Magic in the Air
New Orleans attracts romantics worldwide who hunger for what the city offers--pure magic. Not abracadabra magic, but the real kind. The kind that settles in the bones and guides hearts willing to listen and surrender to its ancient wisdom.
When I was a child, our family often congregated on the doorsteps of my grandparents' French Quarter home. The historic house sat on the corner of St. Philip and Burgundy Streets, pronounced Bur-gun'-dee by natives. We giggled when tourists said Bur'-gun-dee, like the wine.
The house had two doorsteps--one overlooking each street. No matter which side we gathered, the allure of inherent mystery and a fresh evening breeze always satisfied.
In the 1950s, America's love affair with the automobile inspired a newfound freedom of adventure. Dinah Shore's famous commercial expressed this sentiment: See the USA in your Chevrolet. Spirits ran high as the flash of chrome with elongated fins whizzed by on the narrow roadways.
My cousins played sidewalk games with my sister and me on the uneven antique bricks, which redefined the game of hopscotch. However, our favorite pastime was guessing the makes of automobiles driving by. Even the grown-ups joined in the fun with oohs and aahs. In those days, the choices were scarce--Ford, Chevrolet, and Chrysler.
The mostly male drivers bore an air of independence and self-importance as they sped past. Many of them dangled an arm out of the window, flicking cigarette butts into the street, all the while staring straight ahead. This was considered cool and part of the era's mystique.
With my overactive imagination, I pictured the motorists tooting their way into forever, leaving a tell-tale trail of empty beer cans, cigarette packs, and who-knows-what-else behind.
Those versed in the culture of New Orleans are familiar with its Latin American, third-world mindset. Though the Burgundy automobiles had the right of way, they tooted and slowed in case St. Philip vehicles didn't yield.
Occasionally, a mammoth city bus rumbled through like a giant urban buffalo. The ground shook, and houses rattled as they roared by, hissing black, smelly fumes billowing from their tailpipes. The cars seemed feisty by comparison.
In the Quarter, neighbors walked by, stopping to exchange stories and bits of news. But it was the foot traffic that captivated me. I had to know everything about these enigmatic strangers. At one point, they started carrying odd-looking bags, which were called knapsacks back then.
Stricken with wanderlust at the early age of five, I pranced right up to them when they stopped on the curb. "What's in your bag?" I chirped. "Where you goin'?" Most of them wore tough, James Dean-esque demeanors, guarded and intense. A few gave me a brief look, but rushed off without a word, leaving me aching.
One night a particular traveler glided by. Unlike the others, he nodded a polite greeting to the family. His mannerisms suggested a laid-back attitude. He wore a black pea coat fashionable at the time. The stranger leaned against the street lamp and placed his pack near his feet. Reaching for a cig, he took a puff and took in the neighborhood. After a second drag, I couldn't wait another minute.
"What's in your bag?" I asked with more conviction and the persistence of an innocent, "And where are you going?" He glanced down at me, and his long pause alerted me this might end in disaster.
But instead, he let out a robust laugh, turned to the adults, and they all had a chuckle at my expense. But, I didn't give a hoot; I was on a mission. Later, Mom assured me I had the same questions the adults did, but wouldn't dare ask. This made me feel better, but still, I wanted answers.
During my college days, I discovered Jack Kerouac and perused some of his autobiography, On the Road. It was a chronicle of his travel adventures. I found similarities between the yearning for authenticity of the Beat Generation and my own Hippie Generation.
Later, I read You'll Be Okay; My Life with Jack Kerouac, written by his first wife, Edith Parker. One sentence stirred my memory. I had to reread the line to verify what it said. The prominent voice of his era had visited New Orleans about the time of that unique backpacker. I pondered the prospects. Is it possible? Could it be?
Maybe yes, or maybe no. But to this day, the little girl in me is convinced. It was Jack Kerouac himself who stood on our corner laughing with us in the City That Care Forgot.