In Washington, and in New York or Los Angeles or even Atlanta, there is power and commerce. In New Orleans there is the heat and the past and streets named Pleasure and Desire and Elysian Fields. It is a city of personal and not institutional entanglements.
The heart of the heart of the city is Jackson Square in the French Quarter, an area melding Georgetown, Adams-Morgan and 14th Street. It is always full of people: artists, townspeople, tourists and streetpeople -- kids who demand spare change and old men who respectfully inquire after it. And always in the Square there is music -- ono Sunday a band and every day a musician playing for whatever people drop in his hat. Babe Stovall used to play there, a man in his 60s whose voice rasped out the blues, who somehow made the words come out liquid, flowing over everyone, there across Decatur Street from the Mississippi.
Washington has street musicians, too, now that it's spring again; one, a violinist on weekends, writes proposals for a consultant; another has a wife who works. Babe Stovall lived the songs he sang and sang them all year long. wHe was a good musician, maybe as good as Lightnin' Hopkins or Mississippi John Hurt or Leadbelly. But more important than his music was Babe himself.
People came to Jackson Square hoping to hear him. Bankers, streetpeople and tourists gathered in an unspoken truce. Babe would push his cap back and play; his white hair and teeth sparkled against his black skin and his eyes danced. Now and then he would, right in the middle of a chord, sing out: "All Ah'm askin' fo is a penny on up! Not a penny on down. C'mon folks! Jes' a penny on up!"
Babe was aware that to some he represented more than himself; he resisted the romanticizing. He would not be adopted or patronized. Oh, he could be friendly enough. He liked the ladies and often left with one 40 years younger.
If someone offered him a beer, he accepted. But he always bought his round. If a kid called him, "Pop," he jabbed a finger angrily in the air and snorted, "Ah ain' yo' 'Pop.' Don' yo' all me 'Pop.'" And if a tourist tried to take his picture, he stared at him with a flat, dead expression full of contempt, until the tourist dropped the camera uneasily to his side. Babe was not a thing to be collected. He would not be quaint.
One day in summer, six or seven years ago, the air was thick with heat and steam, but people crowded the Square anyway. Babe was playing. "Play" is the right word. He was having fun. Somehow he twisted and contorted his body so tht the guitar was over his head and behind his back; he sang a few songs like that and then began to dance. Sweat glistened on his face but his eyes, oh, his eyes were shining. When he finished he laughed and sat down and spread his arms out wide along the bench. His face was full of sun and sweat and smile. His arms stretched out until it seemed the whole of Jackson Square, the whole of the French Quarter, the whole of New Orleans, belonged to him. Money, bills and coins, dropped into his guitar case in tribute and thanks. With each one he grinned and said, "Thank you, Suh. Thank you, Suh."
Then a girl sauntered over. She was 19 or 20, cool and perfect -- each strand of hair perfectly in place, the crease in her slacks perfectly sharp. When she walked she seemed to own the pavement, and the parabola of her arc was designed to cover as much of her property as possible. Dropping a bill into the case, she said, "Do that again."
Babe looked at her without expression, "Do what?"
"What you did with the guitar. I want you to do that."
For an instant Babe looked tired. Weary. His eyes lost their shine, then glinted coldly. He said nothing.
"Do it! I gave you a dollar!"
He bent forward and picked out a bill. "Heeuh's yo' dolluh. Yo' take yo' dolluh."
Her eyes traveled the length of his body, then, dismissing him, she turned and walked -- the same walk -- away.
"Hey!" he called out. "Hey! Yo' take yo' dolluh!"
He sat there with the dollar in his hand, holding it, and then he started after her. She quickened her pace and he quickened his, but she joined two others, a boy and a girl, each as perfect as she, and stopped. Twisting her head his way without looking at him, she said something to them and giggled. Her friends giggled too.
Babe stopped. It was the giggling that stopped him. His eyes flashed. He stood a few feet from them, peering briefly into their world. Then he threw the dollar to the ground, went back to his guitar and began to play.
Of all those kids who constantly berated everyone for spare change, of alll those derelict men who begged, "Cap'n? I'm awful hungry, Cap'n, I need a drink awful bad," not a one of them picked that dollar up. Not then, not later.