I was supposed to go to New Orleans for my honeymoon, but instead my husband David and I went to the Eastern shore of Maryland. Keen for new, exotic vistas, David was disappointed I didn't want to go. It was perhaps the start of many distances that finally alienated us from each other.
Ever since my father died when I was 13, I had spent my life packing and moving between various relatives and schools, states and countries. I started my teenage odyssey with an old, battered suitcase of my father's, whose lock flew open whenever I set it down too hard. Clothes and photographs spilled. I had to sit on the suitcase to get it closed again and make the plane to whatever house I had been assigned. Eventually a guardian threw the suitcase out. All my bits and pieces disappeared into the quicksand of other people's houses. I mourned my lost possessions with an outsized grief. They were all I had left to remind me of life with my father and of who I used to be. Who I was, really.
I had never been to New Orleans. David said it was the only foreign city on American soil, an observation that didn't delight me. Pregnant, wary of suffering even more heartburn from the famous New Orleans cuisine, wary of a drunk barreling me over in the French Quarter, wary at that point of anything new, I used my pregnancy to justify nearby Maryland as the sensible choice.
Seven years later, oddly enough, I found myself sitting in the Croissant D'Or Patisserie in the French Quarter, leafing through real estate booklets. I sat not with David, but John, my second husband. It seemed I had either run out of sensible choices or taken leave of my senses. Nevertheless, we found a house and have lived in New Orleans ever since—some 20 years.
Recently, I set out from my house to the Croissant D'Or. I hadn't been there for a while, what with the pandemic. Since Katrina, the Bywater, heavily favored by Brooklyn transplants, has become the hippest area of New Orleans, and the Garden district a haven for movie stars, but the French Quarter has remained and probably will always be the noisy heart of New Orleans.
I walked the approximate two miles downriver carefully, heel first, so as not to trip on the idiosyncratic, buckling sidewalks. The ground is always shifting in New Orleans-ecologically, politically, metaphorically—it behooves one to remember that. I passed wooden shotgun houses scabbed with gingerbread, grand Italianates with ferns sprouting from their chimneys like hair from an old man's ear. Plumbago spilled from flower boxes. Live oaks darkened the streets. As I crossed Canal and entered the Quarter, a faintness of pepper and burnt sugar scented the air. A tugboat's moan sounded from the river. Stucco walls, cracked and topped with a jagged frieze of sharpened glass, protected secrets I wasn't tall enough to glimpse. There is always more to see. More than what meets the eye. I'm not sure people like me, non-natives, ever get the whole picture.
As I got deeper into the Quarter, bars, antique shops, t-shirt shops, mule carriages, cafes, psychics, and daiquiri shops crowded my vision. I was glad to see the inimitable FiFi Mahoney's wig shop had survived last year's cancellation of Mardi Gras. A purple wig a la court of Louis XVI rose as high as a wedding cake in her front window.
Inside the café, the large familiar drawing of a parrot met my eye. I liked to imagine the drawing depicted Loulou, Felicite's parrot in Flaubert's "A Simple Heart." I had once glimpsed an impossibly handsome Sam Shepherd sitting beneath it, smoking a cigarette. I'd stared. I hadn't been able to help myself. Now, his seat was vacant. In fact, there were only a few people inside. They milled about the counter, fiddling with sugar and spoons.
I ordered a café mocha, ignoring the Napoleons, croissants, and chocolate mice stuffed with almond paste. I'd been seduced by the soothing qualities of peanut butter during the pandemic, and my clothes were constraining. I took my coffee and sat in the partially covered courtyard where the air and water from a fountain converged to create a steamy greenhouse effect. No less steamy was the embrace of a couple seated nearby who clutched together as if saving each other from drowning. I thought how 20 years ago, John and I had been this couple. The proprietor back then had glanced at us with gallic indifference and cleared a neighboring table.
I sighed. It felt good to be out of my neighborhood where bad lungs and the pandemic had kept me penned. I didn't feel safe getting on a plane to Europe, but I was basically in Montmartre or Pigalle here, what with the pastries, marble topped tables, and the small blue and white tiles of the floor. Immediately, a memory of some sharp words from my mother-in-law intruded on my thoughts.
"They think they're 20 and moving to Paris," my mother-in-law had complained to John's sister 20 years ago. "When in fact they're 40 and sitting on top of a swamp."
It came back to me then that the café had started life as a Sicilian Ice Cream Parlor. It hadn't been French until the 1950's. The tables and tiles had originated in Sicily. Tant pis. I finished my coffee and walked down the block to look at something undeniably French, The Ursuline Convent. Imposing and massive, the convent is the oldest example of French Colonial architecture in the city. Her severe walls stand in contrast, and perhaps even reproach, to the gaudy colors of the French Quarter, where black lace balconies and verandas hang like scraps of negligee.
It was to this convent that in 1728, the French king sent a group of young women to provide the colonists with wives. They were called the casket girls, (les filles a cassettes), so named for the coffin-like shape of their small suitcases. The women arrived after enduring months of storms and illness on the high seas. They coughed up blood. Their pale, faintly green complexions blistered in the subtropical sun. The French Creoles, hardy fur trappers and traders, were repulsed. Stories swirled. It was said the women were not of good family as promised, but prostitutes. Many were raped, flogged, or forced into prostitution. The king, furious at their reception, demanded the women be sent home. The nuns ascended to the third floor to fetch their charges. To their astonishment, the girls were present, but their caskets were open and devoid of contents, even though the windows and doors to the third floor were bolted shut with nails blessed by the pope. It was whispered the women were vampires, or that they'd packed vampires into their suitcases. People swore windows blew open at night and vampires roamed the streets.
It occurred to me that the past had vanished for the filles just as they were about to voyage towards it. Their French belongings, you might even say their Frenchness, had disappeared into thin air. At the very least they would return to France with darkened skin, an accent, and a reversed reputation —perhaps even a pregnancy. That's what's so hard about moving. You lose something of your identity. Not even the Pope can prevent that. For one, you have to start from scratch with strangers. You can no longer rely on the familiar perceptions of yourself. It can be unsettling or worse. The move has to be worth it, otherwise it turns into a horror story.
"Chere." The voice of Peter Patout broke through my reverie. Peter, antiquaire, real estate agent, raconteur, and longtime French Quarter denizen, was my first friend in New Orleans. We share a love of toile and once, 20 years ago, a small red dachshund. "You got bored uptown?"
"I was thinking about the casket girls."
"Oh." His voice signaled disapproval. "Don't believe everything you hear."
"The vampire phenomenon is overdone," Peter continued. "People think they can throw on something black, dip their teeth in ketchup, and they've got a costume." Peter, like many in New Orleans, is dead serious about costuming. He recently bought 30 hundred-year-old costumes from a collector. Peter had texted me they were not Mardi Gras ready. "You got to augment from your own costume closet to make them work."
"I'm sick of vampires," Peter continued. "Besides, every city has its mysteries. Let's explore."
And so we did. We visited Andrew and Scott in their atelier overlooking the Jazz Museum. Andrew paints small, charming pictures of 19th century, free people of color. Sometimes he presents as his alter ego, a vivacious, bosomy woman called Josephine. Today he wore a beautiful white silk foulard and carried an LV pouch edged in hot pink. Scott plunks out operas on a manual typewriter in front of the fireplace, which was exactly what he was doing when we arrived. We drank champagne seated amid gilt edged paintings, a velvet sofa, and Sevres vases. Among the 19th century finery, I noticed a plastic, near-naked figure of a man. A corkscrew instead of a penis protruded from his leopard skin briefs. The afternoon unspooled as it often does here, bumping along between topic, memory, and fantasy. Andrew and Scott were going to Paris for the induction of Josephine Baker into the Pantheon. I forgot to ask if Andrew was going as Andrew or Josephine. Perhaps he didn't yet know. How intriguing to have an alter ego, I thought. Except when it came to packing suitcases.
Peter walked me to my car, and on the way we came across an old man intent on something involving the sidewalk garbage bin.
" Hey, Doc," Peter shouted. "Are you blessing the bin with graffiti?"
"What?" The man looked up with a wide smile exposing large, very white false teeth. "Graffiti? No. I'm cutting my nails." He wore tidy chinos and a pressed Oxford shirt, so I knew he wasn't homeless. And he was indeed cutting his nails over the bin. Spry, kindly, and with a nose a tad too short for his long face, he reminded me of one of those actors who is never the lead but stays with you nonetheless.
Peter introduced me, and it turned out Doc wasn't really a doctor but had worked for one 60 years ago, running prescriptions all over the quarter. He told us the most requested prescription was something called Quercus Albinus (white oak), and he'd had no idea what it was used for until his boss was arrested for illegal abortions. Something in the white oak's bark apparently facilitated the procedure. After that, Doc played the calliope on steamboats carrying debutantes and Mardi Gras royalty up and down the river. In time, he became captain of the Delta Queen. Doc invited me to tea the next week and then turned his attention back to his nails. Peter walked me back to my car, and we said goodbye. It had been just the kind of afternoon we both like. Odd, interesting encounters with people living amidst old, beautiful architecture.
"They think they're 20 and moving to Paris." Two decades later I could still hear the mockery in my mother in law's voice beneath the thrum of my car. The truth is, she and I got very fond of each other. She liked coming here to visit. I miss her tart tongue and lot else besides. The truth is, she was right. New Orleans is not Paris. But it turns out a swamp suits me better. Turns out I needed to take leave of my senses to find myself.