The Quarter and the Charitable Spirit

My son and I went to New Orleans last January to visit his papa while he was working there for an extended period. The day before our flight, our son spiked with a fever of about 102. So I was left with the decision: cancel the trip and have my son never forgive me for making him miss the only week he would see his pop for two and a half months, or get on a two-legged flight with a miserably sick child to stay in a foreign strange room far, far from the comforts of home. Clearly I had to suck it up and go, so I doped the boy up on Motrin, loaded our luggage with baubles and fripperies and doobobs, and packed him, fever and all, onto a plane (coincidentally the day before the US Airways plane went into the Hudson in NYC. I guess things can always be worse) to go to the Big Easy.

Big, I suppose; Easy not so much.

Now I'm in a weird city with a sick kid, but at least my son can hold onto his papa while he sweats it out, which all things being equal was quite a lot, really. By day two we were all pretty content with the whole feverish visit, so we decided to take the plunge out into the wider world: breakfast in NOLA. Grits, pancakes, andouille, a hot chocolate overflowing with whipped cream for the boy. All was perfect, including the lippy service from the little old waitresses smacking around their customers for ordering toast instead of biscuits.

And then our son started to turn a new shade of puce. In all of our organizational prowess in keeping the boy occupied and entertained, we had forgotten to time the breakfast for the height of Motrin-o'clock. It was wearing off, and he was slowly turning that blueish peaked color reserved for people with Nordic pasty complexions who come down with the crud. Shivers set in. We scooped him onto Papa's lap with my scarf around him, then piled on my coat. Breakfast had just been ordered and we were starving but our son's teeth were chattering like a marimba.

It was not ideal.

Finally our food arrived and we scarfed it, me shoveling as fast as I could so my husband could eat without trying to catch drive-by mouthfuls around the shaking, shivering heap on his lap. Our son, who was looking fit to keel over then tells me between chattering teeth he wants to go outside to sit in the sun. And though it is in fact sunny out, it's also about 38 degrees. But out we go, across the street from the restaurant to sit against a wall in the French Quarter.

I hovered slightly over our boy, providing a partial wind screen while I wrapped him like a mummy in my wool coat and draped him with my cashmere scarf as a blanket, while he goggled into the half-distance with a murky fevered gaze.

I began to feel eyes on me as I sat there, protecting my son as best I could from the cold while we waited for my husband to pay up. Tourists like ourselves walked by in the bright cold and glanced with curiosity at our little tableau before they avoided my direct gaze. Locals walked by, making a wide arc around our small, violently bio-toxic patch of concrete in the sun.

I suppose one does not sit on the sidewalk in the French Quarter unless one absolutely has no choice or dies there on the spot. I suppose that this was one of those moments. What else can I do? I'm waiting for my husband who's now confronting the busboy who had pilfered our son's travel toy case (the first of two times locals tried to bilk us in a most casual way; the price of doing business in NOLA) to make his way from the restaurant. So we wait, helpless, huddled on the sidewalk in the French Quarter hoping the next dose of Motrin kicks in any ol' time. I try to look casual.

I was staring at a group of tourists staring at me when a little black fist clutched with dollars caught my peripheral vision, imploring me to take the wad of bills. It was only then that I realized that no-one thinks we're sick, they think we're homeless. And then in a remarkable shift I see the mise en scéne unfold from the perspective of NOLA's fair tourists and citizens: mother exhausted by poverty and lack of housing, and the grinding bureaucracy of post-Katrina New Orleans finally has no other choice but to take the horrid step of having to bring her poor son out begging for money in a city already racked by crushing problems. So we sit in the Quarter. Hoping for help.

The man who so kindly tried to be charitable to us was embarrassed when I graciously declined his money. He disappeared like smoke it was so quick.

I thought, "Boy, that sure is your Southern Charitable Spirit right there."

Followed immediately by, "I can't possibly look THAT desperate, can I?"

I tried to shake it. My shallowness, that is.

"What about the cashmere scarf? C'mon! Dead giveaway, people! Right? RIGHT? I mean, I don't actually look like a street person, right?