Opps! I forgot to add that I will announce the winner of the ham-fisted giveaway on this upcoming Halloween Humpday post.
Because this tale is going to be a long one, I’ll break it into two posts.
When I was a child, accompanying Mom to visit her relatives in New Orleans was nothing short of a creep show. Mom’s folks took it upon themselves to update her on who had kicked the bucket and how the bucket had been kicked. The grislier the kick, the better chance the tale would be the first in a queue of stories to be told. Death became the ancient traveler whose visit evoked respect, grief and relief. On one hand, the Unfathomable One rescued a person from Life’s unpredictable cruelty and, on occasion, staggering horror. On the other, Death left wounds that would not be soothed by time. A pall followed by silence settled into the receiving room when the relative or friend spoke of the latest rider in Death’s chariot. Sometimes the silence lasted for minutes before anyone, in a hushed, hesitant tone, introduced a fresh topic.
Fortunately, Papa, Mom’s dad, recognized that the living had better drink up life before Death squeezed it from their throats.My handsome Papa had only two imperfections as far as I was concerned.
As fault number one, Papa kept cards of figures draped in robes and crowned with halos on his mantle shelf. Each dust-free picture sat in a row, and I never saw anyone venture near the things, which reminded me of playing cards minus the fun. The forms were unsmiling, pale, and corpse-like — quite the opposite of Papa who could bless any tale with an amusing bent. How could anything command such respect and be so alien from the deafening blues that poured from the corner bar, the lush rain forest that grew in old folks’ front yards, and the sharp reek of shrimp and spices that flowed from kitchens’ open windows?
In fault number two, Papa was given to outrageous tales about the Vieux Carre. The undercurrent in Papa’s voice suggested that a proper lady had no business in the French Quarter, and visiting Bourbon Street was out of the question. He declared that under no circumstance would he return to Rue Bourbon. I figured Papa’s age made him an excellent candidate for someone who could craft incredible tales. As I grew older, I noticed that males relatives and acquaintances shied away from the subject of the Old Square. The more questions I asked, the more recalcitrant they became.
As soon as I grew old enough to explore New Orleans without Mom’s guidance, I hit the French Quarter. Some of the Crescent City’s neighborhoods reeled under poverty, but the money flowed eagerly into the small section of the port city. The shops were elegant, and the prices were set to sink teeth into a tourist’s wallet. Bourbon Street, however, spun like a carnival of ear-splitting jazz, street musicians squatting on any available intersection, and small shops sporting bright carnival masks and tee shirts stamped with “New Orleans”.
This street, louder than it was wide, confirmed Papa’s tales. Wearing only the barest of coverings — bare enough to flaunt her shaven mons — a young brunette bumped and rolled her bare hips atop a bar counter. Waving her hands toward the ceiling, the twenty-something year old fluidly flexed her spine and pelvis like a snake winding its way toward dinner. Perhaps, well aware of the New Orleans transvestites’ artistry, the male patrons wanted inarguable evidence that a female danced to hard jazz before them.
Speechless, I wandered to a street where courtyards boasted black wrought iron fences and gates. These courtyards, along with the ironwork in balconies, would become one of my favorite sights. Rich with assorted greenery, ferns, and banana trees, the courtyards were vacant which was a blessing; I could gaze at the lace-like designs embedded in the gates without worry of being shooed away by an irate property owner.* Many years passed before I realized what those patterns represented. While reading a book on voudou, I saw the same workmanship in the book’s pictures. Perhaps more than a century earlier, blacksmiths had hammered and forged veves, symbols used to evoke deities, into the gates of the Creole landowners! Probably, the landowners thought the smiths were creative and talented but had no idea they, as the property holders, bankrolled the calling cards of West African pantheon members! On the other hand, bearing in mind the history of Louisiana, a crafty blacksmith might have assured a wealthy French Creole, if he had the symbol of a love goddess on his front gate, his household would be blessed with additional prosperity.
*Actually, during my travels to New Orleans, more than one New Orleans inhabitant expressed curiosity about my accent. They immediately recognized my speech pattern as foreign. One very handsome Creole male deflected my attempts at flirtation by asking, “Where did you get that fine way of speaking?” A shop owner with a classic French roll coiffeur asked, “Where are you from? I use to teach English. I know it isn’t an accent from the Southeast.” In reflection, it wouldn’t surprise me if, after approaching me about my staying too long at his gates, a land owner asked, “Where are you from? I can’t place your accent.”