Tuesday, September 06, 2005


A Song about New Orleans

Okay. Deep Breath, because if I don't think--and speak--about this dispassionately, I'm very likely to lapse into complete incoherence--a short enough step from where I stand now, I know, but bear with me.

I want to address one thing immediately, so the focus can land where I feel it needs to. This is a blurb taken directly from the Department of Homeland Security's website, and really should stand as the final word regarding where the buck needs to stop:

"In the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other large-scale emergency, the Department of Homeland Security will assume primary responsibility on March 1st for ensuring that emergency response professionals are prepared for any situation. This will entail providing a coordinated, comprehensive federal response to any large-scale crisis and mounting a swift and effective recovery effort."

I am quite aware of the logistic difficulties of a rescue operation on the scale of that undertaken in response to Hurricane Katrina, and I do not imagine for one instant that the mere presence of a public figure who functions, primarily, as a figurehead for what is supposed to be a system of self-governance is going to magically solve anything. My expectations are not unreasonable. I understand that we face great difficulties in the present day environment, and that sometimes, that environment delivers a blow that we, as mere humans, simply cannot cope with. Hurricane Katrina was such a blow, and all other arguments aside, even had we had full resources to address the crisis in the most effective manner possible, there would have been a significant loss of lives. I would simply like to advance a quiet, and hopefully rational argument that we could have dealt with it much more effectively, and can in the future, but that we must change our direction, as a people, and radically, if we are to do so.

Having said that, I now issue a warning to any Bush apologists--those blog warriors who are scrambling to fix the blame for the toll of lives we are witnessing on the actions of Anybody But Bush: The Department of Homeland Security has assumed primary responsibility for any such event. It failed us. There is nothing left to see here. Move along.

I'll try to get back to Homeland Security in a bit, but first, I need to disclose something. I am not an impartial observer. I have at least two friends that I know to have been living in the area, and whom I have as yet not heard from. One is the poet that graciously agreed to be the interview subject for Triplopia's premiere issue--way back when. Lord Fox, if you're reading this, let us know you're okay. The second was a good friend from high school days, a fellow I spent time with on the debate team back in my hometown, and who later in life, when faced with some pretty disheartening developments at home, wrote to me to ask if I could offer him a way out. I was poor at the time, working a 30 hour work week at one of the many tourist shops in the French Quarter, for minimum wage, and living in an attic studio near the corner of St. Peter and Royal, and I, along with my wife (my girlfriend, at that time) scraped together enough money to mail him a one-way ticket on Greyhound to come live with us. If Katrina had hit 2 days after I sent that ticket, I would have had to rely upon my family for evacuation money, and truth be told, I'm not one hundred percent certain I would have asked for it. Call it pride, remind me that this was Lucifer's sin, do what you will, but those are the facts. The last time I talked to Corey, it was over Yahoo instant message, having happened upon each other as a result of this blog. He was working as an artist in the area, primarily constructing papier mache sculpture, presumably for floats. I don't think he was in the metro area, but that says nothing at all for his safety. This is the man in whose company I spent my
first--and only--Mardi Gras. Corey, if you're reading this, drop a line.

As can probably be surmised from the above, my feelings for the city factor somewhat into my assessment of recent news. It doesn't particularly help that I'm a stranger in a strange land, with nobody in the area I can talk to about this. Between those two things, I harbor no pretense toward objectivity on this matter. Be that as it may, I'd like to think that the feelings I do have might be of some value--or at least interest--to others. I'm gonna get to politics in a bit, but I'd like to talk about the city, first.

New Orleans was my first real venture into adulthood. It was the last place I was intellectually able to harbor utopian ideals in any meaningful way. In 1990, after having spent about 3 years too long in my hometown, mostly in the company of a childhood friend who was spending the last of his teenage years trying to rebuild a '69 GTO Judge from pretty much the ground up, I gave up the ghost, bought a one way ticket on a Greyhound to New Orleans, and, with about 500 dollars in my pocket, "set forth to seek my fortune." Or destiny. I dunno. The venture into the GTO had been an emotional hell-ride, with me having my sights set on turning myself into some sort of icon along the lines of Kerouac (my buddy was supposed to be Dean), and watching, over the course of about 3 years as my friend gradually succumbed to the local culture of speed and rednecks, so that I pretty much entered the city with one of those grounding illusions we all suffer from, when we're young, falling from my eyes like scales. I was also alone when I first arrived--the last time, really, that I have been truly alone in a city until the present. It was my first major city, and I can remember arriving there with a pretty fair amount of clarity: the fellow who got me high behind a gas station on the way there, the richness of the deep south accent so impenetrable, at times, as to render it incomprehensible to me as I watched people reunite on stops on the way to the city. I remember that I was reading "Big Sur" on the bus ride in, that I felt an odd sense of vertigo as I watched the highway--which threaded a line through wetland on either side of it--rolling along beneath us, and that my first thought, upon seeing the city--on the evening of Good Friday--rise up on the horizon, at night, was "New Orleans is burning!" This thought with an odd sense of joy, but not so odd. My younger self was the kind of person who had been known, in my hometown, as being eccentric, at best, though given my hometown, perhaps "queer" would have been the term used. I'd been known to enter rooms, after having read some headline detailing the latest urban disaster, and announce, in less than reverent tones, "There's a riot going on!" I'm not proud of that, but it is who I was. I still wore a jacket with an anarchy symbol hand-penned on the back of it, so perhaps my first reaction wasn't all that unpredictable. To be honest, New Orleans was the last period of my life when I could honestly call myself apolitical, paradoxically enough, because everything about me seemed to exude politics, but it was all about raising hell, and I couldn't have cared less about who was where and why in politics.

Nevertheless, those first couple of weeks found me confronting some of the cold facts of fending for one's self. After managing to land an apartment about 20 city blocks north of the French Quarter, I promptly set to business, which, in my case, meant hunkering down in my apartment for hours on end wondering what the hell I was going to do next. On occasion, I would step out to the grocery store to get something to eat. I remember one evening having a dinner of vienna sausages from a can and a huge tub of cottage cheese. My culinary skills--and taste--have improved, somewhat, since. Somehow, in the course of this week, I managed to find a key to my neighbor's apartment, and on one occasion snooped through it in his absence--though, as is very typical of me, being very curious about opportunities for criminality, but never really acting upon them, I took nothing. I spent about a week in this state of paralysis before the reality of my situation started to really sink in. The apartment was $335 per month, and that's about all I had left after having tended to "little things around the house," and if I didn't get something going in very short order, I was going to find myself out on the streets of an unfamiliar city, which probably would not improve my prospects for employment one bit. I wasn't particularly afraid of this. I was, after all, a Kerouac fan, and it was all about beatitude. But I did have some foundational, and largely puritan, reservations about just letting things get to that state. It seemed better if I actively encouraged them along. So, dressed up in my best (at that point a sparklingly new white T-shirt and some well maintained jeans), I set out to see if I couldn't find any luck looking over the Help Wanted signs I'd seen when I ventured out from my first base, a weekend stay in the Lee Circle YMCA, which is fairly close to the French Quarter.

The Quarter's where I went first, whether to find work or something else I don't think much mattered, though my natural tendency seemed to be to organize my foray around looking for work. By this time, I was already scrimping on food, and it was starting to have an effect on my energy level. The only place I looked for work was on the ground level, applying anywhere where there was a Help Wanted sign. Within 3 days I'd been hired at one of the many chains of tourist shops that plague the Quarter, and placed under the management of one Ann, an Italian butch lesbian who chain-smoked Winstons and whose primary romantic engagement was a stormy relationship with one Barbara, one that seemed to be typified as much by their epic battles as it did by their many reunions. Something about me Ann liked--don't know exactly what, to this day, because she didn't have a whole lot of patience for my radical costumes when off duty, and seemed to be liberal only in terms of what a person should be allowed to do to their body. I spent the first Gulf War in New Orleans, protested across from Jackson Square, and well remember the arguments Ann and I had about it, arguments that finally ended, for good, when she slapped a "Sack Iraq" sticker up on the door of the store she managed, putting me in a position in which I had to abandon my favorite spot for standing on the street between customers, or be seen with the sticker at the same level as my head. Political disagreements notwithstanding, Ann also secured me an apartment within the quarter--a sizeable enough attic studio immediately above her own. If I had been more enterprising, I'm sure I would have seen the potential for abuse in this situation and begged off. But I wanted to live in the Quarter, whatever the price, and really didn't imagine staying there for any significant length of time. I figured a better job would be in the works, at the very least, and took the apartment. It was less than half a city block from the corner of Royal and St. Peter, in the heart of the Quarter, and I could access the roof of the building from my apartment. If I climbed out the back window, I looked directly on St. Louis Cathedral, which was about a block from my home.

I was lucky. Ann and I never had problems as neighbors, and on a couple of occasions, I even got to play babysitter to her after one of her tiffs with Barbara. On one such occasion, I stayed with her late into the night, drinking and listening to the story of her first love--and the first time that she really accepted her being lesbian--finally helping her into bed and making my own quiet way upstairs, to my own home. When Ann got excited, she used the phrase "You hear me what I'm sayin?" like other people use punctuation. Where the situation did get a little sticky was that of employer and employee, because every time I started to feel like I'd had enough of the gig, I would have to come to terms with the fact that Ann would react to any suggestion that I might quit in pretty much the same way a family member will react to an announcement of one's intent to depart suddenly--as a personal abandonment. This is in fact what would happen--and twice did happen, once when I quit, but was coaxed back, after ill-founded accusations of theft, and once when I finally left New Orleans. I worked evenings, and the rest of my time was spent either writing (an electric typewriter, in those days, and often to the accompaniment of either the Saints game or Rush Limbaugh on a tiny, crap radio I'd picked out of someone's garbage) or roaming the Quarter in search of things that I might want to write about. And the Quarter was a feast in those terms. Street characters: The bead lady, who wandered around wrapped in plastic tarps, bead lady smell coming off of her for about a block in advance, asking people if they wanted to buy a lucky bead; the many magicians that Corey and I would later watch together, until we finally learned the secrets to their tricks through observations; the Baal guy, who would occasionally surface with the most twisted xeroxed rants I have ever read in my life--rambling descriptions of secret rituals in which pagan women would rip the fetuses out of their wombs, cook them in microwaves, and masturbate as the corpses were nuked, and other equally weird psychosexual stuff--later, I would see him talking, apparently sane, to the proprietor of The Olive Tree, a used book store on the quieter side of Royal; the many jugglers. I learned to juggle in this city, during the dull hours spent overseeing a store full of t-shirts reading "Who Farted" and "Bury the Bone" and "This is Your Brain in New Orleans," all of which the tourists seemed to think wildly original. The motorcycle lady--a gorgeous woman who rode through the Quarter wearing a spatter-painted army helmet, and who was rumored to be the lover of one of the more well-known painters in the area. One night, while walking along Royal after dark, I saw her--or rather, I saw what appeared to be her motorbike, zooming riderless down the street. As it went by me, I realized she was on it, only she was laying down, head pointed toward the rear of the bike, and as she passed, she executed this incredibly sexy back-arc into sitting position. The next time I saw her on the bike, I stopped dead on the sidewalk and shouted "I love you!" She looked back, which was thrill enough for me.

Incredible happenings in this place, imagination food in every direction. And I wanted to share it with everyone. I would spend hours at Kaldi's, a coffee shop on Decatur Street, getting blitzed on caffeine as I sat by the window, watching people come and go from the nearby French Market, smoking cigarette after cigarette, writing absurdly long letters to friends about what was happening to me, what I thought the world was coming to, and, in my own weird lefty way, rubbing my metaphysical palps at the prospect of the coming apocalypse. I was god because we were all god, all feeding into the same consciousness, and there was no wrong we could do, because it all contributed to that consciousness' knowledge. And I had no qualms about saying it in exactly that way.

Acting, well, I was timid, and knew I was there mostly to watch. I was timid in the way only an Okie boy, baptized Mormon, having watched his best friend go the route of serious intoxicants and with one failed enterprise already under his belt could be timid. I partook, on occasion, but never married myself to the place. Later, friends came--Kari, now my wife and mother of my daughter, and Corey, who took up residence in an attic loft in our apartment until he finally departed on a cross-country journey in a Volkswagen bus. Played host to members of the Rainbow Family in my apartment--one memorable night housing 8 of them on my floor and receiving two quartz crystals in thanks, and another memorable night when 3 showed up, with 4 dogs in tow, and taught me the most valuable rule of drug transactions: never buy acid from any group of hippies that has more dogs than people in it. Mike McCorkle, who worked with my wife at a frame shop, and whose army jacket I wore for 8 years after I departed in the cold Chicago and Alaska winters, the jacket abandoned, finally, when I left for Australia--in whose apartment (which had no doorbell--we had to convince the security guard at a parking garage around the corner to let us in long enough to yell up at the single window of his apartment) I spent cold, rainy winter afternoons hunched down discussing Hesse and Dostoyevsky and Dylan and listening to I'm Henry the Eighth, I am" by Herman's Hermits. And one wild night, when the rain, having clung to us in the form of humidity all day long finally let loose (there is simply nothing like a New Orleans rainstorm after one of those hot, sticky days when you don't even have to move to be covered in sweat) out on Jackson Square after dark, listening to a couple of the regulars play "You Look Wonderful Tonight" for the ten thousandth time, sheltered under the balconies with all the street performers passing wine and talking, and Corey standing directly under a drainpipe with a full torrent of water pouring over his head, me teasing him by saying "He don't even know enough to come in out of the rain," and him shooting right back "What? It's only rain!" Or the night Mike, Corey and I went out to read poetry with Kari, and Mike's girlfriend Meg, coming along to listen. I received the best advice I have yet received in performance poetry that night, when I went one long poem too long, only to have one of the audience members shout "The mind can only comprehend what the butt can endure." I don't even know what that person looks like, but I owe them a significant debt. I didn't know it at the time, though, and, convinced that I was tragically misunderstood, I got trashed with the boys on Southern Comfort, and, further egged on by their quest for a pinball machine, ended the night walking home and shouting "They don't understand passion!" at the balconies, Kari right there at my elbow saying, "Yes, yes, we know. And you do. Now let's get home and go to bed."

Too much, far too much, to even begin to communicate in a single blog entry.

When we left, I knew, for myself, that the reason I was leaving was because it would be far too easy for me to get wrapped up in this one local scene, to come to understand the world in only these terms, to stay in the same job, which provided enough, though nothing more, to grow complacent. And I didn't want this. It was the reason I'd left my hometown. But it was heartbreaking, and I knew that even if I ever did manage to come back, I wouldn't come back to the same place. For years, when people ask me about New Orleans, I've been in the habit of telling them that, for me, it was more a time than a place. One last stab at staying up on Sugar Mountain before I put my own queer shoulder to the wheel in whatever way the world demanded of me. We put the best face we could on it, though as with all departures, the reality was very different from what we'd dreamed. We'd long dreamed that we would travel next to Chicago, and my wife and I did do that, but there were others who had, at some point, spoken of coming along. They grew up, just like we did. One of those people, Eric, a friend from High School who'd taken up residence in Austin and was on the university poetry track long before I managed to settle down at all, we called late--very late--on his birthday, from a payphone. I well remember his patient silence, like a harbinger of our own, more responsible selves to come, as he endured our exhortations to join us: "You have to come! We're gonna destroy Chicago!"

New Orleans was the last city where I felt it in myself to shout such words on a
public street. That's probably mostly for the best, but it doesn't keep me from treasuring that time when I felt I could. On my last day of work, Ann, as has
every person I have had to say goodbye to since, wished me the very best. I send those wishes back to her, and her family, all of whom were locals, now.

If you never made it, you missed something. New Orleans was America's most unique city, practically a nation of its own, and for all its very real flaws, it was a treasure worth guarding. I'm not sure it could have been guarded any better, and where I feel anger (and I do), where I feel the need to place blame (and I do...), it has nothing to do with the natural disaster that hit this city, no matter what human activity did or did not do to exacerbate it. We all knew, in our minds, and in our souls, that New Orleans would one day flood. We knew it in our poetry: Zeppelin singing "When the Levee Breaks," the Tragically Hip with "New Orleans is Sinking," and the deep tradition of the blues from which both songs learned their every chop, we knew. We knew in our science, knew for decades that this would happen. And while I would dearly love to see New Orleans rise again, I will not be deluding myself about that prospect: if it happens, it's gonna be a long time happening, and there's no guarantee, at all, that it will be the same place once it is rebuilt.

What troubles me (and I'll keep this part short, though it could easily be quite long) is the official line that states, without blinking, that nobody could have
forseen this. They could have, and they did. And while I truly do mourn the city, I mourn more those who died unnecessarily as a result of a truly criminal negligence by an administration for whom the descriptive term "willfully ignorant" is a woeful understatement. When it comes to your own comfort, God's a perogative you have every right to exercise, but when it comes to guarding human lives, you do not rely on God. You plan ahead, and you don't intentionally court disaster. Or, as the good Dr. Gonzo once put it, in better words than I can hope to, "Call on God, but row away from the rocks."

If you haven't left that mountain already, the exit is this way. It's time we put our
shoulders to the wheel.

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