My first New Orleans job, at Palace Cafe on Canal St., awarded me an event I will never forget as long as I live. Yes, I met ZZ Top there. And the Pointer Sisters. But the realest treat came when televangelist Jimmy Swaggart slimed in and sat near the picture window.
Most people only know Swaggart as that awful crying face, begging for TV forgiveness. That gross Media Moment. But I knew him way before that, back when I was little, after a group of my less sophisticated relatives got sucked into Jim and Tammy’s PTL Club (Praise the Lord), and Swaggart’s scam, and any other Christian television bullshit they could throw their money at. They also abandoned any type of fun. My uncle even gave up fishing for Christ’s sake (literally)! I remember my Dad on the phone once pleading with him:“But The Lord doesn’t want you to stop fishing, Jimmy!” (Like Bakker and Swaggart, my uncle’s name was also Jimmy) Debates and fights and arguments within our extended family preceded years of silence, and favorite cousins I was no longer allowed to talk to.
This all made pouring Swaggart’s ice-water and warming his bread 20-years later so much more poignant for me. His wasn’t even my table, but I just had to do at least that. “Hello,” I said, while pouring.
“Hello, young man,” he smiled. Evil bastard.
I then ran away and stared at Swaggart from behind the restaurant’s gold staircase.
He sat chuckling with two other Southern-looking, gray-haired men in gray suits. His wife wore a yellowish-silver beehive hairdo and pearls. Long before his tearful mainstream Media Moment, I knew Swaggart was famous for his singing; he counted both Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilly as relatives. Still, it amazed me when the restaurant’s mobile Dixieland brunch trio came by his table, and he sang a song with them. At my job? Beyond them, out the Palace Cafe’s giant picture window, my bicycle locked to a parking meter provided background as Swaggart sang low, to his friends only.
None of our other customers paid attention to the scene. My co-worker Michael didn’t give a fuck either, distracted playing with a light-up Harrah’s Casino pen someone had given him as a tip. Not looking up from his new purple-glowing toy, Michael sighed,“Oh God, Swaggart always fucking does that when he’s in here.”
“And that doesn’t phase you?” I asked him.
“Does what phase me, baby?” he asked, clicking his pen On. Off. On.
“Uh, that Jimmy fucking Swaggart is singing at your job?” Clearly, living in New Orleans was going to be a casually wild-ass experience.
Before Michael could reply, my entire thought machine focused on Swaggart’s second song — usually the band played only one song per table, but they at least seemed to appreciate the uniqueness of the situation, and so continued, playing the only slow song I’d ever heard them do: “Amazing Grace.” Swaggart sang this one louder, not for the other customers, just louder for himself, eyes closed, Jimmy Swaggart, at my job? The picture window’s sun shot through his now gray, wispy hair, illuminating his skin, which sagged in a way that made him look as if he was crying: a permanent allusion to what he’s famous for.
As I gawked, my co-workers stared only at me, as if my not working for one moment was more incomprehensible than Jimmy fucking Swaggart booming: “To-o-o saaave a wreeetch like meeeeee. I wuuuuuunce wa-a-as lost bu-ut now I’m fouuund…” a minor re-enactment of his Media Moment, a private plea for forgiveness, at our fucking job!
When he finished, the Brunch Band members each shook Swaggart’s hand, and when the trio walked off, his wife leaned in and kissed her husband, sincere, sweet, proud.
Michael Patrick Welch’s “132 Famous People I Have Met” series is FREE, but please consider donating to his VENMO (michael-welch-42), or to his PayPal account (paypal.me/michaelpatrickwelch2), so he can feed his kids, pay his mortgage, etc.