I certainly didn't anticipate that my first column for this paper would be a downer, a glum pronouncement — of all things: An obituary for a friend.
John Ward was killed last week, apparently while walking home from the Endymion Extravaganza downtown. Much of the case remains a mystery, but this we know: He was alone and on foot along the I-10 near Broad Street, around 3:30 in the morning, and he got run over, real bad.
In a time and a town where shocks don't come easily, this one knocks your socks off.
John was the owner of National Art & Hobby, an enchanting little shop at the corner of Magazine and Eleonore, Uptown — the place with the big colorful murals of parades and second lines and Mardi Gras Indians on the exterior walls.
Its name is one of the great local oxymorons; "National" Art & Hobby was as local as it gets.
The shop appeals to warmly nostalgic pockets of the imagination; a family-owned neighborhood shop where they greet you by name and make even the most hopelessly untalented dilettantes like myself feel like we're all the next Picasso, and all that's missing is a little support — and the right brushes.
Ward even hung some of his amateur customers' recent works in the windows as a confidence booster, like we're third graders with a star on our collars for getting an A in spelling.
A bit cloying, yes. But so very kind. And to add to the whole Mayberry thing, Ward even lived across the street from his business.
He offered a year-round, 15-percent discount to schoolteachers and students and — to the rest of us — he was a soft sell; if, say, by some misfortune, the cash receipt happened to exceed the contents of your wallet or pocketbook, a simple promise to repay the difference on your next visit was enough to send you home with all the stuff you needed for your next masterpiece.
John Ward, his shop, the characters who work there and hang out there — and the Uptown neighborhood where they all reside — are reminders of what makes life in this town not only tolerable, but downright dreamy at times.
And this is worth pounding the table on, in this the era in which our Mayor has somehow turned the word "Uptown" into a pejorative catch-all code word for elite, greedy and racist; an odious mindset and a galling way of life and always — always — an impediment to positive social change.
The fact is, Uptown New Orleans is one of the most gracious, irreverent and livable neighborhoods in this country, because of guys like John Ward and because locals are willing to pay a few extra bucks for a jar of paint to keep local businesses alive.
Because it matters.
Yeah, the whole little Norman Rockwell thing is enough to make you roll your eyes. And it is, admittedly, so very, very Uptown. And it's so very 7th Ward. And Pigeon Town. And Lower 9. And so many other little places, little pockets, of home.
That's the beauty, the part that lets you see past the sorrow of a sudden passing of a friend, and get past the part where you feel like you have to defend where you live, just because you're comfortable there: Every neighborhood in New Orleans has its John Wards.
And every John Ward has his neighborhood. It is symbiosis and definition: Fathers, workers, contributors, men of public good humor and private goodwill who help define where you live and make a lot of the pieces fit together and make sense.
When one of these men or women go away, the flavor changes ever so slightly on the block, but the neighborhood carries on, especially here in New Orleans, where neighborhood is everything and no single one is better or worse than another — it's simply "yours" or it's elsewhere.
And, truthfully, the divisions between them are mostly lines on a map or political artifice, all the fabrics that hold the larger quilt together.
Not just Uptown. And not just downtown. But all over town.