Last week, when I returned from New Orleans, friends wanted to assess my trip. Did I eat at Brennan’s? See a show at Preservation Hall? Have beignets at Café Du Monde?
Oh, and did somebody tell me where I got my shoes?
And did I fall for it?
Pretty much yes.
Here’s how it goes: A guy walks up to you on the street and makes friendly conversation. Then he looks down at your shoes and he’s very impressed.
“Nice shoes,” he says.
“Thanks,” you say.
Then he says, “I’ll bet you $5 I can tell you exactly where you got those shoes.”
If you agree — and he’ll want to shake on it, because that’s how he rolls — then he’ll reply, “You got your shoes on the ground.” Or “on your feet.”
And you? Presumably, you’re a good sport and fork over five bucks.
But in my case, my con man veered from the script.
Bess and I were walking down Decatur Street in the thick afternoon heat. We’d just polished off a huge meal at Commander’s Palace, which happens to offer 25-cent martinis at lunch. To tell you the truth, I needed a nap.
Instead, we were walking toward Jackson Square when we saw a 6-year-old boy tap-dancing on the sidewalk with crushed Coca-Cola cans taped to his feet. He was dazzling — a miniature Gregory Hines — and Bess gave him a dollar.
At that point, I believe, the community issued an emergency bulletin that a tourist couple was standing around handing out money.
A man with a big smile and a “Straight Outta Compton” T-shirt appeared in front of me. He was in his early 50s, and I recognized him from a streetcar ride we’d taken in the morning.
“Nice shoes,” he said.
It was true. I’d bought them the day before at an outlet store in Destin.
“I can tell you where you got those shoes,” he said, and he stuck out his hand.
But he didn’t follow the script. He didn’t ask if we had a bet, and he didn’t mention money. He just stuck out his hand.
I shook it.
Then he laughed victoriously, as if I’d just agreed to something I shouldn’t have.
“You got your shoes on the ground!” he said.
“That’s a good one,” I said. “That’s funny. Have a nice day.”
That’s when he squatted down and squirted a blob of something on each of my shoes. It looked like hand sanitizer.
He motioned for me to put one of my shoes on his knee. At this point, I had no choice. I did, and he wiped the stuff off. Then we did the same thing with the other shoe.
He pointed to Bess’ shoes.
“Oh no,” I said. “We’re done here.”
I handed him a dollar.
“That’s 50 cents a shoe!” he said.
He pointed to the tap-dancing boy. “I’m not a boy!” he bellowed. “I’m not a slave!”
I handed him another dollar.
“Give me five dollars,” he said.
“No, that’s it,” I said. “Those were brand-new shoes. I didn’t ask you to clean them.”
He was mad.
“I hope you’ve learned something,” he said.
“I have,” I said. “I’ve learned to keep my head down and not talk to anybody.”
But I wasn’t sure I meant it. The day suddenly felt more bright than hot. I didn’t need a nap anymore.
Bess and I walked down to Jackson Square, where four teens with brass instruments were playing “Hey Baby!” — the Bruce Channel classic, not the song by Pitbull and T-Pain.
A big crowd gathered around them, and everybody shouted the chorus.
“Hey hey, Baby! I want to know... Will you be my girl?”
It was all good.