IMPORTANT NEW NOTES FROM JUSTIN:
US Tour Day 92, Part 1: Potter's Field
I'm having a great time with my mom. It's funny, I've rolled into so many places and they say, "Oh wow, it's so great that you are traveling with your mom. I could never travel with my mom. We don't get along. How do you do it?" That's like saying that graduating college is hard or that becoming a successful entrepreneur is challenging. These are givens.
People just don't get it. Get real: Nobody can travel with their moms. There is no magical answer to how to make this sort of trip 'work' and there is no magic formula to getting along with relatives on vacation. It's hard to travel with anyone at all—even harder with someone who you have years of experiences and ideas about and issues with. The point, though, is that—just like all challenges in life—there's a big payoff at the end if you keep your eye on the prize and stick it out. I get to wake up every day of my life forever and know that one time I went on a crazy trip to New Orleans with my mother, back when we were younger and healthier and better looking. And, we did our best to relate to one another as people each day, rather than as the mother or son we'd known and created rigid roles for. And we pulled it off. That's the prize for sticking it out.
Today on the journey we started with a photo stop a few blocks from my godfather's house in Metairie at a place called Kathy's Kakes and Konfectioneries. Spelled with three k's, it is indeed a tribute to racial justice in Louisiana. I had been wanting to take a picture of their sign for weeks now, but the light had never been quite right. It still wasn't the direct sunlight I'd hoped for, but I snapped a few pictures anyways.
After that my mom and I returned the compact flash card I bought yesterday. I had to buy one because mine was all filled up and I forgot to bring the cable with me to get the images off of it. There was no way I was going to go on swamp tours and see plantations and do the sorts of things one does in the South with one's mom without being the annoying guy who takes lots of pictures at inappropriate times. So, I bought another card, planning to return it the next day.
When I brought it back to Wal Mart I told them it "wasn't the right one". This was sort of the truth. If it had been the "right one" it would have been free and come with a free new car—one that didn't make weird noises like mine does—and coupons for one free hour–long massage per week for life and maybe hookers, yeah, hookers. So, clearly this card was not the one for me.
After that I took advantage of a local wi–fi spot and did some emailing—you know, that thing that employed people get paid to do instead of their actual work. Now that I am unemployed, email seems like such a chore. I mean, it's not all that bad or anything. I'm happy that my friends and loved ones want to be in touch—I'm happy to have friends and loved ones. It's just that email seemed so much more appealing back when I was getting paid to hang around my desk and do it all day.
Once the pro bono email correspondence was complete, we jetted off for lunch at the Southernly–named Come Back Inn. I say Southernly–named because there seems to be a lot of funny naming going on down here. Sandwiches are called 'po boys', bakeries get spelled with three k's, I dunno. It's just funny.
I've been giggling about the Come Back Inn since the first time I saw the sign. I can't tell if it's more funny because it says 'come' or because it says 'come back'—not as in 'I want you to come back' but as in 'Due to the gallons of male zygotes constantly drenching my posterior, they tend to call me Come Back'. Does one special employee get to be 'come back of the month'? I don't get how people can drive by this sign and not think about some way to work it's name into some fictional scenario that they would see printed in Penthouse Letters if they were a good enough writer to get their letter in there or if they had enough money to change the world and make everything a movie according to their script, in which case changing the content of an imaginary issue of Penthouse would be a cinch. I mean, I know that's what I do each time I see that sign. I mean, that's basically what I do every time I see anything at all, anywhere. But, maybe that's just me.
After some crab and shrimp soup and a discussion of the key differences between soup and chowder—a purely speculative discussion, as my mom and I both had no idea—it was time to go to Holt Cemetary. This cemetery was what they call a potter's field—which means that you can be buried there even if you have no money at all. As I've been told, these sorts of graveyards are generally only home to the poor, indigent, and musicians (which I guess is redundant).
In New Orleans there is a very important difference between a regular cemetery and a potter's field. New Orleans is below sea level, requiring all dead to be buried—buried being a misnomer in this case—above ground in sarcophagi. Now, spending the entire afterlife in a fancy above–ground structure ain't cheap. So, only the rich get to party on down in fancy, stone death–houses. The poor get to be buried underground, which means that after a good heavy rain or flood that their remains often start to migrate upwards, back into the world of daylight. Many have purported to have found human remains—hair, teeth, wigs, bones—poking up through the ground after a storm at the Holt Cemetery. I had to see this for myself.
There was an old man in a derby hat to meet us at the gate. He asked us how we were doing today and my mom gave some pat mom answer, like a chipmunk–pitched Wonderful! (giggle) How are you today?
I'm doing BAD. I work in a CEMETERY. I mean, COME ON. That was the best thing I'd heard all day so far—but, then again, the day was only just beginning.
John was his name, and he took us all around and showed us the graves and made sure to add some local flair. He mostly told me to cut my hair. He said some other things, too, but I had such a hard time understanding his accent that much of it was lost. Listening to him was like trying to understand whispers in a NASA wind tunnel. I tried as hard as I could, but it was futile—we just didn't speak the same language. So, I did a lot of smiling and nodding and, mostly, guessing.
I'd visited graveyards before, but nothing like this one. Cemeteries are usually well–manicured and there's this feeling of safety in the air, some sense that both the dead and the living could be there together, in peace. This place was a wreck. Some of the graves had been robbed by a local woman who takes the skulls and sells them to tourists for around $800 each. Wooden headstones painted with household paints rotted and crumbled. John warned us to not visit this place at night. "Some scary people live in here at night, son." Neither living nor dead could rest in peace here.
"Now I ain't crazy, ya know? I ain't crazy, no. But there's spirits living here. They real, I tell you. And at night they crrryyyyy and scream and moan. They ain't happy, no sir." John brought me to a grave near a tree with a huge beehive hanging from it. The grave was less than half the length of the other ones. It was clearly a child buried there.
"This one, she cries and cries and cries. She makes all kinds o'noise, she does. Ooooh, the sound of it!" He covered his ears with his hands to show how horrible her cries were. My mom cringed. I smiled, though. Not because I was happy that this child's soul was suffering, but because I got to be in the same space as this magical collision of old and young, living and dead. Of course, I can't deny my affinity for that which is without explanation. It makes my brain spin, a feeling I enjoy.
He walked with us and showed us the highlights of this place which was little more than a dumpster for the dead. "This'un here was a jazz musician" and "this lady, she was a schoolteacher."
He pointed into a hole where grave robbers had looted a tomb. "You can see the casket in there, y'see? It's all rotting." He explained that there is a tool called a 'T' that they use in that business. "It's long and made of metal and it's got a bar across the top, y'see, so it looks like a long letter T. And, 'bout three months after you bury the dead you take the T and you jam the long end into the grave. And, when the casket is soft enough so that T goes through the top lid, then you know the body is all decayed. So, that's when they dig it up. Then, they throw the body into a bag and put it in one dumpster. And, they break up the casket and throws it into another dumpster over there." He pointed to where the dumpsters were, but I didn't even look—my eyes were glued to the space in the ground in front of me and the rotting casket right within arm's reach.
So many living, so many people being born each day. So many dead, so many people dying every day. We try our hardest to find a way to deal with them all, but we never seem to be able to figure out any all–encompasing solution. We can't deal with the living; we can't deal with the dead. Neither are promised any rest in this world of ours. Robbers don't discriminate, neither do sarcastic writer/tourists.
John got harder and harder to understand as our informal tour continued until his drunkenness finally forced him to bid us farewell. He asked me to drive him down the street and drop him off at the Walgreen's—not more than a block away. I apologized and told him that my car was unfortunately a two–seater. So, he walked off, leaving us alone—or, the only living people—in the Potter's Field.
Mom and I looked at each other and both knew it was time to go. And so we did. The moment was over, and we could feel a tug—there were more moments for us to experience in that new version of Orleans. We said a silent farewell to the forgotten dead and sped off towards the unknown people and feelings and snapshots in time awaiting us in the French Quarter.
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