Allow Me To Introduce Mr. Jus T'is
The following is an excerpt from my current work in process, a Magical Novel entitled (at the moment!) ADRIFT. Julz, a writer by trade, has been befriending the magnificent specimens of driftwood along the inland coasts of the chilly Pacific Northwest, in an attempt to avoid a looming deadline for an uninteresting assignment which she must finish soon to replenish her dwindling bank account. Rather than apply some necessary discipline in order to get down to work, she takes a quick trip to New Orleans hoping to inspire her imagination. Wandering into Café En Vie in the French Quarter on a steaming hot morning, she encounters Jus T'is.
Now, down the Mississippi River, south of New Orleans along the delta you’ll find a very different weathered drift scene. None so large nor ornate as the splendid driftwood specimens found on the shores of the inland seas of the Puget Sound, I’ve described before. Instead, these pieces have been torn from tree branches and chunks of trunks that have lodged in mostly inconvenient places upriver from here. It’s these smaller bits of flotsam and jetsam floating leisurely in the slow-moving bayous or stuck in the muck on the banks of endless tributaries, still many miles from the mouth of the Mississippi, that Jus T’is covets.
Jus T’is shouldn’t have bright blue eyes. His coloring is partly dark, maybe some Jamaican or West Indies in his blood by the sound of that slight accent embedded within a southern country drawl. He stands tall and slim as a pole pine blackened by wildfire. A dusty misshapen felt hat pulled over his long natty dreds, his stylish but tattered at the knee’s black jeans, ungroomed beard, even the dirt under his nails, all black. His well-worn coat, however, is an incongruent deep royal purple velvet trimmed in braided gold thread.
I might have thought him homeless at first glance because of his shabby attire, and he did confess, as we later began to talk, of times he’s spent in that unfortunate clique. This morning his slightly frayed but neatly pressed white button-down collared shirt is in stark contrast to his faded black everything else. The shirt is a formerly fine fabric from somewhere like Brooks Brothers, and I suspect a lucky thrift shop find. But it's that faint violet glow radiating from his aura that has captured my attention and ignited my imagination, convincing me that he is someone special and isn’t homeless now. Not today.
Jus T’is, seeks his treasures stuck in muddy debris and tangled in trash swept up from their former spots and tumbled down river or stream in the rains and floods. Jus T’is has been gifted with a bright blue eye for hidden miracles in unexpected places.
By pure happenstance we met just now. I’d roamed into Café En Vie, a funky place I like in The Quarter on the edge of Frenchman Street and the Market, here in New Orleans. They serve a decent breakfast and the most fragrant French roast with chicory café, a delicious southern whim. It’s infinitely better than Café Du Monde, that crowded messy iconic place serving cafe du lait with beignets, a required tourist attraction when in the Quarter, at least in my view. Starbucks could learn to brew this rich elixir, but even though there are plenty of those Seattle born shops in New Orleans, they haven’t been able to master this unique regional flavor. And let’s face it, their scones could never replace beignets. I’m looking forward to some yummy, iced octane on this steamy morning.
I sashayed in and there he was, watching me stroll by with a half-smile and a slight nod. Naturally, I return his smile noting that he was clutching a latte grandé topped with peaks of whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles in both hands as if it were the elixir of life. His lips and bits of tangled beard are lavished with wisps of cream. I suppress a giggle watching his rather long tongue perform an elaborate full circle sweep between sips. I sensed something in him, something about him. He felt oddly familiar to me, though surely, I’ve never laid eyes on him before this morning.
Jus T’is returned his attention to images on the screen of his laptop. What a study in incongruency, him, faded and dusty surrounded by junk, working on a shiny new MacBook Pro. I’m ashamed to admit that at times my observations cause me to make unfair assumptions. As I watched him sitting there tapping away on what I imagined to be a borrowed computer. I guessed he is primarily here to kill time utilizing free wi-fi. In fact, as I later discovered, he is doing rather well these days. The computer is his, albeit a used refurbished one. He has managed to garner this small bistro table all to himself in the corner between the two sets of open French doors in this coveted wi-fi laptop-laden coffee shop. His bulging faded green duffle bag occupies the other chair. The tiny table serves as his desk and is filled with all kinds of obscure items: a grimy stethoscope, a dirty old green bottle, a tiny, rusted hammer, a brilliant unnaturally colored turquoise feather, a slightly bent ice pick, a small vial of super glue and a cracked magnifying glass.
Waiting at the counter for my brew, I watch as Jus T’is yanks his large duffle off the opposite chair, straddling the ungainly thing between his long thin legs while he selects pieces of drift from it. Carefully examining each, he wipes the dried muck off with an oily rag before balancing several small chunks to teeter on the edge of the table. He was turning a particular piece over and over in his hands, fondling it, his strange blue eyes softer now, gentle with affection.I was magnetically drawn to this gesture and couldn’t help staring. It was the way he cradled the thing so gently in his arms. He was smiling tenderly, almost cooing, as if that piece of gnarled wood were a beloved infant entrusted to his care. What a strange, sweet sight.
My heart burst open spontaneously, its contents a slur of feelings; curiosity, affection, tenderness, compassion, all surging toward Jus T'is and his loving gesture. At that exact moment he looked up at me with an intense expectant gaze. Our energies swirled toward one another, intertwined in an intricate dance, drifting throughout the shop in a delicate billowing pink mist, before dispersing in the soft breeze of the café ceiling fans. I resonated intimately with his tingle of unabashed affection for that coveted thing he’d found and was caring for. I even thought I perceived a muted tone emanating from the thing, just the slightest vibration, and yet a feeling so palpable that when he beckoned an invitational wave to join him at his little table, I felt almost giddy to learn more about him and his story, so I grabbed my coffee and hurried over.
When I asked him his name, and would he care to join me for a bite of breakfast, he folded his hands in a prayerlike gesture, declaring that yes he would, but only if we could stay here in Café En Vie.
“I cain’t give up dis spot when I got da wi-fi and some time.” He said. He had his computer work to complete, he had an important deadline to meet.
His earnest declaration was like a punch in my gut. I gasped for breath and choked on my latte. Why? I’ve been unable to muster the slightest motivation to work on my own project lately. That's partly the reason I took this week off to immerse myself in the Who Dat of New Orleans, a city and culture so alien to my home in the Pacific NW, that I’d hoped it would jolt me into action. I’ve soothed myself with the notion that I'm here on a mission to replenish my soul which would then inspire me to finish and submit my manuscript. Well, there’s that possibility, but also, and I’ll admit it, I am perpetually on a scavenger hunt for eclectic material to weave into future stories, languishing projects. This method works sometimes, when my creativity needs revitalizing. I was hoping that this trip wouldn’t merely be a diversionary tactic to fend off the desperation I've felt ever since my so-called work ethic slipped into a sinkhole of inertia. Most of the time this kind of escapism has a positive effect on me, but so far on this, my third day in the city, it hasn’t kicked in yet.
Even now, early in the day, honestly on any day, persistent live music; Dixie, Jazz, Blues, Zydeco – lots of horns, can be heard. The joyful brass streaming from Second Lines parading down unseen streets, solo musicians busking on corners, or the many bars and clubs squeezed together on Frenchman, make it difficult to discern where all the sounds are coming from. But the music is not frenetic. It’s easy to love this city and its multicultural musical heritage, relaxed way of life and inexhaustible joie de vivre. I guess that’s why it’s called The Big Easy. But I digress.
“How about I order up a couple omelets, some croissants and more coffee, Jus T’is?” I offered, hoping to engage him in conversation and hear about his work and life. He merely nodded his agreement.
When I asked Jus T’is about all the various shaped pieces of driftwood he’s hauled in here, his face brightened, and a wide grin spread across his lined face as he explained that he took pictures of his found objects from different angles. These pieces of drift and bits of rubbish were not only his art but also his commerce. He then showed me how he photoshopped them, duplicated them across a page, overlapped them, isolated them, and personalized them with just the right colors. He might choose psychedelics or pastels or muted tones depending on the mood of the piece and how it expressed itself to him.
I didn’t know what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t that. This enigma of a tech savvy man described how those pieces called to him from the swamps so he could find them. He said he listened carefully to each while a message, poem or melody emmerged for him. And once he explained why, it made a lot of sense to me. He simply could not part with his foundlings. No, Jus T’is has acquired the excellent insight to release his art into the world while simultaneously hanging onto it.
He then prints his images, frames, and decorates them with glued together bits of found stuff from secondhand shops, alleys and trash bins. On their backs, he then scribbles each of their personal testaments. After running into him and discovering his obscure works of art, tourists can saunter off with their purchase, congratulating themselves for discovering an original unique souvenir from the streets of New Orleans.
He then confided to me that, now and then, he laid out a blanket along the sidewalk with the itinerants, mostly youngsters, who lined the walls at night along Frenchman. His demeanor changed to a shade of sorrow as he described those kid’s, whose sole purpose was to get and stay high while they sketched scenes or strung beads and tied knots in macrame bracelets to sell passersby. They were mostly ignored and disdained by the tourists and townsfolk, who wander about these street’s seedy venues.
“Ain’t like dem.” Jus T’is assured me. Although he generously explained that those struggling young refugees from other rough streets in other decaying cities had his admiration. He, too, has grappled with the kind of grit required to get through another night on the streets of New Orleans. More than once. “Ain’t a pretty life,” he sighed.
Then he mumbled something under his breath about a High Priestess named La Rue, who did her conjuring out of a shop called La Boutík Creole up on Dauphine Street. He insisted we would need to visit her very soon as he was sure she would be able explain why he’d been thinking about Queens of late. The one likely gone missing but showing up in his dreams a lot lately and now this one here sitting with him in Café En Vie. He isn’t speaking directly to me, or is he? His eyes had a far-away glaze like he might be dreaming with his eyes open. I waited for an explanation, but none appeared to be forthcoming.