I woke up yesterday morning to social media posts that Frank Davis had passed, and I kind of sunk. While I did not personally know Mr. Davis, we — you and I — as a collective viewing audience certainly knew him, or at least his highly personalized way of storytelling over the decades. As a species, I think we can easily take for granted the things and people around us that populate our visual landscape, presuming they’ll always be in sight. Except they never are. And when the periphery changes and we lose one of our voices, it’s hard not to pause and reflect on what we’ll be missing.
To me, Frank’s style ran two speeds. He either knew exactly what he was talking about, usually with his mastery of regional cooking, insider fishing, or love of Carnival — or, he had no idea whatsoever where to take a subject, and his genuine interest in sharing its story drove the piece, most often the Naturally N’awlins bits about anyone and everyone, landmarks, traditions, you name it. It was this latter innocence and curiosity that drew us in. We wanted to know too. Who was he going to talk to? What was he going to ask them? And what might they ask him? An active sharing of regional dialogue, and for its duration just unparalleled.
Many Fat Tuesdays ago I found myself on Bourbon Street basking in a beautiful, sun-filled dawn surrounded by the organized mania that is a Mardi Gras morning in the French Quarter. Like a fly on the wall, I stood near a working Frank Davis who was broadcasting live, dressed as a druid or a monk or some such. Whatever he was supposed to be, it was a brown, hooded robe, and between live updates he carefully if not discretely puffed away on cigarettes in one hand and cradled a can of Budweiser in the other. The entire time. I was, in a word, impressed. As to me, that was about as naturally New Orleans as it got, the author embodying the sentiment. The real thing.
Beyond the apparent, it’s the void Frank leaves behind in the fabric of New Orleans today. The newcomers who have no clue who he was or what he did. And among these replacement faces, is there anyone who may measure up to his seemingly boundless joy and enthusiasm for the city? Unfortunately and in my estimation, not even close. Between tweets and retweets of pop-up food truck this and social enterprise that, the impermanence and ephemeral musings of millennials from afar (I’ve heard some call them Yankee saviors), it’s a lot of digital noise. In short, if you don’t know your Frank Davis, you’ve missed out.
True story: this morning my 2-year-old ran up to me, hair all wild from a night’s slumber, with two pieces of clay in her hand she’d fashioned the other night and said “Daddy, my heart broke in two,” as she handed me the two halves of her once-whole heart. “Can you fix my heart?” she asked. And I got a little misty because no, I couldn’t, and I can’t; sometimes our hearts break. And I know as I write this all of our hearts go out to the Davis family. Their loss is our loss, as the region has lost one of our great storytellers. His life’s work will undoubtedly remain irreplaceable, unmistakable, and forever naturally New Orleans.
Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and Du Mois Gallery on Freret Street and a married father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also shares his family’s adventures sometimes via pedicab or bicycle on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.