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.