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 3, 2016

The Official Guidebook to Whoredom — New Orleans’ Storyville Blue Book and the Women it Commodified

New Orleans has plenty of prostitutes today, but about a hundred years ago, sex work in this city was legal, zoned, taxed, sponsored and cataloged.  Yes, I said “cataloged,” by which I mean approximately what Land’s End and Fingerhut mean when they say “catalog,” only it’s not snow boots that are for sale but the bodies of women, complete with Zagat-like ratings for the services of each.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New Orleans planned Storyville, a community of whore houses, segregated officially between octoroon “cribs,” where women of color or of mixed racial background sold their bodies, and all-white Maisons de Joie, perhaps the most famous of which was Mahogany Hall, memorialized by Louis Armstrong’s “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Storyville was named for the legislator who suggested its legal codification, reform-minded Alderman Sidney Story.  Women of ill repute were supposed to be confined to a sixteen-block ghetto in the Treme section of town, and the implication of their zoning was not only to restrict the work of prostitutes but also their lives, as women who worked there were supposed to stay within the boundaries set up by the city government for almost any imaginable activity.  It was as if they were under house arrest, only they were expected to continue to work as whores to the benefit of the madams, pimps, and Tom Anderson, mobbed-up cabaret owner and the putative “mayor of Storyville,” who seems to have taken a cut of everybody else’s ill-gotten gains in this district.

storyville whorehouse bedroom

This is where clients could expect to have sex for money, — no visible sign of venereal diseases on those throw pillows.

The city itself of course turned a profit, as it could tax these very lucrative businesses that were kept under a watchful eye.  As one government official remarked about sex-for-hire in New Orleans — “You can make prostitution illegal in New Orleans, but you can’t make it unpopular.”  The city, too, was reaping benefits from the legalized trafficking of women’s bodies, and some men’s bodies, too (there are some references to “fairies” in Storyville, though they are not cataloged like women are), it seems. The only initial concern expressed about Storyville by many city officials was that it should not encourage men of color to sleep with white women, though white men were free to roam the district and purchase anybody’s body at will.

Before the establishment of an official tourist bureau, New Orleans businesses compiled something it called Blue Book, too racy to mail according to federal law, but the City of New Orleans determined could be given out to tourists and thrill-seekers of any kind.  In it, potential whorehouse customers could see a list of women for sale in Storyville, divided between white and black women, and inside, one could see photos and read about the various charms and talents of the women for sale, like they were seat cushions on display at Pottery Barn.

The purported purpose of the sixteen-block ghetto designated for whores was, according to the prose of Blue Book, was first, “to put the stranger on the proper and safe path … free from ‘hold-ups’ and other games,” and perhaps more atrociously, “it regulates the women,” keeping the rest of the city free from women who make a living selling their bodies. The purported purpose was therefore to pen in and legalize the transaction of the prostitute and Jon for the Jon, especially if he were white, but it made the woman a prisoner of a mobbed-up prostitution district.  If the sex worker entered Storyville freely to start work there as a prostitute, the law henceforth could hold her hostage even if she wanted to quit the oldest profession for something new.  It made her subject to pimps like Tom Anderson, madams who might tolerate brutality or cheat women of their wages, and with a smile in Blue Book, she was trapped night after night, day after day, in a Mahogany prison.

blue book prostitute mademoiselle rita walker

Mademoiselle Rita Walker’s Blue Book listing exoticizes her, and the combination of her barefoot dancing and expensive wardrobe make her a spicy commodity.

I do not assume for a minute that all the women in Storyville were there against their will.  Surely some of them, whom men at least called by names of royalty or aristocracy — there was “Queen Gertie” and “Countess Willie” — might have found work in a brothel preferable to other forms of menial labor open to working-class women, and perhaps the work itself was less exploitative than some “legitimate” jobs.  In a world where sexual harassment was frequent and legal, maybe getting paid for sex was better than being used for sex while officially being a washerwoman, nanny, or store clerk.  But the fact that these women couldn’t leave if the city didn’t let them slip by, if the mayor of Storyville did not wink — that made Storyville into a gilded form of convict prostitution.  It was not unlike the situation of sharecroppers just outside of town who might have been menaced by the Klan if they threatened to board a train for New York City in the middle of the sugar cane harvest.  In Storyville and the plantation, just like at the Hotel California, you could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.

And the idea that women were for sale like stoves at Sears — how American a way to hurt people! Capitalism is often subtly ugly when it sells clothes made in factories where workers do not make a living wage, but the clothing itself is lovely.  This, though, was not subtle.  The commerce of the female body is here, and adding insult to injury,  the women in this trade were expected to smile for a photo that advertised them like washboards or shoes.  They were reduced to things, rides at the carnival, adventures — not fully human at all.  I wonder if we remain inured to this kind of commodification of women as pornographic websites speak of parts, not people.  What is voluntary in our day troubles me less than the thousands of underage girls advertised for “outcall massage” in legal classified ads, girls kidnapped, brutalized, and peddled for profit by the mob.

I wonder if we continue to live in a society that could sanction the selling of female flesh while male flesh is mercifully off the auction block these days. Joe Francis has made a wholly disreputable bucket of cash from his disgusting Girls Gone Wild series that convinces women to flash their breasts for his profit.  Women in New Orleans, at least some of them, lift shirts for plastic beads once a year.  Again, I am less troubled by girls lifting shirts than I am boys filming and making bank off of it.  I am not really against whores, ghettoed or not, but I am uncharitable in my views toward Jons and am really totally ready to cut a pimp.  New Orleans places no stigma on what the French call louche.  I particularly take exception to bohemian proclivities expressed by one person that others leech and exploit.

Storyville did not end because of any moral sentiment from the city government of New Orleans.  Rather, the United States military insisted, under the aegis of Woodrow Wilson, who was no whoremonger, that it would be morally and physically unhealthy for soldiers and sailors to catch a boat to World War I through a port town where hookers operated legally.  One may be pretty certain that the president did not consult the soldiers in question about this, but he was adamant.  As a result, Storyville’s interests were less lucrative to New Orleans business and government than a military port contract.  The Mahogany Hall and its neighboring buildings were shuttered, but unsurprisingly, the hooking has continued on the DL to this day. It’s not hard to find a prostitute for sale in New Orleans in the twenty-first century, but it is hard to find a published catalog of them, and the city has ceased to sanction anything they do officially.  There are no doubt plenty of cops on the take, plenty of pimps, and plenty of frightened girls who never went wild, who just fell into the hands of abusers. Storyville might be closed, but it is still open in spirit all day and all night in the city that zoned it.

October 27, 2010

Freedom of the Pressure — on being pushy down South

Confederates don’t haggle.  They rarely wag their fingers.  They walk demurely toward the end of the line, rather than trying to find their way around it to the secret back entrance.

In New York, I was never the pushiest woman I knew.  I was always somewhere toward the sixtieth percentile in pushiness — not a wimp, not Ophelia drowning, but neither boorish nor crass.  I was tenacious but not a bulldog.

a graphic for my 10.0 on the Richter Pushometer down here in Mississippi

Down here, I’m so darn pushy in comparison to others that I might as well be belting out, “I had a dream, and I dreamed it for you, Rose!”

An example — I went to my local Home Depot.  The website of the franchise was offering free delivery for yard furniture last spring, and I wanted to buy some.  My local Home Depot had a policy of charging an $80 delivery fee.  I talked to three managers, was never rude, but I insisted that the policy didn’t make sense, that they should waive the fee so that the store could get credit for the sale locally, keep everyone employed in town by having such sales, just give me the discount.

As I said before, people down South don’t haggle. They think it’s impolite, pushy, to ask for any kind of a discount.  Never mind that they are underpaid in comparison to their professional equals up North, never mind that capitalism is always, always the art of the deal, and they believe in capitalism.  Never mind that in New York, people just know that only chumps pay retail, that asking, re-asking, and re-re-asking for a bargain doesn’t cost a penny.

Solemnly and reluctantly, the head manager finally gave me the nod after two hours of tense negotiation — tense on their part, not mine, because for me, this was just business as usual.

Whenever I come in there, store clerks still, almost a year later, tell me, rather in awe, “I remember you! You’re the lady who got free delivery!”

They don’t say it admiringly.  They say it respectfully, fearful I’ll ask for something new once more.

I ask for jobs.  I learned this in New York.  I walk up to people who have the power to give me work and just plain ask, whether there has been an advertisement or not.  If they say no, I’m surely no worse off.

Down South, this is rare.  And yet — let’s look at their absolute all-time favorite archetypal heroine:

"As God as My Witness, I'll Never Go Hungry Again," (and I don't mind being pushy wherever it suits my purposes.)

Katie Scarlett O’Hara Wilkes Kennedy Butler is the most pushy woman in American fiction, barring no Yankees.

Here are some pushy things that, just off the top of my head, I recall Scarlett doing:

  • She demands Rhett Butler take her out of a besieged Atlanta and slaps him when he tries to kiss her.
  • She shoots a Yankee renegade.
  • She throws dirt on Emily Slattery and her Carpetbagger husband (I forgive you, Scarlett, and I would have done the same).
  • She steals her sister’s beau (and a bunch of other girls’ beaux as well).
  • She starts a lumber mill and beats the male competition by starting a rumor mill about them as well.
  • She gets convict laborers to make her business more profitable, because the overseers of the convicts can legally push them to work harder. (not nice, but incredibly pushy.)

That’s just off the top of my head.  I’m sure if I re-read the novel, I’d find out another dozen examples worth mentioning. Scarlett seemed to believe the axiom “Nice girls go to heaven; pushy girls go everywhere.”

So why — if this is the idealized and celebrated picture of a Southern belle, are all the people around here not pushy, often even push-overs?

Older people say around here, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

The New York Yiddish diction in me comes out and I say, “What?  You want I should catch flies?”

Flies are attracted to garbage.  Forget flies.  Give me a job.  Give me a discount. Pay attention to me.  Take me to your leader.

I am honestly trying to adapt here, but if there are people in the South who think that it is better to be forever Miss Congeniality rather than Miss I-Got-Exactly-What -I-Wanted, I’d like them to explain to me why.

I see people down here who are surely better liked than I might be –although I think honestly that most people think I’m an interesting character and are very, very kind to me — who are never insistent or aggressive in going after particular rewards or restitution.  Honestly, they remind me of the Reconstruction-era dowagers depicted in Margaret Mitchell‘s novel in contrast to Scarlett — the women who starved in gentility, who lost everything but their demure penury, trying to make a lady-like living by hand-painting china.  And yet, perhaps I am more like Scarlett O’Hara than any of the ladies I meet in that I insist, I demand, I just won’t take no for an answer.

If this is wrong, I hope someone writes a comment here and explains to me what I’m missing.  If someone can explain to me why pushiness isn’t Southern but Scarlett O’Hara is so celebrated, I want to know that, too.  It is my general observation that those who ask not receive not.  Why don’t Southerners generally go after things the way New Yorkers do?  The motto of the State of New York is Excelsior — “Forever higher,” where we want our profits and hopes to go.  In Mississippi, it is Virtute et Armis — “By valor and arms,” but what by valor and arms?  Which victory? I don’t think passivity is very valorous, and arms can be borne, but what are you shooting at?

Wasn’t it a Southern Civil Rights worker who said, “If they’re shooting at you, you must be doing something right?”

I exhort you, Mississippi.  I had a dream, and I dreamed it for you, Scarlett!

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