Lucky Dogs

From the wonderful book, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. In the story, Ignatius J. Reilly discovers and ends up working for a famous New Orleans Hot Dog Vendor. In the book, it’s Seven Paradise Vendors… in real life, Lucky Dogs.

Seven Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, was housed in what had formerly been an automobile repair shop, the dark ground floor of an otherwise unoccupied commercial building on Poydras Street. The garage doors were usually open, giving the passerby an acrid nos-trilful of boiling hot dogs and mustard and also of cement soaked over many years by automobile lubricants and motor oils that had dripped and drained from Harmons and Hupmobiles. The powerful stench of Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, sometimes led the overwhelmed and perplexed stroller to glance through the open door into the darkness of the garage. There his eye fell upon a fleet of large tin hot dogs mounted on bicycle tires. It was hardly an imposing vehicular collection. Several of the mobile hot dogs were badly dented. One crumpled frankfurter lay on its side, its one wheel horizontally above it, a traffic fatality. Among the afternoon pedestrians who hurried past Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, one formidable figure waddled slowly along. It was Ignatius. Stopping before the narrow garage, he sniffed the fumes from Paradise with great sensory pleasure, the protruding hairs in his nostrils analyzing, cataloging, categorizing, and classifying the distinct odors of hot dog, mustard, and lubricant. Breathing deeply, he wondered whether he also detected the more delicate odor, the fragile scent of hot dog buns. He looked at the white-gloved hands of his Mickey Mouse wristwatch and noticed that he had eaten lunch only an hour before. Still the intriguing aromas were making him salivate actively. He stepped into the garage and looked around. In a corner an old man was boiling hot dogs in a large institutional pot whose size dwarfed the gas range upon which it rested. “Pardon me, sir,” Ignatius called. “Do you retail here?” The man’s watering eyes turned toward the large visitor. “What do you want?”

“I would like to buy one of your hot dogs. They smell rather tasty. I was wondering if I could buy just one.”

Lucky Dogs cart - Bourbon Street, French Quarter, New Orleans

Lucky Dogs cart – Bourbon Street, French Quarter, New Orleans

“May I select my own?” Ignatius asked, peering down over the top of the pot. In the boiling water the frankfurters swished and lashed like artificially colored and magnified paramecia. Ignatius filled his lungs with the pungent, sour aroma. “I shall pretend that I am in a smart restaurant and that this is the lobster pond.”

“Here, take this fork,” the man said, handing Ignatius a bent and corroded semblance of a spear. “Try to keep your hands out of the water. It’s like acid. Look what it’s done to the fork.”

“My,” Ignatius said to the old man after having taken his first bite. “These are rather strong. What are the ingredients in these.”

“Rubber, cereal, tripe. Who knows? I wouldn’t touch one of them myself.”

“They’re curiously appealing,” Ignatius said, clearing his throat. “I thought that the vibrissae about my nostrils detected something unique while I was outside.”

Ignatius J. Reilly

Ignatius J. Reilly, sculpture on Canal Street.

Ignatius is such a fan of the Paradise Hot Dog, he is able to get a job as a vendor, setting out on the streets of his beloved New Orleans, pushing a heavy cart.

This does not turn out well.

George, who was wandering up Carondelet with an armload of packages wrapped in plain brown paper, heard.the cry and went up to the gargantuan vendor. “Hey, stop. Gimme one of these.”

Ignatius looked sternly at the young boy who had placed himself in the wagon’s path. His valve protested against the pimples, the surly face that seemed to hang from the long well-lubricated hair, the cigarette behind the ear, the aquamarine jacket, the delicate boots, the tight trousers that bulged offensively in the crotch in violation of all rules of theology and geometry.

“I am sorry,” Ignatius snorted. “I have only a few frankfurters left, and I must save them. Please get out of my way.”

“Save them? Who for?”

“That is none of your business, you waif. Why aren’t you in school? Kindly stop molesting me. Anyway, I have no change.”

“I got a quarter,” the thin white lips sneered. “I cannot sell you a frank, sir. Is that clear?” “Whatsa matter with you, friend?”

“What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you? Are you unnatural enough to want a hot dog this early in the afternoon? My conscience will not let me sell you one. Just look at your loathsome complexion. You are a growing boy whose system needs to be surfeited with vegetables and orange juice and whole wheat bread and spinach and such. I, for one, will not contribute to the debauchery of a minor.”

“Whadda you talking about? Sell me one of them hot dogs. I’m hungry. I ain’t had no lunch.”

“No!” Ignatius screamed so furiously that the pas-sersby stared. “Now get away from me before I run over you with this cart.”

George pulled open the lid of the bun compartment and said, “Hey, you got plenty stuff in here. Fix me a weenie.”

“Help!” Ignatius screamed, suddenly remembering the old man’s warnings about robberies. “Someone is stealing my buns! Police!”

My son, Lee in front of a cart.

My son, Lee in front of a cart.

Ignatius J. Reilly

 When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.

—-Jonathan Swift

Ignatius J. Reilly

Ignatius J. Reilly

“My life is a rather grim one. One day I shall perhaps describe it to you in great detail.”

—- John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

When Lee first decided to go to Tulane I became reinterested in everything New Orleans. I had always been interested… how can you not be? I had visited and worked there and in the surrounding swamps, and always thought of it as an amazingly unique city – the culture, location and architecture making it a special place – a city that will find a place in your heart if you have to courage to let it.

I have felt that way for decades, and still feel that way, stronger than ever – nothing has ever happened to change my mind.

So I started to read anything New Orleans that I could lay my hands on. There is a lot, by the way. One book I picked up right away – one that is often referred to as the quintessential New Orleans novel, is A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole.

The book has a sad and amazing publishing history. The author, a graduate of Tulane, wrote A Confederacy of Dunces after a stint in the army but could never convince a publisher of its merit. Partly due to his failure as a novelist he fought depression and paranoia and killed himself at the age of 31.

He would have been long forgotten except that his mother found a smeared carbon of the manuscript and started fighting to get publishers to look at it. She kept pestering author Walker Percy (who wrote The Moviegoer, another classic novel of New Orleans – I read it right before A Confederacy of Dunces) – then an instructor at Loyola University – until he read it, mostly to get her to leave him alone. He wrote:

“…the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.

In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.”

The novel was published by LSU press eleven years after the author’s suicide and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

The book is a touching picaresque comedy – memorable for its outrageous and colorful characters. Of course, the city of New Orleans is a main character – possibly the most outrageous and colorful. The protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly, a large lumpin monstrosity that is convinced, probably accurately, that he does not belong in the twentieth century. He stumbles through his beloved city (he has only left New Orleans once – on an abortive bus trip to Baton Rouge, which he remembers with horror) like a bull through a china shop, leaving a wake of confusion and consternation – somehow coming out alive and intact – though barely.

Ignatius J. Reilly is not easy to like. He is pompous, self-important, lazy, slovenly… pretty much an all-around loser. You can’t help but love him, though. He is all of us, really. We simply don’t have the courage to admit it.

At any rate, I read that there was a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly on Canal Street in New Orleans. In the opening scene of the novel he is standing on Canal underneath the clock outside the D.H. Holmes department store holding a sack and waiting for his mother. The store is long gone, but the building is occupied by the New Orleans Chateau Bourbon Hotel. They found and replaced the clock and put up a life-sized bronze statue under it.

I had to find the statue. It wasn’t hard. The Saint Charles streetcar let me off across Canal and there he was, stupid floppy hat and all. Thousands of people walk by every day on their way to work or around the corner to the attractions of Bourbon Street… not many notice him.

So I salute you Ignatius J. Reilly, forever wearing a bad hat, and worse fashion, standing there with your shopping bag, waiting for your mother to come out of an extinct department store. She will never show, but still, you look like you know things the rest of us will never dream about.

Under the Clock

Under the Clock

“I am at this moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

—- John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces