End of the Line

Another Round?

Learning about life––and literature––in a New Orleans landmark

illustration: Barry Blitt

The Carousel Bar, in the Hotel Monteleone, on Royal Street, in New Orleans, was created in 1949. At that time I was too young to hang out in bars, or even, unsupervised, on merry-go-rounds, but since then I have caught up, and some of my fuzziest memories are from evenings in the Carousel. Twenty-five seats with circus-animal motifs painted on the backs, overhung (flip side of the morning after) by circusy lights. It’s nice. And according to the Monteleone’s website, the Carousel “is the only bar in New Orleans that revolves around the room.” Whoa, no, get me out of here—but wait. The Carousel is not that terrifying in fact. The Carousel stays in the middle of the room and rotates slowly on its own axis: one full rotation every fifteen minutes, or per drink. So if you are standing beside the bar talking to someone who is seated at it, she seems at first to be edging closer and closer but then she gets beyond you and recedes, subtly but inexorably, clockwise, into the past, unless you keep nudging aside other standees to keep up with her, which is not a good idea; and by the time she comes back around, who do you think you are, Buster?

The Carousel Bar, then, is like life. Okay, not particularly, I guess, but I thought I would try that observation for literary effect, and here’s why: The gracious one-and-a-quarter-century-old Hotel Monteleone prides itself on its literary heritage. Truman Capote’s mother went into labor with him there, for starters. I myself once, oh never mind, that’s too personal, but all sorts of other luminaries who have stayed (and without question, drunk) there—William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams—are honored by suites named after them and by displays of their books in the lobby.

The Monteleone’s website misstates, however, when it says that the Carousel has been “immortalized in the writings of Ernest Hemingway among others.” A character in Hemingway’s story “Night Before Battle” does mention a bar in the Monteleone, but that story was published ten years before the birth of the Carousel. Eudora Welty did set a story, “The Purple Hat,” in a bar off Royal Street, but the two customers in that bar sit at either end of it, “with the length of the bar between them.” Does that say roundabout to you?

Richard Ford, in a foreword to a history of the Monteleone, recounts an affectionate anecdote from his boyhood—his father expressing concern that he can’t handle his liquor anymore because after one drink the bar seems to have moved around on him. Toward the end of that same book, Ford is quoted telling the same anecdote, a little bit differently. That says roundabout.

But I can’t see that any of those literati owns the Carousel, yet. As it happens, I am recognized, unofficially, in the Carousel as the man who, during a literary festival some fifteen years ago, brought into the Carousel some round rubber things, sort of like birth-control diaphragms but stiffer, which, when turned inside out and placed on a flat surface, would sit there for an indeterminate period and then, sometimes several whole drinks later, would go SPROING way up in the air and eventually come down in quite possibly a person’s drink, except that the rubber things’ circumference was greater than that of a Carousel drink glass, fortunately. A great deal of hearty good fellowship, involving several good living writers (who, if they want to go down in Carousel history, can write about the occasion themselves), was enjoyed in that time of the rubber things. And this one Carousel waitperson—she serves the tables alongside the rotating part of the bar, stable tables, tables where a person can enjoy a drink or two and the occasional SPROING without rotation—always remembers me: “You’re the guy with the…” and then she goes SPROING.

But that is not literary recognition, strictly speaking. I need to come up with something. That is, I need to write something. I need to seize this opportunity to immortalize the Carousel for sure, to be its Ernest Welty or Eudora Hemingway:

The man is wearing a purple hat. He looks like he’s dreading a battle.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I touched two pretty women’s legs at the same time?
They’re sitting there with them crossed, at this bar they call the Carousel, and one has a fleur-de-lis

Damn. Out of room. The Carousel, then, is like life.