Spring means many different things to people. Gardeners rush to plan their hoeing and planting and mulching and fertilizing, visions of summer flowers and vegetables dancing in their heads much like those fabled sugar plums. Walkers, joggers, and runners bless the warmer temperatures and take themselves outdoors to do the Daily Five. Or Ten. Or more if there’s a marathon in their future. Some of them have run outside all winter, but most are glad to leave the treadmill and the indoor tracks behind to get the fresh prairie air and landscape into the mix.
Moms take their children out for stroller rides, heading for the nearest park to the swings, slides, and some new-style jungle-gyms. School kids walk home with their jackets open. The students at our local university unpack the shorts and flip flops and meander around the quad, even if the thermometer reads 50F instead of 75F. Something about the spring sun invokes blankets on the grass and Frisbee fights.
Of course there’s the old “Spring Cleaning” ritual for most of us. Time to find those cobwebs that have hidden in the corners during the weary days of winter. Time to really clean those tile floors that have seen mud and snow and slush for the past few months. Plans for attacking the annual To-Do List are made. Painting, buffing, sanding, clearing out the clutter from the basement, garage, work shed, all discussed with a rare enthusiasm that disappears once we look at the actual collection of boxes, clothing, rags, etc. Most of the time, we make progress. After all, we don’t want to be doing this come June. And we have to make room for the new stuff, whether it’s clothing, books, tools, draperies, any number of things.
Spring is a time for planning and execution of what we’ve postponed during the coldest temperatures. New Year’s resolutions aside, we start to eat healthier, exercise more, and feel a general optimism fueled by the rays of the sun. Spring is a time for making our lives cleaner, better, and happier.
Unless of course you have allergies. Buds and pollen and dander, oh my!
But I digress. Overall Spring is one of my two favorite seasons. Autumn is the other. Cool but not cold, warm but not hot, energizing but not taxing…in general lovely days with bright colors, whether those colors come from daffodils and hydrangeas or falling multi-hued oak leaves.
Enjoy your spring, readers. Here in my part of the world, we’ve often emerged from winter to find ourselves broiling in summer with only a pittance of in-between temperate weather. I’m determined to bask in this fleeting period of blooming and new growth for as long as possible. Summer can wait.
Speaking of waiting, our Mae is still waiting to find out what Sylvain Lionel means for her and Drum’s stay in the Crescent City.
We walked through the shelter doors and found a buzz of activity. The afternoon was quick turning into evening and those with nowhere else to go were hummin’ like bees as they helped the volunteers set up for the evening meal. And of course there was Drum, puttin’ plastic spoons and forks and napkins on the trestle tables, chatting away to the man filling paper cups with water. He caught sight of me and waved, like he’d been there all the time and I’d just looked around him. What could I do but wave back? I’m not one for chastising me brother in front of strangers. We’d have our talk later.
“That’s Drummond?” I’d forgotten about Sylvain. “Not what I expected.” My quick glance must’ve warned him to tread carefully. “Taller and thinner I mean. Still, he looks like he came from the same…family. Not a redhead though.”
“Used to be, until the drink and the wandering turned him gray. Any other observations you’d want to make?” I started over to where Drum was working. Again, Sylvain followed me.
“Mae!” Drummond put down his last napkin and gave me a hug. “I wondered where you’d gone off to. I went looking but…” his eyes rested on my companion. “Mae? Who is…?”
“Sylvain Lionel at your service, sir.” I swear the man almost bowed as he introduced himself.
“Drummond Smith. Any friend of Mae’s…” and here me brother looked at me, one eyebrow raised.
“Rest easy, Drum. Mr. Lionel here is a friend of Morales. From Charles City.” I pulled out a chair and sat myself down, taking a cup of water from the table and downing it in one swallow.
“Ah then,” Drum said as he extended his hand to Sylvain. “It’s a pleasure, sir.” My brother still knew his manners. “I did promise to help these kind people set for the evening meal,” he added, his glance following the pitcher bearer.
“If I assist you Mr. Drummond, we may speed the job along.” I watched as Sylvain linked his arm through one of Drum’s and walked with him toward the kitchen. Again I asked myself who this man was and, more to the point, why Morales had thought it important we meet up. I trusted Morales, so there was a good reason. At least on his end. Now it was up to me to figure out Sylvain.
What Drum called “the evening meal” was definitely an eye opener to both of us. Fragrant pots of what Sylvain called gumbo, thick with pieces of spicy sausage and chicken poured over rice, long loaves of crispy bread, sweet tea for those who wanted it, water for them who didn’t and huge aluminum pans of bread pudding, something Sylvain informed us was made entirely from leftover bread chunks, eggs, and milk ( I found out later it was “stale” bread, “old” eggs, and “almost-sour” milk) with raisins and sugar mixed in, baked until it got crusty on top and then scooped out and eaten warm. The Townsend-Nestor Soup Kitchen couldn’t compete with this even during the Holidays, when charities were more, well, charitable, and I said so to Sylvain.
“Well Miss Mae, you just happened on a good night, is what I’ll say. Gumbo, plain bread, and even the bread pudding are “poor folk foods” if you look at our history. The people here learned a long time ago that food wasn’t always there for the taking and they made do with what they could grow, or catch, or,” here he chuckled, “even steal. This shelter has some kind folk who prepare extra in their own homes and bring it over. Not always all at the same time, but usually more than enough to feed those who stay here of an evening. New Orleans is called by some “the city that Care forgot”, meanin’ that we have to take care of our own. No one else thinks to.” With that he got up from his seat across the table from mine and walked over to some battered steel urns. A few minutes later, he came back with three cups of dark coffee and some packets of sugar. “Now, where was I?”
I took the cup he offered me and set it down, the steam swirling around my wrist.
“You were sayin’ how you had to take care of yourselves,” I answered as he sipped from his own brew. “We all have to do what we can in that way. Drum and I ain’t flush with money but we have skills and we don’t take charity if we can avoid it. Don’t think I’m plannin’ on living off these good people for more than a night or two.” I dumped a packet of sugar into my coffee, took a sip and shuddered. “What in the name of all that’s holy is in this cup?”
“Chicory. A story for another time, Mae, but you don’t have to drink it. You’ve sampled quite a bit of New Orleans for one day anyway.” Sylvain set his cup down and smiled. “If you don’t mind taking this to that dish tray for me, I’ll be on my way. They lock up pretty quick after the meal and dishes are done. Keeps people safer that way. At least these days.”
“You haven’t said one nickel’s worth of why you needed to meet me and Drum so bad.” I stood as tall as I could and glared up at him. “And now you’re goin’ off without saying again. Seems our mutual friend doesn’t know you, or who you are now, anyway.” Without waiting for an answer, I stomped off, as much as I could stomp anywhere after all that food, to look for me brother. When I turned to see if I was being followed, Sylvain had already disappeared.
“What happened to Seel-Vane, Mae?” Drum asked when I finally located him, his arms elbow deep in greasy dishwater. “I liked him.”
“He had to go, Drum. Not everyone stays here for the night. We’ll find a better place ourselves tomorrow. But I’ll tell you a few things about him while I dry these plates.”
We were up and about bright and early next morning. The shelter volunteers bustled about, making coffee in their well-used brewers. We had to wait a bit to clean up, since there were only two rooms for that purpose and a lot of people before us. Still, by 9:30 or so we were at the table with coffee and day old donuts for dunking. Drum looked rested for the first time in a long time. Since Charles City in fact. As much as he needs to be on the move and searching for whatever it is he’s missing, the travel and settling takes it out of him.
“So what do y’think, Mae?” Drum wrapped his thin hands around the cup in front of him. “Morales knows him. Do we trust him on that?”
I’d have given my old camp stove for a chance to ask Morales more questions, but he was on the run as usual, brother. And I wasn’t exactly alone when I called. Hard to ask anything when the person you’re talking about is standing right there. We’ll go outside a bit and wait in the sun. See if he comes back.”
Drum and I waited as the church bells chimed the hour, first ten, then eleven. This was not getting my plans for the day anywhere. As clean as this shelter was, we needed someplace of our own. Without payin’ rent of course. Between Drum and me well, we can make enough on day jobs and chores to manage food and such, but even a room with things like water and light can be too much. I’d always had luck near the waterfront so that’s where I wanted to get myself to before too long. I stole a look at my brother dozing in the warmth and hated to wake him, but I did.
“Drummond?” He looked at me with sleepy eyes. “I’m going on a hunt for our new crib. You be all right here ‘til I get back?” I knew he’d say yes but my worries for him never really stopped.
“I be fine, Mae,” he said as he stretched his arms out and yawned. “One of the people here wants some trimming done on the greens around the church. He’s got mulch and clippers and offered me a fair wage for the work. No worries about me. I’ll keep myself out of trouble.” He flashed that innocent smile of his at me. “I promise.”
“You do that, dearie. If I’m lucky we’ll have new digs for tomorrow’s sleeping. I’ll be back before the dinner hour. And I’ll not get in any trouble either,” I ended as he opened his mouth to speak.
My walk to the levee went quicker than the first one seein’ as I knew the streets better. Still, I found myself seeking a bench in Jackson Square for a bit of a rest. I had to get lighter shoes. Sandals maybe if there was a good thrift shop around. And I couldn’t wear long sleeves without baking myself so I had to find a lotion for my arms. Fair skin burns like a treat on sunny days. I got myself a bottle of water from the same vendor as yesterday, half-expecting Sylvain to pop up again. He didn’t. Damn the man, I thought. He was a mystery I didn’t care for now or anytime soon, but I’d promised Morales I’d listen. And a promise made, my mum used to say, is a promise kept.
I took a deep drink of water and propelled myself toward the block of warehouses I’d seen earlier. The ones I wanted had at least two floors…away from bugs and night-time creatures maybe. With big offices or storage spaces and windows. And doors I could fix a lock on. My stuff wasn’t worth much except to me, but I’d be in a right stew without it. I headed past the French Market, full of fragrance and goods, some cheap and some pricey, some gaudy, some fine. This would be fine for me shopping if I could make friends of the vendors. As I headed out of the Quarter towards the brick buildings lining the waterfront, I sensed someone behind me. If it was Sylvain he was in for a talking to. If not, well… I turned to look and saw no one. Jitters. I scolded myself. I’m not one to be jumpy. Not in broad daylight. I turned back to my path and found myself face to face with three boys, all wearing low-hung pants and faded shirts.
“You’re blocking my way,” I said in my best polite but no nonsense voice. “I’ve someplace I’m goin’.”
“Yes, ma’am, you do,” said the tallest one. “And we’re takin’ you there.” Before I could put up an arm to strike out, the other two grabbed me and held on hard. So much for my promise to Drum.