side job. And that loot usually went towards a couple comic books or cigarettes. One of the few times that I did have enough money for an eighth of pot, I was ecstatic to find my gutter punk buddies and smoke them out.

Now, this particular situation occurred on one of those afternoons that I was supposed to be studying at John McDonogh. Rita hadn't yet found out that I was ditching school daily for other life lessons. I left the house that morning with my gigantic, black duffel bag loaded with huge textbooks. Also, I don't recall where I got it or when I took it, but I ate a fair amount of really good acid early in the morning.

So, there I was. Spaced out and hallucinating through the French Quarter. Roaming the streets, searching for my companions, dedicated to sharing the marijuana in my possession. The buildings dissolved into the sidewalks. People with strange faces peered into my soul. Time blurred, reversed, spit me out in a slow trudge as I clawed through a mental landscape of confusion and distortion.

Eventually ending up at Jackson Square, I walked up the steps of "The Hill" back towards the boardwalk that runs alongside the Mississippi River. I found a half dozen of my buddies sitting in a circle, playing an acoustic guitar and drinking beers. I sat down, opened up my school bag, and pulled out the sack of bud.

After a few minutes of stinking up the air with our bowl, an older black man came over and plopped himself next to me. Unwashed, bloodshot eyes, filthy clothes, a stench of alcohol, and shaky hands. He was asking me a question I didn't understand, talking unintelligible with a gleam of determination in his eye. He waved off my inability to grasp his speech and started pointing at the pipe. "Did you want a hit of this?" I said. He smiled wide and nodded his head yes.

I handed it over to the guy and then gave him a lighter. He flicked the flint a couple times until the spark caught the fluid. Placing the fire on top of the ganja, he inhaled a medium-sized cloud. His eyebrows raised up, he grinned, and blew it out fairly quickly. He smiled again, reaching out to shake my hand. I asked if he wanted another pull on the pipe, but he waved his hands and declined.

After thanking me, the older fellow stood up and walked back down the boardwalk. I packed another bowl and blazed with the gutter punks for about twenty minutes. The acid was really cranking on my senses at this point. This wasn't any rat poison bullshit. I was on a spiritual mission caught in a vortex of rational disorder and focused emotions. Fully embracing a disintegration of personality. Ready to learn. Leg shaking from adrenaline. Restless. Anxious to experience.

Saying goodbye to the circle of stoned punks, I set off into my future. Eager to allow the energy of New Orleans to shape me. The magic of the city was screaming at my soul. I was an open vessel. An organic receptacle with strands of my being extended into every element of my surroundings. Neuron synapses exploding intently through a mixture of altered reality and dimensions of imagination.

"Heery! Hygguh! Egxcuusee mairrgh."

I look to my right and see the older man sitting on a bench, waving at me. I wave back. He motions for me to come over, inviting me to sit down. I take a seat next to him. He asks what my name is. I tell him and then ask for his name. "Merfylhzerkie," he responds. I say it back to him. "No, no...Mafrlhsyrrky," he replies. I try to say his name again. He shakes his head and slowly says, "Muyrrghfzayee."

I continue to mispronounce his name. It sounds different to me each time. Was I really so twisted on LSD that I couldn't comprehend language anymore? I could not grasp the placement of syllables as they metamorphosed throughout the additional explanations of how to sound out his moniker.

Pulling out a notepad of paper and a pen from my duffel bag, I make an attempt to let him try to teach it to me with sight. After a few minutes of his unreadable scribbles, I was even more confused than before. I told him, "I'm very sorry. I'm tripping really hard on acid right now and it's intense. A lot of things aren't making normal sense to me."

He asks me about my life. I burst the floodgates on him. I tell him about my childhood in Dayton. How I was raised there by my grandmother, Nancy. About me moving to New Orleans the first time a few years before to live with my mother, Rita. I share some of the wild events I had living in the "Third Ward" with mom and Johnny O'Connor during my initial introduction to The Big Easy. I explain about my decision to go back home to Dayton. And about my decision to come back home to New Orleans.

I describe what I've been experiencing at John McDonogh, giving him insight as to why I'm sailing on a psychedelic voyage of consciousness next to the river instead of studying in a classroom. He does his best to participate in the conversation, providing mumbled feedback at the appropriate times.

Pulling out a pack of cigarettes, I offer him a Marlboro. We both light up and have a moment of silence. Staring out at the Mississippi River, my eyes scan the ships moving through the water. The brown liquid slaps against the side of the barges. Fluid splashes the rocks in front of us, tilted downward twenty feet from the wooden boardwalk. The blood in my body becomes the rhythm of the river. My muscles liquefying and slowly seeping down my skeleton. Skin leaking between the planks of wood beneath my feet.

A nudge on my arm slowly brings my body back together. I'm looking at the man again, trying to understand what he's saying now. He is motioning at my school satchel, making imaginary joint-hitting movements with his hands. It dawns on me what he's getting at. I ask him, "Oh, you want me to smoke a bowl with you?" He shakes his head no.

After another moment, I figure out that he's wanting me to kick him down a couple buds to smoke later on. I tell him that I'm sorry, but I don't really have weed like that. Only a little bit to share. Not enough to give away.

We go back to our broken form of chatting about everything and nothing. I'm trying hard to mentally hold it together as my brain processes impossible actualities, unfolding along with psychoactive images flashing through the layers of my internal perception. Within a couple of minutes, he begins getting persistent about trying to get some pot off of me. I continue to be apologetic about not being able to hook him up, telling him I would gladly smoke one with him though.

He opens his eyes wide, like an idea just flickered on inside of his head. He looks at me like he knows something that I don't, similar to a teacher that is about to enlighten a student with new knowledge. Gesturing for me to pay attention, he reaches into the front pocket of his dirty button-up shirt. When his arm comes back towards his lap, he is holding a handful of Polaroid pictures.

Extending the photographs out towards me, I place my hand on the right side of the small pile while he continues to hold onto the left. He starts telling me his story, pointing at the top snapshot on the stack. It is a photo of him looking younger, clean-shaven and dressed very nice. He is smiling at the camera while sitting in a beautiful car, with a huge gold Rolex on his wrist.

As he talks now, his words become more clear to me than they had at any other point in our conversation. He is explaining about how he used to make plenty of cash, and always had what he wanted. Flipping the front picture to the back of the pile, he reveals the second photograph. Grinning at the person taking the photo, he stands there holding a massive collection of hundred-dollar bills.

The next Polaroid is of him with a gorgeous woman, standing next to a Christmas tree. They both are dressed very fancy, wearing expensive jewelry and looking like they had just left a modeling shoot. He tells me that this used to be his wife, but not anymore. Along with everything else he once had, he lost her.

Following that one, there is another picture of him by a different car. He is showing off more rings and bracelets, holding up a bulging money clip. The photograph afterwards is of his wife and him again by the same Christmas tree, this time with two children standing with them. He sounds choked up as he talks about not having his family anymore.

Moving to the next photo, he's standing in front of a gigantic house. One of those homes that nobody in my family or network of friends has ever had. He looks totally smug, beaming from ear to ear. In the driveway, there is a small fleet of extravagant vehicles lined up behind him.

Tweaked out on acid, I look at the man showing me these images. It's hard for me to imagine this guy sliding so far away from being in the position he was once in. The memories from his past life that he pulled out of his pocket were blowing my mind. I began to see the person in front of me more so as that younger version of himself.

He looks over at the boardwalk as a pretty lady dressed in business attire walks by. Her blonde hair is pulled up on top of her head. She says hello and politely waves at him. He nods back at her, moving his head back and forth with that big grin on his face. He starts talking to me again about how good his life used to be.

With both of us holding the stack of pictures, he shuffles to the next one. With his hands shaking, he touches the youthful visage on the glossy paper. The photograph is of the man in front of the Christmas tree once again, by himself time. He looks proud in the photo, with one hand on his hip. In his other hand is a shiny badge attached to black leather. He is wearing the uniform of a police officer.

"Oh, wow, that's awesome," I said. "You used to be a cop?"

Almost simultaneous with my question, there seemed to be an unseen eruption between our hands as the photos exploded from our grasp. His hands seemed to magically distribute them as they scattered out onto the boardwalk at our feet. He looked in my direction like I had wounded him, asking me in a distressed manner what I did.

Immediately I felt a burst of guilt, feeling responsible for making this man's pictures spread across the ground. With an instantaneous reaction, I reached down to start gathering the images. However, halfway towards my hands touching the boardwalk, the realization of the situation hit my brain like a shotgun blast. The curtains were drawn back and everything made sense. All of the pieces came together and my heart stopped.

The homeless man sitting next to me was actually an undercover police officer.

The world snapped into slow motion, yet I was still moving at full speed. Instead of continuing my reach for the photographs, I moved my arms to the right and grabbed the straps to my duffel bag. I noticed the hands of the undercover had changed course too, and were now snatching handfuls of air where my wrists were a moment before.

My legs were ahead of my brain and rocketed me backwards over the bench we were sitting in. I had never done a back flip in my life before or after, but landed my only successful one right then. Upon my feet hitting the ground, my body was already leaning headfirst in the direction of rushing towards the French Market.

As I started my dash, I noticed the blonde business lady stepping out from behind a large wooden tree holder. She was reaching for the area in space that my shoulder was occupying about two seconds prior. The adrenaline unlocked and surged through me. I took off in a drug-induced sprint that could have left a trail of fire in the grass.

Blasting towards the rear of the buildings lining Decatur Street, I looked back over my shoulder. Already receding in the distance, I saw that the two police were watching me but hadn't moved far from the area of that bench. My tripping mind had fully conveyed to my body the action of a bolting escape, so I was locked in and just moving too quick for a foot chase.

Hitting a corner, I ran through the small hallway leading me out to Decatur around Dumaine Street. A couple of blocks later, I holed up and hid in some shadows along St. Phillip for about half an hour. Eventually, I moved across Esplanade and disappeared into the Marigny.

With a head full of LSD, and the thought of police searching the city for me, the only logical thought in my brain was hopping on a train with some gutter punks that I knew were leaving for California that evening. I could go be a vagabond on the West Coast, starting my journey out with friends on Venice Beach. They had already invited me to come along for the ride.

I think that's it. That would actually work out. That's what I'm going to do. I'll go find the guys and tell them I'm going with them tonight. Should I stop by the house and grab some clothes first? Will there be cops there looking for me? If I see mom, am I going to tell her what I'm going to do? Or should I wait and call her when I get there? She'll understand either way. Or will she?

Not too much later, while contemplating the best course of action, I ran into a friend of mine named Michael. With bursting energy, I told him everything that had happened less than an hour before. I explained to him that I needed to get away from the French Quarter area and hide out until I left for California that evening.

Michael, realizing I was totally wrecked on hallucinogens, suggested that I calm down and accompany him to the Greyhound station. He was originally from Dayton, like myself, and was catching a bus back to Ohio that afternoon. I agreed to go with him and we ended up sitting at the bus station together for around an hour.

During that time, we talked about what had happened again. We came at the situation from a much calmer viewpoint. He helped to mellow me out and think a bit more about things. Guiding me through his opinions on the events, and my plans for leaving New Orleans, he figured I was taking it further than it all needed to go.

When it came time for him to get on the bus, he asked me if I would go home later on and sleep for one night before I made my decision. I told him that I might, but I'm not sure. We hugged, voiced our love for each other, and then he vanished among all of the people inside that huge vehicle.

In a blurry haze of melting colors, I watched the bus pull out and dissolve into the distance.

From there on, I don't much remember the rest of the day. I suppose nothing else that happened could come nearly as close to being as memorable as the experience that I had on the boardwalk. I'm not even sure if I ended up staying at home that night, but I know that I didn't leave New Orleans.

I avoided the Jackson Square area for a couple weeks, hanging around in other parts of the Quarter. A month later, the whole event to me was just another ancient memory within the mind frame of my life.

There are things to do and that was in the past. It was no longer reality. It doesn't exist anymore.

As with many moments that came before, and shall come after, it became simply a story.

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