Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Adventure #7: New Orleans, or the Innocence of Debauchery

[Disclaimer: Do not assume that anything you read here is autobiographical (even if you are sure it is) unless you take the time to sit with me over a beer or whiskey and have an intimate conversation. Remember that while art deals with life, life is not necessarily art. And if you are too young, a student, or otherwise compromised than you must assume everything I write is an egregious lie. But if you are one who cares, and are concerned about the truth, and its transience, than you know what I drink and where I live.]
In New Orleans
Many years ago, after seven years of graduate study in the heat and self-imposed isolation of Oklahoma, I returned to work in northern Michigan, only a few hours north of where I grew up among the cedar swamps, small lakes, and chatter-bumped seasonal roads of Clare County.  I returned to teach English, striving to inspire students to understand their lives as the product of finely crafted prose, as I hoped to find on Lake Superior’s rocky shore and in that long view a place to be. What I couldn’t have expected was that such comfort, the transcendence of being in place, would require an intense battle with this place’s very nature.
Near the end of my first term, buried under composition papers and technical reports, I stepped from the porch of the shack I had rented into a snow bank that had literally appeared overnight.[1] After years in the humid heat of Oklahoma, I had forgotten about the length and intensity of a proper northern winter.  I had forgotten that the accurate appellation for nature should not be prefaced with “cute” or “benevolent” but rather should have more to do with mean spirited, disingenuous, and vindictive.  I had forgotten that the people, left to fend for themselves among this natural temperament, reflected this attitude.  These people were tough in a withered sort of way, hearty in a numbingly bland way, and as cold and intellectually weak as the diner’s coffee.
If people looked at me it was often to scowl, staring an inch or so above my head at the eminent emptiness there, as though the halo they fully expected to be there had fallen off in the laundry or rusted to dust. Their look suggested that the reality, or maybe audacity, of my passing represented an affront; they resisted my presence as one fends off the cold:  they folded inward as shell upon shell insulated them and ensured their hard-won isolation.  One learns from this, for instance, not to leave the front door open in the middle of the winter.
Men I met drank heavily—fifty beers at a sitting, the writer Jim Harrison notes in his essay “Bar Pool.”  The women ignored the empties and the drunkeness, plodding dumbly, angrily, rudely through the concerns of others. And belligerent and fatalistic children ventured with squinted eyes into the cold, mumbling curses and prayers through their cupped hands, scoffing. Of course these generalizations are inaccurate, or perhaps capricious. Yet they do represent the gist of my memories, the spur that assed me toward travel and tugged me out, again and again, of certain hard won complacencies.
In the midst of this battle against the light, against the dreary air being sucked in through hair-hemmed and lipstickless mouths, squawks the seagull.  It’s a sign.  Not a groundhog or the melting of the snow mountains erected by the city plows, but the enlivened erudition of those dirty white birds that announces the change, the first nearly temperate breeze of spring.  The city in all its intemperance breathes deeply, exhaling slowly.  And I think stay, please stay.
Since I had forgotten the intensity of winter, I had also forgotten the euphoria that comes with the long-awaited spring.  A light enters the eye with the longer days, the sun returns and the effect is like a sigh.  I wake to light; my car starts with less resistance, less metal on metal refutations of my argument to begin the day; my coat seems less inadequate; and life (quite literally) is revived as the region’s collective circulation improves.
I had forgotten how the daylight slowly begins to lengthen (thanks in part to “springing forward” an hour) and the air thin with that curious and constant water-weary breeze. It exhilarates, carrying with it the wanderlust that always prods me to travel, to move, to leave as much as possible of my formal education behind and learn from experience (from painful and humbling trial and error).
With the instinct to be always elsewhere awakened, I set out into the woods and marshes, breathing deeply the scent of newly budding cedars, going wherever the highway and my own neuroses take me.[2]  From roadside turnouts, rest areas, and small towns, I watch the clouds roiling late in the afternoon, as I avoid the icy rain and rest in the healthful chill of a late spring morning occasionally decorated by the frost that clings dumbly, with no fear of its fate, to the tops of wilted though expectant grasses.
I sit at Dairy Queens and disregarded city parks, where second-thought memorials to war dead and survivors of occasionally terrible spring storms stand chiseled out of cheap granite or marble. From this vantage, I watch people navigate their days, noticing that only a few ever get out of their cars to walk along the sidewalks of these small towns.  Instead, they pick up children, grab a snack, feed a duck, or make a phone call on a cell phone. These people always seem present but elsewhere, pushing their intellectual engagement beyond their immediate surroundings, and so, beyond the appreciation of the moment, the tug of immediate experience.
I wander, as I feel I must (a feeling that is nearly an obsession), across the nation this way, ending this spring in New Orleans, which is as strange and exhilarating a place as I could’ve imagined. And within two hours, I butt my head against its enigmatic quality.
The city, in this case the French Quarter, is rend, and thus made more surreal, by its contradictions—those juxtapositions that define it, give it depth and color, but also imbue it with a distinct sense of fear.  In A Confederacy of Dunces, John Toole captures this impressionistic quality in his description of Ignatius J. Reilly, the book’s hot dog-selling protagonist:
Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly. The hunting cap prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of stale, warm air that soothed Ignatius. The plaid flannel shirt made a jacket unnecessary while the muffler guarded exposed Reilly skin between earflap and collar.  The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometric standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life. (1)
Even though I never saw an “Ignatius Reilly” during my visit to New Orleans, I do suspect such caricatures-come-to-life exist there.  Regardless, I did get a sense of the conflict Toole suggests in his description of Mr. Reilly: those living in New Orleans, and because they live in this city that was once a swamp and whose dead occasionally float to the surface, seem to act as though their lives are continually interrupted by independent clauses, by the editorial aside, or the philosophical monologue.  They are products of satirical imaginations, such as Toole’s, and seem to live vicariously through their own misrepresentations.  They butt up against, again and again, their own interior dialogues and because of this seem to vibrate with a centripetal force that pulls any spectators into their exclusive, intellectually bipolar parities.  On the taxi ride to my hotel, for instance, I often felt the cab driver was speaking to and about me at the same time.
“You come to not just see but experience the French Quarter?” he asked in a creole accent, which wasn’t as thick as I had expected, “and you will see much.”  He laughed and pointed to a few of the graveyards the expressway had been built over: “These, you see, are odd places.  The dead I notice come to life here.”
After dropping off my bag, I decided to wander along one of the streets that make up the French Quarter. After a left and right and another right, I passed a gapping steel door and heard, “Come on in here.” Just inside this heavy door, I saw a man, smiling and handsome, sitting on a stool.  Behind him, I noticed a lovely Asian woman in black-lace stockings.  I stuttered and kept on walking.  I had been warned about the hawkers, but never experienced any except those at the county fair, who seemed belligerently uninterested in their jobs.  This hawker was no different, suspecting, I assume, that the sex he was selling would sell itself.
“Not right now,” I said, aware of my childish fear of such dimly lit sex dens, a fear that has thudded, sometimes dimly, behind my eyes since I first touched a nipple in the backseat of a Chevy Chevette.  Tellingly, I once spent three days in Amsterdam and never visited the mythic enticements of the red-light district.  At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to gawk at what I assumed was the misfortune of these women, displayed, as I heard they were, in storefront windows.  The need for sex, and the buying and selling of it, seemed cynical, the very type of moral pudding that kept idiot kids in school and dimwitted men and women in ridiculously bad marriages.  Don’t get me wrong, I find very little, except the obvious, about sex morally repugnant, but as I passed the open door of the club and saw those attractive women scattered around the bar and cascading across the dark stage, I couldn’t help but feel depressed.  It was after noon, I had just finished eating lunch, and the image of the Asian woman smoking a cigarette in fishnet stockings, black lace panties, and a green silk top seemed absurd.  I thought of Sherwood Anderson, and wondered how he might capture this figure? How might he convey the subtleties of this woman’s psychology?  Focus on her hands, perhaps, as he does in his characterization of the eccentric Wing Biddlebaum in Winesburg, Ohio.  The hands being those instruments we use to interact with our world, and as such reflect the violence of those meetings.
Needing a drink, or at least wanting one, I walked into a bar a few buildings down the street and had a few beers.  By five the day I arrived, I was drunk, rambling on the phone to a woman I had dated several months before, explaining, at a dollar a minute, the city’s ineffability.  No language to convey the impression, just grunts, guffaws, and gestures she couldn’t see.  She laughed; surprised I called, seeming to resist the implications of such a spontaneous gesture.  When my mind is on fire, I must talk, ramble, sputter and spatter.  It may be sad or just stupid, but I’ve come to except this about myself.
“I live like this,” I said, “a bit frantically.  I just do things; I think about what I’m doing or saying sometimes while I’m doing or saying them, regrettably sometimes only afterward, but, anyway, I’m like this.  I go off half-cocked, that’s the cliché, right? I want to experience things, but never too closely.  I just want to see, hear, and observe things going on.  Anyway, how are you? I’m drunk.”  She laughed and resisted her desire to avoid this conversation.  I could tell it made her a little uncomfortable.
I fell into the moment and was as much watching myself from a few feet away as living the moments I observed.  The split is indicative of travel, in which the traveler leaves his present, responsible life in one place and takes his spontaneous, timeless self across physical and emotional boundaries.  To travel is in essence to transgress.
We want (or, I should say, I want) to travel to such parenthetical places (ideas sandwiched between dissimilar images), such as a frozen forest, a nearly deserted small town, a forgotten stretch of highway, or the darkened confines of an inner-city neighborhood.  When we travel, many of us want to visit someplace different, but the difference should also be, to a certain extent, indescribable: there should be the excitement of personal discovery; something similar to Van Morrison’s entering “into the mystic” or experiencing a sense of wonder.  We seek to experience something unique, or at least something that seems so, which we might later be able to offer our friends around the campfire or while seated at the local bar, a story that is both weird and wonderful, full of outlandish characters (albeit “real”) and embarrassing or titillating episodes, seemingly drawn from the Decameron or The Canterbury Tales.[3]  To be lost, scared, overjoyed are a few of the emotions important to adventure, and traveling should at the very least explore these otherwise elusive or impractical emotions.
New Orleans is an Idea
 This is literarily true.  New Orleans is an idea where Cajuns, the vaguely French, and obdurate southerners of Tennessee Williams’s plays and stories materialize.  The idea also has something to do with the characters found in the literature of William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson.  Imagine Faulkner, drunk (as he only sometimes was), ruminating on the weird personalities and malignant relationships of the Sartorisand Snopes families; Sherwood Anderson quietly compiling the vignettes that make up Winesburg, Ohio, creating along the way young George to carry Anderson’s sense of the Midwest into literary posterity; or Williams imagining Stella, Stanley, and desire’s street car among the few cobblestone streets of the French Quarter.  All the anger and angst of several generations compacted into a few timeless narratives—the archetypes of a deeply depressed generation.
These literary ideas emerged from the city.  The buildings here are composed of contradictions that make them vague and eerie, creating a town that seems to be drawing within itself, losing its skin and slowly dissolving from view.  A painting of a street in the Quarter suggests the relationship between these contradictions and those exposed to them.  The bold colors of the painting express the vivid, vivacious character of New Orleans, which is always half-awake and playing.  This livid atmosphere is contrasted with the painting’s lack of focus and conventional coherence.  Where reality, as most of us know it, calls for mostly right angles, the lines of this painting create obtuse angles and the buildings lining the street seem to enfold a secret: the arrangement of images is indistinct (technically expressionistic), as though the painter, a New Orleans native, was nervous to commit to a definite point of view.  This lack of coherence is not a mistake, but suggests the complexity of the city that, as many modernist artists discovered of all objects, calls for an equally suggestive representation.  Of course, the artist is trying to tie a sense of Jazz into his portrayal of the typical Quarter street scene, which works at least in theory:  this painting is, in part, improvisational, as are both Jazz and the city, a city that is at one time Christian and pagan, alive with a vibrant joy and deeply rooted sorrow and guilt.  The city, unlike many either too clean or dilapidated to suggest much of their histories, is ideal for the tragic—eminent mortality seems to leak onto and wind through the atmospheric cobblestones, like the urine that taints the air.  The smell of the Quarter is that of panic.
While walking these streets, I felt part of something about to go very badly, and of some kind of exultation, a carnivalesque spirit, rejoicing in the city’s own inconsistencies.  I was making just then Williams’s Glass Menagerie.  I wanted to jump and run along the streets, talk with everyone, while certain someone wanted to do me harm.  The sense is moribund, as though death sits ruminating around every corner.  The city feels as though it is decaying; a zombie, a timid madness, similar to that of Laura Wingfield’s memory—images strained like rancid whey through cheesecloth.
Death Comes for the Professor
The Quarter is nestled along the river, and is itself just above the waterline.  With ear to ground, if anyone would ever do that, one might hear the water rushing through the spongy earth as blood through hardened arteries. As many visitors have, I noticed that all the graves around the French Quarter are above ground, which adds to the city’s morbid atmosphere.  A haze often lifts with the heat of day and lies upon the vegetation like a burial shroud—think of the pre-Raphaelites misty vistas or dead virgins drifting in lily strewn ponds wreathed by muslin gowns.  Mausoleums, stacked with coffins, crumbling and moss covered, rest in marshy plots below the expressway that leads from the airport to the Quarter; they mingle with the old buildings, both appear to melt into the other, emerging the next instant from the other’s detritus.  Death is on display, but few it seems overt their eyes; they stare at the interred history without self-consciousness, only a grudgingly given respect, reminiscent of Agamemnon’s speech in “Book XI” of the Odyssey, from which Faulkner took the title for his novel As I Lay Dying:  “As I lay dying the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes for me as I descended into Hades.”  Hades does seem to walk among the streets of this city, perhaps a little curious and enjoying the titillating and jiggling body parts so often on display, as though a little skin might bring some life and color to all the gray—that fatalistic drape that descends, wavering, from the city’s seedy nooks.
Just off Bourbon Street, I saw the lady with dog’s eyes.  She was dressed in green shorts, a tight white top, and wore sandals that clopped as she walked to the corner to hail a cab.  She looked at me as I passed and, shocked, I glanced down at the gutter.  Her eyes were pale[4]  like the glass in the dog’s eye marbles I used to collect as a child, perfectly round and uninterrupted by her thin eyelids; they were wet, not teary, but glistening, catching the lights over the doorway of the bar I was about to enter.  Painters seek such eyes.  Goya, the Spanish painter who chronicled the atrocities committed by Napoleon upon Spanish soldiers and peasants, caught the intensity of these kinds of eyes in the alarmed faces of those about to be executed.  In her final motion, a wave—flicking the wrist slightly up—the woman with the dog’s eyes, like the mausoleums, seemed to blend into the city, emotive and similarly ghostly, dissipating into the humid, breezy night.
The buildings here wave, as in Michalopoulos’s painting (see Figure 2), seeming to become part of old stories, expressing loss in flaking plaster, some of which ended up on the tops of my shoes as I strolled leisurely about—a little buzzed and often weirded out.  These are stories of early America, mythic and magic--times populated by Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and the Klu Klux Clan.  Hope often cut by the will-to-destruction, the culture of death, the darkness of hurt minds and sinful souls.  Stories recalling an America poised on the precipice of a swamp, on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, the Gulf of Mexico.  From French colonists, Confederate soldiers, war ships, typhoid and malaria, fevers of all sorts (the air in the city feels like the tepid breath of the sick), racial tensions, and mysterious inner spaces—dark lofts, alleys, rusty fire escapes, courtyards protected by razor wire (new neuroses invading ancient images of open space), creating everywhere a peculiar inner light, not necessarily of inspiration but rather illumination accompanying the swamp gas that is emitted sporadically among the dreary cedars of the surrounding marshes, or the groan and rumble of jazz bands among the Quarter’s shadowy bars.  Secrets twitter, are whispered tantalizingly from doorways.  To hear some of them, I entered pub after pub, crawling from bar stool to bar stool, an interest I acquired while living, as Jim Harrison did, in northern Michigan, entering into easy conversations with friendly, sometimes too congenial, strangers.
Strangers Call me Roy
Drunk and a little curb-wise, I walked into the Decatur Pub.  As with all the bars I visited, this pub opened directly into the street.  French doors, this was of course a frenchified place, gaped to the breeze and surprisingly gentle street sounds.  I ordered a beer, watched the hockey game on the small television attached to a pole, and sketched the bar.  Images emerged from the lead, revealing the relationship between time and shape, shadow and emotion as they must have for Goya in the days before images were easily mass produced and, so, turned into mere information: “This drawing describes only the place you are in.”
I love these places and collect sketches of them in my notebooks,.  They are small tokens of my passing among those trying to escape or force some enjoyment, even only a moments worth, from the day.  I note the assortment and alignment of the liquor bottles—bourbon stage left, schnapps and other syrupy liquors stage right—the placement and style of the mirror that seems of little use, except that it gives the bartender eyes in the back of his head.  In the mirror, since I didn’t want to gawk directly at them, I watched two couples settle in, gathering beers and mixed drinks between them (quite a bridge to pass sentiments across).  I was trying to get into a stride, drinking a few draft beers, hoping my tongue would loosen just enough to interview these people.
The hockey and basketball playoffs were on different televisions, and an attractive woman with curly black hair was working on a crossword puzzle.  I jotted ideas and drew pictures in my notes, hoping she or somebody might ask me what I was doing.  No one did, so I engaged the bartender, who was in shape (a personal trainer) and vaguely ambitious, hoping to become an actor or model or a similar kind of docent.  To gain requisite exposure (for what?), he claimed he had gone on a limousine dating program, something like the once popular Blind Date show, in which every move of the erstwhile romancers was spoofed with satirical thought bubbles.  Just as he was describing this show to me (by this point I had told him that I was thinking of writing an article about New Orleans) a few strippers, as Luke noted before helping them, dropped on the bar stools and drank a few shots and talked to him—a couple hand signs filling the gaps.  I snuck a peek through my beer glass.  These women were physically stunning, and seemingly of good humor, and I was, as always, feeling lonely.  How, I wondered, does someone capture the interest of the awfully attractive?  Of course, my concern was how to entice a physically attractive woman to find me physically attractive. The economics of attraction, as we all are taught to believe, have little value; yet the desire for this form of affirmation persists. How? Be someone else, I thought, which is too often the case and utterly impossible.  I had nothing to offer these women, but my quirky personality and ability to act the writer, to sound something like a literati, upon whom grace is conferred and in whom wisdom could be assumed to have amassed.  I was committed to fulfilling neither expectation, even though I am (sometimes) a literature professor.
Women, I’ve noticed, don’t really go for English professors, even though innumerable scripts penned by equally innumerable frustrated professors and novelists suggest otherwise. Women are, I think, reminded of the grammarians who had haunted them during their first years of college or last years of high school; or the frumpy, and vaguely profane teachers of arcane authors, such as John Donne, Margery Kemp, or Aphra Behn. I suspect these were teachers who found poems like Donne’s “Flea,” which metaphysically unites flea spit with the sweat of sexual intercourse, not only funny but moving. Yet, if in these professors place and asked why I think the poem is important, I’d have a hard time offering a convincing explanation: “Note,” I might say, “the language, the audacity,” while the petitioners simply stare straight ahead, considering the meaning of “audacity” and the aesthetics of dust bunnies. “The point is,” I might continue, “that the human race is sick and perverted, and isn't that reassuring?  It’s okay to be a pig, but, such poems remind us, if you make that choice you should still be an artful one.”
I told Luke, the hairless commodity breathing rarefied air, that I’d be back around and thanked him for his stories.
The city was humid but cooling, and a stiff breeze blew along the buildings and dried my sweat.  I was just about buzzed, nearing a cruising speed, and walked into the “Best Fucking Irish Pub in the World,” which was run by a small, wiry Irishman named Ryan (who displayed support for the American troops in Iraq with a yellow ribbon attached to a small American Flag hung from a rafter).  At the end of the bar, answering the question I had posed to the apparently mute bartender, “What beer do you suggest?” was a Labatt sales representative, who suggested that I try Hoegaarden: De Kluis(a Belgian wheat beer). In a suspiciously small bottle, the beer did indeed turn out to be crisp and refreshing enough to fend off the humidity, having a taste that tickles at the sides of the tongue rather than lingering, dryly, at its back.
The sales representative explained to me that Rolling Rock, a beer bottled already skunked, was a good seller in the French Quarter (it’s hard to get the seller out of the salesman).  I didn't doubt this; yet I've never met anyone who drank Rolling Rock because he liked its taste; I get the impression, rather, that people drink it (annoying people like lawyers and bankers) because the product has been successfully marketed to them; therefore, drinking it appears to confer status.
The salesman was certainly gregarious enough to sell products simply on the attractiveness of his personality.  And his stunning wife (I pulled up short of the door when she walked in), who stopped by as I was about to leave, made me realize, upon the sight of her kissing him, that my personality had listed somewhere, lost in the folds of a billowy button down or pen-stained kakis, and that my pockets even after all these years remained too empty and lint laden.
Women like her have always seemed to give me a wide berth.  I haven’t always understood it—a friend said the Ph. D  after my name is both intimidating, because of the esoteric knowledge and geekiness it suggests, and confusing, because of the degrees humorlessness and general audacity. I've never bought this explanation because I know it is, for the most part, entirely untrue. The way I wear the Ph. D  like a floppy beret is probably more unnerving; in so many ways, I just don’t look the part.  Another said my size, which is partially genetic and partly due to my years as a college tight end, is unsettling in a person who wants to talk about “deep travel” and “the nuances of metaphysical poets.” This explanation also doesn't pass the sphincter test except that on one occasion when I was 28 a woman I asked out declined because, as she unselfconsciously claimed, “You could kill me with your hands.”  Needless to say, I was offended by what she was suggesting.  Of course, I never believed any of these explanations.
The popular version of Ockham’s Razor[5] holds:  the easiest explanation is always the best, and is, oddly enough, usually right because what you see, what you can empirically refer to, is indeed what is actually there. The easiest explanation of why I’m alone then, assuming it isn't just general unattractiveness, is that I’m emotional tumescent. I have rarely offered a woman what she wants or needs. In part because I’m not sure what that is and in part because I’m afraid of what doing so might mean. A female friend once told me to “figure out what a woman wants and then give it to her.” However, this transaction seems too simple minded to be true. I assume a woman wants a man who is more like a painting than a pitcher of beer: someone layered with significance and nuanced complexity, someone who requires close reading and careful interpretation, someone who must be convinced of everything again and again, and not someone who pours out all sudsy, lukewarm, and pleasant. But I suspect that my sense of intimate relationships is as one ex-girlfriend put it, “totally fucked.”
Consciously trying not to stumble, I walked into the Hide Out where one patron was seated drinking out of a large can (an oilcan I think these overzealous containers are called) of Budweiser, the worst tasting lager ever mass-marketed to an undiscerning public.  The patron seemed forlorn; he was, as I soon found out, a midshipman and a regular at this bar.  The two female bartenders talked with him about life on the east coast.
Maulka, the exotically attractive bartender, though gruff voiced and a touch seedy, was a single mother and, upon my request, wrote a poem and drew two lovely pictures in my notes.  As with bar sketches, I love to gather verbal artifacts as I travel: graffiti, quirky or not-so-quirky wording on signs or bumper stickers, and the little things people will admit in a bar.  These pictures, she said, reminded her of her daughter’s “special soul.”  I forgave her, almost immediately, for the cliché and found her poem and drawings touching.
 I am a heart, in love
With the idea of Perfection
Or perhaps the Perfection of

Perfection, a word most would
Define in a simple phrase,
“Better half”;
The one person that is there
When everything else seems
To be gone, the one thing
That makes you whole!

You are my Perfection,
As if I were a puzzle and
You would be that missing

Without you I am like
A hiker with no camps,
A mountain climber with
No rope.  And a heat
With no soul.
You are my camps, until
I find you I am forever
As a work of literature, this poem is doggerel[6]; however,  as a personal vision from someone struggling to express herself and make sense of and to the world, it is striking.  Maulka, I assume, isn't concerned with being “visible,” as academics often articulate the apparent motivation behind marginalized voices seeking the center.  She’d be fine being unknown and essentially unheard.  Listening to her, she seemed more concerned with allowing her emotions to enter the world, no matter the scale.  Her desire to comprehend perfection (the poem’s premise) in herself and in others is heartbreaking because such a concept doesn't exist; she is in essence lying to herself.  But this lie, I realized, is a symptom of living. The ideal of perfection, as with any ideal that one thinks might be achieved, undermines an acceptance of reality as an imperfect state—ultimately one of negotiation, which can never achieve definite closure.  Yet those who have had to struggle, as have most of us to one degree or another, hope that their efforts and hardships will come to an end, and that that end will deposit us somewhere near joy and independence.
The other bartender, who was a little round, mixed me a horrible bourbon old fashioned, claimed she knew Hunter S. Thompson personally, a notorious bourbon drinker, and that he had assured her that he would help her write and publish a book recounting her experiences as a bartender in America.  What would the title of this book be: Beer and Bones?  The idea is indeed reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas.  Actually, Thompson, I’m sure, could’ve put a peculiar and perhaps oddly attractive spin on the whacked-out tales this woman might have logged from behind so many bent, polished, and stained monoliths to desperation and hope.
Her boyfriend, not unlike the lawyer in Fear and Loathing, seemed entrenched in a kind of hair-band stupor, both mentally and physically abusive and appeared unimpressed and was wholly unimpressive.  Supposedly he was a descent musician, having opened for this or that band, but he looked like a bored child who played rather too inconsistently at drinking hard.  Actually, the entire group seemed throwbacks to Sixties’ style debauchery, but had forgotten the essential part of it: the actual act of debauchery. Stories of Grace Slick, as wound as an electric guitar while singing “White Bunny” or Jim Morrison, exposing his penis to a Miami audience, suggest the paradoxical innocence at the center of debauchery, as with most forms of transgression
After a few drinks, I lost interest in any kind of debauchery, which is, of course, indicative of my skittish and hyper-conscious nature.  I felt that I was somehow out of character.  But there I was, libido-less, and talking to a compellingly misplaced midshipman, who had no idea how to counteract the interest I had stolen from his bartenders.  He drank, talked, and related stories, even writing a few aphorisms in my notes, such as “When I go, I want to go like my grandfather, in my sleep.  Not like the three screaming passengers in his car.”  I couldn't tell, after reading this while hung-over the next morning, if it was the kind of debased joke midshipmen tell each other, or an actual experience.
When he completed these aphorisms, he left without a huff, which would have been my inclination in his place.  However, when I woke the next morning, read as I mentioned some of these drunken inscriptions, and prepared to get to the airport (always something of an odyssey), I realized that there are mistakes here, embedded in the few cobblestones remaining from less technological times—mistakes as palpable and painful as the humid air.  On each urine-soaked corner, among the old homes and the garden nooks, in the extreme, hazy vistas is suggested a hard won redemption: a chance to remake oneself in the face, in the persistence, of sin and tragedy.
The Airport is Replete with Corridors
As I lugged my bags into the airport, with as bad a hangover as I have ever had, I thought about the people I met (many I couldn't mention) and I wondered how their stories would continue:  What did Maulka do when she got up this morning?  Whom did Luke go home with?  What do the sales representative and his new wife talk about when only the sun and dust and coffee sit between them?  Is there a sense of hope in the city for those who are afraid they might disappear or simply never wake?  What happens when nights become the focus of one’s days?  What happens when time racks one’s emotions?  How, I still need to know, does one get from day to day in a city that could easily forget they ever existed?  Is it simply the power of habit that makes waking possible, especially when the places we find ourselves in are, as Theodore Roethke once suggested, “lonely places behind the eyes?”
As I approached the terminal gate, I saw that my colleague was already there.  “I have a hard time sleeping the night before a flight,” she told me.  She was reading a book about vampires, one in a popular series that had been mentioned at a conference session the previous day.
“I’m hurting,” I told her.  Very organized and prepared, she offered me some aspirin from her purse, two of which I swallowed quickly.
At that moment, I felt as though I’d been seduced the night before by some night-walker and sucked nearly dry.  The light from the large airport windows was painful and the heat nauseating.  I needed to sleep, but had five or six hours of flying to survive before I’d get the chance.
“Is it a good novel?” I asked.
“It’s not really good,” she said, “but it’s interesting the way she uses the vampire motif to tell a romantic story.  It’s nothing heavy, just fun.”
I could imagine vampires walking the streets of New Orleans.  Being the home of Ann Rice, vampirism does seem infused in its equally gloomy and glowing atmosphere: the detritus of the streets feeding, occasionally undermining, the jazz and the city’s long history. More than other places I've been, New Orleans offers the freedom to be unconscious, to explore one’s pathology (because face it we are all sick), and this freedom is what makes the city simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

[1] A week later, I would lose control of my car and end up in the median of the highway, waiting for a tow truck to save me while a state trooper wondered why I had “moved all the way up here.”
[2] A few hours of hypoglycemic-induced indecision and I found myself among the windy expanses of South Dakota looking, somewhat bewildered, at a giant billboard of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  She appeared so stoic, facing her and her students’ ignorance with a belligerence characteristic of that time and place—the kind of belligerence that had lead to the destruction of much of North America’s indigenous population.
[3] No contemporary satirists, except for maybe Don Delillo and his White Noise, capture the unreality of real life as well as did Boccaccio and Chaucer.
[4]Probably caused by designer contacts or the early onset of cataracts
[5] “William of Ockham formulated the most radically nominalistic criticism of the Scholastic belief in intangible, invisible things such as forms, essences, and universals. He maintained that such abstract entities are merely references of words to other words rather than to actual things. His famous rule, known as Ockham’s razor—which said that one should not assume the existence of more things than are logically necessary—became a fundamental principle of modern science and philosophy” ("Philosophy, Western," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2003. Web).
[6] Maulka’s poem helped me realize that literature matters because it can inspire people to speak with confidence and beauty.