I eat them like joy.
Sheryl St. Germain
Today is Monday. The kumquat tree growing in a clay pot against the brick wall of the courtyard glows in the sunlight with orange fruit the size of marbles. Laughter rises like mist from the nearby fountain to drift over the Vieux Carre. There is a red beans and rice party by my condo this afternoon. Nancy and Eliot, the couple who owns the coach house behind where I am renting for the winter, decided to give a party. They are leaving New Orleans for a few months and want to say good-bye to their friends. I am invited to the party because I am the new neighbor. To my surprise, I meet again the New York actor I met on the train coming down here. I remember his words as we shake hands and smile politely, "In New York if anything stays in the street for more than three hours, it is REAL garbage." I dont remind my new friend of that conversation, but instead we head over to the table where buckets of ice cool the champagne. From that table you can get a good view of all there is to eat and the parade of invited guests.
Besides red beans and rice, there are steam tables of smoked sausage and fried chicken, plus salad and French bread. To the left, another table holds dessert; cheesecakes and bread pudding. There are salted pecans set in silver dishes here and there, and bottles of hot sauce lined up like Jean Lafitte's pirates at the battle of New Orleans. I fix myself a plate of smoked sausage, red beans and rice and retire to the back of the courtyard where a large palm offers shade next to the pleasant gurgle of a fountain. I enjoy lunch chatting with a few young woman who work for Eliot. My New York actor friend has taken up with the artist who owns the gallery down the street from the Cornstalk Fence Hotel. After I eat, I have another glass of champagne and mingle with the guests. Then I return to Nancy and thank her for her hospitality. She likes me, even though we just met. She chucks me under the chin and says, "See, honey, and you thought youd be bored." If I were not gay I probably would take this to mean that her husband will be busy for a few hours and that I could tour the couch house bedrooms with her as my guide. I think not, however, and tell her I have business to do on Canal Street. When I say good-bye, I look into her eyes and can tell right away shes the one thats bored. Besides, I have discovered that she drinks too much and when she does that she is boisterous, shouting across the courtyard to new guests that arrive. I dont like it when Kenneth acts that way, either. Why cant people be nice and pleasant when they are drunk like me?Some of the women at these afternoon parties are a treat to watch, especially how they effect elegance with so very little. Their gold bracelets are not real, their diamond earrings and cocktail rings are not real, but the lipstick, perfume and gestures are. Oh, how they lift their fork, place their feet, turn to smile; especially the older women. In spite of a sadness that seems to infect everyone with the milk of morning mist that creeps from the river, they remember something of a better day and a distant beauty. When they extend their hand to whomever is about to leave, it is as if they were handing over something pure, white and dry. Looking up, they smile a resigned smile and say, "Bye, sugar." Later that afternoon, I notice that the dross of the party is packed in plastic bags and set on the curb for the homeless to pick through and the garbage truck to pick up when it makes the rounds. Dear me, Im not in Kansas anymore.
There is a saying here: "If it happened in Nawlins, it didnt happen." I wonder if that wisdom came out of the landscape of this place. I think about the difference between the low lying texture of the buildings in the French Quarter compared to the high flying vectors of Chicagos Loop. Living here makes me think that human dwellings above three stories in height are inhuman. In many ways New Orleans reminds me of India and France, two places I do not like. Why is it then that I like this place, especially the French Quarter? But so what? I am tired of going deeply into my soul to figure things like this out. When I was a young man I used to get excited by reading psychology books and seeing in myself what the author was describing in another. Nowadays, its just enough to get up and make it out of the house. Let that be my lesson to younger men. This is what I plan to tell Kenneth when he comes to visit me next week from Nebraska, if he comes at all.Kenneth is like that. He will call sometimes three days in a row to talk, especially when he is drunk, and then long stretches of time will pass and I will not hear from him. The last time he called he told me he spent the week taking 48 antihistamines. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to sleep all week so that he could avoid his mother. Kenneth says his mother hates him, but I think its that Kenneth cant decide if he is gay or straight. Besides that, he cant decide to go to graduate school or to California. Kenneth has trouble deciding things. Nevertheless, I suspect he will like the Quarter, especially because he is in one of his funks now and when he is like that he drinks a lot. There is no problem with that on Bourbon Street. I suppose I miss his company in an odd way, so thats why when he called and begged to stay with me I said yes. After I hung up the phone I realized I actually look forward to his visit. So far I have met no one here that interests me that much.
I have yet to call the two older men I met on the train from Chicago. One, who laughed at my jokes, practices psychiatry here in the city while the other works for the coroners office. The psychiatrist claims his whole work day is nothing more than adjusting the medication of his patients. "Raise the level or lower it, or change the formula. That is all," he says. "No in depth analysis. No search for meaning or existential crisis resolved." He seemed nice enough when we had dinner on the train. He even invited me to the clinic and said I could put on a white coat and do the rounds with him. I just might do that next week. I am suspicious of him, however, because while we were on the train, I went alone to look out at the scenery from the boarding vestibule. Another man from Virginia was there with the same intention. We talked awhile about the South. He told me he was still angry at LBJ for giving away the country to the Blacks so that they would vote Democratic. While we were talking, moans came from the compartment where I knew the two doctors traveled. My God, I thought, they are having sex! The moans then became louder, and my traveling companion from Virginia heard them, too. He paused in his diatribe. He looked at the door of the compartment where the sounds came and then looked at me. That was followed by an ever louder grunt. "It must be something personal," I said, hoping he would let the matter pass. Thankfully, he did. We rolled through the Mississippi countryside. I looked at my watch. About half an hour more until lunch.
Kenneth has not called again. It is late afternoon. January has been chilly, so I decide to make a circuit around Jackson Square to warm my blood. Every time I come to the square I am amazed at the artists who hang their paintings and drawings on the iron fence that surrounds the park. What these artists lack in talent they make up for in audacity. Is there enough room in the landfills of the world for all this? The fortune tellers and tarot deck readers who set their card tables all day on the flagstone walk are another source of amazement. They cover the tables with velvet, pile up their stones and crystals, lay out the cards and wait. Some even wear what you could call a costume, but then maybe that is all they could find at the second hand store. How do they make a living here, I wonder, and do they actually believe what they are saying?
Sometimes, I pretend to be about my business when I walk by, but I am really trying hard to listen when a tourist is seated at their table. Maybe I will look into the window of the perfume shop, but actually I am trying to hear what destiny in love or money the unsuspecting girl from Idaho is being told. New Orleans is a small town, but sooner or later most everyone comes here, and when they do many are carried away by the rumors of voodoo and hoodoo, by the powers and principalities of the world. How ironic all this goes on right in front of the oldest cathedral in the States. "Caveat Emptor" should be the motto for the spirit world as well. Yet what does the Church have to worry about? Anyone with half a brain who is drawn to beauty and light can see with their own eyes what is distorted and ugly and what is brilliant with grace.
Wednesday afternoon the phone rings. Kenneth is calling from Nebraska. He says he will be on the next flight to New Orleans. I tell him that when he lands he should take the airport shuttle to the Chateau Hotel at the corners of Chartres and St. Philip Streets. "I will meet you there. It is just a short walk to my apartment. We can have dinner at The Secret Garden, too, which is right across the street." Kenneth agrees, but he does not like it that I won't be going out to the airport to meet him. So, he is actually making up his mind, I think. Let me go out tonight and have a drink and mull this over.
I sometimes go to Parade Pub on Bourbon. It is the biggest, noisiest and most crowed gay bar in the Crescent City. "The other side of St. Anns," thats what gay people call the stretch of Bourbon Street that has most of the big gay bars in the Quarter. From the balcony of Oz, you can look down the street and see the crowds milling in and out of jazz bars and trinket shops. Most of the tourists wear plastic beads in Mardi Gras colors: green, purple and gold. A few couples may even be strolling hand in hand, pushing a child in a stroller. Once they get to St. Ann Street it is as if a force field from a Star Wars movie confronts them. They walk about 100 feet past St. Ann and then look around hesitantly. Is it the dance music blaring from Oz and Parade, is it the men with no shirts and the men in leather, is it the boys with high laughter and fey gestures, or is it an animal reckoning, an instinct; whatever, they stop, pause, and then realize, "My, God we are in the GAY area." As if guided by a mysterious hand, they turn and walk back, past St. Ann, back to the Funky Pirate, where the sign next to the door reads, "Everyone is welcome, but this is a straight bar," back to the comfort of rhinestones, respectability and the river of their wedded days.I stay in Parade for a few drinks and watch the men come and go. The tall swinging doors here must have opened and closed as many times as the valves of a human heart. Through them pumped the blood of communion and the juice of life in search of love. When I decide to leave the bar, I bump into a young hustler on my way out. He asks if I have the time. I say it is nine-thirty and that I am leaving because I spent all my money inside on drinks. He says its only twenty-five dollars, but he really needs just sixteen so that he can buy cigarettes and stuff. I apologize and we talk some more. Justin is 21, unemployed and lives with his unemployed mother down Bourbon Street, He insists hes bi. I tell him I was bi once, and then say, "If I buy, will you be gay?" He smiles. It's a shame he is not so cute. Nevertheless, I realize a certain elegance of manner in his smile. I suppose it comes from the compression of diverse groups living and dying here close together over long stretches of time.
I walk home alone in the cool January night. There is no breeze. The humid air has a texture. Flags droop to triangles. I feel the mist close to me like a comfortable shirt. The Christmas lights on the hedges in Jackson Square sparkle like blanket of stars. So many small things adhere to make the world. Dont forget to put in ham hocks when you make your red beans and rice. Pork fat rules, unless you are Jewish. Great is the mystery of days but greater still are those who chance to drink from the cup of this mystery and taste the syrup of love. Make a love blessing. Make believe. Make do. Blessed are those who are pure of heart for they shall see God.Perhaps an outsider in New Orleans may better see the reality of this world. I suppose that is the whole point of carnival and why it is such a grand attraction. From my point of view all those Krews parading is one long text on metaphysics. Carnival is an extended metaphor to deny reality, and reality's smug ambassador, Death. Of course, when that happens, reality returns with a vengeance. It is that lesson I learned by living here. New Orleans makes me a realist.
Look, they aren't lining up to have sex with me anymore, if they ever did. You know, I have concluded that its because of Carnival that gay guys like those Madonna videos so much. She struts around singing with her crotch hugging costumes. "See my power and audacity, boys!" But behind that carnival is the truth. It is as if the image on TV were to say off handedly, "Oh, yeah, everything is fine, except once a month I bleed." Well, let them dance. What business is it of mine? I have to wash the dishes from breakfast. Listen, hear that? That deep horn comes from a boat on the river calling, "Watch out, let me pass, careful!" The river is wide and deep here, and the current is strong. The old timers know theres good bayou fishing in the winter, too, you just have to be patient. When you fish the bottom you must use a Jighead or a Carolina rig. Last week all the stores had King Cakes for sale. The Carnival Season has begun. Eliot and Nancy are still away. I don't see the New York actor around anymore. I suppose he buried his friend and went back home.
I havent called yet the doctors I met on the train. Ill see how things go next week. Maybe I will take that tour of the psycho wards. I am not that fond of crazy people, but then who am I to complain about the dull habits of others. Yesterday, when I walked down North Peters toward Esplanade an old delivery man looked up from his work and caught my eye. Just for a second we understood one another. I was at my work and he was at his. It is enough now just to tell stories. I imagine he goes home after work to an aging wife who is incontinent. The memory of her youthful body under him in the dark diminishes the odor from the river of her life flowing out. For this, and many other reasons they sing the Blues from Baton Rouge. Railroad cars wait by the river bailed with cotton wool. The sorrow of life becomes music the way the grass of the field becomes milk.
There is a worn Mardi Gras doubloon lying in a basket on the gift shop counter at the Old Mint. "The Silent Pardners," who explored the frontier and are depicted on this piece of stamped metal, were a strange and solitary breed of men. Embossed on one side of the doubloon are these words; "He asked little, dreamed much, died lonely, but never in despairand all the great West is his monument." I am happy that Kenneth made it to New Orleans. I see something has settled in his soul when I look into Kenneths eyes. He and I live together in the French Quarter now, looking out for one another. Today is Monday again. For dinner tonight I usually make red beans and rice.