16. HOUSEKEEPING IN NEW ORLEANS (1975)
Our high school friend Boggs knew we were coming to New Orleans for Mardi Gras but had no idea that we planned on staying indefinitely. I didn’t either at the time but thought I’d give it some time and see if I couldn’t make a few bucks while waiting for my income tax return to come in from Seattle.
Boggs offered to let us stay at his place for a few days but made it clear that it couldn’t be a long-term arrangement. We had another contact, Jenny, a sister of a friend from Seattle who taught at Tulane and had an apartment nearby on Short Street. We’d gone by for a visit and she immediately offered Stuart and Deanne her extra bedroom. Her place was a veritable shrine to the Beatles, especially Paul and we had a blast going through her rare collector’s editions of obscure Beatle music and interview records.
As it happened, Paul and Linda McCartney and their band Wings were in New Orleans that year recording their “Venus and Mars” album that was being produced by the legendary arranger Allen Toussaint. Boggs had played me Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” album and the Meter’s “Rejuvenation” record and I’d been so impressed that I went out and bought both albums and Bob Marley’s “Natty Dread” album even though we had no record player. We would hear of McCartney sightings around the city but never see him.
The very first day after Mardi Gras, we had begun scouring the Uptown area in search of a cheap rental and had a couple prospects. By the third day we had found a small two-room apartment near the Mississippi River on Leake Street across from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineer Station. At sixty bucks a month, we could easily afford it but the landlord was suspicious. “You boys sure you know what yer doin?” he had asked. The Black Pearl neighborhood had a more unsavory name to the locals and was almost exclusively black. We figured that since we were on the very edge of the neighborhood and would really only be there to sleep that we wouldn’t upset the neighbors.
“Are you sure about this?” Boggs had said when we showed him. I told him we’d only be there long enough to get jobs and then we’d find something nicer. Marino and I made a deal with each other. I’d take the front room and set up my bed there and he’d get some sawhorses and set them up in the kitchen at night with some box springs that he’d take down in the morning. We further agreed that I’d take our laundry and wash and dry them once a week at the laundromat if he kept the house clean and wouldn’t let the trash accumulate. A fair bargain I thought.
By this time Stuart and Deanne had left for Laredo, Texas by train and Sammy and Peter had driven back to Los Angeles in the Pinto station wagon. We enlisted some neighborhood kids to help us fish an old green, vinyl couch out of the river and it was drying out in the back yard. In the weeds of a neighbor’s house, sat an old gas stove that we bought for five bucks and got it to work. We then toured some second-hand furniture shops on Magazine Street nearby and bought a cedar chest that we could keep our things in while keeping the cockroaches out. The most essential item was a radio. Never in my life had I heard such great music played on commercial radio; Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Huey “Piano” Smith and someone I was surprised to have never heard of before Professor Longhair.
Boggs had told us to tune into WYLD. It seemed to be the most progressive station and played everything from Delta Blues and Ragtime to Funk and Fusion Jazz. We gained instant credibility with the neighbors when they heard us listening to their radio station. I was also looking to get a cheap one-speed bicycle. There had been a bus strike going on in New Orleans for a while and even though people were a little more willing to pick up a hitchhiker it was still a drag trying to get around. “No problem” said Richard, a young black teenager who had come around to check out the new white kids in the neighborhood. He returned a few hours later with an old Schwinn and a story about his cousin who had just gotten something new and would let me have this one for fifteen dollars.
I suspected it was hot but gave him the money. With some plastic model paint, I embellished the frame with swirls, dashes and dots. Some of the other kids in the neighborhood asked me to do the same for their bikes too and I had said no. I told Marino that we shouldn’t encourage the young neighborhood kids to come around. “Don’t be such a worrier” he replied.
I rode my new bike to the Tulane Campus to see if there was an open-door policy about using the school library and student center. It wasn’t nearly as openly accessible as the University of Washington back home in Seattle so I continued riding to the Public Library near Audubon Park and applied for a library card. Once my I. D. checked out, they’d mail me a card in a few days.
On my way back to our shack I heard some Avant-garde jazz music emanating from a Unitarian church off St. Charles. It didn’t appear to be a performance so I stopped to investigate. There were only a few people sitting in the pews listening and it became apparent that the band was simply practicing because they’d stop in mid-passage to go over a change in the arrangement. “Who are they?” I inquired of someone in the vestibule. “Oh, that’s Earl Turbington. He’s jammin’ with the Jazztronauts today. He comes here most Saturday mornings.” The music would’ve been terrific in any club but here in this neighborhood church it took on a deeply spiritual nature that transcended its entertainment value.
I’d been most interested in viewing the art collection at the Delgado Museum of Art located in City Park, just north of the downtown area. From Uptown it was a bit of a ride on my bike but at least it was a straight shot up Carrolton Avenue. Its classical façade was inspiring even before going inside. I’d read that Edgar Degas, the great French artist, had been in New Orleans and was delighted to see his famous painting “New Orleans Cotton Exchange” on special exhibit along with other examples of his work. I put a dollar in the donation box and went into the auditorium to watch the accompanying film.
Touring the galleries, I came across a haunting portrait of Marie LaVeau, the voodoo queen who seemed to be looking right at me and I promised myself I’d visit her disputed grave in New Orleans St. Louis Cemetery. I looked at one especially moody scene of a swamp in moonlight with roosting egrets and an alligator in repose along the shore. The adjacent label identified the artist as Bror Wikstrom. I asked the security guard if he knew anything about the artist and he directed me to the information desk where a kind old white-haired matron sat. “How’s that, honey?” when she hadn’t heard me the first time.
She was able to look him up in her files and told me his story: Bror Anders Wikstrom, 1854-1909. Prior to settling in New Orleans by 1883, Wikstrom trained at the Stockholm Royal Academy of Fine Arts in his native Sweden and in Paris. Known for his marine and landscape paintings and etchings, Wikstrom also designed the pageantry sets for carnival organizations. He was a founder of the Artists’ Association of New Orleans in 1885, taught at its art school, and served as its president and on the board of directors. Wikstrom also published and largely financed the short-lived illustrated periodical Arts and Letters, which featured many writers of the day.
Our birthdays are almost exactly one hundred years apart and our names nearly identical. I would enter the museum nine years later by way of the wheelchair entrance behind the museum and see his name, my name, chiseled in the upper cornice of the building.