Incident at the Derby


Photo by Eliot Kamenitz, The New Orleans Advocate

One more story, offered with the hope of sparking inspriration. There is nothing odd or supernatural about this one. It’s ironic and tragic, but there’s some justice, too. Bear with me.

The annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival takes place over the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May, just as spring is beginning to heat up the city. The event is held at the New Orleans Fairgrounds — known as “The Derby” by the city’s residents due to the horse races which occur there — which is in the middle of the Gentilly neighborhood, a relative stable working class area, at least by New Orleans standards. The track during Jazzfest is given over to several stages at various points, each of which feature live music being performed over the course of several hours. There are also merchandise and food vendors — come for the music, stay for the eats — and various places to take a break from the energy of the event, including a set of bleachers off to one side the track.

I attended my first Jazzfest in 2000. I got there early on opening day and after seeing a few acts that I had waited all of my life to see (Clarence “Frogman” Henry, The Dixie Cups, and my now-deceased pal Frankie Ford)  I took a mid-afternoon break. I got a shrimp po’boy and, dislike of heights notwithstanding, got a seat near the top of one of the sets of bleachers, where I proceeded to, as it’s said, fang down on lunch and watch the party swirl below and in front of me.

I was about halfway finished with my meal when a man and woman ascended the bleacher steps near me. The woman wore one of the distinctive vest-apron combinations that the Jazzfest employees customarily wear. It was a hot day, and the woman, somewhat slight in body type, appeared tired and weary, no doubt from working in the sun and humidity that day. The man, for his part, manifested the kinetic energy usually seen in the nervous or those who are “hyped” for one reason or another. His arms were corded with thick veins and ended in large hands that he bounced off his knees in an odd rhythm as he walked, sticking his elbows in and out to the side. He hummed and nodded and looked all around without appearing to see anything. The woman was carrying a styrofoam go-box similar to the one that my lunch had been in, and I assumed that she had earned it under the policy that provides a free meal for each Festival employee while on shift.

As they passed the aisle where I was seated the man grabbed the box from the woman before turning down the row of seats behind me. The woman emitted a tired but still audible “hey” in protest, one which the man ignored as he sat down behind me. I heard him proceed to eat whatever was in the box, gulping, lips smacking, and grunting all the while. The woman, after about a minute, asked him softly, “Ain’t you gonna give none of that to me?” The man stopped eating just long enough to spit out a “no” before continuing his repast. The woman waited a minute, and then said, “But they gave that to me for workin’ here.” The man made a statement to the effect that she could eat when she got off work, and that she needed to lose some weight anyhow.

I am an interventionist. I make neither excuses nor apologies for being so. If someone yells “help” or looks like they need help my impulse is to respond. My impulse to intervene in a bad situation, however, is tempered by situational awareness.  I won’t get involved if I don’t see a positive outcome, short or long term, in my actions. Some things are in the end irremediable, and intervention by a stranger can make things worse. I considered this to be one of those situations. I could have 1) give the woman money for lunch; 2) given her the rest of my lunch; or 3) told the guy that he was a miserable waste of skin for treating someone with whom he was apparently in a relationship (more on that in a moment or two) in such a manner and fashion. I also concluded, however, that any of those actions would have rebounded back on the woman sooner or later, and thus I wouldn’t be helping her. The third action would also have probably gotten me my ass kicked (not that such has ever stopped me in the past) and not just once. I have learned, via payment in dear and bitter coin, that everyone in New Orleans seems to be connected or related to someone else, so that creating a beef with one person multiplies the participants in said dispute quickly and exponentially. Additionally, I was concerned that the woman would get a beatdown in the bargain as the price of attracting the attention of a stranger. I didn’t feel good about it but I quickly finished my lunch and walked away without doing anything. And in case you are wondering…I of course never for a moment considered turning around and suddenly shoving the guy off of the bleacher seat in the hope that he would fall fifteen or so feet to the ground. That would have been wrong. I think.

Flash forward two days. I was reading the Sunday edition of the New Orleans newspaper in the lobby of my hotel when I saw a small news item buried in the nether regions of the back pages. The story concerned a man who had been killed in a domestic incident. As the story went, he and his significant other had been arguing throughout the day, starting at Jazzfest where she worked. Their argument reportedly continued after she arrived home in the evening and was apparently fueled by the man spending the afternoon fortifying himself with alcohol. The article stated that he had been upset that she was “late” and as a result beat her twice over the course of the following few hours. Having exhausted himself during his busy day, the man went into the bedroom and fell asleep. The woman used the opportunity creating by his unconsciousness to pour gasoline over him and, in her words, “I lit him up.” Indeed. The article noted that there had been a history of domestic disturbance calls to the household going back for over a year prior. The woman, however, had declined to either press or pursue charges in each incident. The article was accompanied by a mugshot of the woman who had been seated behind me.

How did things turn out? The woman was initially charged with second degree murder. I got on the phone and started calling around to the prosecutor, public defender, and an attorney I know in New Orleans who enjoys arising each day to joust at windmills on behalf of the downtrodden. I won’t bore you with the details but the upshot was that I offered to testify at trial as to what I had witnessed on that particular day,  hoping that my version of what I saw, and my reaction, would be received as evidence of mitigating circumstances. I didn’t need to, as it turned out. The woman, who did not have so much as a traffic ticket against her, pled guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to time served and probation. The judge, with the prosecution’s blessing, took into account her history with the deceased and the fresh evidence of his violence that night (don’t ask). That the deceased was a multiple offender with several violent crime notches on his belt — enough that he had been awarded the title of “career criminal” by the time he reached his nineteenth birthday — was not considered, of course (wink wink).

I don’t know what happened to the woman, and I never really met her. But I think of her frequently, particularly when I am woolgathering instead of sleeping. I wish her the best, wherever she is, and would tell her that I’m sorry that I couldn’t do more. But I think things turned out okay for her. God, I hope so.

What would you have done in such a situation? Have you ever been in a situation where it was better to walk away than step in and defend someone? What did you do? What was the aftermath? And as far as a starter for a novel goes…it’s a great one. Colin Harrison uses it in BODIES ELECTRIC to frightening effect and, of course there’s a series involving a guy named Jack, an ex-MP, who wanders around the country getting involved in things. What do you think?

25 thoughts on “Incident at the Derby

  1. Good morning, Joe.

    Great story. I don’t know what I would have done. The thought crossed my mind of moving out of the way of the conflict, following the woman until she was alone, then buying her a meal. But it’s easy to be an armchair, Monday-morning good Samaritan. Knowing my aversion to conflict, I would have probably left the bleachers before I finished my meal.

    In any case, I’m impressed with the action you did take. That’s more than most people would do. And you should write that novel. Just think of all the trips you would need to make to New Orleans for research (business trips).

    Have a great weekend and a Happy Fourth of July.

    • Good morning Steve, and a Happy Fourth of July to you! Answering your points backward…I have logged a LOT of time in with regard to visits to New Orleans, usually on business but always looking for elements, items, arcane this-and-that which I can use at some point. And is there a lot of it. I’m always finding something new.

      Re: doing something or not, I try to follow Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer: “Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change,the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I think I have have the second part of that one down; it’s the first and the third parts that I trip over. Life is a learning experience. You’re wise to avoid conflict; you’ll no doubt live longer than I will.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Steve. Hope you enjoy your holiday.

  2. Great story, Joe. I think I would have done what you did, while imagining the jerk “falling” off the bleachers. Years ago I was a pastor and dealt with a lot of women who had abusive husbands/boyfriends. It was frustrating to watch these women take the abuse and never press charges or try to leave. Their mindset seemed to be that they somehow desrved the abuse. One woman told me, in the hospital through her wired shut broken jaw, to leave them alone, that her husband was a good man who just needed undestanding. In another situation, I did intervene. A man visited my church and announced at a prayer meeting that he was the Angel of Death, and would we pray for him to have the strength to carry out his mission. After the meeting, I called the police and was told there was nothing they could do. This was forty years ago, before terrorism and such.

    Later that week I stopped by his house to check on his wife and she was sitting in hte front yard beside a running lawn mower, crying and holding her hand. The guy was sitting on the front porch, drinking tea and watching. She had reached under the mower to remove a stick and cut off all her fingers. I wrapped her hand in a handkerchief, quickly found her fingers, and rushed her to the hospital ER just down the road. Her husband didn’t move, just kept saying “I’m not of this world” over and over. The police got involved then, and with my testimony, he ended up in a mental institution. The wife? She was angry with me for interfering with his “ministry”.

    Sometimes you just can’t win.

    • David, thanks so much for sharing your story and for your courage in helping that woman. There are some things you can’t fix. That lawn mower story is going to stay with me for a long time. I was afraid that you were going to say that as you were driving the woman to the hospital she grabbed a knife with her good hand and started attacking you! Hmmmm….

      Hope you have a Happy Fourth! Thanks as always for stopping by.

  3. It can be very dangerous for the victim when an outsider intervenes during a domestic dispute. I think you did the right thing for the woman’s sake by walking away, and there wasn’t really anything to report to security or the police about that specific incident.

    It’s hard to know what to do in a bad situation. I’ve run into that while shopping when I see a mother screaming at her child and I can see she’s out of control. I’m usually afraid to interfere, and then I feel guilty about it for days, wondering if the child is being mistreated at home.

  4. Patricia, I’ve seen that myself. My inclination would be to intervene if she actually started physically attacking the child. The columnist Bob Greene told a story about seeing a distraught woman at a bus stop repeatedly striking her child. He said that he went over, said softly, “Ma’am?” and blocked her hand from striking the child again. She reportedly started crying, embarrassed by what she had done. There is more to the story but I could see his actions — which I applaud — going another way, and badly. And when the abuser is a male…they usually don’t take kindly to intervention, no matter how softly administered or well-intended. Thanks for sharing and Happy Fourth!

  5. Aside from the horror for the woman, what a terrible predicament for a bystander to be in. Sounds like you made the right call, for a number of reasons, including her letting this man get away with it numerous times before. She clearly, up to that point, wasn’t ready to take action on her own behalf.

    I don’t think I would have taken action either, but I can see myself asking her “Why do you let that jerk treat you like that?” But that wouldn’t have helped the situation either.

  6. You raise a great question, BK, concerning the “why.” I think if I had asked that, lo those many years ago, I would still be standing there waiting for an answer. It was obvious to me that this was a pattern of behavior that had been played out in many different ways. And the comment about her weight…that’s simply something you don’t do, in public or in private. I think that made me as angry as anything. Hopefully the guy is in a place where there are tables heaped high with food and he can never. quite. reach. them. Thanks for comments and Happy Fourth!

  7. It’s tricky knowing when to intervene. We never know the whole story, and often, things aren’t what they appear. Looks to me your instincts were on target, and you did the smart thing and the right thing.

    • Thank you Mike. What you said: we never know the whole story. I was fortunate to be able to do something/anything after the fact, when, I suppose, it really mattered.

      Hope you have a great Fourth!

  8. Wow, that reads like a great short story, Joe. (I am thinking about short stories a lot lately because I am helping someone in our critique group work on hers. And your vignette is a perfect example of finding a small moment that says volumes about the larger life.)

    As for me? I don’t think I would have gotten involved. I’ve known women (and a couple men) like this, and, as someone here said, sometimes intervening in the moment makes it worse. The woman has to take some steps on her own or it never takes. Then, I say, you help however you can. Am doing a lot of reading on this lately in prep for a new book I am mulling around….about the pyschology of women who are so desperate they are willing to “disappear.” (which is near impossible to do these days.)

    Great post and story.

    • Wow, Kris. Thank you. What is better than high praise from one of my favorite authors? That possible new book sounds terrific. It’s never been more difficult to disappear, true, but one can still do it. It usually takes at least one or two people to help, a willingness to downsize quality of life, and preferably no children to bring along. The little nippers can talk, can’t they. Let us know how the book is coming and thanks again. Happy Fourth!

  9. I am usually an interventionist, especially with children who are being abused physically or verbally. I have been the recipient of many irate rebukes, as a result (children are mostly powerless to escape an abuser, unlike adults). Whenever I’ve become aware of a chronic situation of abuse involving a child, I inform Social Services, as well.

    However, in the situation you described, I would have assumed (correctly, as the rest of your story proved), that the adult woman was in a relationship with a domestic abuser (verbal abuser, at the very least, and probably physical). Which means that any intervention or confrontation by you would have caused an escalation later by her abuser against HER. So I would have done exactly as you did. I would have said nothing.

    You made exactly the right call, Joe. And I love the New Orleans legal system’s resolution of the case against her. Some judge evidently concluded that she had done society a service by putting the guy down like a rabid dog. How incredibly Southern!

    • Thanks, Kathryn. I have some bad history as well, which makes me inclined to do what I do. Re: the New Orleans legal system, the departed one had been a target of the D.A.’s office on several occasions for other criminal offenses. I might have heard the phrase “we should give her a medal” from one corner or another but I can’t recall where and maybe I just imagined it. Heh heh. I actually felt bad that she got probation but there was concern over her method of elimination…she could have done herself, and her neighbors, some serious injury as well. It all turned out okay.

      Happy Fourth and I hope that your koi get some extra treats on Monday!

        • Kathryn, we’ll have to get together at some point and trade stories. Set aside about six hours and I’m sure we would barely scratch the surface.

  10. I am impressed with your restraint, Joe. Your analysis was sound, and I’ll keep it in mind next time I go to a Raiders game.

    I once went to the movies to see Red Dragon. A “father” had brought his wife or girlfriend and their SIX-YEAR OLD DAUGHTER. Really? She was happily eating popcorn before the show. After this horrific movie, I waited outside to see what the girl looked like. She was white-faced. Traumatized. The “father” was carrying her. It was everything I could do not to get in his face. But I know that would have been the wrong place and time. Instead, I wrote a letter to the Times about it and they published it. I hope this “father” read it. If, indeed, he reads anything.

    • Jim, thanks so much, even if you did cause me to spit coffee all over the keyboard with your Raiders comment. Re: Red Dragon, I saw something similar happen at a screening of Poltergeist when it was in theaters. A couple brought what I assumed to be their little daughter into the movie. Huh? At one point a woman ran screaming out of the theater. I didn’t see what the kid looked like afterward but I doubt that she wanted to watch television anytime soon after that.

      Thanks again and have a Great Fourth!

  11. I believe I probably would have said something. I’m not one to shrink back from a public a.., err, jerk. I’ve done it many a time. But there was one time I didn’t. Many years ago, on “The Ave” in Seattle, there was a burrito joint. Said burrito joint was run by Vietnamese refugees. I know, right now you’re thinking “What? Vietnamese-Mexican burritos?” As it happened, they made pretty darn tasty burritos. I ate there regularly. One rainy Sunday I was munching down my burrito, and a man came in. He started loudly harassing the couple, especially the woman, quite clearly over their ethnicity. It was very disturbing. He was ranting on and on, claimed to have been a Vietnam vet, etc. etc. etc. It was brutal. I suspect the man was mentally ill, not uncommon on The Ave. Like you, I was intimidated and fearful of the consequences of intervening. I was not alone. There were several other patrons. Not a single one of them stood up to this person. He finally left. You could see how devastated the woman was. It was a horrible experience. And nobody did anything. I felt terrible for her. I finished my meal, and continued to eat there (they are long since gone), but I always thought of that incident. To this day I feel guilty for not standing up to him and for her. I vowed that if I were ever in a similar situation I would not be quiet, and I won’t be.

    • Catfriend, I take your point, but I think you did precisely the right thing. What would you have done exactly that would have 1) made him stop, 2) guarantee that he wouldn’t have come back later, and not injure you or the restaurant personnel? With regard to #3, if someone is being PHYSICALLY attacked, that’s the time to jump in and let the chips fall. As bad as verbal abuse can be, it’s a step below. I think your restraint in that situation, under that fact pattern, was well advised, particularly when dealing with a street person. Thanks and I’m glad you’re with us today. Happy Fourth.

      By the way, regarding Vietnamese tacos…the best pizza I ever had was in San Francisco in 1994 at a place called Pizza Pop a couple of blocks up from the wharf that was run by Chinese. I know…pizza was inspired by, if not created in, China, but those guys knew what they were doing. The thought of it brings hunger pangs.

  12. I have a hard time understanding the mindset of an abuser. The only conclusion I can come to is that they feel powerless in their everyday life, and assert power over a vulnerable subject, person or animal. My ex was such a person. He started to get abusive to me one time after a drinking binge. He was an alcoholic. I was not sensible about it. I wasn’t afraid, I was ticked off. I got in his face, and he backed down. Later I realized he could have really hurt me. But he backed down. I contacted the police, filed a restraining order and him, and while I was at the courthouse, filed for divorce. I have seen those women who are so beaten down, and feel that it was their fault. I always want to ask them why they allow it. I asked one time. She said simply, “Because I love him!” It’s hard to know what to do, but I believe you did the only thing you could at that time. Thanks for this story. Have a very happy Fourth of July!

    • Rebecca, shame on me but I’m kind of done with figuring out why people do what they do. It’s like trying to understand the mental workings of an outhouse rat. I leave that to people at a higher pay grade.

      By the way, I disagree with you: I think you were very sensible about the situation you described. He probably would have escalated if you hadn’t. There’s nothing that a coward likes better than the path of least resistance.

      One thing I would point out to people who find themselves on the receiving end of abusive attention: a restraining order doesn’t do jack, other than to possibly anger an aggressor even more. Keep in mind when dealing with such a situation is that when seconds count, the reality is that the police are there in minutes. Have a “what if” plan in mind, work it through, and don’t hesitate to utilize it if you have to.

      Thanks for sharing your story, Rebecca and for stopping by once again. Hope you have a peaceful Fourth!

      • Great advice about the backup plan. Most of the time, you are correct–restraining orders aren’t effective. It depends upon the aggressor. I knew my ex was intimidated by the police. He did call me, begging me to reconsider and take him back, but he didn’t try to approach me. I guess in many respects I was lucky. I am so glad that chapter of my life is over. It was quite a learning experience.

  13. Joe, A thought-provoking story. I believe you did the right thing especially making the phone call after the woman’s arrest. It’s so sad that this poor woman resorted to murder to free herself from an abusive situation. I remember the movie, I believe it was titled, “The Burning Bed” with Farrah Faucet (forgive the spelling of the name) that was a similar abusive situation. There are so many services available for abusive situations today, and yet, too many abused women and men (yes, men are abused also) don’t take advantage of them out of fear and retribution.
    If it was a fiction story-I would have knocked the (blankety blank) off the bleachers, taken the woman by the hand and left.

    • I remember that movie as well, Frances. It was somewhat controversial at the time and put Farrah Fawcett-Majors back in the spotlight. I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired the woman I encountered. Thanks for your comments…as a work of fiction, I can think of a number of ways it could have ended. For instance…the stranger who overhears the exchange follows the couple around at a discreet distance until the man leaves the Fairgrounds, kidnaps him, and puts him in a cage with wild dogs. Or something like that. Anyway, thanks for commenting. Hope you enjoy the Fourth!

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