Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Contessa of Iberville.


The Contessa asked me if I had heard she is pregnant.  I hadn’t, and I admitted as much.  “I’m pregnant!” she told me.  I offered my congratulations. 
The proud father works as a bus driver at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner.  Kenner is the fourth-largest city in Louisiana, no small boast.  Louisiana is named after a French King, not Louis Armstrong, though true royalty knows no established bloodline.  The Contessa’s mate drives in circles for eight hours at a time, five days a week, around the airport.  He sleeps eight hours a day, as often as he is able.  Sometimes he takes a long, snoring nap.  Sometimes he plays with his sons and daughters.
“I’m the mother of his seventh child!” the Contessa says.  She seems very happy and very proud.  “When you meet him, you’ll know he is the sweetest, best man there is in the diocese.”  The Archdiocese of New Orleans is made up of the following Louisiana parishes: Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, Saint Bernard, Saint Tammany, Saint Charles, Saint John the Baptist, and Washington.  The father of seven children must be the sweetest, best man in so large an area, if not all of Louisiana.  I’ll be able to witness itself, myself, if I get the chance to meet him.
The Contessa and I are sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the outer wall of St. Louis Cemetery Number 2.  The Iberville Housing Projects are across the street.  We are looking at the Contessa’s front door, off to the left behind the crooked oak tree.
“He’s going to take me away from here!” the Contessa said.  
“Away from New Orleans?”  I asked.
“He’s going to take me out of Iberville!”  Contessa said.  “He’s going to take me to Mid-City!”
Mid-City is not to be confused with Central City in New Orleans.  Nor is it to be confused with the Central Business District.  It is neither Uptown nor Downtown.  It is both and more.  It is vast.  It is home to the Criminal Court and the Orleans Parish Jail.  It is where square blocks of homes have been destroyed to replace a perfectly good hospital with a newer, smaller, shinier, less attractive, more superficially expansive model.  New Orleans is full of baubles, some are more noticeable than others.  It is Bayou Saint John. It is Ursulines Street.  It is gelato and Old World Pizza.  It is where the best snowballs can be found.  It is Greater Treme, but not Historic Treme.  It is Banks and Broad and the Fairgrounds.  Jefferson Davis is memorialized in Mid-City.  So are aluminum cans, mayonnaise, and Falstaff Beer.  
The Contessa has a pretty face.  She has skin like a soft, muslin shawl in the dark.  Her eyes are bright and her teeth are white.  She is in love.  We are sitting on a bleached sidewalk, leaning against the whitewashed outer wall of Saint Louis Cemetery Number 2 in the humid, noonday sun of a New Orleans September.  New Englanders would cry from joy if they could feel a hot sun like this in the ninth month of the year.  When the Contessa smiles, the day seems brighter, and cooler, at the same time.  She is in love.
“When I move to Mid-City, everything will be better!” the Contessa tells me.  “I’ll be happy,” she says.
I mention that she has always seemed happy living in Iberville.  She looks at me like I don’t know anything.  She looks at her front door across the street, then she looks at me again.  Then, she looks at her feet.
“I never had a good man until now.  Now I have one.”  The Contessa looks at her feet and she rubs her belly.  I see a ring on the pinky of her left hand.  Burnished tin catches the sunlight, and it sparkles in its scratches.  “His name is Jared, and he has a college degree.  He told me he is going to live with me in Mid-City.  I believe in him, and he believes in me!”
I asked Agent 11 to do a background check.  One hour and twelve dollars later, I had a dossier full of Mr. Jared O’Doul’s vital statistics and details of interest.  He does in fact have a college degree.  It is a BA in Political Science, granted by the University of New Orleans in 2004.  He does drive a bus, or a shuttle van in airport parlance, at the New Orleans Airport in Kenner.  He has been employed by the same company for eight years.
He has, in fact, if birth and baptismal certificates can be believed, fathered eleven children, not counting his begetting with the Contessa.  The mothers are scattered all over the Louisiana parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, Saint Bernard, Saint Tammany, Saint Charles, Saint John the Baptist, and Washington.  Eleven children in eight civic jurisdictions, soon to be twelve children.  It is a virile accomplishment to sire so many progeny within a single archdiocese.  What boasting rights it grants him, I cannot imagine.  There but for the grace of the angels, go thee and me.
His current address is an apartment leased under the name of a Ms. Chardonnay Mercedes.  He has lived there for six months.  
When I saw the Contessa last Tuesday, her belly was a little big bigger than when we sat in the sun outside the cemetery.   She was a picture of health.  She was the most beautiful woman on Canal Street waiting for a bus.  She smiled when she saw me, and I felt relaxed in her company.  I asked how she has been.
“I’m pregnant!” she told me.  I congratulated her.  “It’s not going to work with Jared,” she told me.  “He’s no good.  He’s been living with a dancer the whole time he was with me.  He’s been living with her, two-timing me.  No man of mine two-times me.  I gave him the rush and hit him in the head with a frying pan.”
“I’ve got myself a new man now,” the Contessa told me.  “He’s the kindest, most responsible man in the whole diocese.”  Who could this new paramour be?  I didn’t want to ask.  I complimented the Contessa on how she looked like a perfect mother.
“I don’t have any business on Saint Claude Avenue,” the Contessa confesses.  “I take the 88 bus on Tuesdays because that’s when I can talk to my man.  He’s the driver, and I sit in the front seat.  When the bus is empty at the end of the line, we get to be a little romantic.  He accepts me!
“He doesn’t take me out or anything.  We just meet on the bus.  Tomorrow, I’ll be going to Audubon Park on the Number 11.  I like it out there, and Lester has the sweetest voice when he talks.  Not just when he talks to me, but also when he talks to his passengers who don’t have the correct change, or who don’t know how to put the transfer ticket in the machine.  He is really very kindhearted and patient.”
I have always found New Orleans Regional Transit Authority employees to be professional and courteous.  Unlike mass transit workers in other cities, Boston, for instance, Philadelphia also comes to mind, NORTA drivers and conductors are cheerful ambassadors of goodwill.  They have time for every concern, and they have assistance for every handicap.  They know their routes the way they know their own neighborhoods, intimately and thoroughly.
It isn’t a surprise that a woman can fall in love with a streetcar or a bus driver in New Orleans.  The surprise is that more women don’t.  Though the NORTA mailbox is stuffed with fawning fan letters, they represent only a fraction of the annual ridership.  A lonely lady streetcar driver is as uncommon as a unicorn.  As for the men, let us only say that they have a reputation.
I had an appointment on Gravier Street, so I bid the Contessa farewell.  “Too bad,” she said, “I was hoping you would take the 88 Bus with me.  I know you would fall in love with Lester if you met him.”  I couldn’t predict if that would be the case, but the Contessa certainly looked happy on the corner of South Rampart and Canal Streets.  The day was overcast, but continued to sparkle come what may.  “Momma always told me I was a special baby,” the Contessa whispered to me, “Now I’m gonna have a special baby!”  She smiled so brightly, I could only smile back in return as I wished her godspeed.

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