Dear Everybody,

As you may have noticed, this blog is no longer being updated. Check out my new project, Room 220, an online source for all things book- and lit.-related in New Orleans, supported by the literary arts nonprofit Press Street.

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Yours,
Nate

We’re reading in New Orleans…

The girl looks like a gangster’s girlfriend—I’m not sure how else to put it. The blonde breathiness, slyness of eyes, the fancy dress (slightly out of fashion)—all these made her seem like a person who people liked to involve in things. So it didn’t surprise anyone the first night she came around and started talking about a murder.

Really, though, she’s just a college kid, moved to the Big Easy to make it big in movies. Sure, she dates a weed dealer who makes her hold product when things get hot, but on a scale of girls I’ve known in over their heads, she rates kids play.

The details are fuzzy, of course. But what happened was essentially somebody tried to rob Chico and Chico left the guy’s burned body in the swamp. I guess this girl was there, or next door. Or her friend was, but the cops told her friend to leave town or she did so out of her own good sense, so now this girl—we’ll call her Kim—has to tell the tale. The guy broke into Chico’s house with a gun while everyone was partying, and Chico caught him, tied him up, and put a bag over his head.

I have no clue what Chico’s deal is—whether he’s a dealer or a fence or a veterinarian—but he was real casual when he showed the girl the guy tied up, sobbing with a bag on his head. He showed her to let her know there wasn’t going to be any more trouble. Like, we can all chill out and finish snorting this cocaine because the guy who came into my house with a gun is now on the floor of my bedroom with a bag over his head sobbing. He won’t disrupt the party anymore.

Unfortunately for Chico, he was not partying with people who are cool snorting lines while a guy is tied up with a bag on his head on the floor next to them (or even in the other room) sobbing. So, actually, the guy did disrupt the party even more, because Kim and her friend left. Then Chico killed the guy and set his body on fire in the swamp.

Now Chico’s gone, to Cuba, or to stay with his daughter in San Francisco, and this girl with a dyed blonde perm is telling us all this on the balcony of a bar across town from where it all happened. It’s a crazy story but I don’t think much of it.

Then last night we were walking on Chartres between Frenchmen and Elysian Fields, and another friend of Kim’s, who had partied with Chico’s, pointed out his house. It had a fumigation rig and an industrial mop bucket on the porch. The mail box was full of mail. We walked around the corner and found this sign on the streetlight. We tore it down and took it home and everyone had nightmares.


Alma Guillermoprieto: Photo by Harold Baquet

The title of this post comes from the response to a question, posed by a Venezuelan priest in the audience, at the end of an hour-long lecture and discussion about the ravaging of Mexico by drug violence:

“How do you maintain your hope?” he asked her.

Count on a priest to breach the topic of hope in the face of horror. Count on a journalist like Guillermoprieto to soberly dismiss the prospect. It was the final question of the night.

Alma Guillermoprieto is arguably the world’s foremost journalist currently publishing in English on Latin American topics. A Mexico City native and former professional dancer, she has written several acclaimed books and countless articles for periodicals like the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Newsweek, as well as many Spanish-language outlets of equal esteem. Her focus of late has been the same as most who seriously consider the region: The rise of massive and brutal Mexican drug operations that threaten to turn Mexico into a failed state. Her topic of the evening—she had been brought by Loyola University New Orleans—was ostensibly the novel vein of culture that has emerged in Mexico along with elevated levels of drug trafficking and violence: The New Narcocultura. Her thesis was that the traficantes, like any marginal society, require a culture to support their decision to engage in a lifestyle that will with little doubt ensure their lives are nasty, brutish and short. She talked about Santa Muerte, narcorridos, and narco fashion, but covered a lot of background to get there, which unfortunately took up most of her time.


Narco nails: A woman sports nails with famed traficante Jesus Malverde and some pot leaves on them

Guillermoprieto commanded the topic like an intellectual, but betrayed her personal connection to it when I asked her what she thought of the editorial printed last week in Ciudad Juarez’s major daily, El Diario, in response to the murder of a staff photographer by a cartel. Before answering specifically she provided context for those who hadn’t heard of the occurrence, beginning, “Yes, my friend at El Diario was murdered on Sunday …” Though she spoke in facts, no one missed the leveling emotion emanating from her hawk-like face.

The most consequential aspect of that editorial, she said, was its admission of the bald fact that the drug cartels are the de facto authorities in Ciudad Juarez, the deadliest city in the world, including cities in countries at war with foreign enemies. What most of the English-language coverage of it glossed over, Guillermoprieto said, was the scathing and wrathful irony that ran through the editorial. It purported to ask the drug cartels what the paper should and should not print in order to avoid another of its journalists being murdered—the recent victim was the second of the paper’s reporting staff killed in two years. But rather than being an out-and-out submission, the editorial’s mocking tone—which would be tough to pick up for anyone but a native—made it at once a concession and a sly ‘fuck you’ to the drug lords and, in turn, the government that is supposed to protect Ciudad Juarez’s citizens from them.

Mexican culture is obsessed with death. The Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca, in his lecture “Play and the Theory of the Duende” claimed, “A dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man than anyplace else in the world,” but went on to concede: “[In terms of] the popular triumph of death, in all the world, only Mexico can take my country’s hand.” El dia de los muertos is the most well-known manifestation of Mexico’s death fixation, and the thin, skeletal fingers of the reaper stretch in iconography and belief through many facets of Mexican life. But the New Narcocultura is defined in large part by a radical tangent of death worship that Guillermoprieto said is distinct from typical Mexican traditions that honor and respect the deceased.

La Santa Muerte has joined the roster of saints worshipped in mostly Catholic Mexico, and although she serves many among the country’s poor and disenfranchised, she holds a special place for men and women knowingly involved in occupations that will almost certainly end in grisly death—the one-upmanship pervasive in traficante culture urges rival cartels to burn and dismember their victims’ bodies, deliver their severed heads to their families, etc. Perhaps, the thinking goes, if I pray to Santa Muerte, she will allow my death to be of the less-graphic violent sort. One of her key attractive features is that she caters specifically to people who do not ask her for much. Guillermoprieto said prisoners she interviewed stayed true to Santa Muerte because she stayed true to them—after their families have stopped visiting and their girlfriends have moved on, they know that only death will not abandon them.


Santa Muerte tattoos


Santa Muerte Nikes

It’s difficult to think of a Mexican issue not directly impacted by the United States, but few have such concrete ties as the drug trade. One connection Guillermoprieto dismissed, however, was the narrative often touted by gun-control liberals that lax firearms laws in the U.S. account in large part for cartels’ robust arsenals, because guns can move south through the porous border as easily as drugs can move north. What this assertion neglects, Guillermoprieto said, is that the international trade of arms is so structurally dependable that multi-million dollar drug operations would have little trouble attaining weapons elsewhere if the U.S. tightened its reins, especially considering the flow of sub-machine guns and other war toys injected into Central America by the Soviets during the region’s rash of leftist revolutions in the 80s. This is not to say that Guillermoprieto disagrees with American gun control—she scoffed in what seemed like disgust when she mentioned the amendment that protected our right to bear arms, though she couldn’t remember which one it was.


Made in the U.S.A.?

But another U.S.-Mexico connection hit a bit closer to home in an auditorium full of college kids. Guillermoprieto noted American youths’ steadfast belief in exacting power via their purchases. We abstain from buying eggs and beef, she said, from farms that do not treat their animals well in an attempt to encourage industry-wide change. We do not eat tuna from the Gulf because it is being fished unsustainably. We do not shop at Wal-Mart or eat at McDonald’s because those companies thrive off of abusive labor practices. How, then, can we possibly smoke a bowl of weed and not cringe at the blood it’s soaked in? How can we buy drugs when we know where that money goes, and the misery it supports? How can we celebrate consumer activism when it applies to conventional goods, but turn a blind eye when we’re buying products on top of which lies the corpse of an entire country, our neighbor?

A roomful of eco-vegetarian potheads squirmed in their seats.

Update (Oct. 21, 2010): An article in today’s Times Picayune reinforces this post’s theory of the dangerousness of Saints fanatics after a loss: Three Saints fans were so enraged over losing to the Dallas Cowboys last season that they drug a calf from a petting zoo and beat it to death. The men currently face animal cruelty charges.

A dark and foreboding storm swirls violently on the horizon. It threatens not the levees of New Orleans, the delicate ecology of the Gulf Coast nor the various industries upon which Louisiana’s economy depends. But after five years of agonizing and fitful rebuilding of a destroyed, abandoned and demoralized city, one scenario could potentially wreak such violent and terrible havoc on the collective psyche of New Orleans that a doomsday, category-five hurricane that finishes what Katrina started might be preferred: a series of humiliating losses by the New Orleans Saints.

(Okay, fine. A Saints loss is better than a hurricane, but the possibility of either one fills me with dread.)

People here say the Saints winning the Super Bowl did more for racial reconciliation in New Orleans than anything since Civil Rights. White and black, rich and poor—we’re all on the same team come game time. There’s also the distinct sense that the rise of the world-champion team corresponded with the rebirth of the city post-Katrina: After 30 years of being losers, the team’s owner nearly moved the Saints to San Antonio when the Superdome became a refugee camp; he acceded to popular outcry and returned the team to New Orleans for the 2006 season, which also marked the New Orleans debut of quarterback Drew Brees, whose rivals for most-loved individual in the region pale beneath his charms and well-toned throwing arm. Brees and the Saints’ rise to heroship paralleled the city’s renewal, and their Super Bowl victory was universally understood as distinct and unquestionable proof that New Orleans had accomplished the unimaginable, and pulled itself up from a watery grave, finally, to its feet. The Christ-ressurection innuendoes run thick, especially in a city of Catholics cheering for a team called the Saints.

Grown men wept with joy and embraced in the streets when the Saints won. Afterward, crime dropped low and spirits ran high. The long off-season felt like afterglow. The Who Dat nation reigned supreme, and as the new season approached Saints fans remained boastful, enthused and optimistic. But the foundation upon which this newfound self-confidence was built is as fickle as the swamp upon which the city sits, and which causes New Orleans’ streets to bulge and crack, the door and window frames of its homes to shift and stand askew. So much of New Orleans’ happiness depends on Saints victories, with little to undergird citywide emotional well-being in the event of heartbreaking defeat.

But it’s not only the potential of severe and widespread unhappiness and depression that worries me. People in New Orleans get crazy. This is a violent town, where anger always simmers (with reason) among the poor. Freaking out in public is a common occurrence, and indiscriminate shootings are far less unheard of than one would like. I’m afraid that if the Saints have a bad season, more than one person will pay with their lives.

I took some visiting friends to my favorite place in New Orleans the night of the Saints’ first regular-season game. It’s a backyard pizza operation that conducts business just one night a week, and purposefully keeps its online presence to a minimum. Pizza night usually features live music—mostly ragtag bands of players from established Frenchmen Street groups testing out new combos—but even my gourmet bohemian paradise was not outside Saints-mania’s reach: Instead of a band they had rigged up a projector to show the game on a sheet on the fence. My friends and I sat at one of the establishment’s signature wobbly tables cobbled together out of plywood and tree branches, paying as little attention to football as possible, despite the animated fan behind me. Casual observation placed him at about 40 years of age, and probably a lifelong resident of the shitty neighborhood in which pizza night takes place. He hooted and hollered and who-datted with gusto, and groaned when the opposing team marched upfield for their only touchdown of the game, which I watched on instant replay. The avid fan turned to me and held out his hand, indicating he expected a high-five. I obliged, somewhat confused. As we mutually gripped each other’s mandibles in the custom of these parts, his grip grew tight.

“For that,” he said, nodding toward the sheet.

“For that?” I said. I saw the enemy’s touchdown replayed.

“Fuck you, man,” he said. “I’m sick of this shit.” He turned around.

Sometimes things happen that are so out of step with your understanding of the world’s social construction that when your brain attempts to locate an appropriate reaction it comes up with the equivalent of an “Error” message, and you have no choice but to move forth in life as if the event had never happened, giving yourself time to consider other worldviews in an effort to make sense of it. Weeks after this particular occasion, the only conclusion I have come back to repeatedly is that, at the prompt of a touchdown against the Saints, this man had gone temporarily insane. I don’t know whether he thought I had been quietly and secretly cheering for the opposing team and his hand-clap trap was a way of outing me, or the “shit” he was “sick of” was my apparent non-anguish at the prospect of enemy gains. Either way, I can imagine his paranoid delusions replicated and intensified in the event of a serious Saints loss to the point of friends turning on each other in rage, drunken mobs destroying sports bars, and Bourbon Street going up in the flames of a riot.

The players of the New Orleans Saints have to know that their performance dramatically influences the welfare of their city, and I suspect that teams across the country know it, too. I can’t imagine anyone besides the same assholes who argued that New Orleans shouldn’t have been rebuilt post-Katrina not being touched by last year’s Cinderella season, and even diehard fans of opposing franchises rooting for the Saints under their breaths, because they knew the team’s undertaking was something much larger than football. But the characteristically short American memory will have forgotten any sympathy it held for the Saints nine months ago, and will view them only as the current champs—a role that our King of the Hill mentality always makes everyone’s favorite target. I’m not a fan of football but I’m a fan of the Saints, because I live in New Orleans and care about her. No city’s quality of life so sways with the whims of the sports gods as New Orleans, so for my sake and the sake of all those around me, I wish the team the best of luck, and hope for a successful season.

Who Dat!

A mile outside Houma, La., sits a little shack on the side of the highway next to a drainage canal that runs along a sugar cane field back into some swampland, and eventually into the Gulf. The shack houses a two-man operation called Munsen’s Monster Tours, and it’s about what you’d expect: An old Cajun hillbilly—with all the moves, equipment and knowledge requisite to entertain tourists to the tune of 20 bucks each—pontoons you along for a couple hours, stopping at intervals to feed the wildlife with a casual showmanship and backwater manner that makes Steve Irwin (R.I.P.) seem like a Disney character. The guide said his father made a living in the mid 20th century gathering Spanish moss to sell to bedding manufacturers at four cents a pound. I guess his is what you’d consider a generational success story.

I stepped in gum on my way to a poetry reading this weekend. I was baffled and infuriated: First, who chews gum? Where are these ditzy blonde secretaries or sleazy agents in wraparound shades that, to my knowledge, are the only people left on the planet who get a kick out of gnawing Juicy Fruit? I’ve never seen anyone like that in New Orleans.

Second, who does not know the obvious result of discarding gum on the ground, the prolonged aggravation some innocent walker-by will undergo while having to scrape something impossibly both rock-hard and grossly gooey from the bottom of his shoe? Whoever spat it: Let him be hanged.

My aggravation was not totally a result of the gum. The poetry reading I went to intended to recognize the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was Sunday, and among those featured was Yusef Komunyakaa—a Louisiana native now living in New York and a poet recently of great interest to me. Of course, in a gesture that affirms the robust humility that seethes from his work, Komunyakaa volunteered to read among the first poets instead of in the “headlining” spot at the end, where he belonged. And, of course, me—I’m always late for everything. He had finished by the time we got there.

I retreated to the bathroom after the event in search of some privacy in which I could attempt to chisel the remainder of the gum off my shoe—that which I hadn’t already rubbed into the fine fibers of Tulane’s auditorium’s carpet. I was leaning on a sink, making good progress, when I realized someone was in the bathroom with me, in a stall.

I began to daydream that it was Komunyakaa, and that after all I had gone through—the long wait at the sandwich shop which made us late in the first place; the drive across town during which I listened intently (obsessively?) to the noises my car made that increasingly suggest I’m going to need new struts; the rain; the gum on my shoe; missing Komunyakaa; Brenda Marie Osbey’s over-zealous expositing of mediocre verse; the bored, pompous look on Peter Cooley’s face throughout—this journey would have an extraordinary element after all. Komunyakaa would emerge from the stall while my foot was still in the air, my sole toward my face, gum in plain sight. I would glance up and recognize him, and he would see that I recognized him but that I was not overly awed or nervous in his intimate presence. He would gather that I’d read his work and appreciated it, and then he would look at the gray gum on my shoe and back up at me, and there would be a knowing connection between us.

In his effortless baritone he would tell me a story of how, once in Bogalusa when he was a boy, he too had memorably stepped on a piece of gum. The story would take place on a hot, muggy day, and would likely involve his father. It would illuminate the way in which we often learn one thing from a person who’s trying to teach us something completely different—or, how the lessons we receive from our well-meaning elders take on new shapes and proportions as they grow inside us during our path to adulthood. It would end with some line that would make me long for home, because I, like Komunyakaa, grew up in a small, crappy town and spent a good part of my life struggling to put it behind me, only to realize that this was impossible. He would only take a few sentences to achieve all this, and then he would wash his hands and walk out.

A college student in sandals and a white t-shirt was awkwardly maneuvering around me. I was blocking the paper towels. I put my foot back on the floor and returned to the lobby, where I ate a plate of complimentary salad.

That the mantra “Keep Austin Weird” transitioned from the battle cry of the Texas college town’s fringe elements to the official slogan of the Austin Independent Business Alliance seems a fitting coda to the glory days celebrated in Richard Linklater’s Slacker, as well as an explicit rebuttal of the mantra itself. Perhaps compared to the rest of Texas, Austin is pretty “weird” (I wouldn’t know—I’ve never set foot in the state), but for a person fresh off a month-long stretch of debauchery in New Orleans—a city that maintains its substantial weirdness effortlessly—Austin is about as straight-laced as anywhere else in the Lonestar State.

Mike Abu recently sent me this account of the defining moment during his short stop in Austin, which includes the reasons why he’ll never be caught in that town again:

“If I get used to being treated like an adult, shit could get dangerous.”

I was telling a bartender at the R Bar in New Orleans that getting used to the city’s wonderfully lackadaisical liquor laws was an incredibly bad thing for a person like me.

I wasn’t lying. In New Orleans, I could skate down a dilapidated street with a half-finished bottle of cabernet, walk into some watering hole with said bottle of wine, finish it while discussing Wittgenstein with some scumbag, buy a whiskey on the rocks, potentially bothering to put it in a to-go cup before heading back out on the sidewalk in search of another opportunity to crash my skateboard.

I drove to Austin with some Australian kid who I met on Craigslist rideshare (yo, what up my man Simon), and found myself alone in front of some bar hosting a Japanther show. I was more than a little lonely at that moment, and I started text messaging my ex-girlfriend. We were at a stage somewhere between full and zero communication, and I kept writing and deleting words in a desperate attempt at finding something to say that didn’t expose how ridiculous I felt. I kept doing that for about ten minutes, typing and erasing, before being rudely interrupted.

“Hey guy, what are you doing with that beer out here?”

Two Austin city police officers stood over me. Apparently I had wandered outside of the gates with my beer in hand.

Apparently this was a Big Deal.

As the police shined their flashlights into my eyes, my mind went blank save for the line my former band mate Brian and I had practiced while drinking tallboys in an alley way back in Salt Lake. Without hesitation, I told the cops the unequivocal truth:

“I’m not gonna lie to you Officers—this isn’t my beer. Some guy just handed it to me and ran off that way.”

The cops were less than impressed. I probably fucked up by not saying the guy who had handed it to me was Mexican. They started going on about how Austin laws state that any person holding or in close proximity to a beer is held responsible for it, thus making me the guardian of said alcoholic beverage (Lonestar) and therefore a “law-breaker.”

“We were gonna let you go, but you tried to pull a fast one on us,” said young cop, who probably wasn’t old enough to buy beer to begin with, fresh from a police academy that clearly wasn’t as awesome as the movies would have you believe. “Now you’re in trouble.”

“Okay, it’s my beer,” I said. “I was just joking. I just got back from New Orleans and must have gotten use to standing outside with a beer, plus I was just trying to text message my ex-girlfriend.” I showed Old Cop my phone. Young Cop started rattling off how much crime happened in the neighborhood, how some girl had gotten raped on those steps over there, how hard it was keeping the citizens of Austin in line while all they wanted to do was hang out.

“You wanna talk crime?” I said as I pointed across the street towards a gas station where I had bought a tallboy earlier. “Three dollars for a tallboy is straight robbery!”

The cops were still unimpressed.

“Listen, you seem like a nice kid,” Old Cop said as he shoved a ticket in my face for me to sign, “we’re gonna cut you a break—we’ll make this ticket for Austin only so you don’t have to worry about any warrants in other parts of Texas.”

Suddenly I felt less oppressed.

“Wait a minute, you’re telling me that if I sign this ticket and never pay the fine that I’ll be rewarded by never having to come back here again?”

I said this honestly.

“Well, not exactly, I mean, you’ll still have to—”

“—that’s what you mean, right?”

“Well, not exactly, um, you can still come down and explain yourself in court—”

“I’ll take it!” I said as I signed the ticket. I had already decided that there was absolutely no reason for me to ever go to Texas again, and this glorious ticket gave me a practical reason to ensure I kept my promise to myself. I headed back into the bar, bought a t-shirt from the Japanther merch booth that said “Fuck the Cops,” jumped on stage and filmed the band while a bunch of cute girls danced alongside me. Afterwards I said what up to Japanther and had them sign my open container ticket.

“Whoops”—Japanther

Whoops indeed.

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