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Houses & shops


NEW ORLEANS -- The French Quarter is the most mysterious neighborhood in America. The 17th- and 18th-century Spanish houses hide behind their high walls, impenetrable to the casual onlooker. A rich and secret life takes place behind them, in patio gardens, along second- and third-story galleries, and in tall, fan-cooled rooms.

Slavery, murder, objection, romance and the discussion of the opera is what used to take place. Nowadays, those horrors have transmuted into other, less spectacular activities, such as lawyer orgies. Many is an attorney who sheds his and her strict redingote for the orchid silk of the after-hour bathrobe in the Vieux Care.

Real estate is so pricey in this unique corner of America that lawyers are being followed by Hollywood moneybags in search of fantasy and escape. For the newcomers the Quarter must adhere strictly to the Church of Restoration, which is the new high religion of the South from Savannah to New Orleans.

The suburbs within

Alas, many of the local realtors, out for a buck, are turning the insides of historic buildings into Highway 66 motel rooms, complete with shag, Formica and bathroom from Home Depot. The reason for this evil work is that apartments thus appointed rent for considerable prices to yet another class of newcomers, the suburban escapees. These creatures like their facades historic but their insides square.

It's so hot these days, the sweat runs down the windows of antique shops and down the backs and fronts of New Orleanians, some of whom are secretly happy because, eyes half-closed, they are guiding the path of a sweat drop to rich and giddy places. It's all in the management of sweat, trust me. At any given time, a drop is heading somewhere.

Which explains the utter lack of thought as I stroll through the French Quarter noting that houses are old shops and shops are new houses. This is a universal rule, though deduced from the French Quarter. Everything that used to be in shops is now inside people's houses. You can find all the old shops in people's houses here. But in most of America the river of household items has been swelling decade after decade through mass-production and it's only obsolescence that keeps it moving.

The old shops are still intact in the old Quarter houses, many of which have been antique shops several times already. The point of this is that everyone lives in a shop. In the old days people lived in small shops and there were fewer of them. The new people live at Wal-Mart and there are millions of them. Houses used to turn into shops but no longer: Now houses just fall apart and the shops are all new.

Only shops turn into houses now, a one-way flow with no end in sight. Except in the Vieux Carre, where the nude lawyers roam, and realtors smoke cigars.

Andrei Codrescu's new book of essays, "The Dog with the Chip in His Neck," has just been published by St. Martin's Press.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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