Thursday, September 13, 2007

This place

I drove in the late afternoon. This is what I saw: sunken land stretching out and blending into the gray water, powder blue silhouettes geometrical and small in the distance (the city). The sun was low and we crossed on a thin bridge, a flying buttress under a cathedral sky, and into a burnt matchstick forest. The trees were combed over gently, kissing the ground – a flock of pelicans preened in a mud puddle. The air was wet and thick with sun and evening.

Why did I go back to New Orleans? The phoenix has to rise again I shouted. I’ll pull it up on a chain if I have to. Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice if it came up by itself but if it doesn’t, hasn’t, then fine, I’ll do it on my goddamn own. And anyways, hanging around a disaster area should be better than wasting time on a beach, drinking and wishing I were dead. The fervor sucks me in, spitting out old skins and shoes and worn-out thoughts like a cyclone, then fades away, leaving me standing there dazed and maybe even alive again.

I do nothing. Tuesday morning I pull Bermuda grass out of the California dirt while listening to Neil Young’s Zuma album. Water starts to build up in my eyes when “Cortez The Killer” comes on and I think about the people with their hands full of work. I pull my knees close to my chest and duck my head in between them. The emotions pour out and the song is in high refrain. I will go back home I tell myself over and over again. People see me talking to myself and see the tears, but I just run the back of my hand across my face and sniffle my lungs into my throat.

Broken forest under another bridge. Black tree trunks floating up like hair out of the mud-puddle surface, one upside-down fishing boat neatly parked by the side of the road like maybe it got pulled over for speeding. Ditches full of goldenrods. Empty streets. Empty, cloudless sky. A traffic light stuck on brilliant aqua green.

On the plane flight home, I get caught in Houston with a mass of exodus. People are fleeing the next storm, Rita be her name. Headed straight for the Bayou City. Citizens watch with the same caution before, but this time it’s much more serious. You’re talking a quarter of the oil production in the United States gone for weeks. Cities rising up in violence spewing a cacophony of chaos and red in the sky. A skinny guy with shades and a black shirt on sees me wearing my Kings of Leon shirt. He has a suggestion for the rehab programs he tells me in the long wait of the airport. Let former heroin users run the Red Cross bloodmobiles. People would donate more blood, he tells me, if they didn’t have to sit there for half an hour while some sweating moron hacks their arm apart trying to find a vein. Drumroll. He tells me more stories. Family reunions that involve five people tweaking on meth stuck in an elevator. Living in an abandoned house where, what with the water being cut off, the roomies melted ice cream from a dumpster to shoot up. I stare at my cell phone and tell it to please ring.

Why be in Cali, getting drunk and pool hopping, making love to strangers from Cal State Long Beach on a bed of sand, cigarette butts, and seaweed when I could be home knee deep in shit tearing out drywall and unearthing corpses?

I’d forgotten what Louisiana felt like – the light pulling back slowly into where it had come from, everything on top of the land including the sky melting down into the dirt, floating, vast – and sinister, as if a plague had swept through. Walking down the road at dusk, all structures leaning in funny ways like they might in a children’s book, say The Garden of Telephone Poles by The House with the Roof Full of Holes.

Day One. This is what it was. A house in a neighborhood, empty-eyed windows and dark. All the rooms like the inside of a gigantic washing machine someone filled up with personal belongings, two inches of sediment, and piles of cotton candy insulation – then set to SPIN. So you come in and begin hauling things out. Minnows swimming in Tupperware containers full of old water. Splintering plywood and moist, crumbling sheetrock. A smell of vomit. In the backyard, an orange tree with rotted fruit still dangling from it, a tennis shoe lodged in the top. A baggie of weed and rolling papers under a rotting mattress. A box of pictures – a warped and discolored kaleidoscope of gold, red, green marbled together. Sometimes you could see strips of bodies and faces peeking through, no longer existing histories. We carry and carry and strip, break, tear till we see nothing but the pine studs, but it never ends. I notice her for the first time, number eight in our group of ten. She works relentlessly, alone, quiet, compact, insular.

Day Two. I’ve been pushed into a group of Georgia boys. Boys who go berserk with pickaxes and sledgehammers, boys who chain smoke and shoot shit and chase alcohol with drywall and parkling lot football, no thank you Tylenol. There’s one of them that broke a pool table in two. One guy. Split the thing right in the middle. No East coast, xbox playing, prozac taking, dave matthews listening, skinnyassed momma’s boy. Hunting, fishing, sex, rip down your house, build you a new one, yes man. Here is somebody who understands the land. I tug on my shorts for breath and he comes over and puts a hand on my back, “You know it’s hot when the locals say it’s hot.” I tell him about the girl I saw yesterday working like a border immigrant through the house. He tells me her name is Sara from his church on Mills Wright Road. I nod and ask him if she has a boyfriend. Yea he says me pointing to his chest. Me. My heart sinks with the land around me.

Day Three. The pool table. Got the first house done in record time, but the second one is designed to break us. Thirteen televisions (some taller than me), a Jacuzzi, king-sized mattresses, full fridge, gargantuan couches, an upstairs full of beds and dressers, breakneck staircase, foosball tables, air hockey table, entertainment centers, and the coup de grace, a two-ton pool table. Fate giving us the finger. We stand in front of the house, a clammy breeze picking up from the direction of the oil refinery. One guy puts on his gloves and goes back inside the house. This is what he does when he gets to it. He starts at this claw foot monstrosity with a pickax. The thing’s lodged in a two-foot layer of mud, covered in heavy bags of putrid, soggy clothes, four men can’t move it. A couple of harsh, choppy strokes and he takes the wooden sides down. Pool balls clatter out, muddy rainbow, cues flying. He’ll pause to move around it slowly, looking from another angle like Paul Newman staring down Minnesota Fats, sizing up his shot, smiling faintly – only he’s set out to destroy this game, not win it. I’m leaning up against the wall drinking water, watching, and thinking this guy is fucking crazy let’s just throw the bastard out the window and watch it smash in a million pieces on the ground. No one likes my idea. They want to see this guy go nuts. He picks up a sledgehammer. Then he starts swinging loaded, even strokes. Sparks flying up from that layer of slate in the middle. A hole shattering through the green (Gonna start a fire, says another guy). He’s tired, sweating. Stops. Starts again with a resounding crack from the middle of that table and I’m still leaning against the wall saying we should throw this thing off the roof when he’s done. Then laughing, loud voices all around, people backslapping and shaking hands and a couple of high fives and nobody can believe this.

Man versus the impossible. Man wins. I laugh and smile with the others and think what it would be like if I was 6’5” 265 with shoulders like a swimmers and capable of destroying anything. Having somebody come to me and ask me to handle a situation. I walk out of the room and say to myself this is my city. The phoenix will rise again even if I have to do it myself.

There are other people in this group. Cheese, whose kin somewhere along the line probably looted and pillaged the Britons and rode the high seas while yawping barbarically. Brute force and an open, golden retriever enthusiasm. Mike, quiet and slow like a mountain, shy but tenacious, gets the work done. Two days later he will come to my rescue buying a bucket of beers at Mama Rosa’s while I am close to dropping dead from exhaustion. Like Andy Dufrene he watches the rest of us drink his beer and we laugh and joke and do Mike imitations with make-believe sledgehammers. There’s a lesbian couple and another person from Loyola that I recognize – Miss Ashley, nineteen years old and a great drunk who becomes our personal hero on a balcony on Bourbon Street throwing beads to all of us. Her cohorts, partners-in-crime, badgers on the prowl. Then becoming a legend by stumbling down the street and flashing us – including one of her future philosophy professors – for the grand finale. After eight hours of grinding labor during the day, we drink every night. We drink to forget what we saw in the city.

You can’t recreate one hundred years of genteel architectural lounging. These spoiled houses drifting in the humid breeze were maintained every year by a veritable army of workers, polished down to the last silver spoon. Dead fairy tale of a place with flying banisters, chandeliers in hallways, second-story porches, lattice-work like a wedding cake, jungles instead of gardens, kudzu crawling up white colonials, overgrown Victorian/1920s-era mansions with screened-in sun porches and solariums, wrought-iron gates flipped over in the mud. Tropical/Key West/Caribbean houses on Magazine Street in blues and yellows and pinks, spray-painted by National Guardsmen (red X’s, two dead dogs on roof, 0 bodies, the date) – sometimes spray-painted by people who have to scream something (CRUEL AND WICKED COUNTRY, someone scrawls, and: REM. NAT TURNER. WE ARE COMING HOME.)

We drink to be friends, drink to feel good, drink because they give us free drinks for our services, drink because others are drinking. There is no Click, only falling down Oblivion. A bar in the Quarter, One Eyed Jacks, seduces us with its velvet red walls, brass lamps, dark leather banquettes. The bartender is everything she should be – flirting, laughing, all looseness; the drinks keep coming, Makers on the rocks, Bushmills on the rocks, Jack Daniels straight up, Miller High Life, Pabst Blue Ribbon. The room is blurring.

Tomorrow, when we walk up to the levees. I will show them where I live and then I will point to the lake. See how much higher I will tell them and illustrate the vastness of the water with my hands and the simplicity of my house below by looking back at it once more before we enter my house. Green hills roll up to hungover gray skies where boats float above our heads. Carapaces of empty gazebos, and the wind so hard that you could lean into it, let it hold you. Long ropes of wood, carved like pearls between white columns, covered in filth. But tonight, stumbling out at one in the morning, we see cream-colored, barely-lit hotels surrounded by lush palm fronds, river-scented, ensconced fountains, gutted, empty –

Yes, very drunk and in love, heart full of humid but chilly night, and you close your eyes and when you open them, Napoleon shuffles past you swinging a cane cool and slow and burning like a forest fire. Close them again. Clattering back over crumbling streets in the pitch dark back of a car looking over at the girl next to me. She’s so perfect in the darkness. Eyes glistening with the streetlights passing through the car’s windows. I tell her she’s beautiful and she smiles and looks at me for a long time. You are just too cute she tells me and the car hits a pothole and we all jump in the car. The damp, black sky spinning above us. She kisses my forehead and I close my eyes tight and pretend I don’t notice and then nothing. FADE OUT.

Humanity has to destroy itself. It gets to this point where it’s just too heavy with memory and then God will send you a cloud. It’ll cook a nice fervor up in itself, spitting out shoes and cars and houses and mattresses, and then leave and society will just be standing there, neatly refurbished and, maybe, correct again.

The brown dog stomps through the azaleas, coming to curl against my legs, beg for a little bit of love. White blossoms sprouting beneath my feet.

A streetlight clicks on.

NP: Tom Waits "New Coat of Paint"