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Lean

algiers

I’ve been writing a lot about New Orleans experiences recently. I haven’t been to a ton of different places in the country or the world, although I’ve been to a handful, and I’ve never felt like any one place holds such… A presence. I’ve never felt like I could actually direct my anger at a place like it is an entity, a lifeforce all on its own.

I’ve been really frustrated this week and it’s been bleeding into my personal life. This hardcore rain happened that flooded some of the city for a few hours and it really frightened me. For the first time in my life I’ve felt unsafe at work and worried about the prospect of someone with a gun coming in and shooting everyone. It sounds really bizarre and out there, but with a handful of dramatic, odd experiences this week it feels like there’s something lodged in my throat and it’s a never-ending frustration with just…. New Orleans.

I can’t blame anyone for the weather. I knew it was below sea-level when I moved here. A scary experience at work one day didn’t even, actually equate to the person inspiring the fear having a gun–it was just the worry that began to creep in, the underlying gut feeling of wow, I might not be safe.

I’ve read the State of Louisiana’s manuel for what to do in an emergency front to back. I’ve been making meetings at work and formulating questions on how to craft policy on security and drills for intruders at my office. My partner has been frustrated with me wondering why I keep getting myself into a tizzy of my own making. It also doesn’t help that the local news is so saturated with the next crime in the city, SO MANY CRIMES EVERY SINGLE DAY–not to mention a shooting in the parking lot a block away and FIVE PEOPLE murdered down the street from my job within the past few weeks.

It’s just… So much. It feels really difficult to process and it’s that moment when I realize I need to be journaling more to just get this shit out of my brain, need to be blogging more, need to be documenting anger and resentment and beauty and details and it’s the time to pay more attention to stop myself from casting a wide, blank net over a whole lot of people and a whole lot of city.

I’ve been plunging into this mental state of ruin so insanely frustrated out of my fucking mind wondering WHY. Why can’t the city hire more police? Why are people killing each other over nothing? Who shoots somebody as they drive down a highway? Why do people DO this to each other? Why did the mayor (apparently) cut funding on police? Why is so much stock put into community partnerships and community organization when in reality the only thing that will truly curb violence is police?

I’m trying desperately to lean into the unknown, the curious, the mess of details that people don’t want to consider when they see things that hurt them.

I’m trying to lean.

*

I went to Algiers Point last night and sat on the water watching the sunset. I usually watch the Mississippi river from the French Quarter side and stare out at the green banks of Algiers. The water looks brown and dirty from that vantage point and so far below from the embankment. Who knew the view was a thousand times better on the Algiers side?

stlouis

It was funny, I spent a ton of time all my life around water. I know all the little hole-in-the-wall beaches in my hometown. Whole days could be made out of drinking beer and smoking cigarettes down at the local beach and, depending how dirty the water looked, jumping off of a channel and wading back into the shore. I remember private beaches to sneak into, beaches below bridges, beaches with bottoms I could never feel after holding my breath and jumping in.

*

I stared past the water last night at the St. Louis Cathedral directly across the river. All of New Orleans looks so miniscule. For the first time all week my fears quieted and an intrinsic, guttural catharsis was finally unleashed, like looking at blue water sitting on some old rocks again feels like a version of home. I’m safe. Everything is going to be okay.

Constrictor

“So, are you white trash or… What are you?”

“What do you mean?”

“It just sounds like you were white trash… Your neighbors didn’t like you, your house was really ugly, you didn’t have a lot of money, you say everything was always really dirty.”

“I… Don’t really know, I guess.”

*

“I went and visited Berkeley and I didn’t like the tour guide. She was talking about how students were protesting over a new building that would have to tear down a bunch of old redwoods, and I made this face like ‘AHH’ over people killing these poor beautiful 100 year old trees and the tour guide looked right at me and said, ‘Those students are obstructing progress!’ And then she talked about studying French and spoke a little and I’d taken French all my life in New Orleans and she was a senior in college and her French was SO BAD and I thought ‘If this is the best you can do, I don’t want to go here…”

“Yeah, Duke was the same way, when I visited I looked around the campus and was like ‘Oh my God, get me out of here.’”

“I went to MIT after Katrina and it was really, really nice…”

*

“I lived in Oslo…”

“I lived in South Africa…”

“I spent time in Laos…”

“I lived in Tanzania…”

“He installed solar panels in Jamaica…”

“I lived in Buenos Aires…”

“I lived in Brazil…”

*

His car is registered to his family vacation home in Mississippi.

Her car’s insurance rate is the same price as her monthly payment.

She has a car that is named Elsa, snow white and spotless, manicure shining on the wheel.

*

“It’s weird, I wouldn’t call myself white trash because we weren’t country, we didn’t have accents, but if you listen to my brother or talk to my Dad they’re… Simple people. I just… I don’t know, compared to other people we were a bit lower on the spectrum but my parents were good to us, I went to college. We weren’t trash.”

 

“What did you think about Boston? Oh, really…?”

 

“I studied abroad too… Beers were $20 in Oslo… I didn’t drink any.”

 

I sputter into the parking lot once a week in a borrowed car half hoping everyone can see me and no one can see me at the same time.  

Before the Flood

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“I don’t think you understand the severity of this situation–I can’t get to you. The roads are flooded.”

The rain is just starting to let up. A half hour before the call I stood at the front door of my office looking out the window at the street below–it was becoming a river. The water was rising up towards the bottom step of the stairs that led to the parking lot. I felt drips coming through the sides of our waterproof front door. The lighting cracked too close and I felt the coldness of the unknown seep into my bones.

But the sun was out now and the storm was over. It had passed. The water couldn’t be that bad… Could it?

“I’m going to just begin walking and try to meet you. I’ll see how bad it is.”

I jump over shallow puddles in the parking lot before continuing down a side street towards a main avenue of New Orleans. However, less than a block away from the avenue the side street becomes a river. Cars are stalled out in the middle of the road. Black and white families all sit on their porches, stunned, watching the water and the traffic up ahead, the ambulances and police sirens wailing in the distance.

“Oh my god…”

I try to hop over a puddle and miss, my leather flats getting soaked in rainwater. The water is getting an odd sheen from the filth. You can see rainbow oil smears and bobbing trash. It doesn’t smell, the rain still fresh enough, but it’s foreboding.

“You might want to go back around the other block,” a woman tells me and points behind her home. We’re standing in her front lawn. A black pick-up truck is trying to get through the street slowly. It barely escapes an engine flood but still creates a massive wave. All of the water retreats from the middle of the road and gains speed racing towards the front porches.

“Hop up here, hop up here.” The woman grabs my arm to indicate, get on my porch. The wave crashes against her front steps.

“My house is built on a slant, my backyard isn’t flooded. Go around the street back there.”

So I do. I start walking past the homeless people who hold down the intersection all day and working people waiting on the bus. I walk through the stoplight towards Jefferson Davis Parkway. At first, the roads don’t even look bad–just some mild puddles on the edges. But then the puddles get wider, they encapsulate the entire left sidewalk that I’m walking on. I can’t walk through anymore without standing in inches of water. Cars sputter trying to turn onto the avenue from the flooded side-streets. None of the cars waiting to get through the traffic say anything to me. I cross the avenue and jump on the grassy median separating the two lanes of traffic and slowly continue my walk on the concrete edge, cars cautiously whizzing to the left and the oversaturated, soggy grass to the right.

It’s hot as hell. I’m not sure why the heat beats down this way after such rain. My shoes are soaked. I’m sweating. I can feel my pale skin begin to turn. I notice around me other walkers, people waiting to meet up with loved ones and knowing it’s faster on foot than to sit like a waiting duck. Strangely enough, all of the walkers are women. I feel an odd sense of wonder at the fact that all of these young, working women are walking down an avenue famous for its prostitutes and cases of human trafficking.

None of us are scared.

I don’t like to pretend that while living in New Orleans I know jack shit about Katrina. I don’t. I lived through it in Maryland and try not to talk about it with locals. But my office at my job got five feet of water during the storm. The entire neighborhood went underwater. I’m walking through the flood to find my boyfriend and I feel the fear gather in my throat–what if the water started rising? What if it kept going even when the rain stopped? That’s what happened, and suddenly I feel the empathy bold and painful in my chest. If the water kept rising, I couldn’t walk. I’d have to swim to get through. I’m a good swimmer, but he doesn’t know how to swim. What if one day we have to swim?

My phone vibrates in my palm.

“Hello?”

“Hey, are you over in the median? I think I see you.”

I recognize his car to the left a few stoplights away and sigh. When he pulls up I hop in.

He grabs my hand. “You have no idea what I had to go through to get to you.”

Obscure Beauty

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This weekend I visited Avery Island, which is better known for being the manufacturing hub for Tabasco hot sauces that go around the world. If you don’t know too much about Avery Island, a massive swath of the island is dedicated to the Jungle Gardens, which include a Bird Sanctuary (pictured) and a nearly thousand year old stone Buddha.

Those notable presences aside, the thing I found astounding about the Jungle Gardens was the fact that they were intentionally modeled after famous gardens in Europe–walking through them reminded me of the Peterhof Park and Gardens in St. Petersburg. The entire intention of the gardens is to impress the viewer and woo visitors into believing you are a slice of true aristocracy. Even reading the biographies of the McIlhenry descendants shows how dripped in privilege the family is–a smattering of sons had their pick of the litter in the best schools with educations in earth sciences and eventually served in the local government and on all sorts of boards for conservation.

The funny thing though, coming back to that aristocratic aesthetic, is the fact that Louisiana, no matter how much the countryside tries with names like Spanish moss, doesn’t look like Europe.

It almost felt like an odd betrayal to try so hard to look like something you will never be. Not to mention walking around in June the park was hot as hell and I can’t even fathom delicate women in long sleeves and men with top-hats riding buggies through the countryside without feeling like they are being jipped by the bait and switch and instead swelter in the heat.

Heat brings humility. Therefore, Louisiana is humble. Quiet. No one cares if you take out your trash in socks and sandals or go to the grocery store with no bra on. It doesn’t care about fat or skin or sweat or stink. All it cares about is when the breeze lifts everyone up with a perpetual sigh.

Last night I found myself in conversations about my hometown that haven’t been dug up in a long time. Stories of a girl comparing me to an ape in front of classmates and being too tongue-tied for a comeback. A teenage boy lifting his shirt to reveal his stomach after he called me fat and my response was “You’re fat!” His devilish eyes, “No I’m not!” Slap, slap, slap, proving his point with his own skin. Endless skin years and years later. An array of those people, men specifically, all stand in a line in my mind and I wander down the rows wondering, what ever happened to you? And all I see is camouflage and Taco Bell bags and beat down houses and dead leaves. Nothing.

I ended my midnight tirade telling my boyfriend how maybe the reason I gravitated towards people who got fucked up in high school was because if you’re drinking and getting high, the fundamental function is to simply lose care. It’s enveloping yourself in people who don’t give a shit how big your stomach is or what you eat. Again–it’s about humility. 

Maybe what stood out to me about the Jungle Gardens was that I couldn’t tell what was imitation and what was unapologetic terrain, how much is embracing what you are and how much is striving to prove yourself to be worthy.

We’ll Never Even Remember

“When I was about to get on the streetcar the other day this guy whistled at me and told me ‘Hey, beautiful.’ Who does he think he is?”

The girl has kept one hand on her hip the entire night, the other hand silently sipping out of a red cup. Her stance is solid with a consistent degree of palpable indignation. Throughout the night she’s talked about her bra size, her black roommate and how she adores foreign languages (‘do you speak any?’ ‘no, just some Spanish and a little bit of Vietnamese’). Something about the look in her eyes makes me uncomfortable, like she’s looking down from the tower of her nose to watch the ignorant peasants below.

“But doesn’t it make a difference if it’s a good looking guy?” A different girl perks up.

“No! Not at all! It doesn’t matter what they look like!”

I’m finished my cigarette and I mumble that I have to go to the bathroom and escape to the back of the house into the bedroom of a 67 year old woman who makes collages of Marie Laveau. We chat about baseball and her old life in California before another friend bursts in and perches on the paisley comforter.

“They’re talking about catcalling out there and it’s getting too intense.”

He’s earnest. I know the intensity he’s talking about likely only stems from being the single male on the porch. The intensity that drove me as far as I could away from the girl was an overwhelming sensation that the more I listened to her talk, the more it seemed that she was more hell bent on coming off as educated or adhering to the current monolithic social justice pulse  rather than actually having fun conversations at a party with strangers.

A memory keeps floating up: my dad’s house in Maryland. The torn ligaments of couch cushions. The smell of cat. His leather recliner and goofy laugh. He says something stupid about gay people, I confront him vigorously and tear his theoretical throat out. He bursts.

“All of a sudden you’re the sole defender of the fags and the blacks and the Mexicans and I’ve fuckin had it! Just stop!”

I kept going, of course. Kept pushing the envelope with him. Kept myself convinced that I truly was the sole defender of Those Who Can’t Speak For Themselves in my dad’s world and he was a massive bigot even though he’d quietly told me one night that my gay best friend changed his outlooks and interactions with gay people. He shared his own slow change with me and I tore his throat out because it wasn’t good enough.

Everything in my education pointed to my dad’s stupid comments as being the enemy. His entire being felt like the enemy. What didn’t feel like the enemy? “Unpacking” “racism, sexism, homophobia, gender bias” and understanding the “intersections of privilege.”

At the party I’m in the back room thinking about how exhausting trying to make yourself sound so enlightened is and how for some reason, our present and future are my dad and I going head to head on a filthy couch over some unsubstantial shit we’ll never even remember.

The Case for Parties

I’ve been frantically googling The Case for Parties because I distinctly remember reading an essay published with The Rumpus or with Buzzfeed two years ago about making the case as you get older to go to parties, no matter how awkward or small.

Unfortunately I can’t seem to locate the essay, but I can describe the intent.

The essay described how even a party that may only have two people still has intention of togetherness, livelihood, living-in-the-moment. How as we get older it becomes more and more rare to be that way with others and how being in company keeps us young and vital.

The reason I reflect back to this essay is because I went to a party last night!

It was a coworker’s birthday and a handful of his friends, most of which I found out he met through OkCupid. But that’s okay! We ate crawfish and made punch out of an entire watermelon and my boyfriend and I got wrapped up in conversations with others about FEMA and comedians and the Dodgers and Ireland and literature.

I felt this buzz I haven’t experienced in far too long–literally, a buzz that erupts from my toes on up–from being on my sociable A-game where every joke lands and I can’t stop laughing at the banal conjured into meaningfulness. Example, one party goer arriving and biting into a glittery cupcake saying “So, whose birthday is it?”

At my job we spend a lot of time planning. Planning with financials, procurement, ordering, meetings, Skyping, preparation to the 10th degree. There is something so fascinating about the magical way that the world just unfolds in front of you–pure presence–and you’re a piece of the party and the ensuing moments such as when a neighbor wanders down the street looking for his cat and suddenly you’re on a damp sidewalk in the Treme beneath oak trees scrambling beneath an SUV looking for a kitten with black paws.

My case for parties is the purpose of being present, for being active and engaged with the world around us. It requires a little piece of everyone.

Effort

“I’m here to fill out an application.”

He entered through the wrong door. That in and of itself isn’t particularly bothersome–sometimes people get lost and come into the main office through the back warehouse. He’s with a woman who sits on a couch in the waiting room staring at me.

“Sure… So, all of our current positions that we’re hiring for are online, that’s where you submit your resume and cover letter…”

He stares at me. I nonchalantly scan my eyes up and down–his shirt is filthy. His breath smells like rot and old meat. He’s wearing jeans.

“I used to work here.”

I pick up a pen and go to scrawl his name on my legal pad.

“Sure, what’s your name?”

He tells me and I begin trying to think about what to do next–forward his information to the HR manager? They can pull his file? What does he want to apply to…

“I have an interview.”

“Oh! Great, okay, with who?”

“I don’t remember his name.”

“Okay… Well what position was it?”

He tells me the incorrect name of the position he applied for.

“What time was your interview?”

“2:00.”

I glance at the clock on my computer–it’s 1:33. The woman on the couch pipes up, “We just came as soon as he got the call.”

“Ah, okay…”

“Are you hiring for any clerical positions?”

She looks amused as she asks, probably because she is looking at someone working one of the few clerical positions for the company.

“Anything that is currently hiring is on our website… We’re not really hiring for that right now, but maybe in the future…”

The proper manager sends for the applicant and he walks towards the rear of the office with the woman in tow. Whoever she is, I assume his ride, is apparently being interviewed for his job as well.

I mention to the HR manager that the applicant brought a guest into his interview with him and that he didn’t know the name of who he was supposed to be interviewing with. She gets shy, mentions he’s worked with us before. I feel embarrassed and shady and petty for getting so boiled over someone else’s lack of professionalism.

An hour later, another man walks in through the front door. He’s wearing a button down shirt. He has a manila folder with his cover letter and resume tucked inside. He’s asking to speak to the manager hiring for a position he applied to. He knows that I can’t bring him back to see a manager without an interview. I can also see the desperation in his eyes when I tell him the manager is in a meeting and his sadness of trying so hard and having these things take so much time.

Most of all, I see the effort.

The simultaneous lack and abundance of effort is what breaks my heart most of all.