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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My View of the Guilty Pleasure Hotel

  Don't get too excited.  The Guilty Pleasure Hotel, as a title, is a bit misleading.  We all have our guilty pleasures in life.  For some of us, it involves food.  For others, it is expensive clothes or cars.  For me, I've taken the liberty of lifting this label from Robert Osborne, of Turner Classic Movies fame, who used it to describe a film I recently viewed on TCM.  I had not really thought of this type of movie as a guilty pleasure before, however, the moment he said it, I knew he was right.  The type of movie: a star-studded, soap-opera, Technicolor extravaganza.  The movie title: Hotel.
Hotel (1967)
  Okay, let's get the confessions over with.  Since I was a kid, this type of movie has always been big on my list.  Movies like The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, and even The Winds of War mini-series, have always been favorites of mine.  Not just the disaster movies, though they rank up there with the best star-packed movies ever made, but any sort of multiple story film set in the glamorous world of the rich and famous would do.  These kinds of flicks were always on the ABC Saturday Night Movie, as well as the late show after the news on Sunday nights.  Lots of famous actors and actresses.  Lots of over-the-top drama mixed with big, jazzy scores.  Who needed a remote control and fifty-seven channels to surf when you could watch great movies like this?
  The settings were always little microcosm worlds that were exotic for kids like me who never got out much.  The Airport  movies were fun because you were able to see behind the scenes kind of action in these giant transportation hubs.  They were the techno-thrillers of their day.
  I was always amazed to see so many stars in one movie.  My parents used to point out all of the old movie stars who had little bit parts.  It is where I picked up this habit, which I do with my kids every time we watch movies now.  See that guy?  That's Alan Arkin.  He played the Chief in the new version of Get Smart.  And that's David Niven, the bomb expert in The Guns of Navarone.  I never really understood why so many stars were in these movies.  Only later, as I was older, did I understand that with the multiple story lines, and the high number of acting roles in the movie, you needed to be able to easily distinguish the different parts.  It is much easier to quickly recognize Rock Hudson versus George Kennedy.  Also, most of these big stars were able to come into the studio and film their small roles in just a few days, and the pay checks were pretty big.  One veteran actor said he learned to do them because he could film for a few days, his name would be on the poster for the summer blockbuster, and he could spend the rest of that year doing Broadway, which was his real passion.  Not a bad set-up.

  So a short time ago, I watched Hotel with my son Maxwell.  I lured him in by telling him he could see some location shooting in New Orleans, specifically Pirates Alley, a favorite site for our family.  He was polite enough to give it a try, but he was pleasantly surprised at how good it turned out to be.
Taylor and Spaak in the French
Quarter near Pireates Alley
  To start with, one of my favorite actors from the Golden Age was in this: Melvyn Douglas.  He's the man who had the enviable job of trying to make Garbo smile with a joke about a man ordering coffee in the classic Ninotchka.  Douglas, by the time he did Hotel, was much older, and had recently won an Academy Award for his performance in Hud.  In Hotel, he plays the aging owner of a New Orleans hotel who just can't keep up with the changes the world is throwing at him.
  There are many supporting roles in this film.  A real stand-out performance is given by Karl Malden, as a professional thief.  His role is mostly comic relief, but it eventually turns dramatic as he is involved in an elevator accident that is done quite well for an older movie.  Fun to see Malden complain about guests using credit cards a few years before his American Express commercials.  Merle Oberon, Hollywood Royalty, plays a Duchess with a dark secret.  Her shady dealings are with Richard Conte, an old Film Noir veteran who is always fun to watch.  The rumor from the production was that she was wearing about half a million dollars in diamonds during the filming, and they were her personal jewels.  She is a class act, and still beautiful in her late fifties.  She only made one more picture after this.
  The lead role is played by Rod Taylor, the tough talking, man's man from Australia.  Here, he is the slick Hotel Manager, handling crisis after crisis without batting an eye--until he sees Catherine Spaak, that is.  She shows up on Kevin McCarthy's arm.  He's an oddball praying-on-his-knees wheeler-dealer who wants to buy the hotel.  Rod Taylor plans to stop him, and Spaak gets in the middle.  Now, we weren't impressed with Spaak.  She was a bit milquetoast in her role.  But that might have just been the writing.  The best scenes with her were filmed in Pirates Alley and the French Quarter, but they were much too brief.
  There is much to enjoy about this picture.  The story is actually pretty compelling, if you like grand hotels and hate to see the modern world ruin them.  I was impressed with the smaller roles--the hotel staff--many of whom were more than just window dressing.  They interacted well with Taylor as he roamed the hotel, joking with them and keeping them on their toes.  The best one, of course, was the lounge singer, played by the amazing Carmen McRae.  A big name stage act, she sings several songs in this, and her character is always there to help Taylor through his moments of despair.  She always has just the right song for his mood.
Oberon and Rennie.
  There is an appearance by Michael Rennie, better known as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still.  He here is overshadowed by Oberon, playing his wife.  But it is nice to see him getting screen time.  You will also get to see a real shocking scene in a New Orleans Strip Club.  Well, it's not that shocking.  In fact, it's pretty tame.  But hey, it was 1967, and it was more of a family movie.
  If you like these big productions, then you won't be disappointed by Hotel.  About the only thing that I found disappointing were the obvious backlot shoots for what was supposed to be a few scenes in the French Quarter.  But the hotel sets make up for that with their impressive design.  I certainly wanted to be able to stay in such a beautiful hotel.
So if you get a chance to book a room at the St. Gregory Hotel, make sure you take it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Long Awaited View of Casablanca

I'm just not sure where to begin.  I would go back to the beginning, but I can't say I really remember it.  I'd seen Casablanca on television several times in my early teens.  I can't be positive of the year.  What I do know for sure is that when I began to date my future wife, I was stunned that she had never seen it.  We set a date to spend the day watching Casablanca along with one of her favorite movies that I had never seen: My Fair Lady.  She was not very excited about Film Noir.  I was not excited about musicals.  We politely watched each other's movies.

As time went by, I sat our kids down to watch Casablanca.  They loved it, or so they said.  Peter Lorre was always a kid-pleaser.  As were the despicable Nazis.  Much of the humor went over their young heads.  But it was fun, and a few people were shot.

Since I was a teenager, I loved Humphrey Bogart.  At that point I had probably only seen him in a few movies (Casablanca, African Queen, We're No Angels, and Sahara), but that didn't matter.  I knew he was the man.  And unlike other stars of the Golden Age, like Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart, he was a legend from another time, not still alive and appearing on variety shows on TV and still making occasional appearances in new movies.  This gave him an iconic status along with Dean and Gable and Monroe.  Even when diet Coke inserted him into one of its commercials with high-tech smoke and mirrors, it couldn't diminish his status.
Despite his Olympian address, there was one little problem.  And little is the right word.  All we could ever see of him was on a little TV set.  Even the big TVs of the time were only around 30 inches.  And unless you lived in a big city where old movies might occasionally pop up, you just weren't going to see Bogart on the big screen.
I've been plotting ways to make that happen.  The last few years, I've teased my kids, asking them why they don't rent a theater for my birthday so we could see one of the great classics up on a thirty-foot-high screen.  Casablanca, Stalag 17, and Gone With the Wind were early considerations.  The year Jennifer and I were married, Gone With the Wind was shown for a fiftieth anniversary, but we missed seeing it.  So the question became, how many friends did I need to agree to come and see a movie if I spent five hundred dollars to rent a theater?
Along comes Turner Classic Movies.  To my surprise, they arranged for a classic to be shown in theaters nationwide.  It was West Side Story.  Fortunately, thanks to my wife, I have come to enjoy musicals since that long ago viewing of My Fair Lady.  And so I took one of my sons to WST, and we were simply awed by the spectacle of an early sixties musical on the big screen.  And then, on an average day, out of the clear blue, my daughter informed me that TCM announced it was going to present Casablanca.
We cleared our schedule, and marked the calendar.  After all those years, I was finally going to see the giants of Hollywood as they were meant to be seen; as they appeared when they ruled the world of entertainment.
Before taking the family for the night screening, I slipped into the matinee to watch it alone.  (Sadly, I was actually almost alone.  Only seven people were in the theater, which is an awful commentary on the viewing public of today.)  A friend of mine told me he had nearly cried when he saw the Warner Brother's logo come up at the beginning when he had a chance to see it in a theater some fifteen years ago.  I knew just what he meant.  I've been a passionate fan of classic movies for over thirty years, and I was only then getting a chance to see my favorite actor and one of my favorite films as they were meant to be seen.  Many of today's movies are filmed with the knowledge that they will be seen on TV.  Now, they are even taking into account that people will watch them on their iPhone.  But in 1942, they did not even think of movies being broadcast to TVs all over the country.  This was Casablanca as jack Warner and Hal Wallis had intended it to be.  Larger than life.
And so it was.  Bogart mesmerizes.  Peter Lorre cannot move, cannot speak, without overwhelming the viewer.  And because the Hayes Code would not allow the cheap thrills and laughs that can be had from crass language and loose morality, the writers were forced to craft and re-craft their scripts until every line was taut and clever and either funny or dramatic.  Say what you will about the censors of that day, but their refusal to allow sophomoric behavior strong-armed Hollywood into developing some of the best scripts ever written.
I will not give a full review of the movie here.  Perhaps that will come later.  But I do want to emphasize that all of the hype about this movie is well deserved.  Bogart and Bergman are magical together.  I've never seen actors dominate a screen like they did.  The world just seemed to pause as they held us spellbound.  It occurred to me that when people watched this in 1942, this had to be more than just magic for them.  Yes, they could see still pictures of celebrities, even large posters of them.  But there was no TV for most of the nation, no place they could see the actors move and speak and enchant except on that massive silver screen.  No wonder they were called movie palaces.  We cannot imagine what that was like.  But for a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of it.  I hope my kids did too.
I am nearly the exact age that Bogart was when he filmed this movie.  He'd been acting for over twenty years by then.  And in just fifteen years he would die from cancer.  Though he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, he would not win that year.  He had to wait eight years to finally win one for his performance in The African Queen.  I have no idea how many years I'll have to wait to see him again on that big screen.  I hope it won't be long.  And I hope I'll be able to see Grant and Stewart, and Hepburn (both of them) and many more from that grand era.  My thanks to TCM for their effort to make this happen, and here's hoping they keep it up.

If you had a chance to see it, I would love to hear your comments on it.  Or, tell us what classic movie you would really love to see in the theater. 
Here's looking at you, Bogey.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My View of an Edward Hopper Painting

New York Movie
Edward Hopper
One of my favorite artists is Edward Hopper.  I cannot always explain why.  His paintings just catch my eye.  I nearly always stop short and just stare.  Hopper has a way of showcasing what would usually be ignored.  I always have the feeling he has approached a location with an obvious focal point, then turned to the side to see what no one else has noticed.  I tend to do this at times, watching the people who are gazing at historical locations, looking around the corner from the front of a memorial.  I like to see what is off to the side and Hopper provides this so wonderfully.
Take, for instance, his New York Movie.  Here, we don't look at the screen.  It doesn't matter what film is being shown.  Like the usher, we have seen so many movies before, we are not interested.  Maybe the movie is not that good.  Or it feels like we've seen it before, since it is terribly unoriginal.  For the usher, she has obviously seen it, or ones like it, hundreds of times.  All she is really interested in is going home.  Or maybe she's unhappy at the prospect of going home.  At any rate, Hopper has noticed her, and he feels everyone else should too.

Hill and Houses Cape Elizabeth Maine
Edward Hopper
Even when Hopper sets his subject in the center of the canvas, he still highlights its isolation.  In one of his many paintings of houses, Hill and Houses Cape Elizabeth Maine, we see a house set up on a hill.  Yes, there is another house, and a lighthouse, but they are farther up the hill.  The house in the foreground is looking out over what must be a lonely hillside, or the ocean.  It doesn't matter which.  It just looks forlorn.  Alone.  Surrounded by a great expanse.  He manages to do the same thing even when things are crowded, like in the city, where a lone row house is just that, alone, despite being surrounded by the other houses, or the girl in Automat, alone in the diner, is surrounded by a city of millions, with not another soul in sight.
When I sat down to write a story one day, I had in mind that use of isolation and space that Hopper used to perfection.  And I wanted to try and convey something of what his paintings might have looked like if they had been short stories.  I can't say that I accomplished my mission to perfection, but when I was done, I did feel that I had portrayed something very close to what could have been a scene from one of his paintings.  It begins on a house set on the top of a hill. 

Boarding House Above Copeland 19—
by Jason Phillip Reeser

“You’re in a funk today, aren’tcha Tom?”  A grouchy woman named Ada asked a sour faced man in a blue flannel suit.  The woman was not old, though she appeared to be, like a child’s toy that’s been heavily used and left out in bad weather.  Tom was the same age as the woman, but his was a fresher aspect.  Life had been kinder to him.  He did not like her direct question, and kicked at the peeling grey paint on the floorboards of the porch.
            “You’ve got nerve—old witch.  Let me be.”
            They were alone on the porch.  It was a large porch, the gateway to an equally large boarding house.  On a hot night, every boarder in the house could sleep on its uneven surface with room to spare.  Tom stood leaning on a post that marked the end of the wrap-around rail and the beginning of the steps.  To his annoyance, Ada sat in a rocking chair just inches from him.  He wanted to move away from her but his pride kept him rooted in place.  He had been there first; she had come onto the porch after him, and moved the chair next to him.  He stared past the front walk examining the road below them, determined to ignore her.
            The road fell away from the hill upon which the house was built.  It was a dirt road.  There had been rock on it many years ago, but the rocks had either washed away during years of rainstorms, or had sunk below the surface in the resulting mud.  At any rate, the rocks were no longer visible, and the road, dry now in the hot summer, had an ochre sheen that reflected the sunlight harshly.  This effect drew the eyes to its winding path down the hillside into the shallow valley.  Tom traced this path from the house to the point at which it disappeared with an imperceptible move of his eyes.  Once finished, he worked his way back up the road and started all over again.
            “I got a mind to ask Grant to go to Copeland.  I don’t guess Mrs. Foster would mind.”  Ada talked aloud as if to herself, but she slipped a quick look in Tom’s direction to see how he would respond.  “Got no reason to mind.  Grant don’t do nothin’ round here.  Why do ya think she’d mind?  That shrew!”
            “Nervy witch.”  Tom muttered.  “She ain’t turned you down.  You ain’t even asked her yet.  Go bother her and leave me be.”
            “See that?  If you ain’t in a funk I’m Eleanor Roosevelt.”
            It was getting hot.  The morning was ageing rapidly.  The dew had evaporated by then and become a part of the humidity that closed over the porch.  There was only enough of a breeze to make Tom and Ada aware of the sweat that had begun to form on their faces and trickle down their necks.  Tom pushed his hat back off his forehead and took off his jacket.  He laid it carelessly across the railing and used this movement as cover to step an inch or two away from Ada.  He could smell mothballs and unfamiliar sweat and wanted to curse her.
            “Grant could go to town.  No reason he can’t.  They can’t expect me to go.  Not by myself.  Wouldn’t be proper.  I need an escort if I’m to go to town.”
            The screen door whined open and a young woman joined them.  She wore a thin cotton dress that hung loosely from her wire frame.
            “Somebody going to town?”  She walked straight up to Tom, crowding him from another direction.  “I thought the car was broke down.  Mrs. Foster said the car was broke down last night.”
            “I ain’t walkin’ to town, Mary.”  Ada bristled at the gentle Mary.  “That’s why Grant should go.  What else is he good for?”
            “I don’t think I could walk to town.”  Mary looked out at the road and trembled.  “It’s such a far piece of walking.”
            Ada watched the young woman and made a face at her dramatics.  She obviously wanted to say something but the heat was getting to the point that even catty remarks were an effort.
            “Mr. Talbot,” Mary petitioned Tom with a soft voice, “would you mind retrieving a chair for me?  I do believe I’ll have to sit.”
            Tom made a sound deep inside his throat that was meant to convey reluctant affirmation.  He pushed away from the post and walked across the expanse of the porch to where seven chairs sat against the house in a line.  He grabbed the nearest one by the armrests and carried it back to Mary.  She smiled gratefully as he set it down beside her.  As she sat down, she inched it closer to Ada.  Tom wanted to find somewhere else to stand but he was not going to give in to their invasion of his space.  With a firm step he took back his place at the post, setting his jaw to shore up his resolve.
            “Thank you, Mr. Talbot.”  Mary shamefully smoothed the thin lines of her dress over her legs.
            The same sound emanated from Tom as before; this time meant to signify ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘don’t mention it’ or even ‘to hell with you’.  It was difficult to tell which.
            “He’s in a funk; don’t let him upset you,” Ada pronounced with pleasure. 
            “Witch.”  Tom spit the word.
            “Do you smell the marigolds Ada?  I can smell the marigolds.”
            “I can’t,” Tom growled.  On top of mothballs and sweat he could now smell Mary’s sickly sweet perfume.  “I wish I could smell the marigolds.”
            A cat jumped onto the porch just into Mary’s peripheral vision.  She started and silently exclaimed.  The cat, a black shadow within the shadows, stared at them with no concern in its dull glowing eyes and then began to walk the length of the porch.  Its tail fell from one side to the other as if it were only a little too heavy to be held up straight.  Softly the cat paced, slowly gaining the middle of the porch.  Mary watched it warily until it finally reached the corner of the house and turned to follow the porch on the north side.  The last thing Mary saw was the tip of the tail then nothing.
            “I don’t like that cat,” Mary said in nearly a whisper.  “Something’s not right about her.”
            “Ain’t a her,” said Ada.  “That’s a no good Tom.”
            This time, Tom’s lips formed the words, but no sound came from him; witch, witch, witch.
            “I’ll bet Tom could fix the car.”  Ada calculated the possibility.  “Tom’s a clever fella.  You know about car’s, don’tcha Tom?”
            “Do you, Mr. Talbot?”
            “I know about cars like I know about rocket ships.”  Tom closed his eyes and tried to wish the women away.  When he opened his eyes, they were still irritatingly there.  If he could have, he would have fixed the car just to get away from them.
            “Imagine, a man not knowing about cars.  My Johnnie knew about cars.  Lord in the sky, every man knows about cars.”
            “I’m sure you know something about them, Mr. Talbot.”
            “I can drive them.  That’s something.  Why can’t Grant fix it?  That’s what he’s here for.”
            Neither Ada nor Mary seemed to be able to think of a reason Grant could not fix the car.  It was something Grant did; he fixed things.  He had fixed the torn screen door, had fixed the well water pump that stood just outside the back door, he had even fixed the radio the night it had gone silent in the middle of a news update on the war.  It was all one and the same to them; replace a screen, prime a pump, fix a car.  They put no thought into what needed fixing save that one simple act of fixing.  If a car was broken down, it was only logical that Grant would fix it.
            All three of them were of the same mind.  They were certain Grant must be in the barn at that moment fixing the car.  Although none of them had requested to use the car for days, they felt sure that Grant was actively fixing whatever parts of the car that required fixing.  Each of them had a vague image of Grant sticking his head under the hood or under the chassis with a rusted tool and swearing.  This would take some time; a good deal of the morning was most likely.
            It was a great shock to those on the porch when Grant finally did appear.  He walked around the corner of the house pushing a dilapidated wheelbarrow.  A spade and hand trowel lay in its stained basin.  Grant dropped the handles of the wheelbarrow at the base of the steps and knelt in the flowerbed that ringed the front of the porch.  It was evident he had no idea he should be fixing the car.
            “What is he doing?” asked Ada.
            “He’s weeding the day lilies.”  Mary was a great admirer of Mrs. Foster’s flowers and found solace in watching Grant care for them.
            “He should be fixing the car.”  Ada looked at Tom as if it were his fault.  “Ask him what he’s doing.”
            “He’s weeding the damned lilies,” Tom muttered under his breath.
            “What are you doing there, Grant?”
            Grant was a short thick man, made all the shorter and thicker by kneeling and hunching over the flowerbed.  His overalls were faded nearly to white, with only light stripes of blue running down the legs.  He wore no shirt, allowing the sun to bake his dark hairy body even more than it already had.  He sat back on his heels and looked up at Ada with a puzzled expression; the trowel held midway between the wheelbarrow and the soil.
            “I’m weeding the lilies.”  Having answered her, he continued digging at the unwanted growth.  Tom chuckled and almost smiled.
            “Such impudence!”  Ada snapped her fingers at the man.  “I can see you’re weeding the lilies.  Why aren’t you fixing the car?  I’m not stupid.”  The outburst had wearied her in the heat.  She moaned as she waved a hand to cool herself.
            “Ain’t nuthin’ to fix.”  Grant said, his attention on the trowel.
            “What’d he say?”  Ada appealed to Tom.  “What’s that mean?  What do you mean, Grant?”
            Grant said nothing in response. 
            “He must mean it’s already fixed,” Mary said hopefully.  “Don’t you think, Mr. Talbot?”
            “I never know what Grant’s saying.”  Tom had a great desire to get away from the women and thought he might go over to Grant to examine the weeds or the lilies.  If only it would not look like he was giving in to their senseless crowding of his place on the porch.
            “Grant, I want you to take me into town.”  Ada expected him to comply.
            “Can’t.”  The trowel was put back in the wheelbarrow and the spade was put into action.  Everyone watched its sharp edge dig into the dried soil, turning over the grey and exposing the rich black loam.
            “Take me to town, Tom.  This man refuses to take me to town.”
            For the moment, Tom wanted so badly to get away from the suffocating press of the two women on the porch that going to town seemed like a spacious and fresh idea.  Before he could give it serious thought, he heard himself agree.
            “I’ll get the car and bring it around.”
            “Would you mind if I came along, Mr. Talbot?”  Mary also thought it would be nice to get out and away from the house.
            He grunted again.  So indistinguishable was the noise that Mary simply hoped it meant he would not mind.  She did not want to be left behind.
            A large four-door, touring model rolled down the white gravel drive and stopped at the stone walk.  The engine idled ponderously; a primal drone that could be heard all across the hot summer hillside.  Grant held the spade in his grip and blinked at the black automobile stupidly, as if he had never seen one before; his mouth slightly open.  In this way, he watched Ada and Mary walk down the steps and cross to the car.  The women moved to the passenger side and Ada opened the front door.
            “Get in the back,” Tom ordered, his voice raised to be heard over the engine.
            “I ain’t sittin’ in the back.  I always sat up front when my Johnny drove.”  Ada dropped onto the seat and stared defiantly forward.
            “My I sit up front, Mr. Talbot?  I get awful sick in the back.”  Mary’s soft voice could hardly be heard, and she did not wait for Tom’s guttural response.  She smiled sweetly at Ada, who would not look back at her.
            “Why doesn’t she get in the back?” scowled Tom.
            “Said she gets sick in the back.”
            “Well let her in, you witch.”  Tom could not believe it.  Ada pushed herself towards the middle of the seat.  Mary climbed in and pulled the door shut.  He began to feel the same sickly closeness that had driven him crazy on the porch.  “A whole back seat empty,” he said to himself aloud.
            “Do you mind, Ada?  I don’t like to sit so close to the door.  I’m just so afraid it will fly open.  I’ve always felt like that.”
            Ada glared at the fearful Mary, but moved closer to Tom as requested.  Tom ground his teeth as he felt the heat of Ada’s thighs press on him.  He leaned an arm out the window and tried to get as much of his shoulder out as he could.  The heat of the idling engine added to his misery.
            “What’s he saying?”  Ada watched Grant wave a hand at them, his lips moving, though nothing he said could be heard.
Road in Maine
Edward Hopper
            “Hell if I know.  Let’s get this over with.”  Tom’s hand hesitated a moment before reaching over Ada and grasping the gearshift.  Ada tried to pull herself out of the way as he mashed the gears and started the car rolling.
            “Grant!”  A large grey-headed woman barreled out of the front door and onto the empty porch.  “What’s going on?  Who’s taken the car?”
            “Tom’s driving Miss Ada and Miss Mary to town, Mrs. Foster.”  Grant said with some confusion in his tone.
            “You told me the car was broke.”
            “No ma’am.  T’aint broke.”  Grant lifted the spade and rubbed at some dirt that had stuck to the edge.
            “Then what did you tell me?”  Mrs. Foster demanded.
            “I said I wouldn’t drive it.  The brake fluid’s low.  Too low.”  He spit on the spade and rubbed it with a red handkerchief.  “Bob Trachsell was bringing some fluid this afternoon.”  Satisfied with the spade, he set it back in the wheelbarrow and turned to watch the black sedan as it worked its way down the winding road.  Absentmindedly, he wiped his flushed forehead with the dirty handkerchief and stuffed it into a back pocket.  “They’ll have trouble stoppin’.  Never should have left the keys in it, I guess.”
            “Oh, for heaven’s sake.”  Mrs. Foster stood squarely at the top of the steps and glared angrily down at the car as it raised a tail of dust along the road.
            “You’re going too fast.”  Ada shouted above the noise of the engine.  The tires grated loudly on the road; bits of dirt and small rock peppered the undercarriage like machinegun fire.
            “You should have driven if you wanted to set the speed.”  Tom pumped the brake, angry at Ada’s bossiness and the brake’s slow response.  “I know what’s too fast and what’s not.”
            The car was not slowing down.  As it rolled over bumps, Tom could feel Ada’s sweaty body jostle against his own.  Annoyed at the ineffectiveness of the brake, he jammed his foot down on the clutch and crammed the gearshift into a lower gear.  The engine surged with a roar.
            “You’re speeding up!”  Ada turned and yell at him from only inches away; her breath a foul odor.
            “I’m downshifting, stupid witch.”  Tom leaned his head away from her breath, intent on hanging his head out the window if necessary.
            The driver and the two passengers sat silently after that.  They watched the road race under them with a gathering speed that alarmed even Tom.  Ada disliked the bumping and jerking and decided Tom was only trying to spite her.  Mary watched in great fear as the grass alongside blurred into a rush of green and brown fury.  She inched closer and closer to Ada, terrified the door would fly open at any moment.  As the car approached a turn, Tom jammed both feet on the brake.  Reluctantly, the brakes finally grabbed at the disks, and the car slowed down a little.  Tom pulled hard on the wheel, his elbow smashing down on Ada’s leg.  She let out a yell and pushed at him.  Tom fought back as the car threw them all against him, sliding around the turn.
            “Stop it, you crazy witch!”  Tom fought to keep the wheel turned.
            “Mr. Talbot!”  Mary shrieked in supplication.  She was nearly in Ada’s lap.
            The turn straightened out, and the road leveled off.  Knocking the car out of gear, Tom kept his feet jammed on the brake pedal.  In a cloud of dust, the black beast, so recently roaring with rage, came to an unwilling halt.  Tom’s legs ached, still locked hard against the brake.  He hung half out the window, with Ada smashed against him.  Mary was on top of her.  With a shudder of exhaustion, the engine died.
            Tom groped for the door handle with his arm that hung out the window.  Yanking at it, the door popped open and he tried to scramble out.  Ada and Mary fell out with him, knocking him to the ground.  Ada groaned in aggravation, Mary still trembled with fear.  Tom shook with anger and pushed them away, clawing at the dirt as he tried to stand.  With a last great effort, he stood clear of them.  He was free.
            He stood several steps from the car, a breeze on his face.  The dust was settling and he took in deep gulps of fresh air.  They were in the middle of the road; the road was on the edge of the valley floor.  Bean fields stretched endlessly out from the road.  There was no noise, no movement.  Tom felt as if he were on the edge of the wide world, surrounded with nothing but open space.
            “You said you knew how to drive.”  Ada beat at the dust that had settled on her dress.  She stood up and tried to steady her shaking body.  “You’d better not drive like that the rest of the way to town.”
            Tom breathed in the fresh smell of the bean fields and exhaled with pleasure.  The sour look he had worn all morning was draining away.  He began to smile.
            “Mr. Talbot, would you please assist me?”  Mary sat in the dirt, the skirt of her dress lay wrinkled about her, baring her white thin knees.  She looked at him pathetically, a child waiting to be fawned over.
            Tom stood straighter and felt stronger with every breath of fresh air.  He smelled honeysuckle and dandelion and it was like nothing he had ever felt before.  There was freedom in it.  It filled him with contentment, rest, and a sudden inability to hear anything the women said.  Ada’s reproaches, Mary’s entreaties; none of them reached his ears.  All he heard was the stir of the breeze in the grass and the fields, and his own full breaths.
            “Where is he going, Miss Ada?”
            “Get back here, Tom!  You come back right now.”
            Tom felt the grass tug playfully at his pant legs as he wandered across it towards the great expanse of fields.  A beetle buzzed briefly near him and he watched as it flew off across the field.  He followed it.  He had no wings, but he did not mind.  He would follow it at his own easy pace.  There was no hurry.
            A pheasant, its late morning nap disturbed by the passing of the man, broke the silence of the field and scrambled about until it gained enough speed and leapt into the air.  Rising gently above the land, it circled as it gained altitude.  Below, the black shroud of a car sat sullenly on a dusty road.  Two women stood immobile beside it.  A half a mile away, a figure hiked easily through the green rows of an enormous field.  The women were shouting at the figure in the field; their voices swallowed up by the vastness of the valley floor.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A View of New Orleans' other Cities

St. Patrick's Number One
Yes, New Orleans is known for its French Quarter.  This city, within the city, is a favorite of party-goers, sight-seers, and photographers both near and far.  But New Orleans also has a number of other cities tucked within the city that are just as unique as the French Quarter: the Cities of the Dead.

Lafayette Number One
I first began touring them many years ago and immediately became caught up in their history and inspiration.  Many of you might have read one or two of the stories I wrote that are set within these fascinating little cities.  I have written many more of them, and an anthology of them will be available later this year.  I'm not sure why, but the moment I set foot in the first one I visited, Lafayette Number One, I could not stop thinking about them.  They are, at times, beautiful, moving, sad, impressive, and stirring.  They are, in fact, just like the many towns and cities that fill in the map of our world.  Some of them are run down, others are immaculate.  They can be crowded, with crooked streets and confusing paths.  They can have wide avenues.  Some of them have rich neighborhoods, rowhouses, and even slums.  They even have apartment houses.

St. Louis Number One
Tucked inside these little cities are generations of families that all have one thing in common: they are filled with residents who no longer have opportunity.  Who no longer have dreams and grand schemes.  Though they might have had these at one time, they do not now.  Their stories have been written.  Yet here they all lie, in houses as varied in death as in life.  What they all have in common now is their shared knowledge of what comes after.  They know what we have always wondered at.  And not only do they know what comes after, they know more clearly what our lives mean.  They know more clearly how important our lives are, and how hollow our pursuits are, and how precious our lives are, and how sad our lives are.  They know how brave we are, how vain we are, and how afraid we are. 

St. Roch Cemetery
They know because they have been us.  They know because they are us.  Just as our younger selves, caught in the frame of a photograph, are us from the past, when we did not yet know the present us and all that we have done and learned and found and lost, so too can we view the residents of these cities of the dead.  They are what we will become.  We too, will know what comes after, and will know what our lives have meant and if we lived them well, or if we wasted them.
I don't say all of that to make us dread and fear what is to come.  That's not what I feel when I walk the streets of these cities of the dead.  I do not pity myself because I will end up like so many who have died before.  I simply see how important it is to take advantage of what we have been given.  To make sure that if and when I die, I have not left a life of regret and unrealized dreams.  I don't want to discover too late that I've neglected those I loved.  Because it is not how we die or when we die that is important.  It is how we lived, and who we lived for that is.

Greenwood Cemetery
I never miss a chance to wander the beautiful avenues and little streets in these cities.  It is always a time of reflection.  If you are ever in New Orleans, make sure you take the time to see at least one of them.  It will be well worth your time.  (Of which, you might just be reminded, is always shorter than you think.)