A big-headed bald man sitting in front of me tsk-tsked to his wife, “Look at those poor black kids playing ball –– see, those are projects (this word he spit out like a spider had been on his tongue) –– over there, see? Not even grass to play on!”
A montage of seedy motels, car lots, gas stations, convenience stores, and low brick buildings of various function whizzed by the bus’s large windows; this could be anywhere, really. But New Orleans East is the lead-in to all things great, and excitement was building in me. In spite of the big-headed man’s nasty narrative.
The bus hefted itself onto I-10’s on-ramp, and the stark white crosses of marble tombs came into view.
The man said to his wife, “Oh, my Lord, will you look at that? They can’t even bury their dead properly in this God-forsaken place!”
He was referring to the great, above-ground cemeteries where Dona and I had spent many afternoons looking at the cities of the dead though our sepia-filtered Minoltas. I refrained from knocking the guy in the head. Instead, I thought of all that I would do this month, alone in my favorite city (which had scorned me) with my mountain bike and my cameras.
Chrissy Hynde of the Pretenders had sung it so truly: “There’s a thin line between love and hate.” The city’s majestic beauty and historical panache, its crime, its poverty, and its apathy. The way it had turned away from me, an outsider, a girl. How hard it was to move up the ranks in the restaurant kitchens where I’d worked. Nevertheless, New Orleans strummed a part of me never before touched. It made me feel something: fear, thrill, want, curiosity, passion. I hungered for these feelings now; I craved them.
It had been the same with That Man, a love so passionate and needy, fulfilling and responsive. I had loved him so, yet I hated him for pulling me down with his self-destructive ways. A year on Maui and a year in Vancouver, and I was still down in the hole where I’d followed him. Stunned, turned against so-called love, I’d married Other Man because of some bizarre obligation. Not sure I wanted to even get out of the pit, for down here with my lonely and longing self, I was able to feel. Like a neglected child who acts out to get the negative attention he needs to replace no attention, I preferred negative feelings to none at all.
Nearing downtown, century-old brick facades and parallel lines of gas lamps welcomed me with history and memories. I could taste spicy gumbo washed down with a cold draft beer. I could see the street musicians and barroom characters, who were only blocks away now.
“Ugh!” the man uttered to his wife, loud enough to narrate for the entire bus, “and look at all those crumbling buildings! These people ––” clicking his tongue, “–– why can’t they clean this place up?”
Falling into the vast pillow of freedom ahead, thirty days to photo-essay New Orleans on a budget of twenty dollars a day, I tuned out his words. I thought instead of where to look for cheap accommodations, where to have my first beer, which happy hours to frequent for free food, where to find a darkroom to rent, and how much would it cost.
My heart skipped a beat when the bus coughed to a stop at Canal and Bourbon. The door flopped open, and the hot October wind carried in a scent of gas lamp, feet, and stale beer.
The man said to his wife, “God, I hate this place.”
I wanted to say, “Go the hell home, then.”
The cheapest place to rent I found in the Times-Picayune was an un-air conditioned attic room with a bed and a sink in the Irish Channel. The neighborhood dark and remote, the room scented with old mattress and new paint over rotted wood. A place, I envisioned, where an old man would go to shoot heroin. Put simply, it had a bad vibe. I knew from nearly four years living in New Orleans that some old structures have that. You walk in and want to walk right out. Like whatever bad or nasty thing that had happened there was still going on, or the past was still alive, or some people, like me, are too damn sensitive. After two nights of restless hot sleep dreaming of serial killers, I began searching for another place that wouldn’t cast a gloom over my days. Serendipitously, on the third night sitting at the bar in Que Sera on St. Charles Avenue, I mentioned my plight to a couple who told me about a lady who owned a big house farther up the streetcar line and rented rooms by the week or month for cheap.
I exited the streetcar under the dappled light of a great oak canopy at St. Charles and Napoleon, walked two blocks, and stood in front of the house. Peeling white paint, milky windows and rotting fascia, it sat like a sore among the more stately Garden District beauties. The house and its associated outbuildings, which all appeared to be connected, took up half a city block –– possibly the entire block –– since I couldn’t see past its many roof lines and small porches. I found an iron gate along the side of the property and pushed it open. An old woman wearing a thin housedress bent over a half dozen or so flat-headed mewling cats. She bolted upright when she heard the gate’s rusty scratch.
“I-I-I was told you rent rooms?” I hoped I hadn’t gotten wrong information from the couple at the bar. Or maybe I had wandered into the wrong compound.