End of the Line

Courtyard Reporter

Seeking solace — and inspiration — behind the house

Illustration: Illustration by Barry Blitt

We own a courtyard now. Cool. Previously, we only rented, for three months each winter, this great old French Quarter house that we love. Now, we own it. Complete with courtyard.

When people ask how it is to have the great good fortune to own a piece of old New Orleans, here is what I say: Renting it was like getting high. Owning it is like being addicted.

Which is cool. But take the courtyard. Now that I own it, I realize that I am not a courtyard guy. I am more of a backyard guy. In western Massachusetts, where we have been spending most of the year and now will spend half of it, we have a nice backyard, with a little rock garden at one end, a compost heap and a woodpile at the other, and an old millstream along the side. I like to get out and poke around in that yard. I don’t know how to poke around in a courtyard. In a nice loose backyard there is plenty of room for tweaking and trimming and helping along. Our courtyard needs, if anything, restraining. It fills the space. Our courtyard lives here.

I know how to drink in a courtyard (though the local expression “getting day drunk” is a little too chipperly dissolute for me)—but when I say that, I mean I know how to drink in other people’s courtyards. At their invitation. And they’re there with me. I don’t want to be sitting around at home drinking because a courtyard calls for it.

Some plants that grow in New Orleans: Rangoon creeper, drunken sailor, creeping daisy, rattlesnake master, confederate jasmine, love-in-a-tangle, Cuban belly palm, sunset muskmallow, annual wormwood, tongue fern, poison bulb, shrubby germander, bear’s breech, possum haw holly, brown-eyed grass (a.k.a. “quaint and queer”), hairy toad lily, walking iris, biscuit flower. I don’t think our courtyard has any of those, and I am glad, because a background of that vegetation would turn anybody into an old courtyard sipper.

We do have a big oak tree. Not one of those beautiful live oaks, which would be spreading out over the whole courtyard with roots erupting from the soil. (The soil of our courtyard is silty and gray, like oyster shells and lush reminiscence ground exceedingly fine.) Our oak is the kind that our insurance company says we have to trim back because it threatens the house but the tree man says that’s nonsense—if we trim it back we’ll damage the tree. We have a big patch of cast-iron plant—a pointy, bunchy number—that our cat, Jimmy, disappears up into. Jimmy is a Louisiana native, but from bayou country. Not really a courtyard cat. A courtyard cat would be named something more like Eulalie. But Jimmy adapts. Why can’t I?

Our courtyard has a banana tree. One winter we had a frost, and the banana tree got zapped. Not killed, but thrown into dishabille. A frost-zapped banana tree looks sort of like an old person’s tumbled voluminous petticoats.

Speaking of intimate apparel: None of mine is courtyard compatible. A courtyard, writes Allison Alsup at GoNOLA.com, is “a quick flash of green glimpsed through a narrow iron gate or the brief sound of a trickling fountain.” Courtyards, she goes on, “are the architectural equivalent of whispers, or even lingerie.” The whole image of the French Quarter would fade if too many passersby glimpsed me in my courtyard in my pajamas. I am more at home as a glimpser than as the glimpsed or owner of the glimpsed. Do strangers who glance through our gate think they’re stealing a peek at our nightie? “Hey, your courtyard’s showing!” Our courtyard has no fountain, thank God. Show me something that trickles and I’ll show you something that gets stopped up, gets backed up, starts seeping everywhere; and try to find a fountain-qualified plumber during Jazz Fest.

Back when this great old house was built, a courtyard was not a place of enchantment. It was where down-to-earth Creoles kept sheep, boiled laundry, cleaned fish. Then bohemians and protractedly suicidal gentry took over and turned courtyards into sources of exotic inspiration.

Which goes to the heart of my problem: By now, our courtyard should have imbued my prose style with all sorts of new yet ageless, lurid, sultry hues. Has it? I didn’t think so. Somehow I’m not connecting. Whoa! There’s Jimmy, springing from the cast-iron plant. He’s got a lizard! There must be a lizard somewhere here for me.