New Orleans is a siren, a temptress who lulls unsuspecting innocents into her arms. She infects her unwitting visitors with a fever from which there is no cure. Forevermore they love her and must return again and again and again. I am one of those people who is so enamored with the Big Easy that I often find myself dreaming of walking the familiar haunts. When I have been gone too long I feel a longing and ultimately I find my way back to her. I revel in the sights, the sounds, the feast of the senses until I am satiated enough to return to my normal routines but the lovely NOLA is never far from my thoughts. She knows as I do that I will never resist her call. I will come back to enjoy her many charms.
It was love at first sight for me forty seven years ago when Mike and I spent our honeymoon in New Orleans. I have told my children of the lovely secrets of the city and they in turn have fallen under its spell. The grandchildren that I have brought to visit understand her charms. As William Faulkner once said, “There are three cities in the United States, New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everything else is Cleveland.” Like Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway I feel the pulse of life in this city as in few others. The food, the architecture, the music, and mostly the people intrigue me. Sitting on a bench simply observing the play of humanity around me is entertainment in and of itself.
I tend to follow the same routines each time that I visit. I must have a Muffuletta from the Central Grocery. I’m not content until I have enjoyed the beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde. I want a steaming hot bowl of gumbo from the Gumbo Shop even though I have perfected my own recipe so that it is even tastier than theirs. I must relax at Pat O’Brien’s with a cool drink. Breakfast at Brennan’s is a special treat. Dinner at Broussard’s is a delicacy. I love to walk up and down Royal Street looking at the antiques and wares in the many shops. I always go back to the Hotel Monteleone where Mike and I stayed so many years ago. Mostly though I look for the street entertainers and my favorite among them is Uncle Sam.
Everyone who has been to New Orleans in the past twenty two years is familiar with Uncle Sam. He is a mime who stands in suspended animation walking his cigar smoking little dog, Willie. He appears to have been frozen in mid stride with his long legs ready to take the next step but never moving forward. He wears a crisp white suit and a red white and blue top hat. He and Willie are a dapper couple seemingly out for a stroll along Royal Street or ready to greet disembarking passengers on the steamboat Natchez. He is as much an iconic figure in the city as the St. Louis Cathedral and the lovely apartments that loom above the bars, restaurants and stores.
Uncle Sam also known as Uncle Louie or Mr. Louis became an entertainer quite accidentally. He accompanied a friend to the French Quarter one day on the promise of getting a beer once the friend’s plastic bucket was filled with donations from tourists. He watched his buddy mime and noticed the dollars almost magically multiplying. At some point in the day his acquaintance asked Uncle Louie to hold the place on the street and watch the bucket of money while he took care of some business. Mr. Louis obliged but when time passed and there was still no sign of his friend he decided to wing it. He struck a pose and suddenly there were tourists gathered around him who were tossing bills into the container.
From that moment on Uncle Louie was hooked. He created the character, Uncle Sam, and realized that he needed a little puppy for his act since everyone loves animals. He has been walking cigar smoking Willie in his guise of Uncle Sam ever since and is consistently voted the favorite performer every year. When asked what produces his success he quickly notes that his sole purpose is to make people happy, especially the children. He does his job for the love of it and those of us who watch him see his inner joy come to life when he is in a state of suspended animation.
On Saturday Mike and I took a slight detour on our way home from our most recent trip. We drove over four hundred miles from Memphis to New Orleans. By Sunday morning the weather was frightful but we were not deterred by the rain. We brought umbrellas that we had purchased on yet another stormy New Orleans day. We were ready to brave the elements because we were back in one of our favorite places on earth. Our first stop was for lunch at the Central Grocery. Then we made the ritual stroll down Royal Street. I worried that Uncle Sam would not be there. I could not imagine that he would want to work in the downpour or that Willie would be willing to endure the elements. Imagine my excitement when I saw Uncle Sam just down the street. I stopped only long enough to retrieve some money from my wallet. When I looked up again Uncle Sam was gone. I was so disappointed!
We walked a short distance and there he was taking cover inside one of the many shops created in alleyways. I rushed in to give him my contribution and then I told him that he is one of my heroes. I babbled on about a blog that I had once written about him and I hurriedly scribbled my web address on a small slip of paper. He seemed genuinely pleased that a strange old lady would be addressing him as though he were a rockstar. He insisted on posing for a photograph with me and Mike. His true personality was so apparent in our short conversation. He was warm and loving just as I had imagined him to be. When I mentioned that I had not thought that I would find him out and about on such a bad weather day he insisted that he is busy doing his work seven days a week rain or shine, hot or cold.
This is a man who is devoted to a job with a passion. He is an entertainer in the truest sense of the world. He literally works constantly to improve his craft. He spends eight hours day after day after day standing in oppressive heat and driving rain because he enjoys what he is doing and he loves making people happy. I can’t think of any better reason for doing something and I admire Uncle Sam for his grit and determination.
I can only imagine how difficult life may have been for Uncle Sam during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina as his city reeled under the devastation that threatened to destroy the spirit of that town. Somehow he managed to hang on to his dream and make it back to the lovely streets where he is so beloved. He is my hero because he represents the best of our human qualities. He works hard. He is always nice. He pursues his dreams. He makes people happy. He loves.
This blog is for you, Uncle Sam. I hope it makes your day the way you do for the thousands who watch your act and return again and again in the hopes of seeing you.