I’m the Train They Call the City of New Orleans
contributed by Terri Phillips
In the dark black dead of night we boarded the Southbound 59 at the downtown station in Memphis. The air was crisp and it felt like we were making our getaway. I pulled my hood over my head so no one would recognize me. The idling train engine was our soundtrack. We took seats upstairs facing each other and settled in for the eight hour ride. My son closed his eyes and I began to see the lights of the station move across his face as the train picked up speed. It would be his first trip to the Big Easy.
The lush green flatlands of the Delta passed by as the sun came up and the smell of chicory coffee made its way down the corridor from the dining car. In a deep Southern drawl the conductor called out stops along the way: Greenwood, Yazoo City, Hazlehurst, Jackson. The landscape began to change into a primordial scene with tree trunks reaching up out of the marshes towards salvation. An occasional white heron took off in flight across the swamps, animating the unearthly stillness of the postcard landscape outside.
That afternoon we stepped off the train and took a taxi to The Columns Hotel in the Garden district. The old mansion had survived fires and floods, tornados, Madames and Mardi Gras. After ditching our bags in the Jazz room, we took the trolley to Bourbon Street, rattling past the large oaks with green and purple beads hanging from their limbs. As we walked along this notorious street I watched my 14-year-old son watching the ladies in daisy dukes and high heels beckoning us to enter their clubs. The sound of ragtime spilled out into the street.
We kept walking. At the House of Voodoo, we went one at a time into a small room with candles where Madame Louise told our fortunes. What a relief: we will both live long lives and make lots of money. I bought small bottles of potions to scare away the devil and for inner peace.
In the morning after grits and buttermilk biscuits with honey, we took a car to the Ninth Ward. Almost a decade later, the devastation of Katrina is still visible. We drove in silence, a group of young boys blazed past us on bikes, behind them a pack of yard dogs ran fast at their wheels.
In Lafayette Cemetery we walked through isles of above-ground graves and took photographs to capture ghosts. We rifled through dusty LPs in a record store on Magazine street and found a large taxidermic Canadian Goose and perfumes made of tobacco, rose and gardenia in my favorite shop, The Avery.
The next morning we took the Algiers Ferry to the West Bank and walked along the levee in the warm breeze. There were fish jumping in the water and a guy playing trombone on the corner, then beignets with powered sugar at Café du Monde and oysters at Antoine’s. Our Memphis train would arrive at the station in the late afternoon. I had bought fresh pralines for the trip home but we ate them in the sunshine as we listened for the whistle, that’s a sound I know you’d understand.