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Friday, January 5, 2018

Meet the sociologist who lived among New Orleans squatters and street performers

Posted By on Fri, Jan 5, 2018 at 2:37 PM

click to enlarge COURTESY PETER J. MARINA
  • COURTESY PETER J. MARINA

Peter J. Marina is a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. But after a summer spent doing research for his book Down and Out in New Orleans, his resume now includes time as a bartender, a street poet and a mime.

Marina, who grew up eating Bunny Bread and mayonnaise sandwiches as a working-class kid in Gentilly, set out to spend time learning about life on the "urban social fringes" of contemporary New Orleans, where people find ways to live creative lifestyles while navigating the structural problems and economic difficulties of a changing city. From the people he met along the way, he learned how to work as a mime, how much money those tap-dancing kids make and what makes a good squat house (helpful hints: pick a spot not too close to occupied houses, with a front and back door in case there's a fire).

"[I was] just kind of hanging out with people who were living this downtrodden kind of lifestyle," Marina says, "[learning] how people carve out these transgressive lifestyles, on the social fringes of a postmodern kind of city."

Marina presents the book that resulted from his research at a reading at Octavia Books Jan. 11 and Barnes & Noble in Metairie Jan. 13. At his readings, he'll explain how the project mirrors George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, the English writer's famous account of living poor in major European cities.

"You had all these other literary figures writing about bourgeois society in 1920s Paris, and while they're doing that, Orwell [is] ... working as a dishwasher and just living life," Marina says. "If Paris was like the bourgeois bohemia of the time, New Orleans is kind of like that."

For his project, Marina enlisted an economist friend to help him recreate the financial conditions of Orwell's young life. He arrived in New Orleans with just a few possessions, a pair of shoes, the clothes he was wearing and about $100. He then got a job bartending on Bourbon Street and set about meeting colorful characters such as sideshow artist Eric Odditorium, the street performer Tim the Gold Man, and a group of occultists, who he joined as they took mushrooms for an anti-gris-gris ceremony in Barataria Swamp.

Marina is careful to say the book does not aspire to recreate the experience of being poor. Rather, this project was specifically meant to reproduce the conditions of Orwell's book, while taking a look at how people carry out alternative lifestyles and find unconventional  work as they navigate some of the forces currently exerting local change.

The book also features discussions of gentrification's effect on New Orleans' black communities, and insights from time spent talking to brass band players and people at second lines. And Marina is mostly dismissive of "hipsters," who he says can be insensitive to the realities of poverty and flippant about their threat to long-established local cultures.

"I distinguish between the hipsters who live these type of musical lifestyles ... and [other] people in New Orleans, especially the locals, who really are getting the short end of the stick," he says.

"[This book is about] how people live creatively. When we read about poor people, especially in sociological journals, they're always leading these mundane existences. ... I found quite the contrary. You actually have all of these creative people, doing very clever things."

Marina reads from and signs his book at 6 p.m. Jan. 11 at Octavia Books and 1:30 p.m. Jan. 13 at Barnes and Noble in Metairie. It's free to attend.

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