Editor’s Note: When I first published this post, I incorrectly stated Chris had hit his head. In reality, he recovers from anoxic brain injury resulting from lack of oxygen after his heart attack. The good news is: Chris has made an astounding comeback, and should be discharged home soon to continue his rehab. Thanks for your prayers. Continue to pray. God is good. All the time.
I met Brother Miller in 1982 at the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) Orientation. JVC places persons for a service year at agencies serving the poor. Our friendship began in New Orleans in ’84. I was a second year volunteer at a homeless shelter and soup kitchen Ozanam Inn, and Chris was paid staff at his JVC placement, St. John’s Community Center.
We had the JVC and New Orleans in common, and like me, Chris is shy, feels things keenly, and we possess similar senses of humor. I couldn’t imagine a better companion to accompany me during this special and formative time. Here’s a brief history of it.
In August of ’84, we and three other former volunteers moved into a house on Jackson Avenue, and became the Jackson Five. In August of ’85, Chris and I moved into an apartment on Josephine St. near the St. Thomas Housing Projects. We worked around the corner. Chris taught at St. Alphonsus School and I was a Job Developer at Hope House. We lived on Josephine until I left New Orleans in May 1987.
Being in your 20’s and on your own for the first time is always exhilarating and terrifying, but especially when you’re in a new city away from the only homes, families and friends you’ve known. Living in New Orleans though adds layers to that exhilaration and terror.
You only scratch surfaces when you describe what it’s like to live there. Here though are some down and dirty impressions of our time there. We reveled in the things that enchant visitors: Po Boys, Beignets, “Throw Me Something, Mister,” the Nevilles and Second Lines.
We also came to appreciate New Orleans’s many idiosyncrasies, which put other cities’ idiosyncrasies to shame. Making groceries, Contie for Conti not Contee and Bur-gun-dee for Burgundy not Bergen-dee, doing your laundry, shooting pool and having a beer at the same bar are a few examples.
Where we lived and worked though revealed sides of New Orleans to us tourists and even some locals don’t see: housing projects and skid row. On Josephine we lived across the street from drug dealers, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots at night. Once I saw a woman defecate in an alley, and an alcoholic of whom I was fond came to the shelter, having pooped in his pants.
Some people seemed omnipresent: Billy, who forever importuned me for bus tokens, Tommy who wasn’t in his right mind and wheezed like a cartoon character when he laughed, and Larry, the neighborhood alcoholic always in his blue windbreaker and floppy white hat. He was inadvertently featured in the film DOWN BY LAW. We saw DOWN BY LAW, and when Larry appeared, Chris said, “Hey, there’s that guy.”
One person though whom we encountered perhaps best embodied what it was like for many we knew then. A white man, in his thirties or forties, he, on separate occasions, stood before each of us with a brown bakery bag with his possessions and a small black and white TV, and told us the same story. He needed help because his mom had kicked him out of their home. They, he said, “had their difficults.” So many of the people we met had their difficults.
We gained and learned however from living among these people. We marveled at the children, who conceived street football’s beautiful originality. Play was continuous; the team that scored got the ball back, and dropped passes became interceptions. Heated arguments over whom was tot (for touched), as Chris reminded me, marked these games. Like much New Orleans’ culture, street football was sui generis; outsiders couldn’t readily access its quirks or nuances, but we were happy to watch and occasionally participate in it.
If the children were spirited, the women were resilient. Raising children alone, they sometimes lost them to violence, or drugs or mental illness, but they remained determined to make their futures better. These women taught me there’s nothing more important than saying Good Evening when you pass. No matter how harsh and violent and heartbreakingly sad the world may be, we should always have time “to pass a few words” with our neighbors.
We couldn’t believe we lived in New Orleans and often we could only nod our heads. It was a strange and wonderful time in a strange and wonderful city among strange and wonderful people. But I can’t imagine going through it without Brother Miller’s indispensable friendship.