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Authors: David Fulmer

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BOOK: Chasing the Devil's Tail
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He stood on the corner, remembering. Across the way was the shave and barbering parlor at First and Liberty. Now run by Mr. Louis Jones, it was Nate Joseph's when Valentin was a kid, and was known as much as an informal social club and musicians' employment office as a barbering parlor.

But a barbering parlor it was, of course. He saw himself, a small boy, his tiny hand in his father's thick one, walking up to the double doors early on a Saturday afternoon. Inside, the solemn wink of greeting from Nate to his father. Being lifted onto the child's seat that crossed from arm to arm. The barber
throwing the cape like a matador, the billow a white sail that seemed to fill the tiny room before settling over him, right down to his shoes. Then stopping to pour his father a glass of brandy before he got to the business at hand. His father's face was reflected in the glass, watching with a lazy but critical eye the career of the scissors. And if young Valentin sat still and did not fuss, a piece of caramel candy to enjoy on the way home.

Later, he and Buddy stood outside, looking through the glass at the fancy men preening for a Saturday night's action, getting their shaves, haircuts, manicures, and shoeshines. It was a ritual as stylized as Mass, and for the two boys, a glance beyond their childhood world into something strange and wild.

The men: Creoles of every shade, redheads with dark freckles on russet skin, tans and high yellows and black, black, African-looking sports. Now and then, one olive-skinned like Valentin. Their hair was pomaded or oiled shiny. There were diamonds on their fingers and garters and stuck on pins in their ties. Tiny envelopes with cocaine and cards of hop peeked from vest pockets. The shapes of spring knives or straight razors showed in their trousers, but pistols were checked at the door.

"Here, sir," old Nate would implore, his voice soft, soothing. "Let me take that for you," as if relieving the customer of a tiresome burden. And the oily blue-black weapon nestled with the others in a drawer beneath the mirror.

They took their turns dropping into a chair with its brass fittings and leather the color of old blood. They watched the world through cool, sleepy eyes like snakes, and like snakes they were always ready to strike. But they relaxed now, as the darkness fell and Nate pampered their heads and faces, one assistant tended to their manicures, and yet another shined their shoes.

Buddy and Valentin knew the cast of characters like some boys knew the players on a baseball club or the gamblers knew the horses at the Fairgrounds. So they noticed when suddenly one disappeared. Before long, they'd know why: in jail or dead, for the most part. But always there was another candidate to slip into the vacated place.

They were gawky kids, both growing too fast for their clothes. Buddy, brown-skinned, getting tall, Valentin shorter, his skin so light so people often thought he was plain Dago. The two of them stood shoulder to shoulder, staring wide-eyed into that waiting room to the world of night. And the scenes beyond the glass were caught and held in time, like one of Papa Bellocq's photographs.

Still later, Valentin was sent off to Chicago just as Buddy's widowed mother was taking up with Manuel Hall, a plasterer by day and musician by night. It was Hall who taught Buddy the rudiments of the horn, but student quickly outstripped teacher, and Master Bolden left school to play music and work day jobs. Along the way, he fathered a son by a local girl, both of whom he promptly forgot.

By the time Valentin came back from his wanderings, Buddy was a bit player in the cast at the Louis Jones Shaving Parlor, because it was there and at the other barber shops around uptown New Orleans that band leaders left word that they were hiring for this job or that.

He was not yet spending his nights there, lazing with the sports. He had a pretty wife and new baby girl and half of a double shotgun down on First Street, just up the street from the house he grew up in. That all came later, when his horn and his good looks and his reputation turned him into one of the fancy men that a new crowd of young boys ogled through the tall windows.

That was right about the time that Valentin joined the New Orleans Police Department. They saw each other now and then, but Kid Bolden was now a regular rounder and St. Cyr was a copper; they were set apart by their choice of uniforms and, truth be told, embarrassed by each other. It was after Valentin quit the force over the rough business with his sergeant and began working the back-of-town streets that their paths crossed again. The friendship resumed, awkwardly at first, then with more comfort. But a distance remained, and they both knew it would never go away.

Valentin strolled by the shop, saw only a solitary barber sitting in a chair, reading a newspaper. It was early; people were still at their suppers.

He walked down two blocks to the corner of First Street and picked out one of the white clapboard shotgun houses that lined the streets in every direction, set apart from the others only by the number 2719. The street was quiet. He put a foot on the perron and knocked.

Nora Bolden opened the door. Her eyes flashed with surprise, then settled on him with an inscrutable calm. "Is he dead?" she said.

Nora asked if they could walk. She left Bernedette with the next-door neighbor and they strolled to the corner of Philip and Howard, then east in the general direction of downtown, away from the neighborhood.

Valentin figured that she did not want to happen upon Buddy's mother and sister, who lived around the corner on Howard Street. He recalled Buddy telling him that Nora never liked his family, she called them "funny." Though she was religious, he guessed she had a superstition about whatever had
gotten hold of him. One person picked up a curse or some other
the whole family suffered. It could be in the blood and it could go back generations.

She was a small, very pretty woman of medium-brown skin, a good mother and life-long member of St. John Fourth Baptist Church who now found herself in a common-law marriage with a madman.

As they walked, she began to recount her own version of the tale. Everything had been good at first, though she fretted over Buddy leaving steady jobs playing in parades and at concerts and white folks' dances to work in filthy Rampart Street saloons. She recalled him all happy at getting to lead his own little band, how he heard himself called "Kid Bolden" for the first time and rushed home to tell her about it.

She allowed herself a small smile. It was not so long after that people on the street started to talk about The Bolden Band, kids peeked in the windows to see her husband, young women at church looked him up and down and wet their lips.

His star rose. The word spread that his band could play anything, from sweet and solemn spirituals to double-time rags to gutbucket blues that would milk blood from a rock. And the show he put on! People loved it that Kid Bolden didn't sit stuck to a chair like the others. He got up and moved, up and down the stage, using his horn like a magic wand and sometimes like something dirty. Nora watched as he began to change, as he got lost in all the fawning attention, as he fell prey to the free whiskey and the loose women.

But it was really always the music. Thomas Edison had invented the machine to make sound recordings on cylinders of wax and then play them back. It was a true wonder, and as soon as the first contraption arrived in New Orleans, Buddy herded his band to the back room of the music store on Canal Street and made a recording, a rushed mess that convinced
him to tear that band apart, build another. And then a third and a fourth and each one moved him more out in front, like the engine on a fast train.

How it all got crazier then! People rushed to listen to his wild music, to stomp their feet and yell, to flail about like they were in the jungle somewhere. At Longshoreman's Hall on South Rampart or Odd Fellows Hall in Storyville or Masonic Hall across the river in Algiers, at the outdoor dances in Jackson and Johnson Parks, in dirty saloons and in pavilions built on pilings on the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. Anywhere Buddy's band played, a crowd gathered. And it wasn't just colored folk either; downtown Creoles and even some reckless young whites from proper Garden District families were coming round to see what all the fuss was about.

So his one or two late nights a week turned into five or six. And then "Kid" became "King." And the music changed, not just popular styles "jassed-up" or "ragged," like they called it; Buddy turned everything around, then inside out.

Nora didn't understand what he was playing at all. She didn't hear the music; it sounded like a mush of noise. She didn't understand why it made people so frantic. She didn't understand why it started young girls fighting over who would hold his coat and scarf (but never his horn; he never let anyone touch his horn). She didn't get all the rambunctious motion up on the bandstand. And, as the months passed, she realized that she no longer knew the man who was her husband and father to her daughter.

But he was part-time in that role anyway, staying with her, disappearing and turning up at his mother's house on Howard Street, then disappearing again and coming home days later as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

They started having spats. Buddy would be calm and sweet one moment, in a rage the next, stomping from one end
of the shotgun house to the other, ranting nonsense and scaring the daylights out of Bernedette. Then he was quiet again, lying on the couch with a wet cloth across his face. He got headaches.

Nora knew about the drinking, suspected opium. She didn't mention the women, either, though she surely knew about all them, too. It had been going on for a year or more, Buddy tottering around his home life with his wife and child, then crashing off into uptown New Orleans like some animal released from a cage.

"And this time they took him to jail," she said, ending on a weary note.

Valentin looked at her. "This time?"

"Oh, I had to call the po-lice myself," she said. "Once when he came in all crazy and started breaking things. The other when he stood outside the house in the middle of the night. Yelling like a crazy man. Woke up half the neighbors. The coppers came out, got him settled down."

"Yelling about what?"

Nora frowned. "I don't know. It didn't make no sense. When he woke up the next morning, it was like nothing happened."

They reached Perdido and Nora turned around without asking and headed back the way they came. They walked in silence for a half-block.

"So, Mr. Valentin," she said finally. "What am I gonna do wit' him?"

"Maybe what he needs is a doctor," Valentin said.

She let out a low laugh. "He went to a doctor."

"He did?"

"About a month ago." "Who was it?"

"Rall's his name," Nora said. "White man." She caught
Valentin's look of surprise. "I believe one of the fellows in the band sent him there," she explained.

"And did it help?"

Nora's pretty face fell. "No. He got worse."

She invited him for a glass of lemonade. They stood on the back gallery, looking out over the tiny yard, a patch of dirt and a few scrawny shrubs all silver in the falling night. Valentin thought to ask for the doctor's address and Nora wrote it down on a slip of paper. She handed it to him and he folded it and put it in his vest pocket.

"I'll pay him a visit," Valentin said.

"Don't be expecting nothing," she said grimly. "Buddy wouldn't tell me what he said, so I went round to his office to talk to him." She shook her head. "The man was drunk. Middle of the day and the man's drunk. The
He was some help."

"I'll talk to him, Nora."

Nora shrugged. Then: "When they gonna let him outta jail?" There was an edge to her voice.

"Day after tomorrow. I'll go collect him."

She put a hand on the porch railing and seemed to tense a little. Then she said, "That band of his is playing over in the District this week. Up on Marais Street. Nancy Hanks'."

"I know the place," Valentin said.

"You think maybe you could you keep an eye on him?" she said. "When he don't come home I worry." She was silent for a long moment and when she spoke up, her voice was shaky, like she was verging on tears. "I don't know who else to ask. I don't know what to do." She looked at him. "Guess I must be crazy, too, eh?"

Valentin had been preparing an excuse, but now he patted her shoulder and told her he'd do as she asked. He finished his lemonade and Nora walked him to the front door. "He scares
me, Mr. Valentin," she said suddenly. Valentin, standing on the perron, watched her face. "It's not him."

"What's not him?"

"It ain't Buddy anymore," she said. "Half the time, I believe it's someone else walkin' around in his shoes. I'm tellin' you, it ain't him. It scares me." She dropped her eyes. "He scares me," she said and closed the door.

Valentin walked toward Tulane, where he could catch a streetcar back to Magazine Street. Three blocks away was the very house where he had grown up. He walked straight on. On either side of him were landmarks, all the places he and Buddy had haunted as children, but he didn't look up.

His steps slowed as he reached the corner of South Rampart Street. He felt the shadows all around and he heard echoes in the still night. As he waited there for the streetcar, leaning against the brick wall of Charles Schneider's blacksmith shop, the shadows took form and the tale unfolded all over again. This time, he couldn't stop it.

It began with an urban war between two immigrant Italian clans, the Matrangas and the Provenzanos, who battled over the rights to the handling of fruit shipments from Central America that arrived on the New Orleans docks. The Matrangas brought the crude, bare-fisted street justice of their Sicilian mountain homes to the fray. The more urbane Provenzanos countered by snuggling close with downtown politicians.

Not that they were the sorts to run from a fight. The pitched battles between the two families included beatings and stabbings and shootouts on the streets of the city, some in broad daylight. Respectable citizens grew frightened and angry. Blood being spilled back-of-town was one thing; these people carried their hot-headed disputes everywhere, including the streets around the French Market, where servants of the "Americans" of the Garden District did their shopping.

BOOK: Chasing the Devil's Tail
13.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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