Saturday, September 24, 2005

New Orleans Memories

It seems everybody is writing their memories of New Orleans, so I suppose I should join the mob.

I was born there, in Baptist Hospital. That doesn't mean much of anything, of course, since we moved to Arkansas when I was about 8 months old. In fact, I don't remember much of anything except an image of a small house in the city until we went back in '63 on our way to Africa. Even then, I don't remember much besides tree-lined streets and a very large stately church. (My grandfather lived in Mississippi by then, and that's where we stayed.) We left from the port, of course, but for some odd reason I remember almost nothing of that busy place. Except that I didn't want to walk on the gangway. At all.

On a later furlough we visited again, and again I recall those streets, and the home of my father's friend. The walls of her home seemed almost adobe-like, and the ceiling was unbelievably high. She told us of the death of her border, who accidently set his room on fire. The old thick walls contained the blaze, and the rest of her home was fine.

The houses of the old quarter streets, as everyone knows, often have courtyards within the walls; and it seemed to add a little dignity to them. I hadn't read much Faulkner then (and I still don't like him), so I'd no impression of decay or scandal behind high walls--just of quiet.

Shortly after we married, my wife and I went down to see Grandpa, and we took a day to go see New Orleans. In retrospect, we'd obviously made a mistake in going in the daytime, and our budget was woefully inadequate. Naive, and too nervous about whether we'd have the money to make it home.

We went around the French Market, strolled here and there, ate beignets and ice cream, listened to the caliope play by the river and watched the ships sail by higher than the street. I declined (unfortunately) to have an artist draw my wife's picture, and then we wandered off the beaten path, up to Martin Luther King park. I can't say what the signals were that warned us: something about the posture of the men loitering about, but something ugly and dangerous dozed there that day, and we left in a hurry.

I was foolish not to budget for an evening dinner, and I've kicked myself since.

I visited relatives there--some rich and some definately not. The rich took us to a fancy restaurant, the aunt and uncle (and their yappy dogs) had us at their home. On my own for an hour one day I learned that cold shrimp are not all that wonderful.

What else do I know of the city? Jazz is a taste I've acquired only late. A few bits of the cuisine are part of our home: my mother and my wife and I all make very fine red beans and rice, for example. Mardi Gras I never went to, nor cared to since I was young. (Parades are fine enough things, but since I learned what drunken crowds are like I've avoided them.)

Wisps and mists: I was never part of it and it never felt like home to me.

Everybody knew the city was going to flood one day, just as everybody knows the river will move someday and a new place garner the great port. And the old French Quarter will still be a tourist spot in a small historic town where treasure-hunters dig in the mud flats hoping to strike long-lost jewelry boxes and where night-time boat tour guides regale visitors with tales of ghosts and lost splendor (growing in the telling). And the old music will live on, in Chicago and Atlanta and Seattle; and the new music will grow wherever the requisite two or three are gathered together with a great idea.

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