New New York New Orleans
My friend Bergmeier reads a lot. He tells me it's an active occupation, as opposed to my own. I watch television. It's apparently a passive thing; Bergmeier tells me it's sad the way I just sit in my living room and ask to be entertained. According to him it signifies some very, very deep need on my part. But book reading, you understand, is a whole lot different. It doesn't count that I'm watching "Elizabeth R." on the educational station and he's reading Rogue Photon with a naked woman copulating with a silver interstellar vehicle on the cover. Bergmeier says that the telling feature is that I am merely receptive, my mental tongue lolling from my mental mouth, while he is actively engaged in a creative pursuit, as much so as the author of his lurid tale. He is constructing entire galactic civilizations from the sparse building blocks of prose supplied by the writer. It doesn't take much imagination for me to conjure an image of Glenda Jackson when Channel 13 has done it already.
That's why civilization is crumbling, says Bergmeier. Movies and, especially, television, have robbed us of our imaginations. People die, people love, people commit felonies and misdemeanors in the modes they have learned from the silver screen. I made the mistake once of mentioning that books have always had the same effect -- look at poor Don Quixote, why don't you? So Bergmeier just smiled like I imagine Bobby Fischer might; I mean, it was obvious that I had just stepped into a trap set down during the initial stages of the Bergmeier-Chandless friendship. "So few people read, these days," he said, smiling sadly, shaking his head. "Nobody reads, except maybe what the disposable racks in Woolworth's tell us the new bestseller is. So the heroic, romantic behavior they emulate comes purely from sitting in the dark, staring at flickering images. What they learn from books is as the rustle of distant, cold galaxies compared to WABC-AM at full volume."
If he sounds bitter, it's because Bergmeier wanted to be a writer himself. Instead, he's a computer analyst. He analyzes programs, I guess; otherwise it would sound like he was some kind of shrink for the damned machines. I don't really know what he does, except that sometimes it has to do with figuring out the curves for interstate highway cloverleafs. I know he once began to write a novel about this guy who had the same job, and who discovered that it all fit into a secret Pentagon project to contact intelligent life on a far-distant star or something. The turnpikes spelled out some greeting, I suppose. Anyway, either some famous writer told Bergmeier that the idea had already been done (God forbid), or else it wasn't worth doing. I can't remember.
I tell you all this so you'll understand the framework of this history. So you can see how our personal relationship affected our actions, and so be less ready simply to dismiss the two of us as lunatics. How desperately, how hopelessly I pray that someone might believe me; then I would be fulfilled. Just one person. But then, fulfillment is rare in New York City. In fact, in our social circles, spiritual fulfillment ranks just below leprosy and reactionary politics as the most fatal of all character flaws.
Let us go back in time, back a few weeks to the day when Bergmeier first noticed the strange happenings. That's what comes from reading so much, I never had the courage to say. Bergmeier won't say, "What the hell?" or anything like that. If he did, then he could come to a quick boil, cool down, and forget. Not Bergmeier. Something absolutely crazy occurs, and all he does is classify it as a strange happening. He'll simmer over one of those for weeks. A television person would know better. I'd let the "Six O'clock News" people worry about it; then I'd find out what it meant after the professionals had done all the work.
Let us go back. It was June 27 or 28, a Wednesday. I remember because I was going to get tickets for the Yankees-Orioles game, but I decided to watch it on television instead (well, it can't be "Elizabeth R." all the time). Bergmeier and I were walking across W. Eighth Street in the Village. That in itself is a pretty foolish occupation for a hot afternoon in New York. But we were making our slow progress through the mongrel hordes that occupied (in a military or chess sense) the sidewalks. Pedestrians in New York have curiously never learned to walk in a large crowd. Groups will stroll along the narrow sidewalks four-abreast, slowly, simultaneously staring at junk in storefronts and discussing maddeningly inane subjects culled from snobby articles in New York magazine. Bergmeier and I were behind one of these squads. Cyrus the Great should only have had such a phalanx. They were gawking stupidly at a bunch of cheap shoes in a store window, but still stubbornly refusing to let my friend and me play through. Bergmeier indicated the street side, intending a quick outside flanking maneuver, but I have been too-well trained against passing on the right. The traffic on Eighth Street looked as if it were just waiting for some fool to step out into the street.
Suddenly I heard Bergmeier's disgusted whisper in my ear. He was more upset than usual. "No wonder," he said. "They're tourists."
"Aren't we all?" I asked philosophically. "Isn't everyone in New York a tourist of some kind? Doesn't everyone come to the Big Apple, looking for the streets paved with gold?"
"Some people are born here, you know," he said sullenly. "We natives don't take to you strangers so easily."
"Born here?" I said incredulously. "Bergmeier, that's unworthy of you. People born in New York City? Everyone knows the whole population is made up of continental refugees, stultified minds fleeing the tinsel and glitter of thousands of provincial highways and byways across this, our great nation." Perhaps, in retrospect, I'm adding somewhat of wit to my own speech, but let it pass.
"I'll bet I can pretty much narrow down the highways these rubes came from," said my friend.
I was curious. In my defense I must say that we had taken a long walk, and I had let down my guard. "How is that?" I asked innocently.
"They're all from New Orleans," said Bergmeier. "Tourists. Look at what they're carrying." I did look, but I couldn't recognize what he meant. The four people were sipping some pinkish drink from a tall glass. I turned to Bergmeier and shrugged.
"They're Hurricanes," he said. "From Pat O'Brien's. They're famous in New Orleans. The glasses are shaped like hurricane lamps, whence the name. You see flocks of people visiting New Orleans walking up and down Bourbon Street carrying them. That's how you tell tourists from natives in New Orleans. Like no born-and-bred New Yorker would ever go into a Greenwich Village coffee house."
Now, it wasn't quite a strange happening yet. What I should have said then is, "What's in 'em?" Bergmeier would gladly have spent an hour describing fruit punch and rum for me. We would have made our way across town, noticing women and bookstores and forever forgetting the vaguely distasteful tourists from New Orleans. No, like a fool I had to ask, "What are they doing here?" Bergmeier, of course, had no good answer, though he labored long in coming up with one. All that I succeeded in doing was fixing the event in his memory.
So much for the first incident of the strange happening. We parted soon after, each to seek his own way home. New Orleans, the lovely Crescent City, had been much in our conversation following the encounter with the Hurricanes; Bergmeier went on at great length, with a certain excited nostalgia that I was unwilling to interrupt. I had never seen the area, and Bergmeier's descriptions aroused my atrophied imagination. His recollections of New Orleans' singular cuisine particularly interested me, as I've always fancied myself a somewhat egalitarian gourmand and my previous experience with New Orleans food consisted of an old song by Hank Williams called "Jambalaya."
So perhaps it was no coincidence that New Orleans should be occupying a place closer to the surface of my consciousness than usual, and that references to that city should be noticed when under normal circumstances they would carry no special meaning. Nevertheless I felt a strange chill, a sort of déjà vu, when I climbed out of the subway exit on my street and saw a young boy dressed warmly, as for a Halloween forage or a Thanksgiving parade. The boy was clutching his father's sleeve with one hand, and in the other he held a gold-colored New Orleans Saints football pennant.
Now, it was late June. The boy and his father were a bit overdressed for the season, and the Saints' souvenir was not only unpatriotic but hard to come by up here in damn-yankeeland. I thought to myself that New Orleans certainly seemed to have her share of admirers lately. I walked east on Seventy-seventh Street. I thought about the weird people one sees so often on the fabled sidewalks of New York: the filthy drunken men mumbling something like "sexile divots" at everyone who walked by, the sad old ladies on the subways carrying all their possessions in two or three decrepit shopping bags, the constant streams of lonely people projecting their chosen images for all they're worth. Sure, living in New York you get used to it all. You expect to see a strange old man or woman talking to herself every now and then. But generally the kids are all right. You don't see a lot of nutty kids; that's why the boy with the pennant affected me so strongly.
Copyright © 1978 by George Alec Effinger