End of the Line

Roy Blount Jr. Reads the Fine Print

Looking between the lines in New Orleans

Illustration: barry blitt

The thing about walking in the country, you do see lots of green stretches, and trees and all, and clouds, and blue sky—and let’s all commend nature for that. But when you’re walking in an urban setting, you find much more to read. Or try to read.

Especially if the setting is New Orleans.

Let’s start off along Crescent Park, between train tracks and the big river. Tank cars are parked on the tracks: shiny new silver cylinders with official notices on them like DO NOT USE STEAM BOILING WATER OR SHARP OBJECTS TO CLEAN. ENTER CAR WITH RUBBER SOLED SHOES ONLY and DO NOT HAMMER ON CAR BODY.

Well, you’ve got to write on that.

And sometimes it’s legible: big fat gray letters outlined in black and melting over—or sitting on, or sort of draped over—a ridge at the bottom edge of the car. Letters spelling: NAME.

If you look closer, you see that the big flumpfy N is concealing the final a in a contrastingly skinny and drippy Shawndra.

A story there? Could be. But what are we to make of the wild figures that could be foreign-alphabet letters merged with numberish runes surrounded by flames or water gushes or upside-down cats and blobs of, frankly, multicolor snot, but with sharp corners?

In there somewhere, a big floppy ICH. German first-person? A sensation crying out to be scratched? I like to think I can read anything

We might have started with something easier. Decatur Street shops, T-shirts in the windows:

I AM NOT DRUNK! I am by nature a loud, friendly, clumsy person.
Let’s Drink Wine and Judge People.
I’m Not Slurring My Words. I’m Talking in Cursive.
Shut Up, Liver, You’re Fine.

I have never seen anyone in New Orleans wearing a T-shirt in this mode. Even when the people who buy these shirts get back to Akron, they may never find just the right occasion for donning It’s Not Really Drinking Alone If Your Cat Is at Home or Today Is a Day for Flying Monkeys and Alcohol.

But I read on a Louisiana-license car a bumper sticker that said, New Orleans: A Great Place to Crawl Home. I read, on a distinctly unbathed person on the street, a homemade-looking shirt that said, Stop Trying to Fix Everything—You’re Not Tequila.

Enough of the booze celebration. (They Should Put More Wine in a Bottle So There’s Enough for Two People.) Let’s take in a second-line parade, where even most of the onlookers are local. The T-shirt of a Black woman says, I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams. And the shirt of a wistful-looking white woman: Drink Water and Don’t Be Racist. 

Now let’s stroll the lower French Quarter and the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, where no trash receptacle or dumpster or sewer-access lid is left untagged: 

Sad but Rad.
Follow Your Kleemz.
Jingle and Savage.
Hello Future. Bring It!
I Hate People When There’re [sic] Not Poliet [sic].

And more clumps, or messy palimpsests, that could involve ancient symbols or just be hasty-but-poppin’ splotches. Or cat scratches over squozen éclairs. 

(Lots of store-window T-shirts involve cats. For instance, a cat surrounded by shreds of a pillow, with this statement by the cat: In My Defense, I Was Left Unsupervised.)

Moving on along, this is nice: the parked van of a family business, Taylor & Tyler Air Conditioning & Heating, with a photo of two beamish kids, presumably Taylor and Tyler, and CALL OUR DAD, HE CAN FIX IT!

On the other hand, these messages on a slate-green wall look fixed, and unfixable:

1. A swirly violent black scrawl suggesting tendrils or talons reaching to delete (and in fact managing to obscure) the G in—what looks like yellow chalk but won’t be smeared— MY BABY IS GONE.

2. A faint yellow circle surrounding a single thin loopy line that manages to form a dreamy, lost-looking You; and inside the o, another, darker, circle or spot that makes the o look like a bare, barely remembered, breast. 

Ah, well. I could show you, on a metal power pole on Bayou Road, a photo of a woman, from the back, either putting a sticker on or taking a sticker off a round red sign that says, Perdigon, whatever that means, and next to that photo are
two stickers that collectively say: