During a recent summer I took up the habit of taking my dog on hour-long strolls around my city, New Orleans. I was fighting the kind of depression that makes you contemplate your existence, and I suspected that my angry, anxious terrier mix, Buddy, might need the release of a long walk as well. Not wanting to be alone with my sad little mind for too long, I typically wore headphones on the walk and zoned out into a podcast or music, not really paying attention to my surroundings.
One afternoon as Buddy and I passed a po’ boy joint on our way to Bayou St. John, I noticed a tall, bone-thin old man standing in the middle of the sidewalk and swinging a cane back and forth into the empty air in front of him. He was wearing sunglasses. He didn’t seem to me to be lost or searching. He was just waving that cane. As we got closer I pulled Buddy to the grass and tried to pass the blind man without him hearing us. The podcast I was listening to was a man telling of the time he was shipwrecked on an island. He volunteered to walk twenty-five miles with little food or water, to try to get help for his friends and himself. The man had decided to go on a sailing trip in the first place to help him come to terms with his alcoholism and the death of a friend who overdosed. The story was just reaching its climax. The man had been forced to drink his own urine, and he didn’t know if he would make it out of the situation alive. He was gaining clarity about the waste he had made of his life. I didn’t want to be stopped by the cane-swinging man; I wanted to cruise wide around him, avoid being stranded with him. But I was wearing my keys on a lanyard around my neck and their jingling gave our presence away.
“Hey,” I could hear the man shout over the din of my ear buds. “Hey, I need help!”
I stopped. I pulled my ear buds out and turned to look back at the man, who, though obviously blind, was staring hard and determined in my direction. Another man, a construction worker, hurried up the sidewalk on the other side of the street. He didn’t even glance over at us. I considered ignoring the blind man. Considered walking on, leaving him. And I hate to admit this; I also considered he might be running some sort of con. He was just going to try to mug me or get money out of me somehow. This was New Orleans. This was America. Strangers asking for help are only looking for trouble. I began to step away and leave him.
He heard my keys jingle again as I pulled Buddy along.
“Aw, no. You just gonna walk away from me? I’m blind! Help Me. Which way to the Street car? Ma’am!”
I stopped myself again and reluctantly shouted over my shoulder, “It’s left!”
“What’s that you said?” The man pleaded. “Where?”
I turned around and stupidly pointed to the left, where the streetcar ran two blocks away. It was like that time George W. Bush waved at Stevie Wonder. “It’s left!”
“Ma’am!” the man yelled. “I’m blind! I don’t know no left! Help me there!”
I sighed. I was being an idiot. Why did I want to avoid this man so profusely? I walked back to him. My angry little dog barked and growled as we shuffled to the man who was still arching his cane in front of him. He jumped back at the sound of the barking, but then he settled. He stopped waving the cane and stared down at the sidewalk to where Buddy’s growl emanated.
“Aw, you got a dog, ma’am? I ain’t afraid of no dog. Hush that barking now. Dogs feed off your vibes. I ain’t scared of no dog.”
Buddy inexplicably stopped his noise. He does not typically stop barking when he perceives danger real or otherwise. He’s one of those dogs. He distrusts abandoned plastic bags blowing toward him with the same ferocity as he distrusts large men. But then, there he was walking with me silently, ears tucked back, toward a strange stick-wielding man.
I placed my hand on the man’s unexpectedly muscular right arm. I was flustered by this change of plans. Because I had been facing him, the street car was to my left. Now I was touching his right arm. “The street car is that way,” I said. “Toward this arm. Left. Just up the sidewalk. Two blocks.”
“Ma’am!” he scolded. “You touching my right arm! You said the street car was left. Just take me there! Can’t you just walk a man to the street car?”
“No.” I said, “You’re fine. Just go up the sidewalk that way.” I touched his arm again. I didn’t want to interrupt my walk. I wanted to know what happened to the man on my podcast. He was still walking the island.
“Ma’am, please. Come on? Just guide me that way!”
I sighed. I agreed. I was still scared there was a con afoot even though it was obvious the man really was blind. I knew a better person would have already walked the man to her car and driven him where he needed to go. I stood beside him and he placed his hand on my elbow, then he let go and replaced it heavily on my shoulder. He felt strong, solid. We began to awkwardly shuffle—the man, my dog and I—toward Canal Street.
“Thank you so much, ma’am. Thank you so much. I’ve been blind for thirteen years, but I see with the Lord. I ain’t worried. I’m blessed. You know what I’m saying? You got to trust the Lord. You are an angel that came walking along.”
I laughed at that. I said it was no problem. An angel would not have hemmed and hawed and tried to point a blind man in the right direction. But then, maybe she would. My guardian angel is probably a goofy-ass airhead, getting drunk, and stumbling around after me wondering why the fuck I’m sad all the time. Happiness is right over there, Silly! Get out of your head and go grab it.
We walked by a little neighborhood restaurant with tables bordering the sidewalk and potted plants hanging from the eaves. The man heard customers talking and the clinking of silverware against plates.
“This is Katie’s right?” he said. “I live right around here. I been walking in a circle for God knows how long.” He had sweat beading on his dark forehead. “It’s alright. I see it as exercise.”
We walked past the tables and I knew the three of us were a sight tripping down the cramped sidewalk navigating the chairs and oversized potted plants. The more we weaved, the more heavily the man pressed on my shoulder. I had to let him go at one point because the tables took up so much space on the sidewalk and I needed to get in front of him for us all to fit without bumping into the gawking patrons. I ducked under a hanging fern and didn’t think to warn him about it.
“Ow! God!” he said. “Got shit swinging at my head.”
I apologized and resumed my place next to him. I placed his arm back on my shoulder.
He rubbed his head. “Ah, don’t worry about it. What’s your name?”
“Oh, Erin. Like Aaron Neville?”
“Yep, just like that,” I replied.
“But you a woman right?”
“I used to work at Tipitina’s in the seventies. A bouncer. Well, doorman. I don’t like the word bouncer. I was there when Aaron won that Grammy. That my boy, Aaron Neville.”
Then the man began to sing. His voice was sweet. Smooth and pleading. “Look at this
man so blessed with inspiration. Look at this soul still searching for salvation. I don’t know much, but I know I love you.”
I found myself giggling. I liked this man. I realized I didn’t know his name, but I didn’t want to ask him for it. I’m not sure why. What an asshole I was for trying to leave him stranded.
We reached Canal and crossed to the neutral ground where the streetcar runs. A car was rattling along just as we got there, but because we weren’t ten feet over at the designated stop, the conductor passed us, even as the man waved his arms at the hissing sound of the car’s wheels on metal tracks.
“That lady drove right by us? It was a lady wasn’t it?” he asked as the streetcar, which was, in fact, driven by a woman, lumbered along, ignoring his waving arms. “Yeah, I’ll remember that,” he said.
“Here,” I said. “Let’s go to the bench.” I lined him up next to the tracks facing in the right direction.
“Thank you so much ma’am. You got me headed toward the river, right? Hey, what color my shirt?”
“Yes, you’re going to the river. It’s white.”
“What’s it say on it?”
“Bienville Book Fair.”
The man smiled and nodded. Then he reached in his back pocket and pulled out a stack of cards. He had a Medicaid card and some forms of Identification. I didn’t think to look for his name on the cards.
“Ma’am, which of these my Medicaid card?”
I pulled the right one out of the stack and put it in his other hand.
“Alright. Thank you, ma’am. Thank you so much.”
Then he grabbed my hands in his, bowed his head, and recited the entire Lord’s Prayer in a fast blur: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”
I’ve heard the words of that prayer hundreds of times and they’ve never meant much to me. They were empty phrases I was supposed to mumble along with because all the old people in the pews were. And now I wasn’t struck with some great epiphany or religious awakening, but the words did have a meaning for me. They connected me to this man. Made me forget myself for a few moments.
I told the man it was no problem. To have a great weekend. Nothing I said sounded sufficient enough.
“You’re a good woman. An angel. God bless,” he said.
“Bless you too.” I meant it.
Buddy and I crossed the street back toward home as the man shouted his thanks one last time. I didn’t feel we deserved it. But I was happy I’d changed my course.
A few days later I put the podcast back on. The man stranded on the island ended up being rescued minutes after he drank his own urine by a group of scientists who happened to be on the beach studying sea turtles. The way the shipwrecked man deadpanned the story in his gravelly whiskey burned voice, this was a funny moment. Seconds before he’d had us thinking he would die. Then suddenly, after drinking one of the worst things a human wants to drink, nerdy researchers stroll up to save his life. If they hadn’t, surely would have died there on the shore. Sometimes people just cross our paths. I wasn’t plucked from depression ready to return to the world with new found clarity, like the man in the story. But I did realize that simply being here, no matter what our condition, is sometimes enough.