Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Street Theater of the Wooden Leg

A Big Chief Tablet Tale

By The Legendary
Jim Parks

Emmett had those three dots – you know, a pyramid of them - tattooed on the web of his right hand between the thumb and forefinger.

His ex-old lady Peggy said one day over drinks at Ryan's place, “You know, them dots, all them hoods from out in da Channel got them dots, okay? Y'know what I mean? Unnastan' what I'm sayin'?”

I assured her I did, though I had no idea what she was talking about, had never looked at Emmett's dots on his hand or anything else much about him other than that wooden leg of his.

Of course, it wasn't made of wood. It was a contraption made of titanium tubing and polymer resin. It had a jungle boot laced up on the foot attachment and he used it to great effect when our dusty little group needed a drink badly. Which was most of the time. Hangovers come vicious, early, long and loud, like most everything the other side of Melpomene Street and down on the riverside of Annunciation – in the Irish Channel.

We're talking shotgun houses, corn beef and cabbage, St. Patrick's Day practice parades, plenty to drink, saloon singing – the works.

The other leg? The one he didn't have? I think he left it somewhere in Asia. He was a boat crewman, came under a rocket attack.

Bad scene. Said he woke up on a C-130 flight to Japan and the rest - including the puke Corpsman who started charging him $10 a shot for extra morphine while he was in the hospital in Memphis – was history.

When he was drunk, which was most of the time, he would scratch at a place where the calf of his leg should have been, dig his nails into the denim of the leg of his jeans, and say “I hadda get a tattoo removed so I could get outta da Navy, see?

“They funny about that kinda stuff.” Then he would tear up a little bit and take another chug at the dragon fuel.

I always told him they were funny about a lotta stuff, to stop double-clutching the jug and give me a drink, and other words to that effect.

Anyway, he had this schtick he would do when the chips were down.

He would take the leg off and turn it around, with the jungle boot facing the wrong direction.

Then we would all jaywalk across the street and into the crosswalk just as some drunk came gliding into the intersection to stop for the light.

The rest was slow motion choreography, a little song and dance done for the benefit of severely impaired players and audience.

Someone would hit the fender of the car with open hands – very loudly - while the drunk driver was distracted and looking somewhere else, usually at Tilden and Fred David, Jr., swinging knives at each other and cursing loudly over some bogus dispute.

Emmett would hit the pavement clutching at his turned-around wooden leg, screaming and hollering at the driver so loudly that even those in on the gag would believe it.

It was that scary. Hey, sometimes it hurt me and I wasn't the one faking it.

He was that good.

That's when Mickey would move in for the kill.

While the rest of us would pick Emmett up, shrouded as he was in the oversized, baggy topcoat he wore winter and summer – this thing nearly swallowed him whole - and hustle him across the street where we would lay him down on the sidewalk and he would continue to scream and grab at his leg.

Mickey would get in the drunk's face where he sat behind the wheel, shocked, staring, trying to figure out what happened and what was likely to happen next.

“Hey, bud! Look here, you been drinking and so have we. Besides, my man, there, he got warrants out on himself and he can't be waiting around for the finest to get here, don't'cha see? No use everybody having to go to jail for all this here. Ain't nothin' to it, you dig?”

The drunk would begin to see the light. There was a way out of this mess, after all.

“Like, my bud, there, he's a disabled veteran and everything, so, we can just get him over to the VA right quick and explain to them that he got hurt stumblin' around out here in da Channel and they will take care of him. What the hell. He's a drunk, y'know.”

Sometimes, the drunk driver would start looking kind of cheerful as the whole solution dawned on him.

What'cha say we call it quits on this here? Let me hold a double sawbuck so we can get my man in a taxi and on over to da hospital. No questions asked, okay?”

He was one of those fierce looking roast beef Irishmen, the kind with a big potato nose and bushy eyebrows, a permanent scowl built into his mug. At least, he came by it honest.

They usually forked over. Only rarely did some fool get wise and want to start something. By then, our huddle had Emmett's leg back on straight and in plumb and we were ready to make a run for it.

Which we did, as soon we heard Mickey shout, “Swing, batter!”

He used to play “hind catcher” on the local baseball club before he went away to “the academy,” as he called the penitentiary.

Hey, back in those days, a double sawbuck was good for quite a few jugs of Sweet Lucy, Night Train, Sly Fox, or Thunderbird.

All this is just to let you know the caliber of the organization, the “wrecking crew,” as we called it, because we were in the business of helping ourselves to old gaslight lamps, wrought iron embellishments, antique plumbing fixtures, hurricane shutters, or anything else we could swing with when a house had been gutted and was ready for remodeling.

Sold the stuff to a guy in the Garden District and another one over in The Quarter, sold that kind of stuff to decorators, remodeling architects, stuff like that.

We rolled up in the trucks, hard hats, tool belts, all that jazz, stuck a yard sign or two in the turf said all this here about about a salvage company or something like that, and went to work, pronto.

Then, as soon as we had a load, Mickey would shout, “Hey, we takin' this stuff over to the yard. Youse keep workin' on the project 'til we get back. By then, you'll have us another load, okay?”

Within a few minutes we were all gone, down the alley, around the corner, down the street.

Solid gone.

Anything to keep from working.

That's when the trouble with the one-ton came up. Fred David, Jr., decided he had to have a new truck. So he scored something or the other and bought one for a couple hundred down. It was as sad a sack as he was, about 10 years old, had at least a couple of hundred thousand miles on it, most of it on those sorry old streets of New Orleans.

He never registered it or anything, just told the guy at the lot to handle it for him and forked over a couple of bills. Besides, he had no driver's license. Both Texas and Louisiana would have just laughed if he had applied for one. Drunk driver. You know the scene.

Then he got all independent on us. Started wanting to charge for this and that, said he wouldn't crank his show boat for less than whatever and, like, what a pain the ass some of these drunks can be, huh?

Emmett got an attitude first thing. It was something about wanting to get a ride to the Fair Grounds to see about a horse, or something. He turned him down and it chapped his ass because the two of them went to grammar school together – way back there.

So we were all at the Bamboo Room on the Avenue and – you know – the hottest time of the afternoon, just before rush hour.

So, you could see the wheels turning behind Emmett's eyes, but the rest of us didn't let on because we had it up to here with Fred David, Jr.'s baloney.

Finally, Emmett said, hey, man, could he use the truck because this guy uptown owed him money – more than a hundred bucks, and he knew he could get it if he could just get up there before he left the shop for the day.

Like, he was a gimp, okay? One leg and everything.

So, Fred David, Jr., said okay, to go ahead and Emmett took off.

We were all sitting there drinking in the dark, listening to the jukebox – like, they have the best jukeboxes in the world in New Orleans, you know. All the good stuff from way back.

And here it comes on WDSU 5 o'clock news.

You could see Fred David, Jr.'s truck buried in the front wall of the Polka Dot Lounge. That was only a few blocks up the Avenue, y'know. Just a little piece up the street.

The bar got real quiet and you could hear the chick on the television say, “A dispute over the refusal of service to a bar patron led to a violent act in the _____block of St. Charles Ave. this afternoon...”

It was an old story. Emmett had pulled one of his street theater stunts with the wooden leg and that's when some big shot spotted him in the Polka Dot and got him eighty-sixed from the joint.

A guy welshed on some kind of deal and wouldn't come outside the joint to talk it over even after Emmett sent a chick inside to ask him, so, he came back to the Bamboo Room and, like...

I'm sure you get the picture.

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