Yesterday was the first sunny day in weeks. I sat on my pedicab on the corner of Royal and St. Peters, listening and watching Doreen Ketchens, one of the best musicians in New Orleans, raise her clarinet to the sky with unmistakable style, like a trumpet or trombone, surrounded by couples in khaki shorts drinking coffee, Hand Grenades and daiquiris, drunks and gutter-punks sitting on the curb smoking Joes and shouting requests, dreamy-eyed kitchen workers in white-striped pants leaning on time-worn posts, and waited for a ride.
After 20 minutes slumped in the backseat, a girl with a sign that read “Stories” sharpied on a cardboard box floated through the crowd whispering something soft and incoherent as she approached.
“I’m working too,” I said, my stock response to street hustlers who try to shake me down on my shift, but I felt uncertain.
“I don’t want your money,” she replied in a voice like a river-stone. “I think I have a story here. A story that will change our lives.”
On any given day in the French Quarter there are magicians, cross-dressers, energy readers, psychics, people painted silver and gold, human gorillas, cross dressers, topless women posing for pictures, mimes, tarot card readers, poets for hire, Voodoo Queens, and Mardi Gras Indians out to make a dollar. But I’d never met a girl hustling stories.
Before I could respond she leaned into the back of my seat, looked into my eyes, and opened a small leather-bound book. She held it in my lap where I could see the words “The Prophet” written in little black letters at the top of the page.
“Yes.” She smiled.
She flipped the tiny pages to find our story and glanced up again into my eyes and with her right arm resting on my thigh began to read,
Then a ploughman said, “Speak to us of Work.”
And he answered, saying:
You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
She read slowly, rhythmically, and after every couple of lines she paused to see my response. At first, I was timid, afraid to look, but when I did I saw her bright, gray eyes like storm-clouds shined through with sky.
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.
She read as though each word was destined to manifest, her cheeks flushed red and purple like the leaves of a blueberry tree, as though she was The Prophet. She was either high on psychedelics, I thought, wonderfully afloat in alternative dimensions of consciousness, or she believed every word she uttered was true.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It certainly wasn’t this, I thought. Half-hungover in the back of a pedicab. Her eyes full and mine half-lit. Her eyes still. Mine darting nervously.
Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For a moment I wanted to kiss her. Then that felt stupid, and strange. Was it Kahlil Gibran that I wanted to kiss?
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.
This was the end of our story, the story that would “change our lives.”
She leaned into the back of my bike and gave me a hug.
I gave her a dollar and invited her to my show that night in hopes I could share my stories with her.
As she walked away into the crowd she closed The Prophet in her hands with the mindfulness a monk would allot to rose petals or a lover to the body of his beloved.
Later that evening, I recited my own poems into the ears of a sparse Monday-night crowd in a smoky dim-lit bar on the corner of Frenchmen and Esplanade. She didn’t show up. This morning it occurred to me that during the show I never looked into anyone’s eyes. I looked over heads and into some vague space, front-center, left, right, abstract focal points like yoga drishtis, circles and squares of general space nothing like the concentrated energy of an eye.
Once though, I closed my own eyes and imagined the eyes of the girl who read the poem about work and love as if she had written the words herself. As if to speak truthfully in poetry was as vital as planting seeds in the earth. As if words were holy again, or she knew how to Make it New.