My long-held dream to live for a winter in New Orleans is finally coming to pass. We moved into our rental on Dauphine St. on December 3, 2022, a sunny seventy-degree day. Wandering down Frenchmen Street later that evening, the night sky was lit up, sidewalks and streets moving, more with pedestrians than cars. Life in the streets of New Orleans has always seemed magical to me. I’m the kind of flaneur who gets excited easily by all the sensations, sights, smells, sounds, and vibrations. I want to take it in like Emerson’s transparent eyeball.
There’s occupied outdoor seating along the curb of Frenchman, and live music from the open fronts of bars. When I stopped to smoke in the entrance of an alley, I studied the graffiti on the old red brick walls. A rough green patch of paint had the word, “ishews,” scrawled in yellow chalk. Ishews! The spelling was raw, complicated, and surprisingly appropriate. I got ishews, you got ishews, we all got ishews, right? A few days later, I stopped to look for ishews again, and it was painted over in plain red.
My first experience in New Orleans was the Associated Writing Programs conference, 2002. My beloved husband, who died in 2013, me, and eight other grad students traveled together and separately to arrive at a three-flat rental a block off of Rampart Street. Bourbon Street was close, only a couple of blocks away. Walking down it the first time, the street life bewitched me, so many people, styles, beads decorating fire hydrants and balconies, a washboard band in the middle of the street, feathers, bright wigs, blaring music from bars where a front man beckoned you in, and that funky stagnant water smell that waxed and waned. I started dropping dollar bills behind me, donations to the magic atmosphere. I traded a brand-new lipstick for a small shard of broken pottery on the ground near Marie Laveau’s grave. The famous voodoo queen inspired Bobby Bare’s 1973 hit song about her revenge on Handsome Jack. At the conference hotel, we crashed some room parties and had fun in the elevator. At one event, I sat next to Ernest Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying, an amazing literacy narrative that won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1993. Gaines has since passed away, though his legacy will be honored in January, 2023, with the issuance of a new postage stamp.
The Marigny is a neighborhood that borders the French Quarter, and it’s where the shotgun duplex we’re renting is located. The history of the Marigny is faithfully traced in terms of architecture, population waves, and property values in a recent book by Scott S. Ellis called The Faubourg Marigny of New Orleans: A History. One way to reach the neighborhood is Elysian Fields Avenue; the Marigny, in its working-class days, was the setting for Tennessee William’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Behind our rental, there’s a small, lush courtyard with orange trees, palm trees, and blooming trumpet flowers, known as “New Orleans Ladies,” along with hot pink bougainvillea, yellow cassia blossoms, blue delphiniums, white roses, and bright red cardinal flowers. The most abundant wildlife are the geckos, who think they’re running the place.
When we leave home to walk through the Marigny, we often end up on Frenchmen Street, known today for its live music venues, like the Spotted Cat and d.b.a. There’s also a bookstore, a bike shop, and restaurants, including Favela Chic, which has the best Guatemalan tamales and doesn’t open until seven at night. Reading Ellis’ book about the history of the Marigny partially solved a mystery for me. One day at the Frenchmen Grocery and Deli, I paused to look down and discovered a name spelled out in black tiles against the white hexagon tiled entrance: A. Gagliano. That’s my daughter’s name, April Gagliano! From Ellis’ book, I discovered the establishment was once known as Gagliano’s Dry Goods, though I still don’t know what kind of dry goods were sold there, clothing or furniture or flour, sugar, and salt, or some combination of the three.
I’ve stopped at the Frenchmen convenience store on previous visits to the city, but I’d never taken the time to look down at its entrance tiles. Living in the Marigny allows me leisure to look and time to loaf, to follow where curiosity leads me. Architecture, history, art, and the pleasure of walking the streets and the crowd, even when people are difficult, unfathomable, or sometimes violent. New Orleans has been called the murder capital of America. Someone violently dies every day in New Orleans according to the local news, as in other cities, Memphis, Las Vegas, Chicago, and sometimes even towns, across the U.S. Inequality feels close up and personal in New Orleans, where houses share walls, and the rent is high, and people sleep on the sidewalks under mounds of blankets. I’ve met the unsheltered before in cities. Part of the housing problem in the Marigny, according to Ellis, is short term rentals (STR) that drive up rents and displace potential long-term residents, a problem not endemic to New Orleans.
My love affair with New Orleans is twenty years old. The city’s magic hasn’t faded for me, though I’m well aware of its ishews. I want to be a good citizen while I’m living in the Marigny and leave it better than I found it. I want it to be safer, more loving, more generous, more magical, in whatever small ways I can contribute. We’ve met a few people, mostly bartenders or neighbors, and the streets have felt safe and, if not courteous, not in any way hostile. We’ve lived in the rental for less than a month, and the Marigny has been on the quiet side. I hear the pace picks up after the New Year when Mardi Gras begins on Twelfth Night. This is just the beginning of wintering in the Marigny. Signing off till January!
Categories: Living, Suzanne's Voice
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