On the corner of Bourbon and Bienville sat Nobody’s Favorite Restaurant, an Italian joint resting so firmly on its laurels that it had veritably hunched over its pasta gut to give its menu a blowjob. The best you could say about this establishment was that it was reliably decent, but that’s the case with most Italian cuisine. In foodservice terms, it’s as challenging to fuck up a passable red sauce recipe as it is to fuck up a cup of coffee.
Yet, to speak in the establishment’s defense, Nobody’s Favorite Restaurant had been situated on the busiest corner of the most hopping strip in order to attract brunching bimbos, flocks of bros, and the occasional German or Australian seeking the “authentic New Orleans experience.”
Despite never meriting Michelin recognition, let alone a star, Nobody’s Favorite Restaurant could reliably turn over tables three times per meal. The sauces came steaming, the bread heaped, and the dishes emerged fast and well-portioned. Besides, Nobody’s Favorite Restaurant had the Barker Extraordinaire—a dapper dandy in coat and tie who peddled its wares on the street in all weather, a cherubic character who looked like he’d earned his PhD in red wine and butter.
The Barker Extraordinaire, with his promises of culinary ecstasy and mouth-watering bites for a sensible price, was famous for redirecting the flow of Bourbon Street through the doors of Nobody’s Favorite Restaurant, for which he received an hourly wage plus a dollar a head. The Barker Extraordinaire was so debonair, so skilled in his trade, that many mistook him for a sommelier or a maître d’ and asked for reservations or a wine pairing, which he sometimes obliged for additional cash in hand. At the end of a night, he could easily clear a grand.
On this particular day, however, the city’s streets baked and cracked in a heat wave, and traffic remained sparse. So the Barker Extraordinaire removed his coat to reveal his trademark red suspenders, and he struck up a conversation with the Dirty Uncle of the French Quarter, a C-list local celebrity and nonfiction author, who was just passing by on his way to (guess where?) the gay bar.
Both happened to be blackjack players and drinkers and brothelers—at the time, single men with a shared affection for life’s offbeat pleasures (this was years before the Dirty Uncle met the Prince of the Derelicts, his “Diamond Dauphine,” the Queer Aladdin of the Crescent City). The Dirty Uncle and the Barker, therefore, had much to discuss in the realm of filthy business…until some ailing urchin, some lost soul in limbo, approached the Barker’s work station.
Instantly, their defenses went up. But something about this Waif, shuffling towards them, made these jaded New Orleanians pause. The boy looked like old wine poured into a new wineskin, like the dregs of some West Coast fortune run afoul. He didn’t emit the usual panhandler scent of mule dung, but he did smell like he’d bathed several nights in Bayou St. John. His disheveled helmet of hair had been parted down the middle with sweat. His clothes neither fit nor matched, and he looked like he’d stolen them straight from a sex party clothes-check.
Lastly, he bore a look in his eyes that said he’d seen God’s face on a mushroom cap and talked to it. Indeed, the Waif seemed so pitiably lost that the Dirty Uncle couldn’t speak any of his usual rebukes, which he kept spring-loaded for the downtrodden: “Don’t ask me for shit,” “Get the fuck out of here,” “Go make friends elsewhere.” The Waif made him think of Ignatius J. Reilly’s assessment of the homeless as saints of our age: “The simple fact that they have been resounding failures in our century does give them a certain spiritual quality.”
Words of admonition caught in the Dirty Uncle’s throat and became replaced with compassion. The Barker and the Dirty Uncle simply stared in amazement as the Waif fell to his knees before the doors of Nobody’s Favorite Restaurant, put his head in his hands and cried aloud.
“Dude, are you ok?” asked the Dirty Uncle, confused to even hear himself asking the question, knowing what can happen in the Quarter, knowing the knife that hides behind every sob story when ape-shit comes knocking.
“Dude, are you ok?” the Dirty Uncle repeated, removing his straw hat.
“Are you my grandpa?” asked the Waif. “Man, you look just like my grandpa.”
“No, I’m not your grandpa,” answered the Dirty Uncle, bemused. “But I may see him later at the bar.”
The Waif then began rolling his head on his shoulders and chanting an incomprehensible prayer. Dipping down, he alternately kissed the Barker and the Dirty Uncle’s shoes, as if performing a ceremony. Incensed at the notion of any urchin’s lips scuffing his leather loafers, the Barker attempted to shovel the Waif aside, or at least off the main drag onto Bienville Street, but the Dirty Uncle begged a moment’s reprieve.
“Give this a chance,” the Dirty Uncle whispered, and the Barker nodded back.
“Can I give you my grandpa’s birthday gift?” the Waif beseeched. “Because today is his birthday, and I made him a present.”
What the hell, the Dirty Uncle thought. “Sure,” he spoke curtly but openly in response.
Still on his knees, the Waif dug into his breast pocket and produced a crumpled ball of paper. He handed it over to the Dirty Uncle like a precious treasure. The Dirty Uncle unfurled the paper and gave it the quickest of glances, careful to never remove his eyes too long from the urchin. It seemed to be a drawing made with colored pencils. “This is beautiful and touching,” assessed the Dirty Uncle. “I will give this to your grandpa when I see him at the bar.”
The Dirty Uncle folded up the paper carefully and stowed it on his person. “Oh, thank you, sir, thank you,” shouted the Waif, now weeping. “Hallelujah, hallelujah I say, thank you!”
At this point, the Barker Extraordinaire grew impatient with the interaction, which had grown so loud that it simultaneously attracted a crowd and negated his ability to gain the crowd’s attention and funnel those bodies into Nobody’s Favorite Restaurant.
“Look, son,” said the Barker, “you’d better come in here and spend some money, or move along for good.” The Waif looked over and blinked. Taking in the Barker’s well-groomed visage, seemingly for the first time after kissing his shoes, the Waif lit up with a divine glow.
Leaping to his feet, the Waif thrust a hand into his pants (momentarily, the Barker and the Dirty Uncle thought the worst), and he produced a sizable wad of bills, through which his thin fingers circumnavigated so deftly that their dance became too quick for the naked eye to see. This Waif, it turns out, was no stranger to life’s little currencies; this was the Earl of Somewhere, a successor to something, a princeling in pauper’s clothing. He tipped the Dirty Uncle twenty bucks. He tipped the Barker Extraordinaire another twenty. And he proceeded to stroll into Nobody’s Favorite Restaurant and order himself the finest bottle of vintage and every other entrée on the menu.
Shaking his head, mostly to shake away the situation, the Dirty Uncle of the French Quarter tipped his hat to the Barker Extraordinaire, and sauntered away with his newfound twenty towards the nearest gay bar. He certainly needed a drink. In the middle of his walk down Bourbon Street, the Dirty Uncle unfolded the paper to take another look at the Waif’s creation. He froze in his tracks.
What are the sharks in your life?
The Dirty Uncle, a former professor now bereft of students, a man with unnamed phases in his own existence, suddenly remembered speaking to a class.
Though the image had been rendered with minimal skill, just a step up from stick figures, its artistic intent was clear. The beast was gnawing away at a piece of humanity, and the man reeled in hopeless torture. Yes, this picture depicted a bull shark consuming a scuba diver from the bottom up—a man whose stumps were flailing in the act of being shredded between rows of teeth, a man whose lifeblood was seeping out in a viscous red cloud attracting the fishies and who would never now escape.