To the casual observer, the quaint, narrow, little alley that lies in the heart of the city is no more than any other of the numerous divisions of streets in which New Orleans delights. But to the idle wanderer, or he whose mission down its four squares of much trodden stones, is an aimless one,—whose eyes unforced to bend to the ground in thought of sordid ways and means, can peer at will into its quaint corners. Exchange Alley presents all the phases of a Latinized portion of America, a bit of Europe, perhaps, the restless, chafing, anarchistic Europe of to-day, in the midst of the quieter democratic institution of our republic.
It is Bohemia, pure and simple, Bohemia, in all its stages, from the beer saloon and the cheap book-store, to the cheaper cook shop and uncertain lodging house. There the great American institution, the wondrous monarch whom the country supports—the tramp—basks in superior comfort and contented, unmolested indolence. Idleness and labor, poverty and opulence, the honest, law-abiding workingman, and the reckless, restless anarchist, jostle side by side, and brush each other's elbows in terms of equality as they do nowhere else.
On the busiest thoroughfares in the city, just in the busiest part, between two of the most crowded and conservative of cross-streets, lies this alley of Latinism. One might almost pass it hurriedly, avoiding the crowds that cluster at this section of the streets, but upon turning into a narrow section, stone-paved, the place is entered, appearing to end one square distant, seeming to bar itself from the larger buildings by an aimless sort of iron affair, part railing, part posts. There is a conservative book-store at the entrance on one side, and an even more harmless clothing store on the other; then comes a saloon with many blind doors, behind which are vistas of tables, crowded and crowded with men drinking beer out of "globes," large, round, moony, common affairs. There is a dingy, pension-claim office, with cripples and sorrowful-looking women in black, sitting about on rickety chairs. Somehow, there is always an impression with me that the mourning dress and mournful looks are put on to impress the dispenser and adjuster. It is wicked, but what can one do if impressions come?
There are more little cuddies of places, dye-shops, tailors, and nondescript corners that seem to have no possible mission on earth and are sadly conscious of their aimlessness. Then the railing is reached, and the alley instead of ending has merely given itself an angular twist to the right, and extends three squares further, to a great, pale green dome, and stately entrance.
The calmly-thinking, quietly-laboring, cool and conservative world is for the nonce left behind. With the first stepping across Customhouse street, the place widens architecturally, and the atmosphere, too, seems impregnated with a sort of mental freedom, conducive to dangerous theorizing and broody reflections on the inequality of the classes. The sun shines in a strip in the centre, yellow and elusive, like gold; someone is rattling a gay galop on a piano somewhere; there is a sound of mens' voices in a heated discussion, a long whiff of pipe-smoke trails through the sunlight from the bar-room; the clink of glasses, the chink of silver, and the high treble of a woman's voice scolding a refractory child, mingle in incongruous melody.
Two-story houses all along; the first floor divided into cuddies, here a paper store, displaying ten-cent novels of detective stories with impossible cuts, illustrating impossible situations of the plot; dye-shops, jewelers, tailors, tin-smiths, cook-shops, intelligence offices—many of these, and some newspaper offices. On the second floor, balconies, dingy, iron-railed, with sickly box-plants, and decrepit garments airing and being turned and tended by dishevelled, slip-shod women. Lodging-houses these, some of them, but one is forced to wonder why do the tenants sun their clothes so often? The lines stretched from posts to posts seem always filled with airing garments. Is it economy? And do the owners of the faded vests and patched coats hide in dusky corners while their only garments are receiving the benefit of Old Sol's cleansing rays? And are the women with the indiscriminate tresses, near relatives, or only the landladies? It would be something worth knowing if one could.
Plenty of saloons—great, gorgeous, gaudy places, with pianos and swift-footed waiters, tables and cards, and men, men, men. The famous Three Brothers' Saloon occupies a position about midway the alley, and at its doors, the acme, the culminating point, the superlative degree of unquietude and discontent is reached. It is the headquarters of nearly all the great labor organizations in the city. Behind its doors, swinging as easily between the street and the liquor-fumed halls as the soul swings between right and wrong, the disturbed minds of the working-men become clouded, heated, and wrothily ready for deeds of violence.
Outside on the pavements with hundreds of like-excited men, with angry discussions and bitter recitals of complaints, the seeds of discord sown some time since, perhaps, sprout afresh, blossom and bear fruits. Is there a strike? Then special minions of the law are detailed to this place, for violence and hatred of employers, insurrection and socialism find here ready followers. Impromptu mass meetings are common, and law-breaking schemes find their cradle beneath its glittering lights. It is always thronged within and without, a veritable nursery of riot and disorder.
And oh, Bohemia, pipes, indolence and beer! The atmosphere is impregnated with it, the dust sifts it into your clothes and hair, the sunlight filters it through your brain, the stray snatches of music now and then beat it rhythmically into your mind. There are some who work, yes, and a few places outside of the saloons that seem to be animated with a business motive. There are even some who push their way briskly through the aimless bodies of men,—but then there must be an occasional anomaly to break the monotony, if nothing more.
It is so unlike the ordinary world, this bit of Bohemia, that one feels a personal grievance when the marble entrance and great, green dome become positive, solid, architectural facts, standing in all the grim solemnity of the main entrance of the Hotel Royal on St. Louis Street, ending, with a sudden return to aristocracy, this stamping ground for anarchy.