According to the flashing sign at the end of the fume choked passenger loading zone outside the New Orleans airport it was ten seventeen p.m. and seventy-five degrees. The spirited breeze, charged with ozone from the electrical storm that lit the dragon belly clouds, whipped my long silver hair about like Spanish moss, snatching away the smoke of the cigarette I had been longing for all day.
I had to take a cab from the terminal to Saint Catherine’s because the staff chauffeurs were off duty after eight o’clock; not like the old days when we were treated like royalty twenty-four-seven. I detest being a car passenger, especially so when riding in a taxi driven by a stranger. Besides, a New Orleans cab is about as comfortable as a paddy wagon. Shock absorbers don’t last long on the teeth rattling, root-thrusted streets, and the request for replacements tend to get stuck away with limitless other things in a vast file labeled “Manana”.
The drive from the airport into the heart of the city passes through some of the more sordid, squalid sections of New Orleans - in other words, most of it. The structures seem to be slowly crawling, consuming space like crusty mold, and when it’s raining like this the tar patched streets, the trees and the shadows are oily slick, shiny as black patent leather. What there is of a downtown skyline cowers beneath that alien, super bowl monstrosity that has landed and taken control.
No, though it has its moments, at face value it is not what I would call a pretty city. But if you care more for laughter than money, or have money with a capital “M” like my brother and his wife, it is sexy, exciting, alluring, beautiful nonetheless.
I don’t have much money. All I have is the last name and the blood. The last name works wonders here. And the blood? Well, we will get to that.
My older brother, the poet and painter Eric Dawson, and his wife, the celebrated novelist Regina Dawson live in the Garden District of New Orleans - an enclave of white, upper middle class and old money rich surrounded by the sprawling, rotting, dirty, pothole of a city that is seventy-five percent poverty stricken blacks with little hope of escape.
With the fall of darkness a legion of security guards emerge from the perimeters to skulk about the Garden District like armed voyeurs while an African American is murdered once an hour in the projects a few blocks away. If you venture too far off the major thoroughfares, your life is in danger, day or night. Do not cross the invisible barriers – neither the blacks nor the whites will tolerate it. No need locking the car. If you do, they’ll just break the window. Keep moving. That’s the trick. Calling the cops is a waste of time.
The Garden District came to be as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. It was the white, Anglo-Saxon American response to the French-Spanish-African culture of the Vieux Carre. Canal Street, which bisects downtown, was originally a wall of attitude tracing the contours of demarcation separating American protestant and European Catholic versions of morality and sanctity. The physical boundaries are blurred now, but the philosophical divergence and many of the money trail bloodlines remain intact.
I wish I could say that an energy current composed of the rainbow hues of the future nourishes New Orleans like the veins of a leaf transpiring change and renewal into the atmosphere, but that is just not the case. The Garden District remains to this day a conservative whiteout covering ten square miles of third world New Orleans like a spotless white tablecloth with a tattered, scorched, blood stained edge.
The Garden District; lush, elegant, charming, historically bountiful, on the surface sensibly respectable - propped up by cold cash and countless layers of paint – constructed, nurtured and preserved by slaves who became maids and gardeners, plumbers and roofers, carpenters and pest exterminators in a relentless, plodding battle against rot and ruin.
Though at first glance disdainfully aloof, the graceful, immaculate mansions are subject to the same steamy sub tropical climate and the passion it inspires as the ramshackle shanties a few blocks away. Rich and poor alike are linked by the ebb and flow of divergent aromas drifting on the sweaty air – forsythia and flesh, mold and magnolias, leather and spice, shrimp and semen, blood and swamp, exhaust fumes and cement, wet iron and window glass all gumboed together and simmering beneath sea level in the soggy, fecund mixing bowl womb of the Queen City.
Unencumbered by the burden of possessions or the muscle that money provides, I live a lean, simple life in which experience and knowledge are foremost. Only people I love give a damn that I am and I like it that way. A life of luxurious seclusion where thought is filtered by spring water and clear light before taking form has rendered me as likely to carry on a conversation with a tree or a blue jay as a human being. If fish could talk, they would warn you about me.
Just a few hours before, I was on horseback in the Oregon mountains. Rode up there to dust off the moon. My thoughts were as lucid as the pure, chilled air, as unsullied as fresh moonlit snow, as soft and deep as the indigo shadow. But now, as the rattletrap cab, sporadically flushed with the amusement park sheen of restaurants and neighborhood taverns, corner markets and businesses, lurched and bucketed down St. Charles Avenue alongside the trolley tracks, my thoughts rattled about in my head like ball bearings. The canopy of ancient live oaks fronting the extravagant mansions like colossal palace guards opened their tentacles to me and sung my name with the voice of air. My thoughts grew formless, mumbling like phantoms through the muddle of time. Penetrating deeper into the complex realities of the elite, the rich and famous, the movers and shakers, the so-called privileged, I could feel the money, the power, and the fraud and debauchery that go with it oozing all over me as viscous as andouille, spinning out convoluted spirals like a reluctant toilet flush.
And yet, I knew then as I know now my spirit belongs to the mountains, but my soul, my soul I give to New Orleans. For me, arrival in the Crescent City is a metamorphosis. Becoming a more distinct and powerful version of myself, I stand poised at the brink of elevated perspective. With the force of my own powers peaking, I invariably find myself ascending gracefully, with transformed clarity and the gentle uplift of providence into an enchanted world created for my sole satisfaction.
Yes and why not?
I shut my eyes and willed, no, allowed myself to be swept along on the languid soul flow that is New Orleans’ lifeblood; became a part of the storm lashed river of human activity shuffling up and down St. Charles Avenue.
I smiled inwardly and settled down into the bony cab seat and gazed out, as though underwater in a submarine, at the passing of alien creatures in a world of liquid.
By the time the cab reached Louisiana Street, I was feeling the rhythm - the sway of the hips; the break dance of the funhouse sidewalks; the tap dance of the glass slipper on hardwood floors; the soft shoe shuffle of footsore poverty across littered concrete; the barefoot Cajun swamp stomp; the staccato rap of the dispossessed; the cool sigh of the hot musician; the gyrations of jazz, the brawling blues. Once my heartbeat synched with the beat of overlapping ethos, I was home, baby, and ready to be me.
I lay my head back, shut my eyes and let my mind drift. It settled on an image of my brother Eric, who had been wafting in and out of my thoughts a lot lately.
I was fifteen when Eric gave me an old guitar with only three strings. He had no idea he was forming my future. Instinctively, I tuned it to an open “E” and immediately realized that I had been writing lyrics rather than poetry. Within four years I would record an album of my own songs. That’s the way the big brother trickle down theory (and love) works.
Three years later, I would drop out of North Texas State University and head out in an Alpha Romeo convertible with a friend and that guitar for San Francisco. I can well imagine my father’s reaction to the note atop my pile of belongings in the middle of my apartment floor explaining that I was going searching for the “truth”. The friend I left with confided a quarter century later that he was looking for drugs. Well, he found plenty (he died last year of hepatitis C, kidney failure and lung cancer - a broken, angry, bitter and lost man).
This extended, inspired, spiritual trek cross country included a stay in the El Paso County Jail on a bogus charge of vagrancy, and it was almost a month later at about seven in the morning when we finally made it to Eric and Regina’s apartment on Clayton off Haight Street.
Eric was awake and led us up the dark stairwell into the cluttered little living room striped with the rising sun flowing through the bay windows facing the street. He sat at his desk like it was the cockpit of a space ship and he its captain and asked, ancient eyes guileless as a fawn, “ Want to get high? “
And get high we did, but it was never the object. Such things were just tools to us - like a typewriter, paintbrush, or food. Eric and I took our first acid trip together at Cronkite Beach on Easter day with Julia, who was Eric’s close friend and later to become my wife. We had a beautiful experience on some of the purest acid the world has ever known - manufactured by the notorious Osley. One has to have a strong sense of self and the ability to separate reality from mental projections to enjoy, or even survive such a trip. Frankly, in such matters a good sense of humor goes a long way. My friend spent most of the day in a fetal position while the rest of us took communion from dew collected in plants, and had a glorious, revelation packed day. Eric drove us all home in his VW van without a hitch. This was before LSD was illegal and it was being experimented with by the select few. It was the same with the pot smoking – something done by beatniks and bohemians and people of color. There was not much heat on us white boys yet.
The word “hippie” had not yet been coined by Herb Caen to describe those of us involved in this phenomenon. Haight Ashbury was just another neighborhood, though a haven for artists and writers because of its proximity to the panhandle and Golden Gate Park. Then one day the donut shop across the street closed and reopened as “ The Psychedelic Shop “. Neither one of us even knew what “psychedelic” meant. I missed my doughnuts.
I remember asking Eric one day if he had noticed how many strange and outrageous people were wandering Haight Street. He looked at me with a sly grin and asked, “ Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately? “ He was right. I had earrings in both ears, hair past my shoulders and wore green, wide wale corduroy hip huggers with suede cavalier boots that extended above my knees. I thought I was being individualistic. After all, I was an artist and a wizard. I looked over at Eric. He had on one of those wild, flowery la bamba shirts with puffy sleeves, black pants so tight it’s a wonder he could move and Sahara boots that looked like he had walked across the Sahara in them. By God, he was right, something vitally significant was happening. It soon became apparent that we were the vanguard of a revolution of human consciousness. A renaissance was in full cycle and we were spinning at the center of the hub. Within six months, you could barely walk down Haight Street because of the throngs of young truth and thrill seekers. Which was just the incentive we needed to get the hell out of there.
Ah, memories – we tend to keep the good ones and they improve with time. But the carefree days of youthful discovery and Frisbee in the park are far behind now, at least for Eric. Eric grew up. Faceless servants and all the cursed intrusions that go with fame and wealth now disorder his reality. I know he longs for the days when anonymity fit like a flak jacket as protection against arrogance, misinformed egos, navy-blazered mediocrity, money sucking sycophants and friends and relatives desperately in need of help. But we do not discuss it much. He had always insisted that the only reason he desired money was to liberate himself from it. Unfortunately, it has not worked out that way…yet.
Regina’s career soared - one bestseller after another, international acclaim, adoration of the masses, fabulous wealth. She became a celebrity, a household word, affected the consciousness of the planet while Eric, Mister Regina, stood in the background. It was hard for him and he never denied it. A smaller man would have shied away (run like hell) from the situation in search of something more equitable, but not Eric. He loved and admired Regina and would swallow his pride and stand by her to the end. He reveled in her success even though it contributed to his own sense of inadequacy. Alongside her remarkable approbation and triumph he sometimes felt insignificant. What man wouldn’t? However, his reaction was not to give up. Giving up is not in our blood. To the exclusion of all else, including me, he retreated farther into his microcosmic world and painted and wrote with fervent passion that could neither be extinguished nor ignored.
An artist puts self, heart, and integrity on the line. Every word, every stroke of the brush is open to the criticism and analysis of any Joe Blow. If you don’t believe in yourself you are doomed, especially so because for many years, maybe even your whole life, few people are even aware of your hard earned development or the noble character of your effort. In the mind of any materialist, which includes most people, you are a loser, dude.
I laughed when I heard Eric was no longer going to sell any of his paintings. I considered it a very wise move and admired the flare of defiance with which it was executed. I fully supported his decision to protect his work from being judged by whether or not it hung on someone else’s wall, while shielding him from the heartbreak of rejection. At the same time, he was padding posterity, upping the value of his work by declaring it unobtainable. Of course, it helps to be fabulously wealthy and own your own eighty thousand square foot museum. He would be the first to admit it; he paints like a man who can afford it. You know, not for a minute have I ever envied Eric’s situation. I want his success as much as my own and would not exchange my own experience for anyone else’s - on earth or off.
Not long ago, I made the comment that one of the reasons I create is because I have something to give, implying that I care about my audience, and I asked Eric what his motive was. He bristled and snapped back defensively, “ Well, not for any altruistic reasons. “
At that moment, the basic philosophical difference between the two of us really struck home. A little shocked and somehow offended I asked, “ Why then? “
“ Self-enlargement, “ he said, “ self-enlargement. “
Well, along with everything else, Regina Dawson was very astute at self-enlargement, yet she did care about her audience – maybe too much. In fact, she underwent a transformation that rather astounded me. The once shy, humble, ex-Catholic schoolgirl in the simple white blouse and dark pleated skirt had become somewhat of a public relations genius. Not only did she write brilliantly and thereby garnish a devout following rendering her “critic proof”, she also tended her flock of fans like a loving matriarch.
Now she wears expensive, hand tailored, regal garments and bejeweled head veils and has her own Mardi gras float in the Orpheus parade upon which she is enthroned every year. Years ago, she began promoting her own real estate holdings by featuring them in her books.
But back to the fundamental difference between Eric and myself - I have always perceived the existence of a human spirit, but I will accept other explanations with different terms and symbols. Metaphysicists and physicists are drawing identical conclusions these days. In my opinion, Eric’s rejection of human soul is a citadel of cynicism with few windows or doors. He considers such an attitude mealy mouthed, as in chicken shit. He rejects the notion of a human spirit as wishful thinking of the sentimentalist at best. He once told me that he would be willing to take a sleeping bag and crash in the most reputedly haunted place there is. He meant it. And afterlife? To him, what you see is what you get. You create your own hell and heaven here on earth. You get one shot and its over. Kaput! Personally, I see this as just another ideological trap, extremely self-limiting and every bit as closed minded as the religious fanatic. I have had some experiences that go far beyond what is normally accepted as possible by the skeptic, simply because I was open. Who cares if they are “real” or not? What is “real”? As far as I am concerned, if it happened it is real. I consider hard boiled concepts extremely dangerous and ruinous to true scientific research – a bias is a bias. I say form an hypothesis and test it with experimentation. To simply draw conclusions based on feeling or the logic of a puny, human brain and then set out to prove it, produces nothing but intellectual ranting, about as valuable as sentimental claptrap. It is a wonder to me we even recognize the truth after it passes through and is distorted by the hopeless tangle of concepts and self imposed limitations most people call reality.
After all this time, all the exploration and experimentation, all that happened, I would have to say if you asked me if I believed in God that I don’t know, but I have strong indications that there is such an intelligence. The jury is still out and I am going to go buy them some pizza. This, I consider flexible enough to allow for growth. How could an investigation of the infinite be other than a continuous discovery? But alas, to he who values so highly words and the concepts they compose, an investigation of the ineffable is a ludicrous and futile exercise of the desperate – an insult to intelligence, a waste of precious time.
You see the situation between the two of us. We are both writers and painters and our reasons for doing so are, for all practical purposes, diametrically opposed. However, it is my belief that there is a meeting place of these two extremes. I have always maintained that, in the actual process of our lives and art, my brother and I experience much the same thing. But with different explanations attached. And if there is a God, He/She respects Eric’s explanation as much as my own, maybe more - for in the human arena it takes guts to be wrong, brains to be right and balls to be neither. At any rate, in the final analysis it would appear that life’s purpose is a two way street - the self is as sure a path to God as God is a path to the self.
“ Napoleon and Perrier? “ the cab driver asked. “ ’Scuse me? “
“ Napoleon and Perrier? “
“ Oh… Yeah, that’s right. Take a right on Perrier and turn in at the back
Ah, Saint Catherine’s, what a lovely sight to behold; the center section lustrous in the spotlights like a great, white, wooden arc of spirit, the stained glass windows of the chapel sparkling like pillars of precious gems. The three stories of brick walls encircle a square city block of prime New Orleans like a fortress of spirit. The windows gleam like the eyes in dreams, mirrors of the past, reflecting, containing, concealing and revealing enchanted mystery.
This is Regina’s child - embodying the endurance of her own hope, faith and vision. She resuscitated this dying beast and nursed it back to health, transformed it into a sanctified citadel and gave it back to New Orleans on a silver leash. It has become a symbol and a manifestation of what money means to people like Eric and Regina Dawson, people to whom money is a by-product of the pursuit of truth and beauty.
In essence, also due to the generosity and love of Eric and Regina, it is mine in a way; my monastery, my palace, my chapel , ballroom,- art galleries, libraries and grand pianos, my kingdom and even my home, for I live there for extended periods in the deep of winter.
The massive silhouette of Pierre filled the doorway of the guard station when the taxi pulled up to the rear gate. His caramel colored face beamed a white-toothed smile when he recognized me.
“ Mistah Neal! Hi you dowin’? “
The cab driver got the bags out of the trunk and I paid him as the six foot high chain link gate slowly rumbled open. With the gate rumbling and screeching to a close behind me, I set my bags down with a heavy sigh and clasped Pierre’s hand brother style. “ Long day, Pierre. Had two canceled flights. Got a free trip to Utah and Chicago. I feel like a lost Fed Ex package. How ’bout you? “
Pierre flashed another bright smile before his features darkened.
“ Aw, not too good, Mistuh Neal. Ah gut a problem wid my eyes. Ahm awmos totally blind in dis one. But ahm gon git a op’ration dat should fix it op. “
He was fine the last time I saw him and that was about three months previously. “ Damn, man. I’m so sorry.” I mean, what can you say? I was too tired to hear the details at the moment, but I asked anyway, “ Uhhh…does it hurt? “
“ Naw, not really. Ah jes cain’t see too good. But I guess it could be a lot wuhse. “
“Damn. Well, that’s good, anyway. I mean, that it’s only temporary…” There was an awkward silence during which I saw in his eyes that he was not sure it was temporary. I changed the subject. “You still working at the Boys Club? “
“ Naw. I had to quit, Mistuh Neal. Some kids jawmped me and I beat ‘em ahp pretty bad. I was jes protectin’ mahsef, you know. Anyway, ah broke sum bones in mah hand and I just decided to let it go, you know. Ah been wuhkin wid de chuch though. “
The responsibility attached to caring about a person sometimes catches me off guard. I enjoy communication, but I have to admit, I prefer to choose the time and place. Yet I had come to care about Pierre over the years. I am probably one of the only white people he knows who would consider coming out in the middle of the night to talk to him about his dreams and his mom and his heartbreaks in the little, dimly lit office cubical with the eight inch T.V. Pierre may at times seem like just a big, kind mama’s boy to me, but he wears a forty-four at his hip and will guard me with his life as I sleep upstairs like a log (a white log). I owed him a little civility and I paid up like a good sport, though I was not in the mood.
Pierre was the one who told me the story of the ghost in the northeast tower – how the second floor window was open and rattling in the wind and he went up and checked the room and shut and locked the window. Once back at the bottom of the stairs, he again heard the rattle and looked up to find the window open. Again, he climbed the three long flights of twisting stairs, the clack of his boot heels echoing hollowly off the whitewashed walls. This time he thoroughly checked the laundry room, the long adjacent hallway lined with storage rooms, the back offices and all the unlocked closets. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he again shut and locked the window and went back downstairs (a little faster this time). Sure enough, by the time he reached the bottom, the window was open. This time he kept his distance. He confided in me that he never went in that room at night again.
Now that I think about it, that was the only room in the whole building that was not restored. Oh, there was an explanation all right. Eric had set it aside for a possible studio that never materialized. The room remained a large, dingy, depressing cubicle with moldy, institutional tan paint peeling off the walls like aspen bark. It had all the charm of an interrogation room, but it always appealed to me, nonetheless. I would have lived there in a New York second.
I was reluctant to ask, but I did. “ How’s your Mom? “
“ Ohhh, Mahm, she’s fine. She’s in bettuh shape than me. She’s an angel. I really mean that Mistuh Neal. Say, you evah see Stephanie? “
“ Yeah, we usually get together when I come down. “
“ Now that’s a fine, sweethaht of a woman. How come you don’ see huh moah offen? Man couldn’t do no bettuh ’n at. “
“ Yeah, she’s a wonderful woman. Too good for me, Pierre, that’s what. Best thing I can do for a woman like that is give her freedom. “
Pierre looked puzzled.
I yawned. “ Man, I’m bushed. I need to sign off. “ “ Heah now, lemme hep you wid dose bags. “
He picked up my heavy suitcases like they were filled with packing peanuts and started off for the back doors of the main building before I could stop him. I hate to be waited on. Makes me feel guilty as hell.