“I never thought I had any kind of gift,” Otto told us. My wife and I had just gotten settled in the back seat of Otto’s Impala at Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans and casually mentioned that we were both teachers.
“But I had this one English teacher, Mrs. Buffet, and she just pushed me and wouldn’t let me give up on life.”
Judith Buffet, who Otto met as a student at now-defunct John F. Kennedy High School in New Orleans, demanded excellence from her students. Otto wished he had a chance to thank her, to go back and be a better student. “Not that I’d want to do everything over, just sort of…” he trailed off, seemingly lost in remembering his teacher, then refocused.
“I like to read the newspaper every morning,” he told us. “You know, like an old person.” Otto, who graduated two years before me in 1990 wasn’t old, I thought. “One morning I was looking through the obituaries like I normally do, and there it was. Mrs. Buffet had died. I had lost touch with her but I never forgot that she told me I had a gift and that I had talent.”
Otto submitted a few short stories to competitions as a teenager and eventually finished a rough draft of a thriller called “The Alphabet Killer,” penned in the style of James Patterson. He shipped off the first three chapters to a publishing company and they liked what they saw. But Otto’s girlfriend at the time swiped his laptop after they broke up. Only those first three chapters survived.
“I still got most of it up here,” he said, pointing to his temple. “And if I can get back to it, I think I can make it even better than before. But life gets in the way.”
Otto spends much of his time these days caring for his mother, and in fact he’s been doing that much of his life, trying to make things better for those around him. It helped that he saw early on how he could combine his passions with his desire to help others.
As a 14-year-old budding musician, for instance, he’d spend his evenings regaling New Orleans tourists. But it wasn’t just to satisfy a musical itch.
“I’d sneak out to the French Quarter at night with my sax,” Otto said. “I’d come back with a hundred bucks and ease it into my mom’s purse.”
Once mom found out what Otto was doing, though, she wanted to put an end to his moonlighting career. Until he asked her to come down to the Quarter to check out exactly what he was doing.
“She came out with me once,” he said. “I was playing Christmas carols in the Quarter, just doing my thing and she was blown away. She kept saying to everyone ‘That’s my boy!’.”
Whether he was staying up late wailing on the sax or agonizing over the comma splices in a short story, Otto found his inspiration and was lucky enough to have people to push him toward those passions.
“You know, there’s something missing from a lot of kids,” Otto said. “So many of them gravitate toward the streets. They just need something.”
“For me, that was writing.”