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Down the Baudot Hole October 10, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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I frequently walk to work down Union Street, a quiet, mostly abandoned stretch of downtown New Orleans where I can get my thoughts arranged for the day without worrying about who I walk in with and small talk.

I notice the empty shells of the Dryades Homestead building, a back office shop once by the look at it, somewhere I might have plied my own counting house trade were I working half a century ago. I also pass the sad shell of the NOPSI building and New Orleans Reproductions, which I would sometimes visit as a child in with father, breathing in the odd aroma of blueprint making. The area where I park and walk is a truly sad section of the city, entire blocks of blight and ruined building stretching up into the sky.

While I am often drawn to the city-scape around me it it not safe to travel New Orleans sidewalks with one’s head in the clouds. I’ve ruined one pair of pants and shoes already in a nasty spill by not watching for the broken pavement under my feet. If you were to catch me on Union Street at quarter of eight of a weekday, you would find my eyes pointed down at the ground, where I often get distracted by the numerous iron manhole covers and access plates that decorate the pavement. I have to admit that since I was a child these have always fascinated me, especially the odd lozenge shaped ones that look like Vienna Fingers cookies. All of these various bits of time-word steel have always fascinated me. I am surprised that only today I have found sewerhistory.org, and I think I’ll have to try to keep my visits under control lest I find myself dressing like Ed Norton.

The CBD is full of NOPSI-blazoned covers that will probably outlast the Entergy brand. I am amazed to see how many of the downtown NOPSI meters have been worn smooth by the passing of feet, or pressed into a concave shape that catches rain by decades of the stopping of cars and trucks. How many thousands upon thousands of pedestrians passing does it take to wear off that heavy relief embossing from steel?

The S&B covers I find downtown are not the ones we all know from the curb in front of our house, from the Ford Meter Box Co. of Wabash, Indiana, and featured on any number of items like jewelry and t-shirts. Most of the downtown’s are labeled Water, Drain, or Sewer. Somewhere on Baronne is one labeled Steam. I lived in or visited the Midwest enough to be familiar with the idea of central steam as a utility, but I wonder if the pipes down there are still hot to the touch. Who were the customers? That one always put me in mind of trips to the Dentist at the D.H. Homes building, of groaning radiators and rippled glass office doors with stenciled names, a place one might go to hire a private detective.

I’m not completely surprised to find lingering Bell Telephone Co. covers, as the Bells sort of survive, and their manhole covers (like those of NOPSI) are likely to long outlast the company they serve. However I am intrigued by one set of covers that follow Baronne Street through the Central Business District: those of the Western Union Telegraph Co. When I see those and I’m not too deep in thought about the affairs of the counting house, they immediately take be back to an era before my own time. I wonder what I would find beneath them, imagining fat cables of cloth-covered wires humming with urgent Baudot-encoded message bound for delivery by men with caps and bicycles.

I wonder what would happen if I ventured down the Western Union rabbit hole? If I traveled a ways down that tunnel, where might I come up? And when? I imagine popping up onto a street lined with Packards, De Sotos and Studebakers, surprising a street filled with men in sharp hats and women wearing gloves.

If I venture down perhaps I should dress appropriately (having a ready collection of hats to hand). After dusting myself off in front of an incredulous street of onlookers, I could saunter over to something like the Canal Street I remember from childhood, busy with streetcars, picking up a green sheet and a pack of Picayunes beneath the psychedelic Walgreen’s sign then wander over to the Sazerac. Or better yet, I might drop into visit my old great-aunts Gert and Sadie–as younger women–in their apartment on Royal Street just in time for cocktails. The Hove’ Parfumier won’t let me go in back, and I have an urge to look up that massive spiral staircase and into quiet patio at the back of their building one more time.

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