Kermit Ruffins stepped to the curb and blew the call home for every New Orleanian, natural or naturalized, who knows there are no happy endings, only happy middles.
Malbon R. Wood has run out of tomorrows. But his today was something special. Special because from now on he'll live on only as memories and he added on some good ones today.
His friends started gathering for him at Harry's Bar on Chartres about noon. Musicians, merchant sailors, some ladies with tattoos -- real tattoos -- and even his ex-wife. Not every guy has an ex-wife who comes to the memorial service. And maybe one or two people made curious by Wood's obituary.
The obit said that Malbon Wood had not one, but two, nicknames. "Daddio on the Paddio" was one. The other was "The Boog," in honor of former baseball star "Boog" Powell, a member of the Baltimore Orioles. Wood was from Baltimore, and he knew and loved his Orioles.
The obit also said Wood was a retired insurance agent. But he came to New Orleans about 30 years ago, maybe in the throes of some mid-life crisis, and here his life structure changed. The Cosmic Joke may be the same everywhere, but when we are there as New Orleans, we hear the laughter as good as anyone. Better than most.
The Boog must have liked that and he stayed on, sometimes as a bartender at joints like Harry's and Al Hirt's and the Alpine and Molly's and Matassa's. And sometimes as a guy with a very keen interest in the outcome of sporting events.
His daughters Clare and Cindy eventually joined him here. Cindy bought Vaughn's, a little club on Dauphine, and The Boog got Kermit Ruffins to start playing there on Thursday nights. And slowly, The Boog began to erase the difference between having character and being a character.
"One night, I was tending bar and he asks me to call him a cab," another mixologist remembered in Harry's. "I said, 'Daddio, you live across the street.' But he insisted, so I call a cab and when it gets there, he gives the driver a five, goes in one back door and out the other and walks into his house."
The bar was full of stories like this. "There'll be plenty of salt in here today," one guy said. "As in, salt of the earth."
"Have ya ever noticed how when a guy's alive, he's an imbecile?" another guy said. "But let him die and he's a hero."
Another guy comes in to be introduced as "the world's largest midget." He quipped, "Just another day in the Vieux Carre" and was asked about an unfamiliar cane he's carrying. "It's so I can park in the handicap zones."
Talk turned to The Boog's last days. He made it to 77, the hare that outlasted many a tortoise, and only the last year or so was bad. In his final days, he couldn't get out of bed so good, so once when he had to relieve himself, he asked his attendant to find him a container. The attendant could only find a wooden container, which The Boog nearly filled.
"Later, they figure out it's the box they're going to put his ashes in," the narrator finished. "He actually got the chance to piss in his own grave."
Cindy Wood has the box of ashes now, with a little sticker saying "Wood Is Wonderful" on it. "They always said Boog was outta the box," cracked a bystander. "Well, he's in it now."
After everyone had had plenty beer and Bloody Marys, Kermit Ruffins stepped to the curb and lifted his silver trumpet and blew the call home for every New Orleanian, natural or naturalized, who knows there are no happy endings, only happy middles: Didn't he ramble-ramble-ramble all around in and outta the town. Oh didn't he ramble-ramble till the butcher cut him down.
And out into the street, hot enough to sweat icebox lettuce, spilled a half-hundred "Boogs and Boogettes," rambling all around as the band played its best lay-my-burden-down stuff. Ruffins' silver trumpet led the way, bouncing notes off the old buildings, notes that sang that all loss is real and unreal and sits across from all gain.
And the skinny streets were scraped by dancing feet that slid and shuffled, not fast and furious because, at a New Orleans street send-off, the dance is governed not by the acceleration but by the fine, unhurried way you shift gears.
Down the streets they rambled, on their way to Tujague's Bar. Past the Royal Street Grocery, the Red Cat Gallery, the Place d'Armes Hotel. Bringing up the rear was a mule-drawn carriage, borrowed and driven by a big man in an ice-cream suit and a Meyer hat. "This is a little New Orleans," one parading woman said. "This is a lotta New Orleans," her friend answered.
At last, the little parade made its way to a corner full of tourists, the people with their crackling Midwestern Rs and flattened Massachusetts' As, signed on for 72 hours of proxy play and hoping that spirits can be caught on film. They all pointed their cameras and one young wife clutching her bag from Aunt Sally's Praline Shop asked someone in the parade what it was.
"Oh, anyone in New Orleans can have one of these," came the answer. "You just gotta want it."