As a child growing up in New Orleans, I was used to the pleasures of Audubon Park, in particular its zoo and the miniature railway. My mother’s brothers and sisters would regularly bring all my cousins to the city on a Sunday afternoon, and we would commandeer one of the public picnic tables. My aunts would open their coolers and set out bowls of potato salad and plates of cold cuts and jars of pickles and mustard and mayonnaise. As the afternoon progressed, it would become clear who had gravitated toward the tall-neck bottles of Jax beer in some of our coolers and who had stayed with what people in Louisiana called soft drinks. I recall such open-air meals as a welcome reprieve during those years before home air-conditioning.
As a college student, I had not outgrown all that Audubon Park offered. In free time between classes, I would sometimes cross St. Charles Avenue and settle with my books and binders in one of the gazebos with which the park was dotted. The structures were old even at that time, and layers of dark-green outdoor paint gave the benches a rustic, uneven feel. I could have studied at my usual desk in the stacks of the university library, but I was regularly drawn in good weather to savor the quiet of the great city park in the middle of a weekday. Overlooking what was termed a lagoon, the closest gazebo to the campus was a setting that fostered in me not just study but deep and wide-ranging reflection.
On my recent visit to the city, I joined my brother for a Saturday morning walk around Audubon Park. Although we were part of a steady stream of walkers and joggers on the pedestrian roadways, the sudden appearance of the familiar gazebo stopped me. Without walls, it had been, I realized, another era's response to the confines of rooms; it had been an invitation to relax and breathe more easily and think more widely.
There was no time to sit just then and interrupt my brother’s constitutional, but I pulled out my phone to take a picture of my old haunt. The digital image would signal me on my return home to think back to this place, to appreciate how it had been the precursor of many quiet spots that I have found over the years to enjoy an hour of meditation and whimsy.
Black-and-white image from the Audubon Institute