LONELINESS, SORROW, AND SPIRITS IN NEW ORLEANS
ON BEING ALL ALONE IN NEW ORLEANS FOR A WEEK
BY LISA MARIE BASILE
New Orleans is both good and not good for pain. It is a salve in its kinship; it offers solidarity in its shadows. But it is a cruel friend, one that heals you with liquor and lights; there is nothing but bodies on balconies singing into the night. They may want to sing with you, but they also want to steal a little part of you. Put it in their pocket. Take a lock of your hair. Mix it in a velvet pouch with something or other and turn you into a dream.
New Orleans is good for joy, I learned, too. I was trapped — but it was a sort of necessity. I won’t lie and say I was shattered and rekindled in the magic hands of an undead city. I won’t turn to that cliché. I will say that I was run out of there, like a ghost swatted by a witch’s broom, like a cat in a cafe licking up powdered sugar, like a young, dumb girl who got in too deep.
A man named Michael wanted to talk about spirits, so he led me past a gate and down a black alleyway and through a garden and then into a wood-paneled dependency filled with vinyl’s and shelves of religious items. It was owned by a voodoo priestess, Claudia, and it’s where they played with ghosts for paying tourists. While there could have been something silly about it all, this is a city with a chronic, undying need to understand and entwine with its past. With so many intermixed cultures and so much terror, the only way to walk about is to walk hand in hand with history: in the 1700’s it was a busy port city. It was “founded” by the French, ruled by the Spanish and bought in the Louisiana Purchase. All of this, and its very real and oft-forgotten ties to slavery.
So many tourists don’t want to know what it means to walk in the park or visit Lafitte’s — one of the oldest bars in the Quarter. They’d rather indulge in the madness that is Bourbon Street. They want to buy colorful shots and listen to dad-aged dudes play cheap covers of Sweet Home Alabama. And that’s fine. But if you’re an empath with a sliver of connection to the energy of a place, you can’t help but drink it down and drink it down. And that’s what happened to me. I drank it in until I wanted to run away.
On one night, I did the things everyone is expected to do. I went to the occult bookstores if only to see that everyone wants to believe so badly that a gris gris bag can bring their lover home or heal a dying family member. What struck me is that, unlike back East, a voodoo shop or a tea house (with tarot readings) exists — and that people believe, cramming into its hot corners, coming to terms with their desperation and their quietest beliefs. We are free to do so. We are allowed to experiment with the gods and with our inner magic. We are free to give into the otherworld, which is accessed easily in New Orleans. It is the friend waiting at the coffee shop. It is the lover meeting you in the darkened séance room at Muriel’s. It is the stranger who watches you from the silent end of colorful Burgundy Street, an amulet’s throw away from the debilitating and endless festivities. It is a crooked, gauzy ghost that follows you everywhere you go.
Then I found myself on a corner looking at up the Lalaurie Mansion — now owned by a rich old man who hosts loud parties (on this particular night, there was an LED display while ‘The Cure’ flooded into the streets below). Today, the mansion is a relic of American Horror Story, but its history is its voice. It’s where the infamous Madame Lalaurie, a totally fucked madwoman in general, was said to torture and massacre her slaves. According to Vice, Lalaurie’s slaves “were found, chained, scarred, and starving. One paper noted that seven were suspended by their necks and badly mutilated, while another mentioned a man with a hole in his head filled with maggots. They had bloody welts, were living on gruel, and wore iron collars with inward-facing spikes, which seems like a tableau pulled from an archetypal medieval torture chamber.”
Then there is Jackson Square, which is situated between the Mississippi River and St. Louis Cathedral. Its history is extensive, but it perhaps is the most haunted location in all of the French Quarter. It was oft-used as a site for public execution for slaves and criminals — their heads cut off, sometimes with a dull blade, and situated on the gate, in the 18th and 19th century.
It’s all but impossible to wander the streets of New Orleans day in and day out, alone, without thinking on this history. The pain and suffering, the charge of brutal hands, the stolen lives, the angry and painful energy of its eternal guests left fluttering in walled gardens and gaslit alleys. This is not actually romantic, and when you realize that the rush you are feeling is one not of a movie-set — say, Lestat trapped and burning in a wild fire — but one of actual torment. That floods and fires do occur here, like a biblical plague. That human misery built the very streets you walk on. That topless girls and Polo T-shirts-wearing frat boys are all pandered to by a savvy commercialism built on hot sauce and beignets and vampire stories and accessible sin.
Maybe New Orleans is like a drug, an opium-induced dreamspace. If you come into it with joy, you will leave with joy. If you come into with sadness in your heart, you will leave with that terrible sorrow and some of the horror — there’s no way to know it all — of the city and its walls. It is a sort of tell-tale heart. It will forever beat and yet you will never find the precise floorboard wherein the heart lies. You can never stop it, and it will somehow always be there and somehow always be within you. As if it has been implanted. As hauntings do.
I think, when I came into the city expecting to find the same things I found the first time, that I had forgotten that I was younger, less-traveled and more impressionable. I was distracted. I came with someone else. Back then, we flung ourselves into the city and it took shape. But now, I was quiet — I listened. I tried to surrender.
Instead of staying with family on the last night, I rented a room at Chateau Hotel on Chartres. My room was off the balcony; two long white doors opened to the black night. I smoked cigarettes and looked up. Gas lamps glittered. The night was silent back at me. I called friends. I texted friends. I wrote long passages about nothing. I avoided my sadness. I watched the debates. I took a shower. I shaved my legs. I walked for coffee at midnight. I called my mother crying.
And it didn’t do the trick. New Orleans had hit me; its suffering was not my own, and my suffering was not its own. But all the memories of sadness and all the pain I’d carried with me became one bright black bloody thing. I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t think of anything but New York — its safety and predictability. It’s grid. Its clean parks. Its distillation. My familiarity with it. I thought of how prudish Times Square is in comparison to Bourbon. I thought of the way everyone knows what everyone else is thinking. I thought of how young the city is. I wanted to be home. I didn’t want to intake the pain and darkness of a place that was not my own. I didn’t want to be alone anymore. I didn’t know how to sit with the horror. A friend told me to embrace the darkness — that this was what I represented to her: a girl who lives one foot in the dark. But this darkness was too throaty, too ravenous, too rabid. This darkness was centuries old. This was too heavy for me. For a girl who hadn’t an idea how to heal from her pain. For a girl who fears being alone.
I sat in the room — with its scratchy coverlet and its yellow walls — and I called United Airlines. I want to switch my flight. When is the soonest I can go home?
And with that, I slept lightly, tossed and turned, thought of the spirits in the streets and woke with bags already packed to run off.
When I got home, New Orleans had come with me. If you don’t believe, think of what you’d feel if suddenly you saw proof of something else. Something other. And if you do, think of that moment when you realized that we are both alone and not alone. It’s changing, isn’t it?
It may not be the otherworld. It may, in fact, be this world. It is so much this world that we can’t contain it. That, in a way, is even more frightening.
If you can’t handle what is real, lit up by the flicker of limitless candlelight, think carefully. What space lives inside you? Is enough to fit all of the other strange things out there? Think carefully, or else you’ll end up running away.
ORIGINAL PHOTOS AND VIDEOS BY LISA MARIE BASILE
Lisa Marie Basile is the author of APOCRYPHAL, along with two chapbooks, Andalucia and War/lock (February, 2015). She is the editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and her poetry and other work can be seen in PANK, the Tin House blog, The Nervous Breakdown, The Huffington Post, Best American Poetry, PEN American Center, Dusie, and the Ampersand Review, among others. She’s been profiled in The New York Daily News, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Poets & Artists Magazine, Relapse Magazine and others. Lisa Marie Basile holds an MFA from The New School.