A portal to the past
A classic Cajun song, “La Porte d'en Arrière (The Back Door),” written by D.L. Menard of Erath, the Cajun Hank Williams, deals with a tale of Menard’s embarrassing misfortunes that consigned him to the most obscure entrance to the family home. In Old New Orleans, this fate was dictated, not by malfeasance, but by common sense. When mules, horses, and oxen ruled the road, and they created problems requiring solutions by design. Whether named back or front, the proper point of entry would be at the rear.
Today’s environmentalists cringe at the sight and sound of a city bus hissing diesel smoke, but the ecological cost of conveyance seems to have remained constant. The carbon footprint of a heavy-breathing mule team with its collateral emission is not much different than that of the bus. However, the bus soon disappears and the air clears, while the mule team leaves a trail, but, alas, not of bread crumbs.
With animal traffic that constantly traverses the narrow streets and grand boulevards, comes a price to pay for such convenience. Offal is the polite description of the residual by-product of the toiling beasts as they towed their loads and carried their masters throughout the city. Rain or shine the burdens were borne, and with each test of the animals’ strength, an outpouring of Mother Nature’s truths lined the trampled thoroughfares, migrating only in part to the gutters. No season could better give rise to the unsavory vapors than the summer, but even the cooler periods could not mask the malodorous bequest of nature.
Early French and Spanish city planners failed to provide alleys as service ways, so the collection of refuse from homes and businesses took place at curbside. Therefore, streets of the Old Square were not just arteries of conveyance, but depositories for animal waste and garbage as well. Power washing and foo-foo spray would arrive many decades later.
Visitors often perceive the shuttered doorways and windows of the townhouses and cottages lining the sidewalks of the Vieux Carre as means of entrance – but not so. In the French Quarter, a typical home backs up to the sidewalk with shuttered openings that seldom do so. Most homes have at one side a narrow passageway leading to the rear, expanding into a courtyard or patio. Perfumed with a profusion of fragrant flora, these colorful courtyards gave respite from urban blight to the residents and their guests. The primary portal to the home was situated within the confines of this courtyard area, shielding the interior of the home from the clamor and aroma of the streets. Thus, by confusing logic, the back door is better described as the front door, but at the rear.
So, when you stop and smell the flowers in a French Quarter courtyard, savor the moment. Those of bygone times were driven to these gardens for blessed relief from the nastiness. But we, in our time, can address nature’s blessings at our will.