Saturday, August 8, 2009

Summer Shorts: Casablanca, Fact and Fiction


Oriental Lilies -- “As Time Goes By Casa Blanca Lilies and Ferns” from White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn. (

Production shots, 1942 movie “Casablanca,” from Yahoo! Movies

By Pat Browning

My friend Marlene called while I was reading Wendy Bartlett’s Comment on last week’s blog. Marlene and I laughed ourselves silly remembering our 1984 trip to New Orleans. She reminded me that we always meant to put that week into a mystery novel. Maybe it’s not too late. In fact, I have an idea …

Besides the 1984 World’s Fair, New Orleans was hosting a medical convention. French Quarter hotels were booked solid so we got a room at the Airport Hilton. It was a perfect choice for two fancy-free women who meant to go to Marrakech and wound up in New Orleans, thanks to a scheduling disaster at the Denver airport.

First crack out of the box, we checked into the Hilton and headed for the bar. The sign over the door read CASABLANCA. We fell up against the wall laughing. Finally composed, we went through the swinging door, and five minutes after we slid into a booth some guy named Rudy tried to buy us a drink. Oldest pickup line in the world: “Don’t I know you?” We spent the rest of the week dodging him.

Our first day out we were adopted by a freelance cab driver who wore brass knuckles wrapped around his fist. It’s true. I couldn’t make that up. For the whole week he was at our beck and call, hauling us back and forth to the French Quarter and the Fair. I never felt so safe in my life, and we tipped him handsomely. Why not? It was only money, and a lot cheaper than plane fare to Morocco.

The French Quarter was a small place. Everywhere we went, there was Rudy, hanging out the window of a limousine yelling, “Marlene!” He wanted her to call him. He wanted her to take a cruise on his yacht. Yeah, right. But Rudy is a story of his own, as is everyone we ran into.

My phone conversation with Marlene about the bar named Casablanca reminded me of a story I wrote for The Hanford Sentinel in 1978. I went to Morocco twice that year, first, with a group of travel agents, and again with Marlene and some other friends.

It’s a long story, so here are excerpts:

In the case of “Casa,” as everyone calls it, if you liked the movie, the city may be something of a disappointment. It’s like meeting a lovely lady with a shady past – your imagination keeps trying to bridge the gap between appearance and reputation.

There is, alas, no “Rick’s Place” in Casablanca. Nobody named Sam plays piano and the plane to Lisbon is a Boeing jet. … On boulevards lined with palm trees, businessmen in dark suits mingle with local folk wearing djellabas, burnooses and caftans. A veil here, a fez there, slippers and sunglasses everywhere …

The city center is reminiscent of San Francisco’s Union Square in the fifties. … On the map, Morocco lies due east of the Carolinas. In climate, topography and architecture it could be California. …

And what of the old image? Well, if you knock on the door of a disco at midnight, you may see a pair of dark eyes peering through a slot, while you stand there wondering if “American” is a proper password. (It is.) You may hear an occasional guarded reference to the “white market,” which apparently still exists, like a skeleton that keeps falling out of the closet. Guides warn against “long fingers,” as they call pickpockets.

But this is tame stuff in today’s world. You are as safe in Casablanca as you are in your own hometown, and how safe that is depends to some extent on you. …

Morocco’s recorded history goes back 3,000 years, to the Phoenicians, and its legendary history even further back, to Hercules. At one time or another, everyone has had a piece of the country – the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Portuguese … the Spanish, the French. Perhaps that is why the people, who have seen them all come and go, are so cool and so hip.

They are honest, courteous and hospitable. They are also clever, canny and shrewd. An outraged tourist who feels cheated in the market, in most cases, has simply been outwitted or outlasted. The merchant, after all, comes from a long line of camel traders. …
The whole country is a stage. The whole country is a canvas. And in Morocco, to the dismay of tourists conditioned by the sights of Western Europe, that’s all there is. No Westminster Abbey, no Louvre, no Basilica of St. Peter or castles on the Rhine.

In Morocco, there is only the land, the people and time – time and a sense of timeliness. It hangs like a haze above the clay-colored countryside, an endless landscape both harsh and beautiful. It falls like a shadow over the cities, which are little more than oases. …

Casablanca, for all its charm, is a better place to be than to see. For more exotic sights, you must leave Casa and go inland to Fez or south to Marrakech.

Keep in mind that was written 30 years ago. How much, if at all, Casablanca may have changed is not for me to say.

But thank our lucky stars – we’ll always have Bogie and Bergman – as time goes by. And at least in memory – and possibly in that mystery waiting to be written -- there will always be a New Orleans bar named Casablanca.

Copyright © by Pat Browning 2009


Wendy said...

That bar story is priceless. Sometimes the universe just hands 'em to ya, doesn't it??

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it does, Wendy. That's when you begin to wonder about being part of a Very Large Plan.(-:

Glad you stopped by!


Chester Campbell said...

Fun post, Pat. Just to see if I could, I sang (if you want to call it that) the verse beginning "You must remember this..." Then I checked the lyrics on Google, and by Jove I had it right. I guess some things you don't forget.

Anonymous said...

Chester, even if you could forget, pop culture conspires to keep you reminded. (-: