Stepping out under a low, wool textured sky. The air is almost fibrous – as if someone took a warm, wet quilt and made a gas of it. Nothing is unexpected but everything is a surprise here. I've never been anywhere in the U.S. before where the popular media version tallies so much with the actual place. The images in TV, Movies, books, songs – they are here, alive - or perhaps half alive in the way that mythic images and mythic cities are half alive / half something spiritual -on one hand ( the left hand) an unclean or profane spirit, physical and metaphysical at the same time – on the other hand a luminous, life filled spirit, springing from desire, music, and surviving history.
It’s tempting to aim the camera at every bit of pealing paint, every warped and hand painted sign, every building sagging from lingering Katrina damage or maybe just the weight of time. The decay is seductive because it carries familiar though urban versions of the textures of my NC childhood. There’s more to it than this though. New Orleans reveals the habit of images we suffer from like no other place I’ve been. Every general image has been taken or filmed already – musicians, clubs, balconied streets in the rain or in the brass colored sun, drunks, tourists, drag queens, lonely figures in lonely weather-beaten homes …It’s as if all the quintessential mythical images of the South are dragged down the Mississippi and wash up here, lodged in the city gutters and the Louisiana mud. It’s a city where essential culture and cliché are strung together like strings of plastic beads that lay discarded everywhere.
Halloween is coming. Plastic ghosts and devils watch from balconies and storefronts. Wide eyes watch, unblinking, waiting for wicked opportunities to happen. The news coverage of Katrina and the subsequent media fascination have shown the rest of the country that New Orleans is not just a dark carnival but a very real, very complicated southern city. These grim and hokey sentinels however remind us that the carnival celebrates all things, especially angry ghosts and tragic histories, masking them with images of the gaudy and most overripe kind.
A light rain outside. The light inside the bar is downpour dim. The sharp-featured drag queen serving us has make-up so thick and shinning she could have used butter as foundation. Near us is a small man with many bangles, teased up hair, and cough that surely will surely spew a lump of his lung onto the bar. I imagine him brushing it to the floor with a click of bangles, absent-mindedly as if it were cigarette ash. A tall man with grey hair and grey eyes enters. He’s wearing a cut off jean jacket. His arms are covered with stars, skulls, and women –all faded to a soft mineral blue. You can still see the handsome man he was through the booze pink and sag. His body is strong but his skin has that ruddy, pinched quality of salted meat that comes from years of drinking more alcohol than water. He tells us that he’s only there because he’d been 86’d from all the straight bars and he might get a squeeze on the leg and a free drink – hell of a lot better than a fight. He says he has a tumor on his heart but refuses to have surgery because it will fuck up his tattoos. I imagine a scalpel drawing a thin, blood-edged line through the center of crudely inked American eagle. He won’t subscribe to that “cocksucker Obama’s communist medical plan” though. He sees our politics on our faces, gives a halfhearted attempt at justifying his views, and then says, “I’m not worried, and you can’t kill bad grass. But you can smoke it.” On that note he and the small guy make a weed deal and rise to smoke a bowl. On the way out he asks his wheezing companion “How is life out at the trailer?” The response is “Oh the canary has cancer…” and a cough.
At night the discarded plastic cups rattle all over the city streets. The booze is gone, the wild night had, the mistakes made. The Devil certainly walks here at night and the sound of his hooves is the sound of those cups....I meet a 65 year old banjo player on his door step. I stop to listen. He talks of some great players who taught him and shows off his sharp, clicking and very precise style. A young man of maybe 19 comes and sits beside him, watching me, then closing his eyes and listening. The music stops and the old man says “ I think my boyfriend likes you, wanna come in and fuck him?” The offer is a surprise for sure but his casual friendliness is a delightful shock. Walking away I can’t help but imagine getting it on with the kid while the old man watched and played thumping versions of Old Joe Clark and Shady Grove... A car turns the corner and slows. Four bulky men, all pink and blonde and drunk scream “Faggot! Hey faggot where you going?” The car slows and sits in the road ahead waiting for me to pass. I keep silent, biting back teen memories of beatings, forcing panic into the soles of my boots to keep them moving. They hoot from the car but move on when then see I’m still walking. A minute later the car appears again, sliding into an intersection, waiting, cutting me off from the direct route to the hotel. The fear jumps back to life and along with hate for being forced to play this game– a real spiked hate, for those who have the power to put one in this position. This time I turn off a small side street that reveals itself as I move forward. They cut me off again, waiting at the far curve of the balcony-lined street. And now I pause. And wait. And they, knowing they have me frightened, are satisfied enough to roll on. I walk on, watching for the car, wanting to be near shadows but afraid of them as well. I make it back to the hotel and calm in the lobby before slipping into the dark room. The sad and hate producing thing in this little cat and mouse interlude is how familiar the fear and helplessness feel. It’s been how many years since I left the South and routine taunts and bashings behind? There is real time but fear, like deep Southern night, has a time all it’s own – haunted and circular.