Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Downhill Slide

I got pulled into a quiet little world where nothing exists except two-sided library desks. Walled off by a piece of plywood, you sit across from a stranger. You come, dream your separate dreams, doodle on your notebook, leave unnoticed at different times. I favored the desks on the third floor where you could see the towers of Loyola floating over the tops of old oaks, the pale Gulf waning in the not too distant mind’s eye. It was good way to not get much done.

But I still got sucked into an even more microscopic universe, where the words in the texts swim in perfect order across the page like little Olympian track stars. The sounds of the page flapping, your breath…inhale, exhale, your own pulse, which can startle you. But you just get so fascinated. You fall in love. You read Toole and McCullers and Walker Percy on redemption. His pronounced Lancelot trotting 110 yards against ALABAMA!!! Or Faulkner. He is in a black and white filmstrip wandering Pirates Alley in the Quarter, smiling, coming closer, pulling away, grainy. That evening you walk to Pirates Alley and look up on the raised patios and close your eyes and think about Mosquitoes’ Gordon stumbling around drunk and in love and clearheaded at last. Or about long, eyeball-searing articles in literary journals about this or that connecting Jay McInerney to Lafcadio Hearn (or some such unlikely proposition). Unlikely, but they entice you now. You hunt them out. You don’t know why and you don’t care: Maybe you just want to read the tiny print. The smaller it is, the more you’ll think it’ll sneak into your brain and repeat itself brilliantly at a dinner party. The toast of the evening in front of all the guests and the hosts will shout, “Alas! Bandini stay for another drink and give us another story!” Those quiet moments in the library where codes and words suddenly start to click into place, the secrets of the universe open up to you. Everything is there, you can dig it up, you can touch it.

Now…the Downhill Slide. I don’t know when the Downhill Slide started. It might’ve been last night at that law school party I sneaked into by calling on an old friend from the restaurant business. The party was off of Soniat Street in one of those big old houses. The trees were restless, and we went up a few stories to wood floors and chandeliers, things shoved into corners, music kicking up. Outside on the balcony, I could see the gables of the house next to us slumbering in the dark.

At first it was that strange feeling. The fresh wind started off the Gulf, the smell of salt water, of warm ocean through the trees. I am taking Analog Recording this semester and it’s hard to focus. The lavender buds on the gray trees are starting to undress and stretch. I knew that truth when I walked past them at dusk this week and realized spring had begun. Well, spring was not supposed to start up, not till much later, but in New Orleans the air is already warm, green, and wet at night, whipped clean after a week of rain. It’s stormy weather, little things twisting and fluttering on every branch, getting ready.

Close your eyes and see this: You, sleeping and waking up, worse every day. A restless heart. The Soul Rebels Brass Band at Le Bon Ton. Trying to stay in at night to study instead. No dice. When it gets dark, the lamps light up all over town and the bulbs are hypnotic bat lamps where the commissioner is calling you to St. Joe’s Bar, then Kingpin for some shuffleboard, oh wait, skirt over back to Monkey Hill cause there’s this girl you gotta meet, Ross, and then up to The Columns with said girl where she runs into a professor from class and you ditch her to go to The Bulldog with friends, what’s that? Everyone’s going to F &M’s, but I’m going to The Bridge Lounge on my way to The Circle Bar, no you don’t understand there’s a jam session going on with James Singleton, Stan Moore, and Anders Osborne happenin’ at Chickie-Wah-Wah, but didn’t you hear about Harry Connick Jr. stopping by Café Brasil to sit in with Trombone Shorty and then sometime in the night, I’m running around in the middle of St. Charles Avenue singing “Body and Soul” with that girl I met in the recording class and you’re holding plastic cups that are so full of drinks they spill everytime you sway with that music major in your arms, nobody seeing to dawn, not even the ghosts. Laughing, darkness, a car rattling over flood-ruined roads of Claiborne. If I ever have a son, I’ll name him Claiborne.

This spring, the memories run like choppy 8mm home movies. The stairwell in the Communications Building, practicing my golf swing with an umbrella on front lawn, perfume that smells like sugar and sweet woman, a girl on a beach cruiser bicycle zipping past with red-slapped cheeks and plowing into the azalea bushes, mud and wet, green grass. My analog recording professor is leaning up against Monroe smoking a cigarette and trying to kill his time between classes and the rest of his day. Class isn’t till later, but I walk over and say hi and ask him about the gig he played last night. A piano set filled with a guitarist and a drummer, just enough to get by and make that mortgage note and score some groceries for the weekend. The sound of horns is pouring out of the back patio and it’s the orchestra warming up for the session in the pit tonight for a play put on by the theatre department. You know it’s what you came here for. So you start to try to study. You unfold the canvas chair in Audubon Park and bring out the books.

But it’s a lost cause. If you ever fall asleep and get stuck inside another world, the rain and the cobblestones, the mountains of clouds in the sky at night wake you up. If you are ever closed in and small and quiet, you won’t remember. Your pen’s missing, a folder spills notes on the ground. The day is shutting down, draping itself over the buildings. Your head falls toward your shoulder. You’re in a dream. The lights flicker on all over campus, the houses on Broadway looming like an ocean liner in the black Atlantic. You’re getting cold, but you can’t move just yet, you haven’t moved an inch in an hour. Book open in your lap, your eyelids feel thick, your eyelashes heavy. The faint sounds of the city float around you from time to time, but you can’t be reached. Maybe I’m not here at all. Your hip is asleep. Your legs tucked up, tangled…an ankle pressed against an aluminum bar on the canvas chair hard enough to split the skin. The night wind picks up. A friend opens their front door, pokes her head out. WHAT’RE YOU DOING HERE, CRAZY PERSON? She asks.

You would form words if you could; give her a half-shrug instead. You’re drunk and you don’t know how you got there. Then you’re smiling up at her, wide eyes stinging a little because you’re happy to see her. You’re not sure why, but you feel so happy it hurts and you want to laugh. Don’t know, you say finally. I guess I lost track of time.

AND PLACE! She shouts.

She frowns. Then: Oh God. You really need to go to the library or just forget it. This is insanity. I want to borrow your bikes. And: Loan me one of your woman friends. Don’t mock me. You’re probably in love already. I don’t know about all that, you grin. You’re staring at your booksack and thinking again about the library.

What to tell normal people? That you’re in love with a bunch of pieces of paper?

She eyeballs you mutely, so you get up. You raise your arms in a wide, slow circle. No ma’am. No downhill slides here, you sing to her. She laughs, covers her eyes, and giggles out loud and you start dancing on her porch for her like a vaudevillian character. No ma’am, can’t have that kind of thing happening. I will fail this entire semester. We cannot have that at all. And you don’t.

I don’t remember where I was going but when this filmstrip of home movies started; I was turning left on Annunciation on my way to get a poboy from Domolises. Gloomy Victorians spewing ferns and azaleas, an old Mercedes covered in those little leaves, a broken street sign.

Apocalypse and beauty, so much death. How are we still alive? That’s what I wanted to tell my friend. And, I love you, tired city. Without you I am dry-hearted, dull, and slowbeating. Its summer and the heat’s laying in, flooding in deeper up through your side streets on drowsy waves. I’m not here, but I know wide rivers still wind down to you. I’ll always come back soon. Don’t move without me. Don’t take a single breath.
The houses look like centipedes. Long and stretching into the ground in the backyard. The backs of the houses always taper like owners tried building an addition and got halfway through the project and just said fuck it that’s good enough. The fences are covered in ivy and ferns and kudzu lining the outer banks with a deceptive presence. You have to stand a few hundred feet away from the house to appreciate its look. One of those spiraling helicopter shots with water in the streets and all you see are the rooftops and fronts of houses. The reflection off the pools of water in the streets show the sky and the heavens above mirroring a place where its not so hot and not so diffused with alcohol and the sounds of the street carrying like thunders from cannons.

Shadows of the treeline litter the street and I like driving my truck in figure eights careening around the cars that move like steel coffins to their graves. The treeline changes from Uptown to the Quarter to the Faubourgs and so do the birds. Sparrows, pigeons, ducks, and pelicans maneuver their way into backyard bonsai gardens or atop wharf piers. The birds see the shadows and detect the movements of the city with a watchful eye. The noise of cars in the street, the clatter of hurried footsteps, kids playing a game of hide and seek in the corridors and back alleys of the Marigny. Sometimes the sounds shake me awake and I’m placed in a world not like other cities. A land of pirates and shamans and one-eyed gypsy fortune tellers…and I laugh and share a joke with myself about a fortune teller I saw one time with the Magic Eight Ball. Outlook Does Not Good he read to me. A bizarre foreshadowing of my future years. The streets blend the likes of Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Vendors occupy the sidewalks and somebody on a bike rides by singing an old soul song. Sings it right in my face when he passes by me. The stale stench of beer from last night and possibly this morning on his breath.

Sugar Momma, you ain’t go no sugah no mo
Sugar momma, I’ve got anotha sugah momma
Sugar momma, brings me coffee in the moanin

There is a river above me rising into the sky like the towers of Babylon. A great waterway of the superunknown that made this crescent of land I walk on. The river stretches as far west as the Rockies and as far east as the Alleghenies in New York. Smack in the center of the United States, I’m sure Jean Baptiste stood on the high ground of the muddy Mississip and wrote letters to kings and queens of the Old World telling them of this river that will make us all rich because it goes everywhere and this river it makes the Tiber and the Sabine look like a stream. The outbreak of disease (yellow fever, malaria) cautioned this early foreground as the gateway to the United States causing fear of epidemic to surrounding parts, but nary the thought was ever carried about going upstream just downstream everything dumping into New Orleans. The sediment from rock slides in Colorado cascading along the Red River and parts of flash floods from the Missouri dumping its collective rock and soil into our banks making entry from the Gulf nearly impassable and then there’s the lake. Pontchartrain stretching the horizon like the channel on the pond. Cypress trees and Pine Trees scraping the sky with Spanish Moss and needled leaves. Floods would inundate the town and a storm would kick up in the turquoise waters south and those still left in the wake would pick up the pieces and levee themselves inside the town like walls from the river of riches and the lake of destiny and the gulf of destruction.

I’m really hungry at this point filled with whiskey from a corner bar and drunk on the romanticism of the city and its environs. My hand runs along the windows and doors of the stores on Chartes Street. At the Napoleon House I stand on the corner of the Customs House and shout towards the green cupola in the sky “They will not find you here Bonaparte! I cannot even find myself! Keep to the sides of streets! Duck into a bar if someone sees you!” The sound of horns and crazy street characters will keep you safe. No need for pirates on this rescue mission. You just need to stay alive.

The hard sun beats down upon the cobblestone streets. Wavering, dancing almost with the shadows once more, I find myself running into a Lucky Dog stand and asking for one of the city’s finest delicacies. This is like that book I say to the vendor. Remember Ignatius? When he dressed up like a pirate in order to drum up sales but the fat bastard just ate all the goddamn hot dogs. Yea they chased his fatass down Pirates Alley. Right there I pointed with my finger. The vendor did not look nor was he amused. Another crazy Toole fan he thought to himself. Like you’re the first to tell me about Ignatius Reilly jackass.

I rambled down to Dauphine and knocked on a friend’s door. He’s rich, walks around in vintage suits with glasses like a 70s detective smoking clove cigarettes. In his house he plays John Lee Hooker all day long and it fills the scene with the brick walls and plaster breaking onto the floor. In his bed is an older woman and he yells at her to get her ass up and go make some money he says. She’s striking even at two in the afternoon. Her breasts are spilling out of spaghetti strap blouse and she has on underwear covering only her bottom. Don’t take my damn sheets woman he tells her and then we leave. On the street he tells me I’ve got a job for you. Easy money while shaking his head to a funky beat. His gait is slow and he straightens his sleeves from his jacket with nervous tension. What is it I ask him and he tells me about driving cars around a dog track in Destrehan for a police auction. I even talked the guy into giving you a Cadillac if you do a good job. We shake hands like brokering a business deal. He puts another hand on top of our handshake the way I’ve seen Italians do in mafia movies. This is a good thing he tells me good work here Ross don’t leave us and then he’s getting into his car.

I crumple the piece of paper with the phone number into my pocket and move on down the street a little further. Collapsed in the tunnel of balconies and patios and slow heat waves crushing the air. I am a ghost. No one can touch me. No one can find me.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


On the corner by the gas station there was a three story house that looked like something from a Hitchcock movie. Brick in the pastel colors with dark shutters and a thundercloud resting over the house eternally. The house was always dark whenever I passed it. In the backyard was a gray row house with about five apartments and that is where my fishing buddy, Shifty, lived. Shifty was from Theodore, Alabama, and he had the body of a fullback and the mouth of a dirty sailor. His eyes were often dim or shut while he danced in the yellow parking light like the poet drunkard he was. He once told me the only thing to do in Theodore was fuck and drink and then fuck some more and drink some more. Sometimes I’ll have a cigarette he told me. And then there was fishing which I convinced him happened somewhere in between all the fucking and drinking in Theodore and he laughed and slapped me on my back Ross you’re just a crazy sombitch from the city now what do you know bout fishin’ and where’s your Spanish homework? Shifty and I had worked out a deal that consisted of me giving him my Spanish homework and letting him cheat off me on all of our tests and in return he would teach me how to play guitar, let me drink as much beer as I could at his place, and lastly introduce me to all those girls from Theodore and Mobile who liked to drink and fuck. We had our priorities set.

The last time I saw Shifty was at an Auburn football game a few years back. He told everyone that I got the clap from some girl they went to high school with and then came up to me with a beer in his hand eighty sheets to the wind. Nah I’m just kiddin’ bout that this sorry sombitch wouldn’t know what to do with Kara Walmsley. Ain’t that right ya Mexican speaking fucker.

Now when I pass by the house and think about Shifty all I can do is laugh and then laugh some more and think about how much I missed fishing with him in Auburn and Loachapoka. I’ll never forget when we went to Drunk Man’s Creek and fished til it got dark and on our way out pulled over to the side of the road to let a giant 4x4 truck pass through. Inside the truck were two guys about our age with a woman sitting between them. Shifty leaned his head outside the window and yelled at the driver Ya’ll going back there to fuck, ain’t ya? I knowed it when I saw her in between ya’ll. Whatsa matter ya’ll got tired of doin it indoors? The driver flipped Shifty off and kept driving down the road kicking up a wake of dust in his flight. Shifty pulled himself back into the truck and looked over at me while opening a beer they’re going back there to fuck as if I didn’t hear him telling the driver his psychic revelation. We cruised down the road and drank beer and smoked cigarettes and I thought to myself this place is way cooler than home.

NP: Guy Clark "L.A. Highway"