Monday, March 16, 2009

new orleans~the Desperate Mask of Joy

Excellent commentary written long before the storm

By Gregory Gross©All Right Reserved

This is both a working river port and a bastion of culture. Everything from cargo barges to cruise ships tie up along the wharves that line the Mississippi River. And this is, of course, the cradle of jazz.

But most folks know this place as the party capital of America, and for a reason. Anywhere else, excess in the name of enjoyment is a momentary indulgence. Here, it’s closer to a religion. New Orleans will drink you under the table and blow ’til the cows come home, then come back for more the next night.

This city should be taken only in moderation, but seldom is, mainly because it won’t let you.
Eventually, though, after the hedonist in you has downed a fistful of aspirin and buried its head under the pillow, you may begin to wonder why a place would have to work so hard at having fun. The answers are uncomfortably close at hand — grinding poverty, a hardened layer of racial prejudice, and underneath it all — but not very far underneath — a simmering, smoldering residue of anger.

Sometimes it expresses itself in outbursts of singular rage, like that of Robert Charles, who killed 23 whites, including seven policemen, in a week-long rampage in 1900 that that led to the lynching of blacks and the torching of my elementary school. Or that of Mark Essex,
the downtown sniper of 1973.

More often, however, those who feel the most disrespected, disconnected and disenfranchised by life in New Orleans simply take out their resentments and despair on one another. The cops and the coroner keep score. Behind its joyous, easy–facade, this may well be the angriest city in America.

Then there’s the weather, which will either beat you down under its heat and humidity during the summer, chill you to your very bones in the winter, or simply send the Mississippi River over its banks and all your levees to try to literally flush you out.

If all else fails, old Momma Nature sends a hurricane spinning in off the Gulf of Mexico to try her level–best to erase the city, and you, from the planet surface.

It’s the tourists — and those who make a living off of them — who tend to call this place “The Big Easy.” Most of those who actually live here know better.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that New Orleans expresses herself in ways beyond the conventional, or that the most voiceless of her people are the ones who give this city her most expressive voice. Music becomes a clenched fist put to sound.

Cooking becomes less an act than an attitude.

Celebration becomes a cheerful, let-loose gesture of defiance.

It’s all one big Carnival mask, and New Orleans never takes it off.

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