By Jim Grimsley
Published by Algonquin Books
April 2002; 1-565-12251-8; 304 pages
May 2003 in Trade Paperback; 1-565-12400-6
Newell took his duffel down from the baggage rack, slung the strap over his shoulder, and climbed off the bus onto the pavement. A breathless feeling, that first step into the open air. Stowing the bag in a coin-operated locker, he pocketed the key and unfolded the map of the city he had bought by special order from Ed White's filling station in Pastel.
The closest street sign read Tulane Avenue, and he found it on the map, the fact giving him a rush of happiness, to know the name of the street, to understand where it ran in relation to all the rest. He took one step away from the bus station, then another. He was walking along Tulane Avenue in the city of New Orleans.
That morning the city was new to him, and he could hardly imagine himself standing among such huge buildings as these, on streets with names like Carondelet, Gravier, Poydras, Magazine, St. Charles, words that ran through his head like notes of music. He guided himself through a tangle of streets and slivers of buildings, after only a couple of wrong turns, to Canal Street, where he took in the width of the thoroughfare--so many lanes for cars going each way, and more lanes down the middle, where city buses were running. He walked past shops, closed at this early hour, places to buy clothes, drugstores, fast food restaurants. Here was New Orleans early in the morning, hardly awake yet, but already it was like nothing he had ever seen.
The street he wanted lay on the other side of Canal, and he had said the name in his head a hundred times in the last few days, Bourbon Street, a place he had heard about from Flora and Jesse, who had come here twice for the Mardi Gras. If his dream came true today he would live on Bourbon Street, somewhere on it; and if that failed he would find some other place in the French Quarter, because he wanted that more than anything, not simply to live in the city but to live in the center of it. So he turned onto Bourbon Street from Canal, on the side of the street occupied by the wall of a store called Maison Blanche, beyond which, even at that hour, a fair number of people were walking around, some of them with the look that maybe they had been here since the night before.
get accustomed to this smell of vomit and piss, he thought, as he headed
down the tilted sidewalks. Tired workers in uniforms were taking up street
barricades, and traffic moved sluggishly along the cross streets. The
buildings were low, decorated with ironwork, wooden doors sagging, stucco
flaking and falling off; restaurants, Takee-Outee stands selling egg rolls,
bars, more bars, places to buy nightgowns and underwear in multiple colors,
more bars, with patios and balconies, bars where you could watch women
strip off their clothes, and farther down, places where you could watch
men and women. A marquee showed black-and-white glossy pictures of the
strippers, Tammy and Nanette and Roberto, names he remembered for a moment,
He walked a long way before he found a newspaper box, fumbled with the quarter before slipping it in the slot. The newspaper was called the Times-Picayune, and his copy was printed on green paper, a fact that so distressed him he rolled up the paper and hurried away from the vending box without reading the headlines. But at the next box he saw all those papers were green too, so he supposed it was all right.
On his map, in the center of the French Quarter on the river side, he had marked a place called Jackson Square, and now he headed toward it down St. Peter Street. He had only a vague notion of what a square might be but emerged from the street in front of a big gray church. Mist hung over the stone plaza in front of him, the stones covered with pigeons looking for something to eat, and he walked into the crowd of feathers and cooing, headed toward one of the iron benches in front of the church. He sat on the bench and looked around. The square was a big open space, but the buildings looked like nothing he had ever seen before, the church rising up gray and austere, stone buildings flanking it, proper and harmonious, with historical plaques about the builders and the history. Behind him, facing the church, lay a green park enclosed in an iron fence. The park gates stood open at the moment, but there was a sign giving the hours of business. He sat in the mist with the green newspaper in his lap and flocks of pigeons at his feet, the air so wet he could feel the moisture on his skin, the gray of the mist muting everything. A sound cut through the morning, a long lowing, and he understood it was a ship's horn he was hearing because he had heard a ship's horn on television before, but the real sound raised the hackles on his neck, the horn blew on and on. He could tell the sound was coming from behind him. That would be the river, he thought, and he started to walk toward it, because he knew what river it was.
He would learn the names: Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, the Pontalba buildings, the Moonwalk, Jax Brewery, the French Market, Café du Monde, all these mysteries would be explained to him in time, but this was his first walk to the river, and once he stood on the levee, one could understand that the sight might move him, because it was the Mississippi, and this bend of the river had created the city behind him. He could feel the power of it, the river flowing past him, gray and sooty, wind lifting over the water, a white ship passing upriver with a tug for an escort, a seagull riding the breeze near the wharf. He stood there for a long time, looking at all of it, taking it in. After a spell of that, he sat on one of the benches along the Moonwalk, opened the paper, and started to read.
Skipping over the article about President Ford and the First Lady at Camp David, skipping over the article about Richard Nixon planting flowers in the garden at San Clemente, Newell searched for the classified ads about rooms for rent in the French Quarter. There were listings for Metairie and Elysian Fields and Gretna, but these were all for houses or apartments, and besides, he had no idea where any of those places might be. The rented room list was actually quite short, and he studied it closely, spreading out his map as best he could in the breeze off the river. Not a single room on Bourbon Street. But some of the addresses were close, according to his map, which had a special section on the French Quarter. He found rooms on St. Ann, Governor Nicholls, and Ramparts, and more across Ramparts and Esplanade, outside the French Quarter but close by. Was he ready? He folded the map and was heading for the first place, on St. Ann, until he remembered it was early, hardly anybody would be ready to rent a room at such an hour. So he tucked the map into his pocket and folded the newspaper section by section.
He sat with
the river flowing past him, studying the tiny houses on the distant shore,
reminding himself that this was the Mississippi River, that he was sitting
in New Orleans, and this seemed to him a great accomplishment. Never mind
the worry that now he had to find a room to rent, a place to stay. That
he had to find a job and go to work. Never mind any of that, at this moment
he could do nothing more than watch the river.
But he was hungry after the trip and decided he ought to eat something, so after a while he left the Moonwalk and retreated across the levee to the Café du Monde, where a lot of people were sitting and eating off little plates and drinking coffee. Since there were so many people and so many round white metal tables outside, he sat in a chair, and pretty quickly a girl about his own age rushed up to him to ask what he wanted. It turned out all the Café du Monde sold was coffee and doughnuts, except that the doughnuts were called something else, a word the waitress said three times, bay-nyays, with Newell simply looking at her, at which point she said, "They're doughnuts with powdered sugar on them. And café au lait." She hurried off to take somebody else's order, and finally he saw the word she was talking about, beignets, on a sign in one of the windows, and he took a deep breath. What he had really wanted was some fried eggs, but he would gladly eat the doughnuts instead. The city was already showing itself to be a complicated place. A restaurant that served nothing but doughnuts, full of people, laughing and chattering.
The doughnuts were hot and sweet, but he kept blowing the powdered sugar up his nose, at first. He got one order and another, and paid for each out of the bills in his pocket. He knew you were supposed to tip a waitress like this, but he could only guess how much, so he laid a quarter on the table and added a nickel as an afterthought. The coffee, which was what café au lait turned out to be, had a rich cream in it and ran smooth as silk down his throat. He hardly ever drank coffee, but he thought he might like this kind, after a while. His stomach felt better with something in it.
For an hour or so he walked, at first in a place called the French Market, where a lot of produce vendors had already opened for business, and later along Esplanade, a wide avenue darkened with trees, with a green median running down the center, which anyone who lived in New Orleans would have known to call a neutral ground. Newell crossed onto it and walked down it, among the trees and plantings, with traffic on both sides of him.
He walked from place to place, to all the listings in the newspaper, and found nothing under three hundred dollars a month, which was more than he could pay with no more money than he had. Jesse had told him to stay at the YMCA, which he could rent by the night, till he found a job, but Newell had balked at that suggestion. But he might need to stay there tonight, he thought, and by then he was hungry again, so he found a place to buy a sandwich, a roast beef po' boy that dripped gravy and mayonnaise onto the wax paper in which it was wrapped. He wanted to ask for a phone book, but the people in the sandwich shop were too busy, so he finished his sandwich and wandered for a while.
He visited a few of the shops in the lower Quarter, pretending to browse like a real customer, a store full of used books, including some books by Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson for a quarter apiece, a store full of old postcards and glassware, stores full of Mardi Gras masks and costumes, places such as he had never imagined, though he kept a poker face and acted as if he had seen it all before. He ambled along Barracks, nearing Decatur Street, when he walked into a shop near the corner, which turned out to be a junk shop, tables and shelves of junk everywhere you looked, and the ceilings must have been twenty feet at least, wall-papered with dark paper that had stained even darker with age. A sign had been lettered onto the front window by a careful hand, and the sign, in contrast to the building, was bright and well kept. "Hendeman's Rare and Used," the sign read, but what? Everything, apparently, including old ashtrays, a wooden baby carriage near collapse, several wooden buckets, jars of beads, masks hung on the walls and piled on the shelves. Across the room behind a counter a woman was watching him. She had broad shoulders and hips and a narrow waist, and was dressed in a light, flowered dress with a buff-colored sweater wrapped around her. A large cat prowled the counter near her elbow, fluffing against her hand, till finally she shoved it away in irritation.
She was as handsome as a man, he thought, when he was close enough to see her face. Square-faced, high cheekbones, a strong jaw, full flaring lips, heavy eyebrows, her hair done up in a loose bun. "Are you looking for something?" she asked in a pleasant, husky voice.
"Do you have a phone book?"Copyright © 2002 Jim Grimsley
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)
Newell never really belonged in Pastel, Alabama. Ready for a change, he buys a one-way ticket to New Orleans. The year is 1978 and the rambunctious city beckons with its famous promise of bright lights, excitement, and men everywhere.
Newell makes his way, finding a job in a pornographic bookstore and renting a room in the French Quarter. His good nature, good looks, and a daring stunt in a popular bar make him a quick favorite of the town. Soon he has friends. Some are harmless, like Henry, a pudgy sidekick who's a frequent denizen of the porn shop's movie booths. Others prove more dangerous, like party-boy Mark, Newell's first beau, who has a penchant for recreational drugs. Finally, Newell encounters the volatile Jack, who shows Newell the blackest heart of the city.
Boulevard reminds us that Grimsley is what Publishers Weekly calls "an accomplished stylist and a complex moralist." He takes one character's dream and reveals what can happen when dreams are fulfilled.
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Jim Grimsley is the author of Winter Birds, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; Dream Boy, nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for fiction and winner of the GLBTF Book Award for literature from the ALA; My Drowining a Lila Wallace--Readers Digest Writers Award winner; and Comfort and Joy. He is a playwright in residence at 7 Stages Theatre of Atlanta and About Face Theatre of Chicago and is the author of Mr. Universe and Other Plays. He lives in Atlanta and teaches at Emory University.