I live in the Treme (like truh-may, not like treem), a neighborhood just outside of the French Quarter
that, as far as I know, has always been a neighborhood. It's street dividers are Rampart and Esplanade
on one corner. Squat double shotgun
s and small two-floor houses are the main structures here.
There is a large black family that lives on the corner diagonal to my building who spend most of the evening time outside on the sidewalk in front of their shotgun double. They have an elaborate setup over there: a large shop fan, plastic lawn chairs, often a beer cooler and a boombox. I come home from work at 5:30, get out of my car, and they're there. I come downstairs at 6:30 to head to City Park to jog, they're out there. I come back, they're still there. I leave and return to my apartment several times in a night and they're still out there. The men in this family drink beer out of cans shielded in paper sacks, their pants stained with paint and similar labor. The women are large, bedecked in hair curlers and citrus colored dresses in wild patterns with gold slippers. I don't know what they find to talk about for hours on end every night during the summer, but they seem to be enjoying themselves. They are the constant of my block. My friend Ken says that while he doesn't like my neighborhood, he likes these neighbors. He feels that as long as they approve of whatever he's doing in my neighborhood, it's all good.
The streets I take that lead me from the throughways to home are always full of people. Kids playing stickball or basketball in the streets, large groups of kids sitting on our hanging around someone's front stoop. Many of these houses look like they should be condemned: crumbling outer brick walls, chain fences with strips of vinyl blinds weaved in and out to provide some privacy, lines of laundry sagging low in the evening heat. It's almost as if these houses have been born run down, as though it's a way of life they've always known. They are all painted bright and clashing colors, like the Quarter: bold sapphire blues against lime green shutters missing slats here and there, lazy hot milk pinks and greens, bleeding away their colors with each rain.
The woman below me feeds the pigeons in the morning and as far as I can tell, doesn't hold a job. A man comes to see her almost every morning, and when I come downstairs to my car he's leaning on his well used but well cared for work truck, talking loud and bright with her. The women do not speak to me in my neighborhood, but sometimes the men will say hello when I'm walking around. The kids all look right through me.
Nothing changes here. There is some remodeling going on, and I noticed a white couple peeling years of paint on the corner house, which leads me to think they just bought it and have a long road ahead of them. But it still doesn't change. Kids whiz by on their scooters and ask them half-hearted questions. I hear one boy tell a woman on her porch that he's going to be "over where that man is." What man? "The man fixing up the house." Oh, no you are not.
Everyone talks to everyone else but me; I talk to no one. I don't know how to begin talking, since I've lived on this block a year and hope to move next month to a block far enough away that I may never see that family on the corner again. Also, in all my days of passing them, I don't think I've ever looked into their faces. My smiles are all half smiles, undirected but poised so if they looked at me, if they looked up, they would see that I am trying to smile, trying to be at ease in my own neighborhood, when it's never really been mine.
But I still try. I try to look up and make eye contact and say hello to passersby. I try to not be so afraid of myself.