When I traveled to Budapest last April, I made it a mission of mine to see as many of the city’s literary sites as possible. I bathed in the rich bookish legacy of the Hungarian capital, visiting half a dozen indie bookstores, ordering “The Writer’s Dish” at the famous New York Café (once the hangout of choice for the city’s greatest writers), and visiting Írók Boltja- the city’s greatest bookstore, whose name translates as The Writers Shop. Like Budapest, New Orleans is a writerly city, with a proud history for cultivating literary greatness. And like Budapest, it offered me the chance to follow in the footsteps of wild, bohemian writers. Only this time, instead of tapping into the silvery, cigarette-in-the-rain mood of Hemingway and the impoverished American expats, I would be seeking Tennessee Williams and the whorehouse ambience of screeching streetcars and frantic, cocktail-fueled punching of typewriter keys.
New Orleans is both a place that grows writers from within and attracts writers from afar. And the writers that come want to make this tragic metropolis and its decadent, Old World affectations their own- to capture it in their work the way no one else has. As I got to know the French Quarter well, I asked myself if I could truly live here or not. It would be difficult to invest in real estate with the knowledge that at any time all my possessions might get carried out into the sea. And add to that that New Orleans is quite a boisterous place. It was a little intimidating at first, but as I became used to it I thought more about the Quarter as a home. Part of the anxiety attached to its loud, extroverted revelers and shifty-looking characters comes from simply being alone and not knowing anyone. As a location for inspiration, it’s perfect. There is so much art and creativity to feed off of that I could see myself really happy here, if I were able to afford an apartment of course. All I had at this moment in my life was five short days, so I endeavored to experience whatever trace of the writers I idolized that I could find. I found echoes of Tennessee Williams in unpretentious bars, drinking Hurricanes and listening to sweet jazz beneath the ceiling fans of Americana.
One of the few things I wrote down prior to coming to New Orleans was to visit Faulkner House, which had once been the residence of one of my favorite authors- William Faulkner- and now operated as a bookstore. It was the only thing I had planned for my first day, and after I finished my beignet in Jackson Square, I set about trying to find it. My phone was dying and I just couldn’t seem to locate the darn thing. It ought to be staring me right in the face. Eventually, after much retracing of the same steps, I learned that it was in an alley to the side of the St Louis Cathedral, and set off at a quick pace.
The bookshop is small but very charming, and you can tell it was once a cheap guesthouse. It’s just one room and a corridor, filled all the way around from floor to ceiling with books. The corridor ends in a gate, beyond which is the private residence of the proprietors of Faulkner House. Inside the store is a lady employed by the proprietors to run the place. But she doesn’t just work as a cashier; she serves as an expert on the house, William Faulkner, and literature in general. As I examined the books on offer, other customers engaged the lady and asked her advice on what to get. They told her what sort of thing they were after and she would give them a recommendation. I found this very appealing, and after picking up a copy of Mosquitoes by the man himself, I decided to make use of the woman’s knowledge. I said I wanted a modern novel by a female writer that is set in New Orleans and touches on female themes. She then recommended The Snare by Elizabeth Spencer. Lastly, I said, I need a gritty thriller set in New Orleans. Something dark, a murder mystery, a page-turner, but that featured real place names and captured the atmosphere of the Quarter that I so deeply cherished. The lady then handed me a copy of The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke. There we go. Three books ought to be enough. As we continued to chat about William Faulkner and his work, I noticed that a fifty-something-year-old man to my side was listening in. His tousled hair was going white and his clothes were utilitarian, even scruffy. There’s no cash register in this place, so the lady added up the total of my purchases using a pencil and paper. As she did so, she turned to the man and asked if she could help him. He said straight up that he wasn’t buying anything, and had come here to ask about poetry readings in the area. The lady informed him that Faulkner House didn’t do readings, but there were open mic nights at a few select bars. The man nodded, telling us how he was from San Francisco. He mentioned the city’s famous City Lights bookstore, which is probably my favorite bookstore in the world that I’ve been too. It’s up there with Faulkner House and Írók Boltja for me. He asked the lady if this was New Orleans’ answer to City Lights, and the lady blushed, saying “There can only be one City Lights, only one!”
The total for my order was sixty-five dollars. I swallowed a lump in my throat, sweat entering my palms. In the U.K the average paperback goes for about ten bucks. I was shocked that these novels were going for twenty each. I paid and left, feeling somewhat uneasy, as though my long-desired pilgrimage to this place had a permanent mark scratched into its once wholesome image. As I closed the door behind me and turned down the alleyway, I saw the man waiting for me by the iron fence of the cathedral’s courtyard. He called me over. I thought he was saying “See ya,” so I waved and kept going. Then he called out again, beckoning me to join him.
“Why’d you do that?” he said.
“Pay her sixty bucks. There’s a dozen used bookstores in the Quarter. You could have gotten them for less than ten altogether.”
“Right,” I said, and I started to feel down. He was right of course. Books should never be that pricey. But I had assumed these would be the same price as any other standard paperback, and now I had already paid and left.
“You shouldn’t be paying her sixty fucking bucks,” he said, and after he kept saying it I didn’t know what he wanted from me. I just stood there looking sad. He acted like he had just witnessed a real tragedy unfold. “I just wish I could have told you sooner,” he said, seeing my miserable expression. “I’m just saying.”
He asked me where I was from. I told him.
“Don’t they have used bookstores in England?”
We got on to talking about literature and the man said that Faulkner never really did it for him. He said that “In America, there are only three writers worth reading: Herman Melville, Henry James, and Henry Miller. Miller is my favorite.”
I told him I had read some Miller years ago, and asked what British writers he liked. He said that as far as literature, we Brits had “everything”, and that he was especially fond of the Lake Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc). He also really liked the novels of Graham Greene. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, we agreed. Enough said.
However the subject came back around to my folly again, and he lamented that he couldn’t have advised me sooner. He eyed the window of Faulkner House with contempt and I stared at my feet like a schoolkid in the wake of being told “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”
Sensing my growing misery, the man offered me a weak smile. Several of his teeth were missing. “Hey listen- cheers– alright?”
He waited for me to acknowledge his use of the British word, but I could only find enough strength to smile back and wish him well.
As always with me, indecisions and doubts snowball, tumbling over each other and coloring my mood- as well as my perception of everything around me. I questioned what I was even doing here, on this trip. I felt very unsure of myself for some reason, like I had no idea what I was doing in New Orleans in the first place. I questioned my ability to simply be an adult and live independently and interact with the world around me. The idea that I’d been duped reinforced the nagging doubt that I still belonged in my mother’s womb. I also had to deal with the notion that Faulkner House- after much excited anticipation- was now stained forever in my memory. The city romped past me, blurring into a kaleidoscopic carnival as if to say that to be here, you had to be happy. The French Quarter is a party after all, right? I then began to question New Orleans as a city too. By this point I was standing in Jackson Square again, and I wondered if the city wasn’t meant for me- that it was meant for adults instead. And here I was, the lost boy trying to find his way home in the glare of neon lights.
Yep, I thought all that, when any normal person would probably just say “O shoot, that was a little pricey. But hey, at least I got what I wanted, three awesome books!”. At least, that’s how I assume other people think.
Before I knew what was happening I was sitting myself down beside one of the palm readers outside the cathedral. She asked me what kind of reading I wanted.
“Tarot,” I said.
Now, you wanna talk about an unambiguous waste of money: this is it. I don’t believe in anything religious or supernatural. If anything I think psychics and mediums and all that are utter charlatans and exploitative shysters. But New Orleans is a supernatural city. I didn’t even think about why I was doing it, I just did it. It seemed simply to be the thing to do here.
The woman told me first off that I was a person that said what I wanted and disregarded what people might think. So that’s completely wrong from the outset. She asked me to draw cards and I pretended to take the whole business very seriously like every other tourist in the Square. Something about a Water Demon. The woman must have picked up on my negative energy, because she told me to stop beating myself up all the time, and that if I put myself first instead of trying to please others, everything I wanted in life would fall into place. She even said there was love in my future- I could share this life with someone, if I wanted to.
Against all odds I started crying. Nothing dramatic, just a light trembling and watering of the eyes. The woman looked at me coldly and asked if I had any questions. I quickly paid and left, careful not to leave my overpriced purchases behind.