Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 13

Dear Folks,

Okay, here’s why I love New Orleans. Because in the space of one single month you can go to a literary salon, hear Monk Boudreaux channel down the African gods at Tipitina’s, go to a Twelfth Night ball, and party on New Year’s Eve with an eight foot tall penis.

Now c’mon, you’ve got to admit, for a “disaster zone” that’s doing pretty good!

We’ll start on a refined note. We went to our friend Marda’s literary salon earlier last month. There in her beautiful, high-ceilinged apartment in the French Quarter we heard readings of poetry and a novel-in-progress, listened to jazz standards and topical patter songs performed on her grand piano, discussed upcoming publications (Andrei Codrescu has a book coming out this month, “New Orleans Mon Amour”, and Tom Piazza and Roy Blount Jr. both have new works) and gossiped about writers and writing in this close-knit, supportive, and remarkably friendly world. Really, maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine New York writers getting together to sip champagne and compare notes with the same kind of loving cameraderie as exists down here. Ego and competition take a back seat to fondness and sheer enthusiasm for one another’s work, and the result is as nourishing as air.

As the darkness fell and Christmas tree lights came on in the swagged garlands of the house across the street, we sat out on Marda’s gallery and listened to the traffic going by on Royal Street below, and it was as if the hurricane had never for the bittersweet pleasure of greeting old friends, hugging and telling tales. Where did you go, when did you get back, how’s your house? What are you working on now? Dr. Kenneth Holditch was holding forth on Tennessee Williams, back from his enforced exile in Tupelo. Rosemary James and her husband, Joe DeSalvo, were back from Charleston and preparing to reopen Faulkner House Books. Josh Clark, who runs Light of New Orleans Press and who rode out the storm in the French Quarter, was there looking like a fashion plate and sporting his new “Katrina” tattoo. These are people who are all alive and thinking and observing and recording this truly extraordinary time, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with! Poetry to sear the soul and wit to make us laugh out loud in the face of tragedy. I can’t wait.

We went to Tipitina’s a week later, and I have to admit, it was actually my first visit there. Presided over by the spirit of the late Professor Longhair, who played there in his final years, Tips is the kind of road house-cum-social hall where you can imagine hearing everyone from Robert Johnson to a young Elvis Presley...and while it’s not quite that old (twenty-seven years of cigarette smoke and spilled beer have given it a timeless quality) everybody from Dr. John to the Neville Brothers to Galactic calls it home. They’d just hosted a big Katrina benefit the night before, featuring Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson, but the night we were there it was just “Big Chief” Monk Boudreaux and various Mardi Gras Indians, performing essentially for themselves.

Driving drums and rhythmic chanting created a hypnotic beat calling up the Yoruba and Haitian gods, as well as the spirits of Black Hawk, Big Chief Jolly, and the godfathers and mothers of today’s most inspired rappers. Meanwhile dancers, male and female, challenged one another with intricate rhymes and snapped, bucked, kicked-up and hip-shook in ways that would have left Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham breathless. All of it was improvised. All of it was of the moment. All of it was filled with the angry, joyous, wild, grieving energy of people who’ve seen their homes and their traditions, their beautiful beaded costumes and their intricate cultural networks almost literally washed away...but there they were. Defiantly drumming and dancing. There were no pretty feathers, no colored flags. Instead it was a community invocation of the spirit, making you realize the intimate connection between performance and ritual, art and prayer. The wild voudouists who danced out on Bayou St. John were probably inspired by much the same impulse...making a great shout to heaven with all the joy and rage they could muster. I can’t tell you when I’ve ever felt more honored to be somewhere.

Except, perhaps, at a Mardi Gras ball...because there, too, what we were really seeing was a private community’s celebration of itself. Now I know, a lot of people might have been all over this from a racist or sexist or politically incorrect perspective. Here were masked men, after all, wealthy men, engaged in the debut of nubile young women in a context of privilege and noblesse oblige. Here were the mysterious, slightly ominous masks, blank papier mache above the nose and featureless cloth below, recalling both the dangerous anarchy of the commedia dell’arte and the night riders of Reconstruction.

Except I think such criticism misses the point entirely, and I think that’s true now more than ever. In the same way the Golden Eagles and the other Mardi Gras Indians weren’t putting on a show for the tourists, the krewe we were privileged to observe (I can’t reveal the specifics of who or where) were engaging in a joyous, beautiful, happy and deeply tender homage to tradition. Here were lovely young women in virginal white, shy, self-mocking, a little aware of the ironic distance between their actions and their ambitions, but enjoying themselves nonetheless. Here were the men, in many cases their fathers or their uncles, escorting them gently in the promenade, creating a Cinderella fairy-tale for the pure pleasure of giving it to themselves and their women. Yes, it’s all in good fun. Yes, of course, these aren’t real kings and queens. And if the past century has taught us anything (not to mention the past four months) it’s that wealth and power and privilege are only provisional gifts, and change can’t be barred from the door. But for a night the world was simply beautiful, and the silks and satins of the court, the comic costumes, the strains of waltzes, created a world everyone there could enjoy, even though everyone there knew it was only temporary. Like the Mardi Gras Indians, the krewe members and their families we saw were saying this is what our fathers did, and our grandfathers: this was where my mother reigned as queen for an evening, and perhaps, one day, my daughter will as well. I think finally you need to touch the past, you need, in Auden’s lovely phrase, to break bread with the dead, because otherwise you lose so much if you forget them. You call them up by drumming or with a tableau, and when they’re there in the room for an instant, you tell them you love them, and then you let them go.

And sometimes you just have to let go and be completely silly...which brings me back to that eight foot tall penis. I’ll bet you thought I’d forgotten about that! On New Year’s Eve, we attended a costume party, the theme of which was “Copulate to Repopulate New Orleans”. Naturally, Yours Truly went as a pregnant bride (anyone remember that scene from “Funny Girl”?) and our friends Kyle and Christopher came, respectively, as a choir boy and a priest. And Bill? Well, we found this large beige rubber costume in a shop, tucked way in the back, and upon unwrapping it, we realized what it was and...suffice it to say he was the life of the party. I now have the distinct privilege of knowing I’m married to the biggest dick in New Orleans. That plus wearing white tie and tails the other night...I tell you, he’s becoming completely costume-besotted. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this Carnival season will bring.

Which brings me to my final point, which is to wish you all a wonderful Carnival season, wherever you happen to be. If your schedule permits, please come down here and join us! Wherever you go, may the Lords of Misrule and Mischief, the gods of breaking the rules and not taking yourself too seriously, prevail...because life’s far too serious as it is, there’s no need for us to encourage it! We intend to eat, drink, and be merry, and to catch all the beads we can, and to dance up a storm, and to celebrate the fact that we’re not dead yet and neither is New Orleans. Please join us!

And if you should happen to encounter an eight foot tall penis while you’re walking around in the French Quarter, please don’t just ASSUME it’s Bill! After all, there a lot of other dicks down here as well. But they’re all pretty cool.

Love and Happy Mardi Gras!



Saturday, January 07, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 12

Dear Folks,

I know, I know, I haven’t written for ages...Merry Christmas, by the way, and Happy New Year!

I said I’d give you a run-down on how the various neighborhoods are doing, based on our drives around with Bret Littlehales, when he was down here taking photographs. It was a sobering, exhilarating, beautiful, reassuring, and also deeply harrowing week. Here’s what we learned:

ALGIERS really is New Orleans’ best kept secret. A gem-like community at the bend of the Mississippi opposite the Central Business District, Algiers Point has beautiful, intact old Creole cottages and gorgeous double-shotguns painted every bright color of the rainbow. There are narrow, winding streets, a magnificent old court-house with a carillon (when we were there it was playing "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer"), a bright sparkling ferry terminal, and a truly unparalleled view of the city. You can stand at the river’s edge and look across to the French Quarter, St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo and the Presbytere, and then up along the city’s sky-scrapers and the (slightly battered) bulk of Harrah’s Casino all the way to the Irish Channel and Uptown. It’s like being able to see modern Manhattan and Peter Stuyvesant’s New Amsterdam at the same time. Algiers sprawls beyond the point itself to a wider neighborhood of modern brick ranch houses and neat front lawns, and there’s a lot of blue roofs here...the hurricane made landfall very close...but renovation’s going on and since this area didn’t flood, real estate prices are apparently booming. We visited the "Seven Sisters" Voodoo Shop and made an offering to Oya, the goddess of the winds, to spare Algiers in the future, and celebrated the fact that this extraordinary small-town section of the city is still here.

THE FRENCH QUARTER is, as I’ve already said, basically fine. There was very little flooding, and since the Mayor lifted the last vestigial 2 AM curfew, the night life is back and rocking. Most of the stores are back in business, from T-shirt shops to high-end antiques, and Hove’s Perfume, Crescent City Books, the Napoleon House and Donna’s Bar are all thriving (you can tell from this very partial list what all MY important landmarks are!) No, it’s not the same: there’s a truly disconcerting lack of qualified bartenders around (in New Orleans this is a SIN) and in some of the restaurants the wait-staff are snappish and surly (don’t go into the Clover Grill with an attitude, or the drag-queen waitress there will tear you a new one). But this may just mean they’ve had too many FEMA-worker patrons and not enough decent housing. Rents have gone through the roof, and a lot of the homes there do in fact have roof damage, although it’s being fixed. Bottom line: the French Quarter’s survived a lot worse than Katrina, and it will survive fact it already has.

THE GARDEN DISTRICT and UPTOWN are both, as I’ve mentioned, pretty embarrassingly okay. Well alright, not entirely. The area from St. Charles Avenue up in the direction of the lake took on some serious water, and some of that neighborhood is still deserted, although most of the houses look salvageable. Likewise CARROLLTON, which follows Carrollton Avenue up from St. Charles, gets worse and worse as you go up it. The river-side portion of both these neighborhoods, though, is blooming: Maple Street Books is okay, as is the Maple Leaf Bar (do you notice a trend again in the things I’m most concerned about?) Tipitina’s on Napoleon Avenue is fine, Magazine Street is back and busier than ever, and most of the IRISH CHANNEL is intact, although there was some roof and tree damage, as there was in the LOWER GARDEN DISTRICT.

Essentially, what’s being called "the sliver by the river" is pretty much back to normal...that whole long spread along the Mississippi where the city was settled first. Coliseum Square in the LOWER GARDEN DISTRICT is still a green gem set about with fine old double-galleried houses. The IRISH CHANNEL (the area between the river and Magazine Street that parallels the Upper and Lower Garden Districts) is cleaning up, dragging old sofas to the curb and repainting porches and roof trim. St. Mary’s Assumption Church appears intact, its over-the-top full-size plaster saints untouched by wind or rain...although St. Alphonsus’s across the street lost a big stone cross from the roof, which flew up over the neighboring church and buried itself in the garden. It’s now a local landmark.

Likewise, down river from the French Quarter, the MARIGNY and nearer parts of the BYWATER are both pretty much back and rebuilding. The MARIGNY (the area closest to the Quarter) suffered relatively little damage, and is in many respects its old self. Frenchman Street has most of its marvelous clubs back, and on any given night you can see everything from cool jazz to Don Vappie’s Creole Serenaders playing at a tea-dance at the Café Brazil. The Praline Connection is back and cooking up a storm, and more restaurants are opening up every day.

BYWATER, the area that follows the river down from the Marigny to the Industrial Canal, was of course harder hit, and when you get close to that now-infamous waterway, the scene is very grim indeed. This was (and I hope it will remain) the thriving bohemian heart of the city, where rents were cheap enough to encourage artists and musicians and lunatics to live there. A lot of the neighborhood is still fine...and there are lots of people around, digging out their houses, painting over the National Guard’s grim tags, bicycling through the streets in their feathers and shredded finery, taking photographs, painting pictures, and soldiering on as those who have been marginalized by our mainstream culture have always done. God bless them. St. Roch’s cemetery took on about three feet of water but its wonderful sanctuary of dismembered stone hands, feet, crutches and polio braces (from those who have been cured there) is still in place. Sallie Ann Glassman’s botanica is still in business, and as far as I know she’s still holding voudou services in the peristyle around the corner. There were lots of Christmas decorations evident, including (of course) the inevitable abandoned refrigerators, now painted red and green and decked with lights. So yes, if I had to go out on a limb, I’d say Bywater is probably going to do just fine.

The strangest neighborhoods are the ones that are still almost completely empty. The NINTH WARD, which stretches all the way from the river to the lake, is a blasted moon-scape. We drove up to the Vietnamese church near the UNO campus and saw how the receding water had painted the stone there in stripes of diminishing brown, from chocolate to tan to beige. Actually, the shrine to the Virgin there is being restored, and the Vietnamese population of the city isn’t waiting for any help from anyone: they’ve pitched tents in their own driveways and, eschewing FEMA, are reclaiming their houses one by one. Gee, do you think they distrust the United States government? LAKEVIEW, the modern area of large, generally prosperous homes by Lake Pontchartrain, is a ghost-town of abandoned front lawns, gaping roofs, the occasional trailer, and a mammoth pile of dead tree limbs all along the neutral ground on West End Boulevard, where the city’s taken all of its wood debris and is doggedly grinding it up into pulp (this looks like it could take months). Lakeview got slammed from both ends, by the 17th Street Canal from one side and the London Avenue Canal on the other, and what were modest or, in some cases, lavish ranch homes have been nearly submerged in silt. Bret described it perfectly when he said there was absolutely no color there. He might as well have been shooting in black-and-white. I can’t tell you how desolate it all was, driving from street to street, block to block, and rarely encountering a living soul save, at the London Avenue breach, some Army Corps of Engineer workers, who were very polite and seemed a little overwhelmed themselves. They were engaged in sawing a tree down that stood in someone’s ruined front yard. This seemed a little like picking up a set of fallen cocktail napkins on the deck of the Titanic.

MID-CITY is much the same...and oh, it’s hard to go on and on about this. Suffice it to say that the Rock ‘N Bowl is still in business, although it sits alone in a ruined strip mall...but then, that’s pretty much where it always stood. Most of Mid-City is empty, and GENTILLY (the area adjoining Lakeview, stretching up from the Fairgrounds) is a mixed bag. Dillard University is closed and guarded, its lovely columns and wide front lawn brown and silent, and we were chased away when we tried to take photographs there because apparently they’ve had some problems with white supremacist groups (who presumably post pictures on the Internet and gloat). But we saw a flap of color and Bret photographed an old black woman coming out on her porch across the street to put up an American flag. We drove over and talked to her, and learned she was in her eighties, had lived opposite Dillard for forty-eight years, was the widow of a World War II naval veteran, and wasn’t going anywhere. God almighty. God almighty. God almighty.

So that’s a thumbnail sketch. I haven’t the faintest idea what it all amounts to. People here, as elsewhere, say what do you think will happen next and I tell them honestly I haven’t got a clue.

I just know I’d rather be here at this moment than anywhere else on earth.

More later,