From the Archives: Six Feet From the Past: Walking in New Orleans-Ghost Town on a Sunday Night

Cafe du Monde - since 1862...but not tonight | © Chris Lawson, 2020

With the election this past week and record numbers of single day Covid-19 cases still sweeping through our nation, Chris Lawson’s words ring as true now as they did months ago when all the uncertainty began.

I was thinking today about collective sorrow.

More Americans have now died from Covid-19 than the total number of Americans that died during the entirety of the Vietnam War. If we -collectively- have a beating metaphorical heart (and I think we do)…how are we all not part of that same grieving?

If we have a beating metaphorical heart, how are we all not part of that same grieving?

Maybe we don’t exactly know where all these tears – these dreams, memories, and deep wells of sadness are pooling-up from. It’s hard to know some days why I’m crying for 20 minutes after listening to a song by (Sandy) Alex G, or watching the cardinal in the backyard bring food to its nested family, or reading a text from a friend that just says “thinking of you”.

But the origin seems to matter a lot less than the fact that we can cry, that we should cry, and that – both individually and in a broader, collective sense – we are crying.

My father is in a residential memory facility in Atlanta, one serving patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Georgia is one of the top tiers of states reporting casualties in geriatric facilities. I worry about him daily, maybe sometimes hourly…but so far so good. The staff is remarkable; a fact that sustains me when I’m undone by the fact that he’s 500 miles away, likely confused, and drifting farther away from whatever notions of “family” still surface when the connective tissue of cognition is more-or-less working. Also known as “he’s having a good day”.

Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral from the Riverfront | © Chris Lawson, 2020

When I walk around New Orleans on my nightly breaks from work (and on most other nights too), so many of the places I pass are inseparable from the memories they bring-up, and now especially those sensations are heightened. Block after block I pass places intrinsic to times spent with my dad.

We weren’t always close.

I have early childhood memories being conscious that he would have loved having a son to bond with over football, sports in general, and a partner in the debunking of the daily horoscope, a U.F.O. sighting or past life regressions (I believed in everything meta-physical as a kid I guess). 

And I’m pretty sure I picked up on his mixture of pride and slight embarrassment that his nine-year-old son spent one spring break lugging around a thick paperback copy of Valley Of The Dolls while we vacationed at Myrtle Beach. I couldn’t be bothered with beach volleyball when Neely O’Hara was about to sing her way out of the asylum!

Barely Legible “You Deserve to be Here” | © Chris Lawson, 2020

But after my mother died, we grew closer. We began to have conversations that sounded more like two grown-up friends than a parent and their child. We nurtured this. He watched Project Runway and Top Chef with me and -eventually- I bit the bullet and spent many Saturday afternoons watching college football with him (I liked basketball a lot more -actually liked it- but it was watching the West Virginia Mountaineers football team with him that gave him the greatest joy).

At some point -perhaps during the fall of 2000- I can’t locate the exact year or season really. But at some point, I realized this man who had always manifested a potent trifecta of patience, compassion, and acceptance…wasn’t just a good father and a decent man. He had also become my best friend.

The dementia took that person away several years ago, and I miss him in ways I’ll probably spend the duration of my days fathoming. What I wouldn’t give to be in the kitchen, fixing a late dinner for the two of us, MSNBC blaring on the t.v., and -at some particularly maddening moment during the Rachel Maddow Show- hear him yell at the top of his lungs: “Donald Trump…you motherfucker!

Just the memory of him calling Nixon, Reagan, Bush 1, Bush 2, Dick Cheney and -dark lord of his political landscape- Mitch McConnell “motherfucker” warms my heart and spirit. It also allows me to realize how deeply I’ve been mourning the disappearance of my best friend, even as the body and “he’s having a good day” a semi-spirit of that person is still alive.

It’s Sunday, April 26th in the year of Covid-19, and I’m walking past the Cathedral at Jackson Square, in the direction of Cafe du Monde and -beyond that- the Mississippi River. As per the new-normal, not a soul in sight.

Cafe du Monde | © Chris Lawson, 2020

I stop at Cafe du Monde to take a photo and remember a chilly night from the early spring of 2016. My father was visiting me here in New Orleans, and we’d just finished watching Taxi Driver (somehow he’d never seen it).

“What did you think?” I asked him as the credits rolled. “Probably the best film I’ve ever seen…” he replied.

We watched a LOT of movies over the years. I remember him taking me to see Count Yorga, Vampirein 1970, an early PG-13 precedent.

And the list of films he’s designated as “the best film I’ve ever seen” include Thelma & Louise, Sergeant York, Matewan, Babette’s Feast, Harold and Maude, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Amistad, The Silence Of The Lambs, Into The Wild, Good Will Hunting, Twelve Years A Slave and -one I cannot quite get behind- Patch Adams.

He thinks for a moment, then asks “Did Jodie Foster get nominated for Taxi Driver?” I tell him, yes but she didn’t win. “She should have won. Who won that year?” I google it and tell him that Beatrice Straight won for Network. “Big mistake,” he says “Should’ve given it to Jodie.”

St. Louis Cathedral – No one hanging out at Jackson Square tonight (or any night since mid-March) | © Chris Lawson, 2020

Then, not missing a beat: “You wanna go get some beignets at Cafe you-know-where?”

It’s 2:45 in the morning, but -in normal times- it never closes. So we put on our jackets, put Ren on her leash, jump in my van, and head to Cafe du Monde. Fifteen minutes later, we’re eating beignets and drinking chicory, sitting on a bench looking out over the Mississippi River.

I didn’t know it then, but that would be the last night Dad would be -more or less- wholly himself.

The next day he would require emergency surgery, and then another procedure, and the anesthesia and prolonged hospitalization would push -what was then mild dementia front and center.

Marigny Opera House in the Moonlight | © Chris Lawson, 2020

I loiter by Cafe du Monde, then walk up the ramp to the plaza that affords one dual views, magnificent ones. From the plaza, you can see the whole of Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral. Then turn around and there’s the (currently extremely high) Mississippi River, the lights of old Algiers in the distance, and the Westbank bridge hovering above the fog.

I head back to work through the deserted French Quarter. Someone has graffitied “Jesus is the Cure” on a boarded-up storefront. The same tagger put “Jesus is the Cure” on an old warehouse near my house in the Bywater, but another tagger has come behind him, changing it to “Jesus is the Virus”.

Jesus is the Cure | © Chris Lawson, 2020

At this point, I’m more inclined to see the truth of the latter, but -as always-try to remain open-minded.

My father…the one who was my best friend and who -as a therapist for many years- saved lives and marriages and helped a lot of young people, doesn’t really believe in Jesus (neither the son of God or the virus).

I remember one time he told me he did believe in God a few times in his life. When he saw Mahalia Jackson in concert. Trout fishing in the Canadian north country with his sister and brother-in-law. Praying for our little brother to live. Our unborn brother didn’t make it, but Dad always believed there was something out there, on the other side of that conversation.

I think Covid-19 will be looked back upon as the time we not only stayed inside but the time we went deep inside ourselves. Our isolation forcing us -some of us- to be still, to let the dreams and memories linger, perhaps louder, longer, maybe more complete in whatever narrative arc a dream can shape. To hear the voices of the past. To cry and release. To take a walk where every block holds memory.

To take a walk late on a Sunday night. No one will hear us talking to ourselves, telling the ghosts of our past what it is we need to say. No one to watch us as we pause, then move again, tears like twin rivers falling from our eyes.

West Bank and New Orleans Bridges | © Chris Lawson, 2020

Chris Lawson is an artist, writer, and youth advocate/mentor living in New Orleans. He is a visual artist and his writing has appeared in Rolling Stone and The Manhattan Review.