Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New Orleans 24.6.1990: Old China and Peeling Paint

It was one of those derelict houses found only in the once-good districts of New Orleans, still inhabited by stoop-sitters. These houses are neither neglected nor deliberately unpainted. They age and weather because something about moist, hot New Orleans air demands a soft patina of aging in the architecture. And the exterior of houses is ignored in New Orleans because the citizens of the city that care forgot are intensely private, inward-looking individuals.

They would be surprised to hear themselves described this way. New Orleanians pride themselves on their ability to throw a party, to dance at dawn in the streets, to cram patios and galleries with drunken, jovial people talking in those high-pitched nasal voices considered cultivated in the city.

But this self-image belies an intense inwardness. More than in any other American city, in New Orleans “society” is a series of concentric circles. One is born into a circle—that of Garden District old families or black Creole bourgeoisie; one does not enter a circle by marriage or purchase.

Consequently, life in New Orleans is lived inside. Take this house. Imagine a zoom-lens camera. It scans the peeling exterior, the slate-gray roof and falling lines of the windows and arches. It moves to the bedraggled ferns and worn wicker of the porch. It breeches the door.

Inside: sumptuously furnished hallway, muted glitter of chandelier, old silver and crystal, jewel-lie tones of Turkey carpets. And the inner sanctum: a dark, well-appointed dining room. Around the 1840s mahogany table, a family eating. At the head of the table, Beau Armistead. Opposite him his wife Ninette Caldesoux Armistead. Flanking these, Trevigne Armistead, heir apparent, and his wife, Betsy Flood. Across the table, Catherine, daughter of the family.

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