I have lived here going on five years now, and remain infatuated with the city, and this unique segment of it.
Some good friends of ours have a condeaux (colloquial spelling, so sayeth the whimsical plaque hanging on the courtyard wall) that they use for weekend getaways. They play tourist in their own hometown, taking in the sights of the Quarter and the Marigny; live music on Frenchmen Street, plays at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, various restaurants. Sometimes they just hang in the Quarter.
When they are not test driving retirement, they sometimes make it available to friends. This is my lucky night.
Right around the corner, and literally seventy feet as the crow flies, is the former home of Tennessee Williams. From the courtyard I am sitting in, I could easily toss a baseball onto Tennessee’s former roof. The proximity of his home to Peterson’s condeaux was a surprise to them, as I discovered it on my first visit to their getaway neighborhood, as I read the bronze historic marker affixed to the wall of the structure. That is my compulsion here in the Quarter, where it is nearly impossible to travel a full block without some sort of wall-mounted commemorative alloy indicator of some sort.
This is no New England ‘George-Washington-slept-here-yeah-right’ tourist gimmick.
A casual stroll in any direction of the French Quarter is a history lesson to be absorbed: the tribulations of Spanish ownership and French possession, the days of Jean Lafitte, Marie Leveaux and other sundry rogues are all venerated in ample, forged bronze. Jazz greats and their many milestones as a genre was birthed and the purest of American art forms evolved are also celebrated. There are notable pirates, heroes and villains. Painters and writers. Scalawags and incognito ne’er-do-well share historical marker space with captains of industry and high society madams. Generals, governors, future presidents – an array of historical pomp and circumstance –all here for the fascinating, abbreviated reading. There are also trumpet players, trombonists, drummers, pianists and producers to be celebrated. All get their due, because they spent time here. They came here to pillage, conquer, control, carouse and create in. They came to write.
Tennessee Williams wrote here. So did William Faulkner. Tonight, I do too.
I picked up a six pack of Abita Amber on my way down to the Quarter, where the courtyard, a small café table and comfortable chair await. The beer is satisfying, the night crisp enough to keep it adequately chilled, the atmosphere and inspiration keeps keyboard fingers warm and nimble even as the unseasonable temperature dips into the forties.
Upon my arrival, while truffle-pigging a rare, elusively available, Quarter parking spot, I encountered a couple of horse and mule drawn carriages on tour, and hoped that once ensconced in the courtyard and at my keyboard, the sounds of hooves on pavement and cobblestone would add to the mystique. Instead, the thick walls, and the condeaux location at the back of what was once a fine antebellum home (their condeaux – all 300 square feet of it – is the former slave quarters) leave me isolated from most of the traffic and neighborhood noise, save the occasional police siren and barking of a few large dogs.
I type, sip beer, revel in every moment.
The silence is crashed by surprising and lengthy horn blasts from the Steamboat Natchez, announcing her return from the evening dinner cruise up the Mississippi. The long, slow, steam whistle is comforting Greek chorus to the soft clicking of my laptop keys, and far surpasses hooves on asphalt for adding ambiance.
As I type, I realize that while I may be emulating Williams, my medium would be foreign to him. I have no paper to align or platen to spin; finished work, removal of the page with a clicking flourish satisfaction is not part of the equation here. I think back a few years, to an Internet offer that came my way: a program that turns the sounds of your laptop into that of a typewriter – clicking keys, end-of-line bell, carriage return zipping – all customizable and authentic to the sounds of your favorite vintage make and model typewriter.
At the time, it seemed mildly amusing but frivolous – and also likely to become very annoying after five minutes of use. Were I to receive the same offer tonight…?
Not so much.
Another sip of beer and I set the bottle down on the table to my left. I am no gin drinker and good whiskey was not in tonight’s budget, so I am less Williams or Faulkner than I am Kerouac wannabe, settling for beer. And while the bottle of Louisiana brew beside me is flavorful and satisfying, it is an accouterment to the evening – not an office supply.
The night continues, the chill settling in, the writer’s block plaguing me of late is going the way of the mercury and crumbling to dust like so many of the two-century-old red bricks that surround me – though far more quickly. The Quarter, at least my cozy locale, is quiet. The big dog down the street is no longer agitated – or at least in for the night. It has been a solid hour since any sirens, the steamboats are at rest wharf side.
Time passes by with ease, the ideas flow at the same pace. It remains quiet, save the tapping of words coming to life.
The sound of my fingers on laptop keys is different, new to me – a remake of a classic song you know, but don’t quite recognize. Most often my writing is done in pseudo solitude with a soundtrack of city traffic, two ambling, and tag jingling dogs, video game playing teenagers, Sinatra or sixties via plugged-in ear buds. A life in motion, with soundtrack.
This is most definitely not that.
The sounds of my keyboarding begin to amuse me: I am no Buddy Rich of the laptop. My irregular pounding lacks rhythm or anything resembling a tempo or musical beat. I doubt my seven-finger-and-both-thumbs modified hunt-and-peck method would even qualify as good scat.
I type to the beat of my own drummer until I sense a restful sleep coming on. I shut down my laptop, take a last look around, head inside, closing French doors and hurricane shutters behind me; the clicking of the various ancient hinges and latches momentarily sounds like ice cubes being dropped into a glass. I imagine the ghost of Tennessee Williams seeking to borrow a cup of gin as I lock the door, smiling, and settle in for the night
# # #
Thursday morning in a French Quarter courtyard. A little past five, and as refreshing and satisfying as last night’s beer was, the morning coffee (New Orleans, not Irish) freshly brewed, locally roasted, offers even more. The morning is crisp – I can see my breath, rising and evaporating along with the steam from the coffee. I pick up where I left off the night before, awaiting a crooked dawn, knowing that my cozy alcove will let in only a hint of the day’s sunshine. I type, sip, prepare to fully welcome the day at hand.
The coffee is superb, as is the arrival of the morning sun, peeking as it does, over and around the surrounding roofs. In an hour I will need to finish the coffee, pack up laptop and leftover beer, and head for school – our last day before a long, Easter weekend. The kids were done yesterday, but teachers have a morning of training before parents begin arriving for early afternoon conferences. A light day, off to a relaxing start.
As I sip my coffee and watch the first rays of sunlight waving hello I wonder just how strange this tableau would seem to Messrs. Williams and Faulkner; a laptop, hot coffee, a fiber bar for breakfast. No liquid morning ‘pick me up’ is needed. Not here, not now.
I finish most of the half pot of coffee I brewed, put the rest into a travel mug. I pack up, lock up, and head for the street to find my car and head to school. As I step out into the coming-to-life Quarter, I am passed by a middle-aged man riding a bike, steering his bike with one hand, holding an in-progress can of beer in the other. As he passes me, he waves with the hand holding the beer, then takes a swig from it.
As I watch him head down Burgundy Street, a perfectly logical New Orleans thought comes to mind: “He’s probably a writer”. Laughing at my own joke, I get in the car and drive off into the sunrise to go to work.