“Kindness of Strangers” by Louise McKinney

—wherein the reader finds a monologue recorded aboard St. Charles Avenue’s streetcar line, Uptown, to Canal

I’m walking up Felicity Street in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District, trodding over broken sidewalks crumbled to pieces by heaving roots of the live oak. An elderly black man, the only other person on the street within earshot, calls out a greeting from opposite side, “How ya feelin’, dawlin’?”

I look around, not sure he could mean me. Big Easy familiarity.

Where I’m from (Toronto), people don’t talk to each other on the street. People whirl by on the sidewalk with a singular bead on destination, silent and fast enough in passing to twirl you like a top.

Then it happens again. I’m “making groceries” at Schwegman’s where I’m told shelves are emptying fast because people are preparing for their “hurricane parties,” since a storm is headed our way from the Gulf. I’ve just emerged from the store to be confronted with bruised storm clouds, black, purple, silverish, mounting in almost vertical dimension on the skyline. A sudden fresh gust.

Mm-m-m, the house is just a quick walk from here, I tell myself. I can make it. And off I go, yanking the bundle buggy and creating a terrible racket in my wake—but no such luck. That sky cracks open with thunder and torrents of water begin to fall. Bowing my head I dodge some crepe myrtles that are blown almost completely back and take shelter under someone’s front door awning—then begin waiting it out. That is until a young woman almost obscured by her golf umbrella sidles up and stands beside me, peering into my face: “Miss, can I walk you home? Looks like you might be here some time, awaiting out this storm.”

Then, in yet another deluge (they seem to come daily, almost like clockwork, in subtropical New Awlins, 11 a.m. and 3), a delivery man running between shops in the French Quarter says he’s going to save me the soaking and drive me back to work after lunch hour, and buys me café au lait while we while away midday as the storm rages on. . . .

In two final affronts to my mien of cultivated urban detachment, one day a Royal Street bank teller calls me “Dawlin’” and, while I wait at her wicket to make my withdrawal, she commiserates with me over the cost of living today and how tough it’s gotten. Just a couple days later, on St. Patrick’s Day, a New Orleans Police officer taps my shoulder at a parade and forks over a cute fuzzy green stuffed frog he’s managed to snag while waiting for the next float to pass on by. . . Oh? Well, thank you! (Frankly, I’d heard so much about the “N-O-P-D” –usually in sentences combining the words “police” and “brutality.” This behavior didn’t jibe with the stereotype.)

What gives? I’m not used to all this. . .warmth.

Ahh-h-h, but wait. Pretty soon the Mississippi River’s medallion sun must have its effect, and I think now I’m beginning to feel my extremities. No one can remain too, too cool in this hothouse of a climate. And it’s not long before I begin to anticipate—even depend on this—“kindness of strangers.” It was here in New Orleans, at 632 St. Peter Street, that Tennessee Williams penned A Streetcar Named Desire. And it was here in a Vieux Carré walkup that Blanche Dubois famously confessed her weakness: an over-reliance on others’ compassion that perhaps she felt she didn’t earn, or perhaps didn’t even deserve. . . .

As it turns out, I learn not only to rely on it, but I fall in love with it. And every morning I “get-on-up” with the man I call (quietly inside) the “Sex Machine,” James Brown of the New Orleans Regional Transit. Here he comes now, conductor of a forest-green 1920s-built, Perley Thomas St. Charles Street trolley emerging from vanishing point, way down Carrollton. He’s this morning’s performer, every morning’s savior, mixed blessing, sit-down comic. His long dark Jeri curl hairdo is slicked back. Great dark muscled arms take the wheel, skin the color of the skin of an eggplant. With saintly prayer cards fanned out for viewing on the dash, pants and shirt so tight to bursting—he’s the very nexus of sacred and sexual. And, yes, “Dawlin’,” as they say, “he be lustin’ after the ladies. He be drivin’.”

The trolley pulls up to Burthe Street Stop, at the Riverbend, and we’re destined for the Central Business District in downtown New Orleans. It’s first thing in the morning, and only the start of summer, but things are already heating up. The streetcar’s electric mechanisms, its power train, sound like humidity, if humidity had a sound. It resembles a big green metal cicada with that particular nonstop droning—rocking, electric whirring. Metal wheels on the track all in sympathetic syncopation. . . . And before he even gets to the stop you can hear his bass voice through wide-open windows.

I board. (Will he speak. . .?)

The mechanism of Brown’s metal box laps up in my fare like a sly green tongue. Swallows. His eyes pick me out. He’s staring straight at me. . . beam of coal-black pours steadily my way, rests awhile at the collar of my blouse, flutters down V neck.

Take a seat, I command myself. Tuck in skirt.

(Won’t you ravish. . .?)

The car’s rocking sound now merges with the heat, with cicadas’ chirring, and the whirring of this car. Sound makes stimulation that insinuates through Mississippi River delta, down to the delta of Venus. . .

“Hold that wagon now, Poppa,” James Brown sings out cheerily to the elderly gentleman in an ancient car trying to overtake the trolley and cross the tracks before the car arrives. Brown throws his arms up to protect his face in mock abandon as he makes the motions of crashing purposefully headlong into the car. “I’m comin’, I’m comin!!

But now a pretty Creole girl with fine brown legs is getting ready to debark. He calls after her solicitously, “Have a good day, dawlin’. Have a good day, Little Momma!” Smiling. He stretches his rubberneck until it’s well nigh broken as he watches her saucy booty disappear around the corner. Soon we’re on our way again.

Now the morning traffic’s really heating up—cars, trucks, buses glide under St. Charles’ leafy canopy. And New Orleanians assume the look of people actually trying to get somewhere.

“Here come the train, watch that little wagon,” James Brown shouts out the open window, laughing away, wholly entranced by his own jokes. “Hold that work-wagon, or Ah’ll knock all the wheels off’it!” he growls, but is still smiling.

“Tou-roh Hospital—if you sick, we gonna getchoo well again,” he shouts out in sing-song. We’ve managed to come a good many blocks now. Ahhh-h-h-h, yes, and we’re nearly having fun aboard this excuse for public transportation, the region’s best amusement ride. High speed? Not. You see, we, all of us in the car, are in cahoots. We’re laughing silently at the ridiculous commuters who don’t know that James Brown of the New Orleans Transit is having his way with them.

“Move that buggy, you got another buggy waitin’,” he scolds one driver right now, imperiously, through the open windows. “Streetcar drivers, he’p us out, now!” he pleads in falsetto. “Come on, ol’ mule.” Brown encourages his steed: “I’m pushin’, too!”

Then there’s quiet for awhile as our conductor rolls the light-blue cotton sleeves of his uniform up to the shoulder, exposing muscled biceps, triceps. His triceps have triceps! Pant cuffs are rolled and show bright white sports socks sagged down around sturdy-looking brogues. Looks like he could push this thing the rest of the way if he had to.

“Step right up!”

Here comes the morning riffraff, mounting the trolley’s steep steps with fare ready: “Step right up for the St. Charles Streetcar—don’t hold this buggy up.”

“Come on baby, full speed ahead—comin’ on through,” he’s cajoling, “Where y’at?” (the standard Crescent City greeting). He turns his miraculous torso quickly (it looks like an Etruscan statue’s) and it seems as though he’s about to throw his conversation to someone like an Olympic discus. Now we’re closing in on Felicity Street and, just before it, the beautiful old dowager Pontchartrain Hotel. Visitors are boarding hesitantly, ever so slowly.

“Don’t put that credik [sic] card in the box!” James Brown whips out this command at an old lady who almost mistakenly slides in her VISA card; he begins castigating them all, wearing a furrowed brow of mock despair. “You’ll be in bad shape.” He turns around to all the passengers, ruing the dunces the Good Lord has seen fit to deposit on his car today: “The tourists are just wakin’ up this morning, y’all.”

“Come on in with your credik cards!” (Now Brown has quickly forgiven us and we’ve come to know what the prayer cards are for. The right-hand bower among them is St. Jude, a favorite in this city’s hagiography. He’s the patron saint of impossible causes—something New Orleans to this day is quite familiar with. . . .

“Man, it’s always good to have good credik, but cut them credik cards up, y’all,” Brown advises. “They’s nethin’ but trouble. And them ATM machines? They otta call ’em automatic trouble machines, especially over by the casino. Lord!. . . .”

And now we’re all off again.

Come on wid’ it. Comin troo!!!” He adjusts the wide rear-view mirror, little to the left, little to the right. “Now I can look ’em in the eye. Gonna let ’em have it.

As we go on skirling ’round Lee Circle, heading up through the CBD on Carondelet, I’m thinking about the workday ahead. I get up out of my seat early so I can be ready to debark at Canal. I don’t want to trifle with James Brown’s patience or lay any more insolence on him than he’s already endured. The hordes of commuters at Canal are massing ‘round the stop, ready to get on the trolley for their ovoid route back Uptown. I’m wondering if he’ll say anything to me because, just now, I can see him visually devouring my leg. The glance nibbles my calf and disappears, gliding up and underneath the hem of my dress. He thinks I don’t feel it, but I do.

Just then a mockingbird that’s been singing lustily from the scalloped edge of a storefront blue-and-white canopy swoops down and alights on the branch of a sidewalk sapling. The tiny tree in its concrete planter begins to sing. All’s right with the world.

“Have you a good mornin’, Little Momma, little dawlin’.”

And I do. I know that I did. . .

Now if only I were there waiting, in that very same spot, bound for home. Waiting expectantly on the arrival of the St. Charles car. Waiting, once more, to be reminded of my own humanity.

Louise McKinney_1Louise McKinney is originally from Toronto but lived in New Orleans throughout the ’90s. In 2006, she published a book about the culture and cultures of the Big Easy entitled Cities of the Imagination: New Orleans (Oxford University Press). It was favorably reviewed in The Times-Picayune, The Independent, The Guardian, and New Orleans magazine. Currently, she lives and teaches in Atlanta, GA, and is a faculty reader at The Chattahoochee Review. Her poetry, stories, articles and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of North American journals. Her website is www.louisemckinney.net.