Heat in My Childhood
Is there any other topic? Yesterday’s forecast promised a hundred degrees and with humidity to match. Knowing I was brought up in New Orleans, people sometimes ask, “Does this make you homesick?” The unequivocal answer? No, not hardly.
Age makes the difference; then there’s my best buddy, Pushkin.
When I was growing up on the edge of the Garden District, along Jackson Avenue, we all stayed in the shade and drank lots of liquids. My favorite Barq’s in the long-necked bottle was the only root beer with caffeine; I didn’t know it at the time. A&W was a distant second. Nobody of my generation wore shoes that were not necessary in the patio stockade. The only thing that pulled me out on the sizzling sidewalk were the funeral parades marching west on Dryades street.
The first live music I heard was from the bands that played dirges on the way to the African American mortuaries farther north on Jackson. In other seasons I was a boarder at Holy Cross College miles away, still in the New Orleans city limits…barely.
At the summer sounds of the cornets, trombones and French horns, I spilled out on the avenue. The moment my bare sole hit the pavement I screeched in discomfort. My target was a grass triangle with a tire sign at the intersection where parades turned. And there I rested, until I heard the bands coming back. On the way to the cemeteries, there were no more dirges and funereal beats. “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble?” joyously celebrated the deceased’s life. Only later I learned the Second Line was part of the ritual: turning and twisting umbrellas and fancy strutting.
When the music faded into the distance, the block home brought more purgatory to my burning feet. On the other hand, the next time I heard the horns I was ready again.
For sleeping we had fans that cooled only one side, while the other sweated profusely; the sheets were always wet. For escape we went downtown to Canal Street where movie “theat-ers” advertised in frosty billboards they had inside air cooled over ice; the only other places that offered respite from sweltering were banks and large Protestant churches. St. Louis Cathedral still relied on tall ceilings, fans and breezes off the Mississippi.
As for air-conditioning in cars? Forget it. Before the age of plastics, auto seats favored horsehair and wool. During the Great Depression, nobody I knew could afford leather. One boy claimed he had really seen a Rolls-Royce; the only thing I remember from the conversation was that he swore to his disbelieving audience the most luxurious limo in the world boasted tiny flower-holders inside the back doors. Really?
Otherwise, I recall pigging out on watermelon, frequently fetched from the coldest places in Southern towns: ice houses. How they came into my New Orleans homes I never figured out. But there they were in patios where we could spit the seeds; those not in flower beds had to be cleaned up.
But the time I wrote about was long ago.
My English pointer best-friend Pushkin regardless of the miserable weather must have his daily walks. He politely accepts the dog bone tributes to his canine eminence and slurps up water, to suit his fancy. But both of us are mightily relieved to reach the air-conditioned precincts that lie beyond Market Street’s only yellow door.