Monday, May 16, 2005

N.O., THANKS. Apologies for the protracted absence. I was in New Orleans for a long weekend. This was my first visit, and I was tied to a group (long story) so I was mostly tied to the French Quarter and couldn't perform the further-ranging enquiries that I trust I'll get to on another visit, but I will share some short impressions:

- New York has always liked to tear down and renovate, but lately this tendency has become a mania; where once we more or less inadvertently toppled monuments to vanished ways of life, now our civic bulldozers are ever revved and eager to erase anything predating the Giuliani era. So it was nice to be someplace where aged, crumbling edifices are routinely replastered and reopened for business -- including the Cemetaries, where tombs are regularly cracked into, stuffed with new roommates for the dead, and imperfectly sealed up. The crud, the fallen bits of plaster, the sagging balconies, the irregularly hanging French doors, are beautiful in the same way that the smell of rotting flowers is beautiful: more vivid for their decomposition.

- Given that, it is easy to see why voodoo remains a vital part of the City's image and folklore. If communication with the dead is important, you won't take lightly any decision to erase vestiges of their earthly existence. (One practitioner's shop I visited displayed two official mayoral commendations.) I took the time to listen to one initiate -- fat, bland, and cane-bearing -- lecture on his craft. He downplayed the "fear factor" and Hollywood misrepresentations of voodoo, but his stories were purposefully spooky, full of zombies and reversed fortunes. He was very calm and businesslike, and gave his spiel at a rapid clip so as to keep the queue of auditors moving, but his eyes remained brightly alert throughout the performace, as if to remind guests that he was powerful and not above availing his powers then and there if he had to. He reminded me of a middle-class black woman I'd interviewed years earlier, who had erected a row of African ceremonial masks on the facade of her building on the south side of West 49th Street, facing Worldwide Plaza. These were meant, she had told me, to inhibit developers. That the condo part of the Plaza has never been very successful, and the theatre there briefly closed, I would never attribute to her totems, but as they say in the old Jewish jokes, it couldn't have hurt.

- I should have hated Bourbon Street for being so fucking cheesy, but I loved it anyway. First of all, they sell Everclear; y'can't get that back home. Also, any institution that gives work to hundreds of musicians, who play nearly round the clock, is okay by me (and has me checking the real estate classified in the Times-Picayune). But finally, Bourbon Street's spirit of license is indiscriminate and all-embracing. You don't have to be an initiate or a hipster or a pretty person of any sort to get in on it; fat suburbanites waddling unsteadily, plastic cup in hand, toward Hustler Hollywood are as welcome to it as future Trent Reznors. Even a cynical visitor from New York is forced to accept that all that stuff about the good times rolling -- as opposed to being ceremonially placed into the hands of those fashionable few whom local free papers deem worthy -- is sincerely meant. Bourbon Street takes all comers, and only very bad behavior gets you thrown out. Despite the puke-scented evidence, I think this is a good definition of heaven.

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