Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Birthwort



It is lunchtime, and I have gone into Horn's, a little breakfast and lunch cafe in the Marigny triangle, just downriver from the French Quarter in New Orleans. Horne's is a place where you can get a pretty good basic breakfast, a nice spicy bloody mary, and a cup of coffee in a handmade pottery mug.

I don't usually have lunch here, but today I am in the neighborhood and hungry. It is slow now, a little after one o'clock on a grey November day. The lunch rush - if there was one - is long over, and other than a guy at the bar reading the paper, I'm the only customer in the place.




I place my order and while I wait, I am looking out the window. Horn's occupies an old corner store building - a very common phenomenon in New Orleans. Here, the entry is right on the corner, situated diagonally, two narrow doors that meet in the middle, like so many others in this city. The two sides of the building that face Touro and Dauphine Streets are shaded with an overhang roofed with corrugated metal. This provides shade for some tables and chairs, and the shade is further complimented by a vine that rambles up and over the structure.

I am looking at this vine, and I realize it is a magnificent specimen of Aristolochia gigantea, often called Dutchmen's pipe because its weird, pouch-like flowers are said to resemble in shape the old-fashioned meerschaum pipe once popular in the Netherlands.

When I look out the window, I see that there is a person sleeping on one of the benches. I can't be sure, but I think it is a woman, seated on the bench but slumped over as though she'd slowly collapsed in fatigue. There is a cluster of bags and parcels around her feet.


Meerschaum pipes are an archaic reference that means nothing to me. The vine's flowers are some of the strangest I've ever seen, with a long, tube-like bulging perianthe, ending in a flared heart-shaped flange mottled deep reddish-brown veined with white. Another common name for Aristolochia gigantea is "birthwort" which refers to the way the flowers's gaping, blood-gorged mouth resembles the birth canal. And indeed the Greek root of Aristolochia is "childbirth" or "childbed." This flower looks like a swollen vagina, having given birth.

The waitress brings my drink, a $3 happy hour French 75. I sip it slowly and read an article on my phone about the RAM volunteer medical clinic ministering to people in western Virginia who are too poor to see a regular doctor.

One half of the door pushes open and she enters the restaurant, wobbly and unsteady. She goes to the bar and asks for a glass of water. She takes it to a booth a few tables down from me and sits, her head drooping low as though she can't hold it up. The waitress is wary but compassionate. "Are you doing all right?" she asks. "Is there anything I can get you? Are you hungry?"

Her name is Baby Doll, the woman says, and she's not feeling so good. She has a headache. She says her brain hurts, that she has a concussion, or maybe a contusion. The waitress heads back toward the kitchen, and mutters to her colleague, "Head trauma or something." The other waitress catches my glance and then she rolls her eyes.

Waitress number one returns, and holds out the palm of her hand. She has a couple of Advil. Would this help? Baby Doll doesn’t take them, so the waitress lays the pills on the Formica tabletop.

My food arrives and it's far too much for me to eat. I pick at the good meat and rice; the beans and plantains. I wonder if Baby Doll has had a meal today.

Baby Doll has copper colored dreadlocks drawn up in a knot. She has several silver studs through her cheeks, nose and lips. She says she won’t go to the hospital because she can't keep her stuff if she goes there. She sits a while, sipping her water and keening low in suppressed pain, as the staff and other customers slide their eyes over and then look away. “Two outside,” says waitress number two, nodding her chin at the window as a couple seats themselves on the outside tables under the shade of the birthwort vine. “I’ll get waters for them.”

I am thinking about the article I'm reading. Poor people can't afford dental care, or eyeglasses. They camp out in their cars, waiting to be seen by volunteer doctors and dentists. Sometimes they learn through an eye exam that they suffer from diabetes.

“I need a cab,” says Baby Doll. “Can someone call me a taxi?” The waitress does so, and we wait. I look in my purse. I have a couple of ones, and a ten dollar bill. 

I get up from my table and step over to her. “Do you need cab fare?” I ask.

She says, "I think I have a five dollar bill."

I fold the ten into a slim package and press it into her hand. "Maybe this will help make sure you get where you want to go," I say. She folds her hand over it and reaches out with her other hand, and grips mine. Her skin is hot to the touch, feverish. I break contact and go back to my table.

Then, in a bit, the waitress comes back. "The cab is on its way." She helps Baby Doll navigate the front door and down the steps. But Baby Doll doesn’t forget me. She turns, and “Thank you miss,” she says.

The waitress is at the bus station near my table, tidying the wrapped packets of silverware. “I admire the way you dealt with that woman,” I tell her. “You were very compassionate.” I want to say more but my throat seems to well up, stopping speech. We both look out the window at Baby Doll crouched on the corner with her stuff – a pink suitcase and some bags

“Well,” she says. “You have to be. You never can tell when you might be in the same situation.”

Back in the kitchen I can hear one of the cooks, a guy with a deep soul-singer's voice, singing along with the music playing in the room. “Sugar pie, honey bun. You know that I love you?”

4 comments:

scout said...

I love your writing and want more. This was riveting to read. Bravo!

cookingwithgas said...

Oh, you give me tears this morning.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Be kind to everyone, for you never know who is fighting a battle.
Thank you for this glimpse outside of my bubble.

Rebeckah Leatherman said...

Thank you for helping.