OPINION: Death stills the happy presence of a New Orleans personality

NEW ORLEANS – In his waning years, Pops chased sun and shade from side to side on Touro Street, hiding from that soul-sapping New Orleans blaze in the summer, hunting its warmth in the winter. He’d sit on different neighborhood steps and read his newspaper and feed the pigeons with stale poboy loaves from nearby Binder’s Bakery.
Friends – and he had many, all ages and races – stopped and talked to him, one side of the street or the other. The old neighborhood called the Marigny, where Pops lived, was cozy like that.
On one side of Touro was the bar, The Friendly Touch, which Pops owned for 30 years. He managed the bar for a long time after he sold out. That bar had many names over its lifetime, but denizens were more constant, and like family to Pops.
On the other side of Touro were the homes of good friends like John and Cory and Vera. John brought him Chilton County peaches from Alabama in the summertime, cocoa in the winter. Cory took him to the doctor and the hospital. Vera, his eventual companion, gave him a place to live after Katrina destroyed his home.
Everyone called him Pops, but his real name, the one given when he was born, was Felton Prosper Sr. He was a Thibodaux, La., native, born March 20, 1918. But when young Felton discovered New Orleans in the 1930s, it was like someone had turned on klieg lights. He was amazed, delighted and a little frightened that such a place even existed. He’d found paradise, and, from then on, home.
Pops worked at different French Quarter jobs to make his way. Once, he delivered fuel in cans by mule-drawn wagon for the Quarter businesses with gas-burning lights. He washed dishes, swept floors, tended bar. There were no tall buildings in New Orleans then, so, after he was old, he dearly loved to hop a ride downtown with friends and point out all the dramatic changes.
In New Orleans, Pops met and married the love of his life, Florence Mitchell Prosper. They were together until she died too young. He would love women forever, but none held a candle to his Florence.
Pops had that never-say-die attitude that kept him jolly and percolating for nine decades. I happened to see him the day a daughter brought him home from Houston after the widespread Katrina evacuation. “I’ve only been home half a day,” he told me, “and already I’ve found me a job.”
He was in his late 80s then. The job was at his old bar. And he kept working there until a week before his death.
“You gotta keep moving, John, you gotta keep moving,” Pops said again and again through the years. And he did. Keep going. Until recently.
Everyone sought out the old black gentleman in the baseball cap. People who passed by every day. Mardi Gras tourists from France. Infrequent visitors like myself. He would cheer you up instantly with his attitude and relentless good humor.
But one day, sounding uncharacteristically defeated, Pops confided to John that he had decided “it’s just not worth it anymore.”
A doctor had told him he had to quit work. And his swollen feet hurt him like a toothache, he said. Days later, June 18, he was dead. He was 91.
There is an empty spot on Touro now, one side of the street or another.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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