I've been thinking about Saint Roch these past few days, and Saint Expedite as well, the two weird saints of New Orleans.
Saint Roch was a French aristocrat who went out to succor the victims of the plague in the 14th century, and came down with it himself. He went into a sort of voluntary exile, was fed by a wandering dog and managed to survive. That didn't prevent his being tossed into jail for the rest of his life -- he lasted five years, thanks this time to an angel -- and so became the intercessor for plague victims. For centuries afterward, his name was painted over doors as a talisman against pestilence.
In the late 19th century, during one of New Orleans's devastating epidemics of yellow fever, a local priest swore to build Saint Roch a shrine if he would save the populace, and the eerie and sublime St. Roch's Campo Santo cemetery is the result. Since then, the little Gothic chapel there has become a repository for prosthetic limbs, wooden teeth, rudimentary trusses, false eyeballs, crutches, wigs, antique braces, corsets, the detritus of disease and desperation, mostly celebrating miraculous cures but sometimes praying for the end of pain. I imagine those bits of corporeal faith floating in the waters of New Orleans, hopefully immune to the regeneration of fevers.
Saint Expedite, too, is quintessentially of this city, though through no act of his own. The story goes that, anonymous, without attribute, his statue arrived in the city with all identification lost, no address, no bill of sale, only the word "expedite" stamped on the case. And so he was christened. Now he is one of New Orleans's most popular saints, bribed for favors with sweet cakes and flowers, gazing out only yards from the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes and a larger-than-life statue of Saint Jude, which originally guarded the passage of the unknown dead through the mortuary chapel's back door straight into St. Louis Cemetery. Some people take half the sweets to Saint Expedite and some to his near neighbor, the Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, and recite the same prayers.
I fall in love with the darker side of cities, the formerly fashionable neighborhoods now half-forgotten; the areas whose distinguished pasts have to be decoded through their architecture and the eroded tributes on the statues in the parks. I love the neglected but dignified townhouses with their empty windows and slight air of surprise, the outmoded stores, the sidewalks rucked by the roots of neglected trees. I watch for cobblestones under asphalt, brickwork behind stucco. I cruise for carved lions on facades the way some people hunt cemetery angels.
This is how I came to fall back in love with New Orleans. Not the self-consciously gracious Garden District with its hovering crowds of Anne Rice fans, but the French Quarter at sunrise, exposed at its most raddled, with its rancid morning-after gutters and tinny Cajun music blaring from the tawdry souvenir shops. I haunt the Warehouse District behind the tarted-up riverfront, with its long blocks of dilapidated and indignant gates and the once-prosperous merchants' rows west of Canal Street. I go where the sun rises like steam off the Mississippi and the alley cats haunt the shadows. I jog along Rampart Street, where the cops sit outside in their precinct cars smoking cigarettes with the windows down and the air conditioning going, warning tourists about crime.
I have loved New Orleans as a child, as a woman, as a writer. I love as perhaps only a convert can, and as often happens to a city's biographer (for it is as much character as geography), I know it better and love it more than many natives. And what I know goes far deeper than the simulated sensationalism of Bourbon Street or the literary nostalgia of the cafes.
I first went to New Orleans at age 6 or 7, when I could not enter even a jazz club on Bourbon Street, and I climbed a street lamp while my parents took turns listening to Pete Fountain. I licked the sauce up from the crepes suzette at Brennan's, and the kitchen sent out a soup bowl full and a spoon. I had my first oysters Rockefeller, and my second dozen, too.
I went back in college, and stood outside the open French doors of a hotel bar until the old black dancer soft-shoed out and shuffled me in to partner him. I went often, and often angrily, to Mardi Gras, transformed by tourists from a courtly and manned throwback into a frat house initiation -- then I came back with surprise and joy to the embracing unity of the Jazz & Heritage Festival.
I sat at the feet of the aging musicians in Preservation Hall. I hosted a wedding dinner for 40 at a drag bar on Halloween. I opened a copy of a Robert Penn Warren novel at Faulkner Books and found it inscribed to my godparents -- a volume that not only came from their home, which I'd loved, but which almost certainly had passed through my brother's hands when he dealt in first-edition southern classics.
I remember looking up into the warehouses through which great fortunes had once passed, now so empty I could see straight through whole floors and even through the lofts beyond. I was writing a book then, my imagination fired with the city's history; and it seemed to me as if those layers of windows were like the telescopes of ghostly merchants who once could see all the way to the river where the riverboats were loading rice.
I have been on quests for the perfect Ramos fizz; I have spent whole nights in the armchairs of bars. I wrote much of my book at the Old Absinthe House, and led the college-girl bartenders out to learn the etiquette of the strip shows. I have watched the sun rise from a rooftop garden and smelled the magnolias at nightfall from a Royal Street balcony. I have sucked up oysters and sucked down Sazeracs; I have left messages for lovers on the walls of bars. I have walked all evening through the Frenchman Street jazz clubs and danced all night to the Neville Brothers. I have seen Anne Rice's antique dolls at St. Elizabeth's Orphanage, and its gold lame and animal print "Sunset Boulevard" guest room.
I have been to a wedding on a riverboat, and one in a Metairie mansion. I have been to a wedding reception when the summer rain threw rainbows of oil on Royal Street. I have danced in the second line of a funeral parade. I wandered the campus of Tulane looking for the Tiffany windows. I've admired the churches -- Irish, American, French. I went from the death mask of Napoleon to the signature of Jefferson to the cavalry boots of Confederate generals. I have two twig-and-leaf voodoo dolls -- man and woman -- made for me by a homeless couple in Louis Armstrong Park; and a juju bag with a cat's bone and a braid of my hair made at the Voodoo Museum.
I know the corgis on Canal Street, who smile at me as I run by; and the two pseudo-Egyptian statues on guard on Magazine Street. I remember the male strippers who insisted on walking me to my hotel during a crime wave, and the bartender at Absinthe who knows to give me the yolk as well as the egg white in my fizz. I walk over the bricks outside the D-Day Museum, where my father's name and his brother's are carved. I can smell the beignets and the brew pub and the gumbo and the garbage. I have my books and my prints. And my absinthe spoon, that hallucinatory icon.
New Orleans is again Saint Roch's cemetery, suppurating and rank. The City That Care Forgot is revealed as the city whose cares we chose to ignore. But in its circle of all saints, grotesque, benevolent, apocryphal, there is room once more for that grimmest of miracles: life after death.