Bryan Block, owner (with his partner, Jefferson Keller) of the exquisite Block-Keller House in New Orleans, is a person I love with unwavering and open fervor. I can’t tell the story of how we met, because it contains my evil; I have not a shred of regret for the evil, but to publicize it would ill-behoove me. I can recount the exact moment I knew Bryan and Jefferson were not merely my kindred spirits, but Family, and that our unspoken covenant would last all of our lives. The three of us were sitting outside, in a strange, old sunken circle, reminiscent of the foundation of a long gone house. We were surrounded by the extravagant garden the two had built. It was cocktail hour; the Block-Keller dogs, Buster and Milo, were lying at our feet. The subject came up (as it always must) of A Confederacy of Dunces, and Bryan began to recite passages of it from memory. Never, ever have I heard anything so perfectly brought to Life, and with such ease and grace. Five minutes earlier I hadn’t known I could love the book more, and suddenly it was new (he made it new for me) and so painfully funny I first made a scene and then hyperventilated, but stopped short of vomiting. We all know the joy that comes from witnessing mastery – singularity of talent – and my first instinct was that I must keep these two men because they are simply wild, nearly indescribable treasures. I a little bit wanted to bite them, I’m sure you know what I mean.
Over the years our friendship has deepened so tenderly that every time I arrive in New Orleans and see them for the first time, I’m so suffused with love and happiness I have to force myself not to cry. There is Jefferson’s beautiful face, the manifestation of pure gentleness and chivalry and generosity; he is, perhaps, the most open-hearted man I’ve ever met. And Bryan, whom you’ll meet now. Lest you misunderstand, while I am describing two men – the hallmark of whose character is goodness – they are my True Tribe because they are wicked fine sinners, and we have gotten up to some misbehavior over the years, whoa lawd. I mean a suggestion is made and the shenanigans do commence without hesitation. One only finds such friends by detour and accident, and by following a line of possibilities infused with one’s own wicked fine talent for sinning. I’m not speaking of myself here, GRACIOUS. I’m pure as the driven snow, as Delonda would say. [Ed. note: Simply an egregious lie.]
Now I shall interview Bryan, and he will answer.
HAVEN: You’re so pretty.
BRYAN: I’ve heard rumor.
HAVEN: Also, you know that way you are? What’s up there, how would you describe it?
BRYAN: I’m not sure but it must be of the devil. Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you. This might surprise you but I was a difficult child. Not so much because of the heavy dose of Jesus I suckled on. No indeed, because I love Jesus. I just never bought the goods being sold me for their intended purpose. It’s been said that one should make lemonade from the lemons of life. I have always prefered the martini with a twist.
HAVEN: You belong to an exotic species of person, one of my very favorites. You know how it feels to see an owl unexpectedly, or a fox? You are an architect, and architects have that effect on me. It’s a discipline I hold in a measure of awe. Tell me the part of you that architects, first, and then this is something I’ve always wondered. Do you consider architecture to be an esoteric field, a different way of studying metaphysics? Because of course there are people who design habitations, shelters. And there are others who know how to create or amplify emptiness. You are free to say, “Oh, Haven – I see the seizure is still talking for you.”
BRYAN: Jeff and I recently came to the realization that there are those out there who live their entire lives without architecture. There are even those who would read that sentence and not have an idea what that means. Architecture infuses our lives, both individually and collectively, the way religion or children or even pornography infuses others. Jeff and I simply cannot understand life without it. (The irony of my mediocrity makes me laugh out loud.) So I must believe there is an esoteric quality to it. How else could there be something so vast, so awe-full that surrounds and encases our lives and yet still goes completely unnoticed, or at least unobserved?
HAVEN: Because your aesthetic is constant, is it difficult to live in a world where one assy piece of ugly is followed by another, and there’s no way to avoid it?
BRYAN: Hence my perversity. How else can one face this graceless age? I thank Christ that ugly and stupid rule the day. That’s where I get my best material. I have a feeling you already knew that answer to that one, Missy!
HAVEN: You’re also a fine writer, and take the craft very seriously. I often describe writing a novel in a builder’s language: that the scaffolding is visible (a flaw), or that the blueprints may have seemed promising, but the execution was done on the cheap, maybe by the sort of people who flee the country in the middle of the night. Indeed, I once described a book I HATED as being so architecturally unsound I feared having it on my bookcase, lest it collapse and harm the other books around it. Find a question in there someplace.
BRYAN: There are, of course, the obvious references to structure and composition that architects tend to co-opt. And other bits of silliness like “building blocks” or “nuts and bolts” of story. But I think that my hunger for words and my desire to place them together is more about creating a beautiful sheltering space. I found solace in words first. There were good books and bad; ones that kept me nailed in place and ones that beautifully opened vast doors and windows.
My house groans under the weight of my collected books, many, thankfully, written by you. My carpets and shelves are littered with magazines and sheets of paper. I could not understand life without words any more than I could without architecture. Lupe’, the silly Aztec that cleans my house, might have a word or two to add on the subject. Fortunately I wouldn’t understand a word of it.
HAVEN: Will you try to repeat the gorgeous thing you said last night about conversation?
BRYAN: You know, I try to write those clever things down because I know I will never remember them tomorrow. A couple of years ago Jeff and I decided to do Mardi Gras without the benefit of any enhancing substance just so we could remember it. It was one of the worst days of my life. We’ve never bothered to try that kind of foolishness again (sobriety, not Mardi Gras). Some times the gods give us gifts that may only be enjoyed in the moment.
HAVEN: I think there are people whose energy or vivacity compels us toward our better selves. Do you agree? And for me, there are writers who do the same. There are writers I adore who make me never want to write again, and others who make me want to write immediately and better, and who (magically, I don’t get it) lend me the confidence to attempt it. Do you have authors who fall in those two categories?
BRYAN: OK, if I write the true answer your children out there will think I am only kissing your ass. And although that is not beyond my purview, both literally and figuratively, that is not (necessarily) what I am doing here. You, darling dear, are indeed one of those writers, along with Tom Robbins and Joseph Campbell. Early on in our twisted story, I vacillated between being intimidated or inspired by you. I, too, have this urge to write but how could I show you, someone whose work so enthralls me? But thanks to my years of Sunday school, I decided: hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine! And that was one of the best choices I have made. Sitting back there amongst the dog-smell reading our words, laughing, crying, cross-dressing. Who gets to do this?
HAVEN: You have an enviable collection of photographs . . . oh! I didn’t mean to be literal but right?!? Just today I described my demonic envy of the David Knox photograph printed on metal, the JESUS SAVES barn. And it’s not like I haven’t spent YEAR AFTER BLOODY YEAR working assiduously at not coveting, the cessation of the covet. I have SO failed at that. What’s the point? Yes, I remember: is there a connection for you between photography – an increasingly expansive medium, just endless new possibilities for an exchange between the initial image and the final artifact – and writing, and architecture?
BRYAN: ….and how do we begin to covet, Clarice?
You know, you keep holding up this mirror to me and I might never see the world the same again! I had not thought about it but you have hit on the Trinity of my religion, the three pegs in my stool (and get your minds out of the gutter…I do not mean THAT kind of stool…): Architecture, words, and photography. Outer, inner and transcendent.
HAVEN: You’ve gone back to graduate school at Tulane to study restoration architecture. Do you consider that going broader, or deeper?
BRYAN: I am becoming painfully aware as I get buried deeper and deeper in this new endeavor that I have no idea what I thought I was doing! But this journey is absolutely taking me deeper and deeper into the heart of my passion. Another gift! Once again, who gets to do this! I know, lots of people, that’s who. But I choose to feel vastly privileged for that is what this is. And going back into this at my advanced age is magnificent! All the other kiddies are just trying to get through so Mom and Pop will get off their backs. I get to play with my favorite toys without guilt. And believe me there are few enough things in my life that I love that I can say that about!
HAVEN: We have a shared love of this city; I think we have a similar apprehension of its qualities, regardless of whether we speak of them. But this morning I was wondering, Is it the case that I love New Orleans, or that New Orleans loves me? Because – or am I imagining it – am I not treated with almost supernatural kindness here, by EVERYONE, all the time, everywhere I go? Why does that sweetest of qualities live here?
BRYAN: I’ve told you New Orleans is a cursed place. Those of us who love her are condemned to spend our lives in her. (And although you don’t have a New Orleansaddress these days, don’t think for a minute that you have gotten away…) But she also comes with a blessing: she is so beautiful and the gifts she gives to those that love her, the Cursed, are so great that we are unaware of the spell and so believe that there is no other life or love beyond.
HAVEN: I’m especially puzzled by it because it’s a Death City, too; there is a strong Thanatos presence.
BRYAN: And so it is with the sublime.
HAVEN: Do you think it’s harder to age here?
BRYAN: Oh, Honey, look at my haggard face! I don’t even want to know about the condition of my liver! But it is Never Never Land or the Island of Misfit Toys. We might age more rapidly here than anywhere. But we never, ever grow up!
HAVEN: Let me list some things I know about you and tell me what I’ve overlooked. You’re a truly fine physical specimen of a man. No one wears eyeglasses better than you. You prefer a gin martini, but love vodka as well, say with soda. You eat leftovers for breakfast. You’re an extremely good father. You will go the distance with a costume. I am, yes, referring to the color tangerine. You are genuinely sane (eccentricities are a bonus), as is Jefferson. You live by what I consider to be one of the most sacred of human laws: hospitality. (Possibly the highest compliment I could pay you. Among the myths that carry the most weight with me is Zeus’s decree that nothing is more noble than to serve a guest.) You’re a voracious reader. You feel things so deeply that if you were slightly less courageous, all of life would threaten you. I have never known you to judge another person. I have never felt a moment of judgment toward you. You may be the only man I know who is as patently alpha-wolfish as I am. You radiate kindness and courtesy and still I would want you next to me if throats needed ripping out. There is no element of my life with which I would not trust you. Trust you.
BRYAN: Haven, my love, never in my life has anyone ever said such things about me. As a Southern boy, I was always taught to deflect such kindness with inanity. I wouldn’t dream of being so correct. You hold up a mirror and all I can say is yes. (Well, perhaps not so much about the bit about me and judgment, but we’ve already discussed that…) I love that we found each other the way we did. Sort of how magic mushrooms grow out of cow shit. If I wasn’t having so much fun being agnostic I might decide to believe in god! Dammit, woman! I love you!!
Here I must tell the story of how Bryan, architect, writer, Child of God, took this actual sari off his hall table where it has been all the years I’ve known him and proceeded to wrap it about my person in a traditional fashion following incomprehensible directions on the Internet. The fabric was nine feet long and look at what he accomplished. Bollywood is more colorful than Oz after the color comes on! Also I fainted. But that really is to be expected; my headjewels outweighed me by fifteen pounds.