Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why New Orleans Matters

Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, author Tom Piazza decided to compose his thoughts on what New Orleans means to him, and in doing so, his book ends up giving the reader a convincing argument for what New Orleans means to America, and the world.  It is an argument that is not without criticism, such as his frank discussion of the city's, and region's, history of endemic political corruption.  We do not get from Piazza, in other words, a sort of oneiric picture, unrelated to reality. 

Political corruption, indeed, is almost a tradition in New Orleans, and Louisiana.  What Piazza describes in this regard reminds me to some degree of the famous, and ongoing, political corruption of Chicago and Illinois (where, for example, Rahm Emanuel was just elected Mayor-a man who ought not even to have been allowed on the ballot since he did not meet the state's residency requirement, and a place that has given new meaning to the phrase democracy of the dead).  The history of political corruption in New Orleans, and Louisiana, however, is of a flavor all its own.  As the author puts it:

Louisiana politicians in general, and New Orleans politicians in particular, have turned the official corruption and patronage that always come with government into an art form.  Sometimes it is a crude folk art, sometimes a highly developed, polished, and complex fine art, usually somewhere in between, but it is an art. (88)

He goes on to give examples of crooks empowered time and again by Louisiana voters, such as Edwin Edwards, who charmed the people into voting him into the governor's mansion on and off for decades, despite it being a fairly open secret that he was a crook.  In the early nineties when the infamous David Duke ran against Edwards in a hotly contested race, Edwards [correctly] predicted he would win, when he said, "The only way I could lose this race is if I was caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl."  Bumper stickers could be found which proclaimed, "Vote for the Crook-It's Important."  Eventually, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for numerous counts of racketeering, extortion, fraud, and conspiracy.  (He was released just last month to a halfway house.) 

The reason all this corruption is distressing to anyone who cares about New Orleans is that it poisons the entire system of government, not only in the way that it leads to government money being skimmed off of the books, and political friends being chosen over more competent contractors, but also in the deep sense of distrust in the political process to which it leads the people.  The other political liability from which Louisiana, and especially New Orleans, suffers, frankly, is just poor, weak, leadership.  Such for example, is the liability that goes by the name of Ray Nagin.  Perhaps there is a sort of horror vacui in the political realm, so that when there is an absence of good, upright, visionary leadership, this emptiness becomes fertile ground for corruption and ineptitude.  I do not know enough about Mitch Landrieu, Nagin's successor, to comment on him.  I am only hopeful that New Orleans will now begin to move into a more hopeful direction in its politics.

While frankly admitting such problems as this "tradition" of political corruption, there are other aspects of life in New Orleans which are truly praiseworthy traditions, and which also rise to the level of art.  New Orleans, furthermore, is not merely the sum of these traditions, but the unique result of the commingling and interplay of these various aspects of its rich culture.  Those who come to know New Orleans, and were not born and raised there, tend to approach it first via a particular facet, a particular genius of the city, and are then drawn into an appreciation of the rest of the culture of the city. 

For Piazza, it was the music.  So much of jazz, the blues, and other forms have been so heavily influenced by the New Orleans music scene, that it is impossible to speak of such music without reference to this city and its musical culture.  For others, it is the food.  There are world famous restaurants in New Orleans; more important, however, is the place of food in the life of the local neighborhood, and in the home.  Every meal is taken seriously.  For others, it will be the joie de vivre which becomes palpable, for example, with the great Mardi Gras parades, or the funeral parades, or with Jazz Fest

Not to be discounted is the literary tradition of New Orleans.  It is a real treat to be able to browse for used books in the place that used to be Faulkner's residence, down Pirates' Alley.  The literary legacy of New Orleans continues, in the work of such writers as Andrei Codrescu, Anne Rice, and many others, Tom Piazza among them.

Piazza eloquently writes of how all these elements, and more, fuse together into the life that is New Orleans, as for example, when he writes:

New Orleans culture is of a piece.  You can't really lose one part of it without losing the whole thing.  The music is part of the parades, and the basis of the dancing that you see, or do, at the parades.  The parades are part of the rhythms of the year, and of life-the anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, and funerals.  They wind through the streets of the neighborhoods where people live; they stop for refreshment in the tiny corner bars where people drink and pass the time, and at day's end, after all the parading, people settle down to familiar food like red beans and rice, or crawfish, or stuffed mirliton or shrimp creole or oysters, with the music and the dancing and all the things that happened still ringing in them, and that is part of the whole package, too.  It amounts to a kind of cultural synesthesia in which music is food, and food is a kind of choreography, and dance is a way of dramatizing the fact that you are still alive for another year, another funeral, another Mardi Gras. (33)

I must add that my own personal favorite of all the elements that comprise what we call New Orleans is its sense of hospitality, neighborliness, and genuine love for others.  While, like everywhere, there is crime, hatred, and every vice, nevertheless, there is a spirit of New Orleans, which seems to prevail, even in hard times.  I felt it when I was there, visiting my friends Father Larry Beane and family.  And one of my favorite passages in Piazza's book tells of his own experience with this friendliness and hospitality.  He was in town for Jazz Fest, staying at a cheap rooming house, and renting a bicycle to get around the city.  At the festival he dropped his eye glasses, and when he found them, they were broken.  He finally made his way to a gas station.  He writes:

I rode the bike up to the little plexiglass window, where a tired looking young black woman sat reading a book.  Sculpted, layered hair, and impressively long, decorated finger nails.  It had to be three in the morning, at least.  She looked up at me, expressionlessly, her eyes watching for the clues of who I was and what I wanted.  I leaned down to the little drawer that could be slid back and forth for change.  

"Do you have Crazy Glue?"  

She frowned at me, unsure just what I was saying.

"Do you sell Krazy Glue?"  I repeated.  "Or any kind of glue?  My glasses," and here I removed my glasses, demonstrating the brokenness of them, "broke.  I was dancing at the Maple Leaf..."

She looked at my glasses, and then she smiled, understanding now what the problem was.  With a regretful smile she looked at me and shook her head.  No glue.

I smiled back at her; it was a long shot anyway.  I stood there another moment or two, looking at my glasses.  As I was about to turn away, she said over her little microphone, "Let me see them, darling."

She pushed out the steel change drawer, and I set the glasses and the temple piece in the drawer, and she drew it in toward her.  She rummaged around in her purse.  After a moment she found what she was looking for, a tiny vial; she unscrewed the cap and, looking intently at the break spot, examining it first, applied the nib of the little vial to it, then took the temple piece, fit it right in to where it was broken, and held it there, steadily, looking at it, with the beginning of a pleased, self-congratulatory smile.  After about ten seconds she removed her hand from the temple piece, which remained in position, sticking up in the air; she blew on the joint, then set the glasses into the tray again, along with the vial.

I pulled out the glasses, which were now fine, put them on; they fit fine.  Then I looked at the vial; it was fingernail-repair glue.  I looked at her questioningly and she waved me off.  "I can get more," she said.  "I have more at home. Take it."  That may have been the moment when I really fell in love with New Orleans.  (67ff)

As a postscript to this anecdote, Piazza later found himself at a stage where Dr. John was playing, when those glasses broke again.  He was on his knees, fingering the grass for the missing screw.  Someone asked him what he was looking for, and he explained his quandary.  The woman says, "Here," and gave him a tiny screw.  He asked where she found it, and she said, "I took it out of my sunglasses...Don't worry, they're cheap ones."

The friendliness and hospitality of New Orleans, and its environs, is genuine, and relentless.  And in the wake of the horrific tragedy of the flooding from Hurricane Katrina, it is just this spirit that will help keep the city afloat, and indeed, raise it up once again. 

Why New Orleans Matters is an outstanding little read for anyone who loves, or who would like a loving introduction to, New Orleans.  And since I like to seize the opportunity to end on a musical note, I will share what Tom Piazza argues was the highlight of the 2006 Jazz Fest.  After Katrina, the city was in need of psychological healing as much as physical.  There were many great moments, Elvis Costello, Allen Tousaint, and Dylan.  But Springsteen added a special touch to the occasion.  As Piazza tells it:

Nobody who was there will ever forget the overwhelmingly positive energy Springsteen brought to the stage.  The high point of his performance was his new arrangement of Blind Alfred Reed's Depression-era song, How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?"  With whole portions of the song written just for the occasion, Springsteen lifted the spirits of the crowd, like only he can, ie., with a song about hard times, performed in such a way that you would think it were a triumph song: 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJgECC9-bss

2 comments:

Father Hollywood said...

It sounds like someone is Jonesing for a visit. Y'all come!

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Yes, March may have come in like a lamb around here, but it still doesn't quite compare with your neck of the woods.