Rolling on the River


June 3, 2007

I’m sitting in a deluxe room in the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s a nice hotel that bills itself as part of the “grand legacy of southern hospitality and excellence.” The legacy part refers to the fact that Dickens stayed in the original Galt House in 1842, and Sherman and Grant “met here in March 1864 to plan the…’March to the Sea.’” But that building burned down the next year. Another was built, and that one was razed in 1921. This one was built in the Nixon era. So here we are.

There are a thousand of us in town to grade essays that high school students wrote for the College Board’s AP Exams on May 10th. The reading starts Sunday, and lasts a week.

It was a pleasant drive down from Inner Station in my rented Dodge Something, which looks like it was built from leftover PT Cruisers. Clearly some designer thought it was pretty sexy, and mine is painted candy-apple red, but in it I feel—how do you say?—like a tool. I stepped hard on the accelerator to escape the glare of truckers, and the engine gave a low growl like a housecat in heat.

I passed billboards along the way for Indiana’s Biggest Joint Surgery Unit; the giant cafeteria with a Norman Rockwell Collection; the nation’s largest indoor RV showroom; and James Joyce’s I-65 Truck Sales. The literary connection was a good omen, I thought. The fields of young corn the color of absinthe gave way to weedy floodplains, and then I could see the bridges and high rises of the city. The hotel is on the waterfront, and two paddlewheelers are docked below it.

We all were assigned roommates, though I didn’t know who mine would be, and he wasn’t in the room when I checked in. It’s been a while—a long while—since I had to share a room with a stranger, and of course I thought of Ishmael in Moby Dick meeting his new roommate, Queequeg, who’d been out selling embalmed human heads in the street:

“You gettee in," [Queequeg] added, motioning to me with his tomahawk, and throwing the [bed]clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

My own preference was for a drunken Americanist.

Not only was an unknown roommate on the way; I’d signed up for seven days of grading, after just finishing grading at the end of my semester. I began calculating in my head how much I’d earn on this gig, and came up with 50 cents per minute. Not bad, but maybe I should have gone to med school as I’d planned.

Buffet meals (and transportation) are also provided, and dinner was in an enormous space in the Convention Center. There are readers here for Statistics and French too, and I sat at a table with three stats guys and two English Lit women. The women had read before; one called this the “seven-day migraine.” The other said it wasn’t so bad, but she warned that the breaking point was Day Three. I laughed uncertainly. A young stats guy from Minnesota told me, “You must like grading or you wouldn’t be here.” I said, “I like being paid money or I wouldn’t be here.”

I stopped in at Al J’s Bar in the hotel. “I’m here for the AP grading!” customers announced before giving their drink orders, as if they were the VIPs the cocktail waitresses had been waiting for. I’ve never seen so much clothing by Columbia.

The bar, which looks out over the stacks of the steamboats at the big octagonal clock on the Colgate factory on the other bank, is a 30-foot aquarium, about five inches deep, with a plexiglass top to rest your drink on. One of the fish in it was dead, and the other fish were pecking at its eyeball.

“Ah cain’t git it,” the bartender told me. “Hon, ah cain’t fahnd mah fish net.”

I put my cocktail napkin over it, but there were some pretty big koi in there, and they kept dragging the corpse around so I had to look at it. I finished up my beer and left. Is it the fate of parents of young kids to start wishing they were home with them as soon as they’ve made their long-anticipated escape?

I took a walk along the riverbank to get these photos for you and up to the burgeoning Fourth Street Live area, a block of restaurants and bars with open street drinking and live music. I walked as long as I could before I returned to my room then sat on my bed and read the essay questions and reviewed other materials ETS had provided. I heard the latch slide back as someone put his card in the door, and my roommate—normal, smart, a private high-school teacher from Massachusetts, a family man—came in and introduced himself. To my relief, he’s no cannibal. He’s not even an Americanist. But given that this is bourbon country, we might be able to work on the drunken part.


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