Conquering the Clutter Mountain

Conquering the Clutter Mountain

Goods for life have long given way to throwaway products designed to spontaneously combust the day their warranty expires. Overnight queues for iPhone upgrades or celebrity clothes ranges highlight the epidemic of shopping till you drop. With all these possessions ending up in landfill sites or the bottom of the oceans, we don’t need David Attenborough to warn us about the dangers of excess waste…

The Big Easy

The train station was not placed in a salubrious part of town.

On the way back to Louise’s home, we drove beneath the gaunt concrete arteries of the overpasses that directed the hurtling metal-cased passage of humanity over our heads. Beneath them, we passed straggles of mainly black homeless men whose numbers Louise said had been growing in the years since Hurricane Katrina. Tents were pitched incongruously beneath the great granite arches and between the roads used by people with homes to go to. The tent dwellers and their location were unlikely to feature in the promotional literature. Louise said the tents were an upgrade recently supplied by the authorities. Elsewhere in the city, large projects had been steam-rolled after Katrina. Many were now part of mixed housing areas that lay more easily on the eye – concrete blocks giving way to smaller wooden buildings that gave a greater sense of an individual home. The results of this policy were also mixed. Now the crime once concentrated within these no-go areas was dissipated more randomly about the city. New Orleans has always had a murder rate that is high in even this most murderous of nations. But without these favelas of the inner city, it now felt that a random walk about town at sundown was a less clear The invitation to disaster.

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Louise lived on the far side of the Mississippi in Algiers. I had once crossed it for half an hour on the ferry that whisks you across the river for a couple of dollars. I remember nothing of what I saw. My base for my stay, it gave me a view of the Nawlings skyline and some safe distance between us and those merely passing through. Although the Amtrak schedule has ruined the evening with Louise and Andrea, we had time for several late-night drinks at a local place. It was big, roomy and easy to order. The liquor measures were as generous and loosely poured as I recalled and a band of ten or so was building up to a messy finale as we caught up in the cool of a late night Southern spring. Unsurprisingly, the amiable middle-aged man that took a seat next to us was a musician who had contributed the trombone a few minutes earlier. 

The next evening, some old friends, Michael and Elizabeth, were hosting a dinner party for the latter’s birthday. Although I only knew Louise and my hosts, the company and fine fare broke down the barriers. One former social worker asked me whether we were laughing about Donald Trump in England. I suggested we should have alternated him with Brexit to stretch out the international joke. In an evening of fantastic gastronomic excess, Michael served us around half a dozen luxurious courses that involved home-made pates, near liquefied cheeses; oyster tartlettes; lamb chops, caramelised vegetables; and lobster bisque along with a salad that went far beyond the decorational. I left a half a glass of fine bourbon and a brandy along with a half-smoked cigar. I wasn’t being rude; I could just take no more. They looked genuinely disappointed when we were the last to leave some time after 3am. 

Louise is in a similar line of work to me though she also had a burgeoning practice as an equine therapist. I had once laughed at the idea, but its alleged effectiveness only highlights my past ignorance. She was also a specialist in EMDR – an equally successful, if hard to explain, treatment for victims of trauma. The veterans of the nation provide a steady flow of damaged humans to her waiting room. I took over her treatment room on a basement floor into which I could fit my over-priced London flat. Occupying another corner was Dan, her affable recent ex-boyfriend with whom she still got on very well. Likewise, her slightly less recent ex-husband, a world-class clarinetist with whom she now shares ebullient 10-year-old twins. Not all therapists hide their own personal dysfunction behind an impenetrable gaze.    

After 28 years, my week in New Orleans was experienced with unusual clarity and energy. The 10 months I had once spent there was usually complicated by the heavy invisible blanket of humidity endemic to this once swampy outpost. March is apparently the ambivalent month for sunshine and temperature. For my stay, it sided conservatively with winter rather than the sweltering summer to come. The fug of a hangover was also generally lacking as I strode the old streets and many more beyond my old boundaries within the French Quarter.

 

Death Throes of the Confederacy

I was the tourist I had not previously been. In the city’s new and spectacular national war museum, I stumbled upon a corner that rivalled the central hall of the British Imperial War Museum with its collection of hanging warplanes. I wandered it for half a day without feeling the rest of the Allies had been written out of history. Nearby was the considerably more compact Confederate civil war museum. The use of the ‘C’ word is perhaps unusual. All around the US, Confederate statues had been removed over the last couple of years – General Lee had only recently been toppled from his pedestal in New Orleans.

This flurry of revisionism seemed to represent the final nail in the coffin of the South – washing away the remnants of the world romanticised in Gone with the Wind. It was odd to witness the last of a whole culture officially expunged from the records. Before coming, I had worked my way through the novel’s 900 pages over several months – the final assignment involved watching the equally epic film on the night before my departure. The book was well written and researched, but felt heavy by at least 300 pages with the author seemingly keen to make sure we got her points by making them repeatedly from every angle. I was initially attracted by the apparent amorality of its romantic leads who contrasted with the stuffy hypocrisy and naïve fervour demonstrated by the rest of the regular southern cast – if only because they saw the big picture seemingly invisible to those around them.

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But the more I read, the more I realised how the indifference of Scarlett and Rhett to the cause may have been a convenient literary device to better illustrate the doings of the much-maligned Scalawags and Carpetbaggers who profited from the fall of the Confederacy. While sensitive to the naivety of applying contemporary hindsight harshly to the beliefs of times past, I was surprised how Google yielded little criticism of the views expressed in its pages. The book didn’t stint on the racist abuse and attitudes that no doubt exists when your economy relies on slave labour. For this, perhaps, it should be applauded for its historical honesty. But it was conspicuous for its wilful ignoring of the daily plight of the slaves beyond the patronising portraits of the eye-rolling mammas and simple giants who lived amongst the white folk. Of the field hands, there was nothing, bar the suggestion that freedom made such people ‘uppity’ and dangerous. Most of the ‘honourable gentleman’ who graced its pages joined the Ku Klux Klan.

On my flight home, I watched Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman in which one of the main antagonists was the Grand Wizard, holocaust denier, and white supremacist, David Duke. Duke was a prominent voice of hate when I lived in Louisiana and Google suggests he continues to spread his hateful message on his radio show like a latter-day Oswald Mosley. It was perhaps admirable that Dukes was portrayed as an urbane and smooth individual rather than a cartoon villain. As such, the true banality of evil is more honestly recorded and understood.

A visit to several plantations clarified the picture of the realities of the Old South somewhat. The first showcased the harsh lives of the slaves before the war, and after when its old wealthy economy collapsed during the painful process of reconstruction. Our admission ticket to Oak Avenue bought us a tour around the fine plantation house that concentrated mainly on the lives of its owners. Only in the mocked-up slave houses behind it was a fuller perspective given – particularly from the manacles used to hold the unruliest of the human stock. On one wall was a list valuing the slaves as company assets. As a potential breeder of up to 20 slave children, the price of a young woman was generally very high.



Sound of the City

As before, live music was performed from all corners of the bars and cafes of the quarter. And as before, much of it owed as much to roots in soul and blues as the traditional jazz for which New Orleans is really famous. Most of it, I heard in passing as I wandered past some half-empty establishments that stood alongside similar others with queues half way round the block. Thus, lies the power of a good review on Trip Advisor. On our one big night out, Andrea, Louise, and Sian and I went to see Joe and the Iguanas in the Circle Bar. After 28 years, their on-stage stage banter suggested they still liked each other. Apparently, the band had found success and earned Joe a fancy house and swimming pool before Katrina engulfed it. He said he remembered me, but with no evidence of surprise in his eyes. I think he may have confused me with someone else. Sian, whose family hail from Korea, said she now visited Asia several months a year for work. While keeping the company of Westerners, she was surprised how much she liked the region. We planned a nightcap at an unlikely British pub with an entrance disguised by an old blue policeman’s kiosk. It was already closed despite it being only one in the morning. Instead we barged in on Louise’s neighbours whom she invited home to dance. They were perhaps too polite, or stoned, to say no firmly. I suggested we left their evening to a more sedate denouement. In the morning, Louise agreed.

On my last night, I was treated to dinner at the Palm Court. It was on her mother’s tab, who was herself absent and in hospital after suffering a relatively severe dancing accident. It was another favour I couldn’t return from the eccentric matriarch who had once topped up my pay packet from below the minimum wage. I had worked for her husband George in the warehouse behind the restaurant where he ran his jazz label. George was convinced I was robbing him blind. I know this because I walked into his office several times, while he was whispering his latest suspicions about the grand theft I was probably committing on a daily basis. George was himself blind, which helped neither of our causes. It was ironic because as one friend told me ‘you’re the first person in the warehouse who hasn’t stolen from him.’ If I was going to add thievery to my armoury of acquisition tools, I would want it to be more of a challenge. ‘Like taking CDs from a blind man’ could be a more specialist version of ‘like taking candy from a child’. Still that’s all in the past, as is George, who passed away several years ago.

We ate a platter of spicy Cajun specialties involving shrimps and crawfish to supplement the crocodile po-boy I had bought from the market earlier. I used to largely exist on seafood gumbos and White Russians, but none passed my lips this week, let alone a jambalaya, margarita or jagabomb. How we change. This was perhaps the only time I sat down to music in the week. I was even dedicated a song but was ignorant of the fact so merely looked confused while the lead musician mumbled something while looking directly at me. Unbeknown to me, Andrea had put in a word. She also filmed it and put it on Facebook, before taking me down Frenchman Street while Louise returned home to being a mother.

Andrea was now resettled back in New Orleans where we had dated long ago. Homes in London and Florianopolis had followed before she had returned to her most established home in a life of international wandering. She seems to have shrugged off the serious sentence of Multiple Sclerosis with the alternative medicine of worm injections. The halting of the disease’s progress could not be better illustrated than in half hour she spent energetically dancing with a man in the street. Unlike, Tina Turner or her impromptu partner, she was not dancing for money. I ended up paying him off when she assured him it was what she did for fun. Andrea’s new beau, Troy, ran a nearby Vape shop, and nodded slowly and knowingly when we passed by and she explained her extensive plans for my last evening. ‘Looks like you’ve got a few more stop-offs’ he drawled knowing that my protestations in favour of a quiet drink would likely be ignored.

We visited around 15 bars for an average of two minutes each which perhaps reflects Andrea’s method of decision making. When I explained I was tired and hungover, she took me to a bigger bar with more musicians and bottles. Nonetheless, I experienced a new side to the city amongst the thronging crowds of tourists overflowing the pavements jostling alongside street bands, hustlers, ambulances, and optimistic commuters. It was one of those streets that locals either work in or avoid like the plague. To the holidaying newcomer, it was a hedonistic paradise.

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The other band I memorably stumbled upon was in one of the uptown cemeteries that are built above ground to counter the threat of flooding. I arrived in time for a jazz funeral. I kept a reasonably discreet distance but was quite aware that I was just as conspicuous at 20m as I would be kneeling in front of the small cortege that followed the half dozen musicians. Towards the end, one of the mourners strode rather decisively towards me while I prepared to offer an apology for my rude intrusion on their grief. Instead, he beamed at me warmly and slapped me on the back. ‘Great timing, buddy!’ he whooped before leaping back amongst the other bereaved to dance a little more.  

     

     

Heading South

I took the Greyhound to Washington where I met my dear old Colombian friend, Keyty. After various picaresque adventures, she had carved out a new life with her now 21-year-old daughter Lluvia, and new husband Brad. Under the watchful eye of the Capitol, she greeted me with typical exuberance, honking her horn as I wandered blindly past her waiting car.

As I got in, my ex Angelica was transported back into my life by car-phone. She was calling Keyty for the first time in years. My discombobulation was nothing to hers when I joined the babble of voices.

I spent three relaxing days in Keyty’s new home in Sterling, Virginia. The visit was topped and tailed with excursions around the buildings of state in the capital, while the main event was Keyty’s birthday celebrations with a dozen of her new American and Latino friends. Amongst them was a Filipino man who was now managing one of the estates of his old ‘boss’ after 24 years of military service. His boss had been vice-president. I wondered what kind of vice-president, and if the political kind, whether I had heard of him. ‘Dick Cheney’, he told me. I had heard of him. We discussed their relationship with careful diplomacy. My new friend was aware and sensitive to his employer’s international reputation. He hadn’t enjoyed the recent film that demonised him.

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Otherwise, despite the anxiety dreams provoked by Keyty saying she wanted her birthday to be defined by dancing, the night passed joyfully. I successfully adapted my own personal dancing with the salsa beloved of around half the party. Before I knew it, they were copying my fusion of the two and incorporated the ‘face drop’ I had thrown in when the crowd had parted for my turn to perform a special move. No-one was hurt.

From Washington, I took the Amtrak to Gainesville, Georgia. It was a 12-hour overnighter that skipped my planned visit Salisbury, North Carolina, due to inconvenient timetabling. My plan had been to make my way south to New Orleans by road or rail over 3-4 days – staying at small town layovers that would illustrate the life of the lands between my main destinations.

Gainesville proved a disappointment. The long empty road up the former main street was deserted in the cold early morning walk from the tracks. The few disembarking passengers were vague about where I might find the town centre in the town where they lived. Businesses were sparse beyond a scattering of misplaced seeming Hispanic churches and a few dusty thrift shops. It was too cold to spend long setting up any shots, but the scene looked an ideal candidate for a profile of ghost towns of the old West. Eventually, I found more life, but it was unpleasant modernity that reared up on the major freeway that dominated the landscape. I discovered that its heart was represented by these soul-less polluting roads festooned with fast-food joints and jammed with dangerous hurtling trucks.

Alongside lay plenty of lodgings, none offering much in the way of comfort or cheer. Finally, $75 bought me a dirty room in a budget inn. Within it, I found roaches, and a microwave that sprung into life when I tried the main light switch. A closet door led unexpectedly into a neighbouring room. From within it, a paranoid redneck quickly materialised. ‘Was that you?!’ he demanded. I wondered who he was hiding from. I assured him that for both our sakes, it wouldn’t happen again.

Eventually, I found the town square. The town tourist board had taken enough clever pictures of it to Photoshop some respectability to the outside world, but the reality wouldn’t fool anyone long. Several cute waitresses comprised the totality of the local charm. Most of my time was spent finding Gainesville’s Greyhound office. It was five miles out of town. Reaching it on foot necessitated crossing a high bridge with an ankle-high parapet, descending and ascending a steep bank, and sprinting across several busy freeways. A local policeman almost pulled a gun on me when I approached him for directions with my hands behind my back. Lesson learnt. When I had given up on locating it, I asked at a local garage, where a cheerful Indian man told me that I had found it. He reminded me of Apu from The Simpsons. My reservation was not on the system, but he cheerfully told me to ‘take a chill-pill’ when I stressed my keenness to be on the first bus out of town.

The next morning, I made my way back – by cab – to catch my bus. The young black guy taking me had no idea how much to charge me. He was delighted with a dollar tip. The bus turned up five minutes after we were told it was delayed by at least two hours. Within the hour, we arrived in an insalubrious quarter of Atlanta where homeless folk staggered aimlessly beneath its flyovers within sight of its gleaming modern spires. I changed buses to Tuscaloosa with a few minutes to spare.

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The journey to Alabama showcased the scenery of the South. Thick tropical forests wildly strewn about the largely deserted hills and swamps. Birmingham, Alabama had an old grey charm that had yet to be burnished to a modern sheen. A black guy of a similar age to me saw me taking pictures of the old buildings and asked if I was working on some social documentary. He chatted without preamble about the divisions of the nation before wishing me well. Regardless of skin-colour, people seemed to gauge accurately whether you were with or against them. If anything, it was the white folk who treated me with some measure of suspicion. As with those running the beleaguered train service, the mainly black inspectors and drivers that ran the buses did so with a firm paternal hand that brooked no dissent. Against my traditional instincts, I welcomed these touches of authority. It perhaps reflects my doubts that individuals of the West can be trusted to behave nicely in groups.

Tuscaloosa was a happy surprise. The food served at the Greyhound terminal looked as good as any I hoped to find in the South. Town was some miles distant, but I was happy to stroll along the wide straight avenue into a town that I was confident existed at its end. After an hour or so, the street markers counted down into single digits and a pleasant slick city spread about me. I found a hotel that spilled somewhat over my budget, but I luxuriated in the contrast of facilities from where I had just come. The next day, I walked about the historic quarter till my legs ached – marveling at the size and comfort of the properties extending unboundaried in all directions. Starts and Stripes abounded from comfortable porches. Later, I visited an enormous university whose size and population was a town in itself. I found the state natural history museum ensconced within it. It didn’t seem to receive a lot of visitors. The cadet force which drilled in a nearby square was not short of recruits.

 

Very Slow Train Coming

I should have caught the bus.

The train sounded a more romantic chariot in which to return to the Big Easy. It was scheduled to bring me into town around sundown where I was to be whisked off for dinner at my old haunt The Palm Court Jazz Cafe. Instead, I spent four hours waiting at Tuscaloosa’s windswept station for the 1pm train. When it arrived, it managed to lose another hour despite seemingly travelling at full speed without noticeable delay. Apparently, freight takes priority over human traffic and if you lose the slot your train falls down the pecking order. We received a small apology over the airwaves, but those resigned to using public transport accepted it with the stoicism of Latin Americans. These vehicles seem reserved mainly for those who have lost their license or can’t afford a car. While the minutes of my dream entrance to New Orleans were disappearing, I grumpily elected to get dinner from the moveable feast provided by Amtrak rather than the jazz café on Decatur Street. The chicken breast came with a rather flattering description and complementary high price, along with the company of strangers. This enforced meeting of minds perhaps suits the more extrovert character of the American for all the divisions in its society. I shared the space with an ex-navy engineer, a black teenager from Mississippi, and a cheerful woman of a certain age (about my age) from Florida, whose husband worked for NASA.

The latter said she knew I was a journalist as soon as I sat down. During our dinner slot, she held the conversation together. The teenager was happy to have her educational plans indulged awhile before drifting back to the music on her headphones. Trump seemed a dangerous communal conversation in a packed carriage – my sense of this heightened by the presence of several hefty bearded men across the aisle. Politics was touched upon through the safer ground of far-off Brexit. The NASA bride wanted to know if I thought the Russians were involved. The engineer sounded like a natural Brexiteer when gravely stating the principle of not being dictated to by others. I said I understood that independence from distant rulers was a cornerstone of US democracy. He greeted my diplomacy with an approving nod. It felt well judged. I tentatively suggested that both our countries were facing a backlash from those feeling disenfranchised, but the response of the masses was perhaps not one to improve the lot of many. It was perhaps best that dinner was not sufficiently drawn out for us to thrash these points out more fully. We all left on friendly terms. 

My plan to see the countryside of Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana was thwarted by our late departure. Night fell within a few hours. During our meal, small dying towns flashed tantalisingly past our window, but I was too engaged with my fellow diners to become absorbed by daydreams of their past histories. The largely deserted main streets I glimpsed would probably be of little interest to the modern Americans around me, but for me, preserved by indifference, the ghosts of these fleeting ruins were beguiling.

New York, New York

My previous visit to the Big Apple was largely spent in insalubrious bars in the East Village.

This time, I covered more ground in my first afternoon than I had spent in a week 28 years ago. I paced through Manhattan until my aged knees showed the strain of a half century’s wear and tear. In the same bitter cold, I circled Lady Liberty on Freedom Island under whose shadow a hungry seagull snatched my beef-burger from my hand in a gesture of unwelcoming contempt. I was briefly outraged, but knew immediately that this vignette would outlast my hunger.

I passed the downtown financial district through China Town and Little Italy, back through the East Village where my hostess Liane lived, midtown to the Empire State Building, the moneyed splendour of Madison and Fifth Avenues, the museums around the park, and up to down-at-heel Harlem. My limited time didn’t allow for the contrasts of the boroughs beyond. The scale of this crowded island was only truly revealed from the 80-something stories of the Empire State Building – no longer the biggest kid in the class, but still standing with proud dignity like an esteemed patriarch amongst youthful successors.

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Liane’s bachelorette pad was an ideal springboard for daily jaunts. While she worked long and hard as an immigration lawyer, she felt guilty about living in the heart of things rather than commuting from more distant boroughs like the masses. One night, she took me to a friend’s gig. The 99-cent pizza we grabbed on the way was a slice of New York life that paid her back for a few minutes of the board and lodging I was saving elsewhere. I briefly met her man-of-the-moment who was perhaps hoping for a more full-time contract of intimacy. He shook my hand before retreating as quickly back down the corridor of apartment from whence he came. He answered my questions through Liane – much as if she was interpreting our Anglo-Saxon dialects. He was off to a gig for which he dressed up in shiny patent leather shoes, shorts, and a dress shirt over which he wore a hoodie. He refused to wear a coat before braving the sub-zero temperatures. He was an accountant by day.    

Overall, the behaviour of the natives was perhaps no different than before, but I was. I now found them more amenable – appreciating what set them apart, and was no longer intimidated. Confrontational conversations were now reinterpreted as communication with a refreshing directness. I warmed to the multiple cultures melding under the banner of New York – much like I feel at home within the melting pot of my London home. Now, I realised it is the homogeneity of a monoculture that oppresses me

The advantages of digital technology helped tame the confusion of unfamiliarity. Google Maps may restrict the extremes of my error-prone sense of direction, but now I studied paper maps with a sense of purpose rather than bewilderment. The logic of the city’s say-it-how-it-is nomenclature guided me with reasonable precision. The avenues and street numbers stated clearly your direction and placement with only the odd exception of a hallowed Madison Avenue or Broadway to make the rule. Only the Metros unwillingness to offer up maps for the uninitiated led to guesswork regarding destinations and routes, but I can’t begrudge the locals some advantage for the arcane knowledge earned by their longevity.