Unremembering August 29, 2015Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, postdiluvian, The Journey, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
You are a young soul, I think, he said, and not much troubled by ghosts.
Ghosts, she said, without the inflection of a question, but as if he had said pixies or unicorns, and with a just perceptible wrinkling of the features as if sniffing a carton of milk and pronouncing it spoiled.
You believe in ghosts? Have you seen one? And what exactly do you mean?
You have watched too much bad television, he replied. You don’t need to see them. He took another large swallow of his drink. It was a party, a deliberate unremembering party, and he was venturing into topics forbidden to the guests. They are just a sense of the age of a place, like the dust somewhere neglected but not quit as corporeal, not even as dust to dust. You sense them in things, such as the sagging of these old houses, and the noises they make settling into the earth, like old men sinking into their rocking chairs.
Uh, huh, she said, taking an ironic sip from her Stella Artois to punctuate her response. I thought ghosts were the spirits of the dead, some lingering part of a person’s consciousness, someone with unfinished business or some neurotic compulsion.
There is much unfinished business here, or rather there is finished business of an unpleasant sort. This is an old place, built by slaves and poor immigrants set to unpleasant tasks such as digging the old canal that is now a freeway and a long park. They buried the poor Irishmen who dug it in the spoil bank as they fell, you know. It’s like the old saying about an unlucky place: built on an Indian graveyard,. And then there are all those who died of the fevers, settling at the edge of a mosquito infested swamp. All this before the flood, and the guns.
That was all long ago, old man, she said, and has nothing to do with me. I look at these old houses, all gutted and rebuilt, the way they have been painted to highlight the oldwork of the facades. It’s as pretty as some corner of Europe. Everything is being rebuilt so beautifully.That is why we come here. From what I’m told, the flood was the best thing that could have happened here, washing away your old ghosts but leaving these houses ready for fixing up. They probably were never as beautiful as they are today.
That is because you are a young soul. You don’t see the beauty that was there before, even as the weatherboards weathered, and the porches sagged like a middle-aged stomach. They were beautiful when they were painted in plain white wash, when they were built by night by men who worked all day, to make a home of their own for their families. They were built simple but sturdy. Once the walls were plaster-and-lath, and the houses could breathe. Now that is all torn out and if they are not sealed up like coffins for the new air conditioning, the mildew creeps past the mill work and onto the walls. When they were plastered, carefully applied trowel by trowel across the delicate lathe work, that would not have happened. But so much of that was torn out, a bit of the soul of the house put out to the curb. The dust of it that lingers, that is a sort of ghost.
We still have plaster, and bargeboard floors. We bought our house because it was old, because it still had those things.
And you appreciate their beauty, or simply their potential appreciation?
What does that mean? Why do you talk in riddles?
They are only riddles to you because you are a young soul.
Again with souls and ghosts. Another sip of beer. We appreciate the house’s beauty. That’s why we bought it, cheap and rundown, and are putting it not just back together but back together better. And it is “it’s” appreciation. It is a thing, not a person. Sorry, I’m a teacher, and people here have laziest habits of speech. Now all the schools are new, and we can help lift the people up out of that laziness, make them ready for a brighter future. We just need to break their old habits and teach them proper speech, punctuality, and careful work. This will be a much better place for our coming, out contribution
What you call their lazy habits of speech are just another sort of ghost, the lingering gendering of things from the time when French was still spoken. We are not a lazy people. Who do you think built your beautiful house, its strong bones without which it would not be there for your to fix? Is it lazy to value time over money, and spend it freely? You may pile up all the money you might ever want, but it won’t buy you more time. I don’t mean what you, in your teacherly fashion, would call free time, but one’s own time, owned in a sense by yourself, time spent lingering over coffee mid-afternoon instead of running back to sell your time for money. What you might think laziness, a luxury you must steal away every now and then to enjoy, free time as in freedom to spend it with friends, or in a book, instead of watching time slip away on a cheap plastic clock on the wall waiting for your free time to begin.
That’s not the way the world works, old man. Time is money, and that money pays to fix up our house and all these others.
The world has its own notions of time, and we have ours. The two are not so far apart as your’s is.
More beer, buying time to think.
Whatever, was still all she could muster. People like you need to realize this is a different city now. Your ghosts and your excuses and your old notions were washed away. It will be a better city, keeping enough of the old to be charming, but not left behind the times as it was before.
Perhaps it was better to be left behind, he said, to amble along as we did than to march in lockstep to the ticking of a clock. I have lived in other places, you know, for many years. I have marched dutifully into work at the appointed time, mowed my lawn as required, and even chiseled the plow-melt snow on my corner lot up to the curb where the sidewalks crossed. I waged war on the dandelion and for what? So that someone could walk their dog along a perfect sidewalk past identical lawns undistracted from their podcast, or admiring the colorful repetition flats of annuals dutifully planted provides? I never did that, myself. I only planted perennials. Not as colorful except at their appointed bloom time, but themselves a sort of clock or calendar running on a time uninterrupted by the clangor of appointments on your smart watch.
Uh huh, again. I’m going to get another beer.
Enjoy the party, he said. She didn’t answer. He walked away from the crowd, none of whom smoked, out to the sidewalk and lit a cigarette, trading a bit of lifetime for the pleasure of it, mindless of the consequences. He watched as someone at the corner carried plastic sacks of groceries from their tiny, hybrid car into the door set at an angle to the corner, and wondered if they knew why it was built that way, framed by what they called two picture windows which did not look out onto any sort of vista as a proper picture window would because, he knew ( but suspected they did not), they were meant to be looked into and not out of. The blinds were drawn tight and his gaze wandered off down the street with no particular purpose in mind.