New Orleans Double Vision: Part 3 — Uncle Lionel
September 2, 2011
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On the day that I sat alone, eating my muffaletta, a band was playing in the open-air restaurant. I enjoyed the background music as I watched people on the street in front of me, but I didn’t really gaze at the band much until he appeared.
I didn’t realize his fame and legend at the time. All I knew was that out of nowhere a skinny old man appeared, dressed rather spiffy in his cream suit and wide-brimmed hat. He was holding a cane, which also doubled as trombone — the sound coming from his own vocal chords as he slid the “instrument” back and forth in front of his mouth. He sang and entertained, looking as comfortable on that stage as anyone I’d seen, all the while appearing as if a strong wind could blow him over.
That was sweet, I thought.
Then came open mic night at La Maison. Musicians had been rotating on and off the stage all evening, taking turns leading the make-shift band, waiting for their opportunity to find a space on the crowded platform. As the emcee announced a new addition to the medley, he suddenly stopped mid-sentence. “Sorry folks, but there’s a change of plans. A legend just walked in the door.” And up came Uncle Lionel, wearing the same dapper dress including the dark shades.
There was an air of awe and respect among the other musicians, while Uncle Lionel sang and commanded the stage as if it were his own home. Which it practically was. We later learned he’s been performing in New Orleans since World War 2. I was glad that Reuben had a chance to see the man I’d told him about, and I was excited to learn that I’d been in the presence of an icon.
But my encounters with Uncle Lionel didn’t stop at two. On our last full day in the city, I was walking through a courtyard near the French Market looking for a place to sit and enjoy my sweet tea. Just before I passed by two old men sitting on a park bench, one of them called out asking what I was drinking. “Sweet tea,” I replied. It was then that I noticed Uncle Lionel was old man #2, just sitting enjoying the air, unmistakably recognizable. “What’s that?” his friend asked me again. “Sweet tea,” I repeated with a smile. “Pee pee?” he retorted, and I wasn’t sure if he was mocking or teasing me. But I didn’t care. I may be a tourist, but I know Uncle Lionel when I see him.