NORTH TAMPA — It was the 1950s and the kids of New Orleans' Ninth Ward were playing ball in empty lots and in the streets.
They'd spin a Saturday night into a block party with a few records.
Holidays were a house-to-house procession, with samples from steaming pots of gumbos and jambalayas.
Norman Marshall was one of them. For him, the neighborhood and its simple childhood memories became a cocoon he longed for through the decades that followed.
Now 65, he has lived through suicide attempts, war and the murders of his mother and his youngest son.
He numbed his pain with alcohol. Homeless, he traveled the country, often sleeping on cardboard in cemeteries.
But every time he left, eventually New Orleans called him home.
Today he still feels the call from his North Tampa apartment off Waters Avenue.
He can almost taste it.
"I'd get me a seafood po'boy from here to here," he said, measuring the inside of his arm, wrist to elbow.
"Shrimp, oysters and catfish — all on one sandwich. Lettuce, mayonnaise, dill pickles. Oh man … oooh man."
He sighs and laughs, shaking his head.
"Just unbutton the belt," he said.
Marshall came to Tampa five years ago on a bus after Hurricane Katrina poured 6 feet of water into his home. He stayed for a year after that, but things got even worse. The Vietnam veteran suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder and is bipolar. He said he couldn't get medications and support groups were cancelled.
One day he went to the Greyhound terminal, he said, with no clue where he would end up. Tampa was the next bus to leave.
Here, he found support in weekly group meetings and an apartment through Project Return, a not-for-profit self-help organization for people with mental illnesses.
Marshall was first diagnosed with mental illness after he attempted suicide the first time at 14, he said. Uncle Sam drafted him to fight in the Vietnam War at 18.
The memories of combat haunt him today. He never believed in war but always believed in veterans.
In New Orleans, he married and had five boys. He drove a forklift, a school bus and an 18-wheeler. He worked on a railroad and as a security guard.
Life changed in 1979 when his mother was shot after an argument with a man who crashed into the back of her car, according to Marshall and his brother.
Nearly two decades later, in 1997, his 18-year-old son was pumping gas when someone shot him in an attempted robbery, they said.
Marshall had been especially close with this son, and the anger ate him up. He checked into a mental health hospital for a year and says he hasn't been able to work since.
In Tampa, he sometimes gets moody. "I can be a knucklehead," he says. But friends at Project Return help keep him on track.
Marshall lives on his Social Security checks, paying rent to live in an apartment complex run by Project Return, which is funded through several government agencies and private donations. The program provides support and manages Marshall's medicine intake. Comparable services are not yet available in New Orleans, he said, so he needs to stay in Tampa for now.
As part of the program, Marshall paints abstract art and masks that hang in the lobby at the Project Return office. There, he cleaned up a grassy space in the back and planted flowers and tomatoes and basil.
When Project Return gets a request to speak, Marshall is a first choice, said supervisor of programs Michael Hilson. He talks to psychology students at the University of South Florida and to the Boys and Girls Clubs. He tells them about his mental illness and that he is a recovering alcoholic who has been homeless.
"It can happen to anyone," he tells them. "We all need help."
That's the lesson he learned: He can't do it by himself.
He tries to stay busy and has made friends, but has no family here.
Holidays are hardest. That's when the memories of the Big Easy haunt him most.
"Sometimes I get real lonesome. I can't stop thinking about my family," he said.
That's when he calls his brother, James Marshall.
James' wife, Rose, is planning their Christmas dinner, including ham, stuffed bell peppers and gumbo.
When the brothers get together, they tell jokes on James' front porch, watch cowboy movies and talk about the good old days, back when a few friends got together for a game of street baseball.
The family misses him, too.
"He keeps you laughing," Rose said. "He's just Norman... He's just all New Orleans."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.