The city winds in and out of my consciousness, a strong part of who I am.
I know the map of the French Quarter like the palm of my hand. I should. A master taught me.
Clint Bolton seduced me when I was fourteen. No, not in that way. But I did fall in love with him, and along with him, his New Orleans.
I met Clint Bolton at the Pendennis Club in New Orleans in August of 1979. My father belonged to Pendennis, and my parents had dragged me to a cocktail party there.
Yes, I said cocktail party. I was fourteen, it was New Orleans, and yes, I was drinking. Not a whole lot, mind you, but yes. Bored out of my mind, I expressed my desire to leave to my mother, and I said, “There is only one interesting man in the whole place — and he’s sitting over there.” I pointed to an old man sitting in a wheelchair having a dramatic conversation with the people gathered around him.
She said, “Fine. Since we are so dull, please, — GO talk to him.”
My eyes narrowed. At this point in my life, I was exceedingly shy around people I didn’t know. Going up to a group of strange people, well, I’d rather die. But I knew a dare when I heard one.
I was shaking like a leaf when I approached the group of men. Clint saw me, held up his hand to stop the conversation. I think I stammered something about not wanting to interrupt.
“My dear, there is nothing more important than listening to a beautiful young woman.”
I got myself together, and simply said what I had to my mother — that I thought he was the most interesting man in the room. And then I introduced myself.
Clint took my hand, drew me to the seat next to him — shooing away the other old gentleman who had been there.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
When my parents were ready to leave, I was with Clint and his group deep in conversation. His wife Pat had joined us, and we had concocted plans. Pat and Clint lived on Decatur Street in the French Quarter, and they invited me to their home the next day. Clint and I were going to go for a walk in the Quarter. Pat had miserably bad arthritis, and since Clint had lost his leg a couple of years earlier, he couldn’t make the rounds very easily.
The following day, my mother took me down to 1231 Decatur Street. Pat invited her to come up for a drink some hours later, when she was due to come back for me.
I followed Pat up the stairs, got the “tour,” and met several of the half-dozen cats. The Bolton’s apartment consisted of three large, high ceilinged rooms.
The pocket doors between the rooms were never closed, so it was this wonderful, airy space. The living room had two floor-to-ceiling windows that one could walk through out onto the balcony over Decatur. Clint and Pat’s bedroom was in the middle, and the kitchen and dining space were at the very back. The door into the kitchen led out of the apartment to the stair landing. Clint did also have an office in the servant’s quarters in the back.
After a quick consultation, Clint decided we should make a sortie down Royal Street, stopping along the way to see a photographer friend of his.
Clint rolled towards the stair landing, locked the wheels, stood on his one leg and lowered himself onto the first step.
“Some fine lady friends of Pat’s met us out for lunch not too long after my amputation. One of them inquired about how I was getting up and down the stairs, since they knew the apartment was on the second floor.”
“On my ass, ladies, on my ass.”
In a high pitched voice, he squealed, “Oh! Oh! Mr. Bolton!”
He gave me a wickedly happy smile.
That first day was more about me learning to maneuver that damned wheel chair about and down curbs all over. I weighed 105 pounds dripping wet. So did Clint. Add the weight of the wheelchair — I am telling you, this was challenging. Not the flat rolling, but the dang-blasted curbs and often low, uneven pavement right before them. So we got it figured out that afternoon. Every now and again, we would hit a particularly bad curb, so Clint would grab onto a light post, stand on his one leg, and I’d get the wheelchair up, and he would whump down in the seat again, and off we would go.
We made it back to 1231 Decatur just as my Mom rounded the corner, so we got the gate to the building opened and all went back to the steps.
Clint and I retold the “on my ass” bit, but this time, I did the high squeal,“Oh! Oh! Mr. Bolton!” And we laughed our way up the stairs, one back-ass-ward step at a time.
Pat opened the door, Clint rolled in, and said, “Pat, my darling, I do believe it is time to open that bottle of champagne.”
While Pat darling was fetching glasses and champagne, Clint took me into the living room and began digging in his album collection while I looked around. Black and white photographs of jazz musicians, a faded watercolor of what looked like Thailand, picture of Clint in New York City circa the 1930’s, African masks and statues. He handed an album to me.
“Like Ella Fitzgerald?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know Ella Fitzgerald??!!”
“What about Cole Porter?”
“Cole Porter . . . ?”
“You’ve heard of Miles Davis? NO?”
“Well, we have to fix this RIGHT NOW, I say. RIGHT NOW.”
When Mom and Pat came into the room with the champagne, glasses and little nibblies, Ella was singing. My mother and Pat both took off their shoes — both of them had arthritis — and they were discussing issues with that.
I suppose I am lucky that Clint didn’t give my mother a “what the hell are you teaching her” lecture about my abysmal knowledge of jazz, Gershwin, Porter, and all things holy in the American canon according to Clint Bolton.
She was probably only saved by the fact that she and my father had taken me to Al Hirt’s club.
Clint popped the champagne, and as he poured the glasses, some spilled into my mother’s shoe.
Clint immediately raised her shoe, drank the sip of champagne from it, and proclaimed, “it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”
And so my relationship with the Boltons was launched.
A few days later, the mail brought me a letter that Clint had written for me. And I began spending full weekends in the quarter.
My intuition that day at the Pendennis Club was dead on . . . Clint was fascinating. As a high school student in New Jersey, he’d done summer stock acting, where he got to know Humphrey Bogart fairly well. His path crossed Bogie’s several times later in New York before Bogart made the transition to film. Clint was orphaned when he was in high school, and his aunt and uncle sent him to Princeton for college. It was not to Clint’s liking, so he ran away from college, got a job on a tramp steamer and went to India.
In India, he turned to journalism, because with his prep school background, writing was something he did well. He learned fast and managed to get on with the Associated Press. While he was there, he interviewed Gandhi on one of his hunger strikes in the 1920’s. During World War II, he served with the Coast Guard in the Pacific.
Clint took me all over the quarter. He knew everyone. I met Al Hirt and his clarinetist Pee Wee Spitelera several times. And then there was the evening Clint took me to meet the mafia capo. I learned life lessons from Clint, two favorites being “how to drink any man under the table” and “how to break a glass on the edge of a bar.”
So much of my musical taste comes from long evenings on Decatur. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald. Tony Bennett. Gershwin.
And mostly, I learned . . . be sure to grab life up in your arms, hold it close. Don’t be afraid to meet new people. LIVE. See the world. Have adventures. Make love. Watch the sun creep down the wall in a piazza, while you sit in the shade and sip a cocktail. Listen to good music. Then write about all of it.
He was with me such a short time. On New Year’s Eve of 1979, Clint Bolton had a massive coronary. He lived. I saw him several times at Touro hospital. In April when he returned home, I was at 1231 Decatur as soon as I could get there. Pat unlocked the gate and I dashed up the stairs, too impatient to wait for her arthritic feet and knees.
Clint was sitting on the sofa, and when I came up to him, my heart nearly stopped. He was almost not there, he was so emaciated. I picked him up in my arms, and sat down with him on my lap. And we both wept. We said our I love yous and our goodbyes.
Three days later, he was gone. Waldren “Frog” Joseph volunteered to do a jazz funeral for Clint — doesn’t happen very often for white folks. I can remember sitting with the jazz musicians in the Bolton living room and eating after the funeral. I thought I was going to be sick. His absence in the room that was so much his was more than I could handle.
To you, Clint Bolton, my undying love. You have been one of the most important people in my life. Until we meet again as shades when I pass over.
On my last trip to New Orleans, just a few days ago now, the Mississippi River cloaked the French Quarter in fog.
Just after dawn, I wandered. Clint was with me, working, looking.
Down Decatur I could almost hear Ella’s silken voice.
Tilting back in his chair
Ashes flew from his cigarette,
And the old man painted his scene.
Chin resting on her knees,
The girl sat
All rapt attention.
Armed with scotch and the love of his stories,
He wove threads of truth and fantasy.
Wreathed in blue smoke, the evening wore on.
A tired mule clopped past.
Stretched out on the balcony, the girl lay stroking a cat,
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Copyright 2016 Ann Cavitt Fisher