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Come On Rise Up November 12, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in Bloggers, Federal Flood, hurricane, Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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My friend Sam Jasper’s post over at New Orleans Slate Unsolicited Advice to the Northeast in the Aftermath has gone viral in the Northeast. There are now 70 comments and dozens more private emails. Less than 1% of people who actually read a blog post (discounting those who drop in and leave) every leave a comment. You need to go read this wherever you are.

She starts off with a Bruce Springsteen Song Jersey Girl. The Springsteen song I can’t get out of my head is the one the NBC nightly news ran at the end of one of their broadcasts over a montage of the ruins of Sandy, the same song he sang to tens of thousands reduced to sobbing at Jazz Fest 2006: My City of Ruins.

When I could bring myself to watch the news the force fields went up. It is as if you have just had a minor stroke. The brain is empty, the body seems distant and alien, and the television a nightmare half remembered.

I only cried when I heard that song.

Come on, rise up.

You can do it. Your boots are on the pile in front of the house so you will somehow have to manage to lift yourself up by sheer will, above every gospel word Sam has written in her post. Some folks in the affected areas may not fare to badly. The government starting running dump trucks of money into Manhattan after 9-11 to repair utilities and such. Maybe you’ll be lucky, and your utility bill won’t double. Maybe you have stronger elected officials, who won’t stand for a property-and-casualty insurance bill larger than the principle on your mortgage. I hope so.

Come on, rise up.

We felt so abandoned after the Federal Flood a deceased friend adopted the term Sinn Fein, not a reference to modern Irish politics but to the origins of the party but to the translation: Ourselves Alone.

Sinn Fein, baby. But you are not alone. The people of the hurricane coast, who have done all this before in 2005 and again and again before this, stand at your shoulders like the ghosts of every soldier buried in a foreign land. The people of the south are a prayerful people, and right now millions of hands are clasped, a hundred thousand Saints’ candles burning, uncounted joss sticks lit to the Merciful Ones. Trucks are loaded. Checks are written. If you finally figure out what we’ve known down here since Camille in ’69 the mayor of Staten Island has figured out, and you will to, but one way or another help will come. It will come not from the insurance racketeers. It will come unsought from church groups. It will come in trucks from points unknown filled with cleaning supplies. It will come with all I see that remains of the America we were taught, and it will not come from the government. It will come from you neighbors. It will come up from the coast from those who stayed, from those who returned, by the heavenly intervention of the ghosts of the flood.

It will come.

“I pray Lord
with these hands
for the strength Lord
with these hands
for the faith Lord
with these hands

Come on rise up!
Come on rise up!”

Rise up.

The Glory That Was Home September 23, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in Federal Flood, Fortin Street, FYYFF, Memory, New Orleans, NOLA, postdiluvian, Rebirth, Recovery, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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I thought I would share an email reply I wrote this morning, to answer anyone who asked after me yesterday at Rising Tide VII:

Thank you for the pictures and write-up. My absence from Rising Tide 7 is sadly more than a case of overbooking, but I won’t spread troubles except to wish them bon voyage. The NOLA Bloggers Movement, born out of a mailing list started by some guy in North Dakota of all places, baptized on an Ash Wednesday evening at a bar in the French Quarter, and which birthed the first Rising Tide was one of those bright shining moments of solidarity like the crime march or the first anniversary (who were those two young Black women at the 17th Street Canal bridge between Bucktown and lily-white Lakeview? I dared not ask that day) that is behind us. The rag-tag assemblage has, like so many things down here postdiluvian, reverted to form: the latent conflicts of purpose and personality reasserting themselves, paths parting, new projects taking precedence.

It is a parade I no longer ride, but sometimes finger the old doubloons thoughtfully when I come across them

The Brink January 8, 2011

Posted by Mark Folse in New Orleans, Rebirth, Recovery, Sun Ra, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK, Writing.
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Today’s literary tidbit is courtesy of Marco who sent this on to me as an example of Something Not To Read while I was posting something else indicating I was perhaps less than cheerful. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s public recounting of his “crack-up” isn’t the typical confessional piece of someone who’s gone completely over the brink. This isn’t William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a chronicle of the descent into near madness. No white coats or shock treatments or pill cups from Nurse Ratchet; just a withdrawal from it all and a deep peer over the brink that lies inside all of us. And some quiet time to think about it all.

I’ve hesitated to post this essay but it would seem to answer a private question from one reader who wishes to know how I’m doing, or rather what I’m doing. Like Fitzgerald, I’m trying to figure it all out somewhere on this side of the brink, and not in the monstrous way Fitzgerald resolves it. My problem, or rather my solution, is quite the opposite.

I wrote a lot in college and right after (somewhere I have a poetry manuscript, alas, but there’s always hope the cockroaches and mildew have gotten to it), but as I fell into journalism I wrote less and less and typed more and more. I wrote perhaps a half-dozen poems over 10 years when some line stuck itself in my head, only because I never stopped reading poetry. I wrote a theme for the Washington Mardi Gras that led my co-worker to ask me what I was on in college, but they used it anyway because it was good. I started a novel but didn’t get far. Mostly, I read and went about the business of life: small children, a series of houses, rungs on a Jacob’s ladder to the conventional American heaven on earth.

Then something happened one afternoon August 29, 2005. Something literally snapped and it wasn’t just a string of Mardi Gras beads hanging from my rear view mirror. The experience of Katrina and the Federal Flood, witnessed from 900 miles away, didn’t so much break something as steal something away from me. Call it faith: faith in anything. I looked at the social contract and it appeared to have been written in another language with its own alphabet. All the threads that tie us into society from the family up to the nation state snapped at once. All bets were off and the rules became as bizarre of those of Calvin and Hobbes’ ball game, made up on the spot to suit the situation.

And somewhere in all that I lost the ability to lie to myself.

I could no longer convince myself that what I witnessed was an anomaly and not the way the world worked. When all of your assumptions about life and society, even those one mocked (religion, the government) were proved to be made of thin tissue that could not stand up to the flood waters, when confronted with all of the lies required to live as a decent, respectable human being in this place and time, it was more than my mind could handle. I struggled to assemble some new organizational scheme, some way to make sense of the world and myself.

This isn’t the same as suggesting I could not or cannot today deceive myself. We’re all much too good at that. It’s as deeply wired into the survival instinct of modern man as any carry over from our days with sticks and skins. It just became impossible to keep up for long. Eventually all such attempts—societal, professional and even personal–fall apart. It’s a personal, interior version of the film Liar, Liar, and it is not particularly funny.

It also doesn’t suggest that I’ve lost the ability to lie to others, to put on the mask appropriate to the situation. I still have responsibilities I can not just walk away from. I have to hold onto a job and pay all the bills that come with decades on the treadmill. It’s just that over time things start to leak out, especially once you’ve started writing in a public forum like this. Not just the piece about the broken beads, suggesting some extraordinary connection beyond coincidence, which someone–say a future employer–might find disconcerting. There is the piece long ago where I announced I am (as almost everyone in this town is) a racist, but one who has recognized the disease I inherited from my family and city and from which, like an alcoholic, I will spend the rest of my life in recovery. Then there are my occasional posts expressing my obvious dissatisfaction with my current career and carefully never-mentioned-by-name employer, the Counting House.

What the Hindu’s call the veil of Maya was torn away, the illusions proved not to be something mystical, a natural by product of our creation from some greater soul but rather the cheap tricks of a casino lounge magician, the chicanery of politicians we agree with. We were all having such a good time; it wasn’t worth trying to puzzle out how it was done and spoiling the moment.

When the underpinnings of your world suddenly shatters, when even the convenient fictions of every day life prove to be just a drapery in front of something more monstrous that you imagined in your darkest moments, something is going to happen. One in a million people becomes the Buddha. Sorry, not me; not this time around. Most become suicides, substance abusers, or aimless drifters standing on the corner all day with a stare fixed on some distant point but no idea where to go.

Some become writers, madly cataloging their thoughts and creating fictions knowing that is what they are doing but knowing it is of their own creation, an extension of the preservation impulse that raised the gods up out of the muck and gave them names, the stories told around the fire that animated the stars. The author and editor of TheRumpus.net Stephen Elliot has an excellent essay titled “Why I Write” in which he talks about “the scream,” the sudden realization that you have something you must say, a impulse so powerful it comes out (must come out) as a shout. This is my shout, not a cry for help but something like the fierce, instinctive howl that came out of my throat once when cornered by a pack of feral dogs that scared them away.

I should probably be writing this privately as a journal entry somewhere, or as a letter to some specific individual who will (or will not) understand. That’s how things like this are handled, right? Except that as with the alcoholic or other twelve-stepper, if you’re going to succeed at healing yourself you need to stand up and announce to the world: I am a terrible liar. And given the path I’ve gone down, once I decided to post the story quoted above about the broken beads and all that has followed, what is the point of writing to myself or an audience of one when there’s a whole world out there to remake, millions of pieces to rearrange until they make sense and become something beautiful?

I am very fond of the jazz and performance artist Sun Ra, who used to speak about “the shield of beauty” which I have come to understand as something like the shield of Perseus held up to the Medusa. Writing is my shield of beauty, without which the monstrosity of the world would destroy me. It’s that simple. And that complex. And if I don’t spend the rest of my life at this, well, there’s always the bottle, the razor, the silent man sitting in the chair in the corner thinking and doing nothing, but who—once you are this conscious of the decision involved—would chose those?

So, that’s why I’m here. Why, curious reader, are you?

Too Loose Street February 20, 2009

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, home, Mid-City, New Orleans, NOLA, parade, Rebirth, Recovery.
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Finally, we get to have the party.

The Ghost of Christmas Future December 18, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, 8-29, food, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, Katrina, Mid-City, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK, Xmas, Yule.
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I wrote this little penny dreadful in one furious draft on Monday night, and I have been plinking at it since. I think it probably needs a serious once over with a blue pencil by someone else but Christmas is almost here and I’m not a patient person. Criticisms by comment or email welcome.

This is a work of fiction. Any perceived resemblance to persons living or dead should be discussed with your therapist at your next session.

Finally, this is the sort of thing that happens when you read the early short fiction of P.K. Dick around Christmas, something I don’t recommend. I have since switched to Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather and feel entirely better.

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, 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 bells of St. Anthony of Padua began to ring.

sta

Last Act at the Private Street Stage May 6, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Sinn Fein, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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By Sunday, I was done in. The combination of days treading through treacherous, treacly mud pits and an unballasted wallet left me walking like a sailor just back from the Horn, with a Odd swinging gait and a permanent list to windward. I was burned without and within by too much sun and too much fun and could in no way contemplate another day at Jazz Fest.

Somehow I drug myself out of bed that sunny morning and managed to plow through all the necessary chores for a weekend: laundry done and my shirts ironed, something cooked easy to serve up for the week, a trip to K-Mart for some necessities, a blog post written up. After all that I was beat, but managed to find the energy to replace my back bicycle tire. I was determined that I was not going to let the last of April, first of May pass without hearing Carlos Santana. His is an almost quintessential Jazz Fest act, combining jazz, rock and Latin rhythms in a way an Orleanian can digest as easily and with as much relish as a crock of creme brulee: an almost impalpable richness and sweetness touched with fire.

It is not just the sheer beauty of straight ahead guitar jazz like Europa or the cathartic drum rite of a perfect Black Magic Woman that drew me there, but something elemental like the Odd forces that hold atoms together, a species of the Strong Force. Santana is one of the generation of musical bodhisattvas: a line of musicians running back to jazz artists of the 1960s like John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, powerful jazz innovators who expressed a profound spirtuality through their music. Somewhere along the line musicians with that sort of overtly spiritual inclination seem to have vanished. Perhaps they were all sucked into one of the many marketing arms of the Cult of the Gospel Inerrant, that peculiar religio-business that has replaced Christianity in much of America, to pop up as acts like Jars of Clay or Third Day.

Santana is one of the last of a different breed. To hear him is not to experience the happy, corporate pop of what little I have heard of popular “Christian” music. The instrumental second part of Black Magic Woman is not some toe-tapping, feel-good cant. It is what was called in the decade from which Santana emerged An Experience. What comes through is not the gentle spirit of the shyly-smiling blond guy with a lamb on his lap. It is instead music that could be the song in the head of the demiurge as he raised the first roaring volcanoes out of a chaotic ocean, and then tossed the burning sun into the sky, the frenetic rites of the first peoples upon discovery of the drum and the dance.

And so while my tired wife napped in the sun with the pretense of a book in her lap I applied myself to the bicycle pump and set out to find a spot where I could at least hear Santana’s mid-afternoon performance. I pedaled up the narrow cul-de-sac streets between St. Louis No. 3 and the west side of the Fairgrounds, and found myself on the corner of a quiet residential street abutting the Fairgounds and a narrow strip of asphalt with a city street sign reading Private, right behind the port-o-lets west of the Acura stage, not fifty feet from where I’d turned the corner the day before to go buy a beer and some food over by the Jazz Tent.

Private was an apt name for the place. I had pedaled over expecting to either be disappointed that I could not find a good spot or instead that I might find one that would look like Frenchman Street on Mardi Gras night. Apparently the world is divided into people who plop down their $50 and go in the gate to Jazz Fest and people who find something else to do. Except for one fellow in sleevless black smoking Marlboro’s back propped against the fence and a handful of the people who lived back there sitting out in lawn chairs, Private was very nearly just that: my own personal place to listen.

There’s not much more I can say about Santana that I haven’t already said. I was so tired that I can no longer remember the entire play list, only highlights: an ecstatic Black Magic Woman and rocking versions of Oye Como Va and No One To Depend On, Maria Maria, a John Contrane number my tired brain can’t recall two days later. There was a long speech on politics that I silently applauded, not for its overt electioneering, or even for the long list of activists and musicians Santana cited as being in the tradition he tries to uphold (it was long and I couldn’t recreate it without notes). Instead, what wowed me was the way Santana wrapped it up with Jimi Hendrix’s famous aphorism: “We are about the power of love, not the love of power.”

Oddly enough, I had picked up a button with Jimi’s picture on it and the same saying just two days earlier when passing the Save Our Wetlands table. I visualized the button laying atop my muddy poncho on the porch back home, and immediately connected the three note base line and the simple, whammy bar guitar riff that goes with it, the one common to Hendrix’s Third Stone from the Sun and Santana’s Black Magic Woman (listen hard in your head; you know the one). “We are about the power of love.” The phrase is still ringing in my head days later even as the discrete events of Jazz Fest retreal into a blur.

That is what this last Jazz Fest was about: a healing that during the last two we were not ready to receive, an experience no Big Chief from Kansas City could possibly understand. There is enough distance now for healing, and the line up was perfect. Jimmy Buffet was my touchstone to the Gulf Coast during my cold years of exile, and the party that life here can be if you so choose. Terence Blanchard was It, The Thing, distilled into music of such emotional power that it lifted you past The Event and into the place that healing can begin. And finally Santana: the ineffable essence of beauty Keats once found on an old urn and which I found at the corner of Verna and Private; a rollicking tribal celebration with drums and fire of the Power of Love; the love of this place that brings us home, that drags us out of our tired patio chairs and back to this lonely corner of Mid-City because we need cannot get enough, the power of the love of those who have come home to stay and rebuild New Orleans.

I left before the Neville Brothers played.

We Will Drown the Bitch in Beauty May 1, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, 8-29, Dancing Bear, Federal Flood, Hurricane Katrina, Jazz, Jazz Fest, je me souviens, levee, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Sinn Fein, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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“I told you I would be here.
It was important that I came.
I’m leaving but I’ll be back again.
Will you be here?”
Shelton Alexander


Terrence Blanchard.
Requiem for Katrina. Tomorrow at Jazz Fest

We will drown the bitch in beauty and flood the city with tears of joy.

Will you be there?

Update: Replacing generic Terence Blanchard YouTube with a camera video shot May 2, 2008 at Jazz Fest, an excerpt from Funeral Dirge from Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), featuring Blanchard’s Quintet and the —————- —————— Orchestra.

Update 5-12-09 Based on an objection from the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, I have removed this brief, low-fidelity excerpt which I had posted pursuant to fair usage for comment and criticism. Apparently they don’t appreciate free promotion. I will also remove any references to the LPO from this piece as well.

That Bright Moment February 24, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, Flood, flooding, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, Katrina, New Orleans, NOLA, postdiluvian, quotes, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Sinn Fein, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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YOU ARE TRAPPED IN THAT BRIGHT MOMENT
WHERE YOU LEARNED YOUR DOOM
— Samuel R. Delaney in City of a Thousand Suns

Trapped not as you might think, given the juxtaposition of the word doom; trapped instead in the complex web of postdiluvian New Orleans in the way light is said to be trapped by a cut and polished gem, refracted by the complex play of facets until made into a flashing thing of beauty: that is how I try to live with what was once the shadow of The Flood, the rafts of ghosts it unleashed.

I have not finished Delaney’s novella trilogy Fall of the Towers, so I am not certain how the moment described by that recurring line will play out, the mass, simultaneous discovery by an entire society that a key assumption about their lives–that there was an enemy beyond the barrier; that they were at war–was a complex fiction constructed by their ruling class.

I am not certain how something terribly similar will play out here in New Orleans, among people who’s fundamental assumptions have been washed away: that the basic infrastructure of our lives is built well enough that we will not die of living upon it; that our government will rise up to protect and succor us at a moment of great peril; that if we pay our bills to the insurance company they will help make us whole. How do we live when all of the illusions that underpin life in modern America are suddenly swept away.

Some will drift into cynicism: all governments are corrupt, all big corporations dishonest: what did you expect? Nothing to be done. There is a certain beauty when that sardonic surrender is contrasted with the insistent evidence of hope, with the irrational and irresistible persistence that is one of the hallmarks of life, prominently displayed here in New Orleans like flowers erupting on a cooled lava flow. For evidence I offer the rush by Orleanians to embrace the dark and complex Waiting for Godot this year.

Complete cynicism in its modern sense is the fate I want to avoid for fear we become the new Dog Philosophers, mindless of our personal or civic obligations from a misplaced belief that the world is beyond redemption. I started down that road once on the blog I once kept called Wet Bank Guide. For a time the anger there over the Federal Flood and all that followed was palpable, the anger that once led me to ask if it were possible to renounce my citizenship in the United States of America and become a resident alien in the only country I wish to recognize: New Orleans. Over time, I transmuted that ugly funk into something else, a celebration of what I believe it means to be “trapped in that bright moment”. At what I thought the high point of that transformation, I put Wet Bank Guide to bed.

Now I try instead to celebrate the found moments of odd or profound beauty that come out of All That: the moments of simple, quiet pleasure and ecstatic, public joy that mark life in postdiluvian New Orleans, the surest signs that what we are building here is indeed New Orleans, heedless of the violent transfiguration of our landscape, the vast swaths of ruin that still blanket the Gentilly and the East, the last exits on the road to the modern Land of Nod.

I cannot entirely surrender that anger, not while I have this public forum and a handful of readers I might influence. There is too much to be done to realize the potential that arises out of that bright moment when we learned our doom. What the citizen journalists of the blogosphere call the ground truth must continue to be told in pieces like the one below, Crazy Like a Fox, until we have — like Saint Patrick — driven the snakes out of paradise.

Until that work is accomplished there is still a life to be lived here. For all of the constant struggle and the occasional horror of that life there are still the moments that flash out like shinning from shook foil, as Gerald Manley Hopkins put it. Our world is charged with the grandeur not of God precisely but of who we are, of how we live: every bar of music and snatch of song that puts a lilt in our step I never saw on the streets of Washington or Fargo; every sloppy po-boy unrolled from its waxy wrapper like an Egyptian treasure, that sustains us as much by the thought of which neighborhood joint it came from and by the sight of it laying there like a woman in dishabille, as we are as by the smell and the taste of it; the peculiar site lines of a city built to conform to the zaftig geography of the river’s crescent and our slow descent into the ocean. All of these flash out of the cold, hard moment when we rediscovered who we are, flash out with a beauty that should settle the question once and for all: why do we choose to live here having learned our doom?

For Orleanians, as I believe it will unfold for Delaney’s characters, living in that bright moment is not an end but a beginning, not so much a scar but like a smudge of transient ash on the forehead that reminds us of who we are, that helps us to rediscover for ourselves who we are and where we live.

The quote that eventually came to rest prominently at the top of Wet Bank Guide was from the jazz and performance artist Sun Ran: Its After the End of the World, Don’t You Know That Yet? For Sun Ra, it was a profound renunciation of the ugly history of what it meant to be Black in late 20th Century America. It was not the presumed despair of some character in a Left Behind novel (I can’t bring myself to read those Christian tracts, but I can imagine what that world is like, borrowed no doubt in large measure from works like Stephen King’s The Stand).

Instead Sun Ra’s aphorism calls us to a celebration of the realization that we have been unshackled from the conventional, from so much of our history and attachment. Perhaps I can help all those around me who still cling to the past, to the ugliest parts of the long story what makes us who we are; I hope I can push them to recognize that those shackles lie about their feet and no longer bind them, that they have been freed by that bright moment in which we knew our doom to become something at once old and new: not the city bequeathed to us like a curse by our ancestors who held or felt the lash but instead the city of memory and of dreams, the city that lives in our hearts.

The Kenner Local rumbles past Ochsner Hospital February 21, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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The hallways of the surgical ward of Ochsner Hospital are as bright and cheerless as the Kenner Local cross-town bus I passed on the way home. In the waiting area the last of the family groups each sits separately, choosing their places among the rows and rows of chairs like a strategically defensive position in some board game, each small knot of people as isolated in their own personal emergency as the lonely shift workers scattered throughout the seats of that passing bus.

It was appendicitis (my wife’s, not mine) that found me waiting on the hard chairs, the scant cushioning of each covered in variously stripped fabrics that loudly announced: wait here. Purgatory, if our sins are not too egregious, will have chairs as comfortable and comely as these. The surgery was arthroscopic and went quickly. Not 45 minutes passed from the time I left her in the tender care of the nurse anesthetist until the surgeon came out calling her last name. Mine is different and as he first spoke he remembered it and called mine as well even as I strode up. He asked if I was related to the restaurateur whose last name I share.

The rest of the day was like the room of many stripes, a long and uncomfortable wait. My wife arrived at the emergency room before eight on her own, in a cab; she would not wait for me to drop the children first, and was only taken up to surgery at around 6:45 pm. The ER nurse explained that the hospital was full, had been all week. Patients were routinely held in the ER until space could be found for them in an operating room or a bed. My wife might have to spend the night in the recovery room, I was warned, for the same reasons. No room at the inn. Not knowing where she might land, I followed up to the surgery ward toting the plastic bag of all she came in with, ready to pitch camp wherever fate might cast us up.

That is how Ochsner seems to run itself, like a large resort or an airline. Full bookings are good for the bottom line, if not always for the customer. On the way home I passed the vacant hulk of Mercy Hospital just blocks from my house, purchased with several other empty hospitals by Ochsner from Tenet in the days after The Federal Flood. The Mercy property was sold to a developer with a covenant that it may not be used as a hospital, even though the city has 60% of its population back but only 25% of its hospital beds. The new owners of Mercy are thinking perhaps a Target would fit there nicely. Ochsner apparently prefers not to have any competition. If that means that patients may not have an actual hospital room, well, it’s not Jakarta. People weren’t stacked on pallets in hallways buzzing with flies. Still, it was a less-than-ideal experience by conventional American standards. It was instead, a perfect postdiluvian New Orleans one.

And so to bed.

Queen of Denial? February 9, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, Carnival, Debrisville, Flood, flooding, French Quarter, home, Hurricane Katrina, Jazz Fest, je me souviens, Katrina, levee, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, NOLA, parade, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Hollywood Reporter columnist Ray Richmond came to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, wandered Bourbon Street and its immediate environs like a good tourist–noting the drunken hordes, the breast obsession, and the beads, all of the touchstones of a Tourist at Mardi Gras. His blog notes that he did venture out of the Quarter and into The Ruins, fand found “a watterlogged [sic] ghost town pockmarked with wide swaths of untouched damage. Meanwhile, those who dared stick it out — or more likely, had no choice — are forced to live in flimsy FEMA trailer housing where their homes once stood.”

His reaction to this odd (to him) juxtaposition was to wonder at the boosterism of the city fathers in promoting Carnival, and the commitment of the costumed locals to have their day even in the middle of Year Three of the postdeluvian era.

The local and national media don’t really talk about this stuff anymore, as Hurricane Katrina is yesterday’s crisis. It’s also far better for tourism and for the city’s tenuous self-esteem to promote the fact that New Orleans’ self-gratifying, anything-goes character is back in full. “New Orleans Hotels at 90% Capacity — and Counting!” exulted one headline. The only hurricane you seem to hear about anymore is the one that’s served in a glass (dark rum, pineapple juice, splash of grenadine). It’s all something of a facade, of course, but that’s spin marketing for ya. There’s simply not as much to be gained from peddling the slogan, New Orleans: Merely a Shell of What We Once Were.

“….We can all sleep better knowing that New Orleans is once again safe for the rowdy and the inebriated, the naked and the perverse. For a city that’s still struggling to crawl out from under the lingering devastation of Hell and high water, it now finds itself drowning in denial, which rapidly has become the most powerful of opiates for these huddled, thinned-out masses.”

Ray, we are not merely a shell of what we once were, even if half of the city’s buildings are. Carnival is not denial; for us it is life. The picture of the man dressed as a soiled baby president is part of (or a dedicated hanger on to) the Krewe of Saint Anne, one of the groups dedicated to elaborate costuming in Mardi Gras. The people who worked half the year on fantastic costumes in spite of the state of our city are no different than my wife soldiering through celebrating Christmas while her mother died. To suggest Mardi Gras is inappropriate would be tantamount to suggesting that commerce in New York be suspended for a few years because of 9-11. If that were to happen, what would be left of the city? Would what remains even be New York? The same is true for New Orleans: to cease to be ourselves would be to surrender, and we have not, will not give up.

For people like the Krewe of St. Anne and all of those you saw following them, Mardi Gras is not a denial but instead a celebration of who we are, of why we live here. It was an affirmation that we do live here, that we will live here, come hell or high water or both, in the way we have for close to three centuries. We not only had Mardi Gras this year, we had it last year, and we had it in 2006 — six months after the Federal Flood, when half of the city had no running water or telephones. We costumed and paraded and partied.

We’re glad the tourists are back, even the vomiting hordes of Spring Break in Hell types. We need their business. We need your business, and that of your readers. Tourism remains a top industry. We want you to come for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, and we want you to take time out from those celebrations to see the rest of the city, the real city that stands in hollow, gray ruin not a mile from the Fairgrounds where Jazz Fest plays. We want America to know the one thing your story missed. We stand in ruin because we have been left to our own devices to rebuild. The money is all gone down the rat hole, parceled out to pay for fabulous no-bid contracts to Haliburton and their ilk for debris clean up and other tasks that followed the storm and flood. The money meant to help rebuild is tied up in Byzantine federal red tape. Little has actually reached the people who live here. And still they come home, maxing out their credit cards and cashing out their retirement and one-by-one rebuilding their houses and lives. We are doing it on our own because we just. Sinn Fein, baby.

They come home because they have tried life elsewhere in America when they had no choice but to leave, and they chose to come home. The come back because there is no place for a Krewe of St. Anne’s in Houston or Dallas or Atlanta or Memphis. They come home not for Bourbon Street but for the joie de vivre of the entire city, for the way of life which Bourbon Street caricatures for the tourists. The come because we have built a culture here over 300 years which is different than what the rest of America has, a life visitors don’t understand but are drawn to, which they come and sample with envy. A person may still be waiting — two-and-a-half years later — for a final insurance settlement or a check from the Road Home program, living in a camper trailer beside a home they are trying to rebuild themselves after a long day’s work elsewhere. They may be tired and beaten down, but they will have Carnival.

This is not denial. This is who we are. This is why you came, why the hordes on Bourbon Street came. This is why the floats rolled and the marching crews walked. They city may lay still half in ruin, but New Orleans is back because New Orleans is a people and a way of life. We have risked everything and spent every penny we have to be here because we will not let that way of life vanish from the earth, cannot imagine spending a life elsewhere, a life different from this.

See you at Jazz Fest.

The Last Mardi Gras February 4, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, Flood, flooding, French Quarter, ghosts, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, parade, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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As I did last year, I’m going to just re-post a piece I wrote in the fall of 2005 on Flood Street – Dispatches from an Imaginary Disaster, and then for Carnival 2006 and 2007 on Wet Bank Guide called The Last Mardi Gras.

If I don’t see you at St. Anne’s or on Frenchman, I’ll see you on the other side. As I once heard a Mardi Gras Indian chief say on WWOZ one Monday night in the long ago, “don’t be fallin’ outta yo’ house with no needle and thread in yo’ hand.”

The Last Mardi Gras

In this city, people talk incessantly of past pleasures and of those to come, even as they regard the meal or the drink or the parade in front of them. We live in a stream of memory as dark and deep and powerful as the river. Memory’s currents clutch at us and steer our lives, must be compensated for just as the ferry pilots must at every crossing, must be feared less they take us down into an eddy from which no body returns.

Some of my earliest memories are of Mardi Gras. I remember as a child of perhaps five seeing Indians dancing at the corner that might have been Galvez and Canal as we drove to my great aunts’ on Royal Street. Later that day or perhaps a year before or after, I can clearly recall watching Rex passing down Canal from atop my father’s shoulders. Half a life later, my girlfriend and I slouched outside a hall in Arabi in the lost hours before dawn on the night of MoM’s Ball, and a famous photographer took our picture. I’ve never seen this photograph, but I will go to my grave easier knowing that years from now, on a wall or in a book, someone will see us in our motley glory, dissolute and unrepentant and utterly glorious in the moment. They will see us and say: this is what Mardi Gras was like back then.

Twenty years separate those moments, and another twenty separate that MoM’s Ball from the first postdiluvian Carnival. For all that span of years and a century before, Mardi Gras has been as reliable as high water. No one really needed to tell me there would be a Mardi Gras this year as there has been every year in my living memory, and as I am certain there will be a Mardi Gras when no one remembers what it meant to sit on the lawn of the Wildlife and Fisheries building of a certain winter Tuesday. No disaster leaving behind life more complex than the cockroach could prevent it.

Just as certain, at some point of during Tuesday;s twilight people will begin to talk of about last Mardi Gras, and of the Mardi Gras to come with the certainty of the sanctified they are most certainly not. The last time in living memory Carnival was interrupted was during World War II. Frankly, I don’t understand why. The soldiers and sailors on leave wandering Perdido Street drunkly in search of women wouldn’t have been harmed by the tableaux of paper maiche floats lit by the dripping oil burners of the flambeau. Carnival was probably canceled by somebody from the wrong side of Canal Street, whose father before him decided Storyville had to be closed to protect the doughboys of World War One from dissipation. There always a Do-Good Daddy looking to tone the city down.

I don’t think anyone with the city in their heart understood the cancellations, but I’m sure those generations accepted those losses the way we accept the closing of a favorite restaurant: by finding a new and equally good one to sit in and eat and drink and discuss the loss of the old favorite, remembering what we ate on such a date and with whom. Until, of course, we discuss where the owner or the cook of the failed place is expected to return, and start to anticipate the day we will sit at that as yet unset table, and remember what we ate on such a date and with whom.

Of course there will be a Mardi Gras. I might need to ask which krewes would roll on what nights, to inquire of friends where the MoM’s Ball might be. But no one needed to tell me that Mardi Gras would happen, especially the one hidden inside private parties in bars or in courtyards, punctuated by forays out into the streets to parade. The year the police went on strike and the parades all fled to the suburbs and the Mardi Gras of the hoteliers and the airlines was canceled, we dutifully assembled at the Wildlife and Fisheries Building on Fat Tuesday.

Suspicious National Guardsmen and out-of-state troopers warily regarded the ragged parade of the early intoxicated, smelling of burnt leaves and breakfast screwdrivers, dressed in ways only the part-time preachers among them could have imagined, and then only in a place warmer than the city in February. We were not about to let a simple thing like a police strike spoil the party. Several among us dressed as the National Guard in uniforms from the surplus stores in Gentilly, armed with perfect replica rifles by Mattel. When we went to buy wine and beer at the Walgreen’s on Canal, and our friends burst into the door yelling “secure the beer cooler,” clerks fell to the floor in fright, fearing perhaps that the Guard had had enough, and were about to shut down carnival.

I fled the city a few years later, and did not return for Mardi Gras once for almost two decades. The few Mardi Gras that followed the police strike were colored by my reasons for leaving the city, memories rent by heartache and drowned in drink. Those last few years did not yield the stories I would tell my children if they fed me too much wine at some holiday dinner years from now. For many years, the police strike was the Last Mardi Gras. My children, a boy ten and a girl fourteen, grew up knowing Mardi Gras through the Disney film fairy tale filter of the stories I dared to tell them, from the magazine that came with the king cake from Ma Mere every year, in the music I played them from Twelfth Night until the day. We ate jambalaya and king cake, and donned masks and beads to dance wildly to Mardi Gras Vol. 1 in front of the large plate glass window of our home in a small Midwestern town. Neighbors across the street peered through their curtains intermittently at the scene, but no one ever worked up the courage to ask us what we were doing.

I have taken my family to New Orleans. The kids had sneezed powdered sugar all over each other at the Cafe du Monde, fondled baby alligators on flat boats out of Barataria, had learned to eat seafood and gumbo and jambalaya, had even wandered with me through Storyland in City Park. I took them to the exhibit at the Cabildo to learn about Mardi Gras. It’s a wonderful set piece but, like a high school health film on sex, it is not quite the same as the actual experience.

So we piled onto an airplane bound for New Orleans the year before the Flood, and went to Mardi Gras. I took them to St. Charles and Napoleon, and my son waved his deftly caught spear with complete abandon. My daughter was bashful about begging trinkets from strangers in a strange land, until I flung myself stone cold sober on my knees in the middle of the Avenue and begged as loudly as I could for a female horse posse rider to give me a purple, green and gold flower for my daughter on her first Mardi Gras. After that, she got the idea. No pretty girl on St. Charles Avenue should go home without her weight in beads. She only needed to ask.

We stood for hours all weekend, parade after parade, never tiring of it, interrupted only by a friend’s party Endymion party on Saturday night. After Endymion, I left them with Ma Mere and set out after midnight to return to the MoM’s ball for the first time in two decades. MoM’s had always been one of my favorite things about Mardi Gras, a gathering of all who chose to live in the fabric of Mardi Gras and not just inhabit a costume for a few hours, a party only the resolutely dissolute can enjoy, or survive. MoM’s is what I hope Saturday night in Hell will be like, should I find myself stuck there between planes. But thousands in a shed did not hold up to the memories of hundreds in a hall in Arabi decades before. I don’t know if I will return to MoM’s, preferring this one true memory of carnival’s past. And then I can say well, I don’t go anymore, you know, but back when…

I agonized for weeks and months before we went: should I take the children to the Quarter on Mardi Gras Day, or back to St. Charles? As I child, I spent most Mardi Gras at my great aunt’s apartment on Royal Street, now the Hove’ Parfumier. I decided they should have a glimpse of the secret heart of Mardi Gras, or as least as much as they could handle. So we rose up early on the day, donned our costumes, and boarded a cab bound for Frenchman Street. We waited endlessly across from the R-Bar for St. Anne’s, not knowing those marchers had chosen another route. Facing a rebellion, we took off and made our own way up Royal, stopping to sit a moment on Tante Gert and Sadie’s stoop, making Canal just in time for Zulu.

After Rex, I left them in my sister’s care for the endless truck floats, and retired to friend’s places in the Quarter. I stopped briefly in the Abbey, a place that had never been the same since Betz sold it. Instead of the usual motley crew of bikers or transvestites or other folk I had often encountered on past trips home, I found it full of drunken twenty somethings who looked frighteningly like the crowd I remember from my own days, as if the Abbey were haunted for the night by the spirits of the place of my memories. I bought a round of snakebites for a familiar seeming couple and then the currents swept me back to Frenchman Street, a mad Green Man second lining with a huge palm tree totem given to me be someone who knew just how to complete my costume.

Now I have a new last Mardi Gras. We are coming back to the city to stay, to march again and again, so that there is no longer a Last Mardi Gras, just the last Mardi Gras. I will march until my time is done, and then I will borrow a ritual from St. Anne’s, in this city of borrowed rituals. I will have my children scatter what remains of me into the river on Fat Tuesday. For me, it will be the Last Mardi Gras. For them, it will simply be a moment from last Mardi Gras. They will say a few words, shed a tear, and then all of us will be swept away by the currents. They will turn away from the river, while nearby a drunken trumpeter will perhaps blow a few bars of Oh Didn’t He Ramble, and I will march in their hearts back into the Quarter once more.

Samedi Gras February 2, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, Mardi Gras, Mid-City, New Orleans, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street.
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I took a stroll up and down Orleans with the camera running. My wife and son are sick as dogs so the long anticipated Begindymion Bachanal will have to wait for another year. For now, I’m just wandering the neighborhood and enjoying the scene.

Shoe February 2, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery.
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All Hail Muses!

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Burn your t-shirt February 1, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, music, New Orleans, NOLA, Radiators, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Has it really been thirty years since the Radiators first took the stage? Me, I go back to my time at UNO in the late 1970s–when the Driftwood newspaper staff had a firm claim on the center table in front of the gas log at Luigi’s every Wednesday night–and as far back as the Rhaps before that.

Sadly, I missed the 30th Anniversary shows at Tipitina’s due to the below mentioned funeral and sickness all around, and won’t make MoM’s Ball. As I’ve written before, I rather prefer the memory of s smaller MoM’s with primarily the Lakefront crowd back in the day to the current version, but that means I’ll miss seeing these guys again.

As we finally crawl out of the hole of funeral, sickness, etc. and get ready to finally start Mardi Gras (better late than never) with tonight’s parades and Samadi Gras up the block tomorrow here’s a bit of the Rads from ’91. May their fire never go out.

Update: I decided I needed more a a fix than I could get off of You Tube or the records I had (well, tapes mostly). I force marched past the Divine Protectors of Endangered Ladies (sorry, y’all) to Louisiana Music Factory, where I found Work Done on Premises (the Rads first, self-produced recording captured live at Tips many moons ago) on CD. Talk about a traveller in time…

Nothin’ but the bones January 26, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in assholes, Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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The weekly newspaper Gambit brings us this story of the fearful future of the bone men and other African-American Mardi Gras traditional marchers. In on of the city’s oldest neighborhoods outside of the French Quarter, the local population is being squeezed by gentrification, rising rents and the demolition of the Lafitte Housing Project. What is at risk here is not just affordable housing or the comfort of coming home, but something infinitely more rare and precious: a living culture unique in North America.

For Bruce ‘Sunpie” Barnes, Mardi Gras day begins quietly in the darkened pre-dawn hours as he takes a solitary journey to a local cemetery to commune with the dead. Kneeling before graves, he asks the spirits of the past to enter his body so that he can become their living vessel, joining his soul with theirs as he takes to the streets. Later, at sunrise, he emerges in full costume, calling out and waking up the Treme neighborhood with his group, the Northside Skull and Bones Gang, which has followed the Carnival tradition for decades.

‘We’ll bring all the past dead spirits to the streets,” Barnes says. ‘Mardi Gras is the one day we do that.”

How much longer will the bone men and downtown Indians survive? That’s part of the focus of the story, which first emerged when the police broke up a traditional second-line parade in Treme honoring a musician who had passed on, scuffling with and arresting musicians. These unscheduled events are a century old tradition cherished by the neighborhood’s longtime residents.

Speaking to the Times-Picayune back in October when the confrontation between musicians and the police took place, lifelong Treme resident Beverly Curry explained why she came out that day in spite of bad leg: “I need to be here, to show my support for our heritage”

For a century, she said, that heritage has included impromptu second-line parades for musicians who die, “from the day they pass until the day they’re put in the ground,” she said. Those memorial processions still occur with regularity, without permits, as is the tradition. But, increasingly, NOPD officers have been halting them, citing complaints from neighbors and incidents of violence at similar gatherings.

….”Curry and other longtime residents point fingers at Treme newcomers, who buy up the neighborhood’s historic properties, then complain about a jazz culture that is just as longstanding and just as lauded as the neighborhood’s architecture.

“They want to live in the Treme, but they want it for their ways of living,” Curry said.

Who the hell decides to move to Treme, then calls the police when a second-line parade passes by? Why did they chose to live downtown, in this neighborhood of all places where second-lines (impromptu and the scheduled social aid and pleasure club versions), where bone men and Mardi Gras Indians are part of the very fabric of the place? What possible benefit is there to this redevelopment if it strangles the area’s culture?

Yes, you, yuppie scum. If you people feel you must live downtown, buy yourself one of those lovely high-rise condos being thrown up in the CBD and stay out of the traditional neighborhoods. You can climb into your Lexus and drive yourself to your favorite Uptown restaurant, if you can bring yourself to pass through or even (gasp!) park in the neighborhoods where the best ones are, neighborhoods full of the sort of people you apparently do want to live next to.

Is this the vision of the future of the city–gentrification leading to the death of the real New Orleans, what happened in Charleston after Hurricane Hugo, the threat I warned readers of WBG about over two years ago? It is a fearful thought, more so than a block-long trooop of possessed bone men: the death of the spirit that walks and sings and dances daily in the people of New Orleans. If the yuppie property flippers and their customers destroy Treme to save it’s quaint architectural charm, then it will not be Treme but something else. Only the bones of the houses of the old place will remain, and the spirits of three centuries will rest uneasily when the bone men no longer come to call on Carnival day.

Note: Hat tip to Anima Mundi and Library Chronicles for first calling out this story.

Legalized Vandalism and Vigilantism in New Orleans January 21, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Citizen Journalism, Debrisville, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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What a mean spirited little golum is this Fred Radtke? A vigilante who dashes gray paint over public and private property wherever he spots graffiti or advertising posters, who is allowed to roam the streets with impunity and deface public and private property at whim, sometimes covering public safety signs (stop signs, for example) in his demented quest to cover all of the city’s graffiti.

An interesting turn of urban life is all it was, until Radtke took off after folk artist Michael Dingler and his NOLA Rising project. Today’s Citibusiness weekly reports that Radtke initiated a complaint and resulted in Dingler be charged with 1,100 counts of unlawfully posting signs on telephone poles that could cost him more than $50,000 in fines.

Dingler explains his act of civic art making on the NOLA Rising blog in a June 2007 posting. This is a public art installation, not criminal activity. Sadly, the N.O.P.D. seems to agree with Radtke, who’s own clearl acts of vandalism of public and private property they condone and even encourage.

The New Orleans Police Department, however, condones Radtke’s actions. NOPD often calls him directly to cover graffiti and spokesman Sgt. Joe Narcisse said they have no intention of charging Radtke with any crimes.

Here’s an interesting response from street artist unknownparts which found on Flickr.

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I can’t believe that the city has given tens of thousands of dollars to some mean-spirited freak so he can spread his own form of ugly paint-based vandalism all over public and private property at his own whim. I have no problem with the city removing or covering obvious gang tags. However, by going after street artists like the NOLA Rising group or even unknownparts and his sort–artists who appropriate public space for what is arguably art–Radtke is no different than the tagger thugs.

This is insane. I just fired of a letter to my City Council Person Shelly Midura demanding Radtke be required to return the tens of thousands of city tax dollars he’s been given, that all charges against Dingler be dropped, and that the N.O.P.D officers who colluded in Radtke’s vendetta against Dingler should be required to apologize, if not in fact be fired for their collusion in Radkte’s own campaign of vandalism.

What NOLA Rising has done is a tremendous work of civic betterment, one tiny poster at a time, contributed to by tens if not hundreds of people. It is a bright spot in the gray landscape of our continuing disaster, a landscape not improved one bit by Radtke’s own gray tags. It is not Dingler that should be stopped and punished but Radtke, and everyone in city government–in City Hall or the N.O.P.D–who has supported him

Its a new day January 21, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in 8-29, Bloggers, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Flood, home, New Orleans, NOLA, NOLA Blogroll, Odds&Sods, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Uncategorized, We Are Not OK.
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Just a note if you’ve wandered in from Wet Bank Guide, as I transition out of that project and on to others, to welcome you to Toulouse Street — Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans. This is a different space, one I originally started as a place to put odd things that didn’t seem to fit on the high tone I had set at WBG. If you scroll down, you’ll find plenty of odd bits of life in NOLA here, and some just plain odd things that just pleased me as I sit here typing on Toulouse Street.

I have updated the once brief blogroll here to incorporate everyone (I think) who is still publishing that was listed at WBG. I’ve I’ve left you off, sorry. I often steal time away to blog late at night or early in the morning when the faculties have sometimes sent themselves to sleep early even as I bask in the glow of the monitor and thoroughly screw up my circadian rhythms, or else are still lying tangled in the mind’s sheets even as the body stands upright and stares intently at the dripping coffee.

New Orleans remains my theme, my obsession almost. That deep connection was always there in me during the 20 years I lived away, in the manner Catholicism is imprinted upon me by growing up in New Orleans and twelve years of Catholic school regardless of professed or practiced faith. New Orleans will still predominate here, but since this is more a blogger’s blog–what I once called (no insult intended) a vanity blog–I feel freer to drop in bits of favorite music, poetry and the just plain weird.

If you’re looking for something more like what Wet Bank Guide had become over time, keep coming. I am not going to stop writing about New Orleans and I will continue to find joy and sorrow worthy of note and a special effort on my part, and will post some of that here. You can also drop by Poems Before Breakfast and find where some of my creative energy has been going lately.

And here, as at Wet Bank Guide, we will always Remember. The events that drove WBG are as imprinted on us as the necessity that any dish in a pot worth having should begin with celery, bell pepper and onion in a sizzling roux. It is still After the End of the World. Don’t you know that yet? My touch stones remain: Je me souviens Remember 8-2; We will never forget. Still, Toulouse Street is more a celebration than a lament. Jim Morrison’s lyric “I love the friends I have gathered together here on this thin raft” is our slogan, even if we are still huddled together here because it is after the end of the world. For us it’s a new day every day, a continual act of will and creation to make again one of the great cities on this earth.

Ok, that’s enough cheerful stuff this early in the morning. We now return you to your regularly unscheduled coverage of my view from Toulouse Street — Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans.

We Remember You January 12, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Debrisville, Helen Hill, je me souviens, New Orleans, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember.
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As I check my blog statistics (visitors, links in, search terms, that sort of thing) late last night, I started to notice people who had come here searching for individuals by name and finding them in the list below.

I don’t want to invade what was almost certainly a private moment of grief by listing them, but I want to say to everyone who came here searching for one of the murder victims in New Orleans, (even if they have come and gone and will never stop by again), or to anyone else who comes here because you found your loved one in the list below: we remember, we remember them all.

Last year, 4,000 Orleanians marched. This year around 40 people stopped by City Hall to hear the speakers–Nakita Shavers, sister of slain drummer and music educator Dinerral Shaves; the brother of slain filmmaker Helen Hill; Ken Foster and Baty Ladis–founders of Silence is Violence.

No, we were not 4,000 yesterday; only 40. But we are tired. All of those terrible but apt marketing slogans, the things we don’t say ourselves–Big Easy, The City That Care Forget–may have once been apt but no longer apply to life here in Debrisville. By the time I’m done arguing with my wife over the latest Sewage & Water Board bill and hauling my children all over town because there are no school buses for the charter schools or waiting for the plumber to come unclog our pipes again because god-only-know-what has backwashed up out of our monstrous sewers, there’s simply few hours left in the day and little energy. Maitri is right: we are all tired.

Forty people standing at City Hall is not enough, but it is a start. Decades ago in my own radical youth I was talking to a Trotskyist about the candidates the Socialist Workers’ Party had run for city office. They had managed several hundred votes and were excited. If I had 400 dedicated comrades, he told me (and he actually used that term), we could begin the revolution tomorrow. Yeah, good luck with that. Still, there was a kernel of truth in what he said. What I learned yesterday on the steps of city hall was there: there is a core of people committed to making this city better, safer.

Those people have not forgotten. Organizer Ken Foster summed it up well: He didn’t know Shavers or Hill personally, he told us. “To survive as a community, we can’t wait until things become personal to us,” the T-P quoted him, and he is right. There is a nucleus of people who care, but if we’re going to make the revolution we need not those 40 or my old comrade’s 400. We need the 4,000 committed and ready, we need 40,000 who will watch the streets and not be afraid to testify, we need 400,000 to stand up and say: enough.

We are not there yet, but the lesson of yesterday’s recital of the names listed below and press conference is this: we have not forgotten. We remember. The Times-Picayune is wrong: this is not just about the high profile cases. We have not surrendered. It may not be enough, not yet, but it is a beginning.

Je me souviens. We remember.

P.S. Hat tip to the bloggers who also came to City Hall and those who also wrote about this on the anniversay: Bart of B.Rox who was a friend of Helen Hill’s, Leigh of Liprap’s Lament, Karen of Northwest Carrollton and Squandered Heritage. Bart and Karen are two warriors in the last battle of New Orleans. Also Maitri and Peter and Ashley and Morwen of Gentilly for remembering. Can’t everybody get off work for stuff like this. I should also mention Brian Denzer, another selfless spear carrier in this campaign, for his work on so many fronts including the New Orleans Citizen’s Crime Watch map site.

Where I want to be November 19, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, Flood, flooding, New Orelans, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Hail Atlantis

Fellini’s beached monster November 16, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in Debrisville, New Orelans, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street.
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Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weighs on me. Peace frightens me. Perhaps I fear it most of all. I feel it’s only a facade, hiding the face of hell. I think of what’s in store for my children tomorrow; “The world will be wonderful”, they say; but from whose viewpoint? We need to live in a state of suspended animation, like a work of art; in a state of enchantment… detached. Detached.
— Divine Comedy The Certainty of Chance Lyrics
as a speech by Steiner in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

No, I am not about to violently snap, like Steiner in La Dolce Vita. The speech always struck my differently, perhaps the way it struck Marcello in the film before the tragic murder-suicide, not as advice but as a framing for a life in a seemingly pointless universe. Isn’t that the way Marcello chooses to live in the end, almost in a state of suspended animation?

I have always found a strange sort of solace in what others might find depressing. I do not seek the peace which passeth understanding, except perhaps in despair as one might seek solace in drink or in death. Satori seems tempting, but strikes me as ultimately dehumanizing. I am not ready to surrender up my self and my suffering for an empty bliss. Instead I need to learn to survive in this world where the first noble truth is inscribed like scar tissue somewhere deep beneath the skin.

Here in the original land of misfit toys we call New Orleans we need to find the truth hidden in Dante’s speech as filtered through Fellini’s Steiner, not as Marcello did by embracing the emptiness but in our own way; not precisely in a state of suspended animation but instead isolated from the sterility of late American culture; by defining our own space, “like a work of art; in a state of enchantment…. detached”; defining our own fourth noble truth, our own Way of celebrating through the darkness that leads us to the light; leads us not to Fellini’s monster on the beach, but to the innocence of the girl on the strand.

We must not detach from our world, but from theirs, must insistently be ourselves at whatever cost.

Still waiting, still dreaming… November 11, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, cryptic envelopment, Debrisville, Flood, flooding, Katrina, New Orelans, New Orleans, Rebirth, Recovery, Sinn Fein, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Since all of the tickets for the Theater of Harlem’s outdoor production of Waiting for Godot were long gone by the time we arrived, we decided not to wait around under the tree at Pratt and Robert E. Lee and debate, but instead withdrew for more drinks, starting back on the porch at Chez Folse and ending at the Circle Bar for Gal Holliday.

I heard (from someone who asked last night) that there would be no Sunday show added as they did last weekend. So tonight instead of seeing Becket’s play, I am–after a prolonged episode of absurdest, existential angst in my friend’s club level seats at the Dome–reduced to watching bits of video.

I had read the script through online during a business trip this week. There is something essential in it to the current experience of so many in New Orleans, the discovery that we are not suffering from post traumatic stress disorder because we are not past the thing but instead in the very midst of it, in a landscape and a plot as bleak and confusing as Beckett’s, on a road of dubious prospects in a landscape swept clear of familiar geography and of hope, no prospect that over a hill or beyond a wood there is something different, something better.

Nothing to be done.

And yet we came in the hundreds last night, into the thousands, turning our back on the well-lit streets of the sliver by the river, forgoing the restaurants of Magazine and the lively nightclubs of Frenchman to try to sit through this difficult work, a comedy as black as the streets were for months in this part of town, as dark as the picture windows remain in so many of the empty brick boxes that line the streets. We came because all of us are so like these characters, lost in a landscape from which familiar references have been erased, clinging to the one thing that keeps us all from dropping over the brink: each other. We know Godot will not save us, that the Pollo’s of the world care not a whit for the outcome.

The careful fictions we have erected like pyramids in this country were all swept away by the flood, were taken from us as cataclysms of the Twentieth Century destroyed the illusions for Beckett’s generation. We have peered into the abyss, an abyss where many waded or swam in desperation and too many drowned, while the newsreaders stood puzzled on dry streets and the relief trucks stopped at the edge of town, waiting for word that it was safe to come, waiting for instructions from Godot. We were not simply ignored or abandoned by America. Instead we tasted the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and were driven out of the garden of mass marketing, ashamed of our nakedness. We have peered into that abyss and come away filled with uncertainly and angst, equally incapable of trust in god or government. What is left? What reason is there to live here, to live at all?

And still we come home, even as we came to see Godot. The ticket rules changed without announcement, more turned away than admitted, we left the site of the play not confused but affirmed in the life we have found here. We left that open air stage, but we can no more leave this place, this city than these characters can hang themselves: not because we are incapable, but instead because it is beyond our human nature to surrender this life we call New Orleans. Perhaps Godot will come. Just as likely he will not. All we can be certain of us ourselves: Sinn Fein. In the end, however bleak the scene, we will not give up hope.

VLADIMIR:
Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON:
Yes, let’s go.

    They do not move.

New Orleans students take on Corps of Engineers November 7, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in 8-29, Corps of Engineers, Debrisville, Flood, flooding, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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If you have a You Tube account/login, please visit this video’s page and vote for and favorite this video produced by New Orleans school children in support of an 8-29 commission:

Hey, Mr. Blakely: I found your cranes October 20, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in Cranes, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, Katrina, New Orelans, New Orleans, New York, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Cranes Over Ground Zero

I found them towering over Ground Zero, what our esteemed mayor once referred to as “a big hole in the ground”.

Shelton Alexander–When the Levees Broke September 28, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, Flood, flooding, Hurricane Katrina, Katrina, New Orelans, New Orleans, poem, Poetry, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Update: I talked to Shelton via MySpace mail and he has no idea who put this up or why it was taken down. Sorry.

Ground truth has a face. It is Shelton Alexander’s.

I have found a new version. It’s a crappy capture but it’s Alexander’s interview and the entire speech.

I told you I would be here.
It was important that I came.

Damn.o

I need New Orleans more than New Orleans needs me September 2, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in art, New Orelans, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Noted sculptor, Xavier professor and of course Orleanian John Scott, interviewed on June 29 from Houston as he struggled with the illness that took his life this week:

“That’s the only home I know. I want my bones to be buried there. I belong there. I need New Orleans more than New Orleans needs me.”

Amen.

Remember August 29, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in Corps of Engineers, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Flood, flooding, Hurricane Katrina, Katrina, Mid-City, New Orelans, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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remember.jpg

A Loud Color July 13, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in Flood, flooding, New Orleans, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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A true New Orleans voice, crying out in the wilderness.

“[If] we dobn’t come back and build it, its going to be worse even than it was before Katrina.”
— Louis Harding iof the Marcus Garvey Center for Economic Development
in the film “A Loud Color” by Brent Joseph

Kaminari Taiko at NOMA Japan Fest June 10, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in Japan, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery.
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In addition to an attachment to Japanese gardens, I’m always drawn to any opportunity to experience taiko drumming. This year’s New Orleans Museum of Art Japan Fest featured the return of Kaminari Taiko of Houston, TX. The incredible athleticism of this art was even more impressive in the 98 &#176 heat index. The large drum seen here is the largest playable taiko drum in North America.

Among the pieces they performed was Seiichi Tanaka’s “Tsunami”, from which I’ve captured this excerpt. You can hear the composer’s own Taiko Dojo of San Francisco performing the piece here.

I feel a strong connection to the victims of the Tsumani of 2004, and I have been drawn to art that addresses that event. In particular, I was drawn to Hokusi’s Great Wave when I found it at at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., and to this piece of music by Austin singer Eliza Gilkyson, written for the tsunami but which haunted me through the early months after 8-29.

As Kaminari Taiko played masterfully in the dire heat, with every stroke they gave me greater strength to live here now.

The New Orleans Jazz Vipers April 18, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in French Quarter, Jazz, Jazz Vipers, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street.
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Ok, well, the video sucks. Bad camera holding and you can’t see them on stage. Too dark. And the wind noise on the camera and the bad sound board work, well. Screw it. I had fun. If you don’t know the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, get thyself down to the Spotted Cat some Friday night and discover the best time in New Orleans. No cover. Tip well.

These cats were one of two traditional jazz bands we caught on Sunday at French Quarter Festival. The other was the Andrew Hall Society Marching Band, who are a living diorama of a pre-Rebirth, traditional brass marching and concert band. They are Living National Treasures. I keep meaning to ask them if they are the same outfit as the Andrew Hall Society Jazz Band that used to play the Maple Leaf long, long ago on Saturday nights. Those guys were already old in the 1970s.

Anyway, just take a peek at the scene, then close your eyes and let the music carry you away to The day before yesterday and well into the distant decades at the other end of the 20th century. The Vipers are keeping the traditional jazz alive in New Orleans for the future.

Can’t you show me nothing but surrender? December 10, 2006

Posted by Mark Folse in Debrisville, New Orleans, NOLA, Poetry, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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The old roles are so comfortable, like dark mornings sliding drunkenly into familiar sheets with the voices of old friends and older songs still ringing in our ears. The ancient morality play, perfected beyond rehersal, draws the largest crowd around the mummers wagon on a rumpled avenue: puppets and shadow characters built by our grandparents. Paintless and saging 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 crucifiction 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 seperately to tear down the cathedral 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 babeling about 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 Rocket V-8 with a glove box spilling splibs into my lap. Potholes rock me gently to sleep.

Just another Saturday Night in Debrisville, the City that Care Forgot.

Can’t you show me nothing but surrender?

City blames 100 day confusion on FEMA September 7, 2006

Posted by Mark Folse in Hurricane Katrina, Katrina, Mid-City, New Orleans, NOLA, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Deputy Undercover Mayor for Recovery Rob “B-man” Couhig today accused FEMA and the LRA of withholding desperately needed days required to meet Mayor No-C-’Em Ray Nagin’s commitment to deliver a 100 day plan to the people of New Orleans.

“Under the Stafford Act, FEMA is required to supply us up to 90% of the calendar days necessary for recovery planning, provided we request those days prior to the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” Couhig said in a call from the Secret Recovery Planning Bunker. “To date, FEMA has not provided the necessary days to us.”

Couhig said the city had only actually completed the first 10 days of the recovery plan, the number of days the city is required to provide as a match to the federal allocation. “Katrina destroyed just about every calendar in City Hall, and none were ordered for 2006 because, frankly, without any calendars we missed the deadline for ordering. In our current state, we can’t get to 100 days without an infusion from the federal government, especially when we’re not even sure what day it is right now.”

Federal Katrina Kingfish Don “Knotts” Powell fired back, arguing the city had first failed to submit a request for the days, then submitted an application that failed to specify if the days should be delivered in blotter, tear-a-way or planner format, said, “It is important that we give each request for time close scrutinity, to make sure that the taxpayer’s days aren’t being squandered but are used efficiently. Given the history of New Orleans and Louisiana, we have to pay particularly close attention to such requests.”

LRA vice-davenport Walter “Scalawag” Isaacson, speaking at the Shaw Group Inc.’s Annual Honorarium Hoedown and Bar-B-Q , pointed out that it’s really a local responsibility to put in a properly formatted request for days. “Even if we had days available for them, if they can’t manage to put together their requests properly with the days they have, it doesn’t indicate it would be a good investment of our scarce recovery resources to give them any more.”

Noted time and calender expert Franklin “Leatherbound” Covey pointed out that the feds are understandably reluctant to part with any of their days. “The Bush Administration is in its last two years, and has less than a thousand days left to secure its legacy. Transferring the blame for the events of the last year to local officials by withholding these days and keeping those days for themselves is a win-win for the White House.”

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