Baxter ditched his beat-up Civic in a parking lot at Armstrong Park, put on some jogging shoes and treaded towards Bourbon Street via St. Philippe. As he turned onto the side street, he saw a Room for Rent sign and took note of it for the way back. This would be close enough to Bourbon for him to commute in all hours of the morning. The greenery and number of tourists in all states of intoxication and embarrassment increased as he proceeded towards what was hailed as the party street of the south. Bourbon street tells its tale in the most direct of ways: The pavement is thick and relatively soft, chunks missing here and there. The sidewalk is composed of shiny red bricks, many of which are broken apart - but never missing. In the same manner are the stores beaten up but never abandoned. The sleaziest of bars and sex clubs have found their way into what has become the most appraised part of the eastern south, at least as far as partying goes. There are no big, glamorous clubs or bars – the running theme of decay is all encompassing. The neon announcements of female impersonators, sex-toy shops and ‘topless/bottomless’ bars augment the stringent smell of alcoholic heave. It is as if all the spilled daiquiris, all the crowd sweat and individual vomit had been absorbed into these red bricks and is now lending them their pregnant and charismatic shine, giving off the sickened party vibes.
        Nonetheless, Baxter felt at home. This was nothing like Atmore on the outside, but at the core it was. He did not realize it then, but if the majority’s secret wishes were to have been fulfilled in his hometown, this is what it would have looked like. Baxter headed into a bar, picked up a large White Russian daiquiri and returned to the street. The sex shops and strip clubs did not appeal to him, at least not while he was sober. Baxter was more drawn toward the freakish bars, patronized by people who looked like a harsher and freer variety of the Goth coffee house crowd back in Mobile. As the number of tourists increased during the sweltering afternoon he made his way south, towards the Mississippi. To those unacquainted with New Orleans, the inner city is composed of a grid of narrow roads that are a bitch to drive through, but pleasant to walk on. Dodging traffic, Baxter progressed towards the French Quarter and into Jackson Square, which differed more from Bourbon Street than simple geography would allow. Gone were the sleaze and the voyeuristic, proud shine of Bourbon’s bricks. From above, Jackson square is an island of green, composed of well-kept palm trees, flowerbeds and golf course type grass. The place itself is rather small, maybe a hundred square yards, towered by a larger-than life statue of General Jackson and run over by a circular walkway. Flashy-dressed, camera-wielding couples occupy most of the benches, and the rest of the spaces are either taken by shopping bags or noisy children urging their parents to get up, to get going.
        Jackson Square is more family friendly than the northern part, but the pervading sour smell that is so distinctly New Orleans prevails. Behind the meticulously trimmed palm trees lies the dirt, much like a mask is the greenery pulled over the dark earth, the street artists are in so many cases no more than homeless people trying to make a living. The visiting families ignore this fact, and revel in the belief that the clowns really are happy and the stained blankets in the corners do not serve as beds. But the eyes give it away, behind the worn faces and gestures are men and women who made the street their home, only interacting with the mainstream through their acts.
        Baxter passed them without a second glance. In his eyes they blended with the tourists, becoming part of the layer of New Orleans that he instinctively knew wasn’t his. While he was not a native yet, he felt strangely at home, the culture accepted him more rapidly than he could accept it: New Orleans is a mosaic, composed of shards from all the world’s failed empires and fallen metropolises, glued together to form a new city that while unique and un-placable has the charm of ages past. Baxter took a place in the crowded café bordering Jackson Square and ordered a tray of beignets. Waiting for the food, he was confronted by a chubby four-year old.

        “Mom, we can sit here, there are two spaces here, we can sit here.”

Attached to the plump four-year old was a lady in her mid-twenties. She wore a short skirt, short enough to catch Baxter’s eye but long enough to not cause too many stares. The skirt was black, as was her wide-brim hat. Her appearance implied that she was of an upper social standing and definitely not a tourist. Her rose-colored lips separated in the direction of the child:

        “I’m not sure if the gentleman would like to share his table, darling, let’s keep looking.”

Apparently the child was tired of pushing his stumpy legs around.

        “Can we sit here?”

Two pairs of inquiring eyes confronted Baxter, the first belonging to a seemingly exhausted child who pleaded with him to yield two spaces and the second to an awkwardly smiling mother staring the child down. She tugged his arm and turned to start walking. But there was something in her face that struck Baxter as familiar. Before she could fully turn he uttered:

        “It’s alright, y’all can sit here.”

The child was struck by an invisible lightening bolt and jumped into one of the empty chairs; the lady sighed and thanked Baxter by nodding her covered head. She retrieved a hatbox from one of her bags and elegantly placed it on the table. The box was covered in black velvet, had two black leather handles on either side and was marked by a beveled gray signature, indiscernible and meaningless to Baxter even if he had cared enough to decipher it. With one motion the lid was elevated and her rose-pedal hands slid the hat into its appropriately ornate container. When the time was opportune she waved one of the identical looking Asian ladies to the table and spoke her order to the emptiness before her, not even glimpsing at the waitress. She requested a café mocha and two orders of beignets for the child, who demanded a sprite.
        The closure of this transaction marked a new waiting period, and the beginning of another of the child’s episodes. It seems that the sole purpose of a human’s childhood phase is the creation of interesting and awkward moments for those who have grown to surrender their dignity in measures of teaspoons.
        “What’s your name?” The child asked. Baxter answered reluctantly: “Baxter, what’s yours?” The child looked at Baxter in a distrusting way and played with the napkin dispenser. “His name is Michael,” his mother answered for him, “and I am Jamie Fishley, his mother. Nice to meet you.” Baxter turned to her and shook her hand. “My name is Smith, Baxter Smith. Pleased to meet you also. I’m guessing you are from here?” She seemed to ponder the inevitability of conversation and answered: “Yes, actually I live in the suburbs, we just went into town to do some shopping. Isn’t that right Michael?” He replied with his head still lowered, studying the napkin dispenser: “Yes ma’m.”
        As the conversation continued, Baxter learned that Jamie had been divorced for about a year now and thinks that the commercialization of this beautiful city is just terrible, not explaining her support of the numerous fashion houses. Supposedly her husband had become too involved in his business (she didn’t mention what it was) to even remember the child’s birthday and their relationship deteriorated from lack of contact. When he chose not to change this situation from his side, she faxed him the divorce papers which he reluctantly signed. Jamie failed to mention how she made her living, but her manners pointed towards the real estate field. As she finished her third cup of Café au Lait (decaf by now,) the increasingly antsy Michael managed to push Jamie into leaving. She handed Baxter a card bearing only her name and a telephone number, a card that looked professional and mass-produced, glossy print on a heavy, sandy stock. Baxter slid the card into his shirt pocket, kissed her tender hand and bid Adieu.

By now the sun was setting over the high-rising buildings marking the business district and the tourist families were leaving to attend their restaurants, hotels or homebound cars. A younger crowd divided between Jackson square and North New Orleans, Bourbon Street and Armstrong Park. Baxter joined the second group and made his way back onto Bourbon and into The Dark Mare; a bar that had fallen of the traveling Tulane crowd’s favor and into the hands of blue-collar drinkers. The atmosphere had suffered through the loss of the college kids, who had provided lively chatter about their ambitions and bought enough alcohol to put the GNP of any third world country to shame – all in a healthy effort to get some action. Many drunken couples and mates for the night had lightly stumbled across that doorstep; now it was only kicked by the boots of working-class men. It was to be that Baxter would spend a lot of time in this bar, listening to others broken life stories and weaving his own. Baxter, according to himself, had been cheated on by his wife in Mobile, taken the money out of his savings account and moved to New Orleans in order to start a new life. Inquiries were abated by the argument that he didn’t move to the Big Easy to relive his past – besides; the memories were still too connected to his present to be laid on the table and dissected without pain.

For a week, life assumed a pleasant pace. Baxter would get up at six or seven, walk around the docks in the ruddy riverside dawn, peruse the paper in whatever café was open and near, subconsciously dreading the day he would have to start working again. He bought a little black book in which he wrote his poetry and started reading literature. His life had become a vacation, a recovery from his past. Sitting in the cool and shady café terraces he remembered the Mobilian coffee shop and realized that this would be his new start. Every free minute he had was spent reading or writing, broadening his language skills. Mainly classical modern literature: Camus, Faulkner, Kafka… At first he occasionally went to Bilouxi, but after playing for a week without winnings he gave up on gambling. In time, he grew conscious of the Dark Mare’s depressing atmosphere and recognized that he could no longer associate with its patrons. They had lost their youth, run into dead ends and settled there. This bar was one of these dead ends, and Baxter felt that he needed to distance himself from it. In the time in which he frequented the place, he grew close enough to the bartender and some of the regulars that he felt the need to say goodbye and lie to them in promising his return some day. (for fear that they might think the truth, which is that he is better than them – advancing their depression.)
        He decided to make the following Friday his last night, as it would be the first of July, luring the majority of the casual patrons to liquidate their paychecks. It is always best to make an exit on a good night.

Back : Forth

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