Thomas Sterling, New Orleans

“Would you believe I’ve been up since 5 this morning paddling this boat?” Sterling asked.

Shirtless and tattooed, with one cigarette in his mouth and a spare on his ear, Sterling said he has been running a freelance maritime rescue operation since Hurricane Katrina sent water crashing through doors and windows.

“I ain’t never seen so many dead people, and I ain’t never saved so many people,” Sterling said. “I must have rescued over 200 people.”

As with much storytelling in New Orleans, it’s hard to know where truth tires out and imagination takes up the slack. But as we floated slowly through the ruined neighborhood, there was no denying the floating corpse that bobbed against the front of a faded blue duplex at 1728 Desire St.

It looked like a man. He was face-down, wearing a blue shirt, black pants and rubber boots. Sterling suspected he’d know him if he could see his face.

The former dockworker, 53, on disability with a nerve condition, had never given a thought to evacuating.

“I knew I would survive, so I wanted to stay here and help other people who wouldn’t leave or couldn’t get out,” said Sterling, whose chest tattoo says, “All Eyes on Me, Me Against the World.”

-LA Times, 9/6/05

i met the subject of that article. he was sitting, falling asleep, chin resting on his cane, in a little homemade park at the corner of mystery and esplanade, in new orleans three days ago. i’m jetlagged and falling asleep at this keyboard now, can’t be bothered to capitalize- but i want to tell you, if you ever lose hope for the human spirit or think we’ve lost our soul in 2012, you aint been to new orleans.

he said “how you doing sir, could i talk to you fo a second.. this here article is about me from the l.a.times” and to verify he showed me is photo i.d..

“and i’m trying to collect 90 dollars so i can pay my electric bill..” ever weary of a scam, but i stopped anyway, i read the article, and because he seemed soul-weary not drunk or desperate I believed him. I sat down with him. he told me about the floating bodies.. he told me how it came to be that he stayed-

“that morning i was shaving , and after I shaved I rubbed my eyes  and face with a towel, you know, like you do,  and as I did that” he told me slowly,”i had a vision from god and he said that if I stayed behind he would not let anything happen to me, and so i stayed, my momma said ‘boy you better get ready, we leaving’ but I stayed behind”

we sat in silence for as while as i did some reading, he dozed and continued to ask passerby for help. he never complained once, never said the city or anyone else owed him anything, didn’t guilt anyone and was very p0lite. I noticed sores of circular scars covered both arms, “what happened there?”I asked.  he said he had chicken pox as a kid.

We spoke more, then he said he was going elsewhere “i’ll see you mr. jordan, i’ll see you later”

I said my goodbye but wished we’d spoken more. and this morning at 6am we said our goodbye to N.O. and it broke my heart, for so many reasons. yes we had beignets and po boys and saw the Mississippi, and canoed right past some gators and all- but a city’s worth  is its people, and the kind of person it makes you when you’re there- and New Orleans is what an american city is supposed to be-

old, weathered, building, soulful, and above all about the future…

thanks to ed and susan for showing it to me-

(Zamboni I lost at the Voodoo museum but i expect he’ll turn up soon)

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