This is one of my creative non-fiction submissions for grad school. Please do not reproduce anywhere else.
I did not really want to go to New Orleans. It was not that I had a negative opinion of it, or that I had heard terrible things, it simply was not one of my ideal destinations. However, for my friend’s sanity as well as my own, we had to get out of Carolina for a week. After mulling over prices, and destinations, and the length of time needed to cross all of the US, I resorted to her first proposal, “Let’s just go to New Orleans.” A few weeks later, on a Saturday, we had packed our clothes, food and cds into a little Mazda and left before dawn to cover the 12 hours between Beaufort and New Orleans. I never expected to find people from my home nor the musical mysticism that beat beneath the pavements.
When we arrived, I saw right away the run down filth and stench of it all. Our check in at the hostel, previously an orphanage, was delayed because they were overbooked and could not find the locksmith who had recently changed all of the door’s locks. While we waited, we overheard complaints about mold and mildew, saw dead bugs in corners and I tried to distract myself from the old house smell. Tired and slightly more understanding than the old couple yelling at the desk, we quietly asked if they could direct us to some places to eat. A receptionist, not much older than us, sent us to the right as we left the hostel. We ended up in the projects that surround the garden district. I saw cop lights on every corner, beads were strewn everywhere (it was the week after Mardi Gras) and trash littered lawns, sidewalks and streets. I have lived in Glasgow and walked the streets of Montréal and Paris late at night, but I don’t think I was ever more disturbed or frightened as I was at 6 pm in half-daylight on the streets of New Orleans.
We turned the other direction and found barren streets among business buildings and the World War II museum. The lack of people was just as disconcerting. After getting lost a couple more times, we came across a shoddy bar where we ate greasy burgers and drank a miller lite each. Regardless, I felt a little better, if not unsure of the area and place we were staying. We decided the next day to start with a map and a plan, which would be organized at the Café du Monde. However, the next day when we passed through Bourbon Street, having finally found the French Quarter, my impressions of the city were not much better.
I was worn out. We attempted a literati self-paced tour we had found in Caro’s little book, since we assumed everything was closed on Sunday. We walked what seemed like hours, and I leaned against each building we stopped at. I had not read Faulkner, I did not like Twain half of the time and I had only read perhaps two books by Anne Rice. Needless to say, I was not as enthusiastic as Caro would have hoped. Then, on the way to another stop, we had to pass Bourbon Street. The refuse left over from the night before scattered along the walk, plus the smell of alcohol in the morning wafted from bars that never closed, and the mysterious puddles on the sidewalks left my head swirling and an overwhelming sense of nausea left me weak. I was ready to go back to the hostel and sleep until Monday.
My Parents are in Beaufort
Not long after, all of the threads began to weave in and out of my past and present, transforming New Orleans in my mind. The next day, we walked into a tourist office, a closet on the side of a building and gathered pamphlets and maps. The man there initiated a conversation where we discovered that he had lived on the east coast, in North Carolina and South Carolina. Each place he lived was hit by a hurricane. After he moved to New Orleans, Katrina flew into the gulf coast and laid her waste there. It seemed as if a curse followed him, but he gave no reasons for his ill-fortune. He only offered the comment that he does not own anything anymore, but simply rents. Using a map, he pointed out the areas we needed to avoid, being two young women in a city. Our eyes looked at each other amused, knowing that we stayed in the area that he had circled.
We mainly wandered around the quarter and the indoor boardwalk, had beignets, and stopped for a long look at the Faulkner bookstore. The shelves were the length of the ceiling, more than six feet high and I wondered how the short woman who worked the desk was able to shelve them. I managed to find some Flannery O’Connor, however, the instance was not so astounding since both were southern writers. We ambled along the banks of the Mississippi and back into the mall/boardwalk that housed several shops selling the same tourist wares, and the museum of food and beverage. Inside there were a few kiosks with signs in exclamations “Ask me about tours!” Caro and I had decided to do a ghost tour, she a fan of Anne Rice, I a fan of history through story-telling. We stopped and struck up a conversation about the best tour and discounts. The inevitable question that is always asked in a tourist town, “Where are you from?” came up. I took the lead and mentioned that I was from Beaufort. The man at the kiosk said that his parents were in Beaufort. Trying to be sociable, I asked, “Where do they live?” and he told us that they were buried in the national cemetery. And no, neither of his parents had ever lived in Beaufort. It seemed the farther away I got from home in the US the more likely I would find someone who had some tie to the Carolinas, no matter how odd it was.
Where We Walked Our Feet Off
We ended up taking about five different tours of New Orleans and the surrounding areas: One ghost tour of the French quarter, a day tour of the Garden District, Laura Plantation, the “Laura” version of New Orleans and a swamp tour. With each tour the idea grew: New Orleans had a sub culture as old as the town itself which grew and enveloped each newcomer. Underneath the drinking frat boys and shops full of beads and t-shirts, lurks the old superstitious merchant town that melted a million races into a few. We wandered through brothels and bars while sordid stories of Americans and Creoles entering into affairs left all parties in scandal and at least half dead. Secret pacts with the once hairdresser, Marie Laveau, who could now concoct the strongest love potions or cruelest hex bag led again into the cautionary tale of morality and civility. But the masses flocked to them anyway. Even today, houses are painted bright colours and allowed to fade to give it character. Almost every story has a tourist variety of gris-gris and talismans. And if you look well enough, you may find some real practitioners. Porch ceilings are blue to confuse the “haints” or evil spirits from Haiti. In my coastal town, we have the same blue tradition, however, our evil spirits do not come from any one place, but the superstition remains. Each explanation is different: the spirits mistake the blue for sky, or they mistake it for water and move on to the next house, but the reasons are the same. Many will claim that these precautions originated from incoming slaves, however, I have always questioned why so many more of the “White” people’s homes are the ones that have the blue porch ceilings, rather than slave quarters, or later freed men’s ‘shotgun’ houses.
We spent a lot of time in cemeteries. It is not difficult to do in a city that has over 35 different ones. To many it may seem a rather morbid pastime, but the New Orleans burial methods fascinated me, since it was one of the few practices that seemed so starkly different from my hometown. While my town is a chain of islands full of marshes, New Orleans is a built land on marshes. Therefore, the water table is quite high and not at all conducive to burial. Instead, they have created these stone tombs that serve more like an oven and cremates the body over a year and a day (more or less.) Also, because the death rate was so high, any number of these tombs you walk by has over 100 different people in them. Then there are society tombs, because this city is full of different charities and groups since the founding and they aid until death, quite literally. But the way they held funerals! Dancing off the sadness, celebrating the life that was had, it almost makes me want to be buried in New Orleans—that is of course, if they will have me.
It is almost as if the cemeteries are as much of New Orleans as the French Quarter or the Garden District. It is here that you see the history, small cities resulting from mason masters and ingenuity, and even the evolution of religion and superstition. Caro and I walked through at least five different cemeteries, saw Laveau’s supposed tomb littered with “XXX”s, the future tomb of Nicholas Cage and his family, a lime washed one and that of Laura LoCoul’s family. With all of these towering vaults with faces and names inscribed on them, it was rather easy to imagine vampires from Anne Rice’s books lurking behind each one. I was recommended the Chapel of St. Roch, filled with prosthetics left behind after prayer provided healing. We decided to walk to the Chapel and cemetery to view the left overs. I had seen a cathedral hall filled with such artifacts in Montréal, but the grim always drew me. By the time we had arrived to the chapel, we felt like pilgrims after a long trek. Our sandals were blistering our feet, the soles of Caro’s were nonexistent and our bodies sagged, longing for a rest. Unfortunately, the chapel was closed, and all that could be viewed were, again, the rows and rows of tombs and vaults, housing the dead. We decided that we had fulfilled our quest and trudged back to the hostel, an agonizing thirty minute walk away, during which Caro found it necessary to buy new sandals (this pair with a very thick sole.)
The Voodoo Museum
One afternoon, the sky looked ready to erupt, and so we quickly found our way into a voodoo museum. The front room was small and musty and at least 6 other people were crowded around a desk that an older man sat behind. His voice was accented and slow, his tone was knowledgeable as he spoke of Marie Laveau and her origins as well as the voodoo culture. As I waited, I wandered around the edge of the little room, inspecting books and small gris-gris. I had noticed that Caro was standing very still near the doorway, staring at the man who spoke. I turned and inspected him. It was then I realized that he had a small white boa around his neck that he nuzzled as he spoke. While Caro was terrified of snakes, I was absolutely delighted and curious that this man should have such a lovely pet out in the open amongst these mothers and their children (for that was the crowd.) Once he had sent them into the hallway that led to the museum, we approached. Caro stayed quite silent while the man spoke with us. He claimed to be the only white voodoo priest to be trained in West Africa and, like the man in the kiosk, asked where we were from. When I told him of Beaufort, he immediately brought up Dr. Buzzard, a very famous root doctor from my hometown. This began a long conversation, since I had read about him, and my father even knew him before he died. Here I discovered my own mine of voodoo/hoodoo knowledge, information I never realized that I had stored as I grew up in a town steeped in its own superstition and traditions. Then, for my own amusement, I brought up the snake, for which he told me that she participated in several of his rituals and that she loved chin scratches. Noticing Caro’s especial discomfort, I ushered her back into the museum and thanked him for his time.
Though not necessarily organized, there were about two or three rooms laid with artifacts and paper placards. Idols were in each corner with the voodoo name and the catholic saint that corresponded. These wooden figures, large and bejeweled were surrounded by tokens, paper, cigars, and money from around the world. I tried to imagine the story behind each donation, but the voices and scenes filled my head like twelve movies at once and so I turned to a new object. I was reminded of my trip to Blarney, and of the supposed Marie Laveau’s tomb which, also were laden with various tokens of worship. I wondered the reasons that people should leave things behind. Was it a testament to their having been there; Actual belief in the power of the spot or idol; or did they leave a keepsake just in case? In any case, this was a living museum, a place of worship as well as education, and we moved about as if we were in a French cathedral, hushed and awed.
As we got to the back room Caro found the wishing stump and I stood witness as she turned and knocked on the wood and slipped her paper into the stump’s fortress of deposited desires. Acknowledging our word done, we walked back to the front. As I turned to the curator to thank him, I noticed he had a new snake, a smaller one — yellow with black stripes going down the sides of his body. He introduced the snake as Harry and asked if I wanted to take a picture with him. And so, with trembling hands, but a surprisingly brave demeanor, Caro snapped a picture with my new friend in front of the portrait of Laveau, a painting done by the curator’s brother, Charles Massicot Gandolfo. When asked if she, too, would like a photo Caro quietly declined, and I patted her on the back for her courage as we left the museum.
New Orleans, a dirty city, constantly ravaged by a bad economy and natural disasters. Still, people flock there, curious, or extremely thirsty and the nawlin folk make of the money what they will, rebuilding and growing. They bask in oral tradition, gruesome tales and supernatural occurrences, and we, the outsiders, find them a culture all of their own in the US. However, they work to make you feel welcome, and after that first terrifying evening, I found myself almost entranced by the city. As we walked home from the French quarter, the night before we left, I found myself looking around, taking in the sea mural on the wall of the aquarium, memorizing the colors of the Harrod’s sign, breathing the air happily this time, and listening to the different jazz bands and city murmurings. I was sad to leave what, within less than a week, begun to feel like home. Twain is quoted to say, “It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.” While I have not seen Mardi Gras, but arrived the week after, I would definitely say that every American must see New Orleans for better or for worse.