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A True Gentle Man


James Conner may be the most valuable man on Canal Street. He gets what you need when you need it.

Canal Street used to have a couple like him on every block. A virtuoso of personality, skilled in the never-ending tip-toe between professional and human contact. A philosopher who can get things done. That was then. Now guys like him are a blast from the past.

Just let your eyes walk down Canal, its camera shops and Sneaker Kingdoms alternating with the plywood dŽcor of those long gone and longer forgotten. Once upon a time, New Orleans, the genteel, the shabby, the shabby-genteel, all came here to keep up appearances or seeking improvement. There were baser pleasures on or near Canal, but they could usually be avoided by the proper and pleasant just by looking the other way.

Now it's harder to look the other way, away from the orange rubber and plastic that keeps us away from the broken, the gashed, the neglected. Except here, the 600 block.

"My corner," says James Conner in his best no-brag-just-facts voice. "Canal and St. Charles."

Location since 1924 of the redoubtable Rubensteins, a high altar of local haberdashery. Perfect place for James Conner to work.

"My mama and dad were from Natchez (Miss.)," Conner says. "When I was 5 years old, he showed me how to cook a dish of eggs and rice. 'Now you ought never to say you ever went hungry,' he told me. My mama used to like to tell me, 'Good will follow good.' In one square block, I had an uncle, two aunties and 28 cousins. So I learned quick about the pluses and minuses of family." It was a fit for Conner, a fit he would come back to again and again.

At Walter Cohen High, he took P.E. and worked at Krauss in the afternoons. After graduation, he took a job in the Marigny warehouse of Godchaux's, another high-end clothing store on Canal Street.

"The warehouse was a real sweatbox," Conner remembers. "We'd get a new supervisor and he'd last a month or so and he'd be gone. I think we had eight or nine supervisors the first year I was there. So I went to the manager and said, 'Hey, I can't do no worse than that.' They made me a supervisor."

Conner was soon to learn that calling another man "boss" is sometimes more than just drinking praise. Within a year, he was laid off.

He made his way to Rubensteins and there he felt something he'd first felt as a little boy -- felt and loved.

"They were unloading a truck out in front of the store and it started to rain cats and dogs. Up pulled David Rubenstein, and he jumped out and began helping unload the truck. And that's when I saw one of the owners of the store pitching in with what needed doing and I realized: This is like family."

Like family. It was like that for James Conner and the Rubensteins for 20 years of stocking and warehousing and delivering. Then 10 years ago, a shift in duties. A vacation inside of a job. Alex Rodriguez picking up a baseball bat for the very first time. Come and see.

See first the gig line. That's what the military used to call the inspection-ready alignment of zipper and shirt buttonholes and buckle. Surrounded by dark-creased trousers, crisply starched tuxedo shirt and a black bowtie. Thus, James Conner stands astride Canal Street next to the sidewalk sign boasting "Valet Parking. 10:00 A.M. till 5:30 P.M." He looks ready to wink; he usually does.

Conner dabs at his temples with a dark handkerchief. "On a really hot day, I'll go through three handkerchiefs. Three undershirts, too. That's why I get so much starch in the shirts, to keep 'em from looking too ragged out too fast. I take 'em to Deluxe Cleaners."

Looking terribly cool in the terrible heat is only one part of the job. Conner knows he is like millions of birds and men who have moved thousands of miles on this very day doing exactly this -- the search for food. No better than them, but certainly no worse either.

Here comes a Rubensteins customer, rolling up in a Jeep Commander. She guides it close to the corner and waits for Conner to open the driver's door and take her elbow. He walks her to the store's front door, making small talk all the way.

Then he's back, car keys in each hand. He jumps into a parked GL450, scoots it up a couple of spaces, then moves the Commander into the new vacancy. The space nearest the corner is now open, and Conner plunks the "Valet Parking" sign there.

This put-and-take goes on all day. Conner is like a one-man pit crew for Cale Yarborough, or maybe boss of the flight line of an aircraft carrier. Cars coming, cars going. He takes yours, parks it, reparks it, gives it back to you. What makes it even tougher is that none of the spaces on Canal belong to Rubensteins. The cars are shuffled around like a mechanical three-card-monte game.

"Got to keep the folks happy," Carter says with a grin. "If they are here a half-an-hour, they may spend thousands." He started shaving his head a couple of years ago, the better to go with his eyebrows, long and gray. They sharpen a sparkle that defies time.

Thirty years on the job. Many of those dealing with one room too few or too small. But the last decade has been better and there's a home near Louisiana Avenue and three cars to drive on his only day off, including one he bought from Sam Rubenstein with 13 years and 13,000 miles on it. There's two grown daughters and a son serving in Iraq. Conner has taken care of the likes of Sidney Barthelemy, Lou Gossett and Allen Toussaint as well as plenty of fine New Orleanians you never heard of.

Like the lady who's jettisoning her dark-skinned Infiniti and being escorted onto Canal Street by a good-looking guy wearing a tuxedo shirt and pants and a smile that hints that it knows a lot. She thanks him. "Oh, sure," Conner says cheerfully. "We don't just take your money here."

No ma'am. Just James Conner taking care of business on Canal Street. With heart and hustle and a sense of style that doesn't depend on family money.

We could all use a few more like him.

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