Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fiction Story...Moving to New Orleans

We moved around a lot when I was a kid. People often ask if my parents were in the military when they find out I lived in ten different places before I was eight. My response is always, “No, they were hippies.”
My wandering hippie parents could not seem to settle down, and we moved at least once a year. As I got older and learned the ways of the world, I realized it was more about my father’s attitude than mere hippie rootlessness. My father’s ego and irresponsibility often resulted in his termination from a job. He was, however, intelligent and crafty enough to quickly land a job somewhere far, far away where his reputation did not precede him.
My mother eventually got tired of my father’s drama. She packed up a few belongings, and she took my brother and me away. As my mother tells the story, we “ran for our lives.” I do not remember it being quite like that. I only recall packing up the old, diesel Volvo that emitted a cloud of smoke and hitting the road.
We drove forever. It was summertime, and it got hotter and hotter with every mile. When we stopped for food or bathroom breaks, my skin felt damp from the humidity. It was harder to breathe in this air, and the moisture seemed to pushing down on my lungs. Eventually, the land flattened out and we entered the great state of Louisiana.
There is not really much to see in Louisiana until you get to the very bottom where New Orleans spreads out for the world to admire. Coming across the bridge on the I-10, the bright lights of the city beckon with their flickering glow. Out of the wilderness, a city comes to life.
The first thing I noticed coming into the city were the cemeteries that sprawl out on either side of the interstate. They looked like strange little cities to me, and I imagined these little “houses” to be inhabited by midgets. New Orleans is so far above sea level that all the graves are tombs above the ground. Otherwise when it rained, bodies would be brought up out of the ground. These tombs are lined up all nice and neat along the little paved roads that wind throughout the cemetery. From the interstate, the cemetery looks like a city in itself.
Billboards lined the interstate, advertising for restaurants and clubs by screaming at tourists to notice them. I noticed the stark contrast of these colorful signs against the blue sky. The sky here looked very different than the sky I had known in North Carolina. It seemed bigger here with large, puffy clouds that were so white. I watched numerous figures emerge from those clouds that hung quietly against the bluest sky I have ever seen.
The interstate curls around and through the city as new fades to old. I notice brightly colored houses decaying with age underneath large, shady trees that hang over small streets. Balconies speckle the street on either side with a large patch of grass running between each side of the road. They call that grass the middle ground, my mother told me. On the left side of the interstate, the houses are grand mansions and on the right they are smaller and dilapidated. Crumbling ruins in a neighborhood they call the Treme.
When we pulled into the Quarter, I was amazed by the depths of the city. Layers of buildings adorned with both balconies and lush greenery overlooked skinny streets bustling with people. Neon lights and blaring music tantalized my eyes and ears. My mouth fell open watching all the activity as people moved back and forth. The scene reminded my of pulling back a rotten board somewhere in North Carolina to reveal a colony of rolly polly bugs clamoring all over each other.
My mother had purchased a bar on the lower end of Decatur Street. The apartment above would come to be my home for the next few years. Previously, we always had a yard in the suburbs so living in the thick of the French Quarter was intimidating at first. There were always people and cars just moving around below our apartment.
My brother and I shared a room in that tiny little apartment above the bar. The bar was open 24 hours, and it was often overflowing with all kinds of strange characters. There were vagabond hippies, tattooed bikers, several local nut jobs, and plenty of retired drunks. My brother and I were rarely allowed to go in the bar, but we often peered in from the doors in the courtyard. We witnessed a lot of things that were too mature for our young, country eyes.
The apartment was tiny and old with a balcony overlooking Decatur Street. If I stood on my tippy toes, I could see the Mighty Mississippi just on the other side of the buildings across the street. On a quiet afternoon, you could hear the horns blowing from the barges to warn of their arrival. The train would whistle through the city as well, as it came to the docks for its cargo. The Elysian Fields dock was just on the other side of the market, and at night I could occasionally hear engines idling in the dark. Their slow and steady hum would shake the ground with a deep, gravelly voice.
All the floors were hardwood well worn with the paths of a thousand different feet. My mother claimed this apartment had been grand many years ago when it was used as a tourist’s rental. The hardwoods were no longer stained sleek and slick, but the wood appeared raw and beaten down. The boards were no longer level and their planks jutted up in random places, possibly warped by the intense heat of the Crescent City. The old nails were no longer flush and their rough edges stuck up through the wood. You had to be careful walking around barefoot because when you stepped on one of those raised nails it would really hurt!
My room was painted in this deep Mardi Gras purple. The paint was chipping in spots, revealing layers and layers of various bright colors. The paint probably buckled from the heat, splitting and flaking down the walls and onto the floor. I used to wonder how deeply the walls were buried under all the paint. The gold trim around the floor boards was also cracking to reveal old and rotting wood. At first, I did not even realize my room was painted in Mardi Gras colors. Then, I did not even know what Mardi Gras was. Now every time I see a strand of shiny Mardi Gras beads, I am reminded of this little bedroom in the Quarter.
When we first moved in, the walls of our room were adorned with cheap Mardi Gras masks. Their white faces and nonexistent eyes stared down at you while you slept. The constant whirr of the ceiling fan would rustle the green, gold, and purple ribbons hanging from those masks. It sounded like something was rustling through the room. My brother was so afraid of those fake smiles looking down into his dreams that he could barely sleep. My mother eventually took down these stupid masks, and my brother was finally able to relax.
My bedroom window opened to look down on the bustle of Decatur Street. In the evenings, I would open my window and take it all in. Smells of seafood and garlic would rise from Fiorella’s across the street, making me wish my mother would cook something other than baked chicken. I watched drunks cussing on the street, lovers walking hand in hand, and adults running down the street with a drink sloshing in a go cup. The roar of motorcycles would often come raging down Decatur Street to rest directly under my window while their owners would come into the bar for a drink. On Saturdays, the street would sometimes be lined with shiny and expensive motorcycles belonging to the regular patrons.
It was always loud in that apartment. Laughter would rise up from the bar, drowning out the constant murmur of the jukebox. Bass would rattle the books on my shelf. On Sunday nights, my mother hired a jazz band to play. I would lie in bed straining to make out the trumpet or the saxophone over din of laughter and drinking. I would imagine my mother sitting at the bar like a maƮtre with a glass of wine. I now know she was probably more occupied filling up the ice, stocking more beer and liquor, or wrestling out of control drunks onto the street.
Our room was sparsely furnished with whatever had been left in the apartment before we showed up. My brother and I each had a twin bed on opposite sides of the room. My mother had taken us to Kmart the day after we moved in for new sheets and comforters. The ones that had been left behind smelled like mildew and urine. My bed was adorned with a bright pink and green Strawberry Shortcake comforter complete with a giant strawberry shaped pillow. My brother had chosen Spiderman. It did not occur to me that these comforters offered a bright clash to both each other and the awful purple walls.
On my side of the room was a bookcase that displayed all my most prized possessions, which consisted mostly of books. The bookshelf was painted in a peeling gold with saggy shelves. A dog eared copy of “Little House on the Prairie” lay tucked in with the rest of the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Harriet the Spy was stained and worn from reading over and over again. All the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary lie scattered throughout my collection. On top of the bookcase was my clock radio with its blaring alarm that would jolt my brother and me out of bed way too early. Beside the radio, were two AA coins I found in my grandmother’s wallet after she died. The coins were etched with cryptic markings that lead me to believe my grandma had been a member of some secret society like the freemasons. Back then, I did not understand the weight of these coins. I only knew my grandmother had carried them with her wherever she went. Little did I know that I also carried her disease in my genetic code.
The light in my room came mostly from sunlight streaming in through the uncurtained window. A naked bulb hung from the ceiling fan that gave an orange glow at night. The fan was always on to combat the stifling heat of New Orleans. Sometimes I would lie awake at night listening to the alternating whirr and squeak of the fan, while I imagined what might be going on in the bar below.
It was only a few years that we lived in the Quarter before we packed up and moved to South Carolina. The city changes you. Once you get city blood flowing through your veins, it is impossible to get her out of your mind. Although it was years before I went back to New Orleans, I thought of her often. The sounds of the city used to keep me up at night, but in South Carolina I found the silence to be deafening. To this day, I sleep much more soundly amidst the sounds of traffic and city life.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful word picture of the place. Very atmospheric indeed.