Love in the Time of King Cake

Bernice L. McFadden recalls her deep connection with a man she met in a streetcar shelter in New Orleans.

In the summer of 2016, I was 50 going on 51. Back when I was in my twenties and thirties, 5O seemed ancient, but in 2016, 50 was the new 40. I was an empty-nester—in fact I had sold the nest. As the old people say: I didn’t have chick nor child, so when I ate, my entire family had eaten. I was my entire family.

So, I only had me to consider when I accepted the one year visiting professorship at Tulane University.

I rented an apartment in the Central Business District, near the famed Bourbon Street, bought a used couch and slept on a blow-up bed, rather than invest money in a mattress, box spring and frame.

Mr. Joshua was a tall, dark, handsome gentleman with an infectious smile. From the beginning, he radiated warmth and I felt instantly at ease in his company.

I was pleasant towards my colleagues, but reluctant to form emotional attachments, preferring to avoid those underpinnings that secure long lasting friendships, because I knew New Orleans was not going to be my forever home. I believed that after I completed the academic year, I would pack up and move on to another university in another city.

With that in mind, I stayed to myself, spending my free time wandering through the city’s famed neighborhoods, many of which were still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina only to find themselves—a decade later—grappling with a new devastation known as urban renewal, that we Black folks refer to as: Negro removal.

I am a smoker who stupidly rented an apartment in a non-smoking building, so every time a nicotine craving hit, I’d have to to take the elevator down from my sixth-floor apartment and head outside to have a cigarette.

I don’t like to stand and smoke, so I took to sitting in the partial glass-enclosed structure that was a shelter for passengers awaiting transport on the streetcar. There, I could sit on the bench and people-watch as I puffed my way to contentment.

The streetcar shelters in New Orleans are a multipurpose refuge. Not only do they serve the passengers, but they are also gathering places for those drinking, smoking weed, and eating chicken and crawfish. The structures also serve as havens for the city’s homeless—of which there are many.

Those months before we became acquainted, before we began sharing slivers and slices of our lives and the events that carried us to New Orleans, we’d each only acknowledged the other’s presence with a head nod.

It was in the streetcar shelter where I first met, Mr. Joshua. Mr. Joshua was a tall, dark, handsome gentleman with an infectious smile. From the beginning, he radiated warmth and I felt instantly at ease in his company.

Those months before we became acquainted, before we began sharing slivers and slices of our lives and the events that carried us to New Orleans, we’d each only acknowledged the other’s presence with a head nod.

Before the epiphany I’d only encountered Mr. Joshua in the evenings. He’d be sitting on the bench with his knapsack in his lap, his long legs extended out before him, head reclined onto the glass wall of the shelter. It seemed to me he was always deep in thought.

In my writer’s mind, I imagined that he let streetcar after streetcar pass because he needed time to himself before heading home after a long hard day of work. I fantasized that he was a husband of a pretty, dimple-cheeked wife who’d grown plump in the years since they’d wed. That wife was a woman who kept a clean house and enjoyed cooking tasty food for her family. The home I invented was a quaint shotgun house that had been in his family for generations. It was in that home that his grandfather had been raised, and he in turn had raised his children there, and Mr. Joshua had done the same. I imagined that now the house was teeming with his own grandchildren.

I confess, my imagination may not be wild—but at times, it does have the tendency to run away. Eventually, I would learn that none of what I had envisioned about Mr. Joshua’s life was true.

In my mind, that shotgun was warm and cozy with cushy furniture and hardwood floors, with an antique chandelier dangling from the dining room ceiling. I imagined that when Mr. Joshua turned the key in the lock, the old, faithful family dog was waiting for him on the other side of that closed door.

I confess, my imagination may not be wild—but at times, it does have the tendency to run away. Eventually, I would learn that none of what I had envisioned about Mr. Joshua’s life was true.

The real truth was that he born in Chicago, one of a dozen siblings. He’d married young and then divorced and married again, moved to Florida where he fathered two daughters and then became a corrections officer. When his girls reached their teenage years, he discovered that his wife was being unfaithful to him. The revelation broke his heart and bent his mind.

When his youngest daughter graduated high school, Mr. Joshua gave notice at his job, emptied his bank account, packed his suitcase, climbed into his car and left his family without a goodbye.

Age came up—as it often does when mature people fall into conversation. He told me he was 57 years old. The number stalled me. He was just six years my senior. My contemporary.

He was on the road for two years. When his money ran out, he sold his car and hitchhiked his way to New Orleans, where he secured a job as a mechanic and rented an apartment across the river on the West Bank. When Katrina roared through in 2005, he lost everything, and his bent mind snapped in two.

He adopted the street as his home and spent the insufferable hot and humid days in the air-conditioned public library. When the weather turned agreeable, he took his newspapers, magazines and books to Louis Armstrong Park.

Longs story short—Mr. Joshua was homeless.

He had a list of homeless shelters that offered free showers, hot meals and clean beds, but he wouldn’t sleep in them. He didn’t trust the shelters. He said bad things happened to Black people in those places.

Sometimes people gave him money, which he often saved to rent a room on the cheap at one the transient hotels.

I’d learned Mr. Joshua was homeless quite by accident. One morning I came down to smoke earlier than usual, and there he was, sound asleep, right where I’d left him the night before. I was dumbfounded, for he didn’t look homeless—not like the obvious looking homeless that lived in tents under the I10, or the filthy ones who slept in doorways with their faithful dogs

Upon reflection I realize that my perception of him had little to do with his physical appearance and more to do with his aura. He had a very old soul, and that’s what I was responding too.

No, he was not like them. Mr. Joshua was spotlessly clean, well-groomed and always smelled nice.

This discovery occurred just as Carnival season commenced. The city was draped in purple, green and gold, and visitors from all over the world had come to join in the festivities. It is almost impossible to be alone or lonely during Mardi Gras.

It was during that time that our platonic relationship began.

One night when I came down to smoke, he looked over at me, drumming his fingers on the empty bench between us. “Why don’t you sit next to me,” he said. “I don’t bite.”

Over the next few nights, we shared the events that had brought each of us to New Orleans. After he told me his tragic tale of love, loss and flight, he asked me if I thought he was crazy.

I told him that I thought he was human.

Age came up—as it often does when mature people fall into conversation. He told me he was 57 years old. The number stalled me. He was just six years my senior. My contemporary.

At the time I didn’t know why I pegged him to be much older than me. But now, upon reflection I realize that my perception of him had little to do with his physical appearance and more to do with his aura. He had a very old soul, and that’s what I was responding too.

In the streetcar shelter, the night before I moved, we shared a bottle of wine, smoked cigarettes, and talked until way past midnight.

After a week or two, we both realized how much we enjoyed the other’s company and admitted how disappointed we felt when one or the other did not show up for our impromptu, hours long conversations. It was obvious we were smitten, because whenever we saw each other we both lit up like candle wicks.

One night I came out and saw Mr. Joshua hunched over and on a bench in the passenger shelter on the opposite side of the tracks. I went over and tapped him on the shoulder. He raised his head and focused bloodshot eyes on my face. He was shivering, his forehead was beaded with sweat, and he stunk of the dispossessed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Before he could answer, he was seized by a coughing fit. Afterwards, he dragged the back of his hand beneath his runny nose and then used that same hand to wave me away.

When I just stood there scared and staring, he angrily shouted, “Go on now, go!”

Startled, I backed all the way into oncoming traffic. The blast of an angry car horn snapped me out of my daze, and I hurried up the street to the Walgreens, where I purchased a bottle of TheraFlu, a large container of orange juice, several packets of powdered vitamin C, a bag of cough drops, and a couple of bottled waters. I returned to the street car shelter and set the wellness bags down beside him.

“Please go to the emergency room,” I urged before quietly walking away.

I’d lost my father in 2005 and my grandfather in 2007, and Mr. Joshua reminded me of both of those men. If he died, I knew the loss would gut me.

When I stood to leave, I extended my hand to him. It would be the first time that I felt the warmth of his flesh.

Nearly a week passed before I saw him again—seated in his usual spot, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. When he spotted me, he smiled a huge, toothy smile and raised his hand in greeting.

Elated, I rushed across the street. I wanted to hug him, but we’d never touched, not even a handshake so I just stood there grinning at him like he it was Christmas day, and he was my gift.

“I had pneumonia,” he stated before I could ask.

Luckily, he’d taken my advice and gone to the emergency room where he was treated with a round of antibiotics.

Mardi Gras was over. The merrymakers returned to their home cities, giving New Orleans a little time to exhale before the next round of festivals.

That night, I told Mr. Joshua that I had been granted another year at Tulane University and was moving uptown closer to work.

“Congratulations,” he said. “It’s for the best because that pneumonia took a lot out of me. I won’t be able to protect you anymore.”

“Protect me?” I stammered, confused.

“Gurl, don’t you know a guardian angel when you see one?” He said with a wink.

In the streetcar shelter, the night before I moved, we shared a bottle of wine, smoked cigarettes, and talked until way past midnight. When I stood to leave, I extended my hand to him. It would be the first time that I felt the warmth of his flesh.

 “Don’t you go getting cozy with them uptown homeless folks,” he chided me, laughing. “Some of the people out here in these streets are crazy for real. Promise me, ok?”

I promised him.

“I’ma be keeping me eye on you on the internets,” he said.

To which I responded, “And I’ll come down and see about you too.”

That was in 2017, the last time I laid eyes on Mr. Joshua. I’ve gone searching for him in the years that have since passed, and have not spotted him in the streetcar shelter, nor any of his other haunts.

I don’t know if he was human, guardian angel or both. But I do know that our admiration for each other was very, very real.


BERNICE L. McFADDEN is the author of The Book of Harlan (winner of the 2017 American Book Award and the 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work). This is in addition to eight other critically acclaimed novels, including SugarGathering of Waters, and Praise Song for the Butterflies. Tisoy, her latest work, is available only on audible.com. Her memoir, First Born Girls, will be published by Dutton Books in 2023.
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BERNICE L. McFADDEN is the author of 10 critically acclaimed novels including the award winning The Book of Harlan. Tisoy - a novella, is her latest literary work available ONLY on audible.com