Rampart Street Blues April 23, 2011Posted by Mark Folse in Crime, French Quarter, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Armstrong Park, Rampart Street, Treme
Late night is quiet on Rampart Street, unlike its distant cousin Bourbon with its drunken river of tourists, barkers and throbbing cover bands. The street has a half abandoned air, with as many dark facades and For Lease signs as there are bars. There is a subtle thrum of dance music from The Ninth Circle but with a name like that I suspect business hasn’t really started at eleven. The talk and laughter from the Voodoo Lounge just barely carries across the street , unintelligible as birdsong and just as comforting, a reminder that you’re not alone on the dark side of the Quarter.
I walk cautiously out of long habit learned when I lived in Treme in the 1300 block of Esplanade and would amble home late at night down the well beaten neutral ground path we all called the DMZ. That was BC—before crack—when walking head up and mostly sober was usually protection enough, before the Clockwork Orange horror of 21st century midnight city streets. I park on Rampart almost every Thursday night and feel more comfortable each time, less likely to bristle like a cat at the sight of a lone Black man approaching on the sidewalk on the lake side of the street but the old New Orleans habits die hard. I remember the genteel way my grandmother said “nigrah”, warning me that if she put too much coffee in my child’s café au lait I would turn dark and wonder if its ever possible to escape completely something bound so tightly in the limbic brain however good one’s intentions.
The gap-toothed marquee arch over the padlocked Armstrong Park merely amplifies the darkness of the abandonment behind the gates, adds a graveyard sense of menace to the lake side where I park but at the same time I am reminded that centuries past the African slaves gathered in what was once Congo Square the place became sacred to the ancestors and the loa and suddenly the darkness is not threatening but a presence watching over me with no particular intent. I murmur my own ancestors’ names like telling the beads of the rosary and feel a bit safer.
Two young women are coming up the sidewalk and their conversation quiets as we pass, looking at me askance as if to ask: do I belong here? Am I a lost tourist? Most white pedestrians keep to the river side of Rampart, but my car is just up the block. Behind them comes a young man alone, walking slowly up toward Canal or perhaps Iberville. Reflexively I cut between two cars and walk up the street toward my own car, parked a half-dozen spots ahead, pressing the remote to unlock the car and turn on the interior and headlights.. I keep an eye on him until I would have to turn my head, then wait a beat for him to pass before I turn my head. He is still walking, paying me no real attention.
I don’t feel especially nervous. My caution is ingrained, part the training of decades living here and in Washington, D.C. at the height of the crack wars, in a block where three people died late at night just coming and going as I am. I think of my grandmother again, of her maid Sylvia shared with my mother—one of the only black people I knew growing up along with Jo Jo my father’s handyman, a perfect match for the character in The Green Mile who I revered like a Hindu demon in overalls. Sylvia was invited to my sister’s weddings, but not the receptions.
I think of the friends I still know from the lakefront, the one’s who harassed me when my sister enlisted me as a young boy to drop literature and hammer signs for Moon “The Coon” Landrieu as he was known for being the first white politician to reach out for the Black vote, friends who still wear the casual racism of the lakefront like a comfortable old Saint’s jersey. Do I belong here, on this bock of Rampart halfway between Treme and Iberville? I believe I do, envying the comfort with which the Treme character Davis McCalary carries himself through the Treme, wishing some bit of the innocence of youth with which I would search for lost cats in the blocks behind my house on Esplanade, an innocence lost in part on the streets of D.C. where police helicopters would hover over the house lighting the alleys in back, the small yard from which I would occasionally hear the crescendo and diminuendo pop pop pop of gun battles.
I remember the young boy who walked in front of my car at the suburban shopping center at Elmwood one day, forcing me to stand on my breaks. He stepped into road mindless of the cross walk a short ways up and stopped, turned and glared at me as his mother and sisters passed. His body was tensed as if to spring, his eyes not angry or hateful but dead, with no discernible light in them. He was perhaps ten. And I wonder if innocence is something we have all lost.
As I sit in my car lighting a cigarette with all these thoughts passing through my mind I think again about the spirits of Congo Square, wonder which of the sainted loa I should beseech to purge me of the dark past of my own ancestors, the French planter refugees from the Haitian slave revolt, the German farmer who with two enslaved was probably thought a prosperous man by his neighbors, the great-great uncle who once owned a plantation in Plaquemines and lorded over his fields on a black stallion my mother was forbidden to ride and so took particular delight when taken up to the front of his saddle, the living memory of white women screaming at young black children in the ninth ward and all the baggage of desegregation, the palpable racism of my own youth in the early Nineteen Sixties.
What will it take, I ask, to finally cast off the last threads of white sheets of my own ancestors for something like the white robes of baptism? In which river must I immerse myself to step out born again as nothing but a child of God, a child of New Orleans? The street, the answer comes from somewhere. That river is this sidewalk, its people the living waters. Next time, I tell myself, I will not cross into the street but stay on the sidewalk and whoever comes and I will pass as two children of God in a new covenant that breaks the seventh generation curse, just two men passing each other on the streets of New Orleans, the place we both belong.