White Jesus – Rafael Thibault
DECEMBER 18, 2020 / DANIEL MCCARTY
Editors Note: These two chapters are from the story ‘White Jesus’. It is a tale of an 18 year old boy whose father was killed in Afghanistan. He takes the $75,000 payout from the insurance policy and hits the road in a Greyhound bus, an attempt to come to grips with his grief and disillusion with life. Sort of a ‘Then Came Bronson’ without the Harley. It is the story of Dewitt (Dewey) Piddle and the impact he has on those he meets in his travels. I have been working on this story for about 4 years now, trying to tie the ends together. I decided to break it up and post it this way.
Chapter 13 – Rafael Thibault
“My Grandfather, ‘Flea’ Thibault owned a fishing boat when I was a kid. He showed me how to help man the nets when I was about 6 years old. I never had no Father, least no Father with a face. My Mama, Christine kept his house. Mama told me her Mama had left when she was 8 years old. Just wasn’t there when she came home from school one day. That was the last day Mama ever went to school. Phillipe told her that now that his wife was gone, she would have to take over. I used to think Flea was my Daddy. Maybe he was. It was years before I got the gist of things. Some of it I didn’t want to know.
Hurricane Betsy came through in ’65’ and put all of Grand Isle under water and left Flea’s boat in shards. Wasn’t no money as it was, so no boat complicated things. Flea started working on Leo Gatteau’s boat. Flea wasn’t used to having somebody tell him what to do. Just made him take up drinking more. He’d come home spitting’ on the floor and cursing’ Mama. If I said anything he’d whip out his belt and slash the back of my legs. I learned to anticipate his wrath.
I started hanging out down by the beach with my friends Billy and Teo trying to hustle tourists. I had a hanger in my hand trying to gain access to a ’63’ Chevy when I saw the rear doors of an Econoline open and watched Christine crawl out of the back with two men. Teo nudged me with his elbow,
“Yo Raffie, isn’t that your Mama?”
She heard him. Her eyes locked briefly with mine. She had two $20.00 bills in her hand. She stuffed the money into her back pocket and walked out to Hwy. 1 and stuck out her thumb. That was the last I ever saw of her.
A week later I stuffed some clothes in one of Flea’s wet bags and hitched a ride to New Orleans. I had a Hasselblad camera that I lifted from the ’63’ Chevy. A street hustler pawned it for me. He got $20.00, I got $60.00.
I was 13.”
“Don’t even know how to respond to a story like that Rafael. I grew up in Disney World. Graduated from High School in Kissimmee last June. I left home on a Trailways Bus with $75,000.00 in a bank account and an ATM card.”
“Ain’t no Hobos and hitch hikers anymore Dewey. No wagon trains, no underground railroad, no Route 66. Kids run away from home on a 737 or an air-conditioned Greyhound. Half the time they end up meeting some internet pervert from Mobile at a Days Inn. That’s when they realize that maybe being grounded wasn’t as bad as they thought. You get out on the street at 13 or 14 and your life ain’t never gonna get better. My case it turned out about even up. I was hustling for garbage back home so New Orleans was not a shock for me.”
I was sitting on an upside down 5 gallon plastic bucket so I could be eye to eye with Rafael. I pulled a chameleon off the side of his cart and slipped it into my shirt pocket. Every kid that grew up in Florida is fond of those little lizards. Geico soon popped his head out so he could observe the passers-by on the street.
“You like them little bastards, huh?”
“God’s creatures, what can I say?”
“Well. too bad he stopped there.”
“How did you lose your legs Rafael.”
“Bad luck at cards and a bulldozer. I got a regular gig at the Full Moon Show Bar down the street from Tipitina’s. I was 14. I stacked chairs at night, cleaned floors and unloaded trucks during the day. The owner let me sleep in a storeroom he had out back of the alley. After Katrina they renovated that place and now they rent it out for $1300.00 a month. That’s another story though.
I did favors for the bands that passed through. Hustled weed and networked the ladies of Bourbon street. High times and Hot pants. The musicians showed me how to play drums and pick out chords. By the time I was 15 I was sitting in on a zydeco band. Band members figured out they could pay me half what they were paying their regular drummers and not lose a beat. Partying with the players got me hooked on poker and cocaine. Music was riding high back then. A guitarist with a record deal could afford to drop $500.00 in a game. I couldn’t.
By the time I was 23 I was $15,000.00 in debt and looking down the barrel of a .38. Edzio Marcello gave me 1 week to come up with the cash. Where was I gonna come up with $15,000.00?
A week later Eddie showed up with 2 big Samoan fellows that threw me into the back of a Dodge Caravan. Less than an hour later they pulled up to the Swamp Tours lot and unlocked the gate. They drove around back to the maintenance area and tied my hands to the gate, then stretched out my legs with ropes tied to the back of the Dodge. One of the Samoans climbed onto a bulldozer, started it and drove over my legs. The other Samoan untied me and threw me into the back of the van. Edzio smoked a cigar.
They swung by the Medical Center and rolled me out of the back of the van. Ten minutes later two EMT guys showed up with a stretcher.
Infection spread to my knees. I had no money and no insurance to pay for antibiotics, The doctors amputated bilateral ATK. I was discharged 8 days after surgery. I wheeled my chair 2 1/2 miles back to the alley storehouse. The landlord had a bright yellow note inquiring to the whereabouts of his rent taped to the stairway door. I went up the stairs backward, placing my hands behind my back one step up at a time. I don’t know if I made it to the top or if I was carried or magically levitated. I came to, prone on the top stair landing, soaked in my own urine and oozing blood through the stump dressings.
If I had a gun I would have shot myself. It made sense. I was alone in the world and nobody gave a damn. I was 23 and dancing on bleeding stumps. What was the point?
You tell me, and I don’t want to hear no shit about redemption. You can believe what you taught yourself to believe. I never took those lessons. I never wore a Sunday Suit.”
“That was pretty straightforward and absolutely devoid of emotion.”
“Sometimes you have no choice but to face facts. I knew if I was going to eat I had to move. Or I could just lay here and die. It would be a slow death.
I heard some one knock on the door. No way I was going to make it down those stairs to answer the knock. I yelled as loud as I could,
“Come on in. I can’t make it to the door.
The door swung open and up the stairs bounded worn Levis and a pale blue silk shirt.
It was Mr. Smooth, Boz Scaggs himself.
Chapter 14 – “How Much For The Pignose In The Window?”
“In the spring of 1988, I returned to New Orleans, and as soon as I smelled the air, I knew I was home.
It was rich, almost sweet, like the scent of jasmine and roses around our old courtyard.
I walked the streets, savoring that long lost perfume.”
― Anne Rice
“People on the streets and in the clubs knew about your incident the next day. New Orleans isn’t that big.”
Jaco Candide grabbed my belt above both the pants pockets as Boz lifted me by the arms. They managed to get me situated on the couch and propped up with pillows. Jaco ran down the stairs and across the alley to ‘Louies’ and called his brother Mace who was an EMT. Mace and Jaco were on their way up the stairs with Lizzie Betts, 40 minutes later. Mace was carrying a box full of Kerlix, ABD’s, silk tape and a half bottle of Percocet.
Boz turned from the stove where he was heating water for tea.
“Why didn’t you call somebody before you left that hospital? You bout killed yourself wheeling that chair through the city. Theres a trail of blood from the Medical Center all the way to your door. When Jimmy Bellamy found out I was playing ‘The Torch Club’ this weekend, he called me in Atlanta and told me about your sorry ass. I got to town yesterday. You could have ridden from the hospital in the front seat of Jaco’s Eldorado.”
“I didn’t know anybody. I got no family. Now I got no legs and I can’t even play drums anymore. Shoulda left me to die at the top of the stairs you Son of a Bitch.”
Boz circled around Lizzie and Mace who were redressing my stumps. He set the cup of tea down on the corner table and leaned in toward my face until he connected with his eyes and then hauled off and slapped my face as hard as he could. I screamed in pain and my body jerked, slamming Lizzie in the face with a bloody stump. She dropped her Kerlix and bandage scissors.
“You Dumbass. Every musician that plays this city is family. Rosie G. has been on the phones for the last week. Now what hurts worse? Your legs or your face?”
“Right now my damn face is screaming you Son of a Bitch.”
“Good. Got your mind off your legs didn’t it? You haven’t got any legs now so stop whining about them. Me and Jaco got a show tonight. We have to get ready.”
Boz went over to the alley window and opened it all the way.
“Lizzie, if he’s still whining when you and Mace have to leave, dump him out the window. Too many people showed their heart for this little pissant cokehead to be bitching. We’ll save you two a table on the dance floor. Think you could sing a little backup for me tonight Lizzie. Wear black.”
Rose Gaudio had an ear for the street. She was part owner of ‘The Cat’s Meow’. People in the bar, club and restaurant trade had an understanding with the Marcello family. Show respect but keep your distance. The Marcello’s had their hand in waste removal, liquor distribution, restaurant supplies and the local street hostess union. Never get in over your head or Eddie would set an example.
I thought I had nothing to lose. I was wrong.
Rose heard straight from Edzio himself what had happened. He walked in to the Cat’s Meow and pulled up a chair to Rose corner booth and lit a cigar. The big Samoan stood by the door.
“That little Cajun drummer boy . “Puh Rumpah Pumm Pumm’. He’s in the hospital. He got 15 grand in debt to me and couldn’t get out-of-the-way of Sammies bulldozer. Think he might lose his legs. They don’t look so good.”
Rose made some calls. That Saturday there was a benefit concert at The Torch Club. The Meters, Art Neville and Leon Russell rocked the joint until 3:00 am when Sheriff Bobby Chenier wiped the Johnny Walker from his lips with the back of his sleeve and nodded toward the clock. Bobby dropped a $50.00 in the jar on his way out the door.
Envelopes arrived from Jacksonville, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. By Tuesday morning Rose had $38,000.00 in her pocketbook. She had her bartender Christy run $15,000.00 in cash to the office at Marcello’s Distribution. Debt paid.
Rose called Jaco to drive her to see me. She grabbed her pocketbook and leopard skin pillbox hat. She turned to look at the bandstand.
“Jaco, whose bass and amplifier is that?”
“It’s my practice kit Rose.”
“How much you want for it?”
“You know Rose, Nudie has got a short scale bass and a Pignose amp in his pawn shop window. Bet he’ll trade me straight up.”
“Good, Rafael can’t play drums with no legs.”
. . . . . .
“People don’t live in New Orleans because it is easy. They live here because they are incapable of living anywhere else in the just same way.”
― Ian McNulty
Rose had pulled up a ladder back chair next to the couch. Jaco was smoking a Camel as he pulled notes out of a short scale Danelectro bass that was plugged into a Pignose amp. It was the opening lines to Lowdown.
Rose wiped my forehead with a damp washcloth.
“You aren’t going to stuff any more of that powder up your nose. That’s a drug for a rich man, not some Motherless street hustler. I got a .22 in my purse if you are of a mind to finish what Eddie started. Because its a .22, probably take two head shots to finish the job so I’ll help you out with the second one.
Good Lord child. You need to find some purpose. We collected enough money to get you through the first 6 months and pay for someone to stop in and help you out for a month or so, feed you, tend to your dressings. Jaco got you a bass. Start practicing as soon as you can sit up.”
“Damn Rose, I like this little Danelectro. Don’t have to tighten the nut so much so the strings got a looser, funkier sound.”
“Don’t get any ideas Jaco. We got that bass for Rafael. You got three days to rise from the dead you little pissant or we’re going to start looking for a new Jesus. I heard Boz slapped the shit out of you. Did it wake you up? You sat in on his band once, just once. What’s that tell you?
I hired a guy to convert the garage behind The Cat’s Meow’s to an apartment for you. You need street level, you can’t stay here. He’ll put in a commode, a seated shower and one of those little refrigerators and a stove top at chair level. All the players in this town opened their hearts for you. Don’t let them down.”
. . . . . .
“That’s a story Rafael. You know Rose is the one that sent me to see you. Said if I wanted the flavor of the street to seek you out. Did you ever find that purpose?”
“Took a while. It was about 3 months before I could get out and about in my chair with any measure of comfort. Once I was mobile, Rose would hook me up with a couple of gigs playing bass in the clubs. But it was just too awkward. Bandstands are too small and there was no room to negotiate the chair. Rose stood in front of the bandstand at Louies one night. They had me stuck back behind the amps. No body could see me but it was the only place with room for the chair. After the first set, she wheeled me down to a corner table, pulled my head forward and kissed me on the forehead.”
“Sweetie, we have to come up with a new plan. How comfortable are you on the streets Baby?”
“I grew up on the streets Rose. I was hustling tourists in Grand Isle when I was 10. I lived in an alley my first 6 months in New Orleans.”
“Well we don’t need you hustling. You can’t run fast enough anymore. You play guitar?”
‘Not bad, but I could get better. Why?”
“Street musicians can make $500.00 a week if they have a good location. I got a place right out front of The Cat’s Meow’. Just have to move those two big planters out-of-the-way. Flowers are always dieing on me anyway. That way I’ll be able to keep my eye on you.”
“How long you been here Rafael?”
“Thirty years now.”
“Thirty years playing guitar in front of a French Quarter watering hole! That’s a heck of a gig.”
“More than that Dewey. I know everybody on these streets. I know the ones that belong, I know the ones just passing through and I know the ones desperate for a meal. Streets are no place for a child. I know. It’s where I started. Back before I cultivated a soul.
This city is a magnet for the dispossessed. Innocent souls hoping that a little of that Voo-Doo hoodoo will rub off on them. . . .I was the one in a Billion. But I had no guilt . . .saw no point to it, no soft spot, no open arms. I didn’t trust anybody until their essence washed over me. You see, there’s soul in every brick of this town. They got warehouses hidden down in the bowels of Front Street stashed to the roof with 50 gallon whiskey barrels full of soul. Funky soul. It seeps up between the cracks in the pavement. Resistance is futile.
This city saved me. They had to find my soul first. Musicians are a breed. They got timing in their DNA.
Rose booked Allen Toussaint for a weekend gig. He was in town to see his daughter. He had arranged the use of the upright in the back dining area. His daughter did not have a piano.
Rose arranged to have the piano tuned the week before Allen came to town. He was there from 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. for practice Monday until Friday. The room had sliding doors to provide privacy. June in New Orleans is unbearably muggy. Allen opened the row of windows that fronted the alley.
I heard that piano and it was magic. He played the same lines again and again but I didn’t tire of it. I rolled out to the front of The Cat and took my place. It was a short lunch crowd. I took a break early and wheeled back to the alley. He was still playing the same lines. I backed the chair into the shade.
About 3:00 he lowered the backboard and came through the alley door. He stood in the doorway and lit a cigar. He was wearing a suit that had been cut to his body, perfectly draped. His posture was erect and he possessed surprisingly wide shoulders. He reminded me of a very dignified George Jefferson.
He nodded at me, clipped the burning ash from his cigar and turned back into the room as he locked the door. I watched each of the six windows come down in turn.
At 8:00 the next morning, I was sitting in the alley as I watched each of the windows rise on its hinge. As he began to play, I sensed a change. He would play the line and then a micro millimeter of a pause would appear between notes 4 and 5. Then he would repeat with the same pacing. The pace would alternate but the underlying rhythm would not. The rhythm started ticking at the back of my skull.
So he wasn’t playing the same lines over and over. The same notes but the timing changed just slightly every time. One million two hundred and forty-two thousand different possible combinations laced into a twenty note opera.
I rolled into The Cat and got my Gibson from the Bandstand. I was taking the day off. I rolled back to the alley and found a good shady spot. I played the first line of Crazy on You. Then that micro millimeter between 4 and 5. Then 5 and 6. The piano had stopped playing. Toussaint was standing in the doorway and lighting his cigar. He glanced my way,
“Don’t stop. I’m figuring how to fill your voids. Maybe I won’t.”
He turned and closed the door.
I hadn’t taken a break since I had started my sidewalk gig. I wheeled over to Rose’s corner booth to let her know I was taking off until Saturday.”
“Taking a vacation in my back alley Rafael. Just remember that Allen shouldn’t be disturbed any more than necessary. He was listening to your guitar instead of his own piano yesterday. Allen meditates on all music. But that isn’t what he’s here for. Listen but show respect.”
Rose smiled at me and went back to her paperwork.
“At 8:00 a.m. I was in the alley with a pair of drumsticks. When Allen started playing, I kept time on my thighs. At 1:00 the door swung open. ”
“Rafael. why don’t you go and get your guitar and come in here and play with me. I need to play off someone. I need to feel a different energy.”
“Ever seen a wheelchair move like a water snake Dewey? I was in that back dining room faster than Usain Bolt. He’d have me play and he was doing fills. Allen Toussaint filling’ in on Rafael Thibault. That’s when I realized that there just may be a God after all. Allen finished about 3:30 and lowered the backboard. He turned and looked right at me for a while.”
“What did you learn Rafael?”
“To hear between the spaces. to let the sound flow out through my fingertips.”
“What did you learn with your eyes Rafael?”
“My eyes? I was concentrating with my ears Mr. Toussaint.”
“Rafael. People are like lines of music. You watch them closely enough and you start to see those subtle pauses. Those micro millimeter differences in personality and carriage. You start to see peoples soul.”
There were no words at that moment.
“Rafael, I won’t be here tomorrow so you should probably resume your place in front of The Cat. Your audience has probably missed you. I’m going to stop in and see a friend play tomorrow. I’ll be playing the Main Room on Friday and Saturday Night, maybe I’ll see you then. It was good to meet you.”
At 9:30 the next morning I wheeled my chair out to my spot between Rose’s planters. I picked out a few notes and then watched the sprinkling of tourists walking by. I saw Cajuns from Abbeville and vacationers from Ohio. And a couple of young girls hiding behind false bravado.
I went back to my song. The front door opened and Allen Toussaint walked out wearing a pale linen suit over a Cuban shirt. He was carrying a 5 gallon plastic pail. He sat the pail down next to me and settled in on the bottom. He smiled, reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pair of drum sticks.
“You take the lead and I’ll fill in. I want to know what you see.”
“I already started doing that Allen. I saw 2 young girls with fear in their eyes and a swagger in their hips.”
‘How’d you feel about that?”
“Made me remember. Made me wonder if there might be a way to change the future.”
He nodded his head.
“What did you see Allen?”
“If I was to make a guess Rafael, I’d say I saw a soul taking it’s first steps.”
“Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”
― José Saramago