daily preciousness

Tuesday, August 28, 2001

streetcar ride

Forest green benches advertising weight loss pills, the sour smell of rotting magnolia blossoms, a gutted house, its snarling windows bare jagged teeth of broken boards: these are my first impressions of this morning's St. Charles Avenue. It's the oak and ivy suburb of New Orleans.

A Japanese couple hops on the streetcar after me, stumbling through the driver's directions. He issues them instructions in a thick New Orlinian brogue.

I listen in. Yukiko's English is good, but it still takes her a few moments to understand the driver. She feeds a crisp dollar into the machine and stands next to the driver. The driver, his speech nearly intelligible to the couple, offers Yukiko a complimentary architectural tour of some of the buildings that pass by us. She nods eagerly, in the manner I know so well. It's that eager participation in dialog with a native, even if she doesn't understand very much of what he's saying. I know what it's like to get the gist of a conversation, even if I miss half of the details. Sometimes just the delivery of the information is enough to convey the sense of meaning. And it's a heady feeling to imbibe a native speaker's passionately delivered speech. There's something beautiful about a person who's making an effort to share their cultural heritage with you. It's a simple act of cultural charity, the act of walking up to the fence and reaching a hand across to your neighbor.

A hundred wizened old innkeeper crones, red-faced salarymen and bright-eyed sailor-moon schoolgirls had made the effort with me, so I was deeply contented to see the streetcar driver do the same for Yukiko and company.

Yukiko, in her peach Liz Claiborn fitted polo, nods eagerly to the driver's animated retelling of Tulane University's history. She quickly whispers an interpretation to her husband, whose camera strap digs painfully into his Fila sports jacket. He watches, wide-eyed at his wife, marveling at her aptitude. The man pushes up his coke bottle-thick glasses. He's sitting two seats in front of me. The streetcar stops to pick up a handicapped passenger. The old woman struggles up the carriage steps.

I peer out the window of the streetcar. There's an elegant fountain at the entrance to Audubon Park. The stone sculpture of a woman is holding a bucket, spouting water into the base of the fountain. Encircling the basin is a wide ribbon of concrete. A black woman in a sunhat pushes a purple baby carriage along the walkway.

Her steady pace produces a lullaby. The rhythmic cracks in the sidewalk and the gurgle-whisper of the water lure her baby into slumber. She smiles into the purple carriage and adjusts her matching purple sunhat.

The woman reminds me of the oral history I was reading just a few minutes before. My imagination leaps ahead of me and I find myself, along with the black woman, in the 1950s.

The woman stops. Rubs her back. Walks to a bench and sits down. Sees the carousel in the distance. It looks just like it did half a century before, she notices with an internal wince. Without invitation, the memory flash floods her mind. It's a bright, humid July day, just like this one. The 10-year-old pig-tailed girl, whose name is Louisa, is eating candy corn Daddy bought for her from the corner store. Daddy is in his best jacket, holding her and her baby sister by the hand. Today was Louisa's confirmation at Calvary Baptist and Daddy promised her candy corn and a walk through the park if she was good. And she had been. She didn't even make faces to her cousin in the choir during the sermon.

Passing around the fountain, Louisa is licking the sticky corn syrup off of her fingers when Daddy is looking the other way. That's when she hears the music. The wind carries a few notes at first, then she can make out the melody after a few more steps.

Louisa and her sister recognize the source of the music at the same instant. It's carousel just around the bend. Tugging at their father's strong hands, the girls use every ounce of their weight to drag him toward it. They can see a smiling blonde girl, just their age, waving to her grandparents, sitting on a forest green park bench nearby.

They ask for a ride before they notice the expression on their father's face.

He bends down to their level, spreads his thick arms wide to hold their laced shoulders in his hands. They cannot ride the carousel, he explains. It's not for them. The words, shapeless and stinging, pass through the woman's mind fifty years later. Daddy's hands rub their little backs in unison as he weaves explanations with the apology about the way things are.

The woman gets up. Guides the carriage over to the carousel and smiles at the children. Her granddaughter, just a baby, won't have to worry about that. Louisa smiles at the children riding the carousel today. There's a blonde girl, about 10 years-old, in pigtails, riding the carousel with her friends, black and white, laughing together as they go 'round.

The streetcar springs forward, ripping me out of my reverie. The handicapped passenger sits down. My hands reach into my bag and pull out my sapphire blue laptop. I have to write down my daydream. Of course, the story was true. It may not have happened to the woman that I saw, but I knew that it had happened. Under the graceful arches of Tulane University archive, I had just read the story from an oral history transcript.

The yellow type-written page nearly crumbled in my hands as I read them. The jerky courier typeface hopped along the page, ignoring the baseline in a playful tango. The memories weren't so playful. The recollections of New Orleans during the time of integration were sobering.

I look up from my computer, waiting for it to warm up. My eyes must be sad, because I get a curious look from a manly looking woman sitting right in front of me. Her T-shirt reads, "Bronco bull riders are terrible lovers because they think 8 seconds is a long time." She looks at me without the cool detachment of the average mass transit passenger. She genuinely looks concerned about me. I wonder if bronco bull rider's wives are all so compassionate. I steel myself up and give her a polite smile before I look down at the floor.

Why is it that public transportation etiquette seems to teach us that looking at the floor is the best way to handle an awkward moment with a group of strangers? I find myself staring at the floor all the time when I'm on buses, streetcars, trams, whatever. I study more people's shoes and ankles that way. But it's safer than staring right at them, I suppose.

The driver stops at a streetlight. He's finishing up his lunch. "Ya know how dey say it takes two hands to hold a whopper? In my younger days, I used to hold a Whopper in one hand 'n' drive wit mah right, put de fries right ova hea," he explained, motioning to a little drawer on his right.

It's balmy and breezy once we start moving again. The breezy part feels good. I find myself glancing up at the clouds above, hoping it won't rain on me. I have 10 minutes to meet my ride at the hotel. We pass by an anorexic crepe myrtle, its spindly branches burdened by Mardi Gras beads just out of reach.

We stop for a moment, delaying my journey for rail repairs. Two purple and gold trailers crowd the narrow boulevard, pumping air into jackhammers. Burly men are pounding into the ground with the noisy things. Repairs. In a few seconds, they gingerly step out of the way. The driver offers them a little nod.

The clop-whiz-pop of the car as we start up again is a soothing sound. Despite the breeze, I can still smell the sulfer contact burn odor that lingers whenever we stop. We pass Unity Temple and the Saint Charles General Hospital, a horse-drawn Roman chewing candy cart parked beside it. We pass the Hampton Inn with the dancing parrot in it, where I stayed last October with Lester.

We stop. A portly bald woman gets on. She's the color of café au lait. She has cranial scars wrapping her head like lines of latitude and longitude. The lines are oddly beautiful. Her head has a unique shape. I wonder how she got the scars. Then I notice we're on the same stop as the veteran's hospital. Did she serve?

My laptop purrs. It's ready to go. I look at my notes, culled from hundreds of interviews from the Cabildo historical society of New Orleans. The narratives describe the 40s and 50s.

As a young attorney, Nelson had many experiences that sensitized him to segregation. During an interview of 3 May 1979, he recalled a day when he took his two small daughters to a merry-go-round in Audubon Park.

As he approached the ride, he noticed a young black man with two small girls. Nelson got on the carousel with his daughters. "And as I went around, I saw him. And I began to think, 'What is he telling his daughters?' Because I knew my daughters were pulling me toward this thing. As soon as they heard the music, they knew what it was … I began to feel more and more uncomfortable.

But not because he couldn't use the carousel, but 'What was he telling his daughters?' What explanation is he giving them? Because I knew that they were probably tugging at him to go, too.

This had to be before the 1954 [Brown] decision. But I cannot get that man out of my mind… I guess the big question that whites involved in this segregated system never wanted to ask was, 'what does a father tell his children when they become an age, and you tell them they cannot go there?'

'Why can't I go there?'

'Because you're black.' That's a really tough thing for a father to tell his children.

[End notes.]

I close the laptop and close up my bag. I can smell the donut shop around the corner and I know we're almost to Canal. It's time for me to hop off the streetcar. I pass the bronco bull rider wife, the globe-headed woman and the Japanese couple, thanking the driver as I disembark.

Tuesday, August 07, 2001

audio snapshots

"Choose your future; choose life!"

Author Irvine Welsh's words pour out of my earphones. A foal races after its mother while the Australian in the next row tells the Hong Kong couple how long it took to grow her dread-locks. I'd just visited the Scottish writers museum the day before. There, I saw a photo of Welsh. He wasn't as fearsome as his characters and situations had led me to believe. He didn't look like a heroin addict. I couldn't see him diving into a feces-stained toilet like his main character did in his book (that later became the movie) Trainspotting. But Welsh did have a hard-edged look in his eyes that belied his gentle exterior.

I am on a train, spotting the fields infested with hoof and mouth disease outside. We are heading south from Edinburgh. The trains slows down and stops in Lockerbie, the town that suffered through the plane bombing incident.

"Old Lang Syne," Robbie Burns' New Year's Eve classic is emitted in chirps and beeps from a mobile phone. It's an electronic pronouncement of Scottish pride. A bio-hazard squad, attired in spaceman-like white puffy bodysuits, complete with air tanks, is in the middle of a field just beyond the train line. The two men are spraying a white mist over a field. The loose stone walls rise up around the narrow field, sentinel-like. It's foot and mouth cleanup.

All the chemically treated "welcome" mats and barbed wire fences – all the signs and warnings, protocols and regulations – they start to make sense now. Here in the U.K., man and beast have both suffered immeasurably from this blight. This bio-hazard is mankind's newest. Its repercussions will echo for years to come. Not much to do to set things right but to change the style of farm management and hope for the best.

"Set it up, DJ!"

We're in Killarney's oldest pub. Musician Moby's lyrics echo around the dungeon-like basement, named after a famous witch that was put on trial there a century ago. The ceilings are vaulted, rough-hewn granite.

I order my habitual lunch entrée: soup of the day with bread. It's inevitably vegetable soup or potato and leek. The bread is always farm-style, whole-grain and chocolate-colored. Perfect for dipping.

I remember the butcher's wife, Marie, approving of the restaurant. Marie runs the B&B where we're staying. She's about 35 and incredibly friendly. It's her affable, easy-going manner that is so ingratiating – so typically Irish. Business must be good at the little B&B, because she relates her several stateside vacations to us, to Florida, California and New York. Impressive – the butcher shop and the bed and breakfast are obviously thriving. The students sharing the B&B with me go "ooh" and "aah" over the resident canine. She's a friendly terrier with the propensity for licking hands and faces. This endears her to the girls immensely. I stand my ground, preferring to chat with our hostess as

Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" plays in the background, over the tinny radio in the kitchen. I can just hear it over the wooshing sounds of the dishwasher.

"Hit me baby, one more time."

Brittney Spears is the last person I'd expect to hear as the elevator doors open up to reveal the highest point in Dublin. The steel gray doors open to reveal a bright vista of gray city and green mountains, powder blue skies and black pints Guiness. Brittney is playing at a moderate volume over the din of drinking reverie. About a hundred people have packed the place. The room is a modern lily pad, floating above the pond of city sprawl. Circular in shape with curved glass paneling, it's a stupendous view of Dublin. It's sort of George Jetson meets Ikea in design.

Smack in the center, a circular bar houses five black-shirted bartenders. A dozen taps sprout out of the bar, all of them serving Guinness and Guinness-brand drinks. I order a pint of the Irish ambrosia, waiting patiently as the first head flattens out. My bartender doesn't add the flourish that some of the girls have talked about – the skillful maneuvering of the glass so that a perfect shamrock appears in the bubbles. Oh well…. At least by the time I'm served my drink, the Louisiana pop music abomination subsides. Next, I'm treated to another tune:

U2's "Elevation,"

a much more Irish atmosphere for this venue. I was in Dublin the day this song was released. And I heard it every 10 minutes, at the very least, on the radio after that. Every once in a while, I'd remark that I really enjoyed a peculiar techno tune – until I realized it was the remix to "Elevation." It was everywhere. I heard it in an elevator twice, appropriately enough.

"The Emperor's New Clothes" by Sinead O'Connor

The trendy white Georgian woodwork of the Front Lounge on Dublin's fashionable Parliament Street are so decorative that it's easy to miss the discretely placed speakers. But it's hard not to recognize the hit music by one of Dublin's most famous daughters. Sinead, who waited tables just down the street, definitely changes the mood when her music comes on at the Front Lounge. The fashionable crowd of IT and telecom workers bang the tables playfully to the familiar beat. Lorcan, the Trinity College student who happened to find his way into my web page a few weeks before and Jessie, the student nurse at the nearby hospital, both smile as the song begins. The beat was entirely infectious – Jessie and I started drumming our hands on the tabletop without being able to stop ourselves – what a great song. Lorcan even distractedly spun his tiny mobile phone to the beat of the song, without even realizing it.

I learned something just before I left for Ireland online somewhere… Sinead O'Connor recently became ordained. Some radical splinter group let her in, even though she tore up a picture of the pope on U.S. national TV a few years ago. She now goes by "Saint Mother Bernadette Mary."

"Can You Forgive Her?" by the Pet Shop Boys

"Remember when you were more easily led,

Behind the cricket pavilion and the bicycle shed

Trembling as your dreams came true,

You looked into those blue eyes and knew

It was love...."

These were the words I heard in my head, after I'd scaled the barbed wire fence. Blakely was my lookout, alerting me to cars passing by or drunks stumbling home from the pub. He and I were climbing over an 8-foot stone and barbed wire fence around the back of a private school's cricket field. Just my luck, I snagged my jacket on a barb. It took me a little while to untangle myself. (I could just picture a copper turning the corner at that moment, catching me on top of that fence!)

The field looked cool and clean in the blue moonlight. We wanted a place shielded by the streetlights, a place far away from prying eyes. And we found it in the school just around the corner from Collier's House, where Blakely lived. ("Collier" is the old word for coal miner. The house was named after its original inhabitants, who happened to be miners. The entire street is old cobblestone. Each house is that of a laborer inhabitant who lived there when the eastern suburb of Dublin was first settled, back in the early 19th century. So Blakely's place is now known on the historic register as the "Collier's House.") Once we'd both scaled the fence and thrown over the blanket, we got a great view of the starry skies above Dublin. The thick maple trees that surrounded the field kept most of the light out. So we enjoyed a little time alone, staring into each other's blue eyes. It was a little cold, so I trembled a little, making the song even more appropriate. Try as I might, I couldn't see a cricket pavilion anywhere. But the gist of the song was right on target. That was my most romantic moment in Ireland, snuggling in the dark grass of the rugby yard.