It mattered not at all that it was a monstrous city bus with green plastic seats shaped to the contours of fat people, or that it was belching dark smoke, or that the electronic marquee above the bubble-glass windshield displayed destinations in dot-matrix letters that flashed by like time and temperature readings at a suburban bank. All that mattered was what they had named this bus approaching the curb near the corner of Canal and Royal, at the border of skyscraper and French Quarter, reality and fantasy. It was a bus named Desire.
It was not a streetcar: The only one still operating is named St. Charles. It probably wasn't coming from the railroad station, and it certainly wasn't carrying any broken Mississippi belles like Blanche Dubois, with dainty beauty that must avoid strong light. Still, when a bus named Desire pulls over and opens its doors, the temptation is to pay the 60 cents and ride. There is something oddly profound when history, literature and life conspire that way, when a simple name on a bus evokes the haunting internal lives of misunderstood souls in the postwar New Orleans of playwright Tennessee Williams.
Williams was born in Mississippi, grew up in St. Louis, took his pen name from ancestors in Tennessee and lived out his years in Key West, but it was here in New Orleans that his surroundings were most in harmony with his sense of life -- ambiguous, isolated, decayed, sensuous, sympathetic.
This city, like Blanche, has a dainty beauty, but it must avoid direct light. The sweet sound of its place names, the blend of French, Spanish, Cajun, Creole and black, the grillwork, gardens and courtyards, the brown Mississippi, the bananas and coffee, the cemeteries -- all these are authentic, but they betray a deep anxiety.
The bus named Desire passes glistening new hotels and office buildings barely half full, built on false premises and undeserved arrogance; passes warehouses and wharves boarded up since the World's Fair collapsed last year amid grand jury investigations and a $120 million bankruptcy. The bus turns away from a port steadily losing markets and rumbles toward a housing project named Desire where there is far more of that than of hope.
It is not the route that Williams prescribed to Blanche when she got to town. "They told me to take a streetcar named Desire," she said, "and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at -- Elysian Fields." But it is close enough. The bus comes within a few blocks of the address where Blanche's sister, Stella, lived with her earthy husband, Stanley Kowalski.
In "A Streetcar Named Desire", the Kowalskis live at 632 Elysian Fields Ave. There is such an address. It is a white clapboard house, two stories, deteriorating, part of a duplex of sorts with three apartments on one side and a barbershop on the other. The barber advertises in a peculiar way: He takes "No New Customers, No Children, and No Loitering." Then again, the shop is closed most of the time. No one is home at the Kowalskis. The screens are down but the windows are open about six inches, and a breeze blows gently against white curtains made of the material Williams dressed Blanche in, with something about it "that suggests a moth."
Across the avenue one can only imagine what goes on inside the Teamsters Local 270 building, or Pino's Private Club. And down at the Washington Square Park, winos share one another's company on the sun-warmed benches. The market from which Stanley brought home his bloody meat is still there. But where did he go bowling?
Of course one should never try to bring too much real life into literature; it has a life of its own. "It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction," Williams wrote, "for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention, and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial."
Williams' life had enough violent disorders, as his varied biographers have revealed, but it was rather tame during the years he was writing "Streetcar." He started writing it in Chapala, Mexico, with a working title of "A Poker Night." Then he moved to New Orleans, changed the title and worked with a fury, waking each morning with Blanche, "this lascivious, demonic woman who possessed me."
At mid-afternoon he would leave his second-story apartment in the French Quarter, near the corner of Royal and St. Peter, and walk over to Victor's, a long-gone bar, where he would drink brandy alexanders and listen to the Inkspots sing "If I Didn't Care" on the jukebox. All the time he was writing the play, which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize, Williams thought he was dying of pancreatic cancer. He lived for another 35 years. The streetcar named Desire, or at least one of them, sits quietly behind the iron gates of the old U.S. Mint at the end of the French market. Another landmark, a letter from Williams to Elia Kazan, who directed the play and the movie, can be found at the New Orleans Historic Collection on Royal Street near where Williams once lived.
"There are no 'good' or 'bad' people," Williams wrote. "Some are a little better or a little worse but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice, a blindness to what is going on in each other's hearts."