What it means…

“I have described New Orleans as a city of feeling …” writes Sarah M. Broom in The Yellow House 

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If you’ve been following this blog for sometime you know that my ancestral roots are dug deep in Louisiana. New Orleans is a pin on my map,  but the New Orleans I grew up spending time in most every summer of my youth had little to do with the place that lived in most people’s imagination. As Broom points out, people often have a visceral reaction when you merely utter the words New Orleans. Sometimes it isn’t even an actual emotion they name; it may just be a sound.

This is why Broom’s book so hit home. On so many levels.

In The Yellow House, she explores her hometown — New Orleans East — “across the bridge” from the one that’s  minutes-but-worlds away from the New Orleans of the of gas lights and music and all-night reverie.  Of the French Quarter she asks: “How had one-square mile come to stand for the entire city?”

“The East” lies at best on the edges of  imagination, but Broom somehow knew at a young age, that she needed to secret away details about the her home — The Yellow House — the life that filled it up, and the ground upon which it precariously sat.

“I was still writing everything down as I had learned to do in high school. In the Yellow House, especially rote detail as if by doing, I was making things real, findable, fighting disappearance. I could collect evidence.”

It’s another August and it’s about the time of year that my family would be readying the suitcases for that trip east, to visit my grandfather and the rest of the family who remained rooted somehow in that uncertain ground.  It seems fitting that Broom’s book would arrive this week in keeping with tradition. It took me away, back there. I’m still walking around listening and looking chasing my own ghosts.

You can read my review of Broom’s far-reaching exploration of erasure and belonging here  at latimes.com Arts and Books.

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My Advanced Reader’s Copy: So many deep insights, indelible quotes

L.A. to LA: Home Sweet Home(s)

I’VE WRITTEN some here about my summer trips to Louisiana  and just how and why New Orleans became part of my yearly ritual as a child.

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The old luggage tag from my mother’s old train case.

It wasn’t, however, until I was fully grown that I understood  just how significantly New Orleans had marked me —  both inside and out. Nor did I realize how much it mattered within my being.

Consequently, in the last few years,  after a very long time away, I have been trying to make up for lost time. An editor and friend of mine had a conversation a couple of years ago that finally (just a few weeks ago) worked its way into an essay.

The piece went live this week on Zòcalo Public Square. You can read the piece here.

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One of the first streets my early forebears lived on in New Orleans

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

“Jelly Rests His Case”

THURSDAY WAS a research and reconnaissance day, sweeping mostly through East and South L.A, with Gary Krist, author of the excellent “Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans.” One of the highlights was finally visiting New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton’s grave at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles. We were given a map as well as very precise directions to the plot/memorial. We trudged out under a somber sky and there he was, below a tree. I wished I’d brought along some sort of token offering, perhaps for next time.

“On 2pm on July 10 Jelly Roll Morton died in Los Angeles County Hospital, a victim of ‘cardiac decomposition’ due to ‘hyper-tensive heart disorder,’ according to the death certificate….On the morning of July 16, when the casket containing Morton’s body was carried inside, a church that could seat a thousand looked almost empty. Fewer than a hundred people assembled to mourn a man who had helped bring the sound of jazz to the world . . .The newspapers barely noted the passing of the first great composer in the American music the world embraced as jazz, but Down Beat devoted several pages to the man’s demise. One headline though, said it all: “Jelly Rests His Case.”

— from “Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton” by Howard Reich and William Gaines

And here’s a little bit of that “Spanish Tinge” that JRM loved so much. Thanks for the suggestion GK:

Touchstones and Keepsakes: Chinatown’s New Orleans in L.A.

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A FEW months back, I’d heard word about a spot opening up in Chinatown that was going to bring a little bit of New Orleans to L.A. It got my hopes up, but I also knew to be sure to be a bit measured with my expectations. We’ve been disappointed before. Frankly New Orleans is difficult to get right — the accent as well as the food.

Slipping into Little Jewel back in August, I saw from the start that this was going to be different. Strikingly so. Since then,
I’ve been following the evolution of this market/deli and rendezvous for the last six months.

For many transplanted New Orleanians it’s already become a freeway-close home away from home.

You can click here to find my piece about Chinatown’s Little Jewel of New Orleans.

Executive Chef Marcus Christiana-Beniger greets customers at The Little Jewel of New Orleans -- photo by Lynell George

Executive Chef Marcus Christiana-Beniger greets customers at The Little Jewel of New Orleans — photo by Lynell George