My cousins played sidewalk games with my sister and me on the uneven antique bricks, which redefined the game of hopscotch. However, our favorite was guessing the makes of the cars driving along. Even the grown-ups joined in the fun with oohs and aahs. Back then the choices were scarce--Ford, Chevrolet, and Chrysler.
The mostly male drivers bore an air of independence and self-importance as they sped past. Many of them dangled an arm out of the window, flicking cigarette butts into the street, all the while staring straight ahead. This was considered cool and part of the era's mystique.
With my overactive imagination, I pictured the motorists tooting their way into forever, leaving a tell-tale trail of empty beer cans, cigarette packs, and who-knows-what-else behind.
Anyone versed in New Orleans culture is familiar with its Latin American, third-world mindset. Even though the Burgundy traffic had the right of way, drivers slowed and gave a toot in case a vehicle was approaching from St. Philip.
Occasionally, a mammoth city bus rumbled through like a giant urban buffalo. Mesmorized, I stopped in mid stride when I heard them approaching. The ground shook, and houses rattled as they roared by, hissing and leaving black, smelly fumes billowing from the tailpipes. The cars seemed feisty by comparison.
In the Quarter, neighbors walked by, stopping to exchange stories and bits of news. But it was the foot traffic that captivated me. Those enigmatic strangers piqued my curiosity. At one point, they started carrying odd-looking bags. They were called knapsacks back then.
Stricken with wanderlust at the early age of five, I needed to understand everything about these intriguing wayfarers. So, I pranced right up to them tugging on their clothes as they stood on the curb. "What's in your bag?" I'd chirp, staring unabashedly into their faces. "And, where you goin'?" Most of them bore tough, James Dean-esque demeanors, guarded and intense. A few gave me a brief look, but rushed off without a word, leaving me aching.
One night a particular traveler glided by. Unlike the other travelers, he nodded a polite greeting to the family. Realizing this was my big chance, I also recognized timing was crucial. So, I studied his every move while I waited.
His mannerisms suggested a more laid-back attitude, not in any way hurried. He wore a black pea coat fashionable at the time. The stranger removed his pack, placed it at his feet, and leaned against the street lamp. Reaching for a cigarette, he turned his head at a leisurely pace while he took in the neighborhood. After a long puff, I couldn't wait another minute.
"What's in your bag?" I asked with more conviction than before and the persistence of an innocent, "And where are you going?" He glanced down at me, and his long pause alerted me this might end in disaster.
But, he laughed out loud, turned to the adults, and they all had a chuckle at my expense. I didn't care; I was on a mission. Later, Mom assured me I had the same questions the grown-ups did, but wouldn't dare ask. This made me feel better, but still, I wanted answers.
During my college days, I discovered Jack Kerouac and perused some of his autobiography, On the Road. It was a chronicle of his travel adventures. I found similarities between the yearning for freedom of the Beat Generation and my own Hippie generation’s quest for authenticity.
Recently, I read You'll Be Okay; My Life with Jack Kerouac, written by his first wife, Edith Parker. One sentence stirred my memory. I had to reread it to verify there was no mistake. The prominent voice of a generation had visited New Orleans about the time of that unique backpacker. Shivering, I pondered the prospects. Is it possible? Could it be so?
Maybe yes, or maybe no. But to this day, the little girl in me is convinced. It was Jack Kerouac himself who stood on our corner laughing with us in the City That Care Forgot.
by Connie Hebert