Paper Ghosts

Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, July 29, 2020

By the water’s edge, the monument to the immigrant, looking back at the city, looking out across the wide and muddy river. Situated at the point of arrival, the old port of New Orleans, marking the point of embarkation, the journey’s end and the start of crossings and travels, hopes and dreams. A two-sided statue, a decorated figure, like those carved on a ship’s prow looks out to the water; an immigrant family look towards the city. The crescent city lies at a bend in the Mississippi River. A city haunted by its migrants, by their comings and goings, the history of these streets and those who walked them.

I remember our arrival. Crossing the Lake Pontchartrain causeway and losing sight of land, as if the train travels an endless bridge to nowhere. New Orleans is a surprise to me, a last-minute change to our plans, an unexpected part of our trip. And like the surrounding Louisiana swampland, it is like a new language, one I had never learned but feel I should know already. 

We have travelled 1300 miles across the land, thirty hours, half in sleep and half in daydream, and it is as if our souls lag behind. From our arrival at sunset, darkness quickly descends to shroud the streets in mystery. We are hushed and excited on arrival, caught in a tangle of new places and new impressions that makes this place feel curiously flat and enclosed, and we wonder what it will look like when daylight comes.

In the morning the sun is caught behind deep overcast skies, waiting to break through. We spend hours mesmerized in the pattern of the streets and the architecture of the old French Quarter. The city of music leads a dance in circles. The vibrant buildings with their elegant shutters, iron porticoes and ornamented balconies, the graceful sweep of the trees above. There are wooden verandahs and carved iron railings, with intricate patterns that take the solidity of iron and give it a careful fragility. 

In the square a group of musicians assemble, playing of impossible dreams, laying their heads beneath the stars of a thousand nights in a hundred different places, drawn to New Orleans from far and wide. Sleeping under the stars and dreaming of boxcars, of all the miles that went before. Something about this place grips and calls them back, the struggle and the sadness. City of roamers, the restless, or those who never had a home. The place to settle if you don’t wish to settle. 

Out on the street the rain comes again as we walk, at a distance from each other so that you are crossing the road while I am standing still staring fitfully, as if the answer could lie in these elegant streets of the French quarter. The rain descends, gallops down from the sky, and we watch from a corner of the street, sheltered by balconies and trees. The skies have darkened, and the rain still comes. For a moment we walk through and it soaks our clothes, water grows in puddles across the streets. The balconies and verandahs make a passageway through and we continue our walk entranced by the rain. Reflected in the pavements, in pools and rippled water forming, are the shadows of the pillars that are everywhere. A place of shadows, the rain brings out the shadows.

The rain in New Orleans. Hurricane season. Rainbow flags and cocktails, and dancing, sprawling tourists, visitors to New Orleans’ spirit of intoxication. Some with a hand on their money, others unguarded, out on the lookout for reckless times. And those elongated souls who look as if they had spent a day too many street wheeling, freewheeling, they forgot where they came from and where they were going.

The French Quarter is like a film set framed in black and white with the tension of a thriller. The restless fans and fire escapes, in all those old detective movies where the private investigator sits late at night in his office, nursing a whisky tumbler. 

We widen and lengthen our walks to the outlying districts, long streets of bright-coloured wooden houses, each one different from the next. It is slow progress as we stop to look at every house, on the way to Frenchmen Street, where the sun has broken through cloud, and shines powerfully through the heat and skies cast over. 

Next to the painted elegance of the dark turquoise green and white house, dark red doors, with its balcony under the sweeping shade of the tree; is a tiny pink house, with a small pointed roof and large windows and doors, green and purple shutters, its steps and iron railings besieged by trailing plants, ivy-covered like something from a story. 

There are pillars with overhanging roofs and lanterns, steps out onto the street. We walk the pavements through trees and plants, depth and shade, and flowers pink and red. Looking down the tree lined street, pillars next to the trees, and shutters purple and green, blue and white, yellow in the streets beyond the French quarter, in Marigny and Bywater. A play of light and shade, shade and light. 

The streets make a poem to the transient. Trees in flower everywhere and hanging baskets with ferns or lanterns decorate the houses, each one taking on new colours and depth, a beautiful façade of permanence claimed back at night by shadow, the deep shadow of darkness that covers the streets when night falls, changing them back. 

Here the pavement is brick and uneven, the roots of the tree below the surface, deep cracks in the road. I always knew the earth was moving but here is the proof spread large. Living on borrowed time, borrowed land, propelled by its legends – the new and the ancient exist side by side – as if this city reveals its faults and its truths like the deep cracks in the road. Life is uncertainty, the roving spirit says it best. The feeling that life is closer here, that it is right at hand, to be lived; the tenuous and unsettled feeling, the one that doesn’t put down roots, or none too deep. For the roots of trees lie just below the surface and erode the stone above as they spread outwards, upwards; as if they might uproot themselves and walk away.

I want to piece it together, to work out if I belong here. So, the saying goes, the legend tells, the city will let you know if you were meant to stay, meant to leave. And I want to be the one the city welcomes, but I know also that there is something here that unsettles, that displaces me deep down.

Under the bridges, the tent cities remain. New Orleans evokes this sense of wandering – for those who choose it, those who don’t. In the faces of those who pace back and forth, day and night, up and down, for a dime, a dollar, a nickel, in the patient, hunted faces of those who lost everything, those who never had it, those who go looking.  

They make paper monuments now to honour all those who were forgotten, unrecorded. You can find them at street corners, down by the water, if you’re looking. From where we cross by boat, to Algiers, on a deserted ferry, to deserted streets between the heavy showers of rain. Heat-steeped, sleepy Algiers, where we trail around, looking for something we never find. 

New Orleans wears its history in layers, like the paper ghosts standing on corners. The city haunted by the spectres of all those who passed through. I float through the map, tracing the streets as I go. I can only write the poem of a stranger to this city, another visitor entering its spell, city of illusion, of powerful emotion. New Orleans you keep on returning to me, keep calling me back. I walk along your streets in shadow. 

I walk along your streets in shadow, watching the changing light, remembering how darkness falls like a cloak, changing the streets, calling them back. 

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