Wednesday, December 26, 2007
New Orleans (The Big Real)
Riding on a rearing horse is a major general who represents most of what's wrong about being President of the United States. There in the center of Jackson Square in the center of the French Quarter is the remarkable equestrian statue of an arrogant, uncaring autocrat who was responsible for the genocide of countless native Americans he forced to abandon their homes and villages for the wilderness west of the Mississippi River.
Of course that isn't why he's riding high in the heart of New Orleans. The statue pronounces the major general, not the president. He is the man who saved New Orleans from the British invasion the winter of 1814- 1815. (click)
Andrew Jackson (affectionately known in his own time as Jackass--hence the term and the symbol of the Democrats), forms a curious centerpiece for the parade of people crossing from the Quarter to the river walk along the Mississippi, for people arriving to worship in or to photograph the cathedral, and for the myriad hucksters and con artists and tourist artistes that inhabit this hub.
Humanity in all its variety struts through this park. Mid-winter kids in plaid shorts learn how to skateboard. Fat cats smoking stinky cigars lead their entourages along the arching pathways. Panhandlers ask quietly and politely for spare change. Scraggly, bearded bums display colorful rags. Along the iron fence of the park a Dixieland jazz quartet plays with surprising talent. The banana trees dance with the rhythm.
Flooded, beaten down, forgotten, abused by Halliburton and almost every other company that all levels of government hired to help the city (not themselves), New Orleans plays on like an old money aristocrat on the verge of bankruptcy. Sure, there is crime, sickening poverty, racism, cruelty, drunkenness, drug addiction, hopelessness. No point turning a blind eye when blinding clarity and light is needed. But there is spirit here that lives through all the devastation and loss.
When I sit in Jackson Square and watch the people parade, as I listen to the eerie, high pitched calliope from the river boat, a wealth of memory and romanticism returns to me. Once again I have shoulder length hair. Again I am having midnight breakfast on a balcony on Dumaine and Bourbon Streets with Allen Ginsberg. Again I am romancing with a young N'awlins woman who told me that making love is like being Humpty Dumpty: "falling through space and feeling broken open." Again I am in bed with another closeted grad student, one who is married and destined to become one of the city's most famous art patrons.
New Orleans, after all, has made me everything (however limited) I am today: a doctor of philosophy, a gay man who went through a long bisexual struggle, a writer. It was here I began to study literature and art seriously. It was in the Big Easy that I developed my Bohemian values. I learned the meaning of Dionysian at Mardi Gras. I learned the meaning of Epicurean at Commanders Palace, Galatoire's, Parasol's, the Gumbo Shop, and the sidewalk cafe where I worked for three years making po-boys and eggplant dishes. Music, travel, eccentricity, personality, all took meaning for me here.
Yet it isn't just nostalgia that moves me when I return to New Orleans. It is authenticity. Despite everything, genuine feeling and life continue. The false sameness throughout this country, in every suburban sprawl and fast-food boulevard, hasn't dominated here. Nor have the hypocrisy and moral pretense. Even the tourist carnival of Bourbon street remains unique, not the plastic, sterile put on that exists in so many "historic" cities. In Savannah and Charleston one has to dig deep for the dirt. Here you get it all, under the beautiful wrought iron balcony there is vomit and piss. Right there in the tall, leaded glass window sits a woman spinning poodle hair. Earthy chicory is what gives New Orleans coffee its flavor.
Let the Good Times Roll...