On an evening in March 2011, I'm in New Orleans. I'm on my bike, lost, and I stupidly stop on an unlit residential street to get my bearings. A pick-up truck rolls by and the driver, a burly elderly man, stares as he passes. Shit, I think. Go on, dude. Nothing to see here. I wave him forward. This doesn't work; the brake lights engage. Damn.
"Are you lost?" he asks.
I lie. "No. I'm just taking a break. I've been biking all night."
"You know, you shouldn't be wandering here on your own. This is New Orleans." I'd heard that time and time again. "This is New Orleans." I admit I'd grown tourist-complacent and I suppose I needed to hear this again, but I didn't want to hear it, especially from some stranger on the street.
"I know," I said, smugly, ready to roll forward. "I have to go."
"Okay, just remember this isn't a safe place. I've seen a lot of things happen here."
Not something you should say to a single girl on an unlit street, dude.
"Hey, you should really come to my bar. It's right at the corner there. You see the light? It's a safe place, and we'll get you headed in the right direction."
Here we go. "Yeah, I don't know about that. I gotta get back to my friends."
"Well, okay, but I've owned this bar for a long time, and I know everyone here. Just saying there's some good people down there, good music, and good drinks. We'll get you home safely."
I pause, in half-pedal.
"It's right down there."
Long story short: my curiosity wins that evening. I spend the night with Melvin and his friends, sitting at the bar, downing free American beers, discussing the music industry with a hard-of-hearing elderly blues man named Guitar Lightnin', listening to tales from the bartender and the Honduran/Bulgarian barflies, and observing Melvin work the room, showering compliments on the elderly ladies, twirling them on the dance floor, and kissing them on the hand as he parted. They squeal.
It's been a while, but I learned Melvin actually passed away only a month after we met in April 2011. I'm crushed and spent my time wondering if all this was real. Luckily, I have the pictures to remind me of those moments, fill in the blanks.
Melvin was true to his word: good people, good music, good (well, at least free) drinks. Above it all, I felt absolutely safe and I left feeling ten times better about the world, and really, isn't that the main thing you want in a friend?
Here's my little public thank you, Melvin. I'm late to the game, but I salute you, forever. RIP.