No Photo Survives

artist Martin Snipper

 

 

“Lordy, lordy,” my grandmama used to say,

and “over yonder” and “I swunny.” She was

fat and lazy and loving. Called me “Ducky Mo,”

 

played the piano at Sunday school, kept

her false teeth in a glass of water on

the bedside table, which I hated to see.

 

She liked it dark inside with the gas

heater going full blast, the dry heat

like an oven when you stepped

 

in the front door. She bruised easily,

my grandmama. She waddled, had silver

hair down to her waist, which she wore in

 

a bun. Cheap dresses. White cardigans.

In the hospital, the last time I saw her,

she looked terrible and terrified.

 

No photo of her survives.

 

There Is a Lounge in New Orleans

Out Back of Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge

Introduction

With my pith helmet safely stowed in the overhead bin, photographer/videographer/grief counselor Loquacia Muldoon and I took our seats on a 6 a.m. Southwest flight bound for New Orleans. Jacob T Williams II, with whom I’ve been practicing anthropology going on 45 years, had invited us to his home base in the Big Easy to observe the peoples of that city doing what they do best, getting down.

As my regular readers know, when I practice ethnography, I try to blend with the people I’m observing by mimicking their garb, whether it be donning a Gamecock baseball cap to study a college football game or slithering into a silk dress and feathery boa to rub elbows with drag queens. In the case of New Orleans, though, I found I could dress pretty much normally just as long as I cocked my fedora at the appropriate angle, steeper than usual.

During the expedition, the events became more dramatic from day to day, each successive 24-hour period becoming more funktastic than the next, culminating in the patio area of the bad-ass-iest place I’ve ever set foot in, Kermit Ruffins’ Mother-in-Law Lounge up on North Claiborne in Treme.

Here is my report.

Front Door

Saturday

Our flight arriving just after noon, Jake himself retrieved us from the airport, then took us to an eating establishment called the Cochon Butcher. Mostly white the clientele, this establishment could have been mistaken for a Charleston eatery except for some of its decorative touches.

After a much-needed nap, we met Jake and his assistant Susan at Jefferson Square to catch a bit of Robert Cray, who was playing for free at the Barbecue and Blues Festival. I know, I know, the following statement is going to sound hypocritical, but the place was crawling with bourgeoisie, lazy white people lolling in lawn chairs, nodding sedately to the gentlemanly blues of Mr. Cray.

As Jake and Susan announced their departure, I mentioned I wanted to check out the Rock-n-Bowl. Jake informed me the brass band the Soul Brothers were playing there, so Loquacia and I hopped a Uber and made our way to the venue, a combination bowling alley, bar, and music showcase.

We caught the tail end of Papa John Gros’s set. Here, have gander:

The Soul Rebels were, of course, great, but the infirmity of age required I leave during their very first set. Oh, how the funk be wasted on the bachelorette party participants there dressed in their kitty kat kostumes.

Sunday

Jake mentioned that every Sunday various organizations sponsor a second line parade, so via google, I discovered one was happening on North Broad Street come one o’clock, so Loquacia and I, with photographic equipment in tow, tromped the two-mile, thirteen minute walk. When we arrived at the destination, the drizzle that had been falling went all downpour on us, but some friendly folk invited us to join them on a porch out of the rain.

While we were standing there, a float arrived claiming to be the Big Chief’s float, and some generous souls stood at the railing handing out half pints of some kind of clear liquor, and when those ran out, Mardi Gras beads.  Not wanting to intrude, Loquacia and I had to settle for refreshments provided by street vendors.

As we waited, a drummer in a wheelchair was playing his heart out, sounding like a full-fledged band, until finally the festivities got under way. The video below is the first line, and if you love soulfulness, you need to check it out.

Monday

Well, you might reckon that the line parade would be the apotheosis of the party, but, lo, no, on Monday afternoon Jake us took us to  Kermit’s Mother in Law Lounge, owned, obviously, by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.  When we arrived, a trio was playing, maybe recording.  Only Jake, Loquacia, a couple of staff members, and I were inside. Here’s a peek.

An old man who seemed to be in maintenance introduced us to Spodie, aka Derrick Shezbie, who spent some time with us, pontificated, bore gifts, etc.

from left to right, humble ethnographer, Jake, and Spodie

Oh yeah, Kermit and Cyril Neville were also hanging around.  Kermit is a happy soul, smiling, generous with the fist pump, hospitable.  Loquacia played tetherball with a young teenager as ten or so adults tended to their hedonism.

Kermit in the pink hat, Cyril Neville with back facing the camera

Eventually it was nap time, and we had a farewell dinner at Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar, watched some youtube videos of Dr John and Etta, Muddy Waters, and the Eurythmics, but alas, the night was old, and so am I.

Tuesday

A mournful flight home, but the memories remain.

I Got a Hole in My Bucket List

I don’t like to work at home, so if I can’t (as the young people say) “do” essays at school, I prefer to “do” them in a bar. Two beers = six essays, and that’s my limit, an hour and a half’s work.

I drink slowly, caught in the aesthetic dissonance of delicious hops and comma splices as I scrawl my comments, making sure my desk, the surface of the bar, is dry.

No doubt many might consider this methodology unprofessional, but trust me, I possess a godlike laser-like remarkable better-than average-ability to focus and shut the rest of the world out as I assess and comment. There are too many distractions at home, too many memories, not enough presences.

However, this week I’ve finished my two sets of essays two days early, so tonight when I biked down to my joint on Second Street, I set out merely to savor a couple of All Day IPAs and consume one pork taco.

I mingled, talked to acquaintances. As usual, listened but said very little. Over the course of my stay, I heard three cool stories by three different narrators.   All three narratives had this in common: really bad shit going down 8 or 15 or 30 ago, but in the retelling, the narrators all smiled and laughed when recounting the horrors.

I’m only going to share the most frightening, because it’s definitely climbed to number one on my ever expanding anti-bucket list.

***

As it turns out, there was a high-speed chase on Folly Monday night. According to my source, the pursuit humped from Artic Avenue across to East Indian, which meant stop signs were run perpendicular to the main Folly Beach thoroughfares (if you can call them that).

Yipes!

My pal on the stool next to me offered that he himself had been a participant in a high-speed chase and was lucky enough to be allowed to drive his arrested pal’s car after the arrest.

Of course, we were all ears.

To edit a ten-minute narrative down to 30 seconds:

Peninsula Charleston.

A cop inhabited Gold Explorer looking down on a front seat of a parked vehicle loaded with cash and heroin.

The driver of that vehicle ignoring the command “don’t move” and taking off a la Tarentino.

Careening across the peninsula, the number of cop cars in pursuit growing and growing.

“It’s like a glow of blue,” the narrator says.

Now they going seventy-plus swallowing bags of dope like starving people raw oysters.

As they reach the summit of the Ravenel Bridge, they see the blue lights of Mt. Pleasant police headed their way.

“You done swallowing?” the driver asks.

“Yes,” the narrator answers.

They come to a stop on the bridge.

All the subsequent search yields is a long hidden cannabis pipe.

They don’t die from the ingestion.

Let’s strike high-speed chases off our bucket lists.*

You can listen to the this song courtesy of Mr. Tom Waits instead.  It’s a vicarious high speed chase extraordinaire.


*Of course, the assumption here is that you’ve already struck becoming a junkie off.

Hating Redheads, a Time Honored Tradition

“Red hair is my life long sorrow.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

 

No doubt psychologists and philosophers have delved deeply into dynamics of hatred, how it develops, both physiologically and socially.

However, I’m a layman, unfamiliar with any such studies. It seems like a worthwhile line of questioning, though, especially in this land of mass shootings. I’m interested in what the latest research has to say.

I do believe through personal experience, however, that prejudice is learned, that Dylan Roof wasn’t born hating blacks. He picked racism up somewhere along his stumbling through youth in a land “where old times are not forgotten.”

Here’s a personal example that suggests racism is learned.

In the 90’s, my older son Harrison was into the Ghostbuster franchise, and Winston, the African American Ghostbuster, was his favorite.

One day when he and his brother Ned were playing with those action figures in the playroom, I said, “Harrison, you know, if you ever have a son, you can name him Winston,”

His response: “I will if he’s black.”

Here’s a better example found in that Flannery O’Connor story where a young boy and his grandfather are riding a train to Atlanta,. The boy Nelson has never seen an African American until he encounters a fellow passenger (who just happens to be his social-economic superior}.

A huge coffee-colored man was coming slowly forward. He had on a light suit and a yellow satin tie with a ruby pin in it. One of his hands rested on his stomach, which rode majestically under his buttoned coat, and in the other he held the head of a black walking stick that he picked up and set down with a deliberate outward motion each time he took a step. He was proceeding very slowly, his large brown eyes gazing over the heads of the passengers. He had a small white mustache and white crinkly hair. Behind him there were two young women, both coffee-colored, one in a yellow dress and one in a green. Their progress was kept at the rate of his and they chatted in low throaty voices as they followed him.

[. . .]

“What was that?” [the grandfather, Mr. Head] asked.

“A man,” the boy said and gave him an indignant look as if he were tired of having his intelligence insulted.

“What kind of a man?” Mr. Head persisted, his voice expressionless.

“A fat man,” Nelson said. He was beginning to feel that he had better be cautious.

“You don’t know what kind?” Mr. Head said in a final tone.

“An old man,” the boy said and had a sudden foreboding that he was not going to enjoy the day.

“That was a nigger,” Mr. Head said and sat back.

[. . .]

[Nelson] felt that the Negro had deliberately walked down the aisle in order to make a fool of him and he hated him with a fierce raw fresh hate; and also, he understood now why his grandfather disliked them.

* * *

But what, I wonder egocentrically, are the dynamics that give rise to a hatred of redheads? Even the webpage TV Tropes acknowledges the phenomenon:

“I’m gonna beat you like a redheaded stepchild.”

— LyleBuffy the Vampire Slayer

Redheads who are bullied, picked-on, beaten, or just plain hated for no reason other than having red hair. Sadly, this is not a Discredited Trope.

What is it about a having been born, no fault of your own, with a “carrot top” that makes some people despise you? Certainly, it’s not because you offer a convenient scapegoat for dispossessed Southerners who need to feel better about the lower rungs they inhabit on the social ladder. I mean, the lower classes of our region boasts wagon loads of gingers.

That some people hate redheads came to me early on, when I was 9 or so, at the post office in my hometown Summerville, SC. My mother had sent me inside to fetch the mail. As I turned the key to open a box, I heard a man, a complete stranger, say, “Red on the head like a dick on a dog.”

I realized at the time the remark was inaccurate. I had seen Paul Smith’s dog Champ do it with a neighbor’s dog, and I knew my hair wasn’t the color of a dog’s penis — not a pinkish hue – not even Irish orange – but what people called auburn.

I wasn’t so much insulted but surprised. It made me feel weird.

Flash forward 13 years. I’m a college freshman walking on a sidewalk with my pal Warren Moise, and a total stranger, much older than we, walking in the opposite direction, says in passing to me, “You ugly enough to raise a blister on a bulldog’s ass.”

I’m absolutely certain he said so because my red hair was shoulder length.

me in 1973

I was already late to class, so I let it be — although I would have liked to unleash a Jerry-Lee-Lewis barrage of Anglo-Saxon epithets on his cracker ass. I was pretty good high-flown cussing back then. Still am, as a matter of fact.

Anyway, once again, I knew even though my complexion was more pepperoni-like than Scandinavian, there was no way the sight of my visage spontaneously could erupt a serum filled pustule on a bulldog’s sphincter.

Still, it didn’t make my day, and obviously, I haven’t forgotten either incident.  But it raises the question what is it about redheads that they become unmated stepchildren ripe for abuse? All I can up with is people don’t dig differences. My dog Jack despised the 3-legged dog that used to hop past our house. I bet albinos receive their share of slurs. And what am I whining about anyway?   What little hair I have has gone white, though I do still support a galaxy of freckles from my ankles to my baldpate.

Holding His Leg, Screaming Something in Spanish, Still Breathing When I Walked Away

Suzanne Unrein, ” “Massacre”, 2006, Painting, Oil on Canvas,

We in the USA is exceptional, all right.

Exceptionally violent.[1]

Exceptionally stupid.[2]

Exceptionally greedy.[3]


[1] Americans killed on 9/11: 2,996; Americans killed by guns in 2017 so far: 11,652.

[2]  I have the right to access AK-47s because they will help me stave off a governmental attack (those strafing F-17s/those invading forces of D-Day).

Recently introduced legislation drafted to legalize silencers is called the “Hearing Protection Act.”

Republicans consider it insensitive to whisper gun control on the same day of a massacre.

[3] Check out how much your Senator or Representative has garnered from the NRA,  Bloody hands.

A Hint of Autumn, Tea Olive Edition

tea olive

To my mind, one of the most delicious odors encountered in the Lowcountry is tea olive, which blooms both in the spring and autumn. Whenever I run across its fragrance, though, I turn melancholy. Even as a child before all this dying started, I’d associate tea olive – my Mama called it sweet olive – with ephemera, maybe because the smell of tea olive is fleeting, unlike, say, a gardenia, which you can practically huff and get high on.

It’s that time of year, the light a little richer, a bit more golden, “the maturing sun” Keats calls it in that amazing poem of his, where “barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day.”

Well, today there is at last a hint of autumn in the air. It seems as if in these latter days of the empire, summer has encroached upon both spring and autumn, swiping a bit from both, and, of course, down here on the coast we don’t get any of the brilliant colors we associate with fall, no bright yellow or orange or red leaves strewing the brooks. Come to think of it, speaking strictly, I don’t know if we have brooks down here. At least I’m pretty sure I’ve never run across a “babbling brook.”

Speaking of babbling, I ain’t got nothing to say except, “Hello, autumn. How about hanging out for at least a couple of days?

That and to lay a little Keats on you:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

 

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

 

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Judy Birdsong in Autumn

My Father Reconsidered, Sort Of

Wesley Edward Moore, Jr 1928-2010.

Grieving for my wife Judy Birdsong has somehow (I’m struggling for words here)  –   brought to mind?  –  disinterred? – conjured? – the memories of other loved ones lost. I’ve assiduously avoided self-help articles about dealing with the death of a spouse, so in the vacancy of Judy’s absence, my suddenly thinking of Mama and getting misty-eyed might be typical. I guess I ought to google it. Or not. What does it matter if it’s normal or abnormal? To use Judy’s signature line, “It is what it is.”

Even my father, whom I hold in some contempt, has sneaked up on me with his roguish grin and rattled out some fond memories. It makes me wonder if I’ve been too hard on him.

Or too hard on his demons.

If you know me well, you’ve probably heard me speak words of recrimination against my father. So I’ve decided to post here my eulogy for him delivered at St Paul’s Church in Summerville in 2010.

In a eulogy it’s mandatory you say nice things about the deceased, and in fact, many nice things can be said about Daddy. Nevertheless, writing and delivering what follows was hard for me because I didn’t want to be hypocritical. I wanted to be true to me and to him, maybe in that order. More importantly, I want to be true to him now.


Eulogy

One of the most famous poems on death in the English language is Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” In the poem, Thomas addresses his father who is dying of cancer, urging him to cling ferociously to life, even if it means merely cursing the inevitable. The poem’s only nineteen lines, and I hope you’ll indulge an old English teacher if he reads it in its entirety:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

In Thomas’s classification of men – wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men – my father would be best categorized as a “wild man.” Cyrano de Bergerac was his literary hero, that soulful swordsman with a wit as keen as his blade. My father was in his youth a street brawler and later an angry young man, and then an angry middle aged man, and eventually an angry old man.   Wesley Moore was countercultural before there was a counterculture, seeing deep within the fabric of society an underlying hypocrisy that he detested. An idealist gone sour, he didn’t just color outside of the lines, he scribbled on the desk.

A thrill seeker, my father over the years captured a baby alligator and kept it in our bathtub (my brother David clearly remembers this even though he hadn’t been born yet). On weekends, Daddy performed death-defying aerobatic stunts in an open-cockpit plane he had refurbished himself. Sometimes he would buzz our neighborhood in Kamikaze descents that sent the treetops swaying and the neighbors scurrying to their telephones to complain to the FAA. Rumor has it than on one occasion he and Lowdnes Bailey flew under the old, old Cooper River Bridge.

He wasn’t exactly a Ward Cleaver like role model. It was sort of like having James Dean for a father.

So Bob Dylan’s line, “bent out of shape by society’s pliers” didn’t apply to Daddy. One Saturday he painted a remarkable mural of the Lesesne Gates on our dining room wall with black shoe polish, and during the height of the Civil Rights movement, much to the chagrin of those FAA-calling neighbors, he invited an abused ten-year-old African American boy to come live with us until a permanent safe abode could be found for him, not only integrating the neighborhood but our home as well.

Yes, Daddy could be a man of immense compassion and generosity. I remember one Christmas Eve when a weeping mother came to our house because Santa had nothing for her daughter, Daddy, even though we had little money ourselves, headed down to Poppleton’s Dime Store and purchased a doll and some other toys for the child.

He also adhered to an unimpeachable code of personal honor. If he had ever found a million dollars in a suitcase, he would have turned it into the police without taking a dollar.

Finally, Wesley felt a special allegiance to his employees, whom he loved and fretted over, feeling a great responsibility for their well-being.

Ultimately, though, Daddy really didn’t care what other people thought, thumbing his nose at the world (well, actually, he favored a different hand gesture to express his contempt). If Dylan Thomas had had Daddy for a father, he wouldn’t need to prompt him “to rave” or “to curse.” Over the years, I’ve heard Daddy curse Northerners, Southerners, Easterners, Westerners, dogs, cats, squirrels, flying squirrels, women drivers, men drivers, Democrats, Democrats, and Democrats.   To be honest – and if there was something Daddy detested it was false piety – he was quick to take offense and could hold a grudge – in fact he could keep several of them in air at once like one of those vaudeville jugglers we used to watch on the Ed Sullivan show on Sunday nights.

As I have grown older and experienced more of the world, both in my own life and through the literature I have encountered, I have come to see Dylan Thomas’s poem, despite its heroic grandeur and marvelous compression, to be really bad advice. In old age, death should not be something to rage against but to embrace as part of the natural progression of things, or if you prefer, as part of God’s plan. My recently deceased mother-in-law Dot Birdsong had a clipping from Ephesians 4:31-2 on her refrigerator, and although the arrangement of the words lacks the poetic power and precision of Dylan Thomas’s poem, they do, I think, suggest a better path to death’s doorway. I quote

Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

This has been the path of my mother Sue, who has remained true to the better-or-worse clause of her wedding vows and to the entire legion of friends she has amassed over the course of her courageous life. Whom do you know who is quicker with a laugh than Sue? Certainly, she was the greatest blessing in Daddy’s life.

However, the model of the West – and by that I mean the Europe and the Americas – is the model of the hero, the individual – Odysseus, Beowulf, Captain Ahab – and that’s the model my father embraced, not the model of quietism. Of course, the model of our own American West is the cowboy, and Daddy was especially found of cowboys, those lonely figures on horseback crooning sad songs like “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”   The only sport my father really liked was boxing, and I can remember his yelling at the television on Friday nights, barking advice to Sugar Ray Robinson or Archie Moore, “Keep that left up, keep that left up.” He himself was fighter, a rooter for the underdog, and over the years, he fought many good fights, fights against schoolyard bullies and government corruption, often cast in the role of the underdog himself. In his very last battle, he remained true to form, the ultimate underdog, bravely facing the inevitable, ignoring the advice of doctors and hospice nurses alike. One of my last images of him is smoking a cigarette in the bed where within days he would die of lung cancer.  After he’d been told to eat only liquids, I witnessed him downing four fried oysters in that very same bed.

My father chose his own path, remained true to himself until the very end, and in the words of a different poet remained “bloody but unbowed.” At long last, his tumultuous breast is quiet, and he rests in peace, though certainly no one who has ever met him will ever forget him. And though he would no doubt chide me for using this cliché, my father was truly one of a kind – “ a man, take him for all in all. [We] shall not look on his like again.”

Thank all of you for coming.


So, yeah, speaking of hypocrisy, it’s probably way past time for me to take Ephesians 4:31-2 to heart.

 

Mama and Daddy