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Going to Town 

We called it "going to Town," as if it was somehow more authentically New Orleans and we were somehow part of a vague, unenlightened outskirts. Which we somehow were.

In the slang of the day, "going to town" had another meaning, which focused on all-out enthusiastic participation. You might say, "I brought them boys a stuffed artichoke, and when I last saw 'em, they was going to town on it."

But what it meant more keenly was going to the city center of high commerce and entertainment. Those dozen or so blocks of Canal Street closest to the river and an indefinite number of blocks of side streets that attended Canal. We went to get new socks and drawers for school, sit for a photograph, rent a trumpet or see Santa, get a phonograph record or a tattoo and eat at classy restaurants before going to the best movies.

Going to Town.

How you went depended on geography, but plenty of people rode the streetcar. The slow-swaying streetcar, at the right times shared by shoppers and shopkeepers. A dear friend named Margaritte May recalled well the women who worked in Town. Stenographers, secretaries and salesgirls who worked behind counters ranging from lowly Kress or Woolworth's to expensive Gus Mayer, Godchaux's or Kreeger's.

They got on the streetcars at every stop, dressed in their high heels, cloche hats and short skirts. They were stylish on the cheap, many with white cotton gloves, many in dresses homemade by their mommas from Butterick and Simplicity patterns.

Each morning they boarded the streetcars fresh as daisies, filling up the seats till only the "Beauty Seats" were left. These were the long side seats near the doors, where the girls were visible from their toes up, with no protection from the searching eyes of all the riders.

Self-consciously, they claimed the Beauty Seats and primly settled their dresses, and if the windows were open, held on to their hats. If they recognized someone, there was a giggling exchange and an animated conversation to pretend they were unaware of the appraising looks of all eyes.

The looks were usually approving. There were plenty of long legs, nicely in nylons or silk stockings with a seam up the back. Some even dared to wear the lacy knits called "Queen Anne's Lace."

There were hanging straps above the heads of those on the Beauty Seats, and sometimes the streetcar's swaying dance brought an unsteady "strap holder" into contact with a Beauty Seater's hat or an unwelcome jacket into her face. Mainly, everyone was polite and feigned indifference to the annoyance. This was to be expected if you sat on the Beauty Seats. It was a small price to pay for great exposure and admiring glances from almost everybody going to Town.

But not everyone had nice legs or nylons to put them in. The streetcar people who sat next to you or just in front or behind — what were they called? Most properly, they would be called strangers, but that would be another failed noun because they were often so much more than that. Have some call to speak to one of them — and such calls could be frequent — and you might find that the degrees of separation could be slight. Oh, you went to that school? So did all my aunts. What church you go to? My cousin got married there last summer. Yeah. My brother-in-law works at the bus barn. He's probably in Straight Day right now, drinking a beer. He loves his beer. Yours, too?

No, "strangers" wouldn't get it. There are those who claim that at the end all we have are the words, but this is one of those times when we don't have a word rich enough. We need something as sweet and crazy as a nice dream to describe what these people meant to our rides, to our days, to our lives. Maybe a word like "us." As in, "As usual, on the streetcar, I met a bunch of us."

Yet the rails ran both ways.

On the way into Town, there was the sense of adventure coming, of places far different than home, of a world so busy, it was indifferent to those homes.

Now the streetcar, softly lurching, even more softly jostling, was taking us away from those differences and indifferences and giving us the sense of adventure done. We were headed back to those homes we had happily fled only hours before, and we were usually happy to be headed there. We had been to Town.

The place that was Town isn't a place anymore, and maybe it's being replaced by something that in its turn will be replaced by something else. That's one of life's rules and much as you might not like it, there's not much to be done. What you best remember will be forgotten.

Nice ride, but my stop's coming up. Time, as they used to chant in the airborne army, to stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door. To the door and then leap to the great beyond, the wild blue yonder. Reach for the electric cord that signals a stop to the driver.

My corner coming up. It's been a great trip, but it's time to get off. Have a good ride.

click to enlarge The place that was Town isn't a place anymore, and maybe it's being replaced by something that in its turn will be replaced by something else. That's one of life's rules.
  • The place that was Town isn't a place anymore, and maybe it's being replaced by something that in its turn will be replaced by something else. That's one of life's rules.
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