I am LOVING Hollis Gillespie's new collection of essays: Trailer Trashed: My Dubious Efforts toward Upward Mobility.
Gillespie, if you don't know her, is a humorist and memoirist who has worked, variously, as a German interpreter, flight attendant, and now writer and NPR commentator, whose first memoir, Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch, I also loved. (I was not nearly as fond of Confessions of a Recovering Slut, but maybe I just wasn't in the right mood that day.) In this collection, she shares more tales of her family (her mother was a missile-making scientist and her dad sold trailers when he worked at all) and her friends, one of whom is notable for wanting her to call him if she ever finds a dead hooker in her hotel room, as he promises he has a plan for disposing of bodies. But all of the slightly unhinged stuff aside (and lots of swearing, don't forget the swearing) these are gentle stories.
So: I'm going to share one of her essays with you. It may not be totally cool from a copyright standpoint, but the book is searchable in Amazon, which gives you three pages anyway (which is the length of the following essay, "The Tiniest Bit." So I say let's have at it. I can't do it justice any other way.
"We were warned before we took off from Atlanta about the state of the New Orleans airport, told to 'prepare ourselves,' as the entire B concourse had been converted into a rudimentary morgue. On the way there, a Federal Air Marshall futher expounded that morgue might not be the right word. 'Dumping ground is more like it,' he said, as bodies had been simply shunted in that area, some still slumped in the airport wheelchairs that had been commandeered as provisional gurneys to get them there. Once we landed, it would be six hours before our people would be ready to leave. 'You can wait here,' he told me. 'You don't need to go out there. The place is contaminated.'
But upon arrival, I was the first one off the plane. I've always been that way. Even against my better judgment, I seldom pass up a chance to ogle catastrophe, dead bodies included. My own father's funeral was open-casket, and my mother graciously gave us, her teenage kids, the option of not viewing him in that state. 'You can wait here,' she said. I was the only one of my siblings who went in. I stood with him a long while, wondering if I could run my fingers through his hair. Finally I did. It was his hair all right, and I was surprised that his hair was there but he was not. In the end I wish I hadn't seen him like that; I wish my last memory of him could have been the last time I saw him alive, when he was making cocktail sauce, adding the horseradish very gingerly. 'You just need the tiniest bit,' he said. 'The tiniest bit is enough. It flavors everything else.'
He was from Birmingham, and he used to talk about New Orleans like it was some kind of Emerald City, an enchanted wonderland. Even during his surprise last days, he used to constantly recount how he once saw Louis Armstrong at Preservation Hall. 'You walk down the street,' he used to say, 'and you hear music coming out of every doorway. I heard that trumpet and walked inside, and there he was.' It was like my father lived on that memory, kept it protected like a treasured talisman, and pulled it out often to ward off the harshness of a world that would relegate a man who loves music and the magic of New Orleans to an efficiency aprtment and a job at a used car lot adjacent to LAX.
So when I was sixteen, I went to New Orleans and decided to stay a good while, moving in with my hotel's maid when I ran out of money. Her name was Shirley and she had an Afro like a perfect daffodil. One night I took her to Gunga Din's on Bourbon Street to watch the mangy drag queens insult the audience. That one tiny bit that I did--'taking her out on the town,' as she called it--was enough to brightly color the rest of our relationship. After that she refused to charge me rent anymore. 'You keep your money,' she insisted, and I am still astounded by her kindess. On another day we walked through the French Quarter and stopped to listen to a child play the violin on the street corner. A crowd formed, and an elderly man asked Shirley to dance. He spun her through the street in beautiful, pitch-perfect ballroom maneuvers, his posture so erect and his face so proud, his steps so achingly graceful. In light of Hurricane Katrina, it is an amlost unbearably memory."
Tune in for the conclusion tomorrow.