NEWS FROM THE UPPER NINE: Henry Griffin goes back to New Orleans (Arthur No. 20/Jan. 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 20 (January 2006)

Illustration by Arik Roper; click to enlarge

News From the Upper Nine
Henry Griffin goes back to New Orleans

“You are entering the city at your own risk. Police and fire services are limited. There is no 911 service. Traffic lights are out throughout the city. Observe a citywide speed limit of 35 mph, and proceed with extreme caution, especially around downed power lines. You are not permitted to go beyond your designated ZIP code area. Do not drink, bathe in or wash your hands in tap water. Standing water and soil may be seriously contaminated. Limit your exposure to airborne mold and use gloves, masks and other protective materials. Apply mosquito repellent and sunscreen. Bring sufficient food, water, gas and any medical supplies required to sustain you and your family, keeping in mind the curfew and store inventories may limit access to supplies. Gas stations are not fully operational. Fuel is limited.” —from a list of “tips” from the New Orleans Mayor’s office for dealing with the “urban hazards” of life in the 9th Ward in September, 2005

I’ve long used the introduction “I live in New Orleans” to break the ice at parties. This usually cheers people up, often sparking memories of a particularly debauched vacation. “How can you people live down there?” someone would inevitably ask, meaning “How do you keep from becoming an alcoholic?” Now the same question connotes differently, more of a “How could you live in that city knowing that you were doomed by its very design?” Of all the tragedies of Katrina, this hurts the most: our carefree lifestyle, our legendary tolerance, for alcohol, for iniquity and corruption, is now less a punchline than a cautionary tale.

You’d think from the apocalyptic prognostications of the national media that there wouldn’t be much of a city left to return to. Not so. Some areas are straight-up ravaged, that’s for sure. But your “average block” can be quite a mix, and even in the so-called “spared” neighborhoods, a hundred year oak may be splintered across some power lines.

My house is still there, a raised Creole cottage at the eastern-most tip of the upper Ninth ward, three blocks north of the river. I describe it this way, as that’s how I first re-located it, via a satellite photo posted on the web, after the cataclysm. I found my neighborhood from space, then my block and then my house. It was easy to pick out: there is an 80-foot pecan tree leaning against the roof. The good news is that it hasn’t fallen through and bisected the building. The bad news is that the tree has been there since July 5, a symptom of long forgotten Tropical Storm Cindy. In classic New Orleans fashion, it hadn’t been seen to by the proper authorities by the time Katrina hit eight weeks later.

Three weeks after Katrina, I returned to find my basement apartment had taken three feet or so of water. It had dried out by then but waterlines and a veneer of detritus told the story: my life had been coated with waste, human and otherwise. To keep the effect from being entirely humorless, the Almighty had thrown in a few frogs, who were now living in my office.

My urban salvage operation actually lightened my mood. Like most folks, I’d imagined losing everything I’d left behind. To get back even half of my stuff seemed almost unfair. I couldn’t breathe the spore-clogged air or touch anything with my bare skin, but rescuing keepsakes from the rising mold was as thrilling as the prize choosing finale of Wheel of Fortune. Things I’d owned and lost were now won back from oblivion. I was in such a good mood that first night that I almost brushed my teeth in tap water, mistaking this for any other major American city. Spill bottled water on the brush, I reminded myself. Like you’re in Haiti.

Some people suffered their share without losing a shingle. My friends Dave and Jennifer had to watch the whole storm from a vacation in Thailand (being late August, lots of folks were out of town). They returned to find their recent home purchase in fine condition. Then they noticed the stench out back. An unpleasant excavation followed, and a more unpleasant discovery: a visiting country’s National Guard, after having barracked in a nearby Catholic school, had used these civilians’ yard as a dump for their rotting garbage.

Things could have been far worse. They could have had a pile of trash dumped on their lawn by the enterprising earth mover, who was leaving his business card for the follow-up call to remove said pile (in order to dump it on his next intended customer). They could have been arrested for a curfew violation by the Wyoming National Guard or the NYPD, who’ve been patrolling New Orleans due to our cop shortage, and been put behind bars at the bus station, which is Orleans Parish’s prison since the real one was flooded. They could have been blindsided by a hit and run driver who speeds off, uninterested in trading insurance information without the rule of law (I witnessed such an incident). They could have had their house gutted by looters. They could have absentmindedly opened their refrigerator.

Those early weeks after Katrina, people were very well-behaved. Streets were empty and quite peaceful, passersby waved hopefully. The de-electrified environment and low population lulled us into a sense of temporary historical atavism. By which I mean, the neighborliness was positively Amish.

Imagine that all the things you loved about your home were taken away. Instead of food you get 24 varieties of MRE (avoid the Thai Chicken); drinking water comes in cans supplied by Anheuser Busch. Where your favorite vegetable truck used to park, now there’s an upside down Volkswagen that had caught fire. Long tree-lined avenues like St. Charles and Esplanade have been given arboreal crewcuts by the storms, leaving the shade compromised. Friends and neighbors aren’t around too much, but you do get daily visits from assorted rescue workers, most double-checking that each house’s spray-painted sigil is still accurate.

And, after a while, civilization returns, one service at a time. Electrical power! Gas! Cable! DSL! Sanitation! Could the mail, once the invincible standard of civil service, be far behind?

* * *

The anarchic spirit of a functional ghost town couldn’t last forever. As the population rose in September and October, the town got crankier. Four-way stops, once an opportunity to wave at a kindly stranger, now began to prompt the waving of just a single special finger. The long-awaited return of recognizable first world civilization tested the patience of many thousands.

And yet…Each restaurant or bar that reopened became an opportunity to rejoice. By Halloween, the city’s Dionysian personality was returning in force, and celebration was beginning to become a goal in and of itself, which seemed familiar. What festivities there were spilled into the streets, as they used to do. For Halloween, the most popular costume was a refrigerator wrapped in duct tape, spray-painted with the address of George W. Bush or Tom Benson, the reviled Saints owner who intends to move our hopeless but beloved football team to San Antonio.

There were a lot of smiles, a lot of back slapping and story trading, even among people who had just traded introductions. We all knew this one new thing about each other. That we would, and did, come back. Even redefined, this tainted city, one that wasn’t exactly in mint condition when we got it, would be ours again if we want it.

* * *

If everybody doesn’t return (and how could they all?), will New Orleans lose its most essential asset, its culture? It’s hard to say. But maybe it isn’t so tragic. Maybe it’s the case that every person who doesn’t get back is somehow happier somewhere else, where they have air conditioned schools, and a lower murder rate, and better jobs—jobs that aren’t in the tourist, service and gambling industries. Who can blame them? Who in their right mind would come back, to a city of corrupt politics, looting cops and dwindling protection from the elements?

The answer, of course, is those who can’t imagine living anywhere else.


Henry Griffin, a fifth generation New Orleanian, is a writer and director whose films include Mutiny and Tortured by Joy. He organizes his books by color, trading organization for the pleasing effect of his shelves viewed from a distance. Since the storm, he is fresh out of blue books.

"Weird Shit’s Still Going Down: Notes From Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 2006" by Gabe Soria (Arthur No. 22, May 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 22 (May 2006)


Our tipsy author, right, with fellow revelers at the Rex Parade, Mardi Gras morning.

Weird Shit’s Still Going Down: Notes From Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 2006
By Gabe Soria

I’ve been in love with New Orleans since the day in May, 1993 when I first set foot on its soil. Since then, I’ve been a resident of the city three times and have gone back over and over when I wasn’t. Mardi Gras, for all its faults and gross public image, is important to New Orleans residents and expatriates alike, so when the chance came to visit my city for the first time after Katrina during Carnival, I jumped at it, but not without some second-guessing trepidation. What follows are rough impressions of my experience being back in town from Saturday, February 25 through Mardi Gras to March 1, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent…

Touching Down
Disembarking from the plane and already the Twilight Zone schisms from reality are apparent. This scene happens in the first couple minutes of the episode, the part right before the credits when the Rod Serling voice-over comes in and lets the viewing audience know that some crazy shit is about to go down. What’s Louis Armstrong International without its perpetually open souvenier stands and ersatz French Quarter bars? Too much like the Salt Lake City airport, that’s what. Outgoing passengers ain’t got nowhere to buy their last minute cans of Tony Chachere’s seasoning, authentic cookbooks or Hurricane mix. Incoming passengers don’t have anything, except for the baggage claim, and that is hardly a picnic. Everybody seems a bit hunted, a bit guilty.

Nothing makes you realize how much you’ve given up until someone’s taken away the lights, and the “Arriving Flights” underpass of Louis Armstrong International is a third world kick in the nuts: the absence of ambient light is palpable, and the illumination provided by taxis, shuttles and pick-up cars feels like interrogation by headlight. At the same time, though, it’s kinda eerily beautiful, as though everything is powered by steam and gaslight. We hear later that they’re still working to restore normal power. The airport of a major American city still doesn’t have full power six months after a disaster? What the fuck is going on here, I ask myself, resigning myself to joining the chorus of people asking that same question.

T-Shirt Slogans
The town is aswarm with bootleg political shirts, jockeying for space in Decatur Street tourists shops with your typical novelty T-shirts about states of tequila intoxication. Most of these shirts feature embattled mayor Ray Nagin in Photoshopped Willy Wonka drag, making some sort of sport about his now infamous Martin Luther King Day “Chocolate City” speech, possibly the biggest effect a George Clinton song’s ever had on the political scene. React how you want to the speech—reading a transcript in retrospect, it’s obvious to this writer at least that Mr. Nagin’s frustration with his black contemporaries left him feeling a bit loose at the mouth, but I ain’t mad at him—you can’t help but realize that there’s a little bit of smug racism at the core of the these shirt’s makers, that they finally feel justified at putting the screws to a black mayor who, admittedly, said some dumb-ass shit. But then I realize an important fact: I don’t think I’d ever really want to hang out with someone who wears their politics, left or right or straight up centrist, on their literal shirt-sleeve. I mean, I’m all for band t-shirt propaganda, but this? Nah. One T-shirt maker has gone the extra satire mile, though: for sale at the Circle Bar are “Ernie K-Doe for Mayor” tees, featuring the smiling face of the late and lamented Emperor of the Universe. Bumper stickers can be had, too. One drunken night, I find myself fervently wishing that K-Doe wins in a write in. In the storied history of corrupt Louisiana politics, the election of a deceased and much loved R&B singer has got to be an improvement.

Chased on a Bike
Weird shit’s still going down, though. On a perfectly fine afternoon, the wife and I mount bikes to ride down to a parade to meet a friend. Normally, yours truly is a bit more savvy about the safe routes to travel, but the hurricane-depleted lack of population has thrown me for a loop. Why not take a jaunt down a clear street a block closer to the river? The answer becomes clear when we make a left on Josephine Street towards St. Charles. A group of kids—12 to 14, black—are hanging out in front of a corner grocery/liquor store and begin shouting out warnings about how “Y’all don’t know where you ridin'”, etc., etc., and one kid’s bold enough to do a little mock run after the wife, who’s trailing behind on a too-small borrowed bike. The kid’s pursuit is half-assed, and he stops almost as soon as he starts, but it’s a neon-lights reminder that New Orleans is still a fucked-up place, race-wise.

In fact, this little incident is an anomaly. While statistics may not prove me right, the general impression one gets during Mardi Gras is of détente, peace. Sure, fratboys might get beaten down by cops along Bourbon Street after one Huge-Ass beer too many, but for the rank and file of the city, a “we’re all in this together and ain’t it fine” feeling pervades, usually. If you say “Happy Mardi Gras,” to anybody, they respond in kind, and mean it. But this little incident… well, they’re kids, so it doesn’t really mean much. It means that they’re acting like they think they’re supposed to act; it means that they actually think that their corner store is something to be protected; it means that they’ve learned that being young and black and aggressive can freak the fuck out of people going about their own business. Still, it’s days before I can stop picturing kicking the kid’s head in if he tried to touch the wife, and my subsequent murder at the hands of his numerous cronies. Yikes.

The 9th Ward Marching Band
Not that it needed saving by anybody, but the wife’s and my Mardi Gras is definitely given a soul-rousing boost by seeing the Mr. Qunitron-led 9th Ward Marching Band parade with the Krewe of Proteus on Lundi Gras night. For the uninitiated, Quintron and his wife Ms. Pussycat were and remain the owners and operators of the Spellcaster Lodge, a house/venue located on St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward. They’re both musicians, as well as puppeteers. Long time fixtures of the weird underground of New Orleans, they’re more like good spirit elementals rather than impeccably dressed scenesters, which they are as well. The 9th Ward Marching Band started as a loose-knit, almost renegade marching assemblage, but over the years they’ve gotten their weird act together, and while sharp and somewhat professional, they still make the squares nervous. While watching them march in their smart red and white outfits, playing “Rock me Like a Hurricane,” I notice that the crowd lining the parade route is going BANANAS for them. Everybody can feel that this ain’t no sarcastic, ironic hipster bulllshit—it’s true American weirdness and beauty at its finest. But you can also tell that they make some folks delightfully nervous. This can probably be best attributed to the bands in-between, resting music. When there’s a lull in their routine and things calm down, the 9WMB’s glockenspiel players start tapping out the theme from the slasher film “Halloween,” with the tubas coming in every now and then to deliver an ominous “bruuummmmmm.” It’s the film score equivalent of the fabled brown sound—you can tell by the looks on people’s faces that they recognize the minor key tune, and they like it, but don’t like it at the same time. It’s a brilliant moment, and I want to buy whoever thought of it a beer or ten.

The Dead Zone
The night of Lundi Gras finds the wife and I and our friends Judson and Courtney taking a shortcut on a drive downtown to hit a Quintron/Peaches show. The shortcut takes us through the area of town known and Mid-City, where Courtney lived previous to Katrina. Her new home features a handful of possessions salvaged from her house and cleaned of mold, but she’s basically begun anew. But driving through her old neighborhood… yikes. Once you get a few blocks off St. Charles, heading away from the river, a frightening change takes over the streets. They’re empty. They’re dark. Everything looks haunted and miserable. A few FEMA trailers are parked here and there, and on occasion someone seems to have managed to get a porch light working, but on the whole, it feels as if we’ve driven directly in a George Romero zombie flick. Any moment now I expect to see a shambling corpse slouch into the street, attempting to suck the brains out of our car’s passengers. No such thing happens, of course, but I am glad when we eventually make a right turn onto relatively populated, lighted Esplanade. The fact that a few moments earlier I was half-joking about wishing I was armed with a shotgun kinda makes me want to cry. I’ve NEVER wanted a gun in New Orleans, not even in my worse moments.

Mardi Gras Day (and on into the night)
Mardi Gras morning rolls around and all seems to be aback to normal in the city, at least for a few hours. Working on a few hours of sleep, the wife and I roll out of bed and into our costumes (I’m going as a jerk dressed in a jumpsuit and furry cap; the wife’s going the classy route by masquerading as a magical French schoolgirl). Walking over to St. Charles, we begin to see a parade of friends walk by; everybody seems to be well on their way to drunk before noon, but nobody’s got a mean buzz on. It’s all hugs, everywhere. Families lining the filthy parade route in their chairs and ladders look bleary-eyed and happy. When Rex starts to roll, you see people catching beads… and handing them to little old ladies and kids next to them. Everybody’s saying, “Hey, darlin’,” and “Excuse me,” and you’d be hard-pressed to spot your usual line of sweaty guys being led plastic-cuffed into a paddywagon (though I’m sure it’s happening somewhere—you can’t buck tradition in one year). The hours melt away—at one point, the wife and I are eating hamburgers with friends, the next, we’re at our home base eating red beans and rice cooked with a nice hamhock, the next, we’re being dropped off downtown. But by the time the Morning 40 Federation hits the stage at Checkpoint Charlie’s for their annual Mardi Gras night show, as the festival comes to its natural inevitable end, the feeling in the air is undeniably powerful, completely ecstatic. You can feel the desperate urge in the club to let loose, to raise one’s arms high above and scream. And as the Federation lurches into their first amplified ode to boozing and 9th Ward living, everybody in the room does exactly that. I’m grinning from ear to ear—it’s the feedback and the beer, most definitely—but it’s also the hope and love I’m seeing right now, that I’ve seen all weekend. Sure, folks are cynical and tired, but they still believe, much more so than I think anybody else in any city would or could, for they know that’s there’s an ineffable something to New Orleans, something that just can’t and won’t quit, ever.

Arthur Radio Transmission #17: The Shifty and the Shiftless

Double-click for fullscreen + scroll.

This week’s episode comes slightly delayed, as Ivy Meadows was put behind bars for two days as punishment for doodling an eyeball on an ad in a New York City subway station. Meanwhile, Hairy Painter ventured to his alternate Vermont dwelling, answering the call of fresh, tree-filled air, far away from humming internet hubs and the unpredictable whims of the NYPD. In both locations, Arthur Radio co-hosts are happy to know they can sit back, turn on Transmission #17, and revel in the realization that life on the outside is so, so sweet…

Writer and Arthurhead Gabe Soria on his live DJ Mixtape, “The Shifty and the Shiftless” (@ 55 mins):

This hour of New Orleans music was an attempt to convey the almost
science-fictional collision of alternate universes that co-exist in
New Orleans at any given moment. Punk trad jazz, wheezy sea
shanties, bar rock, in-the-pocket funk, teeth-rattling bounce — it’s all
different, yet all the songs share some weird common genetics. It’s
humid, it’s melodramatic, it’s the sound of a living, breathing,
sweating and completely unique city. Meant to be listened to with an
ice-cold bottle of beer or two close at hand.


Stream it: [audio:http://www.arthurmag.com/magpie/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/New-Orleans-DJ-set-by-Gabe-Soria-5-9-2010.mp3%5D
Download: Arthur Radio #17: The Shifty and the Shiftless w/ Gabe Soria 5-9-2010

This week’s playlist…
Continue reading

"New Orleans Soul Red Beans, Rice and Corn Bread" recipe by DAVID CATCHING

Here’s an old “Come On In My Kitchen” column from Arthur’s getting-rarer-by-the-minute March 2004 issue (No. 9, available from the Arthur Store.) Our star chef that issue was Dave Catching, gentleman guitarist of Joshua Tree, California…

daveredbeansSS
This issue’s chef: David Catching of Joshua Tree, California


David Catching is currently a member of earthlings?, Yellow No. 5 and Mondo Generator and appears on The Desert Sessions Volume 9 & 10 (Rekords Rekords/Ipecac). Take it away Dave…

Hey y’all, Mardi Gras season is here and I hope you’re lucky enough to be celebrating it with me in New Orleans. If you are, you’re probably drunk, still drinking, dancing, chasing members of the opposite or same sex all night, and will be pretty tore up tomorrow. Here’s a little recipe I learned from my friend Jimmy Ford at the Jimmy Ford Clinic (thanks for showin’ me the way) and my friend Chef Big D, of the now-defunct Harbor Bar and Restaurant (R.I.P.), both of New Orleans, Louisiana. It’s easy and oh-so-cheap, which will be helpful while your scrambled brain tries to figure out what you spent all your money on. I’m giving you the vegetarian version here, but it’s also killer when cooked with smoked sausage. It ain’t my fanciest recipe, but it is great and will cure the meanest of hangovers for pennies. Regarding Tony Chachere’s Cajun spice: if you can’t find it in your neighborhood stores, I would recommend a trip to New Orleans. That means you’re probably overdue for at least a weekend there anyway…

New Orleans Soul Red Beans, Rice and Corn Bread
feeds six tore-up folks

one pound dried red beans
two cups white rice
one yellow onion
one half red onion
eight cloves garlic
two vegetable bouillon cubes
two tablespoons Tony Chachere’s Cajun spice
three pinches salt
two pinches black pepper
one pinch white pepper
one cup water
one box Jiffy cornbread mix (I know, but real soul food restaurants really do use this mix)
one jalapeno pepper
six ounces grated cheddar cheese
one egg
one cup milk
optional: one pound smoked sausage cut in one-inch length pieces

Wash and soak red beans overnight and rinse. Add water and boil beans until cooked, then simmer on low. Saute onions and garlic, with spices. Add onion, garlic and spices to simmering red beans and cook a few hours to taste. Follow rice cooking instructions. Follow Jiffy cornbread mix directions, then add chopped jalapeno pepper and most of the cheese. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top and cook per Jiffy cornbread mix instructions. Serve a mountain of beans (with or without the smoked sausage) on a nice thin bed of rice.

My first taste of this particular recipe was at the Harbor Bar and Restaurant (the best soul food joint anywhere, ever) on Mardi Gras Day, 1993. This was without a doubt one of the best days of my life. I marched with the Lions Carnival Club, starting at 6am, with our second line brass band leading the way, from the sparse uptown gatherings, through to the thousands gathered at Lee Circle with Rex and Zulu, finally reaching the unbridled revelry of the French Quarter at 3pm, our costumes and masks obscuring the awe and joy we all were experiencing, some of us having imbibed many brands and colors of hard alcohol, psychedelics, prescribed and non-prescribed medications, marijuana and, from what I can gather through hearsay and gossip, stimulants of all kinds. In the madness of Frenchman Street at sunset, I met a beautiful stranger, who led me to the Harbor Bar and Restaurant. There, I was saved by the red beans and rice…

….and a double turkey and seven.

Today's Autonomedia Jubilee Saint – TOOTIE MONTANA

DECEMBER 16 — “TOOTIE” MONTANA

New Orleans carnival chief, political activist.

DECEMBER 16, 2009 HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS
Mexico: First of eight nights of POSADAS,the children’s Christmas
festival. Processions, singing, breaking piñatas.

ALSO ON DECEMBER 16 IN HISTORY…
1770 — Composer Ludwig von Beethoven born, Bonn, Germany
1773 — Boston Tea Party celebration, Boston, Massachusetts.
1775 — Romantic novelist Jane Austen born, Steventon, Hampshire, England.
1863 —Philosopher George Santayana born, Madrid, Spain.
1901 — Anthropologist Margaret Mead born, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
1922 — Yellow Pocahontas Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana born, New Orleans.

Excerpted from The 2009 Autonomedia Calendar of Jubilee Saints: Radical Heroes for the New Millennium by James Koehnline and the Autonomedia Collective. The 2010 Autonomedia Calender is now available on the Autonomedia site.

Today's Autonomedia Jubilee Saint — MARIE LAVEAU

laveau
June 11 — MARIE LAVEAU

Voodoo High Priestess of New Orleans.
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaJP8w-jW2k

JUNE 11, 2009 HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS
*Hart & Shelby, Michigan: National Asparagus Festival.
*Festival of Goibnui, Smith of the Gods and Provider of the Ale of Immortality.

ALSO ON JUNE 11 IN HISTORY…
1572 — British dramatist, poet Ben Jonson born.
1872 — Canadian unions legalized.
1888 — Martyred American anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti born, Italy.
1897 — Voodoo High Priestess Marie Laveau dies,New Orleans, Louisiana.

Excerpted from The 2009 Autonomedia Calendar of Jubilee Saints: Radical Heroes for the New Millennium by James Koehnline and the Autonomedia Collective