Cities of the Dead

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…

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10 thoughts on “Cities of the Dead

  1. I started following you on twitter because of your writing. Your TP and Café Reconcile articles brought tears to my eyes. Whenever you’re down, just think about the fact that you live in the best city in the US with the most interesting people you’ll ever come across…and you have the literary and creative chops to describe them so well. I’m originally from Phila but now in the cultural void that is Denver. I’m a frequent visitor to Nola with plans to move there eventually…I’d like to meet you for a beer when I arrive, so no more trips down the wormhole, even though we all go there sometimes. Keep your head up and save a seat for me at the Maple Leaf. Cheers.

    • Your words are incredibly kind; my readers keep me going. I look forward to meeting you, and if you like, please share with your friends. I do so love this place.

  2. One of my favorite places as well. I have always been fond of cemeteries for their peace, natural beauty, for the window into history they provide about those at rest, and the glimpse into the society and cultural that built the cemeteries to honor and remember their friends, family, or members of the community, whether known or not.

    • Nicely written, my friend. I have something in the works that I think you’ll like about someone we both know, you better than I (here’s a hint: he made me want to write a long time ago, and probably you as well).

  3. What a wonderful piece. I’m about to start spending a lot more time in these tiny cities.

    The Story of Down
    by Editilla O’rilla d’Aphasia
    “Take care when you handle Cliche’ lest you draw offense of Metaphor, as neither will honor what they seem in life nor what you would wish of them in death.” …said Down the Gravedigger to his apprentice
    “I could not agree more.” mutters Bourgeois to himself not alone.
    His words fall like pennies on a damp vault floor, amidst the scattered sounds of fat raindrops as they plant themselves along the tiny streets and little stone buildings of this city of the dead. Above, dung-brown clouds fly over the rooftops of the Quarters like the surface of a dirt road as seen from three inches away at thirty mph. Yet he feels neither breeze nor disparate sigh from the rain falling now straight and steady down into the cemetery.
    He had already seen Metaphor kill here, just minutes ago, before the weather changed. Now he needs to get away, get out of this labyrinth, get normal again somewhere hidden, before the Guard makes another sweep through the hood with their humvees and big hard spotlights.
    Thank Marie Leveau their helicopters are grounded for the coming storm. Cliche’ cares not for uniformed authority, as their spotlights and loud machines and the misunderstanding of control in their barked orders make her nervous. Whenever Cliche’ gets nervous Metaphor comes into play and the scene changes quickly, irrevocably. Having seen enough of that for one night, Bourgeois just wants find someplace more comfortable to settle down before the storm opens up properly and real darkness falls over the city again like a rat bag.
    Plus it just would do no good–at all–to be seen right now with the bloody twins, especially out after the city-wide 2am curfew–and especially after they both ripped apart and consumed four confident, well armed heroine dealers and their murdered Master Down buttons and all. Five dead humans you won’t find a trace of in the social register of this or any other necropolis.
    Bourgeois Melonsong is their Master now, for better or for worse, which he already knew as the deal with Cliche’ and Metaphor.
    But where is the gate out of this filthy maze? He came in through it, the only entrance, but still for the life of him he can’t even find the wall around the place in this rain. If he could make it to a wall then he could work his way around through the Stations, always keeping to the right, along the Society vaults until he reached the front gate.
    Cliche’ and Metaphor are no help, of course. They don’t care, having grown up in these tiny towns across the city.
    They lead Bourgeois along, as if he were a writer with all the time in the world to study the names on each address, ponder how they came to be here and when. Therein lies the tombstone rub… for he is a writer, and he indeed knows something of the stories behind a few of the citizens resting in these beds of love and grief.
    And he has no time left for any more graveyard dog tricks..

  4. What a beautifully written piece! I spent a year’s time in the Nola area in 1993 (originally from Georgia) and wish every minute since that I’d never left. I plan to move back someday. Thank you for sharing!

  5. I had a make-out session in this cemetery once. Long story – but fun! I find cemeteries to be very relaxing as well, I can relate, if it wasn’t for my own inclination for self-destruction and my inability to realize my own self-worth, I might have taken over the world. As it is, I have only managed to take over the couch in the same t-shirt I wore yesterday.

  6. Beautifully written, compelling, and incredibly descriptive. This was a joy to read. As for how you feel, well, I think all great writers are somewhat touched by madness and depression. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I know it to be true of myself. You are very talented. Keep up the good work, and I’ll keep reading.

    “A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music… and then people crowd about the poet and say to him: ‘Sing for us soon again’; that is as much as to say, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul.'” — Soren Kierkegaard

  7. I’m making plans now to follow through on promise I made to myself at agee 20 standing in front of Jackson Square..”I’m going to live here one day” and that day has arrived.. NOLA is so amazing on many levels..and reading this wonderful post on their cemetaries reminds me even more of how great this city really is..Even the dead and their homes are wonderful..
    Glad I found your blog !

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