Sunday, August 05, 2007

In the Zone

Today I walked past the Fairmont Hotel on University Place and the back door was ajar. I stopped and leaned over the police barricades that still block the entrance and peered over the once red carpet on the steps--now a burnt umber--down the long lobby hallway into the dark. There was enough light to admire the first ornate arch in the long procession that divides the lobby, and I was fascinated at the lizardish dragon rampant on the gold colored span. The hallway was strung with a chain of work lamps that together with the receding arches gave the impression of looking into a mine works. It was difficult to see much past that first arch in the dim tunnel. A distant chandelier that still hangs between the arches winked faintly with refracted light.

I can't tell you the last time or reason I had to walk down the hallway of the hotel we all know as the Roosevelt, but I do have an almost visceral memory, like the recollection we have of dreams, of walking down through that lobby, stopping in at Bailey's on the Baronne Street side for a cocktail after whatever event it was that drew me there. Still, I can't remember the occasion. That glimpse into the past of Sazerac and the Blue Room (a venue I peered into once but never visited for a concert) sent me rummaging in long forgotten corridors of my own mind, dimly lit and little visited themselves, trying to recall the reason for my last visit without success.

In New Orleans we tend to live in our cherished past a lot of the time. For us history is not a marker on the side of the road, one notable building or a small district full of quaint shops to which we take visitors. Our past stands all around us, bears down on us like the towers of Manhattan on a first time visitor. It reaches up like a hand from the grave and tries to trip our ever step forward, the smoky ghosts of slavery blinding us and the afterbirth of the civil rights movement twisting every turn of public policy in ways we can not seem to stop. It is not just the the momentous events of the past we must contend with, but a thousand small things from the past that inform the way we live in the present moment the way water cups a swimming fish or the breezes lift a coasting bird. Our past may be monumental in spots and burdensome at some moments, but it is also as ever present as the humidity, a very part of who we are and how we live.

In spite of that awful moniker Big Easy, New Orleans has never been an easy place to live. Just ask my wife, who traded the Nordic efficiency of the upper Midwest for a turn in the south, a place where mañana and baksheesh are not just scores in Scrabble but instead the way we govern the machinery of our life. I won't rehearse the entire litany of woe involved in rebuilding a city from scratch. Suffice it to say that every few steps forward, as we watch the ground carefully for roofing nails or bits of nail-studded plaster lath, we walk forehead first into something hard.

In spite of the weight of history and the difficulty of the moment, I am not living in the past. Increasingly, I am living in a Richard Alpert Right Now, a locus in time informed by the landscape around me and my sense of its age, its rightness for the place, the uneven and green-occluded site lines of a city settling into the earth as perfectly as a Mayan ruin rising out of the jungle. The monumentality of the city informs the moment as you perceive it, but to truly live here is to walk through a series of present moments like cells in a film, the action is in front of you or inside of you and the great pillared oaks and moss-draped homes are just backdrop.

I think it is in part that very difficulty, as well as something in the climate, that leads me to find myself increasingly living in a present moment. More worrying is the feeling that here where it's After the End of the World, I am becoming like Thomas Pynchon's anti-hero Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity's Rainbow: inexplicably entangled with the ugly juggernaut of history as it unfolded in World War II until he disconnected from it altogether, withdrawing into himself, his "temporal bandwidth" approaching zero.

There is also the story about Tyrone Slothrop, who was sent into the Zone to be present at his own assembly perhaps, heavily paranoid voices have whispered, his time's assembly and there ought to be a punch line to it, but there isn't. The plan went wrong. He is being broken down instead, and scattered. His cards have been laid down... laid out and read, but they are the cards of a tanker and feeb: they point only to a long and scuffling future, to mediocrity not only in his life but also, heh, heh, in his chroniclers too..." (737-38)
In New Orleans our way of life is as old as the oaks that brush the ground in the park near my house but for me it as timelessly in the present as a squirrel frozen on a branch of one of those oaks. It's neither as Zen as it sounds or as dark as Slothrop's fate, but after 20 years abroad in America Norte I find I am slipping into the easy, my horizon constrained by the familiar dinner litany what am I eating today, what last meal does it remind me of, and where do we want to eat next week.

Part of it is the need to focus on the task at hand. To me, it is the renovation of my bathroom to repair a leak and re-tile. It's not a small project. We had the room gutted to the studs, pulling out the archaeological layers of sheet rock and plaster from 50 years of construction and repair. The project is the recent history of the city in microcosm, and because of all of the demands of work and family, it is all of the reconstruction I am able to handle for the moment. The city will largely have to get on without me.

At work I am a project manager for large software efforts, and the tracks of several of them are converging at critical points this month. In my last job, where I had been long enough to have a core of good friends I worked with, I used to approach these moments by sending out an email with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "Don't Panic" logo, and an MP3 I had of "It's The End Of The World As We Know It". I'm not sure the guys at the new bank are quite ready for that.

Its important in these large endeavors not to lose cool in the moments of high drama, or to let the endless procession of problems grind you into the ground. Some days I feel like the number two on a ship attacked by Zeros in some World War Two movie. It's important I keep everyone focused on the task in front of them, in spite of the explosions and the strafing fire, if we're all going to get through this. Don't think about the sky full of planes trying to kill you. Focus on the one that actually has you in its sites, point the machine gun, and shoot back.

The reconstruction of the city around me will last at least as long as WWII. There will be long periods of boredom and routine punctuated by times of great excitement, much of that of the unpleasant kind. Yes, we will have shore leave for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest but most of our time will be spent scrapping rust and paint knowing all the while that just over the ocean's horizon there is something threatening.

In this peculiar armada the officers are as useless as the French nobility. They look fine high up there in their crosswise hats and give marvelous speeches, but we know from hard experience that they are worthless. People mutter all around the city about mutiny of one form or another, but mutiny is a lot of damn work and it is awfully hot. I like to think we could yet rise up and have our storming of the Bastille moment but every passing day it seems more unlikely. No Fletcher Christian or Maximilien Robespierre has stepped forward to lead us, and every angry mob needs a leader.

Perhaps I ask for too much. If history and the city consumes us all one-by-one but the city lives on, that perhaps what was always intended, why were were all lured home. In the end, perhaps Pynchon has given us the model to surviving It's After the End of the World. If history has gone too wrong for any one of us to stop what is happening around us, maybe it is better to amble down a shady street in New Orleans without a particular thought in my head except the distant sound of what might be Slothrop's harmonica, to disappear into the random noise in the signal.

I just wish that there was a place one could go to enjoy delicious writing about the essence of New Orleans, for free.

Seriously, it will take me a long time and several readings to figure out my favorite sentence from this piece. And that's a wonderful little task to have.

Thanks, again, for sharing your thoughts with us, Mark. It's an honor to press onwards and backwards with you, in this city.
I'll have to read your post again. It's just too good to digest in one reading. Your writing brings the sprit of New Orleans into my room. Kudos to you.
How are we going to be free from the past?
I keep coming back to the same question, Micky: how do we break the bonds from the past that are detrimental? I don't want to escape the past. I relish the ambience here, the clear sense that I can look around and know that my family has been here for nearly 300 years. Still, I'm practical. There are huge debates raging on my neighborhood mailing list about demolitions and what will replace them, divided into save everything old camps and the we must be sensible, build anything reasonable. I fall in the middle somewhere, mainly concerned that we don't fill the 'hood with building that will be our future blight. Mostly I am concerned about the more recent past, particularly the vitriolic racial divide. That is what we need to conquer.
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