Friday, September 02, 2005

Louisiana, 1928 (or thereabouts)

Most of Harry Stephen Keeler's novels are set in his native Chicago, but he liked New Orleans and sent the plot thither in The Voice of the Seven Sparrows (1928), his first novel published in the U.S. A piece of correspondence (which I can't locate at the moment) to a fan in N.O. confirms his fondness for the city. It's no surprise, given that he championed the vibrant, multicultural nature of Chi, which he often called the "London of the West." (The title of this post is a nod to Randy Newman's "Louisiana, 1927," which has been playing on a more or less constant loop in my head this week.)

Here's a NOLA excerpt from HSK's novel, which also displays his fondness for cartographical precision, extreme dialect, and all things Chinese:

He came upon an express office shortly and left instructions and money for the picking up and delivery of his portmanteau. Then a few minutes later he emerged into the refreshing openness of Canal Street, where he threaded his way across the traffic to a grey-clad policeman who helped to control it. Then was he to be treated to a further sign of Southern courtesy.

"Where would I be able to find the Chinese section of this city?" he asked. "I'm a stranger here."

The traffic policeman first put up a sunburned hand to stem the flood of autos and cars rolling out into Canal Street from the American side of the city. Traffic came to a dead halt. He turned.

"Well now you see this heah street heah? This is Canal Street, the centah o' the city. You go clear up Canal just as far as you can go till you come to South Rampart Street—Rampart Street used to be the ramparts of the old N'Awleans in the days of the fighting of the Spanyahds. It's the negro section. You then tuhn to y' left—don't tuhn right, or you'll be on N'oth Rampart and back in the French section." Auto drivers were fuming in their cushioned seats, street car motormen were stamping about on their platforms, and Smith, the centre of all this disturbance, felt decidedly ill at east. But the policeman went on imperturbably. "You then tuhns to y' left, on South Rampart Street, and you keep going along—well, two, maybe three blocks, till you come to a street called Tulane. This heah street, Tulane, from South Rampart to Sa'toga Street is known as Chinaman's Block. All the Chinese o' N'Awleans try to crow in on this block, but there being mo' Chinese than there is quahtahs, they've spread outa bit in either direction along South Rampart Street, and if you're looking for a particulah store or Chinese, you may have to go eithah way along Rampart. Have I made it quite cleah?"

"Quite," said Smith embarrasedly, looking at the big mass of traffic fuming on the intersecting street. "Thanks."

"No trouble at all." The policeman blew a shrill blast on his whistle, and at once the traffic poured forth into Canal and Smith felt a relief as he turned to cover that broad street in the direction given him.


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