Here’s the problem with New Orleans: its residents walk a lot and talk a lot (to each other, to themselves, and sometimes to no one in particular). We’ve been here for hundreds of years, strolling the sidewalks that buttress our narrow streets, stopping to chat with neighbors, and taking streetcars more conducive to conversation than quick commutes because they travel so damned slowly. The city is flat, movement is easy — unlike the town where I grew up, which was small, decentralized, hilly, the sort of place where you’d get in the car to go anywhere, even to a neighbor’s house for coffee.
That’s what keeps us here. That’s why it’s hard for us to move to new places, places that might be geographically and meteorologically superior. Apart from New York, San Francisco, and a handful of smaller burgs like Provincetown and Savannah, there aren’t many locales that have the same convivial, walkable feel (at least not on this side of the Atlantic). And that’s why we stay, or at least why I stay: not for the 24 hour bars, not for the loose liquor laws, and certainly — certainly — not for our efficient city government.
Over the past 16 years or so — ever since I moved to my current neighborhood, the Faubourg Marigny — I’ve seen an elderly woman walking the streets. She’s a bit stooped and gray and slow, but there’s something unusual about the way she carries herself; to call it “regal” would be cliched and also inaccurate, but “semi-regal” might do. I’ve tried to catch her eye on occasion, but never had any luck. A couple of years ago, a friend told me that she was once an animator at Walt Disney Studios. That sounded like a nice rumor, exactly the kind of story you might spread about an eccentric neighbor, but I didn’t put much stock in it.
For some reason — possibly because the New Orleans Museum of Art is hosting a huge animation retrospective in conjunction with the release of the new Disney film, The Princess and the Frog — I’ve been thinking about this mystery woman lately. Yesterday morning, on my way to the gym, I saw her trudging down the sidewalk, and although I’m not ordinarily the sort of person who strikes up conversations with total strangers (I’m shy that way), I did. I turned my bike around, pulled up beside her, and with all the guileless enthusiasm of a seven-year-old, I blurted out, “Excuse me, ma’am, but I’ve heard that you were once an animator for Disney. Is that true?”
She was confused at first. She’s in her mid-80s and not as sharp as she once was. But as it turns out, my friend was right: this woman, Eva Schneider, was one of a tiny handful of women who worked in the animation studios for Walt Disney in the 1950s and 60s. When I spoke to her, she insisted that she was not an animator herself, that she was simply an assistant in the animation department. She made it sound as if she might’ve been a secretary. But when I got home, I did a little googling, and it appears that she was just being modest, or that she didn’t consider her work to be animation per se. Fact of the matter is: her presence at Disney is fairly well-documented, and she’s fondly remembered by former animators.
Over the course of a rambling, hourlong chat, she shared fragments of her life. Originally from Zürich, she must’ve come to the states around the time of World War II, landing first in New York, then moving to Los Angeles, where she worked for nearly 20 years at Disney. As I understand from our conversation (decades later, her English is still somewhat broken, and she speaks with a pronounced German accent), her father passed away around 1970, and on the advice of her nephew who lives in New Orleans, she used her inheritance to retire here. She’s never left — not even for Katrina. That photo at top, that’s from a profile run in Vanity Fair in the fall of 2005, documenting the fact that she remained in New Orleans for the storm. (She told me she stayed because she had a dog, and the authorities wouldn’t let her take him.)
Now, I know that not everyone deserves to publish a memoir or to be the subject of her/his own documentary. Certainly there are many that have bored the world to tears. But in my chat with Eva, she seemed very interesting, full of experiences that few living people ever had. I’m not so sure I could tell her life story — in fact, I’m not even sure she could — but it would hold more than my own attention.