In the city, there are lots of stair steps that go nowhere. They often lead to just another platform, a view. This is especially true in the Quarter, where people seem to need a place to sit and there are no stools left and all the walkways are wet with water and Comet cleanser. There are stairs like this that face Jackson Square
, and this is where a troupe of guys, all in lime green jumpsuits and to a beat in music they themselves created, spin on their heads and barrel row jump over 20 volunteers from the audience. At night the stairs are dark, unlit, unwelcoming.
Not until recently have I begun taking Claiborne Avenue home. The street runs alongside an overpass and snugly against the typical places you expect to see near an overpass. The bridge and tunnel dive bars and abandoned detail car wash shops litter the sidewalks alongside small huts selling chicken wings and cheap beer. Claiborne on my side of Canal Street also frames in the ugly back wall sides of local cemeteries and one set of government housing projects, brown like dry dust and flowered with aluminum foil. My side of Canal is the French Quarter and all the sleepy and broken down neighborhoods, gutted for the non-future.
From my prior knowledge of stairs that go nowhere, I thought the circular platforms under the Claiborne overpass, tiered like a flat wedding cake, were just another example. I’d often see bums with their carts of everything they own today sitting on them, waiting for things to blow their way. The roar of traffic gets locked into the above rafters, and the whole view is brown and sodium orange from where they sit. Paper cups and fast food wrappers blow like leaves in a place where there are no living trees. Bus exhaust farts a deep gray or chalky blue, since Claiborne is a street that can take you to either extreme of the food chain: uptown, around the bend of the Superdome, or spitting you out onto Esplanade (my turnoff) and beyond, to places I’ve yet to see because I’m scared of the dark.
Then, one afternoon, I saw that there were fountains. Not fountains like you’re used to. I can’t tell where the water pours into, as any sort of basin is not visible from a car driver’s perspective. But it was like there was simply water all of sudden, these long and nimble arcs shooting up and over in diagonal duels of white. These flat wedding cake stairs had become fountains like magic, like some hidden playhouse inside a tomb. Once I had finally learned what they were, I passed the fountains with a renewed sense of awe, something that is frequently rejuvenated in this city. Parades, random jazz funerals, piecemeal impromptu marching bands at practice, Navy men out running and grunting cadence in the sleepy Marigny neighborhood at 6:30 in the morning. Things going on and being what they are in places you’d never think to find them, or ever think could become so standard. As I pass the fountains these days, I notice that no one is surprised at all to find them, running like clockwork, as if their only reason for being there was to rinse out bum debris.
So I resolve to hold my awe out and open for one more ride home, the day ending earlier and the lights ticking on still too late, and I am thankful that those grimy fountains exist.