The Mystery of Faith:
Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life
--Mass Card, St. Louis Cathedral, Feb. 22, 2012.
Walked to the French Quarter this morning, all the way from down at the Convention Center, up through streets called Royal and Dauphin, Chatres and Bourbon, passed convents with orange trees in fruit, and railings festooned with purple plastic beads. Mardi Gras finished last night. I’m not here for that, but I saw the aftermath. A city waking up with a massive hangover. I’ve never been hungover, but there were mornings decades ago when I woke up after going to bed two hours before, having spent the night dancing hard in my older sister’s high heels. Morning-after feet, aching on the balls, mascara smudged under my eyes, furry teeth, and grainy eyeballs. Coming to with a delicious ache all over, remembering the night before, and how glad I was to dance “Hotel California” with Theo. That’s the feeling I saw this morning in New Orleans.
It’s my first time in this city, just past eight o’clock on a mild grey morning, and I’m walking as long and as hard as I can before I go back to my hotel room to finish a brief that has to be filed today. I know that if I draft first, I’ll feel trapped by work. This way, I can roll the morning into the side of my cheek and suck on it, like a Christmas sour ball, when I’m stuck trying to find a nice way to tell the court that opposing counsel doesn’t know jack.
I feel like I’m on sensory overload. I’m walking through narrow streets, lined by houses that have stood there for over two hundred years. They’re painted happy colors, like orange and maroon (on the same house), butter yellow and purple, an entire block of lavender. Pots of flowers and hanging ferns drape themselves over third floor balconies. I’m seeing the original shot-gun house, and Creole cottage I’ve only read about. Every so often, through a slowly closing door and down a narrow walkway, I see glimpses of bricked courtyards in the center of the square, with more ferns and corner fountains. I can smell new paint, spilled beer, horse poop, bacon, varnish, a passing lady’s body lotion—she’s fresh out of the shower.
There are streamers on the street signs; necklaces in the upper branches of thirty-foot trees. Bottles and cups are propped in whatever convenient place their drinker could find: The top of the blue Apartments for Rent box; lined up like bowling pins on the steps of the church; tucked almost apologetically into a mailbox and the nook of a window sill. White -aproned workers sweep, then spray down the sidewalks outside their restaurants and pubs. They turn the hose politely aside with a smile as I walk by. Another takes off the rolls of protective orange netting placed around the fledgling euonymus hedge planted against the yoghurt shop in the middle of St. Charles, the parade route. He nods good morning. A city truck beeps slowly by, its arrival presaged by the wafting smell of the soapsuds it sprays across the entire width of the street. The streets are so narrow it takes the truck eight reverses to turn the corner. Every now and then, I get a smell of urine. It’s familiar and strangely comforting; smells like the streets of my childhood and reminds me of walking through the subway under the railway on my way to school.
Walking toward me on Canal Street is a couple of black Southern royalty. I can’t think of any other way to describe them. It’s nine in the morning and she has on a silk skirt and long-sleeved blouse, stockings and heeled leather shoes, a jacket of tailored design with brooch, strands of pearls, and a hat with either netting or a feather. Her purse hangs from the crook of her elbow. She might even have gloves on. Everything matches. Her companion’s suit is pinstriped, beautifully draped, the jacket buttoned up; his shoes polished and pointy; his hat perched on his head. They’re tall, slender, and probably in their eighties. I feel the need to curtsey as I walk by, tug at my forelock and apologize for the middle portion of their lives.
An unremarkable couple on the grass in Jackson Square is doing their very own version of Cirque du Soleil, as she does the splits with her ankles propped on his feet, which he holds in the air with his obviously strong, obviously hairy legs while he lies on his obviously broad back. I grin in delight, along with the three gentlemen who are walking by on the other side. I slip into St. Louis Cathedral on the banks of the Mississippi to see whether I can feel God amidst the paintings of King Charles, and the flags of various nations and dioceses. Then off to find the convent, and any other secrets the city can offer up.
Front doors sport Mardi Gras ribbons like Utah doors grow wreaths. Storefronts are narrow, the width of two long, hanging shutters; their lintels are crooked and doorsteps worn; their window frames textured they’ve been painted so many times. I see a grapefruit tree, bearing pale yellow orbs, wedged into the back of an alley. There’s a great Dane strutting his stuff in the dog park. I peer through a wrought iron gate, complete with fleur de lis, and see an oval pool tucked into a courtyard the size of a double garage. It’s a real pool, for a city that is three hundred years old—leaves scattered on the bottom, blue water, brick pavers that have settled slightly unevenly around the white granite surround. The corner deli sells $3.89 take-out breakfasts of an egg, a rasher and a hash brown. The fifties-something hair stylist in Malta Stylists, dapper in his black barber shirt, is combing his eyebrows as I peer into his shop. “Primping” flashes through my brain.
I’m covered in a layer of humidity as I walk—not quite sweat, but not dry; the credit cards and driver’s license in my bra are dewy. Nicholas Cave is singing “the weeping song” as I walk up and down streets that have seen so much, probably nothing surprises them anymore. A wall I walk by is peeling. The layers of paint show that at certain times it’s been mustard, forties aqua, maroon, fiestaware green, white, yellow. The air is thick. The word “fecund” comes to mind. Some of the street corners have gutters where there’s an accumulation of dirt, and debris inches deep, and so compacted, it’s spongy. I think you could grow vegetables in it.
I feel at home here. Like I can breathe, even though I know if I actually stayed here in this humidity and mould, my asthma would flare up and I’d be back on the inhaler in no time. I’m trying to figure out the difference between here and Utah.
The word “earnest” comes to mind. We’re earnest in Utah; well, in my part of it anyway. We’re just earnest. The story of my particular Utah place is one of good intentions, building a dream, making a vision come true. The buildings are young; and if they get too decrepit, they get torn down, and replaced by strip malls and “up scale mixed-use living/retail” developments—in a charming combination of stucco, manufactured stone, with a few Craftsman period details, and the requisite wooden “lodge” columns, paying homage to our mountain environment. There’s so much space there in Utah and so few people, literally, that any mistake you make is public, or feels that way. The Utah air is thin and crisp. I can’t taste it or feel it against me. Definitely, no faint smell of urine.
Everywhere I walk in my Utah neighborhoods, I see evidence of striving: straight lawns, perky flowers, multiple children, minivans, mission countdowns and welcome back signs, flags on every lawn for Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Veterans Day. Even everyday actions and reactions are somehow reconfigured and re-construed as holding up my end of a pioneer’s bargain. It’s inspirational . . . and downright exhausting.
I suppose what I’m saying is that this morning in New Orleans I yearned to live life with just a little more subtlety, less scrutiny, more laissez-faire. I’d like to mark my way through in a small detail, rather than a grand undertaking. Sometimes, a bronze doorknocker in the shape of a lion’s paw is enough; I don’t have to go out and hunt the lion. I’d like to live in a house that’s seen two hundred children raised in it; twenty-seven marriages wrought, wrecked and recovered; more than a few miscarriages—of children and businesses; death; divorce; daily life that’s sorted itself out, died and revived, made its way through, and continues still. (Not so sure about the bathrooms of those houses, but you get the general idea).
I’d like to live in a place where I’m reminded daily by a river flowing resolutely by, half-a-mile wide, filled with rain from as far as Montana and Pennsylvania, dragging silt and remnants of last season’s vegetable garden, that I am just one small part in a very large, long, colorful parade. And if I stumble, chances are that while I’m down on my knees, I’ll find that somebody’s left me a half-filled glass of mint julep and a string of beads to console myself with. Downright neighborly, old-style.
Title: Shed a Little Light, by James Taylor.