Saturday, September 03, 2005

They're alive!

Though I've cried watching the images of the suffering that the deadly mix of horrendous weather and "superpower" government blundering has visited on so many people in the South, I had no immediate, personal connection to anyone living there, as far as I know.

But I did have two recurring, nagging thoughts about two men: "Where were Andrei Codrescu and Rick Bragg when Katrina hit? And are they o.k.?" I've loved the former for only a year or so now, the latter I've adored since his early days at the New York Times.

Andrei Codrescu sets the bar very high for any of us who think we've mastered a second language. He came to the U.S. from Romania decades ago and does the most amazing things with English, which is not his mother tongue. Aside from being a writer and the editor of The Exquisite Corpse, he also does a regular commentary piece on National Public Radio and teaches at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, and has made his home in New Orleans for 20 years. I figured he might not have even been in the U.S. last week, given how prone Europeans are to take holidays in August, but still...

Then I heard him last Wednesday, Mourning for a Flooded Crescent City .

Listen to him, and see if he doesn't sound to you, as he does to me, like Mikhail Baryshnikov but after having smoked even more cigarettes than Latvia's most gorgeous export.

Ok, so Codrescu was o.k. What about Alabama's native son?

The Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman and author had a famous falling out back in 2003 with his last employer, the New York Times, when it was discovered, right on the tail end of the Jayson Blair scandal that Bragg had not done all the legwork on an article written under his byline and had not credited the stringer who had.

Since then he did the I'm a Soldier Too book with Jessica Lynch, and I hadn't seen much else of his published after, but I knew he had been living in New Orleans for several years now.

Et voilà , this article appeared in the Washington Post on Friday, September 2nd, with all the hallmark Rick Bragg traits. Just look at how he starts off the piece:

This Isn't the Last Dance by Rick Bragg

It has always had my heart in a box.

In the clip-joint souvenir shops in the gaudiest blocks of the Quarter, with canned Cajun music drilling rock-concert-loud into my ears, I could never resist opening the toy wooden coffins to see what was inside. I knew it would be just a cut-rate voodoo doll -- a wad of rags, cheap plastic beads and blind, button eyes. But every time, it made me smile. What a place, what a city, that can make you laugh at coffins and believe in magic -- all the way to the cash register.

What a place, where old women sit beside you on outbound planes complaining about their diabetes while eating caramel-covered popcorn a fistful at a time. "It's hard, so hard, sweet baby," they will say of their disease, then go home and slick an iron skillet with bacon grease, because what good is there in a life without hot cornbread?

What a place, where in the poorest cemeteries the poorest men and women build tin-foil monuments to lost children in a potter's field, while just a few blocks over, the better-off lay out oyster po' boys and cold root beer and dine in the shade of the family crypt, doing lunch with their ancestors and the cement angels in cities of the dead.

What a place, so at ease here at the elbow of death, where I once marched and was almost compelled to dance in a jazz funeral for a street-corner conjurer named Chicken Man, who was carried to his resting place by a hot-stepping brass band and a procession of mourners who drank long-neck beers and laughed out loud as his hearse rolled past doorways filled with men and women who clapped in time.


here is the rest of it.


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