* Steam - click to read Jim Gabour's
anniversary short story
"So I hope I can count on you come next Saturday. This election is so important to the people of this city", said the earnest middle-aged man, a stranger to the neighbourhood, but looking well-groomed, homey and approachable. Just an hour ago he stood on my porch with his hand extended, tie lowered and sleeves rolled up. For all outward appearances a seemingly honest and upright gentleman, looking to bond with a proposed constituent. In this case, me.
Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly
For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here
Two of his partisans, clad in dark, perfectly tailored light wool suits, stood at the gate to the front yard, one with hands full of pamphlets, the other with larger signs on a stick bearing the man's name.
I was clad in rather shabby work clothes
framed by my own front door, trying to make the best of, and end, an awkward
situation. I had taken the pamphlet, but for a long second I looked at the
proffered hand. I didn't know this guy.
Then I made a conscious decision in favor of southern cordiality versus
confrontation, reached out and shook it.
"I'll certainly consider it", I said in reply, "I sure will."
Two shakes and a rapid retrieval. Then, whether consciously or not, I wiped my hand on the side of my jeans before hiding it from further contact back in my pocket. He saw this action. I followed his gaze down to my pocketed hand and back to his face, and tried my best to recoup his goodwill by looking friendly.
The stranger had taken note of the worth of his efforts, though, and a scowl tugged down the corners of his exaggerated smile. This unkempt-looking fellow (me) was obviously not going to accept a sign to be posted in my yard endorsing his candidacy. And this was certainly not the sort of excited personal commitment he was looking for, especially after going to all the trouble of walking door-to-door in this neighbourhood full of bohemians and ne'er-do-wells, carpenters and "artists" and plumbers.Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here
A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:
"This is personal" (23 April 2007)
"Cutting loose" (4 May 2007)
"Mahatma 189" (11 May 2007)
"Undercurrent" (22 June 2007)
"Cry Oncle!"(12 July 2007)
"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)
"The recurring anniversary of wilderness" (28 August 2007)
"Native to America" (26 September 2007)
"Number One with a bullet" (22 October 2007)
"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)
"Windfall" (17 December 2007)
"Jesus pulls a right cross" (25 February 2008)
"Show me some ID, so I can kill you" (30 April 2008)
"Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)
Though he stood there for another moment without saying a word, the wheels of a political mind were apparent on his wide-open billboard of a face: maybe this guy is a servant. The house is certainly upscale. Possibly I should ask if the actual owner is in?
His head dipped as he quickly reappraised me head to toe, and then I could see him come to a conclusion and finally write me off: maybe I can do without this specific portion of the working-class vote.
His hand dropped back to his side. "Thanks for your time", he muttered while already turning back to me and quickly being enfolded in the comforting company of his still-smiling henchmen. But as he exited my front gate, they read their boss's reaction to me, and immediately looked up and gave a hard threatening glare. We'll remember you, their eyes said. When we get in, don't come asking for any favours.
The trio quickly proceeded to the next house, recharged their smiles, straightened their backs, and rang the doorbell.
No one answered. They rang again. It was no use in any case. I'd seen my neighbour watch what had happened through the window, and knew he wanted no part of such an encounter. This was an intrusion far worse than the Pentecostal church ladies we get once a month - after they disturb you from your bath, those matronly preachers just stand on the porch and pray for your soul's cleanliness.
No, these were politicians, no goodwill and far less welcome.
I walked out to the gate to see the same non-start occur at the last three houses on the block. No one else came to the door. I could have told them that most folks on the block worked, away from home, and wouldn't be available for governmental conversation at ten on a weekday morning. Someone familiar even in the least bit with the make-up and demographics of the neighbourhood would have understood that fact before hitting the streets during working hours.
The candidate did not. Frustrated and visibly fuming, he rounded the corner at Royal Street and headed east, shaking his head in anger. His flustered assistants were still distantly in tow and shouting a chatter of encouragement to their employer. But so far he had not been able to place his cardboard-emblazoned name in a single yard on our highly-travelled street, and he seemed unreceptive to their cheerleading. He was not in a good mood.
I was still watching as a friend approached from the other end of the street and stopped to talk. He nodded toward the exiting candidate. "Another axe salesman", he said. We exchanged a smile. "Axe salesman, for sure", I repeated. We both understood: this particular politician wouldn't be getting any votes from our households.
The term brought back a memory, also none-too-welcome.
The survivors' tale
The third anniversary of Katrina is arriving with - as in the last two years - bottom-feeding politicians and commercial entrepreneurs using the anxiety brought on by that date, and hurricane season, to gather votes and cash.
In the first year after the storm, a national big-box hardware chain decided to build on the outskirts of our neighborhood, something they had refused to do for years, as they habitually neglected lower- to middle-class urban areas in favor of more wealthy suburban sprawl where they were more likely to sell thousand-dollar brushed aluminum refrigerators rather than five-dollar boxes of nails.
But the huge demand for post-flood renovation and home restoration led the retailer to very quickly build in downtown New Orleans, and to import workers and management to man the store, since there were no local service personnel yet able to move back to the city.
Which eventually and yet inevitably led to my own encounter with an axe salesman.
The axes were first mentioned in the last frantic pre-Katrina days by our rapidly-disintegrating mayor. Someone who hadn't been around for hurricane Betsy forty years ago probably wouldn't have understood the reference. I did.
During Betsy, by rainfall alone, the water rose in some neighbourhoods so quickly that residents were forced to move to the upper floors of their houses and finally climb into their attics to avoid the flood. Many drowned in those low crawl-spaces when they could find no way out, other than swimming back down through two or more stories of their houses, holding their breaths while navigating through floating furniture and slimy polluted floodwaters.
On 28 August 2005, the day before Katrina's landfall, the mayor jokingly reminded citizens to store an axe in their attics to allow for escape, to allow the option of chopping through their roofs if such a flood should happen again. No one believed that such a thing was possible, but many took heed. And, judging by the hours of television news coverage of people climbing through gaping holes in their roofs, a number of lives were saved because of having the specific tool to allow escape. However horrific the experience.
So a year later, at the height of hurricane season 2006, to walk into a huge merchandising store full of lumber and electrical wire and appliances and see a prominent display of axes just inside the door was a gut-wrenching experience. Many very bad repressed memories immediately surfaced.
Like many others I was there on yet another hardware-repair mission, when I ran into the display. The store clerk designated to hawk the axes was a very nice retired gentleman from Iowa. He was upset and couldn't understand the violent reaction of locals to the fact that he was selling a simple tool. He told me that people had run back out of the store crying, or stood transfixed in front of the display for many minutes "watching ghosts". And that one man had actually walked up and spit on the axes, cursed them, and shambled away without another word.
No one had briefed the Iowan on the significance of what he was selling. For all he knew the axes were to be used for gathering firewood for the upcoming fall in freezing, ice-clotted lower ninth ward of subtropical New Orleans. The man had no idea of the physical, emotional and intellectual weight of those simple implements. He was just there for a term of gainful employment, and of course to make more money for the Big Guys.
The politician who had visited my house was an axe salesman.
The truly depressing part of his visit, though, is that we have almost come to believe that his like is only what we deserve.
It has been three years. No one wants to hear about this town any more. Just last week it was announced that many of the people who were administering the masses of federal money these thirty-six months are finally going to jail. They had paid each other off, renovating their own houses and then selling them, or just giving money to each other for houses that existed only on paper.
Thousands of homeowners have been jilted by both governmental and private insurance firms, and not allowed the opportunity to rebuild. Many more took a first look at the paperwork involved in documenting their families' century-old ownership, and the newly-lowered valuations of their properties in a flood zone, and decided that relocating permanently to Atlanta or Houston or Memphis was much easier.
Two independent national reports came out at almost the same time as the federal home-grant bust telling the world that things are improving in New Orleans. Only our young people want to leave, they both concluded, the old folks will probably stay, and... the city's suicide rate is down drastically. The reports didn't explain two things: that the kids here have no emotional ties to a place so obviously lacking the working infrastructure so necessary to modern juvenile leisure, and that most of the folks who wanted to take their own lives after Katrina have already done so. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, including many doctors who finally could not bear what they had experienced.
The population that is left, again including me, are for the most part still too involved in maintaining our sanity for yet another day to even contemplate the decisiveness necessary to take our own lives. It would simply be too much trouble.
So we continue to live. And strive for happiness.
Yes, at the same time I do believe that we survivors as a group are getting better, whatever the index of that improvement.
A horrible thing happened three years ago and we lived to tell the story, but at this point most of us have taken the attitude that we are owed nothing. No one is going to help. And with that mindset we go on.
One to another
I ran away from the city recently, to a friend's beach-house where I intended to alternatingly swim and perform writing therapy. But, except for a single day, it stormed and the double red flags on the beach showed the roaring surf was too dangerous to enter, full of deadly riptides and aggressive undertow and vast schools of stinging jellyfish stirred up by one of the first Gulf storms of the season, Eduardo.
So I stayed indoors and polished an off-centre tale on my laptop, a bit of fiction I had concocted about the non-fictional ease of accepting madness. "Steam", I titled it last year, in its rough state.
I lived indoors during that stormy week reading other people's books, honing and venting my own "Steam". The creative effort calmed me.
Back home now, I have to admit that even with the quiet time out of the city I am still not cured of my self-built angst, though I am indeed somewhat happier. And I have come to realise in retrospect what the story I so compulsively wrote is actually about: there is no, and there has never been, guarantee of either safety or sanity from anyone other than ourselves. We're all just renters here, in this city, in this country, on this planet. The lease is shaky, landlord is unsympathetic, and the supposed insurance full of loopholes.
We can depend on no one else, especially dysfunctional juggernauts like governments. So maybe John McCain's advisor, ex-Senator Phil Gramm, in his comments about the current generation of American "whiners", was right in a fashion: we each need to be prepared to deal with tragedy and malaise - and madness - on our own. In human fashion, one to another.
And disregard the axe salesmen at the door.
* * *
"No, you're not!" she shouted, slapping the table top with her open palm. A sizable portion of her companion's coffee sloshed into its saucer. "You're nowhere near crazy!"
More heads turned in her direction. This was not an uncommon situation. She had dominated the room from the moment she entered. Toying with human herds before devouring them was a frequently indulged appetite with the omnivorous Zoë Gammon. Even subduing a temporary environment like the coffee shop offered her a modest serving of self gratification.
She was a creature of immediate note. Waist-length pitch-black hair topped seventy-one inches of slender pale skin and a sinewy torso that had somehow been sculpted into rolling, sexual terrains. As a matter of course, this striking physical form drew attention without her making the slightest sound. Zoë's prey were caught in the headlights of her presence. As she moved among them, they watched her every gesture, though always cautiously, always afraid of being discovered at their inspection.
This day provided a slight variation. Her shouting gave the occupants of the café an excuse to take her in without embarrassment. She allowed this as an exercise, so that she could then turn and confront their stares. Intimidation was part of an ongoing game plan to keep her world preserve intact.
She did this in two deliberate movements, each time locking eyes until the flustered victims winced and looked elsewhere.
Then she narrowed and focused her energy onto the rather perplexed man sitting in front of her.
"So you can stop plotting to use that as an excuse. The reason we're not getting on has to do with your lack of commitment. Your lack of responsibility. It was you who forced me to look elsewhere for someone who would make me feel worthwhile, for someone entertaining."
He reckoned there was at least a bit of truth in that. Beau Munson had never been called "entertaining", though his company was well-appreciated in many an other regard. He also stood a finger below six feet, and a hand-count above forty years of age. He was an entomologist by education, a PhD who taught two courses a week at the local community college when he wasn't consulting with any of the half-dozen architectural firms who employed him to assess historic properties for insect intrusion. His job was to determine if there was any termite or other pest infestation, to assess what damage had been done in the past, and to devise methods of both halting the destruction and preventing future recurrence.
To a long-term home-owner in New Orleans, finding a structural entomologist who knew what he was talking about was considered a greater coup than discovering a Roman Catholic confessor with hearing disabilities.
Zoë Gammon bragged to her acquaintances that she had snagged a "professor", but she always belittled his field of choice to his face. It was her way.
Beau was not an unattractive man by any means. His mousy brown mane had taken well to the veins of silver mined by advancing age. At 45 he looked younger than he had at thirty, having grown into a rather neutral physical form that suited him, unathletic and imperfect though it might be. He was comfortable with his body, thought little about it other than tooth brushing and toenail clipping.
The women with whom he had enjoyed relationships prior to Zoë had been attracted to him in no small part by that natural ease. If he had been more entertaining, Munson would have been less enjoyable. As it was, he happily stumbled through life, cuticles subdued and molars gleaming, experiencing individuals of many sociological and physical persuasions. His female companions particularly continued to care for him, even when they had not seen him in years.
Beau was at peace with himself. At least he had been until he was claimed as the personal property of Zoë Gammon, who at this moment was again scanning the Café rue de la Course to make sure that none of what she called his "ex-pack" were there to spy on her discontent.
Beau held his hands up, palms facing her, signalling his acquiescence, his complete surrender, to her superior logic. Zoë's lapis eyes grew even darker in anger - she disliked winning too easily - but she did stop yelling.
"I wasn't making an excuse", he said. "I wanted to share an experience with you, that's all."
She made a deep humph noise, a lioness unsatisfied with her portion of the prey. "Fine. Share. But don't be trying to turn things to your advantage with it. You do that. You take things that happen to you and carve them into biblical parables, little gideonesque stories that you think prove that what you want to be true actually is. Even if everybody knows it isn't. A guy that kills bugs for a living, and he thinks he's a philosopher." She noticed the frown her last statement brought to his face, and decided that she had sufficiently unsettled his confidence enough to keep him in check. For the moment. She settled back in her chair and took another sip of her latte. "OK. Let's hear it."
As Zoë relaxed and became quieter, the raging-storm tension in the room evaporated into a dead calm. Pressure dropped in the eye of the societal hurricane. A half-dozen simultaneous sighs erupted, and an elderly man seated at the next table leaned his chair back against the wall, chest heaving in relief. Zoë surveyed her subjects with satisfaction. She enjoyed exercising power over run-of-the-mill people.
During the course of their relationship, she had been unable to classify Beau among such ordinary beings, which both attracted and upset her. Every moment they spent together, especially sexual encounters, inevitably became one more effort to drop him into the ranks of the subjugated. He instinctively knew that if he allowed that, if he became that submissive, she would instantly have nothing further to do with him. Which at times constituted the lure of submission. After half a year, he still wasn't sure of course.
Even when confronted with the fact of her infidelity, she had immediately turned the blame to him. If only he'd been more aggressive, more captivating, more manly, she'd never have looked elsewhere, she'd said. Her dalliance was and remained his fault. But with that assertion - that he wanted a monogamous relationship, and that he cared enough about her to brazen out the tawdry facts - Zoë decided that she too would see only him. For the time being. If he didn't get too boring. And if nobody better came along.
He had accepted the qualifiers as part of her character. They had "dated" now for six months.
She still required a minimum of subservience. And so he deliberately began his narrative apologetically: "I was startled, that's all."
As he knew she would, Zoë sensed sanguine weakness, brought the sharp-toothed shark of her attention swimming to the hook. She would listen now.
"I was having a long soak, then I started to add more hot water, and I looked up and there it was. A snake climbing the frame of the lower bathroom window. Bright green. A viper. I sat up so quickly that the water sloshed from the tub all over the floor. I was sure that the noise would make it notice me. That it would draw the snake to me. It did not. Not right then."
"So?" she demanded.
"I was frightened, like a child dreaming of the bogey man. I didn't know what to do, but I had the urge to call out, to yell for help."
Zoë shifted in her chair. Her lips began to part. She'd begun to show sparks of jealousy ever since her own indiscretions had been brought to light. It was only because she was so completely sure that he would never betray her with anyone else that she allowed herself to be possessive of him. She glared.
He read her. "And no", he continued, "there was no one else in the apartment, no one else to call out to."
With a satisfied smile, Zoë inserted her coffee cup between her lips, as if that was what she had meant to do all along.
"Then the sun came from behind the clouds, literally.
"There was no snake. I saw that. Moisture had pooled on the window of the steamy bathroom to form the reptile's head, and then given way to gravity, leaving a curving track of water traveling downward toward the window lock. The bright green of the banana plants outside had been amplified by the lens of the clear liquid.
"There was no snake.
"But there was, if I wanted it. That's what exploded into the vacuum left by the departure of fear. That's what made me dizzy with a different sort of fright."
The woman's head tilted to one side: "If you wanted it? Wanted a snake?"
"Yes. All I had to do was decide that I was seeing a snake, and it would be a snake. There comes a time when everyone decides that his or her way of seeing the world is reality. At that point you make a simple choice, and life changes to suit. A little thing, like your affirming that a cricket's song is really your lover's voice in the distance, determines that you will be mad forever. Sets in stone that you will never get back to the state of sanity you possessed when you made that decision."
"No way", she scoffed. "Mental illness can be cured. I've seen the commercials."
"Sure, they say they ‘cure' you, that you're as good as new. Medicate you to the point where the voice becomes a cricket again, and your life seems stable. For the moment. But once betrayed, sanity is fickle. I've researched this almost as extensively as I did my thesis. Like I told you, the hemipterous thread-legged bug Emesa longipes..."
"And I told you", she interrupted, "you will merely say ‘bugs' to me."
"These are ‘bugs' that affect people, live off them, then leave something of their own presence behind in the bloodstreams of their hosts forever. It never really goes away. They were everywhere in the lunatic asylums, even up into the middle of this century."
"Ick", she responded. But she was listening.
Her reaction drove him forward.
"Along with the continuing Emesa... uh, with the ‘bug' studies, I've read a great deal about the onset of madness these last weeks. The people who went insane say that they knew they'd never get back to the state of mind they held before they made their decision.
"Once you've lost that first hold on reality, once your own awareness' trust is broken, you're never sane again. Not like you were. You can only hold the appearance of sanity and hope it's good enough to get you through the machinations of the rest of your life. You see, don't you, why I was so excited?"
"No," she said bluntly.
He knew it was true. She was intelligent, but uninspired. He understood that she considered most other humans obtuse and inferior, their arguments clouded. She did not willingly open her own mind, or her attention span, often during the course of a day. He kept going anyway.
"I consciously chose to be sane this morning. I could feel how easy it would be to simply say ‘That is a snake', and embrace the madness. I even let my mind tempt the edges of the idea. It was frightening how little it would have taken to go over. But I didn't do it. I was offered the choice and I decided on this world."
"‘Decided on this world.' If only." Zoë shrugged.
"It is. Once you are offered the opportunity, once your mind says that you are ready to go either way, then both doors are open. And once you pass through, they close behind you. Forever."
It was her turn to hold up her hand for emphasis. "Are you saying you wait for some sort of basement Sanity Sale, then go shopping for what's discounted as real?" she said.
"Wonderful. I knew you were listening."
"I hate snakes."
Zoë provided little transition when she offered her opinion.
Blindsiding was another specialty. She reached quickly under the table and overtly grabbed his crotch. Squeezed hard. "Though I do love this. With all your psychology, I suppose you'll find some Freudian inconsistency in those two statements." She looked at nearby tables to see if anyone was watching. They were. She flashed her demoness-from-hell smile to them until they wilted, then squeezed him once again before letting go.
He jumped up, slapping her hand away. "Why do you do things like that? Why do you always try to subvert anything I say with mindless nonsense? This is important to me - it's about a loss of innocence as much as anything else, a loss of trust!" yelled Beau Munson.
She stood opposite him, both hands on the table as she leaned towards him. "Trust me, Bug Man," Zoë whispered huskily. "I heard every word. And what do I hear? I hear baby Beau getting all worked up about a teeny drip of water in his bathroom. He looks out his window and says he's getting lost trying to figure out what's real out there. For this world you need a roadmap, honey.
"Get hold of yourself," she said, pointing where she'd pinched. "Trust me. It's the right thing to do."