Sometimes, I feel as if I’m traveling for those who never got the chance.
Ms. Malveaux, in New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival, posted on Facebook about what she saw in the eyes of passing sisters while taking a walk along Bourbon Street:
“In the time I walked I was stunned by the number of sisters without joy in their eyes. Oh, they were looking good, and there was some laughter, but too many were walking down Bourbon like it was a death march (perhaps I exaggerate slightly), a duty, not a joyful experience.”
Meanwhile, my friend Renee wrote on her blog about a high school friend who, like her, dreamed of venturing beyond their native Alabama, but never left.
“She has settled comfortably into a life where she only gets to see the beauty of the Maasai through photographs gracing the pages of National Geographic. She will only get to experience that moment through someone else’s vantage point and never realize the sheer joy of witnessing first hand, the completeness that traveling brings to a life.”
Their comments took me back to my senior year of high school in New Orleans, to a house on the corner of Magnolia and Amelia streets, where a crew of young hustlers used to hang out on the front steps, waiting for dark, when they would melt into the night. They were all varying degrees of high energy and boisterous swagger, but they had those same joyless eyes.
I was the schoolboy, always with an armload of textbooks, still struggling through a world they’d long ago abandoned.
Back then, I had delusions of being a sketch artist. One afternoon while passing by the crew, I dropped my sketchpad. One of them snatched it up and started thumbing through it.
“What’s that?” one asked. The Eiffel Tower, I told him.
“You been to Paris?” he asked suspiciously.
“No, but I wanna go one day,” I replied.
I told them about some of the places I’d already been and some of the ones where I wanted to go…and that’s when it happened. They actually invited the schoolboy to sit on their steps, anywhere I wanted.
Anywhere, that is, except the top step. That was reserved for their leader, their shotcaller, a sinewy, bare-chested kid with skin the color of burnt mahogany. He had a rough, uneven Afro, a gap-tooth smile and an easy laugh that rolled like a wave.
He also had a fist the size of a grapefruit with the density of granite, and it was clear that he’d already used it more than once.
“You really gonna go all them places?” he asked me with a steely look. I nodded and said yes.
He flashed those gapped teeth at me, threw back his head and laughed.
“Well, go ‘head on, podnuh! You go ‘head on!”
It became almost a weekly ritual after that, pouring out my bucket list on those steps while the crew looked over my drawings. Slidell, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, was as far as most of them had ever been, but there I sat, babbling on about all the places I wanted to see in the world someday.
I could’ve been talking about going to the moon.
I went on to college in Northern California. They never left the NOLA.
Four years later, back to visit family, I went by the old spot. The shotcaller was still there. Same gap-tooth smile, despite recently having been stabbed.
The rest of the crew? One by one, he ticked off their names. In jail. In hiding. Dead. My heart sank.
Then he asked me, “You been to any of them places yet?” Not yet, I told him.
“You still going, though, right?”
I promised him I would.
“Well, you go ‘head on, podnuh.” And he strolled off down the block.
I never saw him again. By now, he’s with the rest of his old crew. In jail. In hiding.
Sometimes when I travel, I imagine that they’re with me, seeing what I’m seeing, learning what I’m learning, their eyes wide, their minds ablaze.
Letting me sit with them and dream aloud about travel was their way of keeping me safe. I didn’t realize that then. I never got the chance to say thank you, or to show them the world beyond Magnolia and Amelia.
Edited by P.A.Rice
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