Authors tell you what inspired their work
Barb Johnson, Author of "More of This World or Maybe Another"
For our latest installment in the Backstory series, we welcome Barb Johnson, author of More of This World or Maybe Another, her powerful debut collection of short stories revolving around Palmyra Street in New Orleans.
For 20 years before I wrote More of This World or Maybe Another, I had my carpentry shop on Palmyra Street in New Orleans, and that neighborhood is the setting for most of the stories in the collection. My shop was in an old ice cream warehouse that had most recently been used as the Latin American A.A. Due to the curb service crack house across the street, the building had lain empty for over a year before I moved in. The afternoon I first unlocked the door of that place was memorable. A slightly unhinged man came up to me as I was turning the key and explained in great detail the things he wanted to do to me.
I mentioned the single thing that his wants made me want, and then I told him how it was probably best that neither of us was going to get what we wanted that day. Then I told him to step off, that I had work to do. To my surprise, he just walked away. Equally surprising was that I felt angrier than scared. I had finally found this excellent warehouse, close to my apartment, roomy and cheap and with plenty of electrical outlets. And inspirational quit-drinking literature. In Spanish. It was perfect, and I was not in the mood to have some jackass ruin the setup.
I never saw that guy again. And the crack house burned down, was rebuilt, repopulated, flooded, abandoned, rebuilt and repopulated during the time I was there. Business for the neighborhood drug dealers was steady through all those travails, a good thing. The one who watched the corner often helped me retrieve my keys when I locked them in my truck. Most of us were flying below radar in one way or another—the neighborhood was not zoned for the sort of workshop I had there—and that single similarity bound us together more than our differences separated us.
That first week, I put mirrored paper on the glass of my shop doors. From the street, all you could see was yourself. From inside the shop, the mirror was like an 80" 3-D TV tuned to the Palmyra Street Channel. The morning programs on that channel were dominated by children meandering toward the elementary school on the corner. Sometimes there were fights. Sometimes kids practiced their dance moves. My doorstep was the exact spot at which they tended to finish the chips they bought at the corner store, so glossy chip bags gathered there like perpetual fall leaves.
My own program was called "Lady Carpenter," a show that drew the biggest audience when I was unloading power tools and lumber from my truck, but which, otherwise, went mostly unwatched.
Mid-morning, it was "The Myrtis Show." Myrtis collected cans in a city that had no recycling program, and in a neighborhood that enjoyed its adult beverages in aluminum. She had an incredible flair for dressing, pairing seemingly disparate items to create an overall effect of genius whimsy. We all put our cans in bags and hung the bags from our gates or low branches, the Mid-City International Sign for "hands off." Myrtis would chew you out but good if she caught you reaching for her stuff. Everything else was up for grabs. The neighborhood was a perfectly balanced ecosystem.
A program I called "The Super" came on several times a day. The Super oversaw the lack of maintenance on the crack house across the street. The building contained 12 rented rooms with an old shed behind it. The Super installed a garage door on the street side, and when the garage door went up, the program came on. The action was slow—mostly The Super sat in his pilfered Naugahyde recliner, smoking a cigar, drinking a tall boy. He had a very impressive belly, proof of his diligence. I often wondered what he thought about out there in the heat or the cold. Sometimes people disappeared into the recesses of the shed. Then they reappeared. I never knew what happened in between, which made "The Super" kind of a mystery show.
"What Was That?" came on at two when the kindergarteners, beneficiaries of early release, went flying down the sidewalk. There was no crossing guard—several phone calls revealed that there was supposed to be a crossing guard—and the flashing school-zone sign never worked. So at about two, the sound of tires lurching to a halt started up as the little ones practiced navigating the giant boulevard.
Laws were broken every day on Palmyra Street, but it was not a lawless environment because the infractions were mostly without malice. It was not an easy place, but it was a good place, a place with its own rhythm and flow and tremendous loyalty. Which is how I knew that guy from the first day—the one who wanted to do things to me— wasn't from the neighborhood. Palmyra Street wouldn't put up with that kind of mess for minute.
Backstories, where authors share the secrets, the truths, or just the illogical moments that sparked their fiction, come to us courtesy of author M.J. Rose and the Open Letters Monthly blog Like Fire.