Mystic Blue Signs, New Orleans.
When I woke up on Sunday I realized I had another busy day before me: I was going to stay one more night with Johnny; and during the day I would be heading out to see the Atchafalaya River with an Army Corps engineer. But I didn’t want to leave New Orleans without seeing the Lower Ninth Ward, so I hopped on my bike and headed for the east end of town.
I was surprised by what I saw: the Lower Ninth Ward was recovering. Five years ago, there was nothing there; two years ago I had seen a few homes financed by Brad Pitt. Now there were quite a few houses, with cars parked in the driveways and mowed lawns and everything. It was actual progress – visible progress.
Of course, like all earthly things of substance, it cast a shadow. The complete destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward – one of the very lowest and least desirable building-areas in the region – had suggested that perhaps that area should not be redeveloped. New Orleans did not even come close to filling its footprint, and it would be desirable for the city to take certain streets off the grid: this would mean a savings of pavement, sewer pipes, and lighting. Since the city had only half the population it had fifty years ago, contraction had to occur someplace, and the areas that were most dangerous to build in were probably the best places for contraction to occur.
But the Lower Ninth Ward became a symbol, and people live by symbols. To give up on it seemed like defeat, not prudence; and the city would not accept defeat. The fact that it was a symbol was the thing which convinced me that I did not want to leave New Orleans without seeing it: would the city give up on it as a hopeless endeavor, and put its energies elsewhere, or continue the rebuilding?
Now there is a real neighborhood there. It is, of course, not filled in – honestly, you can go three blocks from the French Quarter, the heart of the city, and find empty lots and abandoned buildings – but it is functioning. I did not see a bearded lady there, but that was probably because I was looking this time.
All in all, I felt it was foolhardy – I would have put an alligator park there – but I have to admit, I was glad to see it thriving. New Orleans was making itself hard to kill – and I admired it for that. And my next stop would be a thorough investigation of the thing most likely to kill New Orleans – something not even most New Orleanians are aware of. It was the Atchafalaya River.
Johnny had turned his place into a kind of refuge for the various flotsam and jetsam that floated down the river, of the male kind; I had been one of Johnny’s Boys for awhile, when I came down to New Orleans after my divorce. I had money in my bank account and had spent six months in my cabin pretty much just thinking – watching the trees sway in the breeze in the summer, and watching the leaves fall in autumn. But when winter came it turned bitterly cold, and I found that I had not cut enough wood. And I was unhappy, in general. Then there were four consecutive nights when the temperature hit twenty degrees below zero, and the waste-pipe for my toilet froze. I decided to just pick up and leave – and that is exactly what I did. When a friend came to check up on the house a few months later, he said, “Boy John you weren’t kidding when you said you just picked up and left. There’s a half-eaten sandwich and a frozen bottle of Pepsi on the table!”
I kept on driving south, unhappy all the while, with no particular plan except that I knew I needed warmth; I hit the Gulf Coast at Panacea, Florida, and then hugged the coast west until I hit New Orleans. When I got there I knew I should stay. After a few days I found someone advertising a room for rent. It was Johnny. I went to meet him, and left with a keychain with a little angel on it. I stayed there three months, with another one of his boys, Danny, who was living in another bedroom. Danny was on drugs of some sort – maybe cocaine, maybe heroin, maybe something else, I’m not good at telling – and he worked as a waiter or busboy around town. He would miss work from time to time and get fired. “That bitch,” he would come back saying. “I missed like two days of work and the bitch fires me, just like that.” He had a girlfriend, so I kind of envied him. At first I thought she was nice, but I got the sense over time that she was a highly talented liar and so could easily fool a dupe like me into thinking she was nice: she was probably a fair amount of trouble. Her pupils were very oddly large and her body very oddly skinny, so I think she was on some kind of drug too. They’d have terrible fights in the middle of the night, and once or twice I intervened because I thought he was going to hurt her. For whatever reason, men hurting women makes me angry enough to kill – I can’t bear even thinking about such men.
I caught him stealing money from my room one day when I was in the shower, and I also loaned him some money at one point. When I came back to New Orleans a few years ago I thought maybe I might get the money back, because I had no money then myself; and maybe Danny’s affairs had prospered a bit (who knows). When I went to see Johnny I asked him about Danny, and he just looked at me from across his kitchen table and said, “Morte.”
“Morte.” Something about the way he avoided the word “dead” in English made it all the more forceful and impersonal and weird and cosmic. ”Some place opened up for him down in the Quarter, and he wanted to go down there. I told him, ‘Don’t do that, Danny. You got a problem, that’s a bad place. In the Quarter you can get anything anytime. You can’t go down there.’ But he wanted to go. So I called his parents. I said, ‘Get down here and get your son. He’s trying to move down into the French Quarter and he’s gonna end up dead. I’m tellin’ you he’s gonna end up dead.’ They didn’t do anything. Six months later he was dead. Overdose.”
This was Johnny to me – he was wise, he knew what he was talking about, and when things came to a head he could figure out what was right and try to make it happen. He cared too – he was really a good human being with real substance. But some things require the cooperation of the world, and they just don’t make it through. He tried to save Danny, and it hadn’t worked.
It was terrible to think about – one of the many, many New Orleans stories that don’t have any redemptive ending.
“What happened to that girl he was dating?”
“I don’t know. Which one? There were a few. But I wouldn’t know.”
In my old room at that time there was a young boy – he was maybe eighteen – who had run away from home. He was a skinny blond kid, and looked terribly, terribly young. He had ridden freight trains down to New Orleans. I couldn’t believe people still did that. Johnny helped get him a job working for a circus – I couldn’t believe people still did that either. The circuses wintered on the Gulf, and moved north in the springtime. Johnny had worked for them himself as a young man.
So he and I found ourselves seated at his old kitchen table – which hadn’t changed at all in all this time, of course, the same salt shakers, the same old clocks, the same dishes – and got caught up once again. We talked of our lovelives and then of people we knew.
“So what ever happened to that kid who came down here on the freight trains as a hobo?”
“The one who joined the circus.”
“Yeah, Kyle. He, uh – he had a little accident with an elephant.” The way Johnny said this – he’s an Italian from Staten Island, and he can go the gangster deadpan like no one’s business – was really pretty priceless.
“You’re kidding me.”
“Kind of sad. Yeah, the elephant really hurt him pretty bad. He was pretty messed up.”
I know I’m a horrible person, but again, I just couldn’t help laughing the New Orleans laugh – the desperate laugh against the absurd horror of it all. “An accident with an elephant! The elephant stomped him out!”
Johnny smiled a bit himself – it was absurd. Kyle was such an innocent little boy – it would make sense that he would not quite have the instincts to know when a large animal was telling him to buzz off. “Well, it was pretty bad. He was in the hospital for awhile.”
The current roommate Johnny had had been in a bad bicycling accident, and despite wearing a helmet had suffered serious head trauma, and his rehab process had been long and difficult. Speaking to each other I think we both knew that we too, because of our desire to live artistic lives – Johnny with his music, me with my writing – were exposed. We were fighting to make sure our story didn’t end this way.
Because there were so many bad stories. New Orleans seemed to gather them – all the loose-end men of the country: no wives, no children, no one to love them, no family that was there when it counted, no steady job, no health insurance, no property, no prospects. Like trees ripped from the banks of the river, they float down and pile up here, waiting for the next flood to shoot them out to sea.
I had been encouraged to go see Robert Plant by a groundskeeper at the Chalmette National Cemetery; and he had picked the right guy to sell me on, because I always lean towards the epic, and when you give songs titles like “The Battle of Evermore” you’re certainly at least aiming big. I’ve enjoyed some of the highlights of Plant’s later career too, songs like “Shine It All Around” or “Please Read the Letter,” so it seemed he still had at least something left. Rock music seems to be like poetry: souls involved in it have a brief shelf life, and it is rare to find someone doing vital new work after forty; those who do typically require tremendous amounts of self-reinvention and a willingness to get multiple transfusions from other artists, often from very distant artists.
Were it not for the fact that I had kept up a bit with Plant over the past decade, I would not have recognized him when he came out onstage: the curly blonde hair is there, but the face and body have so thickened and coarsened that it is hard for me to imagine him as the same person who fronted Led Zeppelin. I suppose we are all more or less sensitive to different forms of aging, as to different types of faces; and since when I look in the mirror I think my face is fleshy and graceless, I am sensitive to seeing someone age out of the grace I envy. Plant looks a great deal like an old truckdriver now, and his face looks unusually American for an old British rocker.
But you can tell he’s Plant when he sings, and I have to say, his voice is quite extraordinary, and has aged unusually well: he cannot reach the high notes anymore, but they were always screechy for him anyway, and it is just as well that he takes his songs elsewhere now. But he still has a high, powerful voice, and his lower notes have grown much richer and fuller with age.
He performed for something like an hour, his songs divided into three categories: 1) Led Zeppelin songs, usually updated with some kind of Third World flavor (the traditional Paul Simon reinvention approach) 2) covers of traditional American songs 3) his own solo music, which has a general recipe: an exotic World Music drone, a Led Zep big drum line, and some mysterious, moodful lyrics.
It’s a pleasant enough formula, and it works, though my favorite part of his show were his few ventures into the “roots” music. He sang his own version of a Bukka White song, “Fixin’ to Die Blues,” which he didn’t have to say had been in his mind when Led Zep recorded “In My Time of Dying.”
I think I sensed from him some kind of guilt at the way he and the other early British rockers plagiarized the old Blues musicians, most of whom lived and died poor while their white plagiarizers became millionaires, got knighted, and bought castles. But as Vergil said of his own thefts of Homer, people do not know how much talent it takes to steal from a master. The old Blues music was full of all kinds of material suited for the radio, but it needed a great deal of transformation before that would be possible. People like Page and Plant and Clapton added a great deal – and a great deal that was great too – and you can hear it when comparing Plant’s version of Fixin to Die Blues [embedded] and the original; some people will prefer the original, but Plant’s is different and certainly more popular in treatment. “In My Time of Dying” is even further developed.
Blues music is mostly for white people now, and the old power it had – witness Son House – is buried with those old black men who sleep in those graveyards from Mississippi to Michigan. But I had no problems listening to Plant sing these songs – oddly enough, a life of sex, drugs, and Rock n’ Roll seemed to have provided misery enough. Plant as he sang did in fact sound like he knew what it meant to be fixing to die.
The material of the song– being on one’s deathbed – is suited to the genre, and highly expressive in all its several lyrical versions.
Feeling funny in my mind [other version: “in my eyes”]
Believe I’m fixing to die.
Feeling funny in my mind -
I believe I’m fixing to die.
Lord I don’t mind dying -
But I hate to see my children cry.
Plant’s presence onstage is most impressive, and it was clear that the crowd wanted no one but him. He made strange motions to elicit applause, gently sweeping his hands down to the ground as if sweeping applause up from beneath the stage, but it was effective. He seemed above pleasing the crowd, but also above wanting to displease the crowd: being in front of a crowd was simply part of his life, and something he had to do well in order to live well. There were any number of songs I wished he had performed but didn’t – “Hey Hey What Can I Say”, or “When the Levee Breaks” – but it was a good performance, and I left with an improved opinion of the man, and a deeper curiosity about the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of all this music, where I was headed.
I will add a few notes about Jazzfest: New Orleans erupted in Jazzfest mockery a few years ago when it was announced that Bon Jovi would headline the festival – the accusation being that Bon Jovi has nothing to do with Jazz, or New Orleans, or the Blues, or anything, and his presence just showed that the festival was drifting off where all American culture was going: celebrity-worship over substance, and profitmaking above all. This accusation can be sustained, but in many ways Jazzfest has gotten so big and so popular that this is the most logical, and even the most appropriate direction for it to go. Plant and Clapton and Springsteen and Bon Jovi and all the other big-name musicians who have been at this festival in recent years are all accustomed to performing stadium music for stadium crowds; and now that Jazzfest takes place on a stadium scale, this is the only music that really works well there. The Gospel music belongs in a church; the Blues music belongs in a bar; the New Orleans brass belongs on the street. And all of those musicians do in fact perform at Jazzfest, not only at the fest itself but they perform at all sorts of venues through the city while Jazzfest goes on.
What is more, Plant and Clapton and others have also become museum pieces of a certain sort, as Rock music itself becomes another artifact of a passing cultural style. And they have much to say about the Blues and Jazz music that inspired their own styles, for they were its inheritors.
People in New Orleans were also complaining about the cost of Jazzfest – the day ticket I bought was $70 – and it was certainly the case that the crowd was upscale and almost all white. The crowd did not resemble New Orleans at all. It was mostly tourists, in fact.
I consider it one of the marks of a great Metropolitan culture to make its cultural riches accessible to its poor citizens, and I think the same should be done with Jazzfest, but I can say that there is no doubt that even as it is this great musical gathering benefits the city in myriad ways, not only as a massive local moneymaker: it employs almost all the great New Orleans acts, who are all invited, and brings them into close contact with many of the world’s great musicians, who come to perform and also to listen. And all these musicians fill the bars and clubs too, putting on all kinds of cheap shows, which all the New Orleans residents have stories about: being in the bar that night when Robert Plant came in and performed, or Mick Jagger, or Wynton Marsalis.
As for me, I pronounced myself happy with the day, and rode my bike on back to catch up with Johnny Angel.
From Arcadian Books I headed for Jazzfest, well-armed with sunblock and big cowboy hat. Jazzfest is the last of the great New Orleans festivals, and it ushers in the hot weather. I’ve never been in New Orleans in the summer, but a friend from the city, who is not given to exaggeration, said simply of it, “Oh John, it’s horrible. It’s really horrible.” Jazzfest is a kind of prophecy of it: the festival is held at a wide-open racetrack, where there is no shade, and sometimes you just marvel at the heat: a forerunner of the breathless, windless, swampy inferno New Orleans becomes as the temperature slowly climbs. Everyone feels it: the crowd labors with a kind of reptile slowness, and the performers, who are rather obliged by their work to expend energy, just sweat and sweat. Of course it is sensual in its own way, though it is amazing, for us New Yorkers, to see all one’s motivation gone, and so quickly. Even in the earliest morning, by late April in New Orleans you wake up sweating in the soft air, and you find yourself unwilling to do anything at all: you just hope that if you lay in bed long enough it will get cooler somehow. If the sun comes in your bedroom window you fry in its hot light. The city’s activity starts to move to the shade, or wait for night. Jazzfest offers neither, and the only viable alternative is airy clothing (my oh my the ladies do not wear very much), very large hats, and a great deal to drink.
You can spend a great deal of time wandering from place to place at Jazzfest, but I was something of a New Orleans veteran and knew to hit a few things and make sure they were good ones. I stopped in the Gospel tent – but only briefly, you can get Gospel music that good in most of the black churches of the South, and there you get it in its proper context; I passed by the Blues tent, which has gotten too popular – can’t ever see anything in there; and headed to see Kermit Ruffins. Ruffins is a New Orleans standard: not a genius, but journeyman performer who represents true New Orleans brass, which is a popular music and does not need to take itself too seriously. My own conceptions of “Jazz” had, before New Orleans, been corrupted a bit by its more dour and artful and New Yorky practitioners like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, who are about as fun as Tolstoy at a Superbowl party. In New Orleans five tuba players can get up and dance around with umbrellas on their heads and feather boas on and call it “Jazz.” Kermit Ruffins was a bit more artful than that, but definitely in that school. You knew that if his band showed up to your party it’d be to make sure everyone had a good time. For years Ruffins has done regular weekly shows at chosen venues in the city, while also doing irregular shows that involve him cooking barbecue while performing onstage.
And he was great at Jazzfest as usual, alive and vibrant and funny, and lighthearted in the true New Orleans tradition (Ruffins is a native). When I see this New Orleans culture, I think of the words of Anthony Wells, a New Orleanian interviewed by Daniel Baum after Hurricane Katrina. Wells’s father was from New Orleans, and they moved back from the West when Wells was a child:
Then one day I woke up from a nap in the backseat and everything was green. I mean like green. Water everywhere. It looked like we were driving over water that had this thin skin of grass on top, like if you scraped up a spoonful of grass you’d find water underneath. And that spooky Spanish moss shit hanging from the trees – you ever see that? Like you’re in a horror movie. Green. And my dad’s music came on the radio. You should have seen my parents, man. Like they got their groove back. ‘Here we are. We’re in New Orleans,’ my dad says, and I’m seeing it, this place I been dreaming about. It’s all jam-packety, pretty old houses lined up one beside the other, each one a different color, with curlicues and flowers, and man, streets just full of people. White people, black people, mixed-race people, all jumbled up together and walking. Music right on the sidewalk and everything, and I don’t mean like one nigger with a guitar, but a whole band and drum set and everything, like the whole city is a big party. I’m looking out the window, eyes big as saucers – eight years old – and I’m thinking, this is a whole different way to be a Negro; I’m thinking, this is where Daddy gets his groove.
We pull up to a light, and a cop car pulls right next to us. The cops are white, of course, but not like the storm troopers they got out in California; they’re kind of fat and rumpled up, like a couple of plumbers or something, you know what I’m saying? They kind of nod and smile, and Daddy smiles back. Smiling at a couple of white cops!
Ruffins’ music has that native vibe; and it was nicely brought into relief by a performer he brought up with him, Nayo Jones, from a Chicago family that had grown up in Phoenix: she had a tough, aggressive stage persona, and sang the Etta James standard “At Last,” and sang it beautifully: soulfully, physically, and powerfully. Even a song about fulfillment became, in her rendition, about longing, about something that is awaited forever and never really comes – all you can do is make art about its coming. Needless to say – I knew the feeling. (I’m posting here a video of Ruffins’ music with some footage from Treme, though the footage actually kind of Coltrane-izes and New Yorkifies the Second Line tradition: it shows how neat it is, but it’s treated as an aesthetic object rather than a living ritual; but it gets better as it goes on.)
From Ruffins’ performance I headed for the Gentilly stage to put myself in good positon to see Robert Plant as the final act of the evening. As a warmup I was treated to a show by the Mavericks. The Mavericks were a kind of hybrid zydeco-country-Tex-Mex band with Roy Orbison flavor, also good-timing by nature, led by a big fat blackbeard in a cowboy hat and black shirt printed with blazing red roses. I particularly liked a dance-hall tune they did which I thought promised to stay in the relationship “as long as there’s love and delight,” which I thought was a pretty good definition of light-hearted love, though a later check on the lyrics told me it was “as long as there’s lovin’ tonight.” A bit crasser but I suppose that’s all right too. But of course I really was waiting for the big show, the legend that is Robert Plant. I thought it would be an interesting context for him – the festival celebrated all the American source-springs that had flown into British Rock and Roll, and it would be a great opportunity for the old rocker to explore those roots a bit. I was curious. And I would be real close too. The main stage was taken up by the band Phish, who had drawn most of the young folk, and I had been there for the warm-up act too, and by now was right by the stage.
I remember not that long ago there were used bookshops in all the better little towns in America, and in great cities like New York – which was really at the time just an assemblage of better little towns, with an ethnic flavor – there were very many great used bookstores. Invariably each was staffed by an older man, frequently a bachelor, and always someone who had not known much in the way of worldly success: not quite conformist enough for the world to do anything with, and not ambitious or extroverted to make anything of himself. We all recognized each other as a class, and together we constituted probably the group who gain the greatest pleasure from books, presumably because in our lives there were not many other competing pleasures. In any number of small towns in America – Saugerties, Oberlin, Havre de Grace, Geneva, Somerville, Kingston, Murray Hill, downtown Philadelphia – I remember these great booksellers, who carried and recommended – and loved – those myriads of books which no one finds on bestseller lists, and no one studies in schools, but will forever please the bookish thoughtful literate nonconformists of the world – The Sketch Book, Travels in Arabia Deserta, The Decline of the West, Dichtung und Wahrheit, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Rome and a Villa, The Haunted Bookshop, The Vicar of Wakefield, anything by Richard Burton, or Augustus Hare – books which seem to exist nowhere except in used bookshops where the proprietor always knows if he has a copy, and always knows where it is.
We thought the internet might improve the trade for such booksellers, but all it seems to have done is shutter their storefronts; I suppose many are still in the business, packing books out of some basement where no one comes in to ask them for recommendations or listen to them explain why they think Great Expectations will never compare with The Old Curiosity Shop (or is it Little Dorrit? Or Dombey and Son? I always forget. One of the Dickens novels no one reads is supposedly one of his best) as a novel. I will confess that I miss such men: I miss their simple love for certain great authors, their animated attacks against academia, the utter ramshackleness of their overcrowded shops, their strange ability to have good books onhand and let the trash books go their own way, the funny way they had to reach for their mouses when using their computers because of the sheer amount of crap on their desks.
Well, of course in New Orleans all this exists, and it is at Arcadian Books, where Russell Desmond sits day in and day out in a tiny room which seems that if he tried to put one more book in it he himself would have to sit outside. As it is, you are tripping over piles of books in the two-foot wide somewhat-circular path which makes its way through the tiny shop. Books are three deep on the shelves – Russell says he has 15,000 of them in the one room – and there is a couch which is easy to miss because it is entirely covered with books in boxes. Russell sits at a desk – which is, again, camouflaged with books the way the army camouflaged bunkers with bushes – by the window, with multiple tomes open in front of him all day long. His passion is 19th century French conservatism – and let it be said that Louisiana might be the only plausible place in the world for such a passion to exist – and when English translations of such writers appear, it is often his work. He also writes essays about them for appropriately obscure periodicals. On this particular day he was reading de Tocqueville – pronounced correctly, with a short ‘o’ and the double-l nearly subsumed into the long ‘i’ – in French. “People read Democracy in America – or more likely, a few chapters of Democracy in America – in their first year or two of college and they think that’s all de Tocqueville did. They marvel at how insightful it is, how amazing, and then they forget about the fact that that really was just the beginning – de Tocqueville had decades more development ahead of him, and all the insight is there, but it’s so much deeper and wiser later. And nobody studies this, which is crazy, but there you go.”
It was like I had never left. He said he remembered me, but I kind of doubted that. It had been five years since I had been in his shop, and as everyone knows who works in retail or teaching, you remember your first customers, but the middle and later ones have to remember you – there are too many of them. But I had seen him at Easter services, when he was ushering at the Jesuit church downtown, and he knew I was coming.
“Five years? God, has it been that long?”
It probably seemed like a shorter bit of time because, again, we were not really individuals so much as brothers in a certain fraternity, and the conversation he had leaped into with me he had been leaping into with all the other members of the confraternity who had passed through his shop in the past five years.
“So I’m doing a bike trip up the whole Mississippi River. I’m looking for books about the river. What have you got?”
“Oh God, the Mississippi? Do you have a trailer for your bike? There’s a lot of stuff.”
“All I’ve really got is the Twain stuff.”
“Right.” After recommending a collection of travellers’ accounts of Louisiana, he pointed me to a dozen travelogues about the whole river. He started pulling them out and dumping them on top of one of the boxes of books which sat on the couch. I inspected them, but was unhappy with all of them; I came to the conclusion that what makes a travelogue interesting is an interesting author; a boring author can go around the world and note down every single uninteresting thing and miss all the good stuff, whereas Goethe would have something interesting to say about a journey across the room to his chamber-pot.
“Do you have Olmsted’s In the Cotton Kingdom?”
“Sure. Standard.” This was another book for initiates – it turns out that Frederick Law Olmsted, besides being one of the few great landscape architects of all time, was also a superb travel writer, with just as good an eye for telling detail as he had for tree-form and leaf. His account of his Southern travels before the Civil War is the most comprehensive picture of that society in existence – built up out of innumerable tiny details, whose number and suggestiveness immediately establish credibility. It is a slightly exhausting book, the way real life is exhausting, but for all those with an appetite for reality, it is captivating. I wanted to look it over while in the South myself. When Russell dropped it onto my pile I nearly decided to leave it behind – it must have weighed three pounds in hardback – but I wanted it and it did in fact come with me.
“Do you have a guide to the wildflowers of the lower Mississippi?”
“You know, I don’t, and I’ve been looking for one, but I don’t know of one. I do have the guide to trees of the Southeast, which I buy new just to have it onhand, because it is the standard work. Let me show you that.”
Tree guides were less useful – trees are easier to identify in the field without help – but looking it over, I thought I might be able to learn the Southern oaks with this book. I picked it up. “I don’t know what to do about a flower guide. I looked at the Zoo, but their gift shop had no scientific content – it was just merchandising directed at kids.”
He grimaced and waved his hand. “Oh, what some of these institutions are doing, it’s a disgrace. I mean, is it about knowledge or is it about selling stuffed polyester garbage? ‘Save the environment,’ give me a break. You might try the Botanical Gardens, I mean, they should have one, though these days you never know.”
I wasn’t sure I was going to have enough time to get over to the Botanical Garden, which as I recollected was not the best. The rest of today I would be at Jazzfest; I was hoping to go into the Atchafalaya Basin tomorrow with a friend from the Army Corps of Engineers to talk about the single greatest danger to the existence of New Orleans, which was the Atchafalaya River. And Monday it really would be time to start cycling.
“I think I’ll take these two books,” I said.
“Going with the classics.”
“As always. So how are things here? You seem well, actually. It’s a pleasure to see the place – it’s not much changed.”
“Oh, here in the shop no, there’s no change. How are things going? I don’t know. You know, I look at all these other people, and they’ve got their houses and all this money and their careers and I think, ‘Really? Is this what gets ahead?’ You know, you think when you’re younger that it’s some kind of merit or something, but then you get older and you just say, I don’t know. You know, my brother, I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love him to death, but I just think, ‘He’s very successful, and what am I going to have?’ I don’t know, I’ve just been thinking about it.” He was not as young as he once was – much of his light hair was gray now. ”You know, a few years ago I had a few people in the shop, this couple and this other guy, and this girl – I’ve got to say, she was stunning. You know, girls like this, they’re trying to get interested in books, and basically they all buy one of two things – for some reason they always buy Jane Austen, or Edgar Allan Poe. I don’t know what it is, but it’s always one of those two. So she got some Poe short stories, and her boyfriend, he was all into ‘modern poetry,’ and I have some good stuff here, but what he got was just dreadful, I could tell he had no idea what he was doing, he was so clearly a pretender. And his friend, I could tell what kind of guy he was, kind of conservative guy, well-dressed, not the same kind of flash that the pretentious poet had, by any means, but he was interested in conservative politics and he ended getting a copy of the Federalist Papers and some of the writings of Tom Paine. And I thought, you know, this guy, he’s the most straightforward of the three of them, but he chose something with substance – something that he’s actually going to read and think about, and makes sense for his life. And you know, there it is. She was completely with the wrong guy. And here’s the topper – as they’re about to leave, the poet-guy steps out with his girlfriend, and says to me that his friend is picking up the bill. So he gets the girl with all his pretend nonsense while the other guy with substance pays for it all. I thought that pretty much summed it all up, academia, politics, economics, life in general.”
I thought there were any number of places where I could object to this particular story, but the feeling was what mattered: the feeling we get that we are in the presence of a continuously unfolding injustice, which stretches from cradle to grave and is sadly – tragically – renewed with every birth. We all know this feeling, whatever we may think constitutes good evidence and cause for it. Whether or not the world should belong to such as us – well, perhaps it shouldn’t. He and I had bonded over the Latin poems of Baudelaire, which I found in his shop. It had occasioned another tirade. ”Baudelaire is one of the greats, and he wrote all these poems in Latin, and no one even looks at them, I mean, maybe if you’re lucky someone has read Les Fleurs du Mal – I’m not even going to mention the people who have never heard of Baudelaire, I mean my God Lord knows there are enough of them - but there’s so much more that people never go into. There’s an entire ocean of great literature out there, people, and it’ll get more than just your ankle wet, but you have to actually go in at some point.” Actually he didn’t use that last metaphor, but I could write dialogue for Russell all day long, he and I share so much.
But of course we nonconformists contain many bristly points which we do not share. I learned also that Russell had been reading the writings of Jefferson Davis. “It’s not politically correct, but honestly, some of these guys really stand up. Davis was brilliant. No one wants to say it now, but you go read that stuff and tell me it doesn’t stand up.”
I should have asked him what precisely I should read, but I did not at the time. I’m sure it does not stand up, to be honest; everything I have read of those men suggests precisely the low mentality one would expect of a slaver. I was already familiar with this side of Russell. On earlier occasions he told me that “All the heroism, all the true nobility, was entirely on the side of the South in the Civil War,” which is false from top to bottom (and which I mentioned in conversation later on the trip, with interesting results), and he also said, “Lincoln was the worst president this country ever had. The whole crusade mentality that has been such a decisive factor in our foreign policy so many times originates with Lincoln. You look at all the presidents before, they didn’t have that. Now it’s pretty much a continual danger that some American president will go off on some crusade or other. It’s almost expected now.” I spoke with someone else about this too, also with interesting results, later on my trip from South to North. Here all I will note is that there are many people – a surprising number, in fact – all through the South, who imagine, as Shelby Foote said, that it is July 3rd, 1863, and it is still possible that everything can turn out entirely differently.
In fact, it was probably the Mississippi River that determined the war, for it was a huge, flat, almost indefensible highway, slowly pushing from North into South, flowing through the wealthiest area of the Confederacy and right through the middle of its one great city. Victory was impossible, if not given their indefensible cause, then given the river, and the river was a given.
The next day I brought my stuff over to my old haunt, Johnny Angel’s place in Carrollton. I had rented a room there five years ago; and I had always been impressed by Johnny, and wanted to get a chance to talk to him again. He had real depth as a person; he was thoughtful and loyal and had actual knowledge and experience of life. I would spend two nights on his couch. I had a lot I wanted to do that day, so I was going to drop my stuff off and head out immediately. I was planning on going to Jazzfest, but I wanted to go down to the French Quarter first to hit Arcadian Books, one of the few great bookshops left in the country. I’d talk to Johnny when I got home that night.
Coming up the steps I stopped in my tracks – then started laughing. This was why I loved New Orleans so much – why it was in certain ways my natural city. I hate change. When I was a kid my mom used to have to throw my shoes out because I would never, of my own accord, get rid of my old ones: I would walk around with my toes sticking out of them, but not throw them out. She had to buy me new shoes without me trying them on, because I considered it infidelity to my old shoes to get new ones. I treated my bike the same way: it was the same bike I had had for fifteen years, and despite the fact that it was heavy and not suited for this trip I was not going to get a new one. It had been across the country, through Italy, even to Canada and Mexico. It was my bike, that was the end of the story. I didn’t want another. My tent was also fifteen years old, and it didn’t keep out rain anymore, but it was my tent and I was going to be loyal to it.
Well, next to the door at Johnny Angel’s place was a little sign that said
BELL NOT WORKING
It was the one I had put up five years ago, when a friend came over and stood at the door ringing the doorbell for five minutes before he realized the bell didn’t work. It was still there.
My brother had a similar story about New Orleans. He had stayed at a friend of a friend’s place, which happened to be an old brothel. The brothel was a normal-sized house which happened to have about twenty rooms, most of them big enough for just a bed. It was a great guest house for Mardi Gras of course, but otherwise during the year most of the little rooms were not used. My brother came twice, separated by four years. The first time there were some home improvements being done, and the windows in my brother’s room were getting caulked. A tube of caulk, with its caulking gun, were on the windowsill. Four years later, when my brother was led to the same room and put his pack down, he saw the same caulking tube and gun, on the same windowsill. He said it was even pointed in the same direction.
My friend Tom and I, after a few beers at a local saloon, went on down to the Mississippi to get a look. As we stood there, the cool air off the river blowing the hair back from our faces, a little man – he was so little I thought he might be a dwarf – with a beard asked me how I liked the French Quarter.
“I love it,” I said. “Like pretty much everyone else.”
“Yeah,” he said, in a strange, high-pitched voice. “Well, if you want to see where things are really at, like the really cool neighborhood, you have to come to the Lower Ninth Ward. That’s where I live.”
I wasn’t sure if this person was being facetious or not. The Lower Ninth Ward was interesting as a kind of symbol of Hurricane Katrina devastation and the problems of how to redevelop the city, but I had no doubt it was not “where it’s at.” But I decided to let this person be; he was just a harmless booster.
After we were a safe distance away, Tom said, “I bet you don’t see that every day in the Catskills.”
“That bearded lady over there.”
“What do you mean?”
He laughed. “John! That was a bearded lady!”
I thought Tom was being facetious. “I thought that was a guy, like a midget or something.”
“Didn’t you notice the voice?”
“His voice was very high, that’s true.”
“She’s a bearded lady! I’ve seen her around before. I think she works in like freak shows and things around town.”
I had no doubt that he thought she/he was a bearded lady, and who knows: I had to admit that in New Orleans, it was possible.
As I was wandering around uptown looking at the streets I used to know so well – Birch and Short and Fern and Oak – I heard a high-pitched voice on a microphone crying out: “I have bananas… I have … strawberries… I have… asparagus… I have pineapples.” I turned the corner and saw a pickup in the middle of the block. It was painted with various vegetables on a background of red and black, and said, “Mr. Okra.” People came out of their houses, white and black, and stood around the pickup to buy fruit. There were not many customers, so this was hardly a fad or popular sensation, but it was obvious that for some this was the way they “made their groceries.” I picked up a quart of Pontchatoula strawberries myself. A skinny white mother, young child on hip, came up to the truck’s driver and made small talk. ”Hey there Mr. Okra how are you?” Mr. Okra seemed a bit sunk in his chair, looking old and unhealthy (and quite rotund). A younger, very happy-looking black man handled all the business in the back. Again I found myself thinking, “How come New Orleans does everything more interestingly than everyplace else in America?” Apparently there’s a documentary about Mr. Okra. [The lens on my camera was a bit smudged, but the pics are worth posting.]
I stopped off while uptown at my old parish, Mater Dolorosa, to see if I could see my old pastor, whom I knew simply as John. He was the only priest I have ever known to inspire me to come to mass every Sunday; he was one of the few priests that I have ever felt really respected and loved his parishioners. I rang at the parish office and asked for him, but he had retired; the secretary made it very clear I would not be seeing him around there anymore. She wasn’t terribly friendly about it; perhaps she was busy.
He always used to say, “The Lord is with you,” instead of “The Lord be with you.” When I first heard this, I thought it was another of these nonsense feel-goody things Vatican-II-type priests might say; but like most forms of nonconformity, it made me think. I looked at that Greek and Latin forms, which lack verbs, and so the translation using the indicative, rather than the optative, is not obviously wrong. And the more I thought of it, the more I thought his was the better translation. God is with you, realized or not, wished or not. Indeed that might be the key realization. Wishing it might be counterproductive, in that it suggests that God is not there, or that God’s presence was the kind of thing we could attain by wishing. All you can do is realize. His translation is at least suggested by what Samuel says to David: “Omne quod est in corde tuo vade fac quia Dominus tecum est.” ”All that is in your heart go, do. For the Lord is with you.”
But like good people everywhere, he had been shuffled along by the world. If I were running the world, I’d promote people like him until all the important decisions were made by such men. But I suppose most priests find themselves pretty busy, so I presume the church has not banished him to idleness. He was a good man. Though I suppose it must have been difficult to work with him: he was like the cool teacher in a school: his masses were always packed, and no one came to the masses held by other priests. He gave short – always under three minutes – incisive sermons, and I always felt I learned something when he spoke. It was a pleasure to come back week after week, and after years I presume he had long forgotten me, but I had not forgotten him.