Before the Flood

The train begins its journey on the edge of a perfect disk. It travels to its certain destination and the railroad line spirals through the scenery of the disk. When the journey reaches its end, we will come to the axis of the disk itself. The world will stop outside the window.

There are many Germans on the train. There are svelte perpetually laughing bleach blond schoolgirls. I do not speak their language. A mechanical toy clown coos a baby to sleep with a haunting melancholy twinkle. The train roars through the murky landscape all night long. The other passengers are weighed down by sighs and breathe heavily to sleep. There is only the twinkle of the music box clown in the front of the car.

I wake as we pull into the numb dawn silence of North Carolina. Voices wander outside the car. The freezing air conditioning flips off to total silence. The toy clown is wound by the tireless mother again and its sound repeated. I think for a moment, we have been in a train wreck in the night. Everyone in the dark car is dead. We were pulling into Heaven just before the earliest light as ghosts.

Later we continue across a causeway from the north out of the bayou and above Lake Pontchartrain which extends to the horizon. The train appears to be floating over a narrow strip of rail that is the causeway. A southern misfit drunk in the lounge car says women generally become very upset at the predicament of the train. “What if we were to break down?” He’d heard them ask. He said the railway pays him two dollars an hour to talk to people in the lounge car.

As we roll into the outskirts of the city, I am struck by the immense Metairie graveyard in the north. Tomb after tomb continue above ground down to the buildings downtown.

The train creeps slowly and then assumes a strange perspective like most things here. They must pull it backwards into the station.

I feel an low balance here the minute I get off the train. It is a slow spiritual permutation that presents itself gradually. There is something primal and basic within each ancient floor, across the streets at night, behind fences, and in trees. The ground is always damp and soft. It is rich in its fertility. There is a distinctive smell outside the quarter that is pungent and swampy. It is a sour food smell, but not at all rotten. It’s loamy and settling. The smell of mildew covers and disrupts it into a wild tangle.

It rains consistently every day at the same time, and it seems to regulate life and action here. The downpours wait for no one. It cools any frantic and defensive mood, and makes everything endlessly sultry.

The quarter lives through its own myth and shadowy traditions more than any current raw risks. It’s just a simulation compared to the past. It is all quite tarnished and trashy in its pursuit of money. It is a strange curio show of the pseudo-past. All the ornaments are big in this town like the people. They are overdone and self-important. Visitors see what they expect. They always want to see more. They always leave slightly dissatisfied because the legend is so large.

The southerners here perpetuate conversations in a bars or trolleys. Outside of the quarter the local bars are stranger. There is a neighborhood hub of activity along the bars on St. Charles. Igor’s was a 24 hour atmospheric restaurant/bar/Laundromat combination. Blacks are seldom seen in these establishments. A boy with long hair continually weeps at the jukebox unnoticed as if this were normal. A woman walks in with a three foot long fish over her shoulder. No one knows where she caught it. No one asks. An old man scrapes the paint off a door at half speed.

A fat old patron blurts out, “We were driving around about to kill a nigger for the stolen bicycle, only to realize suddenly that the bike hadn’t moved.”

“Kill him for when he does steal it.” The owner snaps back.

Everyone orders out from a Mexican restaurant called Koo-Koos for dinner when they could have cooked in the back room on the grill. The owner was too pot-bellied and lazy.  “Are you sure you want that? That place is a dump.” He says.

“Go ahead and tell him what your nickname was.” A husband at the bar says to his wife.

“I’m not.” She says.

“Come on, I bet it’s just great.” A big man with glasses at the end of the bar says with his hands.

“D-“ the husband starts.

“Don’t you dare.” She says.

“D!“ the big man repeats in anticipation.

“Darling!” The husband blurts out.

“I’m so ashamed.” She says.

The big man laughs a big laugh, followed by a big gulp of whisky. “I once knew a girl named that.” He says. No one cares.

Back at the Hummingbird Hotel where I stay, the quirky fag waiters are polite as painted mimes walk in after a day on the streets. In the next room from me is a drunk Voodoo man who trashes his room after a day of drumming and whistling at Jackson Square. He taps on the plywood wall afterward as if he wants me to tap back. His television blares a talk show and a vague sports event. I see him outside his door locking it the next day. He has deep memorizing eyes that track through me. There is a wrapped condom in his straw hat band. He mumbles something. His voice is deep and sullen. He barely opens his mouth. The eyes do everything.

In another one of the rooms at the Hummingbird, I see a pile of magician’s black boxes and trick devices through a closing doorway. There is no space left in the room. It looks like twenty years of tricks. There are magicians arguing about something.

There are bare bulbs and bare walls. A roach with wings flutters down from the ceiling in a spiral. There are awkward footsteps in the hall. Someone surely died in the hall bathroom’s large tub. The mattress is very springy for sexual gyrations. Someone has scrawled biblical half-truths on the wall. The door to the room was once kicked in. The woman at the register calls me “Baby”. The smell of the rooms is consistent with the rest of the city and sticks in your clothing.

At night I look for old invisible traces of Storeyville but there is only a housing project. I wonder around near the Old Absinthe House. I end up on the cobblestone streets in the Pirate Alley where Faulkner first wrote fiction. It rains. It is deserted here. People look at me like I’m mad and alone. I sense they are afraid of me.

I decide to move to a youth hostel a block off St. Charles Avenue near the Lafayette cemetery so I have a better chance of meeting people.  There are different hints of languages and accents. There are many traveling stories where people sit and compete about where they’ve been or how many hours they’ve spent in the air. A few travelers from Australia brag about how they eat all their meals on planes.

A girl named Joe from California is here. She rode alone across a southwest desert on a bicycle with Mexican men taunting her. She grew up on a farm is and is soft-chested and wide-eyed. There is nothing impure about her. She is good at puzzles and wants to be an engineer. She tells me I have all the traits of someone from New York City. She reacts the way she thinks she should, and jokes and references fly over her head. It is all innocent and casual. I miss her when she disappears to find and apartment the next day.

Glenn is a tall awkward guy from Texas. And our paths cross at a strip joint on Bourbon. “Austin is a party town. Check it out.” He says.

Glenn has a wiry fake like mustache that does not fit his face. He tips and talks to the dancers. The young Mexican one with the drastic overbite and dyed red hair, and Joy, the forty-four year old sad hangover of a dancer.

“Give here three years, and her ass will stick way out.” Glenn says of the Mexican girl.

The jaded barmaid with an evil sneer and a scowl, says she hates New Yorkers, and wants to close the place up for the night.

“Where you from?” She asks.

“New York.” I tell her.

“It figures.”

The Mexican girl is done dancing and comes down to get her tips from Glenn and I. “I’m broke. Busted.” I say.

“How about selling you soul?” she asks.

“My what?”

“Your soul.”

“What about school?” I ask.

“Your soul. How about selling it?”

“No my soul is fine.”

There is a cold stare from her and our conversation ends.

Joy, the old party girl is warming up on stage. Glenn says he is leaving before things get too ugly. Joy is bumping now. She is churning spasmodically. A bandage covers her hand where she cut it on the jagged edge of the mirror on the stage. The place is empty and cold to the touch.

Outside, Glenn says his girlfriend works at a burlesque house down the street and he was there before to give her medication. He says it is a better strip bar, but he doesn’t like walking through the door. He feels awkward watching his girlfriend with others around. Glenn aptly describes Bourbon Street as a “Money Vacuum”. I agree with him. It sucks your money right up and it spits you back out drunk and bewildered.

What is worse is most of the bars with strippers have slanted mirrors out the doors to the busy street so the twirling dancing flesh looks closer than it really is. It’s the refractions that always pull a person in.

The influence of Voodoo and its place and purpose here is intriguing to me.

Throughout the city you are always aware of a dark undercurrent of suppression by whites over blacks. A great spirit lies with the oppressed here. Spirits do not lie. It is obvious within their faces. The weight of Voodoo has always been a part of this subjugation. Its three divisions are “God”: the controller of destiny, “Loa”: a mixture of pantheons, Christian and African, including saints, and the third force of the “Ancestors”: who act as a guiding element. American Indian shamanism seems to have its influence as well, with the ancient Blackfeet tribe. The trio of forms have integrated some of their similarities including animal sacrifice, ancestor worship, the totem, and fertility rites. The later is most interesting when considering the mood and sensuality of a place such as this.

I consider the naked dance of a young girl in a strip bar, (Even with a snake on occasion) to be connected with Marie Laveau’s ritual of the young virgin. Both stimulate the male drive for fertility. One difference being that the Voodoo ritual is compounded and realized by real physical sacrifice, which connects its significance with the Earth. The modern equivalence is economic sacrifice. One sacrifices money towards a stripper. Money is abstract enough to sit outside of time. We think we control the concept of time though it, while we separate ourselves from the animal and world’s true cycles that we are infinitely tethered to. We lie our own lives away in the modern world. By abstracting sacrifice, we endanger the workings of the real world.

The return trip back by train is in a Thunderbird Coach car. The drunk misfit on the trip down said that these cars used to operate on a famous line across the plains. It is named and decorated after the Indian symbol and totem spirit. A girl from Paris is here. The funniest man in the world eats in the dinning car. There is a conductor with the outrageous name of Bill Chestnut on his nametag. He has a southern accent.

X.F. Pine

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