Saturday, April 29, 2017

Restauran Tissue

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Bone Appetite
Full Belly Wisdom
            I’ve been eating and working in restaurants since the Last Supper. I’ve bussed tables on Noah’s Ark, made final cocktails on the Titanic, and was in the kitchen when Henry VIII knighted Sir Loin of Beef. Comparing dining establishment experience, one day I remarked to a younger colleague:  “I’ve got food stains on aprons older than you are!” And it’s true; I’ve been around the culinary block so many times that the James Beard Foundation had my kitchen clogs bronzed. In all my years of eating and working in restaurants I have never heard anyone say: “Hello, I’m here to work your last nerve” but sometimes they do.
 Here’s a scenario: You’re working the floor or possibly the sauté station in the exhibition kitchen and in comes an ex (that no count that made a fool out of you) with their boisterous buddies, parents from Peoria or his/her new ‘friend’ and wants to sit in front of you/at your station. He keeps his hat on slouches at the table and signals the server with a snap of his fingers for beer. She sends back the well done burger because it’s cooked too much, spends the majority of time texting while he steps out for a cigarette just as the food is delivered (that he will send back because it’s cold). He switches from his phone to his IPod to watch a sports match while she reapplies makeup. The new paramour has brought twin fives that runs amok, imperiling life, limb and property playing tag. The group takes up the table for three hours, leaves a mess and an eight percent gratuity citing their ‘experience’ being sullied by the appearance of an insect. You’re not allowed to kill them.
The subject of restaurant behavior is timely-- being this is the restaurant issue-- so we’ll explore the nuances and social mores of eating in public places leaving employment war stories for another time. Having partaken in ‘away from home’ meals for millennium, I feel more than qualified to tug on your turban. Question one: do you often eat out with other people, alone or at all; AND, have you ever been on the service side of that ritual? Whatever side your bread is buttered, you can be sure that diners, cafes, coffee shops, bistros, affairs, food trucks, formal dining ‘establishments’ and joints all share a common denominator; wine and dine or grit and split-- it boils down to one thing-- appropriate manners are expected, if not required.
 Define appropriate manners? Simply: the logical modification of behavior that is extended by you as a courtesy to an individual or company that is supplying you with comestibles for your enjoyment, nourishment and hopefully, satisfaction.
Wherever you partake in food that is not you eating over your kitchen sink at home, from a to-go container, in your boxer shorts, drinking milk directly from the jug and wiping your mouth on the back of your arm, like it or not, you have an obligation to hold up your end of an unspoken bargain; that agreement is that both you and your host will act according to the environment and circumstances of the area given over to you for your ‘dining pleasure’. The faux pas’ range from asking for a knife to cut up fried chicken to wearing a baseball cap at the table in Ella Brennan’s place-- from the Colonel to Commander’s-- there’s a dance to be done and you’re either ballet or buffoon.
Figure it’s good training if you ever want to get ahead in the world, instead of left wondering why you weren’t told it was going to be like this when you grew up, if ever you do (grow up). Your choice is either to cultivate the ability to act ‘according to Hoyle’ in any given eating circumstance or progress no further than the way you acted in your High School cafeteria, and it will, like it or not, come to define you as an adult in the real world; from Chez Panisse or Piccadilly; The Waldorf or Waffle House. You will be judged. A chameleon-like ability to blend in to any given occasion is a mark of a superior mentality; here’s kind of a beginner’s primer.
First of all, if accustomed to eating out alone, you’re allowed to behave whatever way you like and reap the karma. However, if you are with others, it’s up to you not to be an embarrassment to mixed company. Napkins are universal, from Damask to cheap paper, learn how to use them; if you’re not paying the bill, you don’t get to order the wine; don’t make a pass at your server unless you’re a real catch (you’re probably not); do make your culinary restrictions known well before you enter the door; don’t expect any better treatment than anyone else unless you’re handing out C-notes; make sure that you’re not off-color, rude, sloppy, loud or ill mannered. Accept the traditions of the place that you’re at and don’t ask for anything that’s unreasonable like chopsticks at the Dairy Queen; vegan or gluten free options where there aren’t any (except possibly fried potato skins); a table for six for two people; a change in the music, room temperature, lighting or “can you just make me a soft boiled egg and some dry toast?” at Crescent City Steak House. Believe me; a person can go an entire meal without taking a smoke break or using an electronic device. Tip lavishly and don’t get loaded in public…ever. If you’re including children, call ahead to insure a kid friendly menu is available and note that it’s up to YOU to control their behavior, unless you’re going to Chuck E. Cheese. Whenever/wherever you eat out, remember: “act your age not your shoe size”, I will happily join you; and, I’m real good company.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Jazz Fest 2nd week 2917

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Pete and Repeat
            So, is this your first weekend of the second week or the second weekend after your first? Are you walking in with your nose in the air like a bird dog, sniffing the wafting aromas of the hunka hunka burning love portions number nine, ten and eleven: “I smell ribs…gotta go!” Or have you arrived with your nose to the ground like a hound dog on the trail of beer, barbeque, buddies and blues. Who’s on first?
 Your look is familiar; don’t I know you from anywhere? Haven’t I seen your face before? I’m familiar with that wry swan smile, those Army scout eyes, that sunburned shoulder (you forgot your PF30 again), that hungry desperate surreptitious tuck and roll glance; that furtive insecurity, exhibiting the inner knowledge of one who is aware that it’s almost over!
I know that look of longing love at the end of an affair when you want to devour everything about your lover, the sights, smells, sounds and spice; the gaseous miasma of flirting food just beyond your reach; human smells in the air, sweaty pits, sun tan oils, hair goop, after shave lotion and all of it. That’s true for me also, so, I’m feelin’ ya; I want to be a sponge soaking everything up about the 2017 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest) as well, for I have loved her and she has loved me back.
            Leapin’ Lizards! It’s the second weekend and I’ve got to take it all in, all that I can absorb! My bucket list: have I had my cochon de lait po-boy; soft shell crab; pheasant, quail, andouille gumbo; praline stuffed beignet and trout Baquet? Check list: I’ve had my oysters; at least a half a gallon of strawberry tea; a huckabuck, café au lait, messy BBQ, spring rolls and Jama Jama; seen and hugged a dozen people. But it’s not sufficient for this heart of mine, I want more! What haven’t I had, tried, tasted, begged, borrowed or browsed upon? What’s goin’ on? Who’s holding out?
            I liken it to an affaire de Coeur; even when strorm clouds roll in, you’re gonna give it your best shot. Word to your mother: “the worst day at Jazz Fest is better than the best day any other time of year!” The anticipation of its (Jazz Fest’s) arrival is like an incoming train bringing you your lost love; this year I even brought flowers for my first date, I mean, first day. I live close, so I hear them, see them, setting up the Fest and it’s music to my ears; the roustabouts and the tent slingers, beer trucks, sound checks, ice men, Indians and buses bringing bands.
            They open the gates and I’m standing there early, music fills the air, cooking fires are lit and the grand march and linger begins; seats are filled, lines are formed, blankets laid and golly, if someone hasn’t brought a beach ball to bat around! It’s a sensation candy store and the kids are in charge; there is no sorrow, no grief or pain: it’s Christmas and the medics have aspirins, Band Aids and armchairs!
            I thirst, that’s why I’m here; I’m a wanderer; a high relater radiator, sweet potato commentator, instigator investigator, nirvana spectator see ya later alligator man about this ad hoc al fresco percolator, drinking it all in! Elusive at best; appearing and disappearing, here and there and hear and left wondering if I was ever here at all. Who did you see? I don’t know, I saw them all, heard them all, ate and tasted it all and had a ball, seeing and sawing as much of all as y’all standing tall. Mama, I’m home!
            I wax prolific and expansive about my love of this venue, this time in my life and yours where and when we could come apart together in peace, music, food and the facilitation of our own standing sitting walking talking singing quietude of mutual atmospheric melodic meditation, protected witnesses all.
Sure, the weather has been hot cold dry wet dusty and muddy; there’s nothing unexpected in that, I’m down with that, ready Teddy. The mister has sprung a leak above my head in the Jazz Tent; so, why do you think I brought this here folding umbrella, just to keep the sun off me? Well, that too. I’ve also brought cash in small untraceable bills so that when I get to the front of the line and have exact money (plus tip); I can hit it with hot sauce and saunter smartly back into the stream of strangers somehow symbiotically connected to me.
There are those that think that the tariff it’s too steep; the crowds are at best congestive, the toilets are an olfactory mugging, the price of the food is up and the portions are too small. I’m not sure if we’re at the same festival. Like Arthur Dent, I’ve brought is my towel and openness to whatever will happen. I shy away from whatever doesn’t suit me at the moment, ready to split on or stick out the experience coming at me. Whatever, I’m here for the joy of it all, smiling because it’s happening again for the first time. I’m at the Jazz Fest again; let me wallow in the wonder, for this too shall pass leaving another notch on my memory wall.
It’s the second and final weekend this season and it will soon be over until, if the universe is willing, next year; there will be so much that will happen to each of us in the interval until next time, we’ll be older and perhaps wiser when we meet the Jazz Fest again. May we all take with us the serenity and tranquility that we’ve had with this uplifting and exciting time. After while, crocodile.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

New Orleans Jazz Fest 2017 #`1

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Jazz Fest Week One
Into the Belly of the Beast

Okay, Cats and Hats off we go like a herd of turtles to The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, hereafter referred to as simply ‘Jazz Fest’. I personally welcome you to the first weekend of Jazz Fest, our roads have been paved and sidewalks straightened like you’re off to see the wizard on the Yellow Brick Road; yes, you’re headed straight into the virtually fabled city of music, food and gaiety. We’ve sprayed the trees so that those nasty caterpillars that sting like acid don’t drop from the trees like armed commandos and whelp your delicate epidermis (also knocking off butterflies, bees, and the occasional humming bird). All quiet on the western front anticipating the arrival of the festivity famished friendly festival family of multiple thousands (and den some).
Understand that your safety is paramount to us and we want you to feel as safe as Tite Poulet in Madame John’s bathrobe; we’ve charged a sizeable ransom from your hard earned for tickets (certainly not couch cushion coin) in order to keep the riff raff away. We’ve also upped the price of alcohol to where if you’re gonna get in your cups, you’ll have just enough cheddar for the Uber chariot that you’re relying on to take you safely back to your AIRBNB where your bedmates (and buddies) await like bears in a den, insulated from the elements and weighted down with beers iced like sticks of firewood in their cooler uterus while their emptied brethren sit discarded like fallen soldiers having given their lives in the service of their inebriation Czar.
            Being Spring and all, I find myself congested with a case of similes, you might say that my analogies are acting up. Personally, after all of my jingles are jingled all the way (Christmas music) and my Hey pockeys are all pockeed away (Carnival music), the lull since Easter has expended my musical capital to the point of Rock an Droll; needing a shot of rhythm for the Jazz Fest fever blues. I’m as ready for my dose as a hippie on a high mountain seeking the guru sounds of musical nirvana awaiting my arrival. Mama, I’m home.
Be that as it may, might I point out for you newbies that at first it can be a little overwhelming, all the sounds and sights might sound like noise, the attendees might look like crowds; it can cloud your imagination, flummox your judgment, boggle your mind; you might get as nervous as a virgin at a prison rodeo. First, rein in your hearing ability to about sixty feet in front of you; that will have the other locomotion commotions sound less like cosmic debris, cacophonically speaking. Stop, breathe, find your inner Conan, you can do this; go with the flow, make believe that you (and everybody else) is high on something and that everything is a show put on for just you, because it is (and they probably are).
            Preparation is good, as good as a compass in a dust storm. The weather is gonna be sunny, overcast, dusty, rainy, muddy and above all erratic; try as you may, you will not be prepared for all of its idiosyncrasies.  Wear a hat, scarf, sunglasses, sandals, boots, overalls and shorts, long and short sleeve shirts; or screw it and just put on something comfortable and figure it will get ruined and you will get wind, dust and sun burned. You can’t bar the doors if the walls are gonna cave in. Take cash and maybe one credit card and leave all other paper and plastic at home; electronic devices and extraneous jewelry are like Jazz Fest masturbation, nobody needs to know where you are and those selfies just make you look like an escapee from a batty bin. Basically, if you’re playing with yourself, you’re not playing with us. You’re at the Jazz Fest to have a good time not to make a friggin documentary. Relax, it’s just music, food and fun; and if you don’t like the fun you’re having where you’re standing… go make some of your own six feet, ten feet or even a hundred feet away.
            Allen Toussaint recommends that you “eat everything” at the Jazz Fest; Debbie Lindsey reminds us to tip like someone’s watching you (they are), I do both. I trapes the Fest dervishly, both new words for my personal dictionary, kinda like tripping the lights fantastic only it’s something that I do out of doors and performed with alacrity and a certain amount of youthful subjective objectivity. In other words, I’m in love with the whole scene. I even dig waiting in lines.
            I look over people’s shoulder to see what they’re eating and not shy about asking them how they like it and where they purchased it. I’ve been attending for decades and I still cannot find my way from one end to the other without getting lost at least twice, and I love that too! I’ve purchased my tickets well in advance and never buy from someone out on the street after my friend got burned with bogus tickets from a seemingly honest pedestrian; literally scalped she was.
            Generally I can tell the newer members of the audience because they haven’t yet learned that rude and crude don’t work here, they don’t use the litter barrels much less the recycle bins, they act like the Fest is a meat market and also tap into their negative energies by mocking the afflicted: silly dancers, weird dressers, flag wavers and other people that happen to be ignoring how similar to a rube the mocker happens to be. Hopefully they’ll learn before the second day.

            Some don’ts: do not unfurl a towel, blanket, whatever and expect that it will hold your place in the middle of an audience; don’t unnecessarily save a seat in a tent for more than a portion of a performance and deprive another of a place to comfortably sit; don’t block aisles or other walkways; and don’t you ever pass up the festivities outside of the race track!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Jazz Fest Gospel Tent 2017

Under the Gospel Tent
Phil LaMancusa
Probably the oldest and very first attraction at The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is the Gospel Tent.  At the first Jazz Fest in 1970 at Congo Square, where the tickets were $3.00, there were four stages and the Gospel Tent; many of the acts did not even have microphones. One of the first performers at that festival in the Gospel Tent was a woman named Mahalia Jackson, possibly the greatest gospel singer of all times and she was, as they said, “returning home to perform”. Forty-seven years later, as you know, the Fest has grown; but one rock that has remained steady is our Gospel Tent, the first you hear as you arrive at the Sauvage Street entrance and the last to sing you on your way when you leave.  This year, the sound of Irma Thomas’ gospel voice will be gracing us from her heart to ours; the tickets, as you guessed, are priced higher.
Anyone with the sense of a sea urchin knows that New Orleans is a spiritual city; scratch the surface of any folk here and they will assure you that they are “blessed to be alive” to which the proper response is: “I know that’s right!”  Why few white people here under the age of forty do not carry this message on their sleeve, lips and in their daily life is a mystery to me; I reckon that once you reach a certain age or if you were brought up singing the praises of the Lord (instead of petitioning the Lord with prayer), you naturally feel blessed every day, faithful and grateful. Consider the names of some of the groups: Shades of Praise, Abundant Praise, New Orleans Spiritalettes, Anointed Voices, The New Orleans Gospel Soul Children and/or The Mount Calvary Voices of Redemption.
Be that as it may, I and my peer group count our days on this mortal coil as gifts from a higher authority, and praise be to whichever power that that may be. It’s really really easy for me to worship the thousand faces of God/Goddess that have granted me my life because I believe in them all; I am a Christian, Jew, Agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, Baptist, Bacchus, beer drinking believer in the benevolence and bedlam of being.  Every Jazz Festival at the Gospel Tent my belief in Lord Jesus is super jump started again, with a charge strong enough to carry me through the year, you might say… sanctified and electrified. Every year when I go to the Fest, I know where to find Jesus and how could I not pay a visit, in fact several visits each day that I attend?
The advantage of being an all believer (from Atheism to Zoroastrian) is that I can wander down any path and find my higher power ready to give my soul the strength that it needs to survive the weakness of my reserve, give me reserves to challenge my temptations, courage to fight my demons and put some gut in my strut; and when I walk into the Gospel tent my soul is filled with the power of the people, performances and pure joy in the Lord. The music, the singing the spirit is infectious and I find myself swaying, singing, clapping and snapping with the holy, yes holy, atmospheric pressure.
Fair to say at this point that by in large were talking about an African American spirituality experience, for while I understand that white folks can have gospel soul, they are (by in large) not as rhythmically inclined to belt out their raised voices in the adoration to one who can and truly does save. The music and songs are spiritual, Rock, Rhythm, blues, gospel and the primitive African call and response audience participation occurrence rolled in to one glorious exhausting heart expanding happening. Praise so palatable that you can taste it in the air, the hairs on your arms begin to rise and your eyes turn heavenward and you just want to turn around to those couple of guys discussing business and yell “shut the hell up--- I’m having an epiphany here!!”
I have been floored by four glorious goldenrod gowned fully grown women; I have witnessed Blind Boys and Zion Harmonizers and by far I am carried away when a choir of fifty or sixty voices, in agreement and five part harmony, lift up their right to be heard unto the Lord. The Saint Leo the Great Choir, The Gospel Inspirations of Boutte or The First Emanuel Church Mass Choir ---all rockin’ my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Can I get a witness?
The rejoicing, reveling, rocking revival goes on from eleven in the morning until close of business at seven in the evening
And then there’s a slight pause when the music slowly fades where Brother Love steps out with the microphone and challenges the audience that he has accepted as parishioners: “have you heard the word of God here today? (YES!) and do you feeeeeel the grace of the Lord (YES!) and do you believe that you have come to a HOLY place, a place of worship, THE HOUSE OF THE LORD?”  (YEEEESSSSS!) “then I want you to look around you and pick up all that trash that you brought in with you because this IS the house of the Lord and we do NOT leave trash on the floor; if you brought it in with you, then take it back out and dispose of it properly. “I WILL NOT HAVE TRASH IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD! Can I get an Amen?” “AMEN!”

New Orleans Greek Fest 2017

The New Orleans Greek Festival
Phil LaMancusa
            The New Orleans Greek Festival is held on the Memorial Day weekend May 26th -28th,  2017  and presented by the Holy Trinity Cathedral located at 1200 Robert E. Lee Blvd and that’s the first thing that you need to know. The second thing that you need to know is the word Efharisto (eff-kaar-EEs-toe!) and you need to be able to say it all in one breath; repeat after me Efharisto!!! The word is Greek and the meaning is “Thank You!” and you’ll want to say it often and with vigor as you attend New Orleans’ equivalent of a painting by Georges Seurat (e.g. ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte’). It’s a family thing, an eating, drinking, dancing, neo-impressionistic, milling about, lounging, laughing, smiling, music thing. In case you’re worried about vehicular congestion; there is free offsite parking about a half a mile down the road, with shuttle buses to and from the event or you can trust your parkma (Parkma: transportive verb: that chance that there will magically be a parking place waiting just for you where and when you need it) for a spot on the roadway to get in closer. The hours of operation are: Friday 5:00-11:00. Saturday 11:00-11:00, Sunday 11:00-9:00. Be there or be tetragono (square).
Greek, you say? All you of limited knowledge will be surprised to know of Greeks arriving here in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In 1760s a wealthy Greek merchant married a local woman of mixed Acadian and Native American lineage; when their daughter married a Greek native in 1799 it became the first Big Fat Greek wedding in North America. The Greek Orthodox Church here is the oldest established in the North AND South America (1867). The areas that I work and live in (6th, 7th ward) was, until 1971, a predominantly Greek neighborhood and the original site of Holy Trinity Church was at 1222 N. Dorgenois St.   Also in this area were Syrians, Russians and Lebanese, their culture a distant memory to all but a few of my neighbors; it is fitting that we should have a festival commemorating that part of our background, culture and language.
For the kids there is an area called The Athenian Playground with a climbing wall, face painting, crafts and one of those bouncy tent things where you allow the little darlings to work off all of the extra steam that they seem to wake up with. Kids twelve years old and under have free admission (the rest of us kids pay $8.00). There are three day passes available and anyone arriving dressed in toga on Sunday gets in gratis.
There is live (Greek) music and dancing in the Hellenic tradition; you can come and show off your stuff, learn the steps or just watch and be amazed by what you see. You can rent canoes for bayou cruising, there are contests, raffles and even a ‘Toga Sunday’ pageant with prizes. There are tours given of the Cathedral that allow you view artifacts of the faith.
And food? Food is everywhere; indoors and out, as well as, wine, beer, ouzo, pomegranate iced tea and the ever popular Metaxas to fill your soul with Hellenic gladness. Greek yogurt and frothy iced Greek coffee at the Loukoumades Café will be served. Food demonstrations and classes, a full meal of Kieftethes (Greek meatballs), tiropita, spanakopita, pastitsio and Greek salad with dolma from inside the hall or from outside food stands:  Gyros served with tzatziki and grilled onions served on warm pita bread, or booths with calamari, lamb, feta fries, goat burgers, souvlaki and beverages. AND, not to worry, we know how kids are, and there will be some of the non ethnic foods available (hot dogs etc.). Besides vegetarian plates being available, this year, in the grocery section, a small walk-around container featuring four appetizers (Meze) are being offered in a limited number of servings; the first three hundred lucky customers will have the opportunity to purchase them and then the rest of us latecomers will be out of luck. Also in the grocery store will be cheeses and herbs, oils, olives, homemade dips, tee shirts, posters, prints and Hellenic imports.  I always make sure that I pick up their lemon-pepper seasoning blend for my kitchen at home. Also indoors a selection of twenty different pastries, cakes and cookies line tables that, as you pass the length of the gamut with your ‘ticket of transit’, picking one of these and two of these and your personalized selection grows with baklava, kourmabiedes, galaktobourikos and heck, I stop trying to find out all the names and just say yes to everything that looks good to me because I know they will be, and my friends and neighbors will reap the benefit of my eyes being bigger than my stomach.

Here’s another word for you: Philihellenism.  It means the lover of all things Greek; if you’ve been to the festival before, you can feel the meaning of that word in your heart, if this will be your first time to go to this celebration, be prepared to experience a kinder, gentler New Orleans experience and consider while you are there that there is actually a Greek island where the citizens literally forget to die and live on  to be centennials and older, healthily and actively. When I go to the Greek Festival, I myself wonder why anyone who could live the Hellenic lifestyle would ever want to take the chance that heaven would be a better place. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

on aging

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Rinse and Repeat
Aging (Dis) Gracefully
            Subjectively, no one grows old in increments; one day, all of a sudden, you see your reflection in a mirror (or in someone else’s eyes) and you ask yourself who that old person is, and it’s you. Of course you make light of it “shucks, if I knew I was gonna live this long, I woulda taken better care of myself (diet, finances, exercise, dentistry, dreams, aspirations, family commitments, love and/or life in general)!” That sarcasm doesn’t wash well as a rationale, and even you can see the flaws in it, so you lose yourself in memories and the memories of the different bodies that you’ve inhabited along the way. Ponder, if you will: time is a thief; it steals all of the selves that you ever were or wore.
            What is your earliest memory? Is it being tossed in the air (and caught) by some big person, being cuddled, being suckled; standing in your crib crying because your diaper is full, you’ve just woken up and you’re alone in a dark room? Perhaps your memories don’t go back that far.
            How about the feeling of being little around bigger people; learning, in a group of kids your own size to deal with the politics of school; falling in love with your first grade teacher; learning to tie your shoes, read  phonetically, sit patiently with hands folded or take a forced nap after ‘cookies and milk time’? Having your rage suppressed.
            What about being told to go to bed when you’re not tired; getting awakened before you’ve slept enough; told to clean your plate, drink your juice, get dressed, get dressed, you’re not wearing that (!) and button up your overcoat? What was your first nightmare?
            You grow into a preteen and your voice changes, your feet and nose get bigger, you’re judged by how well you play sports, pull off mischief without getting caught, defend yourself physically and verbally; you want to belong somewhere but you don’t seem to fit anywhere. You tell your mother that you didn’t ask to be born. Your face breaks out.
            High School happens and your hormones rage; everyone is against you; you learn to slow dance, French kiss, have a crush, go steady, and get your heart broken; rinse and repeat. You join a tribe, rebel, study, and can’t wait to get it all over with; nobody understands the ‘real’ you, you’re artistic, sensitive, all knowing. Finally you get a driver’s license, a Social Security card, a part time job, an acoustic guitar and a peer group. You sing out for social justice.
            You graduate into a radical departure; you leave home, join a band, cult, Army or fraternity/sorority. You’re drinking with the best of them, no longer a virgin, doing your own laundry and you can play your music as loud as you damn well please. You have roommates, you watch art movies, discuss philosophy, name your cat Rimbaud, roll your own (cigarettes). You protest inequality. At this point there is so much to do in life that you get very little done, it’s okay, you’re young, free and independent; you wire home for money. You visit the folks on holidays, surprise them with your new wardrobe, hairstyle and ability to talk adverse politics peppered with expletives. 
            At twenty-one you’re exhausted; you’ve taken lovers, gotten a tattoo, had a brush with the law, been fired for incompetence. At twenty-five: you’re golden, twenty-seven: you’ve been kicked to the curb, twenty-eight: you give up, thirty: you settle into a career. It’s time to get serious about relationships, money, security and the possibility of having a family of your own, a golden retriever named Marilyn, 401K and a car that is dependable. You buy insurance, use your degree to get ahead and embrace the responsibilities you once avoided.
            The years tick by in a flash; you take on more than three people should. You start a business, buy a house, raise kids or live alone in an apartment with a tank of tropical fish and the work that you’ve taken home from the office. You’ve been paying your dues and bills; you’ve fallen down and picked yourself back up, people count on you, you’ve found and lost Jesus on several occasions; you’re the life of the party, the master of the snappy comeback, always ready with a smoke or a joke. Shot at and missed, shit at and hit.
            Settling into what might pass for maturity you trudge along, taking happiness in your accomplishments, disregarding your shortcomings, everyone around you finally knows what can be expected of you. People around you get sick, get well, some of them die. Younger acquaintances get married; you go to weddings, funerals, baptisms, sometimes you just send a gift. You forget birthdays. You get regular checkups, quit smoking and cut back on the booze. You don’t understand the current musical trends or electronic gadgets; don’t know who these people are at the Academy Awards, all young people start to look alike and upstarts begin to call you “Sir (or Ma’am)”. You still pay attention, you’re interested in the news, you remember when you marched and protested; you believed that good would triumph over evil.

            And then one morning you see that that old person in the mirror is you and today you tarry a little longer and look deeply at that face. It’s a good face.  A roadmap of decades of a life; lines of laughter, sadness, worry and joy.  A scar here and there where a memory was born; an obstacle overcome; a time where you were laid low by an enemy, or worse, by a friend.  A scowl, surprise, suspicion, sorrow or a satisfaction, leaving telltale signs that are unseen from the inside but apparent when viewed in the looking glass (or someone else’s eyes). So much done; so much more to do. Rinse and repeat.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Saint Joseph's Day 2017

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
The Saint of Secrets
Throw me some Zeppole, Joe
            Sophia Petrillo told me: “Picture it (!), Sicily… hundreds of years ago… there’s a big drought and the people are starving, they’re starving! AND THIRSTY! The sailors are out in the boats trying to catch fish in a fierce storm--- they’re gettin’ NUTHIN’ (!)---somewhere in the distance… a dog barks. The people, the sailors (the dog) are praying, they’re praying and praying. To who? To Saint Joseph, patron saint of the every man, of secrets and of unwed mothers. Saint Joseph looks down and says ‘Oh my stars and garters, my poor, poor Sicilian children (he always liked us best), I need to help them!’
            “So, help them he does; it rains, a lot, they’re catching fish like crazy and all of a sudden, guess what (?), fava beans start to grow from out of nowhere! The people are so happy that they prepare a festa in Saint Joseph’s honor; they drink nero d’avola, they bake Cucidatti, they make Maccu di San Guiseppi. They dance around and sing and hug each other and that’s where my great great grandparents meet and if it wasn’t for Saint Joseph… I wouldn’t be here today to tell the story; now, shut up and eat your spaghetti!”
            Well, as any red blooded New Orleanian knows, we celebrate Saint Joseph’s Day on March 19th.  Catholics, Sicilians (same animal) and the churches they attend take a lot of time and build altars of food to commemorate the occasion of this auspicious celebration. On the altar are cheeses, cookies, wine, loaves and fishes and all manner of foodstuffs.   In fact, at St. Cletus Church (3600 Claire Ave in Gretna) they start working on their altar in January. The altars are in three tiers to signify the blessings of the ‘Holy Family’ and after St. Joseph’s day the altar is given to the less fortunate. The altar can be simple, like in a person’s home or bigger and more elaborate like Saint Mary’s (1116 Chartres St,) which is as big as a magnolia tree. The Church of Saint Joseph (1802 Tulane Ave.) is alleged to house the biggest altar of its kind in the country.
            On Saint Joseph’s feast day (which this year is on the 18th because the 19th falls on a Sunday) a feast of its own is laid out for all comers regardless of race, creed, color, ethnic, religious or any other orientation or persuasion. It’s during lent so there is no meat served but an epidemic of pasta reigns as well as salads, stuffed artichokes, cakes and lemonade. You’ll see your neighbors, make new friends and Saint Joseph will smile because you’ll be well rested, well loved and well fed, which is all the blessing that anyone can/should truly ask for.
            Also, when you go to church to participate in the awe of the altar, you will be given a little paper bag containing a Saint Joseph prayer card, two Sicilian cookies (one sesame, one fig) a blessed fava bean (to keep in your wallet for luck and money) and a slice of French bread. We all can logically find the significance of the objects, except, probably the new kids might wonder about the French bread. Quite simply, people here are instructed to keep that bread until a storm approaches, and when that happens they should throw that bread out of the back door/window to have the storm pass on by. If you believe it, it is true.
            Saint Joseph’s Day is also a Mardi Gras Indian celebratory occasion called Super Sunday. It is the last day that the Indians come out in this year’s ‘old suit’ before dismantling it to begin next year’s ‘new suit’. I asked Big Chief David Montana of the Washitaw Nation why the Indians celebrate Saint Joseph’s Day and he told me “because Saint Joseph was black!” That kind of stands to reason because back then the biblical people would have been North Africans and probably a lot darker in complexion than us lily white Anglo Saxon Christians have always portrayed them.
            Be that as it may; it is a fact that a wave of Sicilians descended on New Orleans in the late 1800s and that, in the white society of that time, were considered the “lowest of the low” and as such, along with African Americans, were not allowed to worship in the ‘higher class’ Catholic churches. It’s also a fact that African Americans ultimately built their own church where they welcomed their Sicilian neighbors; that church is Saint Augustine, it’s in the Treme district and still provides a considerable Saint Joseph’s celebration. 
Some speculate that the Mardi Gras Indians picked up their Sicilian neighbors’ religious tradition, and took advantage of the break in Lent to take their suits out for one last spin. All of that is speculation. What we know for certain is that even today, Saint Joseph’s is a holiday that transcends cultural lines. Mardi Gras Indian Super Sunday celebrations are one of the few times of the year when outsiders can see the Indians in their elaborate costumes and appreciate the work, time and talent that making them entails. Super Sundays are traditionally kicked off in A.L. Davis Park in Central City; however, other neighborhoods like the West Bank and at Bayou St. John also host their own celebrations. Processions are held and we hold dear the words of Otis P. Driftwood “let Joy be unconfined. Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons and necking in the parlors.”
 So, mark your calendars for that weekend and you can make it a full, busy, wonderful time. March 17th is Saint Patrick’s day, the 18th will be Saint Joseph’s and then the 19th will be Super Sunday; look for a fish fry in your neighborhood to really glut out. Also look for the Irish Italian parade where the Irish will be giving out cabbages and potatoes and the Italians will be trading flowers for kisses. Buona fortuna.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Poverty in New Orleans

Poverty in New Orleans
Phil LaMancusa
            We gauge conditions of being financially uncomfortable by something called a poverty rate. The poverty rate is defined as the percentage of the population living below poverty level. Poverty level is defined as that level when a person or family’s income is so low that stress in being able to provide basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter) is felt; at times, acutely. As of 2015, 13.5 percent of Americans (43,100,000) live below poverty level—more children than women, more women than men. The statistics are staggering: blacks, 24.1 percent; Latinos, 24.1 percent; Asians, 11.9 percent; whites, 9.1 percent; and 33.6 percent of these numbers are children—living all around you. Academics Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, authors of the book “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” report that there are nearly 1.5 million American households with practically no cash income at all. New Orleans fits quite comfortably in these parameters.
I was raised in the projects in the 1940s and 50s by a single parent relying on public welfare, healthcare, and education; five kids, the whole nine yards. The projects’ tenants were the elite of the neighborhood: all around us families were poorer. And surrounding us all were people not so poor. The economic checkerboard of neighborhoods was a constant reminder of who the “haves” were and who the “have-nots” weren’t, and if we were the “have-nots,” our neighbors were the “have-nothings.” We’re talking the literal definition of the word ‘poverty’; and like it or not, every society maintains a percentage of their population in poverty. Somebody’s got to perform cheap menial labor.
            We were adequately schooled; any better education and we might have aspired to greater heights. Our heroes were sports and cinema stars, musicians, and criminals, who had made a name for themselves and whose lifestyles we could emulate but never attain. In our later teens, we were pushed from school to enter society. Our choices were: military (or prison) uniforms, or, to follow in our parents’ footsteps and enter the world of the “working stiffs,” whose sweat greases the wheels of this great society. These were our rites of passage into adulthood and the only options when and where I was growing up. Being poor meant staying poor and raising your children to perpetuate this system of poverty—the norm. The advantage my family had was that we were white.
            When I came back to New Orleans in the late 90s, I found that little had changed from the 60s and 70s; there were still, at the close of the 20th century, moral, physical, and economic depression in the city. The Big Easy. Even today, 15 minutes from the mayor’s office, citizens are living in abject poverty. Let’s define that condition as I see it.
We’ll disregard, for the moment, the homeless, those in shelters, squatters, and tenants in our “new” projects; although these segments do round out the picture. State subsidized nursing homes, where tenants receive $38 a month to live on while taking away all of their other monies, is another form of poverty, but not what I’m speaking of here. To define poverty, we’ll begin by pointing out what it is not. Being poor isn’t necessarily living in poverty. Having secure employment and worrying about your financial prospects, your kid’s school choices, your mortgage, credit card debt, the note on your car, seasonal clothing; or choosing a dentist, cleaning woman, or hairdresser are very real concerns. However, while those things might keep you broke, it is NOT poverty. Over 20 % of New Orleans families of four living on a cash income of $10,000 a year or less is poverty (Pew Research).
 Anxiety about whether you’ll be evicted for non-payment of rent because you chose to put food on the table; fear of having your utilities cut off; whether the person who brings home the household’s money can/will have and keep a job; struggling, hustling, and scraping just to get by IS poverty. Having to take advantage of every free service (social security insurance, food stamps, food banks, emergency rooms, supplemental housing assistance) and then some, you live in survival mode.
 To be clear, as a mother, not being able to afford the adequate healthcare for your children that you ‘have access to’, not being able to plan a healthy parenthood, or even worse, the fear of putting the father’s name on your baby’s birth certificate is real poverty, not only financially but emotionally and psychologically. As a father, even if you yourself  live in poverty, when your name appears on a birth certificate, you’re held liable for support or, as a consequence of non-payment, can have your driver’s license revoked, effectively compromising everyone’s earnings and takings; father loses mobility, mother and child lose public assistance. That’s the Catch 22 of living in an America where the ‘have nothings’ are treated as lepers and parasites.
 Having to take jobs at minimum wage (because you lack formal education or training) and then be able to live on that money and support a family ($15,080 yearly); not being able to pay for fundamental living necessities (gas, electricity, water, food) …THAT’S POVERTY. Being poor and living in areas where the lack of necessities is the norm—areas where crime is commonplace, addiction is not regarded as an oddity, the strong oppress the weak, contention is encouraged, and where there is no way out … that’s poverty. 25-30% of all New Orleanians live in poverty; 44% of children under five live in poverty. For a single parent not to live in poverty, he or she has to take in over $46,000 a year (an hourly wage of $22.00). These numbers are verifiable. 
            When I came back, I was informed that the majority of the students that were pushed through our educational system were graduating high school with a fifth grade reading skill level; they are today’s parents and the dishwashers, porters, trash collectors, maids, fast food workers, lawn tenders and minimum wage earners. Our city (and state) leads the country in teen (unwed) pregnancy, crime, obesity, African American incarceration/unemployment, and child hunger. Going to school is an economic family sacrifice at best and rent increases are routine and arbitrary. Poorer families are pushed out when “revitalizers” move into a poor neighborhood.
            Dwell on this: I get home from work at 6:30 p.m., turn on the lights, and go to bed by 11:00 p.m.; I’m up two hours in the morning before leaving for work … and my electric bill is around $100 a month. Add to that the water bill, car insurance and repair, laundry, cable, food, rent, clothing, phone, health and dental insurance, the occasional movie or night out … and if I had to do that on $290 a week before taxes, what would I do? Where would I make my cuts? Adopt out my children? Quit eating nourishing food, abandon coffee outings, shaving, bathing, turn in my cell phone, relinquish my pets, sell my soul, take a second job, rob a bank, take out a loan, get credit cards and max them, curl into a fetal position and beg God for mercy? Forget about holidays, vacations or birthdays; where would that money come from? I’ve been painted into a corner, trapped; me and the other poor schmucks that are your neighbors. And what can be done about it? Poverty sucks. And ironically, poverty fluctuates with the stock market. When the market went into recession in 2008, the poverty rate—over the entire country—rose and kept on rising until 2010 when it fell (slowly) back to 2007 levels.
            There is a bill in the state legislature to raise the minimum wage; opposition, naturally, is split along party lines. State government doesn’t support it because they would have to give their workers a raise and --- the last governor having screwed us, leaving a huge deficit--- it would ,mean that raising minimum wage would put Louisiana even more in the hole. So, once again, the little guy takes it in the shorts and is kicked to the curb and all the authors of the bill want is a mere $0.75-an-hour raise. It would raise the minimum wage to $320 a week before taxes and that’s still poverty in New Orleans.
            We can accept or reject poverty in America. We can give our extra money to build hospitals, feed the starving in other countries and we look at the pictures of abandoned and mistreated puppies and ignore our neighbor’s plight. Or, we can realize that greed is at the root of all of our problems and do something about eliminating that, beginning with ourselves and not accepting it in others, especially the people that we put into public office. We can take part in our own recovery and, to paraphrase the man, declare that: “War (and poverty) is over… if you want it.”


Friday, January 6, 2017

Guests 2017

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
February Festivous
Guest-with-us for the Rest-of-us
            Whoopee! It’s February! Valentine’s Day! Carnival! Crawfish! The arrival of the Spring guests that turn up from now all the way into Jazz Fest (oh Boy!)
            I’ve pondered points and concluded that guests generally don’t quite get or feel comfortable bunking in with friends that they see once or twice a year. Believe me, that goes triple for the folks that play ‘hostess with the mostest’ for them. So, in the spirit of blatant honesty; let me literate my situation for the edification of incoming company.
My house.  First: this is as clean and orderly as it gets; second: don’t ask me where anything is because, in the cleaning and organizing, that I’ve spent the last two weeks laboring over, I don’t know where anything is! Quite simply: whatever you’re looking for, it’s around here, go find it. The soap might be in the freezer; spare light bulbs possibly under the broom; coffee is on the mantle; put your luggage in the tub (kidding). Next: don’t open the hall closet; that’s where we keep the soiled laundry that I haven’t had time to do because I’ve been cleaning/organizing to make a good impression on you.  Caution: not all the chairs are safe to sit on; none of the clocks tell the correct time, some lamps have ceased to illuminate and the ‘Smart TV’ is as dumb as a box of rocks
 The way I clean and organize is to start moving things around and I have an aversion to throwing things away that may be important and/or significant; two weeks of that and you’re bound to find anything anywhere, it’s not a mess, it’s home and we welcome you; mi casa/su casa and all that.
            We live in a half double shotgun house, which means that we have five big rooms that are stretched out one after another in a straight line so that, if you were to fire a shot gun in the front door, you would hit whatever was at the back door; hence the name. The living room is in the front and the kitchen in the back separated by two bedrooms, (one where you’ll be staying) a bath and a dining room, small yards front and back.
Here is our schedule: we work seven days a week, most times until 6:30-7:00 at night; we come home, we have a little Happy Hour and then dinner, down time and bed by 11:00. Debbie is up around six to feed the herd (three cats and a dog and various outside strays), coffee, walk the dog and then to the Treme Center for swimming and exercise. Then to coffee at Whole Foods (bagel and cookies) and then back to work. Some nights we don’t get in until after eight; it comes with owning a business.
            We have lives much bigger that ourselves; the dining room also is used for painting pictures and a chair to read or listen to tapes to learn the foreign language du jour. The living room has a piano and other musical instruments, none of which we have mastered; there are unfinished projects throughout the house, countless books and novels, collections of coins, world globes, statues, photos and finger bowls. The kitchen is filled with spices for our signature blends and other handy non fresh ingredients that we supplement with fresh stuff from the green grocer; a full larder, for ease of cooking. Except for the occasional dairy product, we keep a vegan kitchen; if you want to cook otherwise you’re welcome to, just know that anything you don’t eat, may perish. We come home loaded down with all the detritus from the day and deposit said stuff on our way to the refrigerator, which means, all through the rooms. In the mean time, baths, shaving, cat litter cleaning, recycling, composting, bed making and visits to our neighbors, our veterinarians, food markets and shopkeepers keep us active and generally invisible.
            The first cat gets up at six and complains loudly that he’s not been fed for at least eight hours, at this point the dog needs let out. There’s time to sit a spell in the morning and when you use the bathroom for your morning toilet, expect all cats to visit; the youngest one loves to watch humans take baths (there is no shower), the little dog may want to sleep under your blankets (with you).
            We live in a neighborhood, which means we walk, we talk, greet and hail people that we see in the streets; introduce yourself, tell them who you are and behave like a guest and not a short term rental tenant. Smile. We don’t expect you to be bringing home any lovers, possibly some people that you may meet but not sheet shakers, okay? We rarely have parties at home; home is our sanctuary: that’s how we picture it. Don’t try to clean up after us, just take care of your own space odyssey and everything will be hunky-dory.
            You’re welcome to use the car responsibly, although we don’t have it insured for a second driver; the brakes are good and the tires are fair. It’s that ’94 Lincoln Towncar that’s parked crooked in the street. It has over 237,000 miles on it and is cranky and idiosyncratic at best. The windows, air-conditioning and sometimes the door handles or trunk switch sticks or doesn’t work at all. It has a radio tuned to 94.3 an oldies station… on second thought, maybe you should leave the driving to me.
            So, you get the picture; you’ll fit in just fine because you won’t expect anything to be normal around here; in fact, seeing as you’re our friend and all, it may remind you of home.