My grandmother was a minister--a Mother--in the Spiritual Church of New Orleans
, a female-headed sect that Zora Neale Hurston
studied in her travels. Voodoo was still taken seriously.
My grandfather was buried in one of the few potter's fields left in a U.S. city which sits next door to a small junior college. Both are in the area of the Cities of the Dead for which you can board a bus on Canal Street called "Cemetaries." The potter's field is the same one where Robert Charles, the infamous shooter was buried, and later burned and scattered. The same one where Buddy Bolden, the trumpeter who directly influenced Louis Armstrong, is buried.
Every Mardi Gras time, we would watch the Black Indians practice their chants and then parade proudly down South Claiborne Avenue. They had cleaned up their act considerably, but the police still harassed them. Tootie Montana practically died defending the Black Indians and their history recently.
I heard jazz and its grandbaby: rock and roll. Louis Armstrong left New Orleans after playing on the riverboats when Bix Beiderbecke heard him from afar one night. Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers and Ernie K-Doe were played on the radio. My stepdad used to sit drums at the Dew Drop Inn.
Everyone read the Louisiana Weekly.
When you were old enough to stay up late at night, you watched Morgus the Magnificent present an old horror flick.
Congo Square was a dusty little piece of land that masqueraded as a park.
The French Quarter was mostly for white folks. The French Market wasn't. The Desire Projects took over from where the streetcar went. I didn't know about the Cabildo or the Presbytere until later. The Pontalba Apartments for me were like the row of San Francisco Victorian houses made famous in postcards. The real Cafe du Monde moved to Metairie, but when I knew it, it was on a street that jutted out like a V, and it was small and French looking and it wasn't just for tourists. We knew about Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner staying there.
The poet Marcus Christian, ousted from the Dillard faculty for not having a degree, was quietly keeping together his voluminous archives of black folkways and history from his days as head of the Colored Federal Writers Project for that day when he could publish a black history of Louisiana. Upon his death, the unfinished volume and his archives went to the University of New Orleans.
Rampart Street was where a sharp-dressed man got set up with a good tailor and with good shoes. It was the gateway street where the descendants of the Creoles of color, the gens de couleur lived in the shadow of their ancestors. The late Anatole Broyard of the New Yorker had already passed into the white world by then.
Storyville was long gone but whorehouses were still open secrets. My grandmother once rented one of her apartments to a whore and her children. And she did it, she said, supposedly for the children.
I attended Blessed Sacrament School, located near Magazine Street, which was run by the same Catholic religious as Xavier, for a short time. Magazine Street was the same area where Lee Harvey Oswald lived. The Magazine Street bus ended at Audubon Park where every New Orleans schoolkid discovers Monkey Hill, reputedly the highest point in New Orleans, and built by the WPA to show the children what a hill looks like.
We went to Lincoln Beach, not Pontchartrain Beach.
Our name for dragonflies was mosquito hawk. Probably because they killed mosquitoes that carried yellow fever, the epidemic that flared up several times, causing catastrophic losses of life before being conquered in the 20th century.
My mother would regularly see Al Hirt buying groceries at the Canal Villerie supermarket on Freret Street. But Schwegmann's was better than Winn-Dixie.
Dooky Chase was our showcase restaurant.
The streets where I lived were bounded by Louisiana Avenue, Napoleon Avenue, South Claiborne, Freret Street. I also knew where uptown, downtown, back-a-town, riverside or lakeside was.
All these memories and more are crowding on me as I think about New Orleans. Many of the links I planned to write in are down. New Orleans is dying, and this time, it may not rise again.
Comments are closed on this story.