Retracing the French Quarter

I found myself in the CBD (Central Business District) the other day without my bike, so I walked around the French Quarter, knowing I rarely go there. I stopped by a store that sold 1950s dresses and other rockabilly accessories. I browsed around, knowing I probably would not purchase anything. I even looked at the sales section so I wouldn’t feel guilty, but there was nothing worth buying. Everything appeared in drab colors except for a pair of baby blue, glittery cat sunglasses, but the pointy ending at the end stuck out too far.


moonshine nettle

I bought a dress from here a while ago, which had not seen the light of day in several months. The sales girl approached me, and asked if I was looking for anything in particular. Her orange hair was pushed back by a headband. Every once in a while, she would ask if I needed help or had any questions. I tried to disappear by the section of sunglasses. I felt pressured to buy something, but that was how the game went. Other people walked in so she flocked to them. I didn’t feel pressured to take any of the clothing pieces seriously. Eventually, I grew tired of pretending, and I thanked the girl and said bye. As I was leaving, I noticed a song playing; it was coming from the stereo just outside the store. Just as it appeared on my phone, the sales girl came out and rolled the stereo back inside. She was no longer smiling or happy as when she first approached me. The was “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” by Paul Anka.

I kept walking down Decatur St., and turned on Bienville St. I thought, if I had one of those colorful dresses stamped with ice cream cones, life would be so much better. I walked by the giant parking space near the river, then Jax, then the common stores: H&M, Urban Outfitter, etc. I quickly walked by, as I hated going to into those stores with countless of racks and customers, making never-ending lines. I kept walking past Jackson Square, wondering what other people saw when they visited the French Quarter. What did my friends and family see? I overheard a Spanish lady telling someone “Mira esa calle pequeña,” (look at that small street) and she pointed to a quiet narrow, empty street, where the houses were painted in hues of dark reds and soft pinks with decorative, lacy black balconies and vines falling on the side. Many of the images in front of me passed along, without giving me much thought. I walked by Molly’s, down to the thrift stores.




The thrift store where I had once bought a blanket was closed. A sign on the door said, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I never knew when any of these places closed. The messy thrift store across the street was open, so I crossed the street, and a guy who was sitting by the gates of the Old Mint building, started saying something in my direction. “You look young—way out of my league, but maybe my friend could talk to you.” I don’t know who he was referring to, as I saw no one else on that street. He was severely toasted, sweaty and drunk, almost as if he had been sitting out in the sun for too long.

I walked into the messiness, seeing as how it was the only one thrift store open. I browsed quickly. There wasn’t anything worthwhile, and everything seemed devoid of color or the whimsicality that I had come expect from this store. Perhaps it was me, but some sections were empty. Had they forgotten to replenish? I reminded myself that I came here for a top hat. Still, I tried on a shirt and a large skirt, clearly intended for a bigger person. I browsed through the costume section, knowing I would not be getting anything. I was senselessly killing time. I found a hair clip, a small bow adorned with a pattered fabric that resembled textiles I had seen from Mexico or Guatemala. I picked up different colored bows, eventually finding a small green one. I used the same mirror I had used when I tried on the articles of clothes. I picked up a bit of my hair, clipped it to the right side, and tilted my head slightly. I decided to take it with me.


girl on Royal St


Over at the store counter, I flicked through a stack of old photos, possibly from the 80s or 90s of yellow Mardi Gras Indians, little kids, parents, and some guys walking out of a theater. It felt odd browsing through the photos of strangers; they were private and distant memories. Black, white families from the old New Orleans: weddings, babies being carried, friends gathered in a living room. I found a set of small photos that had a rare cut of paper. They were small, maybe 4×3 and the edges were jagged. They depicted a castle and its surroundings. Each one had a different part of the entire scenery: a lake, a bridge, a view from afar towards the castle, and finally the castle up close, or perhaps I saw them in reverse. They were numbered on the bottom, but it was almost hard to see. I realized, I didn’t care much for castles, and put it down. I wondered if it was possible to re-create the look of the black & white hue, along with the soft, thick paper and its jagged edges.

Moon over palmetto trees

Bike rides and walks through New Orleans.

I’m not sure what draws me to a particular place. It’s often instinct or a curiosity for something unknown—a break from the rudimentary. But what keeps me there is a sense of complexity and mystery that I know not how to explain.



I chose to ignore my iPhone and follow the streets. I walked not knowing which street was next, eventually stumbling onto the famous Royal street and other landmarks. The houses looked older, though well-maintained in the French Quarter area. They were smaller than the ones on Esplanade Avenue where I was staying. They had cute little windows, balconies, low porches, and green vines falling over and intertwining with the columns. They reminded me of the old colonial style of the Spaniards. The colors varied from light purples to yellows to dark greens and reds. Mostly warm colors. Along with cars and bikes, horse carriages passed by with tour guides a top reverberating historical secrets. Their southern accents filled the small corners.


I walked in on a circle of people watching a band play an assortment of instruments including the bass, violin and guitar. A southern banjo, bluesy sound emerged, mixing with the heat. It was a swell time to fan yourself in the cruel but inviting summer. I looked for the shade below a balcony. I listened to the metal strings and the craggy voices, staying a little longer until the music faded. A girl donated a 6 pack to the band. It was a good show.


Down in the Garden District, I bumped into a cemetery. This one contained white marble tombstones mostly well-preserved. The trees stood tall above the white ruins. Patches of grass were peeking out from the crevices of the tombstones. Little lizards dashed from the corner every so often, hiding under leaves from the sun. It was incredibly hot with barely any place for shade. You could get lost here in the maze of tombstones, and possibly time travel to the 1800s. There was a calm sense of being among the ruins. You know you do not belong here. It’s sacred, but there’s something that draws you in. Here I felt the sun, the wind and life in the middle of death.


On my bike I admired the pastel homes. The oak trees were still abundant, lining up two sides of the street. They looked down at me like old statues of past, monumental and green. The trees were an extension of the beautiful mansions reaching out from long ago. The heat beckoned me to imagine what it must have like when the area was developing between 1832 and 1900.  Now it was 2015 and I was biking through pot-holed streets, shaky at times specially with the company of cars.


Hotel Monteleone, the place where Truman Capote claimed he was born. I came for the carousel bar, which spun around in the middle of a room. Tonight a band was playing at the far side on a low stage; it was soft jazz tunes that couldn’t wake up grandma. Still, the drinks were good. I sat there and ordered drink after drink with a friend. First Miel Blanco, Perfect Storm, and some more as the bar went around, time got older. The full rotation took about half an hour; it was turning rather slow to keep patrons from falling on their faces. I noticed my reflection in one of the mirrors at the top of the carousel. With every slow slip my facial features became sharpened and darker. The mirrors were outlined with fat bulbs, and between each one there was a carved face.


On the early hours of Friday I walked down the platform heading through the middle of the swamp (Jean Lafitte National Historical Park). On each side large palmettos and cypress trees reigned, and I looking from below. Insects, birds, and other tiny creatures contributed to the chorus. I continued waking within the humid trap of this ecosystem until my head almost hit a web with a giant spider on the center. I missed it by a few inches. My height saved me from committing a grave mistake against the banana spider. It was the spider with the dia le los muertos face, black and white. Spider webs hung from tree to tree, sometimes covering large spaces. The pronothotary birds were here. I’m was told most people don’t see these bird too often but I’ve seen it twice in one year. The moist heat was becoming one with my skin. I could easily turn into a frog and jump into the dark swampy water. Later the rain came, taking breaks every so often.


I took a Voodoo waking tour. I rarely ever take tours but this one explained the origins of this old religion and its connection to slavery which lasted from the early 1700 to 1864, when it was officially abolished in New Orleans. The first Voodoo circle was created in the town square, today Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, of Tremé where slaves gathered on Sundays to dance. Tremé was the main neighborhood of free people of color. Back then it was separated by a wall from the French Quarter where all the Europeans lived. According to the tour guide, slaves didn’t work on Sundays, and that’s when they got together to exchange ideas, gossip, and share advice on how to survive. There was a mix of slaves from French and Spanish colonies, some coming from the Caribbean; they brought along rich traditions and customs from their ancestors, and what emerged was a new set of beliefs and spiritual practices. Slaves cleverly hid their rituals from Europeans and pretended to worship the same Christian saints, only for them they had other names and different spiritual powers. The gatherings also represented a way for slaves to escape the hardships of everyday life even if for a little, and find a creative output that could lead them to personal happiness.


In popular culture Voodoo is portrayed as dark magic. Learning about its rich history and modern usage, Voodoo appears to be rooted in a naturalistic, magical world. On the day of the tour it was beautiful walking around and learning about Voodoo from a modern-day practitioner, and how they don’t conduct sacrifices or evil spells but they do talk to the spirits and make offerings.  One important figure that came up was Marie Laveau, a free person of color who worked as a hairdresser for the community of Europeans. She became an insider, aware of the latest gossip and business schemes. Later as a Voodoo priestess she was able to use those connections to her advantage and for the benefits of the black community, by eventually helping slaves escape. Madam Laveau also made potions and gris gris bags a staple of Voodoo.


The group walked alongside Madam Laveau’s house in the French Quarter as the tour guide continue to explain her history. Almost close to being done, he held up a gris gris bag from his pocket to show us how one could make one. A few minutes later it began drizzling. We all looked up to the sky, turning darker. By the time the tour ended, the rain was picking up with full force. I went inside Felix’s Restaurant for lunch. When I was done, I walked to the door, exiting slowly, since the rain was coming down strong. I wanted to run, as others were doing. The wind was colder and the sun had all but faded. I heard the thunderous sky behind me as I made my way up the street.


I don’t remember much from the night, but I remember the singer from Meschiya Lake (performing in 3muses), her old, soulful, raspy voice that was like a calling to stay in New Orleans and revel in the wildness. After the show on Frenchman Street, me and a friend went outside. I didn’t want to go home yet. People were pouring out of bars and restaurants. I heard trumpets, drums and people cheering. I saw what was beginning to turn into a group of people dancing. We joined and followed the musicians as they walked. I was curious to see where it would end. I was dancing, dancing in the streets. The lively bombastic, trumpet was my rebel call to take part in this stampede, and I didn’t care who objected to the moment.

I made a mishmash of the lyrics I heard that night from Meschiya Lake.

After midnight searching for me

Kiss me and you’ll find out

I done cut my good man’s throat

I want to reap what I sow

Send me to the electric chair


When I arrived on St. Claude Avenue there wasn’t anyone in either direction. The long avenue was empty except for some scarcely laid out stores, colorful, odd and dirty, but most of them closed. It dawn on me that it was Sunday, and nothing would be open. I was ready to hang my head after the long walk. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was still going strong. I walked down store after store, telling myself I would come back when they were open. I headed further down the avenue and made a turn somewhere, which led me to a red church with an ominous clock, further down was a big yellow drawing near an abandoned building that said READ, followed by a railroad just steps away. An impending noise came hurling down the tracks. The train. I walked back. I noticed more street art and random writings. There was a sign on a poll, which said,” Nobody tells the truth.” On another street or perhaps the same, reigning over me were these heads on spikes in a yard behind a fence. Finally I saw somewhere to rest my weary self. I sat down in booty’s street food then went to Siberia to hear a group from the Balkans with a big drums, violins and crowds dancing.





The Boy Detective: A walk of happiness


Rarely do you get a memoir that is filled with unending variety of structure. The Boy Detective is hardly deserving of that title alone but something akin to a detective story moving along random thoughts, witty statements, and poetic lines.

Roger Rosenblatt (Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats) reminisces on New York City neighborhoods, including his home in Gramercy Park of the 1950s. He recounts the childhood games and the mischievousness of a nine-year-old discovering a city, pretending to be a detective, uncovering new cases, strange characters and studying mysterious events. As an adult he walks through memorable blocks, revealing why this particular place causes him to stop. Perhaps this is where the kids played or where that old flower shop use to stand. Forward to modern-day when there are people quickly walking, texting, or taking selfies. What is most endearing is the memory of his family. His dad, silent and stoic on most days.

As we read on, Rosenblatt’s comes to terms with his place in the world through this long arduous walk.  His words intersect between memory and philosophical inquiry at times, often bringing up his favorite quotes from other writers or professors. In this case, the words of his astronomy professors.

“Then he walked to the other end, holding a speck of dust, which he called the earth. He stood silent for a moment before saying, as it if to himself: “either we are alone in the universe, or we are not alone. I find both propositions equally unbelievable. ” The word planet comes from the Greek word planasthai, meaning to wander.

Tanja Vetter (b. 1973, Pforzheim, Germany) - Starry Night, 2015    Paintings: Oil on Canvas
Tanja Vetter (b. 1973, Pforzheim, Germany) – Starry Night, 2015 Paintings: Oil on Canvas

Similar to a detective, a writer can be going after the “wrong guy.” Though Rosenblatt suggests, ” but if your walk is illimitable, no trail goes cold.”

Every time you embark on long walks through city streets, you’re a child once more encountering new and strange things; there’s something impermanent about how the city flows, the random faces, and the stories you tell yourself about them. Rosenblatt suggests that in our walks we participate in the imaginative construction of the self, as it’s beautifully demonstrated in the “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” by Wallace Stevens.

For a long-time New Yorker like myself, you can’t help but feel nostalgic, when you’re transported to the old Manhattan of small shops, immigrant communities, and risky characters. For anyone new to the city, The Boy Detective, is a fresh way to discover its history and demand for constant change.

Despite the lovely ruminations and a whole lot of references to detectives in literature and movies (many which I’ve noted to watch or read later), his writing often turns to rambling. Words go too fast, losing meaning along the way. Rosenblatt is truly powerful when he stops to describe and ponder the meaning of life.

That’s the thing about wandering: sometimes you get lost or meet a dead end— but it’s not so much time being wasted, as it is, a chance to improvise. If The Boy Detective is taken in that sense then all is not lost. The book is not for those wanting a structured memoir of the city. It’s a personal, often historical connection to a place through the eyes of a fictional detective. At the center is a youthful fascination for uncovering the mysteries that exist within the self and the place we call home.

Next stop: Utica Ave, Brooklyn

Photo: therealdeal
Photo: therealdeal

After work I took the train to Utica Ave for a travel writing class. I wasn’t sure what neighborhood it fell under. Normally, I don’t travel far into Brooklyn. A friend invited me, and she lives in Bed-Stuy, about 10 minutes away. Getting out of the train everything was of a similar dullness. The cloudy weather didn’t help. No bright colors emerged,  or maybe I was walking too fast, not noticing anything. I took the express train to get there quicker, but I was still a couple of blocks back from Nowhere Studios, where the event was starting soon.

Gray blocks lay out in front with random stores on the left. Some had bright lights and dramatic names— none I remember.

The brown brick buildings rose far up ahead, and around it neat grass. It covered an extended amount of land; I had forgotten about the stores and thought about an industrial complex.
Utica Avenue of the 1920s, emulates the feeling of never-ending blocks (though not the same place I was walking through). Photo: staticflickr

The sun had not fully descended and people were still going about their daily rituals of walking, smoking, buying food and driving around. I walked near a park where a group of men crowded around a table. I wasn’t sure what they were doing; maybe playing a game.

There was a whiff of marijuana in the air.

I kept walking and the blocks stretched like the dreams of never- ending blocks when you’re lost. I felt slightly out of place with my pink flats and my relaxed bear tote bag. Suddenly I was not old New York. I was the new kid, yet I’ve been living in New York City for most of my life. It stirs me to feel vulnerable in a strange neighborhood.

Up ahead a man popped his head out of a moving car to say, “You’re looking fine today!” I’m wasn’t  sure that was directed at me, but  there was no one else behind me.

Finally I got close to a main avenue with commercial blocks and busy traffic. I didn’t feel so alone. I made a turn and kept going. I almost decided to make a right on Atlantic Ave, but then realized it was the wrong way. I was waiting at the light to cross, when I saw a familiar girl holding a blue bike. I tapped her shoulder and in the process startled her. I’m always awkward at saying hello. She answered in small giggles.

Sunday Afternoon in the West Village

“Like the creatures of the forest and the sea, I love to lose myself for a while.”
 —Friedrich Nietzsche

Some Sundays past we received unlikely spring weather in New York City. It was suddenly 50 degrees, and people were driving fast, birds were chipper, and the sky was welcoming. Sunday is my day to relax, do minor errands, write, meditate or run. I think of this day as sacred, although I don’t always follow that thought. I often find myself writing airy, peaceful poems about Sunday.

I wanted to wander around, now that the weather is warming up. I’ve been cooped up, and I don’t mean just in my house, but also mentally, hardly exploring my surroundings, relying on my cellphone. Though I carry a book on the train, I find myself getting distracted by text messages, online articles, or looking at Google maps for no reason. I think back to my younger days when had no phone or carried a simple one for phone calls. I was free to roam, to think, and find solutions.

I headed to the West Village for the French Cinema Festival at the IFC. I took a book, and my laptop to write after the movie was done.  By the time I got to the train, my cellphone died; it had slipped my mind to charge it, and maybe for good reason. At first I was bummed, then I felt silly for thinking I should miss my phone. At least now I could fully observe people on the train or read uninterrupted.

Once I got to the theater, I saw a line outside. Surely this meant it was sold out. And it was so. The lady in the booth said the next showing would be at 6:30 pm. It was only 3 pm. I felt no inspiration to watch the next movie. I came for the movie titled, La French, a detective story and a prelude to the American film, The French Connection. If that was unavailable, I’d find my own mystery. I kept walking.

I walked to the side streets looking for a quiet place to drink coffee and write. People were spilling out of restaurants, laughing with friends or holding hands with their romantic other. Sometimes a family of tourists walked in duck formation. I was alone with my thoughts. It suddenly dawned on me: it was brunch hour. The last of the brunchers were leaving with full stomachs and cured hangovers. I wanted to avoid crowded streets and fall into empty street pockets. I had not ventured around here in years, especially not in the daytime. People were wearing leather jackets, sunglasses, running in shorts, and smiling. Their happiness was contagious. We were all cooped up like chickens, and at the first light of spring we flocked to the streets.

In a way I was a tourist myself, discovering the West Village through new eyes. I used to visit my favorite Manhattan neighborhoods, discovering historic streets, and finding new things to do. Now I was mostly in Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx. The West Village was always special to me. Its jazzy bars, old-school bodegas, cobblestones, cute street names such as Cornelia, Charles, and Jane Street, made everything small— a sort of hobbit town. Poets and writers once called this place home, including Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, E.E. Cummings, John Cheever, Jack Kerouac, and Mark Twain, among others. This time around many sights were new and slightly out-of-place, with a few exceptions. Exceptions that still make this an NYC neighborhood.

I took notes of some old neighborhood spots as possible stops in the future. I continued walking,  greeting the city without a phone in hand, searching for a place and recalling memories.  Brunch ruled, and I couldn’t find a coffee shop for me; most of them were crowded and noisy. Did everyone just abandon Sunday for brunch? I walked by a possible cafe, and looked beyond the clear glass. A group of friends were pointing accusing fingers at each other. They appeared to be on the defensive. I avoided the next place called prodigy coffee. This whole side was starting to creep on my skin, so I walked quickly passed the aviator-walking-girls, shopping galore, and pricey soap shops. I ventured to Greenwich St. only to get lost.

From there, it got quieter.  The day was progressing. I assumed people had fled before the wind started.  The streets came and went, the faces trailed behind, and cars fled with no destination.  I was ready to give up searching for a coffee shop, and settle for whatever I found in the next minute. How long had I been walking? I’m not sure how many turns I took, before I realized I was on Hudson Street. Across the street I saw a tiny place with low lights, on the shabbier side, covered by a faded, red veranda. Inside were small chairs and tables, and a couple of people. I missed the name altogether and went in.

I  was a thirsty woman, asking for a cappuccino and a croissant with butter. The guy attending was nice and quietly courteous. I sat down in the back and started to write. I took notice of my surroundings, and suddenly I felt happy. The music was wispy, something french was playing, and maybe I heard Bjork. People were quietly working away on their laptops and reading books. A guy next to me ate alone. As I worked away, I noticed the guy near me leave. A new one took his place sometime later. This one was rummaging through a few books and jotting notes on a journal. The barista brought me my cappuccino and croissant.

Behind me I could hear the lady and the boy who came in after me. She was setting up for coffee and food, and the boy in a mousy voice, asked questions about the things his mind found curious. “When I get older, do I have to work?” —”Can I work anywhere?” He said. The barista brought their order.  The lady told the boy, “say thank you,” so the boy, though reluctantly, pranced over to the front, and said —”Thank you.” Sometime later the little boy asked the barista, “Do you need help?”  To which he smiled and replied —”No it’s ok.”

Later, a man took their place and typed diligently for the rest of the time. How long had I been sitting here with my cappuccino yet unfinished? I did not mind the noises. I accepted them and made them part of my afternoon. A few more people came in and sat by the front. Somehow the springy, soft music, the off-white walls, the curtains and the dimming light outside, kept everything inside secluded.

All those turns I took, led me here. I had to backtrack once or twice when I went too far uptown or west. Sometimes I saw the same streets. Was I walking in circles? The beautiful part was that I  led myself here. I took in the sights and sounds, even if some of them were not to my liking but they were still part of my walk, and made the ending that much richer. I forgot how relaxing it was to walk and walk with no clear destination, just a curious mind.

Recently my thoughts have been running wild. Walking allows me to  slow down to a dreamy pace. After a while hardly did thoughts come rushing, instead they passed, just as people left me to settle to the silence of the day. Walking is meditation: the ongoing streets, wrong turns, warm glances, right turns, surprises, and colorful sights. After the walk and sitting in a café for hours, I felt refreshed, light with the quickness of my feet, as I walked through the night to get home. I need more long walks, hours of writing in quiet places and the company of strange faces. I want new days of my own with minimal planning where I am free to discover the present.

The muddy waters of January and the absence of sun

We left when the cold got to our bones and our hands were popsicles.

Astoria Pool snow desert. Cynthia Via.
Astoria Pool snow desert. Cynthia Via.

For a couple of weeks I’ve wanted to erase the miserable existence of these winter months. I could take the holiday cold with the occasional walk in 30-40 degree weather, but January brings an intolerable coldness; the one that leaves the bitter cold on tips of fingers and toes even after entering a warm room. This bleak weather makes me run home instead of taking leisurely walks after work, or while with family and friends.

The sun lies low these days, and when it finally shows up its nothing but a mirage; a false sun that continues onto February. I like taking walks, observing my surroundings, and being nostalgic around nature. I usually take walks on Sundays when I visit the local organic market in my neighborhood. During sunnier days I take my time picking the best veggies, and striking conversations with other residents and produce sellers. This rightfully contradicts the quickness of cold days when everyone is too frigid to stand around. A quick hello or see you later will do.

This past Sunday I could barely stand in line when a small girl decided to be indecisive in front of the baked goods. “I want a cupcake daddy!” “No, that one.“ “Is that chocolate?” he asked, to which the seller responded, “No its buckwheat.” The dad whispered something about the girl not liking buckwheat. While they debated, my hands froze as I tried to hold my pumpernickel bread, marble cake, and my change. I noticed some of the usual produce sellers were absent. The air was too cold for some vegetables. The beets lay frozen, there were no sweet potatoes, and there was no use in asking for lettuce. All I bought was milk, fish, bread, and some apples and onions.

Snow has covered the streets for what seems an endless length of time. It started snowing again over the weekend, making the fresh fallen snow top the old crusty bottom. Sunday was a good day despite by reservations. After the organic market I headed to Astoria Park with my family, and we walked among the skinny trees. I saw a couple of people sliding down the hill near the entrance to the pool. It wasn’t so bad going out there, walking around, trying to capture, zoom, and fix the light with my camera. Up above the pool, there is a roof area accessible through the side stairs. I was planning on leaving early when my sister suggested to go up the stairs. The sight was beautiful. The whole pool was covered white. The lamps below peeked out, way over the snow, and the lifeguard’s guarding posts looked miniscule and abandoned. We left when the cold got to our bones and our hands were popsicles. Below I glanced at two kids sledding down. They continued to make the best out of the snow—getting up after a fall, or when their sled reached the end, they walked lazily up the hill to start over.