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New New York New Orleans

My friend Bergmeier reads a lot. He tells me it's an active occupation, as opposed to my own. I watch television. It's apparently a passive thing; Bergmeier tells me it's sad the way I just sit in my living room and ask to be entertained. According to him it signifies some very, very deep need on my part. But book reading, you understand, is a whole lot different. It doesn't count that I'm watching "Elizabeth R." on the educational station and he's reading Rogue Photon with a naked woman copulating with a silver interstellar vehicle on the cover. Bergmeier says that the telling feature is that I am merely receptive, my mental tongue lolling from my mental mouth, while he is actively engaged in a creative pursuit, as much so as the author of his lurid tale. He is constructing entire galactic civilizations from the sparse building blocks of prose supplied by the writer. It doesn't take much imagination for me to conjure an image of Glenda Jackson when Channel 13 has done it already.

That's why civilization is crumbling, says Bergmeier. Movies and, especially, television, have robbed us of our imaginations. People die, people love, people commit felonies and misdemeanors in the modes they have learned from the silver screen. I made the mistake once of mentioning that books have always had the same effect — look at poor Don Quixote, why don't you? So Bergmeier just smiled like I imagine Bobby Fischer might; I mean, it was obvious that I had just stepped into a trap set down during the initial stages of the Bergmeier-Chandless friendship. "So few people read, these days," he said, smiling sadly, shaking his head. "Nobody reads, except maybe what the disposable racks in Woolworth's tell us the new bestseller is. So the heroic, romantic behavior they emulate comes purely from sitting in the dark, staring at flickering images. What they learn from books is as the rustle of distant, cold galaxies compared to WABC-AM at full volume."

If he sounds bitter, it's because Bergmeier wanted to be a writer himself. Instead, he's a computer analyst. He analyzes programs, I guess; otherwise it would sound like he was some kind of shrink for the damned machines. I don't really know what he does, except that sometimes it has to do with figuring out the curves for interstate highway cloverleafs. I know he once began to write a novel about this guy who had the same job, and who discovered that it all fit into a secret Pentagon project to contact intelligent life on a far-distant star or something. The turnpikes spelled out some greeting, I suppose. Anyway, either some famous writer told Bergmeier that the idea had already been done (God forbid), or else it wasn't worth doing. I can't remember.

I tell you all this so you'll understand the framework of this history. So you can see how our personal relationship affected our actions, and so be less ready simply to dismiss the two of us as lunatics. How desperately, how hopelessly I pray that someone might believe me; then I would be fulfilled. Just one person. But then, fulfillment is rare in New York City. In fact, in our social circles, spiritual fulfillment ranks just below leprosy and reactionary politics as the most fatal of all character flaws.

Let us go back in time, back a few weeks to the day when Bergmeier first noticed the strange happenings. That's what comes from reading so much, I never had the courage to say. Bergmeier won't say, "What the hell?" or anything like that. If he did, then he could come to a quick boil, cool down, and forget. Not Bergmeier. Something absolutely crazy occurs, and all he does is classify it as a strange happening. He'll simmer over one of those for weeks. A television person would know better. I'd let the "Six O'clock News" people worry about it; then I'd find out what it meant after the professionals had done all the work.

Let us go back. It was June 27 or 28, a Wednesday. I remember because I was going to get tickets for the Yankees-Orioles game, but I decided to watch it on television instead (well, it can't be "Elizabeth R." all the time). Bergmeier and I were walking across W. Eighth Street in the Village. That in itself is a pretty foolish occupation for a hot afternoon in New York. But we were making our slow progress through the mongrel hordes that occupied (in a military or chess sense) the sidewalks. Pedestrians in New York have curiously never learned to walk in a large crowd. Groups will stroll along the narrow sidewalks four-abreast, slowly, simultaneously staring at junk in storefronts and discussing maddeningly inane subjects culled from snobby articles in New York magazine. Bergmeier and I were behind one of these squads. Cyrus the Great should only have had such a phalanx. They were gawking stupidly at a bunch of cheap shoes in a store window, but still stubbornly refusing to let my friend and me play through. Bergmeier indicated the street side, intending a quick outside flanking maneuver, but I have been too-well trained against passing on the right. The traffic on Eighth Street looked as if it were just waiting for some fool to step out into the street.

Suddenly I heard Bergmeier's disgusted whisper in my ear. He was more upset than usual. "No wonder," he said. "They're tourists."

"Aren't we all?" I asked philosophically. "Isn't everyone in New York a tourist of some kind? Doesn't everyone come to the Big Apple, looking for the streets paved with gold?"

"Some people are born here, you know," he said sullenly. "We natives don't take to you strangers so easily."

"Born here?" I said incredulously. "Bergmeier, that's unworthy of you. People born in New York City? Everyone knows the whole population is made up of continental refugees, stultified minds fleeing the tinsel and glitter of thousands of provincial highways and byways across this, our great nation." Perhaps, in retrospect, I'm adding somewhat of wit to my own speech, but let it pass.

"I'll bet I can pretty much narrow down the highways these rubes came from," said my friend.

I was curious. In my defense I must say that we had taken a long walk, and I had let down my guard. "How is that?" I asked innocently.

"They're all from New Orleans," said Bergmeier. "Tourists. Look at what they're carrying." I did look, but I couldn't recognize what he meant. The four people were sipping some pinkish drink from a tall glass. I turned to Bergmeier and shrugged.

"They're Hurricanes," he said. "From Pat O'Brien's. They're famous in New Orleans. The glasses are shaped like hurricane lamps, whence the name. You see flocks of people visiting New Orleans walking up and down Bourbon Street carrying them. That's how you tell tourists from natives in New Orleans. Like no born-and-bred New Yorker would ever go into a Greenwich Village coffee house."

Now, it wasn't quite a strange happening yet. What I should have said then is, "What's in 'em?" Bergmeier would gladly have spent an hour describing fruit punch and rum for me. We would have made our way across town, noticing women and bookstores and forever forgetting the vaguely distasteful tourists from New Orleans. No, like a fool I had to ask, "What are they doing here?" Bergmeier, of course, had no good answer, though he labored long in coming up with one. All that I succeeded in doing was fixing the event in his memory.

So much for the first incident of the strange happening. We parted soon after, each to seek his own way home. New Orleans, the lovely Crescent City, had been much in our conversation following the encounter with the Hurricanes; Bergmeier went on at great length, with a certain excited nostalgia that I was unwilling to interrupt. I had never seen the area, and Bergmeier's descriptions aroused my atrophied imagination. His recollections of New Orleans' singular cuisine particularly interested me, as I've always fancied myself a somewhat egalitarian gourmand and my previous experience with New Orleans food consisted of an old song by Hank Williams called "Jambalaya."

So perhaps it was no coincidence that New Orleans should be occupying a place closer to the surface of my consciousness than usual, and that references to that city should be noticed when under normal circumstances they would carry no special meaning. Nevertheless I felt a strange chill, a sort of déjà vu, when I climbed out of the subway exit on my street and saw a young boy dressed warmly, as for a Halloween forage or a Thanksgiving parade. The boy was clutching his father's sleeve with one hand, and in the other he held a gold-colored New Orleans Saints football pennant.

Now, it was late June. The boy and his father were a bit overdressed for the season, and the Saints' souvenir was not only unpatriotic but hard to come by up here in damn-yankeeland. I thought to myself that New Orleans certainly seemed to have her share of admirers lately. I walked east on Seventy-seventh Street. I thought about the weird people one sees so often on the fabled sidewalks of New York: the filthy drunken men mumbling something like "sexile divots" at everyone who walked by, the sad old ladies on the subways carrying all their possessions in two or three decrepit shopping bags, the constant streams of lonely people projecting their chosen images for all they're worth. Sure, living in New York you get used to it all. You expect to see a strange old man or woman talking to herself every now and then. But generally the kids are all right. You don't see a lot of nutty kids; that's why the boy with the pennant affected me so strongly.

The next day, Thursday, I got a call from Bergmeier in the early afternoon. "Hey, Chandless," he said in his normal, unperturbed voice, "what's happening?"

"I don't know," I said. "I'm a little down today, and I don't know why."

"Bad vibrations," he said with mock seriousness.

"Shut up," I said. My seriousness was certified.

"What's wrong? You miss 'Jeopardy?' 'Hollywood Squares?' 'Three on a Match,' for God's sake?"

"I don't know, but I don't feel like airy nonsense today," I said.

"All right," he said, and I could catch the implicit apology in his voice. "What I wanted to know was, do you remember yesterday afternoon, when we saw those people walking along Eighth Street with the Hurricanes?"

Of course I did; the New Orleans thing had been reinforced by the young boy with the pennant. I briefly told Bergmeier that story, and when I finished he was silent for a few seconds. "That makes it even worse," he said at last "I was going to say that I spotted three separate groups of touristy-looking folk after I left you, all walking along with genuine Pat O'Brien's Hurricanes."

"Maybe there's a convention of New Orleans people in town," I said.

"Yeah, maybe, but all these people look like tourists in New Orleans, not from New Orleans."

"Do you think they've noticed the difference?" I asked, too weary to get myself hooked into Bergmeier's June-July strange happening.

"Don't be foolish," he said. "This thing is for real. There's something strange happening."

"You're making a monkey out of a molehill," I told him. "If you see Jean Lafitte and his pirate band in Maxwell's Plum, then you can worry. If you see a levee alongside the East River, then you call me and we'll notify the authorities. You woke me up, Bergmeier. I intend to correct that. See you." Then I hung up, allowing myself to postpone worry over my rudeness until later. Bergmeier was a long-time close friend, and he had learned that he was on his own in the initial stages of his strange happenings. It was only later, when he had done all the research and easy stuff, that I always got inextricably involved. I knew that I had a rough week ahead of me, and I'd need all my strength. I went back to sleep.

It was dark outside when I awoke again. The clock said ten-fifteen. I cursed myself for wasting the day and, even worse, ruining my delicate schedule. Now, when my normal bedtime came at two-thirty, I would hardly be ready to go to sleep again. And if I tried staying up all night and all the following day in order to get realigned, I'd be in bad shape. In a foul and groggy mood, I called Bergmeier.

"Where have you been?" he asked.

"I'm sorry for the way I spoke to you this morning," I said. "I've been asleep all day. Just woke up about ten minutes ago."


"I'm not really sure. I forgot to check. Yes, I guess I am."

"You ought to be. So meet me in about half an hour. I've got more to tell you."

"The usual place?" I asked.

"Hurry up," he said briskly, and then all I could hear was dial tone. I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth. I paused as I raised my hairbrush over my head; my hair had a certain rumpled quality to it. I saw in the mirror that my super-nap had accidentally given me the very mod look I had been trying to duplicate for months. With a disgusted shrug I tossed the brush back on its shelf. I changed into a fresh shirt, swapped my blue jeans for a pair of white (it was, after all, after six), and walked to the subway. I did not, in point of fact, hurry.

I arrived at Orgoglio's about forty minutes later. Bergmeier, of course, was waiting for me at our usual table, a pitcher only a third full of beer guarding my reserved seat. He pushed it aside to make room for me, and I sat down. "Good morning," I said. I still wasn't in such a terrific mood.

"Hi," he said. "Guess what happened."

"Something strange?"

"You're learning. This afternoon I counted no less than twenty-four people walking around the concrete canyons of New York with anomalous Hurricanes."

"Somebody's selling them here. Nathan's got a franchise or something."

"I asked some of the people where they got the Hurricanes. Everyone said, 'Pat O'Brien's.' When I looked blank, they said, 'You know, on St. Peter Street.'"

I felt a bit of an apprehensive chill. Bergmeier still had this failed novelist's melodramatic delivery, and I always fought it as best I could. It was my job as his best friend to act kind of bored and unimpressed. But once in a while he got through and actually interested me. So I didn't say anything. I wanted to hear how it all came out.

"Well, there isn't any St. Peter Street in midtown Manhattan. But there is one in New Orleans, and Pat O'Brien's is on it." He paused pregnantly again, but I wouldn't buy it twice in a row.

"So what did you get out of it all?" I asked.

"I met this terrific girl with a Hurricane and long red hair. Tremendous." Failed novelists always have a thing for long red hair.

I signaled to Andrea, the waitress; while I waited for her to react I asked Bergmeier, "Did you ask the red-haired chick how she liked our fair city?"

He looked horrified. "No, no, I couldn't do that. It's not time. We've got something big going. We can't just jump into it. We can't interfere with the matrix of fantasy. We're not controlling the influences; right now, we're just as much the victims as the poor displaced New Orleanians."

"But you said they weren't New Orleanians. You said they were all tourists there, too."

"Look," he said, by way of avoiding the question. He held up a newspaper. In the dim light favored by Orgoglio's management I could barely make out the logo. I saw immediately that it wasn't a local paper. It was, in fact, the New Orleans States-Item.

"Great," I said, eagerly turning to see what kind of television programming New Orleans enjoyed. "Where did you get it?"

"The little stand on Sheridan Square," he said, and something frightened in his voice made me look up. "I asked for the Times, and the guy said he was all out. He handed me this paper; I remembered then that the other New Orleans newspaper is the Times-Picayune. So I said, 'I meant the new york Times.' He told me that if I wanted an out-of-town paper I'd have to go up to Forty-second Street."

"That's weird," I said, watching Andrea closely. She was fun to watch; the main reason that Orgoglio's was our usual place had a great deal to do with the way Andrea's long legs cooperated with her marvelous fuselage. Three weeks previously she had been employed at the Nice Mess, and then that establishment had been our usual.

"Yeah," Bergmeier said softly. Now, you give Bergmeier a strange happening, and not only will he waste all his time and mine chasing down phantom mysteries, but he'll donate a nonstop commentary as well. This time he wasn't; he was just being very puzzled, staring into his beer like it was some great Asgardian well of truth. In about half an hour he got tired of the whole thing and went home, leaving me alone to smile and stammer at Andrea. I left about ten minutes after he did, for different reasons.

I was walking up Sixth Avenue toward Eighth Street when I heard the clopping of horse hooves. My first thought was, "If somebody's taking a ride in a Central Park hansom cab this far downtown, somebody's paying a lot of money for romance." My second thought, as the carriage pulled opposite me on the street, was, "I wonder if she's worth the investment." My third thought, as the carriage moved past me, was, "That's a pretty ragged hansom cab." My fourth thought, as I read the sign on the back, See New Orleans' Famous French Quarter, was something quite a bit stronger than "Gosh!"

In situations like this, I suppose, one pauses to explain how the ground seemed to shake beneath one's feet, how the very heavens seemed to open and pour down a bitter confusion, and so forth. Well, you can imagine for yourself, the debilitating effects of television and movies notwithstanding. I stood on the sidewalk and stared. Motionless, with my mouth wide open, my arms sort of half-raised, gawky like a straw dummy, I didn't look the least bit unusual in that neighborhood. So I remained like that for an extended period. Finally I got myself together enough to proceed in a homeward direction. I didn't want to be in on a mystery at all; this was Bergmeier's strange happening, not mine, and I didn't take it as an act of kindness for him to share it with me.

The next day was Saturday. I had half-tilted my mental clock back toward my normal hours. I was up and about by two o'clock, and I called Bergmeier. My mad friend had suffered through this, even more than had I. His voice was subdued and weary. I truly felt sorry for him, but at the same time I was glad. I had a tiny suspicion that this was his final strange happening. Maybe we could take up skittles instead.

"What's wrong?" I asked him. "Is it getting worse?"

"Lots," he said. "Too much. I don't even want to talk about it."

"I doubt that. How about lunch at the usual? I have things to tell you, too. Maybe if we get it all set out in simple order, we can figure it out."

"I have it figured out," said Bergmeier quietly.

"You have? Then I'll see you in an hour. I want to hear this."

"No, you don't," said Bergmeier. Then there was a click, and in turn I hung up my receiver.

My only thought as I rode the subway downtown to meet Bergmeier was how placid everyone seemed. We were all living in the midst of some inexplicable grand joke, some cosmic AT&T foul-up, crossed wires in the universal switchboard that put a tattered overlay of a distant metropolis upon the grimy reality of New York City. If this had only happened somewhere else, Toledo, perhaps, or Grand Island, Nebraska, then it would have been terrifyingly evident. But New York can hide a sodom of sins among its trash-strewn avenues. And the people on the IRT had no idea of what was happening among them; no, not even when a smiling college-age couple got on the train at Fourteenth Street, the boy carrying a camera, the girl wearing sunglasses and sipping a Hurricane. Instead of riding down to Astor Place stop with them, I hurried through the closing doors and ran up the stairs to the street.

No one else noticed. No one, that is, except Bergmeier. And he was crazy. Where, then, did that leave me? Where did it put those poor people with the Hurricanes? You can't get to Basin, Rampart, Bourbon streets on the Lexington Avenue local.

I was in quite an uneasy state when I finally got to Orgoglio's. Of course, Bergmeier was there. It was early; the place was pretty empty, and I saw that he had finally, after all these months, broken Andrea's first line of defense. She was sitting at his table, talking. One of her hands rested casually on the back of her chair, and Bergmeier was very, very carefully stroking her thumb. That was a classic and well-documented strategy, and I knew that my sudden arrival would ruin all his groundwork. I waited by the entrance until another customer called her away from Bergmeier's table. Then I sat down by him.

"I'm glad to see that you're making some progress through all this horror," I said.

"Why shouldn't I?" he asked, genuinely amused by my unaccustomed seriousness. "What horror do you mean? Are you referring to the New Orleans thing?"

I was exasperated, but I was also just a little afraid. "Yes, you uncool, less than hip mathematics major, I mean the New Orleans thing."

"Then listen. You've heard of a space-warp, of course?" I shook my head; no, I had never heard of a space-warp. Bergmeier took no notice. "Good," he said, "then you'll have little difficulty understanding the concept of a reality-warp."

"Bergmeier," I said, my anxiety not in the least relieved, "I could make some really pretty remarks right now. You've left yourself wide open. I mean, if you want to discuss 'warped,' you've got to be ready for that kind of thing. Now, either you tell me what's going on, as well as your cheap-novel befuddled brain is able, or I'm going home and watch Roller Derby in Spanish."

Bergmeier looked hurt. "I was serious. Somehow the very fabric of the universe has become, well . . ."

"Wrinkled?" I suggested. He brightened immediately.

"I think you've got it," he said in his best Professor Higgins voice, which is not all that good. "It's just that a little New Orleans has been spread onto New York. Or something."

"What are we going to do about it?" I asked, being one who always likes his cosmos orderly. Sugar cane waving in Shea Stadium may be picturesque to some, but there's a certain discipline lacking that upsets me.

"Do about it? Why, nothing. What can we do? When you invent a four-dimensional flatiron, then bother me. I would never have met Cassie if this hadn't happened."

"Cassie?" I asked, knowing full well that it was expected of me.

"The girl with the long red hair and the Hurricane."

"Oh," I said. I thought for a moment. I didn't like this at all. Here was Bergmeier, the Enigma King, abdicating and wiping the whole affair off on me. "Did you ask her what she thinks she's doing? Does she think this is New York or New Orleans?"

"Cassie's kind of spaced most of the time. I don't think she cares. But, Lord, does she do massage!"

I was pretty burned up. "See you," I said, rather brusquely. I didn't even wait to give Andrea my hopelessly winning smile. I just stalked out into the mostly New York afternoon.

I walked for a while, alone with my thoughts. Every few blocks I'd see someone staring at all the tall buildings, a half-finished Hurricane in his hand, and I'd get terribly depressed. I saw another of the French Quarter horse-drawn carriages. If I had had the money and the stomach, I'd have hired it just to hear the driver describing the sights of New Orleans while he drove around my dear old Greenwich Village. Or maybe he'd do it the other way around. I was getting confused, and that was a bad sign. There had to be someone, just a single soul in that horrible, laughable crisis who knew what was going on. I developed a very sick feeling indeed when I realized that the one person was probably me. Where could I turn?

Long red hair could make Bergmeier deny his own grandmother. He had hinted that the problem was all in my mind, a product of late-night movies. Too much John Payne, too much John Agar, far too much Virginia Mayo. I had let my weakened imagination have too much freedom. One can't rush into things like that; I should have begun slowly and built up to it. A few people with Hurricane glasses, some mixed-up folk that couldn't quite recall whether they were in Louisiana or New York, hints here, some minor indications there: Wasn't I over-reacting?

So I was left to my own devices, which were notoriously few and inferior in quality. I passed the fantastically fragrant coffee and tea emporium on Christopher Street, ignoring the display of New Orleans-style coffee-and-chicory mixtures in the window. Then I stopped in my favorite candy shop and treated myself to three French rolls. I ignored the large plate of genuine Creole pralines. After a time I realized that I had been walking in circles, deliberately avoiding something. That was a foolish thing to do; walk in circles, I mean. It was proof that Bergmeier was right in saying that I was getting too carried away; and we both knew that Bergmeier wasn't right. It was becoming complex.

So I went to the river. There's a pier the city has made into a sort of public park. I liked to walk to the end and stare across the thick, oily water toward New Jersey. On good days, between the wisps of smog, you could see the other side, though it's not the sort of sight you carry always in your heart. On this day, however, I never got to my usual perch on the end of the dock. A large white sidewheeler steamboat was moored at the pier. It was beautiful. It was also not supposed to be there. I stared at the brightly painted boat for a long time. I got a sort of Mark Twainish feeling, which was quickly displaced by an honest and true fear. The name of the boat was painted in old-fashioned letters on its side, the S.S. President. While I stood gaping at the thing, wondering what it was doing in the Hudson, the filthiest waterway known to science, an old black man came up to me.

"Some boat, ain't she?" he said.

"Yup," I said. "I wonder what it's doing here."

The old man looked at me for a few seconds. "Tours," he said. "People pay money and go on it for tours."

That seemed reasonable. I said as much to him. He seized immediately on my interest. He was obviously an employee. "You want a tour? See the bayou country, the harbor, up and down the Mississippi. Saturday nights they have moonlight cruises, real Dixieland jazz band. You bring your girl." He looked at me questioningly.

Well, what could I say? We don't really have bayous around New York, though parts of New Jersey might qualify under a relaxed interpretation. And we for sure don't have a Mississippi. I told the man I didn't have any spare change, turned, and headed back toward the subway.

If I were one of the super-competent heroes on a weekly series, rd pursue every last thread until I had my explanation. I'm not. If I were one of the ultra-macho protagonists of Bergmeier's action thrillers I'd kick the teeth out of anyone who might help me learn the truth. I'm not. I went home. On the way to the subway I saw a bus. It didn't say something like to abingdon sq or 34th st crosstown. No, it just said DESIRE. I guess the Streetcar Named Desire had been retired years ago; now they must have Buses Named Desire in New Orleans. I might have gotten on if I'd had exact change. No, I just went home.

The next few days were terrible. I doubted my sanity, and when that got boring I doubted Bergmeier's. Then I cursed the universe. It's really hard to do something like that and keep a straight face. And, finally, that's what rescued me. I couldn't help what was happening around me; I could only watch as more and more of my environment changed places with another, altogether charming environment. Here I had the best, the worst, and the middle of both worlds, on no regular schedule. I passed my crisis, one which I observed alone; no one else in the city but Bergmeier had even raised an eyebrow at these most unusual events. Bergmeier was too busy or too afraid to look closer, and I . . . well, all that I could think to do was dial 911 and make an anonymous call to the police.

I walked into Orgoglio's late one evening and, not much to my surprise, I saw Bergmeier. He glanced up and saw me. He jumped to his feet, grinning, and waved. "Come on, Chandless," he shouted. "You've gotten over that stupid mood, haven't you? You're going to give in to the whims of the world, like a good boy?" I nodded and joined him. He was having dinner, it seemed; that was something we never did in that place. All that it had on its menu was hamburgers, fried chicken, french fries, and rice pudding. We went to Orgoglio's for two reasons: the free peanuts they offered with the beer and, of course, Andrea.

"Allow me to order for you, poor illiterate soul," he said with his usual heartiness. So long unused to him — three or four days, now — I found it a bit annoying. But I consented. In a short while Andrea brought me my dinner. I was so taken by her charms, as it were, that I failed to notice what my first course was.

"What's that?" I asked in alarm, at last noting the lack of burgery-looking victuals.

"Oysters Rockefeller," said Bergmeier triumphantly. "Straight from Antoine's in the heart of the French Quarter to you, courtesy of the galactic reality-warp." I looked him straight in the eye. He smiled gently. "Listen, it won't be all bad," he said. "Try these. You won't believe it." I did, and I didn't. They were incredible. So was the tournedos marchand de vin. And the pommes de terre soufflées. And so forth. And so on. When I finished an hour later, I was satiated. I was amazed. I was happy.

"Now," said Bergmeier, "isn't that worth a little disruption of reality?"

"I suppose I can adapt," I murmured, hoping to find another Oyster Rockefeller under a napkin or something. "Tell me, does that girl with the long red hair have a friend?"

Bergmeier dropped a few dollars on the table and took my arm. "Come on," he said, laughing. "New York's going to be one big VJ Day from now on." I was about to make an answer as we departed the mutating ambience of Orgoglio's. I was stopped by the scene on the sidewalk. When I had entered the restaurant, it had been nearly nine o'clock in the evening. Now, less than an hour later, it was early afternoon. We were pushed back against the front of the building by a huge mob of people, all carrying pillows and sweaters and portable radios and pennants. Some of the pennants said Tulane and some said LSU. "It's a big rivalry," said Bergmeier.

I felt a cold, empty place in my lower abdomen. "Not around Yankee Stadium," I said. "Not here, it isn't."

"It depends on what you mean by 'here,'" said Bergmeier, with a rather wan smile.

"You know something?" I said, a little angrily. "I don't want to have to explain what I mean by 'here.' That's not my responsibility."

"You'll just have to get used to it. Times are changing."

"Uh huh," I muttered, watching the hordes of excited Louisiana football fans stream by. I gestured to Bergmeier, and we went back into Orgoglio's, to give the world a chance to settle itself. Inside, Orgoglio's was no longer nearly deserted, as it had been only two or three minutes before. Now, all the tables were crammed with people in bright, odd, purely Mardi Gras costumes. There were dozens of sequined kings and grotesque clowns and beautiful young women taking the opportunity to show off various body parts. Every person in the establishment was turned to watch an old black man performing on a stage which Orgoglio's had never before possessed. A sign on a chair identified the old man as Billy "Mr. Banjo" Lebeau, and he was frantically playing a tune I couldn't recognize.

"You don't hear that much any more," said Bergmeier, with a fond, nostalgic expression.

"That does it," I said. Bergmeier looked at me sharply. I don't have a reputation for making statements as vehement as that. He raised his eyebrows in question. "See you around," I said, and left Orgoglio's. The crowd of football fans had disappeared. I got on a good old New York bus and made my way uptown. I found my way to the train station and bought a ticket back to Ohio.

I had to sit in an ancient, creaky parlor car all the way, and for a while it was worth it. A few years of New York's tinsel and glitter gets to you, especially if you're from the wide open spaces. Like Cleveland. And there was a lovely young woman across the aisle from me, too. I always appreciate that kind of happy accident on a long journey. Lovely young women beat Newsweek all hollow.

"Hi," I said, long about Rochester.

"Hi," she said, with a smile. Ah hah.

"Going to Cleveland?" I asked. Bergmeier never tired of complaining about my technique. He claimed it lost us some of the greatest romances of western civilization. I never thought his thumb-stroking gambit was so terrific.

"No," she said. "Boston."

I shuddered. "Well, uh, one of us is going the wrong way." It was very late, or early, and I didn't relish getting off and waiting in the predawn upstate murk for a train in the other direction. But I was certain that I was right. I felt a little better, but I was sad to think of the lovely young etc. faced with the same dilemma.

"Not any more," she said. She hadn't stopped smiling. "Haven't you noticed? The way I see it, Boston stands a good chance of slipping in somewhere around Detroit, as well as where it usually is."

"I didn't think anyone else was watching," I said. I was very tired.

"Oh, sure," she said. "It's land of fun."

"Can I ask a stupid question?" I said. "A real dumb one? Without endangering our still-budding romance?" She just smiled. "What's going on?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said.

There was a short silence. I just wanted to get home.

"It's like, well, I don't know," she said. Right then I was sure she went to New York University. And that I was going to find out what was really happening, but it wouldn't do me any good. "It's like the whole country's gone psychotic," she said. I nodded, pretending to be a thoughtful audience. "I mean, we've shown some of the symptoms for a long time. I have this professor, Man and Society Fifty-one A — that's sociology, you see — who says that there's no reason a whole country can't be analyzed like an individual. Like the United States is a patient, and if you know where to look, you can see real neurotic patterns. Every country has them. Just like people."

"And we're an collectively going schizo?"

The lovely y.w.'s smile widened. "Right! That's right! It's a neat theory. Only they don't have national psychiatrists."

"That's a shame," I said, yawning. None of this helped in the least. "What does the professor suggest?"

"Shock therapy," said the girl. "But that's silly. He's a nut, anyway." I nodded and settled back to get some sleep. Beyond the darkness that filled my window, my fellow man was slowly losing touch with reality. We had been for some time, only now we'd iced our last cookie.

I got to Cleveland several hours later. I awoke from my nap groggily; the lovely young woman was gone. I walked up the lamps from the basement of the Terminal Tower. I was in Cleveland, of sorts. I should have known better. I should have known when I was well off. After all, New Orleans is a lovely town, from the bits and scraps I'd experienced. It was certainly better than what I found instead of Cleveland. I'd like to head back to New York, but what we have here, I mean, sometimes they haven't even heard of trams.

But that's another story.

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