The Penny Jar

Posted on May 3, 2011 by


“You got here about fifty years too late if you’re looking for jazz and blues, bra,” said the jolly copper-colored fellow on the stool next to me.

Whatever its august past, 18th and Vine in Kansas City turned out to be a bust, music wise. It was little more than an inner city hood with a Jazz Museum, closed on Friday night. One club pounded out hip hop while a guard glared on a stool outside. Across the street, a quiet bar gave me a place to stop and think over my options, and have some ribs.

“Dere ain’t no jazz hea no mo. If you want jazz, you gots to go to New Awe Lands, bra.”

“I’ve never been to New Orleans,” I said.

“Den you never been to the best place on earth. I come from Dea. In New Awe Lands they play jazz on the street. Da clubs, none of them even have a cova charge. You can walk from one d’other hearin’ good music. You can get a beer in one club and carry it across da street into another club. Dey know how to party right in New Awe Lands.”

“Why aren’t you there?” I asked.

“Katrina,” he said. “I got relocated hea and haven’t been able to get back since. I got my people down dea, but I’m stuck hea.”

My ribs came marooned on a plate overflowing with sauce. I rescued a cornbread from drowning.

“Dey gots good ribs hea, though,” he said. “Woo, baby, dems good looking ribs.”

“How’s New Orleans for barbecue?” I asked.

“New Awe Lands not much for barbecue, but you go down dea and get your crawfish berl. Woo, baby, dem crawfish is good with the hot sauce and the rice and beans. I was brought up on dat food. You a big man, but down in New Awe Lands, everybody got a big belly, ’cause the food’s so good. If you went to New Awe Lands, everybody’d think you’re skinny.”

I offered him a rib.

“No, thanks. I will take anotha bea, though. Woo, baby, I wish I could get back to New Awe Lands.”

I gnashed away at the ribs while my new friend drank the beer I got him. He went on about the food of New Orleans: Etouffe, Andouille, Jambalaya. Names more foreign to me than Kung Pao, Vindaloo, or Moussaka; foreign, but alluring.

“New Awe Lands not really part of this country, you know. Bush prove dat when he tol’ us all to go ahead and drown. We different in New Awe Lands.”

“How’s it different?”

“We all get along, for one; and it’s not all about money down dea. They know how to have a good time in New Awe Lands.” He went on about keeping chickens in his shotgun house in the lower ninth ward, fishing at Lake Pontchartrain, church women cooking up a mess of gumbo and ladling it out to everyone in the neighborhood, winters so mild you didn’t need heat, summers so hot you didn’t need clothes, women that would show their breasts for a string of beads.

“Woo, baby, I wish I could get back to New Awe Lands.”

“I’ll take you,” I said as I wiped my hands with an alcohol swab.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re think I’m just trying to avoid seeing my children and facing the music. Well, I admit it, I am avoiding them. But I object to the word just in that statement that I know you’re thinking. Try never to use just in that way. Don’t even think it. Nothing is just just. Everything is complicated.

My new cooper-colored inner-city Creole bar stool friend, reminded me of a penny. A penny: which, if you saw it on the ground, you might not even stoop to pick up. If you had it in your pocket, you would curse its insignificant weight for being heavy. If a cashier handed it to you, you would wave it away and, not wanting it herself, she would put it in a tray on the counter. If you were lacking it, she would take it from the tray to complete the sale.

A penny: the only currency that is free.

I got it in my head that the City of New Orleans would be a collection of penny-like individuals who, individually, may not be worth the trouble to save from drowning, but, all together may amount to something. A penny jar, if you will.

One person, free of cares and free to experience simple joys, many just seem to be irresponsible. A whole city of them could change the world, and maybe even change me.

So don’t just say just. I’m trying to prepare myself to see my children, to make myself someone worth seeing.

“Dere ya go!” he said. “You’ll take me by home?”

“Why not?” I said. “Let’s swing by your place and pack.”

“Naw, but let’s stop at a store and get us some more bea.”

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