Saturday, July 7, 2012

In New Orleans: Yes Virginia

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Dharma Bums
Yes Virginia
            Yes, My Darling, I’ll tell you the story about a French Quarter that was long ago and far away; so far away that it might have been on another planet or a parallel universe. The time I speak of is one when bohemians roamed the Quarter and the Italians still lived here. From The CafĂ© u Monde to the end of the French Market, as far as the eye could see, there were seafood markets, cafes, vegetable stalls and shops that sold ordinary household supplies. There was a gas station, post office and hardware stores. There were no tee shirt shops, visitor information shills and no one sold (or wore) Mardi Gras beads (except during Carnival). This was a time before hand held electronic devices, parking meters and hand Grenades. Baby Boomers were in grade school; Gen-Xers were not even a gleam.
            Rent was more than reasonable, coffee houses were owned by individuals and bars didn’t have blenders or stock Red Bull. Roaming the streets in the sunlight were market workers, shoppers making groceries, kids throwing newspapers and carts delivering seafood, beer, ice and fresh vegetables. When (and where) shadows fell were artists, writers, musicians and hipsters; the avant garde; the bohemian; the existential. This was just before Hippies and just after dinosaurs; there were places to get your car fixed, your shoes soled and your ashes moved (if you get my drift). Bourbon Street was for middle class adults with live music in the strip and burlesque joints.
Black families communed, the gay community thrived and Dharma Bums waxed poetically on philosophical premises over cheap wine, espresso and chess boards. Broccado had an ice cream place, Cosimo Matassa had a recording studio, Faulkner and Tennessee Williams had cheap apartments, you could run into Hemingway at the bar of the Monteleone Hotel. Reuters had a feed and seed store, Puglia had a grocery, LaNasa had a hardware store, Lubat’s had a restaurant supply, by god. The French Quarter was made up of three classes of people: the poor, the mostly poor and the truly poor. It was the days when people repaired their own cars and you could get parts for those cars in the French Quarter. Small publications were printed here and flourished. That was then and this is now; those rag tag ne’er do well, raconteurs and salts of the earth are either dead and gone or decaying in nursing homes on the outskirts of town. And yes, Virginia, the Bohemian legacy has been priced out of the market.
In the publication Urban Studies vol. 42 no. 7, Kevin Fox Gotham (Dept of Sociology, Tulane) discussed the socio-spacial transformation on New Orleans Vieux Carre (French Quarter) using causal dynamics and employing heuristic devices. He had a lot of facts and figures from sixty years of census’ and drew allegories, comparisons and depressing realities across twenty four pages; interesting reading.
Here’s the way it boils down: we’ve had at least three recessions since the seventies, we’ve had the oil business leave the area and manufacturing jobs tanking. This causes a drop in employment and residency. The taxes from income take a dip so the powers that be focus on taxes that they can bring in from sales. So, redesigning the French Quarter (indeed New Orleans in general) into a visitor driven economic machine, investing in things like gambling, sports arenas, festivals, convention centers and hotels; World War II museums (and now, hospital complexes). Property values go up (X3) as do rents (X7); gentrification is encouraged.
Since 1960, in the French Quarter, businesses catering to residents go from 143 to 26. Tee shirt, souvenir and daiquiri shops go from 58 to 259. The transformation into a tourist city and a vigorously marketed entertainment destination works its magic, the poor (white and black) are squeezed out. Interesting enough housing rental vacancies are higher and rose from 9.5% to 38% in that same time period.
The population of the French Quarter has gone from about 12,000 in 1960 to a little over 3,200 in 2010; there are 2,000 buildings in the French Quarter. Where does that leave us? Affordable apartments turned into expensive condominiums; hardware stores turned into offices and cafes; the second floors above expensively rented tourist shops are left vacant; doorways and hallways are turned into fortune telling enterprises. There is no pride on Bourbon Street.
And now, yes now with the economic downturn across the country, the almighty disposable tourist dollar is disappearing. After the turn of this century (2000) the population dropped below the 1940 level and the lowest since then; the last big hurricane dropped it further and still housing is unaffordable.  There aren’t job offering in any sector unless you want an early Sunday morning stripper shift at Big Daddy’s. Still, the ability to sell alcohol 24 hours a day seven days a week keeps the ball rolling; the income from sales and taxes of beads, booze and broads is funneled to feed our less than functional infrastructure. But I digress.
Yes Virginia, I am nostalgic for a simpler time; when imaginations were limitless, as well as possibilities; when I thought in musical and poetic cadences; when I dreamed in Technicolor; when my spirit floated like a little kid on the big swings. I read books, I thirsted for knowledge. Let me tell you of a time when I could afford to be poor and happy
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

Willie Lump Lump

Willie Lump Lump
The Homecoming
            The newspaper headline read: “DEAL WILL HAVE THE CITY BUZZING UNTIL 2024!!!” Willie had no idea what any of that meant. In fact, Willie didn’t know much about nuthin’.
            Willie only saw the newspaper in snatches; the trash where he foraged for leftovers; counters of convenience stores where he bought his liquid diet; and  through them little windows in the vending machine while fishing change from the coin return. It was all the same to him; he didn’t know “The DEAL” from diapers and didn’t much care. Willie was a Man About Town, a Bon Vivant and all around Good Time Charlie. Willie lived out of a shopping cart where he kept spare clothing, liquid diet (in cans and bottles) and his makeup.
            Willie lived with Mags, his “forever whatever” in a camp under the wharves of the New Orleans French Quarter, which he liked just fine. Mags was his partner in crime and they cohabitated, imbibed and performed together on the streets for spare change and laughs. The “Gruesome Twosome” as they were known, hadn’t drawn a sober breath in years and the prospect of them doing so in the foreseeable future was dubious; and that, was also fine with them.
            They were as crazy as shithouse rats and they knew it, nurtured it and worked it. They went to sleep at dawn’s crack and slept until they woke up. They dressed in funny clothes and raved like the lunatic harebrained thespians that they considered themselves. Willie favored a clown’s red rubber nose; an accessory that he wore like a badge of courage.
            One afternoon Willie awoke, got a tall drink of breakfast, and hoisting his pint in one hand and a salvaged cheerleader baton in the other, turned to Mags who was still abed in their cardboard, driftwood and newsprint boudoir. “The breakfast of champions is curiosity; Liebling, demanding explanation and experiences” he proclaimed.  “I come with a staff of fennel from Dionysus and Clytemnestra, my only love; seasoning carnal attraction with ghost peppers and habaneras, fanning flames into frenzies of revelry and debauch!” Mags took an offered pull and tossed him the near empty pack of Lucky Strikes.
            “And, good morrow to you Mistress Penitent Brothel,” Willie quipped as he lit up. “Have you rested well? And please explain yonder supine figure that I spy upon our sacred shore.”
            “Well, Willie,  s’the  same’s we saw this mawnin’; remember, when you was ‘splainin’ to me about the sun rising in the East over the Westbank? Still there, as we both can see. Too big to be a fish; might be a ‘gator, tho, I doubt it…. Maybe it’s a dead body.”
            Willie had taken a step toward the lump by the shore of the Mighty Mississippi. At the mention of the words “gator’ and ‘dead body’ he took a judicious step (or two) backwards. Mags, keeping up her end of the conversation, would not let it drop and kept up with the seemingly endless bizarre possibilities.
            Ambergris?” (Willie took another step forward),
            “Sea serpent?” (step back),
            “Pirates treasure?” (two steps forward);
            “Ooorrrrrrrrrrr, your reprehensible and irascible Uncle Lamarr who has been in a knife fight with vicious Albanian seamstress terrorists, brutally and maliciously masacreed, stabbed hunneds of times with rusty pinking shears and hem rippers; forced to eat Lucky Dogs and doodlebugs by the dozen, had his trousers drawn up in the supreme wedgie and his organs and entrails ripped from hi; and, is now lying face down in a pool of his mortal embarrassment because of the shape that he will be in when he meets his omnificent and glooooooorius maker!!” (Willie took a dive back under the covers and was shivering with fright).
            “Or” Mags continued with a mischievous grin “maybe it’s just a bag of trash” (Willie took a peek out).
            “OH MY GOD….IT”S MOVING!!!!” (Willie sqealked (new word), covered his mouth, ears and eyes in rapid succession; then, snatching the blanket, covered his head and whimpered audibly
            True enough, the lump became animated, adjusting its form to become figure-like (although resembling neither animal nor vegetable). It seemed to expand and contract like a blob-il-itious (another new word) yawning of intimidating wet wash on laundry day. Only alive!
            Willie:WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?”
            “What the hell is that?” echoed Mags, seeming to yell at Willie over the pounding in his ears. By this time Mags had joined him under the covers in time to see Willie’s manliness exert itself for the love of his woman (not that kind) and the protection of his home and territory. Sobering suddenly and tossing the covers aside, he turned to her and said: “Well, I’m not gonna… sure as fuck… sit here like some candy assed punk! Mags, you stay here and if I don’t come back… well…” and left it at that.
            He hitched up his cowboy pajamas, put on an air of indestructibility and armed with a brick bat went to confront the interloper (whatever it might be). Upon reaching the ‘apparition turned into stark reality’, the thing reared up to a seven (or eight) foot height and turned upon our hero. Willie got the impression that he was confronting a giant simian of some sort; the word ‘Orangutan’ came to mind and he was not wrong by a long shot. It was indeed a huge cloaked Orangutan and it opened its mouth revealing fangs the size of railroad spikes; and turning its bloodshot little primate eyes on Willie,  it thus spake (which is Southern for spoke):
            “Fear not for by the Sacred Seal I have come in peace; lo, as witnessed before, I am among you again. I have returned for the cleansing of your world. You may know me by many names; Some have called me Buddha; some called me the Christ,  Ananda Marga, Vigi Kumar, Mohammad and/or Elvis; some call me Maurice. You may call me Maitreya. I have incarnated again upon your shores to take up my mission preaching words of salvation and enlightenment.  It is here that I will build my church; I will deliver my message in the streets to the poor of spirit. I will heal the sick, raise the dead and make little girls talk out of their head. Yes verily, I’m the one they call the Seventh Son. By the way, do you happen to have a mint?”
            Willie shook his head and walked back to Mags who asked nervously: “Well….?” “Some nut,” Willie said. “Let’s get ready for work, I’va feeling it’s gonna be an interesting night.”

Writer's Awards from New Orleans

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
The Other Writers Awards
Stress Rehearsal
The world has gone nuts. The planet has gone nuts. We’ve got natural disasters, manmade disasters, wars, pestilence, a screwed economy worldwide, global warming disguised as ‘Climate Change’ and there ain’t a logical, rational mind in charge of any portion of it prepared to make changes to the universal mindset. To me, the way things are going is just sick and wrong; but do they listen to me? Noooooooooo.
Here’s some of my personal peripatetic picks pointing my fickle finger at our existing fates, fortunes and foibles. These are all true (and true opinions), I swear.
‘State of the Onion Award’: In Arizona, the state government has placed into law that life begins two weeks before conception!  What does this mean and how far can we take this silliness? Does this mean that every woman in Arizona is pregnant? Even illegals? Think about it. Can the human race get any more dim-witted? One good thing, though: their minimum wage is two bucks higher than ours.
‘Brass Monkey Award’: A young man walks into a restaurant (stop me if you’ve heard this) and starts clearing plates from the tables and bringing them to the dishwasher; he has an apron on and no one questions him. Before the ‘get a clue phone’ rings, the young man walks out of the restaurant with three cell phones and a purse that he also cleared from the tables. Question: Should we say “only in New Orleans?”
Overheard at the waitress station: “my mother wears glasses, but she’s stupid”.
‘How’s This? Award’: Here in New Orleans our streets run with the blood of innocents and nobody takes it seriously enough to question the prospect of gun control while up in Baton Rouge, the governor is looking forward to relaxing restrictions on owning and carrying guns (with the urging of the NRA). I’m looking forward to a time when we have a same sex married couple in the governor’s mansion or even in the white house; they’ll straighten our asses out, I’ll bet.
‘Speaking Of Which Award’:  when we advocate for the right to same sex marriages we hear statements from right field in the vein of: “it’s not in the bible” or “next you’ll say that it’s okay to marry my cat”; “there oughta be a law” and my favorite “two people of the same sex cannot reproduce and so should not be allowed to marry”. How hindered are we that we actually care about something as nebulous as the institution of marriage? Question: if we license marriage should there be a written test? A renewal clause? An expiration date before ‘death do us part’? Should we only be able to be married to only one person at any one time? Should it be against the law for people that are not married to live together, have sex and children? And why can’t I marry my cat if I want to?
The ‘Too Much Information’ Award: A sporty red car pulls into the intersection of St. Louis and Chartres St. you know, the one where no one can figure out the right of way? The driver’s confusion is confounded because he has a cell phone up to his ear with one hand and the other hand is busy picking his nose. He is frantically looking in all directions. Question: should I go pee on his car?
‘Say it isn’t so (or say it is so)’ Award: Watching a documentary called “Bag It” we’re brought up short on how the planet is being done in by that insidious product that we know as plastic; tells us that we use 1.6 billion gallons of oil each year just to make the plastic bags that this country uses. AND they are not taken as recyclable by our city. In fact recycling in this city is still taking baby steps; there is not city recycling in the French Quarter and none is offered to businesses at all. We’re not recycling glass products, compost or lawn trimmings as do other cities. Why? Have you ever seen anyone in this city remember to care about the environment? Possibly two. If we raised our voices we might raise awareness, but face it, our citizens ain’t big on speaking out and City Hall has bigger fish to fry.
‘American Idle’ Award: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, and you’d have to be myopic not to see, the epidemic of young healthy Homo sapiens and their canines standing at intersections and crossroads with hand lettered sign asking for money. They proclaim homelessness, helplessness and defenselessness. With downcast demeanors and pleading eyes they beg our help; day after day after day. I’ll say this: that position either pays real well and perpetuates itself or these kids don’t know when it’s time to try another way to earn a living; look for me when I retire with a sign that says “Old And In The Way” I bet I’ll clean up.
Lastly (for now) ‘The She’s Got Freckles On Her Butt (she’s pretty) Award’:  “I hate to be the one to tell you…BUT” and then someone goes on to happily horrify you. Compound this by the “I’m not a bigot; It’s none of my business; I’d lend to that ten spot; I’d love to; you’re sweet to ask; and, that’s a great idea… followed by the ‘But’ word. Using the ‘but’ word is the way to get away with saying exactly what is on your mind without taking responsibility for it. It’s a way of getting out of things; it’s a way of saying no without saying no. “I know you want that, but… “;  “I know I promised, but…”