Sisyphus Happy

In the pre-dawn darkness of Thanksgiving morning, I’m gazing out my New Orleans hotel window at the Mississippi River below. A ship’s horn sounds close by, but I see neither ship nor barge and figure it is just America moaning in its sleep.

Business brought me here and away from family this Thanksgiving, so I can be forgiven for romanticizing the errand a bit. I have on my iPod Folkways’ wondrous 1957 release of the University Players’ Walt Whitman readings. Still at the window, I listen to “Song of the Open Road.”

To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.
All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments – all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and
corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads
of the universe.

Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best – toward something great.

Tempted by a post-modern savvy I didn’t order, I sometimes consider Whitman’s grand optimism embarrassingly naïve. Then I double-back on his time of Civil War, industrial madness and the shooting death of his beloved Abraham Lincoln. Whitman’s resilience becomes awe-inspiring and it makes it a little harder to feel sorry for myself.

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Panic Politics

If ever a town earned the right to perpetual panic, New Orleans is it. The people of New Orleans face the economic and environmental consequences of the BP oil spill before they’ve fully recovered from Katrina. I’ve been spending a good amount of time in New Orleans lately, and panic is the last thing on the minds of New Orleanians.

On Frenchmen Street, a two-block circus of music and bars not far from the Quarter, a young street poet bangs away at his spontaneous verse on an old Royal typewriter and recites them for tips. He came to New Orleans from D.C. to work as an ambulance driver. A city hiring freeze left him a lot of time to write. But he’s not panicked. He was, I promise, happy, if in a bluesy kind of way.

I don’t meet many happy people in politics these days. I’m not sure I meet any. In the political arena, panic is everywhere. On the Right, there’s panic about zombie communism. Maybe we should shorten the name of this ultimate straw-bogeyman to zommunism. Anyway, On the Left, there’s panic about undead fascism. Those not panicked about being sold out are panicked about being accused of being sellouts.

One of Austin’s greater slacker rituals used to be the annual North Austin/South Austin tug-o-war called the “Tug of Honor.” A big rope was strung across the Colorado River, and hundreds of beer-drinking partisans lined up on their side of the river, grabbed the rope and tugged. At some point, one side or the other tumbled into the river. Now, we are much too panicked for that sort of revelry. But there’s another point here.

If you’ve ever been on the losing side in a tug-o-war, you know that moment of panic when your team is overpowered, its mutual footing lost. There’s a kind of oh-my-god panic. Somehow, in our current political circumstance, all sides seem to be having such a moment at the same time. The laws of physics hint that that shouldn’t be possible.

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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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Living a Treme Life

Eager to watch the new HBO television series “Treme,” but lacking a television—much less cable—I was excited to find I could livestream the show off the internet. Last night I watched the 80 minute pilot, which boldly depicts the lives of the residents of New Orleans living in the post-apocalyptic cityscape three months after the levees broke.

The show doesn’t hesitate to address—loud and clear—the cause of the disaster. Seventeen minutes into the first episode, the college professor Creighton Burnett (John Goodman) begins hollering, “What hit the Mississippi Gulf coast was a natural disaster, a hurricane pure and simple. The flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck up of epic proportions, and decades in the making.”

New Orleans jazz musician Kermit Ruffins plays himself in the HBO series “Treme.” Here Ruffins performs “Smokin with Some Barbeque.”

Nor does the show avoid the shameful treatment of New Orleans residents turned away by police blockades as they tried to cross over bridges and out of the city.

Both captivating and slow-moving, the show depicts the richness and culture of the city, and the scrappiness of the residents who chose to remain.

And for me, it brought back visceral memories of the days after the flooding. At the time I worked second shift on the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Spending eight hours a day talking with survivors of violence from all over the country who were often extremely poor, and struggling to find safety and meet the basic needs of their children, I was all too aware that formidable and often insurmountable barriers exist for Americans trying to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” But coming home at 11:30pm to watch clips of the New Orleanians stranded on bridges filled me with new waves of anger and shame.

The real shock for me came when the Austin Convention Center filled up with evacuated New Orleans residents. I was part of the rush of people headed downtown to volunteer at the well-run emergency shelter.

Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce)
Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce)

“I can do shelters,” I thought as I rounded the corner of the building, walking towards the entrance. I had after all recently lived for three nights a week in a domestic violence shelter in Durango, Colorado where I worked as a counselor.

But as I walked into the vast open space of the Austin Convention Center–which had been turned into an open bedroom for 5,000 New Orleanians–the bright lights, the giant televisions, the laughing children darting between the long lines of beds, the couples sleeping spooned despite the ruckus, and the sheer numbers of the displaced overwhelmed me.

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Treme: The Spirit of New Orleans on HBO

It’s a happy coincidence that HBO premiered its new series set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme, at a time I was traveling to that city three times in ten days. I’m there on business, and my get-around time is limited. But you don’t have to get around much to recognize the spirit of the people of New Orleans. Collectively, they’ve dealt with tragedy and hope with a depth the rest of us might hope never to have to reach.

Surviving natural disaster is one thing. But  much of the death and destruction in New Orleans can be blamed on human error and callousness. What does it feel like to see your government set you adrift? I’d be bitter, but I’ve come across no bitterness in New Orleans. I think the people there, proud of their rebuilding, proud of the Saints, just see reality a little more clearly than the rest of us.

At Home With Some Saints: Celebrating the Super Bowl With New Orleans

0205-WhoDat2_full_380Sitting in a bar in North Dallas tonight with about a hundred people who were forced to leave their homes when Hurricane Katrina unleashed holy hell on New Orleans was truly a joyous event.

I sought out a place where I knew people who had evacuated to Texas back in 2005 would be gathered to watch their team make its first ever appearance in the Super Bowl.  I saw tears on their faces as it became evident the Colts, who played a great game, could not fight fate.  The New Orleans Saints were about to make everyone watching the game with this native Texan feel like they were home again.

I was a reporter in Houston when Katrina came ashore, sending tens of thousands of people east on I-10.  Many told me they thought they would just “go home” when it was over, not realizing there would be no “home” left after the powerful winds, rain, and flooding.

I went to a hastily set-up shelter in Baytown the morning after the storm.  I will never forget the look on an elderly woman’s face when I was the one to tell her the levees had been breached and Lake Ponchatrain was pouring into the streets of the city.  “There won’t be no New Orleans,” she said, gasping for breath.  The woman’s daughter grabbed her mother’s hand and tried to calm her down, but there was nothing anyone could say or do.  Her home was under water. Continue reading “At Home With Some Saints: Celebrating the Super Bowl With New Orleans”