February 23, 2006
Welcome to New Orleans: A Confederacy of Drunkards
By STEVE GARBARINO
February 23, 2006; Page D8
New Orleans is no place for a writer. It'll kill you if you don't get out fast. At best, if you stick around, you'll become "one of them," an unofficial mayor of a local watering hole (ed. note: all apologies to Mayor Al
), yammering tales to ball-capped stragglers instead of writing them down, a character in your own rewrite.
I know. I was one of them more than a decade ago, and found myself yet again, several weeks after Hurricane Katrina had hit, navigating through the muck made by melting ice bags on the rum-caked floor of Johnny White's Hole in the Wall in the French Quarter, instead of filling reporter's notepads, up to my knees in sand bags and human debris in the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward. And then, as if it were just another day in the hard-partying city, I moved on to Molly's at the Market, a writers' dive on Decatur Street, already open for business without electricity, packing in FEMA workers, New York cops, Marines and yes, reporters, from everywhere.
Like the thousands of tourists currently falling upon the rebuilding port for Mardi Gras Week -- with the last Pat O'Brien's chug-a-lug on Frat, or Fat Tuesday, Feb. 28 -- many of the country's most famous novelists and playwrights came there to drink, get drunk, fall down and stumble off, with no remembrances of things past.
For writers, then and now, New Orleans is a "go-cup," what locals call plastic glasses carried out of bars, onto streets, into cars. You drink it up, take it away, and write about it at a later day. Elsewhere. Hopefully.
Of course, the literati were, initially, on loftier missions. Dressed in their new seersucker suits and cracked Panama hats, they were on quests for an Olde World aura that mirrored their sense of "character" and "place," guiltless debauchery that read to them "grist," a break from boring hometowns and the blah-blah sophisticates of New York City. They craved local color and resident eccentrics ("I could list hundreds of them," said Truman Capote) to cram their pages. Like an upturned manhole on St. Charles Avenue, it sucked them in, one by one, feeding the hole.
None of them needed enabling. The giants of pre- and postwar past were mostly avid drinkers already. It is the literary sport and they excelled at it, including such visitors and short-term residents as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac (who tellingly called the city "the washed out bottom of America") -- not to mention locals like Lillian Hellman, Capote, John Kennedy Toole, long-timer Sherwood Anderson, Andrei Codescru (who recently published "New Orleans, Mon Amour") and, yes, Anne Rice, a reformed alcoholic and born-again Catholic.
All were and are smart enough to know there was something there. Long before Hurricane Katrina whooshed hundreds of those other kinds of writers -- journalists -- to its septic-tank banks, there were a thousand stories to tell in the City Care Forgot, which boasted a red-light district called, of all things, "Storyville." And the city -- with fodder as rich as etouffe (excuse the obligatory food cliché) -- inspired some to tell them; writers who at first claimed in their quill-penned letters that they'd never been "happier" or had more "fun" anywhere else.
Some managed the job. In 1912, Sherwood Anderson left his family and his lucrative career as the president of a roof company in Ohio for New Orleans, with his second wife, and stayed until 1919. "Writing like a man gone mad," he diarized. That is, when he wasn't fornicating and drinking at Aunt Rose's whorehouse.
It must have been more "fun" for him to enable Hemingway (ever so briefly in the city) and then Faulkner, who had followed Anderson there as one of his disciples from his native Oxford, Miss., and lived with his mentor in a French Quarter side room on and off until he bounced around from one "seedy apartment" or boardinghouse to the next.
While Faulkner managed to bang out his first two novels ("Soldier's Pay" and "Mosquitoes"), living in a French Quarter attic that he reached by climbing balustrades instead of using the door (romancing the profession, always), he didn't last long there. He wrote while drinking whiskey and water in a cup. Afternoons, he walked and walked, as did Capote, Williams and, later, Bukowski (who wrote, "I could piss away my life" there). At night, Faulkner pounded "massive quantities" of liquor, and crawled home from opium dens and other holes. "Old, getting more so," he wrote, as the blisteringly hot days blurred.
Tennessee Williams sent his laundry home (as did Faulkner), which returned with small checks from his mother. He was "crazy" about New Orleans and set many of this plays there. But he equally feared what he could become staying in its confines permanently, calling it a delusion of freedom, and eventually found New York a far more grounded realm. Moving regularly in the Quarter, he lived in shared rooms, and served meals, washed dishes and wrote "rather badly, or not at all. Washed up?" he opined. "No!"
Capote returned to his hometown when he was 19, and found himself living in a "decrepit roach-heaven apartment" in the Quarter too. He sat for hours on park benches, observing the freaks, while "yawning and scratching and talking" to himself. Mardi Gras gave him nightmares.
New Orleans really got to posthumous Pulitzer Prize winner Toole. He took his life upon returning from New York to live and teach in his hometown. As his drinking increased and, as his students at Dominican College observed, his behavior and dress became more peculiar, he finally gave up on getting "A Confederacy of Dunces" published -- and life itself. In 1969, on a road trip back from Georgia, where he was visiting the home of Flannery O'Connor, he pulled off the side of the highway in Biloxi, Miss., and fixed a tube from his exhaust pipe into his car. The end. Or the beginning. After Walker Percy (whiskey, neat) got hold of the food-smeared manuscript, "Dunces" was finally published in 1980, winning him writing's most-coveted honor.
Those who survived New Orleans walked away with stories better told in barrooms than on paper. Mark Twain, always as large as his writing, brawled with sailors, was thrown out of whorehouses, crashed steamboats, and grifted drinks at high-society Garden District parties thrown in his honor. In New Orleans, he became his own performing monkey.
The difference between New York City, the major writing capital, and New Orleans is that New York expects one to produce, while this "Deadwood"-on-the-River doesn't care what one does. It is a city lacking in discipline, or drive. (Katrina, as awful as it sounds, exacerbated that apathy.)
It is also a bipolar place. If you live in its confines -- probably now more than ever -- you will find that each day you either have the "blues," or Dixieland. There's no in-between. "Cocktail Hour" looms.
Little was expected of me when I briefly worked as a staff reporter at New Orleans's Times-Picayune, where I got quietly fired for a bad attitude and failing to note my whereabouts on a newsroom chalkboard, which I found insulting. (Maybe falling, besotted, on top of a revered writer at an Audubon Park concert didn't help either.)
I took advantage of the pace, while writing for the society-minded "Vivant" and "Living" sections stories on school-uniform proposals and hurricane-chasers. When an interview with Bob Dylan -- a new resident to the city -- was potentially up for grabs, no one jumped on the assignment. It was a less-ambitious time for the paper, and for me.
Bicycling the secret alleyways, taking in the smells of rotting camellia blossoms and of red beans simmering from every single house each Monday. Jogging the desolate de Chirico-like streets of "bad" uptown neighborhoods. Drinking in a different bar every night, "observing" the scene in black blues clubs with leaking tin ceilings. Taking drives in my Pontiac on the Spanish-moss-canopied thoroughfares with frozen Scorpion go-cups in hand. Making out in the decrepit Lafayette Cemetery No. 2. Drifting off to sleep on my historically preserved apartment balcony off Magazine Street's Antique Row. Hosting crawfish boils with someone always playing guitar. There was no time to work on "the novel" -- let alone daily feature stories.
I began to become a "regular," one of them. The writing would come. But it didn't. And I finally realized that moving to the perfect environment to write in -- New Orleans, Storyville! -- was a calamitous mistake, a pipe-dream notion, as immature as romanticizing the "drinking life" as so many in the city do. I'd have done better setting up shop in my sister's suburban Philadelphia basement-turned-den, blindfolding myself, à la Jonathan Franzen, as I type. Nice and boring, no "color" to divert. I got out.
Mr. Garbarino is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.