Nineteen: Long ago and yesterday February 3, 2014Posted by The Typist in 365, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
Cy Mathe was a Creole widower in his late twenties when he first saw the women I called Aunt Tante. He was at the rail of a steamboat passing Deslonde Street in the Ninth Ward.. She was a frail girl of sixteen or seventeen in a wheel chair, taking the cool breeze at the levee in what I imagine as the billowing white clothes of summer, underneath a hat or parasol or both. At the next stop, Cy hired a horse and rode back to find her. Not long after they were married and settled with Cy’s father on Red Cross Plantation in Plaquemines Parish. Later they would live at Mary (named for Cy’s mother) and Stella, named for Tante. My mother frequently visited them in the summer and against her father’s orders would daily ride in front of her Uncle Cy atop his black stallion Satan. In the back lived a couple, freed slaves who never left and were the house servants.
If this smacks of fairy tale well that is part of the allure of New Orleans. Such things happened once, and even today people walk from their hotel up to the river, look back over Jackson Square and fall in love. We have all had this sensation, the temptation to run away to that favorite beach town and open some tourist shop, imagining endless vacation. Few people do but New Orleans is different. I run into people in bars who are on their third or fourth visit and I ask them: when are you moving? Almost always they have a plan, some half-formed like the beach dream but as often as not something concrete, a date in mind, a neighborhood in which they wish to live.
Even locals are not immune to this fever, imagine living in the French Quarter or opening a restaurant.
The city is not quite of dreams but of fantasy, a city of maskers. We wear masks of civility while living in the legacy of slavery and the failures of desegregation, the portraits of my Haitian slaver ancestors a daily reminder. Tante I am told would have nothing to do with the Mathe family after her husband passed away, and I have to wonder what my grandfather’s family thought of their eldest marrying a Creole at the turn of the last century, but those stories are lost to the tomb. The poorest among us spend thousands of dollars to mask Indian and second line. The rich pretend generosity by dressing as Louis Quatorze tossing worthless aluminum coins and plastic jewels to the throngs in the street. My father planned to take his oil painting hobby to the fence of Jackson Square when he retired before Parkinson’s stole that dream. We delude ourselves, think it is OK to stay for that second set knowing the alarm clock is waiting, to eat the last fried shrimp instead of finishing the salad. Is it any surprise that visitors are taken in by the show, want to live an eternal Carnival of Frenchman Street nights?