Between today’s breakfast and lunch plans, I had an hour and a half to wait. My original plan had been to run in City Park in that time, but as I paid the breakfast bill, I realized I was close to the Lower Ninth Ward, Smitty’s neighborhood. I decided to see what he was up to.
On my way over, I called him and identified myself.
“Katie? The lawyer?” he asked. I confirmed this.
“I thought you were leaving the country!”
“No, just the state,” I replied, “but not for another two weeks. I thought I’d come over and say hi to you.”
“Do you know where I live?” he asked.
“How’d you get my address?” he asked.
“You gave it to me,” I answered.
“What? I’m giving strange ladies my address?”
“Well, this one, anyway,” I replied.
He said he looked forward to my visit and asked whether I knew how to get there. I said yes.
When I arrived a few minutes later, Smitty came outside to greet me. He introduced me to his neighbor, who was out on his front porch.
Smitty told him, “Watch out, now. Katie’s a lawyer. She’ll put you in jail.”
When we walked inside, he put on jazz music, as he had done the other time I’d gone over to his house. Then he launched into an astounding lesson about the history of slavery – both institutional and systemic – in his neighborhood.
I learned about the plantation houses just blocks away, which of course no longer house slaves, but many if not all of which have maintained the old slave houses on the property.
“They don’t have plantations anymore, not like that. The modern-day plantation is at Tulane and Broad.”
I guessed correctly that Orleans Parish Prison sits at that intersection.
Smitty told me more about himself today, too. He attended McArthur High School, just down the block from his house, which is now Dr. King Charter School. Then he studied accounting, business, and economics at Xavier University of Louisiana.
As a black man in the early 1950s, it was nearly impossible for Smitty to find a job upon his graduation commensurate with his level of education. When I asked whether he found it easier in Los Angeles, where he had previously told me he’d lived for decades as an adult, he said that in order to answer that, he had to first tell me about Chicago.
Shortly after Smitty graduated from college, Provident Hospital, a “black-owned” hospital in Chicago, offered him a job in his field.
“Well, as a debt collector,” he clarified. “I had to call poor, black people and tell them they owed the hospital money.”
He added that while he held the position, the successful collection rate was the highest it had ever been.
“I asked people if they could pay $1 or $5 a week. I didn’t demand that they pay the whole thing.”
Smitty and I agreed that people generally want to do the right thing, and that if you treat them with compassion and respect, giving them options of which they can actually avail themselves, they will often be accountable.
Smitty’s next job was in accounting, working for the labor union, and helping people protest.
“All the people I trained were black, and they were scared to go into an office and confront a white person. They were afraid to join protests, too.”
Smitty added, “I told them what my parents told me: If you’re looking at a white woman, you can move your eyes from side to side, so you don’t make direct eye contact. But if you’re looking at a white man, you stare him right in the eye, and don’t even blink. You don’t show any fear.”
He reported that none of them could do it.
I told Smitty that I’d sat in two family law courtrooms last week, to watch hearings that were underway. The judges in both departments were black women, and the self-represented litigants whom I saw arguing their cases were older white men.
I relayed my observation that the men addressing both judges were hostile and dominant, while the judges were firm but deferential, and at times apologetic in tone. I explained that this was very different from anything I’d seen in the Bay Area, where all the judges, irrespective of gender or race, rule the courtroom.
Smitty underscored what we both knew: These men did not treat their sitting judges with respect because, given their upbringing, they view these black women as property, regardless of the judges’ superior role in the legal hierarchy. And the judges have to navigate that reality.
While Smitty was working at his labor union job, a group of Italian people doing “underground things” asked Smitty to deliver some sort of presentation. He impressed them, and they offered him a position with their organization.
“I didn’t want to work with those mafiosos!” Smitty said. “But my boss told me I had to.”
While working at this job, Smitty reached a point where he felt his life was in danger.
“So I went first to Denver, but it was too high up and cold, so I bent left and went to California.”
In Los Angeles, Smitty opened a coffee shop across the street from Hollywood High, called The Epicurean, which he operated for six or seven years. He frequented the opera at that time, and one night at the opera in 1971, a group of gay men started talking to him about their lives in the theatre.
Smitty is a straight man, who had at that time no theatre training, nor any acting, directing, or production experience. Yet he moved his coffee shop to Kenmore Boulevard and expanded it to include a gay theatre house, where he produced and sometimes directed plays by and about the gay community. He called it Deja Vu Coffee House.
“You would not believe the productions we put on,” he told me. “This was a neighborhood of Russian Armenians, and the actors in my plays were running around half naked. The older women in the neighborhood would tell me to put on more plays, and their families would tell me I had to stop getting the older women excited about the half-naked men.”
“What did you do for work before you opened the first coffee shop?” I asked.
Smitty blushed and said, “I worked for the IRS. Can you believe it? I worked for the man. Don’t tell anyone that!”
I asked Smitty if I could tell people he’d worked for the IRS, as long as I qualified it as the one aspect of his life about which he feels shame. He agreed that I could tell.
“It is the only part of your life that you’re ashamed of, right?” I asked.
“That depends on whom you’re talking to!” Smitty answered, laughing.
I told Smitty that I had posted a story about our last visit on Facebook.
“Are you on Facebook?” I asked. Seeing no computer in his house, nor technology of any kind other than a landline, I doubted it.
“I’m not sure,” Smitty answered.
“Do you know what Facebook is?” I asked.
“Mmm … I don’t think so.”
I told him that it doesn’t sound like he’s on Facebook, but I checked anyway, and did not find him. On my cell phone, I showed him the photo I’d posted of the two of us last week.
“That’s on FACEBOOK?” Smitty asked, appearing wildly ecstatic for someone who hadn’t seemed to know a second ago what Facebook was.
I also told Smitty that I’d shared the Amazon link to Exiled in Paradise, his book about his Hurricane Katrina evacuation. I asked how he receives his royalty payments, and he said that Amazon directly deposits them into his bank account. When I told him that a few of my friends had purchased copies, he voiced his gratitude.
This time, I noticed copies of another book he authored, in the place where he keeps copies of Exiled in Paradise. This book is called Beyond, and Smitty sells it for $9.00.
“It’s a book about my mother,” Smitty said. “It made a lot of black women mad.”
I told him I would promote that one for him, too. I asked him to take another selfie with me, and he said, “Looking like this? I haven’t taken a shower yet today!”
I assured him that I hadn’t either, since I’d planned to go running, and that I wasn’t even wearing makeup. Under the circumstance in which we would both look unwashed, Smitty agreed to the photo.
If you want to read this incendiary book about Smitty’s mother, here is your Amazon link.
While planning my New Orleans trip, I had hoped to hear real stories about the people who have lived here. I had planned to take a plantation tour, and I will, heeding Smitty’s warning that I shouldn’t be surprised if my tour guides don’t give me the full picture. (I won’t be.)
Sitting in Smitty’s house for over an hour today, listening to his accounts, I received the best tour I could have asked for.
When I told him I had to leave to meet a friend for lunch, he said, “I just hate to cut these conversations short.” I told him I will visit him once more before I leave, sometime next week.
As I prepared to drive off, I messed with a few things in my car and on my phone, taking several minutes to get going. As I started to drive away, I noticed Smitty standing on his porch, waiting to see me off with a wave.
I feel grateful for this new friend, whom I just love to pieces. After reading all this, I know you love him, too.