Friday, December 30, 2011

storied lives

as per usual, i'm thinking about stories. (the only two things i have anything to say about are stories or gender, which means i have a lot of stories about gender...)

and when i say stories i'm not talking about writing. or fiction. i'm talking (at least this time) about stories that happen in conversation in your everyday life. just talking to your friends, or whatever. i'm thinking about this for two main reasons: one, i'm in nola and this place was founded on the stories people tell themselves and others, and two, i've been hanging out with my friends, heather and joe. for those of you who don't know these two stellar people, they are some of the best conversational storytellers i know. and that's saying something, cuz i collect storytellers like nabokov collected butterflies. i've wondered before if it has to do with the fact that some of the more ridiculous things i've heard tend to happen to these two kids, and then i think that the events have nothing to do with it, it's how they choose to retell them in ways that have you laughing till you hurt and at the same time saying 'oh my god, that's awful!' and/or 'holy shit, i'm sorry!' they are just good at making you feel like you were there when the weirdness happened, but with their hilarity-creating hindsight leading you thru the situation unscathed by whatever trauma they have succeeded in turning into humor with the retelling. i heart them and their skill so much. it makes my life better, and i would kill to be able to consistently deliver like them. i've thought about convincing one or the other of them to write their stories down, and then i decide against it. these stories belong in conversation. they belong seated in the kitchen, standing around the grill, or bellied up to a bar. they require the audience's participation to breathe, they wouldn't exist without the tones of voice and the facial expressions used to inflect them with such humor. these are the kinds of stories that wouldn't work without the teller's eyes taking in the hearer's look of disbelief and reaching over to grab a forearm and say 'no, i'm serious, you should have seen it...' and then the verbal imagery to help you do so, or the tag-teaming that can happen when they were both a part of the story-creating moment and they are each eager to tell their version with their differing reactions.
and i know you might be saying, 'um, yeah...that's how conversation works, ray. that's what it's like when i talk to my friends, why is this so important that you feel the need to write about it?'
the answer is: i don't feel like i can write about anything else. i used to write stories with soundtracks that went with them, so that when i read them aloud i could have the music the main character was listening to playing along. they were made to be an oral experience. those stories were not supposed to be dealt with on paper. most of the best stories i've witnessed were nowhere near a computer, typewriter, or notebook, let alone a printing press. i'm obsessed with oral 'literature'* and how it works, why we can't live without it, and why it feels to me to be a superior art form to writing. and heather and joe are two talented practitioners of said art form.

[* this word is in quotes because it means writing, and of course that creates an oxymoron in this case, not because i don't think of stories of an oral nature as not on par with the quality of writing that the word 'literature' connotes.]

(this pic is of pirate's alley from inside the bar that sells absinthe right before a tour group came thru to refill on drinks along their way)

now that i have elucidated reason number two above, i should prolly get down to talking about number one, which was going to be the purpose of this post:
new orleans.
i've done a lot of traveling in the past 3 years (yes, that might be the understatement of 2011)) and have visited many a city in this country, including a few in the south, (all for the first time) and i've learned that every place has it's own mythos about itself that people are proud to believe in. it's what makes them identify with where they are from. i am pretty comfortable with my system of beliefs that are based around chicago being my place of origin, and what that means for my character, and i enjoy hearing other people profess their hometown pride.
however, there is something really interesting going on in new orleans around their stories. they are born out of a strong catholic tradition butted up against a strong voodoo/hoodoo culture, an almost literal melting (melding) pot of international/interracial folk and culture which includes most notably spanish, french, creole, african, and haitian peops. this specific and very colorful historical/cultural/traditional cocktail, with the specter of religion and superstition hanging over it like the fog that rolls in off the bayou, steeped in ritual from every angle, set in the backdrop of a busy river delta/port city in the deepest, most drippy-hot south, engenders a pretty fertile landscape for stories, legends, and myths to run rampant. taking over the city's imaginative garden with the hearty runner plants of ghosts, vampires, pirates and voodoo babies.
in the south, everything is a story. and invariably the cast of characters is colorful to say the least. but in new orleans, every reason for why something is the way it is happens to be based on something closer to legend than fact.
the oldest building in nola, theursuline convent? home of the first vampires. the story goes that some wealthy european women, beautifully dressed and very thin and pale, came to visit the convent, arriving on a ship at night in the port and being shepherded by the nuns inside with their trunks, and then never being seen again. the top floor of the convent, where they were supposedly staying, was locked up and shuttered and hasn't been opened to this day. they probably were exposed to the black plague on the boat and succumbed to it upon arrival, but the story stuck. (the combination of french folktale and voodoo tradition was a perfect mash-up for the vampire trope to take hold in nola)
the other oldest building in new orleans? lafitte's blacksmith shop. as in, jean lafitte, the pirate. sorry, privateer. the story is that he used to own the bar and underneath the brick fireplace in the center of the room is where he hid all of his treasure. i particularly like this story because somehow being able to tell that tale is more attractive than deconstructing the fireplace to see if it's true. that passing down the possibility of treasure, the imaginative power of hidden riches, is more powerful than possessing them. (of course, the building is on the national register of historic sites, so you can't really go and take apart the main fixture inside it, i guess. but still...)
[the source of these stories? heather...]

you ever done something just cuz you thought it would make a good story? i really believe that all of new orleans is pretty much built on this exact feeling. and not just historically--i think the modern tourist trade here is based on it as well. the point of wearing mardi gras beads is to display a visible reminder of the story of how you got them. and walking around the french quarter these past couple days, i think the second biggest tourist attraction, besides bourbon st. (which i would counsel anyone and everyone to avoid at all costs cuz the stories that come from there are the kind your friends tell you about your drunk-ass, blacked-out self the morning after), is to take a tour--whether it's the ghost tour, the true crime tour, the cemetery tour, the horse carriage tours, or what have you. i swear to god this place is all about walking (or riding) around outside (with alcohol, cuz that's legal) and having people to tell you stories. i've never really been tempted to do something so touristy in a town i've landed in, but since some of the friends heather has attracted are tour guides (of course) it just seems to be the thing to do. but only after dark.

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