Watching the televised weather reports in New Orleans in the last week of August, 2005 was an exercise in fear management.
By Friday, that big swirl of clouds called Katrina filled the entire Gulf of Mexico and looked as if it was headed straight at the "City that Care Forgot."
My life had finally settled down some by that point. I was playing at a duelling piano bar called Pat O' Brien's. If not very artistically rewarding, it was the best money I ever saw as a professional musician, certainly enough to live on, get health insurance, and build a retirement fund; Maybe even buy a house.
Playing piano bar "hits" for five nights a week with Mondays and Tuesdays off ("Piano Man,"Tiny Dancer" "Brown Eyed Girl", "Sweet Caroline","Lucille", "Margaritaville", etc...) wasn't exactly how I thought I'd end up, but that cash money can make you swallow a whole lot of shit sandwich, especially when you've lived your entire life on the edge of total economic doom.
I wasn't getting any younger. At 45, you start to think about real life issues like being able to go to a doctor. I know that may seem inconsequential to some, but I had lived my whole life not having access to medical care. Having the stress an economic sword of Damocles constantly over my head (How am I gonna eat? How am I gonna pay the rent?), was a lifetime of daily stress, and I was tired of dealing with it.
Especially for a concept of "Artistic Integrity" that at 45, was looking increasingly like a bad investment as far as a life strategy was concerned.
So you start to sell that integrity off. I knew what I was doing the minute I took that gig. Instead of selling it off piece by piece, I had a fire sale and sold it all at once.
There were plenty of artistic and professional rationalizations that I had for doing so besides economic ones. I didn't have to hustle gigs. I didn't have to hump gear; just show up and sit behind a piano and play with a random partner. It was going to afford me the opportunity to intimately acquaint myself with the "Great American Songbook". I was going to learn a new skill as I had never played "solo piano" before.
Ultimately making a comfortable living playing the piano and singing was what turned me out.
If I was going to be a whore, I was going to be a well paid one. After two years, walking the four blocks from my 900 block Bourbon Street apartment to Pat O's on St. Peter's for a shift felt like walking to Uncle Charlie's world famous plantation-vibe house of ill repute. Just slam a shot of liquid courage before your shift started and smoke the occasional cheeba on your breaks for head maintenance issues: All I had to do was close my eyes, never "kiss", and give the drunken "johns" the songs they wanted with absolutely no personal emotional investment attached but yet appear to be totally invested. I got real good at faking orgasms from behind a copper coated piano.
Keep smiling, Monkey Boy... You got through the night and stuffed your pockets with mondo tip money. It'll be allright by 4am. It was routine, and it was ritual.
It was just like work at a factory assembly line, only you got to play music instead of assembling widgets. I had worked at an actual assembly line, so I had the ability to compare the experiences.
As long as the cash registers rang and you didn't fall off the pianna stool, you still had a job the next day. Uncle Charlie wasn't one for validation, feedback, or constructive criticism. He just left you alone.
I was cool with the Devil's Deal. Nothing in life is for free, and through a lifetime of experience, Satan knew I could drive just as hard bargain as he could. He may have gotten my soul, but I didn't walk out of those negotiations empty handed.
Far from it. In fact at the time, my trump card was that I knew that Satan had over-valued what he was after. My soul was damaged goods, but I hid that fact pretty well. That was his massive strategic mistake, and it resulted with me ending up with a pretty great package of perks.
There were other advantages to a somewhat normal life, with a regular schedule and finally an economic safety net below me. My aging parents could finally relax and let go of the regretfully aching "What are we going to do about George?" conundrum that had been a constant irritant in their adult lives.
I finally knew where my next meal was coming from. I could go to the dentist, and pay the bills. I could buy the dogs their own food instead of considering having to share it with them. I could start to let go of some artistic and emotional demons that had me rotating over a spit for the past eight years. But the biggest prize that I beat out of the Devil?
Amy worked as a piano entertainer at Pat O's as well. I guess through work schedules and proximity factors, we became friends first, and then discovered a little later on that we had a mutual attraction.
I had never experienced a "May-December" romance before. The age divide between us didn't come without a set of cultural and emotional maturity disconnect problems all its own, but we were negotiating them gracefully. At the onset, a 20 year age difference indicated to me that the relationship had a pre-programmed short shelf life, but she was such fantastic soul I didn't care, although in retrospect I should have.
I was just grateful for each day she chose to spend with me.
At the time we became lovers, I truly felt that my capability of feeling love and being able to reciprocate it was no longer in my future, in perpetuity. She proved me very wrong.
In that last week of August in 2005, Amy and I were just starting to organically take those small steps to a long term commitment. Although she still maintained her Mid-City apartment, she spent most of her time with me in the Quarter. I finally had put half my clothes in storage, and made room in the actual and metaphoric closet for her to move in permanently. We were having discussions about the future, and maybe starting a family. We had even started to shop for a condo to share together in the Quarter. I never thought I'd ever have the chance to start a family of my own, and now I found myself in a position to consider it with a truly loving partner.
Things, if not perfect, were as perfect as I could have crafted them. I had a future finally, and one that was clearly mapped out and visualized.
But as that week in August ticked down toward the weekend, and as you watched that behemoth of a category five hurricane aiming dead nuts on New Orleans, no matter how hard you tried to rationalize or go into an outright state of denial, you could feel the impending doom in your bones.
Your perfect life was going to take a roundhouse punch. All you could hope for was minimal damage after the fact, and the ability to raise yourself off the canvass before God counted to ten.
"You may shoot for the stars and end up in a back alley behind Pluto, beaten and bloodied, but at least I dare to dream, and that’s better than being Earthbound, mired in the muck of mediocrity.
I judge my forward progress and success by the crushingly epic nature of my failures.
The more epic the crash, the more I’m convinced I must be doing something right"
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THANK YOU KINDLY,
COLONEL BEAUREGARD "IRON THIGHS" JEFFERSON, A.K.A. "THE MANAGEMENT"