As part of NolaVie’s Yeah you write! campaign, we are inviting readers to submit New Orleans-related content for a chance to have their work featured on our site. Whether it’s a personal essay about moving from New Orleans, a photo of French Quarter Fest, or a video of a second line, we want to know: what’s your New Orleans story?
Today’s submission comes from Marie Babington Thomas about intermingling people in New Orleans.
The café was elegant — modeled off that famous Café de la Paix in France. Sunlight streamed through the tall windows, painting the delicate tables and chairs an iridescent gold. She sat silently, placed at one of the back tables. I watched her from across Decatur Street, trying not to lose sight of her sun-kissed curls among the many objects disrupting my view. The woman paid no mind to the merry shouts and drunken stumbling of the people in the street, instead read a newspaper laying in her hands. I watched as she thumbed the page, a small smile turning up the corners of her mouth. Although alone, she did not look lonely.
The rain began to fall, dropping on my nose, trickling down the lens of my glasses and then floating as the winged, papery seed of a Sycamore does towards the ground. With every second I wasted standing in the rain, the splatter of drops remoistened my sweat-soaked shirt. I crossed the street without hesitation, trying not to trip into the potholes, and ducked under the café’s awning. The crowds of people and I become one as we huddled under the awning, our sweet sweat mixing to create the next Chanel no.5. I listened as the downpour continued, occasionally spraying on my bare toes, leaving them wet with the sticky humidity that envelops each individual like a cloud.
“The rain will clear up shortly; the weather here is bi-polar,” an older man laughed to a couple looking miserable in their soaked clothing. The couple stared at the man, no doubt appalled by his New Orleans Saints speedo and cape. However, his words triggered a movement in the grey clouds, which parted to reveal a post-card perfect sky. “You see?” He laughed again, his voice low and guttural. He stepped out into the fresh sunlight and gave the couple a genuine smile, revealing two gold teeth before turning on his way. He was quickly lost in the new crowd forming in the streets.
I stood stuck in the middle of the swarming bodies, the two subjects of my attention having turned onto different paths.
My experience of New Orleans exists in observations. Observations of the city’s people For a second these lives could have intertwined but if I had not been there to connect them through observation, they would never have been connected. The man continues down Decatur Street and the woman stares at the newspaper held in her delicate hands.
I know them. I know the outlines of their ambiguity, a feeling that I so often want for myself — the idea that you can know someone and still know nothing about them, like New Orleans herself. So many people claim to know her and yet everyday she surprises us. She makes a native fall in love again, aware of her flaws and inconsistencies, or a new resident learn to love her through her beckoning — into the life of her people, into her shops, her bars, her restaurants and into her sweet putrid perfume. She welcomes all. She welcomes them home.
As a child, when I visited my grandmother in New Orleans I fell in love with the weather, the moist humidity that crawled into my pores and the streaming sunlight that made my skin tint pink, so different from the jagged mountains I was used to in Virginia. I loved how time stood still in Audubon Park as I walked lap after lap with my grandmother, my short legs hustling to keep up with her long strides. Eventually, after constant begging, she’d take me across Magazine Street to the zoo. We went all of the time — spring, summer, fall, winter. in the winter, the spring, the summer, and the fall, as I oohd and ahhd at the white tigers, howling apes, snakes. And as much as the animals fascinated me, I watched the people even closer. They sauntered, laughed, spoke to the animals, acting as though they had nowhere else to be.
I fell in love with the city again as teenager during the reconstructive phase following Katrina.
I found myself looking at the Saenger Theatre, a horrid mass of debris, asking myself “How can something so damaged be so beautiful?” The walls had crumbled; they’d been water-logged and warped by greasy, sitting water. The vibrant walls — gold and crimson — turned to barren drywall; the beautiful chandeliers, thousands of tiny, reflective fragments on the ground, their jagged edges like fragments of wounded butterfly wings.
But the theater stands anew now. Salmon, snow and gold drape the walls with love as refurbished chandeliers sing softly, painting the ceiling with a luminescent glow. The people of New Orleans mirror this radiance with their indomitable positivity and cheerfulness — at festivals, during Carnival, on any given Saints game day.
As I’ve grown older, I have begun to crave NOLA’s sickening sweet smell of compost that litters the city’s streets, each whiff causing a retch, but also a yearning for a little more, because her smell is so distinct — the sweat of bodies laying together, becoming one with the ground below.
Through my observations, a pattern has emerged, whereby people’s lives become their city; to separate the two creates a fraction, a moiety missing from its whole. The people of the city are like ink from her pen, kissing down the margins of her pages — swirls of connecting lines gliding towards NOLA’s lined neutral grounds. She forces them down with her gravity and they bring her back up with their hope. Her people are the footnotes of her annotated paper; they can be skipped over but never removed because they matter to the meaning, to the background. Remove them and the paper is incomplete.