One of New Orleans’ beautiful eccentricities can be seen through a pair of attic windows above Madison and Chartres streets.
The Mississippi, even from four stories up, appears to flow at eye level, and you’re suddenly reminded that you’re in one of those weird places where one must ascend to reach a body of water.
Clustered around this floating mirage of river traffic is the sunken and shimmering city of cheek-and-jowl apartment buildings, pitched roofs and fan windows.
Growing up one floor below that attic view – cherishing the scene so much he never felt inclined to stray far from it – was my sweet father, Peter Paul Finney Sr.
It was in this French Quarter of Tennessee Williams, in this neighborhood that still allowed flambeau-lit Carnival parades to inch their way down horse-and-buggy-narrow streets, that a sports columnist of 68 years and 12 million words acquired his twin attitudes of cheerfulness and curiosity.
How could you not want to write, given the assorted characters who spilled out of the Quarter’s multilingual grid of pastry shops and bars, who held forth on stoops and across balconies that doubled as porches?
How could you ever be bored?
Dad would marvel at how everything in America’s most European of cities was at your fingertips. Within a radius of just a few blocks, he could serve Mass at the cathedral, visit his father’s religious articles shop on Pere Antoine Alley and buy groceries at the French Market, where the vendors of his childhood still butchered meat in the open air and nonchalantly swatted away flies.
Given that their playgrounds included Jackson Square, St. Anthony’s Garden and Cabrini Park, it made perfect sense for the young Pete and his older brother John to carve their own putting green out of the grassy field that once spanned the foot of today’s Moonwalk – a space now occupied by street entertainers.
In one movie-like scene from Dad’s memory bank, my grandfather would catch the attention of the bartender at Tujague’s through a sidewalk window, raising his thumb and index finger to telegraph his order: a double whiskey.
While time stood languidly still at my grandparents’ house in the Quarter, my family’s bustling postwar home near the Fair Grounds – into which six children and my wonderful mother were shoehorned – was minutes away from Tulane Stadium, Loyola Field House and the Superdome, where the New Orleans Jazz played inside a stadium made cozy with movable seating.
Dad’s prematurely white hair, thick and wavy to the end of his life, helped us pick him out, both courtside and in the press box.
That signature head of hair was the source of at least one hilarious case of mistaken identity. During a trip to Pebble Beach to cover golf, a breathless woman asked Dad through a restaurant window: “Are you Peter Lawford?”
It is amazing to me, given the demands of travel and churning out five columns a week, that he was able to forge a separate relationship with each of his children. Dad would joke that he remembered our birthdays based on which sporting event they coincided with.
He would often take me – one of his “March Madness” babies – to the Carrollton Theater for a movie and a “postgame” trip to Manuel’s Hot Tamales for a greasy take-home treat. These outings, coupled with a home stereo that continually played show tunes, sparked my interest in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Dad would chuckle at the kitschy costumes, sets and scripts of the “Broadway Melody” and “Road” movies, and eagerly provide background on Fred Astaire, Jimmy Stewart, Errol Flynn and his celluloid crush – the lovely Gene Tierney.
He was also a voracious reader, with a special devotion to Hemingway, Faulkner and Churchill. A history buff, he often would opine that Stalin was an “under-despised” member of the pantheon of despots.
Dad was the relentless provider who was genuinely uncomfortable with praise and didn’t care a whit about accumulating wealth or possessions. Cash was kept in a wad in his pocket, and he would roll it out, without hesitation, to anyone who needed it. Clothes shopping was never a priority.
What he did care about was pressing others to see how he could help them out. What could he take off their plate? How could he be of service? Which young journalist needed mentoring or a word of encouragement or a beer?
At home, he would offer to take on the most mundane tasks, even volunteering to renew his adult children’s brake tags.
Back in the days when you had to wait for the printed newspaper to read the work of the journalist, the preteen me thought it was the coolest thing to be able to read whole sentences over my father’s shoulder – as he was composing his columns – before anyone else. I was entranced by the magic of watching letters and words flow from his fingertips and turn into newspaper ink read by the whole city the next morning. So imagine my thrill when he let me manually type in a few words – so I could see them in print the following day.
Family snapshots and home movies picture a man literally five steps ahead of the rest of us. You wish he could have enjoyed the present more, but his job meant that he had to think ahead, his brain always percolating about the next column topic.
This is why I think Dad didn’t mind going all the way to Morning Call in Metairie for his daily beignets, even though he lived a block away from Café du Monde after a move back to his beloved Quarter. In addition to getting a quick breakfast, he probably wanted to “kill two birds” – as he would often say – and grab the New York Times and USA Today at the newsstand next door.
Always on the hunt for a fresh angle to offer his readers.
Being a man of action didn’t always work out. In 1970, Dad was so convinced the Saints were going to lose to the Lions, he left the press box to get a jump on locker room interviews. Inside the elevator, a roar went up: He had missed the most famous field goal in franchise history.
Toward the end of his life, my father’s ever-humming body and brain still thought they were on deadline. We would give him a pen and a notepad – his security blankets – so he could take notes. Long after the Internet surpassed printed press guides as a source of statistics, my Luddite father would continue to consult them for background material, laying them out like cards on the kitchen table and somehow distilling the numbers into a few salient points.
So divorced was Dad from technology, he called his laptop “the machine.”
But technology is only a tool. Computers can’t write poetry – or columns that read like homilies – on their own.
Because of my father’s enthusiastic “yes” to his vocation, Fleur-de-Lis Nation can dial up wonderful moments – like the Saints’ first NFC Championship win – in perpetuity:
“Here’s a franchise, born on All Saints Day in 1966, that took 21 years to celebrate its first winning season, 25 years to win its first playoff game, 42 years to have a chance to play for a world championship.
Suddenly on Sunday, there’s a confetti shower inside the Superdome and you’re thinking of those melancholy Sundays gone by.
You’re thinking of Al Hirt and his trumpet, trying to erase the sorrow at Tulane Stadium.
You’re thinking of the pigeons, and the fireworks at those halftime shows, and you’re thinking of a winning 63-yard field goal.
You’re thinking of those miserable, long-ago losses to the Atlanta Falcons, thanks to those game-ending Big Ben plays.
Finally, all the comedy, all the catcalls, all the misery during the reign of the bag heads, have given way to Kismet.”
Thanks, Poppa. It was my happy Kismet to be your daughter.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.