Excerpt: Palmyra Street

Below is the third in the series of excerpts from the Neighborhood Story Project, a writing program that documents and celebrates life in New Orleans -- the good, the bad and everything in between -- prior to Hurricane Katrina.

In "Palmyra Street," Jana Dennis explores her neighborhood, interviewing friends and family members and remembering important events. Through Jana's book, one is able to get a sense of the passage of time -- the smells, the sights and sounds -- in one of the most diverse areas of the Mid City.

"Palmyra Street: An Interview with Mark Damico"

Jana: What is it like to live in New Orleans?

Mark: I've lived in New Orleans for 25 years. You know, I've been all over the world and something always brings me back. I think it's the fact that this city has a character unlike any other city on the face of this earth. Have you ever been to Vancouver? I lived there for two years and it was the cleanest city; everybody's healthy, everybody's good looking. But the city has absolutely zero soul. There's a filthiness to this city that keeps you here. It's depth. It has atmosphere you can touch. It's pristine in its dirtiness. It's like we celebrate the fact that this city is --

J: Dirty.

M: I don't mean dirty in this like, 'Look, it's dirty.' It's just like, it's grimy and it's gritty and it smells like swamps and gunpowder, and tar and red beans. It's just a mixture of everything good and bad you can imagine. And it completely evens it out. The city has a soul. It has a very spiritual sense to it. I don't mean spiritual in the religious sense.

J: What it's like to live on Palmyra Street?

M: I've lived all over the city of New Orleans and so far this has been my favorite place. Before I was living here I was living uptown on Panola Street. I was paying about 1,200 bucks a month. I had 15-foot ceilings, two stories -- it was beautiful. And I was like, 'You know what? I want a little bit more culture.' I found this place, and immediately the first day I moved in, [a neighbor's] asking for five dollars for cigarettes and a beer. And I was like, 'This is where I want to be. This is very cool.'

J: What do you like about the neighbors?

M: I like the fact that the neighborhood is culturally diverse. It's a mishmash of every culture. You've got Asian, you got Latin, you got African American, you got me, you got everybody.

J: You?

M: And how do you classify me for God's sake! The other day I was outside talking to Kristy, my girlfriend, and the kids were on the porch saying, 'This is a black neighborhood, you should leave. This is a black neighborhood, you need to leave.'

J: Ohhh!

M: I know. 'Do I look black? I'm here.' I didn't get them. They didn't like me. I bought them M&M's; now they like me. I like the fact that it's many, many families that live in this neighborhood. I'm on a first-name basis with a lot of the children. Most of the neighbors know me by name, even though I'm rarely at home because I work so much. I love the fact that when I first moved here all the neighbors thought I was a cop -- which still perplexes me. […]

"An Interview with my mother, Mary Price"

My mother worked hard raising four children by herself. She had to be the mother and the father at one time. Growing up, my soul never was hungry, my feet were never bare, my clothes never needed washing, and my family was never homeless. This woman raised and showed me how to be independent. She showed me how to work for what I want. She's a giving person and doesn't mind cooking a meal to feed a soul. There's this thing that's happening to my mother. Little children keep coming to her when their parents need help. Sometimes she gets close with the child and then the situation changes and she doesn't see them anymore. She said she will take care of any child that comes to her until something comes up. She knows, 'My blessings is going to come one day.' Growing up, she always wanted us to try different things. She says, 'Don't be like me, be better than me.' I don't think she realizes what a high standard she's set.

Jana: Why did you move to Palmyra Street?

Mary: I found a house!

J: How do you take care of other people in the neighborhood?

M: Oh, man. Let me see. Combing hair, changing clothes, dancing, cookin'. I can't give a lot, because I don't have a lot, but what I have, I'm willing to share. So, I think that's why God kept me where I'm at. Because I don't have no problem with giving. I don't have a problem with sharing whatever I have.

J: When did you learn to cook?

M: Oooh. I learned a lot from my grandmother and I learned a lot from, I don't know --

J: Experimenting.

M: Yeah, experimenting.

J: My first time cooking, I cooked a pot of grits and I burned them.

M: But that's all right, you kept trying. I didn't stop you. I want everybody to learn how to cook. You've got to learn to feed yourself.

J: What's the role of music and singing in our family?

M: We sing it all. We sing gospel together. We sing blues together. We sing the hip hop. We do it all. We get in here, we move the table out the way and we dance. They think I can't move no more because I don't dance in front of them. I'm not that old. I can still move when I want to move.

J: How did you decide to get into the (Mardi Gras Indian tribe) Golden Arrows?

M: For you guys to experience something you never experienced before. I wanted you guys to take advantage of doing things that were positive and to try new things. I never wanted you to say, 'Well, I wish I could have done it and I didn't do it.' [My co-worker] introduced me to her neighbor Norman. He was doing Indians. I went with her because originally her daughter wanted to do it, but she didn't want to sew. She thought somebody was going to sew for her, and they told her, 'You have to sew for yourself if you want to participate.' I sewed [and my] kids participated. The first year I did four suits. And it was a year. My auntie sewed up the basic stuff and I did all the rest of it. And then the next year, it was another year. They enjoyed it and I enjoyed seeing the smiles on their faces. It was positive and, you know, it was with the community.

"A Joyful Church Service"

Sitting in church on those cold benches listening to the preacher. The church audience is nodding their heads or shouting amen. The little children are sleeping while their mothers or fathers are holding them. The parents are mad because the little children are drooling and their laps are wet. The ushers are patiently waiting for the normal to happen when someone shouts and catches the Holy Ghost. Some they can calm down by fanning and giving them some water. The preacher teaches about, "How to receive your blessing." The church audience in very touched by the sermon. Some get so excited that the start jumping, shouting and crying. After the service, the church is humble. Everyone just walks quick and quietly out the door. Well, maybe a few conversations, but that's it. It's like everyone can't wait to go home and repeat the message the preacher preached to someone else.

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