Feb. 22, 2011
It was right in front of Jackson Square where I met Alexander “Greatness.” He is a street painter in French Quarter, New Orleans. He displayed colorful, cartoon-like paintings and some huge scratchy drawings on and under the fence on Decater Street. Those that caught my eyes first were the colorful, oil paintings on wood canvas.
I stopped walking and started looking at his paintings. He walked to me and asked where I was from. And that’s how we started our conversation. For one hour. Standing in the middle of the sidewalk, whole time.
Alexander was a very interesting person. He was born and raised in New Orleans, but he was very curious about other parts of the world. He wanted to hear about my hometown and other places I’ve visited. I told him about my crazy road trip that I was on.
Anyways, I really liked the colors he used in his paintings, and decided to buy one of his “dancing lantern” series. Then he said he would paint one for me at the spot, and it wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. So, why not? I chose a wood canvas whose background was already painted in yellow, green, blue and purple. He asked me what instrument I’d like to add in the picture along with the dancing lantern. I thought about saxophone at first, as I’m in the home to jazz music, but it seemed somewhat lame. So, I went for drums that I’ve always wanted to learn.
On top of the canvas, he started sketching a lantern, dancing to drums, in black ink. While waiting for the sketch dried up, he showed me his other works and explained their meaning. The main theme of the works was human embracement.
“When you start a relationship, it should all begin with the brain, and move to the heart, and to the ‘reproducing’ organs,” he said, pointing at and following the red spots in the painting. At the stage of the brain, he continued, you should be able to accept the way the other person lives: The way s/he thinks, acts, their family and everything. And if you or the parter is “immature” to do that, “both of you are wasting your time.” You have to think hundreds of times, if not more, to see if you can fully accept this person as s/he is. Only when two completely understand each other and accept the other as s/he is, then you move to the heart. And the same goes to the next step.
All of sudden my eyes got wet. A couple months ago, I had a bad break-up. Actually it’s much more complex than just bad.
Looking back, there were things about him that I found difficult to accept from the very beginning. In my head, reason and emotion were fighting. But I ignored them all, because my heart beat for him. I was telling myself that’s what matters. One of my friends one day asked me why him, and he literally laughed at my answer: his smile. That heart beat caused by the goofy smile defeated all the logic, reason, and everything else.
But that wasn’t enough, I figured a few months later. The things that have bothered me from the beginning are the ones that cannot be changed. Because it’s what he’s born with, because it’s his history, and because it’s engraved in his genes. And it’s because what I was born with.
Besides, even though I was sure about me loving him and him loving me, I was certainly not happy with who he was, what he did and what he didn’t do, and he was certainly not happy with who I was, what I did and what I didn’t do. And it wasn’t just him and me. There were also our families.
I was confused. I didn’t understand how the two feelings could coexist. The “I like him = I’m happy with him” formula didn’t work in the relationship with the man. I didn’t know what to do.
When I was weighing which would be more hurting between my-life-with-him and my-life-without-him, he gave up on me. He said he’s tired of being my daily disappointment, and I deserve a better person. And I was disappointed again with that he wasn’t resilient.
There were a few more efforts to recover the relationship, but after all, it all ended.
And here, in New Orleans, 1,100 miles away from him, I was shedding tears in front of a total stranger, in the middle of the street, where lots of people are walking by and where horsemen are trying to hook up tourists to their wagons. It was embarrassing, but this artist seemed understanding what’s going on inside me.
“Believe me, dear. I tried every possible way, starting from heart to the head, or skipping heart, or another,” he said. “But all failed, except this one,” from brain to heart and to further down.
Then he went back to the painting for me. He filled the sketch he drew in black with white. And then he finished it up writing “Nawlins” on a signboard attached to the lantern.
A Dancing Lantern, by Alexander "Greatness"
It was certainly a healing moment that I wasn’t expecting to have, particularly on the street talking with a complete stranger.
Alexander wrote his email address in the back of the painting, saying “Keep in touch, and come back to New Orleans someday,” to the French Quarter, as he’ll be there, as always.
Oddly, I found his words comforting. It felt like I just made a good friend. And he wasn’t a stranger anymore.
After parting with Alexander, I walked into the Jackson Square and sat on a bench. I heard someone singing and another playing whatever horn that was from far.
Yeah, this is N’awlins, baby.
The city of resilience.
The city of hope.