Sitting on Royal Street New Orleans reading tarot. With some lovely youth from California living on the streets, dropped out of Berkeley, came here and had his guitar stolen and now he’s being taught by an Irish man dressed as a leprechaun to be a sleight of hand magician. He’s a writer too. His cards tell him to set up a space people can’t violate.
Last night I met another tarot reader, Gina, a Roma lady who works on the square and winds up staying at the same hotel as me, the cheapest one near the French Quarter after, so she tells me, her house burned down last week. We meet sitting on the first floor terrace among plastic pots of flowers overlooking the street in the humid night air, while a passing man tries to match his wit against the slender black girl who works reception. Gina is carefree energetic, skinny, always wearing long sleeves, her legs big with bad circulation from hours of sitting. She is territorial at first about ‘us’ visitors wanting to come in and read cards on ‘their’ territory but I talk to her about how tarot works, and soon she is delighted with the truth I can see in it. The next day she makes sure I meet the local mafia of card readers, largely Roma ladies, who sit in the prime places in the main square, and that I will be made welcome, or certainly tolerated. She calls them her sisters though they talk to her little, and argue ferociously among themselves that afternoon, screaming so the tourists are frightened miles away. She has me read her cards, is delighted to see how I can ‘see’ and that I am friendly and want to help her, and from then on we greet with kisses on the cheek. A sickly sweet smell hangs around her. She even lends me one of her chairs, as well as instructing me in the rules of street busking here, so I’m well set up. At the end of each day her short and amused looking black skinned hustler husband cycles her two trailers, the first containing her and the second her chairs and tables, back from the square to the hotel.
One can read tarot or play music pretty much anywhere in New Orleans, the streets are a free space. Yet there is a distinct colour line here, somewhere along on Rampart Street between the French quarter of white tourists and the city streets on the other side, where people have a leaner more hardbitten look. Gina says she’s been raped twice since moving to New Orleans. Wealth inequalities so sharp you feel if you slipped you’d slit your throat on them. The buskers playing on the corner are from the other side, led by a bulky lady on the clarinet, a Royal St regular, her husband accompanying her on the tuba. She can make that clarinet sing, leaving a trail of sound fluttering up on whirlwinds which it ever sinks back into before rising victoriously out, as a single soaring note, showing us it was ever easy and eventually fluctuating again so sweetly we realised we missed the struggle.
Eva cycles past, the country music dancer and my contact through a common friend who I hope will show me to the music and somewhere to stay. Last night she took me to a country night, Texan band lined up before red velvet curtains with a mirrorball casting its lights over the silver sweep of hair of their singer, called the Petite Brothers. When I approach her now she is with a collection of men, including the handsome waistcoated and shirted ensemble I heard playing eastern European music up the street earlier. As I walked by them the dark eyed, curly haired accordionist winked at me from under his hat, handsome face shining full of sweetness like a star , and I realised in a moment why I was in London for months without finding any men attractive. Sadly I get there just as they’re packing down, it seems a couple of others have come to drive them home.
“Carlo, you left your keys at home again!” a tall blonde guy with a lumberjack shirt on exclaims. “I even put a wrench on them and you still left them”. The other, a curly head crouching in a doorway, chuckles self effacingly. “Some people just can’t cope with locks”, I say, and he grins up at me. I have every sympathy, recognise myself in this man from the start even if it weren’t for the reddish dark curly hair. Eva introduces me to the taller guy, Ben, who it turns out has large though derelict house. I explain my situation- it’s Halloween weekend, the hotels are all full, even if I could afford one of them, and I’d love to stay in New Orleans. He hesitates, then tries to impress on me that it really is very derelict and dusty.
“They’re renovating it”, says Carlo soothingly.
“I have a sleeping bag and a yoga mat, I just need some space”. We look each other in the eyes a few moments. His expression soon cracks as he sees my soul. He is kind and feels the code of hospitality incumbent. “It’s far”, he says, “You’ll need to find a bike”. I nod. “Well maybe you want to take my number…” Carlo comes back over, showing us he has just managed to snap the key in the lock of the storage unit on the roof of the van. “Find a bike”, says Ben before dealing with this, looking at me directly, and I thank him and return to the tarot table feeling considerably relieved.
I come over early evening, once he’s had time to clear a space for me, crossing a canal channel to a suitably shabby wooden house peeling sky blue paint with a boat and VW before it, and seemingly no front door. Through the assorted stacks of random tat leaning against the boarded-up front the sickle and cross symbol of the rescue squads of Katrina can be seen, sign the house was checked for bodies. This is the Lower Ninth ward, one of the hardest hit by the hurricane. The neighbourhood is now full of artists and musicians; like others Ben has brought up the ruined house and intends to renovate it. I clamber in through a long window open onto the veranda calling hello, and they eventually emerge, surprised to find me standing with my stuff in the large living room, wooden and dusty and dark. A broken piano, keyboard hard and immovable, stands beside the window. I am surprised and a little pleased to see the accordionist; the buskers are staying here too.
Ben shows me a futon bed that the others help me manoeuvre into a place where it can be pulled out. I hang its dusty cover out over the terrace. He has moved himself up to an attic mezzanine above, and sweeps off an improvised set of wooden steps of spectacularly varied shapes and sizes set into the wall that wind their way up to it. My sleeping bag is too hot for the heavy warm moist air, I reflect, though mosquitos might come in through the French shutters making it better to be covered somehow. Right now I’m hot and dusty, but there might not be enough water to wash with as it hasn’t rained for a while and we’re not on the mains, so I buy cold cider instead, and soon am being licked by an enormous dog belonging to Vika, the young Chilean girlfriend of the violinist Kjartan.
We set off to where the accordionist, Jonchi, and Kjartan have a show on the other side of the canal over in Bywater. Vika and I walk and are surprised by the huge rusting bridge drawing back on itself with much shuddering to let through a neat little three storey tugboat with a helm on the top which lets out an ear blasting sound on the horn and makes us both jump. It turns out there is constant traffic up and down this canal. We get to a shack style bar, also reassuringly wooden, dank and cheap after the smarter places of the centre with their feeling of rampant commoditisation. I now get to hear the lively music of the Szkojani Charlatans, crimson in colour, warm and velvet in texture, coming closer with tricksy steps before its feet beat away in elegantly swaying rhythmic tides and fluxes. The vocals have a harsh edge, sounds of winds blowing from the Ural and the endless lands of desert dancing amongst stones in the mountains of Afghanistan.
I find among a box of free things at the back of the bar a couple of nice cotton bedsheets, exactly what I need. Carlo is wearing a dress patterned with poppies from the same box and wants me to read tarot cards for the meat in counters of the shop where we stop afterward to buy tequila and fried catfish, which circulate the company smartly, before we go on to the party, at the corner of Royal and Desire streets. We stop at a crowd before an elegant white clapboard house and head round the side, where a white jacketed jazz band play lively swing to a crowd of people. I let myself in to the kitchen where a girl perches on the marble topped counter and find the handsome young blonde man from the hat shop on Royal St in the red full skirted minidress and fabulous feathered hat he has donned to mark the occasion.
By a white marble mantelpiece I meet the beautiful dark eyed accordionist, sidling toward the piano where a man is playing jazz to the accompaniment of a double bass and drum. We dance, and I reach out to touch something on the mantel that turns out to be a carnival mask, covering my face in a flurry of softest black with hanging trails of white feathers from the eyes, and he looks at me and suddenly steals a kiss, as the song ends, then hesitating slightly, my hand on his back encouraging him, takes to the piano and starts to play surprising contemporary jazz springing sounds which sit well with this house, its high white ceilings and the two tall mirrors reflecting him. Ladies in long dresses sit listening on a chaise longue in the room behind attentively.
It is strange dancing in a mask, it adds to the spectacle I create yet I can’t communicate with anyone, as it hides most of my face, drawing people to the floor around me yet unable to engage them. In the corner is a well-stocked book cabinet, I take one down on The Human Condition, unable to absolutely disassociate from so long and recent an academic past, and it opens on a page about autism. I fear I am frozen in my solitary and academic ways and incapable any more of communicating warmth to anyone. I rise up again amongst the mass of people moving appreciatively to music to press the mask upon a girl in a long skirt laced from the waist to the floor and high collared white shirt like a Victorian governess, and confide to her the story with the pianist. She responds initially as though I were about to relate a tragedy, like me almost unable to believe in the existence of a romantic situation that is actually working, anticipating another tale of a woman shelved by a man who has mastered the art of the spectacular. The dancers applaud uproariously as he draws to a close and won’t let him get away without an encore. He eventually stands up and, scarcely acknowledging those who mass forward to congratulate him, comes straight towards me (“hang back a little now” advises the girl in my mask worriedly), and allaying our fears clasps me close to him.
Someone else starts up on the piano, and we walk out onto a veranda enclosed with white curtains billowing in the breeze and sit and talk together. Jonchi learnt to play jazz in Budapest, taking up the accordion to come to the US and play eastern European music with the Americans, in a magnificent bit of mirroring. A Hungarian eager to imitate the Americans as they are to learn his world, the folk music of Transylvannia and of the travelling Roma. For us westerners these are the sounds of freedom, the lively laments of the travellers who escape structure and fixity, the improvisational ability to live in the here and now, surviving from day to day ever new in an eternal present and untethered to tradition and property. The same virtues as western jazz must have represented to Jonchi. Climbing over the terrace we find Kjartan selling a stack of felt travelling hats in the middle of the garden before a curving white tree.
Ben summons us all off to go walking on a levee sometime after dawn. I have never seen a levee before and am in all honesty unsure of what they are exactly other than things that monumentally break, and soon we are walking along the high and shored up banks of the Mississippi with the dawn reflecting golden off the windows of the factory across the way. Huge ships traverse the river, tankers and tug boats. The biggest is moored right across from us, a great grey American naval vessel shaped and sized like it were two ships together. It occurs to me this is the way ‘the nation- state’ appears in everyday life here, distant glimpses of an entity as huge and terrifying as it is isolated from everyday issues.
I need to wash my hair, it’s all tangled from the 24-hour train ride down here and swift approaching the point of no return; already no hairdresser would attempt to untangle it. The only water point is the shower head leading from rainwater collection barrels on a platform over the outdoor sink, so I sit on a chair combing through conditioner chatting to everyone whilst overhead a storm brews, the wind speeding up and the atmosphere every time denser with moisture. Carlo, I overhear from their conversation, is in fact a lawyer, takes on enough jobs to leave time to make music and look after his teenage son. The showering idea catches on, as does the sudden availability of shampoo and soon Vika is standing naked by the outdoor sink, accompanied by Carlo. When he discovers them Kjartan soon decides it’s time for him to wash too, and thus the rehearsal for that night’s concert is delayed as they all share a showerhead in the back yard
It is Halloween, and they’ve been invited to play a dinner function in a fancy hotel in the centre of town. Vika wants to accompany them, though her man is trying his best to refuse her fearing it would throw them into ill repute to bring us along to a private function. She is very petulant about being left out, and tries to recruit me to support her. We work out we’ll accompany them into town, the now teaming rain discouraging us from trying any of the outdoor festivals which are on, and see how the people who’ve hired them feel about us being there. Vika rummages about and dons a fabulous ruched cream skirt and top. She used to be a model and looks the last word in Halloween elegance, despite having taken her toilet scrubbing naked in cold water over concrete. I have on an amber silk shirt and green and gold Chinese silk scarf over my washed hair, and the skirt I always wear, crimson velvet layered with Indian fabrics. I throw the chairs and table in the van in case we can’t crack the party. Carlo drives us all, reclining on the mattress he has in the back, reversing out of the drive and reverberating straight off a neighbour’s car. Ben starts a thorough criticism of this whilst Jonchi and Kjarton laugh uproariously and we roll about in much the same vein until marching into the cream stone and crystal lobby of one of the stateliest hotels of new Orleans, up the better end of Royal Street, where the hardwood is varnished darkened with ages and come from over the seas. The owner was a Sicilian cobbler become wealthy, and his family still own it five generations later.
We are shown through to a room with rows of chairs arranged before a table with a crystal ball and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Our hostess, Rosemary, receives us all without a flicker of surprise. It turns out the wine is complimentary, and proves almost as contagious among the company as naked showering. A medium takes the stage to recount her other worldly dealings with William Faulkner, by whom she is apparently at that moment possessed. She claims she experiences a sudden taste for whiskey, which apparently she usually abhors, as almost sole evidence of this state. When we write, she says, we call characters and worlds into existence which are real as those of the dead, or of the living.
We are it turns out at the annual conference of the William Faulkner Society. I stand before a room full of writers and literary agents, startlingly apt to my interests. Vika and I switch roles from musicians’ women and start talking about our writing careers. I fall into conversation with Randy, who shows me the work of literary criticism he’s spent decades turning his PhD thesis into, entitled A Taste for Chaos, the Art of Literary Improvisation in the Making, published by Strong Field books, specialising in works of Jungian psychology. In it, he recounts his moment of realisation that improvisations “littered the literary landscape” at “moments of historical upheaval when our way of knowing the world is changing; improvisations were articulations of these paradigm shifts… artists write in the new paradigm in this double sense”.
I open the book on a section on the trickster, the jester, who dances on the cover. In tarot, I explain to Randy, this card is the bridge between the humdrum lower arcana, the nitty gritty of everyday life, numbered suits like a deck of playing cards, and the major arcana, of which he is the zero card, and the archetypal traveller who plays all the subsequent positions. The major arcana consist of all the worldly positions of wisdom and power, the high priests and priestesses, the emperors and empresses, the great moments of realisation and renunciation, taking the journey culminating in the escape and transcendence of the material to find our place within the whole, the universe, the symphony of the world being brought into being anew from moment to moment. With a small bundle over his back, the fool skips along not looking where he is going, and is in many decks ridiculous for the small dog biting the seat of his pants. Once one can live like him in the moment, and see all that moment has to offer, improvising and travelling lightly, embracing ridiculousness, one can move on to become the major arcana cards, for one does not take life too seriously, becoming caught up in the everyday concerns of the minor deck, but realises it is but a series of roles we play. He likes this very much. The couple decide to leave before dinner, and we take their places.
The waiting staff set for us a table with white linen and silverware in an alcove just off the main dining room, and we start relentlessly hoarding and stealing everything served from one another. Wine is heartily consumed, except by Carlo because the others keep throwing salt into his. I ask him whether he wants to be my lawyer in tackling the literary agents. This has, we feel, been done before, in another free floating escape from structure and ambition, of the same and ongoing moment of upheaval, or change of worlds, of which we are a contemporary manifestation. Wonder if this upheaval will ever return to structure.
They are called upon to play again after dinner, and I collect their stuff so the waiting staff might start to clear the table. Carrying their stack of coats into the hall, something escapes at the feet of a man dressed as Dumbledore and I bend to collect what turns out to be an stripy orange sock stuffed with condoms, which stick out through the holes in it. I am bemused as to why anyone would carry such a thing. Fortunately he’s a nice man, and turns out to be originally from Preston, an hour’s drive away from my native Liverpool, and affects not to notice this shocking aberration. He tells me the theme of the conference is the Other Worldly.
Strangely enough this is the subject of my thesis, the existence of other ways of composing the universe, the sets of understandings of space and time that compose the world. In the western universe as we know it, configured by rationality and (popular reductions of) science, only the human mind is conscious, uniquely capable of acting in a meaningful way. Everything else, from suddenly meeting an old friend or lover suddenly in the street years away from when you knew them, picking a card out of 78, or finding yourself at a conference on your subject after stealing in in the wake of the dark eyes of a travelling accordionist are apparently attributable to random chance, nothing more. No matter how improbable they are, there is a probability ratio that can measure them, and we are meant to read nothing else by their occurrence. Yet this is an idiosyncratic set of understandings, which holds nothing in common with other worldviews, even that of Christianity or the other major world religions, to say nothing of the animist peoples I worked with in Bolivia, who taught me the art of divination. If we take some time to escape from timetables and calendars we might find the world is conscious and capable of moving us. Carl Jung used the word synchronicity to describe ‘meaningful coincidences’, events which seem to be meaningfully related even though they are not causally related. In New Orleans as there is somehow space for the irrational, and strange coincidences are a matter of the everyday, entirely unsurprising, explicable as this conscious world moving us along continuum beyond our understanding. We can see consciousness even in the meats in the supermarket counter here.
In the subsequent days we attempt a renovation of the house and grounds, raking the dense wet bougainvillea flowers that lie thick on the surface of the yard. I shape a flowerbed and plant it with snapdragons, violas and pansies. When the gas runs out we cook over a fire in the corner, tortillas, black beans and guacamole, a pan of chai tea with milk and h0ney. We sweep out the big living room where I sleep, the dust of ages in corners, under joists leaning against the walls and clear the construction materials out of the unused half of the house so one can circulate without walking through the rooms where we sleep. Swept it already looks much better, even though the rainstorm reveals one wall to be sundered from the roof, which when it rains becomes a waterfall.
The area is alive with music, Eastern Europe echoing out of our wood, impregnated with the atmosphere and water of the river, fiddles live or ancient dancing day and night. Walking on the levees one day I hear country music and return to find a collection of musicians on the porch of the house in front of ours, visiting from Nashville Tennessee. The cadence of their violin has something of the sound of the Scottish music I am used to, yet it is livelier than these airs elegantly evolved in mountain valleys, still over the slowness of time, somewhat merrier with more movement, like a river has burst through breaking it up into fragments slipping and carrying you along a channel, wild gushings of the mouth organ with banjo notes bouncing off the water like raindrops, while sunset catches through the clouds. This is the music of the Mississippi.
And the country music singer visiting the house behind ours has come over. I admire how his singing alternates between the slightly attenuated crackle of a old recording, as if it arrived through a gramophone trumpet, and sudden melodious clarity of his yodelling which carries through the humid air and broken wood as it might slide down snowy chutes in the Alps. The owner of the house, skinny and intense with eyes myriad of blues, takes a shine to me and teaches me to two step, we attempt a waltz, another incongruous element of old Europe. Dancing we mirror each across these two continents, strange coming to the south states to learn something as genteelly European as the waltz or to hear yodelling. We reflect one another in this moment of mobility, when as never before the human race are free to chase each other across seas or at least to desire to do so, and circulate their images and sounds in a myriad of mirrors which make images ever more multiple and fracturing. Fractal has become the nature of reality. Our desire to become the ‘other’ we see and imagine across the seas is strong as never before and if we keep it up might just turn the world upside down.
The two-storey house behind us the other way emits by contrast regular blasts of brass, and one night we see them in concert too. They start with sound of the foghorns we hear passing behind us all the time, blasting from the French horn, saxophone and two trumpets and move into a calypso with heavy sometimes Cumbia rhythms which seem to get stuck in the mud stumbling without ever losing step through the enchanted fog that hangs over the water and swamps, and clears to a sudden nightime sight of the white sand shores of the Caribbean, made magically closer by the mists and ships that connect the enchanted places of the world, both tropical and entirely of here. Steamboat Calypso.
Later at home there is country music sounding from guitars of each in turn around a fire, and two lovely ladies one of whom tells me how she trains horses in the wilds of Arizona where they want to redevelop the land. She and her friend are dancing in nightclubs in New Orleans. Dawn comes and Devan who grew up by a river in Texas drives me to the bayou in his rattling truck. Human action in the landscape is currently making the Mississippi, the deity invisible in its entirety to which all these swamp lands and the channel and the city pertain, send its silts far out to sea, shooting down the shipping channels we have cut. The river thus erodes without replacing, and Louisana loses an amount of land the size of a football pitch every hour. The swamp in front of us says Devan used to be tall cypress trees, in sad cypress let me be laid, where when they were small the residents of this suburb used to swing between the high triangular trunks and fish for shrimp and crab and turtles in the secretive swamps. As the encroaching sea water erodes the swamplands the trees are now withered to whale bones sticking up out of the water.
Right there is where they say they blew the levee up, but that’s bullshit, says Devan. showing me how the levees are only relatively narrow, or earth and concrete, and the large oil tankers (“walls of death” as I heard a reveller call them at the day of the dead parade we attended), which come up and down the river all the time could easily burst through them with the massive storm swell behind them. That the levee was deliberately blown up is common urban myth in New Orleans, the rationale being that ‘they’ let the water flood into the poor black areas to save the wealthy CBD and the tourist centre of the French quarter.
The myth is not less real for this, it neatly expresses through convenient fiction the exclusion these areas have faced and their separation from the wealth of the centre. For all the support they get from the state making itself wealthy off the back of their music and culture, their murky shrimp gumbos and electric jazz, they as might well have been flooded deliberately. And who benefits from the huge oil tankers, for whose benefit were the childhood swamps flooded and eroded day after day? Again as in so many modern conspiracy myths humans are painted as being all powerful, well not us everyday mortals but them, the mythical, the almost invisible one per cent of mysterious nature and influence. Like we needed, with a such a storm surge as Katrina produced, humans to flood the city. The waters and winds are mightier than men dream these days. It is this truth that in their assertions of incredibly vast human control conspiracy myths highlight. Yet there is another underlying truth here that this myth picks up on, for how far are we humans responsible for the climate change that resulted in raising the storm so high? It was not only the storm but also the tanker, system vaster than we can control. Consumption sparks a change in the nature of the world and elements, which does benefit inordinately a small few at the expense of the many. But we are much smaller than we think, not sole conscious agents ordering the world as we would please but part of a tapestry the strings of which are too complex for our overall comprehension.