Thursday, November 22, 2007


As someone who toiled as a journalist in the long-ago, I am drawn to observe the holiday requirements of writing something appropriate to the day. I started at the screen long-and-hard, but found myself struggling through the post-dinner haze with nothing on my mind.I wandered over to the blog roll at right and looked for what my fellow Orleanians and others might have to say on this holiday.

I found Schroeder's own clever crib from reviews of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans:

So why do we stay and wait?

Maybe it’s like Blanchard said half-joking at his concert: He tells people elsewhere: Don’t worry, New Orleans will survive "because we hate your music and we hate your food."

In other words, we stay because this place births talents such as Pierce and Blanchard and they in turn wrap us in a warm embrace with their art, because they know it’s what we need to stay strong.

And, although we cry and fume, we stay and we wait, leaning on one another, propping one another up and hoping for something brighter as we wonder what the future will bring.

I hardly know how to add or improve upon that. To live in a place where every breath is a prayer of hope or thanksgiving for life itself even at its most difficult moments, where every step holds the promise of becoming a parade, a hip-shaking celebration driven by the music,and every meal as simple as dripping roast beef po-boy is a marvelous feast: it's hard to imagine the need for a day set aside for Thanksgiving.

For this, I am thankful.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Hail Atlantis

"I love the friends I have gathered together here on this thin raft."
--Jim Morrison
This week Anima Mundi reminds America why we are home. It it not just the grand events like Jazz Fest or Carnival that define us, it is a hundred small scenes in the commonplace--somewhere today in an enraptured gospel church or around a lively table in a restaurant, in a small gathering of friends or a street-filing festival--even with the ruins around us, the venality of our politicians, and every trouble imaginable, the people of New Orleans find the joy in the day or in the moment. We live what the French call joie de vivre in a way that is uncommon among the Anglo-Saxon settlers of the north, but which is as automatic as breath among the post-colonial people of points south.

My own experience this week was my first chance to hear slide-guitar player Sonny Landreth at the Rock-N-Bowl. He is a fantastic musician and everything my friends had promised, and the audience swayed and danced and shouted with joy. As I find myself doing more since coming home, I spent much of my time looking not at the stage but at the crowd. What struck me Saturday night was not Landreth's obvious talent or the crowd's enjoyment of it. What stuck out was the mean age of the audience. At fifty, I was comfortably in the middle. For a rockin' blues player, it seemed odd that there were few if any younger people in the audience. We looked collectively like some tragically hip successor to the audience at a Lawrence Welk show.

I wondered where the young people were, why there were no twenty somethings in the audience. I've seen them out at clubs I might visit before, but that night people under 30 (hell, under 40) were conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps there was something fantastic going on across town that I missed, some show at another club that was drawing in the crowd that overran City Park a few weeks ago for Voodoo Fest. Or perhaps our own youth are succumbing to the overwhelming force of industrialized American pop culture that spawns rap artists in Africa and dresses the world in American sports t-shirts and Reeboks, a culture that has little room for the classics of 20th century music.

Today's Times-Picayune article about Fats Domino in New York melded perfectly with my Sunday morning reverie, and set me off down a road of worry:

Domino takes a seat at the piano and counts off "Blueberry Hill." His playing and singing are tentative, as they were during rehearsal. After maybe 90 seconds, he tapers off and stands up; the band is left to puzzle through the rest of the song, and Fats appears to be done for the night... Domino returns to the piano. No longer the center of attention, he comes alive. He pumps the keys, mouths the words, hunches his shoulders, turns to his left and grins at the audience. Lloyd beams, and the band is into it. Harrison blows an alto sax solo and Fats tacks on a final flourish. It is THE MOMENT everyone hoped for.

Fats Domino is pushing 70, and barely survived the flood of the Ninth Ward. Alvin Batiste, Earl King, Willie Tee, Earl Turbinton: so many of the musicians who defined the critical musical culture of New Orleans have passed since the Federal Flood. It seems at times that the antediluvian ambiance of city is vanishing even as the it tries to right itself. Perhaps it is just my own intimations of mortality as I turn 50 and see so many of the signature figures pass on, but I can't help but feel that even as we struggle to rebuild that something essential is slipping away from us. If all of the older musicians are passing, and a show like Landreth's draws an audience what will need comfortable seats in a few more years, how much longer will it go on?

I return again and again to the theme of memory and remembrance> I wonder if I do so because I feel I am writing the last entries in the log of a lost ship, the chronicle of a lost or forgotten city. I recall the artist who went around the Ninth Ward in the months after the storm paints Coatan onto tree trunks. As the musicians fade and I think the aging crowd of Saturday night, I begin to wonder if we are perhaps among the last of our kind, the final generation or something close to it.

I find myself thinking again of the lost cities of the Maya, the magnificence of what they built and why it was all ultimately and mysteriously lost. Was it war without end, a fundamental economic imbalance between the feathered-and-masked aristocracy and the corn-grinding slaves at the bottom, or some environmentally unsustainable aspect of their culture that left those cryptic pyramids drowned in the jungle? All of those specters hang over us today in America, and in New Orleans more than any place else. What will be lost, and what will we leave behind, how will we be remembered, if ours is the first (but not likely the last) American city to sink beneath the waves or simply be abandoned as unsustainable.

The same forces that may have undone the mesoamerican cultures and threaten us today seem too monumental to turn aside. Perhaps it is all we can do to live the life we cherish in the place that makes it possible (or by equal turn to live the life made possible by the place we cherish). If we are the last of our kind, so be it. All we can do is record what we can of what and who we were, and this place where we live, even as we live out our own version of the last days of Pompeii.

As I sat on my porch in the cool of the early morning last Sunday following the train of thought that became this post, it was not Sonny Landreth's licks that played in my head. With a perfectly incongruous synchronicity the music that ran through my mind was a song every one of the middle-aged fans at Rock N Bowl would remember: Donovan's Atlantis. Even as these thoughts of loss and finality first passed through my mind, it was not with sadness but with the upbeat Sixties folk-rock sound of that song and its anthemic chorus. That is how it came to me. Let us rejoice and sing and dance. This is Where I Want to Be.

Hail, Atlantis.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Profiles in Pusillanimousity

The American Society of Civil Engineers has threated and the 17-year-old producer of a video criticizing the ASCE's investigation into the failure of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-built levees in New Orleans. By the time you click that link, the video may be gone.

The ASCE not only demanded that remove the video from its website and the YouTube online video site, but also copied the letter to the school where the producer is a senior. leader Sandy Rosenthal said the video would come down, but only because her non-profit could not sustain a prolonged legal battle to defend it. As of midday on Wednesday, the video was still on YouTube.

Apparently, the ASCE takes umbrage at the video for pointing out that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers paid ASCE close to $1 million for the study. They don't deny it. They just take umbrage. And they sort of fess up to opening an internal investigation into improprieties associated with this study.

The video supports's call for an independent, Congressional commission to look into the massive engineering failure that drowned New Orleans. It's about time. And it's about time to start a criminal investigation into the Corp's failures, and that of any accessories, as was done for the Big Dig in Boston.

In my book, ASCE Executive Director Patrick Natale [quoted in the Times-Picayune story] joins any number of the members of the corps as accessories to mass manslaughter.

Update: Suspect Device captures the video in flash on his blog. It will never go away. We will never let the world forget. Memo to the ACSE: by joining forces with the Corps to whitewash their culpability for a few hundred thousand dollars, you have fucked with the wrong people. Don't get me wrong. I don't blame the working civilian corps of the Corps. I blame its command.

I blame Congress (yes, you John Breaux and Mary Landrieu, who diverted flood protection money into the new lock for the industrial canal). And I particularly blame anyone or group that would rush in to cash in on the opportunity to help cover up what happened. Most of a million and the inside track on future contracts. Sweet.

I think its time we empaneled a grand jury and began dragging the command structure of the Corps and idiots like these in to explain while they should not spend the rest of their lives breaking rocks in the Louisiana sun

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Waiting on Godot

"Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be?"
-- Vladimir in Act II of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot
By the time we arrived almost two hours before the show was to start, all of the tickets for the Classical Theater of Harlem's outdoor production of Waiting for Godot were long gone. We decided not to wait around under the tree at Pratt and Robert E. Lee, but instead withdrew for more drinks, starting back on the porch at Chez Folse and ending at the Circle Bar for Gal Holiday.

I heard (from someone else who asked last night) that there would be no Sunday show added as there was the first weekend. So tonight instead of seeing Becket's play, I am--after a prolonged episode of absurdist, existential angst in my friend's club level seats at the Dome--reduced to watching bits of video.

I read the script through this week during a business trip. There is something essential in it to the current experience of so many in New Orleans, the discovery that we are not suffering from post traumatic stress disorder because we are not past the thing but instead in the very midst of it, in a landscape and a plot as bleak and confusing as Beckett's, on a road of dubious prospects in a landscape swept clear of familiar geography and of hope, no prospect that over a hill or beyond a wood there is something different, something better.

Nothing to be done.

And yet we came in the hundreds last Saturday night, over a thousand; turning our back on the well-lit streets of the sliver by the river, forgoing the restaurants of Magazine and the lively nightclubs of Frenchman to go to the edge of the empty zone to try, at least, to sit through this difficult work, a comedy as black as the streets were for months in this part of town, as dark as the windows remain in so many of the empty brick boxes that line the streets. We came because all of us are so like these characters, lost in a landscape from which familiar references have been erased, clinging to the one thing that keeps us all from dropping over the brink: each other. We know Godot will not save us, that the Pollos of the world care not a whit for how we fare or fail.

The carefully crafted fictions Americans erected like the pyramids were all swept away from this place by the flood, were taken from us as the Great Wars of the 20th Century destroyed the illusions of Beckett's generation. We have peered into the abyss, an abyss where many waded or swam in desperation and too many drowned, while the newsreaders stood puzzled on dry streets and the relief trucks stopped at the edge of town, waiting for word that it was safe to come, waiting for instructions from Godot. We were not ignored or abandoned by America. Instead we were force fed the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and were driven out of the garden of mass marketing, ashamed of not of our own but of America's nakedness. We have peered into that abyss and come away filled with uncertainly and angst, equally incapable of trust in god or government. What is left? What reason is there to live here, to live at all?

And still we come home, even as we came to see Godot. The ticket rules of the prior week were changed without announcement, more were turned away than admitted, a sullen confusion hung over the disappointed. I left the site of the play not confused but reminded of the life we have found here, of the fitness of this text for our stage. We left the performance, but we can no more leave this place, this city than these characters can hang themselves: not because we are incapable, but instead because it is beyond our human nature to surrender this life we call New Orleans. Perhaps Godot will come. Just as likely he will not. All we can be certain of is ourselves: Sinn Fein. In the end, however bleak the scene, we will not give up hope.
VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?

ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.

They do not move.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Help Tabasco

It's the eighth day of the disaster in Tabasco and 60,000 people
of 19 communities near the state capital of Villahermosa still need to be
rescued as they are trapped on roofs and the second stories of their
-- root coffee reporting on flooding in Tabasco

Nos recuerdos. A disaster of almost unimaginable dimension. Tens of thousands of people stranded on their roofs in the sun waiting for rescue for days on end. Even as the people of New Orleans struggle to rebuild some semblance of normality over two years after the disasterous Federal Flood of 8-29, I hope that we can step up and help. Look at the table on the Wikipedia page of donations. Way to go, America. I think New Orleans should try to raise $301,000 just to embarress the nation to our north.

From the options on Root Coffee's page, I selected Operation USA. Poking around on their web site, they seem like a solid organization and were among the first responders to Katrina and the Federal Flood. Their continuing involvement in mental health support for the hurricane coast is something all of us should be grateful for.

If you don't choose them, choose someone (but, please, don't choose the Red Cross. Take it from the hurricane coast. You might as well burn your money as an offering to your favorite diety for the well being of Tabasco as piss it away on them.)

New Orleans remembers. Je me souviens. Yo recuerdo.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

There was a crooked man

When the former governor of Minnesota famously insulted his capitol city by suggesting its streets were laid out by drunken Irishmen, he missed an important feature of that or any river city: if streets start out as perpendicular to a sinuous river your city will be a Mandelbrot maze only the natives understand.

Of course New Orleans is just such a city in its oldest quarters, away from the attempts of the former town of Carrollton or or Broad or Canal Street to provide some Jeffersonion, rectangular order. Just as the river itself bends away out of sight from any point upon its banks, so streets vanish Uptown as their neighbors crowd them out, Upperline consuming a half dozen in its run to the north. Downstream as the river's bank bends right Kerlerec and St. Roch, A.P. Tureaud Avenue and New Orleans Street emerge in mid-neighborhood when the adjoining roads spread too far apart. All through town wind places like Bayou Road, Gentilly Boulevard and Metairie Road, all following the inexorable logic of moving water, winding along the banks thrown up by flooding of ancient bayous.

We like this sense of oblique impenetrability our odd streets lends us. It is a part and parcel of our ingrained exceptionalism, our sense of superiority through uniqueness. Of course our streets should be mysterious, appearing and disappearing as so much of the landscape seems to do behind its lush screen of vegetation. Such a geography is fitting for a city when all decisions of consequence once took place behind the discrete and exclusive doors of private clubs, or perhaps the executive suite of an old-money bank should the presence of a citizen not admitted into the Boston club,--say, a Jew--might be required, a city where every tourist has peered through the bars of a carriageway gate to glimpse a hidden Vieux Carre' patio.

As part of our obsession with the oblique, we have built much of our government upon a odd collection of boards and offices that make the Lord Mayoralty of London look positive modern, outfits such as the Board of Liquidation, City Debt (through which the old money families once controlled the fiscal whims of the merely elected). We have two Sheriff's, one civil and one criminal, while the other 3040 county-level jurisdictions of the U.S. make do with one. We had at one time over a half-dozen different police forces with jurisdiction over some part of the city. We had until recently a system of seven property tax assessors, an office virtually inheritable from one's family which conspired to ensure that no one paid very much in property taxes.

While the rest of the English-speaking continent ed itself upon the Roman Republic, we seem to have taken our cues from the notoriously bureaucratic eastern empire of Byzantium, with a measure of the culture of baksheesh of our Latin neighbors to the south. It is no wonder that simple, industrious Yankees and the descendants of cow pokes--who grease the wheels of the central government in more subtle ways such as Political Action Committees--look down on us as somehow un-American. We're not. If anything we are more American (in the sense anyone south of the Rio Grande river would understand) but we're certainly un-United States-ian.

Much of this we bring on ourselves, not just through our general attitude of exceptionalism and our particular if not peculiar forms of the social contract, but through overt acts of profound stupidity. This week's case in point: garbage.

Why has garbage always been associated with corruption of the human sort (as opposed to the little critters which will appear in my trash can in warm weather should I miss a pickup)? Notably in cities where the Mafia was big the waste management business was inextricably linked with the Mob. Down here the Gulf Coast Mafia seems to have faded from its glory days, but our elected officials continue to find clever ways to smear themselves and our city with garbage.

In the case of the City Council's problem with interpreting with English Language, it is hard to separate the merely stupid from the corrupt. First the city grants a garbage collection contract to two bidders who routinely give money to the Mayor's campaign fund, at more than double what adjacent jurisdictions pay. The contract is hidden from public view by the leader of the promised transparent mayoralty until a time when the council has two choices: approve the contract, or stop garbage pickup.

Part of the mayor's largess is explained away by a requirement that the companies haul away "unlimited" bulk items including demolition and construction debris. Then, our City Council-new reformers and old hacks alike--voted unanimously last April to limit bulk waste pickup to 25 pounds or less.

Not satisfied with this bit of stupidity v. corruption theater, the world was treated to a Sanitation hearing at the city council chambers at which the meaning of the world unlimited was much in discussion. Stacey Head, who was elected in the "reform" election right after the storm, pointed out that citizens should always have expected to pay for their own demolition removal. She didn't specify if she thought that people's who demolition waste had been removed by FEMA should have to reimburse the government, but that's the logic of her defense of her April vote.

It is easy to pin the failure of our recovery on the central government's defective levees and even more defective response to the greatest American catastrophe in a century, to hold up the Road Home program and the ineptitude of the outgoing governor to manage the recovery. In the end, however, we have to look to ourselves. Many of us have figured this out a long time ago: Sinn Fien, as Ashley Morris aptly put it.

We are on our own, and by the hand of those we have elected to lead us, we are failing ourselves. It is clear that our businessman-turned-mayor is as corrupt as the rest. There is no other explanation of a garbage contract that gouges us for inferior service awarded to those who fund his campaigns. The difference between stuffing envelopes full of cash into one's pockets and upgrading your airline seat to Dallas to First Class on the campaign account credit card is a fine distinction, one I argued when I worked as a press flack in Washington but never believed.

The current garbage situation is so bizarre, that one has to ask every single member of the council who approved first the garbage contracts and then the 25 pound limit: Are you corrupt like the mayor, or merely stupid? There is no other obvious explanation, so it's time to tell us which you are.

Sometimes it is good that we can hide ourselves away, in a courtyard patio or even a craftsman porch like my own, behind our screens of vegetation on our impenetrably confusing streets, and contemplate our cultural superiority. Otherwise, we might have to face up to the reality this particular opera buffa illustrates: we seem incapable of governing ourselves. Local politics is run on the same model as the national: race and class block voting resulting in buffoons who invade Iraq or sign ridiculous garbage contracts. Anyone who questions the outcome is a racist or pro-terrorist.

Perhaps politics is pointless, that it is no longer possible to make a difference. As Beckett may have once answered Lenin: "Nothing to be done."" Perhaps it is time to take down the street signs and just vanish into the the impenetrable landscape.

"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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