At 5 o’clock in the afternoon, or perhaps 7:45 April 18, 2015Posted by The Typist in A Fiction, cryptical envelopment, Fortin Street, fuckmook, FYYFF, ghosts, je me souviens, New Orleans, postdiluvian, Remember, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Metairie encroaches from the East, swallows Carrollton Avenue. Brooklyn comes from the west across the Industrial Canal in a pathetic, staged white second line. We lost the north when they made Lakeshore Drive the private dog park of the of Lake neighborhoods along Robert E, Lee. To the south loom the gas-flare, metal islands of BP, Mobile, Exxon.Sucking the black ghosts of marshes long past was not enough.The water must run red as blood.
There is no retreat, no defense. When America erupted in flames and east Detroit held off the National Guard for two days, nothing happened here. Riot is not our style. Its too damn hot and a lot of work.
You are left only one choice, to chose the place, the once familiar corner with its shuttered store, and the moment (Esplanade in the rare, painterly golden light of late afternoon, perhaps) when New Orleans dies inside you.
Postdiluvian Afternoon Manscape with Bulldozer April 5, 2015Posted by The Typist in Back of Town, Bayou St. John, City Park, Federal Flood, geo-memoir, Hurricane Katrina, levee, Louisiana, postdiluvian, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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This was once bottom land, he says with the practiced eye and assurance of a successful environmental engineer. He is probably right. This recently mown rough at the edge of this former fairway is not far from the ridge of Bayou St. John and less than a mile south of Filmore Avenue, the line your grandfather told you was once the start of the softly indeterminate shore of the lake, the gradual transition from bottom land to open water, before the concrete seawall, the back fill and subdivision, when the land followed the natural contours of water.
Across Harrison Avenue snowy egrets play tag with a bulldozer returning another feral fairway to its appointed state of gracefully sculpted landscaping. They have carefully fenced off the trees they elected to keep just outside their crowns, but they have not bothered to put up runoff barriers along the lagoon. The other trees, the once mature oaks and cypress older than the park, did not fit into the new PGA-caliber design and were themselves bulldozed, cut and chipped into mulch (one hopes), the thicker branches and trunks, the massive root balls hauled off to some dump itself perched at the edge of useful bottom land, to cycle back into muck, the gumbo mud of marginal land that will suck the boot off a man’s foot as if to say: careful where you tread. You do not belong here.
This was all bottom land in flood a decade ago when the lake toppled the less-than-carefully designed levees, the work of a hundred bulldozers sculpting golf and parkways and neighborhoods, the labor of decades, was undone in a few hours. How we clamored to rebuild back then, even as we and the water birds reclaimed the ruins of golf for our own pleasure in spite of the lurking coyotes, after the hired guns had cleared the park of ill-tempered feral hogs washed in from the East, that last failed attempt to fill and subdivide marked by exits to nowhere on the highway out of town.
We follow a well-worn but little used path this beautiful afternoon until we find a shaded spot to plant our beach and Jazz Fest chairs, crack open the cooler filled with rare ales and settle in for a beer tasting. We used to do this in the Couterie Forest, another bit of man-scaping which was once an open field where the local AOR station staged free concerts, but the Couterie has grown crowded since the acres of feral fairway around it have been fenced off for construction of the new golf course, the confluence of FEMA dollars and the investments of men who could not play a PGA caliber game to save their lives but who can afford $150 for a round of eighteen holes, who will crowd the sponsored tents when the golf circus comes to town. (Build it and they will come, they tell themselves).
The FEMA relief we all fought for requires the reconstruction of what was and nothing more, although the men who run the Park have found a loophole big enough to drive a bulldozer through, to try to steal away the local PGA stop via a “public-private partnership,” that popular euphemism for privatizing profit while socializing risk; a great racket if you can get in on it, and our carefully-groomed and well compensated politicians love these sort of arrangements. Without them the contributions would dry up and instead of campaign billboards they would litter the landscape with solicitations for litigation, become just another schmuck lawyer grafting a living off of our ridiculous insurance rates.
In the middle distance is a beautifully bifurcated cypress, rising out of the roots of a clump of dying, non-native palms planted by some long-ago golf architect. The land here takes its revenge slowly but surely, as slowly and certainly as the land upon which we sit and the cypress prospers gradually subsides from bottom land to bottom of the lake. In another hundred years the furor over golf versus a carefully manicured wildness will be settled not in court but simply settled, back into the Back of Town, more wetland than bottom land. The golfers will move north as the water moves back in. Anyone who treads this path along the spoil bank of the artificial lagoon down which this afternoon past three women in a rented canoe, two paddlers and one lounging beneath an orange parasol, will likely find a very different landscape, too boggy to mow and covered in water-loving grasses. The lone cypress in the middle of the field, suited by temperament to flooding, will perhaps have grown into a stand, safe from bulldozers which will have moved on long ago to more certain and stable investments, far from the gulf that will someday reclaim this all, when my imagined stand of cypress will stand as denuded grey ghosts, victims of the relentless salt sea from which we all came and to which all this will return.
FYYFF April 2, 2015Posted by The Typist in fuckmook, FYYFF, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Pointless, The Typist, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Two cups of coffee, an over-charged e-cigarette (27 milligrams of nicotine) and the lizards of adrenaline trace the paths of my nervous system with familiar claws. An ogre well-known hereabouts grinds the clockwork of my molars and a pill box monkey dances unwanted telegrams of ALL CAPS urgency to the discordancy of my broken pianos. [Draw upon the e-cigarette with irritable pencils.] The brown stains at the bottom of the cup forecast anxiety, desire and disappointment.. Big Pharma arrives in the waiting room wearing bespoken suits and pink salad bowls carrying sample cases full of cash to reward the doctors for their advice about my bad choices. The reps are peddling punch-foil sample papers of simple solutions to complex problems which the night sky, covered in starry equations, cannot solve, not before it is time to get up and greet the sun with another cup of coffee. I would go back to bed but the pillows are stained with forgotten exams and misplaced passports. The day is leaving without me and I have forgotten to purchase a ticket two weeks in advance. An unreliable narrator suggests solutions to the world’s Facebook agendas involving a black bandanna and a healthy disregard for the law. My sour stomach hollers obscenities from the balcony at the unanimous consent to pour a drink. The lap bar is locked and the cars do not stop (leering clown-faced attendant taking his leisure at the brake lever) and we are dragged clanking back to the top of the roller-coaster from which sunrise is visible over the event horizon from which there appears to be no escape from the plummet into centripetal gibberish.
Y February 28, 2015Posted by The Typist in Bloggers, Fortin Street, FYYFF, je me souviens, Katrina, postdiluvian, Remember, Sinn Fein, The Narrative, Theater, We Are Not OK.
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[Baraka’s] are the agonized poems of a man writing to save his skin, ot at least to sette into it, so urgent is their purpose. — Richard Howard’s jacket blurb for Amiri Baraka’s S O S Poems 1661-2013
Klonopin does not differentiate between a panic attack and the sudden urge at the edge of sleep to turn on the bedside lamp and find a notebook. — The Typist to his Psychologer, on why he wants to “wash out”
Nor can the inflexible chemistry of psyco pharma recognize what might be thought an anxiety attack if it did not present as righteous anger. Yesterday I should have been emblazoned with the red lightening bolt of danger, caught in a fit of righteous anger, the fire that blossomed into the shield-boss flower of the old NOLA Bloggers, the warriors for New Orleans. I am not done with that. More2com, not –30–.
Rastaman the Griot: You got to be a spirit! You can’t be no ghost.
Before pharma entered my life there was beer, there was coffee, and after The Federal Flood there was writting, the countless typos of a hundred thousand plu words written in wee hours on not enough sleep. The dispensers of psycho pharma do not recognize the world around them, the urgency of that world’s dysfunctional condition, their patients but presentations of a broader illness. If people are not angry or depressed some significant portion of the time they are at best ill informed and at worse complicit dupes. I am not sure Toulouse Street is the platform for such an anger. The name lacks the resonance of the names of the prophets. The Typist is not Ezekial, fresh from the desert. Before Toulouse Street there was the Wet Bank Guide, where anger, sadness and hope argued drukenly around a table in a halo of smoke. Somewhere in the middle was a famous and druken, attempted but incoherent eulogy atop a fountain in the courtyard ofa bar at Ashley’s wake I don’t need a Klonopin. I need a fountain. And a beer. FYYFF, The Typist
If 6 Turned Out To Be 9 February 15, 2015Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, The Odd, The Typist, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Somwehere between the last half-slice of citalopram and the allegedly-theraeutic onset of amitriptilyne is something like a lunar void, a period of uncertainty. The clinically inclined would consider this the expression of depression as the citaoprm washes out before the amitriptilyne kicks in. I consider it something akin to the social readjutment I experienced after forty days and forty nights in Europe, a combination of jet lag and culture shock.
I am rediscovering what it means to be me. In the first few days of the washout I felt an almost exuberant sense of myself, as if I had been mounted by the loa of Walt Whitman. Things then began to grow dark and uncertain, but that I realized is as any path in a journey through the underword should be.
I think the clonazepam has also about run its course, or what the fuck am i doing up at ten of six, and writing my second post in two days on my mostly quiescent blog after two cigarettes and half a cup of coffee. Cigarettes and coffee are two things the new therapist I did a mostly uncomfortable intake with the other day suggests we will have to address. She spoke of a box, in which cigarettes, caffine and alcohol have no place for the chonically anxious. I described myself as a statistical outlier in any battery of tests she may wish to administer, a point well outside the box of the consensually acceptable.
Not a good start.
“Nicotine is a drug, you know,” she said at one point. And what, I was tempted to ask, are clonazepam, amitriptilyne, citlopram and the whole cryptic galaxy of SSRIs the medical profession has perscibed to me in the ĺast several years, along with a course of lamotrigine at a higher dose than a friend’s husband–a full-blown manic-depressive–was perscribed by the former head of the Tulane Medical School pychiatry department?
I am up early, writing. I have a private blog that I hide online from all but invited friends called Poems Before Breakfast, named for the quiet time which I found to write in the tense last years of a disolving marriage inhabited by two teenageers. What role does the deminishing effectiveness of the clonazepam and the absence of an effective pharma cocktail for depression play in this place in space time, in which my fingers find the keyboard and I am unafraid to express my deepest feelings in a highy public way?
What then is the problem we are trying to solve? Caffeine and alcohol are also drugs, but if I calm an anxiety attack with two fingers of Buffalo Trace and the the strange place I am in is one where the amitriptilyne lets me get a decent night’s sleep without fucking with my brain what, for all its transient discomfort, is this place in which I am driven to write, to see myself with a clarity long obscured by over-mdication? What if it is Home, my Axis around which I orbit? What is the purpose of submitting myself to the drug-driven clinicians of phsychology and psychiatry?
The new therapist didn’t answer my question when I asked if the negatively charged phrase “wash out” was a clinnical term. She only scribbled some notes. I deduce it means the period during which the cumulative effects of pharmacology flush themelves out of my system.
It is an unsettling place, but so was my beloved New Orleans when I first returned from Europe.
I just want to talk to you.
I won’t do you no harm.
I just want to now about your different lives
On this here people farm.”
Lately I have found more therapeutic value in Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love than I think I will get from any $200 an hour clinician with her DSM, the box-like book of consensual normality from which I declare myself an outlier, a six sigma enigma no re-engineering can or should correct.
Sorry, doctor, but I have had a problem with boxes since I failed in art in the first grade for refusing to color within the lines. I am not sure my comfortable zone is found in the rigid, rectngular pages of the DSM. I am not sure any empathetic and intelligent person should feel comfortble in the world They* are building around us, unless integration is simply another word for cheerful ignorange and compliance.
If the sun refused to shine.
I don’t mind. Idon’t mine.
If the mountains fell in the sea,
Let it be. It ain’t me.
I got my own world to live through
And I ain’t going to copy you….
If the mountains fall
Just don’t let them fall on me…
I think the untriggered anxiety attacks I have had lately whoch wwre well-controlled in medical parlancet rhat led me to visit the pill doctor and schedule myself into the therapist are simply a call to withdraw for a bit into the bariatric chamber of myself, to emerge ready to lift the face plate and announce this planet habitable by the likes of me.
If I cycle through all of the colors of emotion in patterns unpredictable by the mathematics of wave form oscilloscope EEG, well, there are other branches of mathematics and acience that posit alternative universes. Perhaps I am just a visitor in this world, who’s purpose is to take extensive notes such as this–not a catalogue of anthopological field notes but a travelogue–and sometimes sculpt them into poetry. We each have our own path through this planet of forms I find at once alien and interesting.
Perhaps I should just ask the Axis. He knows Everything.
* For more information on Them, I recommend a careful reading of Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Bombed America” supplemented by the more personal and localized blog post on Wet Bank Guide “In the Zone.”. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow should be considered an essential supplementary text
Poetry and Blood September 21, 2014Posted by The Typist in FYYFF, Louisiana, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, postdiluvian, second line, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: John Law, New Orleans exceptionalism
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.
The 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.
Ghosts of the Flood August 29, 2014Posted 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.
An Imaginary City August 25, 2014Posted by The Typist in Fortin Street, New Orleans, Odd Words, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street, Uncategorized, We Are Not OK.
I live in an imaginary city. Its borders on one side are indistinct, the gradual erosion from solid land through marsh to water. These boundaries shift daily with the tide, and monthly with the moon, and every day grow a little closer, the city a little smaller. On the other sides there are walls built to keep back the sea, to contain the river. These are not ours to command. All we have with certainty is our imaginary city, its rituals of uncertain origin, its people of many colors and languages. They walk and dance on streets that ripple like the water, fracture like ice on a river breaking up in the spring, and crumble from neglect. These are the only streets we have ever known. Only the names are important: Pleasure, Desire, Humanity, Music. The names are part of the dream of the imaginary city. Martin Luther King Boulevard and Jefferson Davis Parkway intersect and end where Earhart Boulevard flies toward the Potemkin America of the imaginary suburbs.
There are in fact many imaginary cities I inhabit, all in the same place. There is the city of the tourists, the ones who buy Carnival beads in August and wear them drinking in the streets. This is a city of imaginative drunkenness and lewdness, mostly confined to a few blocks of one street, where people buy Big Ass Beers and drinks the size of goldfish bowls or shaped like hand grenades, as if they wish to immerse themselves in liquor or explode into outrageous behavior. They holler at women on party balconies to “show their tits.” Some drunkenly comply. They behave, in short, like drunken louts released from all restraint. This is encouraged. Virtually every doorway in these few blocks leads to a bar, the rest to t-shirt and trinket shops where they can buy their beads and shirts only someone completely inebriated would consider wearing. They show these shirts to friends at home, snicker, and put them in a bottom drawer. I occasionally inhabit this city if only for a moment, to cross the street of the endless Carnival, to escape to another imaginary city. A few people I know work there. Some love it. Some hate it. It either is or is not a particular person’s imaginary city. For the visitors, it is the only city.
I can cross Canal Street, the famous divide between two of the largest imaginary cities, to the skyscrapers and renovated 19th century office blocks of Uptown. (Don’t call the skyscraper village Downtown, or you will quickly become lost. Downtown is Another City). This is where the wealthy sit in air-conditioned comfort–over lunches that would cost the waiter a week’s wages–and wonder at the indolence of so many of the people of their imaginary city. They are the God-fearing Protestants from the north who came after the war and built that side of Canal Street into a landscape of mansions and shotgun shacks for their servants. An antique streetcar, long out of manufacturer and kept running entirely with hand built parts, rumbles under great oaks down the avenue. On this avenue the wealthy and those who would be wealthy enact the ritual of Uptown Carnival, in which these people ride atop massive papier-mâché barges tossing imaginary jewels of Chinese plastic to the grateful (if indolent) throngs that line the street. This has been my imaginary city, at times, looking out from the nineteenth floor contemplating what fine restaurant a salesman might take us to. I too have stood where the streetcars run and fought for my share of worthless plastic.
Downtown is not where the business of the city is done. This seems appropriate to an imaginary city. Downtown begins with the blocks of the Old Quarter where drunken tourists reign and slowly gives way to the city downriver. Things run down quickly going toward the sea but that is to be expected. The certainty of the land beneath this imaginary city dissolves with each block further down toward the delta. The clocks on abandoned bank buildings stand forever at some o’clock. Here it is Central River Time. Paint peels more slowly in this imaginary city, and so is left as it is. I can think of a half-dozen facades in this imaginary city with faded advertisements for beers out of style longer than I can remember. The sidewalks here are not fractured by the stately oaks of Uptown but more likely by a weedy camphor or blackberry. People do not call the city to complain. They crush a camphor leaf in their hand and inhale, or stop to pick a handful of berries. They step over the heaves and holes on their way to more important business. There is cooking to be done, music to be sung, cold beer and friends to attend to. I live far in the back of this imaginary city, off the portage that once ran from the Bayou to the River. There was a clerk at a drug store not four block away I had not visited in 20 years who took a long look at my driver’s license, and remarked I looked just like my father (20 years dead). No doubt there are dwindling towns scattered in the rural landscape where such things might happen, but only one imaginary city where it could happen to you today.
The imaginary city is old by the standards of the New World. Only the pyramids of the displaced Natives are older. Yet nothing here is as old as the imaginary city. Over the centuries, fire and flood have erased everything but the names of the streets in the French Quarter, lined with Spanish colonial buildings. Kings, founders, a street called Barracks that explains the curious grid streets of the French Quarter, a fortress built in a conquered land. Elsewhere the streets run perpendicular to the river, slowing pulling away from each other or colliding as the river dictates: new streets appear, others disappear. The cross streets follow the bends of the river or simply begin and disappear in a geometry that defies simple formulae. It is a fractal city, chaotic order out of chaos. You can spend an entire lifetime here and still discover new streets and wonder: was this always here? Or is it simply a symptom of an imaginary city? Were the houses a Carnival façade, something erected for some private entertainment, or has another imaginary city intersected ours like two bubbles colliding?
It would be impossible to live here if it were not an imaginary city.
In the concrete world of rotting sideboards that hides beneath the imaginary city, things can be too awful to imagine. The bloodstained streets are the killing fields of a constant, random war. The newspaper of the imaginary city counts the daily dead and wounded, but it is easier not to take the paper if you wish to live in the imaginary city. You can live in your own imaginary city and cluck and shrug and say: not in my imaginary city. These things don’t happen Uptown. These things don’t happen in the blocky, post-War suburbs of the Lakefront. And how about them Saints? Football season is upon us and in the imaginary city football crosses all boundaries, melds the imaginary cities into one imaginary city, if only for a Sunday afternoon, a Monday morning. Football and Carnival are the pillars of the imaginary city, the many imaginary cities that make up this imaginary city. We imagine ourselves one city.
Behind all this, the uncivil war goes on, cousins killing cousins, neighbors killing neighbors. You can try to ignore it but every now and then, you step outside for a cigarette at night and hear in the distance not the horns of the ships making the tight bend in the river but the crackle of small-arms fire, and then the sirens. In your heart, you pray that a stray bullet has not taken another child. You step back inside, suddenly distracted by a song on the imaginary city’s radio station where they do not play the top hits of an imaginary nation but the music of the imaginary city. You return to the collective imaginary normal until the sound of a snare drum or a trumpet calls for forth a slow spiritual, or vibrant gospel song you know will be played somewhere in this imaginary city to walk and wake those who have just died.
It would be impossible to live here if it were not an imaginary city.
Thirty Seven: Hubris February 24, 2014Posted by The Typist in 365, je me souviens, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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What hubris to think I could write something every day worth punching the Publish button. To write every day, that is the injunction, but to write toward a distant end: a poem, a story, an essay, something complete. What could I possibly have said yesterday worth sharing: that the morning was spent in a pleasant hangover-and-coffee stupor? That the chilli came out well? That I read a chapter of physical anthropology and took the quiz?
I made an effort to get through a good bit of Susan Sontag’s On Photography for my Visual Anthropology class. Among the professor’s professional subjects are the Mardi Gras Indians, whom he has photographed extensively. When he asks us at the beginning of class if we have questions or comments on the reading, do I dare ask him about this passage?
Moralists and conscienceless despoilers, children and foreigners in their own land, they will get something down that is disappearing–and, often, hasten its disappearance by by photographing it.
Does the extensive photography of the Indians first by Micheal Smith, Christopher Porche West and, yes, Dr. Jeffery Ehrenreich honor or despoil something once the exclusive property of its own community, the Black neighborhood in which a particular tribe lives, something as powerfully spiritual as any drum ritual of humanity’s invention, something as beautiful as any art humanity has created? The Indians sewed and came out before the cameras arrived. What now of the flocks of tourists and natives alike with their cheap digital cameras? Is this a fusion of cultures, an integration never achieved in the schools, or rather part of what I once called the descent into Disney?
We are figures on a disappearing landscape, a city that has maintained much of an original culture against the onslaught of universal television and economic conglomeration. We are as beautiful and alien and endangered as any tribe at the edge of Amazonian development. And what will gentrification do, when the Indians are driven out of their own neighborhoods and the corner practice bar becomes a nuisance to the new neighbors? Old urban churches could survive for a while on the parishioners, black and white, who fled to the suburbs returning on Sunday. What will become of the Indians when the corner bar becomes a coffee shop and they are scattered in diaspora?
I worried about these issues into the tens of thousands of words when I was publishing the Wet Bank Guide blog. Would the Indians be able to return? What would happen to the next generation of musicians, the children scattered to Texas and Atlanta, when they decided to take up 50 Cent’s microphone instead of their uncle’s trombone? I don’t voice those worries as I did once only out of fear that I was looking over the black precipice and in danger of tumbling over. Still, I worry, especially about gentrification and the Indians. The famous scene used as the lead still for the first season of Treme, when Chief Lambreaux comes up the street in full regalia, emerging out of darkness to insist to Robinette they will still come back, reduced me to tears.
I still worry that what I write is part of our Apocalypse, about those in power who think we should model ourselves on Atlanta instead of pan-Carribbea, that we are among the last men and women who will walk the streets of something recognizably New Orleans.
And that is hubris, the unquenchably Gaullist chauvinism of New Orleans exceptionalism, that I will only give up as the rattle of my last breath. Until the gods strike me down, I will always find something to say because I live in one of the last places on Earth worth saving from insect humanity.
Shit Is Fucked September 9, 2013Posted by The Typist in Murder, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, Violence, We Are Not OK.
Every single day, someone comes to this blog searching for the victim of a murder in New Orleans. Some days, perhaps birthdays or the anniversary of a death, there are dozens of hits on the list of murder victims I have kept for the last several years. I have not finished last year’s list because it is just so fucking painful. We all have our crosses to bear. Why take up this particular one of cataloging the dead?
I ask myself that question, and then I see a photograph like this of Paris Samuels, age 2, looking at the casket of her sister, 13-month-old Londyn Samuels, who was murdered by gunfire on August 29, as reported by the New Orleans Advocate. And I think if I do not do something, I shall go mad.
Shit Is Fucked. The drunken scene from The Wire where McNulty and Bunk lament the state of their lives, their police work, the general inability to deal with a world gone mad.
We live in a city full of golum-hearted motherfuckers, and short of God going all Sodom and Gomorrah I have no idea how it ever ends.
Remember August 29, 2013Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, Debrisville, Federal Flood, geo-memoir, ghosts, home, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, levee, New Orleans, NOLA, Sinn Fein, the dead, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
I am not sure when I made this graphic. Friends in the core group of NOLA Bloggers who came together after the storm were talking about draping the blogs in black back in ’06 or ’07. I thought this was just simpler. And strangely, it never occurred to me to post it today until this morning until someone I just met a few months ago made it their avatar on Facebook.
I supposed I knew at some deep level the anniversary was coming. I still get email from the Rising Tide conference that core group of bloggers spawned years ago, which continues even without a lot of its founders who have moved on, and that is always on the weekend before or after. Still, Katrina–what we came to call the Federal Flood–was not in my mind. I have other worries: a son struggling in his first days of college, an ill mother, a play I want to mount, troubled friends and lovers, a complicated life.
The story goes on: the new levee authority sues the oil companies, the levees such as they are, are as fixed as they’re going to get, the giant gap along Marconi Drive at the Orleans Canal pumping station included. The blighted houses remain, some with their fading residue of rescue marks. The new pumps as the canals will or will not work when the time comes, and the evidence of tests is mixed at best.
As busy as I am I can’t help but feel that I dishonor the ghosts I made a commitment to years ago. I think of the folder of bloated bodies I collected via news photographer friends, lost with my last computer. I think of the abandoned homes I still see in Gentilly, “[t]hese empty shells of former lives that line so many streets … the windows staring lifelessly at broken sidewalks, the facades washed pale and colorless.”
I spent my crisis day this week, the day I made a cocktail at 3:15 p.m.to steady myself for all of the news of that day, going out with a friend to eat sushi and see Jon Cleary and drink a little too much for a weeknight. Lest you think me irresponsible I did all I could to board and shore up the catastrophes of that day, and then went out to escape it for a few hours in pleasant company. It’s how we do. Before I went out I had to go sell some things from the house we bought when I uprooted my family and brought them here to the heart of a disaster zone. I sold some pots and trellises to the Michelle Kimble, a pre-eminent preservationist both before and after the storm, and we talked about a lot of things. The storm never came up. After she left I looked at some tile art my ex-wife had bought laying on the floor for this weekend’s sale, including one of St. Francis Cabrini church. I left it there for the sale.
With all my current problems and work perhaps I have reached the point I wrote about long ago before I abandoned the Katrina-blog Wet Bank Guide. ” If history and the city consumes us all one-by-one but the city lives on, that perhaps what was always intended, why we were all lured home. In the end, perhaps [Thomas] Pynchon has given us the model to surviving It’s After the End of the World. If history has gone too wrong for any one of us to stop what is happening around us, maybe it is better to amble down a shady street in New Orleans without a particular thought in my head except the distant sound of what might be [Tyrone] Slothrop’s harmonica, to disappear into the random noise in the signal.”
Greg Peters August 3, 2013Posted by The Typist in Bloggers, cryptical envelopment, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA Blogroll, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Greg Peters, Suspect Device
“Sing, Goddess, the wrath of Achilles.”
–Homer, opening of the Illiad
No, that’s not right. Greg Peters was so much more than the wrath of Suspect Device and so much the opposite of the boastful Achilles. What I most remember was the last conversation we had. He was sitting alone at a table at Mimi’s before the Krewe du Vieux parade, and I don’t remember a word we spoke. I just remember an easy manner, a smile like a child at once guilty and proud of what mischief he had done, the smile of a bashful teenage lover, looking down a bit when he smiled lest someone catch him at it. Beneath the public exterior of satirical cartoonist and ranting blogger was the soul of a genuine Buddhist, an easy compassion and acceptance of the world that perhaps masked an acceptance of mortality. He sat that night at ease among friends and yet distant, as if he were already leaving, sitting alone at his table receiving visitors, so many not knowing it would be the last time they would speak.
No, not an acceptance of mortality. This is going all wrong. Greg had the word “indestructible” tattooed on his forearm a short while ago. Words, ink: he was only going to fall with his pen in his hand, with a samurai beauty that combined a fierce defiance and a Zen certainty of bliss beyond death. That word spoke of his love of his young sons, the companionship of a good woman and many friends, so much he was not at age 50 ready to leave behind, so much more for a lightening-fired mind yet to do.
We were all thrown together by the storm, a collection of ranting and lamenting bloggers who fell together into an indivisible friendship. We birthed an anarchist conference called Rising Tide, “A conference on the future of New Orleans” and Greg was our artist. Each poster and t-shirt topped the last, the best the rough angel rising from the waters. Rising Tide has moved onto to a 501(c)3 with paperwork and committees and most of us who were there at the beginning fell away from that but never lost each other. At the center of that group was a meeting of minds and hearts larger than the rest, Greg’s (with Ashley Morris’s) largest of all.
We knew of his heart problems from the first. After his first surgery at a distant heart clinic fellow organized a collection to get him a Macbook so he could continue to work in his convalescence. We knew that heart of steel had a fatal flaw, one that would one day break and leave him holding the haft and staring Death in the face.
A heart of steel is no guarantee except against despair. Invincible until the end. We should all go so well.
Oṃ tāre tuttāre ture svāhā. I don’t know if Greg followed the Taras, the female Buddha, but he modeled so many of her aspects: Green Tārā, known as the Buddha of enlightened activity; Red Tārā, of fierce aspect associated with magnetizing all good things; Blue Tārā, associated with transmutation of anger. In the end White Tārā, also known for compassion, long life, healing and serenity, took him into her bosom, recognizing his compassion and serenity through so much suffering. It was enough for this one soul to advance. Oṃ tāre tuttāre ture svāhā.
Greg left us too soon but he carved a path through the world large enough most men would happily call it a life. Tārā Mother of Liberation, teach me to walk in his footsteps.
It’s After the End of the World December 21, 2012Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: apocalypse, calendar, Macha, Maya, Mayan, Pacha
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“It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?”
— Sun Ra
I did not see the end of the world up close and personal, but I lived it with a vicarious survivor’s guilt seven years ago that was–for me–world shattering.
Shall we rehearse those memories, if only to put to rest the nonsense of millennial crazies? It is an exercise more appropriate to Good Friday than Christmas so let it pass. I will not mar your holiday with that old crown of thorns.
And yet it is fitting to remember as the great Mayan wheel turns from Macha to the Pacha that the elders of that race promise a transformation not of the universe but of the hearts of men. In New Orleans we live with peril the way the rest of America lives with Starbucks, ubiquitous and just around the corner. Men have gashed canals into the earth and sucked the black blood of the ancestors, collapsing geological into historical time and dooming the lands and cultures of the Creoles and Acadians to eradication. It is not possible to forget that the great cities of the Maya lasted centuries longer than New Orleans can survive. One can only hope that instead of the false apocalypse people remember the words of the Mayan elders, who tell us that the the new cycle, the Pacha, will be the end of man’s dominion, the lifting of Yahweh’s curse, and the beginning of a time of humanity’s cohabitation with the earth and with each other. A thousand years from now, let the broken towers of downtown rise up from the water to remind everyone of the foolishness of the past.
Here on Fortin Street, a dozen miles as the crow counts from The End of the World Marina, it is Solstice not Apocalypse. Here it is already after the end of the world. Tonight I will kindle a fire in the cold clear night and roast meat and drink strong ale as my German ancestors would have done. If tonight there are parties in New Orleans we do not mock anyone’s gods. We thank our own, the tangled saints of Africa and Spain and the gods of our ancestors, for another day and a year to come on this fragile land.
Come On Rise Up November 12, 2012Posted by The Typist in Bloggers, Federal Flood, hurricane, Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Coney Island, Hurricane Sandy, Long Island, Manhattan, New Jersey, Staten island
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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!”
South of 90 October 28, 2012Posted by The Typist in books, New Orleans, Odd Words, Poetry, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: A Vein in the Gulf, Côte Blanche, Julie Kane, Louisiana Book Festival, Martha Serpas
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Martha Serpas holds enough degrees in creative writing to sketch the outline of a novel on and a Master of Divinity from Yale. She has a preface by Harold Bloom in her first book of poems. She explains the title of a new poem “The Diener,” a word with a German root meaning servant and applied to the person who runs the hospital morgue. The title stumped Bloom, the sort of accomplishment you want in your obituary, like the drummer acquaintance I had in DC who visited New Orleans with The Nighthawks for several months in the 1980s and was introduced by Zigaboo Modaliste to his table at Dookie Chase as a “bad motherfuckin’ drummer.” If I ever find my provincial ass trapped in a Manhattan cocktail party, I want to arrive with Martha and Maud Newton. They can dump me at the door, as long as I can nod my head toward them across the room and say, I came with Martha and Maud.
She surveys the small room of poetry readers at the Louisiana Book Festival with a leonine calm, exudes a gentle accessibility and level headedness necessary to someone who volunteers as a hospital trauma chaplain. She was born in Galliano and attended LSU and the University of Houston. She spent enough time at NYU and in New Haven to attract luminaries such as Bloom but also taught at the University of Tampa and now in Houston, and prefers to describe herself as “from the Gulf Coast.” You sense that beneath the sheepskins is a girl from Galliano done good, can easily see her standing at the saw horse table peeling shrimp, a brown long neck at her elbow, someone from the only place on earth you can stand south of ninety.
Her love for her home south of Highway 90 comes bubbling out when talks about a film project A Vein in the Gulf, which resulted from the idea of her friend Elizabeth Coffman than they take a van full of film students and poets to the Louisiana coast to document the impact of wetlands loss. There is also a natural, Catholic-school modesty when she speaks of writing about Lafourche Parish, especially after what she calls “the big event” of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “I struggled just writing about my home town,” she said of her first book of poems, Côte Blanche, the one with a preface by Bloom. “Who am I to write these poems about these folk and these places?” After the storm, she came to a realization with the help of friends. “If [I] don’t write it, if I don’t take that platform how does that help the people I love and the place I love . . . well, maybe one person will understand the culture, appreciate the culture, can be moved by the culture [then] why would I not want to reach that one person?”
It is in that conversation that she drops the bomb that leaves me flabbergasted, the acknowledgment most folks north of 90 have not yet admitted to. “We have to keep trying to save [the wetlands] even though we know it’s impossible to save it. It’s too late.” I have read the literature of coastal loss since I was a weekly newspaper editor in St. Bernard Parish in the 1980s, insist to everyone I know that they must read Mike Tidwell’s story of the slow holocaust on the coast Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast but few people are willing to speak that truth aloud. “It’s too late.”
At the end of the interview I ask her if she finds some confluence between her work as a trauma chaplain and writing about Lafourche, “The first image that popped into my mind is when I visit a patient that is dying, what we would call the death watch, and people look at the monitors as if that is going to tell us anything in terms of how long that process will take, and we’re all there…the family…most people want to be there. That is what flashed through my head when you say that. It’s death, and its beautiful. Even the destruction of the wetlands is beautiful because something will come out of it, some life will come out of it even though … I can’t see it. I don’t see anything life-giving come out of it even as I know intellectually that something will.”
I know at the end of the interview that Côte Blanche is the first of the stack of books I brought home I will want to read, and that I need to see A Vein in the Gulf. Interviewer Julie Kane, the poet laureate of Louisiana, concluded my question and the author’s answer with a quotation from an author whose name neither I nor my record catch, that “all poetry is elegy.” As I pack up to leave the room, I think that the hurricane coast may have found its elegist. She prefaces her answer to my question with a quote from rabbi I can’t quite make out on the recording: “You are not required to complete the work nor are you free to desist from it.” If not their elegist, the people of Lafourche and the whole coast have certainly found their chaplain.
The Glory That Was Home September 23, 2012Posted by The Typist in Federal Flood, Fortin Street, FYYFF, Memory, New Orleans, NOLA, postdiluvian, Rebirth, Recovery, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Rising Tide 7, Rising Tide NOLA, Rising Tide VII
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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
I Am Not Alright, But I Am Upright September 22, 2012Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, New Orleans, Poetry, The Narrative, The Odd, The Typist, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Illusion Fields, Moose Jackson, O'Neill's Lament, Raymond "Moose" Jackson, Treme, We are not alright but we are upright
Four people came to Toulouse Street looking for “new orleans upright tattoo” and all four clicked through to hear Raymond “Moose” Jackson’s “O’Neil’s Lament”. Some words have power beyond their simple human utterance, and Jackson’s words struck me so strongly as an epigraph for a place and time, an epigram for what others had already forgotten, that I will wear them on my right arm until the end. Bury me in a sleeveless shirt, right arm toward the room.
As I finish re-watching Season Two and prepare to read a year’s worth of Wet Bank Guide in preparation for Sunday’s premiere and the conversations to come on Back of Town I recall last season’s Treme teaser poem by Gian Smith, “Oh Beautiful Storm.” I think the refrain from “O’Neill’s Lament” on Jackson’s Illusion Fields disk gets as close to the wound inside the characters of Treme, a hidden stigmata that haunts them like a waft of church door incense on a lapsed Catholic, as an outsider can possibly get.
New Orleans or New Haven, first-time viewer or Treme Sunday devotee, give “O’Neill’s Lament” a listen before Sunday’s show.
We are not alright, but we are upright.
Remember August 29, 2012Posted by The Typist in Federal Flood, Fortin Street, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Uncle Lionel July 8, 2012Posted by The Typist in Jazz, je me souviens, music, New Orleans, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: bass drum, brass band, Frenchman Street, Jazz, Uncle Lionel Batiste
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NEW ORLEANS — Legendary Treme Brass Band leader and drummer Uncle Lionel Batiste passed away Sunday morning. He was 81.
Green is the Colour May 8, 2012Posted by The Typist in A Fiction, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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“Close my eyes so I can see you.”
— Pink Floyd, Green is the Colour
Studying has its own Odd diversions that have nothing to do with picking up the Hansel and Gretel fire hazard of papers strewn through the house, the one plate and cup you keep rinsing off for the next meal and putting in the dish drainer. You fill the coffee pot in the bathroom.
You realize you are supposed to read something you have entirely forgotten,a few chapters of a wonderful nature book written by Aldo Leopold back in the 1940s (1949, you are supposed to remember the year of publication by 10 a.m. tomorrow, fool) and you realize how much Edward Abbey cribbed from it but that’s not important. There is a section entitled Clandeboye about a marshy area in Manitoba.
You once live not too far from Manitoba. Winnipeg was about the same distance from Fargo as St. Paul but you never made it there in spite of the lure of legal Cubans. As It Happens on the CBC was about as close as you got. Clandeboye doesn’t ring a bell but Leopold’s description is intriguing.
One thing most of us have gone blind to is the quality of marshes. I am reminded of this when, as a special favor, I take a visitor to Clandeboye, only to find that, to him, it is merely lonelier to look upon, and stickier to navigate, than other boggy places. This is strange, for any pelican, duckhawk, godwit, or western grebe is aware that Clandeboye is a marsh apart. Why else do they seek it out in preference to other marshes? else do they resent my intrusion within its precincts not as mere trespass, but as some kind of cosmic impropriety?
I think the secret is this: Clandeboye is a marsh apart, not only in space, but in time. Only the uncritical consumers of hand-me-down history suppose that 1941 arrived simultaneously in all marshes. The birds know better. Let a squadron of southbound pelicans but feel a lift of prairie breeze over Clandeboye, and they sense at once that here is a landing in the geological past, a refuge from that most relentless of aggressors, the future. With queer antediluvian grunts they set wing, descending in majestic spirals to the welcoming wastes of a bygone age.
It is not 1941 but just over sixty years later. You launch Google maps and chose Clandeboye, MB over Clandeboye, New Zealand and Google in all helpfulness drills down on a tiny village of a dozen streets. If you zoomed close enough you could probably read the water tower, find the cafe and gas pumps, the silos on a siding that make it a place. You zoom out looking for this place of wonder and notice as you click the zoom bar in just a certain place the pixelation of the area, as if you had zoomed in 1000% in Gimp. This is Odd, so you zoom part way back in and notice the grid of fields, the Mondrian regularity of the various crops, the very thing Leopold railed against so eloquently in his book. Off to the side somewhere is a Canadian national park, a road snaking toward it. It is not named Clandeboye.
You cannot go back to reading Leopold. You take the pile of books and notes on the couch next to you and place it on the floor among all the others. You close the Kindle window and email and Google maps and open this page. The image of the pixalated fields won’t go away, like the green spots you thought were forever when you stared too long at the rising sun that last morning on the East Coast, saying farewell to the ocean before you moved to the interior, to Fargo, to a place a few hundred miles from Clandeboye.
Give up on studying. Everything you need to know from all those books from Thoreau on fills that one screen. Open a beer, close this page, go to bed. Try to make the pixelations go away. Remember the skies filled with geese one Saturday during your son’s peewee football game, a carrier pigeon armada honking south to Louisiana. You wanted to go with them.
Try to get some sleep. The world we have made for ourselves, sparrows on the blacktop, the starling whorl over Decatur, will still be there tomorrow. For a while at least.
Quiting the Paint Factory November 3, 2011Posted by The Typist in books, cryptical envelopment, New Orleans, Odd Words, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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“I have been wading in a long river, and my feet are wet.”
If the promised posts (for the blog, and for NolaVie who produced the credential letter that got me in the Louisiana Book Festival author’s party) do not appear today it is because I am on the couch reading this instead.
You should, too. If you’re reading this at work, you’re halfway there. Print this out, take it to the comfy couches in the elevator lobby and if necessary prop your phone against your ear so you look busy. Or find an empty conference room, close the door and pretend you’re on a meeting.
And read it.
H/T to TheRumpus.
They’re all wasted November 3, 2011Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, music, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Lifehouse, Pete Townsend
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“There once was a note. Listen.”
–Peter Townsend, “Pure and Easy”
Below is the version of Teenage Wasteland originally written for Peter Townsend’s concept performance/rock opera Lifehouse, which in most of its versions is about a dystopic future in which everyone is living connected to The Grid, inside suits that isolate them one from the other. All of their experiences take place alone in tubes to which the suits can connect. Some of the lyrics are familiar, some you have probably not heard before. You can find them here. The antidote to this dystopia is the emergency of an old guru who remembers ancient rock-and-roll, and its cathartic, Dionysian power.
In some ways the prescient concept of Matrix (if not the rest of the story line) captures this moment perfectly.
I think of my own children, slaves of the Grid realized, the careful constructs of cable television and Internet. Controlled by media conglomerates, the Grid stands ready to package and sell them commoditized lifestyles of conformist rebellion suited to their particular taste, from the decadently preppy world of leering models at American Apparel to the depths of industrial goth. Come on in, kid, we have just what you need to rebel and conform all at the same time.
We of their parents generation still live in a personal era in which rock-and-roll is not the forgotten art of the Lifehouse or a carefully scripted commercial soundtrack, but in which the healing power of a song called on in a moment of distress is like that of prayer, with the promise of being born again not in the spirit of the Xianists but as cleansed and refreshed human beings, eyes and hearts open. That was Townsend’s concept for Lifehouse. At its best and before the media conglomerates absorbed the genre rock-and-roll was about not about unbridled freedom (an inverted nihilistic illusion) but about a genuine rebellion, a rejection of the past in favor of a future of possibility, a future still malleable to the hands of people (not just the children) seeking and ready to make the world their own place. It is an idea that must not be allowed to die.
The Bloody Hanktons October 19, 2011Posted by The Typist in Crime, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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The murder of the brother of a witness in the murder trail of Gert Town crime scourge Telly Hankton led to another rush to the pages on the blog where there names were mentioned. It all began when I listed his Uncle George in my annual collection of the names of the murdered. That crime begat a retaliatory killing that eventually led to Hankton’s conviction in the murder of Darrell Stewart, whom Telly and his uncle Andres suspected in the killing of Andre’s brother George. It was that first listing, a follow up note in the next year’s list and finally this post which included the notes from the NOLA.Com crime reports that Telly and Andre were wanted in connection with Stewart’s death, that have made the name Hankton one of the most popular search terms bringing people to Toulouse Street.
It’s not the spikes that occur around news events like yesterday’s on the witness killing that give me the shivers but the routine visits I get week in and week out, wondering if members of the Hankton gang sometimes surf the Internet looking for their notices like a gang of actors waiting in a cafe for the morning papers. It is one thing for someone in a comfortable suburb to watch David Simon’s The Wire and feel a safe and guilty satisfaction when Omar Little and Brother Mouzone gun down Stringer Bell, to understand the Bushido beauty of the moment when Bodie refuses to abandon his corner. It is another thing entirely to see the frequent Hankton searches when you live in a city overrun by men with guns who have had their own funerals carefully planned since they were fourteen.
This is not Hell. This is the Street September 28, 2011Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, Poetry, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Frederico Garcia-Lorga, Occupy Wall Street, Red Hand of Ulster
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First posted Oct 13, 2008. Reposting in solidarity with OccupyWallSt.org. The first General Assembly of Occupy New Orleans occurs at noon Sunday, Oct. 2 in Washington Square Park. It is time to throw the bloody fist onto the shore and claim this land as your land, as our land.
I work for a bank I choose for years from discretion to call Moloch, which is moving all it’s New Orleans jobs to another city: mine included. Perhaps by posting this or showing up Sunday I will never work again. Perhaps it is better to stand in the rubble of what America has become roasting pigeons on a stick that to continue as we are. I don’t have much faith in the political proclivities of New Orleans. We can be quick to anger but nothing burned here in 1968. Still, a century ago a few men of color conspired together, purchased a forbidden railroad ticket, and set in motion the events that ultimately toppled Jim Crow.
I was lucky enough to see with my own eyes the recent stock-market crash, where they lost several million dollars, a rabble of dead money that went sliding off into the sea. Never as then, amid suicides, hysteria, and groups of fainting people, have I felt the sensation of real death, death without hope, death that is nothing but rottenness, for the spectacle was terrifying but devoid of greatness… I felt something like a divine urge to bombard that whole canyon of shadow, where ambulances collected suicides whose hands were full of rings.”
— Federico Garcia Lorca
Under the multiplications,
a drop of duck’s blood;
under the divisions,
a drop of a sailor’s blood;
under the additions, a river of tender blood.
A river that sings and flows
past bedrooms in the boroughs-
and it’s money, cement or wind
in New York’s counterfeit dawn.
I know the mountains do exist.
And without wisdom’s eyeglasses,
too. But I didn’t come to see the sky.
I’m here to see the clouded blood,
the blood that sweeps machines over waterfalls
and the soul toward the cobra’s tongue.
Every day in New York, they slaughter,
four million ducks,
five million hogs,
two thousand pigeons to accommodate the tastes of the dying,
one million cows,
one million roosters
that smash the skies into pieces.
It’s better to sob while honing the blade
or kill dogs on the delirious hunts
than to resist at dawn
the endless milk trains,
the endless blood trains
and the trains of roses, manacled
by the dealers in perfume.
The ducks and the pigeons,
and the hogs and the lambs
lay their drops of blood
under the multiplications,
and the terrified bellowing of the cows wrung dry
fills the valley with sorrow
where the Hudson gets drunk on oil.
I denounce all those
who never think of the other half,
the irredeemable half,
who raise their mountains of concrete
where the hearts of little
forgotten animals beat
and where all of us will fall
in the final fiesta of jackhammers.
I spit in your faces.
That other half hears me,
eating, pissing, flying in their purity,
like the supers’ children
who take their flimsy palettes
to the holes in spaces where
insects’ antennas are rusting.
This is not hell, this is the street.
That is not death. That is the fruit stand.
There are broken rivers and distances just out of reach
in the cat’s paw smashed by a car,
and I hear the song of the worm
in the hearts of many young girls.
Rust, fermentation, earth tremors.
You yourself are earth drifting among numbers in the office
What am I going to do, put the landscapes in their right
Put in good order the loves that soon turn into photographs,
that soon become pieces of wood and mouthfuls of blood?
No, no: I denounce,
I denounce the conspiracy of these deserted offices
which erase the plans of the forest,
and I offer myself as food for the cows milked empty
when their bellowings fill the valley
where the Hudson becomes drunk with oil.
Federico García Lorca, 1929-1930
(translation of the first half of the poem by Greg Simon and Steven F. White)
(translation of the second half of the poem by Galway Kinnell)
I am suspicious September 24, 2011Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Fortunate mortal! the tide of Time has turned for you! But remember that her all is enchantment,–that you have fallen under the spell of the dead,–that the lights and the colors and the voices must fade away at last into emptiness and silence.
— Lafcadio Hearn, “Strangeness and Calm: from Lafacadio Hearn’s Japan
It seems at times that we have fallen not just into the habits deep rooted as City Park Oaks but from some high place where the color of the comment that greeted me in my too-early morning mail seemed inconceivable. Discussing the City’s decision on a new development at the site of the old Canal Street Walgreens someone I respect suggested that the high end retail the City Council suggested appropriate would have to wait for the urban removal of “the trash retails, the trashy people…” at that end of downtown Canal Street.
This came from one of the reasonable people on this neighborhood mailing list, someone I have come to respect. Perhaps it was the time it was written–2:44 a.m. when insomnia or an evening’s drinking leaves us in the company of the monsters of the Id. Or perhaps it was one of those black moments when no one on the sponsor list returns your call, the night is blinding dark and that bottle of Old Jim Crow somehow falls into the shopping bag. Perhaps she meant something entirely different: the homeless and drifters who people Canal Street, something else.
I have shocked a few people when discussing race when I borrow a line from AA and announce, “my name is Mark, and I am a rascist” but the curse we carry in this town and all across the south is an almost genetic propensity for the views we were simmered in all through our childhoods, from the screaming white women of Ninth Ward railing against desegregation on the television fifty years ago to the genteel way my grandmother would say the world “nigra.”
There was a brief window in 2005 and 2006 when it seemed things might be different. We all gathered together in church halls and unflooded cafeterias, people of all races and incomes, renters and homeowners, babies of Charity and Hotel Dieu, as optimistic as the liberated citizens of the first soviets. We seemed poised on the edge of something revolutionary, a people ready to take back our city from the forces that had run it into the ground for a century, anxious to build a bright and shining city on the hill out of the ruins of the flood, one made in our own image, out of our imaginations.
Our Menshevik innocence and naivete would soon enough be dashed.
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ….
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark-—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I was the housing chair of the loose collective called the Mid-City Recovery Group, and the fact that the established neighborhood organization would not lend their name to the proceedings should have been a clue. There was something afoot that could undermine the power structures built over centuries, something full of dangerous possibilities. One of the problems we faced was a lack of rental housing. The Road Home program (for what is was worth) was finally coughing up some money for home owners but nothing was being done for the small landlords, the owners of doubles, that made up much of the housing stock of Mid-City, at least not in a proper way. I stood in a small store buying cigarettes one morning and listened to a few tradesmen dressed in the motley colors of the houses painted yesterday, complaining how people were slapping up coats of Zinzer over the mold so as to cash in on the skyrocketing rents.
There was nothing on the horizon that promised better until some ambitious individuals, the sort we were quick to call carpetbaggers, stepped in and proposed to renovate several buildings into apartments, among them the old Crystal plant everyone in town knew from the sign that rose above the Pontchartrain Expressway. They planned to leverage tax credits that would require the set-asides by income. We did our research carefully. We had the architects assigned to our group by the city check into these developers and the answer came back they were first rate. The New York Housing Authority, we were told, never speaks–even off the record–about their development partners but this particular group had won their private praise for the work they did. The construction was first rate, their screening of tenants and management after the fact were stellar. These were not some “Section 8 OK” landlords but people who still believed they could make an honest buck off of urban redevelopment and be proud of what they did.
The group required some approval from the neighborhood before the tax subsidies could be released and the old-line neighborhood group would have none of that. A letter from our ad hoc group, however, would suffice. My own ad hoc committee was divide but I convinced them we needed to bring it to the full group for a vote. They did not approve, but I was allowed to go forward.
The tension in the church sanctuary that night was palpable as I made my arguments: there is no money in sight for the small landlords who made up much of the neighborhood, the city was starved for affordable housing for the low-wage workers that make our economy work. These people were first rate, would take an abandoned building in a blighted corner of our neighborhood and make something good of it, provide the affordable rental housing the city desperately needed.
As the evening progressed into its second hour I felt like Lawrence of Arabia in the film scene in which the victorious tribesmen of Arabia argue over what to do with Damascus after taking it from the Ottomans, wondering if this is what it was like to organize the first parliament in a newly minted country that had only known the authority of the village and the clan. I heard the word “Section Eight” spoken in a way I had heard before in our prior deliberations but never with such incendiary force, as if it were a synonym for al-Qaida.
I won that battle after those two ugly hours but fell away from the recovery group soon after, more worn out than disillusioned. We had, after all, carried the day. But somewhere inside a naive idea died: that the flood had washed away the old divisions, made us all the children of Katrina, wandering through the desert on our way to the promised land.
“The Bitch didn’t care. Her waters came up the MRGO and took the paint-bare, black-eyed-pea shotguns of the Lower Nine the same as it took the Bunny Bread, virgin-in-a-tub brick ranch houses of Chalmette. Claiborne Avenue or Judge Perez drive, they cried and struggled and drowned just the same. The waters that swept up Canal Boulevard and Paris Avenue didn’t stop in at the Hibernia to check anybody’s balance. They took everyone in their path, no checks accepted.”
— Mark Folse, “Talking with the King”, Wet Bank Guide
I believed that once, when I was willing to stick my neck out and defend our crazy mayor’s Martin Luther King day speech of 2006, mindful of having heard similar things said when I stood outside Black churches while working for politicians (us white staffers left outside to leaflet cars but I would often stand by an open window and smoke a cigarette, listening to the glorious preaching and music). But the disillusionments came fast and furious: listening to Stacey Head’s mocking of housing activists bent on preserving the craftsman-built old housing projects so people could come home, listening to the assembled ministers defend the right of a black contractor to charge ridiculous rates for garbage collection and calling out as racist anyone who questioned why we would pay twice what neighboring parishes did for the same service.
I belong to multiple neighborhood mailing lists (the one I am an administrator of in the place I no longer live, the one where I am now renting an apartment on the Stalling Park end of the fashionable precincts near the Bayou, on what I call the Fortin Frontier. There are days when I am more comfortable with Gentilly Boulevard than with Esplanade Avenue, and if asked where I live I will say Gentilly.
Another early morning email was a discussion of some police action just a few blocks over, a prowler in a back yard, which ended with one writer saying if you see anything suspicious call 9-1-1. Good enough advice until the last line: “and you get to decide who is suspicious.” While my neighborhood mailing lists come no where near the tenor of the comments on NOLA.com, there are days when I am tempted to sweep all of that email into the delete folder unread, or even to unsubscribed. My revolutionary days are behind me, and as I go through my files I sometimes wonder if I should stick that Mid-City Housing folder up in the same box where my copies of Bakunin on Anarchy and Trostky’s Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution quietly crumble with age.
I keep coming back to something I wrote years ago at another nadir of enthusiasm, something that stands for me along with a few other quotes by better writers: Sun Ra’s “Its after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” or the words of poet and playwright Raymond “Moose” Jackson that are inked on my arm around my fleur de lis, the ones I think said in so few words everything I tried to say in my own thousands of words written on what it is like to live list in postdiluvian New Orleans: “I am not alright, but I am upright.”
I may never give up entirely, surrender completely to the insular tribal loyalty of “the friends I have gathered together here on this thin raft” and will come back and write another post like this, triggered by some event or remark that seems to call out for an answer. Or maybe not. Until then I will leave you with this:
“Perhaps I ask for too much. If history and the city consumes us all one-by-one but the city lives on, that perhaps what was always intended, why were were all lured home. In the end, perhaps [author Thomas] Pynchon has given us the model to surviving it’s after the end of the world. If history has gone too wrong for any one of us to stop what is happening around us, maybe it is better to amble down a shady street in New Orleans without a particular thought in my head except the distant sound of what might be [Pynchon’s anti-hero character Tyrone] Slothrop’s harmonica, to disappear into the random noise in the signal.”
At the Diagnostic Center September 21, 2011Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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somebody may die tonight
& nobody knows when
pour a little whiskey
turn off CNN
the sky is full of stars that float
like candles in a field
surrender up the gravity
let your body yield.
tomorrow you may wake up
to some alarming news
the coffee pot, the ticking clock
the office socks and shoes
tonight there are no messages
nobody’s making deals
surrender up the gravity
let your body yield.
some think they’re the masters
but everyone’s a slave
dig your share of treasure
& make yourself a grave
you buy your weekly ticket
but you know your fate is sealed.
surrender up the gravity
let your body yield
the system’s full of sickness
& someone’s going to die
’cause the cure is much too painful
let the sleeping dogs all lie
swallow all your medicine
& pray you will be healed
surrender up the gravity
let your body yield.
The Wrath of Achilles September 10, 2011Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: 9-11, 9/11
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I was going to write something about 9/11, but I think this says much of what I had to say and I have to get up at 4:30 am for a flight out of town. So read this instead.
Ars Longa, Vita Brevis September 5, 2011Posted by The Typist in je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember, second line, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Micheal Showers
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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.
Lucky August 28, 2011Posted by The Typist in 504, cryptical envelopment, Federal Flood, Hurricane Katrina, NOLA, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: W, Waiting for Godot
Survivor guilt is a peculiar condition. I am one of a small handful of avid New Orleans partisans who lost nothing in 2005 except our minds. Two of us moved home, the third completed his interrupted relocation to New Orleans. To this day I ask myself (as every man who has not served does as he scatters popcorn on the floor watching an old war movie): what if I was there? What would I have done? Would I be equal to the task.
If I knew the answer to the question I would have grabbed Ray by the lapels and slammed him to the wall until I could tell him, and I expect he would have done the same. The third of us died never knowing the answer. I think of Ray gutting house after house in the miserable heat, of Ashley always in the front rank banging his spear against his shield, taunting our enemies. Did Ashley die in part because of that lingering doubt, the drive to prove himself not just the equal but of the first rank? Did they do this because of that survivor guilt, because (as Ray once explained eloquently) we were not at Bastogne?
What did you ever do? I was once asked in anger. Did you gut a house? Did you volunteer for habitat? All you did was write, she said, and that’s true: all I did was write, vaporous words that amount to what? Perhaps that is why I am haunted by this video, why I was heart-broken when the original poster took it down from You Tube (and perhaps some copyright holder will be on my case in the morning, demanding I do the same).
I missed the production of Waiting for Godot in the Gentilly Lakefront in 2006, unable to drag a collection of friends away from drinks in the back yard in time to get in, and I have been disappointed about that every since. What better place to watch Godot than in the Ninth Ward or in the brown fields of broken Gentilly, but perhaps there was a healing in that evening I missed, people too busy lingering as we will over cocktails to be on time. I look back and I understand it was better that way, ending up at the Circle Bar listening to Gal Holiday instead of experiencing the existential angst of Godot on a flooded lot.
On good days Radiohead’s Lucky runs through my head. Those are the good days. I feel my luck could change. Its gonna be a glorious day.
Still, I am haunted by this video. When I was searching for another post on Wet Bank Guide I was reminded it was gone from the Internet, and I went searching, finally finding the entire Beckett on Film version in slices online, finding the complete set on Amazon and spending a hundred dollars I don’t have to order it, spending more money on an online service that let me scrape this off to edit down to what is for me the essential speech, the question I will spend the rest of my life answering.
Was I sleeping while the other ones suffered?
In all that what truth will there be?
The air is full of our cries.
Requiem August 28, 2011Posted by The Typist in 8-29, Federal Flood, ghosts, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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In the dark night of our soul Your shattered dreamers Make them whole O! Mother Mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace Lead us to a higher place/Mary…
I almost didn’t republish this video I first put up last year on Aug. 28.
This week I was on WWNO and Susan Larson asked me to read a few lines she had selected from the book Carry Me Home, which first appeared as a blog post Ghosts of the Flood on Wet Bank Guide.
“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.”
Today there is a second line down Rampart to celebrate the opening of the new Healing Center in the Bywater. My son isn’t interested in going so I guess I’m going to miss it. It is time for us to look around and notice that our troubles are now often of our own making, the same curse of class and the lash that has troubled us for generations. Some days I wonder if we are no more capable of of overcoming ourselves than the Balkans, that we are too long practiced in our judgements by race and place. I have to hope not, to think that in every generation we here in the city grow a little better.
“We are the ones who came through and came back”, back to wrack and ruin, taxes and Entergy bills that would break a weaker people. We are the ones who did not flee to Metairie and Chalmette or to the East. My neighbors are the strongest people in America, and all I can think of is sitting on my stoop all the days of Jazz Fest and yes, there were tourists but there were many of us as well, those who could afford a ticket and the artists listening like me from across the fence hoping to see a bit of jewelry, and those hawing water at days end to pay the water bill, all milling about on Fortin Street in the joy and excitement of the moment.
Tomorrow is a solemn day, and I am going to post this piece because from the earliest days of the Wet Bank Guide, from the speculation on the dead through the first posts of All Saints Day 2005, all of my posts about those events have centered on one theme: Remember. Je me souviens. But simply to post this without recognizing it is only half the story is false. It is funereal in a way that does not fit New Orleans. Before this long weekend of remembrance is over, it is time to kick the dust of the grave from off our shoes and remember the city as it was, the way we would make it again. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, if the women don’t get you then the liquor must, bass drum going one, two, one two three four and fast military tattoo of the unmuffled snare and at last the first trumpet notes of Oh, Didn’t He Ramble.
I think I will post that later today. For now, it’s Eliza Gilkyson’s Requiem which I first heard on NPR in early Fall of 2005, a song written for the victims of the Christmas Tsunami but which someone at NPR wisely picked up again after the Federal Flood. The audio on this is poor. You can hear the song still on NPR if you prefer, as this video contains disturbing images of the dead. I remember that moment clearly, driving down 16th Street South in Fargo to pick up my daughter at junior high. Before the song ended I had to pull over to the side of the road. I was late.
You Must Say These Words August 9, 2011Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Alabama, British Petroleum, Orange Beach, Platoon, The Day the Earth Stood Still
“You must say these words: Klaatu barada nikto”
— The Day the Earth Stood Still
A few days before I headed off with the kids for a long weekend at Orange Beach, Alabama, I found myself watching the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu. I did this because I have at least eight books I should be reading, submissions to prepare for the fall opening of literary journals, a trip to pack for, vacation days to “make up” for and a filthy apartment. What else should I have been doing?
If you haven’t seen the remake of the 1951 classic, the twist is that we are a danger not to other life in the universe, but to one of the handful of planets capable of supporting complex life. Klaatu commands a fleet of globular arks that are collecting all the life forms available prior to unleashing Armageddon on the human race. I found myself rooting for Klaatu to relent and listen to the Jennifer Connelly’s character’s plea to not destroy the earth. We can change, she kept telling Klaatu. Really we can. I mean, what else should I have been doing?
Then I drove to Alabama. There are an awful lot of British Petroleum-branded gas stations in Alabama, not far from where local fisherman rose up last year and blockaded Bayou Le Batre when they were not hired by BP for clean up. The Gulf Coast was perched at the very edge of a genuine Armageddon last year, and while I found the water clear and full of fish it is not certain what the long term affect of all the Corexit spread in the water will be, or where that sunken oil slick the Corexit was intended to create to keep the magnitude of the spill keep out of site is and what that hidden oil will mean to the future of the Gulf. Take away tourism and fishing and the coast will die. We would see a forced displacement of populations that would dwarf Katrina’s millions, and be for all intents permanent.
And I found myself wondering how to say in Klaatu’s language: “kill us all and let god sort it out.”
The trip to Florida was a last minute affair: the realization I had a couple of empty days on my work calendar, the weekend before school starts for my 16-year old son, a desire to get the hell out of town for a few days and do as little as possible. I wound up booking a place across the highway from beach, a room thankfully in the back away from the Perdido Beach Boulevard.. As I sat on the balcony to smoke, looking out southeast over the highway and the ocean beyond, I could not hear the breakers the way I could in the past in a beach-front room. Instead I could hear a perverted echo of it, the doppler effect of the incessantly passing cars on as they moved out of my sight and behind the building, a sinister sonic twin to the sound of a breaking wave and its hissing retreat down the sand.
All those cars, so many pulling sports fishing boats on a weekend afternoon, and god only knows how many gassed up at the local BP station. Barada nikto my ass.
Still, I managed to have a good time. I felt the fish tickle my feet and laid in the sun until I was a pleasant Zatarain’s red. We ate a couple of good meals, watched movies, talked. It was a good weekend. Underneath it all, however, were all those BP signs I passed, the cars lined up at the pumps. My faith in the human race continues to dwindle every time I find something like a coastal county full of unburned BP stations. My own personal disaster film begins to resemble one of the zombie movies: a small band of people I genuinely care about and respect against a world gone monstrous.
The first time I saw Day of the Dead I thought it had an almost happy ending, at least the promise of survival for those on the boat. This weekend I caught the last five minutes (my son loves zombie moves) and watched the credits, which sneakily offers an alternate ending of zombies on the island. I walked back out onto the balcony to smoke and listen to the whizzing cars, frantically spinning the wheel on my Ipod looking for something uplifting, perhaps Woodstock or even Wooden Ships, without luck. Instead I discovered I have three different songs with Down in the Hole in the title. I settled for the Eighties Stones song. “Will all your money/Buy you forgiveness/Keep you from sickness/Or keep you from cold?/Will all your money/Keep you from sadness/Keep you from madness/When you’re down in the hole?”
I saw a sunbow the last day at the beach, something I often saw in cold weather up north but don’t see very often down here. As I walked along the shore, looking for interesting bits of shell but thinking Plastic is Forever and imagining dark variants on the old diamond jewelry ad the appearance of the sunbow seemed a marvelous miracle, for a moment lifted me out of a dark reverie. I remembered the promise to Noah and thought of the water thick with fish and only one dead on the beach. Then I remembered that god lied and the waves of last year blood red as Exodus.
To mungle up yet another movie reference: You must say these words, “Dump everything you got left ON MY POS. I say again, I want all you’re holding INSIDE the perimeter…”
We Shall Gather by the River July 4, 2011Posted by The Typist in 504, 504ever, Federal Flood, FYYFF, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: July Fourth
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
It is another July Fourth here in New Orleans, the largest of the United States’ Minor Outlying Island. I am not sure what to say on these national holidays of the Central Government. I have long ago publicly declared my sole allegiance to the City of New Orleans, forsaking all other. I shall live out the rest of my days here and die here, and any who care to dispute that had best come prepared to join me.
I won’t rehearse the litany of woes behind that statement. Today I shall concern myself with the doneness of the steaks, the sweetness of the corn and the icy chill of the beer as the temperature climbs toward 100. I will ride over to Gretna and buy some fireworks, not so much in celebration but as the Chinese use them, because as Jorma Kaukonen observed in the liner notes to the Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers, the pentacles in their flag do not keep the evil spirits away. And when the dark comes I will find a place to gather at the river with the citizens of this city for the public fireworks, remembering there is no finer or more honorable place on this planet to stand than in their company.
Bon Mois de Messidor, Décade II, Jour de Quintidi.
Silence is Violence 2010 January 11, 2011Posted by The Typist in Crime, je me souviens, Murder, Remember, the dead, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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I began listing the murder victims of New Orleans from 2007 in early 2008, partly because I could not make a Silence is Violence march. I did it again the following year because of the number of people I discovered go searching for their loved ones (I hope, and not gloating over their victims). I didn’t do this last year because I started a writing project (unfinished) called Murder Ballads instead, but I feel bad I did not post a list last year. Since NOLA.com now has a database of murder victims with links to the news stories on that site, I may go back and do 2009, but for now, here are the victims of 2010.
I have copied liberally from NOLA.com, giving more detail than I have in the past.
What I wrote in a piece about one victim still about sums up the reason for this exercise best:
Everyone person on that list, even if they had gone down that dark path and died with a handgun in their waste band and an empty look in their eyes, all of them were once as Chanel once was, as my own children once were: as innocent as a lamb in the lap of Jesus.
The list is long so I’ve placed it on a page here.
Begging Your Indulgence January 10, 2011Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Poetry, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Allen Ginsberg, The Sick Rose, William Blake
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Nothing says “cheer me up” like Allen Ginsberg growling over his harmonium a bit of William Blake. There is some secret key in these words, perhaps in part Ginsberg’s ululating tremulo and the howling of the harmonium, that distills the sad impulse to listen to this into a moment of beauty, the flash of hopeful light in the eyes of a tubercular Covent Garden flower girl holding out her basket of violets. You purchase a bunch, and that simple act is worth more in the eyes of death than a hundred indulgent scapulars of St. Jude.
The Brink January 8, 2011Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, Rebirth, Recovery, Sun Ra, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK, Writing.
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?
The Eye of Moloch December 9, 2010Posted by The Typist in 504, 8-29, cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Howl, Moloch
watches over us in our labors.
“Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!”
— Allen Ginsburg in Howl
Village Ghetto Land December 8, 2010Posted by The Typist in Dancing Bear, music, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Shield of Beauty, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Songs in the Key of Life, Steve Wonder, Village Ghetto Land
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It has probably been 20 years since I last heard this song. I think I still have my vinyl but it’s somewhere I’m not, as is the turntable, or I might have played that record to death last night instead of climbing into bed at six to sleep off a burgeoning cold. It puts me in mind of Sun Ra’s words about lifting the Shield of Beauty against all the ugly of the world. I think of Stevie Wonder and Rahsaan Roland Kirk but the image of the blind seer has been with us since humanity first learned to tell stories. Just ask Tiresias should you be (un)lucky enough to find yourself in a position to ask.
I have very eclectic taste in music, but when I offered my son a copy of spoken word artist Katalyst’s CD he told me he’d been listening to gansta rap, something I have no use for. I was a professional propagandist too long to not take seriously the impact of glorifying violence, misogyny and death, and the evidence can be found all to often on the streets of New Orleans,sometimes lying cold in a pool of blood. This song is taken from the same mean streets, changed only since the 1970s by the drugs of choice and the efficiency of the weapons and the demolition of everyone’s momma’s house in favor of Urban Renewal (remember how well that worked in the Sixties and Seventies).
So somewhere here at the midpoint between Thanksgiving and Xmas, when most people are too busy at the orgy of shopping and parties to consider what these holidays are about, too deeply enmeshed in their traditional Xian faith to see the turning of the solar year as a time to stop and think about what those holidays tell them about the world, about the cyclical rebirth of the world and what opportunities that presents (think New Year’s resolutions), to sated by celebration to think back on all the parables of the Carpenter they’ve snoozed through the rest of the year, along comes this song and perhaps if they hear it, it will hopefully stop them in their tracks for a minute and give them pause.
I think I may buy a stack of those mini-CDs and give everyone I know this Christmas a single (with an A and B side of course) of this song and The Rebel Jesus (which I’m bound to post up here before too long).