Having continually listened to classification-hungry individuals, weak-minded politicians and priests alike, pointing fingers and assigning labels these last months, I must once again affirm that some things resist all attempts at categorization.
As illustration: I sit down for a few moments dawdling over a simple cup of coffee in New Orleans, and I am confronted by multiple glaring lessons in identity.
The day itself is searching its handbag for an ID. After twenty straight grey, hot and humid winter days with temperatures in the upper seventies, today breaks in as blue and dry crystalline spring, with a cool high of 55° Fahrenheit. Air conditioner blowing away yesterday in the winter, today in the same house the heater tries to moderate the way-too-early spring. Thus goes the orderly progression of seasons in this place.
I sit in Café Rose Nicaud, a very fifties sort of beatnik place making its living in the new century. The café is named after a slave who bought her freedom with money earned from peddling coffee from a French Market cart in the 1800s. At the moment I am savoring a cup of chicory coffee, sorting through graphics on my laptop, and looking up occasionally to note the passing of yet another singularly beautiful woman.
I must stress the adverb singularly, even though as in any generation, everyone always wants to have a unique, one-of-a-kind look. It’s just that in Rose Nicaud the majority of women below the age of thirty are inevitably topped by a short-shaved green or blue coiffure, intricate tattoos, and multiple facial piercings. Such designs are mildly hypnotic to an aging male prone to self-delusion: “But… but, I was twenty-one just a few days ago. I can still be cool. Or maybe even awesome.”
My generation had it easy and minimally painful. All we had to do was let our hair grow.
Still, they are beautiful. The last female to pass had the most exquisite mouth I may have ever seen: lips full and heart-shaped, so perfect as to seem sculpted, and placed beneath the most delicate nose ever set on face. I recognize her as having emerged full-grown from the background of a Botticelli fresco, a raucously painted religious allegory that decorates a church wall in an otherwise mundane square near the River Arno in Florence. Second cherub from the right.
OK, so my senses are going through the inevitable period of hormonal insecurity, but I can still appreciate art, and this is art. As the Romantics say, a mouth that simply cries out to be kissed.
Except for the eight metal rings and two studs that protrude from the lower lip.
I neglect my work and watch her as she sits at a table with another strikingly handsome couple. The man and woman, not much older than she, have also shaved their heads, but they’ve gone a step further. They’ve had their skulls and faces totally covered with the tattooed outlines of a dark jigsaw puzzle. Every third or fourth piece is solidly filled in with bright blue, even on their eyelids. Again, they are both, beneath their permanently inscribed skins, extremely good-looking examples of humankind. They are also quite obviously very much in love, and waves of affection pass between them while they sit across from the woman with the pierced lip. They kiss a lot, and don’t seem to consider the stares they draw as relevant.
The odd thing is, as usual, customers of this sort do not stand out as particularly notable among the afternoon crowd in the café. As I look about, I select my own favorite couple. They are again male and female, but the voluptuous woman, head again shaved, has strapped her large breasts down tightly beneath a wide leather strap. The two pale orbs protrude from above and below the constriction, which is completely visible beneath her open-front shirt. She is dressed in Army combat fatigues and high boots, and her face is colored with camouflage paint. She is drinking espresso. Her companion is a slender boy who seems even taller than his actual six feet, with the augmentation of five-inch spike heels and waist-length naturally curly blonde hair. His breasts are pulled to the center and a cleavage raised for inspection by a department store “miracle bra”. He is, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman in the room.
With the unseasonable weather, the coffeehouse windows are open, and just outside these, on the sidewalk barely six feet from the establishment’s tables, an old man rifles through a public trash container. Even though dressed in a well-maintained tweed jacket, slacks, and highly-polished wingtip shoes, he is digging in rotting garbage for aluminum cans and food. Talking all the while, he finds some of each. He methodically flattens two more cans and puts them in a plastic shopping bag which I note, with no small irony, is from Saks Fifth Avenue. Then with an exclamation of joy, he finds a half-eaten po-boy and just as quickly begins to consume it, without even brushing off the remainders of its immediately past environs. He keeps looking from side to side, talking to himself between bites, keeping an eye out in case the sandwich’s former owner has second thoughts and comes back to claim his prize.
After about a minute of consumption, the old man is approached by a short fellow in a uniform, a grey suit with a black cap, who emerges from Royal street to gently tug at the diner’s elbow. He whispers in a hairy ear, and though I can’t hear what is said, I see the old man’s head nod. He carefully puts the top back on the garbage can, picks up his Saks bag, and sandwich in hand walks off with what proves to be his chauffeur. The driver helps his still mumbling and chewing employer into the back seat of a double-parked Lincoln Town Car, shuts the door, and then goes around the car to take his place. As the limo drives off, I can see the old man through the tinted windows. He is continuing to eat the French bread and its filling with gusto, and is trying to say something important to the driver.
The car barely rounds the corner when an ebony-skinned rastaman, with a colorful Jamaican knit cap atop his three-foot-long dreadlocks, walks up outside and begins working the few misguided tourists who have discovered the café’s sidewalk tables. This I can hear. He talks loudly, complimenting everyone he meets, invariably keying on some item of apparel, and then immediately follows with the historically-standard request for spare change.
I know him, though this is the first time I’ve ever seen the fellow. The bartenders at Tujague’s -- a sanctuary for the gaming crowd for almost two centuries -- have spoken more than once about The Rasta. He stands out as a regular amidst the uniformly polyester patrons of Harrah’s massive downtown casino, and is widely known as an inveterate high-stakes gambler. Blackjack is his game. As is the way with manipulated chance, he loses more than he wins.
And when he loses his stake completely, he returns to the Frenchmen street strip and lives a bare subsistence, sleeping on the sidewalk, eating handouts, and aggressively hustling spare change until he has enough cash to get him back in the quality games. Quarter slots just won’t do. He wants the free food and the drinks and the excitement of the hundred-dollar-minimum tables. He has done this for most of the last decade. Through the café’s windows, I hear him sing a Bob Marley song for a huge, fat, very pale woman who overflows both a brilliant yellow halter top and a matching leather miniskirt. She gives him a dollar and he kisses her hand.
With that, I have to leave and walk home, while the weather holds. It is suspect. This cold dry spring will soon once again decide it is a hot wet winter, and me, I’ll be caught in a heavy jacket and without an umbrella.
As time progresses, the signs are ever harder to read. Not that you would know that from the Nightly News.