A colored haze fills the street about fifty feet ahead, creating a spatially-compressed sepia photograph of the ten blocks beyond. On a normal afternoon, this is not normal.
My first thought is a selfish and simplistic “Why me? Just let me get into the New Year without any more hassles.” You see, I had a fender bender last week (my fault), and my car is in the shop having those bends brought to more useful shapes. Consequently, I am once again on my bicycle, and my tension level about any wheeled encounter is off the rational scale.
So … I am heading directly towards that flat brownish plane, pedaling my bike at a strong pace, puffing breaths through a nickel-plated police whistle. I keep the whistle at the ready between my teeth when I ride in this neighborhood, blast a long trill with the simple, well-made device to ward off gawking sight-seers, to keep them from walking into the street in front of me, or ramming me with their cars.
It is a personal preference to go elsewhere, anywhere else, during the height of the winter tourist season, but the reality is I need to go into the French Quarter for a round of end-of-the-week chores. The bank on Chartres, the tiny supermarket at the corner of Royal and St Peter streets, the Faulkner House Bookstore on Pirate's Alley, all are on my subsistence list.
I can see a gaggle of camera-toting non-locals as I near the disturbance. They stand on the northern sidewalk, pointing across the street with upraised fingers and lenses, marking and documenting something of note.
At first I think it must be a stunt of some sort. There are multiple feature film productions going on in town this week, and at least two of them are action movies. In the last few days I have already seen men rappelling down the face of the World Trade Center, and witnessed a fiery car crash just off Saint Charles Avenue. So I am not unduly alarmed as I continue to pedal toward the haze. Though now I suddenly realize I would rather be back in my office. That comforting den of agoraphobia.
As I get to the heart of the disturbance, I see quite clearly that this is nothing faked. It is too untidy. There is absolutely no sense of control.
On the river side of the street, waves of tinted smoke pour from under the gutters and eaves of a short cottage, the front of which is occupied by an occult book shop. Standing outside I recognize the owner, a middle-aged woman taken to stylishly shabby wardrobe as indicative of her life-role. The word among neighbors is that she fancies herself a witch, or at least magically endowed. I have also heard speculation that she feels that making herself physically unattractive magnifies that illusion.
When I entered this same store a year ago in search of a tarot deck, she was most unhelpful, even rude. Possibly that day she suspected that I was not a serious devotee, was in fact investigating a secondary theme of exaggerated mysticism for an upcoming documentary, intended to be a look at this very obscure side of the local spiritual mentality.
I have not forgotten the surly treatment I received at the woman’s hands, and now pedal to the far side of the street, away from her. I doubt she will recall me, as I left quietly and quickly with my purchase, but these days I tend to go to lengths to avoid all brushes with unpleasantness. There is too much inevitable nastiness to be tolerated, so when I have a choice I stay to myself.
This particular evasion proves to be difficult, however, as at that very moment she moves backward, well into the street, staring across the sidewalk at her shop. Billows of smoke are beginning to emerge from the front door. Her hands are at her sides. She is saying nothing. Doing nothing.
I look upward again, see that the smoke from the attic window is increasing exponentially.
This building is on fire.
I yell at the woman: “Have you called the fire department?” No response. She does not turn or indicate she has heard me.
A man walks calmly from the already obscured door, accompanied by a small swirling cloud. He stands beside her, stares at her inquiringly. She returns the look, shakes her head to indicate “no”.
They turn to glare intently at the shop together. As with a purpose. I call out again.
I do not even wish this person well, but in spite of my avoidance resolve, a bell rings in my head, telling me this is an occasion that calls for involvement. I quickly get off my bicycle, almost falling in the process, remove my backpack, retrieve my cellphone, punch in 911, and tell the operator there is a fire in the 1100 block of Royal Street, in the French Quarter. She thanks me, says there is another call coming in at this very moment reporting the same thing, and that trucks should be arriving shortly.
Fires in the Vieux Carré are much more significant, and dangerous, than elsewhere in the city because the buildings are so close together, in many cases sharing walls, and the majority of the material that makes up those walls is at least three centuries old. The exteriors of the building facing the street are only a fraction of the structures that exist within each block. Myriads of courtyards and outbuildings, ancient slave quarters and guest cottages, fill the blocks with extremely historic, and equally flammable, remnants of the 18th century.
The streets are narrow here, jammed with cars parked obliquely and left too close to the corners. Tourists are unafraid of getting a parking ticket, not here in nouveau-Trinidad. They even seem to court this distant encounter with the law, and inevitably take the official citation, a fluorescent orange paper envelope, back to Minneapolis or Boise or Des Moines and show it to neighbors proudly: “See what I got in New Orleans!”
This is a digression, I know, but sure enough as sirens approach and massive red trucks appear from three different directions, the fire engines must take much valuable time negotiating around cars with out-of-state license plates parked illegally in pedestrian walkways, especially trying to maneuver the nearby tight turn between the coffee shop and the elementary school.
Five trucks eventually appear, none more dramatically than a huge hook-and-ladder that not only makes the tight turn to the west down Royal street, but then amazingly backs up through the parked cars, mere inches on a side, half a block eastward to the site of the fire.
Dozens of suited firemen push their way through the crowds of tourists and residents who have filled the sidewalks and street. Hoses are pulled from the trucks, pressure raised, axes loosened from their racks. The fire-fighting procedure begins.
The store owner and her friend have not moved, though they are now standing between two large pulsing crimson and chrome trucks. They look side to side at the commotion, both with looks of disdain on their faces. Finally a neighbor points out to the fire captain that the building belongs to the stoic woman. He questions her. She shakes her head. "No", again and again. Finally she says something, a sentence or so. The captain starts, quickly speaks into his radio.
Six cats & two ferrets are in the burning building. Those of us nearby can hear the captain telling his men to hurry and look for them, though the smoke is now so thick that it is almost impossible to see, even outside in the street. Inside the building it must be impenetrable and stifling. And deadly. I live with cats myself. I would be worried.
Ten minutes pass. I wait with dread for this last bit of drama to unfold – consciously I know I am selfishly thinking that, if I have been forced to be a part of this, I can at least use the experience in an article. Then, squirming out of the building in firemen arms, two cats and both ferrets rescued. They are handed to the mute, unsmiling occultist.
The fate of the other four cats is to remain unknown, at least this day. In less than an hour, sixty per cent of the building has been severely damaged by fire, smoke and water. But it does not collapse, the roof and walls are intact.
When the firemen finally tell her the fire is out and the building safe, the owner takes down the shop sign from an exterior wall, locks the front door, gathers the sign and her four remaining animals in the same cardboard box.
She walks into the middle of the street to look at the fire engines departing in each direction, then turns to look directly at me, and sends me one of the most aggressively negative messages I have ever received. Even without a word being spoken, it is impossible to misunderstand.
“You sent them here,” she is saying, nodding her head in the direction of the vanishing firemen.
Her house was on fire, she was not doing anything to physically combat the spreading flames which could have easily engulfed the neighborhood, but she did not want strangers in her house. She wanted nothing unsettled. Actually believed it would stop on its own if she willed it away hard enough.
She is contemptuous of me, possessed as she believes she is with a certain amount of power against natural forces.
All this occurs to me in the instant before the woman spins on her heels and strides west on Royal street, toward the Lower Quarter. I stand there, absorbing the residual anger which hangs about as densely as the smell of smoke. Neither sensation is pleasant. Nor is an oddly nagging feeling that once again I should just have stayed well away from the fray. None of this was my business, and now I am angry at this person, and at myself. The anger is not dealt with easily. I need to get rid of it before I begin to obsess on it, begin the repeated tongue-to-the-toothache ritual.
I decide to forget the afternoon. And to drop my smoky clothes into the washing machine as soon as I get home. I pedal through my chores at a rapid pace, and head back to the purple house in the Faubourg Marigny.
There the bicycle is quickly put away, shirt and jeans are started in the laundry process, and the memory of the earlier afternoon is, for the moment, thankfully lessened.
I know the evil eye is still roving about out there, but over the years I have come to firmly believe that negative forces of many sorts diminish greatly when ignored.
There actually is no toothache.
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