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The Big Gamble: Joey McNab on St. Roch

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Joey McNab (photo by Ben Saxton)

Visit St. Roch Avenue, and you might find longtime resident Joey McNab walking his dog, Bruno, near the cemetery or along the tree-lined neutral ground. Joey and I had been planning to talk about life in the neighborhood but, for one reason or another, we kept missing each other. Then, a few mornings ago, I glanced out my bedroom window and spotted him outside the St. Roch Body Shop. I hustled across North Claiborne Avenue and yelled over the roaring traffic.

Ben Saxton: Joey! Mind if I walk with you for a couple minutes?

Joey McNab: I’ve been meaning to get with you, Ben. It’s just, lately—going through what I’ve been going through—I ain’t been able to.

I hear you. How have things been going?

It’s been OK. Doctor’s appointments. Dealing with people ‘round here.

I wanted to ask you about the neighborhood. I know you’ve been here for a while.

I’m fifty-nine, going on sixty. I was born here. See that lot, sitting near the blue house? That was my grandfather’s. That’s all I know, really: that’s home. I went to schools around here up to the sixth grade, and then I left for about twenty years and went to Honduras, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

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near the corner of St. Roch and North Claiborne (photo by Ben Saxton)

What brought you back?

I just never felt at home. Even though it’s a little frustrating around here, I wanted to come back. And then that idiot Julio burned my house down.

How did that happen?

I’m not really wanting no one to know.  That was back in 2007. Since then, I’ve been going through abandoned houses. Where I’m staying now, it’s been my home. I had known the owner all my life. One day I was walking past his place and the door was open. He never kept the door open. When he didn’t answer, I called the police and said something’s wrong. But they wouldn’t go in there because they thought it was an abandoned house. So I finally went in and the guy was dead on the floor. The guy’s brother asked me—because other people were going inside, stealing the refrigerator, the stove, tearing up the place—he asked if I’d live there and watch the place for him. I’ve been there for about a year.

How are you liking it?

I used to go in there as a kid, you know? So I’m at home.

How has the neighborhood changed since those days?

Oh, man. It’s changed really dramatically. It went from being a good neighborhood where everybody knew everybody to—people just hanging out, doin’ shit.

What do you do for work?

I used to work offshore as a cook, I worked in the French Quarter as a cook, and now I just do little piddling jobs. I’ll sweep some floors and get ten, fifteen dollars. That’s about it. That’s how I’ve been surviving.

How’s your health? You said you have some doctor’s appointments.

Oh, man. I’m failing in health. I’m in constant pain—with arthritis, as you can see now. Just feeling bad. Frustration. Depression. Anxiety. Panic attacks.

So you’re trying to take care of yourself.

I’m trying to, but it’s hard.

The last time we talked, you mentioned that you would never live anywhere else. Why is that?

Because New Orleans is where I was born and raised, bro. I know this area. A lot of it has to do with my family on my mother’s side. I really want to try to get back on it, you know? And I got one cousin trying to take it away from me, and I’m not going to let it happen.

Does your family still live in the area?

No. I’ve got my dog, Bruno. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have any reason to go home. I’m being honest with you. I’m telling you, Ben.

Dogs are important.

Yeah.

Well, I don’t want to take up any more of your time. I appreciate you taking a few minutes. Do you mind if I grab a picture of you for the column?

Nope.

Thanks. You’re looking good. That cat’s a nice touch.

She’s a rescue kitty.

Oh, you know this one?

Yeah. I gave it to Kara down the street.

Don’t be a stranger, man. I haven’t seen yon our street.

Well, I walk the dog early in the morning. Then I gotta go lay down a bit.

I’ll talk to you soon, Joey.

OK, Ben.

Ben Saxton is a writer currently working on Poker Room, a nonfiction account of New Orleans poker players and the city’s rich gambling history. He is also a professor at the McGovern Medical School and Bard Early College. To contact Ben with thoughts, feedback, or questions, you can email him at saxtonb@gmail.com or visit his website at bensaxton.com.