New Orleans Needs More Than a Hug

I love this old mouldering city. The aged houses, ancestral trees, flowering shrubs, ever-changing light, bumpy streets and de-plastered bricks, loose dogs and creepy cats, the late-night rats that horrify tourists and New Orleaneans take for granted; an occasional shipborn WHOOOOOOO! from the mighty Mississippi River, frequent, miles-long freight trains at street level, bound for the busy viral docks, tying up traffic, and huge celebratory crowds of black people descending onto neighborhoods with cars and barbecue grills, there to kick back and hear their favorite music, to which they dance,("Second Line," in this case.) All this sets off emotional tremors in me; present images blended with memories of earlier times and vanished people, my life bittersweet, lonely-hearted, colored blue and rag-rolled with orange highlights in a trail of coagulating emotional blood.

I'm full of desire and desperate feelings of loss, just wanting to get away, just get away, my lifelong habit a weakness & strength, but I'm probably grounded here now. I'm aging, tired, lovelorn, accepting, resigned, nearly-broke, and melancholic; yet quietly enthralled by this old city of suffered dreams and wildassed world-around nightmares: murder and mayhem, smuggling and corruption, whole populations born into greed and nurtured by want, the whole shebang cursed until Redemption by heartless slavery, older than the oldest profession. Thinking these thoughts, I am oddly and unexplainably hopeful about my future which is shorter than a bird's tale.

There are fewer birds and most of the butterflies are probably hiding out in the new Insectarium in Audubon Park, a place of bug-marvels that I somehow haven't seen yet. When I was a boy, there were plenty more birds and butterflies. Where have they gone? They have gone dead from car and industrial pollution and environmental-eviction. That's the other side of this place. Katrina emptied every form of neglected or stored toxic waste and deadly chemicals into the poison soup of salty swampwater that nearly drowned the whole town. Chemical and oil refineries long ago destroyed most of the swamp, marsh, and wildlife about Lake Charles, 39 miles from Texas on Interstate 10. Then the billions of gallons of water coming down the muddy river every day, saturated with nitrogen fertilizers that are killing the Gulf of Mexico, and the 30 acres or so of dry land going back to the salty Gulf every day, because they can't let the river do its thing.

There isn't much I as an indivdual can do about it. This is a job for the superman citizenry. Good luck getting them together. I tried God knows I tried. It'll take a Depression. Then after they are "together" they'll probably elect Mussolini or Hitler. On the other hand, I want to fall for the seductive notion that things are actually changing for the better. Hard admission to make, knowing what I think I know about the United States Government, torturer of nations, destroyer of tribes, wrecker of environments, killer of cultures, the ruination of custom, tradition, and Law; planet-rapist.

And there is yet another side: one of the lousiest most-corrupt state and city governments in the history of this corrupt vain and unreasonably-proud hypocritical bloodstained country. The thievery and incompetence of government in Louisiana and New Orleans (different countries) is endemic, historic, traditional, largely-accepted with scorn contempt and even humor, and probably ineradicable. It's a sad fact of life. The suffering old live oaks with their sorrowful vanishing gray moss mute testimony to the carelessness of the caretakers. I care about the trees, and the governments can kiss my ass. On the other hand, who is going to maintain the roads and fix the garbage-collection contracts?

There is nothing in the City of New Orleans too-sacred for politicians to steal. From lone welfare checks to payoffs and hidden costs and billions meant-but-not-spent for rebuilding this crumbling town, there is nothing not up for grabs by the venal and greedy. I grew up with a kid we called "the grubber," because he grubbed around in cemeteries and robbed graves when he was drunk. One night he slept in a vault he'd burglarized, emerging groggily to find a startled old woman praying at the door. But he only robbed the dead.

In New Orleans it is the rich and the poor, you better believe it. And as much as the wealthy will publicly deny it, the game is a class-war, rich against poor and poor against the rich.

"New Orleans has better-employment rates than better-off cities because there's always 50% unemployment here, so any size increase looks good but it is a false statistic," a computer guy told me.

In my fantastical grandiose moments (fewer and fewer now) I imagine New Orleans popping its cork one day, and not liquor but violence gushing out through America's delta to flood the whole country with raging rebellion and the just vengeance of a black Jehovah. Can a prarie fire start in a swamp?

There have been a lot of changes here though. Traditionally a black city with horrible race relations--the genial Louis Armstrong dusted it off in anger-- the New Orleans I see now is extra-considerate of black people and other people of color. I hang out in coffee shops with computer-addicts and the younger generation, and I say "sir" to any black man I meet inside or on the street, and "ma'am" to any black lady. I never would have thought to do that when I was growing up here. Naturally, I could not see their exquisite grace strength and beauty then, since I was trained color-prejudiced. I figure I owe respect to pay off the sins of our fathers and mothers, and need to show respect just as they they need to get it. They like it too. Ha, ha! I get nice smiles and respect back. It's nice. It's a good feeling. Try it sometimes, you cold-hearted racist barbarians. This could be a nicer world. The South you want back was and is disgusting to me. Below is my friend Jamey Hatley with her first published work.

The music of course is everywhere, either live or recorded. It used to be mostly Dixieland jazz, but now it is that plus every other form, especially the blues and modern jazz, and Cajun music, rock and roll and the whole menu. Then there is this incomprehensible rhythm-less non-harmonic stuff without melody rhyme or the sense that it was created by humans; but my elders said the same thing about Elvis, who sang like an angel and shook like a junkie. But to me Elvis was stiff and unscynchronous next to any black performer.

And the food too. But I don't know much about the famous cuisine. I don't like crawfish and can't eat much anyway, thanks to the doctors who saved my life by amputating part of my stomach. It's a mixed blessing. I love the taste of certain food, but I always wished there were a pill that would replace the need to eat; and I can't afford these lavish meals anyway. I love gumbo, jambalaya and oyster po-boys though. If you come to New Orleans, try Parasol's at Third and Constance for the latter.

The picture below is of Arnaud's, a long-established restaurant on Bourbon Street, another place I'll probably never eat in.

There are so many places I don't know and never visited in this old second home town, having grown up in nearby Metairie . I didn't start learning New Orleans until 1962 when I got out of the Marine Corps and came here to manage the old Putt-Putt Golf Course on Causeway Blvd. I spent every night after midnight till sunup in the French Quarter exploring the bars, listening to music, and trying to write. I can get around the town all right, despite the infuriating freeways that were not here then, but 5,000 good places are unknown to me.

My rasta friend Fred has lived here all his life, but uptown in or near the projects they just demolished. He was living there when Katrina wiped out his priceless collection of live early recordings of Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and other great New Orleans musicians. Fred lived most of his life uptown, and large parts of New Orleans are unknown to him as well. He'd be lost in Metairie or Gretna across the river.

Uptown across from Audubon Park is Tulane University (pay your parking tickets or they will boot you,) and Tulane's poor sister next door, Loyala University. Mostly white people attend them in one of the nicest parts of the city just off coveted St. Charles Avenue, shaded by old live oaks too sacred to trim, even if an 800-lb branch nearly squashes a cyclist (me!) or flattens a Fiat. It's ridiculous. I saw a picture of St. Charles Avenue taken in 1900, when they were building these "historic" mansions, and there wasn't a tree in sight.

Yes, it's me, griping and carping again. Okay, I'll stop. I'll try to stop. Like I said, I feel strangely hopeful despite being nearly-capsized in the river of shit.

But look, Obama is in the White House, and, as far as I can see, he is kicking butt. I love this guy! (And don't get me started about his incredible wife.) Obama is in charge up there. He's too smart for them. They see it. They know it. They are learning who the boss is, and are being quite respectful. He will fire them! This guy actually believes he is the President and expects obedience. Ha, ha! It cracks me up. It's what I would do too, what most Americans want a President to do: if the sons-of-bitches don't do what you say, if they don't deliver, you fire their asses. In a civilizded way, naturally, but quick like Truman.

FBI agents are raiding the homes and seizing the yachts of wealthy criminals. Wall Street is shaking in its fleecy boots, paper shredders are burning out and shredder-repair companies are driving up the stock market. Hundreds of millions of dollars are enroute to beef up Mexican border security, the biggest failure of a muckedy-muck at General Motors (95% value lost during his Watch) has been given his walking papers, troops are leaving Iraq, more dough and civilians is being sent to repair some of the damage we (and the Soviet Union) have done to Afghanistan. Obama,with the worst-of-times upon us, is in London talking about the future, about providing for the long-term health of the economy, the environment, the education health and employment of--people. What a relief. A President with confidence and vision, reins in his hands, .

A smart, down-to-earth, big-hearted and natural guy, President Obama. The best I have seen in the White House in my lifetime. Either that, or he has a hell of a public relations firm.

I used to be afraid this would someday be named The Age of Clinton, or The Age of Bush, because their impact was so big and, to my mind, long-lasting and dreadfully mediocre, not to mention murderous. But now I am beginning to hope it will be The Age of Obama. And when his eight years are done, I'd like to see Michele take a shot at the job. Kids will be grown up then. That's a smart lady, and I love her for hugging the Queen of England! Ha, ha! What a thrill to see that! Nobody touches the Queen! But Michele Obama gave her a hug! And I think Queen Elizabeth probably needed that hug. I bet she did. Imagine, being the Queen of England, and nobody dares to touch you but your husband and maybe some relatives at Christmas, and perhaps Prince Phillip is not a hugger. But everybody needs a hug, and some suffer in hell for want of one. I know how that is. Some people don't even know they need a hug, until a good one comes along.

Then when you finally get one, it can drive you crazy wanting another. But I think the Queen will be okay. There's always been something about Elizabeth II that I liked. She's tough. Nothing disturbs her cool. Maybe it was that she was a truck mechanic during WW II, (and the Palace was bombed too!) or that on VE-Day she and another princess sneaked out of Buckingham Palace dressed plainly to mingle unnoticed with the joyous crowds, who had suffered so much from Hitler's bombs and bullets. There's something genuine and human in that. Although a princess, she had shared the suffering and wanted to share the celebration as well.

I wish I could hug her too. Good hugs are easy to give but damned hard to get sometimes. And I wish she had hugged Michele Obama as well. Then I would say let England have her colony back.

New Orleans is the Queen of the South, to me the most-unique and unbelievable city in America, rich in culture and property but rolling in poverty. It needs more than a hug of course.


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