I met Chuck several years ago when I was managing and bartending at the Dragon's Den. At the Dragon's Den, and indeed all along Frenchman Street, we knew him as Edward. I don't know why we called him Edward, when his name evidently was really, actually, Chuck. Maybe he told us that was his name. Maybe someone accidentally called him Edward and he was too timid--but no, he wasn't timid--too kind to correct them. And he was, Chuck/Edward, he was really very kind.
Chuck died two weeks ago from AIDS, a fact I learned from a mutual friend who once belonged to the New Orleans Bayou Steppers--a Social Aid and Pleasure Club Chuck convinced me to join. Evidently he ended up in the Superdome after the evacuation, and there he was unable to get his medication and fell ill. He died in the home of his relatives, somewhere in California. I like to think that he was with loved ones, but I don't know. He never mentioned his family. I think he would have wanted to be in New Orleans, among friends. I think this place was his family.
But I need to tell you about Chuck.
The first time I met Chuck I was struck by how a)old he was (he must have been in his seventies) and b) how sharply--and "youngly" dressed he was. One might have described his attire as "pimped out," or in a derogatoy sense, thuggish. But he was no slave to the wrecks that sometimes get sold at Soul Train fashions--T-shirts emblazoned with cartoonish dudes with giant 'fros, yellow pin-stripe suits with gold threading, mock-italian shoes in shades of red, green, or maybe purple.
No; although Chuck's attire always matched, and was certainly distinctly black-fashion, he always dressed tastelfully--a fact in which he took great pride. He would pair a camel-colored mesh Kangol with a muted-colored striped polo shirt, dark-rinsed, low-slung jeans, and olive-toned Vans or boat sneakers. He'd take his hat off and put it on you at the bar and say, his eyes closed, "Baby, you look good in that hat. I'ma getchu a hat like that." He'd pull you to his tiny frame with his thin arms, and say it again, "I'ma getchu a hat."
He was always talking about gettin' me a hat, so that each time I saw him he'd say, "Baby, I haven't forgotten about yo' hat," and I would say, "Yeah, yeah, Baby, Baby, Baby--I'll believe it when I see it." I teased him for trying to come on too strong, but I never felt threatened by him, and when I told him, with a smile, to keep his hands to himself, he would smile and laugh and leave you with his cologne. He smelled good.
Sometimes Chuck did, in fact, dress in hip-hop attire--Fubu, Ecko, etc.--and it was then that his attire and his age seemed almost comical together. He sported unlaced Nikes with fat tongues and laces, or a single Roca-Wear sweat band on his wrist. Sometimes he wore a black nylon doo-rag instead of a Kangol ('though thankfully not the "mullet" kind, with a long neck-cover in the back.) You'd see this seventy-plus year old man--a tiny man, at that--no more than 5' 5", and skinny, skinny, skinny, riding a tricked-out bicyle to his cleaning job at the Blue Nile on Frenchman Street. If you called after him, his age would show. He couldn't hear very well.
I know very little about Chuck, which made learning of his illness even more of a shock. I'd heard once that he did smack, but it was not a rumor I cared to make inquiries into. I have lost two friends to heroin, and the mere mention of the drug makes me want to cover my ears and hide. I guess I am supposed to say that I should have cared about Chuck's drug habit, but he was lively, honest, and kind, and he seemed healthy. Had I asked about it, I think Chuck would have turned away from me. I didn't want that.
I know he lived in the Iberville housing project, and once I went into his unit with him. It was back when I was a member of the New Orleans Bayou Steppers--a racially mixed Social Aid and Pleasure Club that Chuck had convinced me to join, I thought, so he could "roll with me" on second line day. He liked to be in the company of white women--of young and attractive white women--and that fact didn't escape me. It was that reason, in fact, that drove me to leave the New Orleans Bayou Steppers. The men were kind and respectful, like Chuck, but the group had become almost solely comprised of black men and white women, and that bothered me. I never told Chuck.
I remember Chuck's refrigerator was covered in photographs, and that he showed me around the two-story unit with no small amount of pride. It was like any family home, and it felt loved.
I can't remember who Chuck lived with, but I remember a young nephew who he introduced me to, proudly. The nephew acknowledged me casually but seemed uninterested. I wondered how often Chuck brought home young white women, and whether his family thought his circle of friends--a great number of them privileged whites--to be at all odd. I didn't ask. I did ask him if he liked his house, and he said it was all he knew, that he'd lived there for years and that yes, he liked it a lot. "Baby," he said, "It's all right."
He liked to tell stories about being an Indian when he was young. To be a Mardi Gras Indian is to garner repect and admiration in the black community. To be an Indian is to be part of a tradition with high social rank and regard. As far as I knew, Chuck was no longer an Indian, if he'd ever been one. Once, he brought a picture of two young boys in Indian regalia into the Dragon's Den. "That's me," Chuck said, pointing at the picture, again with his eyes closed (he often talked with his eyes closed.) "That's me when I was twelve." The boy looked nothing like Chuck, and given how old I estimated Chuck to be, I thought it highly it highly unlkiely that it WAS him. The photo was rumpled--perhaps intentionally to make it look aged--but when I looked at the back of the photo, I saw "1996 Olympics" and the Olympic rings printed in a pattern on the back of the photo--a Kodak sponsorship deal. "Cool," I said to Chuck. "That's cool."
He liked to tell stories about buying you hats, and being an Indian. About rolling through second lines in genuine leather shoes, taking no breaks, looking sharp, continuously. About who he wanted to be, who he wanted to have been, who he wasn't. In retrospect, I guess it could be considered rather sad.
But Chuck was no "has-been." He was the genuine article, even if by "genuine" I mean little more than his facade, his "character": pimped out at 70-something, smooth-talking, and yes, a damn good "roller" when it came to a second line. He was something of a novelty to us privileged white bartenders on Frenchman Street--our tiny, geriatric thug--but what we admired about him, I think, is what we would admire in anyone: his desire to be someone. And he was someone--someone you wanted to be friends with.
What I will remember most fondly about Chuck is being called his Baby, and the way he would laugh, and keep at it, when I said to him, jokingly, "Do I look like a baby to you?" What I will remember is his talking with his eyes closed, and how I wondered what it was he really saw when he looked at me.