“… The oldest, in some ways most somberly elegant, apartment houses in America, the Pontalba Buildings.”
—“Hidden Gardens”, Truman Capote
Three people and two cats: “The people were full of idealism and enthusiasm about starting over in a decadent, crumbling, historical magical city. The cats just wanted to get out of the carrier already.”
—Amy Burgess, April 2004
New Orleans greeted our moving day with rain. It began as a light patter when we first landed at the airport, then gradually worked up to a steady drumming as we drew closer to the French Quarter. It felt like we were being welcomed in a manner befitting our haunted new home. When I ventured this interpretation to Amy and John, they agreed.
We arrived on April 26th, 1997. It was three days before Amy’s birthday. One of the first things we learned about New Orleans was the advent of warm, heavy rain in the spring. Lots and lots of rain. Tourists scattered from it, but we were coming home, however new our adopted “home” may be, and not so easily put off by the elements.
How new was the city to each of us? Well, going solely by the number of days spent in New Orleans prior to moving there:
Me: Two weeks, returning almost two years to the date I first arrived in 1995.
Amy: 5 days.
John: 0 days.
So, pretty damn new for all of us.
Mina and Pandora, our two cats, bore the flight to Moisant Field* well enough. Amy was visibly relieved when an airport attendant brought their “Furrari” carrier to us and she could see their wildly alert feline faces inside. We gave them brief, comforting nose pets through the mesh door of the carrier.
(*—Moisant Field Airport was named for daredevil aviator John Moisant who crashed to his death in 1910 on the same agricultural land that the airport is now located. In July of 2001 it was renamed to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, in honor of the the jazz legend’s impending 100th birthday anniversary that August. The airport’s original IATA code, MSY, stands for ‘Moisant Stock Yards’ and still remains in use today…)
Our cast of cats:
Mina: Amy’s pale blonde Siamese cat, older and fussier than chirpy Pandora.
Pandora: Our newly adopted black short hair cat with over sized fore paws we dubbed her “catcher’s mitts”.
Ever the odd couple, Pandora was a galumphing Oscar Madison to Mina’s prissy and fastidious Felix Unger.
Pandora also had an usual method for communicating with us. Now and then she would emit a distinct “brrppt” in a tone that sounded inquisitive (did you call me?) or eager (am I getting treats?) depending upon the situation.
Upon seeing us at the airport, Pandora “brrppt”d rather excitedly, as if to say “OH! You’re here!”
Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to comfort either of them. The day’s upheaval wasn’t over yet: it was time to meet our realtor in the French Quarter. Mindful of the time, we reluctantly withdrew our fingers from the carrier and began hauling our luggage to the airport exit.
The waiting line for taxis moved briskly. Within minutes we were loaded up in one of the city’s ever-present ‘United Cab’ sedans with its signature sun-bleached white and black exterior.
We always get “the look” when climbing into a cab with a pet carrier. This was the first of many trips that played out this way. We hastily assured the driver that “our girls” were “very well-behaved.” Easing into the seat, I exchanged wide-eyed, conspiratorial glances with John and Amy—we actually had no idea how well they would behave but we needed to get moving.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, most New Orleans cab drivers will merrily talk your ear off. This time around, we got a real talker: an older black man with a gravel voice that invoked Satchmo himself. This seemed to delight John in particular, who spent the highway portion of the trip exchanging a breathless volley of “mmm-hmm”s and “yeah, you right”s with the old man while Amy and I did our best to comfort the increasingly agitated cats.
Alas, our “Pops” for the day got lost taking us to the rental office. He drove us through the Warehouse District, zigzagging this way and that as he tried to regain his bearings. This unexpected detour gave Amy and John their first glimpse of New Orleans as new residents.
As the cab continued to wind through various side streets, Amy spotted a large Jazz mural on the side of a building. She later remarked that it brought to mind the well-worn Rand McNally VHS tape on New Orleans we had watched endlessly before leaving Connecticut.
The cats, their patience finally spent, began a yowling duel in earnest. John did his best to talk over them.
The Ethel Kidd office was located across the street from the French Market on North Peters. John remained in the cab with the cats while we met with Pat Henry, our new landlord.
Pat was crisp and efficient. Amy and I nodded and scratched our initials on a stack of lease papers as Pat gave us a brief walk-through of the rental policies.
Once the paperwork was sorted, Pat handed us our keys. The sky grew darker as we emerged from the office and jumped back into the cab.
A few minutes later, Pops parked just short of the intersection of Chartres and St. Peter. This pedestrian heavy area marked the northwest corner of Jackson Square. Here, too, stood the Upper Pontalba, a rectangular mass of weather-stained bricks and thick grey columns—all wrapped in two bands of decorative iron lace that comprised the second and third floor balconies.
Reputedly the “oldest continually operating apartment building in America”, the Upper Pontalba ran nearly the entire length of the Square. It started from the curve of Chartres into St. Peter, just a few feet from the entrance to the Cabildo, and continued all the way down to Decatur.
Each of us took turns glancing up at the Pontalba itself. We were actually going to live here, deep inside this remarkable piece of New Orleans history.
Our first few moments on the street were spent standing near the side entrance to a very busy Cafe Pontalba. The cafe operated on the first floor. Visitors and natives alike eyed us curiously as Amy fished out cab fare. The three of us were unloading far too much “stuff” from the trunk of the cab to pass as typical hotel-bound tourists.
And what did we look like standing there, at the corner of one of the Quarter’s busiest intersections?
Several years later, I still see an almost comically indecisive looking trio surrounded by a jumble of luggage and a “Furrari” carrier full of cats.
Pops drove off, slowly, leaving us to the rest of the day’s uncertainties.
So it began, again, nearly two years to the date I left. Amy and John stood beside me now, and I couldn’t wait to share this strange old city with them.
Like many buildings in the French Quarter, Cafe Pontalba was accessible through a series of tall and narrow Creole-style “brise” doors. In contrast to the brighter palette favored by Creole tradition, these paired doors were painted a red clay color, complementing the faded brick exteriors of the upper floors. A steady stream of tourists continued to pour in and out of these open breezeways, stepping around us.
After a few seconds of assimilation, we made a quick huddle to discuss our strategy. John would safeguard the cats and luggage again while Amy and I looked for the first floor entrance.
The second floor balcony provided a flat, wide awning that ran the length of the Pontalba’s block-long facade. This long, shaded hall was supported by a procession of fluted columns and laid with slate tiles. It led visitors and locals alike on a strolling tour of the cafes and specialty shops on the ground floor before reaching the intersection of Decatur. From Decatur, it was a five minute walk across the street to touch the Mississippi River itself.
The Pontalba’s shop windows were identical in design to the paired doors. They were used to showcase hand-painted ceramic tea sets, crocheted lace doilies, antique dolls, gemstones, and assorted other curios. Grey stone columns flanked each shop door and window, giving the entire first floor a stately, old world feel.
The entrances to the interior apartments, however, were sturdier, six-paneled single doors topped by a transom. Each transom was outfitted with a panel of decorative iron lace with the initials ‘A’ woven into the design. These doors were tall and windowless. They emanated exclusion.
We discovered that the staircase entrance to our new apartment was just a few feet away from Cafe Pontalba. A dim yellow light silhouetted the ‘A’ in the transom above the door. Our way in was blocked by a cluster of wet, motley looking transients taking refuge from the rain, thus marking our first encounter with French Quarter “gutter punks”. Lucky us, they had chosen to congregate against the door marked 544, the one we had a key to.
We politely asked these oily miscreants to clear a path. After a good deal of sullen eye-rolling and grumbling, they did so. Amy and I didn’t even care. We were too happy to be in the city to give them a second glance.
“So while we lugged 17 suitcases and a carrier full of angry cat flesh up four flights of stairs, we also had to step over scruffy, smelly, surly “locals” who seemed rather put out that we’d actually want to *open the door* and go inside. I suppose when you are homeless, doors are really bothersome things…”
—Amy, April 2004
Once we slipped inside the dimly lit stairwell, Amy and I heard the echoed scrapes and shuffles of our own footsteps as we hauled both suitcases and aforementioned “angry cat flesh” up a rather steep, spiral staircase. The wooden banister was heavily nicked but polished. We held one hand fast to the curved rail as we went up… one, two, three… flights of stairs. Those held the A through C apartments.
We stopped to catch our breath at the third landing. This would definitely take some getting used to.
Up again we went, moaning our way up an even steeper incline toward the very last floor. Here it was at last, just off to the left:
I’m not sure what we were expecting when we opened the door, but we were definitely taken aback. It was like entering a small museum, but one that we were actually going to live in for a time.
We stepped into a wide-open living space with polished hardwood floors. I think Amy anticipated more walls or at least some semblance of partitioning, but this place was the antithesis of partitioning. It was open, yes, but invitingly so.
The layout was L-shaped, the longest part of it to our left. The floorboards were comprised of massive strips of antique wood embedded with iron spike nails. The boards creaked underfoot in places, and a few of the flat nail heads had come up just loose enough to snag unwary socks, but the overall effect was no less lovely for these imperfections.
The windows were delightful and strange. They began at the floor and came up to our knees. Amy explained that this was because we were in “the old attic space of the building where the maids and servants used to sleep.”
It also explained why this floor, when viewed from outside the Pontalba, made it seem as though only a gnome could hope to live there without scraping his head on the ceiling. It is my singular regret that I have no photos of the interior, indeed no photos from the Pontalba era itself.
Each window was fitted with a decorative wrought iron panel with the initials ‘A’ woven into the design, for Micaela Almonester, Baroness Pontalba. That very first day, we dubbed them our “Alice” windows, for Alice in Wonderland. Each of us certainly felt like a giant Alice glancing down at them.
The windows to our left overlooked Chartres street. The windows in front of us overlooked Jackson Square itself. And now both of these enviable views were ours. At least for a time.
There was a small galley kitchen in the middle, completely outfitted with new appliances and lots of counter and cabinet space. Behind the kitchen was a utility closet that housed a stacking washer and dryer. All of these additions were either brand new, or looked new enough to impress us.
To the right of the closet was a long, narrow bathroom, which was fancy for its petite size. Amy was smitten with the double medicine chest/mirror above the immaculately polished sink. The stand-in shower was a 90’s decor showpiece: a mosaic of marble tiling in rich earth tones to offset the gleaming new hardware.
The sole oddity of this otherwise lovely bathroom was realizing that the toilet was right next to one of those charming Alice windows along the floor. This afforded a passerby below in Jackson Square an unimpeded view of our private “business” if the angle was just right.
Off to the right of the apartment were two bedrooms: the “main” bedroom directly facing Jackson Square, the other positioned more or less above the secluded rear courtyard of Cafe Pontalba on the first floor. Both rooms were cozy and picturesque in their way.
I initially suggested the front bedroom for John. I thought that facing Jackson Square might help him acclimate to his strange new surroundings. Amy shook her head. She wanted it for us. At the time, she reasoned that since she had found the place and funded the down payment that she should have first choice.
In hindsight, John got the better deal. His room ultimately proved far less noisy over time. His room featured a pair of double windows that rolled open and close using a small crank handle. There was also an exit door in his room that led to a second stairwell that the three of us would eventually explore more fully in time.
Now that we had our initial walk through, it was time to get John. It was Amy’s turn to remain below with our stuff while I brought him up to see what he signed up for.
And so up, up, up the narrow creaky stairs we went.
By the time we had reached the fourth floor landing, John’s cheeks were flushed and his forehead damp. When I blithely remarked that we would have to make this haul on a daily basis, he gave me “the look”.
The “look” dissolved the moment I opened the door. In John’s expression I saw a reflection of what must have been my own startled wonder from just a few moments earlier.
I pointed out a few features, but he was only half-listening. He wandered in and out of each room, wearing the same dazed look of “I can’t believe we scored this” as the rest of us.
Coupled with that initial excitement was mild panic for me personally. The memory of going broke just two years was both fresh and gut wrenching. I’d have to look for work straight away. This time around, however, I meant to see it through. This time, I had an apartment worth fighting for.
Still, the job search would have to wait for a day or two. For the moment, it was about catching our breath and a bit of exploration.
We hauled up the rest of our luggage. It was finally time to let the cats out of the cramped Furrari.
Mina kept close to the walls, slow and quite tentative, no doubt looking for a place to hide.
Pandora showed no such reserve. She bee-lined for one of the ‘Alice’ windows facing Jackson Square, the one we had just opened up for her.
The decorative iron screen was intricate enough to prevent the cats from getting out, but still admitted river breeze and noise from the carnival-like din of the daytime crowds below.
The window itself was recessed so that Pandora could squeeze herself into it, like a loaf of furry bread sliding itself into a toy oven.
Pandora’s glassy eyes darted wildly in all directions as she spied upon all the colorful shapes meandering throughout the Square. The three of us sat on the floor next to her, watching her watching “them”.
It occurs to me now that many of our initial glimpses of Jackson Square that first day were viewed through the eyes of a cat.
Amy, curious as to whether or not Pandora’s face was visible to onlookers below, went back downstairs, walked outside and gazed up at our apartment window from Jackson Square. I can’t recall if she laughed or frowned, but it was clear that she spotted Pandora.
Before Amy came back upstairs, she tried the doorbell. To our surprise and delight, this prompted an intercom system. I asked who it was, knowing damn well it was her. After some silly back and forth, kids playing at being officious grown-ups really, I buzzed her in. Amy loved it. She had never lived in a place with an intercom and a buzzer before.
The moving company wasn’t due to arrive with the rest of our stuff until mid-week. Until then there wasn’t much to do in our beautiful, echo-y apartment except brood, eat or explore. So we decided to take our first look at the Mississippi river as new residents.
The three of us shuffled down the staircase single-file and ventured outside once more. We paused beneath the eave. The rain had really picked up at this point. Overhead, grey clouds pulsed briefly with staccato flashes of lightning followed by distant rumbles of thunder.
The storm, for all its presence, wasn’t intense enough to dissuade us from venturing out. I’m smiling as I type this. We had no idea what we were stepping into. There is a vast difference between what passes for a “rainstorm” on the West Coast and the kind of scare-you-shitless thunderstorm that boils over primordial Louisiana. This one was, literally and figuratively, just warming up.
The three of us had nearly reached Decatur when the sky flashed twice in rapid succession. We paused. Before we could register what was happening, the sky detonated with a chest rattling
!!! BOOM !!!
… a sound so sudden, so violent that everyone in the passageway instinctively ducked down low, as if from artillery fire. A few people cried out in shock, along with a few choice expletives.
The echo of the boom then rippled outward and away from us, and with it came the sound of our own nervous laughter.
It was there that we decided (swiftly) that the river could wait for a few hours yet. Instead, we would enjoy the thunderstorm from the comfort of our new apartment.
We did an about face, inched past the gutter punks (closing the stairwell door on them before they could be tempted to slip inside like zombies), scuffed our way back upstairs and sat down before the Alice windows with Pandora.
True to the Louisiana adage “If you don’t like the weather, just wait…”
The thunderstorm, apparently satisfied that it spooked the hell out of most of the city, left only cascading walls of rain in its stead.
Encoded in that experience, perhaps, were messages of welcome and warning for the three of us. We had newly arrived into the strange, storm-charged air of New Orleans to willingly claim it as our own, and so we were welcome. But we brought our hidden compulsions and insecurities with us, and so we would soon be tested..
“I remember that stupid “damnation” song we were singing as Penny drove us to the airport, squished like sardines and giggling while Penny asked what was so funny. I remember the rainstorm and thinking that it was Lasher* welcoming us to the city in true Mayfair fashion. As we stood on the corner of St. Peter’s, I remember thinking that this was the spiritual home of all our Dixie and Vic’s nights and our jazz breakfasts.”
—John, April 2004
(*from ‘The Witching Hour’ by Anne Rice)
We sat on the floor in front of the Alice windows until sunset. The chest-rattling thunder had passed, but the rain kept coming.
We were getting hungry, so we decided to grab our umbrellas and finally venture out. Prior to leaving Connecticut, each of us had bought umbrellas at a Walgreen’s in Manchester. John’s was blue. Amy’s was red. I choose a purple one.
At the time I didn’t fully comprehend how fitting (and foretelling) those colors were for us both personally and collectively. Looking back now, they spoke volumes about their respective bearers.
The storm, apart from clearing out most of Jackson Square, also left freshly scoured sidewalks in its wake. Their gleaming slate surfaces reflected the flickering gas lamps of the Quarter’s side streets and, closer to Bourbon, a handful of modest neon signs already lit up in anticipation of the coming night.
The three of us, armed with brightly colored umbrellas, went out to greet it.
New Orleans. Part Seven.