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Splish Splash February 11, 2013

Posted by Mark Folse in Faubourg St. John, Fortin Street, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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There is something about the laundromat, a plastic electric resonance it shares with the two-tap-and-a-tv dive bar and the bus terminal which makes these places as familiar to their likeliest visitors as the parade of names at the mall is to the people they most likely work for. I love the fluorescent shabbiness, the incessant televisions, the chairs designed for some proximate species but we’re not here for the ambiance, exactly. The comfort in these places is the instant camaraderie of people who are there by necessity. It doesn’t matter if you are Charity-born poor or fell into it by way of that degree in art which led to a career in tattoo, once you walk in you’re one of us.

I live on the sketchy edge of the fashionable Faubourg St., John just over the renters-insurance redline and facing the track. Just up the block the owners of the grand homes beneath the oaks have their own front-loading washers and dryers. Smack in the middle of this atmosphere of elegance sits the Splish Splash, next to the now closed neighborhood drugstore and the abandoned, half-renovated Circle K, a reminder that all around the stately homes of Esplanade and Ursulines lies a neighborhood of once working class shotgun doubles. Inside the stucco-faced washeteria there is nothing faubourg about it: a vinyl floor, clean enough early in the morning but past all point of mopping, rows of large and small washers and dryers rolling along except the one half disassembled for months with the parts inside the drum. The only place to sit inside is in front of the television, and there is never enough table space and no sitting on tables allowed. The crowd is about equally divided between those who pick up a coffee at Fairgrinds or a single beer from somewhere or an orange drink from the vending machine. The last are the Latino workers from the back of the track. The women stay inside and chat and laugh while their children run about. Their men or the single men tend to congregate on the bench outside and talk about trabajo and futbol as best I can make out when I step out for a cigarette.

The Splish Splash is not some chic urban cruising laundromat but there is always a certain amount of side-eyed appraisal between the singles of the coffee variety. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anyone striking up a conversation with a stranger for more than a few sentences. Laundry is a chore and double if you have to haul it down to the corner and fight for a dryer. The Latina women always seem to come in pairs, with or without their men, and their endless and gay conversation is a soothing relief from the chattering television and the endless thump-thump-whop of the machines. (We will, we will, dry you, dry you). Many patrons come and go between wash and dry, coming back with a fresh coffee or groceries from Cansecos. It is that kind of corner, with two neighborhood groceries and until deBlancs closed, a drugstore. Easy enough to get all your errands in if you drive over and park in the deBlancs lot

It’s easy to live in this city and never see past your unconscious blinders what sort of city this is. Many people like to compare New Orleans to San Francisco but in reality this city is much closer to the blue-collar bricks and sticks of Baltimore than to tony Frisco. It’s a working man and woman’s city with most of the real money–outside of the faubourgs with their Lloyd’s real estate signs and hired police patrols–long fled to the outskirts. Those who cling to the lakefront often take Orleans Avenue on the other sketchy edge of my neighborhood, one only real estate agents would call Bayou St John. They travel that road to and from work every day and I wonder if they see the old men in straw hats laughing in the shade on the neutral ground, the beers from the corner store their fountain of eternally recalled youth, or that elderly couple sitting on their porch, silent, their bent metal clam chairs angled apart as if what was between them were a repulsive anti-pole, a force they could only overcome together but can’t or won’t.

Back on Esplanade the Splish Splash never rises to discussion on the neighborhood mailing list, although every other local business does. Unless someone pulls a gun or the place burns to the ground in a flash fire of neglected lint it is invisible, a little puddle in the gutter of elegant Esplanade Avenue, lacking the bohemian charm of the bicycle clutter outside of Fairgrinds. Inside we know it is as warm and friendly as Liuzza by the Track, with its own crowd of first name or nodding acquaintance regulars as familiar as the check-out girls at Cansecos, as much a part of why some of us live here as Cafe Degas.

This Is No Tight Ship December 31, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in Everette Maddox, Faubourg St. John, Federal Flood, Fortin Street, Mid-City, New Orleans, Toulouse Street.
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An open letter to the members of the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association, our Mayor and other leaders, the people of New Orleans and of the world:

“…I sympathize
with Huck Finn’s taste for
the mixed-up. This is no
tight ship. I wouldn’t
want my moments run off on an
assembly line like toy ducks. That’s
not the point…”
— Everette Maddox, “Just Normal”

Once again I hear the cry raised against the indiscriminate use of fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Yes they are illegal and to some people and their animals terribly annoying. I am sorry for your inconvenience. What disturbs me about this protest is that it is part and parcel of a snowballing intolerance for the transgressive by some citizens and the current city leadership. Whether it is fireworks on New Year’s Eve (or the sadly lost Mid-City Bonfire), unlicensed artisans at Jazz Fest or guerrilla food vendors at second lines or music clubs permitted only by the tolerance of neighbors who have long lived next door, we are losing the tolerance for the transgressive that is fundamental to who we are, to what this city is. It is that tolerance that made New Orleans a haven for gays and a magnet for artists, that makes Carnival and the year-round debauchery of Bourbon Street possible, that puts a pie-man on a bicycle at just the right corner at the very moment when you find you are most in need of a piece of sweet potato. Without it the inherent spontaneity of the city will be lost.

I spent 20 years wandering in regular America with only one dream, to return to this La La Land. I returned after the storm to a city that was not precisely the same one I left in my rear view mirror in 1986, and certainly not the city of my childhood, but so many of us spent so much effort in the years after the flood working to make sure that whatever came out of the events of 2005 it would be recognizably New Orleans. If we allow this creeping intolerance to take over the city it will become a Disney cartoon shadow of itself. If that is allowed to happen everything we have done in the last seven years will have been for nothing. We will become post-Hugo historic Charleston, S.C., a dark ghetto of transient tourist condos for the wealthy. The corner bars and restaurants that birthed the food and music of the city will be permitted out of existence. The city will keep its pretty buildings and fine restaurants but will no longer be New Orleans. It will be a frozen diorama of what once was.

I would not want to live in a city where a bar across from a church was not at least a grandfathered if not an explicitly permitted use.

I’m just a renter across from the race track but I still own property in Mid-City. I understand the complex and abstract math of property values. The banning of the bonfire depreciated my property on Toulouse Street in my eyes. I found Endymion to be mostly a bother (but a great excuse for an open-house party) and would never suggest it be moved out of Mid-City. When I lived in Treme years ago, I walked out of my large and cheap apartment (now an expensive condo) to listen to the New Year’s service music through the open windows of St. Anna’s that opened onto my yard. Before I sat down I noticed a hole in my plastic webbed lawn chair and beneath it a slug smashed on the concrete patio. There are common sense limits to tolerance but trying to ban fireworks, which have been both illegal and ubiquitous since my childhood in the 60s, is probably not a good use of the police’s time on National Amateur Drunk Driver Night. We need to learn to tolerate the inconveniences (fireworks, Endymion, all of Carnival if you happen to live uptown) in exchange for the pleasures our tolerance of the transgressive provides.

If you seek the perfect, suburban peace of the grave New Orleans is probably not the city for you. I am sorry if this statement angers you. I am one of you, if only a renter of a run down half shotgun on Fortin but I searched for a year for a property I could afford in this neighborhood. I have called Lake Vista, Gentilly, Treme and Carrollton home, but once I landed here I knew I had found the best neighborhood of all. When I walked into DeBlancs for the first time in 20 years and the woman behind the counter looked down at my license and up at me and said, “you look just like your father” who had passed on 20 years earlier I knew I was home. I’m not looking to stir up trouble but I have to say all this: I cannot idly sit by and watch the old and rough-running engine of this city throttled by the growing climate of intolerance until it stalls and dies. If you enjoy Endymion I have borne that burden for you, gladly. All I ask is the same forbearance in return.

Malfaubourlgia September 22, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Faubourg St. John, Fortin Street, Gentilly, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, The Odd, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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There is a discount outlet of Hell in my attic. I’m convinced. The rule is never to turn off the ceilings fans in my son’s room and the back kitchen, and more importantly not to turn them on late afternoon if you’ve forgotten and turned them off. Switching on the kitchen fan at three, even when the window unit is set to 72 degrees and you don’t break a sweat doing two sinks of dishes, is like turning on the oven.

There are more reasonable explanations for this if you insist. The house is old. I think the landlord said sometime in the 1920s, and I wasn’t sure if that was pride in its sturdiness or an excuse for its shortcomings. It seems solid enough in the main, and shook no more in the worst gusts of Hurricane Issaac than it does for a next-door, kettle-drum peal of thunder. The claw footed tub is charming, but the lack of a shower is not. The floor beneath the bathroom is giving way, the bathroom tiles fracturing for a second time in a year, and I moved the refrigerator from the small back room into the small kitchen when it began to list dangerously to port. The fourteen foot ceilings are a blessing when it’s warm, at least until you forgetfully turn on the fan you should not have turned off in the first place. Thespiders are quite safe in their high corners, although the flies from the track prefer to keep company with the groundlings and never venture up to spider height. Behind those 14 foot ceilings is an attic only accessible by the small vents at each end, and I am quite sure that what ever material once passed for insulation, horsehair perhaps, has turned to dust. The house faces north-south and as the long run of the roof captures the afternoon heat it’s attention Hell-Mart shoppers, special on boiling pitch just over the kitchen.

The flies are another clue to the Beezelbublian nature of the place. It could be the race track: all that horseflesh digesting all that fodder into horseshit that draws the crows in great droves when the tractor rakes the dirt, but there’s no point in letting rational explanations get in the way of those that go best with cold beer on dark, warm nights. It’s an old habit of mine. Long ago I told my children’s mother that the thunk she heard every night around 10 pm in my basement apartment on Massachusetts Avenue N.E. in Washington, D.C. was the ghost of the tenant who hung himself upstairs at just that time. Don’t tell me about the settling of an old row house as the last of the afternoon Potomac heat escapes. Give me a good ghost story instead. I never got much more out of that story than a look I found charming 20 years ago, but then she was raised from German-Irish stock in North Dakota where over the generations imagination became reserved for private worry over whether the corn and potatoes would last until spring, and suspension of disbelief was reserved for church.

I lived in a house of similar vintage in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, a beautiful old Craftsman style that would look right at home in New Orleans. It was The Norby House, once the family home of the owners of the local department store. I used to tell the children that the fertility of that shady place in back where plants grew rampant was because old Mr. Norby was buried there, even if I knew it had probably once been the privy. The windows in that houes were original, handmade glass with the ripples and bubbles of their forging. Everything was original including the cloth wiring, which hung from glass insulators attached to the floor rafters in the basement. One run ran up a pipe to a wall sconce my my daughter’s room, a line that I think was not conduit but perhaps had once been a gas line. seller’s The fresh coat of paint on that house peeled the first winter, as the heat leaching out of the house met the below-zero air outside. You could feel it along the walls: whatever had once insulated them floor to ceiling had crumbled to dust in the bottom third of the wall. The house came with not one but two oil tanks in the basement which together would make a proper locomotive boiler, and I still wonder how we managed to afford to fill them. I would do nothing about the gorgeous original windows except to drag out a 24-foot extension ladder twice a year, and haul up and down the original wood-frame storm windows, each about 20 pounds of wood and glass. They hung from hooks at the top, and I had to lean back away from the house with feet and knees interlocked to the ladder to get them on the hooks, realizing that the best I could hope for is that the ladder would follow me down and knock me unconscious so I wouldn’t feel the pain of my other injuries.

You have to have at thing about old houses approaching the clinically disturbing to stand at the top of a fully extended ladder and do that.

This is not a bad old house. There’s that stain on the kitchen floor that is traceable either to human sacrifice or someone rebuilding a motorcycle engine on the linoleum. The brown carpet would do any U.S. route motel proud, and the color hides most stains pretty well except coffee, the thing I spill the most. The windows are cheap aluminum which I discovered in my first week here can be jimmied with a screw driver using less effort than opening a jar of pickles. (I though I had perhaps left it unlocked, until I went to close it after the police left and noticed the latch was closed, and the small dimple in the frame.) Then again there are fans beneath those high ceilings in every room, and that claw foot tub I can actually submerge myself in. I passed on several places with the brutally-industrial, wall-mounted gas space heaters but when I heard the rent for something here on the Gentilly frontier of the fashionable Faubourgh St. John, I resigned myself to them. I have lived in enough old New Orleans houses to find the singing of the gas on a winter’s night soothing, even if I’d rather have the tremendously less efficient and more dangerous ceramic and iron grate sitting inside the bricked up fireplace. The flies are a bother but I would rather sit on my stoop and watch the horses at their morning exercise than than sit in a sterile granite kitchen staring out the window at a holiday-swallowing lawn. The mantles may just be mantles but the scrap of Krewe du Vieux-salvaged plywood hell fire that sits under the one in front is as much of a fire place as needed in New Orleans and goes well with the infernal commerce upstairs, where I like to imagine there are demonic bats in their hundreds waiting for evening, mosquitoes and a chance to get tangled in your hair.

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