Odd Words December 31, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
It will be another quiet week with no big events due to the holiday.
§ Susan Larson reviews the year’s local literary highlights, including mentions under notable debuts of some of our personal favorites Louis Maistros’ haunting and evocative story of magic and jazz “The Sound of Building Coffins”, Barb Johnson’s delectable slices of life on the Hurricane Coast “More of This World, Or Maybe Another” and Andrea Boll’s deep dive into the second lines “And the Parade Goes On Without You.” Listed as “most shocking tale of the year” is Ethan Brown’s “Shake the Devil Off”, I can unreservedly recommend three of the four books on her poetry list–particularly Dave Brinks “Caveat Onus” and “I Hope It’s Not Over and Good-bye: The Selected Poems of Everette Maddox,” edited by Ralph Adamo. I will get to Peter Cooley’s when I clear out the huge backlog currently piled up in my office and the side of my bed. I mean, I do have this damned inconvenient job which constantly interferes with reading and writing and some of the Odd bits of life in New Orleans.
§ Here’s a recommended New Year’s resolution: subscribe to a small magazine. As the publishing industry implodes under the same corporate profit curve addiction that swallowed journalism the future writers worth remembering are likely going to get there start in some small journal. For those money-losing labors of love to survive they need to cash flow, particularly those not affiliated with a university. If your thing is genre books like mystery or romance this won’t be of much interest, but if you want to read strong stories well written then I will make a point of posting up some recommendations as we move through the year, and invite people (writers in particular, who are the people mostly scoping out the small journal market) to send me their suggestions.
§ I have started a Facebook page about Richard Katrovas’s first novel “Mystic Pig”, which was brought back out by Oleander Press in England. This is truly one of the great books about New Orleans, and one I would recommend anyone who loves this city and a good book should read (and if you’re this far down this post on this blog, that probably means you). The usually banal Amazon editorial note’s last line is a good summary: This is a novel about sex and sexuality and race and madness and violence and fine dining. Not necessarily in that order”.
The book is at times as Rabelaisianly funny as “Confederacy of Dunces”, as psychologically apt as anything by Walker Percy, captures the male psyche in a way that equals (at least) Richard Ford and will likely please the foodie fans of Poppy Brite. And unlike any of those author’s books, this one has recipes. Hat tip to Ray for calling this one to our attention. Before you rush to your local bookstore, no one could pull this one up via a U.S. distributor, so you’ll likely have to get your copy online (which runs close to $30 with currency exchange and shipping from the publisher, but there are used copies of this new and the original edition out there cheaper).
§ The 17 Poets reading series hosted by Dave Brinks at the Goldmine Saloon is dark until February, but the weekly readings at the Maple Leaf Bar on Sundays at 3 p.m. and the new Dinky Tao readings hosted by Thaddeus Conti at the back bar of Molly’s at the Market Tuesdays at 9 p.m. If you notice a pattern here, well, it’s New Orleans. I mean, do people in other cities hold poetry readings in places other than bars? Really? Another good reason why I moved back home.
§ The Tennessee Williams Festival has published the schedule for the 2010 event March 24-28. . One notable highlight will be a featured appearance by Dave Eggers co-wrote the recent film “Away We Go” and adapted “Where the Wild Things Are” to the big screen. He is the author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and “What is the What”, and is the founder of McSweeney’s and co-founder of 826 Valencia, a writing center for youth. He will also present a master class lecture.
things I had to say December 28, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, New Orleans, NOLA, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
So I take my son out to Metairie on errands and one of our stops is Barnes & Noble to spend some of his Xmas gift card and we have to go out to Metairie and into Barnes and Noble because it’s a gift card from his Aunt and Uncle from Fargo and there are no good independent bookstores in Fargo, and after I find the Folger Library Julius Caesar he needs for school I find myself looking at the poetry shelf at a Barnes and Noble in vacant suburban Metairie and at least they have one and it’s not horrible but stocked with predictable titles and I end up with the last of the five posthumous Charles Bukowski books from Ecco Press (an imprint of HaperCollins and at least there is some comfort they still have an imprint that will publish things like this but I am fairly certain no one I know will find themselves on HarperCollins’ list for poetry, at least not in our lifetime) and why am I buying this I have a half dozen books to read already but for some reason I can’t resist and the first two poems seemed almost to be about my own life which means my day is shot I’ll be reading it all afternoon.
Before I get on to posting the poem I have to explain why I’m posting it (not out of holiday laziness about blogging or other writing or chores but there’s that). It put me in mind of my own experience growing up with some of the noticeably bent and Odd branches of the family tree and it left me thinking that is part of a southern upbringing my children are going to miss. Sure my family has its appropriate Southern allotment of drunks and suicides but my children don’t hear anything about that What is missing are aunts as fragile as as paper lanterns that we children foolishly called Aunt Taunte, aunts who lived in hotels after their husbands retired from overseeing a plantation down the river in Plaquemines and who could not only speak good French but could certainly write a letter in French if there were still anyone in New Orleans or even in the scattered family who could read it. My children have no maiden aunts living in a French Quarter apartment, talking in their gravelly voices while smoking their Kents and drinking gin cocktails, one of whom was once “Coozan Dudley” LeBlanc the medicine peddler’s special assistant, special said in such an accented way that now in adulthood I understand what they meant. There are no mad uncles in a beret who make mobile sculptures out of bottle caps or even kind maiden aunts who worked their whole lives as a bank teller and brought us all those little stand-up calendars with the mercury thermometer and Confederate Memorial Day listed among the holidays, the one who read nothing but screen magazines and who would play endless games of Concentration with us to pass the time back in the days before 24-hour cartoon networks.
I’ve had my own share of strange people after I left New Orleans and even since moving back. There is Crazy Alice up the street, out in the street shouting at her elderly mother’s house about things I can barely make out the sense of it beyond her public ranting anger but she’s not precisely a relation and my children don’t find her half as entertaining as my wife and I do. We have had others through the years, the elderly woman up the street when we lived in Washington DC who befriended us and once got Rebecca and I into her house where she was walking around naked beneath a thin housecoat held shut but unbuttoned, showing us the large kitchen knife she was going to use to protect herself from “them” but that was before my daughter was born and I certainly wouldn’t let her within a hundred feet of my children, or the woman in Minnesota who would sit out in the frigid cold of an upper Midwestern night dressed as a scarecrow to scare the children when they came up to the door.
They have seen eccentricity but not the sort that seemed to populate every family and every block when I was growing up, the kind they don’t get visiting their grandmother in her modern apartment number 710 a three bedroom at the end of the routine apartment building hall of occasional tables with bolted down fruit bowls and bad paintings, a three bedroom across from a two bedroom in 709 and another two bedroom behind 708 with the fire escape door at the end of the hall, a pattern endlessly repeated as in opposing mirrors down through the sixth floor and the fifth and the fourth and down to the bowels of hell for all I know, because their grandmother is too old to get tipsy at the holidays and tell the sort of stories we heard a few times when I was younger and all the rest of the elderly relatives are gone or too far away or just too damned normal to count. Perhaps the advances of psychiatric medicine, the diaspora of our family and our bad American habit of locking away the old in sterile hotel settings has ended the tradition of the family eccentric, and that’s too damned bad.
So while everyone else laments the passing of K&B or D.H. Holmes or Royal Castle or whatever tokens of New Orleans’ past you choose I can live with CVS and Dillard’s and Rally’s if I have to but I regret that my children will grow up without what strikes me as an essential element of eccentricity (although Bog knows I try to make up for it in my own small way) or a sense of the great age of their own family, an analogue to the great age of this place.
Here is what started that whole train of thought:
for they had things to say
by charles bukowski
the canaries were there, and the lemon tree
and the old woman with warts;
and I was there, a child
and I touched the piano keys
as they talked–
but not too loudly
for they had things to say,
the three of them;
and I watched them cover the canaries at night
with flour sacks:
“so they can sleep, my dear.”
I played the piano quietly
one note at a time,
the canaries under their sacks,
and there were pepper trees,
pepper trees brushing the roof like rain
and hanging outside the windows
like green rain,
and they talked, the three of them
sitting in a warm night’s semicircle,
and the keys were black and white
and responded to my fingers
like the locked-in magic
of a waiting, grown-up world;
and now they’re gone, the three of them
and I am old:
pirate feet have trod
the clean-thatched floors
of my soul,
and the canaries sing no more.
A Viper Night on Frenchman Street December 27, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Jazz, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
The Spotted Cat has always been a bit of a hole, with feeble A/C and bathrooms that make you wish there was a yard out back. It has none of the brick-back-wall, cocktail-waitress ambiance of the Snug Harbor across Frenchman, the city’s bastion of two-set, two-drink minimum traveling jazz artists, or the Tremé cache of Sweet Loraine’s on St. Claude, but the Cat is where New Orleans goes to swing.
The new management took out the beat couches and the high-back Caribbean wicker chairs which is a damn shame. The barmaid insists they moved the stage to make more room to dance but I doubt there’s enough room for one more couple than there was before. If you’re like me and don’t dance you will miss sinking into the cushions for a set but the Cat is as much about the dancers as it is the music. I’m there to listen to that old New Orleans jazz but you can’t beat the free floor show of Lindy Hoppers crowded onto the tiny dance floor. The barmaid isn’t very attentive but it’s clear she’s not there for the tips. She will spend half the night at the stage-end watching the band and as often as she can will vault the bar and dance.
You don’t have to be a dancer to be drawn to the Cat. This isn’t the sedate cocktail music that New Orleans jazz turned into when we were growing up, the sounds of Pete Fountain or Al Hirt that we smirked at in the 1960s. There is such raucous energy to these bands I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone pogoing lost among the swing dancers or be shocked to see one of the band members stage dive into the crowd. And at the same time it’s incredibly cerebral in an Odd sort of way like chess on crack, not the mathematical dance of Classical music but a Stravinsky opera-house riot of syncopation climbing up the lizard brain stem to light up your cortex like a Captain Fantastic machine with the ball trapped in a rapid ricochet between two bumpers and you find your wildly illuminated mind getting away from you and floating out with a soaring trombone solo over the dance floor filled with leering bishops and galloping knights swinging their queens in the complex moves of Lindy Hop and suddenly you realize (a comforting thought at age fifty-something) that maybe your parents or grandparents weren’t as square as you thought they were when you were a kid.
I set out last week with my buddy Eric who follows the dance bands when he’s in town (I’ve seen him and he’s good, having inherited his swing from parents he tells me were champion dancers in their day) to listen to the Cotton Mouth Kings, the band that came out of a split between members of the old Jazz Vipers. I don’t know the details first hand but the rumor outside between sets is that front man, tenor player and vocalist Joe Braun is a bonus baby, living off his New York money, and was not willing to take the Vipers to the next level as a working band. That’s a damn shame, because Braun’s Pops-like gravelly voice and spirited playing always seemed to be the heart of the group. But Braun is out, and the Cotton Mouth Kings now rule Friday night’s at the Cat.
The Kings swing every bit as hard as the Vipers. I don’t know who the titular leader is but guitarist John Rodli now is listed as vocalist in lieu of Braun. You may have seen Rodli sitting in with the Django gypsy Grappelli influenced Hot Club of New Orleans (and the new Cotton Mouth Kings have picked up violinist Matt Rhody from that group). Clarinetist Bruce Brackman (who was conspicuously absent from the last months of the Vipers and much missed; this music needs a clarinet player) not only plays with the Kings but with the Tremé Brass Band as well and “anywhere else I can” he told me one night after the Tremé were interviewed as part of a Louisiana Humanities Center series on New Orleans brass band.
One thing you notice about the New Orleans jazz scene, both parading and the swing dance scene, is the way the players overlap in the bands. That’s the way it’s been since Jack Laine picked up players on Exchange Alley to fill the bandstands of the 1920s. It seems a small world, but the number of working dance bands and the clubs that book them keeps growing (but keep in mind that in most of these clubs the band often plays just tips so don’t let the jar pass you by. There are a half-dozen groups playing on Frenchman and the Bywater regularly: the Vipers, the Cotton Mouth Kings, the Loose Marbles, the Hot Club of New Orleans, Zazou City and that list doesn’t include all the ensembles playing Preservation Hall, Fritzel’s Jazz Club and a half-dozen other venues.
It seemed for a time that jazz was a dying art, something staged at Sunday hotel buffets for the tourists but in the last generation that has changed. It’s not just the allure of swing. The chance for the dancers to dress out in their Forties finery as many of the dancers do is irresistible to people raised on Carnival. Its also the blossoming of the latest generation of parading bands into a nightclub phenomenon which has trained another generation’s ears to move past the guitar and hear the magic in a trumpet, the soaring wall of sound in a wailing ensemble playing from the perfect muscle memory of their grandfathers.
The Vipers had been noticeably absent from the listings for the last several months, so we were surprised as hell and secretly pleased to walk up Frenchman around eleven last Friday and hear Braun’s mellow growl and Jack Fine’s coronet spilling out into the street from the doors of the Cat. There is just something about Braun that stands out for me above the rest. Others have the look (Rodli in his slicked back hair and dark suits would not look out-of-place backing Stephene Grapelli in 1950s Paris) and the city is filled with talented players. There is just something about Braun that rolls it all up the way a practiced band pulls their disparate parts into a perfect song: the look of him slumped in his chair in a rumpled brown suit and flat cap cradling his sax, the satanic intensity of his up-tempo solos and the languid cigarette gargle of his vocals.
I don’t lament the passing of the old Jazz Vipers. I will always be able to say I was there, to travel back to the old Cat in memory when I hear their CDs. Where there was one band there are now two, just another reason to slip out of the house whenever I can and head down to Frenchman Street in the city where jazz was born and where it will never die.
(Drawing of Joe Braun lifted from PaulFayard.com. If you’re wondering what to get me for a 12th Night present this would be swell).
A Child’s Christmas in Wales December 25, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in poem, Poetry, Toulouse Street, Xmas.
Tags: Child's Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas
A Child’s Christmas in Wales
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.
It was on the afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero’s garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared.
We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows – eternal, ever since Wednesday – that we never heard Mrs. Prothero’s first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbor’s polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder.
“Fire!” cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.
And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, toward the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with snowballs, and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.
Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, “A fine Christmas!” and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.
“Call the fire brigade,” cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong.
“There won’t be there,” said Mr. Prothero, “it’s Christmas.”
There was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero standing in the middle of them, waving his slipper as though he were conducting.
“Do something,” he said. And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke – I think we missed Mr. Prothero – and ran out of the house to the telephone box.
“Let’s call the police as well,” Jim said. “And the ambulance.” “And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires.”
But we only called the fire brigade, and soon the fire engine came and three tall men in helmets brought a hose into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier Christmas Eve. And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim’s Aunt, Miss. Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, “Would you like anything to read?”
Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: “It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”
“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards.”
“Were there postmen then, too?”
“With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells.”
“You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?”
“I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them.”
“I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells.”
“There were church bells, too.”
“No, no, no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. It seemed that all the churches boomed for joy under my window; and the weathercocks crew for Christmas, on our fence.”
“Get back to the postmen”
“They were just ordinary postmen, found of walking and dogs and Christmas and the snow. They knocked on the doors with blue knuckles ….”
“Ours has got a black knocker….”
“And then they stood on the white Welcome mat in the little, drifted porches and huffed and puffed, making ghosts with their breath, and jogged from foot to foot like small boys wanting to go out.”
“And then the presents?”
“And then the Presents, after the Christmas box. And the cold postman, with a rose on his button-nose, tingled down the tea-tray-slithered run of the chilly glinting hill. He went in his ice-bound boots like a man on fishmonger’s slabs. “He wagged his bag like a frozen camel’s hump, dizzily turned the corner on one foot, and, by God, he was gone.”
“Get back to the Presents.”
“There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum that could be tug-o’-warred down to the galoshes; blinding tam-o’-shanters like patchwork tea cozies and bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin there were mustached and rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunts had any skin left at all; and once I had a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us. And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles’ pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”
“Go on the Useless Presents.”
“Bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by mistake that no one could explain, a little hatchet; and a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow; and a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds. Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladders. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo! And a whistle to make the dogs bark to wake up the old man next door to make him beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the wall. And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it. And then it was breakfast under the balloons.”
“Were there Uncles like in our house?”
“There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles. And on Christmas morning, with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags, I would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out. Men and women wading or scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses and wind-bussed cheeks, all albinos, huddles their stiff black jarring feathers against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers. Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”
Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man always, fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he would take it wet or fire on Christmas Day or Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men, with big pipes blazing, no overcoats and wind blown scarfs, would trudge, unspeaking, down to the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite, to blow away the fumes, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left but the two furling smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars. Then I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils, when out of a snow-clogged side lane would come a boy the spit of myself, with a pink-tipped cigarette and the violet past of a black eye, cocky as a bullfinch, leering all to himself.
I hated him on sight and sound, and would be about to put my dog whistle to my lips and blow him off the face of Christmas when suddenly he, with a violet wink, put his whistle to his lips and blew so stridently, so high, so exquisitely loud, that gobbling faces, their cheeks bulged with goose, would press against their tinsled windows, the whole length of the white echoing street. For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o’-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.
Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world, on to the seaward hill, to call on Jim and Dan and Jack and to pad through the still streets, leaving huge footprints on the hidden pavements.
“I bet people will think there’s been hippos.”
“What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?”
“I’d go like this, bang! I’d throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill and then I’d tickle him under the ear and he’d wag his tail.”
“What would you do if you saw two hippos?”
Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding snow toward us as we passed Mr. Daniel’s house.
“Let’s post Mr. Daniel a snow-ball through his letter box.”
“Let’s write things in the snow.”
“Let’s write, ‘Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel’ all over his lawn.”
Or we walked on the white shore. “Can the fishes see it’s snowing?”
The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying “Excelsior.” We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay. And then, at tea the recovered Uncles would be jolly; and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn’t the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. “What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?”
“No,” Jack said, “Good King Wencelas. I’ll count three.” One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen … And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
“Perhaps it was a ghost,” Jim said.
“Perhaps it was trolls,” Dan said, who was always reading.
“Let’s go in and see if there’s any jelly left,” Jack said. And we did that.
Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
The Junkie’s Xmas December 24, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Toulouse Street.
1 comment so far
I seem to not be in the spirit of the Hostilidays this year. Bukowski’s story of a Junkie’s Christmas is certainly outside the proper norms, but instead of humor it captures the spirit of the season every bit as well as Mr. Dickens did. If you wonder what this has to do with the holiday, I suggest you spend some time reading after the 25th about this Jesus dude’s life after the manger scene.
Odd Words December 24, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in books, literature, New Orleans, NOLA, Odd Words.
Tags: Odd Words
Well it’s Xmas week so there’s nothing for me to post up here for local events. I did stop by the new reading which Thaddeus Conti has organized Tuesday nights in the back bar of Molly’s, a rather low key affair of reading, talking and drinking. He did ask everyone who stood up to extemporize something before they read a prepared work, which scared the hell out of me. I’m paralyzed by the site of an office birthday card, but I managed something and came away with one of his drawings for my effort. Stop by and have a pint and help him grow this weekly event on Tuesdays, 9-10ish, Molly’s at the Market on Decatur.
Here’s some light holiday reading from Stephen Elliott. And there’s a newer post that follows this which I also highly recommend. Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday. Its a way of looking at the world, taking it one day at a time and finding something about that day which makes you relish the present and look forward to tomorrow. Thanks to Billy Sothern of Imperfectly Vertical for reminding me about this, which I saw in The Daily Rumpus but forgot to mention until he reminded me.
The Bukowski thing is recycled from last year, but I prefer to think of it as a “holiday chestnut,” one of those acceptably recycled things like “The Night Before Christmas” on the front page of the newspaper wreathed in holly, or putting “Yes, Virginia” in the editorial column, as timeliness as the pile of two dollar Dickens at the cash register, things which are to publishing what the fruitcake is to gifting.
Me, I actually like fruitcake (if you make me one and don’t buy me one of those tinned things suitable for long term storage next to the MREs against future apocalypse). This probably explains something about me, but I’m not going to try to figure out what that is today. Take that as your creative challenge for this week. Imagine.
The Ghost of Christmas Future December 22, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Toulouse Street.
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The first of a lot of lazy holiday reposting to come…
The Ghost of Christmas Future
“Quiet and dark, beside him stood the Phantom, with its outstretched hand. When he roused himself from his thoughtful quest, he fancied from the turn of the hand, and its situation in reference to himself, that the Unseen Eyes were looking at him keenly. It made him shudder, and feel very cold.”
–Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”
Maria settled into the hard, wooden seat as the antique red streetcar jumped to a start and slowly whirred up to speed, clutching a shopping bag close to her chest. A few rolls of half-used foil wrapping paper stuck out of the package, the odd cut ends flapping a bit in the breeze as the car slowly got up to speed. These cars had once been air conditioned, or so Maria was told, but it had not worked any time she could remember. At least the windows opened, unlike the even older buses that carried her for the last part of her long trip home, those windows long fused shut by neglect and humidity. The December air was a lukewarm bath, not hot like August but not the cool that might come by Carnival if the city was lucky.
As she settled down for her long ride home she glanced out at the brightly-lit high rise buildings that lined the river, then turned her head away. She had spent the day in one of those, scrubbing out toilets and kitchen floors. From a distance at night they looked glamorous, like a city in an old movie. The insides she knew well enough after a dozen years working there as a maid, the apartments did not look so glamorous from down on hands and knees scrubbing.
She peered instead into her package, trying to decide if there was enough paper on the rolls to wrap the cast-offs she had gotten from Mrs. Lafont: toys her employer’s children had outgrown, a beautiful silk scarf in a slightly out of fashion pattern for herself. It would be better than last Christmas, the first after her husband died; coughing up the last of his life with the black mold and stucco dust he had breathed ten and twelve hours a day as a young man demolishing homes after the flood.
Better than last Christmas. She tried to convince herself the children were still so distraught over the loss of their father that the lack of presents that Christmas was a small thing, but she could see it in their eyes as she dressed them for mass on Christmas morning as they stared at the empty corner where her husband had always managed a small, leftover tree on Christmas Eve.. It was just another measure their loss, the first of many days when they would miss his presence.
She lifted up her shoulders and straightened her back as she took in a deep breath, then let it out in a long sigh to settle her mind, looking straight ahead as the car rattled toward the last of the high rises and the first checkpoint. A man in a black uniform with a small automatic pistol hanging at his waist from a shoulder strap stepped into the car, and Maria fished out her papers. It was the first of several times she would need them that evening, and she kept them in the little pocket of her bag ready to hand.
A pair of guards from Bywater Security stood laughing over a cigarette just outside the window at Maria’s seat, but the guard from the Downtown Security District who entered the car was not smiling. He walked slowly down the aisle, glancing casually at everyone’s proffered passes and ID cards. He passed Maria with just a desultory glance, but yanked the papers out of the hands of the young man sitting just behind her. Maria looked straight ahead but could see in her mind the scene unfolding as she had seen it a hundred times before: the guard staring intently at the card, then at the young man, then back at the card; his hand sliding back from its position resting atop the gun and toward the grip, his fingers stroking the metal as if the gun were a small lapdog. She heard him grunt and then shuffle on toward the back of the car. He pulled the stop cord, and the driver released the rear door to let him out.
It was the same at each of the neighborhood security boundaries on her long ride home to the back of town, the private police in their black uniforms manning their check points to see who was coming into their zone. Her grandmother had told her stories about growing up in Chiapas in the days of the rebels, of the soldiers with their machine guns patrolling the streets. Here in New Orleans, her grandmother told her, they mostly left you alone if your papers were OK. Back in Mexico it was not so good. Many young men were killed by the soldiers there, their wives abused. It was so much better here; she was so, so lucky to be growing up in America.
She put her ID and pass back into her purse, checking to see that the envelope of cash Mrs. Lafont had given her as a Christmas tip was still safe in the bottom of her bag. Satisfied, she took out a small compact and looked into it instead of at the passing high rises or the river front parks her maid’s pass would never admit her to. In the mirror she saw two men she didn’t notice when she boarded the car, or remember seeing come down the aisle.
One was an older Anglo in a faded t-shirt, some design with a skull and a gun that said Defend, perhaps a retired soldado negro from one of the security districts. . Next to him was another man in a dark hoodie with the top pulled so far up and over his head that she could not see his face. It was so dark under the hood she thought he must be a Black, but she could not be sure. She was amazed the guard had not stopped this odd pair and hauled them off the car for further questioning. Even if the hooded one wasn’t a Black, and you never saw them inside the river front security districts, even if he were also an Anglo, wearing his face covered like that would be all the excuse they would need.
The hooded one turned toward her as she watched them in the mirror, and still she could not see his face in the mirror. She snapped it shut and shuddered as she crossed herself and kissed her thumb, murmuring the last phrases of a Hail Mary under her breath. As she did so the last of the high rises passed them by, and the Old Quarter began. Her grandmother had taken her down to the cathedral when she was a child, before the security districts replaced the old police and instituted the passes. They would sit among the pigeons and tourists and grandmother would tell her of her own girlhood in Mexico, of the cathedral on a square where the boys walked one way and the girls another on a Sunday afternoon, where she had met her grandfather, back in the years before he came to the city to work after the first flood.
She crossed herself again, feeling safer as the three towers of the church passed. She turned her head to watch them go by. In the corner of her eye she saw the seats where the hooded one and his companion had been were empty. The car had not stopped, and no one had gotten off. Her head snapped back to the front. Without looking down her hands fished deep into her bag and she dug out her rosary.
Scrouge did a walk through survey of the house. The dishwasher was whirring away in the dark kitchen, and all of the food put away. He took away the last shreds of wrapping paper from the cat, and tucked away the important looking bits of paper or odd bits of gifts. The Santa presents for the kids were laid out by the dining room fireplace. The cookies were out for the Big Guy (his teenage children had rolled their eyes), and he snagged one off the plate as he passed. His wife and children were all asleep. Christmas Eve was almost done.
He slipped quietly into the room they called the walk through closet, the one closest to their back bedroom on that side of the shotgun house, and took off his dressy Christmas Eve clothes. He pulled on some comfortable jeans and a Defend New Orleans t-shirt, one of almost a dozen he owned emblazoned with some emblem or slogan about saving the city. It was time for one last Christmas tradition.
He would slip out as he had every Christmas Eve since he returned to New Orleans for a late drink with friends at the Holiday Lounge deep in the Bywater. The place was a year-round tribute to Christmas, lit inside entirely by the fat colored bulbs he remembered from the trees of his youth, the walls hung with every sort of imaginable cheap holiday decoration: jolly plastic Santas and snowmen in top hats, rainbow-hued wire reindeer and candy canes, and a large Styrofoam figure of New Orleans holiday icon Mr. Bingle, the little snow man with the ice cream cone hat.
The Holiday was a New Orleans icon, and Scrouge was all about the icons. In the years since the hurricane and flood he had worn his love of New Orleans like a forearm tattoo, prominent and indelible. Since his return to New Orleans his life had been part pilgrimage, making a point of visiting all of the city’s notable spots at least once and his favorites whenever he could. He wrote about these places on an Internet site he had founded dedicated to preserving a small bit of each: an anecdote, a photograph, some scrap like a coaster scanned and saved for ever. That was not tonight’s agenda, but he knew he would likely write something out of tonight’s visit.
He sometimes wondered, sitting at the computer late at night, why he felt compelled to do this. It was more than just the web site, although it made him something of a notable character about town, something like always wearing a hat (which he did), and he relished the attention. Some times when the words would not come and he knew he should go to bed, he would instead sit on his porch smoking wondering: was there something more personal driving this constant comparison of the city he had left in his rear view mirror New Year’s Eve 1986 with the one that was slowly rebuilding itself all around him, the compulsion to stuff as much of the city as he could into his head. He told himself it was research, preparation for doing what he most wanted to do: to write something important about the city, a book immortalizing it against the slow erosion of time or worse the final flood, the one that would erase it for ever.
He peeked in one last time on his wife and then his son before leaving. Tonight shouldn’t be about the damned blog, he thought. He was going to see some of his oldest friends, people he had known since they were in kindergarten, the people after his wife and children he most cared about. Tonight should be about a different kind of remembering. He took the pen and small pad out of his back pocket, and laid it on the kitchen counter, and left.
He set the alarm, locked the door and stepped out on the porch. As he double checked the latch by pulling on the door he heard a “pop-pop-pop” in the distance. It could be fireworks, he told himself. They were illegal in the city, but people started buying them across the river as soon as the stands open and shooting them off at all hours of the day and night.
Or it could be something else: gunshots. The city had been in the middle of some level of crime wave—going from bad to horrible to back to simply bad—for years. He felt safe in his immediate neighborhood but there were vast stretches of the city that were simply dangerous, just as there were enormous areas that looked not much different three years after the hurricane and flood than they did three months after.
He often wondered if it was enough just to be here, to just write about the city, if that would really make a difference for a place at once so wonderful and so wounded. He had tried to do more the first year he was home, but the cross-currents of planning meetings and volunteer projects, and of family and his new job, had nearly drowned him. He had spent almost three and a half years writing almost every night about New Orleans, sharing it with the world. That had to count for something.
As he left the Holiday and walked back to his car up by the river levee something drew him up to the top of the levee to see the city strung out along the river, the lights of downtown in the distance. He lit a cigarette and looked at the city twinkling in the humid air, then up at the clear sky. A middle-aged man had no business being out looking for magic in the Christmas Eve sky at 1 a.m. in a sketchy part of town, but nothing moved except a tow boat. All was calm, and city was bright.
When the figure in the black jeans and hoodie pulled up over its head suddenly appeared next to him, he froze in place. He could not discern a face inside the hood, as if it were covered with a black stocking. He was certainly about to be robbed, and he hoped it would stop with that. But the figure did not pull a gun, or say a word for what was probably a minute but seemed in his adrenaline rush to be an hour.
The figure pointed at first without speaking, the long sleeve of the over sized hooded sweatshirt hiding its hand, in the direction over his shoulder. He turned and saw the city transformed. The low buildings of the Bywater were gone, replaced by what he was sure were a row of high rise apartment buildings of the sort he remembered from his years in Washington, D.C. A red street car like those that ran up and down the riverfront closer to downtown was slowly crawling up Chartres Street.
It had been a typical, warm Christmas night in New Orleans but he was suddenly soaked in sweat under his clothes and shivering as if he were coming down with the flu. The figure just stood there, pointing at the street car stop down the levee. He tried to speak to it but when he opened his mouth only confused bits of words would come out. Finally the figure spoke. “We’re going to ride the car downtown. There is something I need to show you.” Confused and feeling ill, he pulled his jean jacket closed in front and hunched his shoulders and walked unsteadily down the levee.
“How did it happen, Spirit, all of those ugly glass high rises, the private police? Why didn’t we stop them?” Scrouge asked. The empty black hood was silent, its sleeves buried deep in the pullover’s pockets like a robed monk. Scrouge was not sure he had ever seen hands at the end of those overly long sleeves. It set a brisk pace as they walked through the French Quarter. Little had changed here, Scrouge thought, as they passed by knots of laughing people roaming the streets, past restaurants with lines waiting outside, and crowded bars with music blaring.
“It’s quicker this way,” a voice from inside the hood said, clipped and business like, the voice of a policeman urging the crowd to move on.. Nothing to see here, it seemed to announce. “The back-of-town buses don’t run all the way up Canal anymore. They’re not allowed past the checkpoints.” “Checkpoints,” Scrouge repeated as if tasting a new word from a foreign language as he stumbled on a broken bit of sidewalk, trying at once to look around and keep up with his guide.
As they came up to Bourbon Street the crowds were heavier and more boisterous, the sort of scene Scrouge had witnessed on a hundred other weekend or holiday nights. He could hear someone picking Christmas carols on a guitar and singing in a nasal, mid-South accent. The hooded spirit stopped for a moment in front of the busker just as he finished a song, turning his dark hood toward Scrouge. “Merry Christmas, y’all,” the busker said to no one in particular, as if Scrouge and the hoodie were not there. “Giving is the reason for the season,” he shouted to the crowd, nudging his guitar case with the toe of a western boot.
The spirit just stood there, the faceless hole seeming to glower at Scrouge, who dug into his pocket and pulled out a rumpled bill and tossed it in the case. “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas to you, sir,” the busker bellowed. Scrouge looked at the Spirit, who said nothing, then turned to ask the singer where he was from. “Tennessee. I’m just down here working for the holidays,” he said. “The French Quarter Corporation doesn’t pay as well as Disney, but they’re a lot looser about how you look or what you do with your off hours. And who doesn’t want to come to New Orleans, at least once?”
Scrouge started to answer but the hoodie pushed through the crowd to cross Bourbon and Scrouge hurried to follow. He looked up and down Bourbon and it was the same strip of neon lit drinking joints it had always been, crowded with people wearing beads they had bought in t-shirt shops that alternated with the bars for blocks in either direction. Scrouge thought it odd that they all wore badges around their necks. Conventions usually didn’t come in town at Christmas. “They’re tourists, but not conventioneers,” the hooded voice said. “Those are passes from the security district. When the city voted to dissolve the police and let the private security districts take over, the Quarter was closed off to the rest of town, to keep it safe for the visitors.”
“But what about locals who want to come down here? Can’t they come to eat at Galatoire’s or Acme or Oliviers?” Scrouge asked. “Those places closed after the second flood,” the hoodie said and marched on. Scrouge stopped walking “Gone?” he said, his gaze sinking down at the sidewalk. “Second flood?” Everything felt like a dream in which he had shown up in a classroom prepared for the wrong exam. He looked at his hands, as if there was something written there that would explain what was happening, but there were no crib notes. He looked up as if to follow up his question and noticed his guide was almost half a block ahead. He hurried to catch up.
The streets were quieter on the Rampart side of Bourbon, just as Scrouge remembered them, but something was missing. There were no cars lining the curb. There were just a handful of gaudy colored little toy things that looked like a cross between a golf cart and the car George Jetson drove, each plugged into an outlet on a small post with a horses head at the top. The carts were painted on the side like cabs: Condo Conti, Vacance en Dauphine, Burgundy Street Guest Houses. The scene made Scrouge think of exclusive beach resorts of the sort that did not allow cars but gave each guest a buggy to use to get to the beach or the golf course. “Precisely,” the hooded voice said, as if once again reading Scrouge’s mind.
As they passed Burgundy headed toward Rampart Scrouge noticed the wall. At first he thought it was just the commercial building that had once stood between Rampart and Basin, but as they came out onto Rampart he saw it was a high wall that ran up and down where the neutral ground once stood. The river side of Rampart inside the wall was filled with men, but it was not the crowd Scrouge would expect to see on mid-Bourbon around the epicenter of the gay bars. These men looked like the spillover from a lobby of a hotel booked solid with visiting dentists, mixed with packs of boys wearing shirts with fraternity letters on them The women stood apart, on the steps of the houses or hanging out of windows, bare-chested in tiny miniskirts , or in burlesque lingerie, or in nothing more than body paint.
The black uniforms of the security district strolled up and down the street in pairs, stopping to eye the knots of drunken men as they approached the women. The men would stop, made hesitant by the guards’ stare, then the girls would grab them by the arm and lead them laughing down the alleys and into the doorways, and the guards would pass on. The sign on the corner did not read Rampart. It said Storyville. “Got to give the tourists what they want,” the hoodie said, pausing a moment while Scrouge took in the tableaux. Then it grabbed his arm, and started to frog march him toward the wall. “Hey, wait, where are we go… ”. Scrouge’s voice was cut off as they passed through the wall.
They were standing on the lake side of Rampart. The street was brightly lit by high street lamps but deserted. “How the hell did that happen?” Scrouge asked, but the hood just turned briefly toward him then started again to walk toward Basin Street. Scrouge just shook his head like a dog shaking off water, and hurried to catch up. “Are we going to the cemetery?” he asked the dark hood. “Not this one,” the voice inside the hood answered. “There is another. We have to catch a bus first.” It turned left at Basin and started to walk toward Canal Street.
The old housing project still stood on Basin, but it was dark. “Where are the people?” Scrouge asked. “Gone,” the hood answered. “Most could not to come back after the second flood. A lot were drafted into the Army after the riots.” “What riots?” “The government announced after the second flood that any return would be limited by lottery, and that the lottery tickets would be sold,” the hood said. “Most couldn’t afford tickets, and they wanted to come home. When they burned all the trailers in the New Treme resettlement park up by New Roads and rioted in the streets in Houston, a lot of the men were swept up and sent off to fight in the Chindopak.”
“Chindopak?” Scrouge asked, his voice cracking as he stopped dead in the sidewalk. His breathing grew heavy and his chest heaved as his body wrestled somewhere deep inside between anger and panic. “What. Second. Flood. You have to tell me. What the hell happened?” Scrouge labored to speak between gasping breaths, and finally bent over and put his hands on his knees and tried to get his breathing under control. “You have to tell me. Damn you.” The spirit had walked ahead a dozen steps. It stopped and turned. Laughter came out of the dark shell of a hood. “Damn me”. More laughter. “Too late,” it said, something like a chuckle in its voice, if you put a chuckle down the garbage disposal. “You need to worry about your own damnation. I’ll take care of myself.” It held out its sleeve toward Canal. There was a hand, Scrouge noticed this time, black and gaunt like an overcooked turkey wing, a thing of skin and bone. “Come on. We have a bus to catch. I’ll explain while we ride.”
“Yes, they built up the levees,” the spirit explained as it stared out the window , the ancient bus rumbling down a dark and lamp less Canal Street. “In the last big storm they mostly held but the East and St. Bernard were drowned again, and abandoned. One of the new pump stations was overwhelmed and the lakefront was inundated. The core city was saved by the second line levee they built over the old railroad embankment through Mid-City. That’s when they started to build the high-rises, to pull everyone into the high land in the old city’s footprint. No one argued this time.
The bus slowly rumbled down Canal Street empty and surrounded by darkness. “No one knows where the fire started, but it was a dry storm with very little rain, and with several feet of water in the streets of Mid-City this section mostly burned,” the spirit said. Scrouge measured their progress through the dark by noting the intersections where the car stopped, although there was no cross traffic and no one got on or off: first narrow Galvez, then wider Broad and finally the open expanse of Jeff Davis. Here and there in the dark were bright islands of light, illuminating rows of identical white trailers on city blocks covered with white clam shell and surrounded by metal fences. “They built these parks for the workers they need to keep the tourist industry going.”
“I don’t understand. After the flood….” “The first flood,” the spirit corrected him. Scrouge stared straight ahead and through the empty bus for a moment, then down at his hands again and resumed. “After the flood, we all came back. We worked so hard. How could it they let it all happen again?” Scrouge looked not at the hooded spirit but up at the roof of the bus. “How could it happen again? How could it all turn out so wrong? ” sounding like a child who had just been told there would be no Christmas. The hoodie continued to contemplate the dark windows, ignoring Scrouge’s question. The bus rumbled on and Scrouge turned the other way and likewise stared into the darkness that surrounded him.
The bus pulled up to Carrollton, and the driver announced, “Cemeteries. End of the line,” as he set the brake, opened the door and stepped out and lit a cigarette. He headed off toward a portable toilet set on the neutral ground. The hoodie stood up and waited for Scrouge to do the same. He rose up and walked unsteadily down the aisle toward the door, grasping the railings at the stairs until his hands turned white, unwilling to step out. “Out,” the voice behind him said, and its bony hand gave him a push.
He stepped out into the single bright street light that stood over the driver’s toilet and looked into the darkness. Moonlight glinted off the rows of white metal boxes that marched off into the distance on the lakeside of Carrollton. “Why isn’t this trailer park lit up?” Scrouge turned toward the hoodie and asked. “Because it’s not a trailer park,” it answered. “It’s what the driver said: Cemeteries.”
Scrouge walked slowly away from the light and toward the field of white boxes. The play of the darkness and the street lamp had confused his sense of proportion and perspective. The boxes were too small to be trailers. They could only be one thing. “Tombs,” hoodie said. “Government-issue ovens, the trailers they used after the first flood, just scaled down for their new occupants. When this section burned, they turned it into a cemetery.”
Scrouge’s slumped like a cheap suit jacket on a wire hanger.
“When the new pumping stations and the high levees were finished everyone started to feel safe. They grew tired of evacuating for every storm. The first flood faded into a story their parents told, something they never thought could happen to them. All of it faded: all the work their parents did to rebuild the city, the constant battles over decades it took to build the levees and try to put things back. They forgot what it was like when the city flooded the first time.
“They grew complacent, stopped paying attention to what the government did. Or rather, what it didn’t do. Part of it was exhaustion. There parents had fought for decades and were just worn out. They stopped trying. The children didn’t remember because their parents were tired of talking about it, and the memories grew distant and vague, just history but not their history. Like their parents before them everyone just assumed all the work was behind them, that the levees would protect them.
“After the second flood, this is where they put the dead,” the hoodie said, “the people who stayed, the ones who didn’t remember.”
Scrouge turned away from the tombs and looked up dark Carrollton Avenue toward the park. This was his old neighborhood, the last of many he had called home in this city. Everything he remembered, all the old storefronts on the river side: gone. Venezia’s and Brocato’s, the old bar with the red door and the new Spanish place that opened after Katrina, the whole river side of the street was wiped clean. . The old Reuters building was a hulk in the distance. And on the other side the white tombs marched away into the distance until he could not see but only imagine them enveloping his house on Toulouse Street, flowing on until they merged with the old cemeteries he knew: St. Patrick’s, the Mason’s, Odd Fellows, Greenwood.
Scrouge fell on his knees and wept. The bus driver ignored them and climbed back into his bus and drove off. He had seen it before. The spirit stood there watching, silent. Finally, Scrouge looked up. There was a faint shimmer of zodiacal light in the east. Soon the sun would come up. He rose unsteadily to his feet and turned toward the hooded spirit.
“If you are the spirit of a Future Christmas, then it’s not too late, is it?” Scrouge asked, his voice still cracked from his tears. “Isn’t that how this works, just like the old Dickens’ tale? If we don’t stop fighting, and always remember, it doesn’t have to be like this? Isn’t that it? Isn’t that how this works?”
The hooded figure was growing transparent as the sky grew lighter. Scrouge could see the driver’s toilet through the sweatshirt and black jeans. As it slowly faded it echoed his words back to him not as a question: as a statement. It raised its bony hand one last time and pointed at Scrouge. “Don’t stop fighting,” it said, the voice growing fainter as the figure slowly vanished. “Remember…”
Scrouge sprang up in bed, knocking over a tumbler half full of water and the bed side lamp. The back door of the bedroom in the shotgun house was open, and he heard his wife asking, “What was that?” He could smell coffee. He jumped out of the covers and ran around the bed to the back door and stuck his head out. “What’s today?”
His wife gave him a puzzled look. “Merry Christmas?” she said as much a question as a greeting. “Are you okay?”
“It’s not too late!” he whooped as he took three steps in two hops. He ran over and knelt beside his wife and gave her a bear hug. “Not too late for what,” she asked, “to make coffee? I took care of that.” “Mmmmmmm, never mind, Merry Christmas.” He held her silently for a moment. “I’m sorry, I just had a really weird dream.” He let her go, stood up and stretched. “Do I smell coffee?” “Uh, yeah, that’s what we were just talking about. You forgot to make any last night, goofball. I think you had a bit too much Christmas Eve cheer.”
“Yeah, coffee sounds really good right now. Are the kids up?
“No, so try to be quiet.” His children were teenagers, and as likely to sleep in Christmas morning as any other holiday of the year. They had opened their best presents on Christmas Eve, a habit his wife had brought down from the Midwest.
“OK.” He climbed up the steps to the house and tried to walk as quietly as he could over the hardwood floors. Living in these houses was like living in a boat. You could hear everything. He wondered again how entire families had managed to live in half of the double he’s made into a single home. He grabbed some coffee in the kitchen and went out to the front porch, leaving his wife alone in back with her to-do list and her coffee. He slid the latch as silently as he could, and stepped out onto his porch and looked up and down his street. The mostly shotgun houses ran off in both direction as far as he could see, from City Park Avenue up toward Carrollton Avenue, and in his minds eye he could follow the street all the way through the city to the French Quarter.
It’s not too late, he thought as he sat on the stoop and sipped his coffee and took in the warm Christmas morning in New Orleans. “It’s not too late,” he said out loud to a passing cat, one of the dozen semi-feral cats that lived on their street. It came up and he scratched its head. “We just have to remember, and never give up.” Two children from the house on the corner, just moved home from evacuation and who barely remembered this city, rode by on shiny new bicycles, laughing. A neighbor ducked out in her robe for the newspaper, and waved and shouted a Merry Christmas. As he echoed “Merry Christmas” with a broad smile and a wave, over on Canal Street the carillon at St. Anthony of Padua began to ring.
Do You Remember The Future, Dr. Memory? December 19, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Odds&Sods, Toulouse Street.
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Three years since I wrote the post below, back when Wet Bank Guide was the main blog and this was the place where I could hang out my weird to air out in the shade, when Toulouse Street was a musty corner of the Internet frequented by Google spiders and no one much else and it’s election time again and I can’t think of anything better to say that what came out December, 2006, my thoughts trapped in this circular calender of purple, green and gold waiting on the advent of something miraculous but settling for the same streetcar that passed by an hour a day a month a year ago.
Can’t you show me nothing but surrender?
The ancient morality play, perfected beyond rehearsal, draws the largest crowd around the mummers wagon on a rumpled avenue: puppets and shadow characters built by our grandparents. Paintless and sagging facades backstop the stage, ill lit by a gravity-challenged lamp that casts shadows of the rats that worry the wires. Down the block comes dollar-colored motley hoisting its tin crown in the black parade, and the king lays down his crucifixion comic and calls the loser’s camp with congratulations. The news dissolves the audience into waring camps tossing empty bottles of Abita and Olde English at each other until a shot rings out and everyone scatters. Blue lights and horses parade down the street announcing Its Over and we retreat into the bars. In the comfortable ashen darkness the Lord Mayor and the Archbishop conspire separately to tear down the cathedral of the lakefront to better resurrect Ranch Lawn Acres. Across town the lucky bicker over the location of the towers they would build in their own image to ring the high ground, but the bloody-handed carpenters are all babbling around the taco trucks and the engineers are all practicing their Spanish in Austin. Beyond distraught, I blow my roll on a bottle of forgot I can’t quite finish. I call for a U-boat rescue but settle for a passing White Fleet while dreaming of a long ago Rasta Rocket V-8 ride home with a glove box spilling splibs into my lap. Potholes rock me gently to sleep.
A Christmas Story December 18, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Federal Flood, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember.
Forget Red Ryder BB guns or any of that silly bad Cajun dialects Night Before Xmas stuff we used to read to the kids when they were small. (I still laugh thinking of my sister-in-law in Fargo trying to read that to the kids in her Lake Woebegon accent).
Read this instead, and Remember.
Shaking The Devil Off December 18, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in ghosts, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Carmen Reese
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I received a comment today on an old post about the murder of Carmen Reese, a message from a friend of the dead young woman letting me know that her murderer was sentenced this week. If you do not recall, Carmen was a troubled young woman who came to New Orleans, fell into stripping and the life of the French Quarter and died violently of it
I know it is merely the internal machinations of the Internet, the hidden web of links and searches and emails that ties the world together in strange new ways that led her friend back to me to share this news but I always have this feeling that somehow the dead have reached out and replied to my many posts about the victims of The Flood and our slow motion war of murder.
I can’t complain, as I have certainly invited the unquiet spirits by the many posts on Wet Bank Guide such as this, and my listing here on Toulouse Street of the murder victims each year, a sad holiday task I have set for myself, and must soon get busy on.
I could not find anything on the sentencing, but discovered this story on his conviction. Look soon for the list of victims of 2009. What is remembered lives.
It’s Odd that this should come up now, just as my wife is finishing Shake The Devil Off and found the book and it’s tale entirely too creepy. It seems she didn’t know quite how many people die here (and how easy to just tune it out of one chooses), and she says she now sees Zack and Addie in every street kid on the streets downtown. I may never get her out at night into the Quarter again.
For me, every comment on one of my electronic murder ballads is another step in the second line to shake the devil off.
Update 12-29-09: If you just dropped in from the link on NOLA.Com and didn’t click the link above, you can read more details about Carmen’s murder by clicking here.
Odd Words December 17, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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We’re about to enter into Christmas Lock Down here on Toulouse Street but before we all get swept away by the Christmas spirits here’s a couple of events I’m certainly going to make. I’m the guy who has swapped the Young Man’s Hat for his winter beret, but will forgo wearing a stripped French sailor’s shirt or carrying bongos.
§ On Dec. 20 the latest edition (fourth or fifth; I’m not sure) of Portals Press’ Maple Leaf Rag Anthology of poets who have read at the Maple Leaf Bar series will be released at 3 p.m. at the Maple Leaf Bar (natch). I better be there for this one as John Travis at Portals Press kindly invited me to submit and took three poems for this edition after my first reading at the Leaf. And even as the chill of winter settles over New Orleans, there are few nicer places to hang out than the patio of the Maple Leaf.
§ 17 Poets will host a book release party tonight (Thursday, Dec. 17) at 8 p.m.for Inventor of Love by Gherasim Luca, translated by Julian Semilian and Laura Semilian (Black Widow Press 2009) with a reading featuring the translators. Foreword to the book is by New Orleans’ own Romaniam exile surrealist Andrei Codrescu, who casual readers will recognize as an NPR commentator but others will know as poet, author and editor of the Exquisite Corpse journal. Luca (1913-1994) was one of the founders of the Bucharest Surrealist Artists Group. Poet, writer, artist with more than two dozen published books. Exiled after Romania turned communistic he moved to Paris. He committed suicide by jumping into the Seine in Paris in 1994.
The editorial note: “A work of desire, despair, and reconciliation. A polemical and theoretical text far ahead of its time. One of the most extraordinary texts of any of the Surrealists of that time period (1940′s) by one of Romania’s most important members of the Bucharest Surrealist group. Includes all of Inventor of Love and a survey of other writings by Luca. First translation into English.
§ As a former Ink Stained Wretch I was sad to learn from Maud Newton that Editor & Publisher will soon be following the employers of its journalist and editor readers into history’s recycle bin.
§ While we’re on the subject of food (what do you mean we weren’t on the subject of food. This is New Orleans. We are having a conversation–sort of–you considering responses via comments in your head while I talk but its not like I’m one of those circular breathing idiots who always go into my line of work , the ones who go on endlessly in telephone conference calls and who you can only interrupt by poking them in person with a sharp pencil but you, you can hit comments anytime–and so this is a conversation if only because I say so and in any conversation in New Orleans (even those involving two people in cars who park in the middle of a residential intersection to review the entire last Saints game through the driver’s window even though you need to get cigarettes before you just holler Ramming Speed and plow into them), we are going to have to talk about food. So Read This and do not fail to click the link to Alex Balk’s recipe for cooking steak.
§ My pal Ray discusses run on sentences. I’m in favor of, but you knew that or do now.
§ Is Susan Larson back? It’s her first post in three weeks and features Peggy Scott Laborde’s Xmas book. I guess someone has to do that, but I think I’d rather try out for a guest spot on Dirty Jobs. I mention this only in the context of the continuing emasculation of the Picayune into some sort of NOLA Today, and because the review (and presumably the book) contains an anecdote aboutthe Centanni house on Canal Street, a fond holiday memory of my own youth. According to one of Mr. Centanni’s children, when he passed Al Copeland sent a lighted wreath to “the Real King of Christmas.” People of a certain age will understand why this is touching, and the rest of you can go back to playing Left for Dead 2, in which the Centanni house sadly does not appear but I believe Peggy Scott Laborde appears, chewing on Angus Lind’s leg.
§ For the record, I don’t know Peggy Scott Laborde. Never met the woman and I don’t know why she keeps cropping up in unflattering references in this space. For some reason people keep giving me DVDs of her WYES-TV specials on New Orleans and I find myself compelled to watch them, even though they tend to be, to my taste, syrupy sweet, with the narrational atmosphere like the subdued pallor of a old woman’s wake. My own views about New Orleans past and present tend to be a bit more boisterous.
Stockings Hanging by the …. Fire! December 11, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Toulouse Street.
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While this is not as visually clever or obscene as some Hostilidays entries, if is so personally satisfying and damn funny I may have to retire from the field on this. I’m too lazy this year to put up links to the competition, but hey that’s what is there Google for? Just remember, if it’s not a NOLA Blogger it’s not really the Hostilidays. Accept no substitute.
Its The End of the Blog as We Know It And I Feel Fine December 10, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Poetry.
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I posted something up on another blog of mine, Poems Before Breakfast, pondering what happens to my little poetry journal (a journal as in diary or sketch book, not as in literary journal with a masthead and a readership) when I start to publish things in real journals?
Yeah, I know, such a terrible problem to have.
Odd Words December 10, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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§ On Dec. 20 the latest edition (fourth or fifth; I’m not sure) of the Maple Leaf Rag Anthology of poets who have read at the Maple Leaf Bar series will be released at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 20 at the Maple Leaf Bar (natch). I better be there for this one as John Travis at Portals Press kindly invited me to submit and took three poems for this edition after my first reading there. And even as the chill of winter settles over New Orleans, there are few nicer places to hang out than the patio of the Maple Leaf.
§ This sounds fascinating but I need another book like a fish needs an aqualung. Then again, we haven’t added a picture book to the Folse Library Reading And Reception Room (aka as the living room with its obligatory pile of picture books) in quite a while: Tom Morgan signs Historic Photos of New Orleans Jazz at 1:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 31, at Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St. in New Orleans.
§ Local poet Thaddeus Conti has started up a new reading series at Molly’s at the Market on Decatur Street on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. (but expect a start closer to 9 p.m. says the man himself.
§ This is an older link (2004) that’s still cheerful holiday reading for anyone interested in writing. Don’t quit your day job yet.
St. Stephen’s Day Murders December 9, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Toulouse Street.
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Bog, but I love the Hostilidays: the family and friends all huddled together in a too small room under the furiously twinkling light up fir over the mantel drinking too much and glancing jealously at one another’s presents, saying bog only knows what in front of grandmere while the cat demolishes the gumbo carcass. Having opened [in] that vein, here’s a cheerful little murder ballad by The Chieftains featuring Elvis Costello. Hint: Before you lift any Christmas spirits, get someone else to taste them first.
Since the copyright police won’t let me put this up on You Tube, you’ll have to go check out the song here, which is strong enough to stand up without some silly video.
Classical Gas December 8, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Toulouse Street.
Is it because my children are nearly grown or that the NOLA Bloggers are a lot of grown children that we mock one of the most sacred seasons in the Bank Holiday Calendar? Anyone know where I can get a coal-burning fireplace insert cheap?
Songs to Aging Children Come December 6, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Toulouse Street.
Tags: The Byrds, Yesterday's Train
There are no artists today who write songs like this. The traditions that grew out of Lomax’s tape deck, the Celtic and African echos of our ancestors that blossomed in the Fifties and Sixties when a man with a guitar standing on the shoulders of Woody and Leadbelly could speak poetry into the blue television night, all that is lost in the cannibal corporate white noise of hollow pop stars. The dregs of the story-singing country outlaws pimp Monday Night Football and the the last balladeers practice the ghost dance of hip hop, the staccato Glock-pop soundtrack of the last days of Potemkin America.
We can only remember that we were privileged to have lived in the days of the last troubadours.
Odd Words December 3, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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It’s that time of year again, when the book and related event listings turn to cookbooks, cute Cajun kid’s books with Christmas themes and that sort of thing. If you want to catch Angus Lind signing books just keep you eyes peeled. You can’t miss him. As for me, here;s two quick things: one a link on a subject that interests me and the other the New Laurel Review release reading featuring editrix/poetry doyen Lee Meitzen Grue and her contributors at 17 Poets.
§ From Zadie Smith’s response to David Shields Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, exploring (in Sheild’s view) the death of fiction. If you are interested in creative non-fiction, memoir or other essay forms, you are going to want to read this review and probably pre-order a copy of this book. (I think I need to get Odd Words a review copy of this) A hat tip to dsb of bark, bugs, leaves & lizards for finding this one.
I can’t say that I felt myself, in essence, being more “truthy” in essay than I am in fiction. Writing is always a highly stylized and artificial act, and there is something distinctly American and puritan about expecting it to be otherwise. I call on [Virginia] Woolf again as witness for the defence. “Literal truth-telling,” she writes, “is out of place in an essay.” Yes, that’s it again. The literal truth is something you expect, or hope for, in a news article. But an essay is an act of imagination, even if it is a piece of memoir. It is, or should be, “a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking”, but it still takes quite as much art as fiction. Good non-fiction is as designed and artificial as any fairy story.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the intersection of fiction and non-fiction, especially what we have come to call creative non-fiction (which is not, as one wag put it, a license to just make stuff up). I began writing again in 2005 after the Flood of New Orleans, first on a now retired blog called Wet Bank Guide which started out as a news aggregation site and a polemic for the salvation of New Orleans, but which also grew into a form of essay ultimately collected in Carry Me Home. At the same time, the more I fell back into the habit and practice of writing, other things started to come out: fiction, poetry. While the poetry is largely imaginative and conventional, the fiction kept veering out of control into something highly autobiographical. More than just the old saw “write what you know”, I found myself taking events out of my life, organizing them into narrative format (with no more invention that absolutely necessary) and polishing them until they gleam like the essays Smith discusses. Perhaps it is, as she points out, a guy thing, this desire to write short pieces that can be made as mechanically clean as a clockworks. I don’t think its a failure of imagination, which is much of Smith’s and Shields’ point. That’s the whole point of creative non-fiction, to structure reality and polish it so that the purpose (be it beautiful or ugly) flashes out like the facets of a carefully cut stone.
There is too much to digest easily in Smith’s essay so early on a Sunday morning (but what better time to consider it). I think I need to try and wheedle a review copy of Shield’s book, and come back on some very slow Thursday with a post just on this topic.
§ Don’t miss tonight’s New Laurel Review release party featuring editor-in-chief Lee Meitzen Grue, with readings by contributors. 8 p.m. Thursday. Gold Mine Saloon, 705 Dauphine St., New Orleans (French Quarter), 568-0745, http://www.goldminesaloon.net.
§ UPDATE: I got this late but it sounds very interesting. New Orleans: A T(w)een Travelogue features the stories and photos of 12 young women aged 11 to 14, all from out of town, as they explore New Orleans. I’m always interested in the contrast between an insider’s and an outsider’s view of place and how that fits into writing about place (place as character as much as setting).
Having survived a female tween I may buy this for my now 17-year old and see how that matches up with her own experience of arriving in New Orleans to live at age 14, starting over in high school in a strange (and flood distressed) town without the comfort of her old circle of friends. (I think she should write a book about that experience, but that’s another day’s tale). These young authors and the book’s editors will be at Garden District Books at The Rink on Washington Ave. Tuesday Dec. 8 at 5:30 pm
Agoraphonia December 2, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in poem, Poetry.
Tags: agoraphobia, Bernadette Mayer, lunch
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Trying to read Bernadette Mayer’s surrealist Agoraphobia in a loud & crowded food court is like a holiday in schizophrenia. I don’t recommend surrealism for lunch. Try the Mexican instead. Just when I think I have the sense of it her sentences run like rivulets after a wave back into the ocean of voices echoing off the walls & I can no more get the gist of it than I can explain the mathematics of fractals or tell the tamale from the enchilada under all this salsa queso. I think I’ll wait for some foreign translation I don’t understand, Russian perhaps & take that down to lunch & admire the Cyrillic arabesques twisting like rivers viewed from the air, the droning voices like the subtle roar of engines at high altitudes & imagine myself bound somewhere other than back to my desk: anywhere, just so it is out of this whorl.
Cross-posted from Poems Before Breakfast, which is mildy ironic as this is what I spent lunch thinking about.
Crow’s Fall December 2, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in poem, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Crow, Ted Hughes
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So it’s Wednesday and I’ve nothing much to say so why not another Crow poem on One Eyed Jack‘s day.
Painting Raven Passion from The Sacred Crow Treasure Box
By Ted Hughes
When Crow was white he decided the sun was too white.
He decided it glared much too whitely.
He decided to attack it and defeat it.
He got his strength flush and in full glitter.
He clawed and fluffed his rage up.
He aimed his beak direct at the sun’s centre.
He laughed himself to the centre of himself
At his battle cry trees grew suddenly old,
But the sun brightened-
It brightened, and Crow returned charred black.
He opened his mouth but what came out was charred black.
“Up there,” he managed,
“Where white is black and black is white, I won.”