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A Letter From New Orleans: Fais do-do
Front pages do not interest me any more. I read the comics, the arts section, the sports news. Then I discard the newspaper, whether it is the New Orleans Times-Picayune or The New York Times. I know this is selfish, but living where I do, I feel that I have enough grief and confusion in my daily life without absorbing that of others.
Though a recent headline made me take note. Bold-faced letters atop the page screamed "five shootings across city." The most prominent death had occurred close to my home, on a route I drive daily. So I read, as a matter of self-preservation.
A man was assassinated on a busy city street at the wheel of his SUV by three gunmen who boldly pulled alongside in early afternoon and emptied the clip of an AK-47 assault rifle into the driver. All three gunmen escaped, leaving the weapon and murder vehicle at the scene. The dead man was identified as Glynn François, Jr., 24.
A front-page color picture showed an NOPD officer comforting François' hysterically grieving sister. The cutline noted "her white tank top stained with blood." She had also been a passenger in the car during the attack.
However, she refused to talk to detectives about the incident on the grounds that police would take up too much of her time. She preferred to "grieve" on the street corner.
She is now in jail. While she was "grieving," officers discovered that immediately after the murder she had calmly taken a handgun from her brother's vehicle and stashed it in a nearby convenience store for later use.
I was glad she was sent to jail.
And I was glad her brother was dead.
Forgive me that, please.
Twenty-four-year-old François had over 20 arrests in the last five years, including multiple armed robberies in the University neighborhood uptown where I teach. Armed robberies in which he would accost young women coming home from the music clubs in the area to take their money and jewelry, first forcing them into alleyways where he would make the women disrobe and then rub his gun over their bodies.
Yet somehow he walked away free in each of his seven trips to Criminal Court, and kept slipping through the system, unscathed. Since 2002 he was arrested again and again, on allegations that included kidnapping, attempted murder, and drug-dealing. In one case he was acquitted of two counts of battery on a police officer; in another he was acquitted of armed robbery.
In 2003 prosecutors dismissed a seven-count indictment against François that included sexual battery, armed robbery and kidnapping. He had been released before that trial by putting up a $75,000 cash bond. He had another date in court coming up on April 13, on crack cocaine charges, though he was roaming around free because he had put up another $10,000 in cash for that bond. He always had large amounts of money to pay for his freedom.
François was unemployed.
My Sunday morning was marred by the feeling of satisfaction I felt reading of his demise. I felt dirty with self-righteousness, even though I was reinforced by phone calls from, and conversations with, neighbors and friends. The murder was on everybody's mind. Yes, another of the Bad Guys had been taken out by his own kind, and I could not feel sorry.
So I worked in the yard as penance, hard manual labor clearing last season's banana trees, chopping them up and then hauling the hundreds of pounds of slippery banana trunks and bundled leaves to the curb for the next day's trash pickup.
It was serious work, but a good purgative. So much so that after a hot bath I felt sufficiently myself to indulge in a late-afternoon bicycle run to Tujague's. Tujague's is a Creole bar and restaurant now in business some 151 years, of which I have been privileged to enjoy the last 40. The patrons of this place are a family, generations deeply rooted in the community. People from all walks of life. I had expected a quiet Sunday afternoon cocktail and a conversation or two on Matters of Import.
I walked into a riot. Or what passes for one outside of the Carnival season.
'Twas a funeral. More specifically, the post-funeral wake. A hundred people were laughing, singing, and passing about pictures of themselves and others in costume from Carnival Day. I saw three of myself.
But I could not find out who had died – I also do not read the obituary columns. The closest I came was when a longtime friend said, "Oh you know, Ronnie."
"Ronnie?" I inquired.
"Yeah, you know him. Can't believe I don't remember his last name. And I went to the funeral. But he's the dancer."
"Always danced with everybody at every party. Old ladies, little girls, pretty ones, ugly ones. Hell, he even danced with me, and I am downright mean with men. Anybody know Ronnie's name?" she shouted.
A young man in overalls at the back of the bar yelled something unintelligible that sounded vaguely like a surname. I knew that the food was laid out in an adjoining room along with pictures of the deceased, and if we had fought our way back there we could undoubtedly have identified the deceased and witnessed his life story in photos, but that would have been a major task, as the place was jammed. The man yelled a name again, but I still couldn't make it out over the roar, and neither could my friend.
We gave up. "Funny we should be waking him now, as this was his favorite time of the week. He made the Tipitina's fais do-do every single Sunday for as long as I can remember," she said.
Tipitina's is a famous local music club in uptown New Orleans, which, for at least the last two decades, has held a traditional Cajun dance every Sunday evening. A free supper comes with an entrance ticket. Even if patrons come as a couple, normally the men and women separate after entry, the men milling about in a section traditionally called une cage aux chiens – "the dog pen – unless they are dancing. A fais do-do is a complete democracy: everybody gets to dance and "pass a good time." And dance they do, energetically, giving the party its name. Fais do-do means "make to sleep" in Cajun French. Basically you dance until you drop.
Ronnie, I discovered, had been a legendary dancer, and I vaguely remembered him as a passing blur on a number of occasions. Though I still didn't really know who he was. He never asked me to dance, you see.
The brass band was just arriving as I was leaving. I have to admit that I was already feeling better for having experienced another example of New Orleans' traditional flaunting of the seriousness of Death.
But on my exit I heard the capper.
An elderly couple were having their drinks just outside the door, avoiding the crush, highballs in hand. They were talking about the deceased. I discreetly paused nearby, hoping to finally hear who the person was. After all, I had toasted the man a dozen times already. I should at least know his name.
"Oh, I know Ronnie is pissed right now," the man was saying.
I leaned closer.
"I was with him an hour before he passed, you know. Right there in the hospital room. And he was as calm as anybody I ever seen. Asked him if he was OK, was he in pain or anything. Could I maybe do something. And he said no, he was fine, and that he knew he was close to the end, and was not worried one bit. I remember exactly what he said then. 'Neddie,' he said, 'Neddie, the only thing I hate about dyin' is that I gotta miss my own damned wake, and I know it's gonna be a doozie.' Smiled at me. An hour later he was dead. Saw his body in the box this morning. He was still smiling."
I went home then, cured from the horror of the morning, purified from my own dark thoughts. Somehow the wave of positive emotion generated by an anonymous stranger's passing had washed the horror from my soul.
I was forgiven.
In the wake of Ronnie's final fais do-do.
© Jim Gabour
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