Dreamscapes and Domains – New Orleans Notes, Ten Years Gone

ABOUT A week and a half ago, I was pushing memories around in my head. They’d come unbidden, stray phrases and images. I didn’t think I had a home for them just yet.katrina

I hadn’t planned to write anything formal about Katrina and the flood, but it was on my mind — taking up more than backspace. Last week all that circular thinking started surfacing as full sentences. And finally, in a block of focused days I had a piece. It ran yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, you can find it here.

One of the things about my post-Katrina New Orleans and the absence of my blood-ties is that it’s left me thinking about the people who used to live around the folks I once visited as part of that summer ritual. I think about this as I wander New Orleans trying to locate sites that no longer exist on any map. I remember generations of families who had remained on one block passing on not just an address but a hibiscus and iris garden, a porch with a ceiling painted blue like a spring sky. Even an attic ghost. On this side of the family line, I am the last person to hold those memories, to know what it was before: The stories and the voices — the intricately built sentences — I will carry in my head I know, but these are the features will always define New Orleans for me.

Just last week, I was speaking to my friend Mark Broyard, an artist who lives here in L.A. and has deep New Orleans roots.katrina series no. three As I note in the piece, after Katrina, he went back to help but also to bear witness. Photograph and collect debris that he would ultimately make into art. I remember the first time I saw the piece above, I didn’t have words. It hit someplace so deep, I cried.

(Broyard has other work in a group show, “Hard Edged” now up at the California African American Museum.)

With all of the trumpeting of “recovery” and “resilience,” my hope is that we will all remember — remember that there is so much more to do, to finish, to fix. To make whole. I’m realizing more and more that I’d like to find a place in that.

And as a guide, to keep in mind, that that new spot you’ve landed in — your new domain — that was once someone else’s garden, porch, ghost; it was once someone else’s dream.

Katrina Series Image courtesy Mark Broyard

“Lonely, the cars running the street”

Gary Winogrand via PST @ the Getty

Gary Winogrand via PST @ the Getty

Often when I post here, I try to consider Los Angeles less a focus and more a prism. That said: I couldn’t help but not linger on the passages about Los Angeles in the new collection of Lawrence Ferlinghetti journals, Writing Across the Landscapes.

Though there wasn’t room to cite it in my review, I keep thinking about this vivid glimpse of an unexpected Los Angeles.

This entry reads like the photographs of Gordon Parks, Robert Frank — or the photo above captured by Larry Winogrand from the same period.

Here’s a little fragment of an image/thought montage.

It’s just a moment. A 50-year-old L.A. moment

Came upon Los Angeles by bus at night … Ah the crazy hotels, crazy streets, sad signs of America –Jesus Saves!–Tom’s Tattoo–The Electric Rembrandt–Snooker Parlor–“Acres of Autos”– Hotel Small — Ice Rink–Greyhound — Los Angeles Street -TV in Rooms –eat–Barber and Beauty Supply–Pawnshop–“Shave Yourself” —
Might as well be on the Trans-Siberian Railway
Strange people waiting in Greyhound Bus Depot: One all-leather cat with cowboy hat — tight motorcycle pants with zippers on slash pockets and lithe padlocks on each zipper–same on tight jacket — all black leather ….Animated, talking to a Negro also in cycle suit only much less flashy.

And lonely the hotel doors, gaping. And lonely the lobbies, lonely the beds! Forever & ever…Lonely the lunchrooms, lonely the cars running in the streets … Lonely Los Angeles, lonely world!
Sure are a lot of defeated people in this here America …”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti –Los Angeles, 1964

Letters are available at City Lights Books. The journals publish, Sept. 7

Keeping the Light On

I JUST finished floating through nearly 900 pages of dreamy recollections —  those of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Two books arrive, just months apart, that provide a fresh look at the publisher and poet who was responsible for creating the necessary support for a new generation of thinkers and writers. Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books — both the publisher and book store — has served as north star in San Francisco’s North Beach for generations. I review two books for the Los Angeles Times — Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals: 1960-2010 and “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career” The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg – 1955-1997 .

You can find the review here.

Both books are beautiful offerings. The journals, a vivid testament to the life of the mind; the letters, a celebration of the evolution of a long and tender friendship.

image: City Lights Bookstore via found SF

into the center of it

get shot

LAST SUNDAY, I drove into Watts pulled by something larger than an anniversary.

I’ve been back and forth a great deal in recent years, months, weeks — for work and personal visits — but this journey felt more like flipping back to the opening pages of a book, to re-orient myself in a story that didn’t move the way I had expected.

I’ve been swimming through all the coverage today — and in the weeks leading up to — this 50-year anniversary of a what began as a traffic stop and then exploded into an italicized exclamation. One that now echoes across decades.

Like so many, I’ve been revisiting photos and essays and spoken testimonials that so freshly recall that stretch of hot August days. I’ve been talking to old friends and old colleagues. I stare deep into the frames of these grainy newspaper images of collapsed buildings, piles of wood, the silhouettes of storefronts, fancy blade-signs and realize — once again — that so many never re-opened. The story finished there. Full stop.

wattsam

As a small child, I felt some foreign emotion creep in, take up real space; a feeling related to the noise, the smoke, the tanks, men in uniforms and guns at the market — where we bought our milk and fruit — the strange measure of days that hemmed us in within our own home: That new word “curfew” flashed in my brain like neon.

August 1965 was the summer my grandfather visited from New Orleans to take the first, in-person glimpse of his infant grandson. The two-pronged reality of that visit: the first bloom of the new family branch, strikingly backdropped by the racial inequity and violence not at all foreign to this quiet and proud Southern-born man — just Southern-California style. Early the next morning he woke before the rest of us, disappeared. We later learned, through his detailed stories, he’d wandered off, to find the hot center of it. To know the story better.

How — he must have reasoned — could you be so close and not try?

The journalist that I would become understands.

Now, as an adult, I realize the emotion I must have been trying to sort through was the very same that might accompany the instant when a table might be upturned and there’s a moment — long, protracted out-of-real time — where everything was still in the air. The finish yet to be determined. Ruin or reclamation? It was all still up for grabs.

50 years.

So fast. So long.

And yet.