You never know who you will meet and what strange tales they may tell. The Traveler’s Story.
June 27, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: For most who wander its streets at all hours of the day and night, New Orleans is the French Quarter – quaint and intimate – possessing an aging face that is framed in the French heritage of its architecture.
The Sights: It is and forever will be a city of jazz. But New Orleans worships its past in clusters of antique shops and hideaway art galleries that share those historic streets with bars and restaurants. Beyond the Quarter, the stone face of the Cabildo, a National Historic Landmark rises up above Jackson Square. It is said to be the most impressive building surviving from the age of Spanish dominion. From the balcony of the Cabildo came the announcement that the United States had made the Louisiana Purchase from France. Jackson Square, in the shadow of the two-centuries old St. Louis Cathedral, is ringed with sidewalk artists.
Much of the city’s turbulent history can be founded in the Historic New Orleans Collection. The 1792 Merieult House has ten galleries of paintings, prints, documents, maps, and rare books. In the Old Absinthe House, which became a bar, General Andrew Jackson persuaded the Pirate Jean Lafitte to join him in the Battle of New Orleans. The black arts occupy the Voodoo Museum, and the family tree of new Orleans music is tucked away in the jazz museum, which throbs to the beat of ballads, hymns, ragtime, spirituals, blues, and Creole chants. All found their way into the heartbeat of jazz. The streets are always crowded, and no one knows whom they will meet and who has the strangest story to tell.You
The Story: Pinky Ginsberg watched the first gentle rays of February pierce the back alleys of New Orleans with chilled fingers. It was that curious time of the morning when Bourbon Street was silent, and the warm glow of midnight neon had faded from sidewalks stained with spilled whiskey and concoctions that Pat O’Brien had sold for years as Hurricanes. The back alleys of sin had lost their glitz, their glamour. They were as plain and homely as a table-top dancer who had wiped the paint and powder from her face. Only Pinky Ginsberg had bothered to come out and face the sunrise, and he stood leaning casually against a crooked street sign, wide awake and grinning as he had done for most of his seventy years. Some even swore that he had been known to grin out loud.
I certainly didn’t recognize him, but neither had the masked and drunken, wine-soaked masses of Mardi Gras who had shoved their way past Pinky Ginsberg the night before. There was no reason why any of us should have recognized him. But then, that’s what made Pinky Ginsberg so famous. He is everyman. He face blends in with all others, young and old. He is almost never what he seems to be and never seems to be who he really is.
Pinky had traveled around the world. He had rubbed shoulders with royalty and celebrities. He felt at home among high society and the rich, especially the very rich. None of them ever recognized him either. That was important to Pinky Ginsberg.
He was, in his own humble opinion, the greatest gate crasher in the world, and he had two dozen scrapbooks, bulging with photographs, to prove it. It was a passion that had afflicted him for a long time. Go where you want to, he believed, even if you don’t belong, and see if anybody kicks you out, and, if they don’t, stay as long as the lights are burning, the women are smiling, and the wine is flowing, none of which lasts forever.
He remembers that day years ago when temptation found out how weak little Pinky Ginsberg really was. Inside that big old stadium across the street, the Dodgers were playing in the World Series, and he wasn’t in there with them, and that could indeed be a tragedy when you were eight years old and lived in Brooklyn. He heard the muffled roar of the crowd, but his own voice was lost amidst the tumult and the shouting. He could smell the popcorn and parched peanuts. He just couldn’t taste them.
Little Pinky Ginsberg felt like crying, but he couldn’t, or at least he wouldn’t, not in front of all those strangers who passed him by. To them, he was just another barefoot street urchin and probably in their way. Nobody knew him nor recognized him. There was no reason why they should.
Early that morning, Pinky had broken up his piggy bank and scattered around the shattered colored glass until he found twelve cents, not nearly enough to buy a ticket, but certainly enough to get him started in business. He knew how to get by on a shoestring. The streets had made him wise that way. But, usually, Pinky was too broke to afford the shoestring. For once, he had his ante.
Little Pinky Ginsberg trotted down to the magazine stand and bought six newspapers for two cents apiece. Then he set himself up beside the front gate at the stadium, holding a sign that pleaded: “Please buy a paper from me so I can see the baseball game.” He sold the papers for a nickel each. The well-to-do even tipped him a quarter. And he bought himself a ticket with a dime to spare.
As Pinky walked up to the gate, he glanced around and saw a little girl crying. She didn’t care how many strangers were passing her by. She had dreamed of seeing the World Series game, had always wanted to watch her hometown Dodgers, but knew she would never find a way to get beyond that beckoning, yet foreboding, gate.
Pinky Ginsberg, perhaps, didn’t have any money. But he knew she was poor. Real poor. As she smiled at him through her tears, Pinky Ginsberg gave her his ticket. He would always be cursed with a soft heart. He would always be a sucker for any girl who smiled at him through her tears. She clutched the ticket tightly and disappeared into the crowd that had become a mob. Pinky didn’t even know her name and would never see her again. He rummaged through his pockets and found his last dime. He still had an ante.
Returning to the magazine stand, he purchased five more newspapers. He ran back to the stadium, well aware that time was running out on him. By now, it was the third inning, and nobody was left on the streets. Pinky rolled the five newspapers into a tight wad, struck a match, set them ablaze and ran toward the stadium yelling, “Fire, fire,” as loudly and as desperate and as often as he could spit it out.
The crowd, the bystanders, the security guards, the police all ran frantically past him to investigate the sudden outburst of flames. And he ran madly past them, hurrying into the ballpark just as the Dodgers moved a runner into scoring position.
That was the beginning. It had been so easy, he thought. It would have no ending.
We sit in his small, one-room apartment that had no fan to cool his face in the summer, no heater to chase away the cold, damp winds of a New Orleans winter. It was a sad little room until Pinky carried his grin inside. He is wearing an old tweed suit that someone has either given him or thrown away. It is the only winter suit he owns. Pinky doesn’t mind. “I make a rag picker look rich,” he tells me.
As he hands me the album, a loose picture falls out and slides to the faded rug on the floor. I glance down at it, and, sure enough, there is the image of Pinky Ginsberg grinning back at me, standing alongside a square-faced little man who is wearing a scowl and the specter of a black, clipped mustache. Pinky, in the photograph of a thousand words, is being escorted, rather rudely, out the door by a band of storm troopers with swastikas on their shirts. Adolph Hitler didn’t look too pleased at all.
“He didn’t like my last name,” Pinky says.
“So he asked you to leave.”
“He threw me out in the streets.”
“What were you doing there?” I ask.
“I came in from the cold.”
“Who let you in?”
“Getting in is always easy,” he says. “You just walk through the front door, grin a lot, shake the first hand you see, and, if you see somebody’s wine glass is empty, you just find the wine and fill it up. Staying in, however, takes a little luck. Mine didn’t last long.”
“Everybody there was mad.” He shrugs. “I was the only one grinning. I should have kept my grin to myself.”
A change of clothes would have helped.
The strange saga of Pinky Ginsberg, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest gate crasher, continues tomorrow.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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