Thursday, May 31, 2007

Leaving The Land of Maybe...

Tomorrow I leave again for California.

I've been five weeks in The Sliver By The River trying to figure out if there's a There here and, more specifically, if I can really live here again; live here like a resident, not a visitor and a tourist. Unfortunately, these last several weeks have not really answered the question with the resounding yes that I had hoped to find, but to my joy the answer is also not no.

In New Orleans right now the answer to just about every question pertaining to quality of life, effectiveness, purpose, and future is a resounding maybe accompanied by a perpetual eventually, an ever present hopefully. There is an extremely frustrating tentativeness to everything and everyone. Even the true die hards say they're sticking it out come hell and high water while they look over their shoulder, check the weather channel and ponder their escape plans. My favorite columnist anywhere, Chris Rose, recently returned from a brief mental health vacation away and offered his version of what I call a Declaration of Faithfulness to New Orleans. My friend Mary told me that she was very glad to see him back because "... if he goes, I'm right behind him."

It seems to me though that there is an existential realism in this characteristic. As I learned as a kid (and as it was reiterated to me in seminary) nobody knows the time they are alloted on the planet, the things they will be able to accomplish, or the places they will eventually go. We like to pretend that we have everything under control and most of us live our lives creating little systems for reinforcing our personal sense of security and permanence. The problem is that it's all a lie. Nothing is solid... NOTHING. All things are tenuous and very little is known. In New Orleans people know that better than most and I think it stands us in good stead.

So... this time tomorrow (the first day of hurricane season coincidentally) I'll be packing up some of my stuff and heading for the plane, but I'll be doing it with a light heart because the one thing I was able to figure out about New Orleans (and me) on this trip is that I can't help it, it doesn't matter, I am permanently HOME in New Orleans. I now have a place in which to live here again and this time I won't stay away so long. I'll be back... probably soon... maybe... hopefully...

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

There Is No Fear In Love

On Meeting the Less Evolved on an Otherwise Lovely Evening...

I have been in war zones, crime zones, terror zones and hurricanes.

I have been fired at by contras in Nicaragua and stood on the border of Honduras unarmed and, mostly, unafraid.

I have hung from rock ledges and muddy crags by nothing more than my fingernails.

I have faced mile 25 with blood slurping in my shoe.

I have sat down in the middle of the road while people threatened to run over me and policemen tried to make me uncomfortable.

I have awakened to paramedics on the highway after doing unconscious acrobatics in my car.

I have faced down criminals in the ghettos of Sao Paulo, the back alleys of Calcutta, the teeming markets of Peru, and the busy streets of London.

I have walked the heart of Upper Manhattan at two in the morning, and faced down three women who thought, at some point or another, that I was the devil incarnate.

I have raised a little girl into a wondrous woman.

I have walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, alone and with my friends.

I am facing the fact that I will not live forever and I am doing it with unanticipated panache.

I have been in jail, in court, in church, and in love… and

I am NOT afraid of you.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I'm Walkin' Here...

One of the things that I love about cities, perhaps the thing I love MOST about cities (most cities at least) is the way that it is not only possible, but desirable to walk through them. This attitude helps me a lot, since I have epilepsy and from time to time I am reduced to walking and/or public transportation, and don't even get me started on the abysmal state of public transportation in this country. Suffice to say... "I'm walkin' here! I'm walkin' here!" Right now it is also the perfect time for this activity in New Orleans for, as strange as it may seem, it is actually possible for it to be pretty chilly in NOLA in the winter, and in the dog days of summer, well... 85 degrees at 6:30 am does not exactly tempt one to strolling.

But in the springtime... it's sublime. During the height of the afternoon it can still get pretty warm, and this afternoon I was walking from one side of town to the other as I sought out several people for work meetings (the first meetings in my montth long visitation... but that's another blog). In the morning I walk for fifteen minutes to half an hour to get to my coffee spot (depending on whether I go to the French Bakery or the place with coffee and chicory) and it's not only a great little bit of exercise (with a similar return trip as well) but it's the perfect precursor to my morning writing ritual. It also leads me, from time to time, to observe, and reflect upon, the state of the city.

Tonight, after my meetings, the lovely, balmy night air led me through the Quarter to catch part of this years' New Orleans Wine and Food Expo in search of a friend from California's Chateau Felice winery and then on to the Ogden museum for the first time since I got back, to hear John "Papa" Gros wail away on the piano, playing some of my all time favorite tunes, while I wandered around the museum and looked at the new exhibitions. He sang a song (sung by Colin James in this version) that I had never heard before, but which describes exactly how I'm feeling tonight. "I live the life I love and love the life I live."

The evening was capped with the delightful serendipity of a kiss offered by a very lovely young lady I had never met before who simply stopped outside the museum and said "I have to give this gentleman a kiss" before planting one on me and then telling me how much she enjoyed watching me enjoy the music. Over a year ago I wrote about my hero Uncle Lionel, from the Treme Brass Band, who is always the life of the party and receives the attention of all the lovely young women. In that post I made the comment that I want to be Uncle Lionel when I grow up. Uncle Lionel and I also share the affection for, and habit of, walking everywhere. I feel like tonight was my initiation into Uncle Lionelism, and I gotta say that I like the kissing better than the walking.

Hopefully this trend will continue, because...

I love the life I live!

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Tale of One City

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. There is a great divide in The Big Easy; one town with two (at least two) realities. In the French Quarter and along the strip that runs from The Quarter uptown to Riverbend it’s a reality that is more or less normal. Not that normal is in any way what it used to be. There are indeed shops closed and closing every day. Going out of business sales in the heart of the tourist district, boarded up apartments and storefronts along Magazine. But in post-Katrina reality this is the upside and if you’ve never been here, or if you’ve been here only a little, or if you were just too drunk to pay attention when you were here before you really wouldn’t notice much difference, and things would seem like they’re getting back to some cool, perhaps even amazing (depending on your personal experience and expectation), process of rebuilding. There’s even a real upside in some areas. The ever-present putrescence of Bourbon Street (“I love the smell of vomit in the morning! Smells like… commerce!”) has been washed away in one bold move by the creation of a new citrus based cleaner that makes The Quarter smell “april fresh” even in May (whether it can pull off the same trick during the dog days of summer remains to be seen). There are sparkling new clubs and restaurants from Canal to Frenchman’s Street, growing up like new saplings amid the rotting detritus of a clear cut forest.

The tourist areas of New Orleans don’t look like they used to, but you would be hard pressed to explain precisely what is different. If you’re expecting a devastated urban landscape, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and if you can keep yourself oriented to these areas you might even go home feeling like “things look pretty good down there.” I find myself looking at these areas like I used to look at my neighborhood in San Francisco’s Western Addition 30 years ago. Things could certainly be better, but the broken down doorframes and sagging windows add an engaging character to the place; they serve as architectural reflections of the unique bohemian human spirits that populate this landscape. If these places looked better than they do (and they will some day) the strange and glorious human spirits that they mirror would be absent as well. They too will be gone some day, but for now they remain.

Move beyond the few blocks that make up the tourist heart of New Orleans and, like stepping past the “beauty spots” in modern National Forest Service land management, you enter a whole different reality. The outlying areas of New Orleans (and even those areas at the geographic center of the city) remain nearly as bereft of life as they did 21 months ago. In the areas hardest hit by the floods, houses remain broken and askew. Many neighborhoods don’t contain a single recognizable building. Most neighborhoods, on the other hand, host identifiable, but uninhabited and uninhabitable, structures. Follow the main drag of Canal Street up toward Lake Pontchartrain (something you can now do on the newly functioning streetcars) and within three blocks of Bourbon Street you begin to see shuttered buildings and broken down homes; by the time you reach mid-city it begins to take on the eery look of a post-modern, post-apocalyptic landscape.

This is the other New Orleans. This is MOST of New Orleans. It’s an empty land of memories, hopes and desires with no place for people to live and grow and little evidence of change or improvement. And this is the New Orleans that matters most. Without Mid-City, without Gentilly, without Lakeview, Central City and the infamous Lower Ninth, this isn’t really a city at all. New Orleans without the people already exists. In fact it exists in two places, one in Florida and one in California. New Orleans, as many people seem to think it should be, resides in the every day experiences and night time imaginations of thousands of visitors to Walt Disney’s “New Orleans Square.” Without the homes, the churches, the businesses, the people… New Orleans is the same as those places on the opposite coasts (only with more crime). To be a city, to be a place that matters in the hearts, minds and zeitgeist of now and future culture, The Big Easy still needs some Big Big Help.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Of course, we could always ride to safety on the backs of "Palmetto Bugs!"

Swamp Land for Sale or Trade!

So... there's a story in the Times-Picayune online tonight (I expect that it will be in the actual paper tomorrow morning) that discusses the fact that the state and city have still not contracted for the buses they will need to evacuate people should there be a hurricane bearing down on New Orleans sometime in the coming 6 month hurricane season (which officially starts in just over two weeks). The predictions for how much this will cost run about $3,000 per bus and they expect they will need at least 750 buses (though most peopleseem to think they will need mroe than that). That's $3,000,000 just to get people out of the way, and it of course begs the question, how will they then get back? After Katrina, people were basically given one way tickets out to the hinterlands with no real sense of how they would return (which is a big reason why many indeed have not).

As someone who, for medical reasons, doesn't drive at present, this whole plan is something that I am rather significantly concerned about. The article includes discussion of commandeering school buses should the supply of fancy air-conditioned $3,000 rigs (which have yet to be contracted for, remember) prove insufficient. Well... if ya believe that one... I've got an abundance of land (most of it just down the block) I can sell ya for cheap.

You see... I remember leaving just before the last one. I remember Nagin standing up in the press conference and talking about the buses they were sending out for people and I remember seeing the people standing down on Claiborne and I remember seeing ONE... that's right...ONE... lonely school bus pulling down off the interstate as I was heading the hell outta Dodge (just me and the wonderful Roxanne).

As I have been back in town over the last three weeks, I have seen a lot of encouraging signs of recovery. Not enough mind you, but some good signs. I have also seen people who are clearly determined to do THEIR part in bringing the city back and rebuilding a life in this amazing place. What seems to be missing, over and over and over, is the same thing that was missing two years ago. The government, from the Feds through the State and down to the Mayor, has consistently dropped the ball, and is obviously continuing to do so.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't expect the government to take care of everything, and frankly it is not my experience that there is anyone (at least not anyone I know) who really feels that way. I do, however, expect the government to take care of what the government - ANY GOVERNMENT - is supposed to take care of... it's the REASON we have governments! What individuals cannot do for themselves we band together and empower (and pay) the government to take care of. Well, as far as I can see from beginning to end (and going on 21 months now), most of the PEOPLE are doing their share... and the GOVERNMENT has abdicated its responsibility.

At times like this... I am tempted to suggest that the world doesn't make sense... but then (like the cartoon above) I am reminded that the world isn't necessarily SUPPOSED to make sense.

Anybody got a hot air balloon they wanna sell me real cheap?

I've even got some LAND I'll trade for it!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Beginnings... Endings... and Beginnings Again

On the first weekend, JazzFest began with a "Jazz Funeral" celebration of the life of Ed Bradley, yesterday it closed with an all day celebration of one of the true greats of New Orleans and New Orleans jazz, Alvin Batiste. In the picture here (from the Times--Picayune) Stephanie Jordan, Batiste's niece, honors him in song as he looks down over the Jazz Tent from his picture high above. All day long, from the first set with trumpeter Maurice Brown, to the closing notes of a giant brass band second line, the Jazz Tent streamed forth love and admiration for the man who was committed to his art, to his city, and to carrying the traditions forward.

At one point in the afternoon, Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr.- both true sons of the city - joined Bob French and his band, along with some of Batiste's students from NOCCA, to offer up their own joyous celebration of this man's life well lived.

This is the essence of The Crescent City, a way of looking at life, and death, in the overall reality of ongoing existence. The energy and the connection in these acts reflects the dynamic life force that is struggling up from out of the mud of Katrina to bring this place back to new hope, new creation, and new life. This year's jazzfest was a microcosm of, and a symbol for, that reality.

The last week and a half have been good to and for me. Things are not back to normal, and what "the new normal" will be remains to be seen. But for the first time since Katrina, I feel a genuine sense of hope that the city is returning to life.

In the great tradition of the jazz funeral... the music leads the way.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Wonder of Life in The Tropics

God I hate these things!

I did an audio blog about "Palmetto Bugs," the name people in New Orleans, and in Florida, give to these giant frigging mutant ROACHES that are absolutely everywhere, back when I first moved here in 2005 and here they are again... two years later.

But it's one thing to find them strolling along the street and following you home as they did back then (I'm serious... these guys do not run away like normal roaches) and quite another thing to find one the size of your aunt sitting in your sink and drinking martinis when you go to brush your teeth.

There's a lot of conversation and advice about these things online, but the ultimate gist of the whole pointless conversation tends to be... well, there ain't much you can do about them.

My friend John Fohl, who plays guitar for Dr. John, referred to them as pets while we were chatting over drinks back before Katrina... and for a long time after The Thing they were nowhere to be found. Well they are here now... Half of the PEOPLE who are residents of New Orleans aren't here, but the frigging ROACHES are... believe me!

Ultimately, I desire to care for "all sentient beings" like the Boddhisatva I wish to become, but right now, as I am preparing for bed with visions of giant mutant insects crawling across my face in the night, all I really want to do is nuke every last one of them (and especially the one in my sink who escaped the wrath of my flip flop) into ex-existence. Of course, there is some evidence that suggests they might survive that too.

These things really are the Kings of the Earth and I am ready for some serious regicide.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Rain Rain Go Away...

So far... the highlight of the second weekend of JazzFest was the rain. It flat freaking POURED for several hours yesterday (and the night before) complete with the thunder and lightning that you rarely see and hear in California but which does my little tropical heart good.

The primary downside of all that rain is that it once again shows the weaknesses in the pumping system that is one part of the flood protection this city so desperately needs. According to an article in the Times-Picayune this morning, the storms knocked out power to some of the pumping stations and there was some significant flooding in parts of the city. There was even flooding at JazzFest as water began to rise in the Jazz Tent, where I took refuge, but it receded eventually and it's hard to complain about the weather when its primary result is to put you inside to hear Sharon Martin, Ellis Marsalis, and John Boute for going on three hours. In addition, once the rain cleared away I got to hear a smokin' set by Judith Owen the glorious pianist/chanteuse who is married to Harry Shearer and brought him along for bass and moral support. She was also joined by New Orleans' Roland Guerin (also on bass) and Philip Manuel on additional vocals. There was a promised appearance by the fabulous David Torkanowski, but time ran short and he begged off in favor of a tribute to New Orleans written by Owen.

A few oysters, a cup of beer, Judith Owen... ahhhhhh... what's a little rain?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Too Much Love... Too Much Fun

This is a picture taken of Ivan Neville from the back of the Gentilly Stage at JazzFest this Sunday while a new bunch of old New Orleans musicians played together as the New Orleans Social Club. The little yellow arrow is pointing at me (or at least a reasonably good guess at me) in the crowd. These guys (a loosely bound together group featuring, Ivan, Henry Butler, and Leo Necontelli, and including Irma Thomas and John Boute, and really just about anyone they can gather together to play together at any given time) have been a traveling band of rockin' NOLA reminders as they have worked their way across the country over the last year and a half. But on Sunday they simply tore up the stage and proved, again, one of the reasons New Orleans matters. It was a great show, and for me the highlight of the first weekend (though Sonny Landreth's smokin' version of Congo Square to close out his set in the Blues Tent on Saturday would have to be a close second).

There was also a makeshift jazz funeral/second line at the heart of the fairgrounds for a great friend of New Orleans and an exemplary party person in his own right, Ed Bradley (Times-Picayune coloumnist Dave Walker has a great piece on Ed and what he means to New Orleans that's definitely worth a read). There was a jazz mass for Ed at St. Augustine's Church on Sunday morning where Dr. John, Irma Thomas, and the Treme Brass Band played him home. I missed that one unfortunately, but that's the nature of Jazz Fest.... just too many opportunities.

And that's the difficuulty that I face in attempting to communicate what's been going on over the last week since I got on a plane in San Jose and landed in The Crescent City. I have begun about a dozen different pieces of writing and reflection, some of them entertainment based, others featuring food and drink, and of course a certain level of the on-going personal and political reality that settles on everything like the humid air.

But frankly... all of that is going to have to wait until I have some more time... this afternoon I've got a Marcia Ball concert to get to and two parties to catch!