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.

 

Advertisements

November 5, 2010

A Farewell to Freak

Freak --we hardly knew ye

I never shot the Freak, and now I never will.  I loved him too much to open fire.   To the Freak, I turned the other cheek.  He is my brother.  And now he’s out of a job.

Whenever I had complicated problems to solve when I lived in New York, I would take the N Train to the end of the line, buy a hot dog at the original Nathan’s on the corner of Surf and Stillwell on Coney Island, and walk down the boardwalk with it.  I liked this especially when it was cold and windy, when nearly no one else was around.  I would walk to the Aquarium or Brighton Beach, turn back and walk down to where there used to be a roller rink that used to be a beer hall before that.

If I ever had a moment where I thought, given the sound of the ocean, that I was in a natural setting, fostering romantic reflections like a cloud of blooming daffodils, I was reawakened to how urban my setting was by the booming voice on a karaoke-purloined microphone set, with a man who shouted, over and over again, “Yo!  Shoot the Freak Ovah Hee-yah!  Right Hee-yah!  Come on!  Ya gotta Shoot the Freak!  He’s Freaky!  He’s Beggin’ for it!”

This man, shouting in a vernacular that let me know that Brooklyn was in the Freakhouse, had a partner — a man wearing an X-File alien rubber mask, who would wear a little bit of protective gear and allow himself, in cold weather and hot, daytime, evenings and weekends, to get shot at with paint balls.

Here we see him on his vacant lot by the Boardwalk, a few junk yard items to hide behind, some milk crates, an old washing machine, and a pastel splatter of sublimated aggression from people who needed to let off some steam.

As I said, I never shot the Freak.  I loved him too much.  If I ever thought my existence was the worst one out of eight million people in the Metropolitan area, I looked to him for affirmation that things weren’t as bad as they might be, my job was not the worst one in town.

After a walk down the boardwalk, after a greasy and delicious hot dog, after the Atlantic had spat its salt in my face, and after a harangue about shooting the Freak, I inevitably had the answer to my most pressing and complex problem, whatever it was.

When problems in my life became legion, I moved to Coney Island.  I loved its delicious seediness, its tattooed-artist-and-carny-Bohemia, its bubblegum-and-rusting-cog ambience, and the Freak was my neighbor.  I loved him as myself.  The salsa music blared off the pier.  The bells rang on the carousel.  A few screams emanated from The Cyclone, and always, always a man sounding like he was straight out of a DeNiro art film shouted at me, “Yo!  Ya Gotta Shoot The Freak ovah Hee-yah!  What are you — chicken?”

The New York Times reported this weekend that certain businesses on the Boardwalk near the now-defunct Astroland will not receive a renewal of their leases.  I’m sure that running the Shoot the Freak sideshow in the vacant lot it occupied was not expensive.  However, real estate developers intend to gentrify the Boardwalk, charge more money, and create a more upscale environment than the man asking for cash for his next fix in the nearby parking lot, the old portly woman muttering to herself in Russian as she wrestles with a rubber swim cap, the skate rats trying to jump the iron-arm-wrest benches, and the Freak and his business associates.

They misunderstand their own investment.  The Freak is the holy icon of Brooklyn, her martyr.  The crier of the Freak is Brooklyn’s prophet.  The Freak is begging to be shot at in bright colors.  His alien mask is a metonymy for corporate facades required by the employed in middle management.  The vacant lot is the spiritual wasteland of an American dream turned to wig heads and mismatched bowling pins.  They have bought the cornerstone of what it means to be an American.  They cannot read the cuneiform in which the message is written.  Let me translate — it is begging for you, begging for you to try better, to know you will survive the catastrophic, to imagine smashing your idols and starting over with better intentions, a watchword that the mighty have fallen, that all is lost — long live all, and you are still standing.  You are not the freak. He has taken the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune upon himself for you, and by his paint splatters, you are (at least in part) healed.

One day, I was walking by the shoot the freak show in the morning with my husband Chuck, before we got married.  The haranguer’s microphone was on the ground.  He was getting himself a beer.  The paintball guns were not loaded yet.  There was no Freak in sight.

“This is where the guy with the worst job in New York City works,” I told Chuck.

A man, shirtless, wearing padding on his legs, but no alien mask, jumped up from under the boardwalk’s edge.

“Speak for yourself!”   He shouted at me.

“Man, I’m telling my fiance you’ve got the hardest job in town!”

I really didn’t mean to insult him.

“No!” He told me emphatically,”I’ve got the best job in the whole world ovah hee-yah.  I’m in show business.  Nobody ever seen anything like me.  I give them something to remember forever.”

Freak, you spoke truly.

I will remember you forever.  Thank you for the chastisement of my peace upon your recycled football gear.  Thank you for dovetailing with my recovery from 9/11, from midlife crisis, from domestic violence, from wishing I were dead.  Thank you for bearing  the malice of capitalism, of divorce, of all things embittering.  Thank you for taking one, for taking a million and one, for the team.

Freak, without you in Brooklyn, I can return to see a gentrified Coney Island, but it will not be the same without you.  One may never enter the same river twice.  One may never shoot the same Freak twice.

I can never go home again, Freak, if you are not there getting shot.  Brooklyn will go on, but it will be someone else’s Brooklyn, not mine.

Freak, I will remember you forever.  Long live the Freak.  Blow out your candles, Freak, and so good night.

 

 

The Carpet Bagger’s Store is now open!  — http://www.cafepress.com/TheCarpetBaggersShop

Blog at WordPress.com.