Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New Orleans 6.3.1994: Race Matters and Postmodern Play

Sunday morning, 9 A.M. on Kathleen and Abner’s stoop. Next door, three feet away, as New Orleans houses are built, a baby voices its presence to the soft sunshine. Its mama mocks it, repeating its up-reaching sounds with bass, down-going ones.

Two nights ago, the mama and her boyfriend fought so fiercely the police were called. We had seen them earlier in the day—she a tubby-gutted slattern with round face, dirty askew brown hair, tired, mean brown eyes, a twisted toothless mouth, cigarette hanging out; he a blond cherub spoiled, years her junior, fresh-faced with blue eyes, already going paunchy, sucking on his own cigarette. Real New Orleans. Jesus would have loved them. I have trouble doing so.

The fight was drunken and cacophonous. She screamed vituperations in gutter language, while he demanded she let in the pregnant cat. When the police came, he was outside (2 A.M.) on the stoop, told them he was the husband. Abner and Kathleen says this happens often.

It’s New Orleans, 1994, year of our Lord, Morial Jr., just elected mayor last night. Not much can be done about the decline of traditional neighborhoods here, though I hope Morial will give it a shot. This neighborhood, solidly lower middle-class when we lived here 20 years ago (but even then grudgingly accepting a first wave of displaced Cubans) is now virtually all black. The whites who remain are utterly déclassé, like Kathleen and Abner’s neighbors, remnants of the 1950s neighborhood trapped on this reef as history washes their children to Kenner, Chalmette, and the idyllic North Shore, as t.v. newscasters now urge us to call across the lake.

Rather than remain in these neighborhoods and rub shoulders with Cubans and people of color, white families have fled. And in doing so, have left the city deprived of an important tax base, full of social problems that they blame on race rather than on their own abandonment of the city.

Through it all, New Orleans is always so vital—the squirrel scratching its way up and down the twist of tree limbs across the street, pigeons hurling like suddenly alarmed dignitaries onto the spiky green leaves of the loquat, a mockingbird displaying its white stripes in delighted flight onto the grass of the vacant lot.

I love the mild air, the slowness with which light comes and goes each day, even the raucousness of it all. I don’t like the litter, the burnt-out faces of the trapped poor folks, the bitter hard ones of the Metairie grandparents we saw last night as we had supper on Veterans. Talk about postmodernism.

Steve’s definition of postmodernism: seeing Schindler’s List in a bookstore yesterday, he said, “Oh, they’ve made a book out of that movie.”

Lots of impressions, too many to do justice. LIM nice to me. M. Dumestre introduced me as a New Orleanian, serious scholar, gentle person. Oodles of my students there, all sweet, solicitous, eager to touch and hug in that New Orleans way: M. Wolf, P. Hennican (sporting a Peggy Wilson sticker: her sister-in-law), D. Thompson, B. Dwyer, D. Kouris, D. McCloskey.

The latter amusing with her chunky little body in black tights surmounted by a bright red t-shirt with a beaded Indian thing around her neck, punk-red hair, huge asymmetrical earrings. A statement, and an A for effort, if not fashion savvy. She was back from a trip to El Salvador, where she picked coffee with Salvadoran workers. Then home to New Orleans to a dinner where she dined with people from the Salvadoran embassy, who cooed soft Hispanic horror at her poor scratched white arms, and recoiled in astonishment when she told them how she had incurred the scars. The ambassador made a joke of it: “I knew our economy was bad; I didn’t know we were importing American labor, though.”

. . .

Abner just drove up. Neighbor on the other side lamenting the election—a bearded 40ish man with a Yankee accent, who said, “For the first time in New Orleans history, there’s not a white male government—only one white male elected.” To which Abner replied, “Well, they can’t do a worse job than the previous government. We’ll see what they’ll do.”

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