(The seventh chapter of my memoir.)
It was that time of night when the darkest gray gathers above the black of the earth and then a thread of gold parts them. Face down on Towery’s living room carpet, I smelled vomit and awoke. I made my way into the back yard to pee, and the gold was turning to flame, which was burning twin holes in my head, each optic nerve a wire of pain. Even in the autumn perfume of browning magnolia and dewy grass the stench persisted; it was my shirt.
We had discovered vodka. Towery’s parents were out of town, and his older sister, much amused, had bought us two fifths. Other guys were involved. There had been some acrobatics in the house—I seem to recall backward somersaults—and a broken glass tabletop. An older guy, with a driver’s license, had driven us around Whitehaven in Clyde, Towery’s father’s huge yellow Cadillac, so we could holler at people. With my head out the window I threw up, and the wind slurred the mess down the flank of the car to the taillights. We went to the Toddle House and had cheeseburgers and their famous Black Bottom pie. I think we tried to go to some girl’s party and were turned away. Towery and I had each gotten drunk, gotten sick, passed out, and sobered up three times.
The Towerys had wall-to-wall carpet throughout the house, and in said carpet there were now about a half-dozen Jackson Pollocks of agglutinated puke. His parents were due home that evening. It was Sunday, and the cleaning services we called all wanted to be paid double time—a hundred and fifty bucks was the lowest bid. Suppressing our gag reflexes with all that remained of our strength, we cleaned the whole house ourselves.
I had become a person who was not in touch with his own body: That drunken rout and others that succeeded it were a quest for sensation strong enough to feel. I ate for nourishment, not for pleasure. I played no sports. I no longer wandered the swamp: It was gone now, and with it the scratches and sprains and bites and stings—the touch—of wilderness adventure. That land of physical fear, populated by rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins, had been paved over; the swamp had been drained. I worked in the library and read mountains of books. I was in touch with one particular part of my body, but that did not constitute real consciousness. There were hands held at the movies, and kisses, to be sure, but most of the time my body was not a temple but a toxic waste site, thick with allergy’s excretions, virus on virus, acne, bad dreams, low cravings, and poisonous fear of the future.
Rarely, I told myself that I was mind and heart, sublime, ethereal, an emergent Man of passion and genius; a poet, transcending the bodily. Ha. Our dinner table had become a place of so much unspoken, so much concealed, such falsehood and spiritual absence, such about-to-snap tension, that our dogs lost their native gaiety and watched from a distance, trying to think about nothing but food. I had become, my mother said, sarcastic, and not seldom some sly word-arrow of mine would pierce her and she would snap, reeling off my lifetime’s-worth of crimes, misdemeanors, inconsiderateness, selfishness, and failure to take out the garbage. Her nose turned red, her brown eyes black. I froze inside. My father drank his coffee in mute support of the indictment. My sister cried and ran to her bedroom.
In less than a year, I would be free of all that. Columbia wrote to me inviting me to apply. New York! Yes! I felt it surge in my blood. Delicatessen, brilliant Jewish girls in berets, the dark perfume of the subway. The elder brother of one of my closest pals, however, insisted that the place for me was Yale. (He would be thrown out at the end of that same school year—a considerable accomplishment, for Yale felt that losing a student was a failure on its part. But no amount of counseling had been able to get the guy to class or keep him away from the bridge table.) Yes, Yale! Tweed jackets! Pipe smoking! Manly poetry, Goethe, Fitzgerald.
And so why not Princeton? And as for poetry, wasn’t there a place called Harvard crawling with poets? I have no idea. Maybe this was that second-place syndrome again, since Yale seemed to be second to Harvard in nearly everything. Boston University would be my easy fallback, and for no reason I can recall I also applied to William and Mary.
B.U. took me readily, Columbia wrote to me as “Chester T. McNamee III,” but it was a yes nonetheless, and William and Mary turned me down. Inconceivable! I was at my lifetime peak of egotism. I would sashay into the big grim room for the SATs, rush through the questions, and never check my answers, so that I could be the first to sashay out, leaving behind the ozone stink of fear, others’ fear; and I did very well on such tests. I didn’t even want to go to William and Mary, so how could they have turned me down? And now, worst: Yale put me on the waiting list. Was it twenty guys long, or five thousand? They weren’t saying.
Now I had to get in. Columbia had been too easy. Fuck William and Mary. I was going to go to Yale. My father, suddenly my hero, flew into action. There was an alumnus in Memphis who had given a tea for applicants and made quiet recommendations to the admissions department; my father called him and voluminously pleaded his case, my case. He wrote to old Met Life colleagues in New York who were Yale alumni (and well above him in rank at the company). In the most passionate language I had ever known to issue from his mouth or pen, he wrote to the dean of admissions, lauding to highest heaven this accomplished, hard-working, supremely disciplined son—I was of course none of the above except son—and, frankly, begging that I be taken. What other possible string might there have been to pull? None. No matter: After two weeks of dread, I was in after all.
And now my father would have to shoulder the financial burden of four years of Yale. This was going to be a genuine burden, but he didn’t want me to have a scholarship, or to work, or even to take a student loan. I have never been sufficiently grateful, I fear.
Now that grades no longer mattered, I gave myself over to the sheer joy of learning, led with the lightest of touch and the deepest of seriousness by the sort of teacher for whom so many sentimental tributes have been written. Whitehaven had a grand total of two “honors” courses: history (not much of a class) and English, the enchanted domain of David R. Davis. Maybe Yale would be like this, I thought. The scope of the class was all of English literature; Mr. Davis’s particular interest was in our understanding of it and our expression of that understanding. Although I had been writing stuff for years—pseudo-Romantic poems, eccentric little stories, my mock-bluster column in the school paper—this was the first time my heart ached with the urge to get it right, to be clear, to think ahead and organize, to seek felicity and grace of style. All these I fumbled at but kept striving after, and Mr. Davis rewarded my struggle with measured praise and stintless compassion. I began to unclench from the unconscious stoop that shrinking from unnameable dread had bent me to. I was a kid, who knew not much more than nothing about anything, and yet Mr. Davis was taking me seriously. I was opening up like a flower; I was happy.
My sense of smell seemed to be opening too. A good half the time in my younger years, my nose had been swollen shut by allergy, and when it wasn’t, the scent of any plant threatened burning mucosa, paroxysms of a hundred helpless sneezes in a row, the fifth hankerchief of the day soaked through. Twice a week I would be dragged to the allergist, jabbed with a couple of dozen allergens, then given a shot; eventually my mother, having practiced on oranges, gave me the shots, often painfully. They didn’t help much. A whiff of pollen or mold, and I’d be sneezing, stobbed ub, biserable. Now, though, all of a sudden, the privet along the roadside I walked to school, the wild onions in the lawn, the roses at dusk were glories. Shoe polish, our dogs’ ears, asphalt in the rain; Old Spice, Chanel No. 5, My Sin; smoke, of grass fire, Leonard’s barbecue pit, cigarettes (my mother’s, my father’s, my friends’, my own, for everybody seemed to smoke); a neighbor’s gift of still-warm bread, ribeye steak fat aflame on the grill, a just-cut orange; on dress-up dinner dates—my latest expression of coolth—the tarragon tang of sauce béarnaise, the long ago lost but now refound Boston-harbor scent of lobster, the unctuous voluptuousnes of real, fresh butter melting on the tongue—and, supremely, unconsciously but potently, girls’ pheromones: The burgeoning of my olfactory faculty, though I did not know it at the time, reinvigorated the evolution of my love of nature.
“What is love?” my mentor-to-be, Robert Penn Warren, would write. “One name for it is knowledge.”
The previous spring in Chattanooga, during my hour and a half of stumping for the vice presidency of the state high school press association, a pal and I had been handing out Vote-for-Tommy cards and chortling over the rustic dress and mien of the assorted yokels, hicks, rubes, and hayseeds of my potential constituency—“Didja see the cow shit on that one’s shoes?” etc.—when Whoa, Nelly! across the lobby came a phalanx of girls so good-looking, so beautifully turned out, so urbane that all we could do was stare and gibber. The political phase of my campaign was over; the interpersonal part had begun.
There was also one funny-looking, gimpy-footed guy, who would be one of my best friends from then on. One of the girls—tall, with wavy chestnut hair, wide-set dark eyes, and wide, full lips—would turn out to be for years the girl I would have married had I not married Louise. And another, small, with enormous blue eyes and a small, plush mouth that just said Kiss Me, was Susan Love. Oh, love, thy name was everywhere! Her surname was my command.
There was just one hitch. She was from Knoxville. Remember that Tennessee is a long east-west parallelogram, with Memphis in the lower left-hand corner—and Knoxville damn near the top right. Four hundred miles away.
I didn’t see Susan again till the next round of conventions, in the spring of 1965. After the humiliation of the summer before, I had found a less dangerous sort of girlfriend, quiet and intellectual, with pale, pale skin and truly black hair. She opened my ears—to Dvořák’s New World, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Rubinstein playing the Moonlight and Pathétique. Her voice was low and gentle, her manner calmly genteel. We talked and talked. And kissed, some, with moderate passion. We never went steady, indeed I was in permanent second place, because she also went out with one of my friends and academic competitors. A couple of years later I would learn that he had seen his father shoot his mother dead and that his dates with this soft, fine girl nearly always culminated in a brutal dry rape; and she never spoke a word.
And then came Nashville, the Andrew Jackson Hotel, and Susan, and kisses, kisses deep and soft, kisses again and again. We rode in a taxicab, her first time to do so. We ordered our first takeout Chinese food. We sat on my hotel room bed to eat it, and one of the Whitehaven chaperones busted in on us with a fusillade of reproach, and somehow I found the moxie to tell her off in return, and she steamed out defeated; Susan and I resumed learning to use chopsticks. We put price tags on the artwork in the hotel halls. In a junk store I bought a toilet. When I got it home, my mother’s reaction was surprisingly quiet. She now knew that I was nuts.
Graduation was approaching. Under my father’s proud guidance, I got my first tuxedo. There were parties at the country club, the University Club, churches, hotels, big houses with big lawns and shrub-shadows where couples embraced. There was the senior tea. There were the Key Club banquet, the Honor Banquet, a banquet for the top-ranking four percent of all the seniors in Shelby County. Mr. Davis gave a small, elegant party at his house for his best students—the proudest occasion of all, in all this whirl, for those of us so honored. And there was the Twirp Dance, a costume party to which the girls asked the boys. Much to my astonishment, my perfidious blonde inamorata of the summer before invited me, and proposed that we go as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. She procured overalls, a work shirt, and heavy boots, and with mascara she beautifully recreated the scraggy sideburns and wispy beard of the man himself. For me she found a long black wig, an A-line dress (short enough to make the most of my shapely, very hairy legs), and a pair of high-heeled sandals.
Susan took the train all the way from Knoxville to be my date at the Senior Prom. Here was an impossible romance if ever there was one: Come fall, I was going to be in New Haven, Connecticut, Susan in some Tennessee hill town. (She could easily have gone anywhere, had her benighted parents not insisted on imprisoning her in a little bible college close to home yet also essentially inescapable.) We would be eight hundred miles apart in physical distance, even farther in other ways. I was nonetheless rapturously in love, and certain of our glorious future together, which you may take as indicative of many delusions to come.
We danced, we kissed, I was the gladdest knight at the ball, she the most beautiful belle. We wrote impassioned letters all summer. I went to Knoxville in August; more kisses, more professions of permanence.
Towery gave me one of his looks—man of the world, my friend, my pitier—and said, We need to go to New Orleans.
Our first dinner was at Antoine’s, the city’s grandest, most overbearing restaurant. Generations of New Orleans’ crusty, insular upper crust had been coddled here, each family with its “own” waiter, dishes specially prepared only for them, and their own particular table in one of the many little back rooms reached by a labyrinth both physical and social. Tourists were herded with something less than ceremony into the big front dining room. I was wearing my first double-breasted suit—navy, “summer-weight” wool, so named by someone who had never been to New Orleans in August—and was drenched in sweat. The menu was entirely in French, which was fine with me. I’d had two good years of it, and moreover had been studying up on food words.
“Le Service ‘Chez Antoine’ Strictement à la Carte,” the menu began, threateningly. Meaning: no free vegetables, no fixed-price bargain meals, you pay for everything except salt, pepper, water, and maybe a toothpick. There seemed to be hundreds of dishes, many with names comprehensible only to the grandees of the labyrinth: Canapé Balthazar, Crevettes à la Richman, Les Busters Grillés, Oeuf Sardou, Filet de Boeuf Robespierre en Casserole, Pigeonneau Sauce Paradis, Tomate Frappée à la Jules Caesar.
The waiter actually had a thin black mustache and slicked-back hair; also the posture of a Marine at attention. “Bonsoir,” Towery and I greeted him gaily, in chorus.
“Good evening, gentlemen.”
Was he smiling? If so, was it in mockery? I gestured helplessly at the wilderness of the menu.
“You will allow me perhaps to suggest to you a few things?” The smile was real, and not even of amusement. He was being nice to us. We’d been warned not to expect anything of the sort. “Antoine’s, of course, is the originator of Oysters Rockefeller. I recommend you start with them. To follow, perfect would be our tournedos with sauce béarnaise. It is a type of small filet of beef. We are also famous for our pommes soufflés; you will see. Creamed spinach? Very good. And now, on the wine list—"
This was what was so utterly cool about New Orleans. The drinking age was universally disregarded.
“—We cannot go wrong with a fine red Bordeaux. Perhaps—“
Here he pointed, his index fingertip resting tactfully under the price. “Why not?” we said, bons vivants to the coeur. I can’t remember what château it was, but at that price it was surely one of the greats.
The wine arrived in a silver basket, reclining in the attitude of an ancient Roman banqueter. We watched transfixed the cutting of the capsule, the slow pulling of the cork, the meticulous pour of perhaps a tablespoon into a miniature wine glass. The waiter lifted it to the light, swirled it, stuck his big in as far as it would go, inhaled deeply, took a taste, chewed on it, smacked his lips once, smiled, bowed slightly, and poured, an inch each in our glasses with bowls four times that deep. We raised them to each other, and then to the waiter, and sipped. We actually had no idea whether it was delicious or not, but we were sure it was delicious because it was so expensive.
The oysters Rockefeller arrived steaming, nestled in blazing-hot rock salt and shrouded in a green glop tasting vaguely of licorice. “This is either the best or the weirdest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth,” said Towery. “And don’t try it yet. I just burned the shit out of my tongue.”
I waited, then tasted. “The weirdest and the best.”
The tournedos weren’t much bigger around than a silver dollar but a good inch thick. We each got two, atop a slick of some wine-dark sauce and topped in turn with an epiphany—comprising, I would learn one day ages thence, butter, egg yolk, shallots, vinegar, tarragon, and, at least chez Antoine, manna. The potatoes were crisp little pillows that burst with a crackle on the tongue, releasing some other divine essence in the form of a vapor that rose to the brain and blessed it. And: Wine, O Wine, for ever shall I love thee.
A junior waiter pushed a cart of polished wood and brass to our tableside. I was pretty sure we’d ordered the crêpes Suzette, or, that is, we’d accepted our savior’s suggestion. We had no idea what they were. He arrived, turned the little thin pancakes gently in a chafing dish, poured brandy over, and set them alight. I don’t need to tell you how good they were. Couldn’t anyway.
We floated to the door; our waiter bowed us solemnly out. New Orleans air engulfed us; sweat burst from our brows, ran down our inner arms, pooled in our shoes. We wandered, drunk, in bliss.
We remained drunk for the next several days. It was customary in New Orleans, we learned happily, to greet the morning with a strongly alcoholic eye-opener. Brennan’s Restaurant gave birth to this evil tradition, and it was there at the source that we conducted our explorations. The Absinthe Suissesse was nice, the Ramos Gin Fizz a knockout in more ways than one, but our favorite, hands down, was Milk Punch—brandy, light cream, powdered sugar, and a dash of vanilla, with fresh nutmeg grated on top. At Galatoire’s we had turtle soup, trout amandine, white Burgundy, and a stiff dose of New Orleans rudeness. We ate three or four dozen oysters at the Acme. We had beignets and chicory coffee at the Café du Monde. It was ninety degrees with ninety-percent humidity at midnight, but we prowled merrily on, profusely exuding ethanol, other toxins, and salt. We lurched through the streets drinking tall, red, vile Hurricanes, as did so many of our fellow-revelers, whom from time to time we would regale with old Boy Scout songs. We sat on the hard benches of Preservation Hall and listened to suspendered old men with leather skin play the best dixieland in the world. This was the greatest place in the world. And by the way, wasn’t the world a great place.
Our last night, drunker than ever by a considerable degree, I urinated on a fire hydrant in in Jackson Square in full view of the surging crowds and a horrified Towery. We both vomited in the gutter a couple of times. All good visitors to New Orleans, we reasoned, did that. Une tradition de plus, non?
There was still one thing we hadn’t done. We hailed a cab and asked the driver to take us to a whorehouse. We traveled down dark streets into the voodoo netherland of the real, tourist-averse French Quarter, where knives glinted in the summer air, where Stagger Lee left Billy bleeding on the barroom floor, where dice and drugs and wailing clarinets ruled the night.
The taxi pulled up at a lonesome corner. “Just down deah, haifway down de block,” growled the cabbie, in a voice of ten thousand reefers. “Wheh dem lights at.” We tipped the hell out of him and tottered toward the lights and glory. It was a police station.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
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