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The Lost Blossoms of March March 28, 2010

Posted by The Typist in Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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The birds at 7 a.m. are chattering like a girl’s high school has just let out and my back is aching from spending yesterday humping sacks of dirt and the digging and filling of holes in the yard, sure signs in a place where we measure our year by another set of seasons–parading, Carnival, hurricane–that it must be spring.

You can’t trust the Japanese magnolias. They were in bloom everywhere a few weeks ago, and I only learned their name sitting in the patio of the Maple Leaf bar admiring one while shivering through an afternoon poetry reading. The bloom to soon to server as anything more than an early warning system, but they put you in a mood for spring (one soon disappointed by the next cold snap), and in a nostalgic reverie for my time in Washington D.C. and the blooming of the cherries along the tidal basin, that Odd rite of spring in which the pink blossoms rain down and blow along in imitation of the past winter’s snow.

It was an Odd winter, with a long hard freeze that killed most of the yard and the power company Entergy sucked more money out of my wallet than a pass to Jazz Fest. Everywhere the city was brown, and the last time I saw New Orleans stripped of its evergreen was in the deep flooded suburbs of the Lakefront, the East and Gentilly after Katrina. The dull colors of ground and garden did not, however, put me immediately into some PTSD reverie of the Federal Flood. It must have been the weeks of shivering weather just past that instead led me to remember the lawns of Fargo, the ubiquitous brown and gray when the snows are finally gone.

Now the clover and thistle are bursting through the still dormant grass sward in front of the house, and with tiny patch of lawn in the back is coming up and seeding, at least on spots, and with the change in the air I’m more inclined to try to re-seed it rather than cover it with rock or deck it over as my wife suggests. Not only are the song birds having their ritual March carnival but some possum has trundled out if its winter hidey hole to inspect our yard, driving my wife into a pest frenzy and my son and I to wonder if they make good pets. I haven’t seen it myself, but I may slip a dish of apples into some corner of the yard my wife won’t notice and hope to catch sight of it. I have a soft spot for possums.

One of the few reliable signs of the seasons I can spot from my porch was the tree across the street. I’m no arborist. I know plants about as well as I know art or classical music. I enjoy them immensely at times and know what I like but you won’t be able to engage me in much conversation on the subject, but this tree was special to me, the calendar by which I measured the almanac’s seasons. At first I thought it was some kind of cypress, light barked with a pronounced change of color in the narrow leaves come fall, deep reds that reminded me of my time in the north. I watched it all winter, measuring the passage of cold front storms as it gradually lost its dead but tenacious leaves with each passing wind storm until it stood bare and spindly. And it bloomed in spring, covered in pink blossoms, just after the Japanese magnolias were past their season.

I wish I had studied it more closely, taken a few leaves and a blossom to press into a book because now it’s gone and I am trolling through the terrible mess of digital photos I have dumped on the computer, looking for one that captured it. I got up one recent Saturday to the falsetto roar of small chainsaws and watched (as much as I could bear to watch), two guys in an unmarked pickup hacking it down to a low stepping stone stump. I stood there a while at a low boil, threatening in my head to call the city arborist as the tree was on the median strip, that bit of green between the sidewalk and the street. Can one just cut down a tree on city property, even if you’ve planted it? I rented most of my life and know the rules for private property. What I planted in my landlord’s yard became his. Even if that was their tree, something they had planted long ago by putting it on the city’s land had is ceased to be theirs?

Now I am trolling through websites and Google photos, trying to put a name (too tall when frown for a dogwood, I think; I’m leaning toward an eastern redbud. Somewhere I must have a picture of the tree living (even in its winter undress), but for now all I have is this camera phone snap of it at the end, a pile of beautiful blooming branches piled in the back of a pickup, an aftermath of pink petals littering the ground.

I am probably in more trouble now than I was snapping camera phone pictures of them (the view in the picture is from my steps). It’s never good to make the neighbors angry and best I can figure someone (probably kids) let the air out of one of my tires the other night, but who the hell cuts down such a beautiful tree right at the peak of its spring bloom? People who don’t have a single plant in the ground, not so much as a ready-made planter or basket to decorate their porch, I guess.

If I didn’t have a dam utility poll right in front of my house I think I might even have to miss the Indians this Super Sunday to hump myself over to the large garden center Avondale to buy myself a sapling, and spend another day humping heavy sacks of dirt and shoveling up the worm-less clay of Mid-City to plant a tree. Instead I’m going to have to let it go, as I’ve promised my sister a ride uptown to see the wildest birds of spring and the season’s best colors, the Uptown Indians.

From now on I will have to mark the change of the seasons from memory, standing on my porch with my morning coffee and starting at the barren house across the street, imagining the blood red leaves of fall, the naked sticks of winter, and the lost blossoms of March.

Ourselves Alone March 17, 2009

Posted by The Typist in 504, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA.
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At this crazy collision of our Irish, Italian and African roots on the streets of this Franco-Hispanic city, our individual identities melding into something greater than it parts, we must remember: All we have is ourselves, and redemption songs.

Sinn Fein, baby.*

*This is a repost and I’ve taken Sinn Fein out of the title as it causes so much damned confusion. My use of it follows Ashley Morris’ adoption of the phrase and it’s translation–Ourselves Alone–to the situation of New Orleans, and not an endorsement of any political movement outside of this country. I feel the same way about the struggle for Irish independence after the turn of the last century as Lord Byron felt about the Greeks, and if you catch me humming Jonsey’s Motor Car this is why. There was nothing romantic about The Troubles in the North, and its disconcerting to think how easily America might have gone down that path if President Rockefeller had sent Federal troops to support the segregationists at the bridge at Selma.

Sad Baritone Saturday November 3, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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A sad baritone blowing big round Jello-tremulous Os of the blues. That’s what started this ramble into a pleasant melancholia, a fizzing afternoon beer buzz sadness not quite cheerless, simply there like a color in the air, a sky so blue and clear you can hear it like a faint hum beneath your feet, a Fall afternoon so perfectly empty you just want to lay down in the arms of some big oak and root, thinking: well, if the world is going to caterwaul in a crashing train wreck, I guess I’m not busy today. Go ahead. I voted early.

And then you remember the Indians, stuffed into the lobby of the museum and so you go and the colors aren’t quite right, all that expanse of white marble flattening the chromatic costumes into something cartoonish, robbing the scene of all depth perspective like some VCR on endless loop alone in a neutral cream room of neatly labeled artifacts under glass instead of the slow approach up a street lined with low, sameish houses, long rows of shotguns and maybe a catacorner store, first just a spyboy peering around the colored chalkboard brightly proclaiming Hot Breakfast and Cold Beer, then a hollering of tambourines in the distance and then you spot them, turning a corner, creatures from a dream peopling an otherwise ordinary street, singing in a language they have made themselves.

That’s when you decide No Thank You. I want to slap the snooze button on that doom clock. Your time doesn’t apply to us down here we’re on Central River Time and things, things are just a bit slower and we’re not quite ready for all your rapturous end times of votes and riots, we’re all in pawn up to the brim of our sharp fur felt hats so here’s a dime, call in all your tall Wall Street stories to someone else. If you’re going to destroy your world try to keep it down to a manageable rumble in the distance, please, perhaps a smudge of smoke on the horizon like a marsh fire and leave us to ourselves, to the scat-o-logical chantings of Fi-Yi-Yi to mad tamborine time, the bright side of the poverty and sadness you turn into columns and hours of politics and we turn into a sad baritone blowing big round Jello-tremulous Os, measuring the girth of the blues just about city sized and right for us, thanks.

Stringing up dozens January 13, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Carnival, cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, French Quarter, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, Uncategorized.
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In a world where all of our holidays come cleverly packaged on the shelves–Christmas trees with embedded lights decked and holiday cookies ready-made at the local grocery’s bakery–most people no longer have the simple traditions long ago. I once cut my own tree, wading through a foot of Minnesota snow at 20 degrees to do it, but I can’t say I’ve ever strung up popcorn. Holidays like Halloween are much the same. Our children’s costumes come in plastic bags and no one dares put out a homemade treat since we now another parents will just dump it in the garbage.

Mardi Gras is one place where the handmade is still valued. Yes, the parade floats are largely mass-produced and much recycled by a handful of shops, the stores are full of kitschy decorations and of course there will be lots of people roaming St. Charles Avenue and the French Quarter in costumes from some store named The Party Pit. That is part of Carnival, but not the heart of Carnival.

On the big day, hundreds of African-American men and women will step out of their houses in costumes like these. The Societé de Sainte Anne and all of the other small marching groups will step out in elaborate costumes made by hand, either by themselves or by seamstresses. My own costume for Krewe du Vieux is still forming up, but it’s fairly simply and mostly conceptual. I may find it easier in a busy life to dress my son store-bought, but I’ve always tried to assemble my own costumes. I don’t got to the lengths of Danger Blonde, who yearly makes custom beaded-object throws and fabulous bustiers for the Divine Protectors of Endangered Pleasures, but if you’re going to dress you might as well be do it right. Every year around this time, I head in my head the admonishment of one of the Mardi Gras Indian chiefs being interviewed on WWOZ sometime back in the 1980s: Don’t be fallin’ out of your house with no needle an’ thread in your hand. I wish to hell I knew who had said that, but it’s stuck with me forever.

One thing we must do every year at our house is collect all of the caught beads we’ve saved up (and my son and I are dogged parade goers, working the neutral ground from morning to night all the week-ends before Carnival), and begin the slow process of untangling, matching up by size, and making up new dozens to toss back out when we march through Marigny and the Quarter.

Stringing up dozens is one of those tasks like cleaning out the attic that is often is slowed down by “remember when” moments (wasn’t Chaos funny last year? Remember the guy we saw….), as well as interrupted by comedy: finding that whoopee cushion, or the little foam rockets you can launch with a rubber band on the tip that turns our bead stringing party into a temporary war zone.

My son groaned this year when I told him it was time to string up the beads into dozens. He would rather hang out with a friend and play his WII. For him, Carnival is mostly new. I am a native with thirty years of Carnival under my belt before we came back to New Orleans in 2006, but this is really only his third year and his second as an Orleanian. It was not, for him, a tradition but a chore like cleaning up his room: until we got started, and found the whoopie cushions and rockets.

As long as I have legs to march I will look forward to stringing up the dozens, especially the few years I have left before my 12-year old boy is either too damn busy to help (like his socially swirling 15 year old sister) or gone from the house. For me, it is not the arrival of King Cakes in the stores (and most places were putting them out with red and green sugar in December), or the first time I open the paper and it falls open to the débutante pictures of Krewe’s ball, or even taking down the Christmas decorations with Mardi Gras Vol. 1 blaring on Twelfth Night. Carnival begins at the Folse house when I start to haul in and down the bags of tangled baubles and dump them out onto the table, and we closed the circle that connects the last Mardi Gras to this year’s Carnival, one string at a time.