Sometimes, for brief moments only, it seems advantageous to live in a place where fear and ignorance can so quickly and indiscriminately take the upper hand. Like last Thursday.
It seems that two old friends in LA are getting married, and I want to send them something as a gift. They’ve both been very generous to me with their friendship and their unselfish introduction of a Looziana boy into the West Coast media community over the years. So I want to send an only-from-New-Orleans and only-from-me gift to celebrate their union. After much rumination I decide I will go to my favorite hoodoo shop -- the XXX Botanica is a sort of Walmart of voodoo paraphernalia -- and put together a packet of lucky charms. Surely a New Orleans sort of thing, that. The XXX is out in a bad part of the Faubourg St John area, and a bit of a drive, but I figure that the effort will make it more of a heartfelt gift.
I leave early, eager to put my plans into action. Only as I am driving do I begin to wonder if the shop will even be open. But when I pull up to an expired parking meter a little before 9am, I find that they have already been doing business for several hours – “open early for your spell-casting needs”, I suppose.
I walk up and down aisles stacked to the ceiling with mojos of various sorts and I finally settle on buying several scented oils, three ready-made potions, a protective powder, an attraction candle and a love-in-marriage candle.
Corazon Accuardito, the owner, comes into the main room from a storage area in back. He carries an armload of small premixed tisanes in canvas bags, which I recognize as some of his best sellers. These are very specifically concocted, everything from “good luck in court” and “taxman stay away” powders to “Black Cat put the hex on them” candles. Corazon is required by law to stamp the word “alleged” on any item that is labeled as to its use, so most are unmarked. But he and his assistant know the Botanica’s inventory down to the smallest item. He is happy to see me, gives me a good‑natured reprimand for coming around so infrequently.
“I've been continually repairing an ancient house in the Marigny for months, years actually, working like a slave just to keep it from falling down. I haven’t gone anywhere,” I moan.
“Pobrecito. Moving to the upper classes,” Corazon replies over his shoulder, still shelving candles. “I order you as a rich landowner to spend lots of money in this poor man’s store. I need to make me a bet on a certain East Coast pony. I got a strong feel handling the Picayune Sports section this morning. Money coming. Sucker money. And in you walk.”
“Fine,” I say, “since it’s always a gamble when I come here anyway.”
Corazon laughs, considering this the appropriate response between men of machismo, and goes back to business restocking and mumbling to himself as he handles his wares.
Corazon is well‑known as most powerful among the traiteurs, or folk doctors, of New Orleans. He controls much of the mojo hardware on the east and west banks of the River, and has become a force in both the African/Creole voodoo and the Latin Santeria crowds. He and I have been buddies for over a decade, for no known reason. We have come to know each other’s weaknesses well and delight in them. We are quite similar in our general approaches to life, though very different in the specifics of how we deal with it. I describe the man to friends as a loyal and protective though distant friend, a “nice fellow”, if occasionally a little scary. We have met infrequently over the past years while partying at Cuban exile nightclubs and checking out the leg at Central American festivals. Accuardito migrated to New Orleans from Miami because his magic was considered too dark for the Florida crowd – he told me that the people there gave him respect, but were too frightened of his reputation to actually bring him their custom. Even the parish priests in Little Havana refused to hear his confession.
So he moved to New Orleans, a town well‑known as an old world village where the blackest of arts seems an everyday matter, and where the XXX Botanica now sits prosperously down the street from a steakhouse in which every local politician eats at least once a week and the clubhouse of an African-American Mardi Gras Krewe visited by politicos with similar regularity.
On reflection I go back for a final vial of “come-to-me” oil.
I know that the items I buy in the shop are really only trinkets unless I get them touched and the proper words said over them. This is the way the “serious” hoodoo community that lives with the Botanica at its center protects itself from las touristas, whether they are local or from out of town, disrespectful people who walk in the door laughing to buy pretty candles or bright‑orange spirit floor wash. The shop takes their money, hands them their souvenirs, and shows them the door. For real folks it’s different. The dark-visaged woman at the cash register engages her customer's eyes for a moment, then passes her hands eloquently over each item as she rings it up. And energy flows into the piece.
I figure that since Corazon is there, I'd get the Maestro himself to charge the psychic batteries of my gift, and make it really special.
Twenty bucks, he asks for his blessing. He says he is broke but that his hunch on the thirty-five‑to‑one pony truly needs a long‑shot investment. At this point in my ongoing renovation project, twenty bucks translates to me as six two-by-fours less for my downstairs bathroom wall. Again, I figure it’s worth the money to make the offering right. I give the traiteur the cash. Corazon hoos and hahs and mumboes and jumboes and waggles his hands and puts oil on the candles and touches them with shiny paper icons depicting African holy figures.
I also know that these are really castoff second-hand holy cards of Catholic saints. Corazon buys the yellowing pieces of printed cardboard at a discount from a religious clearing house in Texas, and uses them to form the foundations of the Accuarditos’ next-generation cottage industry. Corazon’s seven-year-old son is president, his job darkening beatific Anglo faces each night after he does his math homework. El Presidentito is paid three cents a tan, bringing the per-card Accuardito investment to five cents. The XXX sells them for $2.99 apiece.
With their heightened color, the religious figures receive different names, each a remnant of the century‑old half-remembered religions of freed slaves. Almost everyone who comes into the XXX is still a devout practicing Catholic. The duality of beliefs never seems to worry, or even occur, to them. Divine origins also do not trouble Corazon’s cash register.
Or his concentration on blessing my purchases. Finally, he says “Finito”. I hand him the twenty‑dollar bill, and the equine seer goes to the phone to call his bookie and place the bet.
Me, I wave goodbye, carry my newly-powered-up purchases back to the car, and drive back home to the Marigny, a few blocks from the Mississippi River.
I find a Louisiana Creole Tomato box (just emptied of the last of its bounty only a few weeks ago – the season now sadly over), and I pad the inside with fragrant herbs from the back yard, potent fresh rosemary, germander and comfrey, dried St John’s Wort and swamp mint. Then I put in Corazon’s candles and bottles and cover them with more herbs and pennies with black Xs painted on them. Uncrossing signs are protection, and reflect the evil eye, Corazon told me, that’s why he’s got three on his store: XXX. I then add gold-painted chicken bones (doesn’t every household keep a stock of these useful items?), and skull-and-crossbones-stamped goodluck cards. I figure that this is one gift that won’t be duplicated, even at a Hollywood wedding party.
I seal the whole thing up with bubble wrap, put on holographic party paper, then another layer of plain brown paper and shipping tape. I call my regular delivery service to come and get it and I put a note on my front door, saying that the package is hidden behind the large potted palm on the porch. I hide it there because I can’t hear the doorbell very well while working in my studio in the small cottage at the back of the house, and because I have a housebound ill cat who has decided he wants to sneak out every time the front door is opened. I usually just sit my shipments on a table inside the front door and leave the door unlocked, but with the cat in such a fugitive mood, I don’t dare. So, the package gets hidden behind the palm.
An hour later, I go outside to see if the courier has come by yet, and there, right where I left the package, is the outer wrapping and the shipping label, crumpled and torn. No box inside. I call the express company to see if the courier simply changed the wrapping – they sometimes think my work is not sturdy enough for shipping – and no, they say, the courier has not yet been in my area. Won’t be until 6:30pm. He’s running late.
My gift has been stolen.
Not only that, but the thief was brazen enough to stand on my porch for the time it took to unwrap it and see the brightly colored paper inside, then take off the outer brown paper and shipping label in one piece and tauntingly leave it right where the package was originally hidden. All this up on my raised porch, at noon, and in full view of the entire neighborhood.
I am bummed. Seriously angry.
I yell for a few minutes at the walls. This has been a none-too-hospitable week, what with the frustrating logistics of old-house maintenance, both the manual labor and attendant economic hassles, and the theft really tops it off. Then I decide that I won’t let some jerk get the best of me. That I’ll drive back across town to the Botanica and get exactly the same things, come back and package it and still make the 6:30 pickup. I will not be defeated.
But as I walk out the door I see a neighbor a few doors south out on the sidewalk sweeping, and I figure she might have seen the culprit who stole my package. I walk over and ask her, but no, she’s been working on her front garden for over an hour and no one has passed her way except two other neighbors we both know well. I trudge back to the car, and then on an impulse continue north to the corner of the block, and look east, then west.
West. There in the middle of the block on the sidewalk, is the inner wrapping paper. I walk down, pick it up, and inspect it. It has been torn off in a single piece just like the outer wrapping. I see the young children of a Vietnamese couple I know, a pair of sweet kids, playing on the banquette across the street, and I walk over to ask if they’ve seen anyone. They tell me they just came outside and no one has passed by them since then, but that they had heard a commotion outside about half an hour earlier.
I am energized. I walk a few doors further to the corner grocery, go inside and ask the owner if he’s heard or seen anything. He says that he heard bloody yelling and screaming, too, but that when he looked outside expecting to see someone being stabbed to death, all he saw were two young teenaged males running toward Rampart Street, “hollering like the devil was after them”.
I go back outside and look north toward Elysian Fields Avenue.
And I see it. There, about ten feet from the intersection, is the tomato box. I run over and pick it up. It is barely damaged at all. The top bubble wrap has just been pulled back, exposing all the mojo signs, herbs, bones. And the evil-eye-protection pennies.
The thieves thought they had robbed a hoodoo man.
Word has spread quickly. The theft occurred Thursday. Yesterday, Friday, as people walked from the St. Claude Avenue neighborhood southwards past my house on their way to the Royal Street bus stop, every single person stepped quickly to the other side of the street rather than pass directly in front of my door, and the passersby only glanced back obliquely once they had passed. Most crossed themselves before and after looking.
Inspired by the forces at work, I remember a footnote to my Tres Equis visit, and call to see if Corazon’s horse won that day. It did, and handily. He is elated. I am invited to drop by the shop tomorrow for lunch. Senora Accuardito, in a fit of gratitude to Santa Barbara’s financial gift (the Senora is receiving a new washing machine as a result of the long-shot), is cooking her husband a rather massive noonday repast. Corazon is to receive a third of the food, I (as the provider of the cash) am awarded the second portion, and the remainder is to be placed at the feet of a new large plaster statue that now decorates the counter at the Tres Equis. The freshly tanned and smiling Santa Barbara will keep good luck running, says the traiteur.
And besides, he got her on sale.