Tuesday, August 4, 2015

On Bartholomew Street

Unlike past mornings, today the sky is overcast, with thunderclouds to the southeast. The dog and I have already been around the block, and are turning the corner at Bartholomew Street and Royal to head home when I see this person striding down the sidewalk waving her arms.

I stop, thinking she’s talking to me. “What’s he giving away on the corner? Is that scaffolding?” she says.

Monday, August 3, 2015


Glass watering globe
New Orleanians are generous people. Perhaps it's something about being in a city where resources are dear; people feel compelled to share what little they have.

We've already been gifted with small kindnesses from people we barely know, in a way that would never happen in Los Angeles.

On our third morning in town, around ten o'clock, a knock came at the door. It was Tom, the man around the corner we'd met as he drank a beer at the tailgate of his pick-up truck the previous evening. I'd mentioned I wanted to go look at a neighborhood thrift store to look for a small table to add to the bathroom.

Tom held a little, wrought-iron plant stand. "You said you needed a table. I thought this might work for you," he said.

It would and it does. The next time I encountered him while walking the dog, I told him how perfect it was.

I talked with our next door neighbor Jera about the hanging baskets on the porch. "You need those glass watering globes," she said, "to keep them moist."

This morning when I came home from an errand, there were three pretty glass watering globes on my porch next to the bag of potting soil.

Our other neighbor lent us a screwdriver when we needed it. "Don't worry," he said. "Give it back when you're all done."

Of course, when you receive, it's always good to give back in return. Today, another neighbor asked if we had a computer and printer. Could we print him a picture of something he wanted to make a painting of?

Of course we could. We just hand-delivered it to his door.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

President of my own railroad

Coming from a rural mountain community, it takes some getting used to, to live in a city. And especially a city like New Orleans. And especially in a neighborhood like the Bywater, a funky-butt, industrial-adjacent, river-adjacent, railroad-adjacent place.
8/2/2015, 4:14 PM 
From: [Aunt Snow]@gmail.com
To: General Manager & Chief Executive Officer, New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, [Redacted]@nopb.com; Executive Assistant, [Redacted]@nopb.com 
I'm a Bywater resident. There's been a NOPB locomotive idling near Alvar Street and Chartres Street for the last twelve hours. 
Why do you idle a locomotive in a residential neighborhood for twelve hours?  
I understand railroad operations are important, but this engine came in the early hours of the morning and has been burning fuel for the last twelve hours, while doing absolutely nothing. How much fuel are you wasting to disturb my neighborhood's Sunday? 
What the heck is wrong with you people? 
I would appreciate the courtesy of a reply.
Yours, with best regards, 
[Aunt Snow]
I fired off this missive after a Sunday brunch at The Franklin restaurant in the Marigny, where I'd enjoyed a crabmeat tostada and a couple of cocktails involving tequila. 

[The Man I Love] thought perhaps I was being a little too curmudgeonly, and also a little privileged. After all, I knew there were trains here before we chose to move in, right?

On the other hand, I've just retired from a public agency job where citizens weren't reluctant to call our office to complain about the volume of whistles from beach volleyball coaches, which we were supposed to take seriously and help mitigate. This was a diesel locomotive rumbling away for over twelve hours. I figured I had a substantial complaint.

Here's what I didn't expect:

8/2/2015, 4:55 PM 
From: [Redacted]
To: [Aunt Snow]@gmail.com 
I apologize for the locomotive idling for a prolonged period of time. Someone is going over now to shut it down. Our locomotives are equipped with a "smart start" system that is supposed to shut down the locomotive after it has been idling for an extended period of time (usually less than an hour). Obviously the system is not working properly or it was taken offline and not re-engaged. We will look into this episode to try and prevent it from happening again. 
I apologize for the inconvenience. 
COO - New Orleans Public Belt
Ten minutes later? The locomotive was silenced.

Lord Buckley
So I'm going up State Street, in this elongated car, and there's a sweet dew wild crazy illiterate smooth cruddy smaze on the street. And I'm going up State Street and I'm still locked in, I'm locked in tight, I'm just goofin' along pretty good and I, suddenly I feel this shift of the bumper....Just then I hit a little raise in the pavement and I... rrmmmmp... boom...right over... and right in the middle of those flat State Street car tracks with my big fat bulgin' tires and all of a sudden..WHACK!..I had my own railroad.

Front porch

At our new house, we've got the right kind of porch for sitting on. But when we arrived the four hanging baskets of Boston fern were sadly wilting. And after a few days of heat, it was clear that they were dead.

So today I went up to Harold's Plants on St. Claude and bought what I needed to refurbish the baskets. 

Here they are now - I've planted each one with a large begonia and surrounded it with interesting foliage plants - tradescantia, ferns and creeping jenny.

Bobby at Harold's Plants told me how to plant with the coco-fiber baskets. Harold's is right next to the Press Street railroad tracks, and is a gardener's paradise. I have a feeling I'll be spending a lot of time up at Harold's Plants. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Another part of town

Yesterday evening we met friends Naomi and Louie in another part of town. This is the marina on Lake Pontchartrain, by the yacht clubs and fine seafood restaurants.

When we pulled off Lakeshore Drive into the public parking lot, the air was still warm off the lake, and to the south a huge pink cumulus cloud bulged in the still-blue sky. We took an elevator up to the restaurant. Below its pilings a bad dixieland band played and misters cooled people sitting out at the casual cafe by the boats.

After we ate our fill of charbroiled oysters, crab cakes, and calamari, Louie said, "Follow us," and we caravaned after their Prius around the marina, past little stilt-raised houses and boats, to the end of the breakwater.

Here, people parked at the circle, looking out over the lake or back over the harbor where the neon-trimmed lighthouse tower glowed in front of a dusky sky. Men crouched patiently on upturned buckets, casting lines out into the water. Teenage girls sat on the roof of a van, their faces upturned to catch the breeze, and their bare feet planted on the still sun-warm windshield.

The pink cloud was now a dark thunderhead, flashes of internal lightning fluttering within like a moth in a lamp.

We sat around the bend of the concrete breakwater, sheltered from the splashing waves, watching the boats come back into the harbor, as the sky slowly darkened. You could see a pale glow beyond the lights, where the full moon was rising up from the misty horizon.

This is a Blue Moon, the second full moon in a month. It wasn't actually blue, though, not this one. It was golden, like an apricot hanging low from a branch. Just ours for the taking.

Friday, July 31, 2015

My my

There are cryptic messages all over New Orleans. There's something about life in this city that inspires its residents to make their feelings known, emblazoning the environment with their own unique forms of expression.

Both verbal and non-verbal, the messages may range from stern admonishments against unauthorized parking to philosophical musings, or simple expressions of joy, like draping one's porch railings with hundreds of carnival beads.

There are many iterations of the ubiquitous "Be nice or leave" slogan created by street artist Dr. Bob - no less truthful, despite its simplicity.

This is a place where messages abound, and it's sometimes hard to figure out their meaning.

The other day walking down Chartres Street to breakfast at Elizabeth's we spotted a message inked on the clapboards of a Creole cottage under renovation. "My my," it said. And then a good distance away, "Got ahead of yourself huh."

Who's to know what the author this message meant, and for whom it was intended? Was it for someone in particular or was it a warning for the public in general? Was there a connection between the message and the wall it was written on,or was the wall chosen at random?

Because there are so many messages, and because meaning is hard to fathom let's just say it's best to take them all in stride.

Don't get ahead of yourself.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The afternoon storm breaks

It was a hot afternoon, so steamy that I was glad I'd brought my cheap Chinese dime-store parasol to shield me from the baking sun as we walked out. On Dauphine Street, we turned into Vaughan's Lounge, soothed immediately by the cool darkness of the bar-room.

The place was almost empty. There were two TV screens. One was tuned to a sports channel; the other one to the weather channel, showing blue maps with swirling green and orange storms behind the cheerful announcer.

The bartender brought me a gin and tonic and a tall glass of water. It went down cool.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Flight over Los Angeles

Image from wikicommons
The week before we moved out of our Topanga house, we took a quick trip up to the Bay Area, to visit our son at Berkeley.

The plane coming home flew south along the coast then it turned inland, flying over Los Angeles.  It was late afternoon, and it was crystal-clear and bright. I looked out the window at the city, taking in the details. Everything looked as crisp and as sharp as a satellite photo.

There's UCLA. Century City, windows glinting in the sun. The Hollywood sign, right there! There's Griffith Observatory. There's Dodger Stadium. There's the downtown library, and the Eastern Columbia Building, its aqua tiles gleaming. I was so moved by the view of the city that I couldn't even think to take a photo.

Just over the Los Angeles River the plane banked around and headed back to the coast, descending over the 405 freeway to the runway.

It was like the pilot had given me a parting gift, an overview of my city. Farewell to Los Angeles - for now.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In the Bywater

Our front porch
 Our new neighborhood in New Orleans is called the Bywater. In New Orleans, you don't talk about north, east, south, or west; your directional references are the two bodies of water that exert their tidal and cultural pull on the city that nestles between them - Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

So instead of saying something is west of the French Quarter, you say it's "uptown." And instead of saying something is north of the French Quarter, you say it's to the "lakeside."

This morning's train
 Here in the Bywater, we are downtown from the French Quarter, and we are definitely riverside. The Mississippi River runs just beyond our street, beyond the levee. Railroad tracks run between us and the river, and the music of trains' horns, the shriek and sizzle of wheels on tracks, and the rumble of moving cars are a part of our daily soundscape.

The tracks take a turn through the neighborhood at Press Street, and this is the uptown boundary of the Bywater. Its downtown boundary is the Industrial Canal. The neighborhood used to be known simply as the Upper Ninth Ward, but in the 1940s, to distinguish it from new housing being developed lakeside, it was dubbed "Bywater" after the telephone exchange prevalent in the area (remember named telephone exchanges?).

It's not a fancy place. Its rows of Creole cottages and shotgun houses were built for working class people, who worked on the Mississippi docks and in the industrial and service businesses in the neighborhood. During the '70s and '80s, as the economy worsened, the neighborhood declined and became a dangerous slum. In the '90s and early 2000s, artists and a more bohemian element moved in, but even in 1996 when I first started coming here, tourists were warned to stay out of the Bywater.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, the Bywater remained mostly dry, like the French Quarter, being on ground marginally higher than the rest of the city. It wasn't until after Katrina, that the gentrification of the Bywater really began.

Today, it's kind of a mixed bag. When I take my morning walk with Jack, I'm sometimes astonished at how bad the streets and sidewalks are - cracked and bulging, broken or simply not there at all, and weeds overgrowing anyplace they can take hold.

And sometimes they're not weeds, but beautiful flowers - yet still overgrown.

Beautifully restored houses sit side-by-side with ruins - although most of these ruins have building permits tacked up on their siding, fortelling improvements to come. On one block, a graffiti-smeared warehouse is ringed with razor wire, while on the next block, a similar warehouse has been transformed by real estate developers into "artists' lofts." There are rusty old heaps parked at the curbs, and respectable new compact cars (no luxury cars, though, not yet anyway.)

Artist loft real estate development
On my morning walk, I encounter a lot of different people, who all greet me. There's an elderly lady who sweeps her doorstep and waters her plants; an eccentric old gentleman who sits on a cluttered stoop with his cat, reading the paper, I say good morning to young black men or boys riding their bikes to work or school; to a jogger running with his pit bull; to a young woman dressed in business attire, leaving for work.

At the coffee shop, the other morning, we saw two men at another table eat their breakfast and tend to a toddler in an elaborate stroller. Down the street, a dad and his three kids rode by on fat-tired bikes. Our next door neighbor drives a vintage black hearse, emblazoned with slogans, and around the corner yesterday evening, a man sitting on the curb drinking a beer joked about how the neighborhood has changed. "You can't find a good crack whore anywhere these days," he says. He lives in a three-story mansion, enclosed by a fenced garden of lush banana trees and palms.

Out of the corner of your eye, you'll see quirky things - painted signs with proclamations, or odd artifacts and tokens.

It's a strange place; a place with a shabby beauty. It's a place people feel conflicted about. It's changed a lot - certainly if it hadn't changed, we couldn't safely be here -  but our very presence here as outsiders is changing it, too.

Yet even living here one week, I am already feeling a kind of irrational nostalgia. This is a common phenomenon with gentrification. It's an ironic joke - the hipster who came here two years ago deploring the "new people" moving in.

This will be a year rich in experience and inspiration.