Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Murder City

As of yesterday, the unofficial tally of 2009 murders in New Orleans stood at 171, according to the Times-Picayune. Meanwhile, New York City had 461 murders as of Monday, according to the New York Times.

It bears mentioning that New Orleans is a city of no more than 350,000 people, by even the most wildly optimistic measures, while New York City's population is 8.3 million people. So while New York City's population is almost 24 times as big as New Orleans, its total number of murders is only two and a half times greater.

To put this in per capita terms, New York City has 5.5 murders per 100,000 residents and New Orleans has 48.8 murders per 100,000 residents. So yes, fellow New Orleanians, your chances of being murdered are roughly nine times greater than your friends in the Big Apple.

Having grown up in New York in the bad old days of crime and violence, those days when the streets were so rough that only Rudy Giuliani's campaign of civil liberties violations could make the streets safe for women and children, I think it is significant to point out that, even in those awful times of low rents and vital, diverse culture, New York's per capita murder rate was still only 26 murders per 100,000 residents, based on the high point of 2245 murders in 1990.

I hope that 2010 brings better news on the crime and violence front here in New Orleans but I am not optimistic.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rose Silhouette

My wife, Nikki Page, is a multi-talented artist and photographer with whom I have collaborated on nearly everything that I have done that was worth doing.

Our most recent collaboration has been our little baby Rose and it should come as no surprise that Nikki would not have been content merely to grow, deliver, feed and raise this baby but felt the need to memorialize her infancy in her art, a pursuit that she has little time for at the moment given her other aforementioned duties.

For Christmas, Nikki made me this eighteenth century style silhouette, made contemporary with her signature cut paper technique on both the silhouette and the border that frames the silhouette. Nikki told me that I would need to give it to Rose some day. I said that I would will it to her so that she can have it when I die but that she will not lay her hands on it before then.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Three Irish Poets

I am only really familiar with the work of three Irish poets, William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney, and . . . Shane MacGowan.

I was thinking of the last of these this eve of Christmas Eve, thinking of all the drunks, losers, and people full of regret this Christmas. Happy Christmas to them.

Fairytale Of New York
Shayne MacGowan

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won't see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one
Came in at ten to one
I've got a feeling
This year's for me and you
So Happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It's no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells are ringing out
For Christmas Day

Monday, December 21, 2009

Merry Christmas

In the cesspool of money, bling, and consumerism that is, for the most part, the New York Times Style Section, Stephen Elliott's Christmas essay was a little diamond this past Sunday.

His sad, wonderful essay is about being a runaway, homeless kid having Christmas at his foster home and feeling a little less loved than the other kids. The essay is not just about Christmas but also memory and how our idea of ourselves shapes it, especially among those of us that chronically indulge in feeling a little less loved.

Merry Christmas Stephen Elliott, and everybody else.

No Home I’d Call My Own

Published: December 18, 2009

CHRISTMAS has always been my existential holiday.

I left home when I was 13, after my mother died. I lived on the streets of Chicago for a year, sleeping on rooftops and in broom closets and breaking into boiler rooms when it became too cold.

I was 14 when I was arrested sleeping in a hallway. By then my father had moved, and I didn’t know where he lived, so the state took custody. I spent the next four years in a series of group homes and state-financed institutions.

In the group homes, holidays weren’t so bad because we teenagers were all in the same parentless boat. Depending on the home, we would be given presents and there would be a nice meal. Volunteers would take us ice skating or bowling or something like that.

It was when I became a nominal adult, a student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, that I began to understand my predicament.

Winter break would come; the students scattered; the dorms closed. And I had to figure out where to go.

One year I hitchhiked west, hoping to make it to Los Angeles but only getting as far as Tucson before running out of time and catching a Greyhound bus back to the university.

Another year I went to Mexico, traveling by bus with a student pass, staying in boarding homes and sneaking into the fancy hotels and lying next to the pool. On the road I didn’t have to explain myself, or why I thought I didn’t have anywhere to go. It’s lonely traveling on Christmas, but nobody sees it.

There were also times when I returned to Chicago to spend Christmas with the Bell family, whom I lived with before starting college. The Bells were poor. They owned a house — a two-story frame house built in the 1930s, bought with a $5,000 inheritance used as a down payment and a G.I. loan. But that was it.

The mom, Maria, whom everybody called Ma Bell, raised three children in that house virtually by herself while working as an administrative assistant at the Catholic Charities. Her youngest son, Jason, and I were friends, and she didn’t seem to mind when, just after turning 18, I left the group home and showed up with a bag of possessions and moved into the basement. I stayed eight months, pitching in sometimes with money from a part-time job and helping a little around the house, but not much. It was a generous family, and I took more than I gave.

My first Christmas with the Bells was during my first or second year of college. I told Ma I was coming, and she said, “You’re always welcome.” That year I saw the pattern. All the children would get presents: a bakeware set for Chrissy, the oldest daughter; a drill for Benny, the oldest son; a toolbox for Jason. I would get a T-shirt or socks. It was simple commerce; my presents didn’t cost as much. The difference in price was the clearest reminder that I was an outsider who had been taken in.

Now I’m 38 and Christmas is about the babies, and I don’t notice the price tags on my presents. The Bells’ house has been sold and Ma lives in the far north suburbs, still struggling financially. I tell her that I’m writing about our old Christmases, that I have mixed feelings about them. I tell her it made me a little sad that my presents didn’t cost as much. She tells me it was complicated for her as well.

“I never knew if you were coming,” she says. “You would never commit to anything. The day before you might tell me you were coming home. But I was so happy when you were there.”

She made me a stocking, which she did for all her children, and hung it over the mantelpiece. It was there whether I arrived or not. And it was true, what she said. I had a foot out the door. I got used to running away at an early age. I don’t know how to commit.

This was my Christmas lie. I preferred to think I didn’t have a home, that I wasn’t part of a family. But it wasn’t true. At least not completely.

“Did I ever bring you presents?” I ask her.

“I don’t know,” she says. “It doesn’t matter.”

To help me remember, she brings me pictures from 18, 20 years ago. There’s Jason in long underwear, shirtless, an eagle and a skull with wings tattooed on his shoulder, holding his freshly unwrapped fishing rod. There’s Benny holding what looks like a handheld video game device. There’s Ma in her moccasin boots with all the food spread out on the table. Chrissy, the only child to have already left home, her face poking above a new purple sweater.

And there I am in the chair by the front window. Why didn’t somebody tell me to get a haircut and wear clothes that fit? There’s a picture of Jason and me leaning over the couch, Chrissy and Michelle, Benny’s girlfriend, sitting next to Benny, all of us looking at the photo album open on Benny’s lap. In the next picture I’m face down on the couch. Chrissy and I are both asleep, the cat impassively between us, the coffee table covered in candy wrappers.

There are so many pictures. Here, we’re passing a pie. There, we’re slicing a ham. Everybody seems to be smiling.

“One year we had a Goodwill Christmas,” Ma says. “Everybody’s presents were from Goodwill. There was never any money. I worked so hard and I was exhausted but I didn’t want anybody to go. I would sit on the couch and you would all tell stories, one after another. And you would all laugh and laugh, and that was my reward. I would sit on the couch and close my eyes and listen to you all laughing. It made me so happy because life was hard. Nobody helped. My first husband didn’t help. My second husband was a junkie.”

I tell her I remember. I remember the laughing. The laughs seemed endless, even though Jason and Chrissy were in recovery and Ma’s boyfriend was stuck in a series of difficult low-paying jobs. Maybe it was Benny doing voices: the Indian storeowner, the used-car salesman.

Here is a picture. Just a Christmas tree in front of the staircase, covered in tinsel, an angel on top. Beneath the tree are presents, carefully wrapped in blue, green and red. To the right, on the wall, is a picture of an Indian and a buffalo. On the floor, against the TV stand, an Elvis record. It’s almost a cliché, all the symbols meaning exactly what you think they mean.

“What was the joke?” I ask. “What were the stories we were telling?”

“I don’t know,” Ma says. “I remember the laughing, but I can’t remember what was so funny.”

Stephen Elliott is the author of “The Adderall Diaries,” a memoir.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Classic Cocktails in the White House c/o Rachel Maddow

Rachel Maddow discovers what they are serving at the White House cocktail parties. Classic cocktails: the Emerson, the Stone Fence, the Robert Frost Cocktail. It looks like they have maraschino liquor and Plymouth Gin on the table in the photo that Rachel snuck. My confidence in the Union is restored by the presence of a man in the White House who drinks, drinks responsibly, and drinks tastefully. (That would likely keep me out of the White House but that is likely a good thing.)


Can't find a recipe for the Robert Frost Cocktail but here are the other two, as well as the ingredients Rachel listed for each:

- 2 oz Gin
- 1 oz Sweet Vermouth
- 1/2 oz Lemon Juice
- 1/2 oz Maraschino Liqueur
- Glassware: Cocktail Glass

Mix all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass.

At the White House according to Rachel:

Old tom gin


Lime juice

Sweet vermouth

Stone Fence
- 2 ounces brandy (or applejack, or Scotch, or bourbon, or rye, or rum)
- hard cider

Pour the spirits into a pint glass; add two lumps of ice and fill with cider.

At the White House, according to Rachel:

Apple Jack
Apple cider
Fee Brothers Aromatic Bitters

Finally the Robert Frost Cocktail, developed by Derek Brown, according to Rachel:

White Port
Orange Bitters

Using some basic principle of drink making, I have tried to sort out the proportions of The Robert Frost Cocktail.

I am not quite sure what it is supposed to taste like and I am pretty fond of the taste of all of the ingredients so who knows if this is what Washington luminaries (and Susan Mikula) drank at the white house but it's what we are drinking at my house tonight. Suffice to say, I could drink a couple few of them quite happily.

1 1/2 oz. bourbon
3/4 oz. white port
3/4 oz. sherry
Orange bitters
Sugar cube

Muddle a sugar cube with two or three dashes of orange bitters and a little water in an old fashioned glass. (This is how my two favorite drinks, the old fashioned and the sazerac commence, so I figure it's a good way to start just about anything.) Add the other ingredients with a lot of ice and stir with a chop stick or mixing spoon. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Make pretend you are Susan Mikula, or David Axelrod, or someone else likely to attend a White House cocktail party.

Comments or real recipes for this drink (as well as an explanation of the Robert Frost connection) are welcome.


I finally found the real recipe for the Robert Frost on The Atlantic website.

Here it is:

The Robert Frost Cocktail

• ¾ oz. Bourbon
• ¾ oz. Amontillado Sherry (dry)
• ¾ oz. White Port
• ½ oz. Simple Syrup
• Dash of Orange Bitters

Combine ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass and add thinly sliced orange and lemon wheels.

I wouldn't have thought equal parts. But it works.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Nikki and I were wondering about the origin of the word mayonnaise last week. I came up with the idea that naise must mean sauce in French. (See, i.e., bearnaisse.) So that mayonnaise was the sauce of mayon, whatever that is.

After consulting someone fluent in French last night, it turns out that aise means something like "of," not sauce, so he and I speculated that mayonnaise was simply "of mayon," maybe a town?

We consulted the The World Authority Larousse Gastronomique, the dusty old first American edition (1961) that has sat unopened on my shelf for many years.

The answer it provided was brilliant, complex, and satisfying uncertain.

From the Gastronomique:

Mayonnaise - A cold sauce of which the basic ingredients are egg yolks and oil blended into an emulsion. For recipes, see SAUCE, Cold sauces.

'Culinary purists," writes Careme in his Cuisinier parisien: Traite des entrees froides, 'are not in agreement regarding the name. Some say mayonnaise, others mahonnaise and others bayonnaise.

'I will admit that these words may be current among common cooks, but for my part, I protest that never in our great kitchens (and that is where the purists are to be found) are these three words ever pronounced. We always refer to this sauce by the name magnonaise.'

'But how is it that M. Grimod-de-la-Reyniere, a man of logic and wit, could not see at first glance that magnonaise, derived from the word manier (to stir), was the most appropriate name for this sauce, which owes its very being to the unremitting stirring which it undergoes in the course of preparation? I am more that ever convinced of this when I consider that it is only by working the liquid ingredients together (as may easily be seen from the detailed recipe for this sauce) that a very smooth, creamy sauce is finally produced; a sauce which is very appetising and unique in its kind, since it is totally unlike all other sauces, which are produced by reduction over heat.'

However logical Careme's justification for the exclusive use of the term magnonaise may seem, we are not by any means convinced that it should take the place of the usual form, mayonnaise.

Mayonnaise, in our view, is a popular corruption of moyeunaise, derived from the very old French word moyeu, which means yolk of egg. For, when all is said, this sauce is nothing but an emulsion of egg yolks and oil.

If all sauces stirred for a longer or shorter period, on or off the stove, required a name deriving from the word, manier, then a great many would come under this heading, for instance, Bearnaise and Hollandaise.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New Orleans Police Department

Nikki, our friend Kristen, and I were robbed at gun point in the Marigny almost exactly a year ago. The teenage boys who robbed us made off with Nikki's cell phone and then, stupidly, used it for the next couple of days. Though reluctant to see the boys end up in our state's awful criminal justice system, I immediately brought the evidence to the police station, including the numbers called. No one was there to talk to me so I left a message with an officer at the desk. No one called me back so I called them. And I called. And I called. But no one called me back . . . until I wrote about it in the Times Picayune at which point I received tons of attention from the police, wondering why I had needed to make them look bad. "Why didn't you just contact me in the first place?"

Based on my experience, and the tons of feedback that I received from other New Orleanians who had similar bad experiences with the New Orleans Police Department, I was unsurprised to see that the police department has rock bottom approval ratings from the people they are supposed to serve. According to a recent poll by the New Orleans Crime Coalition, only 33% of city residents are satisfied with the performance of the NOPD. This is compared with an 84-percent satisfaction rating in Nashville and a 75 percent rating in St. Louis.

I am actually surprised that it's as high as it is.

Monday, November 23, 2009

I've Loved You So Long

This weekend I watched I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime), a 2008 French film in which Kristin Scott Thomas stars as a woman recently released from prison after a fifteen year sentence for murdering her six year old son.

The film presents a jarringly compassionate portrait of an infanticide, her strugglings to regain her footing in life following release, her reintegration into her family, and her inability to forgive herself for her past.

Both the relatively lenient sentence (by American standards) and the generosity with which the character is generally treated, both by the film itself and the other characters in the film, made the film seem truly foreign in sensibility.

I have posted here previously about my concerns about a general lack of forgiveness in American society for those who have strayed from the path and the remarkably different approach that seems to animate criminal justice in Europe.

A comment by one of the characters, when he found out that Kristin Scott Thomas's character had been in prison for murder, struck a chord with me, reminding me of one of my favorite lines from Capote - "It's like Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day he went out the back door and I went out the front" - though without the solipsism.

The character, a professor who befriends the woman, tries to comfort her when others discovery her secret:
I spent ten years teaching in prison. I never mention it. I went there three times a week. And I got out three times a week. Nothing was the same after. I saw everything differently. Other people . . . The sky . . . The passing of time . . . I realized that people in prison were like me. They could have been me, or I them. It's such a fine line sometimes.
I have spent the last decade meeting with men in prisons - mostly men facing the death penalty for murder - and I have never walked through the gates without a sense of gratitude and good fortune because that fine, and often well out of our control, line between praise and blame is no where more obvious.

* Here's the trailer.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Peacemaker

Mahony's Po-Boy Shop is my favorite place to get a po-boy. While I want to prefer the old school joint in my neighborhood, Parasol's, I find myself drawn to Mahony's, a relative new comer to the city's po-boy scene, because, not withstanding my partiality to things old and slightly beat up, I like its po-boys better. I prefer its roast beef and I write this regretfully and with some sense of betrayal as I know that Parasol's roast beef po-boy is a great sandwich. Maybe the greatest if not for Mahony's.

My true feelings for Mahony's became clear to me on a recent Monday night after a long day, when all I wanted to do was po-boy the grief and stress of work away. One word rang in my ears. Peacemaker.

I longed for the peace, the serenity, of consuming another signature Mahony's po-boy, a classic, I am told, that I haven't seen anywhere else. Fried oysters, cheddar, and bacon, dressed with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, on French bread. Peacemaker. Made me peaceful.

May peace be with you.

You will know even more peace if you order it with gravy fries, Mahony's homemade fries covered with roast beef and gravy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stealing Fruit

I got home from work on Monday after a long day of work, eager to hold Baby Rose and to forget about the day. In my driveway, I looked over at my satsuma tree, the source of so much pride and happiness this weekend, and realized that a bunch of fruit had been pulled off the tree, evinced by the white rinds beneath the tops of satsuma skins still attached to the tree.

I became really angry, imagining what I would have done if I had come across someone looting my tree and abusing the fruit.

I went inside the house and Nikki told me that she had thought she had heard someone out there.

I became even angrier.

As I laid in bed that night, my mind full of buckshot blasts, I remembered St. Augustine and his pear tree.

In his Confession, Augustine wrote:

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night--having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was--a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart--which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error--not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.

Upon remembering that I, myself, am a would be stealer of pears, I felt a lot better and stopped worrying about shooting the poor thief. Let him have his vices. And my satsumas.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bumper Crop

Following some severe and prescient trimming by Nikki a year or so ago (I don't have her stomach for plant brutality except when it comes to our wisteria, which won't bloom no matter how much I abuse it), our citrus tree produced a bumper crop of fruit this year. (Last year we got about three satsumas. The year before we only got one.) The fruit set, small and green, many month ago and only recently starting turning lighter green, then orange. I was reluctant to start cutting them down because I wanted them to become as sweet as possible but they recently started dropping (with the tops of the fruit pulling right off and the fruit dropping to the ground "open") so in the past couple of days I started to harvest the fruit.I didn't quite realize how much fruit was on the tree until I started clipping them off. Over the course of a half hour or forty five minutes, I filled more than two shopping bags (taking the fruit that had either turned orange or which felt like there was some "room" between the rind and the meat) and there was still a ton of fruit still on the tree. (The above photos were taken after today's harvest.)One thing that is remarkable about the tree is how it supported the weight of so much fruit without snapping its limbs. In the above photo, I am holding two bags of fruit, each bag weighing almost twenty pounds. They were pretty heavy, even for a strapping young man like me. The tree's thin branches hold five times that and while they have bent over, some nearly touching the ground, none have broken even if the recent heavy winds. The only exception was a branch snapped by our carpenter during the recent installation of our shutters and even that branch stayed attached to the tree and produced fruit that ripened slightly sooner but were delicious none the less. (These provided some of the juice for my recent cocktail experiments.)While I take great pleasure eating food grown on my own land (a fairly grandiose way to conceive of my Irish Channel driveway), these fruit would be a delicious treat that I would enjoy even if they were shipped in from South America and I had to pay big bucks for them at Whole Foods.

The fruit is sweet and firm, with few seeds, and is so juicy that they burst when you peel them.

Apparently I am not the first New Yorker to get swept up in the excitement of Louisiana citrus. I found this 1899 article about the prospects for citrus production here ("The people of New Orleans - right here in this city - do not know wht they have, but the Eastern people are beginning to learn what this country is."):In any event, as must be clear, I am a neophyte to citrus trees and farming. I was wondering whether anyone might know with some precision what variety of citrus my tree is. I call them satsumas because they are greenish and because that seems to be the predominant local citrus. But these are much more orange than most satsumas I see. Any citrus experts out there?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Raised to believe that all men are created equal . . .

Philip Spooner is a World War II veteran who served in the Battle of the Bulge. He was raised on a potato farm north of Caribou, Maine to believe that all men were created equal. He has four sons, all of whom served in the military and one of whom is gay. When asked whether he believed in equal rights for gay people recently, he thought about his experience with life, war, and its purposes, and responded, "What do you think our boys fought for at Omaha Beach?"

He's my kind of patriot.

From down here in Louisiana, it's inspiring to see progressive values close to victory on the state level on these kinds of battles, when here things appear to be moving in the opposite direction. Hard to believe its the same country.

I very much hope that my friends and family up in Maine make it out to vote against the November ballot measure repealing same sex marriage rights there. You are lucky to live in a state that reflects values of decency and tolerance. Keep it that way!

*As the husband of a expatriate Maine nationalist, I also like another Equality Maine advertisement , beginning, "Something happens when you cross the border into the state . . ." Reminds me of Nikki arguing that Maine, and maybe Vermont and New Hampshire, is all that truly remains of New England. What about Massachusetts? "Those flatlanders?" Connecticut? "Isn't that part of New York?"

*I first saw this video on Humid City, where it was posted by Loki.

UPDATE: I don't know if it appeared in today's New York Times or will appear in tomorrow's but there is an article about the ballot initiative and its national significance on Sad to see that the Catholic Church is financing the initiative. You'd think that they would render this one unto Caesar so long as they can conduct marriages as they see fit in their own churches.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Baby Rose Mae

I have created a baby blog for friends and family who have demanded a greater web presence for Rose Mae Sothern. At, Nikki and I plan on posting photos and stories about Baby Rose. I may do some cross posting on Imperfectly Vertical but want to, for the most part, keep my musings about Bushwick Bill and Manson chicks separate from my little baby.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mother to Son

Since Nikki became pregnant, and even more so since Rose's birth, I have been trying to figure out what kind of father I want to be and, more to the point, what kind of father I will end up being no matter what kind of father I want to be.

I remember when my friend's mother passed away a handful of years ago, I sent him Langston Hughes' Mother to Son, which summed up something for me about the love that a parent might give to their child in letting them know the troubles of world and helping make them strong enough to bear them.

Looking at baby Rose, I am entirely committed to protecting her from everything awful and bad in the world. But I also know that the world has a way of toppling the levees we build around our precious things. In the end, I hope that I can teach her that while life isn't always a "crystal stair" that, if we keep climbing, we find landings for rest and comfort and occasionally turn corners that flights down we could never have imagined. Like the one I just turned.*

"Mother to Son"
Langston Hughes

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor --
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now --
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

* I am slightly worried that my broader, personal reading of this poem sets aside, a bit too much, its racial and social justice message. But my poetry consultant, certified poet Jill McDonough, assures me that "Mother to Son has plenty of room for racial equality readings and personal readings and also things-are-easier-for-the-next-generation readings; none of those interpretations cheapen it, I don't think. I think it's about the giving up, as well as the kinder hard; we all want to give up sometimes, but it's useful to realize other people went before us and didn't quit. And are still going, even."
So breathe easy. And read it however you like.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Charles Baudelaire and Bushwick Bill

A couple of weeks ago I read at the ACLU's Banned Books event at the Bridge Lounge here in New Orleans.

I read from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, which upon publication in 1857, was seized and Baudelaire and his publisher were fined for the inclusion of six poems - Lethe, Jewels, Lesbos, Damned Women, Against Her Levity, and Metamorphoses of the Vampire. (These titles, and the poem below, are all from Richard Howard's translation.)

I read Lethe, Against Her Levity, and Metamorphoses of the Vampire, along with Baudelaire's introduction, Au Lecteur ("To the Reader"), which I have always liked because of how it confronts the reader ("Stupidity, delusion, selfishness and lust/torment our bodies and possess our minds,/and we sustain our affable remorse/the way a beggar nourishes his lice."), and his Epigraph for a Banned Book, which appeared in the 1868 edition and quite clearly told off his unappreciative readers. ("Inquiring spirit, fellow sufferer/in search, even here, of your own Paradise,/pity me . . . If not, to Hell with you!")

The idea of flowers of evil has always had great potency for Nikki and me. Whenever we like something that is tragic but beautiful or awe inspiring - a kind deed by an inmate doing life in prison, crumbling, old New Orleans houses (or pretty much anything else in this city, for that matter), courage in the face of injustice - we tell each other, in shorthand, that it was a "fleur du mal".

Before the reading, I told my friend Barry that I was going to read Against Her Levity and I told him about the crude rape fantasy that closes the poem. It reads:

You tilt your head and smile - as if
across the countryside
a breeze had rippled through the grass
out of a brilliant sky.

The sullen stranger you brush past
stops, turns and relishes
that radiant health which aureoles
your shoulders and your arms.

In all that panoply of silks
that colors you parade
awaken in our poets' minds
a giddy valse des fleurs -

garish gowns which designate
the motley of your mind:
infectious folly! all I loathe
is one with all I love!

Often, when I would drag myself
into some leafy park
and when the sun like a rebuke
would lacerate my breast,

so deeply did the Spring's new green
humiliate my heart
that I would punish in one rose
all Nature's insolence . . .

I'll come like that to you some night
when lovers ought to come,
creeping in silence till I reach
the treasures of your flesh,

to castigate your body's joy,
to bruise your envied breasts,
and in your unsuspecting side
to gash a gaping wound

where in final ecstasy
between those lovelier
new lips, my sister, I'll inject
my venom into you!

Barry told me it reminded him of a Geto Boys song that got them kicked off of their record label. That song, Mind of a Lunatic, includes an account of a brutal rape, murder, and necrophilia, just like Baudelaire's poem, rapped by Bushwick Bill, a one eyed, alcoholic, depressive dwarf who could have easily been the subject of a Baudelaire poem or, at the very least, would have been good company for Baudelaire as they consumed bottles of Bordeaux or everclear (150 proof grain alcohol), depending on whose house they ended up at. While Bushwick Bill's song is more overt, it is not quite as nasty as Baudelaire's, whose depiction of raping a woman through a knife wound he inflicted would lose him his book contract even if it was written today (and especially if he was a black rapper and people couldn't tell the difference between what he wrote and who he was).

You be the judge.

From Mind of a Lunatic (on You Tube):

Lookin through her window, now my body is warm
She's naked, and I'm a peepin tom
Her body's beautiful, so I'm thinkin rape
Shouldn't have had her curtains open, so that's her fate
Leavin out her house, grabbed the bitch by her mouth
Drug her back in, slammed her down on the couch
Whipped out my knife, said, "If
you scream, I'm cuttin"
Opened her legs and commenced the fuckin
She begged me not to kill her, I gave her a rose
Then slit her throat, and watched her
shake till her eyes closed
Had sex with the corpse before I left her
And drew my name on the wall like helter skelter
Run for shelter never crossed my mind
I had a guage, a grenade, and even a nine
Dial 911 for the bitch
But the cops ain't shit when they're fuckin with a lunatic.

Lest you think that Bill is just a nasty, heartless bastard, unworthy of comparison with one of the nineteenth century's finest poets, check out his song Ever So Clear in which he details losing his eye, while drunk of everclear and weed, to a partially self-inflicted gunshot after a suicidal scuffle with his girlfriend in which he tried to get her to shoot him dead. The song ends, "But it's fucked up I had to lose an eye to see shit clearly."

A flower of evil, don't you think?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Satsuma Cocktail

Folks around the country may not be aware of the availability of terrific local citrus here in Louisiana. Though they have taken a beating in the past few years, orange groves abound in south Louisiana, especially Plaquemines Parish, which creeps south of New Orleans along the Mississippi toward the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to oranges, we have satsumas, which are like sweet, mostly seedless mandarin oranges or clementines.

At our house on Jackson Avenue, and our old place on Kerlerec Street in Treme, we have had satsuma trees. After a couple of lean years, it looks like we are going to have a bumper crop this year. The fruit is not quite ripe yet but some have fallen from the tree regardless. Lest they just rot on the ground unloved, I instead have been squeezing them (as well as some other early satsumas that I have been getting in my box at the Hollygrove Farmer's Market), adding some gin, simple syrup, and sweet vermouth, shaking vigorously with ice, and serving them up on the rocks in a high ball glass. The drink is pretty close to the Bronx cocktail, which some of you may (or may not) remember from my thirtieth birthday party a couple of years ago.

I got the idea from a recipe in New York Magazine for something they called Franny's Satsuma Cocktail, and which used Carpano Antica Formula, instead of the cheap sweet vermouth that I had on hand. My low brow variation, using Hollygrove and Irish Channel satsumas, needs a better name. Maybe Lil' Wayne's Juice and Gin (Lil' Wayne is a Hollygrove native)? Or the St. Thomas' Fallen Fruit? (My house backs up on what used to be the old St. Thomas Projects, which I wrote about for The Nation.)

Here is the recipe:

2 ounces Beefeater gin
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1 1/2 ounces fresh satsuma juice
1/2 ounce of simple syrup

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Shake until it so cold it burns your hands. Pour into a tall glass with ice. Enjoy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Red Beans Monday

During my years working in New Orleans' Central Business District, I have endeavored to observe the culinary clock of our city by consuming red beans for lunch on Monday and seafood gumbo on Friday, served at local lunch counters and po-boy shops. As every New Orleanian knows, red beans are the standard Monday lunch offering throughout the city, because, traditionally, Monday was a "wash day" and your beans could sit cooking for hours without much attention while you cleaned up. (Seafood gumbo on Friday is connected to the city's Catholic traditions, which historically forbid meat on Fridays. I am pleased to live in a city where eating a fried shrimp po-boy or a bowl of gumbo counts as religious observance.)

Sometimes on Mondays, but more often on Saturday or Sunday when I have more time on my hands, I'll make red beans for dinner. Cooking red beans requires some forethought - the beans need to be soaked over night - and is somewhat labor intensive with lots of vegetable chopping. Red beans is (are?) the only dish that gets me cooking first thing in the morning, even before breakfast, because the longer the beans simmer with the pickled pork, sausage, trinity, and seasoning, the better it tastes at dinner time.

Untethered from any real calendar aside from the one that measures the days of my baby's life during my paternity leave, I made red beans last Thursday (pictured above) and have been eating them consistently since. (Has anyone else tried eating fried eggs on red beans? It's terrific. A New Orleans version of huevos rancheros. In the New Orleans greasy spoon restaurant that I conjure in my mind when I happen upon some terrific, geographically specific dish that I have never seen in a restaurant, it would be a best seller. Along with my Leidenheimer po-boy bread pain perdu.)

I work from a recipe that I found a few years ago, from a New Orleans ex-patriate on the internet. (Chuck Taggart at Gumbo Pages.) I always use dried Camellia Beans because I love the packaging and because no other bean could possibly get so creamy. (I have never tried any other brand but became convinced on the creaminess point after reading an article by New Orleans' finest journalist, Katy Reckdahl, about New Orleanians stuck in Phoenix, Arizona after Katrina and their passion for Camellias: "Sabrina Williams cringes as she opens her cupboard and pulls out her last pack of Camellia kidney beans, the only brand that cooks down into creamy and smooth New Orleans-style red beans — impossible to find in her adopted hometown, Glendale, Arizona. But Williams' timing is good. Her parents are currently in New Orleans, mucking out their house, and they will soon return to Phoenix, suitcases heavy with Camellia beans.")

Here are the ingredients I use:

2 pounds red kidney beans, dry
2 large onions, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
5 ribs celery, chopped
1 1/2 pounds of pickled pork, without bones, diced, for seasoning
2 pounds hot smoked sausage, sliced and halved
1 tsp. dried thyme leaves, crushed
2 bay leaves
Red pepper and black pepper to taste
Salt to taste
Fresh sausage links, one link per person

The directions from Gumbo Pages:
Soak the beans overnight, if possible. The next day, drain and put fresh water in the pot. (This helps reduce the, um, flatulence factor.) Bring the beans to a rolling boil. Make sure the beans are always covered by water, or they will discolor and get hard. Boil the beans for about 45 - 60 minutes, until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Drain.

While the beans are boiling, sauté the Trinity (onions, celery, bell pepper) until the onions turn translucent. Add the garlic and saute for 2 more minutes, stirring occasionally. [I omit garlic.] After the beans are boiled and drained, add the sautéed vegetables to the beans, then add the ham hock (or ham or pickle meat), smoked sausage, seasonings, and just enough water to cover.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook for 2 hours at least, preferably 3, until the whole thing gets nice and creamy. Adjust seasonings as you go along. Stir occasionally, making sure that it doesn't burn and/or stick to the bottom of the pot. (If the beans are old -- say, older than six months to a year -- they won't get creamy. Make sure the beans are reasonably fresh. If it's still not getting creamy, take 1 or 2 cups of beans out and mash them, then return them to the pot and stir.)

If you can ... let the beans cool, stick them in the fridge, and reheat and serve for dinner the next day. They'll taste a LOT better. When you do this, you'll need to add a little water to get them to the right consistency.

Serve generous ladles-ful over hot white long-grain rice, with good French bread and good beer. I also love to serve grilled or broiled fresh Creole hot sausage or chaurice on the side. Do not serve with a canned-beet salad, like my Mom always used to do. (Sorry, Mom ... try something interesting with fresh beets and we'll talk. :^)

If you are not trying to feed an army, or don't want a week worth of left overs, you don't have to make two pounds of beans. Make a pound. Feed a smaller army.

Monday, September 21, 2009

9/11 Satyagraha

On September 10, Nikki was four days past due at her midwife's office hoping to get some indication that our baby would come soon, that the pain and discomfort of ten months of pregnancy would abate.

It wasn't until Nikki got back from her appointment that I saw the possibility that my daughter could be born on September 11, 2009, the eighth anniversary of the eponymous attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nikki told me that a woman who we had met in our birthing class had been at the midwife's office and, though she was a full week past due, fixing to burst and desperate to have her baby, she had postponed her induction scheduled for the following day because she didn't want her child born on such an inauspicious date.

Nikki's original due date, September 6, 2009, had a comforting numerical pattern, 09/06/09, eclipsed by the following Wednesday, September 9, 2009, 09/09/09, which struck me as a powerful set of numbers.* I had considered our baby's birth on either of those dates, or even on the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2009, but had not looked as far as Friday September 11.

Having just moved from New York City to New Orleans a month before 9/11, with family and friends working in New York's financial district, and with my father and step-mother on New York bound airplanes on the morning of the attack, 9/11 was etched into my mind as a day of horror and anxiety. The fact that the attack was exploited as a pretext for war and the curtailment of civil liberties - in ways that may never be undone - only made the day more tragic.

But my wife was in agony so I reconciled with the date, posited that another day of early labor was infinitely less desirable than having our child share her birthday with a mournful American anniversary. I soon forgot all about days and calendars, which I traded for minutes and seconds, when I got home at around three or four and Nikki's labor had become much more pronounced. I timed her contractions - forty five seconds long every seven minutes - which tightened over the course of hours to ninety seconds long every four minutes around midnight, when we left for the hospital.

At the hospital, this continued for another five hours, during which time I tried my best to provide Nikki comfort, playing Bach's Cello Suites and Nikki's favorite arias from the St. Matthew Passion on the little stereo that she had bought for this purpose a couple of weeks earlier, when it all seemed so distant and theoretical. At a certain point, Nikki began to seem really focused, distant, in a place all by herself, and I started playing Philip Glass's Solo Piano Works, thinking that the familiar, round, cyclical musical forms might reach her.

When that ended with Nikki clinging to my shoulders and neck from her birthing tub but still, evidently, hours away from delivering the baby, Addy, our doula, asked what we should put on. I told her that there was an opera by Philip Glass on the iPod, that it was long enough that we would not have to change the music again. "Satyagraha?" she asked. I hadn't remembered its name. I had burned it onto my computer, without even glancing at the liner notes, from the New Orleans Public Library's music catalog a few years earlier. In the scores of hours I had spent listening to the opera, its music and words, though unintelligible, seemed true to me and more clearly resembling life and the thoughts passing through my mind than any music I had heard before. "That's it," I told Addy.

It began with a low voice and a deep string instrument and wound around the room, sometimes urgent, sometimes slack, sometimes almost disappearing into the rhythm of Nikki's contractions and then her pushing. When the baby's head finally emerged in the water and as I held the tiny baby against my standing, fatigued but triumphant wife, the final act of Satyagraha pulsed in the background, and then eventually stopped, unnoticed.

I sent news to our friends and loved ones by text, "Rose Mae Sothern born at 4:57. I am in awe of mother and child."I consciously omitted the date, not wanting to associate the sad anniversary with the miraculous birth of my daughter.

But as time passed, hours and then days spent with this new life, it became clear to me that it was seemly, necessary, for Rose, and others, to be born on this date, for things to occur that could create new anniversaries that might someday eclipse the tragedy, as had occurred at least for our little family. I sent out an email to some friends, this time owning the date: "Rose Mae Sothern was born at 4:57 a.m. on Friday, September 11, 2009, weighing in at 8 lbs., 10 oz., and altogether transforming the meaning of that date in our history for me."

I got a response from Rebecca Solnit, who I had met when she visited New Orleans while researching her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, on magnanimity of people in the face of disasters. She pointed out that September 11, 2001 had been, for the most part, "a day that people behaved beautifully under the most extreme circumstances in New York City, millions of them in contrast to the 19 who sought to destroy." But she made another observation, which gave rise to a sense of wonder, beauty, and synchronicity that tempts me to believe that the world is not simply spiraling meaninglessly but instead is ordered, blessed. She told me that September 11, 1906 is the day that Gandhi began to harnass non-violence as a tool against oppression in South Africa, a method of resistance called "satyagraha."

Without any of us knowing it, Nikki labored and Rose was born on the anniversary of satyagraha to the rhythms and sounds of an opera that Philip Glass wrote for Gandhi and his vision of social justice. It is an opera, with a libretto of sanskrit words of the Bhagavad-Gita, in three acts, the first overseen by the Indian poet Ravindranath Tagore, the second by Leo Tolstoy, and the third, the music of Rose's birth, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The name of the opera, of Gandhi's tool for harnessing the might of a people against their oppressors, satyagraha, is a sanskrit meaning "the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence."

On September 11, 1906, again one hundred and three years later, and innumberable times in between, people have seen it and can attest to its power.

*Apparently the date, or its inversion, 6 6 6, inspired a man to hijack a plane in Mexico so that he could bring the coming apocalypse to the attention of the Mexican president. The news originally reported that there were four hijackers but that was based on the hijacker's own representations. As far as he was concerned, he was there with three others, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Family: Rose Mae Sothern

Last week, Nikki and I drove around New Orleans listening to Glen David Andrews' new album, Walking Through Heaven's Gate, trying to get Nikki some distraction from the discomfort of the ninth month of her pregnancy. The last track on the album, Family, struck both of us and gave us some sense of what was approaching for us. It's a spoken word piece with New Orleans poet, Chuck Perkins.

Perkins describes the birth of his child:

It was watching my wife
After eleven hours of labor,

Whose eyes and face

No longer possessed the words

To describe her pain,

So she pushed.

It was twenty years of anticipating

What my child would be

And who she would be

And when I saw the tip of her head,

Before the slap,

Before the cry,

Before I saw her eyes even,

It was like I was about to meet a long lost friend

Whom I had never met.

Early this morning, after an epic, unmedicated labor, Nikki gave birth to Rose Mae Sothern here in New Orleans. I am in awe of Nikki and the little baby girl that came into the world this morning. New Orleans artists have a gift for describing the indescribable, but as much as I like Perkins' description of child birth, he doesn't fully capture the feeling of seeing your wife give birth to your child. I am not sure anyone could.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Borderland in NYC

Artist Maysey Craddock was gracious enough to allow me to live with her, at her creaky old house on Jena Street in New Orleans, in the summer of 1999, when I first came here. I worked a lot that summer - at an office full of renegade, British radicals trying to stamp out the American death penalty - but, at Maysey's house, drinking gin and tonic, there was an altogether different tone and feeling that could have only been in New Orleans, a city that I grew to love sweating in the summer heat on her back patio.

I lounged around the unairconditioned house in suit pants and an undershirt, having peeled off layers of my suit to get a break from the heat, which Maysey took as a good enough reason to start calling me "Boarder," in her elegant, high Memphis accent. To fulfill my role, I frequently drank in excess and put on twenty pounds of turkey necks, fried chicken, and red beans. It was as close as my life will likely come to a Tennessee Williams play.

While Maysey's work is "southern," it accomplishes this in the tradition of fellow Memphis inhabitant, William Eggleston, which is to say that it manages to be both highly vernacular and altogether universal.

Maysey has her first New York show, called, coincidentally, "Borderland," with an opening this Thursday at the Nancy Margolis Gallery. If you are in New York, you should go.

Maysey Craddock : borderland
nancy margolis gallery
september 10 - october 17 2009
opening september 10, 2009 6pm - 8pm

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Handmade by Kittee

Other than my girl Nikki, Kittee is pretty much the cutest girl I know. Kittee was one of the best New Orleanians until she recently moved to the greener pastures of Portland, Oregon. She is certainly the best person in Portland, a city that I have never been to and where I know no one but that I am certain could not possibly deserve her.

Aside from being outrageous cute, Kittee also happens to be one of the craftiest of all God's children (and a vegan chef of such ability that her cooking makes veganism seem to be a lifestyle choice of ridiculous indulgence rather than shirt-haired deprivation). For our little girl, whose due date is today but who has not yet arrived, Kittee made a closet full of beautiful, vegan, knitted sweaters. Each is a work of art.

I am especially fond of the baby shrug, the nicest baby shrug in existence. That shrug makes every other garment in the world wish it hadn't been born. It's why God made fiber.

Can you believe it?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Al Pacino's Doppelganger

I recently rewatched the Norman Jewison, Al Pacino film, And Justice for All . . ., about a good defense attorney in a bad system.

There a few things to like about it as a movie but its a weak piece of social commentary that essentially takes aim at the adversarial process in criminal court.

The New York Times review from 1979, by Vincent Canby, sums it up as follows:
With the exception of two old men, one of whom is senile, all of the characters in " . . . and Justice for All" have such low thresholds of emotional distress that I wouldn't trust one of them to see "The Sound of Music" unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. They dress sloppily. They talk dirty. Yet they are of an innocence that boggles the mind and sinks the movie.
And, concerning Al Pacino's character's distaste for representing someone guilty, Canby rightly observes that the system requires just that:
If you follow what seems to be the film's feeble point to its logical end, it is that our judicial system is rotten not only because of the people who administer it, but also because it provides safeguards for the accused. The next step, one should think, is a nice, predictable law-and-order state.
(I don't often see people get that issue right, as Canby did. You have to provide a defense for everyone, whether or not they appear guilty or innocent, because there is no way to determine guilt or innocence until you provide that defense. And because the question of culpability is often a hard call, we err on the side of acquitting the guilty because we have far greater abhorrence for the possibility that the innocent might be convicted.)

The only reason why I am bothering to comment about this imperfect film is that it made me blush. You see, Al Pacino's character is a lawyer in his thirties. I am a lawyer in my thirties. Al Pacino runs around an old criminal courthouse in Baltimore. I run around an old criminal courthouse in New Orleans. Al Pacino makes pompous legal arguments to indifferent judges. I make pompous legal arguments to indifferent judges.

But here's the kicker, Al Pacino drives around town in a blue/green 1973 BMW 2002. And I drive like a maniac in a blue/green 1973 BMW 2002.

I would prefer to think of myself as Pacino's Frank Serpico, or his Michael Corleone, but instead my doppelganger is Pacino's Arthur Kirkland. I'll live.

If you are interested, Pacino's slightly famous (and ridiculous) "You're out of order" speech from And Justice for All . . . is on You Tube. It denigrates the Sixth Amendment and Blackstone's maxim that its better for ten guilty men to walk free than one innocent man to languish in prison but it's fun to watch and a classic Al Pacino-yelling scene.

***The photo of the BMW 2002 is the same year, color, and model as mine but its in far better shape (and I am sure has much less character).

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Last year, rather than participating in any of the various Katrina memorial festivities, I resolved to do something practical and, like I do most weekends, worked on my house, a vernacular structure of old pine sills and joists held together by prayers and painter's caulk that could not be anywhere but here.

Today, with Nikki teetering on the edge of labor but feeling just good enough to take a ride, we observed the day by driving over to the Louisiana Music Factory, buying the terrific new Glenn David Andrews and Alex McMurray albums, and cruising around to different flea markets and junk stores in search of a couple of pieces of furniture for our coming baby's nursery.

We drove around listening to Glen David Andrews belt out Down by the Riverside at the Zion Hill Baptist Church in Treme and Alex sing You've Got to Be Crazy to Live in this Town while Nikki urged me to avoid craters and ridges in roads that are more pothole than street because the sudden, hard bumps give her contractions. I tried my best but we hit lots of potholes.

We found a little, old wooden bookcase at a flea market in Bywater that tomorrow I will paint and then fill with the many children's books that Nikki and I began collecting well before we had the excuse of an expected child. (The many others that so many people have kindly given us - her - as gifts in recent months will also find a home there.)

And then next week, the week after, or sometime soon, we will bring a baby home to her little room, with fresh paint over mended walls that, until recently, were more cracks than plaster, in a house that doesn't pretend to be level, in a city that was just four years ago wasted by severe weather and folly.

*** The photo is Nikki's, posted on her blog for the anniversary.