Challenger - Return Home   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2003

This is a melancholy story.



“For everything there is a last time, lieutenant.” Isn’t that what Spock told Saavik in Star Trek II? Something like that. It’s true, of course, although I never thought there’s be a last time I’d walk into New Orleans’ Hummingbird Grill for a cheap feed. There was, and it came on Friday, October 25, 2002.

The Bird, as we knew it, was a trip. It was located in a rough part of downtown, in a ramshackle brick building next to a garage. It took up the ground floor of the Hummingbird Hotel, and there used to be a Hummingbird Lounge next door - but that closed years ago. The Grill seemed eternal - but “seeming eternal” is an illusion.

Fans knew the Bird from late, late nights when we couldn’t find anyplace else to eat, or from times when visitors came to town to whom we wanted to show the real New Orleans. Or we just went there on our own to eat. In 1979, when I lived in the French Quarter, I’d hike up there almost every night to get one of their three-dollar ground steaks, or an anytime-breakfast of pancakes and ham. It was grease, of course, but as Beth my first wife said, it was “good grease.”

That last night I had pancakes, chosen as usual from the big chalkboard menu on the wall. Just beyond that wall were the bathrooms … from Hell. I never saw the Ladies’ Room, of course, but I did see the expression on Judge Miriam Waltzer’s face when she returned from it.

Aside from fans, and judges, the Bird’s clientele was just about what you’d expect from a diner open all night in a seedy part of New Orleans. Taxi drivers and cops, working transients, non-working transients, illegally-working transients, if you get my drift. I never had to worry about the rattiness of my blue jeans when I went to the Hummingbird. If anything, I had to avoid liberal condescension towards the regulars. On October 25, the place crawled with slumming yuppies, taking photos - like I did - giving interviews to anyone with a video camera, reminiscing loudly about the time the Hummingbird installed a salad bar for the World’s Fair. People had lamented that the Bird had gone to the yuppies, and now it really had. Some 20-something developer had bought the building to convert to something “upscale.” The Bird as we knew it had to go.

We cursed him loudly, and the cook and the waitress regarded us with silent, patient disgust.

I never had any trouble with other patrons at the Bird. 99 times out of a hundred I could eat my chopped steak and write in my diary in peace. Once a drunk at a nearby table started a fracas, leading his equally besotted girlfriend to calm him by imploring, “Give me some sugar!” A thug manning the register once chased away a complaining customer with a 2x4, and a smartass once pissed me off by howling along - literally - with my record from the jukebox. That was a good jukebox, too; for years it carried my favorite Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”. I’d play it every time I walked through the door.

On the day they closed the beat-up juke featured a wide selection of CDs - but not Bob Dylan.

One night I left the Bird, drove around the corner and found the client sprawled in the gutter who would make me $7,000. Another story for another time. I don’t know if any time would be appropriate for the story of the great Leslie Fortune, whom I first saw perched on a stool at the Hummingbird counter, wondering aloud to the cook if she should “go out” that night - a tableful of cops right behind her. Some tales are too dangerous to tell.

I liked to go there at Carnival time; the parades came right down the street. I didn’t like going there on the loneliest Christmas morning I hope I’ll ever spend, when I sat across a table from a street boy. He looked lost, abandoned, frightened, feelings felt forcefully on a day like Christmas in a place like the Hummingbird. He looked as grateful for the newspaper I gave him as if it were a bicycle. Maybe I was projecting; maybe I was grateful to have somebody to give something to.

That last evening Rosy and I joined our usual crowd - John Guidry, Dennis Dolbear, Annie Winston, Lee Young. They’d met a fellow at a play whom they’d brought with them, a literate guy who said “William?” when we spoke of Burroughs and “Ralph?” when we mentioned Ellison. Justin Winston was home asleep, which I regretted; he was with me and Dennis on one of the nights when we’d walked out of the Bird and someone said, “There’s something you do see every day!” “What’s that?” “Dawn.”

It wasn’t that late, or that early, when we left on October 25th, and stood together for a moment on the sidewalk. As we said our goodnights a couple came up. The man wore slops, and was heavily unshaven, and the woman wore a loud, many-colored outfit that was almost as skimpy as a bathing suit. He went inside and she told us, “Just droppin’ my old man off at work!” From her eyes and demeanor it was obvious that she was off the wall.

After she trundled down the street one of the ladies made fun of her harlequinish outfit. Tonight she was dropping off her “old man” at his job. Where would he go tomorrow night? Where would they all go? The night people who filled the Hummingbird, the transients, the runaways, the poor and petty evildoers who would have no place in the brave new upscale world coming to this building. Where would they go now to get a cup of coffee?

Going our separate ways, we left the shelter of the dilapidated Hummingbird marquee, from which bulbs were missing, and which wasn’t lit anyway. 


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Challenger is (c) 2002 by Guy H. Lillian III.
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