sense of place
Something a friend said made me think of this.
Since the storm a lot of places are gone. Some destroyed by the flood or wind, some in eternal disrepair due to “misunderstandings” about insurance coverage, some rebuilt but closed down because management could no longer pay the rent with so many of the residents displaced. I miss a lot of these places – their absence alters the personality of the bigger place, the city itself. Rarely is this a good thing, though I admit sometimes it is. But the place I miss the most is the one that made me fall in love with New Orleans in the first place, a coffee joint called Kaldi’s.
Kaldi’s closed down long before the big storm.
We used to call Kaldi’s “the living room of the French Quarter.” It was a place where you could go to be alone in a crowd, find peace amidst chaos, seek and always find some kind of inspiration, where you could work through a bout of boiling rage or dream or write or sing out loud or wear pajamas without raising an eyebrow. It was our place. When I say "our" I wonder what I mean. Who is we?
We are the transients who came looking for a place to belong, a place that might accept misfits and rejects, no questions asked. We are the locals who have been here for seven generations, struggling but proud. We are the face-tattooed mongrel pups copping European baths in the restroom, tagged “gutterpunks” by the locals. We are the heart surgeons and computer geeks just passing through for the convention. We are the secret rich and the happy homeless who need a joint where we can finally just blend in. We are the artists, musicians, street performers, phony psychics, pick-pockets, con artists, yuppies, French Market vendors, crooked car mechanics, honest plumbers, strippers, insurance agents, mental defects, T-shirt salesmen, rednecks, queers, secretaries, bikers, drug dealers, whores, lawyers, social workers, students, scumbags, saints, thugs, Irish, Greeks, Italians, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Jamaicans, and Vietnamese who thank God we’ve found a place where, at least for a moment, we can believe that we are all exactly the same – even if we can never quite believe that anywhere else in the world.
Kaldi’s was just a place. But it was our place.
It closed, I think, in 1999. I figured another coffee joint would take its place -- that this mystical mixture of humanity would somehow migrate en masse to some new location. That never happened. Not in spirit, at least. There’s plenty of coffee joints around the Quarter/Marigny/Bywater area now, but they all have a very specific feel to them. These are places where you know almost instantly if you don’t belong.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I now believe Kaldi’s was the main reason I moved to New Orleans. Before I came here for good, I’d save my pennies for a vacation and take a train all the way from Baltimore only to wind up spending most of my time in that place – just sitting and watching people, sipping coffee and scribbling stories half made up in my little spiral bound notebook. When I finally moved to New Orleans for good I practically lived at Kaldi’s. I was totally alone in this city, didn’t know a single soul – but in that sacred place I could feel not so alone, could pretend I belonged somewhere and actually believe it.
When I finally worked up the nerve to ask out my future wife, I took her to Kaldi’s for a cup of coffee. I think I might have fallen in love with her in that place.
Although I’ll always miss Kaldi’s, I feel proud to have been a part of it – and it's important to remember these things. The building is still there and is still gorgeous – a marble looking, bank-like structure at the corner of Decatur and St. Philip Streets – but now it’s used as a tourist information place. You can get discount coupons for the cemetery walking tours there. Most people walk past it and have no idea. But not everyone.
The first New Orleans story I ever wrote was called “Gwen.” It’s very short and probably not very good – but it’s got a lot of heart and it helps me to remember, and so it’s dear to me. I wrote this in the winter of 1994, a few weeks after I bought that one-way ticket. I scribbled "Gwen" from one of those high seats against the wall, where they had those long tall windows looking out, on a brown paper bag. The story is partly true. It was originally published in 2000 (I think) in an independent anthology called “Son of Brainbox” (Irrational Press). I’m posting it below because I feel like it.
Ugly a little; that's Gwen.
Dumpy-small body, no hips, baggy brown corduroy jeans and the kinda combat boots gotta big round toe lika clownfoot. Close-cropped dirty blonde head almost hidden by a hunting cap a la Elmer Fudd circa Kurt Cobain but bright blue.
Hands: pink and steady.
Face: Well, kinda pretty. Strangely tattooless, pierceless – naked almost.
Gwen's gotta pencil and a buncha colored sticks, padda grey paper meant for watercolors: rough. She's walking round Kaldi's Coffehousemuseum staring soft at people, sometimes hard. Sometimes folks get stared at so soft they hardly feel the tickle, sometimes so hard it shoves 'em right out the front door.
Sometimes Gwen stares so hard she makes herself mad, takes out her pencil and colored sticks and draws em right in the face, sometimes in the gut, but never below the waist. That'd be unsportsmanlike. After she's done drawin' em good and hard she makes em pay. Five bucks a picture, take it home.
If they don't wanna pay then she really makes em pay: Crunches their picture inna little grey ball and eats it lika apple right in front of em, tiny pretty molars squeaking hard on the rough paper. They always pay somehowirrother.
A lady walks in with a fella, she's wearing a bright yella t-shirt sez:
jesus died for your sins and.. YOU OWE HIM BIG TIME!! There's a cartoon of a wild-eyed, muscle-ripped jesus gushing blood out of his side, pointing a pumped index finger at Gwen or whoever's looking. Monster-like.
Gwen stares soft awhile. Then hard.
It's the lady's turn in line: Two bavarian mochas, please.
Gwen walks up quiet lika cat, keeps her distance, close but far.
Stares hard and loud. Deafening.
She doesn't stare with anger or hate but with a sorta wonder – what's it mean? Gwen asks herself under the little blue hunting cap. All this jesus-talk. She knows what it's supposed to mean but what's it really mean. She's tricking herself thinking she doesn't understand, though. The answer to every question she's ever asked herself has always been there, twisting and stewing under the little blue hunting cap. It squirms around in there so bad right now that she is sorta mad. Sorta hateful.
The lady walks over to join her boy-who-grabbed-a-table, bavarian mochas in tow, acting like she can't feel Gwen's pointy little eyeballs. Fella-man can't act so good and looks damn uncomfortable. He: Who's yr friend? She: Sshhh, crazy girl.
Gwen's a little mad: doesn't like it when people pretend they don't hear when she knows damn well she's staring with perfect, crisp, high-fi audibility.
Gwen sits her dumpy self 3 tables from the 2. Brandishes pencil.
Draws that lady right in the damn nose.
The lady thinks it's creepy gettin' drawed by someone nuts: C'mon, let's go. They split.
Gwen tears the paper in a straight line from the edge up to the nose, tears a circle around the nose-picture. Crushes the little nose into a tiny ball, marble-size. Opens her pretty little mouth and places the greymarblewad on the tip of her tongue, reels it in. Washes that fucker right down the hatch with two halfdrunk brown glasses of bavarian mocha. Closes her little eyes.
Smiles a little. Ugly a little.
Skips outta that coffeeplace singing.
Ugly but kinda pretty.
Like someone in love.
* * * *
Gwen darts down the sidewalk at topspeed, slappin' clownfeet loud and hard. Doesn't quite stop but slows alla sudden: feline-neurotic-like.
Gwen could stuff her whole belly full of little drawn-on chunks of rough gray paper and still feel hungry.
People clearapath -
Gwen checks the trashpile in front of her favorite Nawlins fine dining establishment, singing something about it's a small world after all. All the good stuff is tainted with damp cigarette ash – Gwen finds this to be unacceptable fare. Near the bottom towards the left is a small white plastic bag, knotted shut. Pokes a pink finger in, rips it open.
A cat: the fluffy orange kind, dead from eating rat poison, tongue black and swollen, chin dotted by dried blood-foam, eyes yella and frozen scared. Gwen stares soft, same way she looks inna mirror when she's sad. Looks like a Joey, she thinks. Ugly little thing.
She brushes the cig ashes off Joey's damp fur with her hand.
A trash pile ain't a fittin' end for anything with a soul – Gwen is irrefutably certain of this one fact. She tucks the little scruff into her green backpack, being careful he don't get stuck by her colored pencils. She hauls him to the riverside. Joey. She hauls Joey. Little Joey.
It's only a block away, the riverside.
Joey's laying next to the water now. Gwen looks at him and flattens out a large grey sheeta paper. Holds an orange pencil. Sees:
a big, beautiful lion, surrounded by toys and flowers and tuna fish sandwiches. a thousand tiny lions look on from the distance, wishing they were as large and beautiful and well-fed as the Joey picture. wouldn't be a need for munching any little rat killin' pellets with so many tuna fish sandwiches around...
Gwen picks up Joey's sad little body, puts him in the center of the picture, wraps him in it. Teaches him to swim. Swim Joey, sez Gwen.
Gwen sits at the edge of the river watching Joey swim away. Cries a little. He swims into the sunset, the sky purple and torn with orange crust lika pie. Isn't it romantic? thinks Gwen.
Gwen skips back towards Decatur Street, feeling tiny drops of bavarian mocha splash around in her belly, splash against a million faces with two million blind eyes, faces crunched into balls. She begins to sing again, not hungry at this moment. It's a small, small
(copyright 2000 by Louis Maistros)
The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros is due for publication from The Toby Press in Spring 2009.