July 16, 2014 § 2 Comments
July 16, 2014
No way was I going to New Orleans for the first time ever without reading up on it first. Especially since one of the characters in my book grew up there. I had to get the scoop. Conduct reconnaissance. Make my list.
And, yes, that is how I wound up looking for the house on Amelia Street that no longer exists.
It’s also how I dragged T to see the haunted house.
I read about it in Christopher Benfey’s Degas in New Orleans, of all things. Ironically, I never did make it to the Degas house. Next time.
The story goes like this: back in the 1830’s, beautiful Creole socialite Mme. Lalaurie threw hella-fun parties in this beautiful house on Royal street. The only odd thing about the place was that the door to the slaves’ apartment was secured by a huge lock, and the windows were barred with iron shutters.
One night a fire broke out in the house. Neighbors rushed over to help and asked where the slaves were. They soon found out. Upon breaking down the padlocked door to the slaves’ apartment, they entered a chamber of horrors.
Shackled men and women languished from severe abuse and neglect. The editor for a New Orleans newspaper couldn’t recount the story without shuddering at the recollection. It turned out that the fire had been started by the cook, who’d been chained to the fireplace at the time, and who had apparently felt so desperate that setting the house on fire had seemed like a viable option.
An angry mob ran Mme. Lalaurie out of town. The fire-gutted house stood in disrepair for decades. Then came the tales of blue light in the blackened windows and screams in the night, the haunting of the house by the ghosts of the slaves who had been tortured and killed there.
After reading about all this in Benfey’s book, I had to go see this house. How could I not?
We parked in the French Quarter and walked towards our destination, following the red dot on my iPhone GPS.
“Is there a sign? What’s this place called?” T asked.
T should have known better by now.
We paraded up and down the block in front of the three story house on the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls, because according to my GPS we were at our destination, 1140 Royal Street. But no sign indicated that the place was the historic haunted house. The building wasn’t even marked by a number.
“This has to be it,” I said.
The skepticism rolled off T in waves.
“Now, look,” I said, shrugging off my backpack. “This place is listed in Fodor’s. I’m not making it up.”
I leaned against the gate that barricaded the front entrance, trying to read the mailboxes that were obscured from the sunlight. A couple approached.
“This has to be 1140,” the woman said.
“Are you looking for the haunted house?” I said.
Now certain that we were at the right house, I crossed the street to take pictures.
Two different horse-drawn guided tours passed by while I stood on the street corner gawking. I listened to the drivers’ spiels, hoping to catch some shivery-delicious details about the haunted house.
“Nicholas Cage bought this house several years ago, but then got in trouble with the IRS over back taxes.”
Huh. I didn’t care about Nicholas Cage. I wanted to hear about the ghosts.
The next tour guide said, “American Horror Story wasn’t allowed to film here. They ended up filming a few houses down.”
Still, nothing about the ghosts.
T and I joked that the story of the tortured slaves was too disturbing for the horse-drawn carriage circuit and was thus left out of the tour yarns.
Back home in Albuquerque, I was poking around the internet when I found a link to an article about American Horror Story: Coven, a show I have avoided watching because it looks too disturbing. Then I read that Kathy Bates’ character is based on Mme. Lalaurie—the woman who threw the fancy parties while her abused slaves suffered.
Guess I’m going to have to watch Coven now. Damn it.
July 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
July 14, 2014
On our last day in New Orleans, T was telling a NOLA local about one of our excursions from a couple of days prior. “You know that area where you turn left on Claibourne and then go under the freeway?”
The local frowned and one corner of his mouth crooked up.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said. “What were we doing in that part of town?”
“Exactly. What would you go down there for?”
“I read that Zora Neale Hurston lived in a house at this particular address when she was studying with a hoodoo doctor and writing Mules and Men.”
“Yeah, like eighty years ago,” he said. “The place is probably torn down by now.”
Back before I had gotten on the plane out of Albuquerque, I had written down the address from Valerie Boyd’s biography on Zora Neale Hurston, Wrapped in Rainbows. Now, on our second day in New Orleans, I was sitting next to T in the car as we cruised down Claibourne Ave and I studied the GPS on my iPhone. I directed T to turn right onto Amelia Street.
The neighborhood looked a little worse for wear. Yards unkempt, houses that appeared to tilt on their cinder block supports, windows boarded up. I peered at the house numbers, psyching myself up to hop out of the car, snap pictures all lickety-split and stealthy-like, then hop back in the car and speed away.
T said, “Is it like a museum? What’s it called? Is there a sign?”
Museum? I don’t know where she got the idea we were looking for a museum. And I suddenly didn’t have the heart to tell her that there was no museum.
There wasn’t even a house.
The numbers jumped from 2746 to 2742.
2744 Amelia Street no longer existed.
My heart sank.
“It’s not here,” I said. “It’s gone.”
“Do you want to circle back around? Drive through again and get a shot of the neighborhood at least?” T asked. Later, she admitted she’d been secretly hoping I’d say no.
I sighed. “That’s okay. I guess we can move on to Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo down on Bourbon Street.” At least Zora had written about Marie Laveau in Mules and Men. There was some connection there.
“Let’s get some coffee first,” T said. As we headed towards the trendier, more affluent part of town where we would eventually stop in at HiVolt for T’s vanilla iced coffee and my espresso shot, I was still lost in the daydream of Zora back in the day: living in New Orleans, studying hoodoo, and working on the book that would become an important collection of African American stories and culture, and that would have a significant impact on my writing as well.
“I wonder what that neighborhood looked like back in 1928,” I said.
“I bet it was really nice,” said T, as she drove us away from there as fast as she could.
July 8, 2014 § 6 Comments
I made it back to Albuquerque from New Orleans only to find that my luggage had been left in Chicago. With my camera. So right now I can only post the few decent photos I managed to take with my iPhone.
First night in NOLA, after standing in line outside one of the places still open after ten o’clock on a week night, just sweltering in the muggy night air and chit-chatting with other tourists, we got some grub and drinks. I don’t have a picture of the red beans and rice with fried chicken because I done tore into that so quick. But I did get a photo of our first drinks. Jack & Coke for T, Jack straight up for me.
Late Night Beignets
What better way to end a late night of drinking than some beignets at Cafe du Monde. Never mind the flying roach that scared T out of her seat.
Meet me at the Oasis
This is the place where we stayed. It is owned by a couple who are artists and make furniture out of reclaimed materials. Literally an oasis in the middle of what a NOLA local referred to as “the hood.”
Meal to die for at the Praline Connection in the Faubourg Marigny area near where we were staying.
Fourth of July at the Essence Fest Prince concert.
Janelle Monae and Nile Rodgers with Chic opened. When Prince got on stage the crowd went absolutely nuts. I had tears in my eyes. I got a little taste of what Beatlemania must have felt like. We were dancing and singing all night long for real.
We did not get out of the Superdome until 1:30 in the morning. Talk about a party. “Purple Rain” has been in my head ever since.
I’ll post more about my first trip to New Orleans, the city I am still dreaming about, as soon as I get my camera back.