The jester of Jackson Square
If you looked closely, one could see the echoes of stubble tracing a faint shadow of pattern-baldness that meandered from ear, to crown, to ear. His eyes didn't always match the laughter in his voice, but when they did, the lines radiated, like spokes, from their corners.
When he told stories the words came out razor-sharp. Carnival patois, to match the oversized, indifferently polished black clown shoes he wore. I didn't know how much of his story to believe; after all, he was a balloon artist hustling tourists next to Café du Monde.
But the worker at the tourist information desk knew him, and their nods to each other indicated that perhaps they'd known each other for some time.
"I just got back from California," he said. "Haven't been here for a while." He crafted a Tweety balloon for a toddler and sat back down next to us. He reclined, tiredly, on the bench; while the hurricane out in the Gulf was brewing up a bit of a breeze, it takes more than a bit of a breeze to make New Orleans bearable in August.
As he relaxed, he stretched his feet out in front of the bench, rocking the shoes back and forth on the hard, oversized heels, his ankles immobilized by the sheer size of the shoes. I recognized the motion as the same I have made in the past, when trying to rest aching feet after standing in rigid paratrooper boots for a long period of time.
It was late morning, and he was already tired; the famed New Orleans humidity had a way of doing that to anyone—even the locals.
The summer heat and humidity of rural Arkansas is a close cousin to the sweltering atmosphere in New Orleans, but it does not contain the tang, the faint oily sheen, that comes from walking the French Quarter in noonday summer heat. It pulls the sweat out of you, in steady, sure, almost delicately even amounts from each pore in your body. The droplets of sweat build into a sheen on your skin, run between your eyes and breasts, smudge your glasses, and plaster your clothing and your hair to your body. Mixed with it is the coastal smell of dirt and saltwater and marine life; the sour notes of the sewers and the barest hint of seethingly hot, old asphalt.
In short-sleeved shirts and shorts, it was barely tolerable outside that morning. I looked at him, in his long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and clown suspenders, and marveled at his ability to stand the heat at all.
We talked, the four of us; he to my right, Kat to my left, Sean to Kat's left. The backpack with our water bottles lay at my feet as I attempted to eat a beignet without dousing my black shirt with powdered sugar. We talked of walking around, laughed at the obnoxiousness of the tourists, who were busy documenting every moment of the miserable heat with their tiny camcorders wihle trying to soak in the French Quarter Tourist Experience (Jackson Square? check! Café du Monde? check!).
It was then that it dawned on me. He thought we were locals.
The realization didn't bother me; in fact, it delighted me. It meant we weren't being obnoxious. Then again, we looked like ordinary people: shirts without French Quarter shop logos emblazoned on them. No beads. No cameras, video cameras, maps, guidebooks, or shopping bags. We were talking of going to the Dansk outlet and some other non-touristy stores, and two of the three of us had distinctly southeast U.S. accents.
The realization made me bold. I asked him questions; he talked about his life. People do, when you ask them; after all, to each of us, we're each the most interesting story we've ever encountered. A quick check of his hands confirmed my suspicions: no wedding ring, no indentation from rings past.
His relationship with the tourists was an uneasy, commentary-filled one. He could be charming and funny when necessary—especially with children—but when spurned or not paid, a flash of annoyance and frustration came over his face as he mumbled quiet epithets to himself.
Must be frustrating, I thought, to be the jester of Jackson Square—pointing out the empty tables at the largest coffee-and-French-donut tourist trap ever invented, spending your days trying to make hot, cranky, sweaty tourists laugh and part with their money.
In my camera, I have an undeveloped picture of the two of us sitting together. If I remember right, we're both mugging for the camera; I'm sure he has to do this at least once each day. I told him that I did some writing on the side, and I asked if I could write about him, which he found amusing.
But I couldn't bring myself to ask him the one question that I truly wanted to ask: How did you get here? Not as in, what do you drive, or where are you staying, but how does a fortysomething man with deft fingers and a blazing smile end up tying fantastically-shaped balloons in Jackson Square? I suppose that in the vast wonders of the world there has been at least one child that truly wanted to be a balloon artist, and perhaps he, at one time, was that child.
But how do you learn to create balloon animals for a living? What leads someone to take the nomadic life, working for cash, dressed as a clown and carrying on a love/hate relationship with the tourists?
I asked him his name. "When you write about me," he said, "you call me Checkers."
When you're the self-appointed jester of Jackson Square, I suppose real names don't matter much, in the end. After all, they're all tourists out there, and there will be a new crop next week. They won't need to know your name, either. Every once in a while, the occasional itinerant writer will want to know, though.
That is, if they have the courage and persistence to ask.