Archive for the ‘Letters From New Orleans book’ Category

In one of the essays in Letters From New Orleans, I made passing mention of the origins of Mardi Gras beads — murky, made in China, and beyond that I didn’t want to know the details, if you know what I mean.

Well, someone else did want to know the details.

MARDI GRAS: MADE IN CHINA follows the story of four teenage workers who sew plastic beads together with needles and thread and also pull them from a machine. Each story provides insight into their economic realities, self-sacrifice, dreams of a better life, and the severe discipline imposed by living and working in a factory compound.

More here.

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We got to spend a few days in New Orleans recently, mostly in connection with stuff E was doing at PhotoNOLA. It’s amazing how far that event has come in just a couple of years — kudos to folks like Jennifer Shaw for their determination and success. Thanks to a busy schedule and some supremely bad weather, we didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to (in fact I didn’t even manage to find time to alert some people I wanted to see that I was in town!), but we did get to catch up with a few old friends and have a bit of a look around the city. Most notably, perhaps, we accidentally encountered the Brad Pitt-backed housing going up in a section of the Lower Ninth Ward. Pretty interesting. A few days later, I find I’m thinking about when I can go back. Ah well.

Anyway, a few New Orleans-related links:

  • Here’s a post and some videos of a little Treme second-lining. Pretty entertaining. One of the things that’s certainly palpable in New Orleans right now is Saints-mania. I caught the final few minutes of the win over Atlanta in a restaurant bar, and I’ve never heard so much “Who Dat”-ing. (This was before the current, um, losing streak.)
  • Speaking of the Saints, here’s a post about “the SuperSaints power of the Ernie & Antoinette K-Doe Sofa Pillow.” Letters from New Orleans readers will guess that I am inclined to believe in this.
  • Speaking of books about New Orleans, the mightymighty BoingBoing has given a coveted guest-blogger spot to Ned Sublette, whose book about New Orleans I mentioned the other day. (I still haven’t read it.) He’s posted some nice photos, here.
  • Oh, and I guess speaking of all of the above, a quick word of thanks to Jennifer Shaw for having copies of Letters from New Orleans given to various photo-world bigshots serving as reviewers at PhotoNOLA, and to G.K. Darby for providing said copies.

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Sassy’s, originally uploaded by R. Walker.

If you recall the recent post here about New Orleans sign-painter Lester Carey, you know I’m interested in hand-painted signs on local businesses — and Savannah also has its share. Here and there I’ve taken snapshots of a few, but most as part of my Savannah MLK set, gathered in connection with the MLK BLVD project (which like this site is a spinoff from LfNO). Examples above and below.

Walk-Ins Welcome, originally uploaded by R. Walker.

Anyway so I was disappointed to learn after the fact that there was a lecture on Savannah’s hand-painted, apparently buttressed by slides and some actual information about the artists. And we missed it! Thus I have no idea if the images above are good representations of what was discussed.

The local paper describes the lecture here; it was given by a SCAD prof named Susan Falls The most interesting thing to me was the mention of some of the artists’ names:

Falls also included an image of Sekka, a relatively new bicycle shop on Broughton Street, whose owners chose to have a sign hand-rendered by Leonard Miller, whose distinctive lettering and design can be seen at many local businesses. Marcus Polite and Jimmie Williams were among the other artists featured in the slideshow.

The mention of Marcus Polite particularly caught my attention. One of the other snaps I took on Savannah’s MLK is below, and in the Flickr description I speculated about who it is that paints this lettering style, so common in Savannah (one person? many?).  And another Flickr user (whom I later met; charming guy) assured me it was Mr. Marcus Polite. All I can say is that I hope Falls reprises her lecture, or puts some version of it online or maybe in a gallery setting.

Thrifty 350, originally uploaded by R. Walker.

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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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