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

June 7, 2017

Louisianans Might Be Crazy — But We’re Not Stupid

The state of Louisiana is famous for its eccentrics.  Yes, New York has a glorious history of schizophrenics muttering to themselves in the ATM vestibules and in subway cars, yes. San Francisco practices freak-flag forms of politically inflected mania, but Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, is proud of its deep heritage of lunatics on the loose.

Indeed, the South as a whole does not disown its lunatics but makes room for them at the Easter Brunch table.

“Miz Johnson has her ways,” parents explain to children about the neighbor who stands on her front porch screaming about alien abductions. Boo Radley doesn’t get chased out of town in To Kill  a Mockingbird. He becomes the subject of a small town’s most graphic and gothic legends while he keeps his own crazy counsel.

cray

Miz Johnson has her ways.

In New Orleans in particular, it becomes hard to distinguish the lunatic from the merely fabulous. The people who shout at invisible oppressors, the people who dress like Napoleon and claim his identity are all part of an ecosystem of local color. Far from fleeing the mad neighbor, the people of New Orleans embrace these people as a contribution to tourism. While many people might be diagnosable or diagnosed, the citizens of New Orleans are less interested in what is wrong with the crazy man on the street corner than they are in his ephemeral passage between the frontier of respectable reality and disreputable fantasy. New Orleans has made this transgression into an attraction.

In a red state such as Louisiana, and given all I have said above about local lunacy, it should surprise nobody that the state legislature is considering budget cuts to mental health programs that benefit most particularly the schizophrenic and bipolar. The hope of such programs is to medicate those who may be medicated out of, say, homicidal tendencies.  The state is also trying to limit its highest-in-the-country incarceration rates, so I am assuming that the wisdom of the legislature is not to criminalize the mentally incompetent but to allow them to offer more Jeremiads in Audubon Park to passers by, to take a permanent Mardi Gras vacation from the normative.  Outside the city, I suppose the hope must be that they will create new attractions in swamp country.  Nat Geo’s Swamp People can only attract so many tourists to visit the mosquitoes and alligators of the state’s wetlands, but what if a Fais-do-do — the traditional Cajun dance party popular in many parts of the state — could turn into a Fais-cray-cray? Would tourists from Michigan paddle out in a pirogue to take a look at that, buy local crawfish — for such a festival we could actually stoop perhaps to calling them CRAY fish like the Yankees call them — and support jam-jar bars in the bayou? So a few more people get shot in Baton Rouge by lunatics on the loose — will the police even notice? What could that do for the tourist industry around Louisiana State University campus?

Admittedly, it is cheaper for the state to pay for medication for the seriously mentally ill who have fallen into deep difficulty than to pay to incarcerate murderers or to investigate missing persons — unless you see this as a burgeoning cottage industry that no good capitalist would ever want to regulate with Lithium and the occasional straight jacket. After all, Laissez-faire economics, isn’t that a CAJUN term for making a buck every which way?

It is time for me to stop my “modest proposal” shtick and admit that I think cutting what meager help that exists for the mentally ill is a losing proposition.  It’s crazy. But the Louisiana State Legislature, bless its heart, seems to be willing to sing along with the Louisiana State University Tiger Marching Band’s peppy rendition of the Billy Joel tune:

You may be right. I may be crazy. But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.

I for one would be willing to pay a little more in taxes to make sure the dangerously mentally ill got the help they needed, to provide family counseling in under-served communities in the state, to help those of us who do not sublimate our depression and anxiety in writing or jazz to get a therapist.  But then again, like Billy Joel, a New Yorker, I come from a place where it is expected that the mentally ill have more than “their ways,” that they have a counselor as needed. New Yorkers — what did they do after 9/11?  They got everybody who wanted one a therapist for free.  They knew we had all been through a trauma.  What does New York do when it is upset? It talks to somebody about it, seeks help. Louisiana isn’t so sure it needs help. It is willing to live with the crazy within its borders.

storm shelter

The people of Louisiana have been collectively traumatized in recent years by needing to escape storms in shelters like this one.

One thing, however, that Louisianans know first-hand is the need to handle large community crises.  These normally come to the people of the state in the form of weather. Katrina traumatized all of the Gulf of Mexico.  Last year’s floods displaced many people in the center of the state, people who may not yet have moved back into their homes. The people of Louisiana are possibly crazy, but they’re not stupid. They are not willing to bet against the entirety of the scientific community regarding weather patterns they themselves have just barely survived and declare that climate change just can’t be real. Governor Edwards has repeatedly put out statements about the current Federal government’s proposed cuts to programs needed to mitigate climate change issues in the coast lands of the state. Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans has pledged to meet Paris Accord climate change standards whatever Washington may say. If scientists say we cannot afford to get more than two degrees Celsius hotter on planet Earth, people in Southern Louisiana in particular understand how hot it can get, and the whole community is willing to work to prevent additional disasters being visited upon the state.

In this, I believe I see the outline of a bipartisan state legislature budgetary agreement. Perhaps we could agree that for one year the State of Louisiana could send all its mental health funding to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to treat one person in particular suffering from delusions that are actually hurting the international tourist trade.  This individual believes that the former President was from Kenya, that crowd sizes are not what the rest of us see, that the FBI director told him he wasn’t under investigation and told him this multiple times, that “covfefe” is a word, that he has the best solutions, that he alone can fix the problems of this country, that factual news is fake news, that we aren’t noticing that he is planning  to cut his own taxes at the expense of poor children and the elderly in our state, and that we were glad when he showed up in the flood zone against the governor’s request so that rescuers could continue to get help to people literally stranded on rooftops so that a billionaire could bring us a few hundred dollars’ worth of children’s games.  Some lunatics are too dangerous even for Louisiana, and Louisianans are smart enough to realize that his plans need  to be stopped so that we can continue to live our eccentric lives down here.

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June 18, 2016

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of New Orleans

Not long ago, New Orleans bandleader  Jean Baptiste filmed a Late Show segment with Stephen Colbert, whom he showed around the French Quarter.  Jean stood casually in a long-sleeved shirt and slacks, not breaking a sweat, as he is from Louisiana, his family having lived there and played jazz there for numerous generations.  He was showing Stephen how to “hang” on a street corner, looking casual and cool.  Colbert was neither casual in a summer-weight suit, nor was he cool.  He said just standing there for a few minutes he was sweating so much he was experiencing “swamp ass.” I think “swamp ass” would sound much more elegant in Cajun, as it would translate into, “cul de bayou,” but it is not a phenomenon Cajuns regularly experience, accustomed as they are to the heat down here.  The rest of us, though, who might even be used to Southern heat (Stephen Colbert grew up in the South), are ill-acclimated to avoiding cul de bayou, cuisse de bayou (swamp thigh), or couilles de bayou (swamp testicles).  It’s hot and muggy in New Orleans.

cold drinkThat weather mojo works both ways, by the way.  Yankees are much more able to handle cold.  Every Southern lady I know who doesn’t ski owns only thin jackets, nothing at all from the Northface Catalog, and the second the temperature dips below forty degrees, they shiver as if it were going out of style.  I married my husband in an old antebellum mansion which had served as the Yankee headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  The night before our January wedding, the fountains had frozen over in the garden.  I walked around getting ready in a t-shirt and jeans while the majority of guests on his side of the aisle trembled violently and stomped their feet to keep from getting frostbite.  My years walking between skyscrapers in Manhattan while the wind shot ice pellets at my face made a breezeless thirty-degree chill feel like a cool day hardly worth noticing as cold.

Come June that year, of course, my experience changed radically. I remember when the headache started — three a.m., and it was the middle of June, and it was eighty degrees outside.  Since I couldn’t sleep, I took the dog for a walk, and I saw bats flying overhead, catching the many bugs in the air.  I also saw my neighbors out for a stroll with their dogs, as this was going to be the coolest moment for at least twenty-four more hours.  The headache lasted through July.  I remember the early days of the month, sitting in a gazebo I had set up in our back yard, staring at the ice melting in a big plastic cup of mint tea I had filled to drink out there, my head throbbing so hard because my blood didn’t know what to do with the intensity of the heat that would not quit.  By August, the headache had dissipated with the murky-smelling mist off the Mississippi that had wafted over our back lawn every morning during the hottest summer days.

I have never had a heat headache in any subsequent summers, acclimated as I am to Southern heat.  Still, though, New Orleans heat is not for wimps.

I cannot imagine how slaves harvested rice in this weather.  They almost all died young, it seems, according to a plantation tour I took once.  I don’t know how anybody survived New Orleans heat before air conditioning. It’s impressive to imagine anybody trying to put on a corset in this weather. It would take a particular admiration for martyred saints that a good Catholic homily might inspire, as no Protestants would see the merit in suffering like that just to have a wasp waist. The French doors everywhere in New Orleans are a relic of the era when the only hope anyone had of enough air was to make certain that the house was no stuffier than the outside air, in  the vain hope of some kind of cool breeze emanating from some virgin martyr’s icy breath. Sinful city as New Orleans has always been, the hot-blooded women of the metropolis could offer no icy virginity to pair with martyred sainthood recognizable to the Vatican, so people suffered in this town.

I admit it. I can’t stand the heat.  I have left New Orleans for a few weeks of respite six hours due north in northern Mississippi.  It isn’t hot enough to reduce me to a puddle of sweat here, now with my acclimated sweat glands. I am writing my dissertation, and it is good to sit in a library with the air conditioning on full blast, drink a diet coke, and to think of nothing but knights and Middle French and Middle English works of literature that describe them. I am sweating, but there is no cul de bayou. There is no headache, except from squinting at faded letters in old books. But I admit it.  I am a mauviette de bayou (a swamp wimp),  a faignant de bayou (a swamp weakling loser), and it would take a miracle de bayou (you’ve got this one on your own) to acclimate me to this tropical sauna before next June, when there will be no escape from the impressive humidity and heat.

November 25, 2015

Après le Déluge, moi — Moving to New Orleans

King Louis XIV famously declared, regarding his excessive spending and living, the construction of Versailles on the peasants’ backs, his love for rich foods, brocade, gilding, and fireworks displays, “Après moi, le déluge.” This refers to an economic collapse he foresaw due to his excesses, but it literally means, “after me, the great flood.”

 Well, today, like a large number of Americans, I am able to look South and declare, not so much in French as in Cajun, “Après le déluge, moi.” After the great flood of Katrina, me, here I am, and I am moving to New Orleans, excessive, effervescent, and like the insect life of the bayoux, burgeoning, fecund with possibility, alive despite toxins and people trying to crush me underfoot when I cross their path.

My husband just got a job transfer down here, and I write this on the Rive Gauche of the Mississippi as we hunt for a place down here. We have investigated rentals of an urban renewing nature in neighborhoods plagued by crime and poverty, and we have investigated choices more conventionally sprawling into prosperous housing.  A French Quarter townhouse lovingly restored will cost one the monthly champagne bill at Versailles, and as lovely as that might be, we aren’t working with the Sun King’s budget. We will likely end up in a small house with a patio in the back.

There is something profoundly invigorating about moving to a place that is rapidly building or rebuilding. It makes a person feel urban, feel renewed, whatever storms have hit. The fumes of fresh paint drying are intoxicating, and like absinthe cocktails at brunch chez Broussard, might make one have visions of the future. In mine, I am writing while being served another unsweet tea at a round table in a brick courtyard, chatter around me, the sound of a trumpet in the background. After all, if a girl can’t write in New Orleans, she can’t write.  And I can write.

If my future vision is a bit cliché, please forgive me. It’s just that with New Orleans, as with so many things at least partially French, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Like Anne Rice’s Lestat, New Orleans may have a deadly air, but it is forever renewed and élégantà sa façon ringarde, elegant in its tacky ways. Like a jazz funeral procession marks death and grief with joy and syncopation, New Orleans, like anything at least partially French, sees tragedy in defiant irony and triumph with the doubt expressed by Napoleon’s mother when he was crowned emperor — “pourvu que ça dure!”– “we’ll see how long this lasts!”

And will it last? Of course not! And yet, of course it will! New Orleans will never shed its character, and an influx of newcomers, however large or diverse, cannot change this, as New Orleans, like New York, abides in the expectation of newcomers, including carpetbaggers like me, getting tossed in its gumbo.  The roads crumble in flood seasons, but the places to go remain places to go. New pavement cannot change the directions on the face of the compass in the navigator’s hand. New Orleans will always be the home to an enduring and culturally rich African diaspora, Pirates and other transgressive Eurotrash, missionaries, outlaws, and outlaw missionaries. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, no matter who shows up.

Like any urban space, New Orleans has traffic laws, and here are a few of them:  Shake hands with the preacher,but keep your wallet in your front pocket where you can feel if someone is trying to lift it. Pay your taxes, but know that not all of the amount due ends up in the government vault. Be a lady, at least while anyone is looking. Strut if at all possible. Be friendly quickly, but make friends slowly. Be better at holding your liquor than the tourists are during Mardi Gras.

I am good at understanding the rules of city life. I am always a lady while anyone is looking. I strutted out of my mother’s womb, so don’t try to out-swagger me. I am friendly. I rarely drink, but my Irish blood keeps me clear-headed, and the sight of my nipples is not available for the tossing of some plastic beads. In other words, it’s practically like I was born here! If not born here, I am at least reborn here, transfused like Lestat by the blood of the living, high on the energy of new beginnings of things without end. Après le déluge, moi. Me voilà.

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