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.


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.

January 2, 2011

We Wish You a Scary Christmas

In 2005, I thought this was my engagement photo, but I was being conned by a team of professional criminals

Study the man in this photo carefully.  His name is Mostafa Ibrahimi, or at least this is one of  his aliases, and if I am ever found dead, he is the man who killed me.  You see, he thinks if I die, he will inherit such money as I have, but needless to say, I changed my will when he publicly humiliated me and scammed me out of my money.  He had convinced me we were getting married — this photo to the right was our engagement photo, or so I thought, and I had invitations printed, a wedding dress made, and I sent tens of thousands of  dollars to Morocco to his family — or people posing as such — to prepare a lavish wedding reception.  They never intended that there should be any wedding at all.  They disappeared with the cash, and I was utterly, utterly humiliated and broken.  The people at my church, who had also been fooled by this man — he had attended church with me for a year and a half, pretending to have had a born-again experience, and he had attended six session of pre-marital counseling with my pastor, who was to perform the ceremony of this imaginary wedding that never took place — they stood by me.  While I underwent this horrible humiliation, however, people in the poetry world were less kind.  One woman, scheduled to be a bridesmaid in Morocco until the scam was revealed, told others that I was in a rubber room in Bellevue — I was in fact in my apartment weeping, my cat on my chest, with older women from my church and my good friend Andrea making me come out and breathe and eat from time to time.  Another writer told others she swore she had seen me in the streets on drugs, stoned out of my mind.  In fact, I was just praying on a street corner, thanking God I was still alive, as I realized I had had a close brush with death in the person of this very dangerous man.

I of course filed a complaint with the Queens County DA for conspiracy to defraud.  I believe because this man is a Moroccan National it was later taken over by the NSA, who doubtless wanted to monitor the money trail.

I recovered financially and emotionally, won literary prizes for work written during this crisis, and then this man contacted me several days after Christmas 2010 — a few days ago.  He told me that if I did not give him a quarter of a million dollars, he would tell the people of this church who cried with me when I was humiliated that I had forced him to have sadomasochistic sex and that I was forcing him to convert from Islam while sexually enslaving him.

Let me tell you that my sexual powers, while they might make a man see God, are not designed to enslave but to liberate, and Mostafa, let me say it in French, so that you can hear it loud and clear — inutile de vous dire que j’ai change de testament et que vous n’etes plus mon heritier.  Ce titre appartient a mon mari, et les autorites sont entirement au courant de cela et de vos activites.

Needless to say, I will not be sending him any money to prevent him from saying these things to my former church.  These people still have my back, and I am proud to live in a country where being a woman writer does not require a bloody cloth be waved in the air to prove her chastity before publication.  If some Americans actually thought that I had enslaved a hapless foreign Muslim man with my you-know-what, they would high five me in the streets.  In New York, they would throw me a ticker tape parade.

I contacted the FBI about his blackmail attempt.  It is in their hands.

Anyway, yes — I was one of those women, those sad, astonished-looking scammed women you see on 20/20 and other shows like it.  I am not a moron.  This man is not a genius.  He is, however, well-rehearsed and unimaginably perverse, willing to work with a group of conspirators at close range to tell women precisely what they want to hear.  What I wanted to hear, more than I wanted every penny I owned, was “welcome to the family.”

I had been married before.  My husband and I were calling it quits after a history where he cheated on me and hurt me physically.  My father took his side in the divorce — a typical part of that relationship between me and my family.  Here came a man speaking a sparkling French, not with a Moroccan accent, but the accent of a Swiss diplomat, claiming to be both a Christian and a feminist.  Was I dumb?  Not exactly.  He was handsome, elegant, and profoundly evil, and I assumed I was too poor to attract a man who had designs upon my fortune.

My girlfriends and so-called girlfriends — they saw me the night this photo was taken for an engagement party in the salons of the National Arts Club.  Several of them were jealous in the extreme — one tried to slip him her telephone number and offered to sleep with him (she knew as a born-again Christian I would not be doing the deed until my wedding night), and another woman got into a physical fight with one of my friends, pouring tea on her head.  One was unkind enough when my money was gone along with my sense of goodness in the world to remark that I should have known it was a scam because I was not good looking enough to attract a man this pretty.

Let me ask it again: Was I dumb?  For the last five years, every day, I have called myself an idiot.  However, since receiving his attempted blackmail e-mail, I am feeling less stupid and more retroactively lonely.  My family and I were really barely on speaking terms at all.  My husband had left bruises on me and made me  feel vampirized — the money Mostafa took in a fraud was money that my ex-husband had intended that I should spend on supporting him while he did not work.  My friends in the art world, even my bridesmaids, were slandering me.  I think most of my friends hated me at least in a part-time kind of a way — in New York, when someone’s career is going well, or their love life is going well, or they get a rent-controlled apartment for almost no money, this is what happens, and my life was going gangbusters on a couple of fronts.  I did not know, however, that I was the victim of an actual gang trying to actually bust me.

I now think less that I was an idiot than I was unaccompanied, and like someone who walks into an alleyway alone, I was perhaps a little bit more likely to be mugged than another.  I was not an idiot.  I was a victim of a well-planned and completely rehearsed scam involving five or more participants who convinced me that a warm, interesting, unconventional (in either the Arab culture or the American one), loving family in Casablanca awaited me just as I was.  Every lie had a schedule and was linked to the previous lie.  One week, Mostafa would tell me a story that had many details, and a side detail of one lie would become the central detail of the next.  He never forgot a lie, not once.  However, when he disappeared, in discovering the fallacy of one detail, I discovered the unthinkable — that for a year and a half, every single word out of the person I thought I knew the best and loved the most had been from start to finish utterly false.

Again, I ask you to look at the man in the photo.  If you see him, don’t give him directions to my house, even though my husband has a Southern welcome waiting for him when he gets there.  Look at the woman in the photo — me back then, operating under illusions.  Look at the certainty of the gaze, the peace in the smile.  I would give him triple the money he tried to blackmail me out of if only I could get back the peace you see there that he stole from me five years ago.  If I could get back the peace and my credibility with others, who used to think me a good judge of character, a steady and reliable person, I would give any amount of money he asked.

October 19, 2010

Roy Herron for Congress — Tennessee’s 6th district — as a litmus test for my adjustment here.

In today’s New York Times, a marvelous story about Southern Democrats quotes Roy Herron, who says in order to win, he has to convince voters here he’s a  “truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, Gospel-preaching, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy.”

He poses on his campaign website with his mother in a photo that could be the inspiration for a Country Western ballad.  Loving your Momma and treating her right is more important down here — even if she’s (and I’m sure that Mrs. Herron is a lovely lady) an old battle axe.

The candidate and his Momma

Roy Herron served in the Tennessee State Legislature and State Senate for some years.  He is the author of three (I’m guessing self-published) books, including one called God and Politics.  Yet he is fighting an uphill battle in his district to convince people that he participates in the following activities — let me list them down here once more:

  • Truck Driving
  • Shotgun shooting
  • Bible Reading
  • Gospel Preaching
  • Crime Fighting
  • Family Loving

These sound not only like a list of things that people in the Sixth district of Tennessee might want in a candidate but a pretty good litmus test for Southernness in general, at least for a man.  Allow me to add a few more items:

  • Grits Eating
  • Elvis Adoring
  • “Y’all” yowling
  • Whiskey swilling
  • Football flinging
  • Yell whooping
  • Denim sporting
  • Hound-dog hoarding
  • Knee slapping
  • Neck reddening

I would like to propose the list above — Mr. Herron’s and my own — as a Southern Democrat’s litmus test.  I would like to go over it one item at a time to see how I’m doing at adjusting to living down here.

  • Truck Driving — As a woman, truck driving is optional.  Trucks are to manhood in the South what the Red Porche is to midlife Manhood in the North and the West Coast.  Hence, I’m going to substitute “pie baking,” a very traditional Southern women’s activity.  I have baked so many more pies down here than I ever did up North.  I give myself an “A” for that one.
  • Shotgun Shooting — Men and women both do this.  I am so willing to learn how to do this.  My future son in-law has promised to take me out to a place where I can fire off a few rounds, but this promise has yet to be fulfilled.  I give  myself a “D-” since I have not done it, but I get a couple of points for willingness.
  • Bible Reading — I read the Bible.  I even teach it in the context of courses at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi.  I get an “A.”
  • Gospel Preaching — I have not, I admit done a lot of this, so here goes:  Everyone within earshot, know that Jesus loves you and died for your sins.   Accept him into your hearts and spend eternity in Heaven and the here and now in a transformational liberation from cynicism and bondage to sin.  There — okay, that’s a “C” effort.
  • Crime Fighting — I wonder what image Mr. Herron is trying to evoke here.  Is he the Sheriff at the OK Corral?  I have done none of this, but perhaps my ladylike womanhood allows me to substitute another activity — say, Home Decorating — my total  home makeover  in Vicksburg earns me an “A.”
  • Family Loving — Southerners, as I mentioned before, seem to love their families without questioning the dysfunction within them.  Bourbon substitutes for Freud.  I’m a New Yorker.  Years of needed therapy after dysfunction would give me an “F,” but loving my husband and my two step-daughters would give me an “A,” so I’ll average that out to a “C.”
  • Grits Eating — I aced this!  “A.”
  • Elvis Adoring — Although I really like Elvis, I have been getting a PhD approximately 75 miles from Graceland and have yet to visit.  I think I’ve got a “C-.”
  • “Y’all” Yowling — I am in remedial classes for this criterion.  I have graduated from “You guys” to “You all,” but “Y’all” remains out of reach and “All y’all” is a distant Willie-Nelson-Soundtrack dream. “F.”
  • Whiskey Swilling — Hello!  My Irish-American ancestry prepared me to excel in this area. I get an “A,” with a Summa Cum mention for Sour Mash Tennessee No. 7: I am eligible for the Jack Daniels dean’s list.
  • Football Flinging — This is a manly attribute, although women can participate.  I will substitute for “Football Player Tutoring,” which I have done — think Cathy Bates’ role in The Blind Side.  I’ve done that and am doing that. I get an “A” for this.
  • Yell Whooping — There’s a Rebel Yell and a Lady Rebel Yell.  I have just learned the Hotty Toddy Ole Miss Rebel Cheer.  I get a “B-” here.
  • Denim Sporting — Because of mud and dog slobber, jeans are a more practical choice in Mississippi in my wardrobe than black pants of non-denim material.  I get a “B+” here.
  • Hound-dog Hoarding — I now have a hound dog — a yellow lab named “Baby” by my Step-daughter.  I have a Daschund named Oscar.  Do two dogs constitute a hoard?  Just barely.  I get a “B-.”
  • Knee Slapping — I am indeed an afficionado of Southern humor.  However, I lose 200 points for using the word “afficionado.”  Hence, I get a “C+.”
  • Neck Reddening — Having fair skin and no sense at all when it comes to when I’ll be spending any time outside, I am actually, much to my horror, watching my neck turn red.  If I were looking in the mirror, I would have a red ring beneath my head from time spent at a Bill Clinton rally and a trip to the Mississippi State Fair.  I get an “A+” for this one, alas.

So what then are my mid-term grades for Southernness?  Add to the mix of  the above that I did some extra credit — I wrote a piece that got picked up on Y’all Politics and there’s a website for the book The Cracker Queen that has a link to this blog.  Combining these two, I give myself another “A,” and averaging it all out, my mid-term grade for Southernnness is: C+

I’m still a Yankee, but not a “Damn” Yankee anymore.

As for Mr. Herron in his Mid-term elections, I wish him every success on the first Tuesday in November.  He loves his Momma, and I’m just betting that lady will be voting for him.  Honestly, how many other people really might live in the Sixth district, anyway?  If he can get his cousins on board, I bet he has a real shot at Congress.

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