“Skreeeee, POP! ...dies and gentlemen... just to get you oriented before we take off... kawk kawk kawk ... would like to give you an idea of the nature of the area through which we will be... SKREEEE!...”
“kawk!!... as the houses on many of these streets are indicative of the Caribbean influences rampant in the Faubourg Marigny,” assertively spouts the dull-blonde white-visored Guide. The volume of his battery-powered pocket amplifier finally adjusted, he now moves into the mental mode necessary for an evocative full-bore script regurgitation.
He pulls his eye-shade down over his brow so he won’t have to visually interact with his fellow cyclists. He has been brought on board as an unpaid intern by the tour company partly based on his perceived skills in non-confrontation. No one in this mobile street theatre will ever feel threatened, at least not by its principal Actor/Guide. No refunds after the tour begins is the rule, in any case.
Having begun, the Guide confidently leans his bicycle to the side and braces his left foot on the curb, this to allow for broad gestures in the time-tested physical méthode of a classically-trained thespian.
And now properly situated, he continues his memorized monologue.
“Bold colors juxtaposed on lacy architectural filigrees are a recurring motif in single, double, camelback and full two-story shotgun houses of the mid-nineteenth century. You will notice a mix of Greek and Roman Revival houses, and the rare Moorish influence, all interspersed among French, Spanish, and turn of the twentieth century American Arts & Crafts styles ...”
I hear this narration from behind the drawn lace curtains which mask the house interior, and myself, from view. I can see that the Guide is wearing a small headset, secured behind his right ear. Two efficient and quite loud speakers are attached one to each of the front panels of his equally loud fluorescent green vest. On the back of which is redundantly affixed “GUIDE” in large plastic orange letters.
The city’s commercial tourism industry asserts that the French Quarter is romantically called the Vieux Carré, but doesn’t mention that Vieux Carré doesn’t mean “French Quarter.” It translates as “Old Square.” And looking at the two-wheeled crowd assembled outside my window, I can see nothing but. A gaggle of bicycles without the horizontal bar, equipped with wide wide seats and fat white-walled tires.
“Merriam, come over here and look at this!” yells a cycle-mounted Husband to a similarly-situated Wife. It must be their first-ever bicycle tour: their individual safety helmets are somehow on backwards. It must also be their first-ever visit to New Orleans: they seem to hope that my Craftsman house may indeed qualify as Moorish. The couple is obviously on a quest for the exotic, wearing beach-style apparel on what locals would consider a freakishly cold late spring morning. 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow boot weather down south.
Much of their accompanying wheeled tribe is similarly clad, accentuated by a preference among the males for hard shoes and black polyester socks as an accompaniment for thick leg hair emerging from under garishly patterned shorts. Massive elastically-supported shelves of pale cleavage seeking the sun is de rigueur for the females. Tan lines being much cheaper and more effective than lingerie for arousing a chilled Midwestern male back home.
“... however,” continues the Guide, while looking at my home, “much of this neighborhood has declined in recent years, and there are a few slightly scruffy ‘modern’ properties intruding amidst the treasures.”
“Scruffy,” he said, setting me smoldering once again. Unknown to me, my house was aluminum-sheathed when I bought it twenty years ago. And “modern.” 1890 qualifies as modern?
Yes, I know, I know. Anyone who has lived here more than a day can testify to the fact that yesterday was better. The Marigny has not maintained itself well physically in these rough times. But we still qualify as scenic enough to warrant hourly out-of-town visitor impositions, walking, bicycling. On Segways, in carriages. Pausing at our homes to discuss them. And every guide who transits the streets can be heard announcing loudly to his or her paid listeners of the neighborhood’s “majestic past.” Unfortunately such compliments are inevitably followed with a qualifying phrase: “…though it is obviously not now as it once was.” Or: “Scruffy.” This just said while standing directly in front my place of residence.
It’s like having an internet comment section tagged onto your actual real-world life.
“Scruffy, my mule-drawn ass,” I find myself muttering downwards. I have put up with this as long as possible. It is time for action.
“Buddy, come here, please,” I again say toward the floor, from which emerges a sleek black feline, who raises his chin to me.
“Mowt,” he says with some vigor, knowing that he may get picked up and administered abdominal rubs as a consequence of answering my call. I do this, and also massage his ears as a reward for his attention. “Mowt, mowt,” he says in acknowledgement of his favorite reinforcement.
I am now ready.
I take a deep breath, grab my pre-printed visual aid, open the front door and, still carrying the cat, emerge from the front porch. The Guide immediately winces and stops speaking, his verbal locomotive now derailed. This is not the first time I have intruded on his lecture. I try to do this as often as possible, responding forcefully when these people sully my yes ordinary though comforting existence.
Buddy remains calm and purring, even as I suddenly yell, “Ola, turistas!” (Forgive me, please, but in these divisive and paranoid days, I divide my admittedly microcosmic world into two divisions – neighbors and tourists. I recognize this as an indefensible prejudice on my part, but that does not deter me.)
In the hand not surrounding Buddy, my left, I now hold forward a large printed sign. “PICTURESQUE LOCAL & COLORFUL PET,” it reads, with an arrow currently pointing up at the cat, and my face. “DONATION SUGGESTED,” it says below the first lines. Then, in smaller letters: “PET REQUIRES REGULAR SUSTENANCE.”
“Aw, a kitty,” says the Wife, undoubtedly a viewer of the most heinous “cute cat” YouTube obscenities.
I prop my signage upright on the outlying bottom ledge of the porch column.
I now take my own turn at public speaking, raising my voice in a much-contemplated though completely extemporized bit of verbal mayhem: “Two-wheeled wanderers of America: You’ve heard about Jericho and Jackass 2,” I begin. “You have heard about the Great Wall of China and the fully-loaded flame-grilled Whopper! You have heard about the Midnight Rambler!”
“Uhhhh ...” articulates the Wife.
“What the ...?” questions the Husband.
But I am quickly finding my oratorical groove: “I come to you today in awe of those benchmarks of human intellectual achievement, and in simultaneous reverence to the beating heart of our beloved but occasionally ... scruffy ... neighborhood.”
I am feeling my inner preacher: “For it is written,” I exclaim, raising the stakes, moving into the vocal tone of a major pulpit sermon. “In the scruffy shall ye find the rewards of eternal bliss! And don’t you want bliss? Isn’t that what we all want, even while vacationing in an overpriced time-share?”
“Damn right!” yells a portly and particularly hirsute gentleman in the rear ranks of cyclists. He is the width of Texas and the height of Rhode Island.
“Thank you, sir. I feel justified,” I tell him.
“Three hunderd-fitty bucks a goddamn night and the bathroom light don’t work! They’s chewin’ gum under the dinin’ room tabletop. An’ the fridge smells like some homeless Ay-rab sheep been doin’ his business in there. An’ I don’ mean no oil futures. Nope, ain’t none a that bliss shit goin’ on in this burg, for damn sure.”
“Now, Bert,” says the woman next to him, who then turns to address me, “that’s his thyroid meds talkin’, mister. He likes this place.”
“The hell I do. Casino is rigged and the nekkid bars got a passel a’ retired grammaws takin’ off they clothes. Cain’t git yer money’s worth nowhere.”
I reply, quietly but fervently: “You can from me, kind sir. Lordhavemercy, yes!” I am feeling it, really feeling the latent pulpit-juicer in me this time.
In response, the Husband awkwardly penguin-walks his bicycle across the sidewalk, reaches for his wallet, extracts and extends a rumpled dollar bill across my fence toward me, cringing back and releasing his hold as I walk forward and touch the bill with the already-full cat hand, my right.
“Mowt,” repeats the cat once he sees the currency has been passed. He has once again intelligently connected the sight of these small greenish pieces of paper with the subsequent appearance of Kitty Deluxe Mediterranean Seafood Dinner. Such an intelligent creature, this.
The original couple seems to have been unoffended by either the earlier “turista” label or my spiel, and genuinely happy to have paid the price of admission to a drama featuring the inner workings of a complex Southern micro-society. That being Buddy and myself. The Husband continues to stare at the two of us with his mouth, in mid-17th century literary terminology, agape.
I do look a tad like an unmade bed this morning, I must admit. I am wearing yesterday’s rather wrinkled jeans and a “Defend New Orleans” t-shirt in anticipation of quiet computer work, but I resolutely believe that I deserve to be regarded as “picturesque” nonetheless. However, Buddy may not scientifically qualify as “colorful,” as he is in reality a completely colorless pallet of velvety midnight black.
I discover that the Wife, undismayed, is admiring the digital photograph she has taken of the aforementioned two locals receiving economic support from her brave and daring spouse. I am sure that she is thinking that this moment frozen in time will be a definite keeper in the computer slide show back home this coming month, displayed on the wall of a knickknack-filled living room in a house surrounded by also frozen snow drifts.
I usually demand further remuneration when an image is captured of my roommate and myself, but the moment has passed for additional solicitation.
The Guide frowns, recovers his composure, shakes his head and says, “Moving on...”
I have now done my part. Maybe next time he won’t stop here again.
And now, I must provide sustenance to my colorful accomplice.