I grew up in a family-owned house on Chestnut Street in the Garden District of New Orleans with my mother, Maud Ellen, and my grandmother, Maudie, who we called Mamoo. My father, Godfrey, lived with his mother a few blocks away on Jackson Avenue. A stranger to me, he spent most of his time in and out of state mental hospitals in Jackson and Mandeville until his suicide at thirty-nine.
My other family consists of my Greek husband and our two children. We live on Long Island in a house purchased with monies from the sale of Chestnut Street. Previously, the four of us had traveled to NOLA together only once, the Christmas before Mama died. I left New Orleans in 1990 only to return a few times over the years. Reunions weren't good for the soul, but this trip was different. We needed to heal. I was four months sober, and my husband and I had reconciled after a split.
August. We drove down in a spanking new silver Suzuki, the first new car I'd ever owned. I made the $4,500 down payment with money earned from stock in a Louisiana oil and gas company purchased by my grandfather, Isaac Davis Stamps Farrar, a man I'd never met. At Chestnut Street, I didn't have a father or a grandfather or a car. The men I knew were my mother's sailor lovers from the Greek bars, her posse of intellectual, homosexual male friends, and other men who could do things for her—like drive. No one in my family owned a car. We got around on bicycles and took the St. Charles Avenue trolley, United taxi cabs, and the Magazine Street bus.
I met my husband, a sailor I'd picked up, in a bar on Decatur Street. Mama had been taking me to the bars since I was a little girl. Our regular tramping grounds included Zorba's, The Grecian Blue Room, The Acropolis, and The Athenian Room, our favorite. They overflowed with pulsing, exotic, erotic men, and I got high, high off attention, something I craved.
Yanni was the first man who asked me to marry him. He didn't speak English and I didn't speak Greek, but, of course, I said, "Yes." I had a crazy plan to change my life. I was a thirty-year-old receptionist at McMoRan Oil & Gas. Funded with money inherited from my father's mother, who'd just died, I'd decided to move to New York. "I'm going to Manhattan to pursue acting," I dramatically exclaimed. In reality, I was exiting my own theatrics and family history, and I needed a working man as backup. In my family, men were the saviors, the ones who went to work. No one had held regular jobs. Not Mama, whose two-hour lunches got her fired, nor Mamoo, nor my paranoid schizophrenic father, Godfrey, who lived with his unemployed mother. Godfrey certainly never drove a car; the few times he'd visited us, he walked.
On Long Island, we packed our bags, the kids' medications for their allergies, hired a sitter for the dog and cats, and bundled into the car for the 1,400-mile trip. A brief stopover with my cousins in Pensacola eased the going. We had rented a suite in New Orleans at a bed and breakfast on Bayou St. John, just off Esplanade. I had chosen the location, four miles from Chestnut Street, to give me physical distance from my former home in the Garden District. The second night in New Orleans, I was wide awake at dawn, my emotions reeling. I wondered, Am I crazy to have brought my family to a place so dark in memory that I returned only four times after I left? I needed a run.
With Yanni and the kids still asleep, I slipped from the bed, dressed in my jogging clothes, crept out into the lush yard, and hopped into my waiting car. Destination: Audubon Park. I navigated my silver armor-like car down Esplanade and made the turn onto Decatur. At Iberville, I passed what used to be The Athenian Room, which I'd called the Olympic Tea Room. I remembered the stained, red carpet leading to the second floor bar. The day after Christmas, 1974, the year Godfrey hung himself, Mama and I went out drinking. I was fifteen years old. That night I gave my first blow job to the bar owner, a man twice my age, in a curtained off back room next to the kitchen. My mother had been entertaining a Greek captain at a table near the live band, oblivious. Now the Olympic Tea Room was a souvenir shop for tourists.
Crossing Canal, I continued the drive up Magazine Street, passing Jackson Avenue. Godfrey had lived and died in the house at 1740 Jackson, a house whose sale had funded my flight north. At First Street, the turn-off to my old neighborhood, I took a right onto Chestnut Street, made a left, and stopped the car. I sat looking at the façade of the house where I'd lived for thirty years. I hardly recognized it.
The feral garden had vanished. The two ancient English boxwoods with roots that upended the bricks of the path, the altheas in the choked front bed, the thick wisteria that curled up the althea trunks and broke through the rotten screening of the upstairs gallery, and the rows of aspidistra aligning the narrow side yard—all were gone. It now looked like a yellow cake trimmed in white with a tamed, manicured perimeter of green. It was pretty, but it wasn't the house I remembered. The exterior belied darker truths.
I drove on and entered the parking lot on Magazine across from the zoo. Draped in gray moss, the Audubon Park oaks looked like Confederate ladies-in-waiting. Mama and Mamoo had never waited on me. As two former debutants embedded in a house they never cleaned, they preferred books to parenting and always put themselves first when I was a kid. Mamoo spent her time writing unpublished stories and essays for her ladies writing clubs, Les Causerires du Lundi and the Quarante Club; Mama hung around men or hid in her bedroom devouring books by Havelock Ellis and Arnold Toynbee; and my father, a failed poet, painter, and actor, was an absent stranger. Life for me became a quest to get what they couldn't give—attention.
The first time I ran away was during the snowstorm of '64; I was five and went around the block. When I was older, I ran to the Greek bars and jumped on ships. I ran off to Florence, Italy, and Wivenhoe, England financed by a small inheritance I received after my father's death, and later Greece, funded by any sailor that would pay my fare. When that didn't work, I gorged on a dozen Mackenzie's Turtles (pecan sandies with dolloped fudge on top) or periodically raided Mamoo's phenobarbital supply she kept hidden behind the Ormolu clock in my bedroom. Sometimes I upped the ante: an episode with a razor blade that ended by my admitting myself into the East Louisiana State Hospital at Mandeville, one of the hospitals frequented by my father, necessitating a thirty-mile taxi ride with my mother. I also bit myself with my very own teeth. As a little girl I pretended to be one of our dogs. I howled and ate from their food bowls. I was also hypergraphic; I recorded everything I ate, everyone I screwed, every thought I had the moment it came to me, multiple times a day, in a diary since age fifteen.
Things had changed, though. I was sober and now had a therapist in New York.
With my senses pricking to my surroundings, I started to run past live oaks and thickets of palms and ferns in the gardens of mansions bordering the park. Suddenly, I heard raucous screaming overhead. Cawing green-bodied birds with gray chest feathers darted in and out of the crowns of the sixty-foot tall Texas Palmettos. I'd read about the Quaker parrots or Monk parakeets. Pet store escapees, they'd thrived in the park for years, breeding like erotic maniacs amidst the oaks.
But growing up in the house on Chestnut Street obliterated everything. I attended Loyola University across the street and regularly jogged on the park's grounds. Back then, I never noticed the delightful, flying birds, nor would I have seen the wild African violets massing up the latticework of the garçonnière at the B&B. Flora and fauna of the green and feathered variety hadn't been on my radar. I peered through the windows of the manses as I jogged past them. Some had empty rooms, and I remembered Hurricane Katrina. After years of cramming myself with food, alcohol, and men, I'd damaged myself as much as Katrina damaged NOLA.
I was almost at St. Charles Avenue when I spied an enormous ebony man, a NOLA grotesquerie seated on a stone bench, rocking himself from side to side.
"Hey! You look like the Peach Lady," he yelled as I approached.
Like an apparition, he reminded me of the enormous prostitutes from Decatur Street. When I was ten years old, a hulking, white prostitute named Jackie drunkenly cornered me in the alcove of The Acropolis. "Hey, little girl," she said, her face very close to mine, "You're pretty." Her breath and smell rendered me mute, incapable of calling to my mother who was inside talking to the bar owner.
Too déjà vu, I thought and sped past him and headed toward a sno-ball vendor pulling up to the curb ahead. Strawberry, lemon, lime, raspberry, and peach were a few of the many offerings. I ordered a raspberry-flavored sno-ball, something I hadn't tasted in years.
Suddenly, I remember being on Second Street around the corner from my house with my four best childhood buddies, and we are ordering sno-balls from a street vendor on a hot August day. Tripping further back in my memory, I am in the side yard at home. Mama is sitting in the iron butterfly chair with a Don Q and her Lark 100s. Godfrey is there too, seated crossed-legged in Uncle Walter's chair made of plumbing pipes, his fingers frenetic as he finger paints on a canvas. Mamoo stands on the paving stones in-between the rows of aspidistra, or "cast iron" plants, on either side of the walk, a red sweater draped inside out across her shoulders. She asks if I've seen Gray Pea, one of our many rescued cats. The sweetness and the memory are bracing.
In the quad at Loyola—my alma mater, which I almost failed out of—I looked over at the statue of Jesus; known as "Touchdown Jesus," arms uplifted, imploring the lost to ascend. Then, I glanced back at the ebony man, still rocking on his bench. He hailed another jogger.
"Hey," he hollered to a pink-shirted matron. "You look like the Peach Lady."
I drained the last of the sugary ice and dumped the cup in the garbage can near the curb. My foot hit the trail. A caw sounded overhead and a splash of gray and green feathers flew by. I thought of my husband and kids—our son, Isaac, "laughter" in Hebrew, named after his great-grandfather; and our daughter, Eleni, Greek for "light," named after my husband's deceased mother. They were most likely now awake, no doubt, and wondering what had happened to me.
I picked up my pace and followed the parrot that was flying toward Magazine Street where I'd left my car.
Title image provided courtesy of Lucinda Kempe.