I've come to New Orleans in October, reminded instantly on arrival that this is one of the best times to visit--there's a giant spider's web hanging over the entrance to baggage claim. Halloween!!!! Up and down the street where I'm staying, the porches are retablos, works in progress, French doors now altars, house by house, the entrances drip Mardi Gras beads, skeletons wave in the breeze, RIP is scrawled across doors, a ghost sits in a rocking chair, holds a beer.
Though death is always in the air here, where the graves are raised--out of necessity because of the wetlands--but also because there is an intimacy with death, which is celebrated with music, with dance, with a second-line marching band if you're lucky! It is the spirit world that the Africans brought with them when kidnapped from their homes. Historians say there was a powerful subversive refusal to give up their beliefs, their voodoo, their communication with the other world. the next world, which was the same world. Their beliefs seeped into the groundwater of the rest of the population, where now whites and blacks painted their porch ceilings "haint" blue, a color believed to ward off "haunts," or ghosts, that certainly roamed the streets and byways.
Last night I left my rented New Orleans' bungalow and headed down Chestnut, took a right turn instead of a left, decided to take to the street since the sidewalks were buckled from tree roots. I saw two young women coming my way--in heels, clip-clopping down the sidewalk as if it were a smooth runway. I asked them which way was Magazine.
One said, Turn around and go straight, you'll hit in five minutes.
Then I walked behind them for a bit, heard one girl say to the other: "Must not be from here."
I had to answer. "My Daddy was."
She answered back, after a quick whoop of laughter: "Then you ain't visited your Daddy in a long time!"
I laughed too, then said, "My Daddy's long dead."
I found Magazine and a fine eating establishment, where I had a dinner of shrimp and grits, a glass of pinot, a dessert of butterscotch pudding, which I'd told the waiter was almost the best tasting thing I could remember. I didn't say but thought about the cup of ice cream I'd get as a child down the block in Shreveport, a real treat that my father would suggest out of the clear blue, out of a longing for "something sweet." Then I'd always get vanilla with butterscotch topping. So last night I had my Proustian moment, tasting the butterscotch of years ago, remembering the picnic table warmed by the sun, my feet bare, all my senses overwhelmed by sweet and cold.
My friend Robert Ford wrote on FB from where he is in the United Arab Emirates that I MUST return to the restaurant of last night and have the hamburger and fried pickles.
Again, the memories rise up: Robert and I jostled down the busy French Quarter streets as we are led by a couple we'd just met at the 504 Club who wanted to take us to a "special" bar. Once on the steps of the nightclub, they both turned, expectant eyes--A foursome? the man asked. Robert and I gave some apologies, scrambled down the steps and into the crowded street. We were stopping in New Orleans before going to SCMLA, where we were to read our papers at a conference.
Today I'm on a porch of a bungalow on the corner of Marengo and Chestnut, an oak and a magnolia, mature, magnificent trees grow on the easement, a Jazzfest flag flies on the front porch, and behind green shuttered doors, the artist from whom I'm renting is in the next door duplex, sleeping.
It is noon.
She'd said to me last night as she herded me into her part of the bungalow--"Oh I can think now. I've had my second drink. Come in and tell me your life history."
She'd said she usually paints all night. A large cat leapt into her lap.
Her artwork is everywhere--colorful, powerful, representational.
She told me she'd never taken art classes. "I'm considered a folk artist," she'd said. On the weekends she paints in Jackson Square.
I felt as if I'd stumbled into a Mardi Gras parade, a panoply of pure New Orleans. We were surrounded by her images of black musicians, Cajun fiddlers, Cajun fishermen, dancing people in flip-flops, holding beer cans. There were dogs and dancing women; men sweating over pianos; then there were the ones she'd said are her "disaster series." People in fishing boats saving people from houses in the 9th Ward. The houses still intact, pinks, blues, yellows, greens. Children have their hands in the air. Helicopters dot the sky.
Those are the ones that put her on the "art" map, she'd said, the ones that have sold, and sold and sold. Right there, she'd pointed, that's a ten thousand dollar painting. Her former partner's (and still her closest friend) work is everywhere both on her side and my side of the bungalow. His name is Bob, and I'm sure his name is well-known in these parts.
She'd sat on her daybed/couch, petted the cat with one hand, took big gulps of her drink with the other, speaking with a husky voice over the jazz in the background, popping one piece of gum after another--for certain she's "doing" some nicotine replacement --Oh how she reminded me of my sister Gail: the sound of the ice cubes, the husky voice, the sailor's tongue, the biting critique of the "for shit cabdrivers," the people who advertise places for rent in the Garden District, when "they aren't fucking anywhere near the fucking Garden District, honey."
There was a large canvas portrait of her over the television Her in profile; she was thirty years younger, and beautiful. Bob had painted it when, she said, she still had 'that glow,' -- you know she said, with a conspiratorial smile, the first year, the second, in a wordless explanation about the glow captured on the canvas. She stared for a minute at the portrait and said, "I don't think we're an item anymore."
She took another sip of her drink and said, "I don't think he'll ever finish it."
He once lived where I'm staying, but now sleeps on a cot in his downtown studio.
I'm surrounded by Bob.
She'd seen my portfolio of art when she'd showed me around my side of the house.
I'd flipped open a page to show her one piece. She flipped another ---"Abstract. Abstract. Abstract." Strike one, strike two, strike three against me; I certainly got the message--not her style.
You abstract artists, she'd said. There's NO statement! Nothing Political. All about yourself.
I didn't argue, but later I'd looked through my work and thought of the color of the thought, the tension behind the brushstroke, and thought about the way CNN Breaking News is usually in the background while I make art.
But I remembered the art I made after the BP spill, the colors of sick at heart. A feather tarred: gray and black and even blacker, my heart, that day, those birds.
I remember my first year of painting--dark, dark was my palette. The flying ghost girl is from that time: deep purples, black from the tube.
See this black? I wanted to argue. See this gold. These are the colors of my leaving. These are the shapes of my departures.
These frayed and fragile fabrics buried in the paper, the canvas? The warp and weave of me, now, living in New England, learning to be who I am within the parameters of a disease I share with thousands; these are the colors of my thrashing; these are the colors of my peace.
And here!-- my mother's earrings; and my dog Jack's heart-shaped tag: this Fleur de lis charm from my bracelet I wore when I was fourteen.
See the spackled greens of hot summer sun through the leaves? And there, the purple of wisteria; and here the tender pink of the heart of the camellia; and here the hot pink of mimosa. The camellia, my mother's favorite flower. She'd take one flower from the bush and float it singly in a bowl of water.
The mimosa, the tree I fell from when I was twelve. After coming out of surgery, the surgeon said, I know all about Tommy Jett now.
Last night while walking to Magazine Street, I smelled mimosa. I stopped and sniffed, then turned around to retrace my steps. Where was it? Was it jasmine instead? How sweet the smell of memory, a broken bone and a lost love, fused, and over time a memory so alive I can taste it in the air of New Orleans on the corner of General Taylor and Camp.
I looked down at the map on my phone. Prytania Street, two blocks over, the street where Lillian Hellman--the subject of my dissertation-- grew up, where she sat in a fig tree and read books, skipping school.
I remembered the night Geoff, my Louisiana man, and I huddled in a doorway in the Quarter during Mardi Gras, freezing, but still clutching cold, cold beers, and overhead there was a speaker blaring Janis' hoarse voice, "Take another little piece of my heart, . . . ." .
What is personal? What is political?
That was what I wanted to ask her. Instead I steeped in my own homesickness, brewing a mix of joy and sorrow, a gris-gris--"In working, the inanimate object often becomes, or is inhabited, by the spirit."-- a juju, "to create an object containing the elements of a living thing used to make magic, also a type of ghost or soul.................."
I think of the spirit world.
I am haunted.