ELYSIAN FIELDS LOST
Under the inebriation of youth or other forms of instability, New Orleans is a veritable
paradise that holds a myriad of activities and attractions to entertain the idle and anesthetize the pained. It
is often referred to as an "adult Disneyland." Serving as the city's international rallying point for
every sort of riff-raff imaginable is a street which has come to be known more for a cruelly potent form of alcohol
than for its original name's sake. Hearing a reference to Bourbon Street is to a panhandler's ears what
hearing "There's gold in them thar hills!" is to a prospector's. And when the members of the nation's
various genres of social outcasts learn that the oasis of decadence which Bourbon Street represents annually at
Mardi Gras infects the surrounding desert of conservative Southern values, it is too great a force for them to
resist. The battle cry of Carnival time in New Orleans is like a great banner that reads, "Give us your drunk,
your uncontrollable, your addicted masses, yearning to drink free!" And they come by the hundreds of thousands.
When it's over, the vast majority of them leave for home. But there are always a few undesirables who don't seem to have homes to go back to, so they stay. They almost always end up wearing the same set of clothes until they eventually rot away from the body (those being such articles as flare-bottomed blue-jeans and breast-pocket T-shirts, regardless of the wearer's sex), and they usually end up inhabiting local biker joints where there can always be heard a very strange mixture of hard rock and Country-Western classics blaring from the juke boxes inside. They stand outside on major freeway on-ramps near the CBD, collecting spare change from poor drivers who are stranded right along the way by red lights and who end up having to stare helplessly at their pathetic, cardboard signs on which they've scribbled things like "WILL WERK FOR FOOD OR MONEY" with a black felt-tipped marker (which they probably borrow from the bartender at their favorite hangout).
These types are, of course, not really true homeless people who can't find work. They're true-blue bums who blend well with all the actual homeless people living out on the streets. These people come to New Orleans thinking that the place has some kind of welcome wagon waiting for lazy drunks who refuse to get their acts together and who are looking for an easy, careless lifestyle. They seem to think that New Orleans is the place to be for drinkers and partiers (they arrive with the misconception that that is for whom and by whom the city was founded). And they think that, once in town, one is obliged to drink and party all the time. Well, they're wrong. Drinking and partying in New Orleans may be a little more frequent than it is in other parts of the U.S., but, outside of Carnival time, it's not that much different. They don't, contrary to wide-spread misconceptions, parade about with drinks in their hands out on the streets in all parts of the city at all hours of the day and night. Upon finding this out, those who are disappointed that they can't go around everywhere they please with a drink out in the open anytime just do it anyway. And you know that anyone you see walking down a busy thoroughfare at nine O'clock on Sunday morning with a beer in his or her hand in New Orleans is very probably some low-life transplanted there from some other place where there is less tolerance for such riff-raff. Those types are usually not homeless per se. Most of them rent a place to sleep all right, they just don't have any life to speak of.
When I started college, I set about the task of finding an apartment that would fit into a student's limited budget. I managed to find something very reasonably priced in the lower Garden District (the "Garbage District" it had eventually come to be known as since my father last made a home there when I was a kid). I enjoyed the place for about a year, even though it was absolutely revolting. The landlady was a nasty old thing who never changed her stained, yellowing clothes, and who allowed, as near as I could tell, between twenty and thirty stray cats to inhabit the environs of my apartment house. (I adopted my little grey-striped Tabby there. She turned out to be a very warm and loyal roommate for me.) The landlady seemed very pleased that I was renting from her. I found out why when I met my neighbors later on! Not that they were undesirable to have as neighbors - not all of them, anyway - but I think that I was one of only a handful of her renters who actually paid the rent consistently and in a timely manner (or so her handymen would tell me).
The house I was renting in looked as if it had been painted white with green trim at one time, but it had been neglected for so long that it appeared to be very light grey, striped with orange streaks from rusting old exterior plumbing. It was one of these big places which, when it was first built a zillion years ago, must have started small and grew as its various owners throughout the ages continuously added onto it, increasing both its height and width with an addition here, and an extension there. In New Orleans, houses used to be built very narrowly in width, but quite sizable, as they usually sit on very deep lots which run quite a ways back from the streetfronts. This is due in part to the mimicking of plantation layouts along the river; back in the bad old days of King Cotton, plantations competed for space along the river fronts of the state so that they could more easily use the rivers for commerce, having immediate access to them for waterway transportation of their goods. This desire for direct access to transportation channels influenced property owners in the cramped area which comprises New Orleans (the crescent shaped wedge of land that's confined between the Mississippi River to the south, and Lake Pontchartrain to the north). Property owners didn't so much compete with one another for streetfront access from their individual lots, as did they more or less just accommodate one another by sticking to the general riverfront-plantation plan, I should say.
But as appropriate as the riverfront-plantation plan was for considering property layouts in New Orleans back in the old cotton-commerce days, it didn't quite catch on with the wealthy Americans who moved in from the North. They built what they had been accustomed to in their previous environments and, consequently, wide-open estates blossomed in what were then New Orleans suburbs, and what are now the lower and upper Garden Districts in the city's uptown area. So, that was basically the end of the plantation-style layouts along roads for houses and other property. But it still persisted by force of habit well after the Americans moved in, and it still does in some of the older parts of New Orleans where space is inherently limited.
It seems that this place I moved into was one of those places that ended up narrow at the front and wide towards the back, even though it wasn't as old as most of the buildings with which that technique of expansion was normally employed. It may be that it was constructed initially within a constricted area, as it was indeed situated in one of the city's older residential neighborhoods. It ended up sitting on quite a wide lot, though, perhaps as a result of previous owners having acquired more and more area around it as the surrounding land once occupied by older houses was redistributed eventually and used for building modern apartment complexes.
My apartment was located on the top story of the house (it had two), with windows affording me a view of both the street out front and the parking area to the side. I had two sets of neighbors living up top with me, and two living below on the first floor. I grew acquainted with all of them right away, except for those who occupied the unit directly next-door to mine. In fact, they remained a mystery for a considerable amount of time.
I lived at one end of the hall on the second floor, and a very nice, homosexual couple lived in the apartment at the other end. They would have loud fights occasionally, but other than that, they were okay. Below me, there was ol' Jim and his family. I called him "ol' Jim" because he walked with a cane because of a bad hip, and he grumbled like an old geezer all the time. (But he really wasn't old.) He was very prejudiced, and occasionally he would approach blacks in the street in front of our house to confront them by saying things like, "You're in the wrong neighborhood, don't you think?" He would use that cane of his too, waving it above his head as if he could do somebody wrong with it. This was all very strange for somebody living in a predominantly black neighborhood to do. I was just waiting for the day when someone would take that cane away from him and smack him with it!
Jim was a beer drinker. I think he drank a little too much of it sometimes. He never worked as far as I could
tell. He said he had a printing press back in his place, and that he printed things for a living, but I never heard
any printing press ever going in his apartment during the year I lived there. His wife had some kind of job, though.
I never found out what she did, but I saw her come home every day at 5:00 p.m., very tired. And there would be
ol' Jim to greet her every time on his front steps, a beer in one hand and that cane in the other (and the shallow
little smile he constantly wore spread thinly under his short, choppy mustache). Being from northern Florida, Jim
spoke with an authentic Southern drawl. His wife was a typical New Orleans 'yat, though. Their boy, about
age fifteen, went to school nearby during the school-year and spent the summers with his grandmother in Florida.
The child had a room way at the back of their apartment.
Back in the hallway lived an old guy named Bobby, and various others who floated in and out mysteriously when none of us were ever looking. Bobby was a good guy - a retired serviceman with lots of tattoos and a big, round pot-belly which he constantly displayed naked to the world from out of the old T-shirts he would wear until they fell off his back. Bobby was always good for a shot or two of Southern Comfort or Jack Daniels out on the side steps when evenings would get too humid to stay indoors. To the back of the complex lived Curley, an old guy who was sort of a recluse, keeping mostly to himself and his two, fat Siamese cats whom he spoiled like grandchildren. But he would sometimes talk with me on the steps back there if we bumped into each other coming back from shopping or doing laundry, or whatever. He was always good enough to keep an eye out on my car for me in the parking lot, since I really couldn't see it too well at night from my second-floor windows. We didn't get too many new neighbors while I was there, except for a pair of girls who were going to Tulane University and who moved into the big apartment extension added on to the building next to Curley's place. They weren't there for too long though, as Jim scared them off by calling them lesbians and accusing them of performing various sexual indecencies with an African graduate student whom they had over once for dinner.
Now, the one thing that I can remember that really bothered me the most about that house was that its grounds were constantly littered with everything from freshly stripped chicken bones to bodies of passed-out winos. I would occasionally try to clean up all the empty beer and wine bottles, fast-food cartons and cigarette butts, but the trash would just pile up again and again. I would chase every bum off whom I caught loitering around or in a comatose state under the house or in the grassy area next to the parking lot, but they would return, too, because the landlady was in the habit of employing them to do simple, odd jobs around her various properties (she was loaded, but you'd never guess) for a buck or two to buy their next bottle of Thunderbird or Night Train. It came to the point where I had to start threatening to beat the tar out of them to keep them away. I finally gave up on taking my broom and gardening gloves out to clean up everything. The trash cans provided were the sturdy plastic kind with lids that seal tight around the tops, so I seriously doubt it was all those cats getting into them and making a mess with all that garbage. After all, somebody would have continuously found the cans all tipped over with the lids off if it were the cats doing it. No, it had to be the doing of careless people.
The last time I tried to clean the place up, I got down to business, though. Nearly everyone was out watching - Jim, Bobby, Curley and, every now and then, one of the two guys living together upstairs would poke his head out to see what was going on. I couldn't believe some of the things I unearthed from underneath that house! I found dead cat skeletons, old tires, hundreds of empty quart-bottles of Milwaukee's Best beer, and even a set of old aluminum signs for the Court of Two Sisters restaurant in the Quarter. I knew that Bobby was guilty of flicking an occasional cigarette butt out onto the walkway leading to the upper area apartments, but he and everyone else denied ever having dumped chicken bones or anything like that out without having the decency to pull a lid off of one of the cans to throw them away. In fact, Bobby was one to pull out a broom himself every now and again to sweep up a little. Curley kept his place and himself too neat to suspect, and ol' Jim, surprisingly, tried to keep the place's appearance up by tending a nice little garden next to the grassy area by the parking lot. I also ruled out the homosexuals upstairs because they would always bring their trash down in nice, neatly-sealed little bundles and dispose of them in a meticulously proper fashion. That left only the mystery people who floated in and out unbeknownst to us.
After about half-a-year, I got fed up and went to complain to the landlady about it. She told me that she would inform all of the tenants that garbage was to be placed in the trash cans provided. (Sure!) I did find a flimsy paper sign tacked up in the downstairs hall about it, but nobody paid any attention, it seemed. She obviously didn't do anything about dismissing her hobo workforce, either. Jim told me that his wife almost ran over one of them who had been passed out in the tall grass in the parking area where they had always parked their big, ugly brown Oldsmobile! I finally had to resort to muscling one out of there. I didn't hurt him; I just grabbed him by the arm and dragged him down the block. I think that had some impact on him and his compatriots because I didn't see another one the rest of the time I was there. Of course, I'm sure the cold weather played a role in keeping them out when it finally came around in the wintertime. I'm sure my routine "hobo hunts" on the weekends after that had something to do with it, too. (I would look around for one of them who may have been laying under the house or in the yard again, determined to whoop on him good if I did find one - that's how mad they made me! I never got the chance though, which was just fine with me.)
Another thing that really annoyed me about that particular place was all the damned noise that went on at night around there. Strange noises would roust me from the bed at night and make me have to go to the nearest window to investigate the sources of all the screeches, howls (human or otherwise) and arguments that could be heard at any given hour from all directions. Strange cars would pull in and out of our drive, glass bottles would get smashed on the sidewalk in front of the house, and the occasional sound of automatic machine-gun fire could be heard coming from the St. Thomas housing projects a few blocks away. And then, if that wasn't all plenty enough to keep one from getting half a night's sleep, there were always the taxicabs that would routinely pull up to the fancy apartment complexes across the street, the drivers always laying on their horns hard and at length to summon their passengers out, regardless of the hour.
One morning, around 2:00 a.m., I was awakened by what I had thought was the incessant mewing of a cat outside. It droned on and on, "eeowww, eeowwww," and kept waking me up. I had heard this cat before outside at night, but it was never this persistent, nor as annoying. (I thought it was a little cat who had an injured foot that the landlady locked up in an old laundry room under Curley's apartment to keep safe from any more harm.) Well, looking out and down from my bathroom window this time, I was shocked to see the form of what appeared to be an old woman with a heavy build lying face-down at the foot of the concrete steps which led up to the hallway entrance on the first floor. She just laid there, still as a mannequin, but repeating over and over, "Daryyyyyl! Daryyyyyl!" Earlier that night (or morning, I should say), I had heard some kind of ruckus going on outside of my apartment door, on the staircase. It sounded as if somebody had been carrying something up the stairs - something heavy - and dropped it (it made a big enough crash to wake me momentarily). Then I heard them come up again, so I thought nothing of it and went right back to sleep. But it did seem kind of strange, as I recalled having heard the same kind of ruckus a couple of times before I came to look down on this woman on the steps below. This, I gathered, was possibly one of the people who lived just on the other side of my apartment wall, as these nightly disturbances always seemed to end with the opening and slamming of the door to the apartment right next to mine. I was never comfortable with the fact that these people whom I hardly was familiar with, and who made strange noises at night, lived within such close proximity to me. Well, I called 911 and told them that there was a strange woman lying at the foot of our steps, moaning. They asked me if I would go down to see what the matter was, but I politely declined as I was very leery of the situation. They said they would send somebody out, but it would take a while (like I couldn't have guessed that).
A little over an hour later, I got a call from the emergency/911 operator who wanted to confirm my call. Paramedics had arrived, but could find no one at the bottom of the steps outside. I had gone back to bed after I called them, and it didn't take long for me to fall back to sleep at that hour, so I had no idea what had become of her.
This episode went on a couple more times before I finally got mad and decided that I would have to get more involved if I wanted to bring an end to it. I went down to the woman at the bottom of the steps early one dark morning, and tried to get her to tell me her name, and whether or not she lived upstairs, too. I realized the true nature of this bizarre situation then; she was just too drunk to move a single muscle, let alone get her big carcass up the stairs! I went up to the mystery apartment next to mine and gave a nice neighborly knock on the screen door. Nobody responded, but I could hear somebody in there with the TV on. I knocked again, then pounded on the door as hard as I could. Finally, I heard some motion in there. Somebody seemed to stumble, then the lock inside snapped open. The door drew slowly open a crack, and a crusty, bloodshot eye peered out at me through the veil of a string hung with rags behind the screen door.
"Look," I said hesitantly, "do you know that woman down there at the foot of the steps who's making all that noise?"
(There was a long pause.)
"At the foot of the steps?" it finally slurred back from behind its tattered curtain.
"Yeah. She's making so much damned noise down there that I can't sleep!" I responded impatiently.
"Oh, that must be my mom."
"Well, do you think you could go and get her or something, or do I have to call 911 again?"
A rough, soiled paw drew the curtain aside, and a hulking, staggering beast with stringy blond, collar-length hair, wearing a stained and spotted old army shirt and a pair of greasy jeans emerged from the dank-smelling interior of the mystery apartment. I drew in a breath and stepped back cautiously, feeling as if I were at the Audubon Zoo's big primate exhibit, and one had just escaped right in front of me! He had no shoes on his dirty bare feet, and his breath almost singed my eyebrows off! I introduced myself as his neighbor, and told him that I'd appreciate it if he could do something about his mother. He leaned from one side to the other, spoke, but unintelligibly. I went right into my apartment and locked the door up tight. From my bathroom window, I could see him below, trying to lift his mother and drag her up the steps. In the dark, it looked like some kind of cave animal trying to haul freshly killed prey into its den! I don't know how much time passed before he finally dragged her up to their apartment, but I could hear them stammering to one another for the longest time. I believe I also heard him drop the old gal once. (But I doubt if she felt it.)
Of course, the next day I went and complained to the landlady. She seemed concerned about what was going on with Daryl and his mom, but not surprised. I said I didn't know how much longer I was going to be able to take it, and that seemed to worry her a little.
Eventually I got to know Daryl - not on too personal of a basis, but well enough to know that I didn't need to be afraid that I was living next door to the son of Frankenstein or anything like that. His mom was another story, though. I never was able to get acquainted with her, even though I was the one who was responsible for saving her numerous times from the ground slugs at the foot of the steps outside. Daryl told me that they were from Michigan. From where in Michigan, he would never say, or he just couldn't remember (he didn't care, actually). His mother had a night job, apparently, and he had no job (hard to guess that, huh?). He had some friends in the area - drinking buddies mostly. His mother seemed to know no one else besides her son and his friends, with the possible exception of people at the places from where she came home dead drunk all the time. She usually wore the same things (a pair of black slacks, a blouse and a sweater vest), but at least they were always clean and pressed (and not just from lying on the concrete steps all night every once in a while!). Daryl wore the same things all the time, too, but his things got filthier and filthier. Daryl would change his appearance from time to time by shaving his hair off (I'm not sure if he did that because he robbed banks or because he got head lice or what), or by wearing strange military garb. He was mentally not with it - that was plain to see.
One night, I heard Daryl and one of his drinking buddies out in the drive. They were talking loudly about something that had just happened to them in some brawl. I got up out of bed and went to the bathroom window to eavesdrop on them. There was Daryl with a long, heavy leather whip which he was snapping at this and that, especially at his buddy (I have no idea where he got it), and repeating, "I know one thing for sure now - I sure as hell know how to use a bull-whip!" His skinny friend was mumbling all along about how he couldn't believe that "the bastard" hit him with "that cinder block!" I stayed at the window a while to see if Daryl tried to whip my car with that thing (I don't know what I would have done had he whipped my car at all), then got too tired and went back to bed. I eventually became indifferent to such goings-on, as they were the rule around there. (I still complained to the landlady a lot, though.)
Then one day came the answer to the eternal mystery of the chicken bones and other garbage getting dumped all over; I caught Daryl red-handed at it. When confronted as to why he was not using the trash cans, he simply said that he was "feeding the cats." I told him it had to stop, or I was going to the landlady with it. Surprisingly, he agreed and apologized. Of course, I went over to her place and unloaded about it to her anyway. She let me in on a little secret to get me off her back then: Daryl and his mom were going to be evicted for not paying their rent. Well, they were both drunks, and common sense tells you that drunks drink a lot, and that when somebody drinks as much as drunks do, then a lot of their money goes to getting stuff to drink. And when drunks who don't have a lot of money to spend in the first place spend most of what they do have on drinking, then things like the rent will go for long periods without getting paid. That's just plain common sense, and the landlady should have figured that one out about the fourth or fifth month that went by without getting any rent from them. She just should have known that getting rent money from those two would be about as easy as getting a quadratic formula recited by a hamster! Well, I told her that I was relieved to hear that, and that I had been thinking of moving, but now I would be happy to stay if those two and their late-night shenanigans were going to soon be departed from the premises.
Well, this young idiot ended up waiting a long time, indeed. Not only were Daryl and his mom still onboard, but now they had allowed a third person liberal use of their apartment (some black guy who seemed okay to talk with, but who was their fellow drunk). Now this man would bring all kinds of riff-raff up with him into that apartment at all hours. I returned home late on weekends from work, and there would be strange people waiting for this guy at the top of the stairs inside the building. (I had talked with the landlady about it, and she told me that Daryl and his mother had not yet been evicted, and that nobody else had rented that apartment - this genuinely upset her when she found out about the stranger who seemed to have moved in with them.) All this had taken place about four or five months after she first told me that they were getting kicked out. Apparently, Daryl's mom had paid some of the rent that they owed, so the landlady let them stay. But it wasn't even a week after I went to her and informed her of the stranger in their apartment that the sheriff's deputies came on up, opened up the place and kicked the whole lot of them out. I was surprised to see that the apartment was just a one-room flat with a tiny, gally kitchen in the corner- not even a bathroom or closet was in there! (I always wondered who used the separate bathroom out in the hall!) Well, they got all of their stuff taken down and dumped in the yard. The deputies nailed a sign to the apartment door declaring that the eviction had taken place. I was pleased, but I did feel a little sorry for Daryl and his mom.