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A New Orleans State of Mind
By Max E. VergaNew Orleans is a high-born Creole woman. Sitting on her curlicued balcony she surveys the crowd below with carefully rehearsed disdain. Lifting her hand above the ornate grillwork, she waves to the tourists, her hand moving from right to left in perfect imitation of a royal salute. Her smile, like the smile of anyone who has seen the passage of time from slavery to freedom back to the enslavement of the willing, is a knowing smile. It curls up at the corners, as if to say that she is aware that the passage of time beneath the balcony is as endless as the slow erosion of the collected sediment beneath the river. She shifts her lanky body in her seat, which is more throne than wicker Peacock chair. With eyes now lowered demurely down towards the layers of colored crinolined skirt beneath her waist, she raises the petticoat slowly to revel the torn underwear underneath it.
Like the city itself, she is an amalgam of all the legends told about her: the gathering of mud upon the delta over the centuries, the slow rise out of Spanish dominion giving way to French occupation that changed her walkways from Calle to Rue, then to Streets and Avenues with the Louisiana Purchase, as if her favors could be perennially hawked to the highest bidder, which, of course, they can. Look closely at the runs in the fishnet stockings and the adroitly placed tears in the flowered panties themselves. And you might see yet another of her secrets. She may not actually be the woman she is dressed to be. She may, in fact, be little more than the waiter who served you Jambalaya with a Ninth Quarter, almost Brooklyn accent and a knowing look as if he knew the secret of why you were there in the restaurant where he works, at a table all alone, wearing a leather motorcycle jacket over denim jeans, and beneath it a jockstrap, as soiled as her own soiled underwear, which is little more than just a metaphor.
Beneath the Creole bonnet, she might have nothing more than a buzz-cut hairdo, with a store-bought wig carefully curled to disguise the sharpness of otherwise manly features. Her face, like the mythical Magnolia fresh complexion of Southern womanhood, is peach colored paint atop a beard rendered invisible beneath a layer of clown-white makeup. Her hands, at once soft but masculine in their extra-large glove size, touch the corners of the frayed lace as she heaves a sigh upon her curlicued veranda. "Ruined finery," she mutters, in her softest Scarlet O'Hara voice, as if the basso tones could be hidden with the simple slurring of the speech. And her eyes, ringed with lashes as real as a Bourbon Street stripper's breasts, are less Bette Davis than myopic as she sees everything but nothing, hears every passing car and carriage as if in a far away dream state, touches everyone but only herself as she scratches at the scabs left over from too much douching, and judges all save her own soul, which, in the heat of late summer's Decadence, is little more than non-existent.
She is merely an illusion, a carefully orchestrated attempt to trick the eye, like tromp l'oiel painted clouds on a ceiling. She is, in essence, a frou-frou, Voodoo doll, sold to tourists as a souvenir of a passing visit to the Crescent City. Her smile is as plastic as her face and body, as painted on as the heart she wears upon her sleeve, as magically manic as a Carnival Krewe before a parade. Everything about her is created to entice, to accentuate the sensuous and to ultimately deceive the doll collector into believing that she alone has value in the Royal Street shop where she sits waiting for an unsuspecting owner to arrive. She does, in fact, have value, if for no other reason than for the success of the deception that is her special brand of artistry. She knows that she has always been, that she will always be, that in the eternal human soul there is an eternal human longing for the special brand of deception that she has to offer. She is, after all, revered in song, tolerated for her lawlessness by the law abiding, reviled by Revival Meeting preachers who would best not sing her praises even if they sleep with her on Sunday evening. She is always thought of, always sought after, if nothing more than as the one last hope for what she has best to offer – a sensation that is desired yet forbidden all at once. She is the essence of a Mardi Gras experience: the yearning for something different to slake off the mundane and make the world, at least the world ringed without by bayous, something magical and spectacular, which it almost always is.
And as the outward layer of refined gentility reveals the raunchy truth beneath the petticoat, she takes on mythic proportions, burning into the soul a sensibility that is all too Southern, all too easy to fall prey to, all too easy to fall into decay as the magic of her illusion becomes a reality too powerful to ignore. Few places, few people, few passing fancies offer so much potential for self-delusion, as if just one stroll beneath a wrought-iron balcony could land one so suddenly in a mind-space where past, present, and future merge, if only on Mardi Gras Day. Few cities convince the gullible mind so convincingly that there are ghosts on rooftops pining for lost lovers, vampires emerging from the shadows who are ashamed of their own blood thirst, lovers waiting on every corner, if only for an evening and with a price to pay. And even if the mind passes back from her illusion back into reality, back from vacation to backhome, it does so with some stray memory of what it was to see the dirty underwear beneath the shimmering petticoat and even further beneath it, the real organ that rides the steamboat journey down the Mississippi.
* * *
I came to New Orleans for the first time in 1992, searching like so many others before me for enchantment. I found it instantly as the taxi from the airport meandered through the overwhelming traffic of the French Quarter. Watching the Veaux Carre in its muted shades of salmon, sage, and sun-bright yellow, I could not help feeling that somehow I was not coming to a place, but returning to one – a place that I had known only in imagination but was soon to discover in reality, or something vaguely like it. I saw what every tourist sees, or is meant to see. I saw the carefully restored buildings, restaurants selling Alligator Tail and Jambalaya, souvenir and antique shops, Voodoo shops and tattoo parlors, shops where all nature of bodies could be bought for a beer and a dangling room key.
But that was just my first trip. Soon I would be returning almost every Mardi Gras, sampling more and more of the Crescent City as if one helping of too rich a confection would raise the sugar levels to a diabetic high. But what I saw during later visits was not so much the carefully restored guest houses or the remnants of a Storyville known only in photographs and recorded memories. I sought the essence of the Storyville myth itself: the stares of adolescent hookers who knew that their futures were as written on the mud as their captured tintype images, or the cries of the Voodoo priestesses as they conjured gris-gris for some unsuspecting plantation owner's doorstep. I sought that which can be found only between the cracks of the pavement, that which comes to rest only upon the underbelly of the well traveled streets, that which blossoms best in darkened corners of darkened back rooms, where every body is forgiven as long as he or she is warm and giving. I wanted to slowly lift the gaudy petticoats, to know why the Elysian Fields were anything but, and why the stench of Cat Scratch Fever would always linger even on the brightest days. I wanted so little, which was knowledge of a woman and a city born to deceive, and got so much more.
And slowly New Orleans revealed herself to me, not as the eternal Queen City, with a real live anatomically correct member of European royalty on the throne, but a city with a Queen whose sovereign name could be Joe or Bob or even Stanley and often was. Perhaps it was that first night spent in the now gone Friendly's Bar, where I stood among all the others, anticipating action that I later got and seeing for the first time that while the city greeted all who came before her, you could only approach her from behind with a latex condom. I understood then, as I understand now, that no matter how lovely the buildings, or how loud the Dixieland music, the true revelation of the city would always be its sexual underbelly and the men and men as women who haunted its least understood of tourist trappings. New Orleans opened herself up to me, like a clam shell exposing the ripened Venus. Only this Venus was male, with an organ shaped and sized however I fancied it for the evening.
I could travel with her through the Bywater, into Desire, where the streetcar seems to know that paper lampshades make the harshest light of reality acceptable, if only to alcoholic eyes, which more often than not take that special one-way journey. And if the ghosts I found there on the streets called Chartres, Royal, and Bourbon were in reality the ghosts from other cities, at least they were, observed beneath the street lamps, as skewered as the lusts that made them dance beneath the lamplight.
I came to love that slimy underbelly, that urge to wait until it was safe to walk in leather, to walk into an area where muggings prevailed but the men available in the bar rooms made even the unacceptable acceptable, walking up winding staircases to where future ghosts gathered and made love as if their past lives depended on it, down the streets towards a well-deserved rest until the entire circle could be resumed the next evening. But if you waited, if you watched, from the oddest corners of the bar where you had stood and maybe sucked and fucked, you could see the world around you reveal itself and slowly weave a web into your mind as what you saw became a fixed part of your consciousness.
Only New Orleans could weave such a mind-web. Only a city where the slavery of men in leather is accepted now as it once was many years ago, could you sense that you could never leave it, it could never leave you. And in the end, as cast and characters formed in my mind while the city seemed to beg itself to be written, I knew that I had found a home in New Orleans. Not like the home I went back to once the Mardi Gras was over. Not the home that I had found in Boston, which seemed to relate to so much of who I might have been in past existence, but a new-found home that in some distant future I might return to and realize that I had been there before, but not in that lifetime. I knew that although I could never truly live there, I could remain there, if only in the part of my brain I hoped would live forever. And maybe if I could put pen to paper and exorcise the fictitious people who had seemed to grow up from inside my mind, I could determine why for them, only that time, and only this place, could be home for them, and therefore, as well for me. I know that in the end the mind returns to where it was most happy, to where it was most hurt, to where it might need to return to correct the wrongs of the past or present in the future. I have known no wrongs in New Orleans, at least none that I can fathom. I have known only music, mayhem, merriment, and all those things that most tourists come there to uncover. And yes, the glories of sex, uninhibited sex.
But I have also known funeral processions, held in full costume as if only by painting on bright faces will the life of the deceased flow as his ashes now flow into the muddy Mississippi. And I thought that no other city could conjure up such a contradiction: the slow march down to the river, followed by the jubilation of ashes scattered on the water, where they too will one day be part of the delta. And it is the knowing that comes from understanding that beneath a gaily colored petticoat there is always dirty underwear that makes a mourner sing the city's praises as if he were part of some dubious heavenly choir. As evangelical as the sounds of that rising chorus is the jockstrap beneath the city's panties. As sensual as the singing of the Angels are the Angels themselves, who I hope will also prove to be nothing more than leather men in gauzy dresses. As constant is the need of human minds for human bodies is the wearing away of a river bed that makes the river mighty. As soiled are the linens of a Southern belle deflowered by the stable hand is the heart and soul of the city itself. And it is that soiled heart, beating in a chest cavity that might be almost a bosom with the right hormonal injections, that for me is the most endearing metaphor of all.
Yes, I came to New Orleans like all good tourists do, in the fall of 1992. I came to sip Mint Juleps on a shaded veranda, to visit old plantation houses that salved my gentle conscience by removing all of the former slave quarters, to sit in Jackson Square listening to the Dixieland bands playing just for me, to drink Bloody Mary's, Cajun Martinis, and to learn to mix a Polo Lounge Martini with champagne, vodka, and just a touch of Bitters. I ate Tasso, Gumbo, and Etouffe, and an occasional Muffaletta followed by a Beignet. I tried to two-step at a straight club one evening, then later sidestepped some sharp-toothed jaws, after coming away from the truck stop with a belly full of spicy Andouille sausage. I found friends, I lost friends. I searched always for the kindness of strangers, just as I searched for antiques, but only in the grungy stores that looked like they would reveal bargains. I spent a whole year working on a costume I would wear one time only on Mardi Gras Day. I attended Mardi Gras Balls, knowing that more balls could be found later in the leather bars and that for at least that evening tuxedos would be mixing in with leather chaps as we all followed one bouncing ball after another, singing "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." I picked up beads from the street and sometimes picked up strangers from the same spot where the beads had fallen. I washed the former and maintained the ripeness of the latter. I fixed paper lanterns over the light bulbs in the guest houses where I would stay so my gentlemen callers would never see that I no longer blushed beauty. I tried to hide the wrinkles, but never hid the kink. I made no apologies for the belly and blew cigar smoke in faces to further cloud their lines of vision.
I learned that all things exist as one in the Crescent City, that City That Care Forgot: the past, the present, the uncertain future, and the inevitable sinking into the bayou itself that might be the most poetic justice that there is. I learned that like the highborn Creole lady that the city is, who really is no lady, I can touch my toes into the riverbank, sink and slide into the muck for an hour or two, then reemerge from the mud, dirty as a blue dog from an afternoon of bitching, but glad for the experience . . . glad that I have sunk so low but come so far back up, if for no other reason, than for the telling of the story, which is my own Storyville, in my own mind and no one else's.
This essay forms the introduction to Max E. Verga's unpublished novel, The City That Care Forgot: A Fable of New Orleans.
RELATED STORY IN TRUE TALES
Mardi Gras. By Max E. Verga.
A chapter from The City That Care Forgot.
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