Published on December 12th, 2017 | by Hannah Baker Saltmarsh0
The Red House in the Marigny
Two summers ago when New Orleans was still home, a drunk driver cruised our street while passed out on the steering wheel. I came in the front door, my infant son still asleep in the jogging stroller, only minutes before the truck scrawled across the imaginary line where I’d just run. Before he crashed into our neighbor’s home, the drunk drove over our sidewalk and smeared the streetlight and hydrant accidentally like the neighborhood was a smacked mosquito that, as part of dying, stains your arm with one straggly dot of pulp, and you think, Is that the whole thing?
The truck pierced our neighbor’s home, gouged out the window in the front, impaling also the taped Lost Dog poster there, and with it, all the imploring grief of the bereft. For at least a year afterwards, a slab of plywood would sit in the window, and there was no new sign about the dog. The lost pit-bull must have been hit and probably by a drunk driver, too, because it never did come home. Their home, holding hands with ours, looked stupefied with rancor after the crash.
The woman who owned the home that was hit, who every day wore a black sock cap, a black tank top, and black cargo capris, tinkered with her home like an answer to religious orders for carpentry. Though devout, she bounded almost daily from one renovation to the next, each in different stages of development, like a laying on of hands at a tent revival. Her house, the girth of several, was once a bar, and she scrubbed the façade down to see in painted red letters, the original signage offering 35-cent highballs and 13-cent local beers. Her girlfriend, with giggly Shirley Temple hair but black, and whose eyelashes were so knowing they must have been sentient, didn’t care either that the property, almost a century old, was worth a million dollars. They’d started a life together dreaming about rescuing this property in the swamp-hot Marigny from termites and oblivion and renters who don’t give a shit. To finish renovating the home once and for all would have meant to stop dreaming.
New Orleans homes are dreams oft interrupted, that walk in and out of nightmare. The most common face-lift is a paint job that resembles the work of three wet neon markets all to distract from the artificial intelligence of termites eating at the bones of a home until it sways like the elderly in August to the ground. The poet Yusef Komunyakaa wrote poems about the Vietnam War in his head, going up and down a ladder as he tinkered with his home on the 800 block of Piety. Ten years after Katrina, a friend was still working on her home: living the nightmare in the dream.
Ours was decidedly not a house but a home, part of a block, in the Faubourg Marigny in the city of New Orleans. A home with personhood, with the shutters and siding painted in yellow, turquoise, and flamenco-dress red; a home where cars with “New Orleans: Proud to Call It Home” bumper stickers sidled up against its curb; a home that still sleeps in a crèche of double shotguns, single shotguns, and creole cottages that come in electric pastels and primaries, imitating island flowers. A bar and a café at most street corners, restaurants too, and blocks away, the river, music clubs and an outdoor art market, we didn’t have to go far to go out. Some days, as far as our front stoop, and we’d be catching miniature parade throws, martini glasses the size of thumbs. What felt like our first real home, and in a city we’d stayed six years, the longest my husband and I had lived anywhere as adults, the red house in the Marigny was where we first hung that cheap wood frame dotted with Abita beer bottle caps, twinkling around the words in all caps, “Home Sweet Home” by the Bywater artist Dr. Bob, infamous also for his “Be Nice or Leave” signage in local cafés. Dr. Bob art was only loud in Washington, D.C., where we’d hang it next.
What if I had been a little slower coming home, or stopped to text my mom a picture of my sleeping baby? Our sidewalk, like most of them in the city, was pricked through with bumpy tree roots, coursing uneven waves and valleys in the pavement, and, because fixing them would mean wrestling with tree roots enmeshed in the plumbing, roots as old as those Cypresses in the swamps and bayous, the crags in the sidewalks weren’t ever going to be fixed.
The drunk driver smote the stoplight before it had the chance to turn red, halting cars the way streetlights just after dusk pop on like a maternal warning. When I was young and playing in the neighborhood streets, the streetlights called me back inside before dark: this was before I ever saw a wreathed bicycle memorial or a pink teddy bear beside a bouquet of wild flowers by the road. Before I ever thought a bullet could tear through the siding of my house and across my couch in the afternoon, and that a female cop would mock me, We’re not CSI! I can’t tell you where every little stray’s from. If I did that, I couldn’t do my real job.
The driver startled awake after colliding through the stoplight, nicking the hydrant, and tearing into window and wall: he hadn’t seen anything he hit until after, except maybe in dream, facedown on the wheel. He ejected from the truck shocked, left the keys in it like a gas oven knob left to the lite notch, the smell of leaky gas so close I thought it would seep under our door and poison my children at night. It’s impossible to believe, except if it almost happens or actually happens, that you and your children could have been killed that randomly and blindly, in your own neighborhood, the jogging stroller crushed and then fenced in with crime-scene yellow ribbon.
I only ran in the evening because of the heat. I’d done the same thing when my daughter was a baby. Zipping past Zumba in Crescent Park, along the river walk where I’d take the baby out in the stroller, I would stare at my son’s tilted-head sleep into the deepest kind of religion one could have with a person. Alicia Ostriker said our ideas of God come from a mother obsessed with her new baby: “I am telling you and you can take me for a fool there is no/ good time like the good time a whole mama/ has with a whole little baby.”
What is a drunk driver but a slow-motion baby, unafraid to explore? But with too powerful a machine attached to him, wrecking across bodies found with cell phones ringing their terrible rings from inside the pockets of the dead. Or someone’s best friend, pulled out of the car into the stretcher, with his glasses inlaid like stones in his skull: more than a victim of another inebriated person’s Halloween. A friend’s home was once run into, during a violent moment of Batman, and she thought it was the movie, but it was the truck underneath her: the drunk undergraduate with his father’s money written all over it. My friend’s uncle, when his home was finally fixed after the storm, drove into it by mistake. The trauma of a car pouring into the trauma of home.
I knew alcohol was why car insurance was worse in New Orleans than anywhere else in the country, the worst. People drink from plastic to-go cups on sidewalks, in the road, on front stoops: you drink on the way to drinking. New Orleans is an on-going party, sometimes with wigs, zombie face-paint, or leather butt-less pants. Parents get beer and a pizza by the park, have a picnic with their kids, and drinking is not a thing, but, like the color black, it goes with everything. New Orleans, hardly American, is the northern-most part of the Caribbean, where everyone goes out, not just slinky underage chicks, but grandmothers, ending up somehow on the performer’s arm at a club. Church people fest with each other, spread out at the US Mint, listening to zydeco, blues, jazz, drinking not the mint-juleps you might expect, but beer, hurricanes, with small plates of fried green tomatoes, shrimp remoulade, crawfish bread, red beans and rice. It’d be weird not to drink. The mailboxes, they lock up from the inside during Mardi Gras so no one pours libations down the blue trove of bills and birthday cards. All the art is in magical primaries: the wet oval blue swimming in the watercolor tray, the sex-red of a jazz singer’s mouth, the yellow hurricane shutters opened like fauna unfurling. Everything we like is yellow, did you notice that? my husband said, when we first moved here, leaning in, and it seemed like we were whispering how much we loved each other in New Orleans.
We moved to New Orleans without knowing where we’d live. I went to an interview in a Penske truck, and my then boyfriend unpacked half the truck to find my high heels. I fell in love first with the colors of the houses, then the art, then the river, then the concept that you could drink in public and walk around and look at the houses, the art, and the river.
Lagniappe, a state of mind as much as a word, meaning something extra, means that New Orleanians like to share a little more of this or that which you did not expect and did not know to ask for. My best friends, two sexy nerds and one lovingly turbulent artist, would say such-and-such made not just their day, but their entire existence, and theirs was the special gift for lagniappe exaltation. I tried to learn those quirky limitations on accepting generosity, akin to rules about not eating gumbo outside of the family. Like if you say you’re coming to a party, you can’t then not attend. There are moments during carnival when to accept a drink on the merits of it being freely given to you are no longer tenable at that hour, in that state, at that point in carnival. I never learned the technique of getting out of what I thought was lagniappe conversation, more than what I had initially felt I agreed to listen to, and I had to be rescued many times by various men in church, trying to assist my get-away from their wives: Just go to your car. She’ll never stop talking. Or She’ll be still talking from the casket, so go.
All of the neighbors were watching. The drunk driver got out of his truck, moved as slowly as how fast he imagined escape, and said Mea Culpa while flapping like a pigeon about to whirl down dead from the sky. Why he reached out for the bouncer at the corner bar, Lost Love Lounge, I don’t know; it seems like he came in for a hug. I still don’t know what became of the tackled drunk driver, but the streetlight was put up in the next day’s languid light. My neighbor said something about how she didn’t want to deal with insurance: she’d fix it herself, pointing to the window.
New Orleans is not a place where children should or should not be: it is a place of childhood like Neverland, and it’s not good or bad, but contingent. Look at my children born in New Orleans, still wearing it in D.C.: my daughter in her uniform of a too-short, tutu piped like waves, a bike helmet or some other chandelier of a hat, her favorite beads with the pink heeled boot in the middle from the only all-female crew; and at my son, hatted and heeled in his sister’s get-up or his cowboy boots. It is a good place for childhood. For some, New Orleans is too good a place, and the love of toys and dress-up and parties is intoxicating.
Are you a twirler? Do you like to twirl? my daughter once asked a guest, whirling herself over couches and across the red house in the Marigny: the home that is one continuous room, without doors. Shotgun houses, where you could fire a shot from one end of the house to the other, from front door straight out into the yard. I got used to walking through a bedroom to get to the kitchen, with another bedroom past that: there’s no private space as opposed to common space in a home. Just like children invited over to a friend’s will run into a room, tear open the dress-up bin, dump and sort through toys, not even knowing what they are looking for until they find it, adults too can swoop and browse, borrow and inhabit, disguise and pretend. Why not try on your next-door neighbor’s blue and green wigs while feeding her cats? She probably does the same when you’re out of town.
A neighbor gave us a copy of her gate key to use her pool for whenever we wanted to cool off, and, once, while squatting down, fed us Crawfish Monica from the casserole dish, spooning it to us below in the pool like we were babies. When your friends live in shotgun houses, you do a lot of sitting on women’s beds: how often did I march right from the door to the bed, to comment on this dress or that for an outdoors summer wedding, to ooze with respect over the deal a friend snagged on designer shoes for nineteen dollars? Two of my best girlfriends had daughters my age. One friend was something between a mother and a slightly older sister, a more elegant, wiser mean girl you’d be scared of in middle school.
Being a neighbor in New Orleans is a full-time occupation, and involves watching other people’s pets and children, cooking for people, eating and drinking together, and conversing as many times as you set foot outside. Being a neighbor also means someone will help you bury your dog, someone will wait for you to bring the baby home from the hospital. Someone will check in on you while your partner’s away for a trip because he knows what it’s like to be a “widow for the weekend.” I knew when we left New Orleans, we’d never have neighbors again: I couldn’t look at a neighbor sobbing, her hand pressed onto the moving van like a rose on top of a casket. She was devastated at losing not me, but my daughter who traded words for grapes, and they were, the two of them, though separated by decades, like schoolgirls collecting marbles.
At first, I loved New Orleans more when I had my children: we danced together at Jazz Fest, we acquired floppy summer hats and sunglasses, we talked to neighbors even more. My toddler became as verbose as southern grandmother. My daughter could peel crawfish while holding a conversation about death by the time she was three. Happy Mardi Gras! she’d say to anyone who passed our street, handing them a piece of dead grass, a broken twig, leaves, or a torn straw wrapper. All year long. Every holiday, and there’s at least one a month, we’d tour the neighborhood by foot to look at decorations, Halloween décor rivaling major holidays, in search of our toddler’s approval: a family of spiders in foamy webs, whole sun porches devoted to elegantly wrought pumpkin-lanterns, and omnipresent stray black cats who are suddenly ambiance, or the real thing emerging out of the stoops of voodoo dolls and ghosts. Our church, 175 years old, celebrated everything in true New Orleans fashion, more in tune with spirituality than religion. I came to expect contradictions living in harmony: a near-saint is a secret nudist, and of course she will tell you she hasn’t used her stripper pole in years, erect against the grand piano in her bedroom, but there’s no way of knowing.
When we left New Orleans, my daughter asked if we could bring the red house with us on a lowboy. Later, when she saw a 9,000-pound elephant named Bossy Bosey at the Washington Zoo who came all the way from Louisiana in a truck, she believed it was still possible to go back and get the red house. After leaving the city and the South, we filled our apartment with New Orleans art, Crescent City running posters, pictures of us in costumes, and it’s still not enough to destroy what my husband calls graduate-student housing, “a beige nightmare,” with the walls and carpets the color of soymilk.
The very-pregnant topless woman cycling in a carnival parade years ago had made the Marigny more fertile, and in her wobbly smile, had summarily dominated all the bronze statues of nursing warrior-women I’d seen in art museums. But the summer I had my second baby was an awakening. The “Be Nice Or Leave” sign is everything I want to tell that drunk driver; although, in the end, I was the one who left. Holding my baby, seeing where he could have been killed in front of me, made me miss my own mother in the Mid-Atlantic. I chose one home over another home. I didn’t know how much I’d miss the Marigny or that I’d think of where my children were born as license to dream ourselves into all being from there. The question of moving back is still there, but in the meantime, I know the way a place inhabits a person.