Saturday, July 23, 2011

Social Aid and Pleasure in New Orleans

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Social Aid and Pleasure
Of Yats and Who Dats and Dem
When I’m asked if I’m from New Orleans I sometimes reply “no, but I got here as quick as I could”. If I’m asked if I’ve lived here all my life, I generally answer “not yet”.
That’s the way it is with people who ‘get’ New Orleans; we are here, we know that we’re here and we wouldn’t be anywhere else; believe me, we know that we’re supposed to be here. So here we are. And we don’t listen to anyone else’s take on the subject; I mean, if we were supposed to be somewhere else, why would we be here? Why would we be back?
We’re here from the Esplanade Ridge to Saint Roch; from Faubourg Marigny to Central City; from the Garden District to the French Quarter; from the Ninth Ward to Lakeview; from Holy Cross to Broadmoor, Fountainbleau, Gert Town, Buck Town, Back of Town, Bywater, Black Pearl, Saint Bernard and Bayou Saint John. We wander in and out of the fabric of the city; Oak Street, Carrollton, Tchoupitoulas, Desire and Ponchartrain Park.
We gather at coffee shops, second lines, barber shops, bars, festivals, churches and the steps leading to our front doors; we love our sports teams, Mamas, food, music, pets and children (in that order). We either are or know musicians, tipplers, chefs, artists, writers, hustlers and people in various bizarre states of economic flux. We say hello to eachother on sidewalks. We are a tribe. We’re here for better or for worse.
We don’t participate in anything that we are confused about or not good at; hence our low voter turnouts and high Saints game followings. We are the murder (per capita) capitol of the country; lead in teen unwed pregnancies; incarcerations and graduate a mere 53.7% of our children. We are described as a third world country not an American city; rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief; we’re a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on our lonely way back home. We’re sassy, flirtatious, opinionated and, most of the time, witty (the rest of the time we’re half witty).
We litter where we stand, we park where we want to, dress as we like, stay out as late as we like, say whatever we like to whomever we like. We cannot for the life of ourselves manage to drive down a street with any degree of safety, simultaneously making a phone call, turning the music up, checking out a hottie by the side of the road AND work a turn signal, but that doesn’t stop us from going for a best three out of five. We live our lives on auto pilot like some confederacy of petulant adolescents; or, as one pundit described our particular way of doing things: “it’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity”.
Would I call us stupid? No. Would I call us a lot of other things (contradictory, illogical, unmotivated, inconsiderate, and insensitive)? Ignorant? Hmmmmm. Defensive? Me?
Would I say that we are the greatest city in the world? I dunno, I haven’t been to all the great cities…yet; but, you have to admit, we’re up there. However, we’re like spoiled children with a rare book that we neglect, mistreat, disregard the value of (and at times wipe our asses with the pages) that cannot be reasoned with.
Who knows why? It’s easy to say “This is the twenty-first century, can’t we act a little more advanced than we have been?” Can we really expect more of ourselves? Can we not? Can we not expect the parents of yesterday to have raised the children of today to be somewhat more evolved? Of course the answer is here, and the answer is no. We, by and large (imprecisely generally speaking), cannot.
Of course, as evidence shows, we are not so much worse than other places; but consider this: we are not better than other places, and we could be. We have a rich fertile environment here that could be the poster child of the progress that the twenty-first century can hold; and what do we show the rest of the world? A bucket of sludge.
And sure, there are bright, advanced and enlightened elements here; but they’re just drops in the bucket. The forces for good are trumped by the forces of inertia, ennui and complacency. The ways that we fall short and the ways that we can improve as a city are easy, easy to see; only, evidently, no one is looking. It’s more like we’re wedged in Forest Gump stupid gear where we think that New Orleans is a box of candy and we never know what we’ll get at any one pick; Politics, police, health, education, ethics, crime, economy, jobs, etc. None are as appetizing as they appear; and any discussions about the value of life, economic opportunities, liberty, personal safety and the pursuit of happiness are rife with definitive qualifiers. We’re stuck in Gumpville when we should be in Will Shortz land or even the realm of Alfred Mosher Butts.
You see, Alfred Mosher Butts invented a board game where the participants are given letters and make words out of them (Scrabble), Will Shortz takes those words and makes crossword puzzles out of them for the New York Times newspaper. How much easier to solve and excel in city infrastructure challenges than to have clues to those challenge’s solutions and to just plug the answer in to where they fit with all the other answers, figure everything out, complete the puzzle, and BAM! Triple Word Score!
The trouble is that to anyone who plays those word games and puzzles, it is that easy! And it drives us nucking futz that them candy pickers cannot see it for the glitter of the wrappers and the coating of the sugar; on the pieces of candy that they juggle and then work with sound and fury to keep all their balls in the air and accomplish nothing at all. It is that easy to find that all of the answers that we need to all of our challenges can be worked on together so that they fit with other answers to correct this dysfunctional dilemma that we are in. Does that make any sense to you? It does to me.
To have a superior city everyone needs to participate in making it happen and if you cannot participate then possibly you’re not part of the solution…

Restaurant Droppings from New Orleans

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Carpe Diem
Fish Of The Day
Eddie begins his workday at quarter ‘til seven every day; well, he considers it the beginning because every day he’s outside the restaurant at that time, every day; sipping on his coffee and waiting for the day manager to show up and let him in. The manager doesn’t get there until seven and it gives Eddie time to catch one last smoke before he hits the ground running. Eddie is the backbone of the restaurant and he knows it; he works seven days a week and hasn’t had a day off in six years. He only works until noon thirty because they discourage overtime and that’s fine with him; he’s got better things to do, like, a life. Whatever. The manager is on time today (for once) and Eddie’s day can begin. The manager is fresh out of hotel management school; he thinks Eddie is trash. Eddie has worked in restaurants since he was twelve; he thinks the manager is a pussy.
Hose out the trash cans, bring them in. Take out the kitchen mats and hose them off. Next, hose down the kitchen floors, squeegee them dry, take in the mats and hose off the sidewalk; check the windows to see if they need cleaning and hose off the walls outside the restaurant just in case someone has peed on ‘em and on to the bathrooms to clean ‘em up before sweeping and mopping the dining room. Eddie is a water sign. A soap and water sign.
The kitchen manager and prep cook get there at seven thirty (they ride in together), start a pot of coffee and check in the food deliveries and linen. Only the kitchen manager is allowed to check in the seafood and meats. The prep cook checks in the veggies for weight, freshness and quality, and stores the new stock in with the old keeping in mind proper rotation and the avoidance of cross contamination. The kitchen manager checks the schedules and reads any notes left from the night before. After putting up the deliveries and rotating stock, the prep cook gets started on the prep list left from the night cooks and lets the first dishwasher in just before eight o’clock who, sets up his station, fills his machine and pot sinks, sweeps out the walk-in refrigerator and then starts peeling onions and potatoes.
Eight O’clock, and the lunch cooks show up (hung over) turn on the overhead fans, ovens, fryers and start setting up the line, prepping their mis en place and changing the radio station, which has been on NPR, to the classic rock station that will keep pace with the rhythm of their slinging of pots and pans, slicing, dicing, lies and tall tales about the wenches that got away last night at Pal’s Bar.
The waitresses (and the second dishwasher) come in for nine and start setting up the dining room; slicing lemons, topping off the condiments, salt and peppers, rolling silverware, positioning and wiping down tables, chairs and making the first of many batches of ice tea. By ten o’clock the hostess, busboy and bartender show up just in time for a staff meal of leftovers and kitchen rejects; followed by a staff lineup and meeting to discuss the specials of the day and service points to be worked on. Fifteen minutes to grab a smoke, straighten aprons, fill up ice bins, finish some gossip or a page in the book that they’re reading and crank up the espresso machine. Places everyone; the first customers are at the door. Show time.
To the uninitiated, restaurants are staffed by invisible servants. We rarely are aware of back of the house goings on, we follow a swinging butt to our table or belly up to a bartender who could be working naked from the waist down for all we know; we face our servers and bussers at crotch level. It has been called the last vestige of pseudo-nobility; we arrive, we eat, someone else cooks, serves and cleans up and we have the right, if not the duty, to complain if things are not precisely to our satisfaction. If we’re feeling flush, we can pump up the gratuity and feel like Bill Gates. If we’re having a bad day, we become Vlad the Impaler; we can take it out on the waiter, busboy, hostess, manager or all of the above. The rules are simple: If we’re happy, we tip. If not, we withhold our love in the form of money, even to the point of leaving nothing at all. I mean, screw ‘em; tips are only the employers way of justifying low wages, right?
Conversely, anyone who has worked in the industry knows that customers might just as well be butt-ass-naked the moment that they walk in. To restaurant workers, the antics of customers are the theater that helps to pass the shift time in an ever changing fluid diorama that ranges from dark tragedy to absurd comedy and all points in between. From the front door entrance to the tooth picking exit, the diners and drinkers of the world are the meat and bones of discourse and edification to service staff; as if their inner selves cannot help but be bared for all to witness and wonder upon.
I’ve been in the service industry for over a half of a century and not a shift goes by without a ‘guest’ exhibiting behavior so amazingly unique and contrary to any rules of basic sanity and civility that in the least, I am given pause and at most I’m taken aback and primordially aghast; no shit, you guys can be weirder than dirt! I’ve seen ‘em drunk, blind, crippled, crazy, underage and old enough to know better doing stupid stuff that your mama would snatch you bald headed for.
Philosophically speaking, when you put people in an environment where they only need to consider the price of a meal and you turn them loose in a public forum, it seems that they cannot help but make fools of themselves. Maybe it’s the lack of outside stimulation that encourages them to come up with outlandish somethings to say or do; and since they are at a loss, fabrications, flirtations, inebriations, faux pas, pretentions, passions and prevarications become the rules of play. Of course the staff plays along, just as they play along with each other.
But, come hell or high water, with delayed deliveries, lunch and dinner rushes, equipment malfunctions, menstruation cycles, crying babies, grouchy oldsters, petulant teenagers, uptight queens, slips, spills, miscommunications, the ringing of cell phones, personal tragedies and nicotine starved cooks with sharp knives, the show perpetuates until closing; and until, with a big sigh, the restaurant is put to bed by the closing managers. Another day. History.
Everything will be fine; Eddie will be here in the morning.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Bike riding in New Orleans

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Friend or Foe
Who Goes There?
Recently on an idyllic retreat to Fairhope, Alabama a local news story caught my attention. A young man riding his bicycle to work at 6:40 in the morning had his customary commute interrupted by a three hundred pound bear that came out from the woods that the man was pedaling past and slapped him for no apparent reason. Slapped him for no apparent reason, tore off his back tire and lumbered back into the woods (note: bears ‘lumber’; it means to move clumsily). The cyclist’s injury was reported as minor and his quote was “well, I’ve been hit a couple of times by cars but this was the first time that I’ve ever been hit by a bear!”
I wondered aloud that if something happened to me of that magnitude; (excuse me, but getting slapped by three hundred pounds of bad breath brings the word magnitude to mind) that wouldn’t it be prudent of me to rethink my transportation choices. Especially if I had already been hit more than once by automobiles. Girlfriend’s quip in response was: “ya think?”
Since then I have looked up the different run-ins that bicyclists have with wildlife. Bears, deer, dingoes, coyotes, skunks, snakes, moose, squirrel, owls and bats to name a few. Survey shows that once you hoist that leg over that cross bar… you open yourself to a world of weirdness. The Bicycle Zone.
Here in the city we are not without bike nemeses: car doors opening on us, taxis without turn signals doing NASCARs, trucks stopping short in front of us, random idiot pedestrians thinking that they’re indestructible and the lady with the bomb in the baby carriage. We have drunks on bikes, petty thieves and riders that are either discourteous or ignorant of the rules of the road as well. We also have a culture of bicycle stealing here that is unexcelled in other places; I do believe that since their inception bicycles have been nothing short of harbingers of heartbreak, hurt and havoc.
Be that as it may, consider the possibility that animals might be jealous of riders. After all, when Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus gave the animals their attributes and talents they had nothing left to give the poor naked humans but fire… and bicycles. Put fire and bicycles together and what do you get? Civilization. And pizza delivery.
Another consideration is that historians would like us to believe that mayhem mischief and marauding were accomplished by conveyances other than bikes. Nothing could be further from truth; Attila, Alexander, Napoleon, Caesar, Tamerlane and Charlemagne all conquered on two wheels. Bicycle wars are as common as ticks on a hound; how do you think the Crusades were fought? That’s right, it’s a fact; ask anyone.
Bicycles begin their life cycles as paper clips, cute little things, aren’t they? Then in adolescence become wire coat hangers, all gangly and stuff, hanging out before they mature into full fledged bikes. Retarded bikes invariably get training wheels; everyone knows that normal bikes wouldn’t hurt a child who is just learning to ride. Manhattan Island was purchased from the Indians for $24.00 worth of paper clips which led to the great western migration that was only stopped by Bicycle Bill and his Wild West Riders who decimated whole herds for their tires which were made into chewing gum traded to the Indians for cigarettes, popcorn and tickets to the local drive in movie.
Indecently, the settlers at Plymouth Rock traded coat hangers to the Indians for turkey sandwiches and pepper jelly (what do heathens know from coat hangers?); and even as far back as the early 1800’s merchants in California were trading bicycles to the Chinese for sweet tea and fortune cookies. The Mescalero Apache, from their safe havens in Mexico, raided Arizona and New Mexico for bikes that they traded for tequila and tacos. Especially prized was the ‘bicycle built for two’ which anyone can see is a genetic mutation much akin to Siamese twins. You didn’t know that stuff, did you? See the knowledge that you can get from the written word? Here’s some more:
Recently in France cave paintings were found depicting cave people killing wild animals from the backs of (you guessed it) bicycles and then off to the side of the rendering (in axle grease, of course) the first evidence of a bicycle rack with crude locks to keep away thieves. This was confirmed by my archeologist friend Amanda who told me that similar drawings were found in caves in the Black Hills of Dakota.
Now, I’m no creationist but did you happen to read that in some Dead Sea Scrolls the mention of God creating bicycles on that first Friday night was discovered and suppressed? I guess those scientist would have us believe that bicycles evolved from prehistoric wheelbarrows; they must think that I’m stupid or something.
Bikes came to Louisiana as currency 400 years ago by Ponce de Leon who was on his way to Florida to discover the Redneck Riviera. He was actually laughed out of the state because at the time we were using bottle caps and go cups for money. We had not yet set up a foreign exchange, especially for the big money that was in Styrofoam that was being strip mined from what is now Audubon Park. By the way, old Ponce was killed by surfers at Destin when he tried to cash a counterfeit Schwinn.
Nowadays in New Orleans there are rumors of bicycle vampires and werewolves; it came to my attention when I spotted a bike locked up on Dauphine Street with the back tire gone and in its place was some Spanish moss. The poor thing didn’t have a chance, locked up with one of those Kryptonite locks. The vampires will just suck the air from the tires; the bicycle werewolves will tear bikes apart.
Bike thieving here goes back generations also, with folks at family reunions, cook-outs or stoop-sits bragging to the younger generation on how cool it is to steal bikes and then sell them to other suckers and then steal them again. It’s even sanctioned by the church, no one speaks out against it or even questions where little Johnny got his new ride or why you see two guys riding (fast) with three bikes. It’s like “Thou Shall Not Steal (except bicycles)”.
In the meantime, once a month bicycles take over our roadways in an attempt to “Take Back The Streets!!” to which I say: “you can have ’em; just watch out for Fiats, ferrets and felons.