Louisianan, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee. Place names in songs. The lad likes his tickets and he likes to go. It took some talking to get me to go but he’s showing me all those place names now, those cities mentioned in the songs.
I’m having coffee now in East Nashville with a soft toffee candy wrapped in clean crisp plastic and a medicine glass of Perrier set to the side on the little teak tray in a coffee bar on a dismal Sunday at dusk waiting for him now. I drink resenting the price from a child’s tea-set sized espresso cup. Nothing special for all the presentation. Less than standard fare dressed up. Each beverage is made individually by a slow young hippy, there are several of them, stylish and unaccustomed to labour, let alone the deep science of making a cup of fucking coffee. My technician looks like Jesus in skinny jeans. He’s very pleasant but has no glimmer of intellect.
The lad and I were mildly flattered that the staff thought we were musicians in town to perform, not mere hobos. We do look road-rough. We look like roadies. I keep my beard trimmed and shaped to his tastes pretty much. He always looks good, young. He got asked for proof of age in the cowboy bars in Nashville and in New Orleans when we went out to swing dance among the heteros for the joy in getting away with it. This drug dealer in the back streets of the French Quarter wondered was I the lad’s father. We struck up friends with him one night on the strength of a Skinny Puppy reference overheard in passing on a dark little side street. This tall skinny black man with a french accent in a sort of black frock coat and long legs in skinny jeans, he’d done his time in Iraq and he had no patriotic illusions. He remembered glory days on this street when he was young before Katrina and he wondered was I the lad’s father and we chuckled about that standing, leaning we three into one another under the black overhanging leaves. He had been to Montreal in the winter and shook his head in shock at the memory of snow.
I said to the lad I’m gonna die of a heart attack chasing you around the deep heart of Dixie and he wondered could I think of a better way to go. These gentle useless waiters don’t look like they just got back from a tour of afghanistan, but who knows.
There are more white people here in Nashville. There’s the glaze of privilege over this coffee bar, of the gentrification that seems to so many people I talk to subtle but relentless. The little wartime houses in east Nashville flip between market purges. Just now people are “hearting” this neighbourhood with little red valentines cartooned on t shirts and fridge magnets. Coffee houses like this have sprung up. bed-headed boys tap at their recent machinery while sipping dark roast, savour fragrant, girlish, revolting teas. They have the academic bohemian silhouette that comes with a liberal arts degree and their bodies are honed from running the endemic race for the authentic.
They are shy and uncertain under smug poise contrived from media and other nurture. They are shy and polite when they take my order, if slow as molasses in January to do so.
just now one asks if he can take a chair from my table to this own for a friend. He is polite. I am older and somebody taught him some manners but he’d like my table too and he is not getting it. Perhaps I have poise though I do not feel it. That friend is is unwrapping his black dirty mohair winter scarf with a quiet, confident stripper’s flourish near by. Y
ou are uninterested really but to test your vanity you leant into the small group of posed young men while you rearranged chairs feeling the air with your whole body for a pleasurable shudder in one of them and found it and later in the parking lot grabbing a smoke you exchanged names and traveller’s precis.
What passes for winter here is my Canadian autumn. Here you have cafe society in a rainy weather funk of rumpled layers of natural silhouette, alternative roots music style clothing . Here is the balancing act to the crass commercialism and corporation country music downtown. Here the houses seem plain and aloof from one another like plain, snooty white post war baptists on my own street at home, or like alternative music stylites on solitary purist perches. I cant see much beauty here in white Nashville after the narrow, pastel shotgun rows in new Orleans, after the languid fireworks in figure and gesture in day to day people there.
We went to see the Grand Old Opry at the Ryman last night and then we drank along the boozy commercial gully below it, found a brightly lit bar with a lot of determinedly attired people . There was a canny bouncer at the door keeping most of the newly bought cowboy hats and the hysterical finger-pointing drunk white girls outside in the street, Everybody in the bar was just this side of tawdry but were managing sleaze and reverse snobbism fairly well as the night wore on and the slumming boot heels took the occasional lunge or slur.
We’re thinking of flying back to New Orleans. We felt more alive and closer to ourselves there, more inclined and allowed to be ourselves for good or ill. the iron balconies like ink drawings overhead in the french quarter, and the rumpled sidewalks under our boot heels on back farther streets, the last roses frazzled, dirty lingerie pink, ragged palm fronds slapped silly by wind and rain, The afternoon swing dance at the SpottedCat. The people who know enough to say hello when you meet them on the street, know enough not to veer into pretending you don’t exist, into northern bad manners. Up north it seems that everyone’s pretending to go home to a personal space where a state of equal parts style and grace reigns over a private life so calibrated it seems effortless as it unwinds its scarf at a table nearby.
I’d forgotten Degas spent awhile in New Orleans, but we drove by his house and it was pointed out to us. I amused myself imagining him walking there and the street was old romantic enough I could almost fool my self I could see back in time and traces of the place in his paintings, the droop of branches over verandahs, their shadows, traces of his time, certainly. You never hear the myth of the painting that changed painting anymore, it hasn’t that mythology, painting now, though it retains the romance of it.
My beard is neatly trimmed. Our laptops are open before us as we plan the next few days, whether to drive or fly to new Orleans. The logistics of our indulgence, our self denial. The forfeit and the gratuities. I have a new jacket so I’ll roll more amiably through the southern winter. My boots have held up well. I know a good boot when I see it. They are sure not the campy cowboy boots carbuncled with embroidery like we saw in that Nashville guy drag shop down town. My boots are simple and neat, recently re-heeled, they click lightly on sidewalks, second hand, louche, Cuban heels worn down on the outside by bow legs in new Orleans.
I am just passing judgement passing through the trendier part of Nashville on the basis of a dreary light impression. We just fit better into new Orleans. There was more to talk about between the lad and me there. We talked without the irony I find we have to summon here to justify our curiosity about how it is in music city america. Where all the cheap sentiment comes from. So it would be kitsch of course.
We saw Emmy Lou Harris last night, and Vince Gill, Peter Frampton guested, and Rodney Crowell, it wasn’t like a show of all bottom-feeders but hell it felt like perfunctory schtick, there was a lack of current inspiration in the latest rendition of big old hits, the sentiment yammer about the grand old Opry family of musicians. Minnie pearl was cast in bronze in the lobby, there were performers I knew in my childhood from radio at first and then from T.V. The whole place seemed preserved in time, not long ago, but stuck. The call and response between performers and audience was as by rote, not deeply inspired. Nobody really believed up close any more. it was better on TV, somehow not so human and humiliating, the applause for the old troupers and their old hits.
While travelling with a close partner you notice where the one is cautious sometimes and the other is not. The intricacies of attraction and dismissal play out in the planning of the next day or so of vehicles and timing.
The lad started taking photographs in New Orleans. He was taking them serious. He said he found it easy to take them as pictures for me to paint from later. It gave him a framework was I think the word he used, a context in which to proceed. Though his photographs are not taken in any style that might be perceived as mine. A different wit, a choice of subject matter chosen out of not so large a nostalgia, a taller man’s point of view. He’s imposing taking pictures on the street. Politely single minded, large, dressed like a hick, urbane in his ways. He’ll lay on his belly for a shot or clamber up structures, never taking his eyes off his subject. I rather stand around or proceed twenty yards behind him, tracking him with the habitual moves of a dog with my nose though he be withing eyeshot. He started taking photographs one afternoon just off Bourbon Street, and every day now we’ll go out for at least one long stroll with his intention of taking pictures.
I’ve seen cars stop so they don’t interrupt his taking scope on these quiet streets. He wears a hunting cap, his long hair tucked up under it, his head shaved on the sides. He wears an overlarge plaid bush shirt and heavy canvas work pants. His sneakers are complicated in their stitching, low, long, narrow and light. A heavy key chain slings from his wallet pocket to his belt. I carry the pack sack, the thermos and sandwiches, condiments, fuel, enhancements. There’s a lot of six foot thirty something to feed. There’s a lot of being his age that I don’t even remember. I walk in his wake sometimes and he stops traffic. Every little while I catch up and he digs in the pack sack for the thermos, looking distracted by my conversational gambit. Every little while for the last number of years actually. I tease him and tell him he looks like he’s posing for a blow job when he takes a picture.
I had lover who would touch my ear in a slightly eccentric fashion while we were in public. He would twist it tenderly, sometimes a little cruelly. I grew to take delight in that particular. One day we met an old friend of his and I saw him reach over and twist the friend’s ear as they talked. And from then on the gesture repeated in a new context, I had more data, and felt less subjectively. It reinforced a new reality now. thus it felt for me, watching those old performers sing their big hits one more time. I had no reason to believe any gesture or note struck was particular to me. Of course. Poetry touched each receptive ear. Just stuff. put away childish things, identify caesar’s things. You got a lot to do.
There was a lot of shuck and jive about jazz and black music for tourists along bourbon street too, the gentrifiers were laying down their smothering vines and we too were speculating about how to live our lives in a place so diametrically opposed to the way things are at home. It happens. I find myself saying that life is no more a matter of the right and only thing to do at home . Not to judge while passing through, but time is short. I got twenty years on the lad, or he’s got them on me and handsome is as handsome lasts. The wasteland, wasted and wasteful, the things to do.
There’s another reason for not going home. It is -33 degrees there. They got another foot of snow last night. They’ll be leaning on their shovels arguing in their heads and posting pictures of their driveways and sidewalks on facebook. I have a new vintage jacket to keep me warm here walking around Nashville. I left a nice cowboy coat that was a little small on the bus I took from Memphis to Atlanta. Travelling anywhere you find yourself walking or driving around vast expanses of malls and parking lots identical to each city, cold or baked,wasteful places with no sense of anything but corporate supply and recommended demand. You need to hurry inside. I needed a warm jacket. The lad bought it in a vintage shop near this bistro where I write. Our waiter admired it and was upset that we knew of the shop before he’d discovered it.
How nice it is to no longer know the names of the vegetation around me. Then Sometimes you’ve seen enough of vistas, of unfamiliar vegetation and architecture and you long for an internal adventure, something new inside. Writing is a form of that, so is painting , something new, a love affair is as good as or better. A cafe will accommodate these things almost, the thinking about such things it will approve certainly. And you think of home where more is known and you are more known and what you write, or paint comes out of that knowing and not knowing. And you sit in the doubt that edits everything for veracity and leaves residue on on the canvas or the word processing software pages. It keeps notes and sends out texts on the phone and gets the low vibration of a text coming on a little machine in the chest pocket over the heart.
We drove back here from Nashville yesterday, Toot. Fricken. Sweet. We pissed in ditches at dusk down through Louisiana and groped for one another’s hands and thighs in the dark by the sides of highways. We consulted our global positioning in a Georgia diner while waiting for catfish and biscuits and gravy. We bore on in the dark feeling mythic with travel and horny for a more exotic morning.
We arrived late last night at a little shotgun house a friend has on the butt end of the quarter, on a back street tree-lined, carpeted with leaves. and some strange reddish fluff that falls from the pines here, sits in a cloud, kicks away like cotton batting. We were tired and a little surprised at our own temerity in longing for the place. I spoke several times about finding a place after so many years where I felt at home and heard myself as at a small critical remove saying so. We were tired but happy to be there.
There’ll be a full moon tonight so we’re going to have a fire outdoors in someone’s yard if we can find a fire-pit, sit around it talking like we do at home says the lad. I’ve wandered off on my own today to sit in a cafe, to stroll the back streets, to smell the early flowers. To stumble pissing self medicated into the encroaching elephant ear leaves in an empty lot.
We finally got paid for the church street mural project I’ve been involved with at home, the money’s in the bank and it all seems far away, blessedly, does the turmoil and disorganization the project entailed and overcame at last. An unfamiliar place like this scrubs the senses, or at least gives them a lick and a promise so I’m encouraged to paint again, by the money, by the colours here at dusk, by the unsalted trucks and by the plainest of the buildings. The petty sting goes out of things said, real or imagined things. The passive aggressive chipperness of inter-office emails stops replaying for obsessive parsing in the head. Here are the little sparrows picking at crumbs under the tables and leaves on a cafe patio. Here are the dissipated palm fronds overhead. Here there rises music, the danceable swing, rhythm and the goddam blues.
I write a few letters home to people who still engage my imagination with their life stories. Always the same basic crew. I consider logistics interior and without. The family pinches at the heart. I take an ashtray for myself from a nearby table and I smoke without feeling criminal. to smoke with my coffee on a cafe patio is illegal at home. Here I am, alone today, just this side of the levees.
There are still numbers from rescue efforts after the storm scrawled or sprayed on the occasional house-front, cryptics I don’t understand, perhaps to indicate whether there were bodies inside. watermarks everywhere,boarded places. I got lost late one night and wandered into an area not reclaimed. I was foolish with curiosity, a white out of towner. Somehow bound by duty or just crude in tourism to see. Daylight might have been wiser. I proceeded through the smell of rot and mould and the scuttle of rats and hoodies. me in my sedate western gear.
The soil is poisoned here so nobody gardens food in their back yards, though you could maybe if you made your own topsoil. So much old lead paint from the flooded houses, gas from flooded stations, god knows what else. I couldn’t help but see the ruined buildings through painting I’d admired. Edward hopper after the apocalypse. I had to frame it in some illustrative tradition. Another few blocks and it was high ground, fancy, and things were already at threat of seeming gentrified, on famous stage lit streets.
It seems a comfortable town for the kind of public solitude I seek out, the interior taken out for coffee, seeing if it can pass for sane in normal parlay. People are curious about strangers to the neighbourhood but they don’t pry as I acquire a daily pattern of public movement. I come to a hipster place with internet for a little patio time at my usual small table. There are more people on the other side of the order counter than on mine usually, only one or two capable of more than the latest silhouette.
I grow old, old, my trousers still unrolled, and was beginning to feel in Toronto like an anomaly wandering around a corporate environment drinking the happy rainforest house blend or eating the test group favourite antioxidant salad. Petty of me. There were plenty of little neighbourhood cafes, I had my little routines, but I was always struggling from place to place against a human chill of correctness that pretended to see no poverty, no disgrace as it clicked along on the latest shoe shape. It did its little part and signed petitions, it did more too… maybe the weather took something of them, put something in. I was trying to fit in. I was one of them. Jean Rhys talking about how the British looked to a tropical eye like so many colourless wood lice…
How lonely I’ve been for a less pragmatic city. Though below sea level things are built at least here in this part of town on a human scale. These heaved old streets are hard on a car’s suspension. They don’t put salt on the roads to pit the ice so the old half-tons are in good condition, parked cockeyed in front of shotgun houses under winter leaved trees. I’m at a little iron mesh table under an early flowering tree of some sort a few blocks from Dauphine and Desire. Bougainvillea begins. Little lozenges of light with languidly breathing edged shadows stir as in gentle sleep on the glass table top.
I’m tempted to say that people here on the street don’t seem constantly annoyed by the place they live in or by one another. They show pride and delight of place. Survivor’s gratitude and guilt. People smile how do from nearby tables and I feel normal. “People who at least know enough to say hello” as my dad used to say. They’ll indulge readily in a mild random parlay. They won’t dismiss you as eccentric so fast if you are too lost in thought to cut and paste ritual coffee chain pleasantries. You have a super day too.
Sure its all just a veneer of southern hospitality covering a rat’s nest of prejudice and hurricane leftovers, like the blonde lady in Memphis said it was in the cold bright morning, identifying a pin oak for me, but it really is good enough for me. She said this is cotton country like there was blood and brains spilt in the soil. She didn’t like liberals from Berkeley though. We rented a little flat in one of her two rows of two story flats with balconies facing one another, filigree iron balcony and winter dormant magnolia. She said I love my trees and she identified them for me. I said I thought that was a pin oak from reading. She stopped and talked about southern literature to me for a cigarette or two. She wasn’t flirtatious but she had antebellum graces ingrained. But she didn’t turn on the entitlement like Scarlet O’hara. I’d been thinking about Faulkner and Harper Lee and Scarlet O’hara, I’d reread part of a Carson McCullers novel while standing in a book store. She wondered why a canadian would like to read american southern literature.
And sometimes you meet someone volatile, readily expressive of emotion and articulate in sensation, someone who doesn’t hold back as you do, and you envy the expression and disdain the dramatics. you’d like to throw a little scene in righteous indignation like that some day but you know it only fascinates a little while. it gets dull after a while, duller than your own restraint. The rant amuses on the funny political radio perhaps better than in the love affair.
I think of the snow and I think of the miles. And what will happen while I was away. What will occur.
Last night I entertained a bit. I sang a few religious songs of my childhood in a shotgun house down on the butt end of the french quarter. The hymns among the songs are familiar, are second line funeral favourites here. My momma learned them listening to the grand old Opry on the radio when she was a girl, and she taught them to me by singing over the sink full of dishes, or sitting down on a kitchen chair with a guitar strung in what she called a Hawaiian tuning across her knee, using the flat handle of a kitchen knife for a guitar slide.
Her voice was high and wild and clear, wound up with religion and man problems in the country manner. She spent some time here in New Orleans and she seems happy we’ll have something in common now to talk about. She said Id never come home if I saw New Orleans. I’ve seen a few of the sights she saw, walked around where she walked.
At the Martin Luther King memorial in Memphis they play Mahaliah Jackson singing take my hand precious Lord on loudspeakers over the parking lot from that cheap motel balcony. You can go in across the street and stand in a reconstruction of the living room with its stagey looking window from which the man was shot. Ten bucks. I bought a little postcard and wrote my mother a note on it but I left the saddlebag it was in at a taco house in Birmingham Alabama. Seems fitting somehow.
She always liked Mahaliah Jackson. She’d make me listen, learn the words so I could sing along too. Always some stray in her house, she’d deplore its foolish ways, sometimes for years and years. My boyfriends, draft dodgers back when, lately the human flotsam and jetsam of delusional escapees from the new retirement home nearby. they sit in her kitchen a while, feeling they are in a real place and then they wander back to the compound. My mother watches them home across the driveways. She raises an anxious hand to her throat until they get buzzed in. past the heavy electronic doors home.
When I was a child the trains ran along the tracks across the river from our house and you could hear them. The trains still run here and they sound old fashioned to me at night. When I sit on the front stoop in the morning and have my sweet black coffee and my Virginia tobacco I do so with a delight at the prospect of the day before me as I felt in childhood. The lit air has soft majesty. the shadows of the leaves are large and unnamed by me for the most part.