The Big Chill in the Big Easy

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I was a 35-year-old medical student with a wife, three kids and zero resources. We were so poor we got reverse taxes. We actually looked forward to April 15th every year — not so much anymore.

Thanks to my amazing wife, some generous parents and God’s Divine Providence, we still had a warm, safe, nurturing home despite our rather remarkable dearth of material goods. Were I being completely honest, this was arguably the best time of my life. We got Domino’s pizza every 6 to 8 weeks, and it was indeed an epic event. Such relative rarity makes the sweet things taste all the sweeter. At one point, however, we found ourselves in need of a vacation. Our humble circumstances mandated something cheap.

My bride figured it out. We would catch the Amtrak in Jackson, Mississippi, and do a long weekend in New Orleans. The train ride down would be fun for the kids, and we found inexpensive accommodations. As Amtrak is federally subsidized, the fares were reasonable, even for all five of us. New Orleans has a great zoo, the National WWII Museum, and lots of good food. It was shaping up to be a memorable family adventure.

The train ride was indeed a blast. We pulled over onto a siding to make way for a passing freight and spotted an alligator. By the time we rolled into New Orleans, we were ready to explore.

America’s train stations were, in general, built many decades ago and sited in the most vibrant parts of town. Now, more than half a century later, what used to be thriving is often no longer. The train station in New Orleans looked like something out of Mogadishu.

We were all young, fit and naïve. I couldn’t afford a taxi, so we resolved to just walk all the way across the city to our modest hotel. With our luggage on my back and three kids in tow, the Dabbs family struck out on foot to experience the Big Easy in August.

New Orleans in summer is Africa hot. It is also covered in a thin patina of homeless people. However, I worked in an inner-city hospital and appreciated that most of these folks, though they might look a bit intimidating, were actually pretty harmless. Regardless, I am armed whenever I am not asleep or in the shower, so I wasn’t unduly concerned about our safety.

Homelessness is a ubiquitous problem in America’s metropolitan areas. A kid’s first
encounter with such squalor can be memorable, particularly if it involves a corpse.
Unsplash photos. Photographer’s names in titles.

My six-year-old son clung dutifully to my right hand as we made our way through the squatters’ camps and detritus of squalid urban living. Considering this was a fairly unfamiliar world to my kids, they just soaked it in. Then my son asked me innocently, “Dad, what’s wrong with that man?”

I followed his tiny index finger to the object of his curiosity. This guy sat motionless on the sidewalk, his back leaning against an abandoned store front. His clothes were tattered, and an empty wine bottle stood on the concrete beside him. Despite the blistering heat he reclined backwards in brilliant direct unfiltered sunlight. As I looked more closely I could see flies crawling in and out of his nose.

“Well, son,” I said. “That man is dead.”

My man-child was instantly mesmerized. He had never before seen a dead man and was now overcome with curiosity. I found myself in a bit of spot.

We couldn’t afford a cell phone. I had no idea what the protocol was if you encounter a dead wino on the streets of New Orleans. It seemed somehow uncharitable to just leave him there. As I began searching about for somebody who might have a phone or a business that might yet still have a landline, a squad car pulled leisurely up to the scene. A big cop stepped out, walked up to the dead guy and softly kicked him in the foot with his boot. Predictably, the corpse did not respond.

“Yep, call the meat wagon,” the cop shouted over his shoulder to his partner in the car. “This one’s done.”

My son took one long, last, fascinated look, and we headed on our way. Now some two decades later my children don’t remember the New Orleans zoo, the WWII Museum or the food. However, from now until the sun burns out they will never forget finding that dead guy. Kids are like that. His was the Big Chill in the Big Easy.

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