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

August 31, 2010

Rebels Who Don’t Rebel

My students at Ole Miss are the sweetest, most polite, most lovely group of young scholars ever to set foot on a campus, and it’s freaking me out.

They file in quietly, having read the text in advance, wearing a veritable uniform — all of them, male and female — flip-flops, shorts, and a tank-top or t-shirt.  The boys sometimes wear caps.  The girls sometimes wear jewelry.  But they are in lock-step fashion-wise. I don’t know them well, yet, but they appear to be perfect angels.  I am spooked by this.  New Yorkers who are young are twitchy, pierced in odd places, and check out their large  pupils — they might be on something.  They wear some black.  They expose midriffs that have tattoos.  I have to tell them to turn off the music which is bleeding out of their ear buds.  I catch them texting.

I should be thrilled.  I am thrilled.  My students are wonderful.  Their mommas should be proud of them.  I am proud of them.  However, something is wrong with this picture.

I think they are not yet sure whether they are allowed to disagree with the authors presented to them in class.  When I say emphatically — I say much  emphatically — yes, they can disagree, they aren’t quite sure whether or not to believe me.  This might be a Yankee ambush.

They call themselves The Rebels, and Rebel sports are a serious business.  People here care passionately about the football team in particular, but look at their current mascot:

Yes, the Rebels still have an old man representing them

There are, of course, lots of things to say about this image:

  1. Perhaps most importantly, they are in the process around here of choosing a new mascot.
  2. This Civil War slaveholder is offensive as an image.
  3. Oddly, per an article which appeared on ESPN’s web page, the mascot — known as Colonel Reb — has only been around since the 1970s, post-integration of Ole Miss, so what were they thinking?
  4. Here’s the kicker for me  — He’s an old man!

That’s right — my Rebel students have an old  man with a cane as their symbol.  How can that be rebellion?

Ole Miss is known as one of the top party schools of  the region.  I have no doubt this is true.  However, according to Dean of Students Sparky Reardon, most of the students party Saturday night and crawl into church on Sunday morning.  If they have sinned, we may assume also that they repent. I am a Christian, and I believe in repentance.  I repent.  However, I can’t honestly say I regret being in an environment of non-conformity and rebellion.  The parties, from what I understand, that these kids go to at Ole Miss are largely the same — frat house, booze, music, shouting, drunk sex.  Before they take their clothes off, everyone is dressed the same.

I went to parties when I was their age where I danced with a man who looked like Young Vincent Van Gogh — only  he was wearing a diaphanous floral print dress, a floppy garden party hat, and waving an  organza scarf in my face.

My friend from college Becca, who later became a professional opera singer, almost got kicked out of school for using a flame thrower in an experimental musical performance.  She almost torched the front row and might have burned the auditorium down.  She had a  mohawk and a pet weasel.

I went to a night club and met one of my favorite movie stars, who treated my girlfriend, who was ga-ga over him, with a lack of respect.  A guy there beat up the movie star.  I made out with that guy in the ladies’ room.

More than once, I went to an abandoned warehouse where there was a party going on with art videos and punk rock bands.  The cops usually shut these down.

We never called ourselves rebels.  We rebelled.

Yet somehow, my students are all there in their places with bright, shiny faces, and they are the rebels who don’t rebel.

This shouldn’t bother me.  This is wonderful.  I have good kids in my class.  All the boys are handsome and clean-cut.  All the girls look fresh-faced and pretty.

These are smart kids, too.  Honestly, I wasn’t sure, based on Northeastern biases, how well-prepared they would be for this subject matter, but they are better academically prepared than most of the students I saw in similar classrooms in New York City.

The rebels have a cheer, referred to as “Hotty Toddy” for short.  It has some curse words in it, but what is striking is that this, too, is a group activity based on conformity.  It is a cheer that people shout in unison.

I have never  been very good at understanding conformists’ motivations.  I see no particular joy in being like the others.  I distrust group-think in all its manifestations.

Is rebellion a fundamental rite of passage to individuality?  Some psychologists say yes.  However, in  an era that is post-9/11, these sweet kids have wanted somehow to be good.  In fact, it was all they could do to make this place better, the United States.  They could not give their parents any additional headaches.

I should appreciate them more.  I do appreciate them.  I just hope that they don’t miss something on their way wherever they’re going.

Blog at WordPress.com.