I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In the early Summer of 1947 I decided to take a long bus trip down South from New York to New Orleans passing through scores of small Southern Towns and Confederate wayfares. West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Missouri, Louisiana. I wanted to practice my new found Spiritualism in the City of New Orleans and to have a publication party for my second novel, Soul Music.
New Orleans, City of Jazz and Soul, fed directly into my metaphor of the place. No sooner had my travel instinct emerged when a series of coincidences—a chance meeting in a hallway with a young girl just back from the South toting a bucket of crawfish—led me to an almost instant invitation to stay at the home of a Mr. Robert Tannen, a nameless faceless host with a room to spare.
After a series of New York-New Orleans conversations, a date was set upon and it was agreed that I would stay in the “slave quarters” of a large Southern Mansion, and with the understanding that Mr. Tannen had a pet problem, something about a dog.
Though this had been a long time inclination of mine, I was going down South on a tangent. In a fit of Americana I was going to dollop into the rhythms of the grande old South, to sweat Faulkneresque, to inhale magnolia blossoms as I was lulled to sleep in a mosquito net by the far off chirping of invisible insects.
In my fit of earthy urban Americanism I rejected the notion of speed and comfort. I wanted to touch base with the land—the good American soil that slaves had tread and pioneers had bred. I wanted to bus it.
Though dreadfully overpacked, I took a few, than many swigs of atmospheric Southern Comfort and bid farewell to my noncommittal lover.
Arriving at the Terminal I managed to find a seat on the crowded bus. I looked around and saw that all the passengers were Black and F-U-N-K-Y to boot.
Here realized, was my dream of social realism. Something to write Margaret Meade about; this was a chiracaruso of people, bacteria, odors, strange customs, and exotic etiquettes.
As night enveloped the bus into its velvety folds I fell to sleep, Georgia on my mind, (interrupted only by the black children hurling missiles at my sleeping form).
Several days later, and having hardly slept on this 72-hour ride, I was in a strange oxygen desirous state. I felt as if I had taken some noxious barbiturate or was in the last receding electrode-echo phases of lysergic acid diethylemide. This exhaustion was feeding my disorientation as I arrived in New Orleans. I stepped off the refrigerated bus from the long leg of my journey into the steaming hot South. The City was HOT at 7:00 AM! It was 95° and rising. The sauna atmosphere permeated your skin and filled your lungs like Satan’s whisper. Destination: New Orleans, arrival: Hades.
Robert Tannen’s replay first impression of me: “She was standing there with all her bags in a big pink hat holding a whirling battery-driven hand fan, the likes of which New Orleans had never seen.” I had come here to sizzle.
The Tannen “Mansion” was a nice big old Southern Gothic house on a tree-lined street. The “Servants Quarters” I was to stay in turned out to be a Midget Hotel in the backyard. It was too small. Like Blanche Dubois I would rely on the kindness of strangers and accept the kind offer of a mysterious young woman on the second floor of the “big” house to live there for the summer.
Almost immediately upon meeting her, Linda Lopez gave me a finely detailed sketch of her short astonishing lifetime in Dixie: her pimp, her furs, the motorcycle gang she hung out with, and the evil mother she once avenged by going down a sliding board nude in front of a Florida Wedding party … She had been called the “Prize of Bourbon Street” at some point in the history of her life and now she was making a brave attempt to lead the life of the mundane which required more strength than her reserves of eccentricity could maintain. When I arrived, my psychological robes were all ready for me, I was to become … the Devil’s Advocate.
The gigantic snarling creature at the gate was Ghost. Ghost was Robert Tannen’s old Cajun guard dog: half wolf-half horse, wholly frightening. Tannen informed me that if Ghost didn’t like me he might possibly attack, kill, maime me, bit off a hand or split my leg in two with quick fang action.
The reason he was called Ghost was that he spooked easily. There were three people he hadn’t liked thus far, all required hospitalization.
Winning that dog’s love was work. I rubbed Lassie cologne behind my ears and always had little cheese tidbits to offer him. I smiled a lot and acted fearless, all the while inside I was a quivering animal hater. Ghost saw through me and snarled at me for weeks. I never went in alone.
Mrs. Tannen, the lady of the house and a former newscaster who had lost her job one fatal day because she jokingly tossed an obscenity into the newscamera, gave me a few insights into this mystical tropical City and its sense of merging time zones. She told me stories about the Bayou St. John where the slaves held theft voodoo ceremonies and dances in the 1800s. Now the cars looked ’50s, the blacks looked ’30s in their cotton summer dresses, and the houses looked ’20s in their antebellum Mansion grandeur. Abundant Americana meant plenty of jeans and T-shirts. Most of the blacks wore gayly colored shower caps.
On my visit to “City that Care Forgot” I noticed that when the citizens sensed I was from out of Town or particularly New York, they were cool to me because they believed that New York was trendy and full of crime.
On my first evening in New Orleans there was a lunar eclipse. Linda Lopez drove me to the St. Louis Cemetery. She hit the accelerator on a spur of the moment impulse to visit the Grave of Marie Laveau, the alleged Hoodoo Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
The St. Louis Cemetery was situated in a very bad part of town. It was surrounded by black housing projects on all sides. On that steamy first evening, still not fully recovered from my hallucinatory bus ride, I found myself scaling the high brick wall of the St. Louis Cemetery disguised in a baseball cap at the prompting of my new found friend and landlady. I didn’t have much luck in high-heels and momentarily spellbound with vertigo and barbed-wire, I foiled my first attempt.
To make matters worse, there were a lot of eyeballs observing us from their porches hidden in the recesses of the dark evening. We cooly tiptoed over to a black family assembled for the evening on their front porch like a Norman Rockwell painting. After a little friendly chit-chat in this highly improbable situation, we brought up the question of Marie Laveau and … how does one get into the Cemetery at this hour and is she buried at the northeast or southwest corner, etc.?
Hair raised on arms, eyeballs rolled back into heads, there was terror in this request. “What you want, in there?” I tried to make light of it and outstretched my arms like a Zombie and said, “Marie Laveau is calling me.” The woman drew back and answered me in a hoarse whisper, “What she want with you?” There was no answer to that one, so we left.
Our second attempt was more successful, though by then the balconies were filled with even more spectators, some armed with flashlights and so devil-may-care we did a graveyard walk. That night the full moon lunar eclipse was in Capricorn with red gamma rays lighting our path to the tomb of the alleged Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
Marie Glapion Laveau was born in New Orleans in 1794 and as legend has it—never died, but lives on through a secret spiritual blood line—a sort of vampire of voodoo. Though her death certificate dated June 15, 1881, she supposedly metamorphisized through her daughter and her spirit is still with us, echoing through others. Such is the legend of Marie Laveau the Octaroon Mistress who practiced voodoo with no holds barred, applying tortures and doling out metaphysical rewards as will and whim decreed. She was the most feared and respected woman in New Orleans. She could bury a rat in a circle of salt and some unfortunate man would find himself impotent or bald for life, or suddenly that sister you hated so much was dead with a shrunken foot and no one knew how—but yet you did. She danced with a 25 foot cobra in her front yard for the benefit of her worshippers and no one could touch her, no law enforcement official could get near her because she ruled fear itself. Marie Laveau had a negative charisma and her charms were deadly. Just before her “death” she spent a lot of time visiting convicts on “death row” because she knew something we don’t.
So what were we doing in the cemetery that night, I thought? Provoking some old legend? What forces had led me to New Orleans? I let out a scream when a dark ten-foot thing loomed ahead of me from behind the wall of a crypt. But it was only a shadow—mine. At this the spectators in the balconies moved noticeably.
The cemetery was lit only by gamma illumination. We split up and down the rows of tombs and crypts, but it was too dark to find that one magnificent grave where she lays and after one particularly severe spasm of fear we left the cemetery. Two blondes on a beat and nothing to show for it, but on our way out of the projects, a black woman told us about the Marie Laveau drugstore where we could still get her pills and powders for incantationary use.
The 4th of July in New Orleans was an endless driving from one Swimming Pool Party to another with the curious sensation of never becoming drunk from endless drinks because the oppressive heat sweated it out of you immediately.
It wasn’t hard to find a place to hang my Spiritualist shingle. I immediately got a job in the French Quarter as a reader at a place called The Bottom of the Tea Cup on Royale St. est. 1929. The events leading up to this were quiet and seamless as if destiny had indeed been at work. The psychics told me they already knew I was coming. Though I had always had Spiritual leanings I would be a liar if I said that I was not inspired by Ellyn Burstyn as the Faith Healer in Resurrection. I had traveled 1500 miles to come to this town to heal and enlighten the weary, the haggard and the lovelorn—those who could not find things like luck, money, love, fame, or real estate. I was to become a Cosmic Ann Landers for the next few months. The sixth sense is an odd channel for information about basic human needs.
I was set up in one of four paisley-curtained booths. The other readers were Adele, the owner who came from a strain of psychics, Paula the Astrologer and former hitchhiker, Chris, a bisexual into psychology was born with a veil over his face, Otis the Mystic who used to work in a mental institution, Old Isabel who came from Gypsy Royalty in San Francisco and a couple of Adele’s kids who possessed the “gift.”
Clientele was varied, mostly tourists, and the town regulars. Everyone in New Orleans belongs to or believes in some sort of occult bohemia, jinx-warding, Voodoo, or tennis.
Then there were the irregulars like “Spirit Man” a poor unfortunate creature who had disassociated from the Earth plane, bound here only by his love for Paula. He wrote her long treatises about his theories of evolution and how ant colonies populated Mars and beings the size of Chicklets would one day invade Earth.
One woman blew in from Memphis. She was a country singer on TV there and knew Elvis before he died. She roamed the South looking for someone who could link her to his spirit through the Crystal Ball. Elvis had promised her something before he went over to the other side and she wanted to know what. I squeezed the ball and out came Pearls in the Snow, the title of an uncopyrighted song.
Once I gave a thumbs down in love to a debutante who left in tears shrieking that she would be sending “Bud” over, her 6’5” beau to render me bodily harm.
I was given insights into tricky lawsuits, some publicized, some scandalized. I looked through walls and saw men in undershirts in prisons thinking of their loved ones. I saw materializations of grandmothers in rocking chairs and I heard clairaudient whispers of money-making schemes, I felt emanations coming up from the floorboards and I ascended into the Astral plane at least three times a week.
Then Dr. Ricardo Rodriquez came into my life. He was a Puerto Rican and good with a knife; a surgeon, he operated on brain and stomach. We met at an Art Gallery. He had just removed one [stomach] and he told me about it in great detail, a poetic discourse on surgery and the art of the incision.
It was Dr. Rodriquez’s fault that Ghost attacked me. He was late for a rendezvous. I was sitting on the front porch waiting for him, scratching and scratching from millions of mosquito bites when I suddenly got up and stamped my foot to shake the mosquitoes loose. I didn’t know that in dog language that means “c’mon we’re gonna have a fight,” so Ghost lazily sleeping on the porch, heard the STAMP and became a wild snarling wolf hound. I did the dance of death inch by inch to the gate of the front yard escaping those lethal incisors by a fraction of a second. Slamming the gate shut those devil dog eyes were fixed on me for a definite KILL. Shortly after, Dr. Rodriquez arrived and we drove off to the sound of 50-decibel barking.
With the animal on attack and everyone else gone for the weekend, I was banished from my house and thrust into the arms of Ricardo Rodriquez. He collected Mardi-Gras beads of every color and description from the many fiestas.
Though Ghost had put the accelerator on our romance, it was not permanent. I returned to the house at the end of the weekend with a raw steak hoping to make peace with him. I threw the steak over the fence but lost my nerve to go in when I realized that the next thing he might be chewing would be my arm.
That was the beginning of my troubles, but at the Tea Room and in my work I was transcending myself. I was learning at an alarming rate and unlocking the secrets of the ancient Quabalah. My sensitivity was increasing and my predictions were uncannily accurate. I was getting a following amongst the blacks in particular. Some days I would see a faint flickering image of a mulatto woman sitting in my booth.
One day a black minister and his wife from Illinois came in for a reading. They were also talent-agenting for prophets. They invited me to be a guest prophet at their Faith Temple in East Illinois and asked me to come and witness a service at the Universalist Spiritualist Church in town, which turned out to be a very moving experience.
It was an all Negro affair with the women wearing white robes and strange headgear. There were guest preachers; they were DJs trying to tune in to God. They had shouting matches, outdoing each other trying to invoke Jehovah himself to give them a display of his fireworks—and it worked. Half the Congregation was rolling over the floor, becoming disembodied and speaking in tongues; Chinese, Latin, Gallic, in brogue and Polynesian. It was extraordinary, these people were truly in another world, but I was secretly relieved when it was over because they were bashing into each other in ecstasy. I was glad when God zoomed back up into the Universe, but sorry that I didn’t bring my Olympus.
During my stay in town I managed to tap into a tiny Art Community and I met Steve Sweet, the sweetest man in the world. He was an Artist who belonged to a Wizard of Oz Cult, He was pledged to his own particular occult bohemia, but I was not prejudiced against his creed.
It was Steve Sweet who put me back in touch with Culture. He would take me to Pontchetrain Beach Amusement Park, a unique piece of real estate perfectly preserved, spanning 1920 to 1960, all Art Deco and Americana. It was on the banks of the lake 570 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and 50 years removed from the present. This balmy tropical Amusement Park was Fellini, Salvador Dali, and Barnum and Bailey all rolled into one. Going on the rides there was like dreaming awake. This was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind.
During the summer they held a Celebrity-lookalike-Contest there. There were seven little Hillbilly Brooke Shields, a John Belushi, a Debbie Harry, a Mick Jagger, three Suzanne Summers, one particularly Reubenesque Dolly Parton, Mr. Green Jeans, four Richard Pryors and a black Shirley Temple.
I went to a semi-finalist event so I don’t know who actually won, but my vote went to that little black Shirley Temple.
Back in town I realized that the Welcome Mat of Southern Hospitality was wearing thin. Things were never the same again with me and Ghost and my roommate’s kindness to strangers was reaching the expiration moment. She was growing morbid and silent and infinitely fussy about nothing. These moods would be broken by long psychological talks about non-specific subject matter.
I realized that it was getting to be time to go, but I still had to complete the last facet of my mission—the Book Party, my grande finale.
It was my sentiment that Soul Music be presented to the world in the gospel and soul atmosphere of New Orleans. Holding up the finale was the determination of where it would be held. The locale had switched from the Greek Pavilion in the Bayou, to a Spiritualist Church, to the Contemporary Art Center, to a Trolley Car, The location that I finally decided upon was The Saturn Bar, an out of the way beer joint, founded by an architect who had gone deep-sea diving down too far. He had gotten too much water pressure on his brain and came up an Artist. He bought The Saturn Bar and mounted his paintings there in a permanent exhibition on the ceiling and walls. These were underwater visions of the future with humans and mythological animals against geodesic domes.
It was being managed by man named Earl and it had accumulated so many layers of Southern clutter and paraphernalia over the decades that it had the appearance of Rod Serling’s bathroom.
I sent out hundreds of invitations, and advertised it in two local newspapers. I had a small team of Artists creating a suitable environment; wall hangings, lighting effects and for the music I had taped Billie Holiday’s entire collection.
On the day of the Party I dressed up, set up a table to sign the books and waited for the guests to arrive.
I always wondered what it would be like if you gave a Party and nobody came. Well, nobody came. My grand gesture had died like a giant swan.
I left New Orleans soon after that. My secret benefactor sent me a plane ticket as book sales were low, Steve Sweet drove me to the airport in his old red pick-up truck.
As the plane began its Northward ascent I waved bye to the City That Care Forgot. Throughout the restful flight home I felt a tingling sensation in my hands and then a lightness and a gradual, slower shift in my body rhythms.
By the time the plane landed in LaGuardia Airport I noticed that my hands were burning. I stopped into the bathroom for a quick appraisal. When I turned on the water and glanced at myself in the mirror my blood ran cold and my bag dropped out of my hands. Staring back at me in the mirror was a young negro woman with frizzled black hair and skin the color of mocha lava and olives. The compact crashed to the floor; at the same moment a shrill scream came sirening into the sanitized fluorescence.
To be continued.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee