In the late 19th century, during one of New Orleans's devastating epidemics of yellow fever, a local priest swore to build [Saint Roch] a shrine if he would save the populace, and the eerie and sublime St. Roch's Campo Santo cemetery is the result. Since then, the little Gothic chapel there has become a repository for prosthetic limbs, wooden teeth, rudimentary trusses, false eyeballs, crutches, wigs, antique braces, corsets, the detritus of disease and desperation, mostly celebrating miraculous cures but sometimes praying for the end of pain. I imagine those bits of corporeal faith floating in the waters of New Orleans, hopefully immune to the regeneration of fevers.
Saint Expedite, too, is quintessentially of this city, though through no act of his own. The story goes that, anonymous, without attribute, his statue arrived in the city with all identification lost, no address, no bill of sale, only the word "expedite" stamped on the case. And so he was christened. Now he is one of New Orleans's most popular saints, bribed for favors with sweet cakes and flowers, gazing out only yards from the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes and a larger-than-life statue of Saint Jude, which originally guarded the passage of the unknown dead through the mortuary chapel's back door straight into St. Louis Cemetery. Some people take half the sweets to Saint Expedite and some to his near neighbor, the Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, and recite the same prayers.
This is how I came to fall back in love with New Orleans. Not the self-consciously gracious Garden District with its hovering crowds of Anne Rice fans, but the French Quarter at sunrise, exposed at its most raddled, with its rancid morning-after gutters and tinny Cajun music blaring from the tawdry souvenir shops. I haunt the Warehouse District behind the tarted-up riverfront, with its long blocks of dilapidated and indignant gates and the once-prosperous merchants' rows west of Canal Street. I go where the sun rises like steam off the Mississippi and the alley cats haunt the shadows. I jog along Rampart Street, where the cops sit outside in their precinct cars smoking cigarettes with the windows down and the air conditioning going, warning tourists about crime.
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