ELYSIAN FIELDS LOST
Some discussion about death is appropriate at this juncture as this work nears its end now. After all, I have been talking about people in New Orleans, so it's only right that I talk a little while about what people in New Orleans always seem to be talking about in one way or another - life and what lays beyond life. So, about life, let me just say that there seems to be some kind of undetectable, spiritual law or property to our human lives on earth which dictates that we'll not rest a day while we're here. Something sacred or otherwise makes each day a new battle for so many of us everywhere. As children, we long to stay in bed for just a couple of more hours when it comes time to get up in the morning for school (or, if you're unlucky enough to have been born in an underdeveloped country, for work). As adults, we find most of our waking hours (which seem to be getting more and more as the world becomes more and more industrialized) spent hard at work. Even when we relax, it takes quite a bit of effort in these increasingly more modern times. And we wonder when the hell it's all supposed to get easier. And we realize that it doesn't ever really get easier; we only think that it's supposed to get easier because that's what we have continuously been told by our parents and forefathers who were themselves always told the same.
And in a world where life is a struggle most of the time for this reason or that, it doesn't help to be trapped in a part of it where the simplest things which are normally taken for granted in the Western World are made into complicated obstacles for one to negotiate one's way through unnecessarily, as if only to purposefully try to make life as hard as possible. New Orleans is just such a place. There, it should come as no surprise if you find your telephone service habitually interrupted for reasons as mysterious to South Central Bell as they are to you. Also, because of the very poor quality of worker skill and competence in the area, common are such problems as meter readers from the local utility company, New Orleans Public Service, Inc., who confuse accounts for long periods of time and cause some customers to unwarily pay other customers' bills and vice-versa. If the error causes them to pay less than would have normally been the case, then, because of NOPSI's mistake, the customers who pay less are forced to pay back the difference so that refunds can be paid to the others. (I was always taught that if I was the one to make a mistake, then I was the one who should pay for it - I guess that doesn't apply to big corporations who have their communities at their mercy because of the monopoly that they hold on critical area services.) And if the U.S. Postal Service is thought to be inefficient in other parts of the country, it goes without saying just how inferior the quality of its service is in the greater New Orleans metropolitan area. New Orleans should be called the "Big Hassle" instead of the "Big Easy" (or maybe the "Big Hustle" would be more accurate). Things are far from ever being easy there!
What a shame that nobody there really gives a damn about how much the quality of life has decayed. It seems that the people who could really make a big difference there are the ones who are only interested in making money off the place. This is very peculiar because those are the people who could be most adversely affected by the incompetence, like that of the local utility and telephone companies. But, then again, the quality of the local businessman in New Orleans is such that he wouldn't ever know any better whether the quality of support for business there was conducive or not to his particular needs. Well, for all of those who might be interested, your first hint that it's time to leave New Orleans is when your grammar starts going to pot. When that starts happening, abandon ship, or abandon all hope, ye who stick around there! Something just seems to be there that stifles ingenuity and industriousness, lingering perpetually in the atmosphere and smothering productivity and individual initiative.
And like begets like. I was always repulsed to hear some new-comer to the city insist that New Orleans' culture is the primary reason for his or her choosing to live there. For these types of empty, unartful people, it is the place that contributes to them, not them contributing to a place. They are the kind who need to find a place, like New Orleans, to give them something to base their identities on and to fulfill that which they lack. These people never complement existing conditions, they just dilute what's already there. And these people are big losers if they come to New Orleans thinking that there's something that makes the place interesting which will rub off on them if they stay long enough. There isn't, and such people stay just as boring and culturally devoid as before they ever came down.
Seeking uniqueness and/or identity in New Orleans is really a lost cause. New Orleans is nothing unique because, like in the rest of America, it's culture is simply the product of the fusing of all the cultures which had a hand in establishing New Orleans. Many people argue against this point until they're all purple-faced, but from a purely objective view, places like Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Omaha, Nebraska could be considered just as unique as New Orleans, Louisiana. At least in those two places the "cultures" are vivid and unquestionably American. Perhaps that's why the people of those places tend to turn out a good day's work and a few sharp thinkers every now and again. In contrast, New Orleans' muddy, grey, cultural chyme may be what gags any regular semblance of intelligence and industry among its indigenous population - a lot of them just really lack objective thinking powers!
It could very well be that the lack of objective thinking powers is a side-effect of all the subjective dreaming that always goes on there. Maybe they daydream so much that they can't pay attention to what they're doing. (Not all of them, of course - -just the majority of them.) There is, in fact, a strong artistic presence in New Orleans. I think it must be this very thing - this mood - which has helped to foster the things that come the closest to being unique about New Orleans, like Jazz, Creole cooking and all the other highlights of New Orleans' "culture" which have resulted from the mishmash of foreign influences introduced so long ago. I suppose I have to confess then that, when it comes to art, there's a definite force in gear there.
Art is one major way that we communicate our misgivings about life, death and ourselves. But art and its rendering is one of only a few aspects of New Orleans or any other place about which I feel it would be better for us all to just keep our opinions to ourselves. Consulting several dictionaries, I have managed to arrive at a general definition about the meaning of art; it is human skill as opposed to nature - skills applied to graphic, musical and performance-oriented creations, as well as other forms of creative human endeavor. Art is a very hard thing to render sound, popular judgments about. It is so subjective by nature that it is virtually impossible to label as good or bad. Maybe this is why so many people can't accurately read New Orleans and understand it for what it really is. It possesses a powerfully artful camouflage.
Well, whether we can tell what's art or not, we can all tell what inadequacies we seem to have. But a lot of us tend to forget that we all have strengths, too. Some of us may seem to have more strengths than inadequacies, but I believe that we really are all created equal. Those of us who think we've got more than our fair share of inadequacies should stop to really examine closely just what it is that we think makes us inadequate when compared to our fellow humans. It is my belief that we all do have real shortcomings, but what one might perceive as being one of those real shortcomings may, in fact, simply be an illusion fabricated by popular misconception. That is, some are indeed real, but I would venture to say that the majority of them are actually just human creations without any real affect on what makes a person good or bad, whole or unsound. What we need to do is to inventory all of our strengths and all of our inadequacies on a personal level, because they're all relevant. When we each do that within reasonably sound measures, I'm sure that everyone would be able to see that there exists a balance of strengths and weaknesses in each one of us! They may not be those strengths and weaknesses which we would ideally like to possess, but what's important is that we all have some of each, and that there is an equilibrium between the good and the bad in us. For every shortfall, physical or otherwise, there surely is a talent or some aspect to each person that makes that person just as good and just as bad as the next. The problem is the value with which all of us credit the good aspects, and the amount of negativity we assign to the bad or undesirable aspects (aspects which were identified long, long ago as being "bad" or "undesirable," such as ways among us that make one another uncomfortable, and individual characteristics, physical or otherwise, which create feelings of inferiority because they're not like the rest in one way or another). When you have an equal measure of two substances, one may appear to be less than the other if it is not as salient. A pound of brass is not equal to a pound of gold in Western society. The gold is more highly valued, even though brass is much more useful. This is not logical; it's a human thing. Anyone who has ever held a position of employment knows about the "adda'boy syndrome" (one mistake can erase a dozen or more adda'boys in a single blow!). It's a psycho-sociological fact that we, as people, are far more inclined to take note of the negative in a person than the positive (maybe because we're all so wrapped up in ourselves, each one of us thinking himself or herself more correct or somehow better than the next person, looking for the negative side in others because we don't think that we have much of any negative side to us.)
Again, this human thing that binds us all together may be like a cancer to the human race, causing internal stress as it highlights failure and makes success short-lived. Man has never fought element or animal as much as he has fought himself. Today, a swarm of locusts can be poisoned, a rabid dog can be shot, a storm can be tracked and warnings sent out, but the thing which seems to be the most feared by most people cannot be detected, nor illuminated. That thing is failure. And this dreaded thing, made most salient by our human thing, brings about mankind's worst enemy - himself! What can be done about a person, so devastated by failure, that he doesn't care if he lives or dies? What can protect against him when misery, amplified by the human thing, brings him to tote a loaded shotgun into a post office where he kills as many people as he can before he himself is brought down?
Along those lines, there is nothing that should be feared more on earth than the person who has been convinced that his or her life should be expended for any reason, despair or allegiance to a cause or what have you. These mentalities are more terrifying than any disease or hurricane. Their actions are, for the most part, unpredictable, coming with virtually no warning, whereas a hurricane will show up on radar before it wipes out populated coastal areas, and a disease usually causes symptoms to occur. The person driven by desperation is the incarnation of failure, and he or she can't be seen until the failure manifests itself. The man or woman bent on surrendering his or her life for a cause, however, can be detected. Of the two types, the one who feels useless and determined to escape the pressure of failing by taking out some people with him or her is the one to be most afraid of. (What a shame that he or she is the one type of person against whom we have the least defense.) Maybe this is some perverse way that our human nature is sending us a message. Maybe it's trying to tell us to lighten up on ourselves and not to take it all so seriously (and not to make others take it so seriously), or we'll be sorry! Those types of people are effective in delivering this message; surprise is their guardian angel, and the aftershock of what they do - sometimes more effective than their actual doings - is their ghost which lingers and haunts, keeping the message loud and clear after it's all over. But we just don't seem to bother to pay any attention to it at all, and we pay and pay and pay for ignoring it. If we're too stupid to listen to death itself, a co-author of this message, then maybe we really do deserve all the grief that we get for being humans!
Isn't it curious how ignorant we are about death, even though it sends us messages like that all the time? Perhaps it's safe to say that nothing's pondered quite as much as the subject of death in nearly every human society. (It really is a curse to be so cognizant of that thing we call "dying.") And let's face it, the only real reason we fear anything at all (besides pain, I suppose) is because of the threat of dying. Death must be the root of fear then. But the only thing scary about dying is what that occurrence is really all about, and how unknown it is to us. We should focus on what we do know about it to alleviate any fears we may have of it. For instance, for those who suffer - which is probably most of us - death gives us the chance to finally be free of our suffering. It is the only door we can see which leads out of this big mess we suffer in. Death is the ultimate savior; it is the transformation that occurs after enough is finally enough for us. Within the scope of the natural right to justice which so many American politicians in the past have so urgently noted belongs to all people by some naturally occurring virtue, death is finally delivered by higher powers than those we can see. Death tells each one of us when we're finished with planet earth, for whatever reasons we are forced to have life here, be it a test of some spiritual sort, a stage in our human growth, or any other notion or theory which can be contrived.
It seems as if death is not ours to invoke; it is not a choice meant for us to exercise. There seems to be an overwhelming consensus in most human societies concerning the premature calling of death by murder or suicide, a consensus which has been arrived at through some other avenue of communication which can't be described in objective terms. We somehow get the impression that death is not our option and that there are penalties involved in calling upon it before it is due, penalties whose nature is as unknown to us as their source, but penalties which we are sure exist for some reason, nonetheless. I can think of no rational explanation for this consensus except that it must be founded in some truth because, had the truth behind it never existed in the first place, it could never have given rise to our suspicions, feelings and otherwise non-empirical observations concerning it.
For those who excessively fear death's inevitable visitation upon them, I offer a question: Where were you before you were ever born? I'm sure everybody would answer this question by saying that they have no idea, or they can't remember or they otherwise don't know. Of course, there are those who make the claim that they can remember being in their mothers' wombs, but they usually make those claims through hypnosis acts or other questionable techniques that make money for them or other people. But no one, I'm sure, can recall a memory, bogus or not, about pre-womb existence, save all the talk about reincarnation and the like. I propose that death, at its very worst, is an existence - or lack thereof - similar to that before birth. I wouldn't say that such a condition is good per se, but it certainly wouldn't be bad or unpleasant. It would just be nothing, if you can have nothing (which seems a little paradoxical, hence our promulgation of religious beliefs to clear it all up).
Looking at it all eclectically, we can lump birth and death into the same category then. Of the cultures that recognize birth and death as being separate, as differentiated by nouns or verbs or whatever, some may or may not recognize that there's something between them. I'm from the Western World, so naturally I do. I recognize what we in the West call "life," or all the stuff in the middle. In fact, a lot of us look at life as being composed of a limited series of events or stages of progression. Though a lot of us number these stages differently, we seem to all have a few basics in mind. We all see that first there comes birth, then there's childhood, then adulthood, etc., until we come to old age and finally death which is like the caboose on a train which a lot of people are hoping will be as long as the ones that usually cut them off on the roads when they're trying to get somewhere on time (except that there's no guy in this one for the kids to wave at from the backseat as it passes by). I see birth and death as the same thing in reverse. Childhood and old age sometimes seem to be the same thing in reverse, too, when you stop to consider all the things that young children have in common with old folks - a lot of them, infants and the extremely aged, are helpless and need the aid of others. But, as we are only sure of birth and death, we pay the most attention to them. And of those two, we pay the most attention to death since we've all been through birth already and it's no biggy to us anymore by the time we get to the point where we're thinking about our futures.
All this thinking about death must be how some are able to endure hard times and suffering, knowing that it will all end someday. This is also probably why so many fear death, because they have good lives to enjoy and they will be sorry to have to leave life for some condition that they're not sure of. The thought of turning into nothing - in earthly terms - really has a lot of them worried. A lot of people would feel so much better about death if they had some proof that it didn't mean a complete end to their existence. To them I offer something else: That a person can laugh, even during the most wicked suffering, such as was with the Jews in Nazi concentration camps in World War II, and such as was with the black slaves in the Old South, is proof in itself that the human soul is immortal, destined to someday realize that it's never as bad as it seems sometimes, and that life will soon enough be an event which will come to pass for all of us and leave us all in a fresh, new state of being. Perhaps then we'll be able to look back on it all and laugh a little.
While we're on earth, however, we necessarily need to concern ourselves with life - the stuff in the middle. And, just because we're able to make our way through rough goings, it doesn't mean that we always have to accept the situation. If you have the choice of avoiding an intolerably uncomfortable situation, then do it and make life easier on yourself! And if others do consistently warn of such situations, listen to them! That's one of the saving graces of being alive - we have the prior experiences of others to draw on and guide us. I cannot stress enough how unfortunate it is that not everyone seems smart enough to pay attention to the prior experiences of those who have gone before them.
And on that note, if you're one of the smart ones, you'll take heed when I and others tell you that New Orleans, indeed all of Louisiana, is one of those situations that you'll plain want to avoid, if for any reason you might be contemplating moving in that direction on any permanent basis. That place is very dangerous and it will consume you. One has little protection against it except for taking avoidance measures towards it. There really is no way to win there, just to break even (though that often masquerades as accomplishment). Unless you live around the lakefront area, you'll be lucky to get a few consecutive nights of good sleep in New Orleans because of all the sirens, house alarms, loud groups of kids wandering the streets, and other such disturbances which one normally would only associate with the likes of New York City or Los Angeles. And don't think calling on one of the least professional police forces in the country helps much with burglaries, car thefts, muggings and such. The New Orleans Police Department is true to its acronym: N.O.P.D. (no police department)! If as many New Orleans police officers were out patrolling the streets as there are at any given time loitering around bars and donut shops, then there might possibly develop a decrease in violent crime there. But, as it stood throughout the late 1980s and at least part of the early 1990s, New Orleans had the distinction of having the highest per capita rate of handgun-related crimes in North America. It would probably help enormously even if the police there, as a whole, were just to start looking and acting more like professional law enforcement officers, rather than foul-mouthed, overweight cab drivers in police uniform. N.O.P.D. just really offers no refuge from the veritable anarchy in that city.
Perhaps it's just that my expectations of certain things, like police departments, are too high. I've learned that it can be terribly disappointing to have expectations of anything ideal. That is, it's simply futile to say "My idea of the perfect (FILL IN THE BLANK) is . . . ." It's better to just take what's available and to improve on it if you can. But then it's just as futile to be totally indifferent about things which may not live up to ideal standards. For example, one may have an idea of what one's dream house is going to be like someday. But if one can't be flexible and accept something which is less than ideal, then try to improve on it to get it as close to ideal as possible, then that person is doomed to disappointment. At the same time, if someone is resigned to living in any old, roach-infested shack without trying to make it as comfortable for people as it is for the roaches, then that person is headed for the same thing. I view New Orleans as that roach-infested shack that nobody ever bothered to straighten up at all. Maybe shack isn't the right word; maybe barn would be better. But no matter what you call it, the roaches seem quite comfortable living there, especially the giant brown ones that fly in off the trees and buzz around the kitchen table while you're trying to eat! They don't call those things "roaches" in New Orleans, they call them "palmetto bugs" (like there's some kind of big difference between them or something). They sure do look like roaches, though, with the same old twitchy antennae and legs and everything. And, like roaches, they know what humans use house shoes for when roach-like things are around!
Just as the roaches were among the only things to completely live through the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those big roaches will probably be the only things to survive the next really big hurricane which is predicted to hit the New Orleans area. They say the big one will leave twenty feet of water standing in parts of the city. Well, try to imagine twenty feet of water standing in your front yard. Buildings would be flooded up past the second story. Automobiles and garbage dumpsters would be floating around everywhere. Transportation would stop altogether, with the exception of an occasional rowboat going from place to place. No fire or police protection would be accessible, and certainly no public transportation could be relied on. But that would be okay - New Orleans residents are used to unreliable public services like those anyway, especially when it comes to the RTA's buses and streetcars.
Back before the RTA introduced rate hikes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it used to be that New Orleans had one of the least expensive public transportation systems to ride on in the U.S. when compared to cities of the same size. This was appreciated, even though it was common knowledge that the service was far under any average standard for similarly sized cities in America. With the introduction of higher passenger rates - rates which made riding with RTA just as costly as riding any other big metro busline - the RTA system suddenly became just as raw a deal as any other that was offered by the city to its public. And the crabby bus drivers made it a doubly worse deal! (If you ever find yourself unfortunate enough to be on a New Orleans bus or streetcar, don't try asking the driver any questions, and especially don't go asking any questions while pointing at things out the window, or you may draw back a bloody stub!) Of course, I'd be pretty crabby too if I had to negotiate a large vehicle around those streets all day for a living.
Moreover, those people who managed to save a few pennies while the RTA's rates were still reasonably compatible with their lousy service, still had to contend with the banks and their lousy services to save them up! Here's a choice example of what I'm talking about: Although it might be a rather mundane function of any bank to count change brought in to it by a customer, it is a frustratingly difficult task in New Orleans. I once had a little neighbor boy who lived with his parents in my apartment house. This kid was quite a collector, and he loved to display all the various things that he made a hobby out of collecting to anyone who would show even the slightest interest in them (or who was unlucky enough to be his neighbor). As it just so happened, my young neighbor saved his pennies, just like Ben Franklin said to do. One summer afternoon, as I was returning from taking advantage of a day off by running some long-needed errands, my little friend from next-door approached me with a request to take him to the bank so he could cash in his sizable supply of cents. After imploring him to have his mother call me up to okay the plan, and after receiving her call and blessing to do so (I could just imagine getting hit with kidnapping charges otherwise!), we were off to my bank down on St. Charles Avenue, First NBC of New Orleans.
Saving coins when you're a kid and cashing them in at the bank must be some kind of American rite of passage. I remember well saving up change in purple felt Crown Royal bags. I would wait until they were stuffed and heavy, then I would take them to any one of a couple of banks nearby. (The first time I ever did this, I was living with my mother in the Midwest.) At the bank that was lucky enough to get all that good change I brought them, they would greet me with a smile and delight in seeing how amazed I was that all they had to do was to dump my change into a large silver machine which promptly and accurately counted it (I knew they were accurate because I would always count the change myself before bringing it in, stacking the coins in tall, wobbly pillars just like Donald Duck's old Uncle Scrooge did in Disney cartoons). Of course, I told my little friend all about this marvelous mechanized miracle which would take place with his pennies. He couldn't wait!
At the bank, after we stood in a poorly routed line for over forty-five minutes, a less-than-interested teller bluntly informed us that the bank just didn't count change like that. We were told that the change would first have to be counted, then the amount would have to be put on a deposit-slip to be deposited into an account. Later on, the account would be adjusted if there was a discrepancy between what was written on the slip and the amount the bank came up with after the change got counted at a downtown branch that was equipped with the machines to do the counting. I was floored. The boy was sorely disappointed.
Well, we went back home and called a few other banks in the area to see where we could have my prophesy to the child fulfilled. The people at the Whitney National Bank just down the avenue from my First NBC said they could do it, but that we needed an account with them. We needed an account with them? (I guess they were afraid that we might bring in three tons of counterfeit pennies or something!) Pretty much every bank was like that though, and we needed an account with them in order to perform this childhood rite of passage. I should have figured!
I think the poor kid finally got his pennies cashed. I believe he said the total came to about $16.00, if I remember right. What a shame that he had to miss out on the whir of those wonderful machines, though. What a shame that any kid has to "come up" in New Orleans. (It should be strictly reserved for the adults screwing it up all the time!)
That ordeal with the banks and my neighbor boy's pennies just serves as yet another example of how life in New Orleans is an arduous series of you can'ts. You can't own a car in most areas of that town without having to live with the fear of getting it or the radio in it stolen (that's most places, not just in one or two particularly seedy areas of it like in most other big American cities); you can't buy everything you need with one stop at a single grocery store because it seems that the people who manage stores there just don't know how to stock them fully, or there are circumstances which they all share in common that render them incapable of doing so; you can't really go out to enjoy any of the area's famous festivities anymore because you have to worry that somebody - the wrong body - will get too drunk, too stupid, or both, and start shooting in the crowd; you can't be sure that the Louisiana-based insurance company who provides coverage for anyone who may involve you in an accident won't go belly-up from corruption or incompetence before you get a chance to settle with them or to get a court judgment for damages you might suffer; you can't even be sure of which street you're turning onto because so many of them don't have signs posted to identify their names or numbers; you can't be safe, you can't be happy - you can't, you can't, you can't!
I think the old saying, "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!" was invented in New Orleans. This simple rule must be applied to all endeavors among all walks of life there, from garage sales to city government. You can't seem to be able to trust anyone or any group of people there to get anything done right the first time. If you have to rely on others there for something, it's best that you rely on as few a number of them as possible because the greater the number of New Orleanians involved, the greater the chances are that all communication will be blown, and that the task, no matter how simple, will have to be done over again or it will go unattended for as long as their New Orleanian minds are allowed to remain as dormant as usual. You've got to go through the pains of riding them like horses, or they'll sit on a job indefinitely sometimes.
This is particularly evident with New Orleans city government. Shortly after I finished my undergraduate work, I went to work for the mayor's office. I could barely stand it a little more than a year before I had to hand in my resignation - and this after successfully enduring two army tours! Communication in New Orleans City Hall did exist then, but in no observable standard form or set procedure. Memos flew between offices via fax and courier when I was there, but they sometimes went ignored, even when they concerned very important matters, and even when followed up by several phone calls. It was a mess! I'm sure it still is (old habits, after all). Even an outsider could have just walked in off Perdido Street and seen how bad it was. City Hall wasn't too old of a building then, but it was so poorly maintained that it was very uncomfortable to even walk through, let alone remain cooped up in for the greater part of the workday. Hardly a single drinking fountain was working (most of them were full of cigarette butts and gum wrappers), and three or four times each summer the air-conditioning would break down, forcing the elected leadership to close City Hall and to send everybody home for health and safety reasons. (Imagine being a businessperson dealing with a city government that completely closes down periodically with absolutely no notice, or imagine working for that government in offices located elsewhere for strategic reasons, and trying to get any work done when that happens. The appropriate word which should spring to mind is impossible.)