New and newly-noticed homeless people spark memories of desperation and generosity in a former French Quarter street musician.
- by Ellis Anderson
I think of her as The Screamer, but really she shouts and yells. Those two verbs seem mild: A stadium crowd shouts. A quarreling couple yells. The ferocious cries of this woman carry agony, deep and abiding.
“Motherfuckers!” she blasts into the COVID-quiet streets of the French Quarter. “Get out of my head, you piece-of-shit lying fuckers!”
That’s one of the few complete phrases I’ve been able to make out, though she’s interrupted my sleep, and that of my neighbors, many times since the shut-down began.
The Screamer usually starts raging about three or four in the morning and she paces through the neighborhood until dawn. Her curses continue at top volume for hours. They carry for blocks in the cool night air, for once blissfully devoid of a round-the-clock stag-party soundtrack. Gone are the frat-boy pre-dawn mass-howling events, the drunken packs of bachelorettes screeching and the sound systems of cars blaring full-blast with the windows down, their drivers believing that the French Quarter is only a Disney-for-adults where no one lives. The Screamer’s night cries, with no competition now, bounce off the centuries-old brick buildings, echoing down the narrow street canyons. Her strident distress calls carry the anxiety of the entire city - or at least my own.
I caught a glimpse of her one morning while she was closing out another long night. She ambled down the sidewalk away from me, her slight form bent like an old person. She paused and let loose another loud curse across the empty asphalt lanes of Decatur Street. It seemed impossible that such a small body could generate such volume.
The Screamer is just one of the unsheltered who populate the neighborhood streets now. Some have been there all along, but since the busy backdrop of tourists has dissolved, they come into high relief. There are the recently homeless too, like the tarot card reader with the signature cowboy hat. His sign reads, “The Realistic Mystic.”
Before COVID, we always greeted each other in passing. He sets up his table in the deserted square, but now he sleeps in his chair at night. The Realistic Mystic tells me a paranoid roommate asked him to leave. Savings were threadbare and few customers inquire about the future these days, even from six feet away. When I ask what he can use, he tells me he’s no beggar. But he mentions that water is always nice. On a few evenings I bring him filtered water in sanitized containers.
Editor's note: We are happy to report that the Realistic Mystic now has housing "for the duration."
Another new fixture is the young woman who reminds me of a grimy Peter Pan, with cropped hair and a turned-up nose. She lives in a deep Dumaine Street doorway, one shut for good. In the daytime, she often sits cross-legged on cardboard in her four-by-two-foot space. At night, she makes a little coffin of the cardboard and curls beneath.
I always walk on the opposite side of the street from Peter Pan. I’m 63 and know that COVID covets mature lungs. I don’t want to come close to anyone, especially a person who’s high risk. The dogs drag me toward the river with impatience. But the beam of her smile crosses the street and tugs for attention.
“They’re so beautiful,” she sometimes coos at us. “They look so sweet!” And I agree. She asks once if she can pet them, but I think of my dogs as virus mops and don’t let anyone touch them these days. I feel awful denying her such a small thing.
One morning I am walking the dogs down Dumaine a bit earlier than usual. On the other side of the street, I see the cardboard coffin. I wonder if Peter Pan has been able to sleep; The Screamer was active much of the night. It’s disturbing enough to hear in my secure bedroom. How would a vulnerable young woman feel, with only a piece of cardboard to protect her against a raver - or a rapist?
Then, a mighty curse rises from beneath the cardboard.
“Damn you! You’re something – something, you motherfuckers!”
I levitate off the sidewalk. Even the dogs bolt.
That the gentle Peter Pan and The Screamer are the same person never occurred to me.
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