A Monthly Series Series about Growing Up in New Orleans
Once, my daddy borrowed a Jeep from the Civil Air Patrol where he was a volunteer pilot. It may have been his way of reliving his glory days in the Army Air Corps; I'm not sure. One thing I was sure of, though, was that raising a bunch of hellcat children was not glorified. Whether it was moving or not, we piled into that Jeep like Army rangers fighting the Germans or the Japanese. I think my dad had a thing for collecting vehicles because another addition to the fleet was a red, 1964 Impala, which at some point in my teens became my assigned jalopy. Barge, really. It would often whisk me away to Melius’ on Conti or Nick’s on Tulane or Molly’s By The Market on Decatur. The steering wheel was about the size of a sewer cover or a garbage can lid, and I could barely get in the 10 and 2 o’clock position. Like it's namesake, the Impala lurched. However, this only occurred going uphill; so, when Amy and I would climb the high rise across the Industrial Canal, we bumbled and heaved and jerked all the way up. And we giggled. A lot. Our laughter revealing much-too-late applied silver from our braces.
In The East, as well as in other parts of the city, lawns organically became driveways and parking lots. Unintentional, they were simply the product of big families, which were and are a thing in the Big Easy. The Big-Easy-baby-making machine, I guess. (It was a predominantly Catholic city, after all.) Also, when Nash Roberts, our local weatherman, forecasted flash floods, hurricanes, strong storms and the like, everyone would move whatever they drove to higher ground. Higher ground included “neutral grounds,” what people in normal places would call medians. To this day, if you see a car parked on a neutral ground, it means the below-sea-level city will most likely flood.
My daddy’s regular parking spot at home—not just for storms—was on the side of the bona fide and paved driveway, and adjacent to the carport. In and out he drove until ruts formed in the grass, making it an unofficial-official place to station his truck. He didn’t go so far as placing crushed clam shells in the grooves like some folks did, which was fine by me because those suckers hurt my bare feet. And my feet were always bare.
Beneath a trucker’s cap and a literal blue-collared work shirt, I can see J.W. driving his light blue Chevy with the partially rusted out floorboard that invoked Flintstone-like possibilities. When we got up speed, like on I-10, metal flakes would spin through the cab like a russet tornado. Once, Jesse and I put on work goggles so that the rust specks wouldn’t pierce our eyes during the trip. Later, my daddy switched to a midnight blue Toyota truck, which couldn’t haul the mess of kids he had like the Chevy; anyway, we were larger humans at that point and had our own jalopies by then.
Garages were more or less foreign in the suburbs of New Orleans, except in some areas, like Uptown or Metairie. Carports were and still are the fashion. “Ports” for your “cars,” if you will. We wouldn't. Ours was not used for its intended purpose, of course. What was? With five kids, two adults and the occasional maw maw visiting, you accumulate stuff. Lots of stuff. Our carport was the patio, plant nursery, zoo, slaughterhouse. It’s where J.W. sat in the old tattered whicker rocker and lit up one Viceroy after another. After his heart surgery, it's where he sneak-smoked until the nicotine sticks killed him.
Because we were a family of hunters, the carport sometimes displayed murdered animals, much to my disdain. On more than one occasion, I skipped home from Sherwood Forest Elementary only to find a dead buck hanging upside down from the carport ceiling. Sometimes the poor critter would be half-skinned, a Rorschach of brown and maroon. At other times, the beast was already pared, beautiful hide fully removed, the red meat screaming out to me. Run away! Because I was an animal lover, I inevitably averted my hazel eyes, staring instead at my momma’s begonias or spiky aloes next to the windows.
The misapplied space wasn’t just used for dead animals, however. From another part of the ceiling near the utility shed (where my daddy's tools spilled out as one big rusty blob), a huge cage (say, 3 by 2 feet) dangled. Inside the cage, Pete, our rescued flying squirrel skittered, display his little cape. The pen featured a little swing on which Pete could loiter and see the going-ons of the humans on the porch. Or his deceased deer brethren. My daddy fed feed Pete with an eye dropper before he ate solid food. Pete mostly ate peanuts after that.
Before the contraption inhabited Pete, it housed Speedy, our blue racer. I guess Speedy wasn’t speedy enough to outrun Walter or Jesse or Reggie, my brothers, and so was captured somewhere in the high St. Augustine grass and weeds surrounding the house. I never touched, fed or even looked closely at Speedy, but did glance from a safe distance at the horizontal black line zig-zagging through the grass-covered floor. Poor Speedy.