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

October 8, 2017

Lessons from God — American politics and regional experiences

Imagine for a moment that all Americans believed in some kind of divine, at least in Jefferson’s “nature and nature’s god” from the Declaration of Independence.  Imagine now that all of us here also really believed what we say unkindly to those in trouble: everything happens for a reason.  How might such a set of universally held beliefs affect our regional politics?

I believe that when disaster strikes, especially when that disaster defies explanation, the rational mind shuts down and looks for paranormal interventions, whether we mean it to or not.  As a Christian, I have no trouble believing in the divine, but I also know that I have an irrational side that does not square with my theology, that believes that when a tornado warning goes off and a funnel cloud appears in the distance, no mater how much I know about meteorology, that the rotating winds are there as God’s thumb to squash me like a bug. No amount of schooling, no amount of storm-tracking by satellite, can prevent me from holding this view. There is part of me that cannot reconcile my immediate anxiety to a clear-headed rational thought.

During the Middle Ages, people made no pretense of rational thought in such circumstances, however resigned they were to meeting their Maker. In Palermo, during a horrible outbreak of plague, people wrote of seeing the plague appear in the form of a large black dog dressed as a bishop, cutting people down with a broadsword.  In Sweden, the plague was sighted as  beautiful maiden who waved a deadly saffron-colored scarf into one window or another in a village, causing all inside to die. In the absence of any germ theory or immunology, people did what they could in their terror to understand the emotionally incomprehensible.

plague

During the Middle Ages, people frightened by the plague hallucinated phenomena that could allow them to understand how one person could die while another lived.

Let’s be honest. For all our Doppler 4000 and our antibiotics, we’re no better. We respond to disaster viscerally, and because individually we are largely unable to control events larger than ourselves, we look to God.  It has often enough been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Allow me to submit to you that in America, whatever our pretense of intellectualism or agnostic yogic meditative practices, there are no atheists in America when a disaster hits us, and consequently, we form ideas about the theodicy — the “how could God let this happen here” — of such events. As some events are more likely to happen in the North than in the South, in the East than in the West, regional concepts of the divine, not the church divine, the scriptural divine, but the irrational-brain-invented notions of god and that idolatrously constructed god’s mysterious ways, that influence how we understand commonweal and political responsibilities in the face of catastrophe.

yellow fever

In industrialized cities, wealthier people understood that letting the poor die of yellow fever without care endangered their own health.

In Philadelphia and in Chicago, it became clear that a system of government that could prevent and extinguish fires would be useful. It was clear that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked a lantern in a shed, the whole town would suffer. In New York and Boston, it became clear that some form of sanitation and public health system would be better than not having one.  While the pilgrims believed in an Abrahamic covanential sort of responsibility toward one’s neighbor, particularly towards one’s pious and hard-working neighbor who fell ill, in New York, the motives for this were different.  There, it became clear to the very wealthy that sometimes even when one leaves town during an outbreak of yellow fever, one might catch it anyway from one’s butler or one’s laundress. Hence, having health clinics for the poor might secure the health of the wealthy and powerful. Either way, in major American cities, we are all our brothers’ keepers even today. We understand that an attack from unseen forces on one of us is likely a harbinger of trouble for us. We show up to liberate people from airport jail during a fascist Muslim ban.  We dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center. We make condoms free during the AIDS epidemic. We make sure every building has a fire escape on it, and if need be, a water tank as well, so that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow can’t harm anyone but itself.

This is not what disaster teaches the irrational mind of Americans outside of sardine-packed cities, particularly not in the South, where tornadoes and hurricanes are the most common mass tragedies.

storm

A storm hits one place and misses another — are we spared catastrophe by our innate virtue?

Take last night.  My husband and I hunkered down in New Orleans with our two dogs and more starchy food and alcohol in the house than we commonly have, cases of bottled water, and flashlights. We removed outdoor hanging plants from hooks and packed up lawn furniture. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was headed for us. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was supposed to land on us as a category two disaster. The mayor Mitch Landrieu wisely told us to stay indoors after seven pm.  He told people repeatedly not to go surfing on Lake Catherine — apparently a hurricane jackass dare. He called for a mandatory evacuation of three neighborhoods on the far-eastern side of town. We were battened-down.  We were prepared.

And then, at the last possible minute, the storm turned Eastward, away from us. We were spared from all disaster. I saw a rainbow in the sky. I knew we were fine.

Here is the insidious lesson that might be learned from the irrational-brain-god about this event, one that might serve to explain a lack of general compassion on the part of some for the problems of others, particularly those poorer than we are: We might learn that this god spared us because we are somehow better than our neighbors in his eyes.

We hear the occasional crack-pot preacher claiming Houston got flooded because it elected a lesbian mayor, that New Orleans has too much decadence in it, and that caused Katrina. I’m not really talking about those losers who say this. I think that the frightened human mind cannot quite help momentarily thinking that the disaster that narrowly missed us and hit another is a confirmation that we are just in the hands of a proactive and highly insightful deity who knew that the person whose house got clobbered by a tornado either had fantastic insurance and would get a much better house or was sinful in ways that we weren’t, and that’s why our house was spared. The lesson here is the opposite of the lesson learned in the industrial city.  In a rural community, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicks a lantern in a shed, and the shed burns down, maybe her cows get loose, and her son gets scolded for sleeping in the shed drunk with a lantern that could catch the hay on fire. The person who got sick from yellow fever whose nearest neighbor lived five miles away probably didn’t spread the disease.  They won’t even know he’s dead until he’s half decomposed. The irrational brain divine tells us to believe in ourselves, in our own virtues, in such circumstances.  While this is not scriptural — Jesus says to us that rain falls on both the wicked and the just — it is an almost inescapable human reflex, one that is destructive to our Republic.

There are cynical politicians in Washington bought up by a few wealthy and greedy megalomaniacs who are willing to demand help for Katrina and withhold it for Sandy because it won’t directly benefit their districts and will cost their patrons more in taxes. They are what we call down here common trash scalawags, and I am not worried about them because I believe (despite recent political rallies) they are few in number. I worry, though, about people who refuse to learn either from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or rational and secular humanism that they ARE their brothers’ keeper, that if one of us burns down, we all do, that a flood in Biloxi, is a flood in New Orleans, is a flood in Houston, is a flood in Miami, is a flood in San Juan. How many of us are willing, relieved that we were spared, to share the burdens of others at a distance?

I am sitting writing this now in my un-flooded living room, my pit bull asleep on the love seat, one of the hands typing this intermittently reaching into a bag of starchy snack food that was supposed to sustain me in the event of disaster that never arrived. I feel comfortable. Two hundred miles away, there are sixty thousand people without power. That’s where the storm hit. Even as I send disaster relief, there is a small, barely conscious part of myself that wants to congratulate me for my moral hygiene and clever foresight that I was not the victim here. I need to smash that idol — right after I eat this bag of puffy starch sticks.

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May 23, 2016

The Ninth Ward and 9/11: American Grief Tourism in New Orleans and New York

A few months after the destruction of the World Trade Center, an event that I did not watch on television but out the window at work as it happened, then walked through, then got laid off about, then wrote poetry about (see my short collection Counterterrorist Poems (Pudding House Press, 2002), Americans lost their abject fear of New York City. That fear had been a long-standing terror predating Osama Bin Laden, previously consisting of fear of muggers, rapists, people with punk-rock hair and piercings, and rude men in expensive suits shoving others out of the way  to grab a cab.  They decided for reasons that I fail to comprehend to come in droves to the fenced-in Ground Zero, still slightly smoldering its asbestos cauldron of carcinogens, to gape and to lament.

I understood the Billy Graham Ministries red-vested prayer teams that stood in subway stations praying for the grieving New Yorkers, the fire fighters who, bless them, filled the sudden hundreds of vacancies on a temporary basis that the FDNY experienced when so many brave men were crushed by rubble.  I am grateful to this day to those who came to lend a hand to my hurting city, whether they understood our needs or not.  I am not baffled by the charity of those good people.

ground zero tourists

These people aren’t in New York in early 2002 to help the shell-shocked Manhattanites. They are there to take pictures and gawk at a gaping hole where thousands of people they don’t really care about died.

I am rather baffled by the people who came to see our wounds and stare without offering a hand.  What might motivate them?  Some of them cried.  If they were there because they lost a cousin or childhood friend who moved to the big city from their small town, I understand perfectly, but those who had no body in the  rubble?  Those who had never much cared for New York, except possibly for a couple of shows and shopping, who wanted to see a hermaphrodite or a woman and a donkey, then return to their safe suburbs and decry us?  Why were they there?  Why were they crying?  How DARE they take what happened to us, not them, personally?

I had an estranged step-mother who had the nerve to write me in a note two months after September Eleventh, “Thank God we didn’t lose anybody that day!”  In the same note, she enclosed a book that was supposed to be self-help but which showed a woman on the cover who looked crazier than anybody who could be of assistance to anyone else, and she told me I needed to reconcile with my father, the implication being that I might die at any minute from another terrorist attack, and then how would it be for me to go to  my grave if I hadn’t apologized  to my father for wrongs she perceived I had committed against him?  Indeed, I owed no apology, and she would offer none for the obvious offense.  I sent the book back, told her how unimaginably insensitive it was to send such a note to a New Yorker in November 2001 who had actually been there, and that she needn’t ever contact me again.

I marvel to this day at the temerity and the total lack of human compassion that allows some suburban gum-chewers to consider the tragedy of another as an occasion to pack a suitcase, to board a discounted flight, and to take a tour bus.  I know that Ground Zero was filled with the ashes of thousands, but I fear that Hell awaits the torment of the tens of thousands who did not come to help but only to gawk and to personalize selfishly somebody else’s pain for something like a personal catharsis of no benefit to anybody else.

This didn’t just happen to New York, of course.  The same thing happened to my new city, the Crescent City, New Orleans.  After Katrina, thousands of Americans, many in church groups, came to help clear away debris, offer food and water to those rendered homeless, to comfort, to hold, to hammer, to pour concrete, to roof, to wire, to plumb.  Those people, I imagine, retain the immense gratitude of those who were assisted by them.  But what about the Katrina Tourists?

Tourist_sign

A sign in the Ninth Ward, 2006.

I cannot imagine boarding a tour bus to rubberneck at the condemned buildings while frantic people try to reconstruct their lives. I cannot imagine staring and not getting out of the bus (even if had been drunk on Bourbon Street when I had boarded the bus), not running over to hug, to pray, to help, to get my hands dirty, to give out money, to apologize, even though it all was not my fault.  What kind of brain-dead habitual sodomizer of livestock, what kind of certifiable sociopath, can imagine making a family vacation out of a community’s devastation?  This happened.  Americans in particular did this to Americans.  9/11 didn’t just happen on TV. Neither did Katrina. Are Americans indifferent spectators to the sorrows of other Americans?  Has reality TV done this to us?  Or is this the same crowd who used to be in regular attendance at public hangings and the burning of witches?  Are human beings just so very awful?

We are all our brothers’ keeper.  God is watching.  You shouldn’t watch impassively from front row seats the next time a national tragedy happens.  If you must go see it for yourselves, bring blankets and coffee for the freezing, lumber and copper pipes for the homeless, prayers for the hopeless.  Pray for America while you are praying, because some ugly element of our national character shows in this phenomenon.

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.

 

November 25, 2015

Après le Déluge, moi — Moving to New Orleans

King Louis XIV famously declared, regarding his excessive spending and living, the construction of Versailles on the peasants’ backs, his love for rich foods, brocade, gilding, and fireworks displays, “Après moi, le déluge.” This refers to an economic collapse he foresaw due to his excesses, but it literally means, “after me, the great flood.”

 Well, today, like a large number of Americans, I am able to look South and declare, not so much in French as in Cajun, “Après le déluge, moi.” After the great flood of Katrina, me, here I am, and I am moving to New Orleans, excessive, effervescent, and like the insect life of the bayoux, burgeoning, fecund with possibility, alive despite toxins and people trying to crush me underfoot when I cross their path.

My husband just got a job transfer down here, and I write this on the Rive Gauche of the Mississippi as we hunt for a place down here. We have investigated rentals of an urban renewing nature in neighborhoods plagued by crime and poverty, and we have investigated choices more conventionally sprawling into prosperous housing.  A French Quarter townhouse lovingly restored will cost one the monthly champagne bill at Versailles, and as lovely as that might be, we aren’t working with the Sun King’s budget. We will likely end up in a small house with a patio in the back.

There is something profoundly invigorating about moving to a place that is rapidly building or rebuilding. It makes a person feel urban, feel renewed, whatever storms have hit. The fumes of fresh paint drying are intoxicating, and like absinthe cocktails at brunch chez Broussard, might make one have visions of the future. In mine, I am writing while being served another unsweet tea at a round table in a brick courtyard, chatter around me, the sound of a trumpet in the background. After all, if a girl can’t write in New Orleans, she can’t write.  And I can write.

If my future vision is a bit cliché, please forgive me. It’s just that with New Orleans, as with so many things at least partially French, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Like Anne Rice’s Lestat, New Orleans may have a deadly air, but it is forever renewed and élégantà sa façon ringarde, elegant in its tacky ways. Like a jazz funeral procession marks death and grief with joy and syncopation, New Orleans, like anything at least partially French, sees tragedy in defiant irony and triumph with the doubt expressed by Napoleon’s mother when he was crowned emperor — “pourvu que ça dure!”– “we’ll see how long this lasts!”

And will it last? Of course not! And yet, of course it will! New Orleans will never shed its character, and an influx of newcomers, however large or diverse, cannot change this, as New Orleans, like New York, abides in the expectation of newcomers, including carpetbaggers like me, getting tossed in its gumbo.  The roads crumble in flood seasons, but the places to go remain places to go. New pavement cannot change the directions on the face of the compass in the navigator’s hand. New Orleans will always be the home to an enduring and culturally rich African diaspora, Pirates and other transgressive Eurotrash, missionaries, outlaws, and outlaw missionaries. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, no matter who shows up.

Like any urban space, New Orleans has traffic laws, and here are a few of them:  Shake hands with the preacher,but keep your wallet in your front pocket where you can feel if someone is trying to lift it. Pay your taxes, but know that not all of the amount due ends up in the government vault. Be a lady, at least while anyone is looking. Strut if at all possible. Be friendly quickly, but make friends slowly. Be better at holding your liquor than the tourists are during Mardi Gras.

I am good at understanding the rules of city life. I am always a lady while anyone is looking. I strutted out of my mother’s womb, so don’t try to out-swagger me. I am friendly. I rarely drink, but my Irish blood keeps me clear-headed, and the sight of my nipples is not available for the tossing of some plastic beads. In other words, it’s practically like I was born here! If not born here, I am at least reborn here, transfused like Lestat by the blood of the living, high on the energy of new beginnings of things without end. Après le déluge, moi. Me voilà.

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