DISPATCHES FROM HOME – A Streetcar, Tennessee Williams, and Louis Vuitton Jr.

Jul 2022
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Directing a play is no easy task, especially when it’s a classic like A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. At long last, the WATP production of STREETCAR is but a memory. The two and a half months of rehearsals and building and dressing the set, which involved nine-and-ten-hour days, seven days a week, were strenuous but rewarding! My sensational cast and crew made the hard work and long days fade away each time I was privileged to watch them perform. Their level of professionalism never wavered, and they helped me fulfill a 40-year-old dream. For that, I am eternally grateful! 

               Not long after the show closed, I rewarded myself with a few days’ vacation. I reserved a room at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, located in the heart of the French Quarter. I wanted to spend time in the city that Tennessee Williams so loved. My dear friend Michael (aka Louis Vuitton Jr. due to his admiration of Vuitton’s merchandise, especially his luggage and sunglasses.) drove us over. I was thankful that all I had to do was watch the springtime landscape dash by and plan our stay in the city.

               I could live in a classy old hotel, and the Royal Sonesta might be that hotel. Since first seeing it in the late 70s, I fell in love with the lobby’s elegant chandeliers and its marble columns, the splashing fountain, and the low hum of vintage Dixieland jazz on the intercom. Michael and I were more than pleased with our lovely room. It was decorated in subdued blues and greens with a dash of silver and gold. French doors opened onto a lacy, wrought iron balcony; the view of the swimming pool below, glistening in the morning sunlight, was peaceful indeed.

               After unpacking and settling in, Michael and I decided a walk to the Hotel Monteleone would be our first “Tennessee Williams” stop. The hotel’s Carousel Bar tops the list of all the thriving bars that make New Orleans so magical. It makes a complete slow spin every fifteen minutes, its vintage, carousel-like chairs adding to its festive appeal. It’s been a favorite with the young-at-heart–regardless of their ages–since it opened in 1949. It was a regular stop for Tennessee during his days in New Orleans. Hemingway, Welty, and Faulkner wove the Carousel Bar into their stories. Truman Capote was a regular too. And the bartender! He made the most divine Cosmopolitans, heavy on the vodka, light on the cranberry and lime juice.

               If the spirit of Tennessee lingered at the Carousel Bar, would it linger on a streetcar as well? Walking to Canal Street, we caught the Saint Charles Avenue streetcar. As it rumbled along, I could not help but think that Tennessee might have ridden on that very same streetcar. Passing the grand mansions that grace the avenue, I pointed out the Romanesque Brown mansion, the Wedding Cake house, and the squared-columned house designed to look like Tara in GONE WITH THE WIND. Our fellow passengers were a mixed lot: a few college students, an elderly couple, and tourists with strong Northern accents. As we passed Audubon Park, Michael pulled the cord, the streetcar rattled to a stop, and we got off.

               The afternoon sunlight, dancing through the trees, was bright and warm. It was a glorious day to be in the city! Looking down the long avenue with its moss-draped oaks, we walked around a bit. Then a new experience for me rolled up – a Uber. We were miles from our hotel, so Michael decided we’d hail a cab. Again, I enjoyed being chauffeured around, watching the teeming masses whoosh by, wondering who they were and what made them tick. Was that a modern-day Delta Dawn, complete with a hat and faded rose, her suitcase replaced by an old leather shopping bag? How old-school the elderly black lady looked with her tattered black umbrella opened to blot out the sun, her Pepsodent smile pleasant and reassuring.

              Returning to the hotel, we planned our next adventure, a walk through the historic French Quarter. If you’ve been there, you know it is the beating heart of New Orleans with its raucous energy, vibrant history, and remarkable architecture. Jazzy jazz flows out of bars, the smell of Cajun-inspired food wafts through the air, and fine art galleries, antique shops, and restaurants beckon.

               Walking to Jackson Square, we entered the heavenly calm of the St. Louis Cathedral, enjoying its beauty. While inside, the church bells rang. I thought of Tennessee again. He had heard those same bells, hence Blanche’s line when she hears them. “‘Those cathedral bells–they’re the only clean thing in the Quarter.” As we left the cathedral, my dreamy state was interrupted when I heard Michael exclaim with glee, “Oh! Look at that!” Looking at the object of his delight, I let out a muffed, sissified scream. My feet dashed away. I quickly followed.           

               Jackson Square is known for its street vendors and entertainers. Laughing clowns and creepy voodoo fortune-tellers, with “98% accuracy,” vie their trade. Tap dancers tap. Painters paint. However, a man with a massive, albino boa constrictor slithering all over his body is not my idea of fun. When Michael said, “Oh! I want to touch it!” I said, “I’m out of here.” Michael laughed. “Pawpaw, you’ve got to get over your fear of snakes. Let’s walk down to the river.”   

               Old Man River is still rolling along, I’m happy to report. The breeze was brisk off the water. A riverboat passed; its paddlewheel churning up the river’s tawny-brown water; its calliope screeching out a tune, which I’m sure could be heard for miles down the river. The smell of French coffee and beignets called our names, but, alas, the line outside the Café Du Monde did not. We hailed another cab. However, this one had three wheels, two legs, and a driver with thighs bigger than my waist. The driver’s name was Marcus; his modus operandi was a rickshaw-like bicycle. Once again, I loved being chauffeured around the city.

               Marcus dropped us off at a quaint, little sidewalk bar as the afternoon shadows lengthened. We had an icy glass of something made with ice cream and booze. Mercy me! It was good. We sat, kibitzing with the friendly bartender and the other patrons at the bar. While there, we heard a rumbling coming from our stomachs. Supper was next at Betty’s Bar and Bistro. It was just the right spot to relax–a quiet patio with swaying palms, wrought-iron tables and chairs, and shrimp etouffee. A glass of Sauvignon Blanc and some conversation with the people next to us was an added delight. 

               For all its allurements, the French Quarter is not the safest of places; crime lurks in dark corners. We’d both agreed not to stay out too late but knew we’d have to take in world-famous Bourbon Street. After a quick fresh-up at the hotel, out the door we went, ready for whatever might come our way–first stop, Rick’s Cabaret. “Michael, are you sure this is where you want to go?” I ask. “Come on, Pawpaw, don’t be a stick in the mud.” (Ah! Youth wasted on the young.) We ordered another round of Cosmopolitans and took a seat at a table near the dance floor. Giddy laughter echoed around the room, as did the muffled conversation.

               In the semi-darkness, I saw a stage, a silvery pole, and nothing else. Suddenly ear-splitting dance music filled the room. Twirling, multi-colored lights lit the scene. A “lady,” dressed in only a few strips of leather strategically placed in certain areas, pounced onto the stage. She writhed around the sliver pole, much like that snake had writhed around the man back at the cathedral. Honey, let me tell you. She oozed up that pole and slid down it, twirling around it as she descended. She then did a bump-and-grind number that brought the house down. Michael clapped and hollered, “You go, girl!” The lady leaned over and whispered, “I don’t want your applause. I want a dollar.” With a laugh, Michael said let’s go. We did. Bourbon Street waved its glitzy hand, and we followed. 

               Noisy, rowdy, and nocturnal, Bourbon Street pulsates with neon lights, throbbing music, and wandering people walking or staggering along. We strolled through the crowds, looked, laughed, and strolled some more. We were toasted by that ubiquitous Bourbon Street creation, the strolling libation known as the go cup. We passed the Chris Owen’s Club with its iconic performer. Little did we know that she would pass away some days later. After a few more bars and drinks, we decided to call it a night.

               I never sleep well when I’m away from home. I tossed and turned all night, finally waking around 6:00 am. Knowing I wouldn’t go back to sleep, I decided to take a walk. Michael was sawing logs, and I didn’t wake him. The lobby was deserted except for the employees behind the reception desk. I was surprised to find Bourbon Street deserted as well! In the wee small hours of the morning, the street cleaners had washed the street down. The foamy disinfectant smelled of lavender. Walking along Bourbon, its silence was refreshing but a bit jarring too. Hours before, it had been filled with a cacophony of sights and sounds, now all washed away like the swirling refuse disappearing into its gutters.

               Walking down Royal Street, I perused the 18th Century antiques in the windows of many of the street’s famed antique shops. One art gallery featured Andy Warhol-ish-looking paintings of mundane things: a broken china skull, a rusted rake, and a pile of vintage jewelry. All of it rendered in a thick, impasto style. Walking further down the street, I saw a scantily dressed woman sweeping off her balcony. She waved and said good morning, as did I. Her husband, or perhaps a boyfriend, clad only in his underwear, sat ensconced in a decaying wicker chair, sipping his morning coffee. I heard the cathedral bells chime again and thought of Tennessee. Did he walk down Royal Street on crisp spring mornings? Perplexed and pondering? Wondering if A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE would be successful? Wondering if he would lapse into obscurity?

               As I continued my morning stroll, delivery trucks unloaded fresh flowers, vegetables, and fruit boxes to various restaurants, and a few people walked their dogs. One vagrant, disheveled and dirty, rolled out of a doorway, yawned, stretched, and then returned to the land of Wynken, Blyken, and Nod. As the sun rose higher in the pinkish-blue morning sky, I decided it was best to return to the hotel, wake Louis Vuitton Jr. from his slumbers, and ready ourselves for the ride back to Gulfport.

               Once the car was loaded, we were away. I was so pleased that all I had to do was enjoy the ride and observe the passing world. Michael cued up a Reba McEntire album. As she belted out FANCY and he sang along, we topped the interstate bridge heading east out of the city. I looked back at the Big Easy. I thought about my direction of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and I thought of my dear cast and crew. I thought about Tennessee too and his incredible contribution to the theatrical world! The city slowly dissolved into the late afternoon sun, and as it did, I could not help but remember a snippet from one of his poems, “So moments pass as though they wish to stay. We have not long to love. A night. A day…”

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