It’s practically the end of 2018, and I’m just now writing about New Orleans during its highly anticipated tricentennial year. The original goal this year was to publish Pro Bono Publico. What better way to celebrate the founding of the Crescent City than by releasing a novel that talks of its undoing, or “Refounding” as they call it in the book? Next year is the year for self-publication, but I’ll keep everyone posted about that later. For now, however, I can’t help but reflect how the iconic city shaped me as a writer.
Where do you start writing about a place that hemorrhages creative energy in every form imaginable? I don’t write much about the Crescent City these days, so this blog post is long overdue. Funny how leaving a place gives you a different perspective. But, I’ll leave you with this blog for now, describing how New Orleans shaped me as a writer in the three following ways: 1) an influential teacher, 2) Hurricane Katrina, 3) and living in an Uptown neighborhood for two years.
I always had stories brewing in my gut as early as I can remember, and those stories looked for ways to escape into the world. At first, I drew my characters and their stories on paper. It wasn’t until mid-high school when I started expressing myself through poetry to deal with those teenage years of heartache and insecurity. Eventually, I began to connect those inner stories with the mighty pen. There was one problem, however. I didn’t see the value in reading. That’s problematic even if you’re not aspiring to be a writer as a life goal. It’s like someone wishing to be a brewmaster but refusing to drink a beer.
Junior year of high school, my English teacher (who was an aspiring writer himself) said that if I wanted to write, then I had to read. Considering that I had been weaseling out of reading assignments my whole life, I probably wasn’t one of his favorite students. Though this answer was not the one I wanted, it was certainly the one that I needed. Great teachers have a knack for that. I begrudgingly took Mr. Loehfelm’s advice and began to attempt to read for…fun. Yuck, right? Can you even imagine?
Turns out, that was all it took: imagination, which was not in short supply. Just maybe misguided a bit. Simply visualizing the story in my head, instead of eyeing the words and dismissing them as strangers in the hallway, was enough to make me hangry for knowledge. I even took Mr. Loehfelm’s creative writing class my senior year where he helped me stretch my creative boundaries. Bill Loehfelm later won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and became one of the city’s most successful novelists.
It wasn’t New Orleans, per se that helped me pull the trigger on my writing prowess, but an expatriate from New York. He made me realize that if I wanted to sing, I first needed to inhale.
It’s hard to convey how much Hurricane Katrina (or the “K-Bitch” as I called it in many Where Y’At articles) formed the backbone of Pro Bono Publico. During the event and the immediate aftermath, my mind wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until a few years later when the characters and premises began popping up. The horror, fright, and uncertainty just needed time to digest, I guess. The military presence, the feeling of abandonment, the resilient reinforcement that followed, the witness of nature’s destruction, the witness of man’s destructive nature in the wake of fear, and the unforgettable smell of mold and maggots may make for great storytelling; however, I wish that I had none of it whatsoever. I still meet people whose eyes light up with envy when I say that I “was there” for Katrina. Stop, people. Seriously, stop. And, saying that you “were there” to someone from/living in New Orleans is entirely different than telling someone from away the same thing. To New Orleanians, being there meant being stuck and abandoned in the wake of the storm. To the everyone else, just simply experiencing Katrina firsthand (which includes evacuation) quantifies as being there. My uncle spent 7 days on his roof in a tent before he was airlifted out. My sister worked in a hospital, mostly without power. They were there for Katrina. Despite my own struggles, I evacuated before the levees broke, so I “wasn’t there.” But, if I say that to someone from away, they think that I wasn’t even living anywhere near the storm at the time. Hell, maybe I should just let people think that.
The recovery period (circa 2006 to 2009) set the stage for the zealous restructuring of identity of self and city. People who left the city then hated themselves, whereas those people who stayed hated themselves for sticking with a wasteland that the nation didn’t care about anymore. You think I lie. You’d be surprised what vile things people said to our faces or wrote in the newspapers about us and the city while knowing full well of our situation. Residents put their city before themselves. Escape or departure, unlike in iconic New Orleans novels such as A Confederacy of Dunces and The Moviegoer, was now nothing short of a tragedy. The ship needed retrieval from dark waters and its breached hull needed patchwork. And, if you weren’t all in, then jump ship, bub, because you’re dead weight. That’s why New Orleans is where it is today. That Spartan-like commitment.
Along with this unrelenting social contract, cultures clashed since everyone has their own epitome of New Orleans. “Local” became interpretive. Expats living in Orleans Parish and multi-generational families in the suburbs saw (probably still see) each other as a false representation of the city. The contentious relationship between Joshua and Huey shows this. Back then, gas station owners, neighborhood grocers, and bartenders (I know from experience) suddenly found themselves in positions of power. This development gave rise to characters like Fitzmorris, Ridge, and Renny Rooney.
In the summer of 2008, my brother asked me if I wanted to move Uptown (Irish Channel/Lower Garden District section) because he was buying into a bar on Prytania Street. I then felt an itch for what New Orleans had to offer me. I had experienced New Orleans in many ways, but I hadn’t lived in an iconic neighborhood as that.
There was something about that time that was quite transcendental. Those two years paved the way for my life in two ways: 1) I met my wonderful wife; 2) I generated the creative foundation for what became Pro Bono Publico. If I hadn’t lived Uptown right then, who knows where I would be. Those two years really set the course. It’s really easy to ingratiate ourselves in thinking that we control our own futures and destinies, but sometimes it seems like an organic development with our retroactive consent. Or, I guess, regret for some people.
My brother and I moved into an apartment on Magazine and Washington, at the seam of the Lower Garden District and the Irish Channel. I shed my suburban shell and really embraced the city lifestyle. I walked as much as I could. Hopped on a bike or the streetcar for longer trips. Excellent coffeehouses for random conversation and productive writing (particularly the former Magazine location of Rue De La Course). Restaurants and po-boy shops galore. Superb taverns for buffoonery and…attempts at productive writing. I settled on Choppy’s name in the middle of a cold pint and a smooth cigar at Dos Jefes Cigar Bar upon sighting the Tchoupitoulas sign on the wall. Just about everyone you met on the street was a creative mind feeding off that energy vibrating off everywhere and everything. On several occasions, I saw Bill Loehfelm at the coffee shops. I ended up bartending with one of the band members of The Revivalists. I met fire dancers, musicians, filmmakers, brewers, chefs, painters, and anything else you can think of. The ample opportunities to live life made it difficult to stop and write of course. Carpe diem: great for living, bad for writing.
I worked as the only instructor at a GED center across the river from New Orleans then. I could take my bike across the Jackson Street Ferry (no longer operating). A young black man worked on the ferry, and I sort of imagined him as a young Choppy, which is where Choppy’s backstory and profession originated. Sometimes, I’d stop at Common Grounds Cafe (on Huey P. Long Street in Gretna) to jot down some initial novel ideas. I became acquainted with a cranky regular, who was the inspiration for Huey. His background as a tattooed war veteran comes from a friend who I would bartend with later.
The experience of teaching at the Youth Career Center and at Dillard University (much later) drove much of Mira’s narrative. And, how Mira developed rapports with her students as best she could.
The spark for Pro Bono Publico came at an evening meeting about beer at Stein’s Deli. It wasn’t really a secret meeting, but it felt like it. I was moonlighting as a beer writer for Where Y’at Magazine, and the owner of the newly opened NOLA Brewing company invited me. I walked a few blocks to Stein’s where a small group of people discussed how they can get better craft beer into New Orleans by educating distributors in hopes to improve the beer culture. Looking back, I was a little out of my league at the meeting. Retailers and brewers with heavy stake in the game were there, and then you had me: a newbie writer who liked beer. However, that communal commitment to the city stuck with me. New Orleans residents had to take care of each other and fix things themselves because no one else was up to task.
A scene entered my head: two groups moving through the woods towards each other, one lugging backpacks full of ammunition and the other carrying unloaded guns. Eventually they met in the middle and exchanged commodities, so they all were at the ready for some kind of conflict. That scene was centric to Ridge’s narrative for earlier versions of the story. I even wrote an elaborate battle sequence between the residents and the Manchac Pirates. That sounds awesome, sure, but it posed several developmental hurdles and probably delayed the novel’s progress for a few years because I just couldn’t let it go. If anyone is interested in reading that novella version, you can read it at the New Mexico Highlands University’s library as my master’s thesis.
In most places, people are socially conditioned, but New Orleanians are more unconditionally social. That quality has shaped me not only as a writer but also as a man. So, happy 300th birthday New Orleans! I thank you for all you’ve given me. Hopefully, I can give something back to you via Pro Bono Publico, when it is published of course. And, even though I don’t live there anymore, I still love and miss you.