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Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,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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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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Friendship & Freedom

Friendship lives uncomfortably in American public life. For one thing, bonds of affection and loyalty among the people threaten the powers that be, even in a democracy full of theoretically sovereign people. Nations are jealous gods.

Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice, Be not dishearten’d, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet, Those who love each other shall become invincible, They shall make Columbia victorious.

—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Friendship lives uncomfortably in American public life. For one thing, bonds of affection and loyalty among the people threaten the powers that be, even in a democracy full of theoretically sovereign people. Nations are jealous gods. Continue reading “Friendship & Freedom”