In 1991 I lived for a while in New Orleans, in an apartment on Esplanade, just beyond the French Quarter, where from time to time British tourists are murdered for refusing to hand over their video cameras to the cracked-out muggers who live and work nearby. I never had any trouble—I’ve never owned a video camera, either—even though I walked everywhere at all times.
I’d decided to come to New Orleans after a girlfriend and I passed through, on our way to Los Angeles from New York. We were delivering a car, and though, usually, you are allowed only a few hundred miles more than it takes to drive cross-continent in a straight line, our car’s original mileage had not been recorded, and so we zigzagged our way across the States, exceeding the normal distance by several thousand miles and thoroughly exhausting ourselves in the process. In the course of this frenzied itinerary we’d stayed only one night in New Orleans, but it—by which I mean the French Quarter rather than the city at large—seemed like the most perfect place in the world, and I vowed that when I next had a chunk of free time, I would return. I make such vows all the time without keeping them, but on this occasion, a year after first passing through, I returned to New Orleans to live for three months.
I spent the first few nights in the Rue Royal Inn while I looked for an apartment to rent. I hoped to find a place in the heart of the Quarter, somewhere with a balcony and rocking chairs and wind chimes, overlooking other places with rocking chairs and balconies, but I ended up on the dangerous fringes of the Quarter, in a place with a tiny balcony overlooking a vacant lot which seethed with unspecified threat as I walked home at night.
The only people I knew in New Orleans were James and Ian, a gay couple in their fifties, friends of an acquaintance of a woman I knew in London. They were extremely hospitable, but because they were a good deal older than I and because they both had AIDS and liked to live quietly, I settled quickly into a routine of work and solitude. In films, whenever a man moves to a new town—even if he has served a long jail term for murdering his wife—he soon meets a woman at the checkout of the local supermarket or at the diner where he has his first breakfast. I spent much of my thirties moving to new towns, towns where I knew no one, and I never met a woman in the supermarket or the Croissant d’Or, where I had breakfast on my first morning in New Orleans. Even though I did not meet a waitress at the aptly named Croissant d’Or, I continued to have breakfast there every day because they served the best almond croissants I had (and have) ever tasted. Some days it rained for days on end, the heaviest rain I had ever seen (I’ve seen worse since), but however hard it was raining I never missed my breakfast at the Croissant d’Or, partly because of the excellence of the croissants and coffee, but mainly because going there became part of the habitual rhythm of my day.
In the evenings I went to the bar across the road, the Port of Call, where I tried, unsuccessfully, to engage the barmaid in conversation while watching the Gulf War on CNN. On the night of the first air strikes against Baghdad, the bar was rowdy with excitement and foreboding. Yellow ribbons were tied around many of the trees on Esplanade, which I walked up every day on my way to the Croissant d’Or, where, as I ate my almond croissants, I liked to read the latest reports from the Gulf, either in the New York Times or in the local paper, whose name—the Louisiana something?—I have forgotten. After breakfast I walked home and worked for as long as I could, and then strolled through the Quarter, led on, it seemed, by the sound of wind chimes, which hung from almost every building. It was January but the weather was mild, and I often sat by the Mississippi reading about New Orleans and its history. Because the city is located at the mouth of the Mississippi, its foundations are in mud, and each year the buildings sink more deeply into it. As well as being warped by the sun and rotted by rain and humidity, many of the buildings in the Quarter sloped markedly as a result of subsidence. This straying from the vertical was complemented by a horizontal drift. The volume of detritus carried south by the Mississippi was such that the river was silting itself up and changing course so that, effectively, the city was moving. Every year the streets moved a fraction of an inch in relation to the river, subtly altering the geography of the town. Decatur Street, for example, where James and Ian lived, had moved several degrees from the position recorded on nineteenth-century maps.
As I sat by the Mississippi one afternoon, a freight rumbled past on the railroad track behind me, moving very slowly. I’d always wanted to hop a freight, and I sprang up, trying to muster up the courage to leap aboard. The length of the train and its slow speed meant that I had a long time—too long—to contemplate hauling myself aboard, but I was frightened of getting into trouble or injuring myself, and I stood there for five minutes, watching the boxcars clank past, until finally there were no more carriages and the train had passed. Watching it curve out of sight, I was filled with magnolia-tinted regret, the kind of feeling you get when you see a woman in the street, when your eyes meet for a moment but you make no effort to speak to her and then she is gone and you spend the rest of the day thinking that, had you spoken, she would have been pleased, not offended, and you would, perhaps, have fallen in love with each other. You wonder what her name might have been. Angela perhaps. Instead of hopping the freight, I went back to my apartment on Esplanade and had the character in the novel I was working on do so.
When you are lonely, writing can keep you company. It is also a form of self-compensation, a way of making up for things—as opposed to making things up—that did not quite happen.
As the eventless weeks went by it became warmer and more humid, and Mardi Gras drew near. A condition of renting my apartment was that I move out during Mardi Gras, when it was possible to charge four or five times the normal weekly rate. Fortunately, James and Ian were going away and they allowed me to stay in their place on Decatur which was no longer quite as close to the river as it had once been. At first it was fun, Mardi Gras. I liked the sport of trying to catch stuff—plastic beakers, beads, and other trinkets, rubbish really—thrown from the crazy floats inching through the crowded streets. It was like a cross between basketball and being in a mob of refugees scrambling for food rations thrown by soldiers. Being tall, I could outreach most people, even though there are some tall men, mainly black, in Louisiana; the whites are shorter for the most part, easy to outjump. One night I was part of a herd buffaloing along Rampart, leaping for beakers and beads, when gunshots were heard. Suddenly everyone was screaming and we were all running in panic. For some reason—it had never happened before—one of my knees gave way and I lurched forward into the person ahead of me, would have fallen to the ground if I hadn’t grabbed hold of him. This initiated another brief surge of panic, and then everyone stopped running and there were sirens and police everywhere and things returned to the normal Mardi Gras uproar.
As the carnival progressed so it became more unpleasant, almost a bore. The Quarter was jammed with college kids and tins of Budweiser and broken plastic beakers, and the streets reeked of old beer and fresh vomit. The flip side of this was the extravagant balls organized by various krewes. Ian had given me his invitation to one of these bashes, where I met Angela, a young black woman who was studying wealth accumulation at law school. The day after the ball she came round to James and Ian’s apartment wearing freshly laundered Levi’s and a red blouse. Her hair was tied back in a ribbon, also red. We stood side by side on the balcony, drinking white wine in glasses so fine you hardly dared hold them. Our hands on the balcony rail were only inches apart. I moved my hand until it almost touched hers, and then it was touching hers and she didn’t move her hand away, so I stroked her arm.
Copyright© 2003 by Geoff Dyer