Back about 10 years ago, Freddie Woods Jr. lost his teeth in a car wreck down in Norco, La. The fellow he was with ran head-on into a shrimp truck and Woodie went right into the windshield. There was glass and blood everywhere and people were screaming. Woodie couldn't talk for the pain in his chest. All he could think about was his horn.
When it happened, Woodie was 40 some-odd years old and a pretty good jazzman. He liked to play the sugar blues because the sound of the trumpeted chords worked to connect his head and heart and stomach. He found jobs at the clubs here in the French Quarter and took home nice pay backing up some of the big-time contract players. He did, at least, until that wreck. It crushed his chest and knocked the air clean out of his lungs. It made his lips go soft.
Not long after the accident, they took him to Charity Hospital in New Orleans and did not release him until after what seemed like a year. That was when he hopped a bus down to a pawn shop off Rampart Street and sold his horn. He got $15 for it and went and bought a plate of red beans and rice and something to drink.
Nobody asked him why he sat there so long crying into his food and carrying on as if he had lost his best friend. Woodie himself did not bother to offer an explanation or apologize. It no longer seemed to matter what anyone thought. What he thought was hard enough. He would never be able to play the trumpet again. "So many things could have been," were the words that kept bumping around in his head. Drinking Bears
They started coming here in great numbers on Thursday afternoon, wearing either red New England Patriots jerseys or shirts declaring their love for the Chicago Bears. There was more than one dressed in a furry bear outfit. Some looked like Yogi Bear, the cartoon character; others looked like the black bears and the polar bears you see at the zoo. Most of them were drinking bears who took big swallows from their plastic cups and stumbled through the great, noisy crowd that jammed Bourbon Street and moved like a fat snake turned over on its belly.
There was one man with a frizzy black beard dragging a stuffed teddy bear behind him on a string, kicking it whenever somebody with a black shirt said, "Hey, whadaya think you're doing over there?" The bear had one button eye missing and stuffing coming out of his left leg.
Another man had, "To Hell With 'Em Both," stencilled across the front of his T-shirt. Woodie said he figured maybe that fellow was like him and did not understand the first thing about football. He said maybe the man, like him, did not much care who won or lost the Super Bowl or even know who was in it. "Where is those bears from?" Woodie asked a fellow he knew. Then, "Chicago? They play good music in Chicago."
Woodie used to work a tin cup on the corners in the quarter, just a few steps down from the Lucky Dog vendors. The trouble was, a sighted man in relatively good physical condition could not expect to make a living as a beggar, even during a week like this one, when more than 70,000 people come to New Orleans for the Super Bowl and spend an average of $250 a day over a four-day stay. The hotels and restaurants make the big money -- the majority of the $90 million to $100 million the tourists drop on the city. And everybody else scratches and claws and hopes for the best.
It's the same way during the Mardi Gras festival, now only a few weeks away. For every 10 tourists, it seems, there are two sax men blowing for tips, three shine boys hustling leather, eight tap dancers, a mime, a prostitute, a clown with his meaty paw out and two dirty, dull-eyed girls selling little American flags and saying, "Please. Listen. We're not Moonies."
About six, seven years ago, the awful competition of the street forced Woodie into Barbara's King's Room on Iberville Street, which runs straight into Bourbon. Woodie asked the lady behind the bar if they needed a piano man and showed her what he could do on the baby grand shoved up against the red brick wall. He had learned a little about the piano when he was a boy and taking music lessons at the Tone-the-Phone school in what he called "old-time N'awlins," then later a little more when he was recovering from the wreck and fiddling around on the old back-room piano at the Veterans Administration building.
He worked for tips only, for the change and cash people stuffed into the fish bowl he kept on the piano bar. It almost seemed a miracle to him that his big hand could squeeze through the mouth of that little jar. Sometimes when The Rich Lady came in and checked on her friend Ruthie, who liked to sleep from eight until midnight every night in the front booth, Woodie would string together about 20 songs and sing until his lungs failed him and his voice dried up. The Rich Lady never said much but never left without putting a little something into his bowl. She was very pretty and would not call Ruthie by her nickname as so many people did. The Duck Lady
Everybody called Ruthie The Duck Lady because she once had owned a duck that followed her all around the quarter. The duck's name was Miss Cronin and it died one night after being run over by a city bus. Someone who had seen it happen later told Woodie and Miss Tony at the bar that Ruthie had warned the duck about crossing the street. "I'm going into that bar, Miss Cronin," she had said. "Don't you make a move." But the duck had tried to cross, anyway, and been hit and killed.
To make up for her friend's loss, The Rich Lady drove to the country two hours west of here and bought a pair of ducks -- "Ti Blanc of Port Barre," the white one, and the mallard, "Milldale, the lucky duck." Sometimes, Ruthie tied a kite string around Ti Blanc's neck and walked her down Bourbon, pretending to ignore the people who shouted unkind words at her from the hotel balconies. Ruthie liked to get around on roller skates because it saved her legs. She liked to wear a pink gown with a frenetic floral design, a heavy wool coat with a crazy array of political and rock 'n' roll buttons pinned to the lapel and a straw hat dressed with plastic eggs, plastic orchids and little plastic ducks.
An old man named Pops claimed to be desperately in love with Ruthie. Even when strangers bought him gifts of scotch and cigarettes at the Old Absinthe House Bar on Bourbon, Pops would not say his real name. He was born on Sept. 6, 1910, and he told everyone he danced with Louis Armstrong when Armstrong was a boy of 13 and already a musical genius.
Pops stopped by Barbara's King's Room almost every night to see if Ruthie was sleeping in her booth. He often danced to Woodie's lonely piano blues when the place was empty, hoping that Ruthie would rise from her sleep and see him moving like a shadow across the hardwood floor. When the night was slow, he sometimes visited the place next door because they let him keep something in the storage room that he had bought for Ruthie.
It was a rabbit-fur coat, not brand new but nice for a hand-me-down. He had bought it in part with the coins people gave him for dancing to the blues and the Dixieland jazz pouring through the open doors and windows of the clubs on the strip. The other night at about midnight, Pops took one of Woodie's friends into the storage room and told him to please feel free to run his fingers over the arms of the rabbit-fur coat and to check out its fine silk lining. "God," Pops said, "I love that woman. You'll never know."
Except for Pops on those nights when he felt good enough to dance, there was no greater dreamer in the world than Freddie Woods Jr., who said pretty soon now he will run into somebody smart and patient enough to explain why people get so excited about the game of football. He wonders if it gives people the same good feeling playing his horn used to give him.
He wonders if it's anything like when he was a boy and standing on a stack of Coke crates out in the cotton fields west of N'awlins and his uncle Sherman Marlboro had said, "Go on, Freddie. Play." Was it anything like taking the air in your lungs and forcing it into the twists of pipe of a silver King trumpet and making the sweet sugar blues? Was it as pretty as all that, and if it was, how many years would it take before he could learn how to play it?
Woodie said, "Dance, Pops. Let me play this here piano. I got a song I think you'll like."