Friday, March 18, 2011

My Little Fantasy

Last week I returned from a visit to New Orleans, a trek I make annually at Mardi Gras time to assist my wife, a mask-maker, with her business. This year was different. Instead of staying in a bland corporate hotel outside the city, we were privileged to stay at a friend’s old family home in the French Quarter.

To protect our host’s privacy, I won’t post photos. But imagine this: tucked away amongst the crowded Creole cottages and narrow wooden shotgun houses is a wide frontage of brick wall, variegated browns spotted with algae, its seven feet topped with an overspilling tangle of ivy. A dead-bolted wrought-iron door opens into a lush, quiet garden, small lawns trimmed with flowering shrubs of various kinds. A cobblestone walkway leads to a little ornate fountain in the shade of huge spreading oak. Magnolia blossoms float on the still surface of the water. A two-story house with deep balconies, painted a soft pink with white trim, stands beyond the fountain and the oak. Part of the house is hidden behind another leafy wall that creates a small private courtyard, an inner sanctum. At the left of the property a pink cottage is hidden behind yet another ivy-covered wall.

It feels as if you’ve left the raucous streets of New Orleans far behind.

My host tells me that the current house was once slave quarters. The main house had stood where the garden is now, but burned down in the 1800s.

The cottage had been a doctor’s office. Its narrow double French doors open into a kitchen that is tiny but well-equipped. There is a closet-sized bathroom off the kitchen. The main room is actually rather spacious, with two twin beds, a trunk between them, a chest of drawers, and an armoire that holds a TV. That quaint little dwelling, with its own green wall and its cozy cobbled patio filled by chairs and a table with umbrella, is the site of my fantasy.

This would be the ideal place to be a writer in New Orleans. To let my inner Tennessee Williams out. I imagine myself getting up on a cool spring morning and sitting out at the table with a steaming cup of chicory coffee and a notebook, jotting ideas, maybe recording my dreams from the night before. Sometimes I would stroll a few blocks to Cafe Envie for “the best breakfast in the Quarter.” A bit of rubbing shoulders with fellow denizens of the Vieux Carre, and I’d be ready to go back to the cottage and spend a few solid hours in its sheltered nook, my laptop open under the patio umbrella. Voices, engines, the sounds of the city, would come to me as if through a filter, just distant enough to keep me in contact, but easily moved to the background -- the soundtrack to whatever drama is playing out in sentences on my screen. On the hot or cold or wet days, I’d be at the little wooden table inside, just a bit more disconnected from the city, but never entirely cut off.

At any time, I could get up, step through the glass door and round the leafy wall, say hello to my neighbors if they’re out under the oak, and walk the little path to the wrought-iron door, the portal from my inner space to the big world outside. And this is not just any city, not just another neighborhood. Everybody knows: New Orleans is a rich spicy soup, a gumbo of exotic architecture, wild characters, dark history, fabulous food, and music music music. Sights, sounds, smells -- pleasant or not, everything is a stimulant; nothing is bland. For me, the writing mind kicks into high gear; stories are everywhere.

Obviously, others feel the same way. At dinner in an unpretentious little Italian restaurant, my wife and I started a conversation with a young guy dining alone at the next table. He had a degree in literature. This meal was his breakfast because he worked an all-night bartending job to support his writing habit: a novel and a poetry book done but unpublished; in progress, a non-fiction account of his colorful life in the French Quarter. A couple days later we saw him again as we ate breakfast (his dinner) at nearby tables. I passed him some publisher contact information. I never learned his name.

All of this reminded me of one of my literary heroes, Tennessee Williams. At least a decade earlier, I had stopped into the delicious little store in Pirate’s Alley, Faulkner House Books, and picked up a very slim volume about Williams. I strolled a couple blocks to Orleans Street and sat in a coffee bar to read. The book told me that during one of Williams’ periods in New Orleans, he had lived in a second floor apartment, and it gave the address -- on Orleans Street. I stood from my table, book in hand, and walked out to the street where I could see the house numbers. I turned around and there it was, the number above the door and the stairwell leading up. Tennessee Williams had lived directly above where I was sitting, reading about him.

These subtle lines of connection and coincidence are part of the fabric of my story collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility. It even has a New Orleans vignette. But the New Orleans stories I’ve long thought were in me have still never come out -- I suspect because I’ve never really spent time there, living, relaxing, settling in. It’s always been a business hustle. So that’s why our lovely four-night stay in the cottage behind the wall sparked this little French Quarter writer’s fantasy.

Hmm... maybe someday.

1 comment:

  1. Ahhhh, such a luscious recollection Brent and a beautiful vision of your fantasy writer's life. xo