Archive for the ‘Letters From New Orleans book’ Category

61ZvilK6XZL._SL500_AA240_Surely you’ve been hearing about the book version of Josh Neufeld’s online comic for SmithMag.net, A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge. It’s been getting lots of press, and Josh is off on a big book tour to support it right now. The book tells the during-and-after Katrina stories of several very different New Orleanians. Check it out.

One passing note of interest to those of you who read Letters From New Orleans. You may recall from the essay “Luncheon,” a cameo by a fellow named Brobson Lutz, who both wrote one of the anguished letters about the firing of a Galatoire’s waiter — and then participated as a performer in a sort of satirical play based on those anguished letters. Well, Lutz is one of the characters in A.D — he’s mostly referred to as “The Doctor.” I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to reveal that Lutz’ first appearance in the book, as well as his final one, both find him at … Galatoire’s.

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[NOTE: We’re coming up now on the fourth anniversary of Katrina, meaning soon there will be a new round of books and essays and TV segments and so on.  Before all that kicks in I have decided to re-publish this essay, was originally written when the city was still reeling from the flood. I revised it a bit to include as the afterword for the second edition of Letters from New Orleans. That’s the version below.  Maybe I should wait and put this up on the day of the anniversary itself, but what I had to say when I wrote this wasn’t meant for anniversaries. It was — and is — meant for every day. For any day. Today, for instance.]


(Or, Regarding Katrina)

A month or so after the first edition of Letters From New Orleans was published, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Because of the book, I was asked by various news outlets to write about or comment on this event and, for lack of a better word, its “meaning.” The specific nature of the request varied. Somebody wanted me to talk about “the arts and culture of New Orleans.” Somebody else wanted me to write something on the “psyche” of the place, in a way that would “draw a picture of the world that lives, fatalistically but also optimistically, with the proximity of natural disaster.” Mostly they wanted an explanation of what it is that makes New Orleans different. Again: they wanted meaning.

As Katrina’s eye passed just east of the city early on a Monday morning, August 28, I was on an airplane from Newark to Las Vegas. I was headed, for professional reasons, to an apparel-industry trade show. We had long since moved from New Orleans to New Jersey, but because of friends in Louisiana and a very acute awareness of all the things that make New Orleans different, I was worried and distracted. When I landed, the early word on the hurricane was that, for New Orleans at least, things looked better than expected. I spent the next several hours hustling around Vegas’s enormous convention center, in a strange bubble where the only news that circulated was about the authenticity of some hipster street-wear line or gossip about the hottest “urban” brands.

Meanwhile, the news in the real world was changing. In a hotel room, I watched events unfold on television. People were stranded. There was looting. By Tuesday morning there was word that at least one levee had failed and water was now rising through the city.  It was clear to me, at this point, that a nightmare was unfolding. It was at about this time that the requests for an explanation of New Orleans, its special-ness, and its meaning, began to arrive in greater numbers. It looked to me as if there were quite likely hundreds or maybe thousands of people who were going to die in their attics in poor, mostly black neighborhoods; the rule of law was collapsing; a majority of the city was now said to be flooded; there was no word on when power might be restored; even the hundreds of thousands who did get out of the city were now in an open-ended homeless and jobless limbo. I did not feel like explaining New Orleans. I felt like crying.

Many times it has been pointed out that New Orleans is different from most places partly because it is surrounded by water and has lived for hundreds of years with the possibility of just this kind of disaster. Perhaps, it has often been speculated, there is a connection between this and the city’s almost un-American joie de vivre; at the very least, there is something of the fatalistic in the juxtaposition of the good-time life and the constant threat of destruction. That may all be correct. It may also be correct that the perfect metaphor for this carnivalesque place is the mask, a constructed façade that hides another and quite possibly much less attractive identity. Obviously, these are notions I have explored myself, in this book..

Many people think of New Orleans as a picturesque vacation town, a zone in which to act wild and crazy for a time in an atmosphere appropriately soaked in the carefree, the possibly dangerous, and the authentic. The aftermath of Katrina, I suspected in the days after the storm, would have the effect on many people of feeling that they had seen a mask fall away.

Certainly anyone who has lived in or really knows New Orleans already would have known that behind the beauty of the French Quarter and the Garden District lay a sprawling and sometimes desperate underclass. Generally this fact is mentioned only in the “arts and culture” context, as a backdrop to, say, the creation of jazz, or more recently the rise of several major rap stars. But clearly it is just as true in a socio-economic context: the city has long been full of people living in brutal poverty; the city has long been full of cheap violence.

I was back at home in Jersey City by late Tuesday night, watching with anyone else who cared just how badly things can fall apart. It was hard to believe the city that care forgot could disintegrate into chaos and misery. It made me angry and it broke my heart. I had written many words about what it is that I think makes New Orleans special, different, unique. I had written them in tones of love, and I have meant them all. Now I wondered, however, if thinking about what sets New Orleans apart was, while understandable, somehow the wrong thing to do.

If a mask was falling away, it seemed to me that the attempt to localize what we saw was also an attempt to be distant from it. That is a comfortable approach to take, but it is also a misleading approach. It is comfortable to acknowledge brutal poverty and cheap violence in New Orleans, rather than to acknowledge brutal poverty and cheap violence in the United States. And it is comfortable to think that there must be something different about the people of New Orleans because they were so willing to live right on the edge of mortality; they must have some strange penchant for denial.

But we all live on the edge of mortality. A penchant for denial is the most un-strange thing in the world. Masks are a routine function of daily life – and they were of course precisely the thing being sold at that Las Vegas apparel convention that I was so anxious to escape. A penchant for denial is what allows most of us to gossip about fashion or search for meaning or otherwise go about our business in one city, while the social contract dissolves and trapped people die of thirst in another.

Disasters, large and small, natural or otherwise, are always proximate. Learning to live with that is not what sets the people of New Orleans apart; it is what binds them to us all. More than any of the many things about the city that are special, unique, irreplaceable, this is the reason you should care about New Orleans, and its people, and their future.

imagesThis essay is adapted from one that first appeared on openDemocracy, and subsequently became the afterword to the second edition of Letters From New Orleans. All author proceeds from Letters From New Orleans (still) go to relief-oriented nonprofits in that city.

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Wow! It’s been a really long time since I updated no notes! Where have I been?

Mostly trying to pay bills, but there is one thing that might interest some of you: Josh Glenn and I have a little side project going called Significant Objects that we are really proud of and excited about. We have rounded up a bunch of great creative writers, and paired each with an object that one of us bought from a thrift store or yard sale for a buck or two. We get each writer to invent a story about that object — then we sell it on eBay; winning bid gets a copy of the story, too.

Participating writers we’ve already published include Luc Sante, Lucinda Rosenfeld, Lydia Millet, Matthew Sharpe, Ben Greenman, and Kurt Andersen. Coming up are Curtis Sittenfeld, Bruce Sterling, Ed Park, and … well, just too many to name. It’s been going really well and getting some cool attention. I hope you’ll check it out. In fact I hope you’ll consider bidding. We definitely need reader participation to keep the thing going. Tell a friend!

Anyway that project is sorting of getting its legs under it so I’m hoping that once I get some day-job stuff under control I can get back to the list of things that I am anxious to post/address here. There’s a lot, I just need to find the time.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans-related story news: With the Katrinaversary coming up again soon, there’s some more new New Orleans-centered books on the flood and its aftermath. I hadn’t heard about the Dave Eggers book Zeitoun until I read this WSJ writeup, but it actually sounds pretty interesting. Also sounds like Eggers has gotten involved with some local aid efforts in N.O., and that’s cool.

And on a related note, longtime friend of no notes Josh Neufeld’s book A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge is also arriving. The WSJ wrote that up, too, right here. Check it out!

I got all sentimental reading about these books and other N.O.-related stuff today and pulled Letters From New Orleans off the shelf. You know, I still think it holds up okay. And if you’re among those who believe there is more to the city than the Katrina story, well, all I can say is I feel lucky have to have completed that particular project and had my say before the whole idea of New Orleans got so tied in with the flood and its aftermath. (Which is obviously an important subject — don’t get me wrong!)

And if you’re curious, yes, it’s still the case: Even to this day, all these years later, I still repurpose my royalty checks over to relief effort organizations. It’s not like I ever could have retired on the money I would have earned from the book, and over time the checks have obviously gotten smaller — but hey, if you ever feel like sharing a version of N.O. before that hurricane, buy LfNO for a friend, and rest assured the money spent won’t be wasted on me!

I’ll be back to regularly scheduled no notes programming soon … I hope.

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And as long as I’m on the subject of Letters From New Orleans, still always a pleasure to come across evidence that people are still discovering and reading the book. To wit:

What a treat this was! To re-visit New Orleans through Rob Walker’s eyes was a wonderful experience. I enjoyed every part of this book. It had me wishing I had explored more and gotten to know more of the local people during my short stay there. Not to worry, tho, as I’m already planning a trip back…. I loved the city, and loved this book!

See Never Without A Book for a bit more.

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One more quick note on a Letters From New Orleans-related topic: Another essay in the book was about Zulu, and there’s a a piece about the famous social & pleasure club’s 100th anniversary in the NYT. It’s written for people who don’t know a thing about what a parade of costumed Zulu members is like, and includes this amusing bit about how it might seem to such an observer, at first glance:

The scene looks like something from an old social studies filmstrip about stereotypes and how to avoid them, the kind of thing that crops up today mostly in news accounts involving students being expelled from school.

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This sounds kind of cool: an exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum on the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which is celebrating its 100th year. T-P:

The exhibit, titled “From Tramps to Kings: 100 Years of Zulu,” fleshes out the club’s rich history, from its beginning in the backroom of a bar in 1909 to a current-day club with hundreds of members. It opened to the public Saturday and runs through December.

“We have been here through world wars, police skirmishes and civil rights actions,” emcee Gralen Banks said. The club has weathered hurricanes and sweeping societal changes. Members began buck jumping to Victrolas, then LPs, eight-tracks, CDs and now MP3s. Through it all, they danced.

“And we still dance,” Banks noted.

As some of you know, ne of the essays in Letters from New Orleans was about Zulu.

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October 29, 2005

October 29, 2005

“Under The Freeway,” a story in Letters From New Orleans, is all about the Claiborne I-10 overpass, which (in)famously converted a wide and grassy neutral ground running through predominantly black neighborhoods into a dank, concrete no-man’s-zone — one that, weirdly, held onto a certain kind of social-space status despite it all.

I was interested to learn, a bit belatedly, that this past October the Congress For The New Urbanism “named the Claiborne overpass of Interstate 10 as one of 10 highways across the country that should be removed in the name of neighborhood rebirth,” according to this article. Also:

Following Hurricane Katrina, the removal of the highway was recognized in the Unified New Orleans Plan as a means of reconnecting Treme to surrounding neighborhoods in the French Quarter, Marigny and Esplanade Ridge. UNOP planners predicted the full removal of the interstate overpass would renew 35 to 40 city blocks and create 20 to 25 blocks of open space along Claiborne Avenue. But since the UNOP declaration no plans have been made to tear down the overpass and local officials have said nothing to imply support for the costly maneuver.

Part of  my standard spiel when we had visitors to N.O. was to point out the history of the overpass, and the curious persistence of its use as a social-ish space. I almost can’t imagine it being done away with. But I would certainly like to see what that area would be like, post-overpass.

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51xehdtdh8l_sl500_aa242_pikin-dp-500bottomright-738_aa280_sh20_ou01_I am really late mentioning this, but … better late than never.

If you’re a Kindle fan, or you know a Kindle fan, and somehow you or your friend have not yet read Letters From New Orleans, well, you can get the Kindle edition!

I have never used a Kindle, but a good pal of mine has one and positively raves about it.

Anyway I am excited that the book exists in this form, even if it took me a while to get around to announcing as much.

The Kindle version would be the second edition version of the book, I believe, which includes my Afterword regarding Katrina.

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13holiday-burningOne of the stories in Letters from New Orleans, “Holiday Burning,” is about bonfires in Gramercy and Lutcher, a little upriver from the city: One of those traditions whose actual reason for being is a little unclear, but that has taken on a life of its own.

Those bonfires are a very sanctioned and official sort of event. But there was another version of holiday burning closer to home that I didn’t write about: the orching of Christmas trees on New Year’s eve, on Orleans neutral ground in Mid City (very near where we lived). Supposedly this tradition has gone on for 80 years. Lamely, we never went, because we are New Year’s Eve wimps.

But by friends’ accounts it was always quite a spectacle. The most remarkable thing about it was that, while setting a huge pile of Christmas trees on fire is both an obviously dangerous activity, and hard one to keep secret, this practice somehow went on for all those decades without any official blessing from the city. (My impression is that there was certainly unofficial sanctioning of a kind, in that fire trucks were around on at least some years — making this an all the more New Orleans kind of event, something basically illegal but with the complicity of relevant authorities.)

I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear that, this year, the event finally became an open source of controversy, and the city announced a clampdown. For one thing, it just seems inevitable. I mean, come on: At some point a bonfire in a residential area is going to attract opposition. Second, my sense is that post-Katrina New Orleans is still wrestling with its identity, and there are some new, different sorts of people involved in that discussion. And third, in the last couple of years, video of the bonfire has bounced around the Web. I wouldn’t say the Internet exposed a true secret, it just made an open secret much harder to ignore.

Earlier this week, apparently, a compromise was reached:

In the past week, city public safety officials launched a campaign to shut down what they called the “illegal and dangerous” bonfire, prompting a backlash from residents who consider the towering inferno stoked by discarded Christmas trees a neighborhood tradition.

The arrangement reached Tuesday calls for a controlled fire in a 12-by-12-foot area , surrounded by a 2-foot-high metal retaining wall, Woodridge said. Barricades surrounding the retaining wall will be set back a few additional feet from the fire. A welder’s cloth will cover the ground in the designated bullpen area, designed to catch any falling embers or ash. …

Virginia Blanque, vice president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, said she and officials agreed a scaled-down bonfire is much better than no event at all.

Alex Rawls finds it somewhat “depressing” that “the city has decided that its supervision is required in a way that it never was before” — and that the neighborhood seems to be going along with the new scenario. I’m not there so I’ll skip any direct judgment, but I would say one of the things that makes unsanctioned traditions special is that their very tentativeness — the sense that it could go away at any time. Clearly the bonfires will never be the same again, but perhaps they’ll become interesting in a new way, and in any case, those bonfires of the past have just become infinitely more special in an “I can remember what it was like before” kind of way. (And I have a funny feeling that the New Orleans appetite for unsanctioned traditions will get sated in some other, new way. Just a hunch.)

And in other news, I see that this year the sanctioned Christmas bonfires upriver were marred by violence this year: Five people were shot in a “scuffle” outside The Neighborhood Bar in Lutcher.

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Seeing as how Letters from N.O. was published some time ago, it’s always a bit of a surprise when I get a nice email about the book, etc. But it’s an extra nice surprise to see it recognized by someone in a public way.

So I was pretty happy to see this column by Michael Payne, in the Daily Item.

Seems as though he decided to re-read the book (in its second edition, with the post-Katrina afterword). Please indulge me in quoting a bit from Mr. Payne’s column:

Today, after Gustav threatened the city with extinction once again, we once again have the occasion to reflect on why New Orleans matters. Here is Walker’s eloquent answer: “Disasters, large and small, natural or otherwise, are always proximate. Learning to live with that is not what sets the people of New Orleans apart; it is what binds them to us all. More than any of the many things about the city that are special, unique, irreplaceable, this is the reason you should care about New Orleans, and its people, and their future.”

Whether New Orleans for you is a memory or simply a dream city, this book of “Letters for New Orleans” is sure to give you pleasure.

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