I used to get my hair cut at this little barber shop, and I fell to talking one day with the guy cutting my hair. Turns out that barbering was just a side gig for him, just like his father and grandfather before him. In his "real job," he was a gator hunter on the bayou ... also just like his father and grandfather. Here's how he described it to me: he and his partner would go up the bayou and hang big treble hooks from tree limbs, about three feet over the water. Then they would stick whole, grocery-store chickens on the hooks. Over time, the chickens would start to rot and drop tasty bits into the brown water below. Naturally, this would bring the gators. The poor reptiles would smell the chickens, lunge for them, and get hung up. All that remained was for my hairdresser to collect his catch and sell them for skins and meat.
OK, let's unpack this whole story. Gross, right? And cruel. Totally. But, man, what a set of images and what a character this guy was! I can still remember how fascinated I became with his fingers while he cut my hair. He didn't have salon-ready fingers, if you know what I mean. These were the thick, square and gnarled fingers of a guy who's been hauling gator carcasses off fish hooks for 20 years or so, then skinning them in the bottom on his john boat. The image of his big fingers wrapped around those delicate scissors is still fresh in my mind.
There was another woman ... she lived in the French Quarter and every day walked down Royal Street with her duck following behind her. I watched her for long enough to realize this wasn't a cute, touristy thing. This woman was the Real Deal. She loved those ducks dearly, and she used to get very upset when cars and tourists disrupted her routine. I don't know if she was mentally ill or not—I guess probably—but the way she loved those ducks in the midst of that mad carnival was almost beautiful to behold.
These are the people I like to write about. I like the oddballs, the neurotics, the characters who exist on the fringes. I like the people who write their own rules, and maybe they actively fight society, or maybe they exist so far outside of society that they hardly notice the way the rest of the world lives. Perhaps I'm drawn to one of these people because I'm partly one myself ... I've got a piss-poor record of following rules and bending to authority. Or perhaps I'm drawn to these people because I think they have something nearly magical to offer the rest of us: a truly original perspective.