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The Patio on Royal April 17, 2010

Posted by The Typist in French Quarter, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember, Toulouse Street.
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The carriageway is not just a conduit from the street but a corridor in time, a passage into my past of Gert and Sadie’s apartment on Royal and the private patio behind, into childhood memories of the Sixties and visits to my father’s aunts. The mostly shaded plants are blooming but I recall aromas of liquor and Kent cigarettes and Jean Nate powder. I get down on my knees as if to pray and I could in this temple of memory but I only wish to capture for a moment the perspective of a child bored with the adults inside and entering the lair of imaginary pirates.

It seemed there were more maiden aunts in those days, and I frequently saw my mother’s cousin, a sweet woman who lived with my grandparents but there was something of the pressed leaf about her, a dry and rigid antiquity. She worked her whole life as a bank teller and read screen magazines and played a lot of solitaire or concentration with us children if we were around and would give us little stand up cardboard bank calenders with a mercury thermometer. She was a dear woman but my memories of her are those a woman might have taking out an old dress from a trunk in the attic, stiff and crackly.

There was something magical about Sadie and Gert, these women who moved into the quarter in its seedier and consciously bohemian days, Gert with her voice rich with a lifetime of cigarettes and experience, my father’s maiden aunts in the sense that neither was married but Sadie was once the very special assistant to “Coozin” Dudley Leblanc and the other had worked for the government and traveled the world. I once had the two halves of a torn soft cardboard ticket from the last Roosevelt inauguration its circus ink colors still bright, and I still have a rough wool blanket from Guatemala of antique white with a pattern of fantastic, caricature animals of red and blue Gert brought back from her travels. I still have a royal quarto abridged children’s Iliad and Odyssey beautifully illustrated in the flat manner of old Greek vases, something they kept around for bored children back before they came equipped with their own portable electronic entertainment and which I loved so much they gave to me.

When we went to visit I had that book, the stoop where I could watch Royal Street pass by and the patio. To get to the patio you passed out the back into a tall well containing a spiral staircase with a thick banister of dark wood. I did not get to see that staircase on this visit. It has been enclosed and is now the entrance to the owner’s residence above the shop–off-limits–and so I understand why the women in the shop in front would not let me in the back the few times I asked as I stood among the perfume bottles, pretending to sample scents while I studied every detail of molding and ceiling, looked for traces of the water stain on the ceiling that was a permanent fixture in Gert and Sadie’s day and confessed finally why I was really there.

I thought there was a fountain but found none, perhaps conflating Gargia-Lorca’s private Grenada (I am very fond of Lorca) with Gert and Sadie’s world but remember the French Quarter is largely Spanish in architecture and perhaps that is where we acquired our Andalusian patios tucked back from the dirty street. Looking at the hasty camera phone pictures I snapped it seems an ordinary French Quarter patio–no, not ordinary, there are no ordinary patios in the Quarter, I meant typical of those I know from the commercial front of the quarter, the larger houses with an L of slave quarters wrapped around the back.

It is long and narrow but spacious enough that there are two planters, a round one of cast concrete in the middle front and a larger rectangle of brick toward the back and several along each sidewall, and still room for an iron table and chairs and a scattering of stand alone pots. I recognize the elephant ear and African violets, the ferns and hostas but I’m no naturalist; there are a few spindly but healthy looking trees that I can’t identify. The plants are largely the deep green of specimens raised for the shade, and they deepen the dimness of the courtyard’s well, but the soft light is peaceful like the nave of an unlit church.

The stairs go up on the right to the narrow slave quarter balcony, and are painted a color so dark in the dim light I take it for black. All of the trim is this color against the antique white of the painted brick and plaster and there is a Germanic cast to the space, appropriate to the Folses of the Côte des Allemandes. In places the plaster has fallen away and exposed the brick but that’s not the sort of repair people bother with, preferring the character of such architectural liver spots. The window air conditioning units are inconspicuous but the one incongruous piece is a large air-conditioning compressor elevated on a platform along the far wall and away from the house.

I know there is another child visiting this same patio. There is a child’s height basketball goal, the sort you fill the base of with water, standing in the corner. I didn’t have any such entertainment and its a bit sad that video and I-pod are sucking their minds dry so that they do not know how to entertain themselves when left alone in such a place, something so radically different from the blocky suburban house they likely know that it is an immediate jump start to the imagination and I wonder what memories they will have of this place, if forty years from now they will stand next to the two men in Jazz Fest chairs enjoying the Spring weather on Royal Street to press their eyes to the barred windows of the carriageway doors until they explain themselves and one of the men smiles and kindly lets him or her in.


1. Fleur de Lis Gal - April 17, 2010

What fantastic memories! And, yes, I second the lament of portable technology that (though cool) ensnares a kid’s attention and limits their imagination to ‘do I smash this car first?’ or ‘do I go up the stairs to Barbie’s condo to pick out a new dress?’
I recall my late great-grandparents’ house. Just a older house in an area southwest of the heart of Houston, but inside the 610 Loop. Three memories persist. The copper molds hanging up in the kitchen. The concrete stepping ‘stones’ in the lawn. And that there was a staircase inside a closet (to my kiddish view) to the upper floor. Though it was probably just the attic, the couple of times I was able to go up there – it was a realm of magic and mystery. I don’t remember too much of that other than how it felt to be able to go into the ‘secret staircase’. Sadly, that house has long succumbed to the Houston mantra of “Eeeuuuwww! It’s OLD! Get RID of IT!!!” and has either been replaced w/a tacky townhome (or townhomes) or a yuppie ghetto.
Thanks for sharing those memories of Aunts Gert & Sadie. And thank goodness they lived on Royal – and thus no wretched music-blasting “Huge Ass Beer” bar commandeered the property. (and I must say, I love Hove’ – their rose parfum that I bought at the Boutique du Vampyre is decadent)


2. K. David Cook - April 17, 2010

What is it about childhood memories of growing up in New Orleans that resound so deeply. Yours has triggered many similar experiences and whiffs of smells buried in my own synapses. Maybe it has to to with the differences that we recognized as children with loci in New Orleans compared to the images we had seen of other places.
Check out these images I remembered seeing of French Quarter courtyards in a recent browse through the NYPL Digital Image File:


3. Marco - April 17, 2010

Nostalia, melancholy, Saturn, dark corners of Neo-Platonic gardens, New Orleans courtyards, Patio on Royal, musical sirens, Cafe Brasil, Snug Harbor…


mf - April 17, 2010

So, when are you coming?


4. Marco - April 17, 2010

Always like you to put me on the spot. Jazzfest is great, but every place is mobbed and booked. I like to sit some (to rest my weary trombones) unless the music, food and wine is fine. What’s mid-May look like for you? Counting House wise.


5. Mistlethrush - April 22, 2010

Marvelously evocative post–I could smell the Jean Nate and the cigarette smoke and seefantastical backdrop of your childhood memory. What a complete little world you’ve described!


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