I saw a young man waiting in the back of a boarding line. He had a guitar strapped across his back, his attire very “60s non-chic.” Typically, I do not approach people in the terminal, asking for an interview. But there was something interesting about this young guy, so I made an exception.
He seemed uncomfortable at first, and I felt bad about imposing upon him. Still, he was intrigued by what I was doing and agreed to answer a few questions.
His name was Germ. He wouldn’t tell me the origin of the name, saying he’s lived with it since childhood. Germ was very quiet, almost cautious, and I had to listen carefully to pick up on what he was saying. I asked about the guitar, was he in a band or heading to a gig.
“It’s a base,” he corrected me. “And no, I’m not in a band and I’m not heading to a gig. I’ve been traveling from Albuquerque for two days, and I’m heading to New Orleans.”
Germ has spent most of the past four years, homeless on the streets of San Francisco, Southern California and New Mexico. Then he volunteered that he was on the verge of committing suicide, when the bass guitar saved his life.
When I asked him to tell me more, he looked away, then picked up his bags and guitar, as Greyhound made the last call for New Orleans and the line began to move forward. When he looked back at me, his face was wet with tears and he said: “Sorry, it’s too painful to talk about.” He moved forward, through the gate and onto the bus bound for New Orleans.
The next day, I was on the same bus that Germ had boarded, heading to New Orleans. It was the only city on my Journey in which I did not know anybody, but I was drawn there simply because there is no other city quite like New Orleans. I was thinking about Germ, thinking I would like to find him, perhaps hanging out somewhere nears the Quarter.
On my first morning, I awoke early and headed to Café Dumond, for their iconic chicory coffee and beignets. It was a beautiful day in New Orleans, warm, but not with the stifling humidity that often descends on the city. I walked for miles that day, covering much of the area around the French Quarter, talking to artists and street performers. New Orleans is a fairly compact city, so I was sure I’d run into Germ. But the afternoon ended and I returned to my AirBnB room to rest, before heading out to dinner.
That night, I took Uber to the hot new section of New Orleans called Frenchman Street. It’s about three blocks long, but home to some of the newer, more popular restaurants in town, as well as myriad galleries and quirky gift shops. After a light dinner, I decided to walk the half-mile or so for a dessert of coffee and beignets at Café Dumond. I turned from Frenchman Street and almost fell over Germ, who was sitting sipping a beer with a few other street musicians.
I was surprised that he remembered me, as he jumped up to shake my hand. Germ apologized for being rude when we met in Houston, then completed the story about the bass guitar:
“I was really depressed because this girl who I was living with on the streets, dumped me,” he said. “Well, she hooked up with another dude and brought him with her when she dumped me. I didn’t have any money, I was hungry and I was tired and I thought there wasn’t any point in living like this anymore.”
He paused to take a swig of beer, then continued: “I walked by a pawn shop and saw this bass in the window. It was twenty bucks. I had a guitar before, but had to hock it to pay for food. I knew I had some money coming the next day for a job I had done for a friend. When I saw that guitar, I thought, maybe it’s not time yet. The next day I bought the bass and decided I was going to practice until I became the best fuckin’ base player ever.”
After another sip of beer, Germ jammed for me (below). an original melody he said. We shook hands and I gave him some money for food. Or beer. I guess it didn’t matter.
As I walked away, he said: “Hey Doug, you gonna put me in your book?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Well, make sure you send me a copy,” he said. “Nobody’s ever written a story about me.”
As I walked away I thought that, if I ever do write a book about this Journey, maybe I’ll just hand deliver Germ his copy. After all, it is New Orleans.