Tennessee Williams in the French Quarter
Having Encountered a Great Spirit, I Wanted to Run Away
If I have had a best friend over the years, it has been Tom Dybek, with whom I shared, during the summer of 1976, a small apartment in the French Quarter. We’d met, by chance, at the Napoleon House—the best little hangout a backward-looking quasi-romantic could ever wish for. I’d known him in Memphis. He was a gifted poet and a swell comedian. I met him when he was living in a noisome attic apartment with a cat whose hygiene left something to be desired. Upon settling in, he alluded to a pair of hand-weights and said: “Looks like something that would impress an amputee.” A few years later, he would join a theatre company in Boston and return to Memphis nevermore.
We were inside of a corner grocery store on Royal Street and got in line behind some Quarter characters you eventually cease to notice. But as I watched a somewhat bent-looking fellow who’d thrown a t-shirt over preppy slacks remove some pantyhose from an egg-shaped container (as I remember, the product was called “L’eggs”), I experienced a jolt to my system. Lo and behold, here was one of our idols standing—or, rather, stooping—before us. I watched, out of the corner of my eye, as he conned its contours and caressed the entirety of its hand-sized hemisphere. It was as if Blanche—with her feverish desires and unapologetic sensuality—had found a shiny bauble. Never were intentions and sensibilities in such conspicuous harmony.
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
I nudged Tom and said: “You know who that is, don’t you?”
Tom cast a discreet glance down the checkout line and looked back at me, as if to say: “Who might that be? And keep your voice down while you’re at it!”
“That’s Tennessee Williams,” I said, trying not to point at the man as I said it, because I was brought up very well and told not to do that. By this time, Tennessee had restored the container to its rightful place among the store’s peculiar impulse items—a feature of Quarter commerce that was sui generis—and guided his purchases toward the cashier. They were small in number and geared for a very short horizon: a pack of spaghetti noodles and a bottle of cheap red wine.
“Are you sure?” Tom asked.
“Yes, yes!” I exclaimed sotto voce (or thought I did.)
“Well,” said Tom, “we’ve got to meet him!”
“No, no!” I said, establishing a yes/no pattern that evoked a badgered witness in a courtroom drama.
“We’ve got to! We may never run into him again.”
“We haven’t run into him,” I said.
“Not yet!” said Tom and proceeded to follow Tennessee, who had just thrown some rumpled bills at the cashier and started to head out the door.
Tom’s timing was exquisite. As Tennessee found his way into the open air, Tom assumed a position on his left flank; I automatically provided right-flank protection, with the result that we’d wedged the poor man in front of a cast-iron column.
“Are you Tennessee Williams?” asked Tom, part English student, part private eye.
“I will acknowledge the attribution,” answered Tennessee, who had shrunken into his perch.
I was mortified, but fascinated. I had never seen Tom bear down on somebody like this.
“I think you’re America’s greatest playwright,” whispered Tom in an effort to contain his hysteria—something that might have charmed his victim in better days.
“Yes, I suppose I am,” was Tennessee’s answer as he made no attempt to straighten up and walk away—clearly his unspoken agenda.
“Your insight into the human condition changed my life,” said Tom.
“Thank you, young man. Now if you will excuse me, I’m afraid I have an appointment that will not brook the malingering that is my ordinary preference.”
We both moved aside, like death angels who had been told to knock it off, and let the man go his way. We watched his hobble and exchanged heartbroken looks.
“There goes a spirit no flesh might contain,” said Tom. Or I think he said that. Perhaps it was just a thought we both had and mustered the good sense to keep it to ourselves.
It took him a long time to get to the corner of St. Peter, where he listed for a moment, and finally made his turn.
Neither of us would see him in the Quarter—or any place else—again.
I’ve never felt good about cornering the man, but I can at least spread the blame. In a morbid kind of way, I’m glad we did it. It was one of my most memorable experiences as a New Orleans flaneur. Should I ever ask him, Tom will have his own version of the thing and it will be markedly different. It will also outdo mine to the point that I’ll want to run and hide, just as Tennessee did, with those plunky little feet of his, forty-odd years ago.
© Brett Busang
Brett Busang is a writer and artist living in Washington, D.C. He sent us the following capsule autobiographical statement: “(I like) people who listen; places from which soccer is notably absent; books without chase-scenes (unless people are running); no particular color; any public space that is chewing-gum free; a good day followed by a lousy one; most organisms that are not named Josh or Hayden; peace of mind that doesn’t come at the expense of thinking; food I can eat with my fingers; drivers who signal; no drivers at all.”