Wednesday, September 28, 2005

New Orleans Memories

Well, I’m back from a little hiatus, brought on by a couple of projects coming to fruition. The first was a teach-in on the war in Iraq, conducted down at All-Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in South Shreveport. We had about 35 people two Saturdays ago discussing US foreign policy, the Patriot Act, the history of the Middle East, alternatives to war and various other big issues. It was intellectually thrilling, emotionally provocative and politically inspiring. Sandwiched as it was between Cindy Sheehan’s Crawford vigil and the demonstrations in DC last weekend, between Katrina and Rita, I believe it was a great experience for sleepy ol’ Shreveport, and something to build on. Special thanks must go to Greg Moses, our keynote speaker and a key participant in the teach-in, who did a great job connecting the dots between Iraq and Katrina Friday night, and spoke eloquently about the challenges and rewards of a commitment to institutional nonviolence on Saturday. For those interested, his Friday remarks have been fleshed out into a remarkable essay, “A Movement Gathers Power on the Sorrow Plateau,” which you can find on, among other places on the web.
The other preoccupation this past week or so was a long piece I wrote for the Katrina benefit at artspace Friday night. Given Rita’s approach, the crowd was a bit sparse, but it felt great to be participating something that was so concretely helping the evacuees, and I thank Chris Fowler-Sandlin and the other organizers for that opportunity.

The Living Section of the Times published a series of New Orleans reminiscences by local people on Sunday. It represented a real cross-section of Shreveport, I thought, with some folks touching on kitschy tourist elements of the city and others conveying some very soulful, profound feelings about a city that occupies such a large space in our imaginations and experiences. Nobody asked me my thoughts, but that hasn’t stopped me to this point, now has it?:

My family and I lived in New Orleans from approximately 1974-76 (corrections will follow next time after parental consultation), years six through eight for me. My parents attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in Gentilly, and we went to the French Quarter often. I remember most vividly a shop dedicated solely to military miniatures, seemingly painstakingly handcrafted, handpainted soldiers from every war and era known. I was fascinated by World War II specifically as a kid, and I was drawn to this shop that was part toy store (though unlike any toy store I had ever seen), part museum, for the detail that was obvious in every figure and piece of equipment.
I remember for the first time paying attention to the price of the ones I coveted and saving my allowance to buy something that seemed to have a patina of seriousness to it, unlike the comic books and baseball cards and matchbox cars I more casually collected at the time. I remember having a Rommel-looking German officer, complete with binoculars and map; a North African-based British soldier in khaki shorts and desert boots, revolver drawn; and a classic, Sgt. Rock-style U.S. infantryman, rifle in both hands, marching up the beach at Normandy. I also remember a motorcycle with sidecar, though I can’t remember if I owned that or was just fascinated by it at the store, so foreign it was to my experience.
Though I never articulated it, it was obvious to me at the time how unique this shop was, and how unique the place that supported a shop dedicated to such a unique, obsessive fetish.

After graduating from Haughton High School in 1986, I moved to Lafayette to attend the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Californians may be the only others in this country who undergo such a cultural shock going from north to south within their state. It was a refreshing change for me, and I took full advantage of the opportunities afforded me.
One of the things I got involved with was the student newspaper, the Vermilion. Early in the fall semester, Jason Berry came to campus to deliver the annual Flora Levy Lecture. He discussed that quintessential New Orleans novel (sorry, Moviegoer and Mosquitoes and Interview With a Vampire fans), Confederacy of Dunces. After the lecture, I was talking with some fellow newspaper staff, and someone suggested a drive to New Orleans for a few drinks and some beignets at Café Du Monde. Now, this was the middle of the week and I probably had French or Western Civilization or some such at 9:00 the next morning, and I was being invited on this subversive journey into the heart of Ignatius’ absurd darkness. There was no checking in with anyone, no bag to pack, no listening to any little voices preaching restraint, there was just spontaneity and the rush of living, for the first night in my life, that Kerouacesque lifestyle that I knew had been lurking around the corner all those nights, all those years, before. I barely remember the night itself, but what it represented was a rite of passage, a seminal experience that clearly delineated the life before and after, and for a college student in the South, much less in Louisiana, it’s a good bet that such an experience will involve New Orleans.
There you go, a couple of New Orleans vignettes, with more to come, most likely. I hope these stories touch some kind of universal chord, because I think we have a hell of a fight before us against those who will try to take our New Orleans and turn it into a Nashville-style corporate Disneyland. I realize that the Hard Rock Café and Margaritaville have been doing that gradually for a number of years, but there is still so much living history of cultural dissent that we all draw so heavily from here in the South, that gives us strength and solace in these dark days, that we have to fight. And fight. And fight. Peace.


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