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S’no Thank You January 24, 2016

Posted by The Typist in Fargo, literature, The Journey, The Narrative, The Typist.
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I was in DC in January ’87 and remember the wonder of my first sled ride  a few weeks after my arrival just after New Year’s. I left New Orleans New Year’s eve for the three day drive, knowing an early start New Year’s morning not very likely.  The first city-closing snow a fellow roomie and I stole our hostesses clothes moving boxes for rude sleds and trudged to the other Washington Monument, the Masonic one, and tried to slide. Children took pity on us to learn we had grown well into our twenties without ever having sledded down a hill,  and cheerfully lent us sleds and disks for  turn or two. As we trudged home we watched a lone police car struggling along, and first heard the sound of snow chains.

My only prior experience of winter was a trip to Western Massachusetts with my girlfriend one year, driving the turnpike through a fresh snow wonderland, rural houses back up toward the low mountains along the road with their great stacks of wood and smoke threading up from their chimneys, that turnpike verse of James Taylor’ Sweet  Baby James ringing in my head, the idealized winter of nonsectarian holiday cards. Somehow in the years between then and my arrival in D.C. I had forgotten the lesson of being blown off my feet on an steep and icy Boston sidewalk.

That memory came back to me in the terror of the Washington, D.C. Super Bowl Day storm that first year. We rode the train in from Arlington and walked and slid on the prior storms melt ice  slick from Union Station to the park at the far end of East Capitol in our Southerners’ idea of winter coats (a lined London Fog is not a winter coat) and regular shoes, sneakers chosen for traction, but without so much as rubber mucklucks to put over them.   We preceeded to drink much beer throughout the hours of the Super Bowl party as the storm rolled through, dumping a massive slush of most unfluffy wet snow. We proceeded to try to walk back to the station in the howling dark, wading through the wet cold stuff which quickly soaked our shoes and everything exposed below the knee. There was not another soul or a moving vehicle in sight. As we began to lose all feeling in our feet and consider whether we would actually make it to the station alive and if pounding on doors begging admittance might  be our only hope of survival, a heaven-sent DC Metro bus came slip sliding sometimes side to side  but mostly forward down East Capitol, struggling to get back to the garage, which picked us up and took us to the station.

By the time I arrived in NW Minnesota for the horrific winter that in melting drowned Grand Forks (whose officials rushed to New Orleans’ aid with their experience in ’05) I had learned winter’s lesson well. “Been in the ditch yet?” was a common question, but I could always answer, “nope.” Detroit Lakes was small enough I could have snow-shoed to work in a pinch, and I remembered my first nerve wracking drive back to the airport from my future in-laws small North Dakota  town through a ground blizzard. A ground blizzard is something like what we southerners know as a ground fog, if that ground fog were being run to ground  by the hounds of hell. The invisible road was a matter of long pratice, muscle memory and the steel posts with reflectors that marked the shoulders. I  had no intention of going that native, although later I was required by the local work ethic to venture out and wind up in fear of my life more than once. When in Nome…but here is a fine line between dogged and stupid, as deadly hazardous as driffing over the highway’s center line, as a few proud and hardy northerners learn every year in spite of the winter survival kits in their cars. Thankfully I survived my few crossings over that boundary into white-blind peril.

When people asked why I would take my family to a disaster zone and risk future hurricanes, I reminded them that people went back and lived Grand Forks, where the Red River of the North–not much of river to the eyes of anyone from south of the Delta–is bound behind dikes as massive as those that front the Mississippi in New Orleans to contain Spring floods. And  that in North Dakota the weather can (and routinely does) kill folk–most often for stupidity–six months out of the year, not once in a generation.

I have fond memories of that idyllic drive through the wedding cake Berkshires, of snow shoeing in old fashioned beavertails the woods along the Red River on  a perfectly windless and sunny ten degree Dakota day , mastering the yogic art of turning around in the brush in those beautiful,  clumsy things and discovering the mystic beauty of an ice whorl on the river, and taking my children sledding down those massive river dikes along The Red of the North.  Still, from now on I’ll take my Blizzards far out on Airline Highway in one of New Orleans’ few Dairy Queens. With lots of crushed Oreos, putting out of my mind the resemblance of that muddy gray treat to the exhaust-blasted sides of a suburban D.C. street in February.

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Ghosts of the Flood August 29, 2014

Posted by The Typist in A Fiction, Corps of Engineers, Fargo, Federal Flood, Flood, FYYFF, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, memoir, postdiluvian, Shield of Beauty, The Dead, The Narrative, The Typist, We Are Not OK.
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” . . . so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many . . . ”
The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot

Sometimes I feel them, my wife told me, their spirits, as I’m driving down the street. All that suffering, she explains, all those people. As if 300 years of yellow fever and the lash, the lynchings and gansta gun battles weren’t enough to populate a parallel city of spirits in this place where tombs are mansions and burials a celebration, the Flood came.

Now there is a brooding presence even in the bright of day, looming over us all like a storm-bent house on the verge of collapse. These empty shells of former lives that line so many streets are a daily reminder of the vast catastrophe; the windows staring lifelessly at broken sidewalks, the facades washed pale and colorless. Each still bears the esoteric marks of the searchers that mimic the scratching on tombs in the old cemeteries, some the dreaded number at the bottom that totals up the lost.

The tally marked beneath the cross now rises to 1577, a crowed like that described by Eliot. I imagine not a host but solitary figures, the ghosts we know from childhood stories. In their newness to death, I picture them wandering as curious as children in the house of an aged aunt, getting underfoot and touching what they should not, interrupting and making unwelcome mischief. The brush of their passing is still strong enough to reach out and touch a good Catholic girl from North Dakota, one as innocent of the spiritualist shadows cast by every flickering candle flame before a New Orleans saint’s statue as a Midwesterner could possibly be.

Even the most rationale and disinclined among us imagine ghosts in a city this old, where the steamy air is a tangible presence on the skin and lights flash erratically in the night through the stirrings of the thick, tangled foliage, where the old houses creak and groan as they settle into the soft earth like old men lowering themselves into a chair. Once I wished to experience that touch of the other, a product of reading too much fantastic fiction. One of the signature scenes in film for me is John Cassavettes as a modern Prospero in The Tempest, standing in his urban tower and saying, “Show me the magic.” For him, the sky erupts in lightening. I would sometime catch myself whispering those words, but they were simply blown away by the night wind.

Then one bright August afternoon I was sitting in my idling car in my driveway in Fargo, North Dakota. At just before five o’clock that 29th of August a string of Carnival beads which hung from my rearview mirror–black and gold beads interspersed with black voodoo figures­–suddenly burst. It seemed strange at the time that they would break as the car sat still, would break at the bottom and not at the top where they routinely rubbed against the mirror post, where the string was tied off, the knot weakening the line. It was not the way that I, as a sailor with some idea of how a line will wear, would expect them to break.

Perhaps the beads slid about at the end of the string as I drove around, causing the string to wear through at the bottom, so that it was inevitable that is where they would break first, given enough corners turned, sufficient applications of the accelerator and brake. The timing of just before five o’clock on that Monday in August of 2005 was just a coincidence, the inevitable laws of physics unfolding without regard for the observer and his sense of time.

Be careful what you wish for is the lesson we learned in a dozen fairy tales. The longed for touch of the other, and the tide that washed me up on the shores of my personal Ithaca, into this house on Toulouse Street in the only place I have ever thought of as home, came with a terrible price: both are tainted with graveyard dust. I would undo it all in instant, if I only knew how.

I’ve written this post before–or ones very like it, that tell this story of the broken beads–and then deleted them. It seems just too strange and personal a tale to share with just any aimless visitor wandering the Internet. What will people think? I ask myself in a voice that sounds vaguely like my mother’s. What if some future employer Googles up this article? worries the husband with a mortgage and two children to raise. I don’t expect them to understand.

Unless you learned from the maid that cleaned your family home that crossing two matchsticks in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and sprinkling them with salt would bring rain, unless you believed that a piece of candy found on the ground could be made safe to eat by making the sign of the cross over it, if people did not come in the night and scratch odd marks on certain tombs on the grounds where your family is buried; if these were not part of your earliest experience, then my tale of the broken beads sounds like the product of an overworked imagination, something like Scrooge’s undigested bit of beef, a spot of mustard.

There is a spectre over New Orleans. As the August anniversary slipped away, I thought the grim, invisible cloud that hung over the city would begin to drift away. Instead, as the weeks passed, I was increasingly convinced: everyone in New Orleans was haunted. You could see it in people’s eyes, in the way they walked, hear it in the words they spoke, or the ones they wrote online as they spoke about their lingering pain. It was a spirit as much inside as out, the ghost in the machine that haunted our every step.

Then came the Monday Night Football game. I thought about the curse of the Superdome, the one that suggests destruction of the Girod Street Cemetery has cursed the ground and all who play there. Was the spirit of the people in the Dome that night just the charm needed to lay that particular haunting to rest, to break that curse? The morning after the strut in people’s step, the lilt of their voices told me that perhaps, just perhaps a healing had begun. We were not a city in need of an exorcism: we were the exorcism.

The ghost of the Flood is now a part of who we are. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if it is ectoplasm or the synchronized firing of a million neurons in ways science does not yet understand. In the end we have to come to term with it. This is something that we as Orleanians, the people who live next to our dead in their exclusive farbourgs of marble and white-washed stone, should be able to do.

We need to honor these dead and respect them, not with the weight of Confucian ancestor worship but in the simple spirit of the pre-Confucian Japanese who venerated odd stones, in the ways inherent in our own Latin roots mingled with the traditions of Africa, where the community of saints and the loa of Africa intersect. We don’t need an exorcism. We need a conjuration, a ritual that calls up the ghosts and honors them, that welcomes them in the way the way the devotees of Vodoun welcome the possession of the loa.

Perhaps next August 29, we should all tie a brown cord on some pillar or post of the house at just the point where we have carefully painted over the water stain. Just above that, we should mark in dust of ground gypsum the rescue symbol that is now as much a part of our selves and our city as the sign of the cross. We will do this to tell whoever is listening—Our Father, Oshun, Mother of God, ghosts of the Flood—we remember. We have suffered, and we will never forget the Flood and those who did not come through. We are the people who came through and came back. We remember the lost. We remember you. Je me souviens.

When we accept and embrace this spirit, perhaps the haunting will end once and for all, will not be a permanent pall over the city, a fearful sound in the night like a howling in the wires, or an unpleasant knotting in the stomach as we pass an abandoned house. It will cease when it becomes instead like the glinting of the sun on white-washed stone above the neat green grass of the cemeteries, just another comfortable part of who we are.

First posted Oct. 5, 2006 on Wet Bank Guide.

Holidays on Ice! December 31, 2011

Posted by The Typist in Fargo, Toulouse Street.
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I think I lost the thread of New Years living in North Dakota. The state climatologist tells me the average temperature for this time of year is somewhere between six and nine degrees Fahrenheit. Needless to say, there were no outdoor fireworks displays. The kids were small, we didn’t get out and socialize much and there were no party invitations. The plan on most holidays was to stay home or do something with the kids.

The only exception to the firework rule that I know of was the turn of the millennium. There were fireworks aplenty to be had, with year round stands up and down the Interstate, and I decided to blow the Fourth of July leftovers, because it was the New Years that rolled over the odometer and because I just missed the idea of fireworks on the holiday.

In spite of an alarm clock set to get me to work at 5 a.m. just in case the predicted technological Mayan apocalypse took down all of the computers at the bank, I insisted on saying up until Dick Clark made it official. I didn’t actually seem him, because I had pulled on my Rocky Minus 40 boots and parka and taken the bucket of sand I’d filled inside the garage (otherwise the sand would be rock hard) out into the back yard.

While the family huddled on the couch around the partially sunken basement’s window into the back, I serenaded the neighbors for blocks around with a respectable opening gambit of bottle rockets to get everyone’s attention followed by fountain (always a family favorite) and finishing off with moderate display of a half-dozen of Roman candles.

No one called the police. A single, frost-bothered dog howled in the distance after I was done. I could only hope that somewhere out in that frigid night, a few other people heard the first reports, stepped away from their television, pulled on a coat and boots and shivered in wonder at my bright display of temporary insanity.

Kenny G whizzes on the grave of Pops March 8, 2008

Posted by The Typist in 504, cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, Fargo, Jazz, music, New Orleans, NOLA, quotes.
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…when Kenny G decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing all over one of the great Louis [Armstrong’s] tracks (even one of his lesser ones), he did something that I would not have imagined possible. He, in one move, through his unbelievably pretentious and calloused musical decision to embark on this most cynical of musical paths, shit all over the graves of all the musicians past and present who have risked their lives by going out there on the road for years and years developing their own music inspired by the standards of grace that Louis Armstrong brought to every single note he played over an amazing lifetime as a musician.
Pat Metheny on Kenny G

Tell us what you really think, Pat. I’m not a musician and as much as I love the music I certainly lack the depth of musical knowledge of a true jazz aficionado, but it’s pretty easy to recognize that Kenny G sucks. That he would have the audacity to mix himself over even something as syrupy as Its A Wonderful World, well, I think Pat Metheny said it all.

For me, the gold standard of a jazz aficionado is Leigh Kamman of The Jazz Image, who warmed up many a cold Fargo Saturday night with some of the coolest jazz around. When I die I want to come back as a night jazz DJ with his voice. The world is not the same place since his show ended. He would be on right now if he were still on the air and I were in the cold North. I can hear his theme (Gerry Mulligan: Manoir De Mes Reves (Django’s Castle) and his voice in my head right now as clearly as my other mother’s.

Kenny G, there’s a special place in hell for the likes of you. When Leigh Kamman departs this world, there will be a place for him at a first rate table in the jazz joint at the end of the universe, and the entire Cortege of the Cool will be on the bill.

HT to Dr. Morris for this one. Oh, and Ashley, all of us who read Anima Mundi want to know when we can stop by for Limoncello. I’ll bring the Brocato’s.

Two Landscapes December 8, 2007

Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, Fargo, New Orelans, New Orleans, NOLA, poem, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
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I have known both these places, have walked in emptiness and felt that which fills the emptiness like water rushing into a bowl. In some places we call this god, and in others we call this ghosts. At the dark of the year, I struggle to see the difference.

1) I have heard the inevitable noise in the signal called silence, the crisp, static rustle of snow falling upon itself in perfect stillness far below zero.

2) I have seen what some call ghosts, the emptiness that outlines the shapes that make a place in a landscape, the space without which there is no form. I have felt the haunting when there is nothing in the landscape but the shape of a place and its essential emptiness.