Memories of New Orleans: Hotel Vagabond

The inspirational spark for my short story Bodies of Water was a place: New Orleans. The characters later swam in my head and played on paper, changing over time. Protagonist Erica morphed from a private investigator into a homicide detective. Over time I was writing in my head, before I became so bold as to put my words on paper and expect people to read them.

In reality, I’d rolled into New Orleans’ French Quarter during a nineteen-seventies winter, finding a cheap hotel at Chartres and Dumaine, a couple of blocks from Jackson Square. Winter chill, wind and humidity was easier for me than those hellish, humid summers. The early spring would bustle with colorful characters and Tourist Hell as we watched from a sagging wrought iron balcony. It felt surreal when I saw Tennessee Williams on the street — dapper in his lightly-coloured cotton suit, Panama hat, and brown wingtips (the extreme humidity could induce Williamsesque ‘spells’ – I imagined dialog: “I’m feeling a bit faintish, could you fetch me chilled refreshment?” )

The hotel entryway led directly up a dark flight of stairs which took a sharp left turn. There was the check-in desk (with its overweight, sexually-harassing proprietor), which preceded a maze of wide, dark hallways. At the back of the hotel was a large communal kitchen where scavengers hung out. It was big and bare, with only the basic necessities. It was a good idea to label your foodstuffs or lock them up, due to the bands of roving residents suffering from the munchies, or genuine starvation, or both.

Large cast iron skillets sat on the ancient stove.Cast iron skillets: I always found them to be interesting: organic, funky, homey, decorative, and could be handily used as a weapon (see the film Eating Raoul). Cooking in a cast iron skillet could be exciting, as cast iron gets very hot. How does one time the cooking process? Meat could be black on the outside and pink in the middle. Can you say ‘trichinosis’? The Fried Breaded Stuffed Pork Chop Incident lingers in my mind. The huge pork chop stuffed, egg-washed, dredged in flour and bread crumbs, I managed to lift it, and ease it into sizzling skillet. The result was blackened on the outside and devoured by the kitchen lizards.

To the right of the kitchen was a hallway which led to many small, funky rooms. The rooms had old, leftover mix-and-match furniture. Some had fireplaces. My room was on the second floor, facing Dumaine St. It had french doors that led to a balcony. There were bathrooms down the cavernous hall. The bathroom near my room had a huge claw-foot tub; it paid to bring Comet or Ajax. Its large, bare window faced a small, neglected courtyard. I met lots of people here: not only at the bathroom or in the kitchen, but throughout the establishment. Appearing spaced-out, many milled about near the check-in desk and sat on the stairs. I made a few friendships; some were cemented by impromptu cross-country road trips. From New Orleans to Montana to Oregon to California to New York I went, growing and shedding new friends, like snakeskin. But the Quarter was special.

In May 2005 I completed the short story Bodies of Water. I had fun with my characters Erica, Rita, Nick and others. As I wrote the story, sinking cities of New Orleans and Venice played in my head — subsiding and eroding, moisture permeating and destroying. Nature can no doubt be brutal; the Katrina debacle is beyond comprehension.

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