Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sights and Sounds of the Crescent City in Austin

By Steve White

After relocating from the Los Angeles area, I am just getting settled into my new life here in Austin. Yet already I can feel the close proximity of Louisiana, culturally speaking. It feels good! Two separate events this weekend underscored the influence of Louisiana culture on the ‘capital of live music’ here in the Lone Star State.

First, I caught a show on Friday at Antone’s world famous music club downtown, long the home of blues here in Texas. It was my first trip there, but it won’t be my last. On the bill Friday night was guitar slinging sensation and Louisiana native Kenny Wayne Shepherd, appropriately enough with the band that used to back his rockin’ blues predecessor Stevie Ray Vaughn, Double Trouble. Sadly, I didn’t stay for the whole show, but did catch some of his “Ten Days Out act with French Quarter icon Bryan Lee, a blind blues guitar impresario who was one of a number of aging musicians featured in Shepherd’s road movie of the same name.

Lee worked the crowd, “squeezed” his guitar and reminded me that even Bourbon Street, the sleazy stereotype that so many people sadly identify as New Orleans, can offer up charms of a more soulful nature.

On Sunday, we caught the premier of the IMAX movie "Hurricane on the Bayou"at the Texas State History Museum. Started before Katrina as a project to educate people about the disappearing wetlands, additional film was shot after the crew wrapped up the first shoot. Katrina proved to be a tragic demonstration of the point their film set out to make. If ever a subject matter was tailor made for the large format screen, it is the stunning beauty of the Louisiana wetlands, often scene from above in the MacGillivray Freeman film, contrasted to the power and devastation of a storm like Hurricane Katrina roaring ashore without the much needed buffer of silt lands lost to the sea.

The film offers a powerful emotional medium to convey an issue that continues to be ignored a year and a half later. What it lacks in detail about the solution – long ago spelled out by knowing scientists and environmentalists – it makes up for in the raw, visceral way it communicates to those with little knowledge of the problem. Check it out at a museum near you.

I, for one, know what it means to miss New Orleans (and the Mississippi Gulf Coast), but at least I can find a small part of my homeland here in the heart of Texas.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Trio of Outrages for New Orleans

By Steve White

President Bush has all but forgotten about New Orleans, with nary a word about Katrina relief in last night’s speech. Democrats like the official responder Jim Webb seem to be making only passing comment, for good measure, without really getting the ball rolling. It’s not at the top of Speaker Pelosi’s agenda, that’s clear.

Yesterday, Mississippi scored the biggest coup so far, getting State Farm to say uncle on wind vs. flood claims, largely through the work of private attorney Dickie Scruggs. State officials had to weigh in and sign off at the end of the process to make it look like they were actually doing their job. Press reports suggest that all the other major carriers will soon follow suit. But a short paragraph in The New York Times said it all for New Orleans and Louisiana and the vacuum of leadership therein: “The agreement does not apply to New Orleans, where the failure of the levees left much of the city underwater for days. Lawyers and insurers say no similar settlement talks are in progress there.”

Adding even more insult to injury, reports from this past weekend’s Saints/Bears game in Soldier Field suggest the ravages of Katrina have not been forgotten in the Windy City. Worse, sad memories of the storm became fodder for meathead Bears fans to express their latent frustration and hostility against supporters of their visiting rivals.

“Many of the (Saints) fans seated in the upper decks were subjected to horrific taunts, insults, and threats. Cries of “We are going to finish what Katrina started”, and “I hope the levees break again” were commonplace,” my friend John L. reported in a letter to the Chicago Tribune after attending the game in person. “Others were told to “Get in your boat and go back to your cardboard house.” One fan, in a report televised by ABC-26 TV in New Orleans said that he was told, “I wish you had drowned when your house flooded.”

“I encountered a young woman in tears as she left the stadium, not crying about the outcome of the game, but crying about the abuse she had received at the hands of the Bears fans seated around her,” he continued. “I met an older woman at O’Hare on Monday who broke down and cried as she recounted her mistreatment at the hands of hateful Bears fans.

“For even one person to have been treated like this would be too many, and the fact that so many visiting fans experienced similar cruelty reflects badly on all Bears fans and the entire city. However, the even more distressing thing about the whole episode is that the greater majority of reasonable, level-headed Bears fans SAT BY AND DID NOTHING AS IT HAPPENED,” John concluded in his letter. “In any crowd of 70,000, there are bound to be some idiots, but it is a sad reflection on your city and our society that seemingly decent people would sit idly and watch as a small contingent of visitors were tortured in their midst.”

As a former Chicago resident (Paulina Street in Lakeview) and a big fan of the Windy City, I too am ashamed. There is so much history between New Orleans and Mississippi and Chicago, and without that legacy so much of modern music and contemporary life would sound and look different. But what about John’s bigger point; that it’s not just about the bad guys?

Whether it’s in Guantanamo or the halls of Congress or the corridors of the capitol building in Baton Rouge or even the increasingly mean streets of New Orleans, the failure of good, well-meaning people to act is far more dangerous to us, collectively, than the threats posed by a handful of the menacing and mean spirited.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Good Lesson For A Golfer’s Son

By Steve White

I grew up hanging around the Great Southern golf club in Gulfport, MS. My parents lived in the 1950s vintage apartment building next to the tennis court, behind the Spanish-style mansion where original course owner Charlie Stewart lived. By the time we moved there, the Great Southern was owned by the Broadwater Hotel in Biloxi and known as the Sea Course; the hotel also owned a longer, less inspired 18-hole layout, located right behind the resort premises, called the Sun Course.

The Sea Course, known once again today as the Great Southern, sits overlooking the waterfront in Gulfport, along the narrow frontage road that runs just above Highway 90. Based on an original Donald Ross design, the course’s legacy dates back to 1908. It is the oldest course in Mississippi, playing host to early golf greats like Bobby Jones, Frances Ouimet, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, not to mention later immortals such as Ben Hogan, Bryon Nelson and Sam Snead. Members bought the club from the hotel in the early 1990s and soon restored many of the holes to their Golden Age glory. Unfortunately, the clubhouse and several holes near the beach were washed away by Katrina, the latest in a series of hurricanes to strip the land of its lush and once plentiful oaks.

My grandparents -- a marriage in which two distant universes collided – retired to the Mississippi Gulf Coast from south Florida around the time I started school. We made the move from a rental house in Mississippi City to the Southern Circle beachfront apartments shortly thereafter. My grandfather, a former professional golfer who spent two decades on tour and close to another two decades as an instructor in the Miami area, wanted to move closer to his only child, my dad. In doing so, he bought two memberships to the club, one for he and my grandmother and one for our financially struggling family of three.

My grandfather’s decision to come back to Mississippi, where he first met my grandmother four decades earlier, proved pivotal in the arc of my young life. The club membership gave me a place to flourish, swimming and roaming the fairways, mostly among the company of my grandfather and my dad and the colorful men with whom they played golf and cards and Ping Pong and, later tennis -- always for money. They were sportsmen, although not in the manner of Long Island bluebloods. My grandfather, the consummate sports professional, spent his life making money at golf, both in official prize checks and often from the more lucrative un-official gambling pot up for grabs amongst his fellow pros.

His cronies, at least during the Sea Course years, fell fall short of the colorful characters described in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article, “Looking for My Father in Las Vegas” by Pat Jordan. However, out on tour, he had known, and gambled with, some fairly notorious characters including Martin “The Fat Man” Stanovich and Titanic Thompson and later, in south Florida, he had provided golf instruction to the legendary gambling financier Meyer Lansky.

Jordan’s article is a gem, evoking the kind of world that I only glimpsed as a youngster, when he writes of his own less than reputable forefathers. “My uncles were not like the uncles of my childhood friends — tall, blond, smiling men who taught their nephews how to toss a baseball,” he writes. “My uncles were short, dour men in shimmering sharkskin suits. They smoked crooked Toscano cigars and taught me, from the time I was 6, how to palm the ace of spades, how to spot shaved dice and how to pray to God before I went to bed that the Bears would beat the Packers by at least a point and a half. They weren’t really my uncles; they were my father’s gambling cronies.”

Not unlike my own efforts to summon up the ghosts of my past, Jordan goes in search of his father’s essence in the modern Mecca of vice, Las Vegas. He learns a lot about gambling, but in the end is left with his own father’s words as the most reliable coordinates to finding himself.

“My father decided at some point in his life that it was gambling that defined him. It didn’t matter whether that was true or not, it mattered only that to him it was true,” Jordan concludes. “He told me once: 'Find out who you are, kid. And be it.' A good lesson for a gambler’s son.”

Friday, January 19, 2007

I Want To Be In That Number

By Steve White

What could the passing of Art Buchwald, pimento cheese and the possibility that the Saints might go to the Super Bowl have in common? For me, they converged this week in a Proustian moment of reverie, transporting me back in time to childhood weekends at my Grandmother Mabelle’s apartment in Biloxi, Miss.

She was one of a kind, my grandmother, smoking her endless Salem cigarettes out of those little plastic holders, as we watched pro golf and pro football on Sunday afternoons. The golf could be excused by the fact that she was married to my grandfather, a professional golfer named Emmett O’Neal “Buck” White, for more than four decades. But football?

My grandmother was educated at Vassar and a lover of poetry and short stories, both dying art forms she used to claim. In college, she wrote her thesis on William Faulkner when he was a young emerging author decades before he gave that famous Nobel Prize speech. She was also a keen investor who read three newspapers a day, and an avid follower of politics who enjoyed the witty satire of Buchwald and Mark Russell. [The only political causes she ever advocated for personally were the right for women to smoke at Vassar and wear pants in the lobbies of prestigious hotels.] Yet football ranked right up there in a list of her passions, particularly the Miami Dolphins, her home team for many years, followed by the Saints in order of importance.

I remember going to the Superdome with Grandmother Mabelle and a friend of hers visiting from Florida to see the Saints play the Dolphins in a rare match-up -- and a moment of great conflict for her. It turned out to be one of first times then backup quarterback Dan Marino took the field. He, of course, went on to Dolphins greatness. Grandmother Mabelle and her friend Jean, cheering wildly for the Miami team, made more than a few enemies that day in the Dome stands. Fortunately, for us, the Saints prevailed. At least that’s the way I remember it today, more than two decades later.

In many ways, visiting that musty apartment on Sundays was like entering her own particular brand of literary salon, although sometimes it felt more like a sports book because Grandmother Mabelle was always willing to take a good bet. We talked about current events, political candidates, American and English history, the stock and bond markets, horse racing, golf, football and, of course, literature. She understood that the common bond between all these varied subjects was character, the stuff of which real people are made. In many ways, those Sunday afternoons made me who I am now, and like today in my own adult life, I always left wanting more, hungry both intellectually and literally.

Grandmother Mabelle ate to live, strictly, so an emerging glutton like me often found slim pickings in her icebox. The one thing I could always count on, though, was a small tub of commercially made Pimento cheese, especially on Masters weekend, and a box of Wheat Thins, a combination that held me in good stead when the only other options were black coffee, menthol cigarettes and the occasional can of ginger ale.

So Buchwald’s gone; his death represents a passing of the kind of gentle Eisenhower age approach to political humor that Mabelle would still find far more tasteful than the jaded barbs of Jon Stewart or the obscenity studded rants of Bill Maher. The Saints are one game away from the Super Bowl, something inconceivable on those Sundays in the early 1980s. And NPR waxed poetic this week about the Southern charms of pimento cheese, ultimately reaching my memory banks through my taste buds.

On my first post-Katrina trip home to Mississippi, I drove by the ruins of her old apartment building, and chuckled at my grandparents’ seeming indifference to hurricanes. They lived with hurricanes most of their adult lives, first in Hollywood Beach, Fla., and then Biloxi, where they moved when I was young to be nearer to us – to me. Grandaddy Buck always went to bed as a storm approached, saying, “Mabelle, wake me up when it’s all over.” Meanwhile, she stocked up on batteries for her flashlight, mainly for reading in the case of a power outage.

Their both gone for a long time now, so we’ll never know if they would have fled Katrina, or decided foolishly to ride out the storm, like they had done so many times before. Likewise, I don’t know if I’ll be in that special number marching into heaven when my time here is up, but if so I am sure looking forward to seeing Grandmother Mabelle, hopefully with a color TV and a tub of pimento cheese because I am ready to pick up where we left off…

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

N.O.: Stay or Go

By Steve White

“Do I live in a sterile environment & possibly die of boredom. Or do I return to the city I love so much & possibly die at the hands of a ‘Child of the Night?”

How hundreds, maybe thousands, of people answer that question will determine the outcome to two large and inextricably linked riddles: how will New Orleans resurrect itself and what can done to stem rampant crime? You can’t have one without the other.

A friend of mine (someone I used to room with in New Orleans more than a decade ago) posed the question above, in response to a recent Chris Rose column entitled "Fear and Firepower." Rose, a comic wit who found his mature voice in hurricane’s wake singing humorous love songs to the city, now seriously questions the sanity of staying in New Orleans as bullets rain down.

My friend, whose family is considering a return, responds in kind. They are the kind of people New Orleans needs. He’s a health care provider, she an active mom, both with deep ties in the community they left before the hurricane to pursue a job opportunity in Florida. Now they want to come home and be a part of the rebirth.

There aren’t any easy answers, of course, so let’s ask that age-old question: what would Jesus do. In this instance, we actually have some guidance. In the lead up to his own crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and seeks counsel from God, expresses fear and hesitation at what is to come, is betrayed by a loved one and ultimately atones for the sins of the world through his own sacrifice and suffering.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating sacrifice for others (as I sit safely on the sidelines), nor am I a macho proponent of the No Pain/No Gain school of thought, but I do believe that God answers all our prayers if we go to him and then sit quietly and listen. The answers are there; they just aren’t always easy, or simple, or what we think we want or need.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

New Orleans & A New Start

By Steve White

We are two weeks into the New Year, and I am finally getting around to one of my big “commitments” for 2007, to revive this journal. I started penning some thoughts about my homeland and what happened to it in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina about a year ago. Unfortunately, life was in session, as it always is, and my resolve withered amidst other pressing concerns, namely job, family, and the general state of chaos and confusion in the world today. It’s a state I know all too well.

I may not have been talking, but I continued reading – the mainstream press, the alternative press, and, most importantly, the enlightening work being done by bloggers from across the Gulf Coast region. Citizen journalists and bloggers have painted a picture of what’s happening, especially in New Orleans, in a way that tackles the complexity of life there far better than any traditional media has, or can. It’s a pure distillation of what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point about the power of word of mouth. In an age of increasing technological complexity we have come to highly value a fairly primitive form of communication: one person talking in their authentic voice, unfiltered by large corporate mediation.

It was those voices that aroused me from my stupor as New Orleans’ old demon – violence – has come back with a vengeance, assuming it was ever gone at all during those weeks following Katrina. I lived in New Orleans for more than a decade, from the mid-80s to the late 90s, and crime was a main character then, as it is now. Like today, it came from all corners, including the police (remember Antoinette Frank or Len Davis), and, like today, a string of crimes culminating in one that hit a little too close to home for the white community (Helen Hill now, the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen murders then) prompted the citizenry to march on City Hall. Today, Mayor Ray Nagin offers hollow promises to do something about it; then, former Mayor Marc Morial adopted a more traditional mode: extortion. We can solve your crime problem, he told us at the time, but we’ll have to raise your taxes to get the job done.

Real historians are surely already making these connections, drawing parallels to the wave of violence that shook New Orleans a decade ago -- long before Katrina added insult to injury, mold to misery. My memory of that darkest hour is always brightened when I think of an op-ed piece that ran during the height of the crime wave in the Times Picayune. The author, a local citizen who had emigrated from Europe to New Orleans, praised the unique values of the community and said we could overcome crime by drawing on that character. “New Orleans locals are more civilized than most Americans,” I remember him writing. “They take time to visit with their neighbors and invite strangers into their homes, offering them something to eat and drink and lingering in conversation long after the coffee is cold. It’s what sets them apart, favorably, from the rest of the modern world where nobody has any time or energy for their fellow man.”

He was right then, and I am sure he is right now. I know another one-time New Orleans resident, author William Faulkner, agreed when he held out hope for man despite much evidence to suggest the contrary. “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up?,” Faulkner said in accepting the Nobel Prize for literature almost 60 years ago with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world. “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”