February 23, 2007

Answers, Schmanswers: 2/22 UNOP Public Comment Meeting

“Can you tell me what page that’s on?” This lawyer-like prick sits behind the City Council table and gazes at the woman at the podium. “I just want to follow along with you.”

Since she’s pointed out a flaw in the plan under review, he’s decided to use an old trick to fluster her and quell the momentum. His implied point: she probably hasn’t even read the plan, and thus shouldn’t be bitching. The problem is, she’s reading off of a print-out from planners themselves; she has her facts straight. A member of the UNOP team speaks up.

“It’s in Appendix B.”

So who’s read the plan after all?

The plan in question: the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), the supposedly-central document in the recovery process. Once (if) completed and approved by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the UNOP will serve as the blueprint for the distribution of funds and efforts to restructure and rebuild this city. The plan is the result of meetings at the neighborhood and city-wide level between citizens and the urban planners hired by the city. The two meetings we attended were scarily hopeful; the city-wide in particular was a dazzling exercise in democracy, with people voting through laptops and hand-held devices provided by the consultants. Votes were instantly shown on a large screen and then discussed again and then narrowed down and made final. Or so we thought.

Because regardless of what the good people at round tables in the Convention Center voted on a month ago, this all must pass through the City Planning Commission. And let me tell you what: that’s a sad-sack, grayish group of people who seem anything but alert, much less eager to help.

Before them sat several of the consultants who helped run the earlier congresses and sew together the plan. These UNOP folks seemed quite comfortable at those meetings, but a little reluctant at this one. Behind the consultants: the public, or at least those of us who go to such things. I’m a little new to City Council meetings, so perhaps I’m not used to the treatment one receives as a member of the public.

We heard several citizens from the Lower 9th Ward complain about a proposed replacement bridge at Florida Avenue. The response from consultants and commission: that’s a federal project, outside our purview, ask the Army Corps of Engineers. Ask the Corps? Do you know how that sounds to a resident of that neighborhood? Ask the Corps? And if this is supposed to be our plan, how much of it is outside the purview? This is the whole city, right?

Another tactic of the Commission, which, unlike the consultants and the public, seems very unfamiliar with this whole process, was the stress on talking about what was in the plan. This meant they’d give an impatient sight when people told them, “THIS is not in the plan and it should be.” It took three tries before they’d admit the Florida Avenue bridge ought to be in the plan if all these folks were pissed off.

The Commission slouched and tolerated the commentary of the sensible and unstable alike, and did little to question comments or the consultants. Occasionally they pointed out that the neighborhood, or "district," plans would also be reviewed, even though we were told that these were the building blocks of the current plan. Sound confusing?

They also noted that they'd only recently received the district plans, so they couldn't comment on that, though some of them said they hadn't received those, and the woman who distributed the plans admitted she did not follow up to see if the they had been delivered or not, and the gap here provided a good way to elude responsibility while admitting stupidity and helplessness. Sound maddening?

Worst of all, no one--not consultants, nor commissioners--wanted to provide timelines or start dates for anything, and any question of time was greeted with silence or buck-passing. Fittingly, there were no hands on the clock above the chamber door (literally), and there seemed to be no urgency to translate plan into action, only to stutter and scoff and dick around until another year has passed and we’ll have no idea what comes next.


February 21, 2007

Mardi Gras (B)log 2/21: Recap the Madcap

“C’monnnnnn, bra. You gotta take me back uptown.”

“Man, fuck you, I told you already I’m not taking you up there. We’re half-way to Alabama, bra.”

It is not dawn, it is dusk; we are not in an argument, we are in-between jags of laughter.

“Man, you’re treating me like Changeman over here.”

Josephus has grapefruit all over his burned red face and I’m wearing a straw hat that belongs to our host, Miyako, who sits between us on the back steps. She holds her poodle and keeps telling us we can’t stay all night, she just wants us off the property. The property is a grand old affair of shaggy grass and banana trees, the corpses of an old Mercedes van and a Cadillac in the carport, numerous stray cats, and a pool full of green water. The house is all paint chips and cork board and windows, with a fully-stocked fridge, and a wide brick patio. This is the end of Mardi Gras day and the gentle peace of the Bywater is a good place for the last burning off of vapors. If we could wish for anyplace to bring this thing to an end, we couldn’t have picked a better spot. Of course, FJ and I can’t do much of anything at this point, but he’d better damn well take me home.

“What, you’re gonna leave me all the way out here?”

What follows is an assortment of events, over-heards, sightings, and comments for which I have little in the way of chronological memory. It became evident early on in the run that I’m not one for note-taking, and that old Mardi Gras instincts kick in and unhinge many a responsibility. There was simply no way to be a recorder when you’re busy being a walker, dancer, screamer, and guzzler. From the contents of my suit pockets, I shake out the following…

The Prepared Warriors

The pirate holds court in the Chart Room, just where his wife told me I’d find him. His long, leather-sheathed arms dangle on the shoulders of visitors as they all pose for a photo. I sidle up to him after the shot and see that he’s wearing the cat-eye contacts and prosthetic elf-ears. All 6’6” of him is ready for anything, be it battling warlocks or surprising tourists. “I got the orange juice, a shitload of rum, some herbal tea…..” Like any veteran of hardcore drinking during Mardi Gras, the pirate carries his own thermos with his own special concoction. And like all in his ilk, he’s only too eager to tell you the ingredients. An anecdote from a past carnival, as related to me by this swashbuckler:

“So I had the six pack in my coat pockets, coat just like yours, a flack jacket, and the guy had some scotch. I said, ok, dude, cool, here’s some beers. Pull that out, he gives me some scotch, like niiiice. Another guy says, hey, anyone have any whiskey? I’m like, wham, here you go, pull that out. So they’re like, let’s fuck with the Pirate, you know, test him. Guy’s like, you have anything to eat in there, Pirate? I pull out the chili dogs, say, take that, bro. Oh yeah.”

I get Bloody Mary #1 of the day and tell him I’m gonna have to take a walk.

In Jackson Square, the true, radical, misfit soldiers of the Religious Right have set up camp at the uptown side of Chartres Street. They are not new to Mardi Gras, but my memory of them is usually isolated to Bourbon Street, where they’d march periodically. I’ve never seen them in the Square. But whatever, that’s their dance, better to ignore them. I take a seat on a bench next to a tarot card reader. She and I talk for a minute about face painters and the general business this year, then I lean back and close my eyes awhile. The sun is strong, the sky bright, and I need a rest. But here come these “Christians,” making their move in front of the benches, chanting their hateful slogans. As they begin to pass me, I stand up on the bench.

“How many of y’all think these guys have gone a little too far?” I call out. The square is somewhat busy, and there’s a smattering of applause. “You know what really pisses these guys off?” I ask. “You know what makes them realllly angry?”

One of these fools calls out, “You do!” and I smile.

“What you can do to make ‘em mad is get your palm read! Get yourself a tarot card reading right now!” People cheer some more. A small guy walks up to me.

“Hey,” he says. “We’re trying to run a business here.”

“What business?”

He looks confused. “Are you for or against the tarot card readers?”


“Carry on, then.”

“Get your palms read! It’s the best thing for you, for New Orleans, and for Jesus Christ!”

I sit back down, sip my drink, close my eyes. The “Christians” are down in front of the cathedral now, but their rants are interrupted by a gutter-punk acrobat show. After awhile, I get up and walk down Pirate’s Alley.

Review of the Troops

The Tucks parade rolls in full glory down St. Charles Avenue and passes us at Erato Street around 1:30pm. The sun has finally broken through after a cold morning and FJ and I are feeling alright. I know a couple riding in the parade, so we wait for the expected windfall. When they do float past, it takes my fullest screams to get their attention. They both see me and scoop up clusters of beads and cock their arms. The crowd is too thick to get a direct shot at me, so I run alongside the float, dodging children and lawn chairs. Finally, my friend's wife drops two great medallions to me, then my friend hurls an enormous tangle down at me. It lands right in my Bloody Mary. Instantly I'm covered in tomato juice and vodka, with a motherload of beads in my hands. But what a score.

FJ and I go home to get bikes so we can ride up to Tulane for my radio show at 6pm. Because of the evening parades, barriers block Napoleon Avenue, so we ride down to Tchoupitoulas to get uptown. As we cross Napoleon, we pass by a sea of marching bands. One after another, uniformed high school students wait for their turn to enter the parade. Down past the big supermarket, the bands take up both lanes as they stand in varying stages of attention. Majorettes twirl batons lazily while horn sections blow riffs and the drumlines goof off. We coast past them as the dusk ends, their hats and tightly tied braids and crew-cuts lit from behind by the setting sun. For all the noise and assorted vehicles, the bands emit a gentle innocence, with line after line of kids taking steps into the foray.

At the Spotted Cat

My friend Bill yells into my ear, “That’s my boss!” He points to the large bass player who’s leading the band on the corner stage and absolutely killing it. Bill is grinning his brains out and laughs, tells me he fucking loves this city. Like me, Bill moved down here from New York after the storm, but unlike me, he’s never lived here before, never seen a Mardi Gras.

He’s a bassist with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and he’s now going through a revelation, both of the city’s elements of chance and connection, and of the buried roots of jazz. Bill can pick out individual solos in Ellington recordings, but now he’s up to his neck in the living primordial and he’s falling in love it. It’s great to see this feeling on someone’s face, the glow that only comes from New Orleans and consecutive days of booze and the knowledge that you’re not leaving.

I’m feeling happy, too, because I just got my wallet back. Thought I’d totally blown it, noticing its absence only at the next bar down when I went to pay for some food. I took one trip back to the Spotted Cat, but no one had seen my wallet. Back at the restroom in the other bar, I looked in the mirror and said, “Nah. Fuck that.” I told my friend Barbara that we were going back and finding the damn wallet.

Sure enough, when we walked in, Bill comes up and tells us us someone found it. A nattily dressed older black gentleman hands it over to me at the bar.

“I owe you for life,” I told him. “Anytime I see you, now on, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“I’d rather have $10 and buy my own,” he said. I laughed, but had no more money, so I went and got him a $20. After awhile, now old friends, he keeps telling me he never steals and occasionally holds my hand extra long. Kinda weird, but I got my damn wallet back.

Castaway (Note: I know this happened Monday afternoon)

Sirens blow in the distance as the cops use Tchoupitoulas Street to circumvent the parade. After colder than usual days, the weather verges on perfection, just in time for Lundi Gras. Flavius and I stand in front of an ancient brick building, watching a boy break the window on a detached door. The door leans along the dividing wall that blocks the view of the train tracks and docks that run down the river. My car is parked behind us at the entrance to the old service road and a massive, rusted-out factory sits beyond the brick building.

I brought FJ here to show him the building, which Kim and I found a few weeks ago. This building looks to be from the 19th century, possibly an old tavern or hotel for sailors. The first floor, which had water and garbage in it the last time I visited, now holds a small fortress of doors and sheet metal. The boy looks to be Hispanic, maybe around 14 or 15. FJ and I greet him and he says “Hi,” then continues to break the window, until it’s ready, I guess, and then he carries it down into the first floor.

“You living in here?” I ask him.

He doesn’t seem to understand English, but does nod and say, “Me.” We watch him go about his construction, then leave him, get back in the car.

“You think he was living in there?”

“Hard to tell. He looked pretty clean and all.”

“Might just be a kid playing in the woods.”

As I start the car and u-turn off the rocky service road, we can still see the boy, hammering on an old kerosene canister on the edge of the Mississippi. Just then, a train passes, gives us a long honk.

Return to Gallier Hall

Sean Payton, coach of the NFC West Champion New Orleans Saints, stands atop a float with a microphone in his hand. The crowd in the bleachers on either side of St. Charles cries his name and howls their homage, FJ and I included. While promising an even better season next year, Payton keeps saying, “You tell the mayor I was here. Just let him know.”

He says it with a mischievous tone, almost like he’s winking. What, did Sean Payton fuck the mayor or something? I wonder. He makes a toast, then asks to have the doors to the hall opened. We are on the front steps of the hall, the doors are behind us, probably 20 feet above Payton and 30 feet across. He picks up a football and we start cheering. The first try banks off one of the monumental pillars of the hall. On the next try, the ex-quarterback threads the needle, and soon the float moves on.

Once again, I’m in this place via free tickets to the grandstand from Heather. The crowd tonight is all staffers and friends of the mayor, a pretty respectable looking, mixed crowd. FJ and I stand out pretty bad. We were already at the Krewe of Orpheus parade further uptown on the route, so we have a ton of beads. I’m wearing a red sash around my head and FJ looks like a Starsky & Hutch extra with his leather jacket and long hair. At one point, I jump for some beads and splash beer over a whole family. Man, I’m that guy. I apologize and everyone’s pretty nice about it. FJ is pretty impressed with my grandstand connections. I take his picture as he smiles lasciviously at a bronze statue of a nymph. The parade ends, and we follow in its trash-choked wake.

Mr. Jimmy

On Sunday morning, Kim and I wake up around 11 and drive to Tulane University Medical Center, where Mr. Jimmy sits out Mardi Gras with what appears to be a stroke. Mr. Jimmy is an elderly Greek man who helps out at the restaurant where Kim works. He’s an old friend of the owner, as well as a former merchant marine, a one-time inhabitant of Pittsburgh, and a sweet guy, who buses tables and keeps the waitresses company. Everyone at the restaurant talked last night about how pissed Jimmy must be to be missing the Mardi Gras, knowing how much they need him.

Fortunately, I’d never been to the Tulane hospital. We find it pretty easily, but can’t walk right in. With parts of the hospital closed and no visible security or directions, we end up riding an elevator to a pedestrian walkway on the 2nd floor, crossing to another building, then riding back down to check in on the 1st floor, riding back up to the 7th, and finally find Mr. Jimmy sharing a room with another senior citizen.

Mr. Jimmy seems small, his beard is grown-in a little, but he’s in pretty good spirits. His doctor shows up and explains that he needs to start eating better, which is tough for an old guy who’s lived inside restaurants for half a century. I want to tell the doctor that even though Jimmy’s accent is really strong, he can understand every word of English, but the doctor seems patient enough. He leaves, and the nurse shows up with a meal, so we let Jimmy eat in peace.

Outside we retrace our steps, down and up and across and down again. In this part of town, nothing’s going on. The adjacent hospitals are closed up and the sidewalks are vacant, and you’d barely know Mr. Jimmy or anyone else was there. Mardi Gras feels light years away, when in fact, it’s less than a mile.

What a toll Mardi Gras takes on service workers. I had to break up a hilariously pathetic fight on Saturday night at Kim’s restaurant, between a pretty jacked dude who pushed an old man who’d tried to cut past him in line. The last customers Kim had on Fat Tuesday were a very fat young guy and his father, both horribly drunk. The fat kid puked all over the table, and his father didn’t understand what the big deal was. They locked themselves in the bathroom for an hour. When we walked out of the hospital, we agreed that it was OK if Mr. Jimmy got a little rest instead of dealing with the bullshit.

Because the bullshit did not quit.


Early Tuesday morning, Kim forced Flavius and I to eat sandwiches from a food truck on Frenchman Street. This is the last I eat until I arrive back at the same truck 12 hours later. In between, we dance all up and down the street, then drag our asses all the way home. Kim goes straight to bed and FJ and I stand in the living room debating our next move. We’d been talking for days about rolling down Jackson Avenue to see the Mardi Gras Indians at their traditional early morning starting grounds. But I’m exhausted and decide to cash in at 6am. When I wake at 10:30am on Mardi Gras Day, all of Flavius’s shit was gone and the room cleaned up, so I figured he got a jump on the trip back to Atlanta.

Kim and I hustle down to the Quarter so we’ll have time to walk around and get our faces painted before she has to work. At Iberville and Decatur Street, we watch the legendary Pete Fountain walking krewe pass, and catch a lot of beads. Kim has on her giant sunglasses and boa, and I’m wearing my suit with a big rip in the ass. As we turn away from parade, a guy calls out to me, “Hey, Ferris Bueller!”

We get identical crescents of purple-gold-green and glitter rings painted around our left eyes, and an older tarot reader with long dreadlocks tells me he "likes my style, loverboy.” With my girl and the bright sky, I feel like I just won the lottery. I take Kim back to work and walk off with the boa around my shoulders.

The Quarter is full of people in all states of costume. Countless small krewes march up and down Royal Street, in costumes ranging from Victorian to blackened gothic to walking penis to strippers to Saints fan to geisha girls. For blocks after block, people gather along the street to compare costumes and wish each other a fine Mardi Gras day. The vivid jumble of it all makes me stand against a metal police barrier for a long time, watching the ethereal and the grotesque drift by in equal numbers. A chubby girl with pink hair sings "Amazing Grace" on one corner while a group of frat boys and girls howl in the intersection and a healer tries to remove sin from a whole family on the opposite corner.

At this point, my feet feel like I have rocks in my shoes, no surprise after almost 5 days of aimless walking. My voice is totally shot and I keep thinking I sound like I’m from Treme. The boa is shedding all over the place, the hole in my pants is only getting bigger, revealing half my ass (underwear: on), I’m slightly sunburned, and I know my eyes must be slits because my contacts are worn out. This is my first Mardi Gras in 8 years, I’m older now, but all in all, I feel like I’ve held up ok.

Hell, I’m on the way to Frenchman Street again, to see what I can see. Down there, the street is full of even wilder groups in more psychedelic costumes. Soca music blares from a portable sound system and a “wrestling match” rages between several masked combatants in a roped off “ring.” Feathers and plumes of confetti fill the air, along with several types of smoke. The whole mood feels like a show of force, a demonstration that the weirdos and kids are still here, still sewing together neon blues and lifting their flags. I dance around and run into old acquaintances, but I’m missing something, a group of my own, even just one companion. And just about then, I run into olFlavius. He’s still in town, hasn’t slept, and has Miyako in tow.

Haa HAaaa!” It’s like we haven’t seen each other in ages. “Where you been, male?”

“Shit, I still haven’t slept, bra. I tried to wake you up, but you were out, man. I was like, ‘come on!’”

That crazy bastard had left my house, driven over to Treme, pulled out his bike from the back seat, and rode around checking out the Indians. Then he made Miyako let him in and cook him some bacon. Now here he is, and it’s 2pm and he doesn’t look to be any closer to Atlanta. We eat from the food truck and talk to some real funny friends of his, people I sorta recognize from the past. But just seeing FJ again restarts my lunacy and pretty soon he and I are weaving around making all kinds of trouble.

For some reason, people attempt to drive down Frenchman Street. A few of these are delivery drivers, but most of them are just lost. When we get back to the group, we watch a brand new Mercedes pull up next to Café Brasil. Three young, well-dressed black dudes get out. They may have even been test driving the thing, because they left the sheet with the model number and year in the rear window.

“Man, are you crazy?” we say. “I can’t even believe that.”

Every vehicle on the curb has people leaning on it, their asses on the windows, the roofs acting as bars for empty cans and cups. But these guys leave the Benz there anyway, walk into the club.

“Look how new it is, bra,” FJ says to me.

“They must want a beer shower or something." Then everyone goes back to what they were doing, with some people resting on the hood and trunk of the Benz. When the dudes come back out, they’re like, “Everyone, can y'all please move?” People start to disperse but Flavius and I are still standing next to the car.

“Say, man, why don’t you give us a ride in that thing?”

The driver, who’s probably around 20, thinks for a minute, then says, “Yeah, you know what? I’ll take y’all around the block.”

We get in and it’s like we’re in a space ship on HDTV. There’s a tint to the windows that changes the light inside to a metallic blue, and every inch of the interior leather is new. I make FJ sit his big frame in the middle seat. The dudes pull out and I’m joking about my boa being caught in the door. People in the street go to look in the window and they see these 3 black kids and me and FJ, both looking extra freaky.

The kids are from Hammond, LA, and seem to be on a joyride. At one point, the driver guns it on a side street, and scares a pedestrian and himself, unfamiliar with the car’s power. We all crack up and he decides to do a few laps on Elysian Fields. When it’s over, we tell them thanks and get out, looking at people on the sidewalk and saying, “Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. New Benz. Ye-ah!”

Understanding that this was a suitably high point to end on, we decide to leave Frenchman Street. I guess FJ does say that he won't take me back Uptown, but I go along to the Bywater anyway. We spend probably 2 hours at Miyako’s crumbling mansion, inspecting the old cars and grapefruit tree.

“This is where I’m moving next, man,” I tell FJ.

As we depart, Miyako stands behind the wrought-iron fence holding the poodle.

"Check it out, man. She wants to make sure we're really leaving."

The ride back uptown includes a lot of verbal jousting, a good deal of traffic, a weird scene at a convenience store, and more yelling. I keep telling FJ that he oughta eat some Popeye’s with me and take a nap, but he’s not having it. Finally he agrees to go back to my place and have a drink, but when we get there, Terpsichore Street is closed, a line of yellow police tape across the Camp Street side.

We get out and ask what’s going on. The two guys standing there watching the cops tell us that someone was stabbed. One of them asks if I want to walk around with him and try to get through on Magazine Street. At this point, FJ and I say a quick goodbye and away he goes.

I walk with this guy John, who says he’s a writer living in a flophouse a block down from me, where Magazine is currently blocked by Jersey dividers and cyclone fence. We part ways there and I talk to the cops, who wave me through the tape. When I walk into my front yard, my neighbors are on the porch.

“What happened?” I ask them.

Apparently, one man stabbed another man on Terpsichore, supposedly because the latter was trying to light his car on fire and then pulled a knife when accosted. The owner of the car claims he wrestled the knife away and stabbed the guy. He stayed at the scene of the crime, where my neighbor found the both of them after hearing the ruckus. The stabbed man is dead, my neighbor says. You can still see him. So I get up on the porch and look over and sure enough, there’s a dead body on the curb, cops walking around it.

“Was he still alive when you got there?” I ask.

“I saw him die,” my neighbor says.

Then they realize who I am, that I’m their neighbor but have face paint and beads covering my identity. They just moved from the back apartment to the front, and were in the midst of a BBQ with friends when the attack happened.

“Do you want some food?” asks my neighbor’s wife.

I go in and sit in their dining room with them. They’re a black couple around my age, down here as missionaries for the Presbyterian Church, she from Harrisburg, he from Atlanta. Apparently the church sent organizers to help the existent local groups on the ground in pulling together their resources for ministry and rebuilding. They’ve been in town a little while and seem stunned by what just happened. They also have a ton of food, sausages and chicken and pasta salad, enough for 10 or 15 people. I eat some wings and we talk about the city and how we got here.

“How long do you think y’all will stay?” I ask. And as soon as I ask I realize our context.

“That’s really the question, man,” my neighbor says.

We talk for awhile more and even joke some about this incident as I’m on the way out. But after I get back upstairs and take a nap, I wake up to that same question. Not so much if I’ll stay, but if enough good people will stick it out. These two seemed like nice, well-meaning people, with the right reason for coming down here. And still my neighbor, a minister who’s here to coordinate restoration and prayer, ends up watching a man die behind a storage pod on his own block.

I meant to get Kim some Popeye’s for when she got off work, so I drive uptown and along Carrollton and back down Claiborne, but none of the Popeye’s are open. The neighborhoods were quiet, the streets wet, everything seemed tired like me. Another Mardi Gras, I think.

These are only some of the things I recall about the last 5 days, but I’m exhausted and recounting all of this is exhausting me even more. I did remember a lot of things as Mardi Gras played out, like how it feels to have another 3 days to go, and how it feels when you know there’s only one left. I remembered the superhuman feeling when you walk with a parade of people in an aimless celebration, feeling like you’re best friends with total strangers. I remembered the sad, weird details, like a lonely beggar in the aftermath of the Orpheus parade. I remembered that a suit looks great but suffers from wear, and that sunglasses are a protective in many ways, and that you can only drink so long until it doesn’t matter. I remembered that, when it’s brimming with people, locals and visitors, the city takes on a new madness, a euphoria that can lead to surreal coincidences, the greatest fortune, and the most idiotic violence. People say it all the time: this is the city of paradox. The body of New Orleans trembles in a different rhythm during Mardi Gras, and even if that body is out of shape, bullet-ridden, and bleeding on the inside, that does not mean it can’t get up and dance.

But now we pause and look around at new beads in the trees and kick bottles into the gutter. Life returns to the irregular rhythm of the wounded, with both foreign and familiar shapes dancing along the horizon. The Super Sunday Mardi Gras Indians Showdown happens March 18th and maybe Flavius comes back in town and the weather will be even better and maybe the streets will be cleaned up and maybe the streets won’t be so bloody and maybe we’ll all feel good as new. But right now, I’m going to bed.

February 19, 2007

Mardi Gras (B)log 2/19: Lundi Pause

Been out in it now for a spell. Blogging is a bit like driving, it seems, and I'm in no shape. Be on the lookout. The above was done with a digital camera and quietly conveys the current, during which I'm wearing a burglar's mask. More on Tuesday, surely.

February 17, 2007

Mardi Gras (B)log 2/16: Skull Strategics

I reached St. Charles around 8:30pm, just in time to catch the Krewe D'etat. The first float I saw was titled, "Worst Wing," and featured a large Bush head in the front, and a purple arc in the rear that read "Exit Strategy." The whole thing looked like a sinking ship of fools, with krewe members firing off beads, and figures painted along the bottom of the float: Iraq (a terrorist), Korea (Kim Jong Il), and another, serpentine creature, not sure it's role. Flambeaus walked with their burning lanterns in front and behind the float. I noticed a young white boy, probably 15, among them, which was strange. He carried a sign that read "CommanDUH in Chief." The marching band from Chalmette High was not far back and I think that school must've been completely destroyed by the storm. I followed along, losing pace and catching up with the Worst Wing. When they came to a stop, I stood still and hollered for some booth. And out of the sky, hurled by some beefy dude, a blue orb descended into my hands. And it was a skull. And it blinked.

February 16, 2007

Mardi Gras (B)log: 2/15: Recall Mayor's Ball...

Well, we went to the Mayor’s Ball tonight, a cold Mardi Gras Thursday when any walk felt too long and there was barely time to wait for tossed beads. Once again we’d received tickets from our friend Heather, who works as a lawyer in the mayor’s office. I knew we had to go, but the weather was so shitty that we almost stayed in, hesitating even after we’d dressed up, Kim had done her hair, and we were already an hour late.

The main hallway of Gallier Hall was full of people, almost all African-Americans, around 90%, I’d guess. A low roar of totaled conversation greeted us as we reached the top of the staircase. Inside the same ballroom we’d visited a month ago for the King Cake party, tables of elaborately dressed friends of the mayor listened to three vocalists backed by a dj. The decorations tonight were opulent, with long gold banners along the ceilings, and green-purple-gold colored flowers, boas, and table cloths placed around the room. The chandeliers sparkled and the bartenders worked smoothly, getting a drink into every hand.

We stood between two of the tables and sipped wine as people pushed by. The lead singer went into a song that I’d heard on the radio just last week, a soul ballad about wanting to go home to New Orleans. This is an exile’s lament with the central line, “I’ve been gone from my home,” a description of displacement. The melody begins very similar to the Sam Cooke song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” then loosens up and sounds a bit like R. Kelly’s “Ignition.” Tonight, as the singer reached the section where he names neighborhoods (“the Westbank, Gert Town, Pigeontown, Gentilly,” etc.), Mayor Nagin passed right behind Kim, who had her back to him and was waving her hands gently in the air. I laughed at all three of them--singer, woman, and mingler.

This is the fourth time we’ve seen Nagin in person in the last month, and it’s getting to feel like Ulysses, where the Lord Mayor’s carriage drifts by and we, citizens of another Dublin, brush up against it in the middle of our daily toil. I still don’t know what to say to him, and avoid any handshakes or hellos. His presence isn’t so much the powerful glow of many politicians, but an awkward centrism, some magnetic charge due to his role. Think about it: US history books will forever carry the name Ray Nagin, the man literally in the center of the storm, a player in a disaster that defined these United States at this time. In person, he doesn’t seem up to the part, and his discomfort is somehow symbolic of a collective burden and failure. There goes Nagin, I always think. What the fuck IS this?

We went upstairs, first to a small ballroom where a loud Latin band played to just a few un-dancing people. Across the hall, we found an R&B band with a couple singers, a sax player, and rhythm section, all of them dressed in red blazers and black slacks, working through the Motown catalogue. Kim and I both had our overcoats in hand, and were glad to lay them across a couple empty chairs and take to the dance floor. Hardly anyone was out there, though the tables in the room were full, mostly of middle-aged black folks. We danced to “You’re Love Keeps Liftin’ Me,” but not too hard, just our typical gyrations. After sitting out a number, we rose when “a song for the lovers out there” began: “oooooooh ooh oooh ooh, baby, baaaby.” No one else joined us on the dance floor as we swayed slowly.

“It’s like we’re at prom and everyone’s wondering if we do it,” I whispered. Kim wrapped my beads around her neck so that we were linked by a strand of green. When the song ended, we sat back down, but the band switched speeds and kicked into “What I Say,” and Kim took the floor. The lead singer improvised, “See the girl in the black dress on,” which is what Kim had on, so I joined her and we went all out. I was sweating and spinning and we dipped our shoulders in time and laughed and pointed up at the ceiling when the band paused in staccato.

It was a real workout, and when they finished, we made our way to the table, intent on bailing out. Just as I picked up my coat, I noticed newly appointed recovery czar Ed Blakely walk in the door. I recognized him from the UNOP planning meeting a few weeks back, where he’d promised to get things done, claiming to be the only man for the job. It was a heartening rally cry, and he followed it up just a few days ago with a demand that the Louisiana Recovery Authority turn over all funds to him. Blakely has experience in urban design and re-design all over the world, and an air about him that one only finds in maverick politicians or high school teachers. He’s believable and confident, extremely rare in our current landscape.

Anyway, he made his way across the empty dance floor and began to pass our table. I leaned over and shook his hand.

“I just want to wish you good luck,” I said.

“It’s not about luck,” he replied. “it’s about you.”

“What can I do?” I asked.

“We’re not gonna take the same old easy shortcut in New Orleans,” he said, or something very close to this—it was loud and it’s late as I write this. He seemed ready to talk, slightly angry, perhaps at all this revelry when the job in front of him is so enormous. I hope he stays in town, but like everything else, that’s up in the air.

“You just be you,” he said, finger pointing at me.

I asked if he’d take a picture with Kim, he complied, and I snapped the above shot. Blakely moved on and we were about to exit when the band started up with “Hey Pocky-Way,” as grand an anthem as there is, made famous by the Meters. Suddenly many of the folks who’d sat out the earlier numbers took to the dance floor and soon we were all strutting in time. In a piece of self-promotion, the lead singer broke things down to tell us that they were “The Perfect Blend,” and had us chant “perfect,” and then “blend.” Then he called out a verse about Katrina not stopping no second line. I figured the exit was near, so Kim and I headed towards the back of the room. Seated in the last table next to the door was one Jonathan Bender, a former NBA player from New Orleans. I knew this cause the band had called him out earlier, and when we passed I said what’s up.

In the hallway we picked up a couple more drinks and stood at one of the tables. After a few minutes, Bender passed by and I told him I wrote for a certain basketball magazine, and we’d been wondering where he’d been. He said he’d been around, doing all kinds of things, including starting a foundation. He didn’t have a website yet so I gave him my card and said stay in touch. Seemed like a really nice kid who’s hopefully enjoying the millions from his guaranteed contract. Bender is 6’10” and it was dizzying to look all the way up to talk to him, especially since I was a little drunk at this point.

We decided to walk back downstairs and made our way onto the front porch, where a set of bleachers looked down on the passing Muses parade. It was still cold as hell and we went back inside after catching a few beads. We stood around in one of the smaller rooms and Kim decided she’d take a boa from the mantle above an extinct fireplace. When she tried to do this, the entire thing slid of the mantle, all 18 feet of it. She retrieved it, wrapped the whole thing around her shoulders, turning into a beautiful bird, and we walked upstairs, where not a whole lot was going on.

Finally we exited. St. Charles was a vacant mess, plastic bags and empty cups blowing in the cold wind. We watched as the clean up crews crept along, lights of their trucks flashing slowly as they picked up beer cans and broken beads. Food stands stood shuttered, their crews milling around under flood lamps.

Mardi Gras sure is underway, alright.

February 8, 2007

Make It Funky?

The passing of James Brown triggered tributes from around the world. Crowds circled the Apollo in Harlem, obituaries struggled to cover the breadth of the Godfather’s influence, and fans everywhere remembered the impact his voice made upon first listen. Following the best mourning technique available to me, I dedicated a radio show to the music and tributaries of Soul Brother Number One. From 10pm-midnight on the first Thursday of 2007, I spun JB and JB-related tracks over the airwaves of WTUL 91.5FM in New Orleans. This meant music from Fela Kuti, Eric B. & Rakim, Parliament, Pete Rock, Nas, the Meters, Afrikaa Bambaata, Biz Markie, Madlib, and more, from Nigeria to Los Angeles to Kingston, from the early 1960’s to 2006.

Standing in the station’s makeshift studio in a half-empty shopping center in New Orleans, 2007, I did the leg-kicks and screamed in between setting tracks, struck once again by the sheer force of James Brown. And I thought a lot about what that force made possible—the stilling of riots, the defiance on the White House lawn, the steely confidence and pillar-samples that began hip-hop. At one point I played a Trombone Shorty track and wondered if someone could have that JB-effect on this city. What if the music could politicize or make certain elements coalesce and burst forth, refuse to allow anyone to quit? Aren’t we ripe for it? Finally, I thought about what a bad motherfucker James Brown was to do what he did, from a whorehouse boyhood in the Deep South to a towering genius of the 20th century. I shut the station down a little after midnight and walked out the back door, glad I’d gotten that out of my system.

Last weekend, I went to a James Brown tribute show at Tipitina’s. We paid $20 a ticket with the simple hope that some of the city’s most popular musicians, along with a former JB horn player, would show their respects in the best way possible—playing the hell out of his music. If anyone can channel Mr. Dynamite, we agreed, this crew could.

This was my first time back at Tipitina’s since New Year’s Eve, 1999, the misguided Y2K celebration with the Funky Meters when I got wine all over my one and only white suit. It was also my first time standing in a fairly long line to spend 20 bucks at Tipitina’s, but I swallowed that because I know they need the money and anyway, isn’t it great so many people want to come to this tribute? And besides, I just got paid…

Fast-forward an hour, a few High Life’s, and a seemingly endless instrumental…

After waiting too long and making several attempts to dance the disappointment off, we made our way toward the balcony stairs. I was a little hesitant, actually, because the solos kept improving, but I went. The floor was still packed. As we reached the door, I stopped again and focused on the stage. The JB-horn hit the chorus and began to chant, “Party! Party! (Pause) Party! Party!” Above us, the rectangle balcony rippled with hands clutching drinks, all in time to the chant and chanting themselves, Party! Party! I turned away from the stage to face the upper rear and watched them cheer as if in a happy cloud, the club lights dancing as the band crescendos. I thought, no, no, fuck no. A furiously good-timing applause demographic, a relentless celebration class. Maaaaaan, I thought. Fucking man.

What’s going on?

What’s going on is that there lives in this tippling metropolis a swath of kids for whom shit is ok. Regardless of conditions in town, shit continues to be O fucking K, better believe it. That’s not to say there’s anything new to that. It’s what they’re getting—this monotonous joyride, this simpleton’s baroque—that’s different. And it’s who’s giving it to them.

Much of the upper middle class white college experience is dominated by jam band music. Completely unscientific statement, but I think a lot of you know what I mean. Variations on the Grateful Dead scene are part of almost every university landscape, in every part of the country. This phenomenon became especially big in the mid-to-late 1990’s, as bands like Phish or Dave Matthews gathered these nebulous followings, with bootleg tapes as their runes and hemp bracelets their charms. Well-off boys and girls spent summers traveling to shows, tripping and enjoying the neo-Sixties freedom vibe.

Jam bands became a rite of passage, a phase option. You’d meet kids back then who’d be carrying around a whole suitcase of cassette tapes of different, mutedly recorded concerts. They’d sell them or trade them, just like baseball cards when we were younger. Some of these hippie remix dudes even had snotty attitudes about the knowledge they possessed, like, of course you know 1989 Syracuse, or whatever the fuck.

Anyway, that culture has gone on now for at least 10 years. At this point, you have the second or third wave of listeners to this music, many of whom are unfamiliar with the derivative’s source (the Dead), and completely ignorant of the fact that the Dead actually were just a watered down version of a deeper source (the rest of American music, mostly Rhythm and Blues, though cats always want to act like there’s jazz in there, too, by which they mean Bitches Brew). These people are just high on the long solos and the assurance of knowing a sound and identifying it with a name—Widespread Panic…for instance.

What this translates into: The focus of that swath of kids on a view of music as a slice of lifestyle and as commodity; a specifically weird concept of recorded and live music; and some demand for cheery repetition and nods at the authentic, most often the black. They go on name recognition and a certain arc of satisfaction: Bass Player X =Plays Famous Party Song (@ Legendary Club). Mostly, they want a drunken, perhaps high good time, to meet people to fuck with, and do the whole party thing, same as anywhere. They go and they have a fucking blast.

Which is fine. That happens.

The problem is, that’s the paying public in New Orleans right now. They’re it. That’s who’s driving the attention, the spotlight in the city—a rare pool of music-goers who will go out and spend some money, blow up the liquor tab, and come back for more. These are white kids between 18-30 with $20 to blow. Most of them are sitting pretty and uninterested in challenging that status. I mean, I saw at least three of them wearing tuxedos--no shit--and some more in suits.

This is a cleaner breed of local music fans, interested in what they expect is the sound of fun, with familiar references and displays of ballsy virtuosity. If a player of some fame can be located, or a local favorite sideman, that’s all the better, they’ll up the ante. Funkiness is especially valued, as well as swagger. But they’ll take the whole thing spacey, with long solos and noodling spells that remind them of those breezy days watching the jam bands in a big festival crowd of the like-minded. No need for originality or precision or dynamics—a freaky looking guitar player will do; hell, he can play flute if he wants.

They also like references to New Orleans. They want to know it’s New Orleans Time here, and that means we can fucking Party! Yeah, you right! Whether New Orleans means something more that that to them, I’m still unclear. They like something simple and loud and ‘authentic,’ and I supposed there’s an idealized New Orleans out there that, if you squeeze your eyes tight enough, might be all of those things. The storm, the bullets, the shuttered clubs and bars—there’s really no room for that when you have party fever. They like who they like and they ask very little else.

That’s why it was so hard “seeing” James Brown there: no one even cared. It was enough for everyone to call the thing a James Brown tribute, and once they got inside, they forgot it was even called that. They settled in for some noodling and familiar funk, and all became a reefer-y bliss. There was nothing different at all from any night in the orbit of this crew, just standard jamming.

So why drag James Brown into it? Well, who did that and where did they fuck up?
I’m not mad at Tip’s. I thought it was a good idea, otherwise, why would I’ve shown up? Tip’s put the thing on and I was willing to pay the $20, even wait in a line. Tip’s had the right thought, but they found the wrong guys.

The only people who had some choice in the matter, in terms of not being who we’d expect them to be, were the musicians. They got up there, they played how that crowd wanted them to, and they neglected James Brown. If it had been a straight up funk show, where people burned through their own songs, no JB songs, I’d say, look—that’s a way to pay tribute to the man, by doing your own thing like that. If they’d done a few covers in shabby fashion, I’d still think it was cool of them to try. If they’d played more than one discernible cover of a JB song, I’d probably not miss the cash.

But when the clearest reference to the “man of the night” goes like this-- the JB-horn sings a chorus of “Make It Funky,” and follows in the next chorus with “Take Me Higher”, from the Sly song-- then I’m pissed. Because they could’ve done anything, even gotten away with it in front of this drone dance-a-thon. They could’ve done anything, and they did nothing. They played limp (except for a few guest soloists).

At one point I thought, wow, I’ve seen that guy tuning up in a more spirited way than this. Once I was on the ground floor of the Funky Butt and saw that drummer do a million new things while tonight he refused any. And James Brown was the supposed theme! The heralded rhythm section arrived under the banner of the greatest drum/bass lines created. This is the shit we know they can play, shit that was cut up and replicated and redone all over the musical world, gave birth to this “funk.” But it was almost like they forgot James Brown was there. I guess they knew it didn’t matter, the crowd would roar for their triumph regardless. In that case, why care? Why fuck with that? For whom?

And I’m as bad as anyone else, maybe worse, because I know better. Yes, that’s in hindsight, but I’ve seen more of this sight than ever before. That naked exchange, the replicated, round-corner New Orleans scarfed up by eager pleasure children, it’s allowed to run free here today in places never before reached. Because of sheer numbers, this is what too many musical experiences look like, with a couple of guys standing in the middle of the crowd, one screaming to the other over the roar that “this is what this city’s all about!” But I know this, I dropped $20, and what did I expect?

“Why call it a James Brown tribute show?” I kept saying on the way out of Tipitina’s. And therein lies the root cause of my foolishness, that the bullheaded hope. I thought James Brown made it different. I thought the musicians might channel him, with our collective circumstances serving as a backdrop, the perfect veil to slice up with the Godfather’s razor. But not on that night, not with these musicians. They just showed up and played the function. They didn’t see anything more at stake, James Brown, or not.

But a lot more is at stake. “A culture’s sad finale?” ran the headline in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, coincidentally published the day after the show. With the characteristic bleakness and power-quotes, the article described a desperate city where:

“The musicians who are still there, as well as writers and visual artists, wonder whether they can stick around much longer in the face of surging violent crime and political leadership that severely undervalues the city’s arts.” (2/4/07)

Amidst the usual discussions of the Musicians Village and voodoo, the article warns that the city’s culture may slide into the swamp any day now “unless someone does something soon to bring the exiled artists back….” I have to ask: what happens if the artists who are already here do nothing to stop that slide? What if they let it happen, too busy catering to an audience that will stay dry no matter the weather?

We need James Brown a lot more than we realize.