i grew up in the north with unrealistic fantasies of the southern gent. romanticizing the antebellum south, i dreamt of meeting a rhett butler-esque southern fox who would make my knees weak with his heavy drawl and make my loins burn with his passionate kisses. and if i was lucky, he'd be able to make gumbo to boot. books and movies were great in feeding this fantasy, but i wanted to go down and find the real thing. my common sense knew this was unlikely — that the south not was not the “happy” place the movies made it out to be and that men no longer looked like clark gable. hell, i would have even settled for a leslie howard, but i wasn’t expecting it. still, the south called to me and so, reader, one day i answered by packing up my things and buying a one way ticket to new orleans.
the big easy they call it, probably because the city’s unofficial motto is to do just that: take it easy. the streets are swarming with jazz and alcohol is more readily available than water. neon lights blind you on bourbon street and classy art galleries seduce your intellect on royal. cafe du monde beckons with their infamous beignets and cafe au lait, and while you’re there you can’t help but answer the roar of the mighty mississippi. a statue of andrew jackson proudly stands in the middle of jackson square park where tourists and locals litter the grass and benches during the daylight hours. get your fortune told or buy authentic cajun artwork outside the park in jackson square or, if you’re like me, just spend hours sitting there listening to the live jazz buskers and watching the people go by. at night time, frenchman street hollers at you to come on by. join the locals and tap your toes to hot, hot jazz that burns your soul. put out the fire with an infamous hurricane or three and take the last one to go as you stumble down the streets findings friends in strangers as you only can in the crescent city.
i was instantly enamoured. my first week was spend in a lush haven when i drank and danced and smiled and laughed. i wallowed in the pleasures of frequent compliments and meeting people who became my best friends for ten minutes. i couldn’t see how anyone could be unhappy in the big easy and i couldn’t see why anyone would ever want to leave. give me the cemeteries, the streetcars, the iron lace balconies and the ghostly history. give me the creole french and dilapidated mansions of the days gone by. i’ll even take the roaches — big and small — if it’ll mean that i can call that city my home.
and call it home i did, with no expectations from it. securing a job at an accessory store on canal street i worked in shifts putting up with tourists for minimum wage and i didn’t mind it a bit. i was just glad to be in that city. i forgot all about my quest to find a southern hunk because i was too busy eating po’boys and jambalaya and discovering the hidden delicacy that is alligator meat. so, imagine my surprise, reader, when he found me.
moustachioed and clad in corduroy pants with suspenders and a brown felt fedora, he approached me one night when i was drinking alone in a karaoke bar i’d discovered on north rampart. i often set out alone and fell in with people as the night progressed, but this night i didn’t go beyond cal. he sidled up to me with his long southern drawl and smiled showing perfect little teeth under his moustache. talking and drinking all night revealed that he was a born and bred southerner with his family having lived in louisiana since the 18th century. his voice was deep and not what you expected from a lithe man like him, but it suited him all the same. for some reason, upon first sight i thought he would be shy and reserved, but in fact he was fairly extroverted. he didn’t often pursue conversations with everyone, but when someone chatted him up he practiced southern hospitality and chatted right back.
he drank whiskey on the rocks and chain-smoked pall malls. his hat, which he removed when he introduced himself, sat on the bar beside his drink and, when we left the bar, he picked it up and replaced it atop his mahogany hair in one swift motion, just like a character from a silver era movie. reader, i bed him that first night and it was mediocre. but it was an addictive sort of mediocre that i craved again as soon as he pulled out.
seems that the feeling was mutual because i saw him again and often. i explored the city with him, had drinks at the carousel bar at the hotel montelone, rode the streetcar to audubon park, window shopped some antique shops on magazine street, browsed books at the faulkner house, had dinner at antoine's (the latter just so i could proudly claim that i had had dinner at antoine's), and did it all while holding hands and sneaking kisses like a couple of kids experiencing puppy love.
most of our touring was done during the mornings––cal's and my unorthodox work schedules allowed us to be free from early morning until late afternoon, usually, so we took advantage of the daylight hours. on the rare occasion when we both happened to have the same evening free, we would spend it in cal's modest bungalow, which was located on elysian fields avenue. i always thought it was a fitting name for the street where my own personal haven existed.
he would put on a record––usually some obscure jazz record or one by the preservation hall jazz band––and he would lay back with his head in my lap and close his eyes while his toes bopped to the music. those nights a smile was always on his lips, curving his well-groomed moustache up a little under the smoke he blew out of his thin lips.
i would sit and stare at him, examining his face, it's lines and blemishes, his surprisingly long lashes, and the upward tilt of his nose . i would run my fingers through his lush hair, and talk about whatever came into my mind and he would respond in that lazy drawl of his that i loved so much. i couldn't imagine anything more blissful. afterwards, we would screw in that beautiful mediocre way that had become our routine, and i would fall asleep on his chest, inhaling his signature scent of old spice, moustache wax, and pall mall cigarettes.
tennessee williams, who also loved this city and briefly lived in it, would have put the whole affair in better and more profound words than i ever could. with his unique poetry he would describe our love and hint that it was likely nothing more than infatuation on both our parts. he would illustrate for you the dog days of the new orleans summer––which are comprised of the stickiest and prickliest swampy heat––and make you yearn for it. he'd better describe how we found hole-in-the-wall restaurants from which we ate the most scrumptious gumbo and po' boys and where we found beignets shops that gave cafe du monde a run for its money. but most of all williams would describe perfectly cal's love for jazz and how it overflowed into me. how the two of us would sway in a private trance to the toots and twangs, forgetting everyone and everything––including ourselves––regardless of whether we were in a joint on frenchman street or in cal's own living room.
reader, i was hooked. whenever i heard jazz––which was very often in a city that's the home of the great satchmo––i always craved cal and his pall malls. and though it wasn't always possible to drop everything and go get what i wanted, the knowledge that i would get it soon was a tranquilizer like no other. i went through the hours without cal often not thinking of him until something reminded me of him and the two things that always reminded me of him were pall malls and jazz. it was a time that seemed everlasting though it lasted for no more than half a dozen weeks.
it was one morning, on a particularly slow day at the store, that i happened to browse through a newspaper a customer had left and found out that cal had died. Yet another victim of the senseless crime that plagued new orleans but which was often ignored by everyone who didn't live in the city, he had been walking to his car from a friend's house in the bywater when he was accosted and assaulted by unidentified assailants. they left cal on the street to die from his fairly serious wounds, and his body wasn't found until hours later. no one could provide a description of the perpetrators.
the crescent city, which used to be a haven of hope and prospects now seemed like a purgatory to which i had voluntarily committed myself. everywhere i looked i was reminded of cal, not only by the places where we shared each other's company but by the roaring jazz that put a smile on tourists' faces but for me was now no different than a funeral march. i'm considering leaving the city and returning north but i can't bring myself to do it. sometimes i buy a pack of pall malls and light one in my apartment. i don't smoke it; i just let the cigarette burn out in an ashtray and wallow in the scent. often when i do this i put on a jazz album that cal introduced me to.