“the approach of jazz, the smell of olive, ambrosia”

An excerpt from Lives of the Saints, a novel of New Orleans, by Nancy Lemann. The whole book is a love letter to New Orleans.

At five o’clock I crossed Canal Street into the Quarter with some of the clerks to have a drink at the Royal Orleans. It was one of those mob scenes that we get in this town at frequent intervals year-round. We rely on the tourist dollar. Jammed in the narrow streets were black Cadillacs and Texans and people with cameras. I wonder in my heart, since the place is so beautiful, what it would actually be like if the Quarter were as still and deserted and lethargic as all the rest of town.

We sat in the Royal Orleans at the ground floor bar, viewing the scene through French windows. Then we went to a side street to an oyster bar. The bar had yellow pin-striped wallpaper and a dark mahogany bureau with The New York Times in stacks selling for a fortune each. We walked to another bar, with chairs set out on the sidewalk by large shuttered doors, the white marble Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals across the street, with magnolia trees and the calm bustle of a side street late at night in the balmy air.

I had taken to walking all around the Quarter until its air of debauch wearied me — I even walked down Bourbon, that height of ruin, Friday evening after work, past the strippers, the ruined architecture, and thought of my memories. It is not the frailty of my memories, but the strength of them, that causes me to recollect. Certain figures passing down the street, of life in a small town, contain a sense of fate, for each has his noble secret and each his handsome drama.

The weather had turned fine. Dark fell. I looked into the glimmering night. Suddenly, a parade came out of nowhere and passed through the unsuspecting street, heralded by African drumbeats in the distance vaguely, then the approach of jazz, the smell of olive, ambrosia, the sense of impending spectacle. Then it passed in its fleeting beauty, this glittering dirge, and, as suddenly as it came, I was left, rather stunned, in its wake.

It is this passing parade which I chronicle.

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