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.


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