Three years ago, my cousin Glynda, asked if I wanted to go to New Orleans for Halloween with her and her husband Mike. Heck yeah, I wanted to go. Under normal circumstances my answer would have been yes, but especially three years ago, Glynda had been diagnosed with cancer a few months earlier and I’d been spending my weekends at her house. The fact that she was feeling good enough to go was great. I could give Mike a break with the driving – his shoulder and knee were being jerks – and Glynda could lie down in the backseat if she needed.
I was a morning person and liked to wander the city alone, Glynda and Mike liked to sleep in. I was completely on my own to browse the bookstores, alleys, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and dive bars that make NOLA one of my favorite eavesdropping and people watching places on the planet. We could all escape reality for a few days. I was there if she needed me or wanted to hang out, but turned out she didn’t need me at all. She thrived in New Orleans. That alone would have made the trip worth it, but it was only the beginning.
I knew that it was going to be more than just the regular New Orleans magic when a street guy came up to me on St. Anne. I was listening to a group of young musicians and watching the crowd for stories when a fiftyish year old guy pulled an orange out of his backpack and handed it to me. Now, I’d been handing out food I’d stashed from the hotel’s continental breakfast all morning. This guy was someone I would have offered a granola bar to. He was thin and hungry looking, in need of a good hot shower. But he was happy and offering me a gift.
I smiled at him, confused. He said. “This is for you. We are from the swamps girl – I can see it in your eyes. You are one of us.” I teared up, speechless. Then he said, “If you need anything while you’re here, if you get in any kind of trouble or if anybody messes with you, you look for me.” Then he walked off to sit with his friends. I waited until the next song, walked behind him and slid the orange back into his backpack without him noticing. It was the thought that counted – that I kept.
I love every single thing about New Orleans. The smells, the colors, the old bricks and wrought iron. Every glimpse through a gate to a back patio between shotgun houses, the trees. The artwork, the bookstores. But most of all, I love the people. The gutter punks, the train jumpers, the artists. The music at every corner and the street performers. On that trip, I was pulled off the sidewalk to remove a two-foot sword from a sword swallower’s throat, was lassoed by a cowboy, and followed a guy for three blocks because he had a cat on his backpack. Just because.
I met a sweet lady and her dog, Penny Rue, who needed surgery. The lady spent the money she had saved up for a trip to take care of her pup. She didn’t want any money or anything from me – she just wanted to tell me about her little Chihuahua and talk to me about God. “He’s always looking out for us, you know? You included.” she said.
One day, just for the hell of it, I wore a black dress and an old, black hat with netting I found at Goodwill. It was a hit. I made lots of friends wearing that hat. People on bicycles rang their bells, pedestrians stopped to ask for pictures – it was nuts. I had a couple of people ask me who I was, and I assured them nobody they’d ever heard of. When I stopped for lunch I met two men who asked me about the hat and then they asked for a picture. I laughed and said only if they tried it on and let me get a picture, too. I don’t remember their names, but I do remember their laughs.
Already I’m thinking that this trip was the best. Glynda was feeling good. The sweet street guy, the sword swallower, the music, Penny Rue. The different reactions I’d gotten with the hat. Lots of fodder for stories. If we had left the next day I would have been satisfied. Little did I know things hadn’t even started to get interesting.
Halloween night finally arrived and I decided to really get in the spirit. I’d made a top hat back in Nashville in honor of Papa Julian, a character in my newest story, and figured what the hell? I’m in New Orleans – so I painted my face and hit the street.
I was meeting Glynda and Mike at Voodoo Authentica on Dumaine for the VOODOOFEST celebration. It was going to be a party for sure, but what I was most excited about was seeing a real Vodou Priestess, possibly get to shake her hand. Glynda told me earlier to bring my manuscripts and ask Mama Lola to bless them, so I stuck them in my purse.
I got there early and watched as four or five women all dressed in white filled a table with food and drinks. Gumbo, Jambalaya, rice, chicken, beans… Everything was free, set out for whoever was hungry. Donations were appreciated, but not expected. Man, good vibes everywhere.
There was a crew of people working to set up a small stage and unfold chairs on the street that had been blocked off. Soon, Glynda and Mike came, then more people. People of all colors. People in costumes and people in street clothes. Young people, old people and everything in between. A man walked up wearing a linen shirt and Glynda introduced me. His name was Gene – they had met years before at VOODOOFEST and were good friends. I found out that he had been dubbed Mama Lola’s husband by the priestess herself. About the time it was sinking in that I was surrounded by people that knew Mama Lola, she arrived.
Glynda, Mike and Gene hugged her. Then Glynda introduced me and I shook her hand. She held it for a minute before she let go.
It was obvious by the way the crowd reacted that she was something special. And you felt it. She was powerful, and beautiful, wearing a purple headscarf and red shawl – Marie Theresa Alourdes Macena Champagne Lovinski – was immediately surrounded by people. She laughed and greeted everybody. I picked a seat by myself a couple of rows away, Glynda was wandering around – visiting the owners of the house behind us and getting a tour, because she never meets a stranger. I was happy to sit and watch as people by the dozens made their way to the priestess.
Mama Lola looked around like she was looking for somebody and then her eyes stopped on me. She pointed. Then said – no – demanded, “You. Pretty girl, come sit by me.”
When I could stand, I went and sat beside her. I thought about the manuscripts in my purse, but I lost my nerve. Everybody was bringing her gifts and I was empty handed. I didn’t have the guts, or felt like I had the right, to ask her for anything, so I just sat beside her and listened to the stories.
After the serious business was finished, and the music and dancing started, Mama Lola left and I came back to earth. I learned that Gene had gotten a reading for Glynda with Mama Lola the next day at the shop. That was a huge deal because there was a long waiting list to get a reading. As we were high fiving each other, Glynda asked how the blessing went. I told her I’d chickened out.
She pointed to a young guy dancing. “He’s a Voodoo Priest, his name is Jesse. Have him bless your stuff.”
That I could do. He was not as intimidating as the legend I’d been sitting by. He was adorable, in a relationship with one of the pretty women in white (who I found out later owned the shop), and he was younger than me. Plus, he was wearing a t-shirt and a baseball cap, dancing with three drunk blondes from somewhere up north. Mama Lola had been a regal priestess. Jesse was approachable, he reminded me of my little brother.
I pulled the manuscripts out of my purse and walked over. Jesse was translating the lyrics of the Cajun song while the women flirted and swooned at his French Cajun accent and spilled rum on their shoes. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
“I don’t want to interrupt, I’ll wait until after this song.” I yelled over the music.He held his arms out and yelled back, “No bettah time than the present. Whatcha got fo me?”
So I told him what I had and asked if he would bless them.
“Sho thang, darlin’. Hand ’em ovah.” And he proceeded to dance and rub the binders across his chest and then his stomach for good measure while the women laughed. I laughed. What the hell, I started dancing, too. It was silly and fun and, well, why not?
All of a sudden he stopped dancing and got serious. He never opened the covers or looked at a single page. He stepped closer and stared at me. I quit laughing.
“These will do well. How can they not? You are a writer – you have a writer’s spirit. And there is another writer’s spirit all around you. All of the time.” Then he grabbed me and hugged me hard enough to pop my spine.
We danced some more and laughed some more and rum, gin and other bottles of unlabeled liquor were passed around and I took a drink from each one. Then I said goodbye to Jesse and walked back to my room happy to be alive and full.
The trip was already more than I had hoped for. But I’m not finished yet.
The next morning as I was coming back to my room after a trip to Café Du Monde for coffee and beignets I ran into Gene in the lobby of Place d’Armes.
“I have bad news.” he said.
“Oh, shit.” I said.
“But I have good news” he smiled.
“Oh, sorry.” I said.
“Mama Lola isn’t feeling up to coming in to the city, so she can’t do the reading at the shop. But the good news is, she still wants to do the reading. She’s going to have a driver come to take Glynda to her place in the Ninth Ward.”
I knew Glynda would be okay with that.
“Will you let her know? You two be ready, he’ll be here in an hour.” Gene said.
“Oh, what? Me?”
Gene smiled, “Mama Lola wants you to come.”
I ran to my room, called Glynda and gave her the news. When we went down to the lobby to meet Gene later, guess who was driving the car that pulled up to take us to Mama Lola’s? Jesse, the voodoo priest from the night before.
On the way to Mama Lola’s place Glynda asked Jesse some great questions and I tried to hear every answer. When he said that he was from Houma, I perked up. My main character in the novel grew up in Houma. I looked up and he was smiling at me in the rearview mirror.
When we stopped in front of the house, Jesse held my door open. I said, “My character is from Houma.”
He grinned. “I know.”
We went inside and were met by Brandi, Jesse’s girlfriend and owner of the shop, and Mama Lola’s daughter. They hugged us and ushered us in. Mama Lola was sitting in her chair. She smiled and gave us hugs, then told us to have a seat on the sofa.
We sat and talked for over an hour, but nobody mentioned a reading. Jesse told jokes and stories, people stopped by to say hello, two little girls ran in and out and time flew by. Finally, Mama Lola spoke. She said she was hungry and that Jesse needed to feed us. I was loving it, but Glynda gave me a look and shrugged. We looked at Gene and he smiled. Jesse left and came back with a buffet. He made three different stops at Mama Lola’s favorite places. There was gumbo from one place, rice from a Chinese place and chicken wings from another. It was a delicious meal – sounds kinda weird, but trust me.
After we ate, Jesse handed me a book about the history of Houma. “You might find some interesting stuff in there.” he said. I started to thumb through it, but people kept coming in and I didn’t want to be rude. At some point I closed the book with my finger inside. I hadn’t read a single word.
Mama Lola’s granddaughter, an adorable kid about eight or nine years old, came and sat beside me. She and the other girl had been playing outside, but something happened on the playground and she came in to tell all about it. Mama Lola hushed her and told her to go in the back room and watch TV, but she leaned into me instead – the only one who didn’t jump when Mama Lola spoke. It cracked me up. I gave her a hug and rubbed her shoulder. She went from a high wired talkative kid to putty in less than a minute. After a few minutes she was falling asleep. Mama Lola pointed at me, laughing her great big laugh, and said, “Oh, girl. I knew you were a strong one.”
About an hour later, after the kids had gone to the other room, Mama Lola announced that she wasn’t feeling well and needed to lie down. Glynda cut her eyes to me. Mama Lola said that her daughter would do the reading and asked Jesse to push her to her room. No goodbyes, no explanations, nothing. I LOVED her.
Glynda followed Maggie to another room and I looked at the book in my hand, opening it to the page I had stopped on. Right above my finger it said Alphonse (maybe?) somebody was an oyster fisherman from Houma Louisiana. I sat up a little straighter – in my story Lil’s grandfather was an oyster fisherman from Houma. It was such a weird coincidence.
“That’s my grandfather.” Jesse said from across the room. I looked at him. He was sitting on the floor, I was on the sofa. There was a coffee table between us. There was no way he could see what page I was on or what I was looking at.
“My character’s grandfather was a…” I started to say.
“I know.” he grinned.
“Well, then.” I said and we all laughed. What else could you do, but laugh?
Jesse took us back to the hotel soon after that and life returned to normal. Back to Tennesse, back to work and the stressful, crazy, life that makes you forget how lucky you are.
I’d forgotten about the magic that happened three years ago, until I was working on the synopsis for PAPA JEWEL’S CHOSEN ONE – the name I finally decided on. I still have the original manuscript with the cover page that just says – WREN, LIL, TOM WAITS and a TOP HAT that Jesse blessed.
And it still smells like Florida Water, rum, and the clean sweat of a Voodoo Priest who lives in Houma, LA and knows everything about everything, but keeps it to himself.