In 2006 I was asked to participate in a New Orleans Tribute at ALA. In honor of those who survived the storm and in memory of those who did not, I've decided to share the speech I read that night.
Escaping to the French Quarter
The middle of my ninth grade year my family moved to the New Orleans Westbank. Like most of our moves, I wasn't happy about the change. Even though I knew we'd be moving the entire eight months I lived in my grandparents' small Louisiana town, I'd pretended it wouldn't happen. As far as I was concerned my life didn't exist outside Forest Hill, Louisiana. I'd mapped out my entire future. I'd finish high school, marry my boyfriend and have four adorable children with dark curly hair like him. Each night, I'd make a delicious meal from his mother's recipes such as fried chicken and buttermilk pie. I was a girl with ambition.
My mother tried to prepare us for the move by painting a glamorous picture of our future life. "New Orleans is very traditional," she said. "They eat red beans and rice every Monday."
"Everyone does?" I asked.
"Well, yes. It started years ago when Monday became washday. The women put on a pot of beans because they were busy doing their wash. Oh, and all the high schools are segregated, even the public schools."
"That's right. You'll be going to an all girls school."
"There won't be any boys? Why?"
"Tradition," she said, then quickly added, "I think."
A month later, my boyfriend broke up with me. This did nothing to eliminate my desire of staying in Forest Hill. In January my Navy chief dad returned from his assignment in Washington D.C. to join us on the move to the New Orleans Westbank. I sat next to my younger sisters in the backseat of the gold Chevy Caprice and pouted the entire way. This was something I'd perfected over the years, like the time my dad wouldn't let us stay an extra night in Amarillo when we found out Elvis would be performing there.
"We need to stay on schedule," he said, marking Amarillo off his list.
Now when we reached the newly built Superdome, I looked the other way. And I yawned when we crossed the Mississippi River and my dad pointed toward downtown, saying, "The French Quarter is over there. We'll visit it one day."
We drove to our home in Harvey to the Spanish Oaks subdivision. My first observations were that there was nothing remotely Spanish about the street of tract homes, nor was there an oak tree in sight. In all the years we lived there, I never found out if everyone in New Orleans ate red beans every Monday, but we sure did. And although attending an all girl high school took some adjusting, there were definite advantages. John Ehret had several dances during the year and there was no waiting around by the phone for some awkward teenage boy to ask me to the dance. I had to ask the boy myself. I'd always been very shy, but I was also shallow enough to care about such things as evening dresses, hairdos, and nail polish. So as each event approached, I'd temporarily push my shyness to the side and ask some boy to the dance.
By spring, my icy attitude toward my new home started to melt, and by the end of the school year it had finished defrosting. Mainly because my drama club took a field trip to the French Quarter. This time when we crossed the bridge I noticed the steamboats making their way leisurely down the dark Mississippi.
After we arrived in the quarter, we toured the charming La Petite Theatre and I dreamed of maybe performing on its stage one day. At lunch, we ate Popeye's fried chicken in Jackson Square while we watched the artists hawking their pictures. Later we walked down Royal and St. Peter streets, listening to the music floating outside from the clubs. By the time we piled back on the bus, I'd encountered my first romance in New Orleans. And it wasn't with some lanky hairy-legged boy. I was in love with the French Quarter.
My grandparents visited that summer and my family took them to the Quarter. When my dad parked along the street, only a hundred yards from Cafe Du Monde, my mother said, "Ray, that sign says, 'No Parking.'"
"Those other cars are parked there," he said, and that was that.
We spent a couple of hours in the quarter, only to return and discover our Chevy Caprice missing. I don't think my parents ever visited the French Quarter again after our car had been towed, but I sure did. Over my high school years, my friends and I found it was very easy to cross the Westbank and arrive in the French Quarter. We visited many times, adventuring into Pat O'Brien's and eating peanut butter hamburgers at the Fatted Calf.
Our senior prom took place at the Royal Sonesta so we ate under the ivy covered patio of The Court of Two Sisters. After the dance ended, we walked along Bourbon Street. It didn't matter that we never stepped inside the clubs. The barkers standing in front of the doors, trying to lure us inside, made us feel both grownup and naughty. We ended our prom night at two am, eating beignets at Cafe Du Monde. I remember wishing that life could be like that everyday.
At Mardi Gras time, we weren't content with just attending the Westbank's Cleopatra parade. We wanted the real Mardi Gras, the one going on across the river. We waited for Bacchus, the Zulu King and Pete Fountain who liked to kiss the ladies when he wasn't playing his clarinet. Many times I'd read the New Orleans Times Picayune, not for the articles, but for the real estate classified ads. Small French Quarter Apartment, no air conditioning, but lots of personality. I wanted a slice of that personality.
Later when I started to attend the University of New Orleans, I took an hour bus ride to apply at the Zales Jewelry store on Canal Street. I had it all planned. I'd attend classes in the morning, then take the long bus ride to the store. And since Canal Street bordered the French Quarter, I'd naturally take my breaks there, sip a cafe au lait and eat a beignet while watching street performers.
That was the plan anyway until my mother got wind of it and said, "Young lady, you are not going to take the bus and work downtown. If you want a job, you can get one on campus."
Over the years, I returned to the quarter with my husband and daughter, trying to capture that old feeling. The intrigue was still there, but not the deep longing I'd possessed as a young woman. It was sort of like pining over a past love for years, and when you finally met up with him, you wondered what all the fuss was about.
That is until my friend, Coleen Salley invited me to stay in her French Quarter apartment a few years ago. After showing me where she kept the Community coffee, she handed me the keys and said, "Honey, I'm sleeping in, but feel free to take a walk in the morning. Just remember to lock the door."
That night I fell asleep listening to the conversations of people passing by and the horse hooves clomping against the brick street. I awoke at dusk, dressed and put on one of Coleen's sweaters. Then I slipped out of the apartment.
Making my way down Chartre, I passed a coffee shop opening its doors. A few steps away, one lone artist had shown up at Jackson Square and was hanging his art along the fence. I crossed the street to Cafe Du Monde. A couple of locals were seated inside, but I settled outside at a table under the cabana. The clatter of cups from the kitchen, the sweet smell of beignets frying, the moan of a car passing by. The French Quarter was just waking up and the thought hit me that all the years I'd visited I'd never seen it at the break of day. I ordered my cafe au lait and pulled Coleen's sweater tightly around me. On the Mississippi, the Algiers ferry sounded its horn. I knew that meant the ferry was just moments away from docking, ending its journey from the other side. And for that brief time, I, too, had returned--a Westbank girl, crossing the river, escaping to her long lost love.
Kimberly Willis Holt writes from her home in West Texas. Although her father's military career took her family to ports around the world, she considers Forest Hill, Louisiana her emotional home. It became the setting of her first book, My Louisiana Sky.