July 15, 2008

Wisdom Rising

Some guy named Jose just came over and recited me a poem he wrote when he was 16. It made me close my eyes to hear better in this noisy bar. It was about feelings being confined in drawers in our minds. It wasn't bad, it had a certain rhythm, a nice beat. He said he was "fascinated" that I could write so intently in a bar. I told him I've been doing it most of my life, and sometimes the music is good. He said I "inspired" him. I didn't tell him it's my job.

The best thing about New Orleans to me is still the music. Here is where I first got the bug to play the drums, first place I heard Elvis and Fats and Little Richard and Roy Orbison on WNOE radio in the 1950's. Before I was old enough to go there, I stumbled into Preservation Hall when it didn't have a thick line of tourists at the door, and sat in that almost bare dim room with only a few others, and ended up stomping my feet to the Dixieland jazz those old cats played. I was a stiff young white man from a Baptist background where dancing wasn't taught in Sunday School, so I had a hard time getting into it--thinking everybody was watching me--but when I did I could let go and dance. I probably looked entirely ridiculous to a black guy, but it was segregation then and there weren't any black guys in our neighborhoods. At Kenner High School--boarded and forlorn now--kids went to a hot dog place at lunch and played Fats Domino on the juke box and danced. Yeah. White kids. We danced with girls. There was feelgood music on AM radio, too. After school and on weekends we cruised around in cars that ran on 15-cent-a-gallon gas, listening to the radio and beating our hands on the dashboard and looking futilly for girls, who were more circumspect and cautious then, and sort of knew what we wanted. The other night it made me swallow an ice cube to overhear a young gal telling a whole table of people how she had made love (she didn't say "made love") with so-and-so the previous night. I guess "equality" to some women means they can be as crude as men. But, if that's part of the price for women having equal opportunites and equal rights with men, so be it. I definitely am for equal rights and opportunities for everybody in the whole, wide world, barring none, even if they cuss like sailors and have rings in their tongues. Just to press home the point and carry it to its logical conclusion, I'm also against this "nationalism" crap. It reminds me of "The Highlander." "There can be only One!" That means everybody else is numbers two, three, four...It doesn't work. It causes unnecessary competition, and then the tough guy takes the cookies. It's the utilitarian in me. If it doesn't work, I want to melt it down and make something else out of it. I crack up at these people still living on a flat map who cannot conceive of a round planet where everybody drinks the same water and breathes the same air and smells the same shitty smell sooner or later.

This is mine and that's yours. Stay over there and don't worry about my coal plants causing acid rain and killing the lakes in Nova Scotia. They're my coal plants, and I need them to keep my machines working. They could be cleaned up, but I'm not going to pay for it. I'd have to sell my villa in Switzerland and fire 5,000 people.'

One of these days a nuclear power plant is going to blow in California and he will ingest a molecule of plutonium in Switzerland, and then maybe he'll see how everything is somehow connected. "God works in strange and mysterious ways." I don't know who said that, but I defy anyone to disprove it. You don't believe in God? You poor bastard, then you must believe only in yourself (if that,) and you are your own God. How's that working for you? Must be pretty lonely, with just you and You. Competitive, too, since all those other people think they are God, as well. Do you think I'm amused? You're right. I'm cracking up at human beings. They think they are getting it wrong because of a lack of "will." If they just exert a little more willpower, things will improve. But it was their own willpower that got them into whatever mess they're in, individually and collectively. You didn't have anything to do with the war or the poverty or the disgusting health care situation? You voted for the guys running the show, or you sat on your ass and let them get elected. You're the one who spends two-thirds of the day watching television where you get your fantastic ideas about how things are. You're the guy who says "nigger" fifty times a day, smiling ingratiatingly and addressing them as "sir," when there are no whites about. You're the one still fighting the Vietnam War and the Civil War, too. You watch the Hitler Channel and know all about it. You're the one underpaying your workers and cheating on your wife. You're the one whining about your "rights," who would hit a guy in a wheelchair to steal his change. You're the guy making a million bucks a day on the price of gas. You are the one who steals kids bikes because they are easy and you need more meth. You're the guy who oregano-ed me in a $20 grass deal. Now, you are probably asking what is the point of this diatribe? Just that we all are human, we all have character defects, we all have personal shortcomings, we all make mistakes, nobody is perfect, and we all are mortal. Remember that, when you are making personal judgements about New Orleans, the South, and the admittedly unjust and deplorable race prejudice down here. It's a crime, but, it's not the only and not the worst crime. And believe it or not, things are improving. It has begun to be dimly perceived by some whites in New Orleans that black people want and deserve respect, and some are bending over backward to give it. I see it because I grew up here, and the embarrassing fact of racism and white hate drove me away for 35 years. It's not the same as when I was growing up. Blacks lived in one part of town and whites another. Since the Fair Housing Act and especially since Katrina, black people are living all over New Orleans. This makes for some tense relations in neighborhoods that were unaccustomed to burglaries, muggings, and murders on a regular basis. My great friend Terry Brahney, 200 lbs. in the eighth grade, was in the French Quarter during a 1950s Mardis Gras parade (18 years old then,) when a drunken white mob attacked a young black boy for walking in the Quarter. Having an inate sense of justice, a brave heart, and a fearsome pair of fists, he dragged the kid in a store and knocked so many people down who were trying to get in that the crowd finally stood back and shouted "nigger-lover!" at him, until the cops arrived an hour later to escort the young guy out. A good leader would have given Terry a medal. Think about that, when you are saying that "all white people are the same." My friend Fred Turk, a Rastafarian black guy, lost everything he had to Katrina, then went out and cut loose a rowboat and began rescuing people from roofs, and taking them to unflooded parts of the Upper Garden District. After a week of it, dehydrated and covered with boils from the toxic chemicals in the water, Fred encountered a soldier who pointed a gun at him and told him to get on a truck. Fred said he didn't want to go. "We have orders to shoot you if you don't want to go," Fred said the guy told him. Being a Vietnam veteran, Fred knew what "orders" meant, and got on the truck, which took him to an airplane. Once aboard, he asked, "Where we going?" The soldier said he didn't know. They landed in an Omaha winter. After medics treated Fred's illnesses and re-hydrated him and changed his VA medication to something that wouldn't kill him, officials offered him an apartment, a job, and a stipend, if he would sign a promise that he wouldn't go back to New Orleans. Fred declined and took the one-way ticket home. Two days later a tough guy took the new i.d. the government had provided and which was hanging in a bag from his neck. He had a mild stroke in the middle of Tulane Avenue and was unconscious when cops arrived, who, assuming he was drunk, took him to jail. He woke in a cell two days later with no memory of any of it. When I met him, he was sleeping under a house in the Upper Garden District, the owners blissfully unaware that he was there. He's better-off now, thanks to some musicians and the VA, which finally found him some digs. Katrina carried off his priceless and irreplaceable collection of early recordings of small dates and jams in the 40s and 50s of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, and many other great musicians. They are gone forever. He isn't bitter. He says that the "Most High" had His reasons. Fred accepts it without question or complaint, and praises God. This is a real person I'm writing about. Fred wouldn't harm a hair on your head unless you attacked him, but people see him and shy away. Why not? He's different-looking. But, a good leader would have given Fred a medal, too.

I can't write about New Orleans or the South without writing about race. I've never been to Antoine's or the Court of Two Sisters or any of the other fancy places in town. Never been in the Roosevelt Hotel, never been in the mansions on St. Charles Avenue, never had dinner with the mayor, never got invited to Bob Dylan's house, and never even understood the damned Mardis Gras. Certainly no one will ever confide the identity of Comus to me. It wouldn't mean anything if I knew the name of Mr. Big, anyway. I don't know any of those people, and probably never will. I work at street level painting houses. I sleep at street level in an old Dodge van that I've repaired so thoroughly I'm going to try selling it back to Chrysler. I meet a lot of people. I talk to a lot of people. I hear a lot of stories. I'm not exactly sure why I'm telling them to you. Maybe I just have to tell them to somebody. I hope you get something from it. What? I don't know. What I get from them is understanding, tolerance, and appreciation. Everybody out here has a story worth knowing. You hear enough of them, and if you have any feeling and heart, you begin to understand that all people have trouble no matter how rich or poor they are. It all is connected and it all matters. You can't leave your feelings in a drawer in your mind.

Some guy just came over and laid a footlong Komodo Dragon on my table.

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