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.

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"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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