It was long before Katrina, in those hot, sticky, normal years when people complained how dry things had been. The drought made the already insubstantial dirt weak and powdery, and the piers of the shotgun houses sank into the earth. It is not unusual in New Orleans for an old house to lean, drunkenly. My favorite story was about a house that leaned so much it fell on a bar—just collapsed. Top that.
But it is not what you want to hear when you are looking for a home. You want your house to appear, well, sober. The sweet real estate lady gently reminded me that New Orleans was just special like that. The potholes were eternal. The termites were too. It was all part of the charm.
Then, perhaps afraid I was wavering, she bought me a snow cone.
Some few days later, I bought a house.
Since then, I have come to believe that the only real antidote to the mean or troubling things of late summer is a paper cone of shaved ice and a squirt of Day-Glo yellow pineapple syrup.
I am not silly enough to believe any crisis can be cooled this way. If you get a tax lien from the State of Georgia or get pulled over for speeding in a school zone in McIntosh, Alabama, a snow cone may not suffice. But if a red wasp nails you on your eyebrow, or you bounce across a New Orleans pothole and your manifold falls off into the abyss to hit a poor man in China upside the head, then a cherry shaved ice might do it. Or a grape one—you pick. Either way, your mouth turns red or purple and you look like you are 5 years old, and even that makes you happy somehow, so it's all okay.
I like pineapple because, at worst, you look a little jaundiced.
Most cities have snow cones, or snowballs, or snoballs; for some reason shaved ice and poor spelling and grammar seem entwined. I do not write much about grammar here because one reader actually told me that, since I was now writing for educated, middle-class people, I should try not to sound like I fell off a hay wagon. But that is another story.
In New Orleans, a city I lived in for just a few years but will never exorcise from my soul, there seems to be a steady supply: There is a fine snowball stand on Plum Street, not far from Loyola and Tulane. But the proverbial granddaddy of them all, Hansen's Sno-Bliz, still leans on Tchoupitoulas Street.
Hansen's, at the corner of Bordeaux Street, is thought to be the oldest in the country. The story goes that, in 1939, Ernest Hansen saw a man shaving ice from a cart and thought he could do it cleaner and better. He invented a machine that shaved fluffy ice, his wife devised the sweet syrups, and they sold snowballs under a chinaberry tree.
Katrina closed the long-standing location on Tchoupitoulas Street, and the Hansens (both in their nineties at the time) died soon after. But as New Orleans emerged, their granddaughter reopened it with the same methods, the same recipes. People who say change is good are ignorant of a great root beer snow cone.
I am glad such places survive, for I doubt seriously if I will get through this life without a few more bad days. I can't even get through McIntosh.