4. Thy Neighbours of the 9th Ward
Updated: Jul 25
It has always seemed a little strange to me to live in such close proximity to ones neighbours but, for the most part, never particularly taking the time to get to know them. Perhaps because our homes become like collective sanctuaries from the outside world and anything breaching those boundaries can be seen as a potential intruder of tranquillity. Perhaps we are just introverted, a little lazy, or even fickle. Who knows anymore?
As a child, I recall staying up way passed bedtime and, staring out of my bedroom window through the taunting rays of a 10pm evening summer sunset, I would stand on my bed, part the lace curtains and tentatively peer through into my neighbour’s windows, wondering with all my little might, who those people actually were. I wanted to know what they ate for dinner, who ruined bath time, and what bedtime stories could be heard echoing around the house. I had it on good authority though that walls couldn’t speak so, closing my eyes into childish dreams, I left the scene of what is nowadays known as a ‘Peeping Tom’ and allowed my curiosity towards strangers to be born.
As an adult, I’ve tried to combat that sense of disassociation by getting to know those that live in close proximity to me, wherever it is that I chose to lay my head at the time. And my head, blessed with the sight of plenty a new face, has certainly taken rest upon its fair share of international pillowcases. I employ such pleasantries, not only to bridge a gap in community for a traveller such as me, but also because I understand that there is a general sense of protection received from knowing that not only one pair of eyes are looking upon your property. There is a sense of safety in knowing that, just a stone’s throw away, someone has got your back, even if it only ever amounts to the lending of sugar.
My next week in NOLA was spent sitting upon the front porch of Burgundy Street getting to know my new peeps…
Thy Neighbours of the 9th Ward.
My room mates, Harley and his partner Kim had looks that, upon first impression, may encourage that you run a mile in the opposite direction. Because sometimes, when shits rough, that is the intended perception. However, Kim, with skin as white as a rose, hair as green as swaying seaweed and enough silver on her to deter Dracula, had a certain sweetness about her. And, Harley, with pink lightning bolts striking out of his head, tribal like tattoos streaking unapologetically across his face and an arsenal of weaponry peeking out from within his worn clothing, was gentle and knowledgeable.
Looking at Harley’s face, I was reminded of my time in New Zealand. There, whenever I was able to pry myself away from my manuscript, I was privy to witness the remarkable ways of Maori culture. With their powerful display of warrior heart, Maori people often draw incredible soul stories of tribal ink right across their faces, tattooed in the same unapologetic way as Harley. Facial tattoos are also a common practice amongst the punk and/or Train Kid culturewhich, although very different from that of Maori warriors, share a similar message of ceremony and nonconformity. For stories, in all their various forms, are magic and magic should never be hidden.
Jason, like an eternal story of front porch presence that had been gently etched into the sticky black leather sofa that sat stoically outside my bedroom window, became as familiar to see as the sun: Always with a cold one in his hand and, although mostly quiet of nature, when he did speak, Jason often had a solid conversational contribution upon tongue.
Rob and Estée, our immediate neighbours of the Purple House had, upon introduction, already solidified themselves in mine and Twiggman’s hearts forever and as the days passed us by in a blur of Bush Beer and casual conversations, we each became closer.
Estee in particular, was adopted as my very own soul sister. She and I, over the course of the next few weeks would find ourselves sat upon the steps, steeped in cultural conversations where a world, depicting the true state of the streets-the real side to American poverty, was revealed to me.
Since living here on Burgundy Street, I have been privy to tales of murder and treachery. Of men stabbing their women just for kicks. Of crack habits that have stolen the body of even the most incredible of beauties. I have heard of men shaking their babies to death and getting away it. I also learned the sad reality of how rife Aids are here on the streets, as well as the common placement of child molestation within the community; weakened mothers turning a blind eye and ego driven fathers encouraging such things.
And as I sat there on the steps, taking note of these tales with great sobriety, I also watched
the way in which those, now young women, (beautiful in all of their tragedy,) tried to regain sexual control in their adult lives by turning tricks and the like, without ever knowing any different… because something so precious had been so violently stolen from them too early on in their lives. And now, well… that was just life.
As I sat on those steps drinking a cold one in order to combat the sweltering heat, digesting stories from all angles, swatting away the tireless flies whilst sporadic gun fire echoed out just a block away from me, I tried to wrap my head around the reality of being a precious little thing that, through no fault of her own, was simply born on the wrong side of the streets. Nola was certainly a far cry from the rolling countryside and the supreme safety that I had been born into and, so far from home, I began to feel a sense of the darkness that lives here in New Orleans.
Life was hard here. Though, despite the shudders and goose bumps that often rise up out of my damp heat stricken skin, there are also powerful and transformative stories that rise up out of the ghetto like a charmed snake to a Voodoo Queen. For this place, much like the snake, may be deadly, but it also holds a mysterious and quite mesmerizing kind of quality. For I have also tuned in to tales of family cookouts and gatherings that go on for days, full of the best soul food you have ever tasted in your life. I’ve dreamily listened to stories of New Orleans style Jazz funerals that blockade large parts of the city. I have heard a laughter so hearty that it resonated through the streets like a saxophone, much louder than any rapid gunfire could ever dream. There were even counter-tales of the same crack head that had stolen from their community, getting their, “Skinny little crack-head ass whooped, then made to pay, each week, something back of what they’d stole, without involving no police.” There were stories absolutely everywhere of art and music reigning supreme. And as my new life calmly melted into a sense of normalcy, I thought over the connections between turmoil and art.
Turmoil, I believe, is an essential part in the art of creation. And creation, it appears…as I let these words flow all too easily through me…is the Mother of all Art.
Poetry, for me, was originally birthed from the deep and dark earth of the wretched and broken soul of myself, its roots clawing their fractured tendrils up across my bitter little body, travelling down into my fingers and, possessed as ever, I had allowed the sweet serenade of Poetry to begin exorcising those demons right out of me.
It was music.
It was magic.
It was healing.
And such is the Power of the Pen.
As a young woman that was once saturated with a deep current of torment, writing became like a drug for me. An entire suitcase full of old journals that were dedicated to childhood angst can certainly prove of how I have always had an incredible need to let something, something that I can never quite put into physical words, out of me; pages of unprofessed love, books and books filled with wispy wants, all of them bound by the leather soul of my unfulfilled yet ever-wild teenage dreams. It was a humble beginning that, even though the literary spells cast had been born from ugly things, my craft eventually turned into beauty.
Thinking back to the street stories of in-house turmoil, of death and of robberies, whilst I sat
there in a city that was dripping with Art, freakin’ itself with creation, and jiving to the gentle juices of self-mastery, I wondered about the ashes that the New Orleans phoenix had had to first rise from: A catastrophic hurricane, the death, the destruction, the spirits, the ghosts of shackled souls. And with all of that, I could feel a small sense of why this place, cut from the patchwork blanket of the world and sewn upon your favorite denim patch jacket, was so very special.
Because, like that of a water mill, New Orleans had taken all that potential for drowning and the city had transferred that watery fate into pure unadulterated energy. And that energy, that jazz music, that soul, that creativity; moved by a current of loss and tragedy, now fuels the entire city. And, in reality, I had only seen but a very small glimpse.
So, despite the undertones of desperate violence and of an already established sort of anarchy that roamed the streets, despite the fact that there was a constant yet quiet arsenal of weaponry peeking out of most everyone’s clothing, (big blades, little ones too, bullet lined belts and a range of black metallic handles peeking out from holsters) despite hearing guns shots shoot off across the broad daylight of an afternoon sky without any reservations, despite all of this, I found that I absolutely adored it in New Orleans.
Because during a time in life where we silently battle with our governments, during a time where we meet on the streets engaged in a deafening war with the police, and amidst a war with a great and dark kind of power, here in the Big Easy, I actually feel pretty safe.
I took to walking the neighbourhood with Twiggman, the #1 rule being that there is strength in numbers. We checked out our hood, waving to our new neighbours as we passed by and, under the legality of the Louisianan Open Container Law, we each gleefully drank from our cheap beer bottles in order to quietly combat the summer heat.
One bright and sunny day, another colourful neighbour of ours, Stumps, joined Twiggman, myself and our roomie, Josh, on a walk down to the Mississippi River. Stumps duh Clown, to be more precise, is a middle aged guy who can often be found wearing an old raggedy pair of dungarees about his beige and inked skin, no shirt beneath it, and has two faded X’s decoratively tattooed across his eyelids. Stumps, I would come to find, is somewhat of a legend here in New Orleans. Being
born and bred in the beautiful city itself, Stumps has also formerly toured with his circus troupe across various parts of America as well as all across Europe. Stumps is an old timer, a bonefied, singing, dancing, real life circus clown. But Stumps duh clown isn’t the funny kind of clown. No… he’s more in keeping with the blue soul kinda clown, the broken kinda clown, the kind of clown that had a deep sadness swirling about in his black hole eyes… kinda clown. Stumps is the very kind of misfit that makes up the dingy, the sometimes creepy yet always strangely fascinating, real life Circus.
The Clown also has a scruffy little pocket-sized dog that’s habitually stuck to his side like a prop. And that pup, Stumps’ “Associate,” to be more specific, is the one and only, the fearless best friend, the lady canine killer… Mr. Mac Taylor. Now Mac Taylor deserves a grand introduction like that
because he too belongs to the troupe de cirque and he can high five, play dead, roll over, play Paddy Cake and has even been rumoured to jump through flaming hoops. Pretty impressive pup. And as I recounted to Stumps duh Clown of the circus in which I had helped to create back in Sebring and of the circus style festival lifestyle of which I so often employ, the soft afternoon air reminded me of my perfect placement there. For, of course, fate would certainly see fit to offer me a circus freak as one of my first friends in The Big Easy. Birds of a feather…
Walking along the Levee with Twiggman, Stumps and Josh, I looked down upon the Great Mississippi River that had snaked and wound its way down through twenty-three states just to make its way to New Orleans. It had a certain kind of beauty about it, if you looked hard enough, and was a nice transition into open air and swaying trees. Eventually stopping at a land marker that had been turned into a set of swings, I sat upon one of them and, dangling my legs overboard, I looked over to the rusted, raised bridge that connected the quarter to the 9th ward and beyond.
“That thing right there,” Josh said casually, pointing a limp finger towards the raised iron
bridge; his lanky body turned towards the water whilst his dark clothes, a lot like the river, reflected the light of the afternoon sun, “That thing’s like a highway. All day long, boats pass beneath it, up and down, up and down.” Josh smiled a wry kind of smile then trailed off into his own company once again.
On the river there was an assortment of boats, small ones, large ones, steam boats, cruise ships, shipping container ships and even floating casinos. And they each passed through the aquatic highway as if it were just another day in Louisiana… of which, it very much was.
“Dat river duh the one that flooded the Lower 9th Ward.” Stumps began, through drawl as thick as the New Orleans heat.
“When dat hurricane come and the water rise up, government had ta make a decision about the levee: Release water into the city, the financial district, or release it this a way, into the 9th? They, of course, flood this side of town. They don’t care.” Stumps finished.
Shimmering in the light of an afternoon sun, the river below looked too innocent to have been charged with such treachery, but it certainly wasn’t the rivers fault: They only know how to run. I envisioned the rivers fouled water rising up higher and higher and, by the cold and calculated command of the unaffected, on top of a catastrophic natural disaster, the river had inadvertently made things even worse for the lower 9th ward.
Just a stone’s throw away from the levee, the Lower 9th ward had been hit the hardest
during Katrina. And, now knowing my new home to be a rough, yet historic part of the city, in some way, I was able to understand of how I had so easily come to land in such an interesting and battered land. It spoke to the writer in me, the documenter, the reporter, the ‘I’m going right into those sewers, reporting live as April O’Neil, no matter what,’ side of me. And as naturally as I had put the pen down three years prior, tired and spent, I finally took it back up and, feeling completely inspired, I began writing once again.
Walking back to the house that afternoon, the crew and I stopped by at Mrs. Patsy’s Place. Yet another neighbour of the 9th ward, Mrs Patsy is a one legged, wheelchair bound woman whose chickens were at a roam through the neighbourhood and, distracted by them, we had all wondered into her back garden
and stopped there awhile. Sitting in the back, whilst Stump’s respectfully tended to some outdoor chores that Mrs. Patsy no longer could, I found myself lost in a herd of little farm animals that scurried around, excited by the visit. Roosters, chickens, goats, turtles and chicks all dipped in and out of my peripheral vision. Mrs. Patsy even parted with sad yet comical tales of how the previous head rooster had lost his position of authority to another male and, once a Prince of the Back
Garden, had allowed all his feathers to be plucked out by the new head honcho… thus becoming his eternal bitch. Life can certainly be cruel. Hierarchy, even more so.
“After Katrina, dem chickens, they was the first sign of life back here on the 9th.” Mrs Patsy began, her white hair at a wave against the gentle breeze.
“Yeah, as soon as dem chickens started comin’ back home, we knew it was gonna’ work out.”
Looking at the previous rooster Prince, with his remaining few feathers still clinging on for dear life and a neurotic look held captive in his eyes, it was hard to see that rooster as a symbol of anything close to hope… However, once upon a time, he may have been. But we never truly know the previous lives that others have lived.
A few days later, in celebration of our roomie, Josh’s, birthday, Twiggman, Stumps duh Clown, Kyle, Harley and the two hyenas from the Lion King, Babylon and his brother, Rob all loaded up in my van like a bunch of
real life circus freaks and headed towards the Louisiana River Tour. After crossing a 23 mile long bridge that really did go on across forever, the boys and I, plus a few others, hit up the spot, busted out the beers, unpacked the Po’ Boys and mounted the inflatable yellow tubes. Then, for a spell, we casually and quite simply floated on down that Louisianan River with not a worry on our summer minds.
Josh, in all of his gothic glory, floated like a shadow across the bank of the river. Babylon and Rob, with their ever-present humour and dreadlocks swinging wildly against their dark and sparkling eyes, bounced back and forth with jokes that were known only to the two of them. Spiked accessories threatened to pop inflatable tubes. Pulses of poetry pushed out into the atmosphere. Groups clustered together in trees, drinking champagne and toasting to birth, some river dwellers tied themselves together and floated on down the stream in unison, whilst others floated on quite independently.
At one point, I swung from a rope that was attached to a tree and star-fished my way back
down into the warmth of a river that waited patiently for me. Kyle, drowned as an Iowan rat, wasn’t far behind me. And all around, I was encapsulated by black skin, white skin, brown and yellow, all enjoying the very same sun in the very same way. Bathing suits lounged unconsciously amidst lacy undergarments and, all the while, a peculiar pair of submerged leopard print shoes, still attached to foot, joined us on the river journey without and any self-consciousness towards their underwater displacement. For perhaps they were finally free to be the secret little leopard flippers that they had always wanted to be.
And there, as the sun set around me, as a bush beer sweated silently in its inflatable holder and as a Po’ Boy digested appreciatively within my belly, I looked around at my colourful array of neighbours. And amongst punks and preps, thugs and goths, amidst the sinners and the saints, those that were near and those that were far, within the ugliness as well as the beauty of it all, and whilst the jesters within us all played wildly upon the perfect southern court, I, but dipping my toes in the water, of my new life, put my face to the sky, smiled a circus kind of smile, and quietly loved the shit outta Thy Neighbours of the 9th Ward.
April Lee Fields
April Lee Fields