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Keeping it Real in New Orleans 

OK, getting ready for what was coming next, words like these came floating back in fragments: ""It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going ... years of radio and ... television must have this impact. Communications must destroy localness by a slow, inevitable process. Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech. ... For with local accent will disappear local tempo. The idioms, the figures of speech that make language rich and full of the poetry of place and time must go. And in their place will be a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless. ... Of course the Deep South holds on by main strength to its regional expressions, just as it holds and treasures some other anachronisms, but no region can hold out for long against the highway, the high-tension line, and the national television ..."

The words are courtesy of John Steinbeck, who once hauled home a Nobel Prize for his writing. The age of those words was impressive. They are from Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, a non-fictional work subtitled In Search of America, and they were written in 1960.

In the near half-century since Steinbeck went traveling in search of American, things have " as he feared and foresaw " become ever more standardized and tasteless. This can be known by the testimony of everybody who comes here from Fresno or Washington or Indianapolis and says how unique we are. We sound different and eat different and think different and it's like so cool.

Then a certain number of those who've come from Fresno or Washington or Indianapolis stay here and after an enlightening six months or so, they know all about how we sound and eat and think. Sort of like we were a sparkling primitive culture that anyone can absorb in a short time because, after all, we are so, well, primitive.

So the absorbers become the exports and then they can explain us to television, which is what reality aspires to. And after a few 'lagniappes" and 'gumbo parties" get thrown around, we smile and nod and say how Hollywood finally 'gets" us. Or would truly 'get" us if only they were shrewd and generous enough to hire moi as a script advisor/regular character.

Thus we edge closer " some are pushed " to becoming a cliché of ourselves. A theme park for the soulless, all local tempos sucked out of the place and the only buses running the streets of town don't go to Mazant or Lake Vista or the Refinery, but are merely tour buses fat with gawkers from Fresno or Washington or Indianapolis. They are not, Steinbeck would be the first to note, full of the poetry of place and time.

" "

There are kids on the sidewalk gazing up at us with puzzled wonder. Each looked like a grocery clerk perusing the top shelf for a certain brand.

Truthfully, we must be a sight for kid eyes. Guys looking at old age coming or going, guys sporting shirts of odd and garish colors, guys flush with drink and sun.

We are gathered here in front of Henry's Bar on Magazine, in front of a New Orleans neighborhood bar with New Orleans neighborhood people. Maybe not all of them live in a New Orleans neighborhood any more; their parents or their children moved them first to Jefferson, then to St. Tammany, now maybe even Baton Rouge or Baltimore or Berkeley. Yet their consciences or their recollections or their souls are still here, so today they are standing in front of Henry's on Magazine Street. Doing a New Orleans thing.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's supposed to be about a football game and you know how that can be in these days of all sports all day long. But these guys all originate in a New Orleans neighborhood, and that means the game matters, maters deep, but, hey, it's a game, right? Between sips of a Bloody Mary cloaked in pepper, a guy in a purple-and-gold shirt is talking of the first half of yesterday's game. 'Know what was great about the first half? How much the jaws were hanging on all those obnoxious LSU fans."

The brass band kicks it off with the sweet-childish melody that sings so clearly to New Orleans psyches: 'Just A Little While To Stay Here." From inside the parade, from the crunch street, a few spectators can be seen on sidewalk or porch. Some faces are enigmatic but more are alive with good-humored envy. Good-humored because we the marchers are not slimmer than you, nor handsomer. Only today we are readier than you to just throw the script away to the Movie of Our Lives. Maybe next weekend, you will be the one dancing in the streets, in a tux or a bra or a Foghorn Loghorn costume and I'll be the one on the sidewalk grinning like a mope and happy for ya, you crazy bastard.

From outside the parade, from the genteel indifference of the sidewalk or porch, you can see the guys in the Tulane jerseys grunting behind the shiny red wheelbarrows bulging with guys in LSU jerseys. And straggling alongside ladies wearing hair dye and high heels who've seen too many street parades and kids wearing face paint who've seen too few. All delighted to be where they are, above the laws and conventions for an afternoon. Small laws, small conventions, but here to be ignored.

And from the outside, if you look carefully enough, you can see on the carefree faces of the marchers a care that you came, a begging to be begged for beads.

In the final block, the wheelbarrows are set down and the Tulane guys get in and the LSU are the ones who do a little pushing. The brass band gets after it one more time and more than one thought is tossed to Norby, who started the wheelbarrow race at his bar, and John Hainkel and all the other neighborhood guys who can't be with us anymore because there's just a little while to stay here. But something of theirs was still here, showing us how to dance and how not to take any of this too seriously.

Mr. Steinbeck wept for disappearing local tempo almost 50 years ago. No region can hold out long against the highway, the high-tension line and the national television, he said.

He should see us give our best shot.

click to enlarge In his book Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck wept for disappearing local tempo almost 50 years ago. "No region can hold out long against the highway, the high-tension line and the national television,' he said. He should see us give our best shot.
  • In his book Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck wept for disappearing local tempo almost 50 years ago. "No region can hold out long against the highway, the high-tension line and the national television,' he said. He should see us give our best shot.
click to enlarge views-virgets-16272.jpeg
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