The Nostalgic Traveler: In the City of the Dead

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It was fall in New Orleans, but it felt like summer, and the streets of the French Quarter smelled of stale alcohol and vomit.

I knew the Quarter would be touristy, but I wasn’t prepared for what I found. Endless t-shirt and bead shops, stocked with boob beads. Store windows filled with cheap voodoo dolls and feather boas. The wind blew the feathers out into the street, where they were trampled down among cigarette butts and discarded Dixie cups.

There were drunk people everywhere.

I spent the better part of a day walking aimlessly up and down main streets and side streets, trying to imagine what the neighborhood was like in the past, before it was given over to roving bachelor and bachelorette parties.

In the evening, I found an old-school oyster place. The men behind the bar pulled the oysters out of a large well and shucked them right in front of me. They wore rubber gloves covered in inky liquid and worked quickly, wedging the creatures open. The prep area was covered in rags soaked with gray seawater and the shards of shells. It was calming to watch the men work, but the serenity was fragile and frequently broken by groups of loud middle-aged men ordering Long Island Iced Teas to go.

After I finished my oysters, I kept walking, late into the night, as if looking for something I knew I wouldn’t find. The neighborhood’s past was distant and inaccessible to me, and the present seemed no more than a landscape of frozen margarita machines watched over by frat boys.

The next day, tired of the living, I visited the dead. At the entrance to the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 was a man selling water and soda, and the street was lined with horse-drawn carriage tours and chartered buses.

The cemetery was a place of stone, gray and white with no green anywhere. On the tops of the tombs were grasses and weeds, dried by the sun.

The tombs were like temples the size of garden sheds. When the cemetery was originally built, most of the monuments were made of plastered and whitewashed red brick, a local and inexpensive building material. New Orleans had no natural stone, just the capacity to produce endless red bricks. Marble was expensive and generally used only for nameplates and tablets.

It was built in 1789. The city’s first cemetery was established in the 1720s and located in the Vieux Carre, but it doesn’t exist anymore, excavated several decades ago to build a hotel. Some of the remains were moved to the St. Louis No. 1. There is also a St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, which was built further away in 1823 when the City Council became concerned that “miasmas” emanating from cemeteries caused diseases like cholera and yellow fever.

I sat down on the edge of one of the monuments and watched the tour groups. I had the sense that most people were drunk. They walked uncertainly along the uneven passages between the tombs, and they talked a little too loudly and deliberately. I had seen a few people quickly consume and discard their Hand Grenades outside the cemetery’s walls: bright green plastic tubes of gin, grain alcohol, melon liqueur, rum, and vodka, sold by several of the Bourbon Street bars. At the bottom of the tube is the “grenade,” marked with crosshatching, black eyes and a mouth. An angry little face.

A few small tour groups had clustered around the tomb of the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, which was marked all over with little xxx‘s in black indelible marker like kisses at the end of a love letter. Appeals for the granting of wishes, I overheard a guide say. There’s some disagreement whether she’s actually buried in this tomb, he continued. There are those who say she’s actually buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2.

But it didn’t really seem to matter. People were happy to commune with the monument. There was a makeshift shrine set up in front of it: a dirty red silk flower, an empty bottle of hot sauce, and a burned-out candle, its wax dried on the stone. The guide said that someone sneaked into the cemetery last year and painted the entire tomb with pink latex paint, so it had undergone a lengthy process of being stripped and restored.

I walked toward a far corner of the cemetery, away from everyone. There wasn’t a clear pathway to guide my movement, just gaps between the monuments. I stepped over broken marble plaques, walking up and down the irregular rows, drawn to one tomb or another because of the oddness of a name or because of the shade it cast on a hot day. The gravel shifted under my feet.

Some of the tombs had sunken into the earth. Some were surrounded by rusted wrought iron gates, like houses. Some were so white they looked like they were drawn in chalk against the sky.

A man walked past me, talking on his phone. “Can you just e-mail me the documents?” he barked. “I can send them back to you by this afternoon.” And then he was gone, behind a white wall. Alone again.

A shiny purple ribbon blew around in the breeze. Probably from a bouquet of silk flowers.

The cemetery was a place comfortable with decay, as I suppose cemeteries should be. A number of the monuments were in a state of romantic disrepair. Some of the empty vaults were filled with crumbled bricks, piles of red bricks all about their perimeters. Some of the marble plaques had broken off their tombs, exposing the concrete seals. These plaques had been gathered up and leaned against the tombs or arranged in stacks, like cairns.

The plaques read Ici respose. Here. There was an appealing here-ness to the cemetery. I felt apart from the world beyond, and although I could hear voices off in the distance, I was thankful to the dead for my crumbling white stone world, and in a little while, I would be ready to go back to the world beyond.

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