I waited on the corner unsure if I was in the right place. A young family of three- a mother, a daughter and an observant baby- waited next to me; all of them had beautiful eyes. I balanced the camera tripod between my legs and let my head swivel attentively towards Canal, careful not to let my doubt of place show in my face lest it invite the bad luck of naive travelers.
“You take pictures?” It was definitely as much a question as a statement from the young mother as she readjusted the baby in her arms and the purse caught in her elbow.
As I looked at her I was suddenly caught in some form of past life nostalgia; I saw her humid perm donned by a wide rim hat, her upper body caught in an unseasonable jacket, her legs covered by dense skirt and her heels slightly elevated in clunkily curving boots all of another time period. In her reflection I looked little different, though I wore pleated pants and my arms carried no baby but the complicated mechanisms of a daguerrotype.
“I do.” I blinked and suddenly felt the weight of my backpack against the bare skin my new locally purchased sundress exposed, and the stick of my soles against the flat sandals on my feet.
Her black t-shirt soaked up the sun and again I wondered why anyone in this city wears black in August.
“You do portraits?” this time the question complete.
I smiled, and perhaps, never said anything more honestly, “I do, and I wish I could take yours right now, but unfortunately I don’t have my camera with me; just the tripod.”
More than I wished to take her picture, I wished to show her the dignity of the space she occupied on the corner abreast the monument to Simon Bolivar.
“How much you charge for a portrait?” fully a question, but this one heavier, somehow laden with expectations.
“I wouldn’t charge you anything; I’m working on a project.”
“You should, you gotta make that money.”
I laughed, and sighed, “True story.” I didn’t want it to be but it was. “I’d still take your picture for free; you all have such beautiful eyes!”
The little girl with her had been moving towards me with the complete lack of subtlety special to small children. I smiled at her and she smiled back.
“I can do this,” and she snapped her fingers. I started to snap with her and started oozing the honeyed charm I save for little persons in this world.
“That’s amazing! You must be very smart to be able to use your body like that.”
She danced in receipt of the praise and a few of the fluorescent red hot Cheeto crumbs that had been stubbornly adorning her cheek fell away.
“Do you know how to make a beat? I bet you’d be great at it because you’re already so good at snapping.”
She looked a little confused, and glanced back at her mother to make sure we were still in the realm of safe conversation. Her mother was engaged with the RTA helpline and trying to figure out if she was on the right corner. I began to do a simple pat-pat-clap with my hands against my thighs.
I intoned the pattern for her and she followed along until she felt profficient, then jogged over to her mother, “I can make a beat!” and she showed off her new skill.
“That’s nice baby, but we gotta go ‘cross the street; they changed up the bus and didn’t tell nobody.” I asked if she knew if that was true for my bus too, and she said, “Yes, come with me,” and so we set out together for Rampart St.
As in Oakland, New Orleans is undergoing gentrification and the signs are every where. The renaming of neighborhoods, the literal tearing out of the streets to lay new ones, easier ones for the feet of the new, desirable residents, to cross from one side of the tracks to the other, which she bemoaned as our cluster moved to the bus stop.
“I’ve got to get to her school for the back-to-school night, and now they done changed up the bus and made me late! They already changing everything, the least they could do is tell you what you need to know so you can still get around. Lord, I need a cigarette.”
We’d made it to the bus stop, an actual bus stop with benches, and sat down in the crowd of other people, mostly also black, who were waiting on public transportation. There was another little girl there that my newly minted beat machine started to play with.
“Lord, I just really need a cigarette, would you mind holding her for a second while I have a smoke? I try not to smoke around the baby.”
“I’d be glad to,” and I was as I accepted her load. Although I was nervous, I was also too surprised and too in love with the trust she was offering me to say no. The baby barely fussed as she was transferred into the crook of my arm. We took a minute to get used to each other, and once our breathing synced she fell right asleep.
I watched her and the street and my heart as it swooned.