Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A travelogue of remembrance

I so don’t feel like working today. I’m tired--- not that soul-crushing, bone-weary brand of tired, just the garden variety not-enough-sleep kind of tired. I'm not sleeping well these days.  Used to be, I could at least fall asleep.  Staying asleep might perhaps be more problematic, but really--- is there a difference between getting up at 4:00 as opposed to 5:00?.  So I turned off the alarm before it rang more often than not.  I mostly remember to reset it.  And if I didn't?  Not such an issue.

Now, though, falling asleep is proving to be a challenge.  I am distracted.  Energetic.  Unable to settle.  Unable to be still and get quiet.  Bright shiny things grab my attention, and hold it for a minute or six, until the next bright shiny thing crosses my path, and I am off again.  

And lately, my distractions take me down dark and musty hallways of remembrance.  They are cobwebbed and dusty, with tilted floors and cracks in the walls.  There are echoes.  Mostly, there is silence.  I am free to wander, opening doors at random, disturbing the dust of centuries.  Spare or cluttered, the rooms of memory are a mess of  jumble.  Sometimes I poke around, looking at odd artifacts that resonate with some altered, old part of me.  More often than not, I feel as if I am a polite stranger, rooting through the museum of someone else's life story.

Still, there is hidden treasure.  Faded scenes, washed in the sepia tones of time, take on a sudden flash of color and capture my attention, quicken my breath. A wisp of blue sky, or leaves the color of heartbreak gold, and I am transported to that Summer Country of laughter and ease and grace.  A moment in time, frozen into forever and suddenly alive again.  Not always grace, of course, or ease.  Sometimes the memory leaves me breathless and gasping--- from fear, from sadness, from anger or joy.  But always something deeper, more resonant.

So, perhaps i am honoring that Summer Country, perhaps exorcising the demons of my distractions--- or maybe nothing so prosaic or dramatic: perhaps just a remembrance writ slowly and gently, to honor a part of me that has been locked too long in the dust and dark of my memory.  So: a scene from a life gone by:

New Orleans.  When I lived there, in the late 80s, I was working for ACORN.  It was long before ACORN was a dirty word or a player in presidential elections.  At the time, it was a national poor people’s organization.  It was my home, my heart, my passion.  Their headquarters were in NOLA, though there were offices dotted about the country back then.  We would gather there for national and divisional meetings.  Actually, I think we would gather there to drink.  We were all quite proficient at that.  We were also proficient at polemic and self-righteousness, filled with the fire of the godly, ready to change the world, empower the poor, stop capitalism in its ugly tracks.  Just make sure that we could do it in the afternoons and evenings, after we’d had a few hours to sleep and sober up.

New Orleans was Mecca, for all I was concerned.  Good lord, the first time I was there, I learned you could drive with open liquor in the car.  At least, that’s what I was told, and I was good with that.  One of my favorite memories of the Crescent City:  standing with a group of friends (read: fellow drunken activists) at the edge of a pier around midnight, in the swamps of Jean LaFitte State Park (park; swamp--- same thing, right?), sweat pooling in every nook and cranny of my body because the humidity was still about 109%, even at midnight, drink in hand, mostly empty, since I’d been holding it for all of a minute or six), teasing the slow-moving logs that may or may not have been alligators.  I remember the quiet, the light that seemed to be phosphorescent, or maybe it was just that the moon was huge and the waters reflective and I was a bit drunk.  And I was a part of that moment--- a bit dizzy, yes, and maybe that's why I felt at ease in my own skin, willing to let the night be, willing to stay silent and part of.

New Orleans.  Oh, what joy: to roam the streets at all hours of the day and night (literally), in search of the next drink.  And, thank God, I had no trouble finding it.  It was a sweet set up, really.  A job designed for an addict:  small group of like-minded people, all a bit codependent, a bit needy, a bit on the edge and secretly convinced of our own unworthiness, all self-righteous and cynical with a candy-coating of altruism, fighting the good fight.  But fighting it during the convenient hours of 2:00-10:00.  That meant we could work hard, drink hard, sleep hard, screw hard (not necessarily in that order), and then start all over again.  Every day.  And hey, we were saving the world, dammit so don’t lecture me about my personal shortcomings!

And then ACORN transferred me there.  Admittedly, it was only for about two months, but I had an address there.  It appeared to be more than many residents of NOLA had--- an address, I mean.  God, I hated the poverty, the dirt, the racism.  It was so different from the North.  There, at least, we maintain the dignity of hiding our poor.  They’re not sitting there, out in the open, for God and everyone else to see.  Ok, so we have a little thing called winter here, but still…  I preferred my social conscience to be of the intellectual variety, thank you very much.  You know, if you keep to Midtown and the Garden District, New Orleans isn’t all bad.  There is a certain amount of grace and dignity hidden among the swampy moss or whatever that stuff is that hangs from trees.  Kudzu.  That’s it.  The antebellum houses are beautiful.

I didn’t live in these districts.  I lived in Fouberg-Marigny, a small area just outside of the Quarter.  It was crowded with shotgun houses, apartments with these useless (though decorative) balconies, hurricane shutters and narrow, twisty streets.  It was noisy and rank with the smells of the river and the Quarter--- stale beer, rotten fish, sex.  There was a restaurant kitty corner to my apartment there I used to go to get the best smothered chicken in the world.  It was August in New Orleans, but my roommate refused to run the air conditioner, as a cost saving measure.  I would wake up in the morning with a fine sheen of sweat (oops, sorry: a glow, since women don’t sweat), and never quite feel dry.  Ever.  For months.  I would put my hair up in a French braid, still wet, in the morning.  At 11:00 pm, my hair would still be damp.  I seriously thought my hair was in danger of mildewing.

My experiences while I was there?  I had to tell my best friend and field manager that she could either go to rehab or find a new job, since her alcoholism was really becoming a problem.  That was a fun conversation.  And no, I saw no irony in it at the time.  It was hot and humid and dirty. I learned to eat oysters and po’ boys.  I wandered the quarter on Sundays and had coffee and beignets at CafĂ© du Monde every morning.  I had Bananas Foster at Brennans.  I ate at Court of the Two Sisters, had blackened redfish at Paul Proudhomme’s restaurant, rode on the trolley car, watched alligators in a swamp, ate real turtle soup.  I had adventures.  I survived them.

Here’s my best picture of New Orleans:
New Year’s Eve.  I wasn’t living there anymore, having been transferred back to Chicago (with stops in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Santa Cruz in between).  I was really done with the whole political activist do-gooder thing.  I was tired.  I was tired of moving. Tired of the philosophy that demanded that if you organize the poor, you should be poor.  But we were in New Orleans over New Years, for our big year-end national meeting.  I had just ordered my friend and colleague into rehab.  We were all set to watch fireworks at the river when a fog came up.  It was thick, much like the air of the city on a good night.  You could barely see 10 feet in front of you.  But we headed for the river anyway.  I don’t know why.  The night sky was only a reflection of sodium orange and grey.  You could hear the soft lapping of the water hitting the bank of the river.  There was some wretched eighties music playing.  I’m sure that big hair and leg warmers abounded (except on my little group, where black was really the only color to be tolerated).  And New Orleans, stubborn as ever, started the fireworks show.  In the fog.  With zero visibility.

Suddenly, the grey fog was backlit in jeweled splendor.  Blue and green, orange and red--- they swirled and coiled in on themselves.  No sparks, no fire flame, but muted flashes of light.  It was stunning.  It still takes my breath away.