Friday, September 28, 2007

Sitting Here In Limbo (remix)

Wet Bank Guide is on a bit of a hiatus, but nothing that won't pass. Anway, here is something from December 2005 that's worth revisting :

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sitting here in limbo

Sitting here in limbo, but I know it won't be long
Sitting here in limbo, like a bird without a song
Well they're putting up resistance
But I know my faith will lead me on
-- Jimmy Cliff

I wore out my vinyl copy of the soundtrack to the movie Harder They Come a long time ago. I just loved that movie, and think of it every time I accidentally punch up the opening to the TV show Cops, and flash back to a time when the opening theme song had an entirely different meaning.

My theme for today, however, isn't the anti-heroes of the 1970s. We are long past the days when their was anything romantic about the anti-heroes of this movie. The drug gangsters are gone from (for now), and good riddance.

This reggae spiritual is the sound track in my head as I sit here 1,200 miles and twenty years removed from my city and the aftermath of , replacing the unrelenting loop of Adagio for Strings that haunted me through September and into October, and was then replaced by the piece Requiem , a haunting piece of music originally composed by Eliza Gilkyson for for the victims of the Christmas tsunami.

Mother Mary full of grace, awaken.
All our homes and all our loved ones taken.
Taken by the sea.

Hear our mournful plea...

Mother Mary find us where we've fallen
Out of grace. Lead us to a higher place.

If you can listen to this carefully without crying, check your pulse or the mark on the front of your house, cap, cause you're .

But now I read day after day about the seeming normality of life for those lucky few on what a WWOZ DJ referred to as "the sliver by the river", a town smaller than Fargo, N.D. where I sit writing this. And then I get an email from someone who's taken a series of photos of the rest of the city after dark, in the dark. I read about the latest post-K suicides here and here and ...

Congress passed a Katrina relief bill, but most of the $29 Billion went to FEMA or other branches of the federal government, which means that real people mostly will never see it. No one will step up to help pay $350 million to rebuild Entergy's infrastructure in the city, including the stockholders of the parent company who have been perfectly happy to harvest the profits in the past.

Congress adjourned without action on the Baker Bill, which would provide direct assistance to those who lost their homes. Without this bill, hundreds of thousands of Americans will have to pay out the mortgages on their ruined, worthless properties. Baker has promised to bring it back, but the people's House is adjourned until Jan. 31, meaning no action can begin before February.

The city's leaders can't seem to make a decision on how reconstruction should proceed, while the usual political factions bicker over where FEMA trailers should be placed. The rest of the country seems to think we're too corrupt to take care of ourselves, so they're perfectly OK that we've suspended elections for the time being.

So, we're all left (well, I am at least) with Jimmy Cliff's voice echoing around in my head, in a mournful sort of way. Ah, but then, we have to remember, Sitting in Limbo was just one of the fabulous songs in that movie. And it was not the title song. This was.

Persecution you must bear
Win or lose you've got to get your share
Got your mind set on a dream
You can get it, though harder them seem now
You can get it if you really want
But you must try, try and try
Try and try, you'll succeed at last
You can get it if you really want - I know it
You can get it if you really want - though I show it
You can get it if you really want - so don't give up now

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Drums and trumpets

In the first true cool of an evening in more months that I care to recall, I can hear them drumming. The sound comes and goes on the wind like a shortwave signal, sometimes blaring and other times distant and irregular. In spite of the slightest hint of coolness, I know it is fall not by any outward sign of nature but by sounds of football at Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park.

It is such a reassuring sound. So much was lost in the flood: instruments, uniforms, the gladiatorial gear necessary to field a football team. When I first heard them last year there were still debris piles on the street and the last bits of tarp still fluttered on my neighbor's roof. The sounds of a marching band in the distance was positive vibration in a desperate place.

This year new neighbors are moving into the newly roofed house next door. My immediate vicinity is almost vacant of signs of the catastrophe. And as a lake-chilled zephyr wanders down from the north, along empty streets and through the feral parts of the park, the clear sounds of pop and hip-hop rendered by ranks of brass, woodwind and drum, punctuated by eruptions of crowd noise, is a touchstone of normality.

I never played football and only rarely bothered to attend games in high school. My college--the University of New Orleans--had no football team (lest they steal away valuable players from the flagship school of the system, LSU). My experience of marching bands is tied up with Mardi Gras Parades: the thrill when far down Napoleon when the lead band finally forms up and starts a song, announcing the beginning of the parade. The odd way the instruments sound as they pass in ranks, each dominating the sound as the respective rows pass.

My first thought when I heard the bands last year was: where's the parade? Then I remembered where I was, that I was only blocks--less than a mile--from the stadium. Then I knew what I was hearing. I was hearing the sounds of of thousands of teenagers and their parents. Long before I came home, people remarked on living in a childless city. Few schools were open in late 2005 and early 2006, and so many people were living in tiny trailers or only communting into the city from Baton Rouge or the North Shore to work on their houses. New Orleans looked like Hamlin after the pied piper had taken his due.

In my first Mardi Gras after the Federal Flood, when my wife was already here and we drove down her car, there were not as many bands as in years past. The St. Augustine Purple Knights joined a pickup band of kids from Xavier Prep, St. Mary' s Academy and Redeemer-Seton, all predominately Black catholic schools, to form the MAX Band. Uniforms were lost and the marchers wore gold stickers--one color all the schools had in common. Instruments were what could be found or salvaged, rarely the instrument the student had owned. But they were home and determined to march. Like all of us they were ready to make do as long as they could make it.

At Mardi Gras 2007 the band that stirred the most emotion was that of the Chalmette High School Owls. Chalmette is the central part of St. Bernard Parish, where less than a dozen buildings escaped weeks of water up to the eaves. It was ground zero for the collapse of the levees, and a helicopter flyover from Violet at the east end of the settled part of the parish up to Arabi, looping over and over again on MSNBC, is one of my clearest memories of the blur that was the week of the flood. To see them march was to see the tenaciousness I foresaw in one of my first blog posts after 8-29 proven true.

Now at the start of the fall of 2007, more than two years after the event, life is New Orleans is far from normal. Vast stretches of the city are still largely vacant, the issuance of building permits down at City Hall the strongest sign of life in parts of Lakeview and much of Gentilly and New Orleans east. The pennies-on-the-dollar relief the central government has offered for the failure of its levees continues to barely trickle out of a state bureaucracy that makes one long for something as efficient as, say, the Soviet shoe industry. The city's so-called leaders have bungled the opportunity to stanch the cities violent crime rate and spend most of their time in hiding, behind locked doors plotting bog-knows what: certainly not the city's recovery.

Sitting in Mid-City this Saturday evening all of that seems as faraway as the marching band when the wind shifts and the music is like something heard underwater. The wind clocks and again I can hear the melody clear if distant, followed by an explosion of crowd noise. I have spent enough time in the stadium--high school games, my first concert (the Allman Brother's Eat a Peach tour), Major League exposition games we sold programs to gain free admission to, grade school track-and-field days--that the scene in the stadium is clear to me, if perhaps the dress of the spectators is out of date. The physical details of the place are so clear I can almost touch them as I imagine my walk beneath the bleachers, then up a ramp and into the lights.

Tonight I am not there. I'm not even sure who's playing, but is doesn't matter. Tonight Orleanians in the thousands sit at Tad Gormely and look over the new turf of what is now called Reggie Bush Field and cheer. I sit on my porch on Toulouse Street and wander back in memory to 1963 when I stood as a six year old on the corner of Egret Street and Robert E. Lee Boulevard and strained to hear the distant sound of the Beatles drowned out by screaming girls at that same stadium. Just down the block tonight another six year old is sitting in those stands, hearing a sibling play in the bad or cheer while another gets down in stance behind the ball.

That image gives me some reassurance that forty-four years hence another middle-aged man may sit on this porch and hear the band and the crowd in the distance and be transported into his ownb past, perhaps into this very night; that another generation will be raised here and indelibly marked by the experience and will do whatever is required of them to make it home.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Crescent City Snow

This morning Invest 90L in GOMEX is showing some signs of high level circulation. For those who have not succumbed to the urge to read every single line published by the National Hurricane Center, an invest is an area of weather interest which might or might not become a tropical storm. GOMEX is of course the Gulf of Mexico.

While many New Orleanians pay no mind to such things until one of the television forecasters calls it to their attention, some of us watch the postings to the National Weather Service NHC in the same way our ancestors checked at the Western Union office daily or more often to learn the price of cotton. Our lives, like theirs, are greatly influenced by the telegraphic postings, the numbers marking out coordinates which spell rising or declining arcs of risk. In our, later case these abstract constructs might be given a name, might coalesce into walls of wind and rain towering miles into the sky.

The peak of the hurricane season straddles what the calendar tells us is late summer and early fall. Looking instead at my thermometer, it is not easy to tell September from August, not in the way I could when I lived far to the north. In Fargo, N.D. this morning the temperature was 42 degrees Fahrenheit, a coolness we will not see in New Orleans until well into winter. It is cold enough up there that soon all of the deciduous trees will begin to turn color and drop their leaves.

My wife misses Fall more than any other season, here in the subtropics where the Four Seasons are a group featured on Time-Life retrospectives on late night TV. Neither of us would easily return to the hard winters at the Canadian border, but for all the city has to offer we feel cheated of the sudden coolness, the promise of a hard freeze that will finally kill the mosquitoes, the color show of the trees turning red and golden before they cover the lawn in a crunchy brown carpet.

Down here we have more than our share of pines, and the palm trees of course do not shed their branches come fall. Many trees seem to suddenly shed their canopy without any sort of color-coded warning. The disconcerting trees are the ubiquitous lives oaks, which shed leaves all year and are never bare. These evergreen monsters lend a certain never-never-land-of-the-lotus-eaters quality to those visiting or returning from the north. If you've lived somewhere that large deciduous trees should go bare at some time and stay that way until Spring it is subtly disorienting. When I moved to Washington, D.C. I was bothered all spring in the growing heat by something I couldn't quite put my finger on, until I realized it hadn't rained--not a good soaking thunderstorm of a rain--in months.

The trees I look forward to seeing change (and the ones I pointed out to my wife when the fist bits of cool Canadian air finally reached us like a relief column late last year) are the cypress. These trees combine knobby and stately in a way the aging British monarchy might wish to emulate. The leaves are delicately lacy branchlets with serrated edges. When I took an interest in Japanese gardens and built a small karensansui space of rock leading to our door, I thought to carry the theme all through the yard. I was smitten with the idea of getting one of the Japanese maples with their own delicately divided leaves which turn multiple colors through three leafy seasons.

The only impediment is that a decent sized specimen of those Japanese maples, anything larger than Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree, cost several thousand dollars. Needless to say the closest I got to that tree was visiting the unsold one at my local garden center to admire it. What I realized when I came home is the similarity of the leaves and the bright changes of colors to the cypress tree of Louisiana. Perhaps that expensive Asian maple wasn't so much an expression of my new found affinity for the Japanese garden as it was an unconscious echo of my distant home.

The Japanese take a particular interest in the natural seasons and their cycle. Here in New Orleans we tend to measure our year by the great festivals and holidays. Perhaps that is because one needs an almanac to note the precise arrival of Fall or Spring, would need to take a theodolite to the sun and moon to actually note when the astronomical seasons pass. When I lived at the northern end of the central flyway at this time of year the sky was literally filled by flocks of geese and ducks heading south. You could turn in any direction and see them by the hundreds, and the urgent honking was audible indoors. Fall arrived like the invasion of Normandy.

To the Japanese sensibility aspects of nature and the seasons are reflections of our own inner moods and cycles, almost an opposite of the pathetic fallacy, a projection not outward but inward of falling leaves or drifting snow onto our own interior landscape. In western culture, we tend instead to project ourselves out with all of the force of manifest destiny. Yet even in a pop music setting an image of weather or the seasons can still be a metaphor as delicate as those traced with brush and ink on rice paper.

In the song "Crescent City Snow" by Orleanian Susan Cowsill her juxtaposition of the Christmas Day snow of 2004 with the Federal Flood and the terrors that followed is a mingling of nature and emotion any Samuri poet would recognize. When she sings of her Katrina and flood experience "And in the other hand we pray/That the wind and the panic and the rain/Will all turn to a/Soft and quiet, gentle peaceful snow..." the healing and peace that is invoked is that anyone who has lived in a snowy climate recognizes immediately, the white world/white noise hiss of falling snow as it hits the snowy ground, the intensely bright stillness of an early morning of glaringly fresh snow.

I encountered the song when I purchased by download the entire New Orleans Musicians Relief benefit CD ReDefine 8/29. Its a fabulous record and probably the best of all of the Katrina/Flood-related compilations I've found. Cowsill's song is arguably the best of the lot, alternating a quiet guitar and fiddle supported first verse and chorus (quoted above) with following verses cataloging what it means to be New Orleans. The songs seques into the lilt of a Jacobin marching song and transforms ends on a second line parade that together brings to mind the vision of thousands of Orleanians marching, and ultimately dancing home.

Numerous songs have been offered up as anthems for the 200,000 (the name I still keep for the returned even as we push closer to 300,000). While Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927 (and reworkings changing the lyrics to reflect a flooded city) still resonate, and the replays of the Green Day/Bono "The Saints Are Coming" still rung true at this year's opening Saints game, I don't think a single song has combined the pain of loss, the longing for home and the triumphal insistence on return as well as Cowsill's. It is the anthem we have all been waiting for. To hear it is to want to buy it.

N.B. Published an early draft full of typos. Reposting. Sorry. God I need an editor!

"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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