Notes from the Neutral Ground

Neutral grounds in New Orleans have always been places of reckoning, of understanding, of communion. These grassy areas situated between traffic flowing in opposite directions are normally littered with haphazardly-strewn couches or bowling pins or even old poetry books. The term “neutral ground” comes from the early 1800s, when New Orleans was divided into separate semi-autonomous regions by the city’s Creole and Anglo populations, which would only communicate on this ground that marked the border. When I was 17 and made my first friend from outside Louisiana, I learned that the rest of the country called these spaces “medians.” This new word didn’t sit well with me because it erased the community I associated with the neutral ground. Suddenly, that space was not about bonfires in Mid-City on New Year’s Eve, where Siobhan’s mother made gumbo and we kids ran around with blankets on our heads, pretending to be the rougarou from Cajun folklore. Nor was it about Mardi Gras, when my mother, who worked at the Burger King on St. Charles, could look through the windows while calling out order numbers and see her husband and children setting up ladders and lawn chairs. “Median” was mathematical, distant; “neutral ground” was my city, my family.

My brothers and I spent our childhood on the neutral ground. Our relationship to that space, to that state of being suspended in the middle, informed our relationships to the world and community around us. Uptown, this community looked like bowling in teams of two on the Napoleon Street neutral ground. Downtown, it looked like drinking Abitas after class on a couch that we had bought from a thrift store and dragged to the St. Claude neutral ground. With my father, this community looked like standing on ladders on the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground, dressed in costumes, holding our hand-painted signs, and trying to catch beads thrown from floats by masked parade riders.

My father is a teacher. A physical education coach, to be exact, at an elementary school across the canal from our house. He walks to work everyday, baseball cap shielding him from the Louisiana sun as he shakes his head at neighbors and friends offering him a ride. His gray tennis shoes slapping against the burning asphalt remind me of the trip that my family would take to the Nike Outlet on Tulane Avenue once every few years. When we were younger, my mother would pile me, Blayde, Zach, and whoever else was living in the house at the time into her blue van. At the store, before my father had even tried on his first pair of shoes, my mother had found a chair. Blayde, Zach, and I would occupy ourselves for the first few minutes trying on shoes, but later, we would watch as our father tried on his own. He always had to double knot the laces, walk through every aisle in the store, look in both the long mirror on the wall and the short mirror on the ground, and then approach my mother and ask for her advice. She was honest every time: “I don’t like the color” or “You don’t look like you got enough support” or “Them laces already fraying.” Eventually, Blayde, Zach, and I would grow bored, and complaining would land us back in the car with our mother driving home and telling our father to call her when he was ready to be picked up.

During these trips, my father always tried to buy two pairs of the same shoes. I don’t know how often my mother agreed, but I do know that he justified his two pairs with mornings walking to work or afternoons on the football field, training high schoolers. Behind his explanations, I remember my family’s evacuation to Ponchatoula during Hurricane Gustav. At the time there were only five of us, and I remember that week crammed in one bedroom, using the small generator to power the television and play Wii Sports during the day. At night, Blayde and Zach cried and shrieked and my own body was wracked with nightmares. I saw floodwaters seeping under our front door, moving through the hallway, and spreading through our bedrooms. I saw my father’s pair of shoes soaking in these waters while rain pounded against the storm shutters. I woke up panting night after night, lungs tight with the ghost of floodwaters. I feared drowning on the hardwood floors, so I asked my mother if I could sleep on the bed with her, but both Blayde and Zach and my father had already beat me to the mattress. She instead climbed out of bed to lie on the floor with me. After crying quietly, I fell back asleep, nestled against her chest. 

When we returned home after the hurricane, our pet turtle was miraculously still alive. The hem of my mother’s wedding dress, which had been hanging in the closet, was destroyed, along with everything that had been lying on the floor: books, toys, shoes. Our mother promised us that things were going to work out, that we would return to school and sports while she and our father returned to work. Blayde, Zach, and I groaned at the prospect of going back to school. Our mother laughed that same full, reassuring laugh as our father walked over to the closet. He looked first at the pile of water-damaged shoes on the ground, then reached over the shelf above his head and retrieved an orange box. Inside this box rested a pair of shoes identical to those that lay damaged from toxic floodwaters at his feet.

I have inherited my father’s aversion to change. His distaste for mourning and moving forward has colored my own relationship with destruction and grief. His commitment is always to the restoration of the life before. While my mother pieces together a new life for the family, my father holds onto his second pair of shoes. The orange box on the top shelf promises that his feet will still trek the same paths, that the same neighbors will offer him the same rides, and that the same sweat will bead on his neck as he politely declines—but new shoes do not promise functional storm shutters or working generators. The canned food in the back of the pantry and the gallons of clean water in the cabinets and the storm candles nestled behind old cookbooks are all strategically placed by my mother for the preservation of the family. The shoes are for my father. Now I wonder if the shoes are for me and my brothers as well, we who have inherited the way my father copes with survival. 

After every storm, something new is to be bought for the home: Hurricane Isaac and a basketball rim, Hurricane Gustav and a mailbox, my brother’s fist and a mirror. And with every new purchase, my father begs my mother to buy two. “For the next time,” he always says. I understand now that I have also picked up on his habit of pairs, of feigning preparedness: two phone chargers, two backpacks, a knife both in my pocket and in my desk drawer. Even my family seems to come in pairs, with Blayde and Zach working the basketball court together as Nick and I navigate university, Erron and Perry write from jobs outside of New Orleans, and Ladarius and Paul continue to not pick up our mother’s calls. We live in twos—Nick and I in one room, Zach and Blayde in another, my mother and father in another—and travel in twos, with my mother calling from over her shoulder, “Take one of your brothers with you!” 

Perhaps the reason I feel so lonely this Mardi Gras season is because I am one and not a pair, and I know that in being one, I have forced my family members to, in their own respects, be alone as well. And there is a vulnerability in this loneliness. Blayde will not drive to Beads by the Dozen with me to work long hours selling Mardi Gras merchandise to tourists and parade riders. My mother will not chop the maurepas on the butcher’s block in our kitchen as she demands that I continue to stir the roux. And my father will sit at the dining room table alone, with one pair of tennis shoes at the door and a second upstairs on the shelf in the closet. θ

June SassComment