We Need a Little Light

What interesting parallels I’m having this week with the stories I wrote ten years ago as the Slate Diarist not long after 9/11. There was a lot of talk in the media then about how 9-11 had changed everything, but I suspect that less changed than we predicted. Ten years ago I was trying to shape my thoughts about writing simply, about telling stories that move me, and about my recently published Christmas book, When Angels Sing that has this past year been made into a feature film.

I was even more focused on my script, Waiting for Gordo, a South Texas adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s classic that I had set on the border, not far from where I am writing this week on the Rio Grande River in and around Laredo. Gordo was a small effort to personalize a story that is too often dehumanized and always politicized.

A decade later, the eight candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination – arguing like an octopus turned on itself – are arguing about border immigration and freeloading illegals in the same tone I was hearing then.  I’m not going to hold my breath for a solution, but I have learned this week that border intervention is a huge business and not likely to ever become a smaller one. It’s been an honor to look for a little understanding of border issues in the company of Time Magazine’s Joe Klein and one of the greatest and bravest photographers of our time, Lynsey Addario. Watch for Joe’s stories and Lynsey’s photos on Joe’s Swampland Blog and in Time Magazine for the next month.

But first, here’s my Slate Diary Blog from soon after 9-11 – a time capsule to a me that I hope I can hold onto.


The beauty of being a free-lance writer is you get to pick your subjects, themes, and characters. Unless they pick you. The age-old dictum, of course, is to “write what you know,” a philosophy that works for a time, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a tattoo. Much better to write what you learn.

So after a long day on a film set watching my words turn into pictures, the questions before me tonight are: What did I learn today? And what can I write?

Foremost, I learned that my daughter is not the only one plagued by dreams hanging on our fears of a darkness that threatens to envelop the earth. This morning, one person after another related their sleepless experiences until it seemed like half of America must have awakened at 4 a.m. from what I can only describe as a collective nightmare. Oh, if this war were only a dream, how sweet would be our waking tomorrow.

One thing I learned in that quest today, learned and relearned as I have to learn nearly every day, is the aspiration to write simply. Misquoting Faulkner—but raising a glass to his spirit—my goal is to write from the heart, not from the balls or brains (though those can be handy in a pinch).

A few years ago, while a guest on Sky TV’s literary talk show from London, I was talking with Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass series and other timeless tomes. Pullman is a former schoolteacher who started quite a row in the literary world by saying the art of storytelling had been foolishly devalued by hip literary stylists. I believe Martin Amis was one name that he singled out, though I don’t intend to reduce one great writer to hoist up another. But I do think Pullman was right to wonder if the literary hipsters weren’t forgetting to give something back to their readers.

I later shared a few ales and words on this subject with Richard Cohen, the British publisher of my novel, Fast Greens, which I was promoting at the time. Richard fell more into the Pullman camp than the Amis, saying that he had once worked for a marvelous publisher who only asked one question when Richard found a novel that he wanted to publish. “Did itmove you?”

Cohen also gave me a piece of advice I’ve carried ever since. One of the advantages of being a Southern writer (or a Texas writer), he said, is that the innate style and language of our region enables us to write close against the line of sentimentality. (He neglected, however, to mention the Sisyphean nature of defining the line that separates sentiment in its true light from blatant sentimentality.)

A couple of years ago, I wrote one of those little Christmas novels that a cynic might think the product of monetary desperation. But this was a story that chose me. I’d been thinking of writing something for my family’s Christmas but had no solid ideas. Then one morning I awoke from a late night’s reverie and began to write. Twenty days later, I stopped writing and sent the book to my friends and family as a Christmas present. One week more, and the editor of Algonquin Books called to say she’d like to publish When Angels Sing, which most critics lauded as a heartfelt story simply told. But two critics (fans of Martin Amis, I imagined) absolutely loathed my story of a man who had to shed his hatred of Christmas in order to hold the love of his son.

I dashed off irate letters to these reviewers—letters I later regretted, learning the hard way that it’s better to offer thanks to those who give us praise. I also learned a more valuable lesson—that we can’t make the entire world into what we want it to be. The writer’s job, if you put your faith in the verities of old, is to shine a light on what is already there. To help us all awaken from the dream within a dream so that someday we may realize the dreams within our hearts.

Samuel Johnson wrote that we tell each other stories in an attempt to be made whole. Through storytelling we reveal who we are at the core; through storytelling we lay bare the hearts and souls of humankind, 6 billion people whose DNA can all be traced to a handful of common ancestors. Can there be any wonder that we share the same dreams?

So let me tell you a story from the set of Going to California—a story that even a sentimental writer wouldn’t have the balls to make up. In my episode, “Waiting for Gordo,” the two guest roles are Pucho and Fortunato, Latino characters inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Pozzo and his slave, Lucky. As the coyote Pucho, we enthusiastically cast Tony Amendola, the kind of actor you always dream will say your words. A man of infinite moods, Tony moves so deftly from darkness to light and back again that I wish I could be his full-time scribe, following close behind and whispering everyday lines into his ear just to hear him make me sound brilliant.

More important to today’s story, though, is the young man cast as Fortunato. The show’s producers knew only that on videotape, Bernardo Verdugo seemed to be an angelic natural as an illegal alien who is discovered in the trunk of a car where he has been locked by a coyote. Like so many people from so many parts of the world, Fortunato’s great aspiration is to come to freedom, to make a new life in America. After the first few scenes this morning, I complimented Bernardo on his performance, and he said that it was not a difficult part for him. Six years ago, well before he got his green card and residency in the United States, Bernardo was brought to America by a coyote.

“How did you cross the border?” I asked.

“Locked in the trunk of a car,” he said.

And then I watched him climb back into the trunk of a car. The lid slammed shut, and I thought of him there in the darkness, wondering what awaited him. Cameras rolled and our director softly said, “Action.” As the trunk came open, the sun peeked out from behind a tall cloud, and long rays of light shone in upon the face of Bernardo Verdugo.

And on a film set high atop a hill on a ranch outside of Austin, the shared dreams of a young man from Mexico and a writer from Texas came true.

We finished the scene to everyone’s delight, then the sun slipped back behind the clouds. That’s when I heard someone say, “We need more light.”

Ten Years After – My Slate Diaries in the wake of 9/11

In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood.

Writer and filmmaker Turk Pipkin looks back at some of his writing in the wake of 9/11 when he was the weekly diarist on Slate.com.

Turk Pipkin: In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood. Rereading this story is a great reminder of the life I used to live, of the lives many of us lived in the decade before 9/11 when the economy was fairly good and the worst thing the fine members of America’s Congress could imagine was a blow job.

A decade later, we’ve blown three trillion dollars in two lost wars, bailed out billionaires with government money while hard-working men and women discovered that the hardest thing about work is finding it. For a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we had the whole world with us, but we blew it all away with hubris, lies and a ten-year battle without end that has destroyed far too many lives and has fractured America into groups that are unable to recognize their common ground because of the massive focus placed on their differences.

 Frustrated at America’s response to 9/11, my wife and I ended up founding The Nobelity Project and, like so many people who care about a better way ahead, are trying our best to be a positive force in a world that needs us all. Here’s my Slate diary from October 8, 2010.


It was a beautiful weekend. There was a chill in the air, and the monarch butterflies were winging their way to Mexico. I set all my writing aside, left my computer at home, and drove with my wife and kids to the Texas Hill Country, where I’ve been building a cabin overlooking the Llano River. Every trip I make to the river is a pilgrimage, for I spent much of my childhood at my grandmother’s ranch on the river’s headwaters—wading, swimming, and fishing in the cold spring water that eventually runs over the granite outcroppings at the property we now own. My family lost my grandmother’s ranch when I was in high school, and I spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how to get back a piece of the river.

But as a comedian, then a free-lance writer of books and television, the price of waterfront land was always just out of my reach. Whenever I started to make more money, the prices went up. Then on Valentine’s Day, 2000, while I was writing a magazine story in Belize, my wife sent me an e-mail saying her mammogram had shown something suspicious. I came home to a diagnosis of DCIS—Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. We went from doctor to doctor and the word “mastectomy” kept hitting us like a hammer. Eighteen months later, I still couldn’t say which one of us was more scared.

Running from what we could not escape, one day we dropped the kids at school and headed for the river, driving on back-country roads till we came to a low-water crossing built by German settlers in the 19th century. In the space of one day, we fell in love with the land overlooking that crossing, learned it was for sale, and made an offer to buy it. Eighteen months later—with my wife having beaten her breast cancer and having begun teaching yoga for a living—the river has become a central part of our lives.

We have no television or radio at the cabin; it’s too good here for all that. This weekend, with the wind blowing cool out of the north, we built a campfire in the late afternoon, then grilled steaks and vegetables by the light of an orange and violet sunset. Within an hour, the sky was brilliant with stars, the Milky Way shining bright from horizon to horizon. Just before bedtime, my daughters and I looked up and all saw the same shooting star.

It’s never easy for me to escape my work. People tell me they envy my carefree life as a writer, but they don’t have any idea how hard I have to work to keep from having a job. To cobble together one real income, I write for television, film, magazines, and try to turn out a book every couple of years. That means long, butt-throbbing hours at my desk and very short nights in bed. It’ll be a miracle if I get any writing done this week. A one-hour episode I wrote for a great new Showtime series—Going to California—will be filming in Austin, and I’m hoping to see as much of the action as possible. I’ll also be working on a documentary on Willie Nelson for American Masters on PBS, and I’m moderating panels and hosting events at one of my favorite events of the year, the Austin Film Festival.

At last year’s festival, I chaired a panel with David Chase, the creator and executive producer of HBO’s hit, The Sopranos. Before the panel, we talked a bit about my experiences in Italy interviewing lawyers and hitmen for the ‘Ndrangetta, the fearful Calabrian mafia. When the panel started, David was looking at me kind of funny, and I thought I must have said something wrong. Far from it—a couple of days later, the casting director of The Sopranos called to see if I’d videotape an audition for the show. The role was a total hoot—the born-again, narcoleptic boyfriend of Tony’s sister Janice. They faxed the script, I sent back a tape, and a couple of weeks later I was in Queens falling asleep on Tony Soprano’s shoulder and having him bounce walnuts off my sleeping noggin at the Sopranos’ Thanksgiving dinner.

For a writer whose future depends to a great extent on a larger audience discovering his work, this tiny brush with fame was a dream come true. All the better when the show brought me back for a couple more episodes, giving me some fun scenes with Aida Turturro, a wonderful actress who makes Janice one of The Sopranos‘ most memorable characters. When Aida was nominated for an Emmy for her work this year, I felt sure I’d soon be in front of the TV watching her accept her award.

NYC skyline and sunset from La Guardia just before 9/11

Then came Sept. 11. The week after the bombings, I could not look away from the television. I had to know everything, had to e-mail everyone I knew. For some reason, I felt a compulsion to be a reassuring voice, to tell my friends and family that somehow everything would be OK. A lot of nice words came back for my efforts, but I also got the worst possible news from too many friends whose family members, business associates, and college buddies had been in the Trade Centers. On one of my trips to film The Sopranos, I’d taken my 10-year-old daughter to the top of the World Trade Center. Now she wanted to know about the people we’d seen there, and what would happen to the children of those people who’d died. My voice began to sound less and less reassuring. And our refuge at the river began to seem more and more important.

It was still cool this morning when we hiked down the granite point to the river’s edge. It was a little late in the year for a swim, but I waded in till my knees were wet, decided it was too cold, and turned back to shore. Then I slipped on the slick rock, and the river gave me my baptism anyway. Once I was wet, I went ahead a paddled around in what turned out to be the best swim of the year. And then I headed back to Austin to watch Aida win her award.

It was a beautiful weekend, but then I turned on the TV. America Strikes Back was a harsh return to reality. The awards, of course, were pushed from our concerns, and the war had started without me. Now I find myself trying to remember my long-ago friends, David and Lynn Angell, who died on American Flight 11; find myself trying to imagine rushing to the rescue of innocent men, women, and children, knowing you might never return, or what it must be like to be under bombs and missiles raining down from the sky. I try to think of all the things we need to think of when our country is at war, but instead my mind keeps returning to the monarchs, their orange and black wings brilliant in the sun as they fly unknowing across the borders of man in their ancient pilgrimage of life.

And the week is just beginning.

Learn more about The Nobelity Project and watch the trailer for Building Hope at: www.nobelity.org

I’ll try to update some of the other diaries this week, but in the meantime, all five of my daily posts from the week are archived at: http://www.slate.com/id/116912/entry/116920/



Immigrants, legal and otherwise, fuel Texas economy, job growth

The Washington Post cites several studies indicating that immigrants, both legal and illegal, account for a good bit of the job growth in Texas. Also, they put more into the state’s budget than is spent on services. So, immigration is a net gain all around.

This isn’t likely to change the minds of the bigots, though. They live in a zero sum universe. If someone of slightly different appearance is driving a nice car, they assume it’s a nice car that should be their own but isn’t because the undeserving person of slightly disappearance got it through theft or government hand-out.

Here’s the story.

Here’s how WPost’s Ezra Klein summed it up:

So Texas, with its booming economy, may have more to benefit from with its large immigrant population, both illegal and illegal. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all states would immediately benefit from a big influx of immigrant workers.

Real True Grit

“Well, there is no beat of a good friend.”

–Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn, in the novel, True Grit.

“He is not my friend.”

–Young Mattie Ross, speaking of Rooster Cogburn, in True Grit.

The American myth of the rugged, self-sufficient individual is ever-present in our culture. Think of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a character based on the nameless “Continental Op” of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller, Red Harvest. The characters abandon the very concept of community. They no longer even want a name that could be known by others.

The myth, of course, is just a fictionalized reflection of a belief held by many Americans: the self-contained individual is all. The furtherance of individual liberty, with little regard for the fate of the community at large, is the only legitimate role of government. The belief comes with magical thinking (or cynical slight-of-hand) that unrestrained selfishness will produce more for all than selflessness, altruism, or compassion.

Charles Portis’s True Grit and the 2010 film version by the Coen Brothers turn the myth on its head. In the process, the works tell us something about loneliness, inequality and the pursuit of friendship in contemporary America. We can look at the “true grit” of the book and movie as a reference to the courage to befriend others selflessly despite differences and barriers.

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These Are the Times

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine said. But what times aren’t?

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Thomas Paine said that, and I wish I could ask him, “What times aren’t?” Still, whatever else they are these are our times. And, however obviously true that is, it is painful to confess.

These are times when bankers, like so many Snidely Whiplashes on steroids, are trying to take homes from people who don’t even have mortgages.

These are the times when public education, foundational to democracy, is under assault from profiteers who just have to get their hands on all that money, a move that would turn education over to the kinds of lawless people who are, well, foreclosing on homeowners who don’t have mortgages.

The same is true of Social Security, a successful citizen cooperative that goes a long way toward guaranteeing two of Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: freedom from want and freedom from fear. Oh how the Wall Street bandits and buccaneers want to get their hands on that money – as if giving them the cash will make anyone but them more financially secure.

These are the times in which the courts say money is speech, so those with more money have more speech. Corporations are persons and they can spend all they want to buy elections, functionally disenfranchising individual working Americans. Campaign finance and disclosure laws, intended to help level the field, are failing and collapsing like weak levees before a terrible storm.

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Dinosaurs Among Us

Standing over the makings of a new compost pile,
hose in hand,
I was surprised to see a little head pop up.
Tiny nose, whiskers, beady eyes emerged
surprised by the unrequested bath (soaking really)
disturbed from its nest.
Out popped a mouse from the jumble of wood shavings,
pulled weeds, branches, leaves.
Apparently a home.
And then another. And another. And another. And another.
Like furry popcorn dashing out of the pile, wet and quivering
and in need of a new place to rest, to hide, to build a nest.

For want of a cat I turned, hose in hand, toward the house
and called,
“Come here dogs. Come get some treats! Animas. Piedra. Come!”
The black dog and the yellow dog looked up from their resting spots
in the shade of the porch, ears back, squinty eyes,
tails wagging in short, nervous sweeps.
“Come on girls! I have some treats for you!”
They eyed me and the hose and my excited voice,
and turned and slunk up the back steps into the house
sure of a soaking.
“Animas! Piedra! Come! Treats! Damn dogs.”

“Useless dogs. Where am I going to find a cat?”
And soon. Two turned to ten turned to twenty with me standing over them
with my cold, drowning eviction notice drenching the neighborhood
turning them out on the town.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed one of our black australorp nearby.
“Here chick, chick, chick.”
She wandered toward me in her attentive, waddley way.
And noticed a mouse.
In feathery flash she was on the evictee, grabbed it in her beak,
smashed it to the ground a few times, stood up tall with the carcass dangling,
walked a few proud steps and swallowed it whole.
Just the tip of the tail sticking out of her mouth as the only reminder it had every existed
and then it was gone.

Goldie Hen Helps

In moments, the rest of the flock arrived,
heads low and stretched out in front of them, wings out to their sides with their powerful legs
driving them like a squadron of fighters on a strafing run.
And in a few seconds nine more mice became nothing more than tail tips between cruel beaks.
But the flood continued and so did the evacuees.
The hens were ready.
They hunted in teams. Some would pair up and push mice to one another.
Other battlefield tactics emerged.
I saw flanking formations, pressure lines, pincer movements.
Some would flush while others killed and when the killers consumed they flushed for the others.
One of the silver laced wyandottes was especially good at knocking off the mice
that tried to escape by climbing a piece of fence. I saw her do it at least three times
while her killing partner, Raggedy Anne a disheveled araucana, pounced on the fallen mice.

I lost track counting in those ten or fifteen minutes. More than fifty young mice,
damp victims of a soggy eviction were greeted by ten hens
without a survivor.
Like falling out of a boat into a shark feeding frenzy,
crawling out of your overturned jeep and being met by a pack of velociraptors
or getting kicked out of your home and running into a pack of loan collectors,
bankers and debt repayment officers.
There are dinosaurs among us. They didn’t die out.
We pluck them and grill them or fry them. We collect their eggs and eat them scrambled, over easy,
hard boiled or deviled.
Too bad bankers aren’t as useful or delicious.

Desperados Waiting for a Train

Oh my mama told me
‘Cause she say she learned the hard way
She say she wanna spare the children
She say don’t give or sell your soul away
‘Cause all that you have is your soul

So don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
‘Cause all that you have is your soul.

The sentiment above, expressed beautifully by singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, goes to the heart of Americans’ self-image. In this nation, we tell ourselves, we are free to be true to our souls. I guess it all depends upon what you mean by “true” or “soul.”

Like the narrator’s mother in the song, we seem condemned to learn this truth the hard way, if we learn it at all. If the financial meltdown has not taught us anything else, it should teach us that there’s hell to pay when you sell your soul.

Jean Paul Sartre famously described hell as other people. I think, instead, that our soul is other people. Living within a Ayn Randian/Social Darwinist myth of the isolated individual versus the world, we exploit others for our own advantage. It’s our own souls that pay the price. By the way, Sartre always claimed he was misunderstood. He said:

It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.

I meet people from all walks of life and from all parts of the country who live as if they recognize this simple truth. Our everyday interactions with friends and strangers depend upon it. We give honest change at the bar. We hold doors open for the elderly and the frail (in the South, men still hold them open for women).

Collectively, though, we live by a dim and different light. Others are our competitors in a zero sum game. It’s insane, really. The devilish rich think they can run off with all the money. They shrug off 10 percent unemployment and all the suffering it causes, knowing all the while that it’s caused by their actions. They can’t run away with the money, though, ‘cause there’s nowhere for them to run. That’s Tracy Chapman’s lesson of the bitter fruit. Sartre’s, too.

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The World Is Rich, But It Is Not Mine

This world is rich, but it is not mine.
Where I live, hungry children are crying
I am not angry, at my own condition
I just want people to know my position.

Procol Harum, from a statement by South African Stephen Maboe

Congressman Joe Barton says he doesn’t want to live in a country in which those in authority are held accountable.

Okay, I’m paraphrasing, but I’m getting the spirit of his comments – and his beliefs – just right. He apologized to BP for the Obama Administration’s audacity and its demand that BP put $20 billion in escrow to compensate Americans devastated by the oil giant’s Gulf spill.

I’m only speaking for myself. I’m not speaking for anyone else, but I apologize,” Barton added. “I do not want to live in a county where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, [it is] subject to some sort of political pressure that, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown.

Other Republicans (John Cornyn, Michele Bachmann) shared Barton’s concerns. Some tried to distance themselves. Whatever.

The point is that Barton spoke from his heart. In the worldview of Barton and his ilk, humanity divides neatly into two categories: the ruled and the rulers. It is a violation of natural law to hold rulers accountable. Surviving fish do not punish sharks for the flounder they eat.

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Not Getting Much out of Your Networking? Maybe Your Expectations are Too High.

Aaahhh networking.  The schmooze fest.  Some people love it, other people hate it.  Generally speaking, I tend to think that I would prefer to interface with a computer monitor or at least with a human on the other side of my camera over the excruciating experience of chatting with another human being about my business.  And yet, today at a small business networking conference hosted by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, I found that I was enjoying myself.  I mean really enjoying myself. I have been to lots of Chamber events in the past and found that people would often look at my name tag title and company to decide whether they wanted to talk to me or not.  When I worked for a particular car rental company, most often the answer was indicated to me by the following process 1) the quick and greedy glance at my name tag 2) the nanosecond of “she can’t do anything for me,” the 3) feigned “see someone across the room” wave and finally, 4) the ever popular, “walk across the room to where the food is” move.   My stomach would churn every time my boss sent me to one of these events.  They are so often superficial, gratuitously self-promoting not to mention just plain old boring.  Not helping matters, years ago, I made it a policy never to drink at a business event so I couldn’t even sit in the corner getting hammered like the other introverts whose bosses attempted to force them to interact with “leads,” “contacts” and non-personal nouns living in the various stages of their business pipeline.   These events turn my stomach because they are by design inauthentic, contrived and approached by many with a selfish attitude—how can I get you as a customer, how can I use you, how can I leverage this contact into something better for myself.

Today was different. I don’t know if it was the change in geography, the fact that I’m a photographer now and people think that is cool or that I really REALLY care about my business compared to how I felt about the old rental wheels company, but today felt unlike any networking event I have attended.  Not only did I enjoy myself, but also I had several genuine interactions with people with whom I plan to keep in touch.  Do I know whether they will end up to be clients, friends or people that I can help out?  Who knows?  And actually, I don’t even care.  If someone wants to keep in touch, isn’t that, in and of itself, pretty valuable?  Aren’t genuine human connections enough?
Continue reading “Not Getting Much out of Your Networking? Maybe Your Expectations are Too High.”

Evangeline, the Oil Spill and Highway 61

Evangeline, by George Rodrigue

I was 18, skinny, out of money and in New Orleans for the first time after some Appalachian adventures and a visit to Nixon’s D.C. I faked a cocky walk into a French Quarter piano bar and stayed until closing time when the brunette singer in a sequined costume gown took pity on me. We went to an all-night place to eat. She picked up the tab and sent me gently on my way, and I still don’t know who pays the angels.

I headed out of town on Tulane Avenue under a high, gray light filtered through very low sky. At the Broad Street red light a man in a rumpled coat and wrinkled trousers stood in the intersection. He swayed on unsteady legs and waved his arms as blood sprayed from his neck. A cop in his car at a gas station on my right saw the same thing I did, looked at me funny, punched his siren and flashed across the intersection. A road sign I hadn’t noticed before slapped me hard with the Dylan verse: “God said, Abraham kill me a son.” The man’s throat was cut near the end of Highway 61.

I’d had a youthful tour of the Museum of America, from John Prine’s Paradise to Washington’s Marble Presidents, from the Encounter With the Compassionate Stranger to the Diorama of Violent Death. I drove on home to Houston, where everyone said I looked gaunt.

I’m spending a lot of time in New Orleans these days. The town, still recovering from the Storm, is bracing for the economic gut punch of the Spill. If I were Pharaoh of New Orleans, I’d let the people go before the Mississippi turns to blood and frogs fill the Superdome.

Already some LeBlancs and Toussaints have escaped to HBO, not the promised land but a virtual home for a spirited, impressionistic filmsong of New Orleans, Treme. Sandra Bullock’s moved to town and adopted a motherless child, and in the French Quarter a guy in a cop costume tosses you a Saints cap and asks for a twenty-dollar food-drive donation. Hat in hand, the role reversed, you give it up for an angel not forgotten.

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