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

September 25, 2016

Pirate Country –my transplanted life in the north tropics

Where I live now, there are Walgreens and Walmarts, bells of tacos and kings of burgers, so it is no more and no less American on the West Bank of New Orleans than it is in Duluth or Houston. Yet there is a mysterious, mariner-gothic bent to New Orleans (see my previous post about the evocation of vampire Lestat on my morning defecation walks with dogs), and taking a momentarily ecocritical view of my life, I understand its mystery better: I am living in the northern tropics. Wouldn’t you know that’s pirate country?

Perhaps because of an early childhood visit to Disneyland, when I think of the landscape of a tropical town, I immediately think of pirates of the Caribbean.  The truth is that when pirates were more common in colonial America, they were not a strictly tropical phenomenon.  My old town, New York City, had pirates, too.  Down on Hanover Street in the financial district there is a plaque that marks the site of the house owned by the infamous pirate Redbeard, who seems to have lived in peace with legal traders of goods and whose characters were no more shocking or flamboyant than a Wolf of Wall Street or a Godon Gekko (named, I note for the first time, after a tropical lizard — interesting) who exclaims “greed is good.”  Couldn’t that selfish sentiment be turned into the refrain of a pirate shanty?  Let’s find out:

The Shanty of The Gordon Gekko, Galleon Sans Blason

Greed is good, my buccaneers! Greed is good!

Pillage is pretty like a pert blonde lass!

Rape is right as rum in a mug of wood!

Greed is good!  Spanish galleons — kiss my ass!

 

Yes, Wall Street‘s horrible motto works well in piratical rhyme and meter. The sentiment itself is piratical. So I have lived in pirate country before, but it has not felt so obvious as it does now, while Spanish moss, if not Spanish galleons, droops over me as I shuffle in sweltering weather between buildings to teach writing. In the mornings as I drive along the causeway across bayoux, I sometimes see mist lifting off of marsh water, a mist that would mask a small landing party of buccaneers rowing a pirogue.  The weather’s abundant sizzle itself suggests the lasciviousness of piratical life.  The fact that it is now fall, and most days in this season will still get up into the nineties until we get close to Halloween, well, all that sweltering heat makes me want to rip off my lacy shirt and stand on deck wearing nothing but my knickers and boots, a single earring, and a kerchief cap until we catch a stiff breeze and spot a slave ship headed for Jamaica and we board her to liberate the human cargo to ask if they would like to join our crew.  Actually, in New Orleans, we say “krewe.”

anonymous_portrait_of_jean_lafitte_early_19th_century_rosenberg_library_galveston_texas

Pirate/war hero Jean Lafitte used to hang out where I hang out now in New Orleans. I am slightly covetous of his hat, but the scowl I can manage as necessary.

New Orleans has welcomed pirates of greater notoriety than Red Beard and more flamboyant than Gekko. Jean Lafitte (pictured here) fought with Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans during the war of 1812, and the two of them may or may not have met in secret to discuss battle plans.

This partnership between piracy and politics seems to have continued in New Orleans.  Local senatorial candidate David Duke tried to take his white supremacist case yesterday afternoon to the people on Jackson Square, a place where Lafitte surely walked, but he was soundly rejected by the crowd. I note that pirates tended to have interracial crews  (not unlike Mardi Gras Krewes these days) and made no bones, no skull-and-cross-bones, about lovemaking between the races.  To Duke that is race-destructive miscegenation, not the satin-clad complexities of pirate romance. He prattled on about how black men were raping white women with false statistics he got out of his size-insecure nightmares, not FBI files. And yet, as he spoke, he stood on a spot where Lafitte surely stood, away from which he surely swaggered. Even without a Klan hood on, especially without a satin, embroidered weskit and without a plumed hat and scabbard, he looked and sounded pathetic in this town of transgressive swashbuckling.

I look through the heat of the day and contemplate how much more comfortable I would be with my laces unlaced, with my bodice ripped. I realize that this is pirate country even today.  The people on Jackson Square used vocabulary in revolt of Duke’s ideas that I won’t repeat here — suffice it to say it was salty and worthy of outlaw sailors. I say he had it coming. Don’t cross pirates unless you are willing to need an eye patch for the rest of your miserable land-lubbing life!

Atchafalaya & I-10

I commute along this path regularly.

Tomorrow, as I commute back and forth, I will see white cranes fly overhead, see lizards skitter down the bricks of my house, encounter perhaps another swarm of black dragonflies marauding like low-flying bombers. The northern tropics call for a cool drink, a change of clothes after a sweat-breaking day, and a willingness to fight the red coats or the white sheets like the old sea shanty legends tell.  I ride a car, not a ship deck, but I gaze across the water at a town lit yellow and know that this is the kind of town I already understand.

Don’t believe me?  My book The White Trash Pantheon is already in stock at Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley. I have arrived, New Orleans.  En garde!

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.

 

February 1, 2016

Beads: What New Orleans Puts its Mojo On

I went to my first actual neighborhood Mardi Gras in my new town of New Orleans this Saturday.  I saw the Algiers Krewe, its many floats, the Langston Hughes High School and Phyllis Wheatley Middle School Marching Bands — two schools named for great poets, and I was thoroughly entertained.

zeus float

The False Thunder God’s false king is throwing false (plastic) beads at the crowd.

I saw floats attributed to inscrutable false deities, with plastic-masked kings and queens, standing within the embrace of plaster-of-Paris angels and in floral-bedecked rigs.  I had never liked Mardi Gras beads before, but something about them being thrown at me from a parade float made me want to wear them. Why did they suddenly have value?

 

I am reminded that native Americans traded Manhattan away for glass beads, or so I was told. I realize that this celebration — Fat Tuesday, come on a Saturday — is allegedly Christian but in fact only represents false deities and powerless powers, but the bands play, and we have fun.

marching band 2

The band leader jumps in the air in front of the gas station in Algiers.

It was delightful to watch teenagers in sequins wave flags and batons, to watch a woman run up and grab a tulle-decked plunger from a clown’s hands off a float.  The beads, the tulle, the sequins added a holy mystery to things as banal as sweaty adolescence, plunging, and clowning around. It is the delightful American habit to put lipstick on a pig and to call it a beauty.  Plastic beads are not a trip to Tiffany and Company, not even breakfast in front of Tiffany’s shop windows, especially not with Audrey Hepburn.  So why do they delight? Is there a link between Mardi Gras beads, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which Truman Capote might have thought about while he lived in New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone?  Is Holly Golightly a Mardi Gras float queen morphed into the guise of a New York party girl?

shoe float

Is this merely a Mardi Gras shoe float, or are we looking at a Louboutin float?

Fashion performs all kinds of acrobatics, I realize, of the plastic bead variety. A pair of black pumps is garden variety, unless its soles are dyed cinnabar red, in which case they are Louboutins.  Plastic beads are tacky, unless they fly off a float into your face, in which case — well — perhaps they do remain tacky, but they mark an occasion. Festivals, pancakes for pancake Tuesdays, boiled eggs for Easter, Twigs wrapped with red ribbon for Christmas — all these things take on an air of occasion because of their timing and placement within a rite.

me at mardi gras

The beads may be cheap and tawdry, but they make me happy, anyway.

I found myself decking myself with plastic beads shamelessly.  I was having a marvelous time, in fact.  I feel that beading myself with these plastic trinkets marks the occasion of my assimilation into the West Bank of New Orleans, a place that seems to value poets, diversity, jazz and tall tales. By the end of the parade, I had eighteen strands of them in all. I looked at them in my room at home and realized they were utterly useless around my neck.  They were no more appropriate for non-Mardi-Gras wear than it would be for me to try to incorporate Christmas tree ornaments into my wardrobe.

 

But I did find a use for the beads, after all.  I am teaching a public speaking course at the University of Mississippi, and we are discussing ways of keeping calm while addressing a crowd.  I decided to imbue each strand of plastic baubles with talismanic power.  I got my students to agree that since fear of public speaking is irrational — unless, of course, someone doing the public speaking is about to face a firing squad — an irrational response might calm the irrational fear.  Without claiming magical powers of any kind on my own, I gave my students each a strand of plastic from the Algiers Krewe parade with a blessing on it that it would give the possessor of it ease while addressing a crowd.  One student said it helped her when she had it on for her presentation later in the class.

See, America, glass beads can get you an island.  Red-soled shoes can make you chic.  Pastry eaten in front of a jewelry shop seems to burn fat cells off of Audrey Hepburn’s waist. Plastic beads, tossed into an American crowd, make a town a tourist attraction, and recycled, they become a tool for orators, the tellers of Louisiana tall tales. We are less the land of Goshen than the land of Barnum.  Kardashians prance on our screens like royal Lipizzaner horses, and we buy false eyelashes to flutter at others. Plastic beads are the family jewels. The king is king of burgers. The queen is queen of the parade. The emperor has no clothes, but in New Orleans, when our neighbors parade around naked, we don’t stand in judgment, as long as it happens before Ash Wednesday.

 

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