Monthly Archives: June 2021

Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, New Orleans

To call it a hole in the wall would be generous. Its interior was as well distinguished as it’s dilapidated, ivy-covered exterior, and was lit only with strings of Christmas lights, hence its name. It’s sobriquet were five nonsense words, printed on its sign post and on the $1 beer coozies it sold: Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, followed by the city in which it was to be found: New Orleans, Louisiana, where I earned my Bachelors Degree cum laude in English. It pains me to recall the name of one of my best college friends, Adam Cola, who was murdered there in February, 2019 in some kind of traffic dispute; just another black kid, one amongst many of NOLA’s victims. While there has never been a place like New Orleans, and never will be, to romanticize it would be to do it a dis-service. I came to be thinking of these things while watching David Simon’s HBO drama Treme, which, among other things, addresses the difficulties of life in NOLA post-Katrina, focusing particularly on the legendary music scene there. I couldn’t get through the whole thing. I found it a frustrating experience unevenly executed. I liked the second season, but couldn’t stand the third and fourth, in which Simon seemed intent on depicting New Orleans as magical and accepting. The characters took their traditions so seriously that they seemed hardly to live any lives outside of them. I, for one, do not remember Mardi Gras as an annual, inspiring outburst of creativity, but rather as a kind of drunken tailgate without the sports. Of course I could be wrong. Tulane University, my alma mater, was known for existing in its own bubble. Still, watching Treme I came to wish to correct the misconceptions Simon perpetrated, and to offer my own crack at a treatment of New Orleans, LA, numerous as those are. Admitting that it’s hard for me to resist such a temptation surely serves to validate Simon’s somewhat pretentious fascination with such cultural heralds as the Mardi Gras Indians, but I can’t help it. Chief among Treme’s crimes of inaccuracy was the impression that everyone in New Orleans seemed to love living there. In this series the ugly specters fear, racism and prejudice hardly rear their heads at all, but I experienced these as defining characteristics of the city, and I think they should be acknowledged. That is the only way we can ever hope they will be expunged, by regarding them with unflinching honesty.

I can see the temptation to make more of what you see. There is certainly a visceral beauty to the city, even, or even especially, as it emerged from its post-Katrina wreckage. Yet one must resist the temptation to sacrifice story and character development in favor of over-explaining that process. The show should concern itself first with the people trying to live their lives, second with the environment around them. They should talk to each other about romances and frustrations and ideas, and only get to the rest of it when they feel like it.

I was in New Orleans from spring of 2004 to the fall of 2008. In this time I only attended one Mardi Gras, and I didn’t feel particularly guilty about that. In Treme the holiday figures heavily in each and every season, almost as a religious observance: to put on weird costumes and run around the city indulging in odd edicts and as if performative eccentricities. I’m not positive, not being a local, but I think this is not exactly accurate. I’m pretty sure that plenty of New Orleanians found Mardi Gras a colossal pain in the ass, and some even went so far as to make themselves scarce on its worst weekends. In the French Quarter the crowds are all tourists, but that’s true of the French Quarter at any time of the year. Me I found Mardi Gras a bit idiotic: you line the curbs of St. Charles Avenue shouting at the parade of floats, contrived of admittedly creative sculptures of wire and cloth, and manned by impenetrable social clubs called Krewes, exclusively peopled with New Orleans’ white elite, who throw you strings of plastic beads that become absolutely useless ten seconds later. I thought it mostly a white holiday, except for the Zulu parade, which traverses some of the city’s rougher neighborhoods, and is manned by black people. I never went to this one either: I believed, while living there, that, as a white person, you truly approach New Orleans’ black social gatherings at your own peril. I don’t think I was alone in this sentiment, although from watching Treme you might come away believing I was.

Adam Cola was black. He grew up in New Orleans and was one of my roommates from Fall 2004 until Fall of 2006. He grew up in a neighborhood located somewhere between New Orleans East and middle class Gentilly, though even he didn’t seem completely positive which neighborhood it was. I think I remember him once even saying it was the Ninth Ward. He was a good guy, easy-going but insightful, smart and unaffected. After Katrina his dad ended up in Washington, D.C., where Adam spent some of his post-Katrina semester. I came back to the city in December, 2005, a few weeks before Tulane’s campus opened. I stayed with a leftist collective called Common Ground, which focused on setting volunteers to work gutting flooded houses — that is, tearing out their walls’ ruined drywall — and delivering supplies to those that needed them. This was my sophomore year, and my first significant foray beyond Tulane’s bubble, so-called because it was entirely possible to attend school there without interacting at all with the rest of the city. Through Common Ground I got to know parts of New Orleans I surely wouldn’t have had Katrina never happened. I’m proud of the work I did there. I did more of it after classes resumed, as there was an untapped sentiment among my fellow students to help out in some way. The university didn’t offer any volunteer opportunities. Me and my friend Jim thusly organized students to go down to Common Grounds’ warehouses on the weekends to get some work done. I like to think I made a difference, that I helped, because it was such a disgusting thing that happened there, so unfair, and neither the local nor federal government seemed either able or willing to do much about it. Certainly shows the meaning behind one of New Orleans’ many monikers: “The city that care forgot.” Everyone around the world saw as much on television. I was glad to put shoulder to the idea of proving that sentiment wrong. However, again, as a white person, I do not believe my attitude of wishing everyone able to come back home was universally shared. There was a brief period of time when the whole city was safe to enjoy at all hours of the day, and all night if you wanted. That changed dramatically, and suddenly. Again, “the city that care forgot.” No one had a plan. Crime was out of control. The police were mean, incompetent and unhelpful. Treme does a good job dramatizing these problems in its second season, which I think was the show’s best. But then here comes the fourth season, which begins with 2008’s election night, the launch of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the strange sight of seeing black and white people celebrating our first black president’s victory with equal fervor. That’s just not accurate! I know as much from my vantage here in Oakland, where I witnessed black people who, for once, didn’t seem to mind being around white people very much. I don’t think it was as big a deal for white people. Racism in the crescent city is impossible to ignore as soon as you leave the French Quarter. From my perspective I saw two sides that did not easily mix to say the least. Worse than it is in Oakland, which, of course, is bad enough. I found black New Orleanians downright scary a lot of the time, and I think this was by design. Treme seemed to have completely missed this ugly facet of life completely. One white character’s wealthy parents exhibit some prejudice, but it seems almost an idiosyncratic affectation, not the symptom of an intractable division lacking all solution. Most of Tulane’s blue collar employees, that is, the administrative staff, the cleaning men and women, and the cafeteria workers, were black. You know what the cafeteria workers called the cafeteria they worked in? “The Plantation.” New Orleans used to be known as the worst place in the U.S. to be a slave: Being “sold downriver” was a serious threat. That’s the history NOLA comes from, and, in the 21st century, I challenge you to find a place where the gap between rich and poor, black and white, was more extreme. You could feel the weight of all that memory, particularly in black neighborhoods. The place was tragically, impossibly flawed, like every American city is, though, in my opinion, more so. I was so sad to hear that Adam had become a statistic. Another friend of mine almost joined his company too: some crazy person wielding a hammer attacked him one night in the French Quarter and bloodied him up; certainly gave him something to think about. Me, I only lasted a couple months after graduation before coming back home. I do not think I would want to raise a family there.

It is interesting how often NOLA appears as if at random in so many instances of popular culture, from Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun to a song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The place oozes with originality and creativity. It’s kinda fun to live amongst so much adversity. There were a couple months in early 2006 where it was actually safe to walk around at night. Adam and I did this once, traversing the neighborhood North of Tulane which, at any other time, is infamous for its patrols of muggers looking for easy college-student targets. This was probably the peak of our friendship. We even hit up Snake & Jake’s, this essay’s namesake. Walked around all night without worry. Two months later this would have been impossible. That year there were 162 murders, almost 80 per 100,000 people. If that had been Oakland it would have come to 320. That number rarely cracks 130 here (not that this is a small number, of course, but I’m dealing in relatives). Perhaps part of NOLA’s beauty is, despite its troubles, its citizens’ fierce defense of the culture and traditions that make it so unique. You certainly don’t see Mardi Gras Indians anywhere else. And even amidst their garish feathers and embroidery they always have such serious looks on their faces, as if they have no idea how odd they look. Treme, in my opinion, seems to have made this practice into a humorless obsession of several of its characters. Me I bet the Indians have a sense of humor about themselves, and that’s why their expressions are so serious. They are pretty awesome to see, and I can imagine cheering them on with a smile on my face. The last time I was in New Orleans, April of 2019, I saw a couple of them walking down the street while I was having a smoke. To this day I regret not running down the stairs and taking a picture of them. They also make really good music. Of course, there is plenty of that to be found, which is why I believe that the Jazz Fest weeks are the best time to visit, not Mardi Gras.

I’ll always be mad at New Orleans for taking one of my best friends, but who to blame? How to fix it all? It will always have a special place in my heart. I believe I’ll make a point of seeing Jazz Fest. If only we could just wave a magic wand and make everyone get along with each other. If only… right?

I Was a Boy Without a Country

A boy. A young man in his early adulthood. At least that’s what I was when this whole thing started. Today I believe myself more than that. I am in something of a celebratory mood, as I believe my days, or even my hours, in this odd reality are numbered. Will I wake up in heaven? If I do all speculation will cease and I will be faced only with long-deferred reality. That’s why I want to finish this essay tonight. Uncertainty, after all, plays a big part in my day-to-day ponderings. Furthermore as long as the game continues the contextual vocabulary of it does too. I’ve become particularly sensitized to the subtleties of pronoun use: “he,” “she,” “it”; “them,” “they,” “these,” “those”; and, particularly, “this” and “that.” There is an endless myriad of other associations, of course. Every number, almost every name, every solitary letter. The word “country” too, because you can’t say it without first saying “cunt,” and because the game’s always been about sexuality. That’s one reason I chose to include the word in this essay’s title. Call it an attempt to reclaim it for neutrality’s use, once and for all.

After all the aforementioned association in the word “country” is merely incidental. I mean to say I was without a country in the classical sense: that is that growing up in Oakland as a poor white kid in neighborhoods up to and including the Lower Bottoms left me without a comfortable or sizable group of peers. Sure there were a few. My friends Teddie and Nora, for example, are both hard, proud, white locals, but even they can’t relate to the egregiousness of my upbringing’s border jumping. I used to fantasize about meeting a white girl from the neighborhood who could help me feel a little safer, a little more included. I even had a dream along those lines once, though in reality the girl I dreamt of hailed from the wealthy Berkeley hills. Therefore I used to believe myself uniquely unqualified to write about either side, white or black. My first book, written mostly when I was 24, was about a black family, though I always worried at how a black readership might receive it. What if I got something wrong that only they would know? The potential potholes, surely, were numerous. That book, titled Inheritance, was my first attempt at serious literature, and probably wasn’t quite strong enough for publication, though I came across enough encouragement along the way to believe I had a future in pursuing my passion. Still, I endured what I thought to be a significant handicap. I was a boy without a country, white but apart, coming up in black neighborhoods but very much not among them. I even played classical piano. What a discrepancy to overcome. Now, after a kind of constant emotional combat spanning eight and a half years, I sense that I truly have come to the point of doing just that. Maybe I should even be thankful for my unique perspective. Maybe I am in fact able to guess both ways, towards black and white. I don’t know much about Mexicans. I’ve lived neighbor to Chinese, insufferable as they can be. But the Lower Bottoms? Something tells me my muse hasn’t heard the last from them.

I think my father felt similarly disjointed. As a Hungarian emigré I remember he used to speak of Americans with bald disdain, and the only live-in girlfriend he had while I grew up with him was also Hungarian. Both my sister and I have Hungarian names; call it another familial eccentricity. We don’t even pronounce our own names right. What chance did our elementary, middle, and high school classmates and teachers have of doing the same?

Truth be told I’ve led a very strange life, even before the last eight and a half years. I knew I wanted to be a writer ever since the first time venturing into the craft, in first or second grade, I’m not sure which. I remember telling my mother so on the ride home from school that very day, and I’ve been pretty sure of it ever since. While I’ve never had that much trouble making friends I’ve also always been lonely. Deciding to go to college at Tulane University in New Orleans, about as far as I could get from my parents and my extended family, stands as another odd happenstance: Hurricane Katrina had a big impact on me, and the volunteer work I did sophomore year introduced me to my love for activism. I found the Occupy movement particularly inspiring, partly because it was populated with kids from my generation, whose denizens until then I’d largely discounted as uninteresting and materialistic. How disturbing it was when they so rudely chewed me up and spat me out, merely because I stood out so much. They came to talking to each other about me in code everywhere I went, creating a target of me. I used to believe there was something wrong with me, and what happened at Occupy Oakland seemed to confirm as much. Perhaps it was that same discrepancy I’d felt growing up, unavoidable even in a group of mostly white kids who probably liked to consider themselves more “woke” than your average millennial. For some reason I was simply too easy to single out. I wonder if anything like that ever happened to Dad. I know he got married at a young age. Me myself, on the other hand, I’ve only ever had a relationship with one woman, a girl named Ashley in the spring semester of freshman year at Tulane. I also know Dad was unspeakably cruel to his first family, driving one daughter into heroin addiction, one son into paranoid schizophrenia, and one wife into lesbianism. Maybe it was how he kept himself safe, through emotional violence. I don’t believe myself to be anything like him in that regard. Perhaps if I were my youthful years would have been easier. However, if my victory in the present day proves to be as total as I’ve been led to believe it is, I’ll have achieved a vindication more awesome than anything anyone could ever imagine, and I say that fully aware of the apparent hyperbole. There are so many reasons I should be dead: the machinations of my parents number among them. If they hadn’t been so awful to me growing up I wouldn’t be the person I am today. However, if those e-mails had never gone out I think that my life’s end by suicide would have been quite likely. My parents’ efforts at control and sabotage would have been unrelenting, and, once they’d gotten the better of me, I might have wanted to hurt them. It just would have been a question of which, mother or father, would have succeeded first. My next time getting laid probably would have been my last. Imagine: through those e-mails I found myself confronting an entity almost as dangerous to me as my parents: that is, the whole world. Mother seems to have been bested along with the rest of them — now she is a model of healthy parenting, though it was certainly not without struggle. Father? The only man to ever get the better of Mother? He was altogether too dangerous. The fact is if he were alive today I wouldn’t be. How’s that for existential?

It really would have been a shame, wouldn’t it? I’ve always thought myself full of potential. Though I was heavily encumbered with parental and societal issues I always believed myself capable of accomplishing something monumental given the right circumstances. I was proud of who I was, though my mistake lay in believing this was both because of and in spite of my parents, when really it was wholly in spite of them. My neighborhood, on the other hand, was something I could work with. Some kind of future in politics, indulging my activist instincts, might not have been out of the question. After all, it would have been far less daunting a task than protecting myself from Katy and Csaba Polony.

As far as writing goes, at Tulane I took two classes on Shakespeare, striking out for inspiration in the most ambitious target I could find: the Bard of Avon. Some ways into the first few months after the world first began trying to murder me, representing perhaps society’s most definitive decision on enforcing my departure from relateability, I wrote a short story titled “He Would Never Be Shakespeare.” That’s what I thought, though I also found it a relief that, everyone else be damned, I could indeed still scrawl words on paper upon the safety of the desk in my bedroom. However, if I’m to believe what I’ve been told, and I’m happy to say that I do, I have met or even surpassed this goal. Even Shakespeare would have fallen head-over-heels in love with me. From there it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that my writing would only serve to confirm what everyone else believes anyway: sure, I might be the best, most skilled, and most mysterious human being to have ever lived, but I’m also the best, most skilled, and most mysterious writer to have ever lived. Boy do I have a lot of fun believing such a thing to be true. Here I hope to stand amongst the greats: Joyce, Proust, Tolstoy, Shakespeare… and Polony. They’re going to call me by my last name, aren’t they? If my work is good it will be celebrated, and it probably will be because I take it so seriously. At some point though I should probably get around to saying my last name right: not Paw-law-nee, but POE-low-nyee, emphasizing the first syllable. My first name I say mostly right. A good way to remember it is as the opposite of “off-short”: “on-tall.” I guess it’s a beautiful name, isn’t it? My older half brother Attila went by John in high school. Dad himself used to go by Chuck. I guess Mom just liked the sound of Hungarian names. It’s a very difficult language. Its grammar is convoluted and labyrinthine, but perhaps its most difficult aspect is its vocabulary, each word being so incredibly distinct from its English equivalent. Apparently this will not be a problem when I wake up in the real world. Everyone knows every language now. What an awesome concept.

I often wonder what the world looks like. Is it really so amazing? I guess everyone feels that I saved them, though it was mostly by accident. I guess I deserve heaven, don’t I? Once a boy without a country, now, as a man, after first finding infiltration impossible, I’ve forced its establishment upon everyone. Now I could probably get along ably with just about anyone, or any group of people, anywhere and anytime.

God, but that first taste of freedom… All I can do until it arrives is continue to wait. Sure sounds like it will be worth it, and nothing lasts forever, even this bizarre dream, right? I’d love to have a family. In the old world it never would have happened. Now it’s all but guaranteed.

Genuine happiness. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it. The road ahead almost sounds too easy, though I guess that’s not a bad thing. Here’s hoping I’m not horribly wrong about something, while the moment of truth approaches. If only Dad could see me now. I bet he would be proud of me. He would have regretted his murderous plot’s conclusion, even in its inevitability. In this way he is just like everyone else.

I think that’s all. I hope this essay’s content justifies its bombastic title. Only time will tell. Goodnight.

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