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

June 26, 2016

Too Hot to Kneel — Southern Heat, Southern Church, and Hellfire

In a marvelous essay recently published by Image, Southern Catholic poet Molly McCully Brown told a story about being in church with the brilliant fiction writer Kate Sparks, and a man commented to them that it was too hot to kneel that day in St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford, Mississippi. I believe that too-hot-to-kneel day happened last summer, and this Sunday we are having another day where it’s too hot to kneel.

Old sheldon ChurchChurch in the South can be sweltering, I mention for those of you who stay home on Sundays or attend church up North.  The ladies with the fans in the pews that you see in movies set in small Southern towns, that’s no joke.  While the majority of church vestry committees down here make the purchase of air conditioning a top priority, air conditioners give out, and there are just some days where it doesn’t matter how frigid a blast you get from your HVAC, you find yourself reaching in the freezer for ice cubes to drop into your cleavage.  On such a day, you might try to stay at home and to lower the blinds.  You might keep a cooler of drinks on hand.  You might do as I have done this Sunday, which is to skip church — it was too hot to kneel, too hot to sing, too hot to stand or sit, too hot altogether — and to go to the usually chilly Ole Miss Library, where I am looking for all the references in the Latin Vulgate Bible of Effeminacy.  Why?  It’s a long story, trust me.  You don’t want to know, not even if you are effeminate.  Anyway, it’s too hot to explain.

A friend of mine told me about her strict Southern Baptist upbringing, and her youth pastors decided one summer to teach young people to fear Hell.  They did this by locking them in the church with the air conditioning off and the lights out.  It was too hot to see God, and too late to repent.  She feels traumatized to this day, doesn’t attend church anymore, just in case.  It’s too hot to have flashbacks.

There is hellfire in the Southern sun from late June to late August.  Like Milton’s devils, we cluster in dark corners, glowering.  We are, like them, overwhelmed with ever-burning sulfur, unconsumed.  We can try fanning ourselves, but it seems to fan the flames. Some of us try drinking alcohol, but that pours kerosene on the barbecue that roasts us. The library air conditioner is barely functional.  The third floor is hotter than it is outside.  The second floor seems to be slightly cooled.  The first floor is about as steamy as a shaded patio in swamp country.  It’s too hot to move.

I squint down on the Latin words on the page — molles, mollis, effeminati — the effeminate consonants seem to sweat ink on the page. In many cities, there is a parade today, and people are sweating glitter.  I am just sweating sweat.  It’s too hot to translate Latin.  It’s too hot to dance Latin dances.  It’s too hot to be in Hell, on Earth, or for all I know in Heaven. I fan myself with a paperback.  I drink some Diet Coke.  I stretch my legs, but it’s too hot to stretch.  I would type more here, but it’s too hot to type.

Lord Jesus, fix the air conditioner in every church in every small Southern town so that we can kneel or take a nap on the pew bench until this steamy season subsides.  I repent in this dark Southern Baptist Hell-simulation.  I repent of my absence from church, of my sweat beads on this Bible. I repent of my consuming of high-calorie foods and of taking so long to write a dissertation. I repent of my skin still being on the meat of my body, not yet simmered off like stewed chicken thigh off a bone. Mea culpa. Mea Culpa. Mea maxima culpa. The heat gives no absolution.  It just lingers like a malevolent spirit in the dusty room of books. It swirls around my legs like an unfed cat, but I can’t find the can opener. It creeps down the back of my neck like a feeling of foreboding. It abides like the smell of cigars in a humidor, only I smell dusty books ever so slightly mildewed and a few sweaty male graduate students who need a shower. It’s too hot to complain.

I would wish you all a cool evening, but it’s too hot to wish. I would wish you an end to global warming, but it’s too hot to globalize.  Instead, I write you mint.  I write you Michigan mid-winter for five minutes. I write you a cold plunge from the edge of this hot sauna.  I write you a breeze, one that lifts the pages of the Latin Vulgate so that they blur into a crenelated fan, a breeze that clears the air and beckons a deep breath, that clears the head and makes the Latin declensions easy and even the condemned effeminate Roman robust.

 

 

Advertisements

June 10, 2016

This article has coined a term for me “Babsonesque,” which surely means I have arrived as a writer!  Come tomorrow evening and have your hair blown back, y’all!Suanne Strider: No Place in Particular – A Celebration of Southern Poetry and Music

At the lovely new Shelter on Van Buren in Oxford tomorrow night (June 11) will be an affair to remember, and also one for the history books. Salt Zine, an

Source: Suanne Strider: No Place in Particular – A Celebration of Southern Poetry and Music

The Southern Concept of “Fixing to,” and What I am Fixing to Do Tomorrow Night

Southern supermodel and ex-wife to Mick Jagger Jerry Hall told reporters about her looks, “My momma always used to say, ‘honey, there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.'”

Jerry Hall

“Momma always said there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” — Southern model Jerry Hall

Southern women are not lazy; after all, look how carefully groomed they usually are!  No Sarah Lawrence College bohemian tousled bobs on their heads — Southern hair is always intentional. Neither are Southern men lazy, though they are less carefully groomed on the whole than their sisters and wives.  However one might say all those well-groomed Southerners are in much less of a hurry than Yankees tend to be.

When I moved from Brooklyn down South, the hardest thing for me to absorb was the Southern concept of timing.  I itched for the whole first year down here for a New York minute, and honey, while there are no ugly minutes down South, there are plenty of lazy ones.  That New York minute never came; it wasn’t even unimaginably delayed coming on the Northbound F Train because of extensive trackwork; it never existed and never would. I mourned the New York minute the way I mourned the chopped liver bagel from the Second Avenue Deli.  Both New York phenomena are hard to explain to outsiders as charming.  You have to take a bite of one to know how good they are.  I am at an Irish wake in permanence for the New York minute.  As anyone who has attended an Irish wake can tell you, such events involve tears, off-color tales, prayer, and a little bit of whiskey while nobody else is looking.  New York minute, we hardly knew ye, at least down South.

resting Southern men

These men are fixing to get up and go back to work.

Instead, down South, we don’t bound out of seats to do things as much as we are “fixing to” do things. For those uninitiated to that grammatical structure, “fixing to” do something means one really may get around to it eventually.  If one is “fixing to” pick up his friend at Memphis International Airport, for instance, that means one is watching the last five minutes of an episode of Designing Women on DVR, wondering if the shirt one is wearing has a stain on it requiring a change of clothing, and looking under the coffee table for one’s other flip-flop.  Maybe in fifteen minutes, the one who was fixing to go to the airport will have fixed himself, applied a little designer impostor cologne under the armpits of the shirt with the stain on it, which one has decided to wear despite the small splotch of barbecue sauce, found the flip-flops, and sauntered over to the car to open the driver-side door.

To their credit, Southern cardiac surgeons are usually never “fixing to” perform a balloon angioplasty; they operate as emergency requires with a brisker pace. But the cardiologist usually nods understandingly when the patient says he is “fixing to” start an exercise regimen, no riot act read.  It’s just the way things eventually get done around here.

Anyway, I am fixing to do something myself tomorrow. I am fixing to give a reading of new poetry as part of an important New Southern literary event.

There is a marvelous avant garde literary journal called Salt down South; they are as experimental as anything coming out of literary Brooklyn in recent memory.  They are so avant garde they have rejected old paradigms and rebooted themselves.  They are now Salted 2.0, and they have published a work of fiction I wrote about Irish-American identity and cultural expectations within that community, to which I belong.  They have asked me to read at a literary reading, art show, and harmonica and steel guitar folk extravaganza tomorrow night in Oxford, Mississippi.  The event is fixing  to go from six-ish to ten-ish tomorrow evening at the Shelter on Van Buren, directly adjacent to Oxford Square and across the street from Off Square Books.  There will be beverages and snacks for sale.  There will be bonhomie.  There will be me reading poetry commemorating the smashed glass ceiling of Tuesday night, another Irish  wake with off-color tales of the highest literary caliber.  The editors of this journal are not just good editors; they throw a wonderful Southern beaux-arts party (or bozart party, as H. L. Mencken would have it). Prepare to feel happier and hipper leaving than when you arrive.

This is also the launch party of the rebooted avant garde journal. The honour of your presence is respectfully requested.  Again, that’s Saturday, June 11, 6-10 pm, at The Shelter on Van Buren, 1221 Van Buren, Oxford, Mississippi.  I sincerely hope you are fixing to attend.

June 3, 2016

The Official Guidebook to Whoredom — New Orleans’ Storyville Blue Book and the Women it Commodified

New Orleans has plenty of prostitutes today, but about a hundred years ago, sex work in this city was legal, zoned, taxed, sponsored and cataloged.  Yes, I said “cataloged,” by which I mean approximately what Land’s End and Fingerhut mean when they say “catalog,” only it’s not snow boots that are for sale but the bodies of women, complete with Zagat-like ratings for the services of each.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New Orleans planned Storyville, a community of whore houses, segregated officially between octoroon “cribs,” where women of color or of mixed racial background sold their bodies, and all-white Maisons de Joie, perhaps the most famous of which was Mahogany Hall, memorialized by Louis Armstrong’s “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Storyville was named for the legislator who suggested its legal codification, reform-minded Alderman Sidney Story.  Women of ill repute were supposed to be confined to a sixteen-block ghetto in the Treme section of town, and the implication of their zoning was not only to restrict the work of prostitutes but also their lives, as women who worked there were supposed to stay within the boundaries set up by the city government for almost any imaginable activity.  It was as if they were under house arrest, only they were expected to continue to work as whores to the benefit of the madams, pimps, and Tom Anderson, mobbed-up cabaret owner and the putative “mayor of Storyville,” who seems to have taken a cut of everybody else’s ill-gotten gains in this district.

storyville whorehouse bedroom

This is where clients could expect to have sex for money, — no visible sign of venereal diseases on those throw pillows.

The city itself of course turned a profit, as it could tax these very lucrative businesses that were kept under a watchful eye.  As one government official remarked about sex-for-hire in New Orleans — “You can make prostitution illegal in New Orleans, but you can’t make it unpopular.”  The city, too, was reaping benefits from the legalized trafficking of women’s bodies, and some men’s bodies, too (there are some references to “fairies” in Storyville, though they are not cataloged like women are), it seems. The only initial concern expressed about Storyville by many city officials was that it should not encourage men of color to sleep with white women, though white men were free to roam the district and purchase anybody’s body at will.

Before the establishment of an official tourist bureau, New Orleans businesses compiled something it called Blue Book, too racy to mail according to federal law, but the City of New Orleans determined could be given out to tourists and thrill-seekers of any kind.  In it, potential whorehouse customers could see a list of women for sale in Storyville, divided between white and black women, and inside, one could see photos and read about the various charms and talents of the women for sale, like they were seat cushions on display at Pottery Barn.

The purported purpose of the sixteen-block ghetto designated for whores was, according to the prose of Blue Book, was first, “to put the stranger on the proper and safe path … free from ‘hold-ups’ and other games,” and perhaps more atrociously, “it regulates the women,” keeping the rest of the city free from women who make a living selling their bodies. The purported purpose was therefore to pen in and legalize the transaction of the prostitute and Jon for the Jon, especially if he were white, but it made the woman a prisoner of a mobbed-up prostitution district.  If the sex worker entered Storyville freely to start work there as a prostitute, the law henceforth could hold her hostage even if she wanted to quit the oldest profession for something new.  It made her subject to pimps like Tom Anderson, madams who might tolerate brutality or cheat women of their wages, and with a smile in Blue Book, she was trapped night after night, day after day, in a Mahogany prison.

blue book prostitute mademoiselle rita walker

Mademoiselle Rita Walker’s Blue Book listing exoticizes her, and the combination of her barefoot dancing and expensive wardrobe make her a spicy commodity.

I do not assume for a minute that all the women in Storyville were there against their will.  Surely some of them, whom men at least called by names of royalty or aristocracy — there was “Queen Gertie” and “Countess Willie” — might have found work in a brothel preferable to other forms of menial labor open to working-class women, and perhaps the work itself was less exploitative than some “legitimate” jobs.  In a world where sexual harassment was frequent and legal, maybe getting paid for sex was better than being used for sex while officially being a washerwoman, nanny, or store clerk.  But the fact that these women couldn’t leave if the city didn’t let them slip by, if the mayor of Storyville did not wink — that made Storyville into a gilded form of convict prostitution.  It was not unlike the situation of sharecroppers just outside of town who might have been menaced by the Klan if they threatened to board a train for New York City in the middle of the sugar cane harvest.  In Storyville and the plantation, just like at the Hotel California, you could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.

And the idea that women were for sale like stoves at Sears — how American a way to hurt people! Capitalism is often subtly ugly when it sells clothes made in factories where workers do not make a living wage, but the clothing itself is lovely.  This, though, was not subtle.  The commerce of the female body is here, and adding insult to injury,  the women in this trade were expected to smile for a photo that advertised them like washboards or shoes.  They were reduced to things, rides at the carnival, adventures — not fully human at all.  I wonder if we remain inured to this kind of commodification of women as pornographic websites speak of parts, not people.  What is voluntary in our day troubles me less than the thousands of underage girls advertised for “outcall massage” in legal classified ads, girls kidnapped, brutalized, and peddled for profit by the mob.

I wonder if we continue to live in a society that could sanction the selling of female flesh while male flesh is mercifully off the auction block these days. Joe Francis has made a wholly disreputable bucket of cash from his disgusting Girls Gone Wild series that convinces women to flash their breasts for his profit.  Women in New Orleans, at least some of them, lift shirts for plastic beads once a year.  Again, I am less troubled by girls lifting shirts than I am boys filming and making bank off of it.  I am not really against whores, ghettoed or not, but I am uncharitable in my views toward Jons and am really totally ready to cut a pimp.  New Orleans places no stigma on what the French call louche.  I particularly take exception to bohemian proclivities expressed by one person that others leech and exploit.

Storyville did not end because of any moral sentiment from the city government of New Orleans.  Rather, the United States military insisted, under the aegis of Woodrow Wilson, who was no whoremonger, that it would be morally and physically unhealthy for soldiers and sailors to catch a boat to World War I through a port town where hookers operated legally.  One may be pretty certain that the president did not consult the soldiers in question about this, but he was adamant.  As a result, Storyville’s interests were less lucrative to New Orleans business and government than a military port contract.  The Mahogany Hall and its neighboring buildings were shuttered, but unsurprisingly, the hooking has continued on the DL to this day. It’s not hard to find a prostitute for sale in New Orleans in the twenty-first century, but it is hard to find a published catalog of them, and the city has ceased to sanction anything they do officially.  There are no doubt plenty of cops on the take, plenty of pimps, and plenty of frightened girls who never went wild, who just fell into the hands of abusers. Storyville might be closed, but it is still open in spirit all day and all night in the city that zoned it.

May 28, 2016

Vicious Cuisine — How New Orleans just made me eat something very, very naughty

They say in Vegas that what happens there stays there, but for most of what happens in New Orleans, what happens there has an afterlife that wafts eveywhere. What I have done makes me want to confess in pre-Vatican-II Latin: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

The French Quarter is a tourist destination for decadence.  I was not there exactly as a tourist when I committed my trespass against decency.  No, I was there on business, truly — getting my book The White Trash Pantheon (Vox Press, 2015) in local independent bookstores like Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley and Beckham’s Bookshop over on Decatur Street. I was literally minding my own business, that of poet, when I was seduced by the vicious underbelly life of the French Quarter to do something so unspeakable, I hardly tell you all now how decadent it was.

I am an unlikely candidate for temptation to commit the many vices present on Bourbon Street.  First of all, I drink in moderation whenever I drink.  As a woman of Irish ancestry, I have my ancestors’ hollow leg, anyway, unlikely to be overcome by intoxicants of the fermented kind.  The idea of vomiting on myself in an alleyway doesn’t sound like a fun afternoon, even in the rain. I am unlikely to seek out the ministrations of strippers and prostitutes.  Not even Sam Heughan taking off all his clothes would inspire me to find places to stuff dollar bills, and he is my ideal log thrower in a traditional Celtic caber toss, certainly. I have no desire for any perversion I could hire an illicit sex worker to perform.  My money is therefore generally safe on Bourbon Street, as is my soul.  The Lord’s Prayer asks that we be not led into temptation, and Bourbon Street is not a direct path to any temptation for me.  I see the end from the beginning there — vomit on shoes, throbbing heads, empty wallets, and a need to see the doctor, just in case. Bourbon Street does not lead me into temptation, even though it does not exactly deliver me from evil — if you don’t want a hooker on Bourbon Street, there are voodoo curses available for a price.  I am a generally forgiving soul.  I do not play with witchcraft — it’s not a toy; it’s not a joke; and malevolent intentions are in themselves curses on the holder of said intentions.

But Bourbon Street, named for the decadent royal dynasty that built Versailles, is not the only decadent street in the French Quarter.  Conti Street, named for one of the leaders of that dynasty, a Prince of Bourbon, held my decadent downfall a few days ago.  Mea Culpa. Mea Culpa.  I am an American.  I have American sins. Mea Maxima Culpa.

At a lovely new shop, I stopped as the rain burst from the sky.  The thing you see in the photo seemed to call out my name. It glistened before me as thunder rattled the pastry  cases at the shop. The French Quarter, after putting forth all other forms of temptation in front of me, finally found my kink, my proclivity, my sin.  Indeed, it is a sin akin to original sin — that of eating what one mustn’t ever eat. The object of my desire seemed to whisper what Stanley said to Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire right before he rapes her — “We’ve had this date since the beginning.” Like Blanche, I swooned and let myself be ravaged.

bacon donut

This is the bacon maple donut available 24/7 at Sweet Things & Grill #2 on Conti Street in New Orleans.

No one should ever eat a bacon-topped maple donut, but if it’s wrong, well, I didn’t want to be right.  The salty grease of the bacon mitigated the over-sweetness of the maple fondant frosting. It tasted like American imperialism, like land stolen from Native American tribes.  It tasted like the last day in the imagined chateau of the Marquis de Sade (who must have known the Prince de Conti for whom my fated destination with the donut was named), when all the other decadence was spent in his banned book.  It tasted like the fifty-first shade of gray.  It tasted like my mortality, embraced suicidally, as the paramedics placed the cold paddles on my chest and shouted clear, and I murmured, “no — let me go toward the light, that salty, maple light.”

It tasted like the end of Jim Morrison’s song, “The End.” It tasted like New Orleans, wrapped in bacon, slathered with syrup, demanding a perpetual carnival, then throwing the ashes from the smokehouse where the bacon was cured into the river at the Saint Ann’s Parade.  This is the end, my only friend, the end.  This is the end of America, its ultimate expression of selfish piggishness as the Third World starves.  This is the end, mon semblable, mon frère.

It was like I ripped the head off a chicken in a sacrifice to some shadowy Dick Cheney-like Orisha, then drank the blood from its neck, smearing the mess all over my white santera dress, then rolling my eyes back in my head, seeing a vision of the molecular structures of lipids and glucose in an orgy of stray atomic legs as I chattered like a blonde Fox News pundit as the crawl of words underneath my head ran like this: “Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain/ And all the children are insane /All the children are insane /Waiting for the summer rain, yeah”  — The end, beautiful friend, the end.

I wish, as I kneel here confessing myself to all of you, that I could tell you I was sorry.  I am not.  I will have to work out at my new gym in Algiers for at least a week just to burn off the calories that one donut put on my body, but how can I say I am sorry?  New Orleans made me eat it, the way it seduces all newcomers somehow.  I confess the sin of American gluttony and hegemony.  I confess the sin of re-appropriating Jim Morrison and Charles Baudelaire to hegemonic ends, the end.  Honestly, the donut was quite delicious, and if there is anyone who needs to gain at least twenty pounds for some reason, perhaps just one of them wouldn’t be bad.  I do not have that need.  I am at the gym now.  I was asked by the trainer why on Earth I would eat that bacon-maple donut, and I said, “It was like Everest.  I ate it because it was there.”

It was there, the full expression of our American flaws, the rock uplifted, slithering exposed. Yes, I ate that thing.  Yes, I need to sweat. Yes, the  end, the end.

For your own apotheosis via a bacon-maple donut, find it if you dare at Sweet Things & Grill #2, 806 Conti Street, New Orleans.

 

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?

April 19, 2016

A Candlelight Vigil for the Slaves at Ole Miss

Governor Phil Bryant, as he resists the inevitable wave of change in his own state by legalizing cake discrimination, defending the inclusion of the stars and bars in the Mississippi flag, and general attempts at revisionism, declared this month Confederate History Month in Mississippi.  The Confederate dead have long be mourned in greater pomp than the dead of any other war in this state, but the story told about the South at reenactments and here, on  the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi, where a costumed annual wreath-laying takes place in the Confederate cemetery behind the old basketball stadium, is generally false.  It’s not that people fought without gallantry in grey uniforms, they did.  It’s not that they were mean to family members or small puppy dogs.  But there still abides a myth that says, 1) The Civil War was not a war fought primarily over slavery (the statements of Confederates as they declared war belie this idea), 2) Those who were slaves were generally happy, and 3) The Yankees ruined a really good thing by ending slavery and thereby effectively ending Plantation culture as it had previously existed down South.  To all this, the University of Mississippi chapter of the NAACP chants, “Hell you talmbout.”

candlelight vigil 2Though not a particularly politically minded campus, compared to, say, UC Berkeley, Ole Miss has a Black Lives Matter movement, and happily, there are white people on campus who agree that black lives do indeed matter, and all people deserve respect.  Last year, despite Phil Bryant’s advocacy for a Confederate-ish state flag, the student body of Ole Miss overwhelmingly voted to remove the state flag from the campus until such time as the image changes to something less offensive to African-American students, whose families were terrorized under that symbol.  The white students are generally unwilling to be chained to the ugliness of past genocide, generally unwilling to manufacture or perpetuate myth in order to cover up ugliness that they do not claim as their own present-tense sentiments toward people of color.  It’s not a perfect campus — the statue of James Meredith got lynched by one student, who was expelled and charged with vandalism, and his conspiring fraternity was unhoused from the campus by the governing body of that frat’s national Greek organization.  But it is not a campus like the one James Meredith walked onto when first he desegregated this institution with its Grecian columns and shuttered colonnades.  Then, he got shot at and shouted at.  Today, most students just want to get to class before they get marked absent.

candlelight vigil 3People of multiple races participated in a candlelight vigil to remember during this so-called Confederate History month the lives ruined by slavery on this very campus, individuals who built buildings on the campus and were owned by the plantation scions who did things in some instances like rape or put out cigars on the skin of these slaves.  We cannot walk into the Lyceum, the administrative building, without seeing the work of their hands.  They did not come to learn.  They came only to survive, but the students of color who have followed James Meredith here and those of us who are fortunate enough to study with them have a moral obligation to commemorate them.  If we are going to remember the Confederacy, then let us really remember it.  Not just the wasted young lives shot up at Shiloh, hospitalized here, then buried, but those who had no choice in their comings or goings and who suffered under the oppression of the wealthiest families of the Confederacy, whose sons attended this school with an entourage of slaves. Let us remember how we who are free and of multiple classes and genders, the rich white boys who came here would have scoffed at all of us who aspire to live a life of the mind alien to their own idea of world order.  Let us remember, really remember all of it.

candlelight vigil 1We gathered, held candles in plastic cups, and sang spirituals sung by slaves in order to remain hopeful of freedom in this life of the next, recited their names, where we even have their names.  Mostly we do not have their names, not even their names.

Here, though, I write the names of the ones who ended up in court records, bequests, arrests, seizures — recorded as livestock might have been recorded, not the way citizens were ever discussed, but this is all we have to witness them — these kinds of records, no parentage, no address, no testimony of likes or dislikes, no images, no words that quote them at all — just these names or fragments of names.  Here they are:

Jane

Alford

Collins

E.M. Farill

Lou Farill

Ann Thompson

Ema Jones

Frank Watson

Tom Brown

Seth Brown

Clarecy Brown

Phillip Brown

Frank O’Brian

Tom Goodey

Jeff Profit

John Thompson

James Kerr

Peter Kenshaw

Callie Pillar

A. Nelson

Mary Nelson

S. Williams

And the others, the many whose names are lost to history, Confederate or Union.

Say their names and remember.  Don’t lay a wreath for them wearing a hoop skirt.  Rather, come as you are, free as you are. Sing about freedom.  Carry a light. Bless them.

March 9, 2016

Shouldering the Dangers of the Pentacostal Church

“Then let mine arm fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone.” — Job 31:22

Beloved readers of this blog, I write to warn you of hazards you may not have considered in choosing whether or not to attend church.  It’s true that a good church shepherds the lost soul to paradise, but have you considered all the dangers of worship, particularly if the church you attend is loving or expressive?  I have survived a serious, nay, let me call it a medieval danger, and I am barely unraptured enough to have both feet on Earth to tell you about it.

ShoulderSurgery_ORIGINAL_460x261To be fair to the church I attend, I was already in danger when I arrived.  You see, there is a doctor in town who has told me that I could qualify through my insurance to let him cut off my right arm and reattach it with a titanium shoulder joint.  I have been apparently sleepwalking. Moved with unconscious piety,  like Rebekah in Genesis 24, I have been (sleep) walking to the well and filling a large jar of water, balancing it on my shoulder, which has become for NO OTHER discernible reason arthritic.  The doctor is almost gleeful when he tells me he can perform this monstrosity on me, that I will only need half a year to recover from this Frankenshoulder operation, and that after this, the mild chronic pain I have will be gone, gone after half a year of medieval torture pain and immobility.

A couple of weeks ago at church, a young man of Christian character shook my hand vigorously, glad to see me.  He’s strong, stronger than he knows, and when I smiled and took a seat, I realized that for the next hours I would need to pray for healing.  I raised my hands to heaven as we praised the Lord, and I realized I would need that healing now. In Bible study, I could fully recognize the truth of Isaihah 22:22, “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”  Because I, for one, couldn’t imagine twisting my hand on a door knob that would either open or shut whatever it was that Jesus locked or unlocked with that shoulder key.  I knew I didn’t want to push, or pull, or twist, or mangle anything. If that wasn’t evidence of my faith, I don’t know what is.

crucifixion

Crucifixion can’t be good for one’s shoulders.

The truth is, it’s not just shaking hands at the church door that’s a danger.  It’s not just lifting one’s hands to praise the Lord.  There are all kinds of secret dangers hidden in church, including:

  • Tambourine accidents — Musical enthusiasm could rip a rotator cuff if the believer is not careful.
  • Starbucks-Venti-sized portions at coffee hour — One bucket-sized drink hoisted too high could tear a tendon.
  • Emphatic gestures in theological debate — Zeal is fine in moderation, but no one should slap a pulpit in rebuke if the fire and brimstone get too hot or stinky.
  • Choir robe malfunctions — Tripping on the way to the back row of the choir loft could make an alto bump into the organ.
  • Hugging like a muthah — Someone might love the brethren just a little too much, squeeze like a boa constrictor.
  • Hat accidents, or “haccidents.” — Ladies still wear big hats in some churches, laden with fruit and plumage, netting and holy mysteries.  It just takes one low-flying bird out on the church steps to snag that tower of rattan and turn it into a neck and shoulder disaster.
  • The clap (to the music) — Proclaiming a little too much victory might sprain into defeat.
  • Volunteering — That heavy punch bowl one might carry into the reception hall, that Wreath that needs one to glitter spray  it and add more plastic begonias to it (I did say I was talking about pentacostal churches, didn’t I?) are shoulder tragedies waiting for a women’s fellowship workday to happen.

There are surely other shoulder hazards at church, but because Jesus endured the ultimate shoulder hazard — crucifixion, which is very painful to the shoulders with the rest of the upper body — I attend despite the risk.  The physical therapist is sticking electrified needles in me, not nails, and she is having me shrug Talmudically, releasing certain tense muscles and conveying a resignation that the paradox of faith is that God answers Job’s questions about hardships (like shoulder injury) with other questions.  Why ask why? I give the burden of the ineffable to Christ to shoulder.

 

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.