New Orleans is an ancient city of decaying grandeur yet a hipster’s paradise, not European, but not fully American either. It is part of the earth, birthed from the muddy Mississippi, six feet below sea level, the waters stilled by levees that keep the river from reclaiming the city. Signs of death are everywhere, in hidden alleys, and the famed cities of the dead, the graves above ground so the coffins won’t float away into the great river. When the sea walls fail, the water calls its child back to her and covers the city in a blanket of water.
The city is a child of many cultures: Spanish, French, Italian, African American, and Asian with a bit of Olde Éire thrown in for good measure. The hues of the populace, from ivory to golden brown to black, reflect the true gift of the Crescent City; its citizens and their diversity. New Orleans has always been a mélange of scents, sounds, and sights that must be experienced to be believed. It is a world of Catholicism wrapped in voodoo and mysticism, a city of magic; night blooming jasmine, magnolia, coffee tinged with hickory, splashes of neon on Bourbon Street, and of course, music. The cobbled streets and narrow banquettes of the French Quarter gave birth to Jazz and midwifed her babies: blues, rhythm and blues, country western, and rock ‘n roll, the heartbeat of the city for generations. Music spilled from Quarter taverns cocooned in swirling wrought iron, lavish uptown mansions, multi-hued Creole cottages, and tightly-packed shotgun houses.
Since its conception, a lethal gumbo of decadence, corruption, and passion flavors life in Fat City. New Orleans was Sin City for centuries before the Nevada desert conceived Las Vegas. There was always a tacit understanding that what happened in New Orleans stayed in New Orleans. Still, in this world of strippers and sexual oddities, there were exceptions to total acceptance. Behind the faux Southern gentility and mint-julip-infused smiles, an understanding that loving someone of the wrong gender could bring the police, public humiliation, or worse. Prior to the social revolution of the '60s and before the Stonewall riots, gay men and lesbian women lived in cultural undergrounds in every American city, including New Orleans. This clandestine society centered around queer bars and taverns which were subject to random and often vicious police raids, strip searches and arrests. The police, shielded by the "blue wall" of constabulary privilege, could act with impunity, ignoring the civil and human rights of anyone unfortunate enough to fall afoul of them, especially masculine women and feminine men.
This is the world of Desiree Brossard, one she maneuvers through the French Quarter, walking tall, but looking over her shoulder. It is the second installment in my tributes to 1950’s New Orleans.