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A Letter From New Orleans:
So, You Ask, Just What Is This "Mojo"?
Sometimes, for brief moments only, it seems advantageous to live in a place where fear and ignorance can indiscriminately take the upper hand.
Seems two old friends in L.A. are getting married, and I want to send them something as a gift – they've both been very generous to me with their friendship and their unselfish introduction of a Looziana boy into the West Coast media community over the years. So I want to send an only-from-New-Orleans-and-only-from-me gift to celebrate their union. After much rumination I decide I will go to my favorite voodoo shop (the XXX Botanica is literally the Wal-Mart of voodoo paraphernalia) and put together a packet of lucky charms. Surely a New Orleans sort of thing, that. The XXX is out in a bad part of the Faubourg St. John area, and a bit of a drive, but I figure that the effort will make it more of a heartfelt gift.
I leave early, eager to put my plans into action. Only as I am driving do I begin to wonder if the shop will even be open. But when I pull up to an expired parking meter a little before 9 a.m., I find that they have already been doing business for several hours – "open early for your spell-casting needs," I suppose.
I walk up and down aisles stacked to the ceiling with mojos of various sorts and I finally settle on buying scented oils, three ready-made potions, a protective powder, an attraction candle and a love-in-marriage candle.
Corazon Accuardito, the owner, comes into the main room from a storage area in back. He carries an armload of small premixed tisanes in canvas bags, which I recognize as some of his best sellers. These are very specifically concocted, everything from "good luck in court" and "taxman stay away" powders to "Black Cat put the hex on them" candles. Corazon is required by law to stamp the word "alleged" on any item that is labeled as to its use, so most are unmarked. But he and his assistant know the Botanica's inventory down to the smallest item. He is happy to see me, gives me a good-natured reprimand for coming around so infrequently.
"I've been writing a film script early mornings every day, then teaching school in the afternoon, and at night and on weekends I continue renovating my ancient, crumbling house in the Marigny. This has been going on for months on end, with me working like a slave.
"I haven't gone anywhere or visited anyone," I moan.
"Pobrecito. Moving to those privileged upper classes Fidel always talked about. You looking like the corrupted gentry," Corazon replies over his shoulder, still shelving candles. "I order you as a rich landowner to spend lots of money in this poor man's store. I need to make me a bet on a certain East Coast pony. I got a strong feel handling the Picayune Sports section this morning. Money coming. Sucker money. And in you walk."
"Fine," I say, "since you always make me gamble when I come here anyway."
Corazon laughs, considering this the appropriate response between men of machismo, and goes back to business restocking and mumbling to himself as he handles his wares.
Corazon is well-known as the most powerful among the traiteurs of New Orleans. He controls much of the mojo hardware on both the East and West banks of the river, and has become a force in both the African/Creole voodoo and the Latin Santeria crowds. He and I have been buddies for over a decade, for no known reason. We have come to know each other's weaknesses well and both delight in them. We are quite similar in general approach to life, though very different in the specifics of how we deal with it. I describe the man to friends as a loyal and protective, though distant, "nice fellow," if occasionally a little scary. We have met infrequently over the past years while partying at Cuban exile nightclubs and checking out the leg at Central American festivals.
Accuardito migrated to New Orleans from Miami because his magic was considered too dark for the Florida crowd. He told me that the people there gave him respect, but were too frightened of his reputation to actually bring him their custom. Even the parish priests in Little Havana refused to hear his confession. So he moved to New Orleans, a town well-known as an Old World village where the blackest of arts seems an everyday matter, and where the XXX Botanica now sits prosperously jowl to jowl with a steakhouse in which every local politician eats at least once a week.
I go back for a final vial of "come-to-me" oil. I know that the items I bought in the shop are really only trinkets unless I get them touched and the proper words said over them.
This is the way the "serious" hoodoo community that lives with the Botanica at its center protects itself from las touristas, whether they are local or from out of town, disrespectful people who walk in the door, laughing, to buy pretty candles or bright orange spirit floor wash. The shop takes their money, hands them their souvenirs, and shows them the door. For real folks it's different. The dark-visaged woman at the cash register engages her customer's eyes for a moment, then passes her hands eloquently over each item as she rings it up. And energy flows into the piece.
I figure that since Corazon is there, I'd get the Master himself to charge the psychic batteries of my gift, and make it really special.
Twenty bucks, he asks for his blessing. He says he is broke but that his hunch on the ten-to-one pony truly needs a long-shot investment. At this point in my continuing house reconstruction, twenty bucks translates to me as six two-by-fours less for my downstairs bathroom wall. Again, I figure it's worth the money to make the offering right. I give the traiteur the cash. Corazon hoos and hahs and mumboes and jumboes and waggles his hands and puts oil on the candles and touches them with holy cards of the African saints.
These are really castoff secondhand holy cards of Catholic saints. Corazon buys the yellowing pieces of printed cardboard at a discount from a religious clearing house in Texas, and now is forming the foundation of the Accuarditos' next-generation cottage industry. Corazon's 7-year-old son is president & CEO, his main job currently consisting of darkening beatific faces each night after he does his math homework. El Presidente is paid three cents a tan.
With their heightened color, the religious figures receive different names, each a remnant of the century-old, half-remembered religions of freed slaves. Almost everyone who comes into the XXX is still a very devout practicing Catholic. The duality of beliefs never seems to worry, or even occur, to them. It also does not bother Corazon's cash register.
Or his concentration on blessing my purchases. Finally, he says "Finito." I hand him the $20 bill, and the equine seer goes to the phone to call his bookie and place the bet.
Me, I wave goodbye, carry my newly-powered-up purchases back to the car, and drive back home to the Marigny, a few blocks from the Mississippi River.
I find a Louisiana Creole Tomato box (just emptied of the last of its bounty only a few days ago, the season now sadly ending), and I pad the inside of the box with fragrant herbs from the back yard, potent fresh rosemary, germander and comfrey, dried St. John's Wort and swamp mint. Then I put in Corazon's candles and bottles and cover them with more herbs and pennies with black Xs painted on them. Uncrossing signs are protection, and reflect the evil eye, Corazon told me; that's why he's got three on his store. I then add gold-painted chicken bones (doesn't every household keep a stock of these useful items?), and skull-and-crossbones-stamped good-luck cards. I figure that this is one gift that won’t be duplicated, even at a Hollywood wedding.
I seal the whole thing up with bubble wrap, put on holographic party paper, then another layer of plain brown paper and shipping tape. I call an express delivery service to come and get it -- I have a commercial account that makes that little pickup convenience free -- and I put a note on my front door, saying that the package is hidden behind the large potted palm on the porch.
I hide it there because I can't hear the doorbell from the small cottage behind the house, where I toil away in my hodgepodge of a video-editing suite. So, the package gets hidden behind the palm.
An hour later, I go outside to see if the courier has come by yet, and there, right where I left the package, is the outer wrapping and the shipping label, crumpled and torn. No box inside. I call the express company to see if the courier simply changed the wrapping -- they sometimes think my work is not sturdy enough for shipping -- and no, they say, the courier has not yet been in my area. Won't be until 6:30 p.m. He's running late.
My gift has been stolen.
Not only that, but the thief was brazen enough to stand on my porch for the time it took to unwrap it and see the brightly colored paper inside, then take off the outer brown paper and shipping label in one piece and tauntingly leave it right where the package was originally hidden. All this up on my raised porch, at noon, and in full view of the entire neighborhood.
I am bummed. Seriously angry.
I yell for a few minutes at the walls. This has been a none-too-hospitable week, what with the frustrating logistics of old-house manual labor and attendant economic hassles, and the theft really tops it off. Then I decide that I won't let some jerk get the best of me. That I'll drive back across town to the Botanica and get exactly the same things, come back and package it and still make the 6:30 pickup. I will not be defeated.
But as I walk out the door I see a neighbor a few doors south out on the sidewalk sweeping, and I figure she might have seen the culprit who stole my package. I walk over and ask her, but no, she's been working on her front garden for over an hour and no one has passed her way except two other neighbors we both know well. I trudge back to the car, and then on an impulse continue north to the corner of the block, and look east, then west.
West. There, in the middle of the block on the sidewalk, is the decorative inner wrapping paper. I walk down, pick it up, and inspect it. It has been torn off in a single piece just like the outer wrapping. I see the young children of a Vietnamese couple I know, a pair of sweet kids, playing on the banquette across the street, and I walk over to ask if they've seen anyone. They tell me they just came outside and no one has passed by them since then, but that they had heard a commotion outside about half an hour earlier.
I am energized. I walk a few doors further to the corner hardware store, go inside and ask the owner if he's heard or seen anything. He says that he heard yelling and screaming, too, but that when he looked outside expecting to see someone being stabbed to death, all he saw were two young teenaged gang-sorts running toward Rampart Street, "hollering like the devil was after them."
I go back outside and look north up Elysian Fields Avenue.
And I see it. There, about 10 feet from the intersection, is the tomato box. I run over and pick it up. It is barely damaged at all. The top bubble wrap has just been pulled back, exposing all the mojo signs, herbs, bones. And the evil-eye-protection pennies.
The thieves thought they had robbed a hoodoo man.
Word has spread quickly. The theft occurred Thursday. Yesterday, Friday, as people walked from that northerly neighborhood past my house on their way to the Royal Street bus stop, every single person stepped quickly to the other side of the street rather than pass directly in front of my door, and the passersby only glanced back obliquely once they had passed.
Most crossed themselves before and after looking.
I called to see if Corazon's horse won. It had, and handily. I was invited to drop by the shop the next day for lunch. Senora Accuardito, in a fit of gratitude to Santa Barbara's financial gift (the Senora was receiving a newer used washing machine as a result of the long-shot), was cooking her husband a rather massive noonday repast. Corazon was to receive a third of the food, and I (as the original provider of the cash) was awarded the second portion.
The remainder was to be placed at the feet of the large plaster Santa Barbara that decorates the counter at the Tres Equis.
Gracias, Santa Barbara, gracias para los todos.
For everything. Including lunch.
© Jim Gabour
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