Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New Orleans Report 2011

For the past 21 years, I have visited New Orleans annually; it feels somewhat like a second home to me. For my friends, here's a brief report on my recent trip.

This year I made the trip during the second full week of September; the 17 months since my last visit represents my longest spell away from the city since 1990. It was the kind of New Orleans visit I have every once in awhile - things didn't quite "click," at least until my last night.

On my way across Mississippi, I turned south off of I-10 at Biloxi and drove the rest of the way to New Orleans on U.S. 90, along the coast. I was a little shocked at how much destruction Katrina had caused in this area, and how little has been rebuilt. I made a few stops to do some geocaching, notably in the Bayou Saugave Wildlife Preserve, where I had a nice, very hot, hike.

I hit the city on Wednesday afternoon and went to Preservation Hall that night. I was disappointed to see trumpeter William Smith walk in instead of Mark Braud, who was scheduled to be there; Smith has disappointed me at times in the past. But he played well on this occasion, and the music was very enjoyable. There was one of those nice moments when the audience sang responses to Smith’s vocal phrases on “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” That tune was the band’s response to a toddler putting some money in the kitty. The band was led by Charlie Gabriel, who played clarinet on the first two tunes and tenor on the others. Freddie Lonzo was on trombone, Rickie Monie on piano, Jeffery Hills on tuba, and Joe Lastie on drums. “Dinah” was short, with no solos, to fill out the set. It was all the stronger for that, and had some nice collective improvising. The set I heard was:

China Boy
Caravan (drum feature)
St. Louis Blues (Lonzo vocal)
Yes Sir, That’s My Baby (Smith vocal)

From there I walked to Mimi’s, at the edge of the Bywater neighborhood (the other side of the street would be Marigny) to hear a set by Aurora Nealand’s Royal Roses. They were an impressive young group. Nealand played soprano sax most of the night, but did a tune or two on clarinet. They played:

Shake It and Break It
Tishimingo Blues
Douce Ambience
Everybody Loves My Baby
The Old Rugged Cross
China Boy

and one other tune which I don’t remember. “Old Rugged Cross” went pretty far afield, starting with the guitar solo – trad free jazz, or something like that. Aurora is a really fabulous saxophonist - and pretty good on clarinet, too.

Nealand was scheduled to appear at Buffa’s with Tom McDermott, my favorite New Orleans pianist, on Thursday, but she posted on Facebook that McDermott wouldn’t be there that night, so I stayed in. But I did take a walk through Marigny and Bywater and found a couple of of interesting sites – the spot where Homer Plessy boarded a segregated train car, leading to the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and Jack “Papa” Laine’s house on St. Ferdinand Street. Laine was the patriarch of the white jazz scene around the turn of the 20th century.

On Friday I went back to Preservation Hall to hear Leroy Jones, whom I’ve always liked. It was kind of a mixed bag. I’m pretty sure that the Finnish trombonist Katja Toivola was Jones’ wife or girlfriend; I found her playing to be of borderline competency. It was nice to hear Daniel Farrow on tenor sax again, though. And I've always like Mari Watanabe's piano playing. Mitchell Player was on bass, and the drummer was introduced as “Jerry Barbarin Anderson” – I didn’t know he was part of that famous family. The set I heard consisted of:

Muskrat Ramble (Jones vocal)
Baby, Won't You Please Come Home
Come Down to New Orleans

I was in a somewhat unsettled frame of mind, though, until Saturday night, when I went to the Spotted Cat to hear (and sit in with) the Panorama Jazz Band. That event brought the whole trip into focus and made it all worthwhile. At the beginning of their second set, I played “Dolgo Hora” and “When My Dreamboat Comes Home" - I had always wanted to play the latter tune with a New Orleans band. Aurora Nealand sat out the two tunes I played, but when she came back to replace me, she really bore down and played hard. I took that as a compliment. Ben Schenck and the rest of the band sounded better than ever.

Sunday morning I took one last walk around the French Quarter. Although it was not the best visit I’ve ever had, in the end I really didn’t want it to end. Even when a New Orleans trip is slightly disappointing, it still hurts to leave.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On September 11th, a Poem by Ai


My name is Shirley Herlihy,
but to the lowlifes on my beat,
I am Officer Girlie.
They do not mean to diss me.
It is a sign of respect
that I let them think is ok with me, and it is,
when I am trying to do my community policing.
After my brother disappeared
at the World Trade Center,
the word went out.
The lowlifes even gave me a bouquet of flowers
I could not accept.
They came from the Korean store
before somebody tossed a Molotov cocktail
through the front door
in retaliation for a “situation”
that involved the girlfriend of a drug dealer
shoplifting disposable diapers and Tampax.
The fact is I appreciated the thought
if not the deed.
I mean the flowers were at least a sign
I had not become a cop
turning a blind eye on the misery of the street.
I was known as someone who was tough,
but fair in meting out justice.
God knows it’s hard to toe the line
every single time a perp messes up, but I tried.
If somebody’s mother needed a ride
to a bail hearing,
my transportation specialist,
Bobby J, the gypsy cab guy would oblige.
I’d say thanks by slipping him
tickets to a ball game, a movie
or some lame excuse for entertainment.
I kept the wheels turning,
so I didn’t fall under them.
I only had to use my gun once in two years
against a sonofabitch
who murdered his uncle
and hid his body in a dumpster.
Original, huh?
Stanko, the wino, found him on his garbage rounds.
We cornered the asshole in an alley
behind that shooting gallery
in the building that’s now been gentrified
and is home to a decorater, six cats
and stacks of old cool jazz albums.
Anyway, the asshole said he had nothing to lose
fired and missed, fired again
and clipped me in the shins,
but I got him as I went down.
He died, but the paramedics revived him
and now he’s in prison.
He’s born again and keeps claiming Christ has risen,
as if nobody heard the news.
Once in a while, he calls me to apologize
and proselytize. I let him last time,
even as I sat, holding the telephone,
wishing my brother would come back.
I keep telling myself he’s gone forever,
but it’s so hard to accept.
He was always rescuing things
when we were kids – injured cats, birds,
even a German shepherd
who had been known to bite without provocation.
I used to tease him by singing,
“Patrick Kevin’s going to Heaven.”
I wonder if he made it, or if he’s suspended between the life
that didn’t mean much to him
and the death that means everything to me?
He was such a good boy.
He would have been a better man, if only…
After our parents died
when I was fifteen going on twenty-five
and he was twelve, we raised ourselves.
No one else had the time.
It’s a busy world out there
the addicts tell me and I believe them
because I know.
I bet they’re lining up at Smitty’s
crack house right now to score.
I should be there to arrest someone,
but I’ve turned in my badge and gun
and come downtown to search this crater
for some sign of Pat,
even if it’s only a feeling
that he’s still around in spirit at least,
if not in body.
There’re just a few of us
who won’t give up.
With our shovels, picks and garden tools
we dig among the hunks of steel,
the concrete and remnants of people
who went to work one day
and vanished into our memories.
I dread finding him and dread I won’t
as I choke from the fumes less poisonous
than the hope that keeps me awake at night,
but I can’t give up.
He’d do the same for me.
Patrick Kevin Herlihy, I repeat under my breath
as I uncover another credit card
and a wallet with something that looks
suspiciously like blackened flesh fused to it.
I turn them in and return to digging
until faint from the effort and fumes, I collapse.
Two other searchers take me by each arm
and help me to a chair,
but I don’t stay there long.
After a candy bar and a glass of water,
I’m back at my task.
On the job, I never questioned what I was.
I had my role to play
in the day to day give
and mostly take of the criminals
who inhabited my world,
but this sixty acres is a city of ghosts
and I don’t know where I stand with them.
When I arrived this morning,
nothing greeted me but the wind
and a grackle making a din
as it pecked and scratched
at flat, charred patches of ground.
Maybe it’s a good sign
that the birds have returned,
a sign of rebirth. But whose? I wonder,
as I stare at my bruised hands.
Last year, I solved the robbery
of a palm reader.
As a lark, I let her read my lines.
She said, “In the future,
you’ll find the one you lost,
but it will cost you.”
Now as I stand above a hole seventy feet deep,
looking down, I don’t see Pat.
When I call his name,
my voice is swallowed up by the roar of machines.
At first, that sound signified the possibility
of finding him
and made my heard beat faster,
but now it’s just the white noise
I hear in my nightmares
that always begins at the scene of a shooting
that occurred during a domestic disturbance
between a man and a woman in Queens
that left two teens bereft of a mother and father
and made them cling to one another much too tightly,
so that now the one left behind is frightened
by her utter loneliness
and drinks Irish whiskey at the pub
where her brother, Pat, used to hold up the bar,
promising the patrons he was going to quit drinking
one of these days
and to assorted laughter
call for another round of drinks,
knowing his sister would never let him
sink as low as he wanted to go.
He’d seen the fight. I hadn’t
but I was haunted too
although I tried not to show it,
especially to him.
That day when I got home
from basketball practice,
I found Pat cowering under the stairway
as I had so many times before
when our parents fought,
but this time, I knew something was different.
He wasn’t crying for a change.
“Are Mom and Dad fighting again?” I asked.
“They were,” he said, without a trace of emotion,
then he told me Dad had come into his room,
hugged him and said goodbye.
That’s when I knew something terrible had happened.
All the years since, I’d nursed him
through the rough times, the blue funks
and the highs that were too much
and always ended in a rush
of promises to stop drinking.
He worked construction, he’d say,
I wouldn’t catch him falling off some scaffolding
high above Manhattan,
even drunk he could maintain his balance.
The truth was he was often unemployed,
but I supported him.
I’d long since moved into our parents’ room,
but he stayed in his
across the hall from where they’d died,
surrounded by all his trophies from high school, comics
and posters taped and retaped to the walls.
The week before the attack,
he’d told me he was going back to work.
He’d stopped drinking for good
and I believed him, as I looked deeply into his eyes,
and saw a boy who having barely escaped
the inferno of family violence
would still finally perish in fire’s cold embrace.

Ai (October 21, 1947 – March 20, 2010)