Once the property of nobility, then a consecrated sanctuary with questionable links to a common dice game, then a cloister for nuns and a family base for a member of the judiciary, my home of fifteen years now owns me.
I was well asleep early last night, having hauled 840 pounds (around 313.5 kilos) of potting soil into my yard to fill three newly-bricked (by me) strips of garden. I spent the day dragging the stuff in by wheelbarrow, bag and hand. This morning, realizing I had underestimated my needs, I drove to a large hardware/plant store to procure an additional 480 pounds of dirt, and 120 more pounds of brick mortar, all somehow transported home in the rear of my tiny vehicle.
I have now built, and filled with dirt, five new plant enclosures on top of the existing poured-stone patio. I find that I need the company of more pliant green plants, less unyielding grey cement, and am now motivated to fulfill this need.
There is a physical hunger as well.
We haven’t been eating as well, or as easily, here in non-tourist New Orleans neighborhoods since Katrina. Yes, the K word again surfaces. After almost six years we still have to drive 30-45 minutes each way to get rudimentary foodstuffs. Food markets have not returned post-storm, the store nearest my home still mired in contentious and greed-driven insurance litigation.
So, isolated in this urban environment, my neighbors and I have, without initial plan, found ourselves united. Into back yards have come chicken coops, new vegetable and herb gardens, and fruit trees plantings. In 2011 my patio has come to hold dozens of pots and brick enclosures, producing avocadoes and bananas, four varieties of citrus, guavas and mangoes, Japanese plums and Louisiana figs. Once we found we were all on the same page, neighbors began donating money and time to forming a food cooperative, already counting fifteen hundred people as members.
An old furniture store is being renovated to act as the coop’s center. Within the month people will be trading food and importing what they cannot grow into that communal market. A healing center, café and other amenities will accompany the larger operation. One of the leaders of the project is a practicing voodoo priestess, which somehow seems a positive asset to anyone working on it. Nutrition comes in all forms here in the Faubourg Marigny. This anticipates a day when we no longer need or want an outside ‘supermarket’ in the neighborhood. We wish to be whole without it.
So I lay bricks to nurture more soil, and thus more food.
Since the storm, chickens separated from their coops in the Lower Ninth flood have somehow crossed the Industrial Canal and now wander in feral flocks here. Wealthier areas have consistently called the animal control organization to have the chickens “relocated”. From all reports people in our neighborhood “seem fond of the chickens” , though a rooster living nearby does wake me daily at 05:30.
A vast, protective chicken round-up, and communal coops, might seem in order. But first there is the manual labor. Hands in the dirt and mortar.
My brick constructions roughly mimic the two that were already here, one a well, and the other a partial cistern, both of which took considerable personal masonic labor to repair. Besides mortar the main material for all of the new planters are stacks of broken bricks, exhumed detritus from the original Saints Peter & Paul French Catholic church that once occupied this space. The smallish original edifice sat on my lot through the mid-nineteenth century, and then, as the congregation grew, was demolished and moved around the corner into a much larger and more ecclesiastical structure on Burgundy street in the 1860s.
The property now mine was ostensibly donated to the church by Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, a demented Creole of many names and supposed dispositions born in 1785 here in the City. As a young man, he was known in New Orleans society as an absolute terror, but this may have been preceded by the sheer decadence of the previous generations of his family.
His parents lavishly hosted the soon-to-be King Louis Philippe of France at the plantation manor in 1798. According to notable historians, the embossed gold dinnerware they had fabricated especially for the occasion was thrown afterwards into the Mississippi River, deemed useless because the Marignys proclaimed that they would have never have any other guest worthy of such a service. Knowing this legend I have myself looked deeply into the muddy waters at the foot of this eponymous street, only to find nothing gilded whatsoever, though numerous aluminum cylinders, presumably of less value, float there in clusters.
Bernard himself made the golden extravagances of his family seem almost frugal. In the face of his debauchery, his parents sent him to England in hopes that the dissipation would slow, but instead he became an even more intense bon vivant. He returned to New Orleans, some say hastening his mother and father’s deaths, with little classical education, but with a firm knowledge of the dice game “Hazard”, which became locally known as “crapaud”, as in “toad” or “frog”, a derogatory name for the French Creoles like Bernard who liked playing the game. Crapaud was then in turn anglicized into “craps”. Shooting craps became hugely popular with gamblers across America, another legacy of Marigny’s dubious aesthetics. But in spite of his knowledge of its workings, he was not lucky at this game, and began to lose his inheritance even before he obtained complete control of it with his majority.
His finances deteriorated, but he held onto considerable power, somewhat reluctantly siding with the Americans in the War of 1812, and allowing American General Andrew Jackson to use his family home as army headquarters. Marigny tried, at first unsuccessfully, to convince Jackson to join with the forces of the French pirate Jean Lafitte. In the end Jackson agreed, but Bernard was left with a bitter taste towards the Americans, even when the combined forces defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans, which proved to be the last encounter of the war.
Marigny’s bitterness did not wane. While trying to regain capital, he manipulated, and then reneged on, multiple business deals because he simply refused to work with Americans. I can well empathize with this, but his intransigence on the matter led to his fall from favor with the political arm of the Creole community, so much so that when he followed his elected terms on the City Council and his Presidency of the Louisiana State Senate with runs for Governor in 1828 and again in 1830, he was soundly defeated.
Denied politics, he continued to gamble, also unsuccessfully. By giving small parcels of property to the church, Bernard was probably hoping to gain favor from the gods of luck by appeasing the more economically-minded holy-water-sprinkling church hierarchy. Craps weren’t working. So, after abandoning the dice, his habit became North American baccarat (punto blanco), which still involved only chance and the fall of the cards, as opposed to baccarat chemin de fer or baccarat banque, which actually allow the player some choice. M Marigny knew he had no control over the cards, or his own life for that matter, and was hoping that those with an ear in heaven might sweeten his luck. Thus donations to the Church.
His quasi-philanthropic maneuver did not work. By 1868, he had completely ransomed off his plantation - my neighborhood - for gambling debts. He died in abject poverty, but is buried in the legendary St. Louis Cemetery #1, less than a mile from the street that bears his name, and my own house at 725 Marigny street.
A convent replaced the original church at 725 for 30 more years, and was itself razed and moved next to the new house of worship at the corner of Burgundy and Marigny streets in early 1891. My “modern” arts & crafts house was built later that year for a local judge and his family. A few years ago I met an elderly woman on the 150th anniversary tour of the church who said that as a child she used to play with the judge’s children in my living room around 1910.
By the time I acquired the property, the judge’s residence had degenerated into a crack flophouse, and was quickly deteriorating into worse. It took eight years to really bring it round, and for me to stop having to work on it on a weekly, if not daily, basis. The bricks I am now using were buried under the structure and in the few patches of open soil in the yard, some atop what had once been the white marble floor of the baptistery.
There are other historical stone connections at hand. The curbstones in front of my house, between the sidewalk and the street, are century-and-a-half old long blocks of silver-grey rock, brought to town by the thousands in the deep holds of English ships. New Orleans and Britain were indeed once again reconciled by the time of the Civil War. Britain’s mills needed Louisiana cotton, Louisiana needed British sterling. Otherwise empty ships were ballasted in the UK with the stone slabs to sail quickly to the port of New Orleans, unload the weights, then re-fill with bales of cotton and head home, hopefully outrunning Union gunboats.
So Marigny’s work in 1812 to kill as many redcoats as possible led, a half century later, to his own street being augmented with British handiwork. I view them each morning as I fetch in the newspaper, the curbs remaining as testament to the ever-changing allegiances of governments.
In 2011 the house is considerably more habitable, and secular, than in its previous lives, though I remain its slave. And thus my current labors, as I attempt to wrangle nourishment from its confines.
Besides the neighborhood’s religious and political history, I would fail in my mission if I did not note that Bernard’s Faubourg Marigny – and indeed Marigny street - was in the mid to late 1800’s the prime area for staging plaçage, the custom in which rich white gentlemen housed their Creole mistresses and second families well away from their palatial primary residences. The kept women, and their children, were in turn immersed in a Faubourg filled with French-speaking gens de coulers, “people of color” who were for the most part educated and cultured professionals of many diverse occupations, from tailors and shop owners to teachers and trained musicians.
Jelly Roll Morton, one of the early founders of jazz, lived here. Morton was not as tolerant as Bernard’s generation, and like many of his upper-class contemporaries in the Faubourg shunned former slaves as uncouth. At the same time the snobbish Morton worked as a “piano professor” in the notorious Storyville red-light district, incorporating the African passion he heard all about him, especially in Congo Square, into a new and elemental form of music. A music that would make his name live through time.
These were not the tame études of a French conservatory. Jelly Roll was experimenting in parlors filled with, and fueled by, rather easily propositioned “working girls”, all the while just blocks away from his grandmother’s strict Catholic home in the Marigny, a free nest from which he would shortly be expelled for that very transgression.
Morton went on to win and lose fortunes. To live a full though tortured life. To die penniless in Los Angeles.
Jelly Roll was also haunted through his entire existence by the image, if not the person, of a “hoodoo man” whom he had slighted as a teenager. Superstition has deep roots in this soil. At times, literally.
In a conversation with a neighbor yesterday, my ruminations about digging in, and using the remains of, a church site struck a note with him. It seems that a few years ago, while excavating to put a small pool in his yard, the digging tractor unearthed one shovelful that contained five hand-blown glass eggs made from opaque milk glass. Each had a small hole at one end. They were quite delicate, but also completely well-preserved and undamaged, as if placed carefully in the ground.
He said he was immediately curious, went to his computer, and began generally googling “glass+eggs”. His inquiries were without useful result until he stumbled on a site that mentioned the use of such items in a voodoo ritual. He contacted the woman who owned the site and received a quick, excited email that asked that he call her.
He did so. The woman then asked that he describe the eggs in detail, especially noting if there was a small hole in one end, where the egg had been attached to the glassblowing rod. When he reported that indeed all four had identical holes, he said she gave a long gasp on the other end of the line. “It is a rare spell,” she told him.
It seems that when a house was hoodooed, or had attached evil spirits, the residents would acquire the glass eggs from a traiteur to be hung from the ceiling, hole down. The traiteur would then cast a “binding” spell on the eggs so spirits would be attracted to the eggs, enter, and then, held by the spell like flypaper, not be able to get out. After a certain period of time the eggs would be considered full and the spell waning, so the eggs were to be taken into the yard and carefully buried, bad spirits trapped inside as long as the eggs remained unbroken. My neighbor has made sure the disinterred ovoids remained intact, and not taken the eggs into his house.
I thought about his story as I continued to find pieces of the old church buried in my yard and under the floor of the main house. Stained glass and bits of ritual vessels, and more bricks. I thought about Bernard Marigny and the King of France and Jean Lafitte the pirate. And Jelly Roll. And the 2011 voodoo priestess.
I once again mulled the efficacy and rewards of working in one’s own back yard.
I live in a small world. And I don’t mind a bit.