Po Boy Views
Invitation to the Blues
Where I’m sometimes staying now is a typical New Orleans experience, whether you’re Streetcar Named Desire, Walk on the Wild Side or just another Po Boy View.
My shop is in one of twin buildings built in 1830 by two brothers from France to house their mercantile businesses and their families. Their businesses were on the first floor; their living accommodations consumed the remaining property. The dining room and parlor would have been on the second floor; master’s and daughters bedrooms on the third and the boy’s bedroom (garconniere) up in the attic. Rounding out the classic layout is a breezeway entrance, probably used for wagons and supply deliveries, and quarters in the back for the servants; the third floor for them; the second floor for the kitchen and the ground floor a household shop for repairs, maintenance and inventory. A courtyard anchors the property; back to front.
The horse trough and fountain still remain in the courtyard, filled in and used as planters. The kitchen and the dining room (on the second floor) are connected by what is known as a ‘whistling walk’--urban legend has it that whoever brings the food to table would have to whistle so that the family would know that none of their food was being eaten by the servant. The kitchen with the servant’s (slave) quarters above them were built away from the main house because of the ever present danger of fire…. the most favored servants were located in back so that they could be on call and wouldn’t have to travel far to get to work. The staircase to the upper floors of the main house is outside of the building at the entrance to the courtyard. This completes the archeological picture of the structure itself.
In olden days, on warm days, the ladies of the house would have tea in the parlor next to a table that had perfumes on it for them to inhale; the streets in those days were reclaimed wetland and full of traffic, manure, stray animals of every sort and the contents of chamber pots; very ripe, indeed. The men would work in commerce and the servants would be kept busy shopping, cleaning, cooking and mending wood, leather and mortar around the building. As a side note: the building that my shop is in (the one of which I can speak) is still owned by the descendants of that family.
Fast forward a hundred and eighty five years. Sometimes my shop goes into overload and I am obliged to spend the night there. Above me lives a mid-aged sweet and comely woman that is into photography and bondage; she doesn’t mind walking around with little or no clothes on with her balcony windows open. The men across the street love that about her. She owns at least one whip that I know of.
Above her is an apartment, of the same size, that has changed hands since the first tenant that I met poisoned the landlady’s pet canine. He told me once never to go up to his floor because he had a gun and would shoot anyone coming up there, without looking to identify them and only asking questions later. Since he was evicted the flat has turned over three times to young professionals—the last a restaurant manager—with able bodies, ones that have the energy to climb those forty-five steps up the perfectly round spiral staircase that like I said, stands outside at the entrance to the courtyard. The apartment is frightfully expensive and usually newcomers realize quickly that there are better digs at lower rents elsewhere in the city, or they have made a mistake coming to New Orleans. The ‘Big Easy’ is neither big nor easy.
In the slave quarters, three or four couples take turns using the ground floor apartment for weekend getaways, leaving it empty most times. I have no idea who these people are or where they come from; I only know that they show up for weekends when the city is busy with one of its many planned festivities. They bring in their groceries, leave their trash and take their dirty linen home with them. They contribute nothing to our infrastructure or our voting base; they’re just people who are, nothing more. I’m waiting for them to renege on the rent so that I can take it over and use it for office and Pied de Terre.
Above them lives a nice guy prep cook that doesn’t go out much but shops a lot. And, that’s not a bad thing, surely I can appreciate a love of shopping; a harmless vice that we two have in common. I accept packages for him, gladly, at the shop, and he has always been courteous, polite and agreeable. A solitary man he is, both likeable and easy to talk to. He keeps mostly to himself and shares the duty of making sure that the trash cans are put out and taken back in on pick up days. He willingly and without question shares this responsibility with me and the man who lives above him who’s only character flaw that I can see is that he takes in women as lovers to live with and in all the instances that I have known, abuses them physically until sooner or later they leave.
I can be sitting in the courtyard at any time after working hours and hear the silence shattered by raised voices from the third floor followed by the sounds of a woman crying or in pain. He’s been through four women at least since I’ve been here and it’s a shame because he is otherwise a good specimen of his gender. It’s like a spider with flies. He lures them in and soon after, sets about destroying them. I suppose that pointing out those analogies would not alter their temperaments or destinies; holding up a mirror to someone’s inequities has never been a popular parlor game.
I am no stranger to domestic violence; I was raised around it. I understand the concept of loving your mate but not liking them; still the sound of a woman in pain upsets me. But philosophically, a woman---young, intelligent and attractive--- should be able to grasp the theory of free will; she could leave. He departs for work earlier than she and one day she could get a grip, pack a grip and go away…far away. Eventually, like the others, she will; I just hope that it’s not on a stretcher.
Tennessee Williams would be no stranger to these passion plays. Me? I remain (hopefully) an impartial observer, not called upon to be participant nor prey to the dramas that surround me; the same situations that are continually enacted wherever mankind is a slave to their passions and not their productivity; their personality and not their individuality; their lower and not their higher instincts.
These scenes are enacted around me on a universal scale; man’s inhumanity; windows breaking; children hungry; the good left to loneliness and the sly willfully taking that which is not freely given. Optimism with a bloody nose; bleeding but not bent.
It’s two in the morning; I sit with my goodnight beer in the courtyard and wonder at life being forever thus. There is a light rain falling as late night mists will. My neighbors are all at rest, I should be as well; but the solitude and silence stalks me as would a lioness lover. I ponder at how the rain and sleep falls upon us all without discrimination or regard; the loving and the loved; the lonely and the lone; the victims and the thieves that rob them of their rights.
How there is no end to this story. How there is no cure for the human condition.