I recently wrote an article for this magazine about making the difficult decision to move my family out of the French Quarter (August 2015 issue).
In my effort to focus on the nostalgic aspects of our move, I left out one crucial incident that helped drive our decision, and it’s an omission that has bothered me.
The story begins nicely enough: With the observation that, although Armstrong Park had been a dirty, desolate embarrassment to the city of New Orleans for my first 25 years in this city, over the past five years it has blossomed into a truly lovely, placid, meticulously landscaped urban oasis.
While we lived in the French Quarter, my kids and I spent many joyful afternoons at play there. I cherished our time running up and over the bridges and kicking balls across the little hills and just chilling out.
And I never ceased to marvel at the change in the park’s appearance and ambiance from the decades before. No litter. No skeez. No crud floating in the lagoons. And most importantly: No sense of danger.
Unfortunately, a random discovery one afternoon dashed my personal reverie and shattered my kids’ sense of comfort and safety there. It was a random discovery on what would be our last day of play in Armstrong Park.
On this particular day, we were playing our latest sporting obsession, bocce. (OK, go ahead and roll your eyes. Yes, we’re – eclectic, cosmopolitan even; after all, we were living in the French Quarter!)
Anyway, one of my sons – 12 at the time – overthrew his target and the ball rolled into a cover of shrubs and elephant ears. He crouched down and disappeared into the thicket to retrieve it and, after a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, he called out to me, “Daddy?”
I could tell right away something was amiss, in the innate and uncanny way a parent knows from the sound of their kids’ voice that something is wrong. His voice was unsure. Unsteady. But before I could process it, wrap my head around it, he said, “I found a gun.”
All I could think was: Dammit.
Dammit to hell.
“Don’t touch it!” I said a little too fast and a little too loud. His brother and sister both jumped at the sound of my voice. They pulled close to each other and we all stared at the space in the bushes where we couldn’t see him.
I moved over to the bushes and crouched down to take a look and, sure enough, there between my son and his bocce ball was a gun.
“Is it a toy?” he asked me. Odd as that sounds, it was a reasonable question; we’ve found lots of lost and discarded toys in parks and playgrounds over the years. But we’ve never found a gun.
The handle was wrapped with back electrical tape. The exposed black steel was scratched and dented, so I was thinking: Maybe it’s a toy.
I was thinking: Please let it be a toy.
I picked up a stick and pushed at it. It was solid. It was heavy. And it was no toy. It was a very real .9-millimeter. And here was one of those teaching moments you never want to experience as a parent.
My kids, they know what goes on around here. They know about the crime and the murder and everything else in this town. It is inescapable on TV news and on the radio in the car on the way to school in the morning. In fact, even before this happened, they had petitioned me successfully to stop watching the news at home in the morning or listening to it in the car on the way to school because – more often than not – it upset them.
We quietly packed up our bocce set and water bottles and walked home. Then my son and I walked to the nearby 1st District police station to report what we had found.
That evening, the kids peppered me with questions. How did it get there? Who put it there? Had it ever been used to shoot somebody?
I had no answers then. I have no answers still.
The only good news from it all is that there’s now one less gun on the streets of New Orleans. Problem is, that gun has been removed from the park but lodged firmly into the active imaginations of my kids.
They haven’t spoken about it for a while now; at least, not to me. So I’m left to wonder, as I do about so many things they see, hear and experience: What do they say to each other?
What do they know?