New Orleans. Part Seven.

‘House of the Rising Sun’

By sunset the worst of the thunderstorm had passed, but the wind and rain weren’t done with us just yet. After spending hours with grumbling stomachs, the three of us finally left the apartment and made our way the Gumbo Shop for dinner. We were barely a third of the way up St. Peter when a freak gust of wind popped John’s blue Walgreen’s umbrella completely inside-out. John swore and fumbled with the hateful thing while Amy choked back laughter. Undeterred, we pressed on.

Anyone who really knows me will tell you that I’m big on “firsts”: The “first time” we saw this, the “first time” we did that. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but the simplest is that I love creating history.

Dinner at the Gumbo Shop was one of many such “firsts” in our newly adopted city. It was my first taste of New Orleans cuisine back in 1995. It was the first place I took Amy to eat when we visited the city together two years later. And now, blustery weather be damned, it was going to be John’s first meal here as well.

Gumbo Shop was less than a five minute walk from our apartment. The less dawdling tourists you had to step around, the quicker you got there. Once you located the wooden restaurant sign swinging overhead, a dimly lit hallway led to a pair of glass doors located at the end of the passage, just off to the right. One door was propped open, the other closed. In front of the closed door stood a prominent “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign. So we waited. Cool drafts of air conditioning wafted out from the open glass door into the hallway, seeping through our wet clothes and chilling damp skin. We shivered and shuffled while waiting on our greeter* to spot an open table. There were two wooden benches in the hall for waiting customers, but we were too hungry and anxious to bother.

(*—I’m happy to note that she still works there: a quiet, but kindly woman named Gerry…)

The rain kept coming, so dining in the courtyard was out. Still, the forces of synchronicity were with us: we were seated at the same table I first ate at in 1995. The table was flush with the wall, directly beneath the same faintly scratched dining room window I gazed out of as a solitary “transplant” two years earlier. Then, as now, I found myself hypnotized by the endless stream of bustling foot traffic up and down St. Peter.

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The three of us ordered the same appetizer, Chicken and Andouille Gumbo. The distinction was in our choice of main dishes. I had the Jambalaya, whereas John decided to try the Red Beans & Rice with smoked sausage—a dish Amy was already a fan of, so she ordered it as well.

When our food arrived, Amy and I watched John’s first few bites of his Red Beans & Rice with interest. Judging by the pace in which he began to spoon in bigger and bigger mouthfuls, it was safe to say his premiere meal in New Orleans was an instant hit. He polished off the smoked sausage first then tore off chunks of french bread to mop up the rest. Seeing this, I began to relax a little and more readily enjoy my own dinner. The rest of the meal is a (happy) blur, but whatever uncertainties faced us in the weeks ahead, we always had the solace of good food nearby to help put our move into perspective.

So much about the Pontalba era is fragmentary. As I write this, our first arrival in late April of 1997 was close to 20 years ago. Nevertheless, a few key memories stand out.

For example, I remember next to nothing about our first night strolling Bourbon Street as a trio, save for the distinct feeling of being a trio. We had likened ourselves—sometimes jokingly, sometimes reflectively—to the fictional “coven” in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire: Lestat, Louis and Claudia.

John’s brash impulsiveness and impatience lent itself easily to the ‘Lestat’ role. Amy, both conspiratorial and contrary to John’s ways, was a recognizable ‘Claudia’. I strolled between these two as the brooding, over-sensitive ‘Louis’, wondering how long the three of us could live under the same roof before our little social chemistry experiment openly blew up in our faces.

Formative traditions became our anchors: a certain glibness in our banter (particularly between John and Amy), our inclination toward (mostly) cheap eats, along with a few key watering holes by which we could comfortably acclimate to our newfound “localness”—such as the darkened Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, that shambling French colonial lit mostly by candlelight, or the Old Absinthe House, whose walls were bedecked by business cards and dusty, drink-stained dollar bills.

We couldn’t afford to eat at the Gumbo Shop on a regular basis, so Amy attempted to stretch our thinning budget by stocking up on boxes of Zatarain’s “Dirty Rice” or “Jambalaya”, the latter made more substantial by adding inexpensive links of andouille sausage we picked up from the nearby A&P.

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Being stuck indoors in an apartment with little to no furniture made us stir crazy more often than not. Consequently, we ate out far more frequently than we should have. We discovered inexpensive but surprisingly good hole-in-the-wall spots like Fiorella’s; a Cuban grill called Country Flame; fat and gooey chili-cheese burgers at Yo Mamma’s; or, on really late nights, cheap but greasy-good breakfast fare at Poppy’s* or (further down Bourbon) Clover Grill.

(*—Sadly, Poppy’s is no longer in the Quarter…)

Friday nights were reserved for watching Millennium on television while eating Hamburger Helper. Yes, Hamburger Helper—and anyone who laughs at this hasn’t tried it “our” way. It was here in the Pontalba that Amy began the tradition of adding Chef Paul’s “Meat Magic” seasoning mix to the browning hamburger. She tried giving the cats little bowls of it as an occasional treat, but the Chef Paul’s made it too spicy so they stopped eating it.

Amy’s 32nd birthday fell on the third day we lived in New Orleans. We celebrated by having lunch at the Gumbo Shop, sipping daiquiris in the late afternoon (we ended up picking up go-cups at The Riverboat Cafe on Decatur (later “Corner Cafe”, now “Corner Oyster Bar”), and then capped the evening with a Jazz dinner cruise on board the Steamboat Natchez. She absolutely loved it.

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Especially memorable was the first time we watched Interview with the Vampire in New Orleans:

The apartment was dark, save for the pale flickerings of three glass votive candles we lit for ambiance. We sat cross-legged on the floor, occasionally glancing out of the waist-high “Alice” windows that overlooked Chartres street to our right. A greenish haze blanketed the rooftop of the neighboring Le Petit Theatre and the blurred patchwork of French Quarter buildings sprawling beyond it. Behind us, the distant chatter and revelry from Jackson Square below echoed throughout our mostly empty apartment. It was unreal, yet only too real—I could feel the slightly bowing hardware floors beneath me, and smell the intermingling of different incenses drifting in from the square. Our candlelit apartment was a set piece come alive.

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Watching Interview with this much dark and palpable atmosphere, it was hard to distinguish where the film’s New Orleans ended and ours began. The gravity of our move, of what we had just accomplished by pulling up roots and coming here, was beginning to sink in. How otherworldly it felt to be sitting in the (literal) heart of the city while staring at a near mirror image of it on a screen. I understood how rare such experiences were, even then. It was one night of many such surreal nights to come.

Less sublime, perhaps, were a few of the discoveries we made by day.

The heat was wilting, of course. No point in bitching about that. And I’ll clear up a common misconception for visitors: it doesn’t matter how long you live in Louisiana, you never get “used to it.” Trust me. You just find yourself mentioning it a lot less.

Tourists made everything slower to get to. Navigating around them added at least 10-20 minutes to any given venture. Not much point in bitching about that either. Sharing the streets with an endless stream of (understandably) enthralled visitors was part of the price of living in the Quarter.

From our location in the Pontalba, running low on groceries typically meant a trip on foot to the nearby A&P store on the corner of St. Peter and Royal. Now this I bemoaned plenty. A&P was small, cramped, poorly stocked and reeked of cheap smoked meats crisping under a heat lamp. I detested it thoroughly.

Whenever Amy announced it was time to go back to our A&P for one item or another, I sensed an almost sadistic amusement—a certain Schadenfreude—in watching my lip curl at the very suggestion of it. Short of raking up wet horseshit, I can’t recall a task more soul-sucking than having to edge my way through narrow aisles congested with shuffling, pit-stained (occasionally shoplifting) gutter punks or bewildered tourists looking for last minute toiletries or cheap souvenirs. The checkout lines took forever and a day, and small wonder: the cashiers looked dead inside and rang up items just as slowly and dejectedly as the dead might.

We lived a few blocks away from the French Market, but that was a long walk back to the apartment and best reserved for stocking up on produce and spices. That, and (travel tip) if you’re looking to buy a tin of Cafe Du Monde coffee to take home, it’s usually cheaper at the French Market than elsewhere in the Quarter.

John was especially put off by the apparent lack of shopping conveniences, and chose to voice his displeasure frequently and stridently. Yeah, he understood it wasn’t the West Coast, “but still.”

We had two temporary salves for this. The first was a 20 minute walk to the Riverwalk mall. The second was Amy’s idea: a quick stop by Central Grocery on Decatur (“Home of the original Muffuletta!”) to pick up fixins’ for deli sandwiches.

Central-Grocery

The Riverwalk stroll wasn’t about convenience, of course—even the French Market was closer to us by comparison. Rather, it was how we reminded ourselves that New Orleans wasn’t entirely cut off from the rest of the country. This sprawling two-story complex offered most of the usual chain mall fare but with a few regional gems in the mix.

In those days, my favorite Riverwalk stop was a housewares store that sold Louisiana themed ceramic and glass wares. Amy and I loved to window shop here, usually by rifling through kitchen utensils emblazoned with local recipes, bright red crawfish or both. John indulged our repeat visits to this place with little or no comment. He sensed its importance to us, and was largely respectful of it. His contribution was to read aloud the names of novelty hot sauces he felt were particularly inspired, such as the ubiquitous “Slap Ya Mama”.

Whenever I think of our earliest days in the city, I am brought back to that curio store, and how I would daydream about having a home of my own in which to display these little regional curios. Even our Pontalba apartment with furniture would have been an ideal showplace for them, or so Amy had wistfully remarked upon at the time.

Alas, our budget was tight and Amy’s credit card debt was steadily climbing (no thanks to John and me). We tried sticking to cheap food court lunches. Amy and I favored Popeye’s. We’d both get the chicken strip combo with mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits and strawberry soda. John would wander around and go to different places depending upon his mood, but often defaulted to mall Chinese. We would then take our food outside on the second-floor balcony overlooking the Mississippi river and the “Dixie Gates” (official name: Crescent City Connection, which we disliked and summarily ignored).

This balcony view was particularly nice on days where the river breeze drifted across the deck. John would prop his feet up on a second chair, light a cigarette, and the three us would spend the next half hour or so enjoying brief spells of reflective silence interspersed with tangential musings about our future. It was a “safe” spot for our unusual dynamic, however tense it might have been elsewhere in the city.

On less “responsible” days, the three of us would get daiquiris and sip them out on that same balcony while pouring over our purchases, mainly from the Disney store. We would then head home to eat dinner inside the apartment (rare), or give in to our impulses (less rare) to eat at Court of Two Sisters or another nearby “spot”, before heading out to Bourbon Street.

I was the first of us to land a job. It took about two weeks, but I was a decent typist and scored well on the various skills assessment tests the local temp agency put before me. Prior to our move to New Orleans, I spent the winter months in Connecticut wrangling mainframe reports into spreadsheets for a company called Hamilton Spares.

I think that gig helped. With that kind of experience on paper, and a growing technical literacy, it wasn’t long before I landed my first role as an administrative assistant: I was going to work downtown for Shell. Better still, I would be working at One Shell Square, the same towering limestone building I used to glance up at from the streetcar during my first (failed) move.

So I had a job. Amy and John were delighted and relieved. It meant we could stay in the Pontalba a while longer yet. After I landed the Shell contract, they confessed to dragging their feet a bit on their own job searches.

You see, while I (har-de-har-har) “slaved away” at work, a typical afternoon ritual for them was to shop for cold cuts at Central Grocery, then pick up some fudge from the Cafe Du Monde store. Having secured these items, Amy would prepare deli sandwiches for both of them, fill a plastic “go cup” with pink champagne, then make her way to the river where she would find an open bench by the Immigrant’s Statue on the Moon Walk promenade and read for a couple of hours every afternoon. Her “summer book” was Dracula, but she also read P.D. James mysteries and Peter Wimsey cases by Dorothy L. Sayers.

Not even a week had passed before John’s umbrella was reduced to a sad metal spider destined for one of the Quarter’s overflowing trash cans. He tossed it in a fit of pique one rainy afternoon on Decatur street—a portent of many dead umbrellas to come. He spent the rest of the afternoon ducking under Amy’s umbrella when they weren’t dodging for cover under hanging balconies. Amy’s umbrella didn’t last much longer. New Orleans didn’t have much use for umbrellas. Not cheap ones, in any case.

John had no bed in his bedroom. He slept in-between two thin blankets that lay crumpled on the hardwood floor. When it was time for him to turn in at night, he’d announce that he was “going to floor”. His other exit line was “I’m hitting the sack”, which was equally absurd. During the week he would bring in cups and plates to eat from at night and very rarely brought them back out to the kitchen again. Each of us had a running “What the hell” habit in the Pontalba. Compulsive dish hoarding was John’s.

A few weeks after the initial move, our meager belongings arrived from Connecticut. This wasn’t an entirely good thing. Now the living room was dotted with random, half-empty boxes, most of them banged up, thrice-taped and hastily scribbled up with Sharpie markup from the move. No one was happy about this, but we didn’t have a place to store their jumbled contents, so they just… sat there.

Apart from boxes, there was Amy’s television, a VCR, a portable CD player, a cedar chest (which became a makeshift “bench”), a small typewriter table and Amy’s computer, which she dubbed “Marius” (from The Vampire Lestat)—all of which were spread throughout the living room. Unless you counted the four poster bed frame in the main bedroom, we had next to nothing in the way of decor.

We did enjoy adding little bits of accouterments throughout the place, however.

For example, one of the first weekends we lived in New Orleans, John bought a vial of “Come To Me” oil from Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo along with a matching sigil pendant. These and other small treasures were well guarded by a small cadre of Star Wars action figures he had propped up along the low-lying window sills in his bedroom.

Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo
Entrance to Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Louisiana

Around that same time, Amy bought a small plaster skull from one of the local occult shops, either Esoterica or Witches Closest. John felt it deserved a name, so he dubbed it “Merlin”. Amy sat Merlin on top of the television set and there he remained as our companion for rainy nights when we stayed indoors and watched movies.

John and Amy eventually found jobs within one week of each other in July. John’s first job was located on St. Charles near Lee Circle. Amy worked at CNG Tower further down Poydras near the Superdome. Amy, who detested organized religion as a matter of principle, surprised us all when she agreed to take on a contract role for a non-profit “ministries” organization. The day she was asked to set up the “manger” display for Christmas made for particularly good joke fodder. Would her hands sizzle and smoke upon touching the figurines?

John left for work before Amy, so every Friday morning Amy would sneak into his room to gather up all the cups and dishes he had squirreled away during the week and hastily slip them into the dishwasher and run it before she left for work.

We often had lunch together at One Shell Square (Subway) or Chik-Filet (on the St. Charles side of my work). Other times we met at the food court at the New Orleans Centre Mall, usually for Chinese. Sometimes we brown-bagged our lunches and ate outside, near the back mall/food court entrance. Lots of conversations about “life, the universe and everything” unfolded here.

Most days we were able to walk home together, save for Fridays which I had off. We’d meet at One Shell Square, or “OSS” as we called it, and walk back to the French Quarter. We didn’t have a car during the Pontalba era, nor did we take buses or streetcars because it didn’t seem worth it (that, and we never figured out the bus schedules). The morning walk wasn’t bad, but the late afternoon trip home could be downright grueling in the heat or pouring rain. In the summer, we cut through One Shell Square because it was air-conditioned.

In short, we began to form routines. A daily rhythm.

Once we made it to the Quarter, we’d sometimes stop at Royal Blend for coffee. On Fridays, John and Amy might stop at Absinthe or Kieffer’s for a drink. Occasionally I met up with them there. John wasn’t particularly keen on going to bars after work, as Bourbon before dark was too depressing for him—for both of them actually.

We discovered Royal Blend during our first week in the city, and it became one of our favorite “spots” from the start. The coffee would never win awards but the courtyard was lovely, as so many courtyards nestled throughout the French Quarter are. A small, darkened archway and a tiered granite water fountain just beyond it enticed curious pedestrians to venture in from Royal street. After ordering your drinks, you could either sit inside at one of the many two-person nooks that wrapped around the courtyard, or lounge outside in the courtyard itself. We often favored the latter.

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Toward the very back was “our” table. It was made of black wrought iron, as were the chairs. The courtyard was paved with a mosaic of rough slate tiles. The table was a bit lopsided (the uneven slate didn’t help) but thanks to a large canvas umbrella and a nearby cluster of leafy banana trees it was nevertheless a calming oasis from the heat.

Here, Amy and I would sip iced mochas while John drank obscenely large ceramic mugs filled to the brim with black coffee, which he would have to lower very slowly onto the rickety table to prevent it from sloshing all over.

Once situated, we’d lean back in our iron chairs, listen to the light trickle of water cascading down the fountain and happily lose ourselves in discussions about life in the city, the day’s events and its many (many) peculiarities.

We spent the weekends strolling the various streets in and around the French Quarter. They was never a shortage of oddball exchanges or occurrences to partake in along the way. “Only in New Orleans” was the running catchphrase between us and scarcely a day had passed that at least one of had not invoked it. Most of these anecdotes were funny (like overheard arguments with lovers and/or inanimate objects). Some were not.

Every now and then we happened upon something that hinted at the city’s underlying darkness, like the day a homeless man lay dying before us.

During our earliest days in the city, we found ourselves walking down Canal Street to fulfill two quests. The first was to set up our telephone service. The second was to visit the Ignatius J. Reilly statue (from Confederacy of Dunces) located in front of the Hyatt hotel.

Ignatius

A few minutes into the walk, a homeless man, either severely drunk or in dire of medication, staggered in our direction. His clothes were dark, lined with crust and he reeked of alcohol and sweat. I confess we instinctively feared touching him. So we gently ducked the guy, mumbled our apologies (ostensibly for not having spare change) and kept walking.

After a moment or two, we glanced back. He tried the same “charging” tact with someone else, only this time he lost his footing and slipped. He fell hard and cried out. It’s possible he intended to stage a fall for dramatic effect but overplayed it, or perhaps it was purely an accident. Doesn’t matter. The man’s head had struck the brick sidewalk with enough force to crack his skull open. Even from where we stood, we could see blood seeping from a deep gash in the very crown of his head. At this point, someone had called the paramedics.

Amy, John and I looked on in helpless silence. The old man cried incoherently as he flailed wildly on the sidewalk. This was no act. A small group of tourists, likely the same ones he had just accosted, urged him to stay still but to no avail.

John whispered what we were all thinking: “I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

Numb with shock, paramedics en route, we eventually walked on.

Later, after concluding our errand, we walked back up Canal from the way we came. The man was no longer there, but Amy managed to grab me by the shoulders just as I was about to step into a residual puddle of the old man’s blood. John had walked ahead of us and somehow missed it, but I must have been in a daze.

This sad day put an abrupt end to our ventures down Canal Street. The whole of it was depressing to look upon anyway: a littered stretch of tacky t-shirt shops, cheap daiquiri pits and soulless high rises. Having both paid our respects to Ignatius (and by extension, his creator, the late John Kennedy Toole) and crossing off our original “to do” task, we had little reason to return.

We dealt with the day’s earlier events much as any local would: we sought out copious amounts of rich food and drink.

Adding to our growing list of “spots” was our favorite evening destination: Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. By the time we arrived, the interior was already dark, save for a single candle lit at each table. The bar’s hired entertainment, “Johnny G”, was beginning to warm up toward the back on the bar’s old piano, thus marking the transition from jukebox time to Piano Bar time.

Each visit played out more or less the same. The moment “our” table near the entrance became vacated, we’d plop ourselves down and order Dixie beers or whiskey sours. Sometimes we could enjoy conversations, even above the din. Sometimes the back room where Johnny G played was simply too loud to compete with.

In fact, rolling our eyes at Johnny G and his ever-morphing band of intoxicated tourist groupies had soon become something of a minor pastime. Mr. G enjoyed a number of drinks on the house (whether the house liked it or not), but he always drew a crowd. His nightly repertoire was mostly classic Dixieland fare, but he was known to throw in the occasional “Piano Man” or “Just A Gigolo”. Johnny incorporated two notable affectations for these performances: raspy gravel vocals and “scat” improvisation of lyrics. Both flourishes were clearly intended to (subconsciously?) invoke Louis Armstrong.

It was the scat-singing really got our eyes rolling—many verses would simply trail off with nonsensical gems like “zopple-dopple”, which made us laugh in spite of ourselves.

Johnny dispensed with these gimmicks for House of the Rising Sun, a song he played with a notable warmth and almost eerie authenticity, as though he wrote it himself.

Otherwise, it was all a good deal of silliness. Whenever he sang the name of the city itself, it often came out as one long, slurring “Newaaarleeens”—as though trying to sing with a mouthful of wet cement.

The later the hour, the drunker Johnny G and his swaying coterie got. The drunker they got, the more “zopple-dopple”-ing Johnny G threw into his repertoire.

Strange, I have come to miss him rather terribly.

I miss his silliness. His kindness to strangers.

But it’s too late to tell him that. John Gordon (b. Gordon Jones), “Johnny G”, died on March 3rd of 2008 from complications with Alzheimer’s. He was 70 years old.

In the final months of his life, Johnny’s former wife brought him out to North Carolina when he could no longer care for himself. This was in June of 2007. When Johnny passed away the following March, she flew him home to New Orleans for his funeral mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe on Rampart Street. A “second line” parade and jazz band leading up to Lafitte’s was held in his honor. Then he was interred.

Lafitte’s is still dark inside at night. Still candlelit. The same splintered wooden tables are there. But it’s not quite as it once was.

That is to say: we didn’t know how we good we had it back then.

Honestly, we didn’t have a clue.

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New Orleans. Part Six.

‘The Pontalba’

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“… 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.

www.pinterest.com

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

pontalab_hallway

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:

Apartment 504-D.

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.

alice_windows
Not our apartment, but the same building, and same ‘Alice’ windows and hardwood floors.

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.

 

Next:
New Orleans. Part Seven.

New Orleans. Part Five.

(New to this blog series? Read New Orleans. Part One.)

The 1995 move to New Orleans lasted two weeks. The 1997 move lasted for several years. For all of the city’s intrinsic spirit and magnetism, it was John and Amy that truly helped make it home.

This is how they first met, and how they brought me back to my beloved New Orleans.

This installment is dedicated to the memory of Tanith Lee, 1947-2015.

‘Convergence’

In late August of 1996, my best friend John came out of his bedroom to greet Amy for the very first time. I stood nervously between them. It was the tense “worlds are colliding” phenomenon that George Costanza had warned Jerry Seinfeld about.

Amy looked at John and thought: “Cardigan in California in August? Hmm.”

John looked at Amy and thought: “Dyed red hair and black jeans? Hmm.”

Looking back, I knew why John wore the “Ward Cleaver burgundy cardigan”, just as I knew why Amy favored red hair over her own natural blonde. After nine years of friendship with him, and close to a year of exchanging increasingly soul-bearing missives with her, I had come to understand their idiosyncrasies nearly as well as my own.

But in 1996, John and Amy—or “Mina”, as I came to call her—were only just beginning to size each other up. The more difficult days of 1997 were a ways off yet. Eight months away, to be precise. That first weekend, however, everyone played their “best behavior” part. As Amy recalls it:

He [John] invited me in for coffee and we sat at the dining room table while Tommy dried his hair or something and we started talking. I knew this was Tommy’s best friend and it was important that he become something approaching that to me too. For symmetry. For eternity. For posterity. To make things easier.

I remember it was either Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon and John wanted to know if we still wanted to drive to Dana Point to see the ocean. We did – my rental car, Tom’s Morrissey CD and John sang along to “You’re the One for Me, Fatty” changing the words like he loves to do with songs that are dear to him. I particularly remember, “You’re the one for me, Fat Ass” and cracking the fuck up.

We stood on the rocks at Dana Point just before sunset and Tom stood in the middle with his arm around my shoulder and he said, “I’m surrounded by the two dearest people to me in the world…”

dana_point_sunset

In his response, “Mina utters the Magic word: Change”, John recalls our first shared outing as a trio:

It is typical of strong personalities that getting to know them can sometimes be difficult and a little dangerous. This was the case, though we didn’t know it at the time. We ventured out to Dana Point Harbor, a sanctuary of mine that was shared when I brought Tommy there. It was essential that Mina be involved in places like this, places that mattered.

We had a lovely walk along the jetty and then along the marina, with the wind whipping through the canvas coverings on the boats and making a sound like a ghost streaking past and moaning. I spoke ‘ghost’ and Mina had a laugh and all was as it should be.

It’s bittersweet to read those words now, knowing all that followed.

As I read through John and Amy’s posts, I am reminded that they were exchanged between August 20th and August 22nd, 2005. On August 23rd, the nine year anniversary of when they first met, a tropical depression began to form over the southeastern Bahamas. The as yet unnamed storm would more fully emerge as Hurricane Katrina two days later. Unbeknownst to all of us, just as Amy and John paid homage to one era, the end of another era was fast approaching.

The title of Amy’s post was more prophetic than she could know: “Things Change”.

In 1996, however, a different type of convergence took place, far more gradual than Katrina certainly, but no less life altering for me personally.

In that same 2005 post, John summed up my two year hiatus from New Orleans and my own meeting of the once-mysterious “AmyGuy” fairly succinctly:

Mina was just a name on an AOL message board, a strange name that neither Tommy nor I could figure out at first. It was an Anne Rice discussion board and both Tommy and I shared a certain passion for Anne’s works. This is back in the mid-90’s when AOL was still pretty much the norm for anyone non-uber-geek on the internet and it was what my girlfriend at the time had for an ISP.

Tommy had just come to stay in the townhouse he and I originally rented in Irvine, before he went to New Orleans for the first time and had to come back due to lack of funds and lack of gainful employment. He’d bounced from Irvine to New Orleans and then to Hawaii and back to Irvine again at my invitation and insistence, to save money for his next move, hopefully permanent, to New Orleans.

While in Hawaii, he’d been on the Anne Rice board and been chatting with this AmyGuy, feeling that he’d unearthed a diamond in the rough, and, believe me, that board had a lot of rough. I jumped into the board to see what he was talking about and made no friends on the board at all, mostly due to me being rather unkind to an over-serious, sadly vulnerable regular. I did have a chance to see this AmyGuy in action and thought Tommy was right, definitely a gem.

In 1996, I decided it was time to part ways with my two roommates. The timing was auspicious: John had finally called it quits with the ever-manipulative, neurotic Melissa. I ended up moving into John’s apartment on Thunder Run street, a “bachelor pad made for two” as he put it.

As John explains, the upheaval was mostly a step in the right direction, for both of us:

His Conversation with AmyGuy had continued during all this crap, via fax and phone since he had no home PC at the time. I finally became aware of its depth when he sat me down and gave me a history of the affair and an explanation of what it meant to him and what he felt it meant to her. Long and short, she was coming out to attend a conference in Irvine and they were finally going to meet. I was overjoyed, Tommy hadn’t been serious about anyone for ages and I loved seeing him finally getting what he deserved.

It turns out that Amy’s AOL screen name was simply an amalgamation of her own first name and that of her co-worker, Guy (pronounced “Ghee”). Amy and Guy had to share an account for this fledgling new AOL service at work. Even in the late 90s, internet access was still a rare and somewhat costly privilege.

Shortly after that fateful first meeting I prepared to leave Southern California for the second time. And, once again, John was neither surprised nor delighted, but he remained supportive to the end. The only thing he expressed doubt about was the certainty of the relationship itself. “What if it doesn’t work out?” he asked. Mina was already staring down the barrel of a difficult divorce with an abusive ex-husband. If our attempt to be together didn’t work out, I’d hurt her just that much more certainly.

But I couldn’t think in those terms, not rationally. I was nervous enough as it was. I spent my last night in Irvine doubled over the bathroom sink with stomach pains agonizing over John’s question. What if this all falls apart? What becomes of us then?

By dawn, I dispensed with the previous night’s anxieties. I wanted this to work. I wanted to make New Orleans work, and I wanted Amy to come with me. I couldn’t hang my feelings for her on “What If’s”.

The idea was that I would fly out to Connecticut to stay with Amy in her Manchester apartment, find a temporary contract job up there, and the two of us would save up just enough money to fund the final move to New Orleans together.

In mid-October I left Irvine for the second and final time. Once more, I embraced my best friend goodbye. I wished aloud that I could take him with me, even though I knew full well he would never come. California was his home and that was the end of it.


Months later, I was a day guest in Amy’s work office, a small legal services firm headquartered in cold and drab Hartford, Connecticut. She had worked as a court scopist there for several years. By this time, I had become fairly acclimated to New England in its colder, greyer state of being.

Amy and I walked upstairs to discuss something we received in the mail from New Orleans: a flyer from Ethel Kidd Realty. The second floor of her office was less populated and therefore out of earshot of nosey, gossipy co-workers.

I remember staring at the flyer in disbelief. We had a chance to live in the Upper Pontalba, the oldest operating apartment in the United States. I remembered looking up at it during my first day in the city. Even then, I wondered what it would be like to live there, right at the cornerstone of Jackson Square and all of its daily bustle. Now it was actually within our grasp.

upper-pontalba-building-chrystal-mimbs

Since it would be Amy’s name on the lease (I had no credit to speak of), she had to make clandestine phone calls to Ethel Kidd to go over the details.

Mind you, we were trying to secure an apartment prior to our arrival, always a delicate and stressful venture. The Pontalba opening was the only unit the agent felt comfortable renting to us “sight unseen”. The rent was steep for the time: $1008, but it was our only (non-scary) lead so after a tense debate Amy called the agent back and said we would take it.

The apartment was on the fourth floor, and thus bereft of a fancy-pants balcony (a perk reserved for higher paying second floor residents) but, hey, it was the Pontalba.

Furthering our anticipation was the Upper Pontalba’s appearance in an Anne Rice documentary we had watched over (and over) around that time. The video included an interview with a long-time Pontalba tenant who spoke in an appropriately soft, measured voice about his personal encounters with ghosts and spirits in the building. The camera lens was softened to catch the light glinting off the tear-drop chandelier in his French Quarter living room. After a few repeat doses of that, you couldn’t get us to the airport quick enough.

By “us”, I don’t mean just Amy and I. Our last month in Connecticut saw the arrival of someone I wouldn’t have dreamed to accompany us until it was already happening: John.

As I said, my best friend was born and raised in Southern California, and that was his comfort zone in almost every respect. I’m also compelled to note that John, bless him, was not known for his limitless patience or lust for change—at least not up to that point.

Yet the John I knew in 1997 had begun to reach a pinnacle of familiarity with his personal and professional life he found strangely unnerving. He tried envisioning the next 10 years of his day to day life continuing along the current trajectory and saw little more than existential boredom staring back at him—the very prospect of it felt suffocating. But what to do?

John came to visit Amy and I in late December of that year. We hung out at Amy’s work, brought him to Adams Mill* for a belated birthday dinner and, while lazing about in the upstairs apartment, we took turns indulging Amy’s nephew and niece who lived directly below us with Amy’s sister Penny.

(*—Adams is a cozy restaurant situated in a former paper mill from 1880; it’s named for Peter Adams, a Scottish journeyman who immigrated to the US, bought the mill and made a successful business of it—reputedly Mark Twain used Adams Mill paper for the writing of his books)

The kids were… kids. The nephew, an ever-caffeinated 11 year old named Bruce, professed to be a future FBI agent, a la Fox Mulder on X-Files. He sometimes knocked on Amy’s door gruffly identifying himself as such.

John, a temporary “Uncle” for hire, read bedtime stories to Amy’s 7 year old niece, Ciara, while Bruce wriggled and fidgeted nearby, chiming in with questions or observations that often threatened to break the spell. John did this for Ciara in spite of the fact that earlier in the day Ciara jumped into his lap and let rip one noisy fart after another, laughing maniacally as she did so. Most of us consider this karmic justice for John, for whom the word “restraint” is rarely applicable.

We were, all of us, the last people to inhabit that building and create memories there. I’m thankful most of them involved laughing.

When John returned to Southern California after this brief reunion, I didn’t expect to see him again for several years.

Still, being idealistic (and a tad opportunistic), I occasionally nudged John over the phone to accompany us to New Orleans. This occurred over a succession of phone calls. Amy and I had talked about the possibility of it, how it could work. The three of us could share a place together, split rent, have adventures, etc.

I never expected John to take me up on it. Indeed, every time I brought it up, his response was predictably the same as the last: a politely disinterested “No thanks.” I wasn’t prepared for the day he said “Yes”.

The dynamic between the three of us was still a question mark, but there was little doubt that John contributing to rent would be a huge plus. Amy and I alone couldn’t keep up with the Pontalba rent for very long, not on what we were earning at the time. I sensed Amy wasn’t entirely comfortable with this untested shared arrangement, but she ultimately adopted the “Our Grand Adventure” attitude toward it. We all did.

There were other complications.

Back in California, John’s younger sister was sinking badly on the financial front. He tried to help her using his own dwindling funds, money originally earmarked for leaving the state. I knew he loathed to leave her like that, at least while she was still unemployed, but he was preparing for that inevitability. Or trying to.

Amy offered to help John by paying for his one way plane ticket to Connecticut. Alas, when John didn’t make his flight, I had the unenviable task of explaining to Amy why. He called us later that evening, mortified, but what was done was done. He elected not to come after all. Not yet. The ticket was non-refundable and Amy was understandably upset, but John had stayed out of concern for his sister. Amy and I traded helpless expressions. What could we do?

The elephant in the room was visible enough: we had not even moved to New Orleans yet and our dynamic was already off to a questionable start.

A week or so had passed; long enough for John to decide that enough was enough. He was leaving. Amy agreed to pay for a second plane ticket for John, and this flight he made. Amy was relieved. I was elated.

John arrived in Connecticut roughly a month before we were due to fly out to New Orleans. He slept on Amy’s couch which he shared with our new black short-hair cat, Pandora. Woefully for John, Pandora was still more or less in her kitten stage of development. Whenever a sleeping John wiggled his feet, Pandora, unable to associate moving target from associated human, gleefully pounced upon them with her tiny claws. Amy and I often stifled laughter whenever John awoke in a black cloud of his own expletives.

Still, he was actually with us and the move to New Orleans was actually happening. Come April, the single digit countdown was upon us. Which led to the next complication:

The intersection of St. Peter and Charters that marks the corner of the Upper Pontalba in the French Quarter is very small and charming. The moving truck assigned to carry our stuff cross country was not. This was a problem.

This revelation didn’t strike until the day the movers were scheduled to arrive. We didn’t know what the truck would look like, so anything that appeared remotely out of place on a quiet, narrow Manchester neighborhood street was a likely suspect. We took turns looking out the window to spot it, like kids waiting for Santa on Christmas eve.

And then there was something. A BIG something.

Amy and I shook our heads at the massive semi slowly pulling up to the curb, first with disbelief then rising alarm. The three of us exchanged incredulous looks. No way in HELL was this monstrosity going to be able to squeeze into that teeny-tiny, pedestrian heavy intersection of the French Quarter—much less linger there long enough to unload our stuff. Even John, who had yet to step foot in New Orleans, knew that much.

We dubbed it the “Star Destroyer”, after the gargantuan pizza-shaped space ships from Star Wars.

star_destroyer

Amy voiced her concerns with the moving company but there was nothing for it. This was the standard trailer size used to consolidate multiple moving loads cross-country and reduce costs. The movers themselves seemed to be in jolly denial about the navigational challenges ahead of them.

We were already on edge about money, as well as the strict no-pets policy, and now this. Amy tried not to panic. I defaulted to stubborn resignation. “They’ll find out when they get there,” I said. “Someway, somehow, they have to get our stuff to us.”

Amy wondered if we would end up having to pay more for the movers to transport it from the larger (mammoth really) vehicle to a smaller one, like a U-Haul.

Worse, what if they expected us to procure the smaller vehicle for them? That could take days, yet our temporary street permit for offloading would only last for a few hours.

I shrugged off this whole scenario in its entirety. “That’s on their dime. I’m not not paying for that and you shouldn’t either.”

I could see she wasn’t convinced, but I remained defiant.

“We warned them,” I insisted.

I knew I was being pigheaded, but I was also tired of agonizing over things we couldn’t control.

“Okay, but what if…”

Back and forth we went. In the end, we had little choice but to wait and watch.

That anxiousness aside, I remember us feeling pretty giddy overall.

Evenings leading up to moving day were spent enjoying Vic’s Pizza, episodes of Friends followed by cold bottles of Dixie “Blackened Voodoo” beer.

Dixie-Blackened-Voodoo

We listened to Dixieland classics as we imbibed. Some of the early Louis Armstrong numbers, like “Rockin’ Chair” and “Sleepy Time Down South” had an added poignancy: John and I used to listen to these “house favorites” back in Irvine, usually in the morning while we ironed our work clothes. I remember picking up these albums long before returning to New Orleans seemed financially feasible.

hqdefault

Now, several months later, we were listening to to those very same classics as evening snow drifted past Amy’s living room window. As “Pops” and Jack Teagarden crooned in the background, we shared a (nervous) toast to the adventure before us.

The eve of the move was predictably stressful, certainly physical. Mostly for John and Amy, since I had to work that day.

We opted to leave a lot of Amy’s inexpensive furniture behind (a decision we would come to regret). She had a beautiful four poster bed frame, so that was going. Books and clothes hastily made it to multiple boxes. That’s what I remember most really: an assembly line of odd-shaped boxes.

The narrow staircase from Amy’s second floor apartment led down to an entryway scarcely wider than a phone booth. This cramped space elicited a great deal of sweating and swearing from all three of us, but we hauled most of her stuff into the Star Destroyer as planned.

Later that night, we went down to the first floor to watch X-Files [episode: ‘Zero Sum’] with Amy’s sister Penny and eat Vic’s Pizza one last time. Vic’s was just up the block from Amy’s apartment, and they served up decadent thick crust pizza sliced into square shapes just dripping with cheese. I still miss Vic’s, even now.

After X-Files, John and I lugged down a chair and two sofas to Penny’s place and we took to sleeping on the floor—John in the living room, Amy and I in one of the bedrooms. None of us slept particularly well, each of us lost to our thoughts what the next few days would bring.

We rose before dawn and took hurried showers. There was also the matter of corralling the two cats. Amy had laid the groundwork for getting Pandora comfortable with her new carrier, the “Furrari”, a few days before we left. Thus, getting her to trot inside the morning of the flight was a non-event, almost certainly because she didn’t realize that “flight” was involved.

Amy’s aging Siamese cat, Mina, was far less enthused about the morning’s activities. All of the furniture upstairs had disappeared practically overnight, and this cat was old enough and smart enough to sense that all of this sudden upheaval portended nothing good for her personally. Still, Amy managed to get the pitifully resigned Mina into the “Furrari” with surprising ease.

Then the three of us piled into Penny’s car and left for the airport.

As I said, we were the last to inhabit that Manchester apartment, upstairs and down. Not long after Amy and I moved out, the whole structure was sold and leveled to the ground. The grassy slope Amy’s niece and nephew used to slide down with makeshift sleds on snowy days is now a parking lot. The lot serves the box-shaped building that resides there today: “We Can Clubhouse”, a mental health services community center.

I don’t remember much about the drive to the airport. I think I spent most of the trip blearily staring at the road ahead of us.

I couldn’t begin to imagine what John was thinking. This whole venture was so far outside of his comfort zone I marveled that he was there with us at all.

Amy was upset but kept to herself about it. She had called up two of her longtime friends the night before to say goodbye. Only one of them answered, and purposefully so. The mess went something like this:

The first friend, Ken, had thrown us a small going away party a few days before we left. It was an intimate, distinctly New England-y gathering—muted emotions, but enjoyable nevertheless.

Amy had also gone out for a quick drink with another longtime friend, whom I will call “Grimace”. This was on the Wednesday before we left. When Amy tried to call her on Friday, the eve of our flight, Grimace refused to come to phone. Apparently Amy had “not spent enough time” with her prior to departing the state and took it as a poor reflection of their friendship.

Amy took this snub very hard. She spent most of the flight heartbroken over it. For my part, I still haven’t forgiven Grimace for this little stunt.

I detested nearly all of Amy’s college-era friends. Still do. John even more so. Selfishly, I thought she was well rid of the lot for the time being. There wasn’t much I could say to console her, especially after witnessing some of these emotionally stunted expressions of “friendship” firsthand during my brief stay in Connecticut.

And we had more immediate concerns, mostly over money. Always money.

John, Amy and I sat together on the flight to New Orleans. We exchanged the occasional wan smile but little else. We were too tired, nervous or upset to think straight.

I remember sun shafts pouring into the windows as our plane took gradual turns through the clouds. I was listening to Ex Voto: their cover of Bauhaus’ “Slice of Life” was well paired with the quiet-loud-quiet cadence of my thoughts, indistinct as they were.

As we began our final descent into New Orleans, the maze of moss-tinted cypress trees came into focus below us. Each of us took brief turns peering out the window. And there again was that distinct feeling, the one I recall well from two years before, that I—no, we—were about to land on an altogether different planet.

 

Next:
New Orleans. Part Six.

New Orleans. Part Four.

(New to this blog series? Read New Orleans. Part One.)

Looking back over the past twenty five years, I can spot certain moments where a choice I made altered the course of my life entirely. This is one of them. At the time, I thought I was simply running out of money.

Such is the mystery of the Crossroads.

Part Four: “You’ll be a’right.”

Looking up at the sign, I just had to laugh.

So this was the “Le Bon Taun” Leilah Wendell had recommended to me a few days previous:

Le Bon Temps Roulé.

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The sign was a glass box, the kind that illuminates from within. The tobacco brown letters were rendered in an old West script across milk-white glass. The name was a slight abbreviation of the Cajun French phrase I remembered from my New Orleans guide book:

Laissez les bons temps rouler, or ‘Let The Good Times Roll’.

Now, assuming you didn’t know French (Cajun or otherwise), you would still note how the name arched over an illustration of a fiddle on its side. Printed beneath the fiddle was “Bar & Sandwich Shop”. By my reckoning that was at least three different ways to signal to any visitor to “Come on in.”

On my limited budget, “po-boy” sandwiches quickly became a necessary (and apropos) lunch staple while I looked for shelter and work. My love affair with the city’s signature sandwich began with this low-key neighborhood bar.

I arrived at Le Bon on a weekday afternoon. The entrance to the kitchen was off to the side. I admit to being a little dubious of this place at first. The brick-red building, while charmingly dilapidated from the outside, seemed “iffy” as a safe lunch spot.

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But after a moment’s hesitation, I invoked “When In Rome”, walked inside, leaned over the deli counter and ordered a po-boy. Hot ham and cheese.

I sat at a table near the door. It turned out to be a great place to steal occasional strands of river breeze (arguably as precious as water on Dune). A small walkway connected the kitchen area to the main bar which carried the echo of television chatter. I was likely the only patron in the bar at that hour.

A few minutes later the cook called out my order. I’ll never forget that first bite. The warm buttery french bread, the dressing… it was all good. Really, really good. Score one for Leilah.

This is one of the last few pleasant memories I have of the that brief two week stay. Sadly, the search for shelter wasn’t going so well. The job hunt wasn’t going at all.

As my funds dwindled so did my lodging choices. I didn’t have online resources back then, such as “Airbnb” or “Craigslist”. Ditto for work, which wasn’t augmented by “Monster”, “Dice”, or any semblance of placement firms for entry level talent. In 1995, it was flipping through newspapers, fishing out quarters for phone booth inquiries and word of mouth leads. That reads curmudgeon-y in print, but I actually feel wistful writing it. With the proper resources, the outcome might have turned out quite differently.

At first the shelter hunt was a walk-around venture. Some newspaper ads listed the street address, some didn’t. I followed up on those that did. The first of these led me to a neighborhood in the lower Garden District. After some map tracing and asking around, I walked up alongside one of my circled finds: an elongated shotgun cottage. The renter lived on the premises, but it was mid-afternoon so I knew I had a 50/50 shot of reaching someone. I walked up the short steps to ring the doorbell. My finger had barely depressed the button when a hoarse female voice shouted out behind me:

“She ain’t home!”

Ah. So the landlord’s a “she” then.

I looked back at the house behind me. It was another cottage, rattier than the one I stood beside. The agitated voice seem to originate from one of the side windows but the screens were too dark and dusty to actually make out a face.

Glancing back at the prospective landlord’s doorbell, I thought “fuck it” and rang it anyway. The gesture was one part wishful thinking, one part refusal to acknowledge a graceless asshole.

The window behind me blasted again:

“I SAID SHE AIN’T HOME!!!”

Lower, I heard: “Shit.”

I waited a few minutes in silence. I have little doubt that the faceless woman across the street was choking with apoplectic rage at being ignored. It was for her benefit that I waited a few minutes more before slowly (very slowly) walking on.

And as I walked, an elderly woman approached from the opposite street. I’m not sure why we stopped to chat, only that it seemed natural that we did. I tend to read people fairly quickly, and got an immediate good vibe off of her. We traded easy jokes about the debilitating heat before the subject of my apartment hunting came up. I confessed it wasn’t going so well, but I was “nothing if not persistent.”

A few moments of silence passed between us. Not tense silence, just enough silence to let the insects buzz as they do while you think things over, the kind of silence you enjoy with a friend while sipping iced drinks on the porch. She seemed to be sizing me up.

“Well,” she said at last. “You seem like a nice young man. You’ll be a’right.”

I thanked her for this gentle vote of confidence, and we continued on our respective ways.

Then, as now, I get a lot of mileage off a few words of simple, genuine kindness. I still remember her fondly.

Sadly, my “a’right” days were a long way off yet. Once I saw the inside of some of these apartments, I began to more fully grasp the oddball appellation “The city that care forgot”—except where these rentals were concerned, I would replace “forgot” with “flat out ignored.” I wasn’t expecting much on my budget, but wow. “Dejected” didn’t begin to cover it.

First, there was the living room on the lower end of St. Charles:

When I say “living room”, I mean just that: an isolated living room, walled off from the rest of the house. No bedrooms or bathrooms, only an adjoining broom closet-sized kitchen with unhooked appliances. For once, I was glad my best friend wasn’t there to see this.

Mind you, this room wasn’t entirely unfurnished. The west wall was home to a hand-carved hutch with an antique mirror whose dust-coated surface was flecked by black spots. Mold from the humidity most likely. A simple crystal chandelier hung from an ornate ceiling medallion. Seeing it made my heart ache a little. The medallion looked like those hand crafted from horsehair and plaster during the antebellum era. The aging flame-tipped light bulbs of the chandelier cast a dull yellow glow over the living room carpet. The crystal “tear drops” descending from the chandelier’s base were nearly opaque due to heavy smudging and dust, and could do little to refract the already weakened light.

This room could have been elegant if rejoined with the rest of the house and refurbished some. Alas, in 1995, it was simply a stifling, neglected room. The curtains were always shuttered, mostly to protect the room from baking in the midday sun. I think it ran a meager $20 or so a night, so there wasn’t much for me to bitch about.

I left it for an admittedly impractical reason: the room filled me with crushing sadness.

There was the Youth Hostel on Carondelet:

Leilah knew of a couple of youth hostels in the area. One was definitely much better than the other. I ended up finding the “other”.

Writing this, however, I have to shrug. At the hostel I had a bunk bed, a compartment (sans lock) to throw my duffel bag in and a shower. Now that’s three things I didn’t have in an empty room, so… “upgrade”. I don’t recall why, exactly, I left the hostel after a day or so, save for general discomfort with my current bunk mates and theft concerns.

After looking at some additional rooms, some quite nice (and therefore well out of my budget), some comically scary, I finally agreed to rent a room on Prytania Street. In hindsight, I should have stayed on St. Charles. Or slept on a bench in Jackson Square.

This daily rental was a living room of sorts, but recently converted to a front bedroom. The bedroom door opened out to a long hallway with creaky wooden floorboards. It carried the echo of every stuck door and booted footfall. A shared bathroom awaited upstairs, a place I frequented just enough to maintain a reasonable standard of personal hygiene. A paper thin wall separated me from my first floor roommate. He coughed incessantly. I spent my last few nights in New Orleans with the lights on, since turning them off meant watching the carpet writhing with cockroaches until dawn.

It only took a few nights of this to decide I had enough. Clearly I still didn’t have the necessary funds to pull this off in a way that made sense to stay.

I walked to a nearby Burger King to use a pay phone. I dialed up an old Navy friend of mine, Steve, who was currently stationed in Hawaii with his Filipina wife and two young daughters. I just needed someone to talk to, someone I trusted to give me some perspective on how best to manage the hole I was in.

So I dialed Steve up and he listened. Historically, Steve’s candor usually tended toward the rough, “sucks to be you” interpretation of misfortune. As such, I expected some mild teasing followed by a few strategic suggestions.

Instead he offered to fly me to Hawaii to stay with him and his family long enough to recover. From there, I could pick up a temporary job and raise enough money to come back to New Orleans or wherever. So long as I paid him back for the price of the ticket, he said, anything I earned beyond that was mine to build up my savings.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

The exit plan was simple. Steve set up a time for me to call him after he had purchased the one-way ticket out of New Orleans. Until then, I just had to wait it out at the Prytania Street rental. “Do you have enough to get by until then?” He asked. I said I did.

So long as I stuck with po-boys I thought I’d be a’right.

So I was going to Hawaii. I walked around in a fog of preoccupation about what that venture would bring. And as I did so, my immediate surroundings began to blur, as did my memories of them over time. I think I needed that. It took some of the edge off being forced to leave.

What I remember more clearly was saying farewell to one New Orleans friend, and meeting a new one.

I made the trek to Westgate on Magazine Street and explained to Leilah that I “had” to go. She looked disappointed but unsurprised. I cited the obvious: no shelter, no work, running out of funds, and as I did so I wondered how often she had heard this tale before. No matter. I couldn’t force what wasn’t working. That was my new “line” with everyone: I would retreat long enough to save up enough money to return “properly”. I honestly didn’t count on anyone believing me.

I made my way back to the French Quarter. I’m pretty sure I was of the mindset to commit at least some parts of the city to memory since I knew it would be some time before I could see any of it again. It’s been too long now to be absolutely certain what I did and did not do to wait out those final days, but I would bet on one last trip to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip for a drink, an appropriately haunted structure built between 1722 and 1732.

Lafitte’s prior to Hurricane Katrina:

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Lafitte’s post-Katrina, following city mandated repairs:

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I would also bet on one last longing stare at the spires of St. Louis Cathedral, still too fairytale-like to be real.

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It was during these meanderings that I eventually made my way back to a shop on Decatur Street I had visited once or twice before. Long before Hot Topic became a household name, “alternative” clothing shops were pretty hard to find and, as a business venture, even harder to hold on to. I don’t remember the name of this particular one but I can picture it easily enough: a creaky wooden staircase leading up to a nearly claustrophobic display of overstuffed clothing racks—the usual gallery of black t-shirts with band logos and sly counter culture slogans, leather jackets, and studded… well, everything. Looming over this forest of clothing were staggered wall displays of boots, sandals and gleaming stilettos. Dressing stalls with flimsy curtains were provided for anyone willing to try on more risqué items, of which there were plenty.

Filling in what little floor space remained were elongated glass cases safeguarding decorative pipes, silver (and only silver) patina-grooved jewelry and other easy-to-pocket accessories. Taken as a whole, it was three parts apparel to one part traditional “head shop”, all crammed into a single floor. It was just the kind of niche shop Decatur Street was becoming known for.

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This time around, I ran into the same guy I met from a prior visit. Shamefully, I don’t remember his name, or much of what he looked like apart from being a slender white guy with dark (brown?) hair. We first met by striking up an awkward conversation about a pair of classic “yellow stitch” Doc Martens propped against the window display. I suspect it was pretty transparent that I couldn’t afford them at the time, but he didn’t seem to mind. Other specifics about him escape me, but I do remember that he used to be in the Air Force, had great taste in music and just gave off a genuinely “good guy” vibe. He was one of the city’s rising number of transplants as well, but had beat me to New Orleans by a few years. For the sake of convenience, I’ll call him “Jason”.

When I returned to the shop to tell Jason I was leaving and why, he suggested a different route: would I consider sharing a place with him and his roommates just long enough to get myself settled in the city? For the second time that week I found myself gobsmacked by someone’s unexpected generosity. I also got the sense that I was coming to a fork in the road.

I asked a few questions about his apartment setup. I was waiting for the “catch”, but all he seemed to care about was that I didn’t drag my feet on finding work and contributing a little to rent prior to moving out. All perfectly reasonable expectations. This way, he reasoned, I could just focus on finding work without the added worry of ending up on the street. The only stipulation was that I meet his roommates first, out of respect for them, and to gauge their comfort level and mine. Again, more than reasonable, so I agreed to meet them the following evening.

The next time I sat down at Cafe Du Monde for beignets, I was more than a little heartsick.

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I could go to Hawaii, save up a good deal of money and come back “triumphantly”. But who knew how long that would actually take. It could be years of saving above and beyond rent, utilities, etc—especially with my meager earning power at the time.

Or I could stay here, rough it out and invoke the necessary tenacity needed to hunt down the elusive job, as well as the non-scary apartment to call my own. Then this trip to Cafe Du Monde wouldn’t have to be my last. Far from it.

If I have to be entirely honest here (and as writers, we must) I had already made my decision. The sorry mood I was in while sipping cafe au lait was the realization that I had already ventured the “irresponsible” route and found it wanting, even with this eleventh hour offer to crash with a new friend. I wanted to try out the “responsible” route.

On a far deeper level — deeper than I would have been able to admit to at the time—I also had to “test” my need to return to the city.

It was for this reason that I almost didn’t meet up at Jason’s place, but I felt obligated to see this meeting through. The 20-something couple he shared the apartment with seemed nice enough. The place itself had the appropriate bohemian spirit. It was minimally dressed with a few bits of functional stick furniture, mini stereos and several stacks of compact discs. No drugs that I could see. Just a quiet group of nice people. Apparently I was green-lighted after I left. All I had to do was say “yes”.

The next day I thanked Jason for his generosity but respectfully declined. I didn’t know when I could return to New Orleans, but I had little doubt that I would. And return I did, almost two years to the day I left.

What I couldn’t know at the time is that I would not be returning alone.

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Next:
New Orleans. Part Five.

New Orleans. Part Three.

(New to this blog series? Read New Orleans. Part One.)

This third installment is dedicated to Ann Trufant and her family who lost the third floor of their beautiful Garden District home to fire as I wrote this.

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Thankfully the 87 year old matriarch of the Trufant family escaped the fire safely and without injury.

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This is also dedicated to the hard-working folks at The Gumbo Shop for reasons which will be evident later in this missive.

Part Three: The Garden District

In the early 19th century, a small constellation of settlements began to emerge near steamboat landings upriver from New Orleans. From those formative years, the first city of Lafayette, Louisiana was born. This fledgling community was comprised mostly of wealthy Americans seeking to distance themselves from the French and Spanish colonial influence predominant in the “Vieux Carre”. Over time, a gradual influx of German, Irish and Italian immigrants added to this bloom.

This division, however artificial, was not to last. New Orleans annexed Lafayette in 1852, bringing several land parcels into the city’s fold, most notably the opulent “Garden District” neighborhood. In 1995, 143 years into the future, I boarded the St. Charles streetcar to see the Garden District for the very first time.

After spending several years of riding city buses of all types, to say nothing of brightly colored “jeepneys” and “trikes” in the Far East, I didn’t expect to be much affected by a dowdy ol’ streetcar.

Oh, I was much mistaken.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

As pretty as the St. Charles streetcar’s gleaming dark green exterior was when it first approached, the real treat was stepping inside. The arched roof interior was spacious and open. Quaint. The seats were made of lacquered mahogany with a slatted back for circulation. The whole thing was a like a set piece from a film.

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I found an empty seat and sat next to the window. It slid a bit. I realized each seat was mounted on a track. Thus, when the streetcar reached the end of the line, the driver could reverse the seat position to face the opposite direction. Using this method, couples and parents with children could also face each other. Simple and ingenious.

Once we were all seated, the driver gave a rapid ding-ding of the bell to ward people off the tracks and we were off.

Things looked fairly modern at first. The Central Business District was truly as “neutral” in appearance as in name.

We stopped at One Shell Square, a contemporary high rise with bronze glass windows. Both the building and surrounding steps were made of marbled white limestone. This mammoth structure overshadowed the better part of the block.

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A small group of people sat on the shaded steps outside the main entrance waiting to board. I imagined, briefly, what it would be like to work so close to the Quarter.

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Next, we approached Lee Circle. This grassy “Tivoli Square” styled monument was bisected by two pairs of shallow concrete steps which led up to the monument’s central pedestal.

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Here stood a tall, fluted column crowned by a bronze statue of General Robert E. Lee. As we curved around the stern-looking General, we left this brief intersection of Howard street heading toward St. Charles.

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The farther we progressed along St. Charles past Josephine, the grander the houses appeared on both sides. These were mostly two-story colonials painted in bright whites and pastels—some with decorative iron-work, some without. Only a few of these homes pushed the “wedding cake” facade to the brink of tacky, but most were perfectly elegant, eliciting awe and envy from onlookers (myself included).

The architecture was further softened by the presence of numerous oak trees on both sides of the avenue. These darkly beautiful, sprawling things created welcome pools of shade for pedestrians strolling up and down this wide thoroughfare.

Now and then, someone pulled the cord (hard) to request a stop. A bell echoed across the aisles. If they exited from the front, the driver opened the folding doors for them. If they exited from the back, well, sometimes there was a struggle since the doors were prone to sticking. Unaware of this phenomenon, embarrassed newcomers looked helplessly to the driver to somehow free them.

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Invariably, one of the locals would gently advise them to really PUSH on the metal handles, often getting up from their seats to help apply the necessary force. Other times the doors were truly sealed, prompting a jarring shout of “BACK DOOR” until the green bulb over the door lit up and the irate passenger could shove his way out (often muttering as he went).

These comings and goings aside, the streetcar, with its rhythmic clack-clack-clack along the tracks, made me inexplicably happy. All the windows were propped open, admitting delicious gusts of river breeze. This wasn’t the fastest mode of transportation in the city, but certainly the most calming.

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Fleurty Girl chronicles a more recent “St. Charles Streetcar Ride” for GoNOLA.com here:

I was a little concerned about missing my stop but I need not have been. I had yet to live in a city that was also a major tourist destination. The streetcar drivers were well-accustomed to announcing stops of obvious interest to newcomers, and we had just reached the first intersection of note.

“Washington Avenue,” the driver called out gruffly. “Garden District, Cemeteries…”

A lot of people stood up to get off. I followed them.

My first thought upon touring this neighborhood was that Leilah Wendell, bless her, got it wrong:

This was exactly like something I’d find in an Anne Rice novel.

I read Rice’s Witching Hour prior to leaving California, and it was all here, elements right out of the opening chapter: the enormous dark oaks, the heady perfume of crepe myrtles and magnolias intermingled with jasmine and honeysuckle, the humming of insects…

My initial exploration began at the intersection of Washington and Prytania.

Across the street from where I stood: Lafayette Cemetery #1, one of New Orleans’ famed “Cities of the Dead”. The rooftops of several above-ground tombs were visible over the top of the cemetery’s rain streaked outer wall. Most of the wall’s exterior was thick with white plaster, but age and heat-induced cracks created jagged pools of exposed brick beneath it.

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To my immediate left was a small collection of shops called “The Rink”.

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It was connected to a corner coffee shop with an outdoor deck. The deck was bordered on three sides by a low fence covered in ivy. A number of cafe patrons sat outside sipping iced coffee as they talked. They didn’t seem the least bit perturbed that they were sitting across the street from the long-departed dead.

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I left Prytania for the time being and continued down Washington. I crossed over to the cemetery wall to my right. I walked along the length of this border until I reached the entrance: a black cast iron gate topped by a simple but decorative arch. Embedded in the uppermost curve of the arch were bold white letters which read Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.

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Across the street to my left, occupying nearly a third of the block, was the famed Commander’s Palace restaurant. This local favorite was painted entirely in turquoise with crisp white trim. A wrap-around awning in matching colors hung low to protect patrons from the sun. A turquoise sign hung from a post near the entrance. The sign was dotted with clear marquis bulbs that spelled out the restaurant’s name. White gingerbread posts and a Victorian spire overlooking the intersection of Washington and Coliseum added the final “Main Street” touches to an already remarkable structure. I vowed that someday I would see the inside of this place.

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I turned left on Washington and walked down Coliseum. From Third and Coliseum I let myself wander freely through a maze of blended architectural styles: pastel Italianates with decorative iron galleries, brightly painted Victorian gingerbread houses and towering two-story colonials whose lace-paneled windows and outdoor palms elegantly recalled the city’s earlier synthesis of American and West Indies influences.

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I located Anne Rice’s residence at 1239 First Street: a long, violet-gray town home with a Greek Revival facade. I knew that “Rosegate” (so named for the lovely rose motif woven into the fence design) was the real-life inspiration for the fictional Mayfair house in The Witching Hour.

The distinctive “key hole” doorway described in the novel was here, as well as the two massive oak trees whose twisted branches looked like jagged bolts of black lightning arcing toward the rooftop.

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I had to step carefully in front of the gate since the bulbous oak tree roots had caused the sidewalk to buckle and crack. From the foot of the gate a narrow herringbone walkway led to a marble stepped portico graced by two columns, Tuscan on the left, Ionic on the right. Behind them, twin gas lamps flickered in the shadows. Fiction could do little to enhance such an imposing yet beautiful structure.

I would never live in this house, or any house even remotely like it.

But I could live in a city where such places still existed and thrived: real homes with souls—homes I could walk by whenever I wanted, as often as I wanted. That, I thought, would be quite enough.

Any lingering doubts I might have had about moving to New Orleans dissipated at Anne’s doorstep.

It was for that very reason that I experienced a distinct “coming to” moment as I stood there, one that helped me pull away from all this antebellum splendor. It was time to get cracking on securing both shelter and work.

First order of business? Meet Leilah Wendell.

As I pen these chapters, it’s worth noting that my powers of recall are quite clear and detailed in some instances, frustratingly blurry in others. It was 20 years ago, after all. Things slip.

Case in point: I can’t recall whether I took the streetcar or the bus to reach Leilah’s home at 5219 Magazine Street, although I suspect it was the bus (the #11 to be precise).

What I do remember is that, upon reaching “Westgate”, I didn’t rush up to the entrance right away. Leilah once wrote about how distracted drivers would occasionally squeal on their brakes or nearly cream other cars while ogling the 70 foot black and purple manse. Since I had no prior photograph of the house, this was my first time looking upon it as well. I took a few moments to admire it from afar.

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When I finally walked up to ring the doorbell, Leilah’s companion, Daniel, opened the door. He had long brown hair, thin and parted down the middle and wore a faded black t-shirt and sweatpants. I gave him my name and he walked off slowly toward the back of house to let Leilah know I had arrived.

A number of people have visited the “Westgate” gallery over the years. Some remark upon how unassuming Leilah’s appearance is upon first meeting her: no black flowing robes, gauzy veils or “Goth”-y garb to speak of. Perhaps that was disconcerting or disappointing somehow. I couldn’t have cared less.

No, what struck me the most upon first meeting Leilah was how pronounced her Brooklyn accent was. You read someone’s words long enough and just about anything other than your own internal voice throws you a little—not too unlike the first time I heard Stephen King speak years after reading several of his novels. That and, like Daniel, she was rail thin.

It helped that Leilah’s manner was a highly approachable blend of soft-spoken calm and candor. She dressed solely for the weather: a sleeveless black t-shirt and black tights. I (re-)introduced myself and reminded her of the letter I had sent from afar. She cast around in her memory for a moment before I saw the “Ah, you’re the dude from California” flash of recognition.

She laughed. “You made it.”

I thanked her again for the kind response she had sent prior to my leaving California. I asked for her take on short-term lodging and work. She recommended picking up a copy of The Gambit for leads on rentals. For work, she suggested the Sunday edition of the Times Picayune as job postings were refreshed in time for Monday. In 1995, I had no mobile devices or Internet access to aid me in either quest, so the local papers were as good as it was going to get.

As we spoke, I soon got used to interpreting an eye roll from Leilah to mean: “Not sure I’m of much help here but, hey, try this…” I understood. She wouldn’t know how, exactly, an entry level admin like me could find work in town, but she did try to point me in the direction of local resources that might.

We chatted for a little while longer and, not wanting to outstay my welcome, I decided to be on my way. We would meet up again, of course. For now I had work to do.

Before parting, Leilah recommended a great place for a po’boy sandwich a few blocks further down Magazine. She pronounced it something like: “Le Bon Taun”. It sounded vaguely like one of the French phrases I had read in my New Orleans guide book, but I wasn’t certain. Simon “Le Bon” from Duran Duran. A “Taun”-taun from the planet Hoth. The name didn’t fully register at first. I simply nodded and smiled instead of asking her to spell it out for me (again, I felt I had taken up enough of her time).

She said I could also grab a cheap slice of pizza and a soda at “New York Pizza”, just down the end of the block from Westgate at 5201 Magazine. I thanked her again, waved farewell and headed toward the street corner.

A few minutes later, I walked inside New York Pizza, purchased a soda and picked up the latest Gambit from a magazine rack near the door. I began flipping through the pages: quite a bit of local society news, a smattering of full color ads (mostly drinking and dining spots), followed by more risque ads toward the back (escorts and strip clubs).

Embedded in all of this cheery content was a small listing of short-term rentals. I borrowed a ball point pen and circled a few that looked promising. And by “promising”, I mean they looked cheap. My reservation at St. Peter Guest House was only for a couple of days. Soon I would need a small, clean place to stash my dufflebag long enough to find work.

For now it was time to head back to the French Quarter.

My first substantial meal in New Orleans was in a wonderful little restaurant on St. Peter called The Gumbo Shop. I didn’t know anything about it at the time, only that the patrons seated inside seemed to be enjoying themselves.

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The entrance was accessible via a covered flagstone walkway. At the end of this shaded passage I had a clear view of the rear brick courtyard where outdoor guests laughed and smoked over marble-top tables. In this lush setting, ivy cascaded from wall planters and a brick garden ran along the riverside wall where glossy yellow-green palm fronds and clay pots of ivy rose up to absorb the filtered sunlight. A small balcony with wooden rails hung near the far end of the courtyard.

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I didn’t have to wait in line long. The greeter (the same woman I come to recognize after many subsequent visits) found a nice two-seat table indoors for me right next to the largest window. The staff were absolutely wonderful. I admired the classic sepia-toned murals of the Cabildo and Presbytere as I waited.

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I ordered a cup of chicken andouille gumbo and the jambalaya. Both were incredible—so much so, in fact, that I made it a personal tradition to order both ever since.

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Looking back on it now, I’m glad I had a little bit of comfort food to enjoy early on. The simple memory of that first meal at The Gumbo Shop helped when things became less comfortable over time.

Of all the uncertainties before me, one constant remained throughout: this was my city.

I ate the jambalaya slowly, hoping to make it last. I took solace in watching people wander up and down St. Peter, often peering up at the decorative iron balconies and the rows of freshly-watered Boston ferns that hung dripping from their arches.

In a few days many of these people had to leave. I hoped against hope that I wouldn’t have to join them.

Next:
New Orleans. Part Four.

New Orleans. Part Two.

This is where things get a little starry-eyed, as it should be.

And having put memories of my first day (and night) in New Orleans to words, I find that they pale in comparison to the actual experience—also as it should be.

Part Two: Wrought Iron Lace

Flying over Louisiana for the first time was like landing on a different planet.

As we made our final descent, I craned my neck to get a better view out of the passenger window. I saw the shadow of our aircraft glide across a shimmering expanse of wetlands. Its sunlit surface was broken up by a vast mosaic of floating vegetation.

Descending closer to the inlaying swamps, I could make out the moss-tinted clusters of bald cypress trees. It all looked thoroughly primeval. I must have shook my head at some point. This was my new home, or a surreal extension of it in any case.

I didn’t turn away from the window until well after we landed.

My first few minutes inside Louis Armstrong Airport were hasty ones. I tried not to look at tentative as I felt. I found my way to baggage claim fairly quickly. I stood close to the metal luggage belt, waiting for it to move. Just a few feet behind me, a pair of glass exit doors whooshed open and closed for various passengers, giving me my first hint of New Orleanian heat.

I confess to mild paranoia at first. I kept an eye out for anyone who might be trying to scam newcomers, like someone offering to “help” me with my bags. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait for long. I spotted my green canvas “sea-bag”, scooped it up and got in line for a cab. Once I was paired with a cab driver, I made sure to negotiate the flat rate before accepting a ride. More paranoia. The driver hoisted my belongings into a deep trunk, dropped the dented hood shut and off we went.

Most New Orleans cab drivers, native or no, will merrily talk your ear off. Mine was no different. I nodded and laughed in all the right places, but my eyes were on the billboards we passed. Casino this. French Quarter that. Cabaret shows. Haunted Mystery Tours. And so on.

I gave the driver the address of the hotel I picked out for my first few days: the St. Peter Guest House. I don’t recall the exact route he took to get me there, I only know that it felt like one random zig-zagging turn after another.

I caught my first glimpse of wrought iron lace as we entered French Quarter streets. Unlike their pristine Disney counterparts, here and there I spotted metal finials which were (gasp) bent or missing, as well as panels of iron lace whose paint had obviously faded a few shades from years of sub-tropical heat. Here, then, was the real New Orleans, as haunted as it comes.

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The cab pulled up to the corner of St. Peter and Burgundy. It was at this junction that I took my first steps upon French Quarter streets. I resisted the urge to gawk at everything until I paid the driver. Once he was off, however, I took a moment to simply stand there and catch my breath. So it began.

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I hauled my meager belongings into the side entrance of the hotel lobby just around the corner. The desk receptionist was pleasant, albeit a bit drowsy from the heat. I was handed a metal key and simple instructions to a small but (blessedly) air-conditioned room on the first floor, just off of a brick walled courtyard. The courtyard was small and narrow, but ideal in its seclusion. Quiet.

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I remember being thankful for this tiny oasis, a place to gather my wits. Although I had only just arrived, I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. Even for a fairly seasoned visitor of exotic locales this was already a lot of raw “vibe” to take in.

Some travelers argue that French Quarter hotels are over-priced for their actual value, especially when compared to fill-in-the-blank American city. It would seem that, apart from a certain contrived “Old World Charm”, the only other thing to recommend them is walking proximity to restaurants and, as the lights go down, the (in)famous entertainment strip many visitors spend 98% of their visit nervously anchored to: Bourbon Street.

But I wasn’t here for Bourbon Street, or the spotless niceties of other American cities for that matter (I had just left Irvine after all). I was here, in part, for the city’s rich history.

My historical immersion began with my first lodgings, which I had picked out of a pamphlet during my final months in Irvine. (The Louisiana visitors bureau package turned out to be quite a valuable resource for a newcomer like me)

The advertisement for St. Peter Guest House wasn’t even a photo, but rather a black and white illustration of a small, quaint guest house whose balcony was adorned with my beloved wrought iron lace. Normally the lack of any photos makes me suspicious, but not this time.

St. Peter House (then):

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Fast-forward to 2015, with a new color scheme and a new name: Inn on St. Peter:

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The write-up emphasized that the building dated back to the 1800s. I laugh about that now. Even in 1995, you would have been hard-pressed to find a building in the Quarter that wasn’t at least 100 years old, with a good many of them closer to 200 years old still.

(The term “French Quarter” is something of a misnomer: The “Great New Orleans Fire” of 1788 and a subsequent fire in 1794 destroyed nearly all of the old French Colonial homes for which the “French” Quarter is named, save for notable structures like Old Ursuline Convent, Madame John’s Legacy and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop—decimated buildings were replaced by “newer” Spanish colonial influenced architecture, most of which still stands today)

No matter. Intuition told me this was the place I wanted. St. Peter looked small and far removed enough to be affordable, yet “historic” enough to satisfy my need for a symbolic beginning. And now I was standing in the middle of it.

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My little room was distinctly Caribbean: slightly uneven walls, with a strip of decorative ceiling border that was beginning to lift away in a few spots, no doubt due to the constant fluctuation of heat and air conditioning over time. I could smell the faint staleness of once damp carpeting and upholstery, the whole of it aired out just in time for human occupancy. The door and window moldings were slightly uneven but bore enough successive coats of thick paint to keep out the elements and make the room appear reasonably current.

The “Old World” focal point of the room was the wooden four poster bed frame, its hand-carved headboard buffeted by layers of pillows. The mattress was blanketed with a sumptuous white duvet and elevated high enough to accentuate the polished hardwood floors. To my eyes, it was the 1800s “dressed”, somewhat grudgingly, by the late 1990s. I’m sure that in spite of my nervousness I couldn’t help but smile. Hell, I might have even laughed a little. I had picked the right place to greet this strange old city.

(Unbeknownst to me at the time, Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls met his untimely end at St. Peter at the age of 38. He died in Room 37 on April 23, 1991, four years prior to my arrival. Since then, Room 37 has become something of a pilgrimage for Dolls fans who want to spend the night there—so much so, in fact, that the hotel staff made it a practice to keep extra ‘3’s and ‘7’s on hand to replace the ones torn off the hotel door…)

From that very first evening, my singular regret is that I couldn’t share these initial discoveries with anyone, including my best friend. This was well before the advent of public internet, affordable cell phones (and thus cell cameras), FaceTime, etc. In 1995, like it or not, I was very much on my own.

As I stood in this low-lit room, it occurred to me that I was stalling. I tend to resist “strips” of any sort on general principle, and the much-touted Bourbon Street was, by description, just another strip. After a few months of bracing through second-hand anecdotes from co-workers in Irvine, I was reminded (unfavorably) of the years I spent in the Philippines. Bourbon, as yet unseen, sounded a little too much like the sordid Magsaysay Drive of Olongapo City I was only too happy to leave behind in my Navy past.

Yet it seemed to me that Bourbon Street was, tonight, unavoidable—at least until I got my French Quarter bearings. I knew it would take a few days to acclimate. Until then, Bourbon would have to be the compass needle by which I explored other areas then made my way back again. When in doubt, I thought, follow the noise.

Still, I was determined not to make the mistake of wasting my first night on bar-hopping. I had a handwritten list of decidedly non-Bourbon spots I wanted to explore. A few days prior, I had consulted my Insight guide and visitors pamphlets, jotting down a few places that seemed to embody the city’s colorfully “haunted” past. I was determined to find at least one of them on my first night.

List in hand, I left the room with the air conditioning unit humming behind me. I padded across the narrow brick courtyard and pushed open the creaky dark green door that led out to St. Peter street. This end of the street was fairly quiet, but I could see clusters of people strolling in both directions of Bourbon just a few streets up ahead. In spite of my “let’s get this over with” expression, I felt a pang of anticipation too.

I took my time strolling past a string of “shotgun” cottages, a New Orleans architectural staple—so named because (as New Orleans historian Samuel Wilson Jr. explains) if you open all the doors inside, the pellets fired from a shotgun could travel unimpeded from one end of the house to the other. In 1995, these cottages were in various states of repair. Freshly painted models were interspersed with faded and peeling ones. Yet nearly all of these quaint buildings, either by design or inheritance, had their doors and windows fitted with tall, forest green shutters, giving each of them a decidedly colonial feel.

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I was halfway between St. Peter and Dauphine when someone called out to me. It was a thin woman leaning in the doorway of one of the cottages. Grinning, she asked if I was going to bring back something for the two of us to drink later that evening. I intuited this was more warm-hearted teasing than actual solicitation, so I gamely asked her what brand of drink she had in mind, forewarning her of my limited budget. She made it clear that it was “Dom Pérignon” or nothing. I gave her my best “I think I can swing that” nod and walked on. We both laughed. She waved to me. I waved back. I had just met my first French Quarter resident.

I smiled. I could get used to this.

As I said, I assumed Bourbon Street would be more or less another type of Magsaysay Drive. The difference, I found, was the underlying spirit of the city itself.

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When I first approached Bourbon from St. Peter it wasn’t quite dark yet, so I had some time to look around before things became too crowded.

Bourbon Street, like most strips, is a cacophony of cross-competing music. Although a wide variety of genres are represented on Bourbon from end to end, you can ultimately distill them into two core categories:

  1. Music “From Here” (minority)
  2. Music “From Elsewhere” (majority)

To my right was Maison Bourbon, a small but cozy venue whose doors were open wide to seduce curious passer-bys, and seduce they did: a local brass band playing Dixieland era jazz was already filling up the seats. This was quintessential “From Here” music: the stuff that gets your toes tapping.

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To my left was Cat’s Meow, a two-story karaoke bar. Jukebox fare “From Elsewhere” brought slightly staggering visitors to the microphone, as did the second floor balcony from which, I would soon learn, much bead “commerce” was conducted night after night, usually by visitors.

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I walked over to Maison Bourbon. As it so happens, Maison was also on my “list”.

I stood in the open doorway smiling serenely as the band played classic fare like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Basin Street Blues”. To think, I could come here to indulge this any time I wanted.

Eventually, and with considerable difficulty, I pulled myself away from Maison to continue my explorations. I had already run into one “spot”, what was next?

Well, there was St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, with its elegant trinity of grey spires, so unlike its Catholic contemporaries throughout the country that it could have been in Disneyland. (In fact, this was a visual motif presented, bitingly, by Krewe Du Vieux in 2014, but more on that in later installments)

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The Cathedral was accompanied by the stately Cabildo on the left, site of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 where France formally transferred ownership of the territory to the United States.

To the right of the cathedral stood the Presbytere, which was nearly mirror image of the Cabildo. The Presbytere, I read, was originally intended to house clergy but this never came to pass. It was eventually sold to the city in 1853, then later sold to the state in 1908. Both were active museums and, like everything else here, well within my reach.

Running along both sides of Jackson Square itself were the Upper and Lower Pontalba buildings. I gazed up at the decorative ironwork along the length of the Upper Pontalba, blissfully unaware of how this historical residence would play a unique role in my future.

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I wasn’t surprised to see that the black iron gates around the statue of Andrew Jackson padlocked for the evening. I peered through the fence and admired the grounds that days previous I had only caught cropped photographic glimpses of: mostly of everyday New Orleanians sitting on benches and talking familiarly amongst themselves, pausing just long enough to pose for a guidebook photo.

The French Quarter at night was the essence of twilight itself. I had nearly forgotten about my little “places to see” list. I was content to simply wander throughout the Quarter’s dimly-lit streets with nothing more than intuition and wonder to guide me. It was all here: the shuttered windows, the flickering gas lamps swaying in the river breeze, the soft clinking of glass and distant laughter—no fiction could replicate its actual mystique.

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Hours later, I wandered onto Esplanade Avenue which borders the Quarter to the east. I walked, very slowly, under a canopy of oak trees. The pale yellow light from the streetlights outlined the mossy growth along their thick, gnarled branches. Two story colonials stood silent vigil along the avenue as I explored. The hypnotic fragrance of jasmine turned my head at every other corner. This too was mine. I had fallen in love with this crumbling shrine of decadence that very first night.

I never forgot that initial spell, even during those difficult nights in the distant future when I had all but given up on New Orleans.

That first night, however, I tucked my little list inside my pocket, never to retrieve it again. I knew I would explore all of these wonders and more in due course.

All I wanted before turning in was a night-cap at Cafe Du Monde. It was close to midnight when I placed my first order for cafe au lait and beignets. Beignets, for those who have yet to experience them, are fried, square-shaped pastries blanketed with powdered sugar. The surface of the tables are often damp and sticky, the result of waitstaff hastily wiping off excess powdered sugar over and over…

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Shortly before midnight, sitting beneath Cafe Du Monde’s distinctive green and white awning, I bit into my first beignet. Sheer happiness. The coffee was rich and caramel colored. I added a little sugar and stirred. Perfect. Far from keeping me awake, the “au lait” actually helped me relax.

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I stared across the street at Jackson Square, and then St. Louis Cathedral looming over it. A few of the cathedral’s stained glass windows were lit. It was almost too fairy-tale in appearance to look real.

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I don’t remember much about heading back to St. Peter. I only know that once I returned to my room and turned off the lights, it was very dark, almost disconcertingly so. Only the faintest thread of light appeared under the door. The air conditioner had been running all evening, giving the bed sheets a cool, crisp feel to the touch as I pulled them up to my neck. I breathed in the dark, and the dark took me for one of its own.

Next:
New Orleans. Part Three.

New Orleans. Part One.

New Orleans weighs heavily on my mind and heart as of late. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much of that era I have compartmentalized within myself over the past ten years. So I’m going to reconcile with that the best way I know how: I’ll write about it.

What follows are a decade’s worth of recollections of daily life in New Orleans, spanning a ten year time period between the spring of 1995 and late 2005, up to the eve of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s worth noting that I write from the perspective of a long-time resident, not a “native”. Thankfully, it has been my experience that most New Orleanians don’t give a tin shit whether you were born and raised in Louisiana, with one important caveat:

If really want to live in New Orleans, you must make a genuine effort to embrace her ways and traditions.

Try as you might, you can’t twist New Orleans into the place you came from, and transplants arrogant enough to try are usually the first to find themselves ejected by the city (forcibly, if need be). This is one facet of New Orleans culture, I’m convinced, that has not changed one iota since Katrina.

Part One: The Anti-Irvine

I moved to New Orleans twice in my lifetime. My first attempt was in April of 1995, a solitary venture which lasted roughly two weeks.

The second attempt was two years later in 1997. This time I was not alone, and we had more money behind the trip — not a lot, but enough to stay. We stayed for quite some time.

But before I arrive in New Orleans, it’s important to first consider where I came from.

During the mid-90s I spent a brief amount of time in Irvine, California: a very safe, meticulously manicured city with an arguably exaggerated sense of its own worth (to whit: community license frames read “The Land of Gracious Living”).

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Irvine was, and remains, a gentle oasis for affluent families. A planned community. I was neither affluent nor raising a family. I was there for the work. Well that and John, my best friend.

I grew up in Southern California. I couldn’t wait to leave home after high school. I went straight into military service after graduation. I chose the Navy, in part to make my father proud (he served in the Navy during Vietnam), in part for the prospect of travel.

I met John in boot camp. We recognized early on that we were not like the rest of our forced companions. We agreed to stick together. After boot camp, in spite of inconsequential squabbling, we continued to stick together. That is, until I was sent to my first overseas tour in Japan.

Then the Persian Gulf.
Then the Philippines.
Then Guam.

Guam was, for me, bleak beyond description. By 1992, I had trapped myself in an awful, ill-conceived marriage. Nine months later, we lost a child, a son, to stillbirth. The following year I dissolved the marriage and left the island. And when I left the island, I left the Navy along with it. I flew back to California, badly shaken but relieved.

When I arrived in LAX I was met with two surprises. The first was celebratory: John arranged a limo ride for us. His older brother Bob had come along for the ride. Listening to the familiar banter between them, I began to relax a little. John popped a cassette tape into the car stereo, and I couldn’t help but grin. It was a compilation tape I had made for him while overseas.

The second surprise was grander: John had just secured an apartment in San Clemente, a place we could split the rent on. The complex was a five minute walk from the ocean. I was thrilled. I was unemployed, and increasingly worried about how to find work with a limited skill set, but I was thrilled all the same.

It wasn’t to last. John had already met a girl who worked and went to school in Irvine. We all know how that goes. First it’s a daily commute to “visit” in the evenings, then it’s moving “to be closer” time. So John and I found a new rental in the quiet Woodbridge area of Irvine: a two bedroom townhouse, a bit narrow, but with a nice fireplace. Whatever else I may think of Irvine, I have fond memories of that little place.

We enjoyed it for a time. John’s neurotic girlfriend, less so. We made nice-nice for a few months, she and I, mostly for John’s benefit. Another temporary arrangement. She became increasingly hostile, and finally the tension between the three of us was untenable. She was possessive. I was unsympathetic. John was stuck in the middle. Typical 20s bullshit.

By early 1995, it was either me or her. In a moment of shared magnanimity, John and I soberly agreed that I should be the one to go. I was going to save up enough money to move out. Somewhere.

I can’t (and won’t) lay it all on them, however. I was already feeling restless and bored with Irvine itself: the job, the repressive atmosphere, the social posturing, all of it. Roughly six months into it, I decided that all this contrived “community” and geometric tidiness just wasn’t for me.

I remember the precise moment it happened. It was on a weekend. I had left the apartment to take a walk down to the nearby grocery store. I deliberately took the route that would lead me past my favorite bit of flora along the way: a jasmine hedge. It was part of an established walking ritual. Every time I saw it, I’d lean in to the tiny jasmine blooms and breathe them in. The fragrance always made me feel alive.

On this particular occasion, however, I had the misfortune of discovering a community greens-keeper bearing down on that very same hedge with an electric trimmer. Transfixed, I stood there long enough to watch this somewhat loose, but lovely growth reduced to a perfect rectangle, its “surface” sheared so flat you could throw a tablecloth over it. Then, or now, I can think of no clearer metaphor for Irvine than the image of that freshly sheared jasmine hedge. I walked on. I had seen enough.

But where to go? I grew up in southern California, so that was out. I liked the idea of heading north to San Francisco, but ultimately decided against it. I was looking for something far more impacting.

It’s hard to nail down the absolute first inclination I had toward New Orleans, but I remember this much: just as I contemplated leaving California, references to New Orleans began popping up all around me: in books, in music, in films. Even in Disneyland, with its sanitized, microcosmic depiction of “New Orleans Square”.

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New Orleans Square. I had passed through it through many, many times as a child. It was all about the rides then, first among them my beloved Haunted Mansion, the pristine colonial with its massive columns and decorative wrought iron lace.

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When I passed through this area of the park again as an adult, however, I found myself staring at the French Quarter facsimiles around me, as though truly seeing them for the first time. I find it somewhat poetic that New Orleans Square was also the last place many people saw Walt Disney alive. From Wikipedia:

“The land was opened to the public on July 24, 1966 with New Orleans Mayor Victor H. Schiro participating in the dedication ceremony. Schiro announced Walt Disney had been made an honorary citizen of New Orleans; Disney joked the addition cost as much as the original Louisiana Purchase. This was Walt Disney’s last major public appearance at Disneyland before his death in December 1966.”

Visiting New Orleans Square in 1995, I found that I still loved my old Mansion, of course, and the neighboring Pirates of the Caribbean. But the backdrop of the miniature “city” itself now began to command my attention as well. It seemed the more I thought about New Orleans, the more it thought about me.

Neil Jordan’s film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire came out around this time. I wasn’t sure what to make of Tom Cruise being cast as Lestat, but I was willing to give it a shot.

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And what a shot. Neil Jordan’s cinematic interpretation took me by the shoulders and gave me really good shake. Cruise was great (certainly better than most were willing to admit). Brad Pitt as the over-wrought Louis was great. But the real star of the film for me then, as now, was Louisiana itself.

When I first saw Interview on the big screen, I went with a co-worker. The theater paired it with, of all films, Pulp Fiction. My friend, who looked like Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go’s, didn’t know what she was in for. Neither of us did. The two films were promoted as a “double feature”, and both made their respective nods to New Orleans; Interview more overtly so.

But it was the scene in Interview where Louis experiences his “last sunrise” that really stands out. It unlocked something inside me. In that darkened theater, I felt summoned. It was subtle, but it was there.

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I sensed (quite correctly) that Louisiana, as a state, was culturally unique and lively enough to be interesting, yet haunted enough to be comfortable and “familiar”.

Mind you, I certainly didn’t expect present-day Louisiana to resemble Interview any more than I expected New Orleans to look like New Orleans Square in Disneyland. Yet it did strike me that both of these fictional creations, however sensational or sanitized in their presentation, were inspired by their real world namesakes. That meant something. It suggested an underlying spirit of the region people couldn’t help but respond to.

The difference between me and most people is that I knew I wouldn’t be content to just sample that energy. I wanted to be part of it. But first I had to do my homework.

I knew next to squat about Louisiana. I had little to no access to the internet in 1995, so I sent away for a Louisiana “information” package from the state’s tourism board. I knew I was getting filtered, rose-colored data, but I had to start somewhere.

Next, I picked up an Insight Guide for New Orleans. I lucked out with this one: lots of photos and neighborhood breakdowns by writers local to the city. These brief essays proved to be surprisingly frank, detailing both the good (culture, food, things to do) and the bad (crime, poverty, corruption). Who knows how many times I flipped through that book, absorbing as much as I could.

By the time the Louisiana tourism envelope arrived, packed with various pamphlets, flyers and maps (oh my), I didn’t feel quite as lost. Still, I needed to hear from a local, and I already had someone in mind.

A few years previous, still stuck on Guam, I picked up a (now-defunct) issue of Propaganda magazine. It featured an interview with a New Orleans artist named Leilah Wendell.

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Leilah’s art was devoted to the subject of necromancy in general and Azrael, the “Angel of Death” in particular. Leilah, I read, had moved from the East Coast to New Orleans in the late 80s, purchased a two story home on Magazine street and, to the consternation of some, painted it in black and purple. She christened it “Westgate: The House of Death”.

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Coming across this article in 1993, so soon after losing Daniel (named for the Daniel Malloy, a character from “Interview with the Vampire”), I found a strange comfort in Leilah’s expression of what death was, both philosophically and artistically. That she chose New Orleans as her home also spoke to me. Intuitively I felt that if anyone could give me a candid take on what I was getting myself into, she could.

I wrote Leilah a letter of inquiry, which she promptly responded to. I made no mention of Interview, Disneyland or any other nebulous influence in my letter. instead, I solicited her advice on how I might find a place there and attempt to find work.

Leilah’s response was printed on a single page of smooth, gray-marbled vellum. In spite of my omissions, she stressed that New Orleans, while wondrous, was “nothing like what you would find in an Anne Rice novel.” Noted. That admonition aside, Leilah’s letter was warm and gracious. She thought I should heed my intuition and come.

John, to his credit, was very supportive of the move. He was relieved, yes, but perhaps disappointed as well. He may not have entirely understood why I chose New Orleans, (save, perhaps, recalling our need for peak experiences), but he knew it was important to me and that was enough for him. To help, John let me stay rent-free until I had enough money saved up for the flight and a few nights of lodging. Beyond that? Well, hopefully I could land work before my funds ran out.

Later that night, I walked into my bedroom and closed the door. I sat down cross-legged on the carpet, which also doubled as my “bed” (I hadn’t slept on a bed since leaving Guam). I surrounded myself with all of my Louisiana paraphernalia, picking up items here and there, seeing words but not reading them. It was decided then.

I was terrified, but I was going.

On the morning of April 17th, 1995, two years to the date since losing Daniel, I hastily packed a few essentials into a green duffel bag, then walked around our apartment one last time. I said farewell to my best friend, boarded a one-way flight for New Orleans, and set out to become what I became.

Next:
New Orleans. Part Two.