St. Louis Number 1 Cemetery commands the corner of Basin Street and Saint Louis like an abandoned fortress; its ramparts are slightly lopsided and crumbling in places, its keeps adorned with angels instead of gargoyles, and its barracks bombed out in places: ruined brick-and mortar rubble entombing the unknown soldiers of New Orleans. The eastern and northern walls are dwarfed by the brown bricked ridges of the Iberville Housing Projects. I think about the word “projects” and find the experimental nature of the word distasteful; let’s put some people here and see how it all works out for them, it seems to suggest. History would suggest it didn’t work out well at all, and the fact that St. Louis Number 2 buttresses “the projects” to the North lends a Tennessee Williams-esque air of death and desire to the whole block of barrack-style housing that extends my metaphor perfectly.
Some of New Orleans’ most storied citizens are buried within these walls, teasing out the many ironies of New Orleans history: Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, who was according to legend a healer more than a witch, entombed in a Catholic cemetery (although, also according to legend, not where you think); architect Benjamin Latrobe, who died here, from yellow fever, while working on an aqueduct system to alleviate yellow fever; and maybe most ironic, Homer Plessy, the plaintiff of Plessy versus Ferguson — the man who first challenged racial segregation in the United States and lost — buried in the shadows of Iberville which are the de facto symbol of racial inequality in our country.
While the history of the cemetery itself is fascinating, and accessible to anyone who is interested via the internet or numerous guidebooks, I rarely visit to commune with Ms. Laveau or Mr.’s Latrobe or Plessy. No, I go because an odd and ineffable peace washes over me whenever I enter the walls. I’m not sure if it is the ineluctable nature, the truth revealed in destiny, or just the fact that it’s quiet — I just like it here. It feels peaceful to me.
I suffer from depression: I think I admitted this out-loud — if Twitter can be out-loud — last night. Many people seemed surprised at this admission, and if you meet me, you might not pick up on it right away. I am quick with a line and try to spin things positively even if my insides are breaking up in a Faustian struggle. I truly do believe in the goodness of people, even if I often question it in myself. I believe in a life of service and dedicate my purest moments to others. Yet I can also be dissolute, and this past decade has taken much of the starch out of me: having friends die in 9/11 and others displaced in Katrina; the suffering of senseless wars; street violence; a failed marriage; lost jobs; broken promises; and being separated from my beautiful son have taken a psychic toll on me. Sometimes I get so defeated I lie in bed for days. Other times I drink. I know there is medication for this sort of thing, but I eschew it. I am capable of feeling the highs, and I don’t want to ever be evened out. I just sort of compartmentalize and accept my life. As long as I can still sit here and write, I’m alright enough…
I sometimes stand in the cemetery and imagine it underwater; I know this is a terrifying and all too real proposition, but I think of the cemeteries of New Orleans as the topography of a New Atlantis. I imagine myself at the bottom of a fish tank floating peacefully among that which cannot be washed away. Interestingly enough, the tombs were not as significantly impacted by the floodwaters as many other structures. It’s as if Marie Laveau cast her consciousness against the tide — or maybe it was Latrobe’s aqueducts — something that sluiced the water aside. In my own mind I like to think it was Homer Plessy, protecting the ironic monuments that can never be separate if we are to be equal.
I don’t know where I’ll be buried — or if. I don’t get to make that choice. I can weigh-in on the matter, but in the end that duty will fall to someone else. For now I’ll find peace within the wisteria covered walls and the dusty hodgepodge rows, like badly stacked books — reading the names and wondering about the lives lived — pondering, what, if any, of this life they got to carry with them. If the lessons learned here prepare you for something more, or if peace is the ability to finally cease worrying and be free. I also know that I’m not ready to join them — no matter how sad I feel — not yet. There is still work to be done, and people to help outside these walls.
Those within are already free…