Young voices of New Orleans: Nicola Preuss
Nicola Preuss is a creative writing student at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. She started journaling when she was younger and discovered poetry, which led to an intensive study of various writing genres, such as fiction, prose, personal essays, playwriting, and magical realism.
For twenty years, my family ran a restaurant in the French Quarter on Conti Street - Broussard’s. Ever since I was a child, my weeks would be full of hours at the restaurant eating dinner, doing homework, or playing “office” in the actual offices upstairs. The restaurant was where I would spend time with my grandparents, who were always busy introducing me to the next local friend.
The place was full of stories, including the fact that the property was bought from the Marcello family - a family well known for organized gang violence in the city.
Even more stories came about since the beautiful Herman Grimma House was in the back of the courtyard of our restaurant. We would often share weddings between the land - using the Herman Grimma House’s long brick aisle through the garden. In passing, I remember seeing the old slave quarters of the Herman Grimma House. That was normal for me. It was everyday life, and I soon realized that this wasn’t the case for others.
For a middle school field trip, I found myself venturing in a group filing in and out through small, cramped rooms that aligned the balcony of the Herman Grimma House. Everyone was silent. It felt odd to be so familiar with the house’s courtyard yet not truly have any sense or knowledge about the history of the building.
When I learned about the slave quarters and how the house used to be a plantation, our restaurant and that house had a new meaning. I must’ve looked at that house a thousand more times afterwards, but this time with eyes that knew the history of the place. I could see that house as the old plantation that it was, with the horse stables and the slave quarters at the top. It inspired me to think more about place, remembering that in New Orleans most places have many lives.
It led me to unexplored areas, like the third floor of our restaurant. I had visited the third floor of our restaurant only a few times – I usually kept away from it due to my fear of the flickering stairway light and the cold, dark, and empty feel. There were boxes of coke products and extra glasses to add some normalcy; yet, I always felt like I was being watched up there. It was a very sad place to go in, and even more than that, I had heard it was haunted.
Our cheerful bartender, who had been a close family favorite, had told us about the footsteps he had heard in the attic, only to find out there was no one there. The hostess who usually worked till 2 a.m. showed me photographs she had taken of the courtyard, in between both old slave quarters. The photos had visible orbs - some darker than others, some huge and some small. All of those orbs, though, were in the air. Then there was the story told by the younger accountants who worked in the office upstairs. They'd also heard footsteps – these coming from the narrow stairwell leading to the door of the offices.
These stories terrified me, for I always thought that speaking of ghosts made them angry, but it also sparked my curiosity.
I wasn’t sure - nor am I currently sure - if ghosts are real, but it’s on my mind. That curiosity hasn't left me, nor have the memories I made as a child on Conti street. All of those times still play a role in my life. It was in those years spent at the restaurant in the heart of the French Quarter that I created a big part of myself. I spent those years trying to figure out the people of my city and experiencing and witnessing many odd-natured events that most kids do not see. Whether it was watching bar hoppers on Bourbon or walking through the busy streets and clumps of tourists to get to school and doctor appointments past Poydras, it all made an impact on who I've become.
I was exposed to fights that would unravel from the corner, where the most famous block of strip clubs and bars were located, and I watched as my father seemed uncomfortably too used to it all. The sounds and sights of ambulances became familiar to me, and I would even wander outside the restaurant some nights to look at the chaos of the streets at night time, leaning onto the building’s poles and getting lost in the sounds of sirens, drunken slurs, and passing conversation. It was the beginning of my breaking of innocence, and from this, I have learned what feels like everything.
Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at [email protected].