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

August 23, 2016

What to Do When the Waters Rise: Southeastern Louisiana University’s Heroic Response to Crisis

Yesterday was the first day of classes at Southeastern Louisiana University, although classes were supposed to begin last week.  The flash floods that destroyed so many homes in the region caused the shift in schedule, along with many other emergency management strategies that were put in place by the state of Louisiana.  People have talked about the flood down here in the media as if it were happening to somebody else, a bunch of hicks, perhaps — not people who get much news coverage at all, unless there are reports of Klan activity in the region. It happened, though, to my colleagues and my students, not to a group in white sheets but young people and their parents, people of every background, and my heart is full as I write about their courage and commitment to what John Henry Newman famously described as “the idea of a university.” I am inspired by their undaunted optimism.

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Southeastern Louisiana underwater — Photo by Southeastern Louisiana University English Instructor Chris Genre of what it looks like outside his house.

One of my colleagues came in for our meeting late last week laughing about how she had had to carry her cat in her purse when the rescue boat reached her flooded house.  Another colleague told me that she was lucky — only her bedroom floor was destroyed, no other part of her house was ruined. The photo you see here was taken by another colleague right outside his house; he had to direct traffic away from near his property, as when cars sped by, they caused waves of water to enter through his front door.  One of my colleagues, a guardsman, rescued his neighbors with a helicopter, and he was in a fine mood as well. Coming as I do from New York City, where complaining is actually competitive — “You think you have problems? Well, let me tell you” or “All your life, you should have such problems as this man” — I was struck by the stoicism of my new colleagues at Southeastern in the face of such tragedy.  They told me over and over again that it wasn’t as bad a problem as Katrina — but truly, if only 20,000 homes were destroyed, compared to the over 800,000 homes destroyed by that disaster, can one call the floods of last week a minor episode?

The English department faculty meeting I attended to prepare for this week was unlike any other I have ever been to. While I wouldn’t call other departments where I have worked heartless, I got the impression from certain institutions where I have worked that while I wasn’t outright forbidden from serving the personal needs, rather than the academic needs, of my students, there was no encouragement to do so. One department head where I adjuncted lamented that so many students wanted the professors to be “Jesus to them.” For me, that remark was problematic, largely because I am called by my faith to be Jesus to anyone in my midst and beyond who needs an ambassador from Jesus. The Southeastern Louisiana University English department has a philosophy of holistic problem-solving with the student body.  After all, how can one expect good academic results from students who have overwhelming crises in their personal lives?

The chair of the department encouraged us to reach out to students and tell them the resources the university was prepared to put at their disposal. Students who couldn’t make it to class would be excused for the first month if necessary for flood-recovery-related reasons. Students who couldn’t get textbooks or whose textbooks were destroyed could have electronic copies where necessary.  Students without computers because of the flood could check out laptops from the university. Psychological counseling was available for trauma. And he said that he felt that our discipline was particularly well placed to help people answer the question of how one overcomes obstacles and remains hopeful in the face of tragedy. What else, after all, is literature for?

Indeed, my students were more subdued than other nervous first-day-of-school undergraduates. I asked how many people had either lost a home or knew someone who did, how many of them knew someone in emotional crisis — about a quarter of them raised their hands.

I was prepared for that response.  Out of 16,000 students at Southeastern Louisiana University, about 7,000 live in parishes where the flooding destroyed many homes.  I had already gotten emails from a number of students explaining that they had lost everything in the flood, but their parents were determined to get them to school. I congratulated them on making it to campus in a manner I would not have normally done had they not left melted plaster, murky carpets, and dangerous electrical boxes to get to campus.

I told them about the resources available on campus and saw a sea of grim faces, none of the typical feigned nonchalance of freshmen who want to appear cool but are still scared children.  I decided to tell them about the opportunities that surviving a grown-up community problem presents. I talked about September 11th, which like so many other New Yorkers I did not watch on television but through a window, my friends who nearly died, the people the city lost, the sense of shallow mirth and false security the city lost in those days.  I told them that I had learned in that crisis that a disaster like that allows an individual to prioritize — what really matters? It allows one to better become the person one intends to become, if one is willing to face the grief of the situation bravely. I could tell they were listening really intently to these words.  They are, after all, already in the process of discovering who they will become as mature adults.

With that, I told them that I knew it was important for them to learn the subjects we would cover, as words are a form of power.  Words may not control the weather, but they frame how we respond to storms of every kind. Would Britain have survived the  Blitz without Churchill’s speeches? We will never know, but it would be impossible to imagine the crisis without the balm of his resolve. We need never know, thank God. Words are power.  We build with them.  Three holy book religions tell us the King of the universe creates with them, not with hammers and bulldozers — with words well-placed, and the material tools follow.

When I drove back to New Orleans, I saw that the receding flood waters had moved into Tangipahoa Parish near Manchac, making houses already on stilts look unstilted. There was an enormous rainbow in the sky over Lake Pontchartrain, vivid against a gray sky, and I was reminded of Genesis 6:13-16 — “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

Indeed, Southeastern Louisiana University’s community is not destroyed.  Some there lost houses but not hope.  Others there are gaining purpose in lieu of trivia. Others still are taking up the call to serve others without complaint.

 

 

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.

 

April 30, 2016

Queen Bey’s New Orleans of the Mind

In January 2016, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, her husband and collaborator, moved the discourse of their art from New York down South.  In “Formation,” Beyoncé sets her video in New Orleans, on porticoed porches, in tough neighborhoods with post-Katrina housing, and in the cuisine, even, of the town — she tells us she carries hot sauce in her bag, a particularly Cajun/creole gesture. Her new release, the remarkable and deeply poignant Lemonade, is set in a place ill identified, a Gothic Southern space, at some moments surrealistic — like a night bus filled with women dancing while painted like West African ghosts, while Bey  sings about how her man isn’t on her mind — and we do not believe her in this haunted vehicle. Other houses catch fire, and they look like they are from the Garden district. Bey gyrates in the flames. She exits a public building with a flood following her in her saffron dress as she smashes car window after car window with a baseball bat. A group of smiling young African-American marching band members and pep squad members march down a street still damaged from storms — an image typical of my neighborhood in the Algiers section of town. We aren’t in New York, the New York Jay-Z has rapped about for decades, where the famous couple has held court for quite some time.  We are not quite in a New Orleans that we know by a skyline or a landmark — some songs are sung in basement parking garages, others in private rooms.  We are sitting with the aristocrats of American culture in  a New Orleans of the mind.

spanish moss nightThe psychology of New York is gritty, but it is never so permanently bleak that one cannot find a boat ride, even the Staten Island Ferry for free, to get a little perspective, a breath of fresh air, a breeze off the Atlantic, a panoply of sky scrapers.  One’s problems seem insignificant in the aspirational spikes of concrete that make shadowy canyons.  One believes in New York City that opportunity is around the corner, even if one circles the block for hours like a cab waiting for a fare.  New Orleans, unlike New York City, is permanently haunted.  The dead cannot quite get buried there — they abide above ground, boxed in just barely by cement and marble. The legacy of slavery is palpable; it is a town that never entered the mainstream of America, much like New York, which is situated on islands off the coast of the mainland.  No melting pot, it is a town where cultures do not so much intersect and blend than they remain distinct and dynamically intermingled.  New Orleans is as African a town as it is European in many ways. The coexistent diversity of cultures in that town, one which might alarm some people in a place like Mississippi, is the strength of the odd survival of the place. One doesn’t overcome one’s problems in New Orleans.  They do not vanish into the mud, six feet under.  One stuffs and mounts one’s problems.  One repurposes one’s griefs into useful household objects.  One doesn’t get over.  One lives with despite.

In Lemonade, the film, New Orleans serves as a backdrop to this kind of thinking about betrayal and loss.  No group has been more repeatedly and unapologetically betrayed in this country than women of color, and how are they to bear all of it — all the dishonor thrust upon them? Forgetting seems in this film not to be a real option, any more than it is for New Orleans to make evidence of the dead to disappear. One must live with the evidence, the scars, the memories, the voids, and one must find a way to remain hopeful. One must live with the past despite its ongoing bitterness and overcome despite all rational calls to lie down and die.

This is the abiding mood of Lemonade, and it is perhaps a cogent cue to the entire American culture about how we might deal with the tragedies of our day.  The betrayal within one marriage is not a national tragedy, but the killing of Trayvon Martin is. Trayvon’s mother is in the film Lemonade, and she, too, must abide in the bitter memory of a dead son and an acquitted Zimmerman. She, too, must survive despite all. We are anxious in white America to forget past injustices committed by people who look like us.  We feel uncomfortable by association,  don’t want to take responsibility for what we did not personally do.  But it is unreasonable of us to expect people chanting “black lives matter” to pause and acknowledge that all lives matter, which of course they do.  We must do as Beyoncé and Jay-Z have done with their enduring marriage — acknowledge all the ugly hurts, seek reconciliation that honors the total experience of that pain, and move forward with that knowledge still present but not explosive.  A truth untold is explosive.  A city dishonored erupts into riots. New Orleans has found a distinctly American wisdom that makes room for a syncopation of now with then, of group with group, that gives space for multiple potentially dissonant experiences rendered a space for solo, then folded into the jazz that ultimately finds  a harmony.

America needs such a strategy.  We cannot pretend the past did not happen. That would be a form of lunacy and a continued dishonoring of the dead. We cannot pretend we are not all implicated in a culture where brutality exists against the politically and economically vulnerable. We cannot bury the dead, because until we fully acknowledge the enormity of the problem, the dead cannot die but haunt us. We can move past, perhaps trailed in the shadows by an ugly legacy, but we can improve, if we allow each trumpet its solo, each sax its wail. We need a New Orleans of the American mind, an imperfect landscape ravaged but rebuilding, a diversity that includes all of us and might just get along. The cultural conversation has moved South, as have I.  Will you start driving South on the Interstate until you can see the Spanish moss hanging from the trees?

February 8, 2012

On Going Native

I may look relatively sophisticated, but like Kudzu, the redneck is creeping up on me.

In this photo, I believe I have a certain air of sophistication.  That scarf is Hermes, or at least the Canal Street knock-off version of Hermes.  I bought that coat on the Internet from a respectable retailer to women of taste.

However, and I say this cringing, knowing that some of my old friends in New York will get wind of this, I have developed some red neck habits.

Let me be clear.  I am deeply committed to a life of the mind.  As I type this, I am staring at a book in Middle English, a fourteenth-century play about Cain and Abel.  However, it is worth noting that this play has a reference to carnal sheep violation.  As I type this, I am listening to Buddha Bar tracks on my i-pod, but those are shuffled with Band Perry songs about lying like a rug and being buried in satin, stuff about which a gal might sob into a honky-tonk beer.  When I drink it’s either fine wine or Rebel Yell bourbon.

Two years into this life change, I seem to be straddling the Mason Dixon line in so many ways.  Let me show you:

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just got invited to give a reading of my poetry at Middlebury College‘s gender studies program.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I read from my poetry collection entitled The White Trash Pantheon.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just bought a new pair of shoes.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I needed new ones because the old ones got covered with animal manure and mud.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just won a quiz prize at the University.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“It was for knowing that Florida State had penalties imposed upon them for NCAA violations, affecting their Big-10 football program.”

It’s stuff like that that makes me think warily of how all those Jeff Foxworthy jokes, the ones that seemed so alien when I lived in my Russian-mafia-negotiated-apartment-with-access-to-a-private-beach-in-Brooklyn-for-almost-no-money, are beginning to apply to me.

Moi?  Mais oui!

Here is a list of signs that I am beginning go native down here:

  • I wake up most mornings at 5 am, walk through mud, and chain up the hound dogs so that they don’t spook the neighbor ladies.
  • I find myself liking Elvis more and more with each passing month.
  • Grits don’t taste gritty.
  • Ham is the sixth food group for me these days.
  • It seems odd NOT to call people “ma’am” and “sir” every other sentence.
  • If Terry McMillan doubted I could, I am no longer waiting to exhale — I’ve exhaled.  Life down here operates at a slackened pace.
  • If I wore black every day, it would seem as if I were in mourning, not just hip in day-to-evening wear.
  • Even though I read mostly British literature (see reference to Chaucer’s era above), Faulkner and Twain make more and more sense to me.
  • I have said “y’all” and not felt self-conscious about it, y’all.

For those of you in New York who miss me, if you want to stem the tide of this, I recommend sending me emergency care packages from The Second Avenue Deli or from any Indian restaurant on Sixth Street.  Send me something of which New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” approves.

I am going native.  Next comes the drinking of pre-sweetened iced tea.  After that, there’s a whole slew of floral prints yawning their maws at me.

Help!  I’ve gone South and I can’t get up!

December 13, 2011

Measuring change one school hallway at a time

The founders of my step-daughters non-racist school were Klan in all but name and sheet

My stepdaughter’s school is a quiet Christian private school with good teachers and affirmative values of the kind that most any member of the political Left today could embrace, but its founders intended it to be a white supremacist enclave.  My husband and I sent her there because she is bright, and the local public school is run like a prison,  not a place to imagine a future.  The place where we have sent her is simple, with a building whose roof often leaks, no  state-of-the-art technology, but with instruction that emphasizes critical thinking, core academics — the very thing that makes some people going to school in dirt-floor school houses in the third world better prepared for American universities than our own students in schools with smart boards and WiFi.  It is now integrated, at least as much as most private schools in the country are integrated.  This means that there are a few African-American students on campus.  The school does nothing whatsoever explicitly to foster a spirit of racism in the community today.

However, the school used to be called a Council School, one of the schools founded immediately after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, by the White Citizens’ Council of Mississippi — you know, by those people who thought that something horrible would happen to white girls if they learned multiplication tables sitting at desks near black boys.  The White Citizens’ Council was secretly funded by a scary J. Edgar Hoover-ish organization that used to spy on pro-integration citizens in Mississippi — the Sovereignty Commission.  It was a horrible chapter of this state’s history, one that should cause any thinking person to shudder.  The school used to send out racist propaganda to school parents out of the PTA.  The current principal there tells me that the school at that time was Klan in all but the white sheets.

Today, however, the school is run by Christians who formally reject notions of racism as an anathema to their system of belief, whatever pockets of cultural bias they may still individually foster.  I could wish for more African-American history in the US History class, but that would also be true if we sent my stepdaughter to a Catholic school in Yonkers, New York.  I could wish for more titles by African-American authors in her English class, but the English teacher is fantastic, and she is focusing on good literary American classics, so I can provide perhaps a greater rainbow in the curriculum.  There are surely racists who attend the school, racist parents who send their children there because there are more black students at the public school.  However, the school’s mission teaches a spirit of service to the community, the imperative of putting character before career, principle before profit.

I consider this an air sample to test to show the progress that Mississippi has made over the past decades in terms of racism.  The Sovereignty Commission was de-funded in 1977 by the governor.  The Council School was disbanded and integrated the same year, reconstituted under a Christian board that changed the school’s mission statement and its actual mission.  Most of the people who felt the way the founders of the school felt are dead.  Their children may not have many, or any, African-American friends, but they have few enemies and draw no color lines in public life at least.

At school, my stepdaughter has both white and black friends.  She socializes with both.  She has learned from me and from her father that racism is akin to Satanism in our system of belief.  The pictures still hang on the hallway walls of the old classes of Council School graduating classes.  Like all such photos, they appear dated.  It is good that the kids who walk the hall neither find that history buried, nor do they find it celebrated.  It is a truth, a sad truth, much like the truth of ruins left from the time of Sherman’s march.  Things were one way.  They are that way no more.

Mississippi is changing.  It does not change quickly.  Nothing happens here quickly.  As Dr. King said in his letter from Birmingham Jail, the time is always right to do what is right, and no one should be held back by others’ reluctance to be fair.  However, racism is something that does not only hurt the group that is oppressed directly by it; it hurts the character and the spiritual health of the perpetrators as well.  The only ones who are owed redemption are the oppressed, but the paradoxical truth is that in relenting from racism, a potential opens up for the oppressor to become whole again as well.  Like green shoots from a ruined antebellum mansion, I see this former council school, now a Christian academy, as a reason for Mississippi to hope for better things to come.

March 19, 2011

Health Care Is a Right in Mississippi — why the Affordable Care Act Matters Around Here

When I was an activist with ACT UP in New York, we would often chant, “Health care is a right!” while picketing government official‘s fundraisers who refused to help men and women dying of AIDS or even acknowledge them with a comment more civilized than “good riddance.”  The thought that health care might indeed be a government-acknowledged right, not just a universal necessity, was relatively new in American discourse.

However, a year ago this week, I watched the congressional roll call on CSPAN on the vote for The Affordable Care Act, sometimes called pejoratively Obamacare, as if “care” were somehow a dirty word, and I remembered my dozens of friends who died from AIDS in the 1980s, sweet, young  gay men who might have been by now honest bankers, elected officials, scientists on the way  to important discoveries, and tenured faculty members.  I cried imagining how different their lives would have been if only there had been such a bill in place for them when they were in crisis.

But this isn’t New York — this is Mississippi, where I live now.  ACT UP is a distant memory.  The people around here, not activists, not fabulous urban gay men in the big Northeastern Cities, but ordinary working folks with families — they are the ones who are being told by the new Republican congress that the Affordable Healthcare Act is unnecessary, an invasion of their privacy and a stripping of their freedoms.  Can this be so?

Not according to a Mississippian named Kelly, who was kind enough to show me a  photo of her lovely family and  to allow me to tell a bit of their story in relation to this wonderful piece of landmark legislation.  Let me share with you Kelly’s family photograph right here  — a shout out to the Jacobs family, who are — Chase, Graham, Paul, the one the folks lovingly call “Mamasita,” Jennifer, and  Kelly herself :

The Jacobs family needs the Affordable Care Act passed by congress last year -- don't we all?

This typical, American heartland, apple pie family has benefited, Kelly tells me, from the Affordable Care Act in the following ways:

  • First, Paul, the fifty-something guy in the beige hat and sun glasses wearing a pretty hip t-shirt for a guy his age — he works full-time and has insurance, but he suffers from Lupus, which if untreated might end his life.  The so-called Obamacare has made him able to stay active and working because he has not had the Lupus called a “pre-existing condition” by an insurance company, and as such, he can afford medication and doctor’s visits that might otherwise be out of reach.
  • The despised Obamacare has also allowed him to have the kind of humane security we all need — to know that if we ever need to or want to leave a job, we can take our insurance with us or find other insurance in a manner that we can afford, even if we have suffered in that job change a drop in income.  This goes for Jenny and Kelly, too, of course.
  • Mamista, the lady next to Paul who looks beamingly proud of her tribe, holding the family kitty cat, she is still covered under her Medicare benefits — despite the rumors to the contrary fueled by insurance company activists, who see this law as a loss in profits, nothing at all has been taken away from her, and she has the peace of mind of knowing that these people who are literally surrounding her in love, her support group through her golden years, won’t have to give up their own health to take care of her in years to come.
  • Chase and Graham, both college students at the top of the photo, looking young and rowdy — their momma doesn’t have to worry — they can be covered on her insurance because the Affordable Care Act makes it so they can stay on her insurance until they are 26 , whether or not they are in school.  That means that the Jacobs family, which is doubtless making significant sacrifices to have two sons in college right now — Kelly didn’t tell me this, but that’s surely only because people from down here in Mississippi are a whole lot less whiny than they are in Brooklyn where I used to whine — they can better afford to pay tuition and college-related expenses and don’t have to worry about Chase breaking his arm on the hockey team (honestly, I don’t know if Chase plays hockey) or Graham slipping on an icy stairwell and hurting his knee because GOD FORBID these things should happen, they can see a doctor and get treated as needed.
  • Jenny is able to know that she can work freelance if she wants to and still buy into a community pool insurance, a whole lot cheaper than trying to buy insurance as an individual in the pre-ACA days, where a woman of childbearing years might as well have tried to insure a luxury yacht moored in pirate-infested waters near Somalia as buy herself some regular, don’t-make-me-lose-my-home-and-car-if-I-need-an-MRI health insurance.

Many people on the Left were hoping for a single-payer plan in the mix  of Obamacare — I know I was.  Many people on the Right have not fully absorbed the idea that — chant it with me — health care is a right, health care is a right — but ALL of us benefit from a healthy America, one where people don’ t go to the emergency room with a stroke because they didn’t have insurance to afford, say, cholesterol drugs.  We were the only developed country on the planet that had no particular governmental plan to handle this universal need, and now we do.

It is an important part of our evolution as a nation that Americans can get treated for ailments without losing the family farm now, and we have the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress (like my rep, who is just fabulous, The Hon. Bennie Thompson, D-MS) to thank for it.

I remember my friends who died of AIDS fighting for an evolution in our thinking about healthcare with a particular wistfulness this week, but I am glad that the law that has come about does not just benefit an urban gay male population — rather it is for every one of us, whoever we are, whether we would have picketed as I did or not.

Chant it again, and call your Senators and remind them — health care is a right, health care is a right.

December 1, 2010

Searching for Kosher Chicken in Porkchop Country

One of my old neighbors in Brooklyn. Where would he shop around here?

Hospitality is a Southern tradition, but apparently only one that anticipates fellow Christian guests.  When Lylah, my fabulous feminist Muslim friend, came down to Mississippi to be my maid of honor last winter, I went looking for things to cook for her.

You see, Lylah practices Halal, the muslim dietary laws, outlawing pork but also outlawing certain forms of cruelty to animals in butchery.  Observers of Halal are free to eat not only things produced by Muslim butchers but also kosher ones, as the same butchering practices are observed in both Islamic and Jewish traditions.

Near my home in Vicksburg, there is a large Kroger supermarket.  It is stocked with numerous international foods.  I can get cornichons and wasabi there.  However, we went all over the store, to the fresh and frozen meat sections, and the only thing that Lylah could eat that was a dead land animal was found in a Hebrew National hot dog package.  I asked the manager of the store where he kept the Kosher products, certainly thinking that Halal was out of the question in the middle of the deep South but that Kosher products must certainly be available.  He asked me to repeat the question.  I did, and then he told me he had never heard of Kosher meat — what was it?

As a New Yorker, I had never once imagined that Kashrut would not be practiced by somebody in my community.  Here is a picture of a man from my old neighborhood, the Seagate section of Coney Island, standing near a plastic palm tree on the beach.  Brooklyn is a thriving and diverse place, but Jews are particularly numerous in the population.

When I visited Israel, I ended up touring the various sites with a British photographer.  People would stop us and ask us where we were from.  When he said he was from the UK, they nodded politely, but when I said I was from Brooklyn, over and over again, the response was, “Brooklyn!  Maybe you know my cousin!”  Truthfully, maybe I did.  Maybe, even if I didn’t know the individual’s Jewish cousin, I had ridden the same trains, eaten in the same restaurants, bought meat at the same counters. Kosher meat is clean meat.  I often bought Kosher chickens because they are less bloody.

Jews are part of the fabric of New York to the point where the mainstream culture gets a lot of its slang from Yiddish — plotz, schmuck, schlep, kibbutz, shmear, and schmooze are all words used by people from every ethnicity in town.  When I use those words here, I have a fifty-fifty chance of being understood.  Antisemitism, while it exists to some small degree in New York City, is a form of anti-New York self-loathing.  If a New Yorker happens to say he hates Jews, whether he is Jewish or not, he is really saying he hates himself and his whole community, because the town includes most distinctly all that is wonderful about Jewish culture and tradition — a profound commitment to commonweal and social justice for the poor, a raucous sense of humor that defies every hardship, a respect for learning as something sacred and inviolate, a complex system of negotiating shared space between diverse peoples who get along for the most part without any violence, a profound sense of busy and vivacious commerce that is supple and willing to negotiate to fit the needs of the customer — all these New York things are also first and foremost Jewish things, and anybody who doesn’t think so has simply not done his homework.  Likewise, New York foods are often Kosher foods — I spent months when I first arrived here salivating at the memory of a chopped liver bagel from the Second Avenue Deli, of their Kasha Varnishkes, of their soul-affirming chicken soup.

When Lylah first arrived here, I honestly thought it would be no problem to find her some meat, especially since I knew that Vicksburg had a history of having a certain number of Jewish residents.  One of the grandest buildings in town where one can host a wedding used to belong to the local B’nai B’rith.  One day, when we were driving through a town that is absolutely lovely and not far from where we live, I saw a synagogue of messianic Jews.  I heard that there was another one in town as well.  I have only recently discovered that these are supersessionist Zionist Christians, most of them people of African-American descent who have converted to a false Judaism layered with an odd, legalistic Christianity.

The Jews have mostly left Vicksburg.  They were there largely before the Civil War, back when Mississippi had more millionaires in it than New York did, and while there is no evidence to suggest that the Jews of Vicksburg numbered among those richest people of the nation, they were often engaged in an international commerce of cotton, one where Vicksburg was a hub.  However, today there are few Jews in town.  Most have moved elsewhere.  To the best of my ability to see it, I find no particular incidents of antisemitic discrimination drove them away, only the same forces of commerce that compelled lots of people to leave the South in the early part of the twentieth century.

That said, the Jews are missing.  Lylah is coming to spend Christmas with us.  I need a Kosher butcher.  According to Superpages.com, there is not one Kosher butcher listed within hundreds of miles from my town.  The Jews are missing.

This makes me sad.  It explains the total lack of Kafkaesque irony in humor around here.  It explains the total lack of haggling.  It explains the work ethic, which is, let us say, moderated by a sense that if one moves too fast one might bust a button of one’s work shirt.  No one would ever say, as one hears fairly frequently in New York in business, “You pay me enough, I’ll finish the job yesterday.”  This is a New York sentiment, one entirely compatible with Jewish business practices.  The Jews are missing, and commerce runs, to borrow a phrase from Scarlett O’Hara, “as slow as molasses in January.”  The Jews are missing, which means that any notion of commonweal is subsumed under what Republicans tout as Christian  family values — one that forgets the Bible’s admonition to care for the stranger in the land, something, according to my reading of the Bible, a nation does at its own peril, for God judges the nations, per my reading of all the prophets, according to the way it treats widows, orphans, strangers, and whoever else is vulnerable.  I am very sorry the Jews left Vicksburg, whatever it was that took them away.

When Lylah comes, I’ll have Kosher meat flown in from Long Island — Kosher.com has a site that will FedEx me some good chicken, lamb sausages, and beef good for stewing.  Then, she’ll go back, and ham will again be on my table.  When I want a certain kind of ironic humor, I’ll watch The Daily Show.  When I want things done more quickly, I’ll have to take a breath and remember that a New York minute is something I left above the Mason-Dixon Line.  When I want justice redolent with mercy, I’ll pray.  I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, just as the Bible instructs us to do — all of us, Jew and gentile alike.  I pray for peace.  Lots of families around here have young people in the military sent overseas to Afghanistan.  I pray for peace.  As for any complex negotiation with other peoples of shared space — not a problem in a black-or-white-divided community where people stick to themselves.  No space needs sharing — we all have room.  My husband and I integrate an otherwise black church.  I pray for peace.  I miss the Jews.

November 10, 2010

Drinking an “Autumn Collins” at Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi

Autumn along the Mississippi River

Every New Yorker knows that there are times to worry, or at least where worry might be a first impulse.  In Mississippi, I am learning that there are times to relax, and autumn is definitely one of them.

As I drive down Interstate 55 toward Memphis, my I-Pod plays me this lyric sung by the Dixie Chicks:

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

By the time they hit the three part harmony for “Wide Open Spaces,” I’m singing along with them, and yes, in a state that has only 62 people per square mile, I do indeed have room to make my big mistakes, as the song goes, but I don’t think I’m making any big ones right now.

I hit the cruise control button on my husband’s new car — he has given it to me to drive because he loves me — and I take my foot off the gas.  I take a deep breath.

I see trees everywhere I look.  The trucks on the highway are distant.  I motor through a canyon of gold, brown, touches of red, some splotches of green.  The cows ignore me as I whizz past.  The haystacks, rolled round and bound with wire, stand sentinel in the field but don’t fire.

The Dixie Chicks continue:

She traveled this road as a child
Wide eyed and grinning, she never tired
But now she won’t be coming back with the rest
If these are life’s lessons, she’ll take this test

I don’t have any tests to take, but I am leading a panel discussion at a conference this Saturday morning at the University of West Georgia.  I need to turn in about 50 pages of text in a week or two, and every time I think I’ve finished my research, I find more to read on my subjects.

While this feels a little pressureful, it honestly is a walk in the park compared to other experiences in my life.  It is a cruise toward Graceland and Sun Records compared to a bad day in Brooklyn.  While there are certainly days in Mississippi where everything goes catastrophically wrong for some individuals, usually one at a time, in comparison to a semi-annual disaster that almost every New Yorker experiences — a burglary, a near-rape, a you-just-got-fired-right-before-Christmas, a your-husband-is-sleeping-with-your-friend and she sees no reason to hide this from you — in Mississippi, where there is right and wrong, where the roads are empty, where lines in government offices are short, where if you failed to fill out form 42 that was required, they might actually have a copy on hand that you can fill out right now, don’t worry — a bad day is not often a catastrophic day.

In Mississippi, my colleagues go out for drinks and tacos.  Last night, after a class discussing the implications to Victorian mores of the novel Dracula, instead of fearing rustling in the dark that might be from vampires, I joined a group of them around a long table at Snackbar on North Lamar, and I had an absolutely delicious cocktail they called an “Autumn Collins.”  Actually, I had two of them.  They had some kind of artisanal sweet potato liqueur in them.  I used to take vodka martinis at Dorothy Parker‘s old haunt — the Algonquin lounge — and I miss the dry martinis there, the tuxedoed waitstaff, and the cat named Matilda.  However, I wonder if the Autumn Collins might not become my seasonal drink from now on.

The Dixie Chicks wrap up:

She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes

The words are ominous, but the melody of the song, the song of my open road, it is blissful, and I stretch my leg out.  The cruise control works fine.  I am thinking deep thoughts and writing them down.  However, I might just find my way to a good conversation in Georgia, a juke joint, a falling leaf, a sizzling catfish in a pan, a hug, a hymn, a “momma says it’s gonna be alright.”

I’m learning to relax.  I might just set a spell.

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

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