Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Father, Son and Holy Ghost

As crowds flock to see Rod Stewart and Ludacris as closing shows for the first Saturday of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, there will be no gnashing of teeth or rending of garments at the faithlessness of the people over at the Jazz Tent.

The chastisement will I hope be entirely aural, an unleashing of primordial chaos delivered with an Old Testament intensity that only Pharoah Sanders can muster. In the end it will be a holy deliverance as this saxophone Bodhisattva anoints those who chose to come in the river sourced in the heart of Africa which roles through city, the holy waters of jazz.

Jazz Fest has become a big music festival that could at the kindest be called eclectic. There is something for everyone, even the people who will come to hear Z.Z. Top or an Allman Brothers Band without Dickey Betts or Duane. The Allman Brothers and Z.Z. Top both figure prominently in the sound track of my youth, from the time before I started to take an interest in more complex forms of music, before I started to pick up jazz records I heard on WTUL and stumbled across a copy of a cutout record titled Love is Everywhere after hearing something by Sanders on that station.

It was a record that transformed my life, a bright sound on the road to Damascus that changed me from another kid in the 1970s listening to the same music as everyone else into a person who could find room in their head for just about everything, a person who was ready to sample everything that New Orleans and the wider world offered. It was not only a musical awakening, but also one to a spirituality not nailed to a cross, a universal spirit that moved through the entire world and could enter at the ear and pierce the heart.

There will be enough jazz at Jazz Fest, if you chose to seek it out. There will be no on else on the schedule that approaches Pharaoh Sanders. He is of the generation that produced John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. He is a disciple of Coltrane's who played in his last ensemble, an influence from which he inherited the profoundly lyrical spirituality of much of his own music and a setting in which he tempered his own ecstatic free jazz freneticism at the source fire.

While seeing him at Jazz Fest will be a tremendous personal experience, his appearance is more than that. He is one of the giants of jazz, and in a world not ruled by corporate sponsorships he would command the largest stage, and no one else would dare to play while he did. For me it is enough that he will be there in the Jazz Tent, and for one hour the Copernican universe will be set aside and all will whirl about that spot, where the leylines of American invention and African rhythms cross.

At his wildest, there is something in Sander's music of what I imagine Sunday afternoons at Congo Square were like hundreds of years ago, and he will carry us back to the place where the first Jazz Fest was held decades ago, on the grounds where African slaves first played music of their own on this continent. At his most lyrical you can imagine a world where tongues of fire descend onto the heads of men and grace them with new voices, with the ability to make sounds previously beyond their ken. You can not only imagine this world. You can enter into it. Saturday. Five forty-five. Be there.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Law & Disorder

Can someone explain to me why a felon found in possession of the handgun used to commit a murder is now walking the streets?

In a story in today's Times-Picayune (which I can't find on the NOLA.Com interface but only on the T-P homepage), we learn this:

In February, Jordan's team gave up trying to charge Eugene Treg, 20, with the first-degree murder in 2006 of Darryl Tyrone "Dizzy" Davis, 20. Prosecutors blamed witness problems and a dearth of physical evidence.

Treg, whose criminal record is lengthy, walked out of jail once the murder rap disappeared, not without a parting shot from Jordan's office, which said the courts wrongly released their suspect on a bond he had forfeited. An arrest warrant was issued for a weapons violation, but Treg remains on the lam.

In Treg's case, the ballistics from the gun police found when he was arrested on May 31, 2006, matched the ballistics from the Davis murder.

As a reasonable citizen I want to know why in the hell they wouldn't take this to a jury. If they could not, I want to know why the hell being a felon in possession of a gun that was used in a murder isn't grounds for to be held for something.

When someone like Eugene Treg walks, something is terribly wrong. I know things are not as simple as a television show like Law-and-Order, but how could anyone not indict someone for murder or some serious crime under these circumstances?

A year ago, my mother-in-law (who was not terribly fond of our idea to move to New Orleans) cheerfully placed a copy of the Time Magazine article Gangs of New Orleans into my hands. I think she hoped I would read it and stop and say, well, I guess we can't move there.

Instead, I saw the positives in a displaced criminal population, and a new found willingness of the locals to work together under the direction of the Feds to take the window of opportunity to turn around a deteriorating criminal justice system, and the deteriorating streets that went with it.

I was not naive about the challenges they faced, any more than I was naive about all of the challenges involved in moving here. Now, even as we move forward with levee and property tax reform, with newly elected leaders in the districts with returning populations, with a general sense that progress is possible, there remain many areas we have disappointingly fallen short.

I have to say that I am more than just disappointed that the DA and Police Chief have blown this golden opportunity to turn the situation around, to create a new environment in which criminal's don't talk about a "misdemeanor murder" but about hard time and greener pastures elsewhere. Riley and Jordan have failed us so profoundly that we cannot wait for the next election

We are a failed state, living among terrorists. I want to know when we get our surge.

I don't expect one. I think the powers that be in Washington are perfectly happy to "fight them here" rather than have our own gang-bangers back in Houston or Atlanta. They can decide this because they have written off New Orleans. They have the port open and the oil and gas are flowing. What do they care if the city itself lives or dies?

With an election in front of us, keep this in mind: if you vote for the incompetent and racially-charged local government status quo or for the party of George Bush, you are one of them and not one of us. The blood will be on your hands. You might as well go out and buy up a bunch of hand-guns at your next convenient gun show, and go do to Central City and pass them out for free.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Livin' & Tryin' in 5/4 time

If you visit this blog and are not a native or committed friend of New Orleans, you must sometimes wonder why we choose to live in Debrisville, far from the comforts and superficial certainties you think of as America. To understand , you would have to join me in one of the folding sports chairs we call a "jazz fest chair" down here, hunkered down in the pouring rain beneath a purple, green and gold umbrella and snuggled into a blue plastic poncho for an afternoon of honky-tonk/rockabilly, blues and modern jazz at the French Quarter Festival.

Yes, the world is thick with jazz festivals and even Fargo, N.D. has a fairly decent Blues Fest. A few years ago I got a CD autographed by the east coast musician my wife went to see when I met her almost exactly 10 years earlier. (I had gone to see the Neville Bros on the same bill) I still treasure the year I saw Jorma Kaukoken at a festival in the tiny town of New York Mills, MN in a baseball infield with perhaps 150 other souls. In most places, these events are just another listing in the Friday newspaper, another in the endless list of choices of how a wealthy nation might entertain itself.

Living smack dab in the middle of the largest disaster area the United States has ever seen, an event like French Quarter festival is more than just an option sandwiched between a trip to Target in the morning and one to Blockbuster for a Saturday night's entertainment. It is a defining and participatory event closer to the civic religions of pre-Christian Mediterranean societies than anything in America, peopled by larger-than-life figures who represent Who We Are. Failure to propitiate them, we remind ourselves, might upset the balance of our cosmos.

Worse, spurning them might be one more reason for our pantheon to consider retreating from the challenges of life here to Austin or Nashville. It is more important now than ever that we come, even in a pouring rain threatening worse (as tornadoes and hail tear through Mississippi to the north). We would no more stay home from French Quarter Fest due to rain than a prominent Roman citizen would miss an important ceremony of Jupiter, or would a modern politician spend the Fourth of July watching baseball on cable TV in his boxers.

Sure, there are many among us who might only make a Mardi Gras parade or two, and only drift through an event like FQF if they have company in from out of town, but our major religions are filled with people who overflow the churches and temples only on the high holidays but never otherwise darken the door. I think that on balance we are a devout group, committed to the calendar of days that block out our cultural piety, a calendar that shares the colors of purple, green and gold with that of the ecclesiastical calendar of the Catholic Church, a cyclic series of observances as rigorous as Leviticus.

Like the faithful everywhere our faith in the vision of what it means to be an Orleanian colors our every step through life. We measure our days by the how long until Carnival, our seasons by the appropriate festival. Outside of hurricane season, we remember the weather not as the twister or blizzard of this or that year, but by that rainy Jazz Fest or that frigid Mardi Gras. Our favorite topic of conversation in a restaurant eating a fine New Orleans meal are meals past, and where we might eat next.

It is not a life that outsiders easily comprehend. They have been carefully trained to judge their their lives in other ways, to measure the pleasure of their life in the length of cash register receipts. America's biggest festivals have become adjuncts to shopping and the success of a Christmas is measured in the amount of extra litter we place out on the curb on St. Stephen's Day. Here we measure our success in the cubic yards of beer-scented go-cups and roux-stained paper plates--measures not of things but of what we have done together.

Its an odd life by American standards, and one that in fact requires more effort than many outsiders would realize. They think us indolent and childish in our devotion to the cult of Crescent City, but they must recognize that either the laundry will be done Thursday, or haunt us the rest of next week on a festival weekend. With the exception of Mardi Gras, the world does not stop. We choose to make time for all this because life without it is unimaginable. I know because I tried for almost nineteen years, and every Mardi Gras Day or Jazz Fest weekend I was away, I wondered if this is what it might be like to be a Christian spending Christmas Day in a country uncaring or even hostile to your religion, because that is what I was: a stranger in a strange land.

That is why we come home in spite of every contra-indication, of every challenge that confronts us here in daily life. Every road of approach to the festival is strewn with reminders that we live amid the rubble of disaster. Despite the distractions little and large, we will make our way through the traffic and join the pilgrimage, be joyous or relaxed as the moment dictates not in spite of it all, but because of it all. We have all come home to New Orleans and all its troubles so that something precious and sacred, the way of life represented by carnival and street parades, by the music and the food, shall not perish from the earth lest we should perish with it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The 200,000

New Orleans recovery czar Ed Blakely appears to have been selected based on a close personal affinity for our mayor: he opens his mouth, and stupid just rains out of it like coins from a slot machine.

Hot on the heels of an interview of an interview in his adopted home of Australia in which he appears to have just made up some population figures to suit his current train of thought, he has surpassed the merely Naginesque.

In this one quote in an interview with the New York Times he displays either an ignorance that should disqualify him from his post, or an arrogance that should anger us all to the point that leaving town in the dark of night should appear to be a wise career move, tar-and-feathers-wise.

New Orleans "won't be the same "when the dust settles, he asserted calmly,
suggesting that a new population with more "energy" may replace the old.
There are some things I will forgive the outsider, in the same way I might over look a joke that would not pass muster with H.R. from someone of a certain age; certain misunderstandings of the city I would simply let slide simply because outsiders can't be expected to understand, at least not at first.

Insulting the 200,000 is not one of those things.

The 200,000 are the people who picked themselves up after 8-29, came home and started rebuilding. They did not wait for the due proceeds of their insurance, and they remain in spite of the fact that many have still not received those proceeds.

The 200,000 did not wait for the government to conjure up federal money to cobble together a Road Home program. They emptied their bank accounts and ran up their credit cards and came home. Every day they went to their day jobs and came home at night and did another day's hard labor of first mucking and gutting then re-building.

The 200,000 did not all have savings accounts or credit cards. Still, many came anyway and slept in their cars or in tents in their yards, and went back to minimum wage jobs if it meant they could come home and begin to rebuild their houses as best they could.

The 200,000 are without exception the greatest generation of Americans that has ever lived. If you wish to dispute that, please don't bother with the comment button below, but stop by my house after work and try. Come ready for a fight.

For the 200,000, there were no propaganda campaigns or peer pressure to enlist in this battle. No flags were waved and no parades were held in their honor. No one would call them yellow if they did not come. No medals were promised, and no lifetime care for the wounds--physical and psychological--they received. There are no cemeteries that honor the dead of the flood, or those who did not survive the return. Their country did not call them; it scattered them to the four winds. And still they came.

The 200,000 did not come for a land rush or to make their fortune in gold, or for a better life in a factory in the north or west. No one promised them a bonanza farm or any of the land-agent trickery that brought our ancestors here to this place. They did not come for a tax incentive, or the chance to get rich quick off the misfortune of others. They came with the clear knowledge that theirs would be a life harder than any they knew before, and with no other path to making it better than their own effort. And still they came.

I don't count myself among that number. I lost nothing in the storm, had no home to muck out, no insurance company dragon to slay. I came for similar reasons--because this is my home, the only home I've found worth living in--but I am not one of them. If you want heroes, try my wife and children. This is not their long lost home, but mine. They followed me here like the family of every tom fool who came home one night with a Conestoga wagon, leaving the home they knew behind.

All around us, Mr Blakely, are heroes. Simply to stand in line at Lowes or the Sewage & Water Board with these people is an honor and a privilege, Mr. Blakely, akin to watching the veterans of old wars parade past you. This is something you and I should never forget.

If you don't understand that, if you don't understand why we expect an abject apology, then leave now. Your help, if we can call it that, is not welcome. You are just another damned carpetbagger here to make your fortune off the misfortune of this place and these people, the 200,000. You dishonor them simply by being here, much less running your mouth off in the service of the Buffoon-in-Chief who hired you. Take a good hard look in the mirror and recognized the buffoon looking back at you. And then leave.


Sunday, April 08, 2007

The post-Katrina refrigerator list

In lieu of the Katrina refrigerator, I offer the 2007 post-Katrina Refrigerator To-Do List:

Now, working through that list isn't the same as mucking through several months of Maggoty Goodness in a refrigerator full of food abandoned during the evacuation in August, 2005. It is never the less a daunting prospect. Let me ask you, Mr. and Mrs. America: where would you begin on that list?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Putting patriotism to the torch this Fourth

As I troll through the long, dismal piece in a past Times-Picayune on the state of our sewerage and water system, I hear again the ugly refrain: "the Stafford Act does not allow...under the Stafford Act FEMA cannot....the Stafford Act generally requires..."

The Stafford Act for those of you who have not lived for a year or more in a disaster area is the Federal's law that governs how the central government doles out emergency assistance in the case of a Presidential emergency declaration. It places close limits on how money may be spent in disaster recovery, and empowers legions of unambitious accountants in the government's employ to pick over every bill before it is paid, and even to deny payment for work previously authorized, leaving local government in the lurch.

If the logic of the Stafford Act were applied to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, every National Guardsman would be required to demonstrate that every gallon of fuel consumed and every round fired was directed at a card carrying member of al-Queda, or else the state from which he was called might be required to pay the cost. Very little shooting would occur, however, as the accountants would need to vet every operation in advance to determine if it in fact was part of the war on terror, and would reserve the right to change their nasty little bean-counter minds after the fact.

People like to think that New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It was not. The storm struck the city only a glancing blow, and I will remind you how the mildly disappointed crews from the Weather Channel stood in the foyers of their downtown hotels and put the best possible face on it: the city had dodged the bullet. What happened to the city was the failure of the federally engineered and built levee system, through clearly demonstrated negligence of both the engineers and their political masters.

For this, we feel entitled (as we would be if the levees were a private concern) to fair compensation for our losses. Flood control, alas, is not a private concern but one of the federal government ever since the middle 20th Century. And our government (like those everywhere) cloaks itself in "sovereign immunity" against any lawsuit, and for good measure tosses in our own unique separation of powers. In the end we turned hat in hand, like petitioners before a throne, and like every farmer who loses a cow to a snowstorm, to the federal government and to FEMA for help. It seemed reasonable, since our loss (unlike that of the tornado blasted Kansan or the blizzard-buried North Dakotan) was not a caprice of nature, but a failure of the government.

That is what might ultimately destroy this great city: the flinty hearts of bureaucratic Federal accountants. Their's is the miserliness of the fellow who demands an exact accounting of the shared bill at lunch down to the last pat of butter. It is the driving principal of the Stafford Act, the product of a stony Vermonter who wanted to bring order to therough-and-tumble way Congress sought to shower their constituents with disaster aid at every sight of a funnel cloud or every instance of a snowbound cow not getting its feed.

We are bleeding to death from a thousand paper cuts inflicted by the Byzantine origami beast of the federal bureaucracy, as carefully folded by the hands of Robert T. Stafford.

Most Americans will never recognize this, unless some great disaster should befall them. I think we have a civic obligation to help them understand this. I also think we should do this in the way that is guaranteed to attract the greatest amount of attention: by throwing a big party.

In England, there is a long-standing civic celebration called Guy Fawkes Night. Briefly, Mr. Fawkes and some co-conspirators attempted to decapitate the ruling regime by blowing up the House of Lords during its opening ceremony. This early terrorist was caught in the act of putting the torch to the fuse, tortured until he confessed, and executed along with his fellow travelers.

The date of the plot and its failure are celebrated to this date in boisterous celebrations by bonfires and fireworks. There is eating and I am fairly certain there is some drinking, based on what we know of pub and football (that's soccer to youse guys) culture.

The main part of the celebration is the humiliation of straw figures of Guy Fawkes, which were paraded through the streets by small boys and humiliated. There were poems and songs and in the old days young boys would often shake people down for "a penny for the Guy". Mr. Fawkes is then tossed on the bonfire with much hooting and shooting off of fireworks.

So far, we have a parade, eating and drinking, and a bonfire with fireworks. That's starting to sound like something we understand how to do.

I think it's time we embraced our new relationship with the central government, and gave that relationship a real New Orleans twist. I think we need our own Guy Fawkes celebration, and I propose that we center this one on the people who are out to destroy us. Now, burning President Bush might not sit well with some people. I don't want to offend any of the people who've actuallly come to help. So I suggest that we make the center of our festival Mr. Stafford. I would not, however, find any objection to the odd effigy of the Micheals Brown and Chertoff or penny-pincher-in-chief Donald Powell.

We'll need a date for this bonfire, something symbolic of our increasingly edgy relationship with the central government. We need a day charged with political significance and one in which people are off work so we can hope for a good turnout.

I suggest the Fourth of July. Personally, I don't find much to celebrate based on my personal experience of what the United States has become. Should we celebrate the incompetence that flooded the city and then stood by and watched? The miserliness of the compensation we were offered, or the continuing federal sabotage of efforts to rebuild? I am grateful to the American people who continue to come to help us. The depth of ill-will I have for the central government I increasingly regard as a hostile foreign capital can scarcely be expressed, except in terms that would likely bring a visit from homeland security.

I say this Fouth of July we forget the patriotic clap trap, which has just become a tawdry front for something that in no way resembles the governments of Washington or Jefferson or Lincoln, and put Mr. Stafford and the rest to the torch.

"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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