“Why not?” I asked. After all, Tennessee Williams had lived there, and he hadn’t done too badly, had he?
Because, he said, it’s too expensive. And you’ll never find a place to park.
I didn’t heed that advice. I reasoned since I didn’t know a soul in New Orleans, at least I’d be living in a neighborhood where there was always something going on. I wouldn’t be lonely. As for the parking, well, I’d lived in New York for 30 years.
When I came to New Orleans to search for an apartment, I enlisted the services of a real estate broker who specialized in the French Quarter. He lived in the neighborhood, and his family had been selling and renting houses there for years.
“What do you do?” he asked me.
“Well, I’m a writer. I’ve come to New Orleans to take a job teaching.”
“A writer? Oh, well, you must live in the Quarter.”
The realtor found me a place I could afford. It was an apartment on Ursulines Street between Royal and Bourbon, a lovely part of the neighborhood. I didn’t know yet that the Quarter, though relatively small, changes radically in temperament as you go from one end to the other.
My new apartment was on the ground floor of a two-story building with a small inner courtyard. One end of the apartment faced the street and the other that courtyard. The tall windows that faced the street were always shuttered, unless I threw them open. I hardly ever did.
That made it somewhat dark inside. Most houses with windows facing the street are shuttered, and remain shuttered all year round. I was told it’s because of the heat – the shutters fend off the sun – and I suppose that’s right. But there is also a sense of protection, of hidden lives.
Every time you go into a French Quarter house, you’re walking into a mystery. The shuttered windows keep the interior secret. You have no idea if you are going to walk into Jay Gatsby’s home or Miss Havisham’s. Both are possible. The shuttered windows also give the impression that the people are away, they’re someplace else, maybe London. But the houses are seldom empty. Every once in a while, someone walks out the door. There is life inside, often of the most curious sort.
While I was living on Ursulines, I had a routine. I’d come back from the University in the evenings and walk one block to the Verti Mart on Royal and Governor Nicholls, just a few blocks from my apartment. It’s a painfully small market that sells a limited selection of goods. In back of the Verti Mart is a kitchen nearly as big as the store itself. From this kitchen come wonderful things.
No one told me about the Verti Mart, or why that name. I just went inside one day looking for a place where I could buy something to eat when I came back after teaching. I was lucky I did. I bought their rich, New Orleans food that provided limitless comfort almost every night for an entire school year. Later, I learned that for many New Orleanians the Verti Mart is almost as celebrated as Galatoire’s and holds a similar reserved place in their hearts.
Morning is a wonderful time to savor ‘most any place, and the Quarter is no exception. Those first few months, I liked to rise early and walk through the empty streets. I began to know the neighborhood as I would a new friend. Sometimes I’d encounter a few drunks on the tail end of a drinking marathon. They might be sitting on a stoop speaking, or shouting, repetitively to one another.
Like most streets in Manhattan, the Quarter streets run as a grid. They are lined with one- and two-story houses, the latter often with balconies affixed to the second stories that are enclosed by black wrought or cast iron railings.
From these balconies often hang planters made of a porous, matted material. Sometimes I would walk under one of the balconies when the plants were being watered, and, surprisingly, it would begin to rain on a clear sunny day — or so I at first believed. It can be a pleasant interruption on a warming summer morning. The sun livens the excess water that cascades from the planters with their flower tresses.
Those balconies are often empty, but during Mardi Gras they are groaning with an unlawful amount of humanity, far beyond, it would seem, maximum capacity. These balconies are supported by elegant, slim iron columns. I often rode my bike through the Quarter, especially early morning, because I liked drifting by its houses and shops like I was on a ship. When I stopped, I’d attach my bicycle to one of those black columns.
There is an elementary school across from the coffee shop, and I became a regular witness to its routine. I would sit at the window during the week, watching the children in their yellow Lacoste shirts and khaki pants arrive for school in the morning. One by one they were dropped off either by their parents or by the school bus. Each child had a backpack.
The adults from the school who met the children were young, too, most probably in their twenties. The adults would usher the children to the playground where they would gather, a swarm of bees in their yellow shirts. They shouted something in unison every morning before they went inside, a kind of ritual. I couldn’t hear what it was, but some sort of energetic anthem.
I would sit working by the coffee shop window, and, out of the corner of my eye, see the yellow flash of fabric from the children’s shirts, a rich summer squash yellow. I would pause, look up and watch them for a few minutes, drinking in their young lives, their wide-eyed stumbling, and I would feel refreshed and young and optimistic.
No one, by the way, writes better about the French Quarter than Tennessee Williams. He lived in the Quarter for various lengths of time in various locations for years. He loved New Orleans and flourished here.
If you want to see what life was like for him as a struggling French Quarter artist read his “Notebooks.” He once wrote of the vacuity of life without a struggle, and indeed he struggled freely and earnestly in the French Quarter and forged out of that struggle everlasting characters that live inside us.
The ultimate problem for me was that I wanted a bigger place with a lot more light, and I couldn’t afford that in the French Quarter. Not on the salary of an assistant professor at a state university.
Somewhat reluctantly, with a literal sigh, I moved away after a year.
So why, years later, am I here again, in the Quarter, at Royal and St. Philip in the Community Coffee shop where I practically lived that first year? I’ve come here early from my place in the Marigny, a much calmer and quieter neighborhood on the other side of Esplanade.
I’m back because despite the fact that the Quarter is raucous and intense, there is life here. I’m back because the neighborhood embraced me, and always embraces me. I’m eternally grateful to the French Quarter for making my first year in New Orleans so illuminating and stimulating.
I’m back because the early morning streets are lovely to walk on. I’m back because I miss Ursulines Street. I’m back to look at the second story balconies where people stand and watch the walkers below and from which the planters dangle and weep water. I’m back because I miss the walls of the courtyards, sleek, smooth as frosting, subtle-hued.
I’m back because an older woman, who is a painter, gave me the keys to the large door that leads to her courtyard with a trickling fountain and vast green palm fronds swaying over a cast iron table. I’m back because there is an architectural display here you can’t find anywhere else.
I’m back, because the French Quarter is in my blood. My blood is type FQ now, and that’s the way it is and will be.