"You learned something today, man," said the cab driver as we raced towards the train station. I hadn't over-slept, as used to be the main reason for me sprinting at the last minute for mass transit and I had waited until the last second to pack, which is a perennial close-second. I'd ignored the red-lights going off in the back of my mind and went with my unintentional boldness that creeps out because I've always managed to survive ridiculous situations and so never learned to run at the first sign of off-color. My adventures have been richer because I've too many times stayed put when anyone else would have headed for the hills, but generally these situations are only socially awkward, not dangerous. I'm not the daredevil type. I'm the slow plodding kind. I put one foot in front of the other, and don't lift the back foot until I'm certain that the first foot is resting on something stable enough to support it. I favor circuitous routes so it sometimes looks like I'm taking risks, but really, I'm the most cautious of gamblers.
So I laughed when Kearney said "Those are your people," when I related to him the stories told to me by an aging hustler who emoted his convoluted life story to me, punctuated with bullet wounds and mistaken love. I like talking to strangers and seemingly, they like talking to me. And the junkies and the hustlers and hitchhikers and whatever tend to find me and talk to me. And when I say talk to, I mean converse (or monologue), not try to hustle me. They never really have. I present an open but guarded face to the world, and seeming these folks tend to sit beside me at bars or trains or wherever and tell me their tales. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes they don't, but up until I'm ready to leave, I'm happy to listen. The people who can't escape or control their stories are the ones with tales to tell.
"My name is Stevie; my momma called me that." So I listened to an aging hustler's stories about first visiting New Orleans with his parents at age 13, in 1984. He had found the bar that we were then sitting in having a beer at 3 in the aftenoon, and from their swept on to another bar under the wing of some drag queen whose name I couldn't quite make out though he obviously assumed I would recognize her. He dissappeared for 4 days, and when he emerged from his whirlwind introduction to gay life and the festive underworld in the Cresent City, he didn't want to return to North Carolina and "all those fucking ignorant rednecks who treated [him] like shit!" Which without rhyme or reason jumped into the story of the latest man who had taken care of him, who he cavorted with for a week, then moved to Ohio for after realizing he was willing to wire him a thousand dollars when asked out of nowhere and had recently found his way back to New Orleans and was sporting a fresh black eye having already been jumped and mugged. I won't relate the whole silly story, suffice to say this is who always sits down to talk to me. As K. asserts, these are my people. They find me, they talk to me, I listen, and though I get asked for cigarettes and the occasional dollar, I'm not usually triangulated as a potential victim.
"Not usually" has never counted as any assurance, and I know this. But sometimes I forget.
Since my last boat, I've had trouble sleeping. I just don't sleep very long. Many nights I don't sleep more than four hours, and even to do that I have to will myself to fall back to sleep multiple times, so despite having stayed up late drinking, I woke up early Weds. morning. My train wasn't until 1:30, so I showered and read and checked my email and relaxed, but felt that I still had enough time to wander a little before my train and needed to find food anyway. So I wandered back into the French Quarter, grabbed a bite and sat to have a beer at the Bourbon Street Pub. I was the only person there until a couple of hustlers came in. (Note on terminology: if I were in New York and refered to someone as a 'hustler', I would mean a guy who had sex for money, but in New Orleans, while it can mean that too, it takes on the wider meaning of someone who is trying to hustle anyone for money, be it through sex, distracting them so they can steal from them, cheating them, whatever. It is that kind of town and if you've been there, you probably know what I am talking about.) We were the only people there, so we started talking.
Now, this is so far par for the course. I knew what kind of guys these guys were and as I've said, they tend to sit and talk to me and usually confess a litany of crimes and woes as casually as discussing the weather. One of the guys drifts off when one of his friends comes in, the other one starts talking more directly to me. Nothing terribly exciting, but I shouldn't have let my guard down or underestimated how wrong things can go. I know to always assume that in any given situation that they will tend to accelerate straight to the furthest reaches of insanity possible, not stop at what we convince ourselves is the more realistic point. So when he discovered that I was heading to the train station and offered me a ride, telling me that he lived near there and was headed there shortly, I should have instantly declined. I've got no illusions about the gentleness of humankind or how people treat each other. I've heard too many stories from hitchhikers about the dangers of getting in anyone's car to not know how dangerous it is. When you aren't in control of that car, you are at the mercy of whoever is driving. People scold me for picking up hitch-hikers (though, notably not my parents, who taught me to give rides to those who need them), babbling about apocryphal tales of murder and intrigue, but it is the passenger who is in the weak position.
But it was a bright day, and I was letting myself forget these long-taught lessons. So we went to his car, and I ignored the phone call from his 'brother' and him saying he needed to pick him up on the way. And I ignored him asking me if I used a laptop for my job, even as I processed that he was digging to find out if I had one on me and made clear that I didn't. I should have gotten out at this point, walked away, disappeared into the crowd.
But I didn't, and instead found myself in a car turning the wrong direction and taken towards Slidell. I'll spare the ensuing details and opt for the short synopsis: his story getting barer and barer, threats being slowly veiled into the conversation, the change of plans as he tries to extort increasing amounts of money out of me so he can "pay my momma what I owe her" or more truthfully, when he realizes that sympathy isn't what he is elliciting out of me, go buy the pain pills he is addicted to and disastrously coming down from as we drive. Having given him the thirty bucks he originally asked for (once he had me on the interstate going in the wrong direction), since he was doing me a "favor", he demanded another 20. I bristled at giving it up, but ya know what, it is cheaper than time in the hospital and more recoverable than my teeth or my life, so he got it. Then it turned into 30 more dollars and it was clear that the amount was going to keep increasing and I didn't have enough to satisfy, which meant things were going to turn uglier. They hadn't gotten physical yet (beyond being held hostage in a speeding car). I gathered everything in my arms and tried to get out at a red-light. Damn automatic locks and a lack of crossing traffic to prevent running the light. As we are screaming at each other, and he is running what lights he can, I just looked for any opening and tried to make it clear to him that I wasn't worth more money or the trouble. And thankfully at one stop the crossing traffic slowed us enough and I had snuck the lock open and was poised hand on door and lept out, and he only cussed after me and sped off.
Unfortunately before I could get his license number.
And far from the train and with just 15 minutes left before I missed it. I had been trapped in that car for a whole stinking hour. Luckily, I finally got a cab and he was a kind fellow who drove like he meant it and seeing that I was flustered, asked why I hadn't called one earlier? I told him that someone had offered me a ride and I had accepted. He seemed to understand and could certainly read in my face how badly it had gone, and when I commented that I should have known better, he soothingly replied, "That's alright, you learned something today, man. You know now. You'll make your train."
I do know now.
I did make my train.