Making Mischief in New Orleans, Part I

I haven’t been in New Orleans since before Katrina, but I love the city. When I got to LaGuardia, all stressed out after finishing a very long, tedious proofread and having the messenger pick up the package just in the nick of time, I found it soothing to hear Southern accents all around me. Our flight was delayed because a group from Mississippi (about forty people) had been in a bus accident. Nobody was injured, but the group had been delayed and the airline held the flight rather than leaving people displaced until the next day. When they straggled onto the airplane in groups of twos and threes, some personally thanked us for waiting, as if we other passengers had anything to do with it. It was a nice thing to do, though, and it put me in a good mood for an almost three-hour flight in such tiny, cramped seats—and of course, I was behind one of those guys who insisted on reclining all the way back so he could take a nap.

I got off the plane all right in New Orleans and taxied to the bed and breakfast, which me, my friend Sarah, and her daughter Megan are renting for the week. It’s called the Dauphine House and is supposedly haunted. The owner told me that there are five ghosts in her house. One is a couple from the 1860s that she saw on the staircase; she guesses they’re from right before the Civil War based on what they wear. One is a little girl who’s about six to eight years old and likes to play in the closet near our rooms. (I think I can handle that as long as she’s not like the kid from The Changeling.) The owner believes she died during the yellow fever epidemic. There’s also a ghost who’s very concerned with money and paces one of the balconies, and then another man who’s a dapper dresser and runs around in a top hat.

I was starving after two teensy bags of peanuts on the plane so we went to eat at a place that the bed-and-breakfast owner recommended, and on the way there and back, we saw the biggest, most luxurious cockroaches I’ve ever encountered. They put mine to shame in The Collectors. With shadow, they looked as big as three inches long and didn’t move too quickly since they were busy sucking heat out of the sidewalk—that is, until we started photographing them; then they got their hustle on. With the heat and humidity, I was covered with a fine sheen of sweat by the time we came back, but I was too tired to shower. I climbed into bed and slept for the next nine hours with no visitings.

New Orleans cockroach

We had drawn up our itinerary for our time before the World Horror Convention begins and decided to go on the cemetery voodoo tour the first day. After browsing through a few shops, taking breaks from the heat, we met up with our tour guide Gwen, a natural-born Creole, she said and then explained the differences. Gwen said spirits and ghosts are attracted to large bodies of water and that’s part of the reason why New Orleans is such a spiritual place.

She took us to Saint Louis Cemetery, No. 1, where Marie Laveau’s crypt is, the great voodoo priestess. I’ve been interested in her history ever since reading Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. People leave all sorts of tributes, but I was truly puzzled by a set of nail clippers that had been set on the edge of her crypt. I know Marie owned a beauty shop, so maybe it’s referencing that? Or somebody’s looking for extra help while opening a nail salon?

nail clippers for Marie Laveau

We were taken to another crypt that apparently held a hoodoo priest, though nobody can tell his name because the face of the stone is so badly damaged. Gwen told us about the serious black magic that this guy could do, and how cops would enter locked rooms to find bodies with their throats mysteriously cut…by nobody it appeared. I’ve heard NYPD talk about similar things, coming into a room where Santeria had been practiced and just feeling oppressive, bad things. This priest’s grave was decorated by three X’s, calling for magic, and other shrine-related items that had been deposited throughout the day. My favorite—somebody’s hotel room keycard.

tributes left for a hoodoo priest

We were lucky on our tour and ran into one of Gwen’s friends who runs the Golden Feather, a Mardi Gras Indian restaurant gallery. He let us see the Mardi Gras Indian suits on display and told us how each member spends one year making his, with a design that has special significance for him. (The owner told me there are only two shops in New Orleans that carry these supplies, and now I’m wild to find them.) When the suits are completed, the Mardi Gras Indians parade in different festivals as a way to honor the American Indians who protected the enslaved people during the slave revolts.

Mardi Gras Indian suit at the Golden Feather

Our tour group was flagging at the end, and Gwen offered to take us and a few other hardy souls to visit Priestess Miriam at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and Cultural Center. Priestess Miriam was mixing up perfumes when we arrived and took a while to come to the door and let us in. She has two rooms full of shrines and altars that she’s been building since the 1990s. Gwen showed me her Burmese python and told me that Priestess Miriam reads bones, which are supposed to give really accurate, dead-on readings. I was curious about all of the Virgin of Guadalupe images that I saw in her altar room and asked Priestess Miriam about that since I have a shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. She told me that the Virgin is a door, and all doors are feminine because it’s through a woman that anybody gets into or out of this world. I definitely see the getting-into part and have to think more on the getting out, but I’m in love with the idea that all doors are feminine.

Priestess Miriam, Gwen, Megan, and Sarah

After our tour, we had a sit-down and food, and then took the streetcar along the Moon Walk. Sarah told me she had run out of stickers for Horrorfeminista, so I gave her a new load, and she did this decorating while riding the streetcar. Now our paper roaches will be alongside the real ones in New Orleans.

Horrorfeminista!

 

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The Care and Maintenance of a Shrine, Part II

I’ve used my shrine to help me focus in later years during twists and turns of my life: moving, new job situations, death, and writing. I’ve accumulated many objects that litter the top, and I’m constantly shifting things on and off of it. Permanent things include coins, especially those leftover from traveling overseas; railroad spikes that my sister found; a rusty nail; a metronome that my mother picked up at a garage sale; the ashes of my first cat Venus, who lived to be twenty years old; and one-half of a set of ceramic hands that I like to prop against Venus’s tin so she receives pets into perpetuity. Most of the objects on my shrine have been given to me, and I think that makes them more powerful and loaded with magic.

Venus'stin

For the last couple of years a green wooden birdcage that my mother gave me has been taking up prime real estate on my shrine, and I was slowly trying to fill it with a thousand origami cranes. I did this before in Austin when I was getting ready to move to New York. I found an old rusty birdcage at a thrift shop in Texas, and in the months leading up to my move, I folded origami until my fingers got sore. After that move, the cranes were set free by Valerie, when she was about three and didn’t want to take a nap; she sailed them out our attic window one at a time. I was trying to re-create this powerful surge that came from the move, its momentum, by folding another thousand cranes, but the shrine does not want repeats. It wants something bigger and better than the last performance, and it let me know.

origamicranes

With spring coming this April, I was noticing an uptick in my energy levels, and I put the changes off on the different seasons, April being my special birthday month, etc., etc. I was having bouts of insomnia and had one night where the ticking of the clock was driving me crazy. For years, I’ve been using an IKEA alarm clock that I bought for $1.99—one of the best investments I have ever made—but its ticking never bothered me before. Sometimes I actually have to hold the clock up to my ear in order to make sure that it’s working. Eventually I was able to get to sleep, but the next night the same thing happened. I felt like the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” who’s slowly being driven mad by what he thinks is a dead man’s beating heart.

I got up from my bed and discovered that the ticking was coming from a different direction than where I had placed my IKEA alarm clock. It came from my shrine. I turned on my light and located the source of the ticking—a Virgin of Guadalupe clock that had been on my shrine for almost five years. When Sarah and I visited our friend Flannery in San Francisco back in 2008, we found the Virgin of Guadalupe clocks in some store and each bought one. I put a battery in the clock when I returned home and propped it up on the shrine, but eventually the battery died and I never replaced it, having much more reliable clocks. Somehow it had recharged itself after four years.

I’m a big believer in signs, and shortly after this, I came up with a mantra involving transformation, and kept saying it to myself over and over again, waiting and thinking. My birthday came the last day of April and my sister gave me all shrine-themed presents: peacock feathers to help with the all-seeing eye, a Virgin horseshoe for luck, and a grim reaper in the shape of the Virgin of Guadalupe because I had Death as the final outcome in a tarot reading—not a card of literal death, but one symbolizing change and transformation. A friend gave me a few gifts wrapped in butterfly-printed paper, and I carefully saved the wrap, something I almost never do.

About a week ago, I finally realized what I needed to do and took that saved paper and cut out all the caterpillars and butterflies, with a lot of help from Kristi. (She can do some mean scissors work and was actually able to cut out two butterflies’ antennae, which I had given up on.) She also has shelves full of art supplies and gave me a bottle of shellac, with directions that promised a nice, shiny coat after two applications and three hours’ drying time between each.

I cleared everything off the shrine and cleaned the top of it really well. Sarah had sent me some very potent dried sage that she picked by hand off a reservation in South Dakota, which has special associations for me, since my family was stationed there for two years and my sister Karla and brother Randall were born there. I put a little pile in a seashell and burned it to spiritually cleanse the shrine, and then I spent an afternoon turning a boxful of butterflies and caterpillars into this decoupage surface.

boxfulofbutterfliesbutterflyshrine

I added gold antennae to the butterflies missing them, and then I wrote my mantra around the corners of the tabletop, signing it Aunt Kathi and drawing an ant. I think the shrine is happy now and has decided that it wants to go to my niece Phaedra next.

happyshrine

The Care and Maintenance of a Shrine, Part I

During my family’s last dark days in Germany when my father was getting ready to leave the military and we didn’t know where we would be living, my mother became involved in a hard-core Catholic group called Cursillo. She says they are known as Charismatic Catholics.

The first time she attended a weekend retreat at Saint Wenceslaus, we went to pick her up on a Sunday, excited to see her after having no mom for a couple of days. I could tell the difference that the retreat had made in her right away—she was more relaxed and happy than before she went, like she had gone to a spa treatment (though we didn’t know about spa treatments then, and definitely couldn’t afford it on my father’s tech sergeant salary). We went for a walk around the grounds later, and that’s when I encountered my first shrine to the Virgin. There was a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin inside, lots of lit candles, fresh flowers, and a large crystal.

I knew this was a special place. I had spent a lot of time playing in cemeteries before, finding a sense of peace there, but this was even better. The magpie in me wanted that crystal, and rather than leaving it at the shrine—not knowing the purpose of one yet—I toted it home. It ended up sitting on a desk or a table in a room—probably my first attempt at a shrine.

During those days I used to get terrible headaches, which were diagnosed as cluster headaches, migraine headaches, chronic sinusitis, or a psychosomatic condition, depending on which doctor I saw. My mother had a bottle of holy water from Lourdes that she had either received from her church or ordered away for, and when I was home from school with one of those headaches, she anointed me with the water, hoping to cure me. She said that the sun came in through the windows, shone through the crystal on the table, and projected an image of the Virgin on the wall above my head. Since then, me and the Virgin have been tight.

I think everybody has a little shrine to themselves, though they may not think about it this way. Their shrine is the place on a dresser where they put their wallet, pool change, accumulate movie ticket stubs and sticks of gum, showing what they’re doing in life. I remember being fascinated by my parents’ dresser top and the life I could see reflected there, and soon enough I was accumulating my own self-detritus—there was change, a house key, and other trinkets and treasures that seemed especially precious to me, a pretty rock or a small ceramic figurine of a cat. Later, grooming products were added to this, but the arrangement of items was still not a formal shrine.

The summer before I went off to college, my mother had a very close call with a gangrenous appendix. She was in ICU for a week and in the hospital for more than a month total. When she got out, we did a series of college-shopping trips before I moved on campus, always finding joy when we could score a wheelchair at the Kmart, Target, or Walmart because my mom still tired easily after her ordeal. One of the things my mother insisted on me having was a trunk for college, and since she was buying, I didn’t put up a fuss. I’ve had that trunk for more than twenty years now, and it forms the base of my current shrine. When I was in Texas, I ended up adding another trunk to elevate its tabletop.

IMG_0188

My last year in Iowa, after graduating from the university and in my second year at a full-time job, I found religious candles at a dollar or grocery store, and I started accumulating them, along with various pictures and objects that spoke to me. That’s when I first started formally keeping a shrine. My favorite candles featured the Virgin of Guadalupe and were rose scented, and there was something about her image and what she represented that made me dedicate my shrine to her.

IMG_0187

I was going through a particularly rough year when I started keeping my shrine. I realized that I was stuck in a dead-end job, and if I didn’t do something immediately, I would still be there fifteen years later with a crappy journal of about forty pages, whining about how I wasn’t doing what I wanted and married to a guy at my workplace who was very persistent. So I lit candles, propped up images of artwork that I found inspiring, and waited. Soon Susan came a-visiting from Portland, pregnant with Valerie, and asked me to come out to the West Coast. She only had to ask once—it was the opportunity, the chance, that I had been praying for, and my shrine had been instrumental in helping me focus and figure out where I needed my life to go.

A Bushwick Ghost Story

When we were shown the apartment that we are now renting, it was a disaster. There were rice and beans moldering in a pot on the stove. One bedroom had some half-empty forties in it, a stained mattress on the floor, and one of those huge toddler-killing TVs; the other was full of old-lady clothes and had a ghost of a powdery sachet scent to it. We were told that the woman who used to live in the apartment could no longer take care of herself and so she had been moved to a nursing home. We still get mail for her sometimes—Florinda Comrie, a perfectly beautiful name—usually things from the Catholic Church or old lady magazines full of things like slankets, sticks with grabby ends for pulling up socks, and mysteriously disguised sex toys because, hey, grannies want to have orgasms too.

Lately, though, I’m wondering if Florinda left so easily. Since we’ve moved into our apartment, we’ve been plagued with bad pipes. We’ve had a steam pipe burst twice in the kitchen—the same pipe—and the pipe in the bathroom burst once. Each time this has turned into an emergency where our maintenance guy has to shut down heat to the building, and we’re lucky nobody had been in the particular room when the pipe burst. This was the kind of steam heat that could flash-fry a cat or human, causing serious burns.

The situation is starting to remind me of the ghost we left in Bushwick. When Kristi and I first moved to New York, we were on a strict budget and could afford only the bare minimum in rent, which still seemed like way too much for housing. We ended up with a largish, two-bedroom railroad apartment at 393 Bushwick Avenue, right across the street from the Bushwick projects. What we noticed right away was not so much the crime, but our strange entryway. The apartment door opened up into a dining room/kitchen and bathroom, and these rooms were strangely tilted. I guess this was a common New York phenomenon because a friend at work told me, “Wait until you bake a cake.”

In the kitchen/bathroom area I noticed right away that things would tip over and move very easily. It wasn’t uncommon to be sitting in the kitchen sipping coffee and then hear a bang come from the bathroom. I’d go in and find all the shampoo and conditioner bottles tipped over or that the toothpaste had fallen off the sink. I always attributed this to the strange tilt of the front two rooms in the apartment. Sometimes the cats would come into the kitchen and just stare transfixed at the front door, as if they saw something there, and they would meow at nothing.

Our old kitchen on 393 Bushwick Avenue.

Once, not long after we moved in, two NYPD cops came to the door looking for the man who used to live there. They showed me his picture and gave me his name and asked me a lot of questions about our next-door neighbor, a skinny gay guy studying to be a teacher, who so did not fit the description of who they were looking for. After that, I noticed these large dents on the outside of our front door, as if somebody had been hammering on it, trying to beat the door down in order to get in. It really made me wonder who had lived there before us.

So things continued to move around in the front rooms of our apartment, especially if me or my sister were agitated, but I blamed this on the tilt and the idea that once something starts to go wrong everything goes wrong. And then something really scary happened. Kristi had gone home to visit my family in Iowa, and I was staying in the apartment all by myself. I stayed up until midnight, and then went to bed. There was nothing unusual about this—it was my typical workday routine. I was lying in bed about to drift off to sleep when I heard footsteps above me from the ceiling. Our apartment was on the top floor, but there was access to the roof from a skylight in the stairwell, so I thought it was one of the neighbors. A little annoying, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

I turned over and tried to sleep again, but then I heard a woman screaming, “Stop it! Stop it! Don’t come near me!” I really freaked out and ran out to the stairwell to see what in the hell was going on. There was nothing there. I walked over to the skylight that allowed access to the roof and saw that it was closed and padlocked. Once I was back in the apartment, I piled chairs and every other bit of available furniture in front of the door. In the morning I laughed at myself and chalked the whole thing up to an overactive imagination.

It was after Kristi got poked by the ghost that we realized we had something going on in the apartment. We were watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy in our kitchen when Kristi said, “Ow!” and started looking around.

“What?” I asked.

She said something poked her and thought it was one of the cats, but they were nowhere around.

Soon after that, Kristi had a dream. She said that in the dream she was an abused Latina woman, and she went into our bathroom where she saw herself in the mirror. The bathroom was painted a pale blue and pink, and it was her favorite room in the apartment because it locked and she could get away from the man who was abusing her. Kristi thought that this woman was our ghost, and if the bathroom was painted the same as how she remembered it, maybe the ghost wouldn’t be so upset and would stop poking and moving things.

I’m not crazy about baby blue and pink but I do love the Virgin of Guadalupe, so Kristi said she would paint the bathroom with a Virgin of Guadalupe theme. Kristi had to scrape the paint on the door frame to get down to the original wood, and she called me over to take a look shortly after she started. There, under layers and layers of white paint, she had found the original colors of the bathroom—a baby blue and pink in almost the exact shades that we had picked out for redecorating.

Kristi’s Virgin of Guadalupe mural in our bathroom at 393 Bushwick Avenue.

After Kristi painted her masterpiece, we did notice a decrease in objects moving around, but every once in a while the ghost would make her presence known, almost as if to say, “Hey guys, I’m still here!”