I had heard this song long before ever moving to New Orleans, as I am a HUGE Louis Jordan fan:
Basically, it details the trials of man locked out of his apartment who, knowing that his roommate, Richard, is inside, begins beating on the door and screaming for him to open the door. Little did I know that, once moving here, it would be the soundtrack of my neighborhood. A native of Baltimore, I’ve been here in New Orleans nearly seven years now in this same apartment; my husband, a New Orleans native, has lived in it for at least twelve. There’s no better description of our neighborhood’s soundtrack than this song, and it’s what I always think of when someone says the word, “neighbor.”
See, we live at a crossroads of sorts–right at the dividing line between the extreme poverty and neglect of Central City and the over-privileged aristocracy of the Garden District. Neighbors, I guess, to both. Since the rich landowners on St. Charles Avenue really, really, REALLY wanna be part of the Garden District and not Central City, our apartment building on Carondelet Street enjoys the double police protection that the Garden District itself does. This private, supplementary, police force is called the Garden District Security Detail or GDSD for short. When I first moved here, I started calling them the faux-po. Until one day, I saw someone detained by a faux-po and saw he had a gun. Since then, I’ve made fewer jokes about them. And besides, my wealthy, Garden District neighbors pay for their presence on my block. Who am I to complain?
All this is to illustrate that we live at an intersection of worlds–the worlds of the very, very rich and the very, very poor. And one of them wants very little to do with the other. That is, until they want their houses cleaned or their yards mowed. But, even then, crossing St. Charles Avenue in any meaningful way can be a very difficult thing to do. We fall in the middle someplace, my husband and I, and our whole building too, for that matter. But my bet is that we’d all wind up in the second group long before we’d ever wind up in the first. Still, for the nonce, we’re somewhere in between. And the people who share and have shared our building, our most intimate and closest neighbors, reflect this schizophrenic dissonance in a poignant and fundamental way. Louis Jordan captured what it sounds like in a song, I’m about to try in this essay.
Firstly, there’s Sierra, my next door neighbor and actual friend who brings me pies and from whom I can borrow a cup of sugar and with whom I will share a cup of wine on the “porch.” (Our porch consists of as many camp chairs as people, dragged out onto the sidewalk, and is where I have spent a great deal of time smoking cigarettes, reading, drinking, and learning the melody of my neighborhood.) She’s the kind of neighbor Hallmark talks about, only they don’t mention the Scotch or the helping each other into corsets. Her noises are normal and familiar: the shower running, singing along to the radio, and, when she’s really frisky, there’ll be the occasional passionate cry on a Saturday night.
Upstairs, there’s the cabbie with a gambling problem who owned a fleet of cabs until he lost everything in the casinos and now mails his fares for the night to himself to keep from driving off to Harrah’s to throw them away at the blackjack table before the rent is due. He occasionally screams in Persian on the telephone intermixed with some colorful English invectives like, “I’ll fucking kill you! I’ll fuck you in the neck, you cocksucker!”
Then there’s the degenerate alcoholic guy who was forever losing his key and sleeping outside in the main cupola until someone with a key would let him in–much like Richard in the song, himself. Because the building we live in used to be a grocery store, and I think we live in what was once the office, we have two separate entrances and do not have a key to the main building. This was unfortunate, because I am often the first person out the door in the morning, and, if I had a key, would have let him in. He played horrifying electric guitar and would spill cans of beer, making it rain liquor in our apartment when it wasn’t even Mardi Gras. But he had a Jolly Roger for a curtain, so he couldn’t have been all bad.
Ray used to live where the cabbie does now, and was a great neighbor and a great guy in general. He would just stay at his girlfriend’s house over the weekend and not turn his alarm off, forcing us to awaken to the dulcet tones of the classic rock radio station at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. One day, Ray did me a solid I’ll never forget, but that will come later in the story.
The old man who lived with his young Asian “friend,” kept falling out by the dumpster. You’d hear him crying out in pain, but never asking for help. Eventually, one of those falls broke his hip and he died two weeks ago from complications. The “friend” laid all of his possessions out on the grass by the sidewalk for people to take for free or for a small donation. It was heartbreaking to see the sum total of his life there next to the giant pile of dirt the super hasn’t replaced under the building after the recent sewer repairs.
There was the meth kid who whistled on his way to DJ gigs at two o’clock in the morning, the incredibly normal little family who just happened to have a colicky infant, and the drug dealer couple who never managed to hear their clients beating on their door at all hours of the day and night.
Also, we have a subset of neighbors that I call the “crazies” for convenience’s sake. Mental illness is a serious plague in our nation and, in particular, our city; I do not mean to diminish the suffering of these people, their families or the people near them. That said, on a practical, day-to-day basis, you gotta know who’s playing with all their pieces and who isn’t when you need information about what is currently happening. Some of these men and women are just a little nuts and not a bother to anyone. Some are downright dangerous.
In the first group, we have the facial tattoo lady who talks to her social worker on the phone right outside our bedroom window in the afternoons, and is the reason I know the difference between Haldol and Geodon. There is also the over-medicated lady who can’t carry her laundry down the steps without falling down them herself. And there was the agoraphobic classical guitarist who I actually miss with all my heart, because there’s nothing in the world quite like brushing your hair to the haunting and beautiful sound of someone flawlessly playing “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” to make you feel beautiful and feminine.
The second group is different. There was the paranoid schizophrenic hooker who thought I was a witch and would get into very loud fights with her one-eyed pimp. There was the young, egregiously under-medicated couple, who also fought a great deal, and uttered the following unforgettable exchange:
Her: You don’t respect me! You’ve never respected me! Why don’t you respect me?!?!!?
Him: I’d respect you a fuck of a lot more if you put the knife down!!!!!
And finally, there was the man who went off his meds, started a fire in his kitchen, then hacked his way through a wet wall to get to a pipe that he then hacked through as well, in order to put out the fire. My husband and I, now veterans of this soundtrack, slept through that whole thing: police, fire, other neighbors making upset-neighbor noises. Didn’t even wake us up. But, you know, it was the other side of the building, so we didn’t really care.
I’ve saved the two consistently loudest for last. First, we’ll discuss Levi. I had seen Levi and nodded in a friendly fashion several times before we formally introduced ourselves and before he knew my name. I certainly knew his though, after the first weekend he lived there, directly above us. Levi was a ladies man, apparently–long, and built to last, as they say. It seemed as though he kept several gals on the line at a time and they all called his name out lovingly and loud enough for the Lord to hear. One Sunday morning at about 5:30 a.m., we heard a young woman on the corner–10 feet from our bedroom window, by the way–screaming, “Levi! Levi! Say! Levi!” She continued for about five minutes before we heard a shuffling and a rumbling above our heads. Definitely two sets of feet. Then Levi screamed back at her out the window, “Whatchoo doin’ here?! Come around to the door!” indicating the main cupola where the drunk man slept many nights. But I mentioned earlier that we have two entrances to our apartment. One of them leads out to a second, lesser known cupola. In addition to our door, in this secret vestibule, there is a second main building entrance–or, in a pinch, exit–that very few of our neighbors know about, because it leads only to the back doors of the upstairs apartments. As the young lady on the corner came around to the front of the building, I distinctly heard another set of footsteps thunder down the back steps and the secret door open and slam shut.
About three days later, I was sitting outside smoking cigarettes, reading and drinking beer, being the “crazy witch neighbor” as the hooker lady thought, just chillin’ in my favorite, extra-wide camp chair, minding my own –and everybody else’s–business. (Objectively, I guess it does seem strange for someone to read outdoors at night, but the streetlamp is just overhead and shines right on the page if you get the angle right.) Anyway, Levi approached me. “Hey there!” he said, extending his hand. “I live upstairs from you. My name’s–”
“–Levi.” I interrupted, and shook his hand. “I’ve heard,” I said, smirking at him in a friendly, but Spock-eyebrowed way. He laughed sheepishly and shook his head apologetically. Not wanting to prolong his embarrassment, I laughed too, and said, “I’m Chris.”
“Nice to meet you, Miss Chris.” Our handshake ended and we parted ways that night, but Levi was always one to stop and talk, ask how you were and tell you about how his repairs to his truck were going. Months went by and suddenly, the traffic through Levi’s apartment got much slower. One day, he came up to me, when I situated similarly to the first time he met me, out on the porch in the camp chair, and introduced me to his girlfriend. I was stunned and happy. Within the year, she went from girlfriend to fiancee and they moved to Metairie. While I’m glad for them and for all the hearts now left unbroken, I miss the hustle of ol’ Levi and his ladies.
Who I do not miss is the “Neighbor Family.” They lived next door, where Sierra does now, and never referred to my husband or I as anything but “neighbor,” because they either wouldn’t or couldn’t remember our names. So, we just called them “Neighbor,” too, to make it fair. Behind closed doors, though, we called them Man Neighbor, Lady Neighbor and Son Neighbor. It is also important to note that they had a cat named, Tiger. He was spared the appellation of “Kitty Neighbor,” because he was of the indoor/outdoor semi-feral variety of house pet. At least twice a week, Lady Neighbor would walk up and down the street calling for him, “Tiger! Tig-Ah! Get your ass back here you street-strollin’ so and so of a cat!” Believe it or not, we found this charming, and I try my hardest to include the word street-strollin’ in my description of anyone to whom it applies, even in the most tangential of ways.
Less charming was Son Neighbor, who was about 23, sold weed at the laundromat across the street once it closed at night and said, “You know what I’m sayin’?” over and over again really loudly. We watched him get arrested twice. And, just a word of advice here, when someone says to a police officer, “I ain’t goin’ to jail!” they will, in fact, be going to jail within the quarter hour. Seriously, have you EVER heard someone say they weren’t going to jail who didn’t go to jail? Son Neighbor would also frequently misplace his key and yell, “Ma! Ma-Ma!” at all hours of the day and night.
Man Neighbor was fine. He was friendly and we spoke when we saw each other. But all he wanted from life was to get back to Jasper, TX, Tiger’s birthplace, and the town to which he had relocated after Katrina. According to Man Neighbor, everything was better in Jasper, TX, and they never should’ve come back to this city in the first place. Lady Neighbor had fewer access to “meddlin’ relatives,” in that sunny oasis called Jasper, TX. Son Neighbor had far more limited access to drugs and, thereby fewer altercations with the law in that South Texan promised land. And his own lack of formal automotive certifications mattered far less to garages in his own personal Eden. “If I can fix the damn car, what difference a piece of paper make?” he would grumble rhetorically over and over again.
After about a year, Man Neighbor got them a place back in the land of milk and honey that is Jasper, TX and, one day out of the blue, there was a big yellow Penske truck parked outside. I said my goodbyes and Lady Neighbor told me how sick she was that she was going to have to leave “her baby.” “Do you mean you’re just going to leave Tiger here?” I asked, incredulously.
“The new apartment don’t take no pets. He’ll be fine,” harrumphed Man Neighbor. Lady Neighbor turned her face away from me in shame. You fucking bunch of cocksuckers, I thought to myself.
But instead, out loud, I said, “I’ll take him.”
She was relieved. “Really, Neighbor?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Lemme get the carrier.” She put him inside it and cooed and simpered for about ten minutes and then they drove away without a backward glance. I did not want that cat. I had my own, very territorial, very one-cat-household cat. But fuck if Tiger wasn’t my neighbor, too. How many times had we laughed at her yelling for him? How many times have I said the word, “street-strollin’?” What was I gonna do, let them set him loose in Central City, one of the biggest centers of fight dog breeding in New Orleans? I sat outside the house, smoking cigarettes and reading, with Tiger in my own cat’s carrier next to me, wondering how the Hell I was going to tell my husband that I had adopted a second, semi-feral pet that didn’t know us, didn’t like us and whom we really couldn’t afford to feed. That’s when the guy with the alarm that never went off on Sundays–remember Ray?–came driving up, and asked what was going on. I told him, and it turned out he’d been thinking about getting a cat.
I happily gave him the one I had just acquired, carrier and all, along with $50 with which to go to Petco and buy supplies. As my mother used to say, “What’s mine is yours without a doubt, should hardship ever come about.” Ray had a couple rough weeks turning Tiger into an indoor only cat, but eventually won that fight. The last I heard, they too, were living happily in Metairie.
I guess it makes me a busybody to know all this, and a gossip to boot to tell you all about it. But, as I have said, I do not exempt myself from crazy neighbor status; I frequently sit in a camp chair on the sidewalk, drinking wine and talking on the telephone, or re-reading Harry Potter books, or playing cards with whichever current neighbors will keep me company. (Gave up the smoking six months ago and counting, which, to my real dismay, sees me out on the “porch” far less often than I used to be.) But I still like knowing who the people are in my little corner of the world, even if I don’t like them all the time. They’re mine; I’m theirs. And we each contribute to the cacophonous melody that is our neighborhood.