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Essay: A joy-filled day on the town

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We walk down a side street past the back entrance to the diner, from which pours an inviting assemblage of aromas – hamburgers, waffles, bacon, French fries. Once inside, we throw ourselves into a booth, reaching for menus like debonair restaurantgoers everywhere – this middle-aged teacher and her nephew with the crew cut and Bermuda shorts.

A waitress appears, all starch and apron. A lifetime later, my hamburger arrives – meat and bread only. My aunt's burger drips and spills with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion – but she makes no comment on my boring, impoverished taste.

After lunch, we decide to pay a visit to my grandmother in her insurance office on the 11th floor of the bank building, the tallest and grandest edifice in town.

In 1959, the city's downtown has not died yet. Parking spots are hard to find. Sidewalks are crowded with shoppers, business people, commuters at bus stops. There are hotels, churches, a synagogue, a hospital, clothiers, a Western Union, the post office, the courthouse, and, best of all, a gimcrack novelty shop on a side street, purveyor of my secret desires – joy buzzers, gory thumbs, and flies in ice cubes.

It is the train station, however, that my aunt loves, with its intricate timetables, stacks of luggage, and smell of diesel. Anyone in town can walk two blocks and catch a daily train to Jackson, Miss., then on to Memphis, Tenn., or St. Louis. I exist, my aunt tells me, in a universe far greater than this tiny burg, this river town in Louisiana.

In an antechamber next to the bank lobby, we pass a bulging newsstand just like the ones in the movies. It looks as if it could fall over at any minute, filled with the paraphernalia of urbanity: magazines and newspapers, cigars, cigarettes, candy, gum, toothpicks, maps, nail clippers, Louisiana State University football pennants, digestive aids.

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