Ghosts of New Orleans

My daughter will never see Mr. Bingle the way I did|!!| but because this is a city that clings to every vestige of its past|!!| she will certainly know who he is.

You’d think it would be Halloween that would bring out the ghosts in the city, but for me, it was Thanksgiving.

I was just putting the turkey in the oven when my phone rang. It was a California number, one I didn’t have in my phone. “Hello?” I said, warily.

“Hi … it’s Ami,” said the voice on the other end. “Remember me?”

Of course I remembered Ami.

A brief bit of Kidd family history: My dad had two children with his first wife, my half-brother, Scott, and my half-sister, Ashley. Two decades later, he married my mother (Wife No. 3 of 5), and I entered the picture. I was a symbolic baby, conceived in the last days of the last month of the last year of the ‘70s. And as the carefree ‘70s ticked away, so too did the carefree days of my parents as just a couple.

Ami was my brother’s best friend, his partner in crime, the last person he called on the last night of his life. Scott killed himself on June 2, 1988, and days later, at the memorial service, Ami whispered to me, “I’ll be just like your brother, I promise.”

I was 7, only a child, and I didn’t know that so many things are said in grief that are meant well but never realized or that are incoherent or wrong or insane. As I stood at my brother’s casket, wondering how he could possibly be dead when he was alive just days before, playing silly songs on my Smurf guitar and laughing, the notion that Ami could take over as my brother made just about as much sense as anything else that was happening around me.

But Ami moved to California before the year was out, and that was the end of that. I hadn’t heard from him in decades. Still, though, I remembered him. Of course I remembered him.

And that’s what I said, wiping my hands on my apron. “Of course. Yes, of course I do. How are you?”

He was fine, he was in town for the holiday, and he wanted to see me.

“Come over for dessert,” I told him. “I’d love to see you, too.”

So he did. It was close to 10 by the time he stopped by. My daughter was in bed. Dessert –– sour cherry pie with kirsch whipped cream –– had been put away. Wine had been opened.

“Wow, you’re all grown up,” he said when I answered the door.

“It happens,” I told him.

We sat on the sofa; we finished the wine; we started in on cognac.

At first, I thought he wanted to catch up, to trade stories, to see how I was doing lo these many years later.

But no.

What he wanted was to regale me with tales of the crazy times he’d had with my brother, to tell me about a guy I never really knew, not as an adult, anyway, and the fun they’d had and the mischief they’d made in a city that never existed for me, the New Orleans of the mid-1960s to early 1970s.

I never rode the Zephyr or shopped at the big department stores on Canal Street. In fact, most of what he told me just sounded like a tired rendition of “Ain’t Dere No More.” I wanted to remember what he remembered, and I especially wished I had the same rich memories of my brother that he did. But Pontchartrain Beach closed when I was 3, and my brother died when I was 7 –– in both cases, they were gone before I was old enough to really appreciate them.

I was happy to listen; I just couldn’t identify, and I was left with the lingering feeling, after Ami had finished his cognac and eaten a slice of pie and gone home, that he hadn’t wanted to see me in particular at all, or maybe that he hadn’t really cared who listened, just so long as someone did.

This is the time of year when everyone has their traditions, whether it’s a Christmas Eve lunch in the French Quarter or a New Year’s Eve bonfire in Mid-City. So I certainly didn’t blame Ami for casting about for something familiar in the midst of the holidays, even if he didn’t land on anything more substantial than me, who wasn’t born for most of his memories and was just a wide-eyed towheaded bystander for the rest of them. I wished I could’ve offered him something more real, more comforting, more collective. But he and Scott rode the Zephyr together, terrified, exhilarated, screaming, laughing, clinging to each other, weak-kneed with relief when it was all over. I’ve only seen it on a postcard.

And I think of the stories I’ll tell my daughter in the future, stories of the uncle she never knew and the city she never knew.

For Ruby, K&B purple will be a concept, not a reality, something she gets as a New Orleanian in general despite having no personal experience with it, just as I can still sing the Pontchartrain Beach jingle. Katrina will always be history for her, just as Betsy and Camille were for me. Mr. Bingle –– well, she’ll see him at Celebration in the Oaks, but I don’t think that will be quite as magical as seeing him flying outside of Maison Blanche.

And what will I tell her of Scott? Well, if the bad part of him dying when I was so young is that I never really knew him as an adult, then the good part of him dying when I was so young is that I never had to know him as an adult: I didn’t have a murky, complicated relationship with him. I can tell her, with a clear conscience, that as far as I’m concerned, her Uncle Scott was a wonderful, loving man with a playful spirit, and he would’ve been crazy about her.

In the end, I’m not sure Scott will mean much more to her than the Special Man from Frankie and Johnny’s, but I’ll do my best to make sure she’s aware of both –– because that’s how you keep history alive, whether it’s family histories, local histories or inside jokes: You have to share them and pass them on and hope that someday they’ll continue to mean something to someone.

We know that here so acutely; storytelling is in our bones, and we cling jealously to our traditions and our institutions and our characters. I find it difficult to get or give directions that don’t include references to landmarks that are now gone. It would be easy to say that we’re like that because we know how quickly it can all be washed away, and maybe that’s it. But I think it’s deeper than that, even if I can’t quite explain it.

I don’t believe in ghosts, not really. But this city is thick with the past, in good ways and bad, and there’s a certain undeniable amount of magic here. At least in my house, there aren’t spirits that make the Tupperware in the cabinets fly around … but sometimes, when you least expect it, the phone rings, and it’s a number you don’t recognize, and the ghosts of your past come floating in.


Categories: Joie d’Eve