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

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.

 

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February 20, 2012

Surprise! My step-daughter’s seventeenth birthday, or a Yankee ambush the South can endorse

Charlotte and her friend Hannah looking both sweet and Southern

Charlotte turned seventeen last week, and in keeping with local matronly customs, I threw her a party.  Because, however, I wanted to surprise her, I involved her favorite teacher at school, her track and field coach, and the entire (small) group of girls in her class.  They all knew that I would arrive with balloons and flowers in my hand, a tune of one of her favorite indie rock bands blasting through my car’s speakers, to whisk them all away for manicures, pedicures, and Chinese food.

This was one Yankee ambush the South could get behind.

Women down here love throwing parties; it is a mark of maturity and refinement.  I’m not sure that my utterly un-veranda-ed and foreign-cuisine-laden fete qualifies me for membership in the local Junior League, but I finally seem to have hit a positive note here, as far as my neighbors are concerned.  Mothers and daughters graciously RSVP-ed and enjoyed the subterfuge, seemed to approve of my party favors and invitations, seemed to enjoy the unusual (for here) party activities.

The girls who came enjoyed themselves, I think, and Charlotte tells me they liked me, too, calling me “the sweetest thing ever.”  Girls in cheerleader outfits called me “ma’am,” and they found it fascinating that I could speak foreign languages of a variety of kinds.  I promised these girls that if they came over to our house at a non-surprising moment, I would gladly feed them my non-Southern cooking and speak to them in whatever language they liked.

You know they're friends because they have a sign that says so

The fact that I had an album by indie band Down with Webster — at my age — makes me an unusual step-momma.  So does having a giant poster of David Bowie incorporated into my kitchen’s design.  Being internationally focused is unusual — all of these girls have commendable future plans — veterinary school, human medical school, international business, but the majority of them intend to stay within the boundaries of the state of Mississippi.  Some of  them have boyfriends who really might become husbands already.  In truth, I find them every bit as exotic as they find me.

At least everyone seems to have had a lovely time.  It is they, in fact, these bright, energetic girls, who are the sweetest things ever.

Happy birthday, Charlotte.  May all the surprises life throws you be as pleasant for you as you seem to have found this one.

April 4, 2011

Rock n’ Roll or Miss n’ Sippi?

The Goo Goo Dolls gave a free concert in the Ole Miss Grove tonight

Question: How does an American in the 21st Century know he or she has hit midlife?

Answer: When responsible parents bring their kids to see a rock band they dig.

Tonight, the Goo Goo Dolls gave a free performance in the Grove at Ole Miss, and the crowd, at least for Mississippi, was packed.

What was surprising was how many families came with small children to hear the band.

I have surely lived long enough to have some rock n’ roll fantasies fulfilled.

I danced one night on stage in a go-go cage in Paris on stage with Elvis Costello and the Attractions.  I had a front row seat, was inches away from Alison Moyet when she sang at the Olympia.

I also have had a few awful rock ‘n roll experiences as well.  One night at La Courneuve in France I went to see David Bowie perform, and there were violent skin heads in the crowd who started swinging spiked knuckles into the crowd, terrifying most of us and starting a near stampede.  The movements of the crowd were so intense, they unbuttoned my blouse, not in a sexy way, and I nearly got trampled to death.  I remember after things calmed down being close to the stage, where Peter Frampton, still with good hair, was playing his guitar in Bowie’s band, and he was fantastic, but I was sobbing so hard I could not fully appreciate his masterful licks.  Later that dawn, my brother and I caught a ride back to Paris in a butcher’s truck making pre-dawn deliveries to restaurants.  I remember we were crowded in with lots of kids wearing the same black bomber jacket (I had one, too), and we were nearly overpowered by the smell of raw beef.

Rock n’ roll is kind of like pizza.  Even when it is bad, it’s still wonderful in its own junky way.

Tonight, though, was a first.  It was a major band playing a college gig, but there wasn’t one bomber jacket in the crowd, neither any black of which to speak.  There were a bunch of women with small children, diaper bags, dogs, hula hoops.

Maybe it’s midlife, or maybe it’s Mississippi.  Maybe this is, despite being the birthplace of Elvis, not really rock ‘n roll territory.

Me at the Grove earlier tonight. Am I losing my edginess?

I barely smelled any marijuana at this concert.  I remember the first rock concert I went to at age 12 — the smell was overpowering to the point I thought I would pass out.

There was not a mosh pit.  I was never much of a mosher, anyway — but I was all about the edgy message.

Maybe I was watching a band that the regents of the University of Mississippi were pretty sure would not trash the stage or knock up any co-eds.  After all, the lead vocalist of the Goo Goo Dolls pointed out that they have nine studio albums.

“That makes us old,” he said before he launched into tracks from the latest release.

I admit I did not dress in black, either.  I remember days when my girlfriends would dress sexy and get as close to the front of the stage as possible in the hope of attracting the attention of the band members.  I remember how gorgeous my friend Liz Coy was the day she went and saw the Rolling Stones when we were high school freshmen — long, naturally curly red hair, a low-cut halter top, and tight, tight jeans on her utterly perfect body.  I remember my friend Silver, who now goes by Sarah, so utterly perfect in her beauty that she was once photographed for Vogue, and she told me how she ended up giving Iggy Pop an onstage dirty handshake while the crowd looked on.

Me in the gogo cage — well, Elvis and I were on the most civil and platonic  terms. Diana Krall has nothing to worry about.

But there I was,  sitting on the grass at the Grove, no makeup, a t-shirt, and I was text-messaging my step-daughters, 16 and 20 years old, wishing they were with me.

Yes, it’s Mississippi, and no rock ‘n roll fantasies have taken place here since Elvis moved to Memphis.

But I seem to have moved on, too.  I’m happy with who I am, but I miss my go-go self, in no way evoked among the Goo Goo Dolls, who delivered their brand of blaring guitar sentimentality, urging us to let it just slide.  And so we did.  And so I must.

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