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Silver Threads: Tennessee and me

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

"I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers," says Blanche DuBois  at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire; it’s a dramatic line right up there with "To be or not to be," Hamlet’s musing in the play of the same name.

Or maybe not.

I first heard the former in 1951 when Vivian Leigh uttered it in the Streetcar movie, made only four years after the stage play won a Pulitzer Prize for Tennessee Williams. I was 15 or 16, and the line stuck with me, but so did the beginning of the soliloquy of Shakespeare’s prince of Denmark, which was important enough to have already been taught to me in school. The bard is more prestigious than Tennessee Williams. But not much more, in my opinion.

One day, in the original Marti’s restaurant on Rampart street, I spied Tennessee lunching with a friend at a table not far from mine. Being a huuuge fan, I approached the shy little man, menu and pen in hand, for an autograph.

I think I nearly scared him to death. But I got it, and the menu cover -- with my name and his on it -- hangs on my wall, right underneath a large 1977 Christopher Harris photograph of the playwright standing by Andrew Jackson’s equestrienne statue in Jackson Square. He’s waving his arms at circling pigeons, whether in an attempt to lure them in for breadcrumbs or to frighten them away I can‘t say.

(Tennessee’s is one of only two autographs I ever asked for, the other being Elvis Presley’s, but I’ve told you that story. And maybe this one, too, now that I come to think about it. I can’t go looking through my Silver Threads file every time I fear I’m being repetitive; it’s common among us seniors; just bear with me, please.)

Anyhow, I got to thinking about all this when reminded that the Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival begins on March 19. It’s a five-day event that concludes Sunday the 23rd with the Stanley and Stella Shouting contest in the Quarter.

I love the way that Tennessee portrayed Southerners, although Stanley Kowalski is certainly a bore. Remember the way he “cleared the table” for his wife? And Big Daddy of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof was no sweetheart either.

There are those like both of them among us, I’ll grant, but I think, like Blanche, that you can depend on the kindness of strangers in the South. I give you the man who enabled my husband and me to skip the loong line at a gasoline pump during the last hurricane scare by filling our gas can up as he filled his tank.  And then refusing to be reimbursed.

And the guys who followed me off the Pontchartrain expressway and had changed my flat tire before I could even begin bemoaning my predicament.

The woman who jumped from her seat in the crowded waiting area of a  restaurant and insisted that I come in from the windy cold so “you won’t get sick, Baby.”

And, “Oh, you Southerners,” said my grandson’s LSU roommate, laughing  appreciatively, as, via text, he received three maternally-endorsed invitations from freshmen  friends to spend the night at their homes. He’d missed a late-evening flight from Louis Armstrong airport to his home in New Jersey for the holidays.

Southern-style kindness couldn’t be more evident in New Orleans; I’m dependent on it. That’s what I like about the South.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]