Where I live now, there are Walgreens and Walmarts, bells of tacos and kings of burgers, so it is no more and no less American on the West Bank of New Orleans than it is in Duluth or Houston. Yet there is a mysterious, mariner-gothic bent to New Orleans (see my previous post about the evocation of vampire Lestat on my morning defecation walks with dogs), and taking a momentarily ecocritical view of my life, I understand its mystery better: I am living in the northern tropics. Wouldn’t you know that’s pirate country?
Perhaps because of an early childhood visit to Disneyland, when I think of the landscape of a tropical town, I immediately think of pirates of the Caribbean. The truth is that when pirates were more common in colonial America, they were not a strictly tropical phenomenon. My old town, New York City, had pirates, too. Down on Hanover Street in the financial district there is a plaque that marks the site of the house owned by the infamous pirate Redbeard, who seems to have lived in peace with legal traders of goods and whose characters were no more shocking or flamboyant than a Wolf of Wall Street or a Godon Gekko (named, I note for the first time, after a tropical lizard — interesting) who exclaims “greed is good.” Couldn’t that selfish sentiment be turned into the refrain of a pirate shanty? Let’s find out:
The Shanty of The Gordon Gekko, Galleon Sans Blason
Greed is good, my buccaneers! Greed is good!
Pillage is pretty like a pert blonde lass!
Rape is right as rum in a mug of wood!
Greed is good! Spanish galleons — kiss my ass!
Yes, Wall Street‘s horrible motto works well in piratical rhyme and meter. The sentiment itself is piratical. So I have lived in pirate country before, but it has not felt so obvious as it does now, while Spanish moss, if not Spanish galleons, droops over me as I shuffle in sweltering weather between buildings to teach writing. In the mornings as I drive along the causeway across bayoux, I sometimes see mist lifting off of marsh water, a mist that would mask a small landing party of buccaneers rowing a pirogue. The weather’s abundant sizzle itself suggests the lasciviousness of piratical life. The fact that it is now fall, and most days in this season will still get up into the nineties until we get close to Halloween, well, all that sweltering heat makes me want to rip off my lacy shirt and stand on deck wearing nothing but my knickers and boots, a single earring, and a kerchief cap until we catch a stiff breeze and spot a slave ship headed for Jamaica and we board her to liberate the human cargo to ask if they would like to join our crew. Actually, in New Orleans, we say “krewe.”
New Orleans has welcomed pirates of greater notoriety than Red Beard and more flamboyant than Gekko. Jean Lafitte (pictured here) fought with Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans during the war of 1812, and the two of them may or may not have met in secret to discuss battle plans.
This partnership between piracy and politics seems to have continued in New Orleans. Local senatorial candidate David Duke tried to take his white supremacist case yesterday afternoon to the people on Jackson Square, a place where Lafitte surely walked, but he was soundly rejected by the crowd. I note that pirates tended to have interracial crews (not unlike Mardi Gras Krewes these days) and made no bones, no skull-and-cross-bones, about lovemaking between the races. To Duke that is race-destructive miscegenation, not the satin-clad complexities of pirate romance. He prattled on about how black men were raping white women with false statistics he got out of his size-insecure nightmares, not FBI files. And yet, as he spoke, he stood on a spot where Lafitte surely stood, away from which he surely swaggered. Even without a Klan hood on, especially without a satin, embroidered weskit and without a plumed hat and scabbard, he looked and sounded pathetic in this town of transgressive swashbuckling.
I look through the heat of the day and contemplate how much more comfortable I would be with my laces unlaced, with my bodice ripped. I realize that this is pirate country even today. The people on Jackson Square used vocabulary in revolt of Duke’s ideas that I won’t repeat here — suffice it to say it was salty and worthy of outlaw sailors. I say he had it coming. Don’t cross pirates unless you are willing to need an eye patch for the rest of your miserable land-lubbing life!
Tomorrow, as I commute back and forth, I will see white cranes fly overhead, see lizards skitter down the bricks of my house, encounter perhaps another swarm of black dragonflies marauding like low-flying bombers. The northern tropics call for a cool drink, a change of clothes after a sweat-breaking day, and a willingness to fight the red coats or the white sheets like the old sea shanty legends tell. I ride a car, not a ship deck, but I gaze across the water at a town lit yellow and know that this is the kind of town I already understand.
Don’t believe me? My book The White Trash Pantheon is already in stock at Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley. I have arrived, New Orleans. En garde!