The Empress of Royal Street
New Orleans is the only other city in America (besides New York) that exceeds its promises. The spooky sadnesss of the place envelops one like a fine perfume, and it is a writer's dream, for everyone has their story to tell. This poem was inspired by a big-hearted cabdriver, Duke, a few days after Mardi Gras.

The Empress of Royal Street

Three days ago the police came to sweep
huge piles of trash and ends of beads torn apart by greedy upstretched hands
A bog, a swamp of broken pieces and credit lines exceeded
She wasn't an obvious choice, size sixteen after one February party too many
In Decatur Street shops where wet velvet robes climb home in the first unflinching rays of Lent.

"I need a costume, she confided, "something royal, like a duchess, maybe, or an empress"
Throw me something, mister
Sweet-faced old johns still making the Louisiana Purchase outside Big Daddy's
This proud city, so content to dream for a whole country and not get paid much for it
This cobwebby city bathed in sweet smells and walked by spooky French ghosts with showbiz names

Where just uptown a sleepy cabdriver cocked an even sleepier eyebrow,
maybe the party wasn't over quite yet
If this fat woman was still getting up to dance tonight
With the dead, even-less-money spectre of July and August shimmering in the air like a hangover down the road

Or this:
"I met him in my twenty-first year as a New Orleans police officer
You can tell he was once a fine person, an educated person
But now when the river's low he moves on to the banks and sets up housekeeping
We always tried to move the drunks and the crazy people
Not leave 'em to freeze like you do in New York.
But you know the thing about crazy people honey
They don't know they're crazy
They are totally normal to themselves."

This Royal Street once past Elysian Fields
Turns into something quite different
Not too hopeful of miracles
Not too surprised by tragedy

Now, his face has streaked with tears telling the story and he takes off his glasses to wipe his eyes
Now, she regrets missing the Comus parade
Now, they idle down a street named for the worst laughingstock of a king France has ever had
Now, she wears her lack of paint better than any streets I have seen
Now, she rises to stake her claim that only in jazz were there true black American heros
Now, the airport is filled with weak broke souls who would do it all over again.
Throw me something, mister.

Chi Chi Valenti,1993

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