Darkness at the Edge of Town

I’ve kind of slowed down on my blatant self-promotion for A Streetcar Named Murder, mainly because the enormous thrill and rush of Release Day/Release Week has already come and gone. It isn’t like I’ve run out of things to say about New Orleans by any means; I could be here blogging for the rest of my life about New Orleans and never do more than scratching the surface. The depth of my lack of knowledge about New Orleans is bottomless. One thing, for example, that I can never completely wrap my head around is where the train tracks and stations were in the city, back when rail was king and vitally important to the operation of our port. I know there was a station in Storyville; part of the reason it ended up being closed was because so many men went through New Orleans on their way to serve in Europe during World War II, and the Department of War looked askance at the soldiers disembarking in a red light district (can’t say as I blame them, but on the other hand, they were heading off to the miseries of the trenches and what was, at the time, the bloodiest and deadliest conflict in human history, so why not let them get laid and party it up before getting on their troop transport?

I have always considered New Orleans to be a dark city–despite its many charms and enticements–not just because of the history here (which is plenty dark) or even the crime “problem” (which goes back over three hundred years), but because it really gets dark here at night; not quite as the true dark you can get out in the country, but for an urban area? New Orleans is the darkest city where I’ve lived. I’ve never experienced an urban area that gets so dark at night once the sun has set.

It’s like all the lights from houses and street lamps and businesses just \gets somehow sucked into the darkness and vanishes. When I come home after dark and park on my street, it always catches me by surprise when the inside of my car is lit up by one of the street lights. This happens, I think, because the massive live oaks everywhere inevitably block out the lights with their enormous branches. Oddly enough, cloudy nights generally are lighter than cloudless ones–because the cloud cover reflects back the neon of the French Quarter, turning the night sky clouds reddish-pink; it’s a phenomena unique to New Orleans that I really love. And the street lamps here seem to only cast light downward rather than up and out; it’s very hard to read street signs in New Orleans after dark.

See how dark it gets at night? It’s like the light gets eaten by the night.

Then again, that could be my eyes getting worse with age. My sister can’t see hardly at all after dark now, which worries me a little, but not a lot: her eye issues were different than mine. I was horribly near-sighted while she had an astigmatism, but my mother also has trouble seeing at night, too and she never had to wear glasses (she has reading ones now) so that doesn’t bode well, does it?

Another part of the reason it gets so dark here at night also has something to do with how many of our street lights are out, too. New Orleans street lights aren’t the kind that go up and then hang out over the street, either. Ours are the old-fashioned kind, with a bulb and its cover going up in a straight line–I think they were the old gas ones, adapted for electricity; I am not sure one way or the other. But I do like the antique, old timey look to ours. Now that I think about it, we couldn’t have the ones that hang out over the street, either; because of parade clearance! The low hanging branches of the live oaks that line St. Charles are also a problem for the larger floats, too; which is why so many of them are festooned with beads riders accidentally toss into the trees instead of to the outstretched hands of eager parade-goers–it’s going to be Carnival here sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ haphazard approach to street lights and keeping the city lit up and visible at night also plays, interestingly enough, a role in A Streetcar Named Murder, actually; that darkness has a very strong hand on the finale of the book. When I was driving back from Kentucky after Thanksgiving, I noticed that once you got over the twin spans from Slidell and are back in Orleans Parish the lights on I-10 either don’t work or weren’t on, which gave the busy highway an eerie, almost hypnotically haunted feeling as I arrived in New Orleans East and climbed the bridge over the Industrial Canal. It even feels like the headlight beams of my car also get swallowed up into the darkness.

Is that darkness metaphorical? Maybe.

But I can only imagine how dark it must have been here at night when there wasn’t any electricity or gas, for that matter. And of course, it was very dark here after Katrina when most of the city lay in ruins. That was such a weird time.

I read a great review of Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin yesterday, which pointed out that the book was about a thirty year battle between the city of New Orleans and its brand of lawlessness, debauchery, and sin; which really is spot-on accurate. New Orleans has always been fighting that branding almost from the day the French settled on the high land along the river here. There has never been a time in her history when New Orleans has not drawn in tourists due to the branding with debauchery and sin. Someone was telling me the other day that the primary problem with dating apps in New Orleans is they are always full of tourists looking to get laid and not wanting to pay for it–which made me laugh; it reminded me of the old gay truism about not looking for hook-ups on-line the week before Decadence, Halloween or Carnival–because the chatrooms etc. were full of people coming in for the weekend and looking to make hook-up dates in advance…which was so patently absurd because seriously, back in the day if you couldn’t get laid just by going out during those events…well, you should just hire an escort and be done with it. People come here specifically to have the kind of good time they can’t have at home.

So, yes, the city has always had that kind of reputation and branding, which is why I always roll my eyes when the whites who fled the city for the suburbs and/or the north shore clog up the comments on social media and news articles about crime in New Orleans, clutching their breasts and casting their teary eyes up to the heavens as they bemoan how New Orleans has somehow slid into the gutter and how crime has gotten completely out of control. Fuck off, racists–we know what your dog whistles are because we’ve listened to them ad nauseum, ad infinitum: crime is a stand-in for oh no the black people and don’t pretend like you left New Orleans because of “crime”; you left New Orleans because of desegregation, so fuck all the way off. (The people who were protesting the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans were not from New Orleans, either.)

So, yes, there is crime in New Orleans–always has been, always will be–and I don’t know what the answer to reducing it or bringing the numbers down. But you can be the victim of a crime anywhere–the Clutters were murdered in rural Kansas back in the 1950s, after all–and it just means always be aware of your surroundings–which is always good advice for anywhere, really.

One thought on “Darkness at the Edge of Town

  1. This is such a true and cool observation. I’ve thought about how dark NOLA is myself!! If I ever write another NOLA book – and I better – I’ll duke you out for using this!

    Like

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