Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nighttime Gardens


After months of sweltering heat, I have taken up the horrid act of running. It's an activity that I dread, especially after having tasted the pleasures of hiking in the mountains of Alaska after a long day's work. But I'm left to my own devices in a land which lies mostly below sea level, and I have no intention of ending my war on aging and staying active. So, in addition to biking to and from work, I've resolved to run a couple miles after work a few times a week.

Tonight was perhaps the second evening in a row where temperatures have dropped below 80 degrees F. On this particular day, it is 7:00pm by the time I have finally found myself sitting at home. I look at my dog, and we agree that it's a good time to go for a run. For the first time since I moved here almost four months ago, I put on a long sleeved shirt. One of those micro-fiber numbers I'd wear to go cross-country skiing in Alaska. Except that on this night I have soccer shorts on instead of thermal underwear and ski pants. I laugh knowing that it has already started snowing in Alaska, yet here I am wearing soccer shorts to go outside.

In an effort to be gentle on my aging feet, we run on the streetcar tracks down the tree-lined St. Charles Avenue. The tracks are metal rails laid almost flesh against the grass, and also serve as a path for joggers in the area. Tonight is the first run in which both Milo and I are able to keep a brisk and steady gait, thanks to the cooler temperatures; it is only 68 degrees F tonight. After ten minutes of jogging, my mind relaxes into an endorphin-laden numbness.

And then, somewhere in between my house and Audobon Park, it hits us. Both me and the dog slow down to a stop and look up and around. Where is it coming from? All I can see are the arching boughs of the oak trees above, and short, flowerless bushes along the island separating the tracks. I can't see it, I don't know where it's coming from, but it's there; a sweetness that I have never before encountered in my life. It smells like someone is slicing peaches, giant peaches, floating in the air. Milo the dog is looking around and sniffing. I don't how long it was we stood, our heads turned up towards the cool, dark sky, soaking in the sweet scent, pondering its source.

And, just at that moment, only a couple feet from where we were standing on the tracks, a streetcar passes us, glowing in the night like a car from a child's antique train set. Quietly, it slides past us, filled with a handful of passengers sitting motionlessly, wind rustling their hair, as they ride home. Like a ghost gently tapping our shoulder telling us it's time to turn around.

I am filled with lightness by the time we get back to the apartment. I recall my arrival in New Orleans in June, how scary everything seemed, how different it all was. How hot and humid it was, how stinky it was with the stale air with an omnipresent scent of trash. It stuns me that the odor of garbage has been replaced with sweetness, and that my blood no longer feels like it is boiling. I vaguely recall my neighbors Matt and Amanda talking about how nice it is here except for summer, and I remember thinking at the time that they were feeding me outright lies. But now I believe they were telling the truth, even though part of me at this very moment wonders if it is all in my imagination, and I'm not quite sure which parts are from my imagination.

The scents are real. A mix of sweet olive trees, magnolia trees, and night blooming jasmine, it pervades most of St. Charles Avenue and has for years and years. It escorts me on my run like a loyal guardian. Considered by some an invasive weed, the ubiquitousness of night blooming jasmine is a remnant of a time far past where it was planted en masse in an attempt to mask the scents of a primitive sewage system.

I don't think it masks the sewage however. With this crisp cool air, I am convinced that the scents of this nighttime garden in fact has replaced the humid odors of detritus and waste.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: New Orleans was built for the night. Of course the whole world knows that the streets of the French Quarter come alive at night with music, drink, and merriment. But only those of us who live here know of the botanical garden that awakens from its summer-long slumber, after the seasons change and the heat has decided to end its blazing torture.

Tonight I am intoxicated by the adrenaline from cool, fragrance-filled air. I sip a glass of wine, write this blog entry, I will read a short story and doze off to bed, filled with the aromatherapy that only sweet olive, magnolia trees, and night blooming jasmine can give. How lucky I am to have this nighttime garden.

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