By Chris Rose
When I moved my family out of the French Quarter this spring, I joked to friends that the population of children in the Vieux Carre had just decreased by 40 percent.
And that’s probably not much of an exaggeration. During our three years of residency -- with the exception of my three kids -- I was aware of only a handful of children living in the Quarter.
They were usually very young children of very young parents, almost all of whom confided to me at one time or another that – now that they had a kid – they were also planning to pack up and move out.
We proud but few French Quarter parents did a lot of “confiding” amongst ourselves with regard to this subject. And “whispering,” “murmuring,” “discreetly inquiring” and “quietly disclosing.”
One reason for discretion about the matter is that, once the adults around you discover you are planning to leave, some get absolutely apoplectic at the notion. And some just get sad.
“Are you taking the kids with you?” one regular at the corner pub frantically asked me one night before carefully considering the implications of his inquiry.
Young children are like exotic little puppies in the French Quarter. Anatomical curiosities. Public spectacles merely by their presence. And impossible to ignore.
Everyone stops to make a fuss. Scratch their heads. Loudly exclaim, to anyone within earshot: “They are so ADORABLE!”
I admit to occasional piques of annoyance, attempting to soothe my kids’ acute attacks of self-consciousness in such settings, but trying to dial down over-exuberant or intoxicated admirers: “They’re just people. Like you and me.
“Smaller, cuter and kinder, yeah. But just people.”
I waited for the day when someone was going to pull a biscuit out of their coat pocket and offer it to one of my kids but thankfully – that day never came.
For kids, living in the French Quarter is like growing up with two dozen crazy Uncle Alberts and an equal number of nutty Aunt Bettys. Throw in a couple kooky grandparents and every time they leave the house they are subjected to more overwrought, well-intentioned but entirely inappropriate attention and affection than most kids, even from the most dysfunctional families, get in a lifetime.
Another reason French Quarter parents tend to be circumspect about relocating is because – there’s no denying it: We feel guilty for leaving.
When you’re the last settlers on the frontier and you pack up your wagon and head East, it’s as if you’re admitting you’ve gone soft. That you can’t cut it any more. That you ditched your little studio apartment in the Alamo for nice split-level townhouse over on the Brazos River.
It’s like you’re abandoning a dream. And not just your dream, but the wishes of the commonweal. You’re upsetting what dregs remain of the balance. Giving up on an ideal – whether or not that ideal exists anymore. Or ever did.
We become victims of the take-one-for-the-team mentality. “If you guys don’t live here, who will?” one incredulous neighbor wanted to know.
We weren’t just some of the last holdouts. We were living anachronisms, an actual real-life family doing family things like watching the Disney channel and playing Chutes and Ladders – all in the middle of the drunkest, rowdiest and most overtly libertine community in American.
We were metaphors and symbols. We were reminders of a vibrant and overly-romanticized era that is now but a memory, like the howling strains of cornets emanating from the parlors and saloons of Storyville, dissipated into the Confederate mist and gone with the wind.
And it ain’t never coming back.
Families in the French Quarter are like those isolated strips of land surrounded on all four sides by water down along the south Louisiana coastline: Every time one disappears, it’s gone forever. And the landscape – physical in one case, cultural in the other – is forever altered.
The gradual erosion of our precious wetlands over the past several decades is the apt geographical doppelganger of the long slow exodus of families out of the Vieux Carre. Both phenomena hint at a dreary, seemingly inevitable fait accompli in the near future. And end-game for the coastline and family life in the Old Quarter.
We all – along with the ideas and memories we hold dear -- are all either prisoners, slaves or casualties of the inexorable march of time. And the forces of change.
But it was fun while it lasted.
* * *
When my kids were younger, they went to the Aquarium and Insectarium like suburban kids went to their local playgrounds. Hell, the Aquarium was our local playground.
Albeit with climate control. And a whole bunch of fish.
On weekend afternoons, we used to browse the art galleries, gift shops and antique stores on Royal Street and play “Called-it!” laying imaginary claim to all the really cool, old, weird stuff they sell that we knew we would never in our lives be ale to afford.
We bought our Christmas tree at the French Market and one year hired a pedicab to haul it home for us. We cracked up at the spectacle of the this big green blob swaying back and forth as the driver pumped the pedals. But when we realized how silly he looked, and how everyone was staring at him, we got really self-conscious and slowed our pace, putting distance between us and the pedicab so we could act like it had nothing to do with us.
With the tree leaning noticeably to one side now and its branches flailing up and down with every broken contour of the street, it oddly appeared as if a severely intoxicated Christmas tree had hailed a pedicab for assistance in getting home.
That doesn’t happen in other cities.
At least, I don’t think it does.
Every year, we got up early one special Sunday and rushed out to claim our spots along the routes of the Germaine Wells and Chris Owens Easter Parades. It was the single day of the year my kids were permitted to actually hang out on Bourbon Street.
On all other days and nights, as we approached the determinedly raunchy Boulevard of Broken Dreams on foot, I imposed longer strides and a quickened pace and generally hoped that no one would notice them, no one would step on them and I literally prayed no one would spill a hurricane on them.
I was and remain convinced the French Quarter in general and Bourbon Street in particular harbors a greater potential for inducing traumatic childhood experiences than anywhere else in America.
During our first year living there, I actually made my kids hold their hands up alongside their faces -- in the manner of blinders on a horse -- and ordered them to keep their gazed fixed directly ahead.
And whereas my kids eventually chose on their own, due to their shared sense of timidity and shame, to purposefully avoid prolonged exposure to the area’s unrestricted pornographic visual overload, our family’s first domestic crisis as new residents of the French Quarter culminated in a unified act of blatant disregard for my parental authority – when they collectively refused to pretend they were wearing blinders when we crossed Bourbon Street anymore.
Parenting is no different from real life. You pick some battles and you let some go.
I let that one go.
* * *
For those three years, our home was an adorable two-bedroom condo with a swimming pool in a lush, secret courtyard strung with white lights – which we all really loved at first and used all the time. But as the kids got older and they began to shed that irresistible, almost pathological compulsion of adolescents to be in a swimming pool every day.
And with that allure fading fast or altogether gone, and with everyone tending to spend all of their free time inside, our home got real small real fast. There were four of us there – the youngest, age 12 – sharing two bedrooms and just one full bathroom.
Early on, all three kids shared on room but as the got older, it was clear that my oldest – the only girl – needed the privacy attendant to the onset of, well – girl stuff.
In a stroke of decorating design genius – or an act of unspeakable cruelty and forced immodesty – I cordoned off a third of our living/dining area and created for her a private cubby out of a bunk bed frame, an oversized American flag and strings of Christmas lights.
It was a stopgap measure. A band-aid. The place was too small. They kdis felt trapped inside, age-appropriately uneasy with being out on the sidewalks of the French Quarter without me.
My kids reached the conclusion at the end of our second year there, but it took me another full year to begrudgingly accept the fact that the Quarter is no neighborhood for kids.
In fact, even more depressing was the realization that the Quarter isn’t really much of what you’d call a “neighborhood” at all anymore.
First of all, that would require neighbors. Of the seven units in my building, only one besides ours was occupied by a full-time resident. All the others are locked up and shuttered for 11 months of the year, until their faraway owners show up every now and then for a week or two in the spring or fall.
Still, amazingly, if I parked in one of their empty spots for 20 minutes to unload groceries, my phone would inevitably ring with a stern reminder from property management that all spaces were reserved and not to be used without explicit written permission from the owners.
I used to marvel: How the heck did they know? More than that, I used to wonder: Why the hell do they care?
Never mind the drunks, fights, robberies, strippers and grifters that mark daily life in the Quarter; you want to see the dark underbelly of life in this community, the true road to perdition?
Take someone’s parking spot.
Our building was buffeted on one side by a boutique hotel. From our back balcony, we had a unobstructed views into about 16 guest rooms. When my landlord first showed me the place, I asked – jokingly, I thought – if she ever saw anything….”interesting.”
She told me that, in fact, a couple times hotel guests had forgotten to close their curtains and she had witnessed the overwhelming romantic and libertine influences of the Vieux Carre over its visitors play out in full bloom.
That’s not how she phrased it.
I had been there less than a month when I realized she had it all wrong. Those hotel guests weren’t “forgetting” to close their curtains. They were putting on a show. And we had the best seats in the house.
I am grateful that my children cannot stand the heat and humidity of New Orleans and prefer to be indoors, out of the sun and lulled by the narcotic chill of central air-conditiong.
Because, holy shit – did I see some things. Sometimes by accident and sometimes, well….I’m just not that big a fan of television, right? I prefer the great outdoors and real life.
Besides, I always took an odd comfort in being one of few folks whom I imagine are able to bear witness to the fact that folks from the American Heartland – those maligned, whitebread folks who are the backbone of this great nation – are not always so milquetoast at all.
At least not in New Orleans. Behind closed doors – but in front of open curtains – passion is still alive. Love still conquers all.