“I think this is it,” I said, stopping in front of the door under a green awning. I squinted to be sure I was seeing the number correctly. Yes, it was #2600. What used to be my father’s apartment in 1989 was now a coffee shop. Flora Gallery and Coffee Shop was written in several places on the red-painted concrete building. I pulled open the weathered wooden door and walked tentatively toward the counter where a nose-ringed young woman took the order of a man in front of me. He ordered an egg burrito and an Ethiopian coffee. I studied her face to see if she might be open to my odd inquiry.
I put my elbows on top of the counter. “I have a strange question?” I began. I told her about my father and asked how long the coffee shop had been in business and how long the current owner had been at the helm, and could I talk to him or her. The young barista cocked her head and raised her eyebrows. She leaned in and listened with a closed-mouth smile as I told the brief version of my father’s story. The owner, she said, had lived in the apartment behind the shop for 30 years. He must have known my father, I thought, feeling an excitement that I had not anticipated. It was as if I’d been handed a surprise quest. Would I find some evidence of my father through another living being? She told us to come back in an hour when the owner would return.
For an hour, my then husband and I walked around the neighborhood as if it were a museum. We wandered around slowly and thoughtfully in a way that we could rarely do with our three children. We were especially drawn to an abandoned Catholic Church and parish school. We stood there quietly pondering this church’s history and the people who occupied its walls. I thought about the students who shuffled through the halls of the school over the years. Did they bloom here or were they stifled? Were they sitting in therapist offices or miraculously unscathed from religious suffocation or dead like my father, although he didn’t grow up Catholic. I wondered as I studied the gothic architecture and imagined the voices of children of long ago, whether my father felt loved by the God he was raised to believe in. Did he feel trapped within the walls of a conservative religious heterosexual world? Is this why he left and never came back to me? Why he felt at home here as my mother had told me years before I would even find out that he was gay?
During some of his four years in New Orleans, he led music at a small church in the heart of the French Quarter called Vieux Carre Baptist Church that we visited the day before. Surprisingly, according to my aunt, my gay father was fully accepted by the pastor of the church at that time, somewhere in the range of 1985-1989. Or maybe it wasn’t such a surprise considering the church has a particular passion for including the marginalized in the community. And no surprise that my father was drawn to the church; part of the lore of my father was his tendency to pick up hitchhikers and wanders. No doubt, this thread of his existence in New Orleans created the tapestry of what made him feel more at home.
My father grew up Baptist in Kentucky in a church, family and community that most certainly didn’t see homosexuality as an acceptable way to exist and later when he chose to marry my mother, he was possibly even farther removed from feeling at home and integrated with that part of who he was. My mother says she was his attempt to be straight and when he moved to New Orleans for his brief stint in the reserves, he fell in love – with a person and a place and couldn’t enter back into a life so ill-fitting. Sometimes I wish that he had found a way to fit. I would have liked to have known him as a gay man. I would have liked to have known him - at all - in my adult years.
When my father left when I was in the 4th grade, he abandoned a small house full of things and a rent unpaid. My mother, soon-to-be stepfather, and I drove over to my father’s house to assess the situation and figure out what to do with his belongings. The whole way to his house, I thought my heavily beating heart could be heard outside my body. As we pulled up, I closed my eyes in fear that I would see my dog Ricky tied up out front under the big oak tree, abandoned and dead. Slowly, I opened them. Ricky was nowhere to be found. I wondered if my father had taken Ricky with him or if he had given my dog to the big, burly guy who was staying with him the last time my brother and I had visited him.
We pushed open the door to find a mess. It was as if we were walking in on a ransacked house. Actually, more like a house whose contents have settled after a flood. As it turned out. the toilet had overflowed. There was my missing library book – Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder – mildewed and lying facedown by the couch. I did not dare go near my father’s bedroom by myself. Even though I knew he wasn’t there, a nugget of anxiety made me wonder as I had about my dog if he was in his bed dead and rotting. I held my book against my chest and stood among the clutter. Everything seemed wrong and terrible. Even the sink was piled high with dishes. I watched my mom and stepdad shake their heads at the disaster my father had left them to clean up.
My father whose nickname was Butch, had gone to New Orleans for a short-term job with the Navy reserves, so he left his tiny house full because - I assume - he had intended to return. I was told that he’d stayed there because New Orleans felt more like home. As a ten-year-old I didn’t know what that meant. During his time in New Orleans, he sent the occasional postcard, which contained elusive greetings and probably too many details about his sometimes-unstable life; he experienced more than one bout of homelessness and food scarcity in between securing his three apartments. A line from one of his postcards is seared in my brain: I found a place to live and am eating regularly now. If I close my eyes, I can see the back of the postcard. I can see his handwriting. As an adolescent girl, I would think about him alone, wandering around New Orleans. Abandon’s pitiful voice would ask: Why didn’t he feel at home with me? Another part of me – safe and sound in my nice, warm bed, my brother, mother and stepdad, a newly-formed family of four – felt that I had been the deserter.
We headed back to Flora’s Coffee Shop to get a cup of coffee in the last few minutes before the hour was up and the owner would return. Before we even took a sip of our coffees, Ali, a jovial Iranian man burst into the café with groceries. Right away, I stepped forward and introduced myself. And although he did not know my father, he immediately invited me to the back of the shop to look around. At first, I was hesitant. In fact, whether out of fear or out of not wanting to intrude on the employees, I told him that I didn’t need to see the back room.
Ali cocked his head to one side and frowned at me. “Come on. You go. Have a look,” he said, all but nudging me through the kitchen/coffee brewing/food-preparing space into the back room that would have been my father’s bedroom. As I stood in the room that had been turned into an office, I wondered if this was the room. The time frame of when my father lived in this house confirmed it. The terrible thing that I had heard about for twenty years. This was the room in which my father found his lover, Michael, hanging in the closet. I shuttered and crossed my hands over my chest in a kind of hug and walked out of the room. Did my father cry out or was he silent, stunned? Was part of him not surprised? Who did he call first?
Thank you, I said to Ali. Part of me wanted to tell him what had happened in that very room, that was now his office. I had an urge to find sympathy or to shock him with part of my father’s story that would bring satisfaction to that side of me that wants to move and horrify people at the same time through story-telling. It is the part-pathetic, part-heroic side of me that is an open book, craving to share every gnarly detail of the journey of my heart. Of course, he said, then hurried us out of his shop, our coffees still sitting on one of the tables where we had settled in to wait for his return. He led us down the street to a mustard-colored row house belonging to a man who Ali thought could help us find someone who knew my father. “Will they mind if we knock on their door?” I asked.
“No. Not Dan,” he said and laughed as if I had suggested something completely preposterous. I wondered if Ali was wrong. If maybe this person would feel imposed upon. “He tutored my son,” he said quietly as we approached the house. After Ali knocked a few times, we stepped back from the door and turned around just in time to see a car parallel park in a quick, haphazard way.
“There he is,” Ali said, proudly crossing his arm. All three of us watched while Dan pulled forward and back and forward and back again until his car was positioned perfectly crooked. Ali bent down and spoke – with his sweet Iranian accent - through the car’s open window. “Morning, Dan! These two lovely people are looking for her father,” he said touching the side of my arm, as Dan emerged from his car and walked around to join us on the sidewalk. I liked the way Ali worded my journey as if I was looking for an alive person. “Well, you explain,” Ali said as he ushered me forward.
After I explained the brief details of my quest to Dan, I realized with even more clarity that what I hoped for was to find someone who knew my father. I wanted to get a picture for who he was in this place through the eyes of an old friend or even a slightly grumpy neighbor. I wanted to feel the magic that kept him here away from his twin daughter and son, aside from the obvious, that this neighborhood was gay friendly. I wanted to find some beauty in the pain of his leaving, his death, my mom’s particular heartbreak (My father wasn’t exactly the love of her life but still, she loved him.), and mine and my brother’s. Or maybe looking for the fucking silver lining, is against the cosmic rule. The whisper of redemption or meaning has to float to you without your asking for it or it comes at you in ways you don’t want or weren’t expecting. Maybe it’s so subtle, you don’t recognize it, until years later.
Dan smiled and scratched his head and looked all around. “Let me collect my thoughts. I just rolled out of bed to take my wife to acupuncture,” he said, and looked at us both, back and forth through his black-framed glasses. His hair was sleep-tousled and gray.
“There’s gotta be somebody who knew your father. Let’s see,” he said, walking across the street in his worn Birkenstocks and stretched out Saturday morning cardigan. He seemed to want as much as I did, to find someone who might have known my father. It was as if he dropped into my life by some divine appointment.
With my husband and me following close behind, Dan stopped at an old house with a big white porch and knocked on the door. I could hear a dog barking and the sound of a person descending wooden stairs. A thin man with half-bald, strawberry-blond-graying hair answered the door. He had a certain writerly, sick, disheveled, coolness. His style – old faded jeans and an unpretentious button down shirt – reminded me of my father’s fashion and his slightly disengaged way of interacting. This man had bought his house in 1987, but he didn’t know my father, which he insisted on even after I showed him the picture. But you were right around the corner from him, I wanted to say. How could you not have known him. “All my friends died during that time,” he said. “Even my lover. I was waiting to be the next one, but here I am.”
As my husband and I followed Dan around, I could picture my father here in his black horn-rimmed glasses, straight light brown hair, faded jeans and button down with a leather jacket. This was what he looked like in the Louisville Airport when my grandparents, brother and I picked him up to celebrate Thanksgiving in 1987, the last time I saw him. I was in the 6th grade. Because of the few postcards and brief phone conversations during the four years he lived in New Orleans, I think I pictured him spending all his days wandering around lonely with no purpose, sometimes no home, sometimes not enough food. I imagined him unable to hold down a job or maintain functional relationships. Maybe this was partly true, but what was also true is that he lived around people who could understand and accept a part of him that his family could not.
Was this why I had come to New Orleans? Not in search of closure exactly but an understanding of my father that I couldn’t have discovered without walking on those streets of his old neighborhood. Besides the airport memory, my other memories of him are spare with very little conversation or engagement, like a story that lacks scene, sensory details, and action-oriented narrative. I do remember sitting on his lap when I was around six year of age feeding him the longest McDonald French fries. I remember thinking that he should have the biggest fries because he was my daddy. I also remember the way he stood with one hand in his pocket and the other holding a cigarette in the backyard. I remember the way his jaw flared, when he was angry, like a fish fighting for every breath. I remember the way his knuckles were prominent and the way I can’t remember the sound of his voice. The way his mustache hung slightly over his upper lip.
Two years before he left and a year before my parents separated, I woke up to the distant sound of the television. I knew that it was my father. I walked the dark path from my room to the little upstairs loft over the garage where we kept the TV. My father sat cross-legged watching M*A*S*H in the dark. As I sidled in next to him, he only glanced at me. I pulled my legs up to my chin and rested my arms on my knees. Sometimes I peeked at him. I inched closer so I could feel his body heat, and though he didn’t speak or wrap his arm around me, he allowed me to stay and watch his show with him.
In Dan’s house, full of succulents and wild, reaching plants, Asian rugs, oddly-hung arrangements of folk art, books stacked on every surface, small Buddha statues and the faint smell of incense and a gourmet meal from the night before, I spoke to a friend of Dan’s on the phone who was a retired professor. After I texted a picture of my father, this man began to unpack his memory for me. Let’s see, Butch Turnbow? Long pause. Yes, I remember him. We talked a few times at Friendly’s (I had discovered the aptly named, The Friendly Bar, earlier that day right down the street from my father’s last apartment, now Flora’s). and at neighborhood political meetings. I seem to remember that he was very passionate about politics. Yes, I definitely remember your father.
After I hung up, I wondered if he had been honest. Had Dan secretly texted him before he called, in a desperate attempt to give me what I wanted, and told him to lie and say that he remembered my father? I refused to believe that and besides, the fact that my father was interested in politics, was something I had consistently heard from my mother over the years. So, hot damn! He had met my father. One coin at the end of the fucking rainbow.
Finding the coffee shop, Dan and his professor friend on the phone was a little like the comfort of sitting next to my father in the TV-flickering darkness. It was not momentous, but it was something. And as my trip has percolated in me, who my father was and who he is in me and what I feel about him has become more a full-bodied cup rather than something weak and left on the table. As I walked around my father’s old neighborhood on a sunny Saturday, even if I didn’t find that magical person who could hug me and sit me down and tell me about my father in this place, I had found a glimmer of his spirit, in Flora’s, in the people who I’d talked to, in this weird, cozy neighborhood. I found something different than what I grew up hearing from my mother, step-father and my grandparents. My mom and stepdad always told me my father was depressed, passive, unable to connect with anyone. At some level that description was a comfort to my abandoned daughter syndrome because wasn’t it better to dismiss his absence as his problem, not my lack – and leave it at that? No, I wanted to possess more truths about him. I wanted to rise above the sad victim and settle into a curiosity of sorts about this man whose genetics were half of me. I wanted to flood that half with some light and understanding.
That night as I lay in bed in our Bourbon Street hotel room, after a failed attempt to be intimate with my husband, the emotion rose up with a ripe and scattered desperation. I blubbered about not being desirable, not being what my husband wanted, not being exciting enough. It was that little girl talking through some inner adult voiceover mode. My adult insecurities were mixed in with the little girl who would lay awake at night and wonder why I wasn’t enough for my father to stick around for and wonder what he was doing in New Orleans. Was he ok? Would I ever visit him there?
I released my husband’s hand, straightened up and leaned against the headboard. I grabbed the Lonely Planet guidebook from the beside table. Flora’s Gallery and Coffee shop was in there. My father’s old apartment was a destination. For misfits. Well, how damn perfect was that?
In the weeks after I returned home, I Googled Flora’s on Yelp a few times. I got lost in people’s comments: I have come to love this place. The coffee is not that great, the place is a dive but the location is exceptional for people watching and getting to know new friends. It’s like an old neighborhood haunt that folks are attracted to but they can’t tell you why…” The essence of Flora was my father incarnate.
Three months after this pilgrimage of sorts, 8 years ago, my life I had been building since I was 22 as a straight wife, a writing-
stay-at-home-mother of three. I can’t say for sure that it had anything to do with my journey to New Orleans, but I wonder sometimes if maybe it did. I wonder if something inside me that I thought I could contain and use for my own survival, began to travel up and out of me like a marsupial baby and be born to the light of day. It’s a birth that haunts me still as I continue to grapple with the duel sides of loss and discovery that come with divorce after three children and years with one person, two continents of origin and a relationship like the clinging vines on a brick building.