Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Monday, May 22, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 24

Dear Folks,

So, Ray Nagin won.

New Orleans, at the end of the day, remains a Chocolate City. The land of dreamy dreams remains a land run by a lunatic who’s actually as smart as a whip, with a penchant for telling it like it is (except when he remembers to be a politician). Our next four years will be determined by someone who’s not afraid to use bad language to his superiors when they screw up, who enjoys riding in Mardi Gras parades, who kept President Bush waiting on Air Force One while he shaved his head (Nagin’s, that is...although someone should shave our commander-in-chief... maybe Sweeney Todd?) And someone who’s not afraid to cry and otherwise behave like a real person when faced with his city of ruins (and no, I don’t mean Asbury Park).

So what does it all of this really mean? Search me. As promised, all I can give you is my first-hand impressions as things go along. So here goes...

To begin with, I think our mayor was reelected for a combination of four reasons. First of all, people liked him better than Mitch Landrieu. He’s a real person, as I said, visibly engaging and funny, whereas Mitch came off as a quintessential Democrat circa 2006...careful, bland, nakedly ambitious, but constitutionally incapable of saying or doing anything that smacked of real passion or new ideas. He was Bill Clinton Lite, screened through one too many focus groups, and people down here didn’t respond to that.

Second, people felt Nagin understood what they’d gone through, and up to a certain point, I agree. No, Nagin didn’t lose his house. No, he was never at any real risk, barring wind damage to the office building where he rode out the hurricane (although riding out a potential Category 5 hurricane is, come to think of it, kind of a gutsy thing to do). He could, and did, leave the city at any time, rather than being stranded on a roof. HOWEVER, and it’s a big however, he gets it. He saw the bodies floating in the water. He’s the one who pleaded that there were people trapped in the Convention Center, when the federal government still thought the Convention Center and the Superdome were the same building. He saw the Thing. He was there. He smelled the smell. And does that matter? Yes, I think it does, at least up to a point.

The third reason I think people voted for Nagin is because they though he was given a bad rap. Right after the storm, there was more finger-pointing than occurs in your average kindergarten. Nagin did his fair share, but by and large he’s been proven right by subsequent events. The Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and the Federal Government are all far more culpable than the New Orleans Mayor’s office, whether for pre-storm negligence or post-storm sloth and graft. Governor Blanco appears to have been completely overwhelmed by the events of last August, although she’s rebounded and is back to her old ways of rewarding cronies and doing little else. Nagin, by comparison, looks pretty good.

That doesn’t answer the question of whether he could have done more (the blame game generally works better on sins of commission than sins of omission, unless they’re really flagrant). It seems clear, at least in some circles down here, that Nagin ignored the close-call posed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and didn’t provide enough safety and sustenance in the Superdome/Convention Center (not to mention enough bathrooms!) and enough transportation to get more people out of harm’s way. That’s disturbing. He had charge of a limited number of factors, but he didn’t do a flawless job of managing those factors he could. Some people down here see him as criminally negligent; some as overwhelmed; and some (in Robert Penn Warren’s lovely analogy) as a man trying to make a single-bed blanket accommodate three people on a cold night. I don’t know. I kind of incline towards the latter explanation, but then I’m naturally charitable.

The fourth reason I think people voted for Nagin is, paradoxically, the best argument for electing him and the best argument for electing Mitch Landrieu. Because he’s apparently more principled than Landrieu is. Mitch’s father, Moon, by all accounts knew how to horse-trade in the bad old days, and he brought in the Morials (bad old days redux) and apparently Mitch is equally unfazed at getting his hands dirty in pursuit of his goals. I don’t mean he’s a crook, but the conventional wisdom is he knows how to deal with crooks. He could in theory have worked with William Jefferson (our current representative, poised for indictment, whom I know first-hand to have solicited a bribe from one candidate for City Councilmember-at-Large and to have successfully solicited another). Nagin, by contrast, has been reluctant to suffer either crooks or fools lightly, and the fools and crooks have been swift to take their revenge. Whether he learns to accommodate them (and he’s got a fairly new City Council to work with) may make a substantial difference in the next four years. He’ll be a lame duck, so he won’t have to court public favor...but he’ll still need private favors, and I’m not sure he’s got the stomach to go after them. We’ll see.

I’m also not sure what kind of a signal Nagin’s re-election sends to the outside world, specifically the world inside the Washington Beltway. Will we be seen as terminally frivolous and stubborn for re-electing “Mayor Wonka”? Will we be seen as a city where sentiment still trumps common sense (which is probably true...but it’s still a bad argument for reinvestment)? Will our continuing to have a black mayor send a (good) signal we’re still a racially tolerant city, or will Washington’s (and Wall Street’s) racism enable them to further write us off? Will Nagin’s optimism be seen as bullish or bullshit? I don’t know. After all, an administration capable of starting a war because “Saddam Hussein tried to kill my daddy” may be equally capable of saying “Drop dead” to a major port just because the mayor of said port was once less than craven to the powers that be.

But Nagin may also be the saving of New Orleans. His reelection is an absolute, four-square statement to this city’s displaced residents (still the majority of its population) that the mayor’s office is still on their side. Those wavering about coming home have, at least in theory, one more reason to do so. If Nagin can send a strong signal to these people, while turning the financing of the city around, then there’s hope.

Here’s what it comes down to. A lot of New Orleans’ future is beyond Mayor Nagin’s control. He can’t revamp the schools, that’s the state’s responsibility. He can’t rebuild the levees...he can’t provide flood protection...he can’t provide emergency housing...he can’t even remove the remaining storm debris. That’s the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers. He can’t appropriate money from Congress, that’s President Bush’s job (ha ha ha...that’s the sound of me laughing hollowly while the price tag for Iraq continues to escalate). He can’t, above all, control global warming and the ocean’s currents, or the current (high) temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. A real Category 5 hurricane could possibly kill us. A good-sized one could probably put us on life-support right now. And the bottom line is Mayor Nagin (or Mayor Landrieu, or Mayor Guiliani, or Mayor Jesus Christ) is completely prevented from doing jack shit about that.

What the mayor CAN do is restructure our financing and chains-of-command to provide basic city services (police, household garbage collection, working stop lights, emergency medical care) which can lure in private investment (which is the only real way this city will rebuild, barring a sudden paradigm shift where the Bush administration starts supporting a New Deal). It can provide a safe, encouraging climate, with tax incentives and an efficient, streamlined, HONEST bureaucracy, to bring outside industries in and rebuild the industries we have. It COULD be done. It COULD happen. If we avoid flooding for the next year or two, and if we get back enough population to provide a viable work-force, we could appear as a good place for people to come and make money. Which is ultimately the way all cities thrive or fall.

I don’t know if Ray Nagin is the man to see that that happens, but I’m not certain Mitch Landrieu was either. I hope to God we’ve made the right choice.

Let’s see.



Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 23

Dear Folks,

At what point did those looking for news about New Orleans become condemned to the Donald-Duck-style sputterings of Chris Matthews?

Just wondering.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 22

Dear Folks,

I’ve been reading Chris Rose’s marvelous collection of essays about life in New Orleans right after the hurricane (titled "One Dead In Attic"...and by the way, every single person reading THIS essay should immediately stop and go out and buy a copy of Rose’s book, it’s that good) and I’m struck by how far we’ve come.

Not necessarily New Orleans, although that’s true too in a way. The people I’m thinking about who have come pretty far in the past eight months have been Bill and me.

Eight months ago, we were sobbing wrecks watching CNN with horrified fascination as the city we loved more than any other was (apparently) swept away. Today we’re filled with determination. We’ve gotten past the trauma (at least till the next hurricane) and we’ve gotten past the giddiness too. We know we’re in this now for the long haul. We know how much we can take, and it’s more than we thought we could, which is a good thing to know. And maybe New Orleans is like that too. The city is still paralyzed in many respects (and that’s shameful) but as far as individuals go, I think we’ve gone from horror to grief to rage to a grim feeling of WHATEVER IT TAKES...and that makes us strong and potentially dangerous to the status quo.

We know we’re pretty much on our own now, despite the individuals who have helped us and continue to help us. We know the federal and state governments are largely jokes. In fact it’s like that OLD joke, “The Aristocrats”. Surely you all know this one by now? A couple walk into a talent agent’s office to pitch their act, a ghastly, obscene, scatological, incestuous catalogue of perversities performed by a single family. The name of the act (and the punch line)? The Aristocrats!

Well, New Orleans is distilling new versions of that joke right now. A man walks into someone else’s life and pitches his agency’s services...destruction, death, incompetence, insult, pomposity, cronyism and sloth. What’s the agency called? FEMA (or Congress, or the Army Corps of Engineers, or the White House. You fill in the blank). It’s not funny, and neither is “The Aristocrats” (although the movie is a stitch), but that may not be the point. If “The Aristocrats” takes its original puny humor from a jibe at the ruling classes, these new “jokes” betray corrosive contempt for our most cherished institutions and concepts. The idea that government is not only “of” and “by” but “for” the people? Ridiculous! The notion that we pay taxes to get something back in return? Quaint! The idea that Americans are inherently better people than anyone else? Well, this one is dying hardest, and is the most contradicted by the many volunteers we’ve seen down here all along, who continue to give of themselves, one gutted house and repaired roof at a time. But I think that’s just PEOPLE who are, by and large, individually nice (thank you Anne Frank). Americans collectively? Are we really better than anyone else? Well, let’s see what happens next November. I still have the sneaking suspicion that if gasoline prices go down, Americans as a group will reelect the same blood-spattered crooks and megalomaniacs who got us into a lot of our messes in the first place.

But never mind. What else has changed down here? Well for one thing, I think in some ways we’ve gotten a little better at beating back the spirals of fear that threaten to consume us. That’s not always true, of course, and it isn’t true for everyone and about everything. People down here are paranoid about crime for one thing, even though the crime rate is still lower than it was before the storm. People are afraid about money even if they’ve got plenty of it at the moment. They’re afraid about insurance rates, health care, the future, and people are afraid, afraid, AFRAID about the next hurricane season... which officially begins in just two weeks.

And they’re unsure who’s the best person to lead us. Right now polls are showing the run-off for mayor of New Orleans between Mitch Landrieu and Ray Nagin at virtually a dead heat. In fact, in early voting, Bill and I each voted for a different candidate (see if you can figure out who voted for whom).

But I think we’ve gone (as individuals and as citizens of a traumatized city) from raw anguish to a slightly surreal feeling of “this is just what things are like right now”. You go to parties and enjoy yourself...and yes, we had our housewarming (roasting a whole pig...yes, the Pig Roast lives!) which was a great success. Thank you to all who attended, and to those who didn’t, make your plans for next year. At the same time, you lay in supplies for when, and not if, the power goes out, and you map out your evacuation route, and you read the paper every day with the care of Talmudic scholars parsing a holy text. You meet people, and there’s always that moment of caution before you determine if the person is living in a FEMA trailer or a house, how much they lost, and how much they’re still hurting. You don’t want to step on a raw nerve. You do laundry, make groceries (isn’t that a lovely phrase?), and wonder if the flies you shooed away from your lunch today were feasting prior to that on the festering garbage still piled up sky high in the Lower Ninth Ward.

In other words, we’re getting kind of used to this, and I don’t know if that’s terrible, or heroic, or normal. I still love it down here more than anywhere else, and I know the heightened reality following the storm is all part of that, but yes, I forget about the hurricane sometimes for days at a time.

And I feel guilty about that, because I’m in a POSITION to forget about it for days at a time.

I think, though, that there’s a storm brewing down here, that has nothing to do with current water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. It has to do with what people down here have learned from all this and are in the process of learning. Which is simply how powerless we are.

And that’s a dangerous thing to teach to a large enough collection of people.

Because if the collection of people is really large enough, they’re not really that powerless. If a large enough collection of people gets REALLY PISSED OFF, they’ll stage an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, or they’ll march on Selma. They’ll break open the Bastille. They’ll riot at Stonewall. They’ll riot at Kent State. They’ll riot in Detroit. They’ll tear down the Berlin Wall, or they’ll kill the Czar.

I don’t know if any of that’s going to happen down here, or if it’s going to happen anywhere, but I’m saying it could. I do know people down here are becoming far less afraid and far less traumatized and far more hands-on and angry. Mitch Landrieu, if he becomes mayor, may hope to ride that tide of anger to national prominence, and if he can make some real changes and make them fast enough, he will. Ray Nagin’s time is almost up. If he gets reelected and DOESN’T start kicking some ass, the very people who voted for him are going to start screaming for his head.

James Baldwin was right, it may BE the fire next time. And God help me, I can understand the sentiment.

We’ll see.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 21

Dear Folks,

Alright, for those of you who are keeping score...another milestone has just been passed, with some last-minute drama and a truly glorious finale. I’m talking about Jazz Fest 2006.

Your humble correspondent attended every day, and can truly claim to have experienced every possible human emotion over the course of that ten-day period, from boredom (watching Paul Simon) to rage (at people who speak AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS in a public performance space ON CELLPHONES, NO LESS!!!) to surprise (who knew Bruce Springsteen could blow me away?) to pity to anguish to a shattering amount of joy.

Oh, and did I also mention those two much-underrated deadly sins, Gluttony and Pride? Because you can also eat some of the best FOOD imaginable at Jazz Fest. And pride? Well, what can I say? This city just keeps amazing me.

First of all, a little explanation. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know what Jazz Fest is? This year marked the thirty-seventh anniversary of what started out as a small festival in Armstrong Park, celebrating the jazz and heritage of New Orleans. And like Topsy and Ishmael Reed’s virus, it Jes’ Grew. And grew. And GREW.

By 2005, Jazz Fest was a sprawling, multi-million-dollar-a-year event that took over the Fairgrounds (a.k.a. the racetrack) for two weekends every late April and early May, replete with star acts, local discoveries, frat boys, gallons of beer, rivalries, clashes of temperament, girls in skimpy tops, local “characters”, love, sex, drugs (although they always pretended to search everyone’s backpacks) and music from rock ‘n roll to zydeco to cakewalks, Ornette Coleman to Dave Matthews.

In other words, a yearly landmark. A regular event. You marked your calendar. And like so much else in New Orleans, you assumed it would always be there. You could, in fact, take it or leave it.

Well, not anymore.

Since “The Thing”, NOTHING is taken for granted here anymore. And Jazz Fest was in jeopardy, make no mistake. Drowned by the flood waters and ripped to pieces by the storm, the Fairgrounds itself was a shambles after Katrina. The neighborhood, the lower arm of Gentilly and the upper reaches of Esplanade Ridge, still hasn’t recovered, and five minutes away on St. Bernard Avenue, the city still looks like a ghost-town.

So there was the whole question of could they put on a festival or anything else? And would there be enough money to pay for it? Would name acts come (because, although people carp every year that the festival’s supposed to be about local talent, it’s the big acts that are the biggest draw)? Would there be an audience? And could the city handle the strain? In late 2005, all these questions and more were debated. And one thing was fairly certain: if there WASN’T a Jazz Fest in 2006, it would be a pretty clear indication the city really WAS on the ropes.

And then...something wonderful happened. Big name acts started signing up to play, and all I can say is, God bless them every one. Even Paul Simon. After all, he may not be my cup of tea, but he can certainly sell tickets by the truck-load, and that’s what was needed. By the beginning of this year, there were enough celebrities on board (Springsteen, Simon, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Herbie Hancock, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Buffett) that a good crowd began to be a real possibility. The festival organizers (including our pal Bob Edmundson) worked tirelessly and called in favors and who knows, may have even made contractors offers they couldn’t refuse...but somehow the Fairgrounds were reclaimed and looked completely back to normal by the time the gates opened on April 28.

And the audience? Well, they came. They came in droves. They came by the car-load and the bus-load and the plane-load. And they stayed and celebrated like nobody’s business.

Let me put it this way--when Bill and I arrived that first Friday afternoon, we walked in next to the Acura Stage and were faced with a sea of people...I mean wall-to-wall, you couldn’t have fit one more person in with a shoe-horn. At every stage it was the same story. And every day only brought more attendees...people who love this city, people who love the music, people who were so happy to be here the atmosphere was truly extraordinary. People came from all over, and they stayed in the city’s hotels, and they ate in the city’s restaurants, and they spent money, and they cheered and danced and bought fried oyster po’boys and art and jewelry and t-shirts, and we (and they) loved every minute of it. It was a festival, yes, but it was also something more... somewhere between an enormous family reunion and a religious revival. It was indeed something.

And when the performers called out to us, one after another, to tell us how much they loved New Orleans and how glad they were to be back, we all cheered our thanks, and even the sky seemed to echo.

So, in answer to the question everyone asks everyone every day, who did we see?

Well...we saw Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes and the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra (performing an expanded repertoire...apparently they’ve had time for rehearsals, along with double-rotations as some of New Orleans’ leading doctors). We caught Bob Dylan and Dr. John. The one...well, he now sounds like he’s singing through a tracheotomy, but he had a great band and is a great poet, so the music was wonderful. The other...well, it was pretty much the same thing! We saw Eddie Bo channeling the spirits of Professor Longhair and Ray Charles...Allen Toussaint playing with Elvis Costello... Buckwheat Zydeco...the original Meters (who took time out from their set to accuse Allen Toussaint of stealing all their money!)...the Radiators...Jimmy Buffett (yes, friends, I actually sat through a whole set of Jimmy Buffett...what can I say, he’s a homeboy)...Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave fame)...Irma Thomas...the Pfister Sisters and the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars.

Highlights included Etta James (slimmed down and sexier than ever), Ivan Neville (cleaned up and funkier than ever) and Evan Christopher and Tom McDermott, on clarinet and piano, performing everything from 19th century Gottschaulk waltzes to modern Latin-influenced Creole jazz. And then there was Hugh Masekela, singing about the train that carries young African men to life (and death) in the South African mines. A scream of beautiful agony, accompanied by trumpet solos. And Bruce Springsteen, gone acoustic with his new Seeger Sessions Band, blending great rock n’ roll with classic protest songs to sing of anger, oppression, suffering and political ineptitude (a timely reminder these days).

It was magnificent...sweet...happy...and deeply human. A magnificent stew (yes, a gumbo) of the old and the young, the frail and the robust, every race, every skin color (from sunburned redneck to deepest black) and every variety of body...from those who gladden the eye to those who really, in another context, should think twice before baring that much skin.

And then at the end...drama. And a triumphant climax.

Here’s what happened. Towards the end of Paul Simon’s set, the rumors started buzzing...Fats Domino, who was supposed to close out the festival at the biggest stage, wasn’t going to play. He was in the hospital. This is the man, remember, who came out of the hell of the Lower Ninth Ward last October, when everyone had thought him dead. Some people in the crowd thought he might be dead NOW. It was a potentially crushing blow to the festival...especially when you add in a second closing performer, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who we found out later had also had to cancel.

But New Orleanians are a resourceful bunch, and the show had to go on. With slightly more than three hours’ notice (the final word on Fats came down after two, and he was supposed to start at five-fifty), Lionel Richie was switched over from the second-largest stage to the biggest one (this involved the transfer of a tremendous amount of gear...believe me, Bill and I have been involved in enough music shows to know). Sam Moore was told to go long at the secondary stage...he ended up playing for more than three hours, belting out “Soul Man” to a delighted crowd. A thrown together band of New Orleans’ greatest brass musicians was pulled together literally without a rehearsal, and laid down some of the most amazing jazz I’ve ever heard in Mr. Payton’s absence (by the time they wound things up with “When The Saints Go Marching In” there were something like fifteen musicians onstage, and yours truly was scarcely the only person in the audience awash with tears).

It was inspiring.

It was improvised.

It was beautiful.

And everybody loved it.

Fats even came out onstage (no, he’s not dead) and apologized to the crowd for being taken ill, and the audience predictably went wild.

I truly don’t think there’s another place on earth that could have pulled off what was done in the last three hours of Jazz Fest 2006, and like all great art, made it look easy.

I wish you all could have been here. I wish the whole world could have seen what we saw. I strongly recommend you make your reservations now for Jazz Fest 2007!

With much love,