Bourbon Street Blues
I imagine myself to be one of a minority of people who prefer New Orleans in the morning. Give me bright sunshine, with palm fronds glistening, the heat and humidity already both menacing and languid, the streets webbed with runnels of fresh water dripping from hanging ferns and washing away the vomit of the night before.
Few places blend garbage and beauty so well as New Orleans—no place does better, except maybe Naples, Italy. The garbage makes quite a few visitors nervous, especially folks I have known from the Midwest. But garbage is an important part of the city, and really it is hardly fair to separate it from the city’s haunting European-style beauty. For there is a lovely aesthetic in the gleaming black of 40-gallon garbage bags filled to bursting with the left-overs of some of the finest restaurants in the world. Piled in mute excess, even in the Vieux Carré, bulged like old-time friars dozing into accomplishing daylight, they emblematize the genuine love of pleasure over work and efficiency the city has always been better at than the rest of the United States. In a place known for its cemeteries, these transient little pop-up graveyards appear like eager ornaments among studied languor.
It may seem I am being a little hard on New Orleans, so let me hasten to confirm its beautiful elements that have long fascinated the world. Few neighborhoods can rival the stately Garden District, with its wonderful mansions and manicured lawns. The Spanish-built floral iron-work of the galleries in the French Quarter surely register one of the most unique visions in the country. The fine gardens of St. Louis Cathedral spike, twist, and loop in tantalizing symmetry with the spires of the building itself. And the Mississippi river, while its chocolate waters may not be beautiful in the way of a clear mountain stream, nevertheless achieves a majesty that cannot but awe both in the strong current of the ongoing present and in the massive weight of its history. But please do not sell New Orleans garbage short . . . .
A City Founded in Corruption
It is a naughty town, New Orleans, the kind of distant cousin who shows up looking mouthwateringly attractive in the most forbidden ways at family weddings and funerals. It was “founded” as part of a scheme that created something called the “Mississippi Bubble” (and I should add that this city is, along with Memphis, one of the two largest in the present-day state of Mississippi). This scheme was devised by a Scot named John Law to help Phillipe II, Duke of Orléans, pay for debts of the state incurred in (his) gambling. Law established the “Company of the West,” shares of which would be sold to raise capital to build New Orleans. At the same time, a bank was set up to print paper money backed not by gold but rather by the dubious promise of future wealth. It seems that New Orleans showed up on maps before it actually existed in real life, and while investors thought they were paying to build civilization in the New World their funds were actually being diverted to debtors while the printing of money so outpaced backing that it led to an economic crash in France. Thus New Orleans was founded in fraud and corruption, a foundation that practically dictated its current nickname of “The Big Easy.”
The city was finally established, by and by, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1718. In 1763 the French ceded the place to the Spanish in the Treaty of Paris, beginning a protracted back-and-forth that ran up through the 1860s in which New Orleans passed through French, Spanish, United States, Confederate, and then United States control again. The United States originally acquired it from Napoleon for 68 million francs in 1803, a transaction accomplished by Thomas Jefferson. I mention this history because this particular succession of ownership played a role in creating the cultural jambalaya of the city, laying a foundation for New Orleans’s unique personality, which is not quite reduceable to one or even a few words. I hope I am already conveying that personality, that heart, that mind of New Orleans.
A Multicultural Population
There was a need in the city’s earliest days to populate it with someone other than just soldiers. The French decided to send young women from orphanages and convents for the purpose of marrying these soldiers. These young women came with little chests for their effects that the French referred to as casquettes, and the women became known as fille à la cassette, or in English, “casket girls.” There was for many years and perhaps still among some New Orleanians a kind of winsome, longing lore surrounding these women. The children of such French people born on American soil were called “Creoles,” and, however lowly their past, they as a group soon became the aristocracy of the developing city. The Creoles aped Parisian tastes, including a passionate love of opera, for which they built elaborate palaces. They carried on through the various changes of leadership, seeing the immigration of the Spanish and, in the early 1800s, also of Germans.
The other great population of the city in the earliest years were Africans brought over in slavery. New Orleans marked a unique space in the South in terms of the way race was addressed. The city was populated by a great many people designated as “fpc”—free people of color—and the challenges that arose for such people and in the specific racial make-up of New Orleans played a role in the development of the city’s Code Noire. It was in this city that a court case on streetcar segregation,Plessy versus Ferguson, codified Jim Crow policy. New Orleans was also famous for its “quadroon balls,” elaborate dances held for women of mixed-race who appeared to be almost white. Wealthy (“actually”) white New Orleanian men would and enter into “arrangements” with them, something along the lines of old-time Venetian extramarital arrangements.
A Unique Atmosphere
Why do I keep referring to Italy? Maybe because New Orleans is so very European looking and feeling. Maybe also because the early 1900s saw an influx of Italian immigrants, some of whom a young William Faulkner captured in his early sketches in the Times Picayune. And then there is the distinctly Catholic feel about the city. Its original cathedral was built in 1794. It burned down and then was rebuilt and expanded several times. Now it is called St. Louis Cathedral, and it rises in yawning gothic glory just beyond Jackson Square, with its central statue of Andrew Jackson astride a powerful steed kicking its front hooves into the humid air in a charge of martial glory. Jackson’s crude, hard Americanness in many ways contrasts with the city’s somewhat not-American look and feel.
I should say that this peculiar, atypical culture and atmosphere find glittering depiction in a now seldom-read but beautiful novel entitled The Grandissimes, by George Washington Cable. Cable was one of the great writers from this city, largely forgotten, but famous enough in his lifetime to accompany Mark Twain on a lucrative speaking tour. I mention Cable’s novel because it gives an early glimpse into the developing mentality of the city—a kind of desperate, brittle outlook that just keeps from crumbling because of a dogged capability of smiling and celebrating. This mentality brings a level of strength that keeps the city and its citizens going and, in their own beautiful tawdry way, thriving through sickness, corruption, hurricanes, and a host of overbearing challenges. Cable captures this mentality, this heart of the city. At the same time he wells conveys the secret inside of the city that holds a veil up against outsiders; Cable draws that veil aside little by little for the reader as the novel progresses.
That Famous Humidity and a Digression
But, also much like Italian culture, it is important to understand that however secretive the city may be the surface does not hide but rather provides a map for what lurks beneath. And so the sights and sites must be enjoyed in their sensual fulness, and one place to do so is across from the cathedral at one of the most famous eateries in this city, the Café du Monde. This place really needs no introduction: another article here on Throomers discusses it wonderfully and what tourist has not been there? That said, I want to linger on it for just a moment anyway, first, because one of the city’s more questionable commodities is its humidity, and I cannot help but think of humidity when I reflect on the experience of sitting in this café abutted up against the levee while just on the other side of that earthen monument the great Mississippi plods along in a brown sheet. The humidity of new Orleans is a kind of never-dying star that should be listed up there with Mahalia Jackson, Pete Fountain, Louis Armstrong, and Harry Conick, Jr., as one of the city’s legends. This legend gets up close with you, though—it puts its heavy arm over your shoulders and leads you around as a special, inescapable tour guide.
My second reason for lingering on Café du Monde is a digression, but I feel compelled to share. Most folks wash down those little sugar-smothered beignets with the establishment’s famous blend of coffee, but I tend to take my delicacies with Coke (which, in the South, refers to pretty much any dark-colored fizzing drink). I learned this from my father, who never drinks coffee. You see, my father is one to make a breakfast of peanuts and Dr. Pepper. I fear this great form of breakfast may be vanishing from the earth, so I shall explain it for the sake of posterity. It requires a glass bottle of Dr. Pepper, which was once far more common but still possible to find. Once you have opened the bottle and sipped some of the liquid down you pour in the peanuts (my father always seems to prefer the Planters brand in the long thin package). The peanuts make a beautiful sight, piled into the neck of that bottle, their shapes distorted and refracted by the glass, their color a rich siena as they grow more and more saturated by the drink. Then you tip the bottle up and let the wet, newly-flavored peanuts slip out, and you eat them and wash them down with the Dr. Pepper.
Mosquitoes, Yellow Fever, and Dueling Culture
Whether drinking coffee or Coke with the beignets, you may feel the strangely tired atmosphere of the river flowing along out of sight but so full of meaning, history, force. If you walk over the levee and look at the river, you will see a steamboat or two. You can take a little cruise on one and listen to a band play such numbers as “St. James Infirmary” or “West End Blues.” Or you may simply walk along the riverbank, feeling the heat and humidity and the general enervation of the setting. You may recall that New Orleans was early on famously malarial. All that heat and humidity builds into rain that falls and stands in puddles that breed mosquitoes which in the old days spread Yellow Fever. The city regularly suffered population decline from that plague. Yellow Fever has abated, but the standing water remains, often those garbage bags sitting in them, and it makes for part of the experience of this place.
The population also declined in the 1800s because of the popularity of duels. New Orleans has an important fencing history, one of the most important in the country, something of some interest to me as a classical fencer. For much of the 1800s Exchange Alley was the site of a string of fencing salles. At one point in that century there was held a fencing Accademia, an event in which all the various schools meet, discuss the art of defense, and train. Another one of these was held here in New Orleans in 2015 by the Manhattan-based Martinez Academy of Arms, and I was myself a participant in it. The event garnered media coverage, and as I practiced there in the lovely brick Kingsley House at 1600 Constance Street, the clacking of steel blades brought back the spirits of the famous New Orleans fencing masters, Marcel Dauphin, Bonneval, Beaudoin, and Bastile Croquere, the mixed-race (at the time called “mulatto”) maître d’arme who paraded about the greatest finery and transcended the confines of his race by drawing Creole students of the highest station.
Those Haunted Cemeteries
All this talk of death naturally brings us to the topic of cemeteries, so we should probably give a nod to New Orleans’s famous cities of the dead, those walled, mysterious, peaceful, yet sinister spaces. You can ride out to a cluster of these on a streetcar called “Cemeteries,” something Tennessee Williams took great advantage of in A Streetcar Named Desire, when he has Blanche Dubois take the vehicle bearing the named Desire to Cemeteries and then to Elysian Fields, a progression that does not quite match the actual streetcar track layout of the time but that establishes a definite morality tale. I must confess that I harbor a phobia of being locked into a cemetery, and once with some buddies of mine in New Orleans that actually happened. Thankfully, someone (probably under the influence) had recently rammed into the fenced part of the wall recently, creating an opening we could crawl through. I have not entered one of those cemeteries since, but from a distance they continue to fascinate me.
The most famous of the cemeteries is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, where lies buried the famous voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. Also apparently buried there is the subject of one of the city’s grisliest chapters . . . .
A New Orleans Horror Story
Delphine LaLaurie. Her story has been told many times, so how shall I do so again effectively? . . . . let us approach the house at night. It stands three stories high at 1140 Royal Street, on the corner of Governor Nicholls Street, looming up into the darkness with awful stillness. The streets are paved with cement now, but let the decades peel back in a flutter to a time of cobblestones, with the sound of horse’s hooves reverberating in delicate stiletto in the dead, still air. Imagine a dark-haired lady, the child of an Irish man and a French Creole woman, both very prominent. After two previous marriages this dark-haired lady, Delphine, married a physician named Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie. The two built the house on the corner and entertained the elite of the city. One can imagine those parties, with the delicate sugar spoons, the glittering crystal, the beautiful woman’s gleaming smile and the downturn of her eyes as she laughs at a tasteful joke in a way that charms all who meet her.
But in between the parties neighbors began to complain that they heard horrible screaming inside the house. Then one night a fire broke out. When people rushed in to rescue the inhabitants and their belongings they found the seventy-year-old female slave cook chained to the oven claiming she had started the fire. The rescuers also discovered that the door to the slave quarters upstairs was locked; when they asked the LaLauries for the key the couple refuses, so the rescuers broke down the door. There, a hideous sight greeted them—as the New Orleans Bee put it, there were “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated . . . suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.” The citizens of New Orleans were outraged by this sight and determined to punish the LaLauries, but they escaped. Rumor and some evidence suggest that Delphine died years later in Paris, but a tombstone in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 bears her name. As for the house, subsequent investigation revealed the bones of bodies buried in the courtyard, including those of a child, likely all slaves. Well over a century later, it is a dark place, this house. The actor Nicolas Cage was so fascinated with it he bought it for a very high price and then later lost it. Still it stands, quiet, dreadful. And I must say I can never see it without getting a chill and wondering who or what might still be inside there.
There is another dark place in the French Quarter, but dark in a different way. It is called Lafitte’s. Originally it was a blacksmith shop owned by Jean and Pierre Lafitte. I suppose some smithing was done there, but it also operated as a front for the brothers’ piratical activities. Oh yes, this city had pirates, and Jean Lafitte especially has taken his place along with Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and other famous pirates that roamed the Caribbean. Now this little building sits among the elaborate structures of the Quarter, and during the day it has a great atmosphere of piracy about it. But at night, well, that is the time to go—very late, after you have done everything else you plan to do in the evening. For, you see, there are no electric lights in this place, only candles. The electricity is used to cool food and drink. If you go there at night, pick out a spot in a corner table and sit in the shadows. Maybe you will get lucky and somebody will be playing the old piano. At each table the candle pretends to bring a pinpoint of life and warmth, but there is no need because here the dark is neither dead nor cold. Instead, it breathes the breath of other eras and whispers in hot, moist tones in your ear the deeds of the evil and the good, the great and the small.
Ah, New Orleans . . . how very wicked you are. Few places offer a past celebrating its red-light district, but New Orleans proudly features its Storyville, once positioned between North Robertson, Iberville, Basin, and St. Louis Streets. Storyville reached its full glory from 1897 to 1917, and its Madams, featured in the (in)famous directory called the “Blue Book,” were celebrities, the most famous being Lulu White. These beautiful ladies drew the now celebrated photographer, John Ernest Joseph Bellocq. Storyville’s sins required a soundtrack, and the tunes from that part of town developed into the jazz that would conquer the world in the 1920s. Jelly Roll Morton got his start in those brothels, as did Kid Ory, King Oliver, and the legendary Satchmo. Meanwhile, Anne Rice has realized the city’s wickedness to its delicious fullness, but so have other writers. One of the least-known of these is the Bavarian-born immigrant, Ludwig von Reizenstein, who wrote a very wicked book entitled The Mysteries of New Orleans(1855). Later in the nineteenth century, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) featured a woman who breathes the unusually-scented air of New Orleans and seeks freedom.
The Sad Story of John Kennedy Toole
Freedom, pleasure, transgression—all hang in the city’s ponderous-but-light air, not just packaged commodities for tourism but also part of its tragical easy-taking mentality place I keep circling back to. You can find this mentality not just on Bourbon Street or during Mardi Gras but in any of the Wards and in the stands at Saints games. I once saw a news segment about a woman who had died, but instead of placing her body in a casket her family dressed her in Saints gear and set her in a chair while people celebrated. Recently, Saints fans had a parade to “celebrate” what they saw as a bad call that kept them out of the Super Bowl. It seems to me that such an improvising jazz mind-heart laughingly broods at the heart of New Orleans, captured by Cable all those years ago and now well-aged in an oak cask. It is everywhere evident, albeit in flashes and fleeing like the streets of Venice into secretive murky canals.
I want to close by telling about a former resident who, to my mind, embodies this city’s heart-mentality. His name was John Kennedy Toole, a New Orleanian by birth who came of age in that simmering era that seemed so quiet on the surface, the 1950s. After college and military service, he returned to his native city to teach English at Dominican College in 1963. He was a gripping lecturer whom students found funny and entertaining. What many did not know is that he had written a novel, which he tried to get published but just could not. Rejection of so personal a thing as fiction can be devastating, but when combined with mental illness it becomes far worse, and his behavior became more and more paranoiac and bizarre as the decade wore on. Finally he left town altogether, eventually circling back to nearby Biloxi, Mississippi, where he pulled his car off the side of the road and ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe into a window to asphyxiate himself.
The Rest of Toole’s Story—A Triumph
Toole had argued with his mother terribly when he left, and she was crushed by his suicide. Eventually, however, she took down the rejected manuscript he left behind. It was entitled A Confederacy of Dunces. She began to send it to publishers, and the rejections came in. Finally, she took it to the writer Walker Percy, who was teaching at Tulane University. He did not want to be bothered with a manuscript from some old lady, but he finally agreed to read it in order to get her to go away. When he got a few pages in he was actually disappointed that it was good enough that he would have to read a little more. Before he knew it, he was engrossed. He realized it was a masterpiece. Still, even Percy had trouble getting it published, finally convincing Louisiana State University Press to add it to its list. The book was finally released in 1980 to great acclaim. Shockingly, this unwanted novel won a Pulitzer Prize and immediately gained a cult following that remains strong to this day.
Why such success after such failure? I think because the book shows that peculiar New Orleans tragicomic heart-mind. What may have hurt its marketability in the eyes of presses is its refusal to trade on the exoticism of New Orleans, but that very refusal is part of what makes it so thoroughly New Orleansy. Its hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, is a brilliant eccentric who wears a funny hat and sells hot dogs on the streets out of one of the city’s iconic “Lucky Dogs” carts (a business founded in 1947 by Steve Loyacano). He is working class but educated, wonderfully funny in his deep seriousness. I think it revealing that the city eventually placed a statue of Reilly not in the Quarter but on Canal Street, that thoroughfare that has so long been the heart and main artery of the city as a whole. It is Reilly who embodies this city’s evolved manner. Standing under the clock of the D. H. Holmes Department Store building (another New Orleans icon), he waits for his mother as so many have waited for meet-ups in that spot, full of hope, trepidation, desire.
For what it is worth, when I got locked in that cemetery that evening it was because I and my friends were paying our respects to Toole’s grave.
The Spirit of New Orleans
Make no mistake, New Orleanians bear up under the weight of their city’s exotic history: those dances in the streets for weddings, those funeral plods toward the cemetery to the strains of “Flee As a Bird,” all that great food at Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, and other legendary restaurants, and the readiness to play during Mardi Gras are all real things to the people there. But that heart-mind of the city I have been laboring to describe beats throughout the city. It is that unique heart-mind that truly furnishes the New Orleans’s magic: without it, those Mardi Gras beads would be just so many bits of purple, green, and gold, gaudy and eye-catching but without depth. The same could be said for those fern-festooned iron galleries of the French Quarter, those Garden District mansions—they can hold their own, but their meaning draws from a deeper well. If you want to see the magic really at work, go to the lesser-known restaurants, the grocery stores, the fast-food chains, even in the places where regular folks live. Look to the beauty shops, the pharmacies, the places where the pavement has broken down and the waterline has burst. Look, at last, to those full-of-everything-delicious garbage bags, so unsightly, so dull-gleaming, so ordinary. Cherish the ordinary of New Orleans. For where else but New Orleans can the ordinary be more special?