My cousin borrowed her daddy’s just-out-the-showroom 1954 Cadillac convertible, painted unmistakable lipstick red for a joy ride down Canal Boulevard. We were 13 years old and knew everything about everything. But just in case, before we jumped in, I asked, “Do you know how to drive?”

“You’re such a goody-two-shoes pain,” she said, almost as if I was insulting her. “Of course, I know how to drive. I’ve been driving for years. I have the keys.” She dangled them in front of me for validation.

I didn’t care if she knew how to drive or not. The words were hardly out of her mouth when I sunk into the plush white leather seats and watched as she started the engine, put the car in gear and backed into the service alley, in absolute awe of her boldness.

Nothing ever phased my cousin. She had no fear. We were the same age, but she always seemed so much more mature.

Now we left behind our parents, aunts and uncles playing cards on this bright Sunday afternoon in November. Once out of the driveway, we stopped to lower the top and to secure it with straps. Back into the car and with the windows rolled down, she hit the radio and it blared enough to bust an eardrum.

In one short block we turned onto Canal Boulevard, destination the Sunken Gardens.

The 1930s' Work Progress Administration supplied the labor that created the lavish gardens between Polk and Kenilworth streets.

We were singing with the radio and laughing like we owned the road.

“I’m gonna stop at Rockery Inn on the way home, if you want?” She looked sideways at me. “Got any money?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Forget about it. Dad always has money in the glove compartment for mommy. He calls it her emergency money.

“Rockery Inn has the best everything, and the malts are to die for. You’ve been before, right?”

I shook my head. I felt like a country bumpkin to her worldliness.

We were on our way to Rockery Inn, when she yelled above the blaring radio, “Get down.” She ducked so that her eyes and forehead were barely above the dashboard.

“Are we in trouble?”

I didn’t need to wait for an answer. I knew we were in trouble. No Rockery Inn today, maybe never.

We turned into the service alley, and my daddy and hers were standing there waiting for us. Her daddy said, “Give me the keys and go to your room.”

“Can cousin come with me?” she asked.

“No,” both daddies answered in unison.

My dad gave me a look I’ll never forget.

Almost 65 years later, the Sunken Gardens, after years of neglect and the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, have been restored to their former elegance. The Sunken Gardens still invoke the excitement of that innocence, that one beautiful Sunday in November and the only joy ride I ever had down the boulevard.

— Milan lives in Metairie


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