The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

May 9, 2017

Taking Down Confederate Idols to Raise Up Southerners of Today

To my blog followers, it must feel like I woke up after a three-month Mardi Gras Bender, a Rip Van Winkle to a cocktail they serve down on the French Quarter called the Grenade, and now instead of a walk of bead-bespangled post-Mardi-Gras shame, I am crawling back to work trying to act nonchalant, saying, like a good Southern belle might say after a lost weekend, “I don’t remember WHAT-all happened last night!”

Indeed, I am back after a hiatus inspired less by alcohol than post-election malaise and an onslaught of other responsibilities.  I am awake, no longer beaded like a burlesque dancer on a Bourbon Street stripper pole, not that I’ve ever SEEN a stripper pole on Bourbon Street — I just can’t remember a thing from last night!  I must have fallen asleep without any shenanigans or hoo-haw — I am a lady, not so much Southern as Belle, not so much Belle as baller, not so much baller as beatified. I am back to talk more about the South through the eyes of a Yankee invading the Confederate ruins, much like my ancestor did, only instead of a gun, I bring a book, a blog, and I blow kisses. Hi again!

mardi gras

I am waking up a bit dazed behind Confederate Hall off of Lee Circle. I have a vague memory of Mardi Gras.

What happened to Mardi Gras, you ask? Like a good Southern Belle post-bender, I secretly remember EVERYTHING that happened last night, even though I pretend not to. Nevertheless Mardi Gras is a mirage, a Brigadoon community that emerges from the mist every year.  Here are things I remember:

  • I was not twenty feet from Harry Connick, Jr., truly, who was gorgeous in a tuxedo, ageless like a Brigadoon brigand.
  • I saw a woman dressed as a water lily riding her bicycle which she had papier-mache-ed into the shape of a hippo.
  • I saw men dressed like harlequins carrying flambeaux.
  • I saw a semi-truck transformed into a giant tsunami on which rode Poseidon and a crew of Greek oarsmen.
  • I saw a mermaid sprout legs and dance to a Louis Armstrong song.
  • I saw a famous chef riding a street car covered in disco balls.
  • I saw trinkets flying in the air, tossed out in largesse to strangers.
  • I saw men dressed as skeletons brandishing signs that said, “Make America Great Again.”
  • I saw men dressed as Zulu warriors marching with spears brandished under a pedastaled statue of Robert E. Lee.

And therein lies my subject, gentle reader, as I begin again in my post-Ash-Wednesday tone. After the Brigadoon mirage of Mardi Gras receded, the Zulus turned to ordinary neighbors, mostly of color, and the Statue of Robert E. Lee remained looming above them, an enduring menace in a town where police brutality can still occur killing people of color, a symbol that says to every person of color, “know your place — it hasn’t changed since before the Yankees took back the town, even if y’all invented Jazz and whatnot.”

lee circle

Sunday the White Supremacists from out of town came to tell the people of New Orleans that they had to keep a statue standing that they don’t want any more.

The people of New Orleans do NOT want to keep General Lee standing above them in a present-tense vigil.  New Orleans is entirely comfortable with a historical context for General Lee, General Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis, champions of the plantation system, willing to pour out the blood of poor white men to defend it to keep black folks legally nothing more than agricultural equipment.  They have a museum that wrestles with Confederate memories — We don’t know WHAT-all happened on the grounds of Oak Alley plantation!  We just woke up here! Such statues are welcome in an examination of that history.  But the people of New Orleans, under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, have decided to make the past the past, whatever William Faulkner said about the past. They are taking down statues that glorify these men, as today, they do not represent the values of my wonderful adopted home town.

The Take it Down NOLA movement held a parade to celebrate the taking down of these monuments two days ago, and they were met by protesters carrying white nationalist symbols who almost all came from out of town. An hour north of here, The Advocate reports, white supremacists hand out flyers in Mandeville. David Duke lives in Metairie, about as far as Newark is from NYC. Lots of KKK recruitment goes on across the Bonnet Carre Spillway in northern Louisiana parishes, but this is New Orleans, a blue dot in a red state.  Thanks to the vigilance of a very cool-headed police team, little violence took place, but a heated argument between those who treasure those dead white men and those who refuse to kiss the dust between their toes ensued.

I may be foggy-headed from the haze of a Mardi Gras honeymoon with my new home town, but don’t these battle reenacters know that the principal of any home is that you need to remove the junk of the past in order to redecorate and reorganize?

There is plenty of room in the South for a new definition of whiteness, of Southernness.  We see this embodied in people like Sally Yates of Georgia, like James Carville, like Emeril Lagasse, like Harry Connick, who really ought to reappear in this blog entry in his tux and sing a song for me — but I shake my head clear of that mist again. The new South is filled with interesting, inventive, progressive, generous white people. It’s the heavy burden of these old dead white men who were advocates for a perpetual genocide of black people that makes the South less glorious than it ought to be now.  With its many beauties, its amazing wealth of natural resources, its many musical idioms, its great writers, its gallantry, its faith — the South could actually be the richest, most wonderful part of the country if it would stop trying to hang onto an old hierarchy as if it represented anything other than a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. If the Southern Belle, awake from her bourbon bender, actually told the truth about who was with who doing what last night, the chiffarobe could get dusted out and converted into an office organizer to get new work done.

To my Southern neighbors, beloved all, I urge you to embrace your best present-tense selves.  I am a carpetbagger, still misty-eyed from Mardi Gras, but when I look at y’all, all y’all, I see a region brimming with potential, with a better nature upon which I call now.  Be the sons and daughters of a South that refuses to define itself in terms of color lines. Be the South that makes great gumbo, that grabs huge cat fish out of the swamp for dinner, that plays the best dance music in the history of the world, that knows how to sweet talk a lady and make her forget herself, that brews the best bourbon, that knows like New Orleans knows, that less is never more. More is more, and still more is still more, and more amity is more amity, more peace is more peace, more hope is more hope, and more justice is more justice.

Now that I’m awake again, or perhaps I mean woke, it’s time we take down these old men and stick them in the museum where they belong. Let’s make room for new heroes, ones whom all the South can celebrate without pain.

 

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July 7, 2016

A Peculiar People –Real and Really Weird Christianity in the French Quarter

 But ye are… a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” — 1 Peter 2:9

All supernatural events are odd-ball — they are super — above — the natural way of things, the same-old same-old.  The way a lot of Christians in America play church is traditional, predictable.  Some churches pride themselves on doing things in the way their great-grandparents did. Usually, the people who attend such churches are rather traditional themselves.  They do not tend to have run-ins with the police.  They do not tend to end up dancing on top of a table at a party. They tend to own khaki pants.  They do not tend to own cars with flames painted on them after the age of twenty-five.

I was never one of those Christians.  I was not raised in the church.  I got saved at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  The day before that supernatural encounter, if someone had tried to shove a Bible tract into my hand, I would have yelled at them about my friends dying of AIDS who were condemned by vocal evangelicals on television as suffering God’s punishment for sodomy.  Where was God’s punishment for arms dealers, for greedy bankers, for deadbeat dads?  I would have shouted at them, and if they had been from one of those traditional churches, they might have misunderstood me.  They might have thought I was persecuting them for evangelism, not shouting, as Jesus did, at the hypocrites.

The day after becoming a Christian, I traveled to Bethlehem — this was right in the middle of the Intifada.  I arrived in the village by taxi cab in the late morning; there were children in the street who smiled and called out the one word of English they all knew — “hello.” Businesses were open with shop keepers who wanted to sell me souvenirs.  I made my way to the church of the Nativity, saw the spot traditionally marked by celibate monks as the spot of Jesus’ birthplace — which to me looked like a gilded frame for a large dinner plate, not a place for a woman’s body to give life.

bethlehem16

The hole represents the exact spot where Jesus is said to have been born. That hole is the size of a large dinner plate.

As I puzzled over the choice men made of how to mark a birth, an experience that all women see quite differently than they do, I heard shots outside.  It was afternoon, and the uprising had begun again as scheduled daily. I decided I ought to leave sooner rather than later.  The only business still open was a bar just a few feet away from Jesus’ birth manger with a large terrace.  The manager explained to me he could get a cab for me, but it would be at least an hour before one could come.  I ordered a whiskey, all they were serving, and joined war correspondents who were at least two drinks ahead of me, and waited.  Nobody shot at us.  I saw Israeli tanks going one way, children with rocks going another way, the occasional adult man with a gun and a Keffiyeh on his head running after or way from the tanks. I looked at the old church across the square and thought of that missing dinner plate.

I knew I was a Christian, that Jesus was real, that He had died for my sins, that He had conquered death for me, that He loved me.  I also knew that I was going to have to be outwardly a very different kind of Christian than the people who had evangelized me with well-flossed smiles and peaceful lives.  I had met the real God, but He had sprung out of a world of madness to save it in the midst of chaos. The ABC Family Channel could never save a lost soul like mine.  The Christ of the empty tomb, the void in the floor  within earshot of brutal battle — that Christ could redeem a person like me.

Returning to America, I joined the church across the street from my New York City apartment because they had invited me to volunteer for their AIDS hospice.  In New York, most Christians understand the God who is peace in the battleground because city life is filled with gangs and greed of a more establishmentarian flavor.  I felt more or less understood as I studied the Bible and grew in my faith.

Down South, though, more often than not, when I have joined a Bible study, I feel like an odd-ball Christian.  I love my Christian brethren down here, but too often, I tell stories like the one above when we talk about Jesus, and they stare at me as if I were from another planet.  The Bible teacher asks, “How does this verse apply to your own lives?” And we go around the circle to share.  Most of them say things like, “I realize I have been scared of not getting that promotion, but God must have a plan for me,” or “I need to be more careful to teach my children to pray to God when they are scared at night, not just ask me to turn on the light.”  I say, “I’m not scared of much, but when that man pulled a knife on me late at night when I was on my way home from clubbing, I managed to tell him confidently,  at least confident-sounding, that I didn’t want to have to hurt him. Thinking now as a Christian, I think I would have tried to evangelize him after he put the knife away, before he ran away from me into the dark.”

They love me with the love of the Lord, but bless my heart, I am the weirdest Christian they know.  I am in their prayers, and I am grateful.  They are in my prayers, and they are grateful, too. But I am what one of  my college boyfriends used to call a freakazoid to these lovely, khaki-wearing church folk from white suburban church world with music of limited rhythms and short sermons.

As some Southerners say — I told you all that to say this: I have been church-shopping in my new city of residence, New Orleans, and I may have found the church that keeps the missing dinner plate of the Nativity.  I have found a church where I am not odd-ball.  I am the least weird Christian there.  I have abided in a deep state of surprise since last Sunday morning, when I met them all, and they were all really Christian and each more of a freakazoid than I am.

Vieux Carre Assembly of God Church is located in the heart of the French Quarter, just a couple of blocks away from Bourbon Street, a place where people go to see or be strippers or prostitutes, do drugs, get stinking drunk, or even to find a voodoo priest who will curse enemies for a price, using spiritual forces of destruction to do so.  There is therefore literal satanism with storefronts on the street, and there is figurative bondage to Satan in the addictions and exploitations of the neighborhood. It is a culture of bars and dark shadows in rooms, people laughing who aren’t really happy, people slurring their words as they fall off of stools.  It is ugly, the sorrow painted as mirth, down there.  It is not a party.  Parties happen in other parts of the town.  Bourbon Street is the longest crooked finger in America, beckoning those who need love and comfort to harm themselves in the name of joyless “fun.”  It is a tourist tenderloin, a place to come to get obliterated, a site for slow suicide.  Vegas is fun sometimes.   The rest of the French Quarter can be fun.  Mardi Gras is fun.  Bourbon Street reminds me of the old neighborhood around New York’s Port Authority bus terminal that got cleaned up in the nineties — there was a spiritual vacuum there to suck the lost into sex shows in Times Square and into a drug culture that killed a lot of people.  It was a sad place.  There are wrought-iron embellishments on some buildings on Bourbon Street, but you wouldn’t call it pretty, not in the section I mean.  Anyway, that’s where Vieux Carre Assembly of God worships and witnesses two nights a week.  It’s a tough mission field, a spiritual form of combat triage and surgery on deeply broken hearts.

But understand that Vieux Carre AG is kind of crazy, like Fellini directed a film about a church right after he directed Satyricon. When I walked in the door, of the very small church, hung with mauve and gold draperies, with a few short pews in a low-ceilinged old building on the Rue Dauphine,  I was immediately offered two kinds of pie. They do this before every service on Sunday,  it seems, and they eat their pie in the pews.

The pastor, Paul Gros started us out with an a capella traditional singing of one verse of the hymn, “He Has Made Me Glad,”  but thereafter, another man, the associate pastor, sat at the piano, and the rest of the praise and worship happened like we were all at a piano bar.  He clearly had the talents of a piano bar pianist, though I don’t know his testimony.  Nobody stood. Almost nobody sang along but me as he played mell0w-jazz versions of old hymns, transitioning as one might as a piano bar pianist, with phrases like, “does anybody remember this one?” It reminded me of nothing so much as a bar I used to go to on Sheridan Square, near the new Stonewall monument — the Monster.  Downstairs is a disco where I danced with my gay friends and often got mistaken for a very convincing drag queen; upstairs older gay men gathered to sing show tunes together.  After a good sweat on the dance floor, I often went upstairs to sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria,” or “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”  It was fun.  It was communal.  But those songs weren’t hymns, not exactly. The non-participation of the church goers disturbed me as I sang “Hallelujah” with the pianist. One lady with many piercings in her face sat quietly while she ate a half gallon of chocolate peanut butter ice cream she had brought with her to church, one supposes to go along with the pie.

Macaw

Is this macaw a missionary?

We took communion together, and then the pastor mentioned that one of the men he witnesses with had been detained the other night by a police officer on Bourbon Street — why?  Not because he was in a state of near-nudity, something that will not get one arrested.  Not because he was vomiting in a gutter, also not an arresting offense.  He got detained because he had brought a large parrot with him out to evangelize.  Yes, pasties and thongs are allowed on Bourbon Street, but not exotic pets.  I kept thinking about the exotic dancer imagined in A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole who worked with a pet bird, and who was developing an act to cater to “the bird trade” on Bourbon Street.  I guess birds are offensive  somehow. But then I realized — a parrot?  To evangelize? Who uses a big Macaw to bring someone to the foot of the cross?  Who does that?  It was odd-ball.  I sense that this church is more conservative politically by a lot than I am, which is not unusual for me as a Christian on the Left, but I will say this — they are a lot bolder than I tend to be on a day to day basis, and they truly invite everyone in a spirit of love to join them, even bringing a parrot with them to, I don’t know, evangelize the leftover pirates on Pirate’s Alley.

It was tempting to dismiss this church — after all, it was a lot more bizarre in its tactics and activities than I am, and I am used to being the weirdest Christian in the room.The thing is, though, that as I sat there singing piano-bar-style hymns and asking myself — why is their nativity scene still on display in July? Why birds? Why pie? Why  ice cream in  the pews? — I felt the presence of God with a power I have only felt it occasionally.  The last time I felt it was at Times Square Church, a church with a deliverance ministry not unlike Vieux Carre’s deliverance ministry, witnessing to tough customers in the old, scary Times Square, addicted, hooking, homeless, hopeless.  I thought I might fall out (faint in the Holy Ghost) while the gentleman flashed his gold rings like a toned-down Liberace over the ivories and asked me, “And what about this song?  Do you remember this one?” I did remember it.  I remembered it well. It  was a hymn about healing.  The words declare that there is no one else like Jesus.  Indeed, there is not; he was and remains out of the ordinary, a sort of odd-ball, really.  I thought I would swoon as we prayed.  It was tonic.  It was a palpable presence of God for the battles of the city.

Therefore I say unto you — beware the non-peculiar church.  If nothing challenges you there, it might not be a real Christian enclave. Beware the unloving bless-her-heart church. Beware the hypocrites hiding behind churchiness wherever they may lie.  If you are already a Christian, I thank God for you.  Hallelujah.  But know you are sitting on a terrace while a battle wages around you.  You, too, have to figure out just what kind of Christian you are going to be.  Better to be your weird, real self than a fake churched-up, jacked-up facade that hides your lost layers still left. Go reach a person who is hurting.  Help him. Help her. Maybe bring a parrot.  I have never tried that. But apparently, it is powerful enough to get you arrested in at least one satanic stronghold in this odd-ball country.

Vieux Carre Assembly of God is located at 433 Rue Dauphine Street.

 

May 28, 2016

Vicious Cuisine — How New Orleans just made me eat something very, very naughty

They say in Vegas that what happens there stays there, but for most of what happens in New Orleans, what happens there has an afterlife that wafts eveywhere. What I have done makes me want to confess in pre-Vatican-II Latin: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

The French Quarter is a tourist destination for decadence.  I was not there exactly as a tourist when I committed my trespass against decency.  No, I was there on business, truly — getting my book The White Trash Pantheon (Vox Press, 2015) in local independent bookstores like Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley and Beckham’s Bookshop over on Decatur Street. I was literally minding my own business, that of poet, when I was seduced by the vicious underbelly life of the French Quarter to do something so unspeakable, I hardly tell you all now how decadent it was.

I am an unlikely candidate for temptation to commit the many vices present on Bourbon Street.  First of all, I drink in moderation whenever I drink.  As a woman of Irish ancestry, I have my ancestors’ hollow leg, anyway, unlikely to be overcome by intoxicants of the fermented kind.  The idea of vomiting on myself in an alleyway doesn’t sound like a fun afternoon, even in the rain. I am unlikely to seek out the ministrations of strippers and prostitutes.  Not even Sam Heughan taking off all his clothes would inspire me to find places to stuff dollar bills, and he is my ideal log thrower in a traditional Celtic caber toss, certainly. I have no desire for any perversion I could hire an illicit sex worker to perform.  My money is therefore generally safe on Bourbon Street, as is my soul.  The Lord’s Prayer asks that we be not led into temptation, and Bourbon Street is not a direct path to any temptation for me.  I see the end from the beginning there — vomit on shoes, throbbing heads, empty wallets, and a need to see the doctor, just in case. Bourbon Street does not lead me into temptation, even though it does not exactly deliver me from evil — if you don’t want a hooker on Bourbon Street, there are voodoo curses available for a price.  I am a generally forgiving soul.  I do not play with witchcraft — it’s not a toy; it’s not a joke; and malevolent intentions are in themselves curses on the holder of said intentions.

But Bourbon Street, named for the decadent royal dynasty that built Versailles, is not the only decadent street in the French Quarter.  Conti Street, named for one of the leaders of that dynasty, a Prince of Bourbon, held my decadent downfall a few days ago.  Mea Culpa. Mea Culpa.  I am an American.  I have American sins. Mea Maxima Culpa.

At a lovely new shop, I stopped as the rain burst from the sky.  The thing you see in the photo seemed to call out my name. It glistened before me as thunder rattled the pastry  cases at the shop. The French Quarter, after putting forth all other forms of temptation in front of me, finally found my kink, my proclivity, my sin.  Indeed, it is a sin akin to original sin — that of eating what one mustn’t ever eat. The object of my desire seemed to whisper what Stanley said to Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire right before he rapes her — “We’ve had this date since the beginning.” Like Blanche, I swooned and let myself be ravaged.

bacon donut

This is the bacon maple donut available 24/7 at Sweet Things & Grill #2 on Conti Street in New Orleans.

No one should ever eat a bacon-topped maple donut, but if it’s wrong, well, I didn’t want to be right.  The salty grease of the bacon mitigated the over-sweetness of the maple fondant frosting. It tasted like American imperialism, like land stolen from Native American tribes.  It tasted like the last day in the imagined chateau of the Marquis de Sade (who must have known the Prince de Conti for whom my fated destination with the donut was named), when all the other decadence was spent in his banned book.  It tasted like the fifty-first shade of gray.  It tasted like my mortality, embraced suicidally, as the paramedics placed the cold paddles on my chest and shouted clear, and I murmured, “no — let me go toward the light, that salty, maple light.”

It tasted like the end of Jim Morrison’s song, “The End.” It tasted like New Orleans, wrapped in bacon, slathered with syrup, demanding a perpetual carnival, then throwing the ashes from the smokehouse where the bacon was cured into the river at the Saint Ann’s Parade.  This is the end, my only friend, the end.  This is the end of America, its ultimate expression of selfish piggishness as the Third World starves.  This is the end, mon semblable, mon frère.

It was like I ripped the head off a chicken in a sacrifice to some shadowy Dick Cheney-like Orisha, then drank the blood from its neck, smearing the mess all over my white santera dress, then rolling my eyes back in my head, seeing a vision of the molecular structures of lipids and glucose in an orgy of stray atomic legs as I chattered like a blonde Fox News pundit as the crawl of words underneath my head ran like this: “Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain/ And all the children are insane /All the children are insane /Waiting for the summer rain, yeah”  — The end, beautiful friend, the end.

I wish, as I kneel here confessing myself to all of you, that I could tell you I was sorry.  I am not.  I will have to work out at my new gym in Algiers for at least a week just to burn off the calories that one donut put on my body, but how can I say I am sorry?  New Orleans made me eat it, the way it seduces all newcomers somehow.  I confess the sin of American gluttony and hegemony.  I confess the sin of re-appropriating Jim Morrison and Charles Baudelaire to hegemonic ends, the end.  Honestly, the donut was quite delicious, and if there is anyone who needs to gain at least twenty pounds for some reason, perhaps just one of them wouldn’t be bad.  I do not have that need.  I am at the gym now.  I was asked by the trainer why on Earth I would eat that bacon-maple donut, and I said, “It was like Everest.  I ate it because it was there.”

It was there, the full expression of our American flaws, the rock uplifted, slithering exposed. Yes, I ate that thing.  Yes, I need to sweat. Yes, the  end, the end.

For your own apotheosis via a bacon-maple donut, find it if you dare at Sweet Things & Grill #2, 806 Conti Street, New Orleans.

 

May 14, 2016

Rebuilding the American Imagination in New Orleans

It’s the end of the school term at the University of Mississippi, and on his way out of town, I ran into one of my former students, a young man determined to become a movie star one day.  I asked him now that he had graduated whether he intended to take off for New York or Los Angeles to kick-start his career.

new orleans construction

It’s not just a shotgun house on the East Bank that’s getting restored here; it’s the life of the mind.

“No,” He told me, “New York and LA are not where it’s all happening in film. If you want to break into movies, the place to do it right now is New Orleans.”

He expects to run into me at spoken word readings, maybe in the Treme, maybe at independent bookstores on the East Bank, maybe on Magazine Street while he’s filming something for HBO or a small-company film headed for Sundance.

New Orleans has always been a town of piratical thinkers, of renegades, moral reprobates, and drama queens. Writers like Truman Capote and Anne Rice have parked themselves in town to invent themselves and expand the American imagination in words.  In music, the greatest genius of the art form for at least a hundred years, Louis Armstrong, might not have single-handedly invented jazz out of whole cloth, but he took the antecedent rhythms out of Congo Square that came to this continent in shackles but rattled chains into a liberatory syncopation and paired them with European instruments and am American sense of whimsy and delight to make arguably the best thing America has ever invented.  Yes, the light bulb was an astonishment.  True, the Gattling gun presaged our imperialism, yes, I am very, very fond of the iPad and the moon landing, but I can’t dance to either of them without somebody cranking up the volume and giving me a beat and a yowling horn to curl my spine.  That came out of New Orleans, that and some awfully good food that mixes African and French sensibilities, a kind of architecture, with a vernacular as unashamed as a Bourbon Street sex worker leaning over a wrought-iron balcony in something lacy, a cultural patois of sin and penitence gumbo-mixed together into a bitter and intoxicating stew.  All that predates the current surge in American culture.

After Katrina cleared away the poorest people of the town, already decaying under the weight of perpetual corruption prior to global warming events, many questioned if the City of New Orleans would become a sort of a tourist park version of its former self, as New York’s bohemian and dangerous identity got gentrified into the Atlantic Ocean and washed up the Hudson, a trend that predated Hurricane Sandy but certainly culminated in that storm’s washing away of much of Coney Island and the Lower East Side.  Some even wondered, as the first episode of the cable drama Treme does, whether New Orleans, poised as it is on land below sea level, was worth saving at all. John Goodman’s character in Treme declared that New Orleans was a city that had captured the world’s imagination and threw the fictitious British journalist and his camera into the Mississippi River like so much British tea in Boston on the eve of another American revolution of ideas.

Instead of becoming a place that operates like a Disney version of its former self, a beacon to apple-cheeked, conservative Midwesterners who want the same kind of fun they get in Branson, Missouri, only maybe a little bit more Tabasco-flavored, New Orleans retained its personality.  As it turns out, creative thinkers of all the art forms recently gentrified out of neighborhoods in California and New York began to seek welcoming ports, and no town could offer so many rent-to-own residences than a town half washed-away by a category-five deluge.

Indeed, there is something about wreckage and urban decay that permits the expansion of avant-garde thought. After the wall was built, West Berlin became a place for David Bowie to reinvent his next musical self, for Wim Wenders to reimagine the divine comedy in black trench coat and male ponytail.  After the Bronx burnt, hip-hop started in neighborhoods too dangerous to walk in broad daylight in New York and punk rock found, if not its birthplace, then its homecoming court in the East Village. Now, in New Orleans, where writers have typed and horn-players have blown, there is a new explosion, a green growth fertilized by the ashes of the past, sprouting branches because the space to grow exists.

And no — we are not about to stop experimenting because the rent for our cultural laboratories went up in New York and San Francisco so very high that not even the superstars of our art forms could afford them. The best crops grow in muck.  Now that the black mold has been Hazmatted away, we find gutted shot guns and reclaimed gothic ornaments to embellish our new ideas.  That beat from Congo Square is still tom-tomming, still tom-tom, tom-tom, blood and tom-tom like a patient on whom the paddles worked.  We have sinus rhythm.  The avant garde has left Soho to the bankers. Haight-Ashbury belongs to Google executives now.  Want to be a star?  Have something to say? The American cultural experiment is beginning a new series of  tests on streets named for dead French royalists. It’s like that invitation the Sufi mystical poet Rumi extended to all of us about a thousand years ago:

Out beyond right-doing and wrong-doing

There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

That’s where the artists go to imagine new things, the mystics seek the face of God beyond human agency and Pharisee-like self-righteousness. That field, this year and for at least a few more, is possibly near Elysian Fields Avenue .  Like Tennessee Williams told us, you take the streetcar over there.  After that, don’t put a paper lantern on the lamps like Williams’ Blanche DuBois did to hide the ugly truth.  The creative possibilities are often in the ugliness.  Take the ashes and make your beauty.  Meet Rumi there.  Meet America there.  Meet New Orleans, the city of the world’s imagination, there.

 

January 12, 2016

Arrived in New Orleans – and already bucking for Sainthood

saint louis cathedral

This cathedral is named after a crusader king who became a saint. These days, there are multiple New Orleans Saints, and they wear helmets, too.

Dearly beloved, I am sleeping in a rented bed on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans while my husband and I wait for the delivery of our belongings into our house by the moving company.  The house we have rented has a narrow front porch, a faux fireplace with a white wrought iron grille. Our dog has already barked at the neighbor dogs and marked his territory in our shallow back yard with an oak tree and a brick patio. The neighbors are busy, multicultural and middle-class.  I see dogs but almost no children. From my front porch, I hear the bell of a church tower, a church named something like “Our Lady of Perpetual Virginity,” that chimes the hours during daylight, and I am charmed.

The neighborhood has many Catholic churches in it and a Catholic college as well.  As televangelist from nearby Destrehan, Jesse DuPlantis, often remarks, “Everyone in Louisiana has been Catholic at one time or another,” and one senses this to be so.  The rhythm of the neighborhood seems to comply with the traditional daily cycle of matins, compline and evensong.

I have no idea whether my neighbors confess sins to a priest (except a middle-aged Vietnamese-American man who lives around the corner with me who has repeatedly invited me and my husband to church with him and who seems baffled I have no children). But the city, like many Catholic communities, is socially permissive of public forms of decadence (which at least at one point were) absolved in small booths in towered buildings smelling of candle wax.  While Mississippi, for instance, a traditionally protestant state, taxes booze and controls its distribution as an unfortunate concession to a baser nature that religion ought to make one rise above, Louisiana has no such scruples. Louisiana allows the sale of liquor at grocery stores and gas stations.  Gambling happens at rest stops along Interstate 10 with no finger-wagging from the State Capitol or the swamps.

While in Mississippi a great deal of lip service is paid to the way one ought to act, to abstinence, and to fidelity, even the so-called family values gubernatorial candidate in the last election Louisiana held was caught in whore houses.  It’s not that people are less moral in Louisiana; that’s not true at all.  It’s that the State doesn’t see itself traditionally in quite the same role as the morality police that state governments do in surrounding areas. Except for my Irish ancestors and some others from that cold-water island, who hoped their children would have nothing to confess to the priest, Catholicism’s confessional is often a pressure valve for the explosive gases of human experience.  Internalized moral fiber is for Calvinists, not papists, who admit the virtuous among them are exceptional enough to deserve statues and annual processions. Louisiana is marvelous, but it makes no attempt to appear genuinely good.  The beads thrown at Mardi Gras are made of plastic, not gold, and the topless women who dive for them are not perpetual virgins.

I surmise this difference in local Southern cultures has deep Hurricane-Katrina-resistant roots in the Middle Ages. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher, observed that pre-modern societies dominated by the Catholic Church had rigid rules but used what he termed “the carnevalesque” as an inversion of the rigid social order at least a couple of times a year.  The discourse of the church of the Middle Ages could be self-flagellating, but certain works of art in churches depict lewd scenes.  The festival of Ash Wednesday, one where the recipient of ashes to mourn his or her own sinfulness hears, “you are dust, and to dust you will return,” as a call to penitence, is preceded by a hangover-inducing bacchanal the day before.  It’s not that the Church was ever sex-positive.  They to this day consider sex of all kinds, including within marriage, inherently sinful unless the sole desire of the participants is to produce legitimate offspring.  But the Catholic Church has been sex-acknowledging in that it concedes that people mess around on the DL and produced both rigid rules and periodic catharses to let off steam. Louisiana is anti-choice, often teaches abstinence-only sex education, and claims to hold conservative values about all sorts of social issues, but in New Orleans, drag queens have paraded around for at least a century and a half,  vaudou (voodoo) has cursed many for about four hundred years, the greatest genius ever born here – jazz inventor and legend Louis Armstrong – was born in a whorehouse, and the carnevalesque constitutes its greatest tourist attraction.  What happens on Bourbon Street does not stay on Bourbon Street, as one says about debauchery in secularized Vegas, but what happens on Bourbon Street has the potential to be forgiven a few blocks away at any of the churches in the French Quarter.  And to get absolved takes less resolve than a willingness to restitute and conform to ritual.  There is no altar call in the Catholic Church, a protestant tradition where penitence happens in the heart first and one gets saved.  There is an altar at the Catholic church, and one faces it and recites liturgy, stands, kneels, stands again, crosses one’s self, and one admits one was wrong but without a total life commitment for permanent change.  Penitence on the Rue Saint Charles doubtless consists of more regret than permanent resolve in most cases.

As I wait for my furniture to trek through the bayoux down here, I resolve not to give up my Irish primness such as I ever possessed it.  I intend to keep my shirt on no matter who offers to throw plastic beads my way next month. I intend to work out my own salvation in fear and trembling, as Paul admonishes us to do in one epistle, rather than to rely on others to make the sign of the cross in my direction.  It’s not in my own power to act right, of course, but it is my responsibility to seek out forgiveness from God and to avoid purchasing an excess of vodka at the local gas station, to avoid lewdness, even if the engraving in the cathedral shows a tree growing genitalia (yes, that really exists in one European medieval church).  I am going to try to do what God would have me do here, whatever that might look like.

For Protestants like me, the Saints are all those who make it to Heaven, not just those whose coffins smell like roses and where prayers offered for them to intercede are answered by miracles.  Goodness is a personal responsibility for all of us who answer altar calls, though none of us, not even saints with statues, manage to be perfectly good.  I would like to smell like a rose instead of a corpse, but I notice that on a hot day, all of New Orleans smells at once deliciously floral and rather putrefied at once.  I think perhaps this is why I feel so at home here already.

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