Saturday, September 3, 2011

About Miss Napolitano...

If you think back far enough into your past, back to when you were in nursery school or kindergarten you will find...her.  That one girl on the playground who had to control everything, who had to know everything, had to have everything.  She was the solid girl who knew how to carry her weight for maximum advantage.  She could throw a tantrum or another child at a moment's notice.  And when she was caught she could always explain her way out of any misdeed and wasn't above tears or blackmail.

This was and is Amanda Napolitano.

Amanda was born in Ochsner Hospital on March 3rd, 1987--Mardi Gras.  For the rest of her life Amanda would hear about how she kept her mother from being the Queen of the Krewe of Silenius.  Born to Thad Gertner and Sydney-Anne Harris-Gertner of Uptown and Metairie Ridge.  Both families had moved to Metairie from New Orleans right after World War II: the Gertner's from the Vieux Carre, the Harris' from Carrollton.  Sydney-Anne & Thad were the first in either family to move back into the city to become part of the trendy Uptown landed gentry in the early 1980's.  They met at Tulane, a typical New Orleans story.  They knew all the same people, had all the same experiences, but never met until college.  After a long and drunken night at the World's Fair, Thad proposed to Sydney-Anne after a performance of "Pinocchio Commedia" in the Italian Village in 1984.  By the time Amanda came along they were getting involved in the social world of Carnival krewes and Uptown connections.  To bastardize Karl Marx, 'societal attention is the opiate of the rich.'

Amanda was treated as a princess from the start.  Sydney-Anne had a crib made that resembled a Carnival crown with colorful glass jewels at the tips, her consolation prize for giving up her reign.  The child insisted on wearing a tiara every day until the middle of second grade when her father convinced her that jeweled barrettes & scrunchies were 'everyday crowns'.  That was the dichotomy in her parents: her mother believed in living life as a fantasy while her father was pragmatic about life's consequences.  Both viewpoints would serve her well later on in life.  When she was 5, she was enrolled in the Newman School.  The summer before she was to start 1st grade, her parents took her to see a production in the Keller Center called "Treehouse Players' Rapunzel".  In the show, an actress named Melissa Marshall played Rapunzel.  Amanda had fallen in love with her voice, but what stuck with her most was the ending.  Instead of blindly marrying the Prince, she chose instead to get to know him first.  This would make a major impact on her, so much so that she demanded her parents bring her to every performance thereafter, including buying all the merchandise they had to offer.  When the show closed & moved to another theatre, she went to those shows too.  This would become a major part of her school life.  Those kids who had seen the show & loved it would become her best buds.  Those who did not like the show or had not seen it would fall by the wayside in her life; they obviously had no taste or culture.

She maintained throughout her matriculation at Newman that she was special; she was meant for greater things.  Her mother & father never questioned this belief.  They felt that if she truly believed this than it would become true.  Sydney-Anne & Thad did their best to maintain that belief for the next 13 years as their only daughter excelled in academics, swimming, theatre, and as a Queen of The Krewe of L'il Rascals.  They held onto that belief through Amanda's graduation Summa Cum Laude.  They celebrated her graduation secure in the knowledge that their daughter would become a major player in New Orleans.  They held onto that belief all the way up until an 18-wheeler slammed head-on into their BMW on the I-10 coming back from Biloxi on a sweltering July evening in 2005.

The week before the accident, Amanda had just purchased her condo off Magazine Street near Napoleon Avenue and was looking forward to her new job as an intern with a major law firm in the Central Business District.  The call came in around 5:30am on a Sunday.  The junior trooper who had been given the assignment of contacting the next-of-kin was none to good at executing his task.  The first 10 minutes was mostly stammering & silence.  In all fairness, he wasn't helped at all by the state of Amanda's recovery from an epic night of inebriation in the French Quarter.  However, it soon became clear to Amanda that she was now an orphan at 20 years old.  To the young trooper's credit, when he was able to make her understand that her parents were dead, he became the soul of compassion and sympathy.  Before she put the receiver back into its cradle, she demanded his full name.  "Officer David Kramer, ma'am...and I'm so, so sorry for your loss."

For the next 30 days, she would become a cipher as she closed out her childhood home, sold off her parent's possessions, & set about the grim work of consolidating her parents' lives into the narrow confines of assets and balances.  She discovered that her parents had been floundering financially for years.  Only later would she realize that much of their money had gone for tuition, krewe dues, and that damned BMW.  She also discovered that her mother had a gambling addiction and her own chair at Harrah's.  Amanda imagined it bejeweled.

With the advent of Katrina, Amanda was convinced by her neighbors to flee her condo and escape the city.  She chose to go to Baton Rouge.  Like so many others who escaped there, she was lucky to find a place to stay; a dreadful apartment complex called Place du Plantier.  Her 6 months in exile there passed in agony & abhorrent boredom.  On the every odd occasion she was able to make her way back in to check on her condo.  But for the better part of the time, she could be found curled up in her bed in Baton Rouge, trying desperately to escape the reality of her life.  She was now truly and permanently alone...and it scared her more than anything else in her world.

But Sydney-Anne & Thad had instilled in their daughter a hidden strength.  The strength that comes from the undisputed certainty that their darling daughter was destined for greater things.  While other parents desperately tried to make such a fate happen for their children, Amanda merely assumed her parent's unfaltering beliefs without question.  For you see gentle reader, our Miss Napolitano was supremely well-equipped to deal with her situation.  When Orleans Parish was finally reopened 5 weeks after the levee breaches that had felled the city Amanda was among the first to return in force.  She inhabited her condo house for weeks without any other neighbors and kept the entire building safe from looters & vagrants, and took over the three block expanse of Magazine Street making certain everyone who came back was seen to and recognized.

And now there's her best friend Rony Parmentiere.  It was he who both reminded her & inspired her to make the most of her life and give up the fantasies of her upbringing.  His life has been entirely different from hers, yet he continues to perservere.  Someday, she'll tell him how much he's inspired her to live up to the path her folks had laid out for her.  But, for now its more important for them to be part of one another's lives.  They're really all they have.

Waiting for the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue, Amanda takes a string of mental notes on everyone around her:

'Black woman, 35ish...L'Oreal True Red lipstick, generic silver eyeshadow, no base, blonde weave on black hair--Lady Gaga's maid...short Hispanic man, mid-40s, Rubenstein's tailored suit, Payless shoes, receding hairline, mustache & hair dyed...Napoleon complex, native...blonde kid, Jesuit uniform, stoned out of his'our' new pot connection!'

With a dexterity learned at Newman, she sends a coded text to Rony as she slides up to this young Jesuit boy.  His inexperienced eyes go immediately to her ample cleavage shown to their best advantage in the neckline of a Donatella Versace blouse expressly designed for such things.  In the young man's almost unconscious attempts to impress her, he offers her ingress before him.  Amanda takes excellent notice of his premeditated gallantry, and rewards him with a wink & an almost lewd arrangement of her unfettered breasts beneath her top.  His utter shock & awe at the sight presented to him makes Amanda giggle.  Once on board the streetcar, she pats the wooden seat next to her and brings the young man to her side.  Amid a puddle of internal giggles and nervous pubescent energy, she leans in closely to his ear and whispers,
"So...have any more of that wonderful weed you've been smoking?"

Six stops later, she's well-fortified with gifts to be shared with Rony and the undying affections of a junior Jesuit boy named Phil.  She heads to her job in the Riverwalk Mall with renewed energy.  And above her, beyond her considerable powers of perception, Sydney-Anne & Thad look upon their only child & smile.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Tale of Rony Parmentiere

Another Christmas Tradition...

In a city built upon traditions, some of the strongest are among the most private.

Jackson Square, December 2010
1am Christmas Morning, Dauphine Street in the Faubourg Marigny:
The right-side storm door on the shotgun house slowly creaks open in the glow of the streetlamp where Dauphine meets St. Roch with a click and a slam. From the darkness emerges an ancient woman dressed in a long coat and a straw hat, each five decades past their prime yet well-preserved. Stepping deliberately down the steps of her stoop, Miss Dufour slowly reaches across and pulls the door back into place, her keys at the ready. The banquettes are empty as far as the eye can see. Good, thinks Tunie as she jockeys the storm doors into just the right place to lock all three deadbolts. This was the reason she came out. Privacy. Just like it has always been.

House secure, Tunie goes padding up the street in her best house slippers, the ones that could pass for real shoes with the thick rubber soles. The retrochemical smell of camphor from her camelhair coat swirls around and behind her, sending several stray cats beneath houses to escape the olfactory punishment. Tunie liked the smell; it means preservation to her. Past a double handful of houses bedecked with fairy lights, artificial candles, and inflated figurines, she swims through the years of memories of other holidays on Dauphine; the filmstrip of her life. Tunie crosses Elysian Fields against the lights without pause. The avenue is deserted, bereft of any sounds of traffic.

Walking past the black iron fence of Washington Square, Tunie fights to keep the bad memories from flooding her, back in the days when they called it Little Angola. Habit forced her legs to move faster on, fairly jogging across Frenchmen past the old Home For Unwed Mothers near the corner. Fleeing that past, she kept going until she was down by Le Peniche restaurant puffing away. Old habits, she thinks. Stopping for a moment to catch her breath, she sees herself in the window of the darkened restaurant. A transparent reflection of a girl she had nearly forgotten stared back at her for just a moment, then retreated into the past leaving behind a wrinkled old woman.

That happened a lot.

Lost in the reveries of the years, she automatically continues on across Esplanade Avenue and into the Vieux Carre, slowly but surely walking back into her past and revisiting old faces of friends and family long, long gone. Here at the grubby entrance to Matassa's where her cousin Inez had thrown a literal hissyfit as a child because her mother told her Santa was gonna bring her coal for being so naughty; down past Orleans where her school chum Olive de la Houssaye had been mistaken for a hooker by the man who would become her third ex-husband; past the dress shop at Iberville filled with ball gowns like the ones she had worn as a young lady. Finally, she arrives on Canal Street and the main reason for being there.

Canal, like every other street at this time of the morning is deserted, save for the glow of the neon signs and the blue-white glow of these new LED lights wrapped around the palm trunks. But nothing shines for Tunie as brightly as the Walgreen's. Crossing steadily without need to look in either direction, she arrives beneath the overhang lined with red neon tubes. Standing on the terrazzo marble in the entranceway, the hint of a smile passes her lips as she closes her eyes and allows herself to remember.

Christmas Morning, Tuesday December 25th 1945, Canal Street

Robert had worked the late shift at Godchaux's that night. He had worked nearly every single shift he could get both there and moonlighting down the street at the lunch counter at Woolworth's. He had good reason. The store was open late that night, going until 10pm to try and cash in on the last-minute shoppers. Now that the war was finally over and he was home for good, he wanted to make up for lost time, but tonight he wanted to be out and gone--he had a very important date.
10 o'clock came, the doors locked up and 5 minutes later Robert was out the side door and into the arms of his waiting girlfriend Tunie. She was wearing a funny little black straw hat with cellophane holly leaves all over one side and a long camelhair coat, her favorite. Clutching each other close against the cold blasts from the river, they marched in happy cadence up Canal towards rue Decatur and Morning Call for a late meal of cafe au laits & beignets.

The cafe was nearly deserted except for one dour waiter and a couple of tables of eggnog junkies trying to sober up before heading home. They did what they had done since he had come back home-talked for hours about the future and what they wanted to do. Robert was going to use the GI Bill to get himself back into school and get his degree--which degree was still up for grabs. Tunie wanted to start her own little shop in town selling dresses and children's clothes. From there the conversation branched out in all directions and kept them going for hours before the waiter told them to am-scray, he was closing up. Back out into the deserted streets of the Vieux Carre and a host of little adventures. Finding themselves in front of Le Petit Theatre, Robert was reminded of a dream of his youth to be on the stage. Seeing Tunie's amusement at the idea, he took advantage of the remarkable acoustics on that corner and with all the bravado he could muster recited Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 in full, rounded tones that bounced across the galleries of the Pontalba Building among the tinkling of Tunie's uncontrollable laughter.

Their wild abandon and the sheer enjoyment of each other's company threw time into a spin as they caroused the Quarter, only occasionally meeting up with another someone in the streets. What could have been minutes or hours later, Robert & Tunie found themselves wandering back down Canal Street, clinging to one another as if they had always been together as one, as if the war had never torn them apart, nor would anything ever come between them again. Strolling quietly together beneath the Royal Crown Cola sign, a sudden shower lightly soaked the street and forced them into the entranceway of Walgreen's drugstore. Huddled together against the rain which seemed to become much heavier once they found shelter, Robert opened his greatcoat and wrapped himself and Tunie together in the thick woolen material. Looking down upon that face he had loved for so long and across continents, his heart began to beat wildly in his chest. He could wait no longer. Reaching into his pocket, he grasped the velveteen box he had been carrying for weeks and withdrew it at last.
For the rest of his days whenever Robert would tell the tale, he would barely remember asking Tunie to be his wife, he was so nervous and overcome. He would never remember exactly what he said or how he said it. All he would know was that just as Tunie's eyes burst with tears of happiness he heard two things; Tunie's whispered 'yes' and the bell in the Cathedral striking 2am. Locked in a soulful embrace, he pulled her close to him and said "I want this to be the moment we always remember for the rest of our lives."

1:58am Christmas Morning, Saturday, December 25th 2010, Canal & Baronne

A boxy looking car goes speeding up Canal Street blaring something obscene and leaving a cloud of blue exhaust in its wake that drifts across Tunie's way and dissipates as quickly as it came. Clutching her left hand in her right, she fingers the tiny diamond engagement ring that has been part of her hand since 1945 and the thick gold band that accompanied it the following year. In her head, she sees the years afterwards in this very spot with him on 40 other Christmas mornings, the wet years, the cold years, the warm years...and the years after he left her for good. 65 years has given her an instinct. Clutching her heart, she closes her eyes and on cue whispers 'I'll always remember' as tears roll down her cheeks to the distant stately chimes of the Cathedral ringing 2am.

A small eternity passes for Tunie before the fatigue of being up this late settles in. Happens quicker every year. Twisting just that certain way, she pops a couple of vertebrae in her back and slowly begins the long walk back home, still clutching her hands against her heart. As she passes next to the Chateau Orleans, a young bellhop on the street having a cigarette break sees her and snaps to attention, hiding his smoke behind his back. Somewhat taken aback, she turns to the young man who says clearly
"Merry Christmas, ma'am!"

Quietly she regards this boy who smiles broadly at first, then nervously searches her face for signs of disapproval or (more likely at his age) signs of life. Looking towards his shiny brass nameplate she sees the name "Robert." A melancholy smile crosses her face as she takes his free hand and says sweetly

"Merry Christmas, Robert. Merry Christmas to you, too."

Then, turning towards the Marigny she places her hands into her pockets and pads back into the darkness.

Tunie Dufour, of the Dauphine Dufours'

(Written 15 November 2010)

The skies above the Jewel of the Crescent are draped in cloudy shrouds on this particular Sunday night in mid November. Refracting the lights of the street, the fabric of the overcast is lightly studded in shades of sodium coral, neon blue, and amber, giving the appearance of approaching Carnival as seen through Comus' regal cape. Below, the streets and rues of the city enjoy a rare calm as the chill of fall rises from the ground; tangible ghosts of the swamps which owned this city for centuries before Bienville's boot hit soil. The perfumes of slow decay and the retreat of bracing greens beneath sacrificial browns are aromas best carried on cooler winds that shun the warmer odors of cafe au lait and lighted hickory.
On the banquette by Washington Square, the gentle padding of Miss Dufour is amplified by the noisy rug of dusty leaves through which she plods. With the unique sensibilities of a native Orleanian, she has dressed for the weather by donning a knitted cap and scarf and flannel slippers to compliment her simple sleeveless cotton housedress and thin cardigan sweater. Behind her she drags a wire laundry cart bearing the weight the week's groceries that squeaks along in devil's fifths and irritates the neighborhood cats. Matassa's market gets further and further away each winter, but still she keeps to her routine. There are closer stores, but she's always shopped at Matassa's--its tradition.

This neighborhood, this street called Dauphine, and all that has been here for over 80 years is emblazoned in Tunie Dufour's memory. She is of that lost, lamented generation who knew the meanings of Creole resourcefulness, self-dependence, and true Orleanian pride. Though time, prejudices, and the feckless abuses of youth have chipped away at the foundations, she retains the gracious charms of Deep Southern gentility as best she can. Despite her meager appearance and the dowager's hump which stoops her posture, she still carries herself with a legacy of the fine upstanding old-line families which once held sway over the entire Crescent. Her people made a world in Dauphine Street and the faubourg for decades, going back to the original grants from Bernard Marigny himself. Now, their works and their lives are to be found only in an odd double story shotgun with a sole curator.

So much history remains alive in Tunie's mind and in her home, her refuge stands alone against the plague of youthful indifference. How fitting that Miss Dufour's house sits on the corner of St. Roch. Crossing Elysian Fields in the iridium green of the traffic LED's, Miss Dufour's mind flips quickly through the dozens of events that have happened at this corner. That Carnival in 1946 when a float got clipped by a streetcar and how the foresight of the riders to bring libations turned an accident into a party...the year they tore up the streetcar rails to make way for the modern busses...the horrible night in April of '64 when her niece's daughter was run down by a car full of drunken Ole Miss boys... Every excursion outside her house is a panoply of memories; the blessed curse of a long and eventful life. Its a curse Orleanians aspire to know until they receive its burden. In Miss Dufour's case, the burden is worth the joy of knowing, even as her scope grows thinner by the season. The cousins and half-cousins, the real and honorary uncles and aunties, the siblings and the adopted family friends who populate her reveries are nearly all gone now. Where once she can recall a time where every door from Frenchmen to the tracks housed a trusted member of her family, now she knows only three people in the same span. Their times are also growing closer. Children and grandchildren of her cousins watch out for her when they can, but time is wearing away at that small network of support. Miss Dufour knows this in her heart; her proud Creole heart that remembers all.

Approaching the first 2400 block of Dauphine and nearly home, she catches a whiff of chicken fricassee and flashes back to the day she met Jerry & Patrick. That Bennett fellow had just sold the house next door to Tunie's in 2004. The house had belonged to Tunie's little sister Euralie until she passed away in '02. The old woman's face winces at the thought. With Euralie's death, Tunie became the last of the Dauphine Dufour's, leaving her to carry on alone and remember everything. Reprimanding herself with a little slap to her thigh, she recalls how silly she was to have been so--so--so 'twee', as her Uncle Timothy was wont to utter in his Irish Channel way, upon meeting Her Boys. She didn't want to like either one of them at first. They were taking over Euralie's house, the house Tunie had helped her buy. She knew in an instant what they were, too. Her cousin Milton had been a star at the My-O-My Lounge, and a Queen of the Krewe of Yuga. They were 'ginny wimmen", 'nancy boys', what she & Euralie used to call 'light in the loafers.' But they were so welcoming, and when Jerry wanted to know all about the house and her history...her heart melted. Patrick made chicken fricassee that evening, and they talked over two bottles of her precious muscadine wine well past midnight. Before she knows it, a large smile has broken out across her face, putting her dentures in peril of the pavement. "Tunie honey, is that you?" A well-pitched tenor voice floats to her ears above the cracquelaire pavement beneath her slippers. A tall blonde figure bounds down from the steps, tossing aside a broom. The man strides up the banquette in strong gait, his hair catching the porchlights as he draws nearer. Entering the coral glow of the streetlamp, he smiles and admonishes
"I'll get that, why didn't you call us to tell us you needed a ride?"

"I've been makin' groceries at Matassa's for years, boy. Its just up the street."

"Twenty-six blocks round trip is not 'just up the street' its a mini-marathon, Wilma Rudolph."

Taking the creaking basket from her Jerry walks with Miss Dufour past his stoop to hers, pulls out his key and opens her storm and French doors. With a single heft he pulls the groceries inside and flicks on the lights for his friend and neighbor. As she makes her way up each step with a creaky knee demanding attention, she watches Jerry fly towards the back of the house and the kitchen, reminding her of her own son at that age--the last time she saw him. Clearing the doorjamb, the faded scents of White Shoulders and camphor bring her back to the present in time to hear Patrick call across the walkway through their adjoining windows "Tunie, bring over some of your muscadine wine--Jerry drank the last of ours."
"Like I didn't have help" Jerry shouts, switching off the lights in the now-ordered kitchen. 

"Paddy made your fricassee tonight, and don't forget you promised to tell us that story about Euralie & Louis Armstrong--oh, and there's a new Peggy Scott special on 'YES. Come over whenever you're ready, door's open." A quick kiss on her forehead and out he sweeps, a cheerful breeze of fabric softener in his wake.

Alone again, she stops for a moment and realizes that the parade of yesterdays has evaporated, like celluloid against the brightness of an incandescent bulb. This is a new moment, a new memory being created. How funny, she thinks, to be at the age where one can recognize the birth of another story. Calm, quiet, and still for the first time in weeks, Miss Dufour takes a deep breath, checks her dentures, and collects a bottle of muscadine under each arm. Throwing open her weathered French doors to the brisk, she descends each concrete step to go see The Boys...where Euralie used to live.