1950s Archive

Roughing It with Gramp

Part XV

Originally Published January 1954

For me, there are only two cities in America that have special grace and flavor that rise above the flat level of living in this wonderful country. They arc San Francisco and New Orleans.

New Orleans at certain seasons of the year is perfect. The food is the best in America, which may mean the world, and there are enough pleasant people who are not interested in money, power, and fooling the voters to give one something to talk about.

In April, 1920, Granip and Mana and myself, “niter a season in hell” (it's marked Texas on the map), were on the left bank of the Mississippi, waiting for the river ferry to carry us in our car across the big muddy ditch. The spirits of New Orleans gleamed behind its levees, and the smell of the river muck, of green growing things, the feel of warm air, and the pleasant skits all made us feel like relatives of Adam and Eve being let back into the Garden.

On the ferry we three stood by the rail and Granip grinned and waved across the river. “I knew I couldn't die, not without seeing New Orleans again.”

Mama, who was feeling better after seeing the last of Texas (where she had several interesting but indecent oilers from some oil millionaires), parted Cramp's arm and said: “I don'i think you'll ever die, Gramp.”

“The hell I won't. But I'm in no hurry.”

“It's a big river,” I said.

Gramp nodded and tossed his cigar into the river and watched it float away. He was getting old and we knew it, and we felt that somehow once he was gone, an age and time on earth would go with him. Mama knew it and I knew it, Gramp knew we knew it—that's why he liked us better than the rest of the family. Gramp said softly, as if talking to somebody in the past, “Sam and 1, I guess it was over forty years ago, took a trip down the river together from St. Louie. He was thinking of finishing a book and he wanted to drink it all in again.”

“The river?” I asked.

“Sam was all right, the last of the real old son of——”

“Gramp, he was a great writer,” said Mama.

“He was a hell of a good drinker. His cigars were cheap, but his mind was rich. We really saw the town that time. Of course, not like the time in Virginia City, when we wrecked a honky-tonk and were locked up in the jug overnight till we sobered up.”

“I read Tom Sawyer, but I like Huck Vinn better,” I said.

“Those were Sam's Mark Twain books. But I bet he never wrote about that night in jail.”

Mama had her don't-be-vulgar face on, and Gramp found a fresh cheroot in his case, lit it, and knew it was time to forget the past and his old hell-lifting days with Sam Clemens.

The ferry softly came into its slip and we got the motor going and the car came ashore near Jackson Square, near where you go today to The French Market to have donuts and coffee after a hard night in the jazz jump joints General Jackson on his green bronze horse, just slightly soiled by the birds, lifted his hat to us, and the park was green and the lowers of the Church of Saint Louis pointed fingers to the sky, as it still does.

Gramp pointed out the sights as we passed through the narrow streets. “Now all this section used to be called Storyville. Seems a blue-nosed old waterhead named Story voted to enclose all the fast-living people in fourteen Square blocks, and they named the place Storyville after him. But in the war. why the Army and Navy decided the soldier boys didn't know which side of a lady was respectable, so they closed Storyville. But they haven't abolished l'umour yet.”

“Gramp,” said Mama in her cold voice.

Gramp winked at me and said, “Lunch, I have a card to the Boston Club, not bad food, but we'll go to Galaloire's on Bourbon Street. Keep your eyes open, you double-jointed blue-bellied walleyed catfish.” The last was to a native who had wandered into the street with a section of watermelon in his face. The native paid us no mind, and Gramp swung the car around him, still swearing. “The damn mudsill most likely drowned in that watermelon two days ago, but they haven't noticed it yet. Watermelon is dangerous to eat if you can't swim.”

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