Paul Greenberg / February 4, 2009

A Streetcar Named St. Charles

NEW ORLEANS – Like good ol’ Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer,” I am addicted to repetitions – to going back to the same city to see the same things, order the same meals, and experience the same sensations to see how much not they but I have changed.

It is a habit I must give up, for it can be disappointing. And when it is, it’s almost enough to make me consider trying something new. Almost.

For when nothing seems to have changed, especially me, the experience can be assuring. And familiarity breeds not contempt but contentment. I’m happy to report that taking the St. Charles Avenue streetcar is still just about the greatest bargain in the world, not just commercially but emotionally.

As befits the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcar line – it dates back to 1835 – it still goes clang, clang, clang down the tracks, affording the rider a view of simple cottages and then grand old mansions as the palms along both sides of the tracks seem to lean back for the passing car.

Only a rare McMansion mars the view and the sense of time suspended. And for a brief while all manner of people aboard become part of a single, civil, gracefully mobile community, however densely packed as you approach downtown and the French Quarter.

On this line the conductors still conduct their passengers, not just drive a trolley. There is no question about their route that they will not answer earnestly and authoritatively, but only when asked. For this is no Disney ride but a working streetcar line that people depend on to get to work and then back home.

Exact change ($1.25) is required, at least formally. When a shy young man climbs aboard with only a $5 bill, and is about to get off again abashed, the conductor tells him to stay on and see if a passenger won’t make change.

All of us go searching through our purses and wallets for singles, and when I come up with five of them, I feel a great benefactor at no cost. All on board seem gratified. The sense of civilized community – of understated bonhomie, unlike the vulgar show of it on Bourborn Street – is palpable. And that’s what I like about the South. On the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, she yet lives.

At one point, as we pass the old houses in the Garden District, every unrepaired gate or splotched wall adding to their character, there appears an ad for some kind of new-fangled paint guaranteed not to fade.

Use Permacoat, the sign says, and never paint again. How un-New Orleanian, for here rot is an art form, decay a testimonial to the passing of time, and cemeteries an attraction. Outlaw decay? What next, shall we outlaw mortality? Or at least tax death, like any other offense against decency?

For this is America, the land of the ever new, where you need never paint again, and death is considered a preventable disease.

But New Orleans is scarcely America. The whole city is a memento mori, a cheerful reminder of our mortality, an Angel of Death stopping time on St. Charles, or hiding behind a smiley face on Bourbon Street. If New Orleans is anything, surely it is the antithesis of the new.

No wonder it is the perfect city for repetitions of old experiences.

At one point in the long ride that goes by so fast, an aged black man gets on and settles down across from us on one of the old, perfectly worn wooden seats, which are probably as old as he is. He adjusts his leg getting into the streetcar just the way I do when climbing into my little convertible back home.

I diagnose the gentleman’s condition immediately. I know it well, for my bursitis, too, will act up now and then. I identify with him at once. Our common disability sweeps away any superficial differences like race, creed, color, age, residence, class, accent, history, you name it. … The ills that all flesh is heir to make us one.

It is a privilege and assurance to report that the New Orleans streetcar remains home to a literally transient but assuringly permanent community.

It’s a short ride but an educational one. And I can chalk up a successful repetition, having learned something. Or at least having been reminded of what I should have known all along. For as Dr. Johnson put it, men more frequently need to be reminded than informed.


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