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Never Get Off The Boat (Unless You’re Going All The Way)) August 30, 2011

Posted by The Typist in Biography, cryptical envelopment, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
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Well, no
thanks. I’ve had enough. I’m going to
pull myself up over the side, and get
all the way out of my mind.

Just Normal, by Everette Maddox.

I introduced someone recently to the film Bulworth. Whether your are a regular reader of this blog or an accidental visitor, this may strike you as just another (uncharacteristic, for me) Dear Diary blog entry of the sort that litters the internet.

Instead, I wanted to use this moment to explain to the reader when it was I started to get all the way out of my mind, as Everette Maddox puts it. Or, as the person I was introducing to the film suggested, when I found it. Some people assume it was Katrina and the Federal Flood that was the watershed moment in my life, and to some extent that’s true. It was, however, just a milestone in a journey that began earlier with the viewing of this film.

Bulworth came out in 1998 but I didn’t see it until the early oughts, at a time when I was a legislative district chairman of the North Dakota Democratic Party, had stood as a nominal candidate for the state senate against an undefeatable Republican incumbent in our suburban district. A veteran of statewide and presidential campaigns and former Capital Hill staffer, some people in the party no doubt had high hopes for me. In the period after the Clinton impeachment I was, however, already drifting away from politics, disillusioned at any practical hope for comity necessary for a real democracy to work.

The film is the story of a United States senator from California, a former cast iron liberal with a charcoal drawing of Bobby Kennedy on his wall. It opens with him watching reels of his campaign ads, which attempt to recast him as a moderately conservative neo-liberal of the Clinton stripe. He is unshaven, with an uneaten pizza on his desk. He is crying.

I won’t reveal too much of the film (as part of the purpose of this post is to encourage you to finish this piece, navigate to Netflix or Blockbuster and order it immediately.) It is enough to know he is having a nervous breakdown over this opportunistic transformation, and as he watches his spots in endless loop has already arranged for his own murder, has decided to betray his principles completely to kill an insurance reform bill in exchange for an under the table gift of a $10 million life insurance policy payable to his daughter from the insurance lobby.

In the last days of his campaign–and his life–he breaks down completely, crumpling his carefully written speeches and instead telling various constituents the unvarnished truth: they only matter in so far as they can donate money. He starts in an Africa-American church, and in the delirium resulting from days without food or sleep he picks up three young black women, who lead him ultimately to an after hours hip-hop club in Compton where the patrons must check their weapons at the door. By the end of a long made night of smoking blunts, he emerges and gives a scathing, hip-hop inspired performance to a multi-million dollar fundraiser, wandering through the audience and calling out each special interest in the room, what they have paid and what has been delivered in return.

It is brilliant.

The plot you will say is implausible Hollywood. I will grant you that. It is A Fiction (as Tim O’Brien brilliantly subtitled his compelling narrative of the Vietnam War) and yet every moment and word of dialogue is true, the capitalized and dangerous Truth: producer and star of the film Warren Beatty laying out the dirty secrets of our profoundly broken and corrupt political system for all the world to see. It is possible for the sort of politically attuned viewer who would be drawn to the film to treat it as comic exaggeration with the same dishonest ease I would, as a Capitol Hill press secretary and speech writer, defend the Political Action Committee system as groups of thoughtful citizens banding together to advance their beliefs.

Bullshit. Bulworth was a revolutionary act of propaganda masquerading as entertainment, and among a more thoughtful people it might have become the spark that started an an uprising but Americans are a lazy, self-satisfied people. I watch the revolutions sweeping North Africa and the East the way I watched those that took down the remnants of the Soviet bloc and wonder how the residents of the land of the free and the home of the brave sat dumbly through the coup of 2000, the angry mob threatening violence to disrupt the counting of votes. And we did nothing.

In our very real and carefully crafted system of corporate-regulated free speech and superficially open markets, Bulworth was missed or ignored by most, dismissed by the Right as the very propaganda it was, trumpeted by the powerless left who learned nothing new from it except some current urban slang, and the film was allowed to slide into obscurity on the shelves of Blockbuster by the people the film was intended to perhaps unseat.

I’ll stop here because I don’t want to spoil the film for you, but watching it uncorked something inside me. I wanted to rent a room at the Fargo Civic Center and show the film on endless loop to the earnest, white-bread delegates at the state Democratic Convention where my wife and I would serve as the page coordinators. If you have seen the film, you understand why I would have been thrown out of the Civic Center, if not the party itself, as someone who has lost his mind, someone as dangerous as Bulworth unleashed.

I never screened the film but somewhere inside I had lost interest in the Democratic Party as a meaningful institution, in politics in general. In that same year, the candidate for governor–a beloved and long-serving woman Attorney General who seemed a shoe-in for the job–had her campaign smashed when someone lead her private medical records to the press, revealing she had breast cancer. Although such a leak was a felony, there was not even an attempt at an investigation. No one was punished, the murmuring began, and she lost.

After that, I had no more faith in the system than Bulworth. I stopped reading the liberal site Democratic Underground, found reasons not to attend local party meetings, quit watching the talking heads on cable news: just drifted away.

All through the movie, the blind seer Rastaman the Griot appears, repeats some variation of the phrase “you got to be a spirit, Bullworth, you can’t be no ghost,” tells him at one point he must sing. I have one phrase tattooed on my body and if I were to choose another, that would be it, my soul exposed on my skin in a bit of ink, but at the time while I understood exactly what Rastaman meant I was to weak or confused to take his advice myself. I made it the signature on my email, that cheap refuge of the Internet intellectual, and got on with life.

A few years later, in the build-up to Gulf War II, then-president George Bush visited Fargo, N.D. Some zealous state party operative assembled a list of 41 people who should not be admitted to his speech, a list including my own city councilwoman. It was leaked to the press, a large black headline above the fold, and a list of names that would come to be known in liberal circles as The Fargo 41, mine included. My wife was flabbergasted and angry, embarrassed by this dangerous publicity. What would people think?

It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Bulworth broke something inside me, the same lingering naive faith in change and possibility that lead me at 20 to join the Young Socialist Alliance, fraternal youth wing of the Fourth International. (That’s Trotskyist gibberish for a commie), the same change-the-world impulse that led me to become a suburban newspaper journalist at a salary in the high four figures (pause for arithmetic), what brought me back to the N.D. Democratic Party even after I had walked away from a decade on Capitol Hill years earlier.

Fast forward a few years to late August, 2005. I am standing atop a renovated old hotel in downtown Fargo at a political fundraiser, drinking too much and in shock. I was expecting my cell phone to ring at any moment, a reporter from The [Fargo] Forum calling to talk to me about the failure of the levees in my home town of New Orleans. Every one of the political and news junkies on that roof-top bar had spent the last several days watching scenes from the Convention Center and the Superdome. At one point I stood in a circle that included the former chief-of-staff to a North Dakota U.S. senator. I was trying to explain why people would be trapped in the city, would take desperate measures to find food and water, do what they needed to survive.

At one pause, the former chief-of-staff took a leisurely sip from his drink then said, our people would never behave like those animals. The entire circle of people turned to look at me. I said nothing for what seemed an eternity but was more likely 30 seconds, still a long pause in a conversation. I was later told that my drink hand was just perceptibly trembling, that every vein above my neck was visible, my blood-pressure no doubt at some dangerous figure. I was contemplating if it would be possible to drag this man from his chair and throw him over the railing, leaving him a broken splatter on the street six blocks below.

Instead of impromptu mayhem, I ultimately uprooted my family and moved them to the disaster zone, itself an act of questionable rationality. I remember reading the Little House on the Prairie books to my daughter when she was very young and finding in these tales of supposed Midwestern fortitude echoes of the dark Southern Gothic, wondering why no one saw in the father a tragic figure dragging his family from place to place on the godforsaken Plains of the nineteenth century, twisting straw to burn so as not to freeze to death.

I became that man and they dutifully followed, but they could not hear the howling ghosts that haunted Faulkner and Styron in Little House either.

Katrina was a long time ago. Get over it.

I can’t know if the person who supposedly said this about me truly did, as I only heard it second hand and the situation doesn’t permit me to ask. The words were intended to wound like a slap to an hysterical person in a movie, as if my current personal circumstances were a weakness, an inability to pick myself up, slap the dust off with my cowboy hat like a good American and get on with life.

The fact is, I have, just not in the way intended by the remark or implied by the movie analogy. I walked away from the fight, left the obvious plot unresolved and rode off not into some Technicolor John Ford sunset but into the barren hills and desert, a man with no name leaving my American dreams behind me.

I don’t write about Katrina and the Federal Flood much on this blog. That was another time, another place. I reached a point a few years ago when I hung up the Closed sign at the Wet Bank Guide, ending on what I though was a perfect coda to that tale. Still, you can never escape the past. The road you are on, winding over the hills before you to god only know where, unwinds behind you just the same and every twist and turn has formed your soul the way climbing the hills of San Francisco shape the calves of the natives.

Katrina was a damned big hill to climb and my legs still ache, but it was not as simple as a single event upending an otherwise carefully scripted life. It was instead just the snapping of one critical strand of the rope that kept me moored to conventionality, a strand in which many threads had already unraveled.

Watching Bulworth I realized that I had spent a third of my adult life in the service of a lie, not just a simple lie, the stories we tell ourselves to live, but one of the Big Lies, a term coined by Adolft Hitler in Mein Kempf. He attributed this to the Jews in his book, but used the same technique effectively to his own ends. I used to jokingly refer to Joseph Goebbels as the father of modern political public relations, not the sort of remark that makes you popular on Capital Hill,but it illustrated the Big Life I was a part of, telling myself I had good reasons to be an actor in that drama. The movie laid out for me, my own role, the stories I had told myself to live.

Katrina was another strand snapped, not a fiction like Bulworth but the reality of seeing all the big lie tapestry of modern American life unravel. This snapped not just another thread but a critical remaining strand, the moment Our Hero is left spinning in the wind, suspended and helpless and the camera turns to the rocks below. Still, I had to get up and go to work in the morning to pay the homeowners insurance I knew was worthless, to pay the taxes to a government I recognized did not exist to serve me and which did not represent me in any meaningful way, reminded routinely in the evening in a casually emasculating way that I was not paid enough for the stress and hours of the job that paid all those bills, just another sucker on the corporate treadmill.

I had to try and be present as a husband and father and not drift into Willy Loman fatalism but it was hard. I was shell-shocked not by a single event in the past but by the horror of getting up every morning and pretending none of it had ever happened, that I still believed, as bitter as a priest consecrating the eucharist to an absconded god, doing so because as a man he understands and tries to fulfill his obligation to the people in the pews who look upon him as the agent of their own salvation.

And somewhere in this tragi-comedy, unconsciously at first but deliberately as time went on, I finally “[pulled] myself up over the side, and…all the way out of my mind” as the poet puts it. I was in the condition Joan Didion famously catalogs in her essay The White Album, the piece that opens with the line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…” and continues:

[My life] was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised. I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot… [In] what would probably be the middle of my life I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical.”

I have not mislaid my script exactly, except perhaps at the end of the last act, a consequence of my unconscious decision to cut the last strands. The script instead fell apart, large parts of it blown away on the wind until the larger tale was incomprehensible, the individual stories unraveling in predictable drama but without continuity. To quote another film, my life had become something like Synechdoche, N.Y., a sound stage production in which the only coherent thread was my own unraveling.

There was only one thing to do: send the crew home, and go back to re-write. The answer to the problem of lost coherence, to the unraveling of my own personal narrative, was to take back the script and begin again. The convenient Wal-Mart verities of that life, the conventional measures of career and marriage, had lost their hold on me (and I my hold on them), and so had no place in the script not because they were wrong but because the script was a mess of revisions, the story unraveling in the telling.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. I had been doing that, I realized, for years, but the stories where changing. Here on these blogs, and in other places where I write: the much revised first chapters of a stalled novel, in poetry, in more private journals: all these words and all the hours on the computer from which they were born were leading to something, the discovery that there was a door in the horizon of that sound stage, that I was writing the prologue of the story of the rest of my life.

What have you ever done for New Orleans, someone once asked me in anger. You haven’t gutted a house or help build a new one in Arabi. Fair enough, but I’ve written and done it well enough at some moments to be noticed, to fell the Potemkin villages and tell instead the beauty of the Dnieper River. Once you realize that it’s not a wonderful life and that like Willie Loman you are worth more to this world dead than alive you have choices to make.

And I choose to write, to spend as many hours of the rest of my life as I can reading, studying and writing because somewhere deep inside I have both a cautionary tale to tell and an abiding love of the beautiful particulars of this fucked up world to share. Perhaps no one will notice. Perhaps I am only good at poetry and, by definition, irrelevant. Still, I don’t understand how any rational person can sit through Bulworth or The Truman Show and get up and go to work the next morning. Am I the only one who has finally recognized that to go all the way out of my mind as the only rational response?

Didion, in The White Album, writes about her psychiatric evaluation after “patient experienced an attack of vertigo, nausea and a feeling she was going to pass out.” The extended diagnostic notes are worth reading She ends that section: “By way of comment I offer only that an attack of nausea and vertigo does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”

If I have made bad choices they are my own, and some of the alternatives–Willy Loman’s for example–are worse. In the end it only matters that I spent an entire morning alone in a half-furnished apartment finishing this piece started a few weeks ago, that I had the strength of conviction or (lack of sense enough, take your pick) to pull the publish trigger before I iron my shirts for work, and that you read it through to the end .

You got to be a spirit, Bulworth. You can’t be no ghost. You got to sing, fool.

All-Hands-On-Deck Poetry, Art, & Music Fundraiser August 13, 2010

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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Here’s the info on the 17 Poets! Katrina Anniversary and Gulf Coast benefit event I didn’t have to hand at 5 a.m. Thursday morning as I groggily posted, straight from the 17 Poets! Website:

All-Hands-On-Deck Poetry, Art, and Music Fundraiser

August 29th, 2010 at 5PM

Silent Art Auction will close at 9PM

All Proceeds will benefit the nonprofit: Protectourcoastline.org

$15.00 Donation at Door

Scheduled Events Include Poetry Readings and Multimedia Performances

Musical Guest: Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr and the Zydeco Twisters

Silent Art Auction with work by George Rodrigue

All-Hands-On-Deck BENEFIT for the Gulf Coast Region featuring a stellar array of performances by poets, artists and activists including members of the active Krewe of Dead Pelicans who have been making noise in our streets during this 100+ days of terror.

FOR ALL INFO on how YOU can participate (or contribute) in All-Hands-On-Deck BENEFIT for the GULF COAST REGION, please contact Megan Burns, meganaburns@aol.com.

Certain Death September 12, 2008

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Residents of Galveston Island on the beach Friday morning.

Early morning local weather bulletins from Cameron Parish and coastal Texas included an ominous statement eminiscent of the dire warnings that preceeded Katrina. The National Weather Service’s telepgrahic, ALL CAPS messages early this morning warned people who do not evacuate they “MAY FACE CERTAIN DEATH”. While slightly qualified by the use of may and certain in the same sentence, I think the message is clear for the 20,000 people the local sheriff said this morning remained behind in Galveston County’s mandatory evacuation zone.

I know I should be thinking first of those people who may in fact face certain death, even the fools above and the one in the bear suit dancing on the beach seen on Houston television earlier today. Still, I can’t help but think of the Katrina survivors I am certain are glued to their television, and who will watch this unfold on 7 by 24 coverage on the cable news networks. I watched Hurricane Katrina unfold from almost 1,200 miles away as an expat living in Fargo, N.D. I can only just barely imagine how the people of stayed for Katrina will react to see this tragedy unfold as it very well may. I worry it will be more than some of them can bear.

All of the people of New Orleans are watching and praying for the best for the people in the path of Ike. Tens of thousands of Orlenians (and people all over the Hurricane Coast from Cameron to the Mississippi Coast) who suffered through Katrina and its immediate aftermath understand your plight better than any reporter from the Weather Channel or CNN will ever know.

Paying the Price August 27, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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I think we’ve all that that feeling, the sense that we would love to live at some fantastic vacation destination. I often feel that way when I visit the ocean, a landscape I love almost as much as I love New Orleans. All we see are the beautiful views as we live the lazy life of the visitor and we think: this could go on forever. Why don’t I just move here, open a business, live this life year round?

I wonder sometimes if visitors to New Orleans have that same reaction, if they imagine themselves living in a slave quarters somewhere in the back of the Vieux Carre’, getting some tattoos and a tricked out bicycle and hanging every night on Frenchman Street. It would be a powerful temptation to a cloistered office worker with a sense of the Romantic. Just think, to be here all year: all that food, all that music, Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras.

What they don’t know is that we pay a price to live in these places, whether in New Orleans or on some bucolic bit of Florida beach. When a tropical storm with the makings of a powerful hurricane starts to drift toward the Yucatan Straits, that is when we pay the piper. First there’s worry, then a brief flash of panic. After that, it’s all on autopilot in a sort of state of shock: find a place to stay, pack up the important papers and a bag, gas up the car, start to put away and and tie down outside. Where’s the cat’s travel bag?

People who live in the city hate the term Big Easy because that’s not what life here is about. It’s never been an easy place to live except for the very young and rootless, and the storm blew away a lot of the cheap flops the bohemians once relied on. Crime, corruption, and now the interminable marathon of reconstruction. It’s anything but easy but we find the city compensates for that in other ways, some visible to the tourists and some not. That is why we find ourselves three years after the flood, anxiously watching the Gulf.

We look at Gustav circling our cousin Haiti to the south and know the reckoning is at hand, the price we pay for the life we have. No one here wants to wish a hurricane on someone else. We all know too well what that means. Still, everyone at some level wishes it so, wants to make it go away and knows that the chances are it will not just vanish.

It will be an odd anniversary, this 8-29. By Friday we will have a good idea of our fate (but storms are fickle, watch them until the last moment). Some of us may already have begun to leave. One of the last things I plan to put away is the furniture on the porch. Like some traveler on the last day of vacation, I want to savor that moment and carry it away in memory because of something we all know in New Orleans: I don’t know when I’ll be back to that place again.

That’s a burden most of America can’t imagine: fleeing their homes not knowing when they will come back. It’s a high price to pay, but in the end I know we will be back. That is why the very last thing I will do is to strike the colors, the flag of New Orleans that flies on my house every day of the year, Fourth of July and Christmas. In my head I won’t hear the mournful strains of taps, but something like the dirge march of a brass band, something like St. James Infirmary. Taking down the flag will not be a coda but an act of continuity, an affirmation of who I am. It will come with us to remind us that whatever happens and where ever we are, we are always first and foremost Orleanians. And as we have proved these last three years, we will return.

What You Don’t Know About Katrina August 25, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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Those of you who are regular readers of New Orleans blogs will find few surprises in John Barry’s campaign to educate Americans about the truths of Katrina, New Orleans and the Federal Flood (our term as NOLA bloggers, not Barry’s).

If you find you way to this blog or this post because you are searching on Katrina on the anniversary, then you need to click this link right now and go read what Barry–author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Change America–has to say.

What You Need to Know About Katrina– and Don’t–
Why It Makes Economic Sense to Protect and Rebuild New Orleans

Three Years August 17, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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“I never thought I’d need so many people.”
–David Bowie, Five Years

Every day I drive slowly down rough and littered streets beneath sooty overpasses, through neighborhoods lined with hollow houses, the empty windows watching over the slow collapse of the roads into rubble, the rampant lawns and the vines claiming the roofs. Familiar landmarks are vanished into weed-choked lots even as new buildings rise up here and there. I tell myself this is not a disaster area, it is the New Orleans of memory, the postdiluvian city of shabby gentility slowly settling back into itself. It is the place I remember not transformed but instead amplified by the flood, the decay accelerated by the casual incompetence and common corruption of a government that would shame Haiti.

The streets and sidewalks still sag and heave as they did before, as if something beneath them were trying to break through and reclaim its place. There are more of these upheavals now, as if the flood had woken something that once moved slowly as in a dream, as if what lay below has grown hungry and anxious to completely crack the thin veneer of concrete we call civilization and begin to consume us in ernest. I can no longer be certain whether the roots that tear up the sidewalks run down from the trees, or if they are something clawing up from below, tossing up oaks and cypress to reclaim us for the swamp primeaval.

That is my city: not the delicate traceries of iron balconies or mossy-bricked patios at the end of a gas-lit carriageway in the Quarter–a postcard place for tourists–or the clean and quiet, manse-lined streets in the better parts of Uptown untouched by the flood. I live in the heart of the place, a section named Mid-City but called Back of Town by the cab dispatchers, rows of small houses crowded up to streets drapped in a tangle of overhead black wires, an early 20th century working class neighborhood made good (just), clinging desperately to gentility just a block from the railroad tracks.

Things mostly look good on our stretch of Toulouse Street three years after the levees failed and the city was drowned. Our biggest problem is that all of the rentals are full and its getting hard to park. I can drive to work up Orleans and tell myself it doesn’t look that different, until I get to the fields of sand and debris that were once the Lafitte Housing projects. Or I can take my son to school first, taking a part of my own boyhood route to school up Jefferson Davis and Nashville, and convince myself that things looks much the same as they did three years ago today, or twenty years ago when I left for the east coast.

I can make a point of not venturing into the heart of Gentilly Woods or New Orleans East. I can leave my newspaper folded on the porch, not reading of peoples homes demolished by mistake, or a building badly in need of demolition but ignored collapsing onto someone’s nearly restored house. I can pay no attention to the latest recovery scandal, the diversion of funds to help the elderly and poor into the pockets of the mayor’s brother-in-law. Instead I can make head out to any of a dozen of world’s finest restaurants in the country, then wander out into the night to listen to music you won’t find anywherre else in America, and tell myself everything is going to be alright.

Instead, I find myself getting up most mornings or coming home at night not to the daily paper but to a computer. I login and after vainly checking for comments and counts here, I pull up the writings of dozens of New Orleans bloggers who will not let us forget, who will not let you forget wherever you may be. They are a daily reminder of the ground truth of this place, that our recovery still struggles after three years and will continue for years to come. They remind me as well that I no longer have the time or energy to crusade as I did on Wet Bank Guide for the first two years after the flood, but that the battle goes on.

We are an odd bunch, the NOLA bloggers. I wrote not long ago:

“We are people who write about this city and the people in it… as one of the tethers for our sanity in this crazy place where It’s After the End of the World…part an underground resistance to the poor, lost fuckmooks [in City Hall] on Perdido Street and everywhere you can find them, here and away; to the “shootings happen to someone else, to bad people but not to me” mind set; to the “charter schools are wonderful, just like Catholic school without the tuition or the knee patches and let the rest rot” view of the world; a resistance against anyone who would profit from our pain or settle for less than something better for New Orleans.

“[w]e’re not paragons, of virtue or anything else. We’re as dysfunctional a band as any mid-career high school class, mad as bats as often as not, cranky as an Ash Wednesday hangover and drunk 24-7 on the elixir of New Orleans.”

Our community is an on-line analog of the movement that blossomed two years ago when the government failed to step in to rebuild the city. Organizations rose up in the neighborhoods among those who came home first, and became a movement of civic engagement. Among the leaders that movement cast up were bloggers: Karen Gadbois and Bart Everson most prominently, with dozens of others in the ranks. When it became clear that the government would not save us, the people of New Orleans moved to save themselves and blogging became an important part of that movement.

What we all blog is important because we will not let the government write our story, or the out-of-town journalists with their own angle or even our local newspaper, beholden as it is to the lot of carpetbaggers and scaliwags who are swarming like flies around the recovery money that dribbles down like. We tell our own story, the real story of the drowning and slow rebirth of New Orleans, sometimes from the fly-over view of what might be called the big picture, but more often in the stories of our own neighborhood, our block, ourselves. The people who would write our history for their own ends must contend with us. They have their own reasons, their own agendas. We have only one purpose: the salvation of the city and our own post-traumitized selves in the bargain.

Who do I read? If I start to name names, I know I will leave someone out, but on the odd chance you have just stumbled in here from elsewhere, I have to call out at least a few. Karen’s Squandered Heritage, Eli’s We Could Be Famous, the anonymous bloggers David’s Moldy City and Dambala’s American Zombie do not just take apart yesterday’s news; they are a at least a day (if not months) ahead at least. Karen and Eli can take credit for breaking the most recent City Hall Scandal. For a taste of life in the postdiluvian city you should be reading Micheal Homan, Kim’s Dangerblond, Mominem’s Tin Can Trailer Trash, Gentilly Girl, Cliff’s Crib, author Poppy Brite’s Dispatches from Tanganyika or Ray in New Orleans (currently on a blogging sabatical, but read back through his story of working on gutting houses in New Orleans). If you want to see people get their snark on and find a way to laugh through the veil of tears, then visit Peter’s Adrastos or Jeffery’s Library Chronicles.

Ah, what a slippery slope this is. See, I’ve gone and left out Leigh, Derek, Deidre, Glen, Bart, Lisa, Greg and Oyster and bog only knows who else. If you come away from this list hurt, hit me up for a drink at Rising Tide III, the bloggers conference on the recovery of New Orleans. You see, we are not just a lot of computer-equipped malingerers and malcontents. Many individuals (Ray, Bart, Karen, and others) have gone great things for the city. As a group, we have mounted Rising Tide, an annual conference on the city’s slow reconstruction. We have been able to attract national authors for featured speakers and active locals to our panels because they too have learned that there is a force moving in the world called blogging. It is not just a spin-off phenomena of politics or the ugly murmurring of the mob you read below the stories on NOLA.COM. It is as powerful and as democratic as Tom Paine setting type and as powerful and as ethereal as William Blake carving visionary plates.

Three years is too soon to know if we will succeed or fail, whether we are writing small pieces of the history of a great beginning or a tragic ending. It is a tremendous task, not merely to rebuild a city but at the same time to try to correct a century of past mistakes that had led to the city I described when I began, the city already full of broken streets and broken dreams before the flood came. Will we collapse of our own internal contraditions like the revolutions of the 20th century, or be drowned beyond recovery by yet another storm? All I know for certain is that unless the Internet collapses or is suppressed you can watch it play out here. Or even play your own part. Blogging alone, we have learned, is not enough, but it is a start: a public declaration that you care about New Orleans, and will not let is fade away.

Cross-posted from Humid City, where this first went up as part of Loki’s Carnival of Blogging for the anniversary and Rising Tide.

It Is Day 1,000 May 24, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Federal Flood, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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It is the 1,000th day since the Federal levees failed and New Orleans was drowned.

Thank you, Maitri, for keeping count.

I am reading what I wrote or transcribed 1,000 odd days ago and trying not to cry.

This weekend many of you will remember those who died for America.

This weekend I will remember those who died in America, those the government left to die as the American people watched it unfold on television. I will remember this siting in a city a half still in ruin, hundreds of thousands still displaced from their homes 1,000 days after.

God save us all.

A Tale of God’s Will May 3, 2008

Posted by The Typist in 504, 8-29, Federal Flood, Flood, Jazz Fest, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Today Terence Blanchard led his quintet, with faces as solemn as morticians’, in a joyful noise together with a backing orchestral group selections of his A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). It was an Odd moment for Jazz Fest (and so perhaps our favorite here on Toulouse Street). I saw two tributes so far, one for Willie “Tee” and Earl Turbington and a show featuring young students of Alvin Batiste. Both were joyful celebrations of the musicians honored, music interspersed with stories and spoken word tributes. They were perfectly in the tradition of a city where, once we have buried the deceased, the parade begins.

Blanchard’s recital this afternoon was of another character altogether. It was more like the full funeral package, with all of the the sadness and solemnity of the service and the recession from the church and march to the cemetery. The Reverend-esque Blanchard spoke of the deceased and offered an excellent homily.There was his tale of boat rescuers, of people being taken out told to be quiet so the people left behind that trip might not hear them, told to cover their children’s eyes as they passed through an area full of dead bodies, introduced the piece “Funeral Dirge”.

His homily was on the importance of Lee’s film, When The Levees Broke. He told the tale of his mother asked by Spike Lee to let him film her first return to her ruined home, of how he warned her what having a full film crew following her might mean at such a difficult and delicate moment, of how proud he was that she insisted. People, his mother told him, need to know what happened down here. This led into the piece “Dear Mom”.

When they were not playing, Blanchard and his group were as serious as their subject, and as the music they composed. It seemed fitting for the piece of music a friend of mine told me before the show was the one he would put on when he felt compelled to escape his home on the sliver by the river to drive around Gentilly, sometimes checking on homes he had gutted to see if any have made progress. When he does this, he said, he will sometimes bawl like a baby.

At the first orchestral passage, Blanchard reached up to his face and wiped with his fingers just beneath his glasses as if to wipe away tears, a motion I last saw on a jazz stage at a Red Cross benefit in Fargo, N.D., after New Orleans trumpeter Marc Braud spoke of recovering his instrument as the rest of that band played “Do You Know What It Means”.

The audience I could see (and I was rapt and could not turn my head away from the stage) were just as transported. The WWOZ DJ who sat in front of me was not the outgoing, crowd-working celebrity I had seen in the tent and up on stage announcing the rest of the day, but sat solemn as a sphinx. The other stage announcer, a man in a red t-shirt and dreadlocks, sat at the foot of the stage looking not at the musicians but stared straight ahead into some private place. A woman came and sat beside him and put her arm around him.

As Blanchard spoke and the musicians played, the rain that had held off all day finally broke in torrents, as if the music had moved not just a few thousands in this tent on this day but had seized the hearts of the heavenly host and moved them to tears as well as they considered the Odd mix of pain and beauty that is God’s Will.

It was also, as I promised Friday, a time of joy. As the band wailed through the beautiful Ashe and the straight ahead jazz numbers that ended the concert, the orchestra musicians who had sat at attention in their best, serious concert poses, began to be transported by the music as well. The first violin began to show a shy smile, and to bob her head in time as members of the audience around me did. An incredulous cello in a John Brown beard divided his attention between an incredible bass solo and watching the drummer. When Blanchard called on the audience to help him by taking of the chant “This is a tale of God’s will” from the album’s opening cut, we were all transported without moving to the Gospel Tent and the moment of redemption many of us had come for arrived at last.

As I had hoped, Blanchard’s quintet had drowned the bitch in beauty and flooded the streets with tears of joy.

Also, don’t miss the podcast interview which Blanchard’s team (he mentioned bringing in his personal sound man and tour manager to run the boards) had put up the very same evening.

N.B. Fixed numerous typos. Must not try to post when dead tired and trying to rush out the door to the Fairgrounds. Thanks G.P.

Last update: here’s another camera video of an excerpt of Ashe’.

Update 5-12-09 Based on a notice from You Tube that the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra objected to these small, low-fidelity excerpts I shot with my $100 Cannon from 100 feet away, I’m removing the video. In fact, I’m going to go back and edit out references crediting the LPO with participation in this performance and will simply refer to them as “the orchestra”.

The Last Mardi Gras February 4, 2008

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

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

The Last Mardi Gras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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