Tuesday, April 5, 2016

On Chartres Street

We had been to a Talking Heads concert at the Superdome in New Orleans when I got mugged on Chartres Street. The whole event was pretty civilized, just the type of crime you’d want to be involved in if you were a small-town girl from Mississippi trying to learn the streets of New Orleans. After the fact, I felt like my date was as much a villain as  the mugger and I kept the grudge against him a long time.

It was 1984 and "Burning Down the House" had just been released. My sometime boyfriend lived in an apartment on Chartres Street right off Jackson Square. He was an engineer and could afford French Quarter rent as well as concert tickets. We’d seen a bunch of bands—the Neville Brothers, Doug Kershaw, The Radiators, Men Without Hats--mostly New Orleans names, but good stuff. I was on the fence about Andy, but he was wooing me with music that fall.

 Moreover, on my tiny newspaper salary, I was living almost in Chalmette, a slummy, ugly neighborhood that got famous later for being decimated when Katrina hit. I feel like it probably didn't look that different afterward. Andy’s apartment was the opposite of my cheap townhouse. He had the exposed brick walls, the wrought iron, the Cajun grocery on the corner, and the river two blocks away. It was the New Orleans cachet I’d moved down for, so I let him woo me, even though I suspected he had a more serious girlfriend in Lake Charles. I’d gone through his mail once when he ran down to the Cajun grocery for cigarettes and found a letter from her, but I let him take me to concerts anyway. It's not like I'm proud of it.

The night I got mugged we were coming back from The Talking Heads (who were awesome, by the way), and I’d found a parking place right in front of Andy's apartment. It was the only time I ever did. I don't remember why he went in without me, but I was getting a bunch of stuff out of my car, so he gave me his extra key. I fumbled with the key at the gate that led into the courtyard. I noticed a shadow that wasn't a lamp post in my peripheral vision. I looked toward it. A tall thin black guy stood there watching me. I hadn't seen any movement. He must have been standing there the whole time, watching me park and unload my car.

I didn’t know then about a lot of things. I didn’t think about the wisdom of dating someone who would lay out $150 for concert tickets but leave you on a dark street alone. I should have. Andy had left me at a Halloween party earlier that year to go off and make out with some girl dressed like a gypsy. I blew it off because I wasn’t that invested in Andy and I’d had a couple of margaritas.

I looked at the guy looking at me and wondered what I should do. Andy's apartment was through a dark courtyard and up a flight of stairs on the side of the building. I thought about my options. Unlock the gate, try to close it and go for the apartment. Or stand there and wait for what was about to go down. I knew something was.

I also didn't know if I had to re-lock the gate once I got inside or if it locked automatically. If I went through the gate, I thought, chances were he would follow me and I would get raped, robbed and killed, my corpse left under the palm trees that lined the courtyard. If I kept standing there, I would at least be out in the light. I decided crime-ridden Chartres Street was the safer choice.

I jumped when the guy spoke. "Do you need some help?"  He was still staring at me. When I look back, I don’t know what that was about, but I think he might have been procrastinating. Maybe he didn't have much experience mugging people.  So I said no. It looked like both of us wanted to get this thing over with. He rushed at me and knocked me down, grabbing my purse and breaking the strap where it looped over my shoulder. I had put my money in my pocket for the concert. He got 35 cents and my lipstick. I got up, unlocked the gate and went in to tell Andy and call the police.

About half an hour later, the police called up to Andy's apartment and told me to come down and see a suspect. When we got back on Chartres, two policemen were wrestling a man on the opposite sidewalk. He was struggling, but they had his arms pinned behind his back. He wasn't the guy. I told them so and they left.  They didn't seem that invested either, and then it was all was over.

I never got all that wily; I didn't have to. I got married a few years later and raised my kids on a calm cul-de-sac in suburbia. But that night I started being more aware. Once I picked myself up from the sidewalk, I realized my car keys had been in my purse. I made Andy come outside with me while I popped the hood and took the rotor out of the distributor cap. That way the car wouldn't start if my purse-snatcher tried to drive it away later. It was the only smart thing I did that night, but as soon as it got light, I put the rotor back in and drove away from Chartres Street for good. 

So I ended up with a bruised elbow and lost 35 cents, some lipstick and Andy. Soon after, I took a job back in Mississippi as a public relations photographer and left my ugly apartment. Andy called to tell me his car had been broken into when someone smashed the window and stole his stereo and all his mix tapes. I didn't commiserate with him. I told him I was leaving and he wanted to take me to a Police concert in Baton Rouge as a goodbye present. I thought, "Really, Andy?" I felt like there would be a little irony in our going to see The Police together.

Because I didn't quite forgave him for not being there to protect me. I blamed him about as much as the guy who knocked me down, although I should have taken his measure the night he ditched me on Halloween for the gypsy girl. My mugging made me a little smarter about assessing a situation and predicting the outcome, so I told Andy not to bother getting tickets, and I left New Orleans.

Since then I've navigated other cities without mishap--New York, DC, Atlanta, San Juan. I heard Andy got married and his engineering job took him and his wife to London. I figure like me, he probably ended up raising kids on whatever the British equivalent of a cul-de-sac is. I’m not bitter. I do hope Andy doesn’t abandon his wife at parties to go make out with gypsies.  I hope when they go out in London, she never ends up taking the rotor out of their Mini-Cooper. I don't know if she was the Lake Charles one, but ’m sure she’s a nice girl. Maybe I’m just a little bitter but I can live with it.

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