New Orleans, circa 1850

My New Orleans

by Peter Rashkin
September 2005

I lived in New Orleans from September 1982 through the following June, and now as I watch the terrible destruction of that unique city, I think back on those nine months and can hardly believe how rich that sojourn was and how many memories and experiences stand out for me now.

The night they drove old Dixie down - I believe it was our first night in town when Bonnie and I went out on the Riverboat President to hear the Jerry Garcia Band. At intermission, eating jambalaya up on deck, we watched some police action on the Mississippi River Bridge. We went back in and heard the band sing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. I can still hear it in my mind; still see the trio of chorus dancers.

The next day I read that a guy had robbed a 7-11 in Algiers, and when the cops trapped him on the bridge, he flipped them the bird and dove into the river. Probably during that defiant song of defeat and resignation.

Where we lived - I remember calling around for an apartment and being asked over the phone what color I was. Racism was alive and well in the Big Easy, but it was subtle, old and established. I got a job setting type in a small print shop on the Uptown edge of Downtown. There were two or three blacks in the shop, out of a total staff of about eight. Everything was friendly, everyone was the same. No racial problems at all that I knew about. But one time the owner invited the staff out to his Gulfport beach house for a crawfish boil. None of the black workers came. Maybe they were busy.

We rented an upstairs apartment with a balcony on St. Andrew Street between Magazine and St. Charles. The streetcar ran on St. Charles, but I always walked the mile or so to and from work. There was a little bar on St. Charles, and I used to stop off after work for a glass of wine. It's the only time I've been a regular at a bar.

I don't want to dwell on the racial thing, but it was 1982, I was from LA, not used to such a pronounced color line. Between St. Charles and Magazine was white. Past St. Charles on the north, and from Magazine to the industrial river front was black.

The walk - We often did the walk, a memorable trek of six or ten miles. West on Magazine to Jackson, then left through the projects to the ferry and across to Algiers. Then east along the levy to the Canal Street Ferry (I remember warehouses with dismembered Mardi Gras floats) and across to Jackson Square and the French Quarter. Then up St. Charles; if we were pooped we caught the street car.

Street music in the quarter - I remember a guy who played the glass harmonica (invented by Mozart), which is basically an array of wine glasses you play by running your finger over the wet rim. And a kilted bagpiper playing one night when a guy, high and really ominous the way he was standing right in front of the musician's face, staring. Without missing a breath, the piper segued into Amazing Grace, and the belligerent guy walked away. I liked this couple who sang traditional folksongs, and later I saw them again on Venice Beach.

The bold pigeon - Before coming to New Orleans, we had lived for several years in a remote location in the southern Appalachians, and there was one urban pleasure that I had missed, so after a month or two I began asking around the quarter to see if I could find a serious backgammon game. I was finally directed to a small shop on Orleans, and that's where I met Robb. He was playing a dollar-a-point game when I came up. Perfect. His shop featured coffee, old records, original postcards designed by his then-girlfriend and other oddities. He had a parrot (called it the "bold pigeon") that sat on his shoulder and howled while he played the trombone. I don't know what happened to the parrot or the girlfriend, but Robb and I are still friends.

Mardi Gras - It was great to live in New Orleans through Mardi Gras season. Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the day before Lent, when practicing Catholics give up some fun things for six weeks, so the idea of Mardi Gras is to really kick up your heels before you have to start being good. I think we went to every parade, starting several weeks before the big day with a low key but musically fantastic little parade through the black neighborhood north of the French Quarter, and the sardonic downtown parade staged by the Contemporary Arts Center. I got my best beads from that parade, ceramic, not plastic, and I remember one float in particular, about saving the naugas which were being exterminated to make naugahide. The parades got bigger and more extravagant, until the big day, when the streets from St. Charles down to the Quarter were like the dance floor at a Grateful Dead concert. Wild and crazy!

Lent - Mardi Gras was over and it was Lent. I'd never lived in such a Catholic city, nor in walking distance to so many beautiful old churches, so I decided to go see them in action, a different one each Sunday. Visually, I remember one in particular, although I couldn't tell you which one. A beautiful majestic stone church with beautiful high stained glass windows, a beautiful resonant organ and a raised section for the chorus.

I only remember one sermon, and it wasn't at one of the big rich churches but at this decrepit little church I used to walk by every day on my way to work. I only went to it by default; it was a blistery Sunday morning, Bonnie wouldn't go out with me which pissed me off, and when I got to the church I intended to visit, mass was already in session, so I went home but on the way I ducked into this one. It was stucco. The stained glass was broken and boarded up. There was no choir; just a priest with a Spanish accent and one altar boy. A small church, more than half empty. A guy in a Grateful Dead jacket asleep in the pew, whom the priest kept waking up, to little avail.

The priest talked about St. Peter in the garden at Gethsemane. "Show me who you are, Lord." And Jesus showed him, but just for a minute, just an instant, one flash of inspiration that had to sustain Peter through all the trials to come. Like this old church, its best days long past, sustained now by just a flash of remembered inspiration.

Palm Sunday I didn't go to church. I remember sitting out on the balcony in the sun, staring at me feet in their white sports sox, thinking about a big spike being driven into them. Ugh! I couldn't get into it. We went for the river walk instead.

On Good Friday we went to St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square for the Stations of the Cross.

On Easter Sunday, Robb joined us at another beautiful old church. After that, we went to the cemetery and had our own little ceremony at the grave of voodoo queen Marie Laveaux. And of course paying tribute to St. Expedite, so named in the 18th century when she arrived in New Orleans in a crate from Rome labeled "Expedite."

I'm not sure it was the same night, but I think it was, that we went to a terrific wild hippy seder at Bicycle Michael's. It was the first time I saw the burnt offering, and the spilling of the wine. We spilled wine for real on the big old rough wooden table, not symbolically on a napkin. On the table. Remembering the suffering of the Egyptians.

Jazz Festival - The New Orleans Jazz Festival in May, right up on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, was the greatest musical event I've been to. Gospel, Dixieland, Mardi Gras Indians, all kinds of stuff. Not just New Orleans, not just jazz. Pete Seeger filled the largest venue. Standing room only.

Zoo and library - We were walking distance from the main library downtown and the Audubon Zoo uptown. At the library I met a 12th century Taoist sage, Layman Pang, who in middle age realized the futility of material striving and loaded up his cash and belongings on a boat which he sank in the middle of the lake, not wanting to spread corruption by giving it away. After that, he lived "like a single leaf." At the zoo I saw Casey, an orangutan born at the zoo, rejected by her mother and being raised by staff.

Flood - One time it rained 10 inches in as many hours, and the city flooded. Everything closed down. No work or school. A couple of feet of water in the streets by my place.

Other memories of the storm-struck region - Hiding under a bed when a hurricane struck Pascagoula, where we were visiting with Bonnie's parents...Two weeks on an oil rig in the gulf, washing dishes for minimum wage, which was still pretty good money because the work was mostly overtime; 14 12-hour workdays in a row. During a break I saw porpoises and, once, a hammerhead shark swimming below, and I can't find the word to describe his motion, because he wasn't swimming in a line but arcing through the water just below the surface.

Leaving New Orleans - It was June; hot and muggy. We decided to leave New Orleans and head back to California after an absence of three and a half years. I remember getting off the Greyhound bus in San Francisco and walking down Market Street. I remember flyers pasted to lamp posts for Bobby Weir and Swami Somethingorother. I remember thinking, even after a stay in wild New Orleans, "You're not in Kansas anymore." After our stay in the South, California seemed so progressive. It was refreshing.

And yet, as I see the devastating pictures, and hear the stories, and as my memories of that time flood back, I know what it means to miss New Orleans.