Sunday, October 30, 2005

Look for my Joy

Lately, I've started thinking more and more about joy.

Yesterday morning, I had breakfast with a few friends. Jay was there. He had just gotten back to town a day or so before and had been able to salvage only "some cheap guitars and a couple pairs of dirty blue jeans" from his Mid-city place. So, you might say he was playing Kubler-Ross catchup with the rest of us. But he told us one thing in particular that stayed with me: he said, "I've decided just to go for joy now. Happiness . . . happiness is out here"--he gestured in the air, to some spot beyond arm's length--"so I'm settling for joy. I'm going to get whatever joy I can get."

This announcement seemed fitting, not least because Jay, punk-rock poet and master of the nearly-inscrutable one-liner, starred in a short film called "Tortured by Joy." But the reason it struck me particularly had more to do the way it echoed my own recurring question over the past several weeks. More and more often, when faced with a decision, I find myself asking, "Where's the joy in that?" And I mean joy specifically--not happiness, not pleasure, certainly not benefit or value or use. I mean quite simply the unmediated groundswell: brief, ephemeral, unsustainable, effervescent, unquestionable. The pursuit of happiness is a fool's game (pace Jefferson et al). It's a three-card monte: the target bobs and weaves, slips under and around. We pursue it, doggedly, but we bag the decoy every time. Always the rubes of happiness. And pleasure, let's face it, turns ugly in the end: the late-rock-star puffiness, the glassy-eyed incoherence, the troubling eventualities in the gastrointestinal track. And I live in New Orleans; I feel I know a thing or two about pleasure. Also, I'm Acadian (Cajun), so I understand appetite. But joy is not pleasure, and to be honest, it appeases no appetite.

Maybe because it corresponds to no immediate but lesser need, there is no adequate way to prepare for joy. You can't set your mouth for joy the way you anticipate the first bite of of a creme brulee. C.S. Lewis called his autobiography Surprised by Joy, and that title seems to me to get it right. Joy is sudden, surprising, even when expected. But if you can't get the jump on joy, you can still keep an eye out for it (even if your chances of finding it in Slidell are even slimmer now than they were when Lucinda Williams wrote that song).

I found a bit of joy this weekend unpacking my books. I came across a John Berryman poem called "The Ball Poem," which juts up out of his early work obliterating everything he'd written up to that point. I can't stop re-reading it, and I can't read it now without some thought of what's happened to the city. I also now have an excuse to go back and re-read Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library," one of the tastiest essays I know.

I got a jolt of joy the other day when I first heard WWOZ on my car radio again (Soul Rebels' "Let your Mind Be Free"was playing). Last week, I recognized Orion from the window of the Ryder truck, watched him in his eternal pursuit range across the sky as we made our way at four a.m. back from Alexandria with all we had accumulated there, and that gave me a taste of it. Our roof, which shed a fair number of tiles, remains untarped, and I'm still not ready to take the plywood off our windows, but we bought two shrimp plants for the front of the house, and they're blooming.

So, if you can't pursue joy, you can at least create the conditions for it to arise. And that's where my question keeps coming in: "Where's the joy in that?" I was walking past the Lutheran church in my neighborhood the other night and stumbled upon a neighborhood association meeting I had meant to attend already in full swing. A palpable hostility had gathered in that room and was spilling over into the street; it stopped me cold, and I couldn't go in. I listened to my neighbors scream at our City Councilperson, and I asked myself that question: "Where's the joy in that?" So, I turned around and went to pick up my friend who was cleaning out her flooded basement uptown.

I've been thinking, though, that I should ask the question in earnest as well: "Where's the joy in that?" This weekend, the city seemed like it reached a point of critical mass, tipping over into an abundance of joy that was wholly unexpected. It was a mini-Mardi Gras, and we ate, drank, and danced for three solid days. Friday night, Kermit Ruffins played in front of Fat Harry's for a show put on by (my wife works there). I have to admit that Fat Harry's is not a bar I usually frequent (too far uptown, far too collegiate). And the live webcam show, the bourbocam scene, isn't really for me, either. But I knew as soon as I saw the crowd that this was the place to be, the best party in town.

The crowd, which was meant to be contained on the sidewalk or across the street on the neutral ground (that's the median if you're in any other city but New Orleans), kept spilling out into the street. NOPD had every right to shut it down, but instead the Lieutenant on the scene simply said "New Orleans needs this," and they blocked off St. Charles at Napolean Avenue and let the impromptu block party roll. People costumed--although the spirit of the costumes was more Carnival than Halloween. I didn't see anything scary, unless you count the guy dressed as a duct-taped refrigerator (trust me, they're scary; I've heard rumor that someone has constructed Fridgehenge from a group of them, but I have yet to confirm it).

A smaller crowd was back Saturday night to see the Storyville Stompers. (The larger crowd was at Tip's seeing Rebirth Saturday.) Both nights I recognized, here and there throughout the crowd, the unmistakeable strutting, syncopated second-line dance of the native New Orleanian: it involves an upward hitch on the one beat, the signature move of the sousaphone player; in its flashier form there's a one-foot shuffle between beats, a bit of flair borrowed from the grand marshall. I've been trying to get it down for nine years and I'm still nowhere close. I'm beginning to think you have to be born here to do it right, and there's still too much two-step in me.

And then I found out Saturday morning that the New York Dolls were playing the one-day Voodoo Fest benefit here--no, really, the New York Dolls. And we were there with California weather and room to lie on the grass, a few thousand locals, a couple hundred rescue and relief workers. Morning Forty Federation's set on the smaller stage felt like finding a bottle of Old Grandad in the back of the liquor cabinet--back behind the daquiri mix and the banana liqeur, just before you start to drink the Amaretto.

Nine Inch Nails closed the show, and that's an act I've wanted to see for a good decade or so. (By the way, for someone with that volume of angst, Trent Reznor is surprisingly buff these days. Just didn't expect that.) He brought out Saul Williams, who performed "African Student Movement" with its refrain, "tell me where my niggas at"--another question, albeit differently worded, that most folks I know have been asking since coming back.

We lost some good neighbors last week, one of the two black families remaining on our block. They took the FEMA loan--after thirty years of renting one half of the double next to ours, they're building a house in Mississippi, where most of their family had moved. Of course I should be happy for them. But Ms. Grace was one of the few stoop-sitters left around; she was there every evening, knew and was known by everyone who walked our street. She'll be replaced by someone who stays inside, uses the air conditioner, minds their own business. Where's the joy in that? In the Lower Ninth, the city is bringing the residents in by bus for a last look. The houses remaining have no services: not gas, not electric, not water.

Any shade of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-ism is obscene. To look for the bright side of the last two months is to court a willful, malignant ignorance. I think that must be said, and I think it must be true. So many days this city seems to be slipping into unrecoverability. And yet I'm beset by joy. By this very place and in this very moment. And that, I know, is true as well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Confessions of a pigman

Today, I've been back in the city for nearly a week. I intended to return to Alexandria late last week but never got around to it. New Orleans is like that--it's still like that. More friends arrive, more businesses open, and the weary traveller gets distracted. I've never been quite sure whether the island of Circe or land of the Lotus Eaters is the proper classical parallel.

Early impressions of the city on my third trip back:

Crossing the Crescent City Connection into the West Bank, I see blue-tarped roofs spotting the suburban landscapes like the swimming pools shimmering among green squares stretching
forever, seen on landing when we glide over Long Island and down into New York.

On our side of the river, refrigerators stand sentinal up and down the block, their festering contents seeth inside, bound by duct tape. They've become ad hoc bulletin boards, grafitti canvasses: "Voodoo Day 5," "Heck of a Job, Brownie," "Deliver to: George W. Bush, Pennsylvania Ave." I was invited to a Day of the Dead party coming up "You'll see flyers around. Check the refrigerators."

Stood outside the big Uptown Rue de la Course, amid the garbage stink, chasing off the fat buzz of flies, checking my email. They were open by Saturday, overrun with traffic for the Clean Up Magazine St. effort. That in itself was mightily impressive: four or five groups per block, volunteers and homeowners, National Guardsmen, hired hands, all dragging contractors' bags, sweeping, sweating. By Sunday we all swore Magazine was cleaner than before the storm.

Elsewhere is another story. I drove through Gentilly, Lakeview, 8th Ward. A few haggard residents there, dragging things to the street, dust masks perched on their foreheads. They don't look up and wave as I drive by. So still everywhere, I feel my jeep makes a wake in the dust. In City Park rows of amputee oaks, vast stretches of dust-colored grass.

In the Marigny, everyone waves and talks now. The talking has become compulsive: "how'd you do in the storm? when did you leave? where did you go?" Everyone wants to tell the story and tell it again. Some of my neighbors stayed through the first week after the storm. They tell their stories piecemeal, not the rushed recitation of the evacuees, but one detail at a time, usually in response to something I've said:

"I heard everyone had firearms Uptown."
"I had a gun. We all did. There were three checkpoints on the block. When I went out at night, I'd flash the spotlight, once to that house there, once to the house at the end of the block, so I wouldn't get shot."

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Reconstruction of the Fables

New Orleans is not Baghdad. I keep telling myself that, hoping that maybe it'll help me sleep at night. Yes, we've always known it was a bit of the Third World, the "northernmost Caribbean city." It was bad enough thinking we lived in the American Port-au-Prince. But now, with the reports of mercenaries roaming the streets, Haliburton and that gang of thieves getting no-bid contracts to set the city right, and the President talking about the "hard work" ahead there, it seems we've found our real sister city.

Sarah went to Lakeview yesterday and came back shaken. In a city inundated with refuse, sanitation workers are losing their jobs. French Quarter businesses untouched by the storm remain shuttered. If they reopen, their insurance dries up, and there's not much market for boas and jester's caps these days.

Without those boas and billiard-ball sized beads, without the jester's caps and the "bitch fell off" t-shirts, how will folks even know they're having fun? Will they still know to yell "woo-oo" at punctuated intervals? Will they still be able to tell how "crazy" they're being?

These things disturb me as well, and not just because I, like many New Orleanians, tend to sport a feathered boa from time to time. They bother me most of all because, when I close my eyes and try to imagine where New Orleans is going, a great chasm starts to open up. The flood-drenched parts of the city--L9, the East, Lakeview, Gentilly--we know even less of their future than we know of the future for the t-shirt shops on Decatur St. And if we can't count on the feathered boa trade, if we can't know for certain that at any hour of day or night we can still find an alligator claw keyring, what can we know of the future for the rest of the city, the reclaimed swamplands that radiate out from the river.

In New Orleans, we lived with the devil we knew. Abysmal school system. Generations of poverty. A war zone's murder rate. Government corruption so entwined in the roots of the city as to be ineradicable. A third-world economy precariously balanced on a fickle tourism industry where the disparity between the worker's wage and the profit margin fortified the invisible walls of race and class that sectioned city blocks like post-war Berlin. But what fresh hell awaits us now, creeping in with the profiteers who siphon away the stream of generosity and opportunity born of federal shame? Will we recognize that devil's face? Will it be content to gobble its gains and let us go on about the business of being New Orleans?

New Orleans is not Baghdad. It's not. It isn't Baghdad. Good night.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Ruminations on Candlelight Urination

Friday was my second return to New Orleans. I left early and barrelled down Highway 61, trying to get in ahead of the 200,000 returning residents who were now legally allowed in. (Our zipcode is conspicuously absent from the list of early returns; apparently it extends into some of the worst flood zones in the city.) As I neared Causeway, traffic bottleknecked predictably; I took a deep zenBreath(tm) and steeled myself for the hours of waiting that never came. Traffic picked up almost immediately, and I soon found myself on the nearly deserted streets of Uptown once again.

The National Guard presence is lighter now. No large encampment at Audubon Park that I could see, fewer Humvees in my rearview this time. I also took a slightly different route and saw more downed trees, more wind damage Uptown than I remembered. The new views of the destruction combined with the empty streets doused the bouyant spirits my last trip in had raised. But then I stopped by Slim Goodies for a quick chat with Kappa, and all was right again. She was deep in the weeds and having a ball, it seemed. Alone behind the counter, she plated the pancakes a customer volunteering as short-order cook was pouring and flipping.

Finally, I made it down to the Texaco building, where I brought the office back online--alas, no bourbocam yet, but the office cams were soon sending out photos of what's left of New Orleans. The building was closed again at 2 p.m, so I headed back to our Marigny house. The Marigny is funkier than ever, at least in the old sense of the term. So was our house. I checked on Mimi's (the bar) and Mimi's (the house). Went to Bourbon street to confirm that Cat's was indeed still shuttered and plywooded. There was a Jersey Swat Team contingent strolling about and what appeared to be a few tourists drinking Handgrenades (were they relief workers who extended their stay? news crews out on the town? Who were these people, this beadless skeleton crew of the usual suspects?). Mounds of trash with a pungence indescribable but only quantitatively worse than the normal French Quarter stench.

From the Quarter, it was back uptown to check on a friend's grandmother's house at Audubon park. Again, I was caught off guard by the extent of destruction. The neighbors who were there appeared to be gutting the groundlevel basements of their raised houses. Limp sheetrock, mottled couches, drowned stereos and entire entertainment centers, small hills of trash lined the street. My friend's grandmother's place showed no external damage, and the water line appeared to be below the threshold everywhere on her place.

Having given him a phone report, I turned toward the Maple Leaf and the first music show of post-Katrina New Orleans. Walter "Wolfman" Washington was playing, with Kevin O'Day on drums. I could think of nowhere else I would rather have been and only wished that Sarah, who introduced me to New Orleans music, could have been there. The gig was set for 5:00, to skirt the curfew, but true to New Orleans form, it was closer to 7:00 when the beer was finally chilled and the band warmed up. The crowd was small but enthusiastic, a cross section of the usual Maple Leaf characters--a few student types, dancing the gangly-armed hippie dance, some middle-agers with wedding-party swing moves, one or two old timers beaming at the scene. When I heard the trombone, I knew I was home, and when Walter broke out "Oop poo pah doo," I settled into my bliss. And yes, I peed by candlelight, the generator power reserved for beer coolers and amplifiers. The MSNBC crew insured that the place was brighter than it has been for any Rebirth show I've seen there, but the men's room was lit by a single votive, perched ritually atop the urinal. Even the Bud Light tasted rare and remarkable for this night. When I finally had an Abita in my hand, and the band was rolling through an extended version of Kansas Joe McCoy's "When the Levee Breaks," I knew that the spirit of New Orleans was still haunting that empty cityscape, just waiting for enough of us to gather around and call it back to life.