Look for my 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 nola.com (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.