Magic in the Air
New Orleans attracts romantics worldwide who hunger for what the city offers––pure magic. Not abracadabra magic, but the real kind. The kind that settles in the bones and guides the hearts of those willing to listen.
Back in the 1950's, our family would gather on the doorsteps of my grandparents' historic French Quarter home. Perched on the wooden, tongue-in-groove steps, we spent many enchanted soirees under the curbside lamppost.
The building sat on the corner of St. Philip and Burgundy Streets, pronounced Bur-GUN'-dee by natives. We giggled when tourists said BUR'-gun-dee, like the wine. The two sets of doorsteps served as reviewing stands--one overlooked Burgundy and the other St. Philip Street. No matter which side we gathered, the allure of mystery and a cool evening breeze always satisfied.
America's love affair with the automobile inspired a newfound thirst for adventure on the open road. Our trips from Southwest Louisiana to visit our relatives in the city, taught me this. Spirits ran high as the flash of chrome, wild colors, and back fenders sporting gaudy, elongated fins, whizzed by.
My cousins played sidewalk games with my sister and me on the uneven antique bricks, which redefined the game of hopscotch. We also spent hours guessing the makes of the cars driving by--Ford, Chevrolet, or Chrysler.
The drivers, mostly men, bore an air of independence and self-importance as they rolled by. Many of them dangled an arm out of the window. Most smoked cigarettes, and flicked the butts into the street, all the while staring straight ahead. People considered this cool and part of the era's mystique.
Anyone versed in New Orleans culture, is familiar with its Latin American, third-world mindset. So, even though the Burgundy traffic had the right of way, the St. Philip drivers often ignored stop signs. So, the Burgundy drivers slowed a bit and gave a quick toot before continuing through the intersection--just in case. With my overactive imagination, I pictured the motorists tooting their way into forever, leaving a tell-tale trail of empty beer cans, cigarette packs, and who-knows-what-else behind.
Sometimes, a mammoth city bus rumbled through like a giant urban buffalo. A shiver ran up my spine each time I heard them approaching with revved up engines, horning at anyone who dared get in the way. The ground shook and houses rattled as they roared by, hissing and leaving a black, smelly fumes billowing from the tail pipes. The cars seemed feisty by comparison as each slowed, tooted and dashed.
The foot traffic captivated me most. Of course, neighbors walked by, stopping to exchange stories and bits of news. But the mysterious strangers parading by, piqued my curiosity and set my heart afire, hungry for high adventure. At one point they started carrying odd-looking bags on their backs which my parents called knapsacks. No one used the term backpack back then.
On fire with wanderlust, I needed to understand everything about these intriguing wayfarers. So, I pranced right up to them as they stood on the curb waiting for a break in traffic, "What's in your bag?" I asked, staring unabashedly up into their faces. “And where you goin'?"
Most of them wore tough, James Dean-esque demeanors, guarded and intense. A few gave me a quick glance, but rushed off without a word, leaving me aching with curiosity.
But, one night, a particular traveler glided by on his way to the lamppost. Unlike the other travelers, he nodded a polite greeting to the family. I waited for my big chance, careful of my timing, studying his every gesture while waiting.
His movements suggested a more laid back attitude, not in any way rushed. Dressed in dark pants, shirt and a black pea coat, he removed his pack, placed it on the curb, and leaned against the street lamp. Reaching for a cigarette, he took in the neighborhood. After a long puff, I couldn't wait another minute.
"What's in your bag?" I asked with more conviction than usual and the persistence of an innocent, "And where are you going?"'
He glanced down at me, paused, then laughed out loud. He glanced back at the adults on the stoop, and everyone chuckled at my expense. I didn't care; I was on a mission. Later, Mom assured me I asked the same questions the grown-ups wanted answered but wouldn't dare ask. This made me feel better, but still, I wanted answers.
In time the Beat Generation morphed into the Hippie Generation of the 1960's. During my college days, I discovered Jack Kerouac. His autobiography On the Road recalled those early backpackers of my childhood and their similarities to my own generation's quest for authenticity. The adventurers explored the highways in search of meaning, and possibly, even magic. I remember burning to discover the contents of those packs.
Recently, I discovered You'll Be Okay; My Life with Jack Kerouac, written by Kerouac's first wife, Edith Parker. One sentence stopped me in my tracks. To verify their meaning, I read the words out loud. There was no mistake. Jack Kerouac visited New Orleans about the time of the special backpacker. Could it be?
Maybe yes, maybe no. To this day, however, the little girl in me--the part that still believes in magic--is convinced. She's certain during that enchanted evening so long ago, Jack Kerouac himself stood on the corner of St. Phillip and Burgundy, laughing with us in the City That Care Forgot.
by Connie Hebert