Little Cowardices

VISITING THE CAFE DU MONDE IN NEW ORLEANS for breakfast is a tourist's morning, but it involves delicious beignets and cafe au lait, so when I am in New Orleans I try to get over there for an indulgent repast. I recently presented at a conference in the city and my hotel was walking distance from restaurant, so I strolled there one morning with my friend Laura. We were talking when I saw her attention stray from me to something over my right shoulder. After a momentary tick of annoyance—I'm in the middle of a story here—I turned to see what had arrested her.

At a nearby table was what looked to be a school trip, a dozen or so high school kids and a couple of adult chaperones. Behind me was a homeless man, wild tangled hair, skin turned leathery by sun, dirty long coat, slumped in a chair. The chair was fully in the restaurant, by the portal to the kitchen where the servers picked up orders, which told me the man was a regular, tolerated by the cafe's kind-hearted staff. What had set Laura to glaring was one of the chaperones, who was standing next to the oblivious homeless man, posing for a mocking photograph while the kids she was supposed to be supervising howled with laughter.

Laura and I shared a moment of I do not believe what I am seeing before this reprehensible individual wrapped up her comic moment and returned to the table to bask in the appreciation of her wit by the students. We declared to each other how appalled we were, then resumed our morning chat.

Then the woman did it again.

We watched paralyzed by disbelief. That's how I prefer to think back on it, because that explanation let's me off. I knew what I should do, I knew the only right action—stand up, walk up, interpose myself between this heartless bitch and the slumped man in the chair, and tell her she was not going to mock him again for the amusement of a dozen ignorant high school kids.

I did nothing more than shake my head.

I tell myself that life is full of these little cowardices. Moments when we fail ourselves. But that feels like a sort of unearned self-absolution. I have no answer. Just a lingering disappointment.