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Poetry and Blood September 21, 2014

Posted by The Typist in FYYFF, Louisiana, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, postdiluvian, second line, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Yes, there is poetry in the ground, as the famous 19th century Creole poet said, and there is blood on the streets. If you look at the sagging shotgun shacks at the edge of the fashionable neighborhoods, the ones with the paint peeling from their gingerbread, and see opportunity and not poverty, you are part of the problem of the new New Orleans exceptionalism.

I am a New Orleans exceptionalist with every chauvinist drop of Gallic blood in my veins, but it is tempered by my nearly 300-year old Cote des Allemans heritage, the practically of finding enough to eat in this city, a problem solved three centuries ago by the arrival of my people who came with no glint of gold in their eye but with strong backs and a willingness to make it work, to feed the foolish Frenchman seeking Spanish riches in a land of mud.

The joy that manifests itself in the brass band on the corner or at the head of a second line, the flavor of every forkful of real New Orleans food seasoned with the cast off bits of the pig, is born out of the ecstatic Black church, the fanciful celebration of slaves dreaming of the land of milk and honey in their weekly escape from the Exodus of the hustle, the daily struggle.

law1The newcomers are as ignorant as my own ancestors, who fell for John Law’s flyers with imaginary palm trees promising tropical indolence and mountains in the background no doubt filed with gold and silver. What the newcomers lack is the experience of the toil of serfdom and a willingness to work hard to build a city. They are not fleeing religious persecution and war but arrive with the uniquely American dream of a quick buck with as little work as possible, with the mark of Wall Street and Silicon Valley stamped on their heads as clearly as the mark of Cain. They come not to build, for all their modern talk of entrepreneurship, but to destroy. They come like the famous swindler and gambler Law to remake an alien land in their own image. They come to a city 300 years old not to build but to destroy.

Orleanians know about entrepreneurship but are more likely to call it the hustle. Grilling pork chop sandwiches in the street without a license or selling ice cups out your window in the summer is entrepreneurship, but it is an entrepreneurship of people looking to make next month’s rent, who have never had enough money in the bank to dream big. There are big dreamers standing on corners selling crack, who are ethically and economically no different from real estate flippers. They see a need and fill it because it’s all about the Benjamins, not the consequences.

The real entrepreneurs are those pushing the pork chop sandwiches, the people who get up in the dark to catch the Michoud bus for the long ride in from the East to a low-paying job. What the newcomers don’t understand is that the people here dream different dreams. They dream of Indian and Second Line suits that will set them back month’s of wages. They dream of a midnight brass band on Saturday night in the club up the street, and a ghetto burger on the break from the back of a pick up truck; not of a vacation in the Caymans. They dream and hope that their eldest child will get the rest out of bed and off to a second-rate school in the dearly bought uniforms of our new exercise in segregation: the charter school. They dream the same dream their parents did at the start of desegregation: a less laborious life, and more time for joy.

New Orleans and much of South Louisiana live by a different standard that the rest of America. They live for the joie de vivre that brings the tourists and the newcomers. A hard way of life has trained them to live not for money but for the joy wherever they can find it. Yes, they dream of nice clothes for church and Saturday night, that tricked out car, that big-ass pickup, the way the generation of the Great Depression dreamed of those things, and when the money is good they will get them. They will dress up and drive that car or truck to a house full of friends where the grill is burning and the drink is flowing and the music a bit too loud. The house may be a small but righteous brick ranch–each a perfect mirror of the post-WWII white Lakeview of my youth before the McMansions builders moved in–or a tumbledown in the city, because so many don’t understand investment. They understand rent. The closest they ever came to investment was the opportunity to buy a Schwegmann’s bond as they stood in line to cash their paycheck and pay the NOPSI bil. The house does not matter. They will go in search of the joy.

The newcomers don’t understand this but they are the joy-killers. Every lease or mortgage they sign at exorbitant rents drives the joy away. They destroy the neighborhood that supported that corner store with the magnificent po-boys at the counter in the back. They will find the corner bar where each generation of musicians learned their trade a noisy nuisance. They will loiter over their free trade coffee, mocking our own chicory as the drink of people who don’t understand coffee although the coffee shop was the center of social and business life in this city centuries ago. They will wax excited when the sketchy store with its square-bottled wine and mouth-watering po-boys turns into some fusion cooking monstrosity.

What will happen when the speculators drive everyone out of the neighborhood at the center of which stands the Indian-practice bar, when some of the newcomers complain of the noise on the street and the odd go-cup abandoned on the hood of their car. When the people who assembled their on Sunday to practice the ancient chants are driven into diaspora, how long will they persist? One hopes they will, just as so many city churches survived a generation or two after their parishioners fled to Metairie, Chalmette or the East. Even if their sacred meeting place of faded bar signs survives, will they bring their children in (sorry, not allowed) or to just stand on the street outside listening and learning? And how long before the NOPD drives by to scatter those children for loitering while Black in the neighborhood of houses their grandparents built?

New Orleans must market its exceptionalism to survive. It brings the tourists, and maintains the remaining jobs in the city. The wealthy men reluctant to admit newcomers to the clubs that were the center of their inner circle drove away the oil men and let the port go to ruin. There are no other jobs. Their narrow-minded stupidity and Southern comfort in the ways of segregation built the city we have today. Is out only choice to mimic them–to try to drive the newcomers and their money away in an effort to preserve our dream, our joy, and yes our exclusivity, our exceptionalism–as they did to preserve their’s? Do we let the newcomers come, and place out hope in the city’s incredible power of assimilation, of Creolization, that our own exceptional melting pot will convert them not into Anglo-Saxon Yankees but blend them into our Pan-Caribbean gumbo?

More importantly, what should we do, what should we expect them to do unless we model it for them and make it a part of that gumbo to care about the dissolution of public education, the generational poverty, the busy Second Line’s worth of bodies that fall each year in a pool of blood? If I knew the answers I would tell you, and I have pondered these questions since the days of the Wet Bank Guide, since that moment a decade ago when we confronted absolute hopelessness and met it with resolution. What should the people who cashed out their IRAs and maxed out their credit cards to rebuild a city with their own sweat and blood say to those arrive with a down payment in hand looking to buy a piece of the dream? That your hustle is nothing unless you understand the roots of the joy you seek to have stamped on your hand Saturday night. That unless you understand this city and are ready to bleed for it, the dream you are buying will ultimately prove as empty as John Law’s promises of three centuries ago.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis September 5, 2011

Posted by The Typist in je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember, second line, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Cross-posted at the Treme blog BackOfTown.com

The tragic death by drowning of actor Micheal Showers, who played New Orleans police Capt. John Guidry in “Treme,” has an eerie resonance both for fans of the show, echoing the death of John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette. Showers’ death has been ruled a drowning, but in the missing persons report filed by his girlfriend she indicated he was suffering from depression, anxiety and had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. There is no official report that his drowning was other than accidental.

While I suspect most New Orleanians have put such thoughts behind him, his death should register beyond the confines of a television show. Official suicide rates tripled in New Orleans in early 2006, the period represented by Season One and Bernette’s fateful ferry ride. Mortality rates spiked by one third, based on a study of Times-Picayune death notices that included displaced residents who died elsewhere. (Conflicting studies focusing on official, local deaths poo-poohed this notion but disregarded that in that period over half the city’s residents remained displaced). In the evacuation trailer parks to the north, fifty percent of residents met the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder, and the suicide rate in the parks was 17 times the national average.

Some (many) may think this post disrespectful of the dead, to speculate on how Showers met his death by drowning, but a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis echoes the experience of so many of those who made up the spike in post-Katrina mortality, the sense that they had lost the life they had before with no prospect of recovery. Bernette was, like most Treme characters, a composite, based both on Ashley Morris and documentary filmmaker Stevenson Palfi, who took his own life post Katrina Palfi lost not only his Mid-City home but files, photographs and film that helped produce his documentaries “Piano Players Rarely Play Together” and an unfinished film on Allen Toussaint.

Whatever brought Showers to the edge of the river, a breath of fresh air to clear his head after a night of drinking, or an ultimate moment of despair, something about his death resonates in a way most people in New Orleans would rather not contemplate but then I’m not most people, spent too many months in 2005 and 2006 tracking and cataloging the dead, too many hours each January compiling an annual list of all the victims of murder. In my own space at Toulouse Street (and formally on Wet Bank Guide), we remember.

Treme is ultimately about the resilience of the people of New Orleans, their insistence to save not just a bit of real estate but a culture and a way of life, and that resilience is more powerful and poignant against the unspoken backstory that Creighton Burnette’s death hints at, a tripled suicide rate, thousands dead from lack of medical care or just the loss in the elderly of the will to live. It is important to remember not only the 1,753 official Katrina deaths but the over 4,000 carefully cataloged by journalist Robert Lindsay five years ago.

Treme is about the Last Battle of New Orleans but the casualties are mostly off screen, like the millions of Civil War dead that haunt the soul of every bushwhacker turned Western gunslinger, and Showers’ brings that back to mind. RIP Micheal Showers, and I’m sorry if you and yours think I have hijacked that particular and personal sorrow but it so clearly brings back the desperation and loss that makes the triumphs of survival depicted in Treme more noble. You were a small part in the great machine of a film that reminds the rest of America–long since moved on–that we in New Orleans second line for our dead and why we do so and for your part in that, in every snap of a tourist’s camera as the band and joyful mourners pass, every second line from now on is in some small way for you.