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

September 5, 2016

Seeing with “Vampire Eyes” in New Orleans at Five A.M.

For her extraordinarily popular book Interview with a Vampire, Anne Rice imagines a man in colonial Louisiana just outside New Orleans converting from human being into an elegant vampire.  His converter warns him to go outside as he changes but not to “fall so madly with the night that you lose your ways.”

Of course, the new vampire in the book does lose his way to the beauty of the night.  He says, “When I saw the moon on the flagstones, I became so enamored with it that I must have spent an hour there….Standing among the cottonwood and oaks, I heard the night as if it were a chorus of whispering women, all beckoning me to their breasts.”

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“When I saw the moon on the flagstones, I became so enamored with it that I must have spent an hour there.” — Anne Rice

I am gradually learning that nothing in New Orleans is entirely what it seems, and yet nothing at all is purely fictional.  Writers here, Anne Rice and others like me, don’t need to make anything up, really, so much as press record like the interviewer in Interview with a Vampire. New Orleans provides enough vivacity to transform us all, not necessarily into vampires but certainly into raconteurs. Our old limitations die in the elevated graveyards, but our new eyes as writers in this nearly mythic town — a place of real magical realism — fall so in love with the night that we indeed risk losing our ways.

So it is with me at five a.m. when I walk my dogs around the block.  I choose this time because I leave for work quite early, and my dogs have fewer people to bark at or to try to sniff. That said, I was astonished when first I walked them around the block about a half hour before sunrise.  It wasn’t Lestat who had given me new eyes.  It was New Orleans.

At that hour, even at that hour, it has been well above eighty degrees outside most mornings, and the town glows despite the lights being off.  Even when I walked around the block during a power outage, the town still glowed.  How? The moon hangs low in the sky, a glass of milk seen from above, and the sky is not so black as it is royal blue with a widow’s veil hanging over it.

The cars are distant as my dogs and I circle the block, but the end of night is noisy.  Before the birds are up, a timpany chorus of insects click and chatter in what perhaps Anne Rice meant when she said her newly minted vampire heard a “metallic laughter” in the air.  It is a cocktail party of bugs held before the curtain of a big show, the chatter of socialites in a treble staccato — and it is intoxicating to hear! Occasionally, we hear the lone voice of an insomniac bird, too early even to catch the worm, but more often than not we hear only the arias of the insects in the trees.

We encounter a few mammals other than ourselves, and they, too, take on mythical qualities. Once, I crossed paths with a woman in yoga pants with a blue tooth in her ear, negotiating an international deal with the Pacific Rim in Vietnamese, but I have not seen her since.  I saw an illicit lover dart out of a door once and hide when he realized the dogs and I saw him. Usually, though, the only mammal we encounter is a single neighborhood cat, gray in the way that the French mean when they say, “La nuit, tous les chat sont gris,” and long-haired.  That long hair stands on end as the creature arches as tall as he can as my bigger dog spots him — I am having trouble convincing that dog that we are not on a hunt and that the neighbor’s cat is not our quarry. Most mornings, though, it is just us, no other creature with hair on its head or body. We are not hunting for prey, neither like a dog nor like a vampire.  We are just walking, losing our ways in the lovely late night.

We walk along the still-unrepaired undulations of the sidewalk caused by Katrina.  After a rainy night, we have to avoid deep puddles still caused by the aftermath of that now-old storm that rippled the roads around here as if they were tresses that might frizz in Category-5 humidity.  Our feet get muddy in certain ruts. The dogs sniff the ground and read the route’s olfactory braille with their wet noses. What they read there, I cannot say, but the ineffable language of the smells of this route excites them, sometimes appearing to cause debate between them. It is a lively hunt for the maker of smells, the walk, the quarrry not so much being the steak as much as the sizzle-sound of the bugs and the smoke of the frying meat they find the trace of in our tracks. We are not vampires on the prowl, but some of us smell blood.

When we return home, the night’s magic dissipates.  We enter the house as a few neighbors begin to stir, switch on lights. When I unhook the leashes of my companions, we are all covered in sweat. The night’s passions are sultry.  We catch our breath in the air conditioning. We have had a close encounter — with what? Not Anne Rice’s vampires, perhaps, but with her vampires’ New Orleans nights, heady and astonishingly beautiful.  Over and over again Anne Rice’s interviewed vampire expresses frustration at his inability to explain an experience to the interviewer.  He laments, “How pathetic it is to describe these things that can’t truly be described.” He is right, Rice is right — a night in New Orleans contains a kind of mystery that only beckons one toward meaning, a seduction not quite achieved, a new vision through a glass darkly, and the aporia is a dark river, perhaps the Mississippi at night, perhaps the Styx, that beckons us deeper but offers us no promise we can ever again pop our heads up into a rational sunlight. We are not vampires, but in this, the night of New Orleans is vampiric.

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June 4, 2010

Sex and the City in the Country

Yes, that movie, the second one, bombed.  Yes, the characters, so compelling in the series, became sad caricatures instead of  women who had learned something valuable from the variety of hard knocks they had had over the years.

So what?  Women where I come from, New York City, still identify with them, perhaps more than we should.

The girls with whom the country girls don't identify

When I worked in publishing years ago, there was an editorial assistant there who squealed, after I delivered some diatribe in New York irony regarding cocktails, my shoes, and women’s priorities in New York, “Omigod!  You are so Carrie Bradshaw!”

I did not understand.  Who was Carrie Bradshaw?

She made me, absolutely  forced me, to watch season one of  the show, which I had never watched — I wasn’t slutty, and why would I want to watch a show called Sex and the City?  I wasn’t looking for sex in the city — I was married, so I wasn’t stalking men, and what could possibly make me identify with women in such a show?

I sat and watched episode one.  I was sufficiently entertained to watch episode two.  In the middle of episode two, I jumped off the couch and screamed.

Someone had been spying on me.  I really was Carrie Bradshaw, I mean I was not just like her, I WAS her, at least for a few moments on the screen.

Carrie is talking to Charlotte in that episode, and Charlotte says these words:

“Anal sex?  That can’t be!  I went to Smith College!”

A year earlier, I had had tea at the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court with a girlfriend, and that girl, who really WAS Charlotte for fifteen seconds of episode two, had uttered those words precisely to me.  She had said them loudly enough to be overheard by somebody else.  Writers in New York keep notebooks to jot down what others say to use  such phrases later in other creations.  It most definitely was overheard by one of  those notebook-toting writers.

What’s more, I had a  lot of clothes, too many for my apartment closet.  I had shoes, and in that moment, before 9/11, at the tail end of the dot com bubble, I kept buying them, nice ones.  I had cocktails with girlfriends regularly and networked even more regularly in the art world over cocktails.  I had a friend who was an astonishing nymphomaniac, another friend who was pampered and aristocratic, a number of friends with powerful careers that made them fearful  and cynical — in short, I was, whether I liked it or not, one of the city’s many  Carrie Bradshaws.

My friends and I never discussed the series together.  We apparently all got privately hooked, however, because when the first movie came out, we went to see it together, along with the crowds and crowds of us who had gotten privately hooked.  The theater rang with that breathless recognition, when one’s life was splayed out on the wide screen.  We knew these girls.  We were, all of  us, these girls, whether  we liked it or not.

And it’s not just my generation in New York that has experienced this phenomenon — the one that follows us is more convinced that these women are who they should become, not just who they are but who they are truly meant to be.  Note  the continued paucity of real female role models, even today, Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice notwithstanding.  I was interviewing interns a year ago, and a young woman told  me it was her goal to become Samantha Jones.

She qualified it when my eyebrows rose: “Not that I want to sleep with so many guys, just that I want to own my own PR firm and be in charge of my life.”

Oh.  They are seeing other things about the forty-year-old, fifty-year-old girls than the girls, that is, we who are them despite ourselves, than we generally see, like Samantha’s emotional immaturity and self-centered outlook.  They see independence and strength.  Are we independent and strong?

Other young women in the city love every episode, see it as an Emily Post for a complex world of male-female relationships which is off-road at best and a survivalist nightmare at worst. 

I’m sorry, younger women. To the extent that I am Carrie Bradshaw, I apologize.  We should have been stronger, more moral, more nurturing of  you.  The shoes weren’t as important as your school books.  Big is nobody’s perfect match, and neither is any other man who has that many issues  regarding commitment.  We didn’t teach you  this.  I, as a spokesperson for the generation of Carrie Bradshaws that somehow emerged on the island of Manhattan, I apologize to you.  I wish we had given you something more admirable to admire.  If you think we have it figured out, we  don’t.  If we look confident, we’re not.  We’re boxing shadows everywhere, and while we look marvelous, much better than our own mothers at this age, and we have had many brilliant experiences, do not assume for a minute we know what we are  doing.  We are piloting this plane without training.  It may crash into those looming towers any second.  We have not meant to be terrorists in your lives.  I fear we may be nonetheless.  Please forgive  us.

Because I am to some extent Carrie Bradshaw, I went to see the movie number two, right here in Vicksburg.  The theater, this on the weekend it opened, was entirely empty when  I arrived a few minutes  before show time.  I wandered  down the aisle toward the front.  I was astonished by the cool emptiness.  I parked myself in the sixth row, where I like to sit, where the screen overwhelms one, and I heard a few others behind me shuffle quietly in over the next few minutes.  I nibbled popcorn and could hear myself  chewing.  I heard neither  gasps nor  laughter of recognition.  I know the second movie wasn’t very good.  However, the girls in New York know they are still Carrie Bradshaw, even on a bad trip to Abu Dhabi.

On September 11th, I escorted that editorial assistant down the fire stairs of the building where we worked and had watched in horror as the largest buildings in New York melted down like  fast-burning cigarettes.  I miraculously got a cell phone signal to call her near-hysterical mother,  who  had been sure that her taking a job in Manhattan was a death sentence before the attack.  We walked by the tents in Bryant Park.  They  had canceled fashion  week.  Eventually, I got her to a subway, finally working, and she took the long trip home to the end of the line.

The next day, I lost my job.

This week, after the weekend debut, I got a text message from one of my cocktail-mixing Manhattanite friends.  She wrote: “Am about to see Sex and the City.  Wish you were here.”

I make no more sense  in Mississippi on some days than Samantha  did in Abu Dhabi.  I am alien to this  landscape.  Slowly, I am  making a few friends.  But who am I kidding?  I don’t have designer shoe money as I get my PhD.  I have a home where it is sometimes lovely, but then the air conditioner breaks, my husband breaks the window and thinks that  duct tape  is a perfectly good solution, the dog poops in every room, my hair frizzes past the point of recognition.

Who am I kidding?  I am alien.  Yet, I belong here.  A PhD will be valuable in my career.  Despite the duct tape and the pretzels he  left all over  the carpet last night, I love my husband.  Somehow, this has got to be my  home.

After September 11th, New Yorkers cleaned up and got on with work.  I got a new job, finished my Master’s Degree.  A wonderful cop told Osama Bin Laden at Madison Square Garden, after losing hundreds of colleagues and no sleep, that he could kiss his royal Irish ass.

My ass is Irish.  I’m not sure who to tell to kiss it.  However, I think it is time for me to shout such a thing.  Who is the enemy here?  Where are my towers?  Where are my shoes?

Mississippi?  That can’t be!  I went to Sarah Lawrence College.

Tomorrow I’ll be glad of the beauty that surrounds me.  Tomorrow, I’ll be glad for  the time I have to write.  Tomorrow, I’ll be thrilled again at my big kitchen where I bake and cook whatever pleases me.  Tomorrow, I’ll be glad at the unpretentious way things are done around here.  Tomorrow, I will be thrilled again that this is a place where my  Christian worldview is welcome.

Today, I miss Samantha. and Charlotte. and Miranda.  They are fictional characters, and I am not in fact Carrie Bradshaw, and yet, I met them everywhere.  I mourn for us, we fictional characters, become caricatures of our  former selves.

December 27, 2009

The kittycat siege of Vicksburg

Filed under: Southern blog posts — annebabson @ 10:42 pm
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I have been in Vicksburg, Mississippi for about a week now, and while I have spent my time mostly unpacking and cleaning in anticipation of the arrival of my future mother in-law, now here, the transition to a new home has been an absolute melodrama for my cat.

A victim of conspiracy?

First, the person whom she loved and trusted, with whom she had an amicable commerce of tuna and caresses – out in her clearly defined one-cat  territory of a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn — broke all treaties.  That Indian giver of a pet owner unceremoniously shoved her into a box and put her in the back seat of a car where the intricate chemistry of her inner ear, permitting her to land on the head of a pin while leaping from a tall cabinet, was violated by the involuntary bouncing around of 1,300 miles of highway.  For three nights, when they would stop, and this brute of a treaty breaker would allow her out of her shackles for a few hours, she would think that perhaps this was her new home and the torture was over, but no, at dawn, the next day, she was shoved back into the box with only the rudiments of comfort and nourishment.

Finally, when this evil two-legged she-devil was crossing the state line of Mississippi, the cat courageously escaped.  She chewed her way out of the box’s mesh gratings just enough to get stuck in it.  In order not to be trapped forever in its jaws, she chewed her way out of her Petco-purchased “calming collar” and shimmied out of a harness and leash to climb in the front seat to meow her protestations to the owner of both her and this horror-vehicle.  Alas, the horrors did not end there.

At first glance, the place she finally arrived after all this indignity looked like kittycat Beulah land – plenty of tall cabinets to perch on and to jump down from, a large wilderness filled with birds to chatter at and field mice to stalk.  However, she discovered a rival for the best peeing places – the neighbor’s cat, who smacked her on the nose and cornered her under the car.  This battle – a struggle of unblinking staring contests punctuated by scratches on both sides – continues.   Call it the cat siege of Vicksburg, where a rebel local meets a union interloper who claims the right of freedom from car captivity.  The human Civil War siege of Vicksburg lasted a long time, and so could this one.

Far worse, however, the cat made the discovery that she was sharing a house with – shudder – a small dog.  The enemy fired a round of barking, but kittycat replied with a scratch on the snout and a leap onto a chest of drawers.  Then the enemy regrouped and chased the cat up a tall tree.  Humans intervened, but when their backs are turned, each enemy eyes the other in a Mexican standoff of assured mutual destruction, hissing and snarling.  The enemy raided her food bowl, and in retaliation, the cat feasted on dog biscuits.  Again, with more barking and yowling, the siege continues.

War is hell, said Sherman fighting the human battles associated with this region.  Kittycat war is purgatory, and despite many caresses and more tuna, the real cause of this battle was surely the move from Brooklyn – all the human’s fault.  They said of the human Civil War that it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.  Perhaps my cat can convince her rivals that they are all just pawns in some sick human game to manipulate them and keep them docile.  The invisible hand locks the leash and cleans out the litter box – beware the true conspiracy.

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