The upper crust

Jim Gabour
8 November 2007

"Look at those balconies", said Priscilla Fogarty, short, shrill, and solid. Priscilla, brilliantly and unnaturally redheaded, was encased in a polished silver linen suit that looked as unwrinkled and shiny as medieval armour. Her name and corporate logo stood emblazoned on a twenty-four-carat gold shield that decoratively protected the severe up-slope of her left breast pocket. I had noticed over the weeks of our association that Priscilla's heavily-constrained body - like her manually-applied features - never changed shape or flexed, whether she was sprinting up stairs to point out a skylight or standing on tiptoes to disable a burglar alarm. There was no doubt that the woman's garments, above and below, were every bit as formidable as Priscilla herself.

Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures.
He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University.
His website is here

A selection of Jim Gabour's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)

"Cutting loose" (4 May 2007)"Mahatma 189" (11 May 2007)

"So, you ask, just what is this ‘mojo'?" (30 May 2007)

"Undercurrent" (22 June 2007)"Cry Oncle!"(12 July 2007)

"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)

"The recurring anniversary of wilderness" (28 August 2007)

"Native to America" (26 September 2007)"Number One with a bullet" (22 October 2007)

If I was in the market for a home in New Orleans, she had decided, she would be the person to sell it to me.

Madame Fogarty had not stopped talking in my presence since our initial house-inspection appointment, two months earlier. She was recommended to me by a neighbour as "a bit much, but the only person to contact if you want to find the Real Stuff." Since at that point I knew of no one else, I acquiesced and called Priscilla.

She lived in an historic neighbourhood herself, so she had an interest in developing them properly, even if that meant occasionally letting in borderline artsy characters like me. The middle-aged supposed "TV person" who now stood beside her in jeans, high-top Converse All-Stars, and t-shirt.

"How sporty", she had remarked as I opened the passenger-side car door for our first house tour. She lifted her deeply tanned hand and exhibited it to me, palm forward, as the completion of her greeting. I leaned to inspect more closely, thinking that the required response. It was not. She would, in time, teach me how to react properly. She shook her head and lowered the hand back to the steering-wheel, as I climbed onto the oiled leather seats of her new Town Car convertible and closed the door. She scanned me up and down, twice, then put the luxury sedan into gear using only the tips of three manicured and ringed fingers.

"Our grandchild never dresses any other way, due, I am sure, to the degenerative influences of your MTV. Snoop Doggy Dog", she said knowledgeably, as punctuation, with a final, definitive motion of her nose toward my apparel. That particular Dog and I, she obviously felt, were in cahoots for the common degradation of mankind.

I was unprepared that first day. I received a vast amount of Fogarty information that was unrelated to housing. I was autobiographically overwhelmed.

Priscilla reveled in being an "active and attractive" 63, she told me in the third sentence of our acquaintance. She was quite well off and didn't need to work. But she needed to stay active. She had been a debutante, a member of the old-money Rex Court at Carnival, and her family had held membership at the Boston Club for three generations. This was her real hair colour, though no one believed it. She was indeed the real estate-agent who one way or another controlled all major home sales near the levee-side junction of St Charles and Carrollton Avenues. She had made the bend in the river her fortress. The rest of New Orleans was alright, if you didn't have to live there, and if you had someone to watch your car.

Her husband Edgar was a retired dentist who loved his terriers and his garden and painting watercolour landscapes and lived in the den with a television that was tuned twenty-four hours a day to the Weather Channel. He did not use the electronic device except as its contents pertained to his zinnias, elephant amaranths, and Russian mammoth sunflowers.

Be in no doubt

She did not like to cook or clean. She had a "coloured girl" who took care of those things for her, while she drove well-heeled people - I was something of an experiment - around to see houses that were on the market. She was able to look into other people's closets and bedrooms as a much-coveted side benefit. She wrote off her large American car each year as a legal and totally acceptable business deduction. It was essential to her livelihood, and she very seldom used it when she wasn't working, she said.

"I am always working", she added.

Lydia, her maid, arrived six days a week at 7am and left at 4:30pm. On Sundays, without this cook/housekeeper, Priscilla and the husband were obliged to fast through most of the day and eat only dinner. She could pour orange juice, but did not know how to work the electric coffee-maker or microwave, and at 63 did not care to learn. She and her husband consumed their one Sunday meal within the civilised confines of Arnaud's in the Quarter. She chose that particular grande dame restaurant, not because of the exquisite food, but because they had such trustworthy valet parking.

She hated the expense of that nondeductible Sunday dinner, anyway, and was not happy with Lydia's attitude, much less her need for a day off. The ungrateful woman was going to ask for a raise soon. Priscilla suspected it and was going to fire her housekeeper the moment the subject was broached. She had a replacement ready in the wings, had already interviewed her, an Oriental female. A grandmother. She felt an older woman would be more responsible. After all, she was a grandmother, too.

"Vietnamese. Grateful for the work, those people. Don't care about Sundays one fiddling bit. Heathens. Had a war in the jungle. Lost." Priscilla prided herself on her overview of contemporary world history as it pertained to her own life, though she didn't want to tip her hand to her current maid in case she was wrong. "But I never am, not about this sort of thing!"

Priscilla knew what would happen: "That woman will steal everything not nailed down in the time it takes a child molester to wink at a 10-year-old. That is, if she figures out in advance that I'm going to sack her."

Priscilla Fogarty had volunteered these facts before she released the automatic door locks at house-stop number one, less than a block down the street from where she had picked me up at my rented apartment. She did not open the car doors until she was good and ready. The two of us sat there - motor, radio, and air-conditioner running - for four-and-a-half of the first five minutes of our acquaintance, while the home-sellers peered at us anxiously through their drapes, wondering what the matter was, why we didn't come in.

I had expected that part - an embarrassing, furtive squirm through available properties, walking judgmentally through strangers' living rooms - and had braced myself for the prospect. But here was Ms Fogarty, a real-estate hurricane blowing out of a totally unexpected quarter. She would not go forward until she was ready. I would be paying her commission, but I was working for her, rather than the other way around, and I had best get used to the order of business. That was the message, right off the bat.

I was to listen to her monologue. So I listened. Patiently I listened.

The Fogarty family history was now well into its seventh week. I knew her son's name and age (Bruce, 45), his wife's (Bernadette, 39, "and she drinks"), the grandchild (little Tommy, 17, a 210-pound starting right tackle for Bonnabel High, "he's supposed to eat that much"). I knew that her husband was having troubles with the petunias on his deck. Slugs. And with his bowels. Cheese consumption. I knew how much her last two monthly utility bills had been. $379 and $401. The weather was extremely hot for her. Anything over 73 degrees Fahrenheit and 40% humidity was beyond human endurance, as were most aspects of New Orleans.

She also did not understand how any country could devalue its currency.

I had no reason to believe that she stopped talking when she left my presence, empty Lincoln or no. There was always the cellular. She randomly called twice an hour to make sure Lydia the hired help wasn't talking on her home phone, and even if there were no messages she always listened to her own announcement on the voice mail. Just to make sure no one had tampered with it.

This is what she's like

Priscilla was always famished by the time she had finished her Sunday afternoon rounds with clients, and would use her cellular phone to speed things up. She'd call home and have the husband waiting out front of their house to be picked up, then call the restaurant the moment she crossed Napoleon Avenue and tell the maitre d' she was on her way down St Charles, headed to the Quarter.

The maitre d' knew what to do. Arnaud's had not existed for over a hundred years on the corner of Bourbon and Iberville streets because it did not know how to cater to the locals' particular regimes de cuisine. Madame Fogarty always ordered the same thing each week. The restaurant's job was to insure that as soon as she walked through the cut-crystal door into the entrance hallway she would smell the deep, herbsaint-infused aroma of a piping hot Escargots en Casserole appetizer being laid on the crisp tablecloth of her favourite table. The baguettes would be steaming inside a cotton wrap, the butter fresh and lemony in a chilled silver tray, just as she liked.

She'd had the snails as a starter every Sunday for years, and could tell by scent if chef had the balance of flavors exactly right. She'd only sent it back once, carrying the dish in her own hands to the kitchen. Her husband had heard her raised voice, clear across the wide dining-room.

The dish had always been perfect since then, though it was rumoured that shortly after the incident, chef had purposely changed his day off to Sundays, forcing his sous to take on the burden of preparing Madame Fogarty's repast.

Someone had to carry the burden, for the greater good, but chef chose to delegate in this case, rather than serve. Thus avoiding any chance of unpleasantness.

As do many of us.

I myself took the chef's example to heart and did not buy a house from Priscilla Fogarty, even after suffering through our lengthy real-estate courtship.

I like to believe that in the end my decision was not avoidance, but rather a definite act of principle, such that I possess.

On a more visceral level, as a New Orleanian, you might say that I had simply lost my appetite.

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