Archive for February, 2013


February 28, 2013


Last week, David and I were in New Orleans. He was presenting a paper about disagreement and rational belief. I was being a tourist. And we both got to see a dear old friend from David’s grad school days. Back in the 1980s, we were all very close. He dandled our daughter when she was a baby, and David and I flew across the continent to be at his wedding. But we hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, and have only sporadically kept in touch.

One afternoon, while David was presenting his paper, Martin and I went sightseeing. Since it was Martin’s first time in New Orleans and my third, he deferred to me. I suggested taking the St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District. David and I had done that the last time we’d been in town, maybe 20 years earlier. We had walked down leafy streets lined with beautiful old homes, and explored a cool old cemetery.

I kept my guide book and map in my bag, as Martin and I caught up. But as our streetcar rattled past stately houses that looked like the neighborhood I remembered, it occurred to me that I was the tour guide. After a quick check of the map, I yanked the bell, and we hopped off at the next stop.

Looking back at the map, it was easy enough to find the cemetery. There was a grey rectangle filled with crosses on Washington Avenue, just a few blocks away. We blithely headed off in that direction, happily chatting about my son’s job and his daughter’s high school.

But something wasn’t right. The buildings we were passing were much more modest than I’d expected. Paint was peeling. Porches sagged. Yards were strewn with litter. In another block, more and more houses were more than neglected. They were abandoned. One was boarded up, the plywood spray-painted with a black x. I remembered seeing photographs of those markings after Katrina. They were FEMA’s way of showing which houses they had searched, and whether they’d found bodies. But that was seven years ago. And now, between the broken houses, we were passing empty lots. And where were the people? Not a single car had gone by since we’d turned up the street. And other than one old man sitting on a stoop and a group of young men standing on a side street, we had hardly seen a soul.

“I’m not sure about this neighborhood,” I told Martin.

“It seems okay to me,” he said. “But I’m Canadian, so you’re probably more culturally attuned.”

When someone questions my instincts, my automatic response is to doubt my judgment. And I know that travel plays havoc with my instincts. Being in a new place, removed from my routine, observing my surroundings through the lens of my camera, makes the world seem romantic. Unreal. This air of unreality can convey a false sense of immunity.

So why couldn’t it also do the opposite—create an exaggerated sense of danger? Could I be unconsciously guarding against a  false sense of security by putting myself on higher alert than was justified?

And was something else going on here? Martin and I are both white, and the few people we had seen since turning off  St. Charles Avenue were all black. How much of my unease was being fueled by latent racism? This last question made me even more uneasy, and cast doubt on all my instincts.

“It’s just a few more blocks,” I told Martin, and we continued.

One block up and across the street, we reached a patch of green surrounded by a tall fence. A sign on the fence said Lafayette Cemetery #2. I tried to square what we were seeing with what I remembered. Had that chained link fence been there? With that barbed wire? Had the gate been padlocked? Was the grass that overgrown? The mausoleums that decrepit? The whole place such a wreck? Cemeteries are supposed to be sad. This was a whole different level of sadness.

We walked back toward St. Charles on the opposite side of the street.

“Are there any dominoes down there?” A man called from a balcony.

“No,” I called back without thinking. Then I noticed the men sitting around a table in the yard, and felt like a fool. But no one seemed to have heard me.

A few doors down, a woman said, “Excuse me.” She was sitting on a porch with a few other people, and she was definitely talking to us. “Would y’all like a dog?” Or maybe she said puppy.

It was a little dog, on a leash. Schnauzer? Terrier? The kind of dog a certain kind of person carries around like a fashion accessory, and dolls up with an argyle vest or a silly bow. This dog wasn’t dolled up. Its fur was matted and filthy.

They had found the dog wandering around, and couldn’t keep it, the woman was saying. Would we take it?

We couldn’t. “It looks like a nice dog though,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s alright,” she answered. She may or may not have told us to have a nice day. Either way, I felt as if she had.

When we reached St. Charles Avenue, we figured out our mistake. The cemetery we’d wanted, the one the guide books promote and tourists flock to, is also on Washington Avenue. But on the other side of St. Charles. Literally, the other side of the tracks. We had been looking for Lafayette Cemetery #1, and had found Lafayette Cemetery #2.

Back in Rhode Island, I did some research. The neighborhood where we’d been walking is called Central City. “In mid-2006,” I read, “the area was considered the most dangerous part of the city.” After Katrina, I learned, Central City became notorious as a place where rival gangs and drug dealers exchanged gunfire in the streets. The crime rate has gone down since then, but Wikitravel advises that the neighborhood is still “not recommended for casual visitors.”

So my judgment was correct. But was it justified?

That afternoon, I didn’t know anything about crime hot spots. I just knew that after we crossed St. Charles Avenue, we entered a different world. Lush trees lined the streets. Impeccable gardens surrounded stately homes. Everything was opulent, clean and well-kempt. Cars and pedestrians quietly came and went. Just about everyone we saw was white. And I felt perfectly safe.


Artsy in New Orleans

February 26, 2013


We just got back from New Orleans, where the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association was holding its annual conference. While David attended his important philosophical sessions, I wandered around town, taking pictures. When David didn’t have any important philosophical sessions, he wandered with me. Our first time out, of course, we visited the French Quarter. The next day, we went to the Warehouse District—which local boosters now call the Arts District, and Forbes calls America’s tenth best hipster neighborhood. Because David and I might be too dorky to stay out past 10 pm to hear live music, but that doesn’t mean we’re not… Never mind.


Anyway, we liked the abandoned, century-old industrial buildings, some of them reclaimed as museums and galleries and groovy restaurants, and some still waiting in shabby-chic suspension. We stopped into three or four galleries, where we saw colorful balloons carved from wood, a wall covered with ceramic blossoms, acrylic close-ups of glistening oysters on the half shell, and detailed feathers rendered in silver on black, which were either gorgeous or tacky, but probably both.

More than once, we crossed paths with a pair of art handlers, wrapping paintings in quilts and loading them onto their truck. In one place, quilts were piled on the floor and paintings were leaning against the wall. In another, a woman in black was checking just-hung artworks with a digital level while a man and another woman, both of them also dressed in black, stood back assessing, fingertips to their chins.


The sign on the door of an auction house said the items inside would be available for public viewing at the end of the week. But the door was open, so in we went. Room after room was crammed with stunning antiques. We saw carved sideboards with inlaid wood, over-the-top mirrors,  paintings so huge they could only fit in mansions, and a collection of life-sized religious statuary. What we didn’t see were any actual people.

We kept expecting to encounter someone—around the next bend, in the next room, behind that 150-year-old armoire. I had my line ready. “Oh. I’m sorry. We didn’t realize. The door was open.”

But the only indication that we weren’t alone was the woman’s voice suddenly asking over an unseen p.a. system, “Could someone bring some shelves upstairs?”

We decided not to go upstairs.