I am sitting in the back of a taxi heading to the French Quarter. The drive to my hotel is bumpy.
The driver glanced at me from the rearview mirror. “You always know when you’re getting near the French Quarter because the roads are bad,” he remarked. “Roads were bad before Katrina, now they’re a lot worse.”
The roads leading to the heart and soul of New Orleans are indeed rough, but so are some of the neighborhoods I see outside the cab windows. I pass rows of decrepit houses and stores, many abandoned and shuttered with closet doors. I think about frightened people passing hammers and nails to each other, desperately trying to save their homes, businesses, and sanity. I think about all the closets without doors.
“I don’t stop at some of the red lights; you good with that?” the driver asked.
I notice groups of young men sitting idly on the steps of several abandoned houses and recall reading a newspaper article about New Orleans having the highest per capita murder rate in the nation. Three pit bulls swagger next to the taxi, the large black and white male is missing an ear.
“I’m fine with that,” I replied.
The French Quarter still has a pulse and tourists are darting in and out of bars and cafes. The oldest section of New Orleans is a beautiful neighborhood crowded with buildings painted in pastel hues fashionable since the early 19th century. Elaborately designed ironwork balconies adorned with hanging plants abound. Katrina did not submerge this iconic legacy of French and Spanish settlers. A young lady hands me a flyer as I exit the taxi.
Hurricane Katrina Tour
“AMERICA ‘S WORST CATASTROPHE” An eyewitness account of the events surrounding the most devastating natural - and man-made - disaster on American soil!
Learn the history of the original city, the French Quarter, and why it was built at this particular location along the Mississippi River.
We’ll drive past an actual levee that “breached” and see the resulting devastation that displaced hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents
I toss the flyer back inside the cab.
The hotel is narrow and tucked between a bakery and a Creole restaurant; two chairs and a desk make up a lobby smaller than most walk-in closets. The night manager is busy negotiating the price of a room with an elderly couple from Michigan. I notice a group of people standing in front of the hotel listening to a tour guide. The guide is pointing his right hand at the second floor.
I ask the concierge what the group is looking at.
“Don’t pay them any mind,” he replied. “They’re part of the ghost tours that come ‘round here.”
“Why do the tours stop here?”
The concierge provides a brief but disturbing history of the hotel. I find out the building was not always a refuge for weary travelers. Built in 1832, the brown brick building was originally designed to store ice. Ships arriving from Boston delivered ice cut from frozen New England lakes to a hot and humid city. Video may have killed the radio store but refrigeration certainly dealt a death blow to the ice house business.
The concierge continued the mini history lesson. “Ice houses were sometimes used to preserve dead bodies, and the tour guides tell people about the bodies once stored in this building. Some of the guides have wild imaginations and tell people the hotel has ghosts. But it’s all a lot of nonsense.”
I walk outside and stand next to one of the tour groups. A college student wearing a black cape and top hat is lecturing to his assembly of ghost seekers.
“Malaria was once very common in this city,” he states in a loud voice, “and victims were taken to this hotel because it was filled with ice.”
The guide forgot to mention the building was an ice house before it was a hotel and nobody questioned why a hotel in New Orleans would be filled with ice.
The guide continued his commentary. “This is a very hot city and dead bodies ripen quickly. The second floor of this hotel is where the bodies were stored, packed in straw and ice.”
I glance at my room key and see the number 201.
The guide is speaking to a captivated audience. “A lot of people who stay in this hotel claim to see ghosts of children - sometimes the spirits are seen standing right over a guest’s bed.”
The group is provided a few quiet moments to take pictures of the hotel before the guide continues his supernatural tale. “Last month a hotel guest ran screaming from this building because the ghosts of two children knocked on her door late at night and asked if she could help find their parents.”
Do ghosts ever come out during the day? Why can’t parents keep better watch over their children?
I leave the group and carry my bag to my room.
My hotel room opens to a narrow hallway leading to a small bedroom. The walls are made of the same brown brick covering the outside of the building. I feel, smell, and taste moisture in the air. And the room is very dark. I swipe my fingers against moist walls blindly searching for a light switch. I flip a stubborn switch and illuminate a bedroom loosely decorated with a plain bed, small antique desk, and a large picture of a cherub hanging on the wall. Cherubs are creepy for many reasons, least of all their chubby faces and wings. The room has a gloomy atmosphere and no HBO. I hear clearly horse hooves and carriage sounds outside my window. A Hanson Carriage stops directly below my room. I watch the driver point to my room and a lady passenger places her hand to her mouth. I guess college students are not the only tour guides with vivid imaginations.
I slept lightly during the night and was not interrupted by any spectral intruders. The bedroom light flickered occasionally and I covered the picture of the Cherub with a bath towel.
The next morning I sat in a French café and enjoyed a croissant. The local news headline concerned a drive-by shooting that claimed the life of a 16-year-old teenager in the city’s Ninth Ward.
I have seen the ghosts of New Orleans but they do not go bump in the night or seek help looking for long dead parents. The past cannot bring forth ethereal spirits to frighten our lives. Only the present can summon the images of the dead and the dying. The ghosts of New Orleans are real and can be found sitting idly on the steps of abandoned houses. Sadly, like all ghosts, they don’t know they are among the dead.
The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.