Friday, January 31, 2014

Readers have asked about the woman on the cover of The Big Easy...

Her name's Carrie. She's complicated and dangerous, as the reporter discovers:
           “I’m feeling like my usual evening aperitif,” the girl said. “I’m feeling like breezing into Maylie’s and chatting with all my friends.”
Comiski followed her toward the hundred-year-old wisteria vine that draped the restaurant’s portico. He imagined the bankers and the stockbrokers drinking their Southern Comfort and talking soy beans; he was perspiring.
“What’s the matter?” she asked him. “You losing heart?”
“It’s not my kind of place.”
“Stop worrying — I’m black, not you.”
She pushed through the doorway.
Comiski silently rejoiced: it was too early for the bankers; a white-haired gentleman with a gold chain across his paunch sat at the far end of the room reading an afternoon newspaper — Comiski’s crime report — and he didn’t even look up. The bartender stopped peeling lemons and stared at the girl with guileless amazement.
“You git on out of here,” he said.
“We want us some drinks.” She rested her arm on the rail. “Give me and my friend here some of those martinis.”
“I ain’t giving you shit.”
“Now that’s not what I asked for, Cracker.”
The man jerked up his sleeves, revealing forearms like boiled hams, leaned over the bar.
“Merle!” he called.
A drawn little man came out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a dishtowel. He wore a wide silk tie emblazoned with a Rebel flag; his shirt pocket was stuffed with pencils.
“What you-all want?” he asked.
“We want some drinks,” the girl said. “We want us some great big ole martinis.”
“This here’s a private club. Now you git!”
“My, my, ain’t that nice? Well, we’ll just join up in your private club.”
Merle turned to the bartender. “She wants to join the club. Ain’t that a kick in the ass?”
They laughed dryly. Comiski had an insight: they should all sit down and have a drink — a cooling febrifuge — take up the argument later. He of course would have two drinks . . .
Merle said, “You don’t qualify. Our members have to be eighteen years of age, and they have to be white.”
The bartender pushed a stack of heavy glass ashtrays in front of her. Comiski noticed that the white-haired man had spilled his drink over the newspaper, and he was making spastic efforts to stand. His feet appeared to be entangled beneath the chair.
The girl swept the ashtrays off the bar, and they bounced noisily at Merle’s feet; two of them shattered.
Comiski pushed her toward the door.
“Why you nigger . . .” Merle said, and he hit Comiski ineffectually on the ear; the bartender came around gripping the neck of a bowling pin. The man with white hair found his voice at last, began to shout.
Comiski walked backward, herding the girl outside; the men followed, watched as he hustled her along Poydras. A car pulled up in front of the restaurant, and the bartender bent over and began to talk urgently with the driver. Comiski thought: how quickly the reaction sets in — the terrible swift sword of retribution. Already he could feel the trouble stirring. Across Loyola the lights in the offices of the Federal Building blinked on like searchlights; the carillon bells lisped through another round of “Danny Boy,” mocking in their ethereal imprecision.
“Why did we just do that?” he asked.
She jerked her arm away. “Why not? Maybe I can’t touch the bastards, but I can sure mess up the view — I do that best.”
They entered the ruins again; Comiski stepped behind a crumbling brick wall to drink.
“I don’t suppose you had to go in there,” she said. “I suppose that’s something.”
She led him across the lot toward a clapboard cafe. One wall was painted red a decade before, bore the inscription, chat ’n chew, no. 2; the windows were plastered with cigarette and pomade advertisements.
“You can tell all your friends you tasted soul food,” she said.
“What makes you think I’m interested in soul food or in martinis? You’re big on extremes.”
“And you’re big on fence-sitting. The water rat floating down the bayou, culling crap from both banks. Don’t come in if you don’t want.”
The narrow shotgun structure was crowded with makeshift tables and chairs; Christmas lights and strips of tinsel hung from the beams, and a juke box with exposed entrails shuddered through a lugubrious version of “Born to Lose.” A veil of smoke drifted out of the pass-through from the kitchen, smelled of fried cornmeal.
A group of black men sat in one corner, drinking beer from quart bottles; the heavyset proprietor got up from his plate of red beans and rice and stepped behind the bar. He smiled benignly.
“Good e’nin. What can I do fo’ you-all?”
"What do you want?” Comiski asked her.
It was a new intonation, a lapse into dialect; he said, “But you told me ...”
“I’m not hungry no more. You eat.”
Comiski ordered an oyster loaf and a beer; the man disappeared into the kitchen and returned almost immediately, carrying half a loaf of French bread. He set it in front of Comiski and stood watching, his flat glistening face exuding hospitality.
Comiski began to eat, spat bread onto the plate; he opened the sandwich and found the oysters and garlic butter laced with soap powder.
“You eat it,” he said.
"Why, we’d be dee-lited.”
The man beamed, reached for the plate and upset the glass of beer; he pushed it into Comiski’s lap with his towel.
“Why, we’s so sorry.”
Comiski got off the stool, brushed at his trousers. The men in the corner stopped talking; the juke box hummed expectantly.
“Dat’ll be fi’ dollar,” the proprietor said.
He put a one-dollar bill on the bar.
“Now we done tol’ you . .
The girl made a cabalistic sign with her left hand, headed for the door; Comiski followed her.
The man called, “We reckon dat’ll be ’nuff.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, when they were on the street. “I didn’t figure on that.”
They walked toward the expressway; the beer felt cold against the old bruises on Comiski’s thighs. He glanced behind them, saw two women talking in a darkened doorway and a man in an orange wig who passed under a streetlight like a somnambulist and vanished in an alley. He thought he heard the echo of a motorcycle.
“You better come up for a while,” she said. “You might be marked.”
They climbed the stairs in darkness; the room was empty. She switched on the radio, waved him toward the bed.
“Make yourself at home. I’m going to put on the kettle.”
Comiski sat down without removing his raincoat, drank, and held the bottle between his knees.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She stood at the stove, her back to him; he could hear her laughing.
“Carrie. What’s yours?”
“Andrew.” Comiski couldn’t remember the last time someone had called him by his first name. “It was a concession to my mother’s family. I grew up in Mississippi.”
“That’s wonderful, Andrew. See if you can find something besides that sorry-ass Muzak.”
He tuned in Pete Fountain and his mooning clarinets, had another drink. The girl carried a soup spoon with the handle bent double to the table, unrolled a piece of towel that protected a yellow syringe; she carefully filled it with the liquid in the spoon.
“Some kettle,” Comiski said.
“Don’t get excited, Andrew. This ain’t smack.” She held both arms up to the light. “Some people get upset about a little speed. Remember, I never did get that aperitif.”
She inserted the needle with careless assurance. Comiski closed his eyes; when he opened them again, he saw three bubbles scuttling up the blue trace inside her biceps like some apparatus in a fish tank.
“Those things are going to take out one side of your heart.”
“The AMA puts out that propaganda,” she said. “A little air never hurts.”
The mass of hair engulfed her face. He turned away as she went through the motions of cleaning up, watched the taillights of speeding cars follow the curve of the expressway and drop from sight.
“You think I’m strung out, Andrew. I’m not strung out — I’m bored.”
“I’m going. You tell Tea . .
“Forget Tea,” she said. “He’s got things on his mind, won’t be coming around here.”
She sat down on the bed, touched her lips with her tongue; her eyes were bright and aggressive.
“When Tea needs somebody, he gets a hold on them, like when he needed daddy Parks. He needed Parks, see, so we all hooked up — a regular menage a trois. Now Tea doesn’t get behind sex anymore, and Parks wasn’t much better, at his age. Some ménage à trois. Tea says when his plans get underway, then he can ball again. He says it’s a matter of priorities.”
Comiski said, “Tell me who broke into Parks’s grave.”
“Don’t you know who that was, Andrew? I thought everybody knew that one. It was that same bunch you got messed up with — they were looking for the stash.”
“What stash is that?”
“Our smack, Andrew.”
“You mean heroin?”
“Wow. I mean smack. Horse, honch, duji, H, snow, heroin — it’s all the same animal. Parks kept it hid in a pad with three crazy white people and a whole mess of cats. The honkie runts never could find it. That’s how come ... ”
“That’s why they defiled the corpse,” he prompted. 
“That’s it. Just clean honkie fun, stealing black men’s heads. They even brought it round for us to look at — friendly persuasion.”
Comiski shuddered; Carrie’s constant bouncing motion made him seasick.
“It’s a shame Parks crumbled before the last drop,” she said. “Now all that bread’s going into the big plans. You should hear Tea talk about it, Andrew. He’s all the time singing about the New Order, some black citadel he says is going to poke up out of the ashes. Shit like that.”
"Tea's a poet."
“He’s a fanatic.” She touched the scab on Comiski’s wrist. “Hey, they really leaned on you.”
“I’m going.” He spoke decisively, could think of no place to go; the bottle was empty.
“Don’t do that, Andrew. I couldn’t stand sitting round this place on my lonesome. Tea’s not coming back, you see, and then my baby . . .”
“Your baby?”
“Oh, forget that, man. It’s just been one of those days, it really has.”
Comiski was affected by her palsy. He covered her lips with his hand; the line of her mouth was soft yet precise, moving against his fingers as the words went on. He had a vision of his bare neck pierced by the rusty blade he had noticed in her purse. What your white man most fears ...
It was a fumbling embrace. The bourbon bottle clattered against the floor; the scent of her hair was feral and disturbing.
“Well, well,” she said.
Comiski was embarrassed by the sound of crumpled plastic, got up to take off his raincoat; Carrie stripped away the saffron dress and sat bare-chested on the very edge of the mattress, reflecting his own amazement.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Revolution's one thing that's never been easy

                  From The Big Easy, Part Two: Jump Boy, Jump:

The cab swung through a hazardous U-turn directly beneath the traffic light and bounced up onto the curb, making way for the shrieking paddy wagon that crossed the intersection against the red and sped on toward the concrete edifices of the Desire Street project. Black men ran along the pavements — spectators hurrying to a fire — exhorted by the clarion of the ladder truck; there was no sign of smoke on the low serrated horizon.
“Git out or go with me,” the cabbie told Comiski. “I ain’t hanging round this afternoon.”
Comiski got out. The air was full of the antiphony of half a dozen sirens and a faint acrid smell; the packed dirt basketball courts across Desire were deserted, and Negro boys in gym shorts and torn-off Levi’s trotted across the field, calling out to one another. He followed the high metal fence, searched the tops of the identical structures for some sign of fire. Black people leaned out of windows, watching the action below; the crowd in the street parted to let the ladder truck through, and firemen in hard hats and short canvas jackets jumped clear, began unpacking lengths of metal tubing.
The grassless expanse in the center of the project was deserted, cordoned off by a score of policemen wearing motorcycle helmets and armed with sawed-off Winchester pump shotguns. A single tear gas canister lay smoldering at the edge of the walkway; three men gripping the ugly blunt launchers stood scanning the windows of the nearest building, searching for a target. Tenants poured out of the complex, filed into the street, talking and gesturing; above the din and the constant wail of sirens, Comiski heard the thick bellicose voice of Tea, amplified by the bullhorn.
“Black men, get guns. Kill the white fools.”
His words echoed weirdly among the buildings, and cops and spectators alike craned their necks, trying to spot the offender. Someone gave a mock cheer; people were laughing.
Cautiously Comiski pushed through the crowd. An abandoned squad car sat at an odd angle to the street, two wheels resting on the sidewalk: the windshield was smashed, scorched by flames, and sprayed with a white gelatinous foam. The front seat was strewn with broken glass and the empty casings of .38-caliber bullets.
He skirted the car, attempted to cross the sidewalk to the mall; a policeman challenged him, and Comiski took out his press card.
“Git back,” the cop said, pressing the stock of his scatter gun against Comiski’s chest.
“But I’m with the news media.”
“I said git back!”
The cop shoved him roughly down the escarpment; Comiski bowed, edged back into the crowd. Overreaction, that was the word. He noticed that the man was still watching him.
Patrol wagons arrived simultaneously at each end of the block, disgorged bands of men wearing khaki uniforms and shiny baby-blue helmets and armed with long truncheons used by the mounted police. Comiski didn’t recognize the force, watched as they moved in ragged formation toward the corner apartment building and out of sight. A contingent of plainclothes detectives trotted past, and Comiski fell into step beside them, headed for the parking lot behind the project. A rookie with glossy slicked-back hair, an eager grin, and the stride of a high school athlete told him, “We re going to kill that sonofabitch.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Comiski said.
“This here’s my first riot.”
“Mine, too. Anybody hurt?”
“Not yet. You Vice or Special Squad?”
“Special Squad, that’s me.”
Comiski saluted, moved off between the buildings. Above him windows were slammed shut, shades and curtains drawn; bicycles and skates lay abandoned in the narrow dirt yards. An old man in his undershorts crept out of a service entrance and, seeing Comiski, dropped his plastic pail of garbage and scurried back inside, locking the door behind him. Tea’s omnipotent voice echoed throughout the project: “Black men get guns. Get your guns now! Kill all white foowoowools.”
A section of the mall burst into flames. It was too spectacular: for an instant Comiski managed to disbelieve it. Two cops dropped their weapons and fled; there was a clatter of shotgun fire, punctuated by the heavy thumping reports of the tear gas launchers. He saw a canister bounce off the wall beside a curtained window and fall back to earth, trailing what appeared to be dirty steam mixed with the oily smoke from the fire bomb. A feeble cry went up from the crowd.
Comiski stepped into a deserted doorway. A Negro in bright red overalls was running along the base of the adjacent building, clawing at the air in front of him, lifting his knees in a fast hurtler’s pace: it was one of Tea’s revolutionaries — the tall lanky man who had cursed him. Comiski watched him duck into a passageway and tear off the overalls, revealing his flowered shirt beneath. A wedge of policemen sprinted around the corner from which he had come, bristling with revolvers and batons; the black man stepped out and walked toward them, flattened himself against the building and pointed to the passageway. The cops ran past and entered the passageway, emerged carrying the red overalls; they looked up and down the yard for the vanished Negro. Then they started across in Comiski’s direction. He stepped back, waited for them to pass. His head ached and his mouth was dry; Tea’s voice admonished him: “Kill the Man. Kill him nowowow . . .”
Comiski went for the first sound he heard. There were no faces in the windows now; occasionally black people ran from the doorways along the edge of the mall toward the street and the apparent safety of the crowd. A reinforced corps of policemen with scatter guns advanced in a line and surrounded the main building, held back out of range of the fire bombs. Comiski wondered if Tea had a gun, watched two cops with high-powered rifles crouch and scan the windows through their telescopic sights. The smell of tear gas was nauseating; the sirens never ceased.
A wedge of policemen advanced on the building at a mincing trot. The concrete steps were engulfed in flames, and they fell back in disorder, covering their faces with their arms; the men with the rifles fired indiscriminately, the slugs ricocheting off the building’s facade and whining overhead. A tear gas canister smashed a window on the third floor; a woman screamed. Comiski looked behind him, saw a solid wall of blue shirts as policemen herded people into the street and up against the cyclone fence on the other side.
Tea’s plea was edged with hysteria: “Kill them! Kill the whites! Help me kill thememem . . .”
Comiski scanned the checkerboard of windows: Tea could have been anywhere. He saw one of the sharpshooters put three bullets through a flapping yellow curtain, decided to keep moving. He kept behind the cordon of police, circled the building, and walked into a clutch of men in khaki and baby-blue helmets concealed behind the shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot. They were searching three Negro youths who had their hands against the brick wall; one of the cops was methodically puncturing the tires of an old Cadillac with an ice pick. Another came up to Comiski, twisting the baton in his fists as if it were a huge pepper grinder.
Comiski said jovially, “So these are the ones,” and gestured toward the blacks.
“Which ones is that?”
“The troublemakers.”
“They’re all troublemakers.”
He didn’t dispute. Handcuffs were attached to the Negroes’ ankles; the cops took the chains in hand and jerked them backward, dumping the men in the gravel. Comiski recognized none of the cops. Their uniforms resembled those of the auxiliary police, were identified only by a gold-plated brooch engraved with a rising sun, without names or numerals; they carried only handcuffs and batons, and their mood of aimless belligerency suggested raw recruits.
The man with the ice pick punctured the last tire, sat down on the car fender, and began to roll a cigarette.
Comiski recognized the symptom, placed the faces: they were white trusties from Parish Prison — inmates.
One of them asked Comiski, “What you want, anyway?”
“I’m just reconnoitering.”
“You ain’t with the Commonist press?”
“Certainly not. I’m Special Squad.”
“That’s funny — so are we.”
They conferred, and Comiski started back in the direction from which he came; one of the men ordered him to stop, but he kept walking.
The siege had moved to the adjacent building. Through the haze of tear gas he could see two policemen with dogs on leashes moving precariously along the ledge of the roof; they met and eased back out of sight. Tea’s shrill voice harangued the crowd: “Kill them! Help me! Help me nowowow . . .”
A group of policemen broke from the ranks and stormed the main entrance; they pushed and shoved, fell frantically through the doorway, just as a missile came arching out of a window on the top floor. Comiski recognized the wooden crate trailing excelsior, sunlight glinting off particles of glass, shielded his face against the explosion. He was buffeted by a hot wind; a column of orange flame shot up half the height of the building, with feelers of fire streaking along the ground and scattering the police. A great sigh went up from the crowd. The sharpshooters blazed away, followed by the heavy thumpthumpthump of the tear gas launchers; smoke poured from half a dozen windows.
The men with scatter guns skirted the fire and flooded the entrance, pushed through. Comiski watched the window from which the crate had been thrown, waited for Tea’s next message, but it never came. He wanted to act, to stop the slaughter: for an instant he envisioned himself the divine mediator, descending on a brocade dais between the belligerents, dispensing goodwill with justice. Deus ex machina
A police lieutenant brushed past Comiski, waving his arms and shouting at the sharpshooters. Somewhere inside the building a semi-automatic weapon fired steadily until it was empty; during the silence that followed he heard a car horn blowing far down Desire. The room on the top floor filled with light. There was a muffled explosion, and the window frame leapt outward, disintegrated in midair; hundreds of shotgun pellets rained against the panes of glass in the building opposite.                              

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Meet Comiski, aging police reporter for the Times-Picayune...

about to tumble into New Orleans's fictional race riot that actually prefigured the real thing.
      From the novel, The Big Easy, just released in paperback.

              "Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house."
                                                                        James Baldwin
                                                                       The Fire Next Time

The shuddering eye of the St. Charles Avenue trolley swung around Lee Circle. Sparks flew from the overhead wire; the contraption ground to a halt with the shriek of steel punishing steel. Comiski, flushed and short of breath, swung aboard and took his seat among the last of the homeward-bound secretaries and coffee brokers. The carillon bells on top of the Hibernia Bank were completing a syncopated version of “Danny Boy”; the stuttering music touched a chord of memory — drinking bouts with forgotten buddies on the patio of the Napoleon House, trips by open car to Pass Christian, marriage. He tried to remember the words: Oh, Danny Boy, the something something of something are waiting. Or was it falling?
The trip uptown depressed him; the pattern was as familiar as the lurching machine in which he traveled — expectation, recrimination, anger, and, finally, loneliness. The routine was the only thing left of a brief and ridiculous marriage. It repeated itself without variation after eight or nine years, confined him to the downtown bars where he didn’t have to see the spreading oaks, the irregular brick sidewalks and ghostly facades of the Garden District homes.
Comiski could barely remember a face. The pain always originated in his groin: she had long muscular legs, a vacuous smile cultivated in countless social engagements that appeared in the middle of their worst arguments, a habit of touching her teeth with the tip of her tongue when excited. He met her at a political rally; she was a debutante in search of a cause, and Comiski was a starting reporter fresh from the state university, full of confidence and irreverence. He accepted the fact that she wanted to come to his apartment, just as he later accepted marriage, his mother-in-law’s hatred, his father-in-law’s boozy attempts at camaraderie, his new wife’s attempts to get into the bathroom each morning ahead of him, to apply a flawless mask of makeup. Comiski also accepted the necessity of stuffing himself into a tuxedo two or three times a year, to attend functions where his name and his bafflement offended people he had never seen before or since. When she left him — stepped into a cab and drove back up Prytania Street — it was as if his wife had simply spent a year at a foreign university and then decided to change her course of study.
Comiski put the blame on their apartment — a slaves’ quarters on St. Anne where they seemed constantly on the point of collision. Their appetites coincided: they met head-on at the refrigerator, the radio, and the sink, in the narrow passage between the bed and the bookshelf, almost sat on one another’s lap in the bathroom. They celebrated their first and last anniversary in that apartment; the thought still made him feel claustrophobic. Comiski could taste Jack Daniel’s and fresh mint, charred game birds, could see his father-in-law’s flushed face, buck teeth, and cowboy hat filling the doorway — his desperate enthusiasm — two Mason jars of mint julep under his arms. Behind him stood the immense black cook holding a platter piled with quail slaughtered on somebody’s bean plantation, her crisp white uniform and paper cap like the vestments of a priestess, and behind her, grinning and resigned to a nightmare, was the chauffeur, already sweating in his wool uniform. The silver Chrysler nearly blocked the street: their entrance reminded Comiski of a circus act in which a procession of clowns unpacks itself from a baby carriage.
Comiski, his wife, and her father sat on the bed and drank from the Mason jars; the cook and the chauffeur confined themselves to what was supposed to be the kitchen — an alcove partitioned off by a curtain. Cigar smoke and steam filled the room. The pictures fell off the walls, and when the feast was finally ready — burned in the overheated oven and served on top of a suitcase covered with a bedspread — the three of them were drunk. Comiski’s father-in-law launched into a benediction with bleary eyes and slack jaw, his voice assuming a biblical cadence: Lawd God, bind these two young people in the etuhnal mantle of Thy muhcygrant them, oh Lawd, the benefits . . .
The chauffeur sat on a beer crate, tried to hide his head behind the curtain. He had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, revealing arms like the blades of dull butcher knives; one white eye peered at Comiski through the fringe, filled with wonder and amazement. The cook stood over them with the steaming birds, awkward and patient, eyes clamped shut in atonement for a world of sinners, her hands trembling with the platter’s weight.
Lawd — LAWD — grant now in this Thine hou-wah of felicitay and endurin happiness all they muhcy, and let us not forget Thy bounty if the days do for a time grow dahk . . .
Comiski had no more vivid memory and no keepsakes, just artifacts left over from the disastrous campaign. There was the couch — a wedding present from his wife’s mother — that had stuck with him through the years like a dispirited but loyal beast, wounded by a thousand ashes, scorched once when he passed out with a cigar in his hand and it almost became his funeral pyre. There was the electric toaster he was constantly trying to repair with thick, unskilled fingers, and the straight razor — a family heirloom bestowed upon Comiski by his father-in-law with ceremony. The blue steel blade was inscribed with the names of his wife’s grandfather and great-grandfather — whoremonger and slave-beater respectively, Comiski suspected; the mother-of-pearl handle was wrought to fit the hand and displayed, on the butt, two precise notches. This blade has quieted down no less than two unruly black bucks ... He didn’t believe the story, but sometimes when he was shaving his finger touched the notches, and he nicked himself.
Comiski had gone to fetch his wife after a week passed. His mother-in-law received him cordially; he sat in a lawn chair and took part in chatter about storm windows. Another goddamn hurricane. His father-in-law stood among the rosebushes, dressed in what he considered to be work clothes — riding boots and a sport shirt with the sleeves rolled up — shouting orders at the chauffeur. The air was motionless, expectant: there wasn’t a bird in sight, and the rattle of ice cubes in Comiski’s glass was deafening. He knew something was wrong, felt a wash of desolation like the impact of those waves laden with flotsam that rose up out of the shallows off Grand Isle, where they spent their honeymoon. He wanted to raise his arm and shield himself from the vision of that dark stretch of sand, the off-shore oil derricks — skeletal fins of fornicating sea monsters — the clouds of mosquitoes droning among the cypress, the heat and the ooze of that timeless unnatural land. And where, madame, is your daughter? He couldn’t forget the dewy curls pressed against the woman’s head, the thin painted lips out of a low-budget horror film, her words delivered with the sanctity and the finality of a papal bull, “I’m happy to say she is at this moment riding a bicycle through Provence.”

Comiski clambered down from the trolley at the corner of Jackson Avenue, stood on the corner looking up and down St. Charles. His reason for being there was obscure. A score of Lucky Dog salesmen pushed their wares out of a garage across from the Pontchartrain Hotel, wearing striped jackets and cardboard hats, fanned out to hawk a taste of deprivation along with the low quality wieners, stale buns, and watery mustard trundled about in carts made to resemble huge hotdogs on wheels. They reminded Comiski of the wine-sodden floor of the Cave Inn, stalking through the streets like scepters of his own conscience, and he bought a Lucky Dog as much out of a sense of atonement as hunger. He ate hunched over a trash bin on the corner, followed his supper with a drink in the Cameo, then headed toward the river.
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Thursday, January 23, 2014

How do you bring down the symbol of privilege and corruption that is the exclusive men's club?

   The fourth installment from the novel, World's End:
                                         (well, maybe just a bit less dramatically...)

                                                                                       You all right?
The stolen laundry van eased through the gutter of Baronne Street, without the aid of lights. It stopped half a block from Canal, next to a reef of garbage cans set out for the morning pickup. Revelers straggled out of the Quarter, bound for the trolley stop at Carondelet, but Baronne was deserted. The doorman at the Fairmont-Roosevelt had already retreated inside the hotel, where he would sleep fitfully in a chair until the arrival of the final editions of the Times-Picayune roused him to the abrupt light of dawn.
The driver of the van was Terry Estopinal, a member of the NOPD who was tonight freelancing. He did not wear a uniform, however, but a dark Windbreaker and a longshoreman's cap. His van contained no laundry. Cloth bags stuffed with blankets were stacked against the back door, and on the floor was a pile of tools — sledge hammers, axes, crowbars, electric chain saws, staple guns. There was also a coil of steel cable, a steel pulley, extension cords, a welding torch with a special trolley for the acetylene and oxygen tanks, and a big hydraulic jack.
Terry Estopinal decided to wait a few minutes more, to make sure the doorman at the Fairmont-Roosevelt stayed put. He lit a cigarette and tried to relax. He had grown up in the Channel and though he was only half Irish, it was the right half. As a moonlighter he had accepted some unorthodox assignments but tonight's was the most unorthodox yet. He would have thought it a joke if it had not come from the O'Neills. On his last job for them he had pumped bullets into Scorse more for the satisfaction than the money.
He climbed out and crossed the pavement to an iron gate separating the church from the back of the department store. He took a bent metal shaft with a flattened tip from his Windbreaker pocket, inserted it in the crude keyhole, and sprang the bolt. He pushed the gate into the dark alleyway and returned to the van. He opened the back doors and began to toss cloth bags out onto the pavement.
The second van pulled up behind him and more men in Windbreakers piled out. They didn't speak but picked up the bags and hustled them into the alleyway. They returned for the tools, emptying the van, then massed in the alley. Terry closed the van doors and followed, closing the iron gate without letting it lock, and worked his way to the head of the procession. He pulled the four-battery flashlight from his back pocket, switched it and led the men into darkness reeking of garbage, the circle of light on slick stone, the only sounds the jangle of metal against metal and the squeak of the wheel on the gas tank trolley. The alleyway opened onto the rear courtyard of the Bayou Club where the other men waited while Terry circled the building. Satisfied that the club was deserted, he whispered, "Matty?"
 A stocky figure came out of the darkness followed by two more carrying the hydraulic jack. They all went up the steps and began to work on the jamb. Terry heard old wood creak and split, and the door popped open. Tools banged and scraped against the paneling as they made their way through the darkness. The lights of Canal Street shone dimly through the windows of the lounge, outlining the heavy furniture. The tools were dumped in the middle of the carpet. Several men took blankets from the bags and staple guns and covered the windows while Matty went to work on the main supporting beam with the torch. Terry led the rest of the work force upstairs. Once the windows were covered he switched on the lights, and a sigh went up from the other men: the tables had already been set for the next day's luncheon - starched white cloths, folded napkins.
Putting his broad back into the effort, he swung his ax against the baseboard, sending wood chips flying. The men peeled the carpet back and went to work on the wide cedar boards with crowbars. When the joists were exposed they plugged in the saws, and chains bit noisily into the seasoned wood. They worked steadily for two hours, determined to be done get before dawn, the men coughing through their labor. Now Terry could hear water running down the inside of the walls, and the spit and crackle of the welding torch below. He pulled a comer of blanket away from the front window and looked out into Canal Street. A squad car moved along the opposite side, the man riding shotgun playing the beam of his flashlight over the storefronts. Terry waited until the car had crossed Baronne, then went on up the stairs.
The room above the dining room was smaller and almost empty of furniture. A portable bar stood in one comer. The others followed him up and went to work on those floor boards and joists, while Terry and another guy shoved bar into the center of the room. They lifted a corner and slipped a loop of cable underneath; the man climbed onto the bar and drove the heavy eyebolt attached to the pulley into an overhead beam, using the butt of an ax. He inserted a crowbar and screwed the bolt into six inches of hardwood. Then they lifted the far comer of the bar, inserted another loop of cable, and screwed down the clamps, tightly trussing the heavy wood under Formica.
Terry threaded the cable through the pulley, opened the back window and heaved out the coils. He breathed in fresh air, listening for the sound of the winch. The sky had begun to lighten in the east but he still couldn't see the men working in the alley below.
The cable stretched taut, the beam creaked, and the bar heaved up off the floor. Pieces of plaster the size of dinner plates popped free from the ceiling, shattered when they hit. But the eyebolt held. The bar rose higher and higher, turning lazily in the air until it rested eight feet above disaster. 
They worked feverishly now, a new smell in the air, not the reek of burnt insulation or of the dust and grime, but fear. As each man finished his job, he left his tool and, hugging the wall, inched his way around to the head of the stairs. Then he fled. Terry was the last, cutting on the final joist until the chain broke. He left the saw sticking in the floor like a knife in a cake.
The dining room was cluttered with fallen posts, sawdust, bits of wood. The floor sagged visibly, the tables still neatly set. The back courtyard was empty and he could just see Matty standing in the alleyway, smoking, hand cupped about the bright coal. Terry turned and looked up the cable to the point where it disappeared behind the blanket over the third floor window.
"It's your show, Terry," said Matty.
He reached for the winch, secured to the iron grill.
"Watch out for that handle.”
Terry eased down on the lever and the handle did spin like a propeller. A heavy thunk carried down to them and in the silence that followed he heard failure. Then came the crash. The floors collapsed, one upon the other, shaking the earth, trapped air blowing out the windows as in a hurricane. Shattered glass rained over the courtyard, trailing torn curtains and blankets from the dark cavities. What was now the shell of the Bayou Club breathed a cloud of dust that rolled up the adjacent brick walls.
The two men raced down the alley toward the waiting van.                                                                                         

Monday, January 20, 2014

Wherein the New Orleans district attorney insults his luncheon guest over a bottle of Haut-Brion...

big mistake.
    Third installment from the novel, World's End (for the previous two and other things related check blog contents to the right):


                                         They like your enemies more than they like you…

        On Wednesdays the district attorney of Orleans Parish, Paul Boudin, always ordered oysters Bienville at the Bayou Club, followed by medallions of lamb. Before the meal he drank one old-fashioned, and he enhanced the food with a split of Haut-Brion '68. The club had no wine cellar worthy of the name, and he was forced to keep a small private stock — a fact that he did not publicize, because he didn't want to stand out from his fellow members.
      Conformity was the word at the Bayou Club, second only in virtue to respectability. Business and professional men gathered there to affirm one another's worth and to exercise a subtle but pervasive influence on the financial and social affairs of the city. They all basked in their pleasant separation from the baser aspects of life beyond the entwined BC on the frosted glass of the front door. Boudin was one of the few politicians who had managed to get  beyond it.
The fare at the club, by New Orleans standards, was distinctly mediocre. Still, Boudin lunched there three days a week and was visible at the club to a point just short of indiscretion. He passed through the gate, glancing with satisfaction at the magnolia trees trained flat against the brick wall of the adjacent building. They gave the courtyard an air of Oriental formality: a sumptuous, green enclave in the heart of the business district.
      Peck, the club doorman, greeted the District Attorney with pleasant familiarity. Every member valued a smile or a nod from Peck, the final arbiter in the subtle distinctions of status. Peck was essential in discriminating among acceptable and unacceptable guests. Several members had been embarrassed at the door when their guests were pleasantly turned away. "We're mighty happy to see you today, sir," Peck would say to the club member. "But I'm afraid your friend will have to stay outside." Peck could spot a Jew faster than any man in New Orleans, white or black.
Boudin passed through the hall and into the bar. Members drank in intimate little groups, at ease but acutely aware of the traffic through the club. Several nodded to the District Attorney, and one, a member of the Port Authority, waved him over. But Boudin just raised his hand in greeting and passed on. His guest waited upstairs, not the sort to be introduced casually to a group of Boudin's fellow members, but a well-known personality entertained out of a sense of responsibility.
He mounted the stairs, thinking of the full bottle of Haut-Brion he would have to order rather than the usual split. Bo O'Neill sat at a corner table, his back to the door, elbows propped on spotless linen. A squat glass of bourbon and ice stood before him. He seemed uninterested in his surroundings, but Boudin knew that nothing would please him more than to be invited to join the club. Both he and his father had sought admission, but Boudin and a dozen other members would see to it that no O'Neill ever belonged.
Boudin said loudly, "The flamboyant Mr. O'Neill," and quickly pulled out a chair to avoid having to shake hands.

Later, several diners glanced toward their table, attracted by their arguing. Boudin knew he was flushed but forced himself to say, "You don't like oysters?"
The muscles stood out in Bo’s jaw and he rattled the ice cubes in his glass. "Let's cut the crap, Boudin. If you're afraid to stick your neck out, get somebody else to."
"If I was afraid to stick my neck out I wouldn't be having lunch with you. Ah, here's the entree."
The waiter took away Boudin's empty platter and hovered beside his guest. Bo waved the untouched oysters away. At that moment Boudin hated him as much as he had hated Rory O'Neill, who had never bothered even to acknowledge the D.A. Now he would have his revenge. He picked up his wine glass and swirled the plush Haut-Brion up its sides. He tasted it. "Terrific."
"I need assurance of official action against the Cinques to keep my people in line."
"I'm sorry if you're having organizational difficulties. But I don't really see what I can do.”
Bo leaned over the medallions of lamb in wine sauce, garnished with fresh parsley. "What you mean is," he said, "you don't want to mess up your arrangements with the vending-machine boys. Some capo's generosity makes you reluctant to hit anybody important in their organization."
Boudin considered standing and walking away from the table, but that would be a sign of defeat. Besides, he was uncertain of the strength of his knees. "You must be crazy," he whispered, "making a wild charge like that."
"Boudin, you can stack that bagasse all day, as long as it doesn't hurt me. Now it is hurting."
"Why do you come up to the city at all?" he asked, his only defense in contempt. "You have enough to eat down there in World's End, and a warm place to sleep. Why come up here and bother responsible public servants?"
"If you were responsible I wouldn't have to squeeze you.”
“Threaten me, you mean. I'm sure you can spread that vicious rumor, not that it will make any difference when I come up again for election. I'm unbeatable, you know." Boudin forced himself to take a bite of meat. "Look around you, Mr. Boreal Arturo O'Neill. The office is just a job, but this is the place! The Bayou Club was built in i844 by James Gallier; it's here that the Queen of Rex meets her royal consort every Mardi Gras. The men in this room don't consider me an equal because I'm the D.A., they consider me an equal in spite of that fact. And do you think they would ever take your word against mine? I can tell you that they wouldn't. They like your enemies more than they like you because your enemies know their places."
Slowly Bo stood, dropping his napkin to the floor. His face was ashen, his eyes glistened. Boudin had gone too far. If Bo started to throttle him the District Attorney would offer no resistance, though he always carried a small silver automatic, maintaining decorum while waiters dragged the madman away. But Bo did not attack. He turned his forced smile — a tight row of very white teeth beneath a dark mustache — from the DA to the assembled members, then turned and made his way to the stairs. Going down, a hand on the dark mahogany banister, he brushed past a party on the way up to lunch. One man turned and said, “What the hell ..." but Bo was already crossing the hall. He passed under the malevolent gaze of the doorman and into the sudden warmth of a New Orleans April noon.
Blue had seen him coming and reached across the back seat to open the door. Bo got in. "Drive."
"Where to?"
Bo’s hands trembled and he folded them in his lap to keep Blue from noticing. His earlier resolution not to be involved in public scenes could not have been more severely tested. In a strange way, he was grateful to Boudin for saying things that Bo had known but refused to accept. The Irish don't mix. His father had once told him that, with more than a little pride. Now Bo saw the truth and the strength of that position: if he was unacceptable to society, then he was not bound by its decorum and hypocrisy. Bo would deal with his father's enemies in time. But first he would deal with Boudin, who thought he could insult the O'Neills with impunity.
His driver held open the door of the big car. Inside, Bo picked up the receiver and called his facilitator, Gus Tomes. "I've got a job," Bo told him. "It’ll take a dozen men who know how to use tools and somebody good to lead them. Somebody with guts and a level head. It's risky and it's going to cost, but I want it done."
He gave the instructions and when he hung up, Blue, who had overheard, whistled softly. "Hot damn!"                                                          
                      Next: bring down that house.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Pulling cork: Mondavi, the longest voyage

     Tasting through some releases recently from The Robert Mondavi Winery was a nostalgic reminder of just how much things have changed in the Napa Valley:                         
    I remember meeting Robert at the winery in the mid-eighties for one of those omnium gatherum lunches where visiting winemakers, jobbers, tourists and journalists were flung together in the on-going party beyond Oakville's famous stucco archway. I was struck by Robert's friendliness and his assumption that the style of life the winery represented, including an enduring family business, would forever rise on the shoulders of this powerful little man with a face off a Roman coin and real, irrepressible enthusiasm.
     Robert was already touting the "sculpting" of wines and equating the whole process to art. He was determined to build a monument to this notion at the south end of Napa Valley, to celebrate a glorious equation of wine and art. It would eventually culminate in the impossibly ambitious museum cum gallery cum eatery called Copia, a living and extravagant extension of the founder's inherent belief that anything could be made to work if you thought and talked about it enough. (Copia didn't work, was in fact a disaster from the beginning, another story connected to what finally happened to most of Robert's dreams.)
     What I remember tasting that day at lunch was a Mondavi pinot noir,  although I don't remember the vintage or much else about it except that the wine seemed heavily-extracted even to my unskilled palate. Robert talked not about the wine itself but where it pointed: toward experimentation, an ever-ascending star of quality, a pushing of the envelope in search of a sublime expression of human endeavor. Whatever excesses he might have committed along the way, he believed that his family's wine would flow forever upward and outward both in quality and reputation.
     Well, it sure did, but everything else changed at Mondavi. Napa Valley's greatest success story became over a relatively short period of time its greatest calamity. Over-arching ambition, however well meant, and a too-willing embrace of the public incorporating process, wrecks most dreams except for the money. They enslave the former visionary to ascendant quarterly profits and the big sell-out. It's a story everybody knows and yet somehow its valuable lesson's never learned.
     So what of the wines today? I tasted four of the mid-rangers, starting with the 2012 fume blanc ($20), one of Robert's early emulations of the French style of sauvignon blanc. Devoid now of the grassy character of blanc-fume on which it was originally modeled, this wine has moved solidly into the tropics - and into the Bordeaux-shaped bottle instead of the old slope-shouldered one - with plenty of citrus and acid.
    The 2011 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon ($28), taken from various vineyards that include a bit from the famous To Kalon next door, is still young and bright, with hints of cassis but unfortunately also of bell pepper. Both these wines, and the slight 2011 Napa Valley pinot noir (below),  are well-made but with a built-in Mondavi price bump, safe corporate strolls along the continuum of middle-brow appeal.
     What's not is the 2010 Mondavi Oakville cabernet sauvignon ($45), probably because the winemakers wiggled out of the grip of the bean-counters for which conglomerates are famous, in this case Constellation's.  Made mostly with fruit fromTo Kalon vineyard, it's very young and tight but with a big nose and great mouth feel and finish. Underneath 15 per cent alcohol lies the power of Napa's reigning varietal, with lots of black fruit and hints of chocolate and tobacco.
    The signature Mondavi Reserve cabernet sauvignon, by the way, isn't included in this bunch. Made almost entirely from To Kalon grapes, true distinction may lie in that particular bottle, so another Mondavi evaluation's in order.
    The pinot noir bore no resemblance to the one I tasted way back. But this time I recalled the sibilant words of the legendary eminence gris of Napa Valley wine, Russian emigre Andre Tchelistcheff: "Pinot noir invites you to dreeenk it." This pinot does that: bright in the glass, with a sprightly nose straight out of the bottle and enticing red fruit in the first sip. But too quickly it vanishes, like the founder himself.
     Sometimes wine does indeed imitate life, as all art must.                                              
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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The origin of the name, The Big Easy, has somehow become controversial...

… and now Parade magazine and the friend of a dead columnist are in on the act:

Trombone Shorty performs at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.(Douglas Mason)
Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Christina Aguilera, Phish, Santana, Arcade Fire, John Fogerty, Robert Plant, Alabama Shakes… New Orleans hosts thousands of events each year, but one of their most popular attractions is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell (Jazz Fest), founded in 1970 when the non-profit New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation was formed to promote and preserve music, arts, and culture in Louisiana.
It’s said that, during the very first Jazz Fest, there were more people on stage than in the audience. But today, the festival generates some $300 million a year for the local economy. It’s no wonder, considering this year’s featured acts. There so many highlights that deciding which to experience in April won’t be easy.
Which leads us to a question: how did New Orleans get dubbed “The Big Easy?” The city’s official name comes from the city of Orleans, in France, itself named after Phillippe Duc D’Orleans. But as for the nickname—well, it’s not an “easy” question to answer.
There are a number of theories in circulation.  One references how easy it was, and continues to be, for musicians to land gigs in New Orleans. By the way, you may be surprised to learn that the word “jazz” did not originate in NOLA, according to You Don’t Know Jazz and jazz pianist, musicologist, educator, and author Dr. Lewis Porter. They claim that to date, the earliest documented use of the word was in an article published on April 2, 1912 in the LA Times. It had nothing to do with music, but everything to do with baseball. The brief, entitled Ben’s Jazz Curve, includes this quote from the pitcher: “I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.”
So while the word “jazz” was later associated with music, it didn’t stem from New Orleans, which was once said to be one of the least expensive places to live. Actually, that’s another theory on why it’s called The Big Easy.
But locals attribute the widespread use of the nickname The Big Easy to the late Betty Guillaud, a gossip columnist from the Times-Picayune. They say that Guillaud used the term first in the early 1970s to compare life in New York City—the Big Apple—to life in New Orleans—The Big Easy.
Lea Sinclair, her friend and marketing director for The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, insists that Guillaud popularized the term, even pointing to her Times-Picayune obituary: “Betty Guillaud, a Times-Picayune columnist who swanned her way through a succession of soirees and swankiendas as she chronicled the fun and foibles of the denizens of the Big Easy, a nickname for New Orleans that she helped popularize, died Saturday at the Sanctuary of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. She was 79.”
Author James Conaway, who penned the crime novel The Big Easy, has a different story. According to Conaway, the phrase was never in print until his book was published in 1970.   And here’s how he came up with the book title from which the nickname was popularized: Before he became a novelist, in the mid-1960s, Conaway was working as a police reporter for the Times-Picayune. One night, he says, while walking on Claiborne Avenue to the criminal courthouse, he overheard two African-American men chatting, and the words “the big easy” stuck out. Conaway isn’t exactly sure what it pertained to; he can only speculate. But, “it was a wonderful phrase. I’d never heard it before,” he says. “It’s an indigenous phrase I overheard as a police reporter and, struck by it, named the novel title two years later.”
So what of Betty Guillaud? Conaway suggests she must have read his book (or perhaps a review of it in the Times-Picayune) and picked up the phrase. Lea Sinclair begs to differ. “My opinion is that I think Betty did use it before 1970, and while I don’t know whether the author’s memory is correct or not, my guess is that he heard it at the Times-Picayune. His recollection, however, makes for good copy,” she told us via email.
“It’s my phrase,” counters the author. “Nobody heard that phrase before I used it.”
Well, nobody except at least two men in deep conversation one night in New Orleans…