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So long, and thanks for all the fish November 22, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in Fortin Street, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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It is too easy to slur Columbus Day and ignore Thanksgiving, for fear of upsetting the neighbors. Today we sit down to celebrate the complete incompetence of European settlers to feed themselves and contemplate the gratitude they showed to their Native neighbors, to offer our thanks to their omnipotently paranoid god who blessed the casual erasure of humans and bison from sea to shining sea, to engorge ourselves on indigenous corn and potatoes and African yams without a thought to their origins, eat thick slices from the engineered breast of a native bird bred like Chevrolets in a feed house it could not survive without constant dosing with antibiotics.

There is nothing America cannot conquer, master and seek to improve if it but sets its collective mind to it. All that is needed is a willing bit of trickery over those less blessed than us and there goes the neighborhood.

Let’s just fess up and admit our model of a republic is Roman not Greek, that we are setting out to a gourmand’s banquet at which we will eat until we are barely able to bend forward and reach the bottle to pour yet another glass of wine. I am Orleanian to the bone and have no problem with this. The gods of my hearth are not cosmic, are small and indigenous to this place and take great pleasure in our banquet. They are the absent ancestors whose places we have taken at the table. I will give thanks not to a remote god but to the stooped-back women who picked the cranberries and the men who wielded the power knives of the slaughter house. I will wish them joy of their possibly-distant families, camaraderie over food as best they can manage, and a day of rest.

Call to Post November 28, 2011

Posted by Mark Folse in lyric essay, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
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It cannot be the sound of school’s out or a playground, that excited babble in the distance, but this is your first thought. The high pitched voices, the pure joyful noise of it. It is the middle of the holiday weekend. There is no school. The quiet returns and as you contemplate what it might be you hear the bugler play First Call and realize it is the sound of the crowd cheering their horses that has carried just over a furlong and into your living room.

It is third day of the racing season at the Fairgrounds and looking out your window at the full parking lot you realize the crowd is no doubt large. Two days ago the season opened with its typical Thanksgiving fan fair: a festival of morning cocktails, women in elaborate hats, men handling their unfamiliar cigars as if rehearsing for their new riches. The crowd is divided into several sets: the horsey sort (who make the greatest effort at their hats and clothes) who are put off by the lottery now used to assign the clubhouse tables their family have occupied for decades; their less sporting associates, desirous as a climbing English solicitor to see and be seen in their finery on this canonical holiday; and finally the teeming masses of the grandstand.

Many of the large crowd of groundlings ape the clubhouse crowd. As I stood on my stoop across from the top of the stretch I watched a couple pass, complemented her hat and admired his jacket-less gray silk vest and walking stick. Last year a small parade passed, two dozen people well dressed for opening day, following a small brass band, a hired Mardi Gras Indian cavorting to the music. While the rest of America settles with its coffee in front of the television for the Macy’s parade or hurries home from church, New Orleans makes a Bloody Mary and goes off to the races.

I love the horses but have not been on Thanksgiving Day in decades, but I doubt the scene has changed much from my description from memory. I prefer the routine days of racing, and like the notorious player and poet Charles Bukowski tend toward the grand stand counter bar where the conversation over beer and coffee of the betting regulars is, if not entirely reliable, the most entertaining. I trained by reading Ainsley but my real education came from a co-worker on Capitol Hill who was a very serious player. A math graduate of Berkley who thoroughly digested Edward O. Thorps’ book on card counting Beat the Dealer and he financed his education in part be making himself persona non grata in every casino in Reno. A perfect racetrack character whose other favorite place was the strip club near his suburban apartment, he spent entirely too much of his taxpayer financed time entering the daily results of the Maryland races into a large statistical analysis spreadsheet he had made himself. From this he developed a very reliable system specific to that circuit and certain classes of horses by sex and age that I won’t divulge.

From Mark I learned not only how to apply the secrets of his system to the Daily Racing Form, but also the habits of watching past races on the handy television monitors that allowed you to call up past performances, looking for telltale clues. More important, I learned to make the circuit. This involved lifting ourselves up from our cigarette-butt littered spot in the bleaches and traveling down to the paddock to have a look at the horses conformation and temperament, then following the parade out to a spot on the rail to see them in motion, how they reacted to the condition of the track and the handling of their jockeys, how they loaded into the gate (although this last often came too late, after the money was down) Once the horses are passed, we would watch the convolutions of the horse board, the statistical presentation in lighted numbers of the complex sociological dynamics of a crowd which–nine or ten times a day–attempts to define and redefine a consensus. The late bets are the most important, the other self-appointed experts laying down large wagers in the last minute so as not to start the crowd stampeding toward their choice and lowering the spread. Then a sprint to the window, a quick bet and back to the bleachers. I don’t know at what point in our weekly jaunts to Laurel and sometimes Baltimore I realized how closely we modeled the horses themselves: the paddock, the parade, the anxious waiting in front of the tote board just as the horses waited at the gate, then our heated, last minute sprint to the cashiers and back.

Which brings me back to the sound that intruded into my reading on Saturday morning, the crescendo of the crowd that follows the crash of the gate and the announcer’s barked “they’re off”, the bettors urging their horse, hats waving, rolled-up Forms brandished like magic wands or threats of punishment, the tension released in the operatic cacophony of a thousand howling ticket holders intent on winning. If all this rings a bit nostalgic that because my track attendance has been near nil since returning to New Orleans. In between the Senate campaign of ’86 and my departure for Washington, D.C. I spent a fair amount of my idle time sitting in the grandstands, buying only a Form and a couple of cups of coffee, practicing my handicapping while staying away from the cashiers (who have sadly been largely replaced with machines), passing the afternoon pleasantly It always seems there are a million other things calling for attention.

I often start my days on a plastic resin chair next to my stoop, cradling my morning coffee and watching the horses’ morning exercise. For a while that seemed enough, just my proximity and the relaxation of watching them run in the distance, but I think its time I got back to the track with a brace of sharp pencils, if only to escape for a while into the arcana of the past performance and the moderate excitement of watching the horses run without the pressure of a win or a loss. The exercise of making the circuit while avoiding the blood pressure spike that goes with a ticket can be filed away under fresh air and exercise, stimulation of the middle aged mind by mathematics. All in all a doctor-approved activity, if I can stay away from the hotdogs.

Thankful November 25, 2009

Posted by Mark Folse in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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You have to love a holiday that is primarily about eating and drinking whatever sort of civics class fatherland malarkey They have tried to drape the table with. Thanksgiving is the holiday (I will bet you a bottle of wine) at which you will find yourself trying to remember the grape-and-grain rule and will as well at some point change your clothes not because you’ve spilled the gravy but because you have eaten like a Roman Senator on holiday in Pompey.

My wife takes the whole thing a bit more seriously, will brook no discussion of the Pilgrims as a American proto-Taliban and insist someone Say Grace. It will likely fall to me, who has no use for modern Christianity in any flavor and who is hosting an old friend who is a devout Pagan, to come up with some suitable words. As I sit in a bank all day juggling project schedules I should be thankful that most of a degree in English Literature and a houseful of books is of some small use, not to mention twelve years of Catholic education (we coasted through our pre-Cana interview on the strength of all that catechism, and by my early discovery that Monsignor Murphy was Archbishop Phillip Hannan’s roommate in seminary turning the entire hour into a comparative discussion of New Orleans’ better restaurants), but I digress. Consider it rehearsal for conversation at the table.

At some point my wife, dear girl, will also insist we go around the table and enumerate that for which we are thankful, a prospect that to me is like passing around that canned green bean-mushroom gloop-friend onion casserole your Aunt Martha always brings. I shouldn’t be such a Scrooge so soon before Xmas, but it seems a distraction from the critical business of passing around a dozen bowls and platters and getting down to the real reason for the season: eating. Finding things to give thanks is not so hard, given I will be sitting with my family in a dry house in the only place I’ve ever wanted to live, that my mother of 87 will be with us and an old friend as well, that I will be looking at enough food prepared with enough petro-chemical energy to sustain an entire Andean village for a week. It will be a much easier task than a suitably ecumenical prayer (thinking I had best work Jesus or some other suitable father figure into it, who probably should not be Odin or Ganesha, and that a Native invocation of the directions will likely not go over terribly well.)

Reading the paper lately makes the entire idea of thankful a bit challenging until I remember those ne’er-do-well Protestants–sitting in their little stockade, in a place as alien as any distant planet, starving their way into winter–managed to have themselves a good time, after their fashion. Still, the challenges of living in New Orleans gives me pause when I stop to rehearse my thankful list. I will be grateful for the home my wife found and furnished for us here in a city where vast areas are full of gutted houses (and some untouched for over four years). I will be thankful my children are in good schools in spite of the city’s school system devolving into a charter nightmare of Ayn Rand: The Board Game. I will be suitable obliged we all well and have health insurance, after a fashion (no, maybe I’ll skip that. An hour of politics is not good for the digestion).

As I finally pull out the Christmas music my wife will insist we start playing as we wash the china, I put my foot down and point out that it’s too damn early for Charlotte Church and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I will put on Xmas In New Orleans instead. This will remind me that I am most thankful to be home, that my children who were not raised here never say home when they mean Fargo, that there were both oyster and merliton dressing on the table, that to entertain our visitors there is every possibility of heading out to hear the Rebirth Brass Band Thursday night if we can overcome the post-holiday lethargy.

And here maybe is a bit that will work at least as a launching point for grace. The whole song is sufficiently ecumenical (notice references to your Maker and the Wheel) but will only a little bit of imagination on the past of the listener you should clearly be able to pick out the obvious Xian references. If you don’t then I’m sending your back down for another year of Catechism and Eng. Lit. with the Sisters.

Now be thankful
To your Maker
For the rose
The red ose
Blooms for all
To know.

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