24 July 2009
apres-moi le deluge
It was my last night in New Orleans, and I went down to the French Quarter to have my cards read. I entered Jackson Square and it was muggy and heavy, the air closing in all around me. Scattered nearby were high school-age students in Jesus T-shirts- some sort of mission trip, I supposed. I avoided their hungry eyes. Wasn't in the mood to talk about my lord and savior, or whatever they were hocking. I stepped carefully over the cracked, uneven cobblestone in my high heels. In front of the church the sound of a single clarinet floated through the air- a street musician working late on a weekday. The breeze, when it was kind enough to rustle, smelled like red pepper and bay leaves.
I sat at the wobbly table set up haphazardly on the side of the park and leaned in: "How much for a reading?" I asked.
"Whatever you would like to donate." she said. She had an honest, calm face, and tattoos peeking from underneath her dress. She was maybe in her 50s. Her hair was a pleasant grey, swept up in a knot on top of her head. Her cards were very worn and slightly torn, bent from excessive handling and reading.
"I need it" I said as I offered my hand to introduce myself.
Jackson Square is a tourist trap. It's a pedestrian mall, park and church in the center of the French Quarter. Slaves used to be executed there if they disobeyed, back in the day. Its also where Bush stood and delivered his speech to a soggy and torn apart city after Katrina. He orated in front of the St. Louis Cathedral, lit by generator after generator, and said, "And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again."
The city was a disaster when I arrived, three years ago, almost exactly one year after the hurricane had done its damage. Though a year had passed since "the storm," houses were still falling in on themselves, the streets were stacked high with debris, and the mail and garbage services were dubious. On the houses you could still see the faint water line marking where the muck had reached and then sat for days. It smelled like Katrina. Houses were still stained with the big spray-painted Xs: each front door indicated what day it had been searched, by whom, and how many people, people no longer living, were found inside. Sometimes "1 dog" or "2 cats" was also scribbled alongside the macabre marking system. It amazed me that houses that seemed to be inhabited, with cut lawns and fresh rooftops, left these X's up for a long while. In Jackson Square some of these doors were being sold to the tourists, along with Katrina damage bus tours and kitsch t-shirts slandering FEMA.
At that time I was not a disaster: I was fresh from a year abroad after university graduation, wide-eyed and amazed and eager to soak everything in. I wanted to see this city grow and swell with people. But by the time I had sat myself at this unstable card table covered in cheap, metallic fabric, I was the mess. The city I had come to was full of life around me: you could tell by just closing your eyes and listening to that sad, low clarinet sing. I had neighbors on my street. The power would no longer randomly cut out. Tourism was back in full swing. This is not to say that New Orleans had completed its renaissance, but compared to the empty, dark, broken city I had moved into that summer, it was like a completely different world.
And now I was lost. Hopelessly broken and tired. I loved the city and I loved the people in it, but all my spirit had been washed away by my own storm water. I felt defeated, like a failure, and like a disappointment. I felt I had become a completely different person.
She shuffled the cards and then handed them to me so I could cut them several times. We held hands and prayed for protection over the table and the reading. By this point the sun was quickly slipping down over the nearby Mississippi River, giving a tiny relief to the seemingly relentless humidity.
"You have a destiny," she said, laying out cards in a complex pattern. "You have always known what you have wanted in life. But you have been very depressed."
I sighed hard. Depression yes, but if this is my destiny, I thought, the depression is not going anywhere. Her creased hands folded and unfolded the cards, sometimes slowly resting on one or another, adjusting them straight.
"But very recently this depression has had some relief; there is some happiness entering your life." she said. That very week I had decided to postpone the bar exam. I had never felt more free. "You are making the right choices," she said, giving me a reassuring look. "You are an extremely creative person and you are destined to make your living that way. You are optimistic, do not lose that in this dark period." she said. I nodded softly and waited for her to continue.
"There are two men in your life," she said. "One has a lot of issues. He is no good for you. You must get rid of him." This was all what I already knew and had been denying all summer. "The other, he is in control of a lot of things. He loves you and does not like this other man at all. He senses he is bad in your life." Hmmmm, I thought, my father. My father who I was planning on driving to see and stay with the next morning.
She looked me straight in the eye. "Get rid of him, honey." she said matter of factly. "You will be so much happier." I turned and looked toward Decatur Street and Cafe du Monde, where I would meet my boyfriend later to walk to dinner nearby. She saw my brow furrow. "He is a good man," she said. "But he is not good to you. Too much baggage. Is he divorced?" "Yes." I replied.
With two cards to go, she handed me a little good news: the lover. "There will be a new man in your life when you make these changes" she said. "But be careful, you two will be extremely compatible and you must take special care to protect yourself in order to not get pregnant. You don't need that right now." She flipped the last card, the top card, the distant future card. It was the world. "You will travel," she said. "It is in your blood. You want it now, but you can't have it now. It will come. It is written for you."
"Do you see anything else?" I asked. My voice had an air of desperation. I didn't want to yet leave. I wanted more answers, more reassurance, more communication. She chatted with me for a moment longer before grasping my hand to say goodbye. I handed her my money and thanked her several times.
I tottered off towards Cafe du Monde and reflected. My forehead was already beading with tiny moisture from the humidity. I felt dizzy, overwhelmed, while at the same time strangely calm. I spotted the man-who-is-no-good-for-me waiting at a sticky table at the cafe, a large man with a tuba playing not far front him, next to the "beware pickpockets" sign. He kissed my cheek and asked me how it went.
"You don't really think I believe in that stuff, do you?" I laughed. She had made me promise not to tell him.