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Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Why am I here?


Everyone in post-Katrina New Orleans asks themselves this question at least once a day. But when I moved here in the late summer of 2003, New Orleans wasn't the poster child for bad disaster management and lightning rod for racial animosity and resentment of the poor that it's become. It was a "colorful" destination city with some serious history, and a music town of some note. Off the beaten path, sure. Invisible to the more New-York-centric jazzerati, absolutely. But to most people interested in music and exotica, an undeniably Cool Place.
My original purpose in coming here was simply to get a masters degree at Tulane. Of course I had other ambitions on the backburner, a new start in a new city, a post secondary teaching gig of some kind, a chance to participate first hand in a vital, active vernacular culture. But I was into seriously minimized expectations at that point in my life, a kind of Mel Brooksian "hope for the best, expect the worst" mindset. I figured the absolute worst-case scenario was I'd go back to Vancouver (with a masters) and the school board would have to pay me an extra $75 a day to be a substitute band teacher. It never even ocurred to me that Tulane would hire me as Visiting Professor of Music, which they did, in June of 2005.
I was up in Vancouver at the time. My father had died a couple of months before, and there was family business to attend to. I also had a gig at the Vancouver Jazz Festival with my Canadian-based quintet. I arrived back in New Orleans in late August, just in time to get my faculty ID picture taken, attend a "new hire" orientation meeting, sign up for the health insurance plan and flee the city hours ahead of the worst engineering failure in the history of the United States.
My wife Darlene was in Canada on business at the time, and I initially drove to Fort Worth, Texas and stayed with our friend Candace for a week. It was there that I learned that the Army Corps of Engineers 'flood protection' system had failed, well below it's own design specifications. The city was flooding, and reports began to emerge of chaos inside the Superdome (the city's shelter of last resort), of multiple rapes and homicides, and of armed bands of looters firing on rescue helicopters. At the time, this sounded like hooey to me, an example of White America's longstanding fever-swamp fears of "armed negroes" storming the barricades, the product of a collective guilty concience. And indeed, the reports subsequently were discredited but not before rescue efforts by the Red Cross and others had been delayed for days because entering the city was "too dangerous."
(For the record, after both the Superdome and Convention Center were clear of evacuees, "officials sent in forensic teams, expecting to find as many as 200 corpses. Only 10 bodies were found at the Superdome. Of these, four were apparently brought in from the street outside, and six were believed to have died within (four of natural causes, one from a drug overdose and one from a fall from a balcony that was an apparent suicide). Of four deaths known to have occurred within the Convention Center, three were from natural causes, and one was an apparent homicide. The bodies of 20 people were found outside the center, but those deaths are not believed to have involved crimes." As for the sniper stories, "there were numerous confirmed incidents of gunfire on the streets of New Orleans after the hurricane, but seperate investigations by the Air Force, Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security and Louisiana Air National Guard had been unable, as of the first week of October, to confirm a single case of airborne rescue teams taking fire from the ground." Source, Time Magazine, December 2005).
Anecdotally speaking, I know a number of people who were "Domed" and the consensus seems to be that, while the experience was no picnic, folks were surprisingly well behaved considering there was no fresh water, air-conditioning, food or working plumbing, they were being confined ankle deep in human waste by armed guards and were not, as were the recent California wildfire victims, being entertained by stilt-walkers, rock bands, and mimes. If you detect a certain peevishness in the previous comments it's because I, and most other New Orleanians, are good and fed up with the post-Katrina tendency in this country to compare every subsequent "natural disaster," no matter how unrelated in scale and kind, to Katrina, and to cynically use said disasters to score cheap political points.
But I digress. After leaving Fort Worth, I continued on to San Francisco where I met up with Darlene. It was there that we had the inevitable discussion about whether we would, if possible, return to the city. We both immediately agreed that we would return, at the soonest opportunity. I was a very angry man that fall, but Darlene, a much wiser soul than I, counselled that "it's better to go back and try to help than sit in exile and be pissed off."
We returned the first week of December, 2005.
Since then it's been quite a ride all over the emotional map. In those early days, most people in the city felt united by a sense of common purpose. Those who had come back, it was felt, were those who really and truly wanted to be here. Hard-core New Orleanians, and plenty more who couldn't get back yet but would as soon as they possibly could. The more optimistic and trusting among us (I was absolutely not one of them) took the president at his word, and anticipated that the full support and intent of the American people, through the instrument of their federal government, would be brought to bear in the service of restoring the city. After all, it was reasoned, the Army Corps of Engineers own report admits culpability. Those flood walls failed well below design specs. This is not our fault and surely the feds will step up to take responsibility.
Instead we have seen a level of political cynicism for which, to the best of my knowledge, there is no precedent in the history of this country. Blame the Victim has been the name of the game almost since day one. Narratives spun by the administration which were easily disprovable lies (the governor didn't call a state of emergency till three days later, money meant for levee maintainance was spent on casinos, and of course the aforementioned Black Savages Run Amok trope) are still, to this day, repeated without challenge on cable news shows.
That is, when the tragedy is discussed at all. Because here in Attention Deficit Nation, the news cycle has Moved On. The problems of Katrina, like most other problems in America, are complex and deeply rooted. They involve a lot of poor people, who in America are often swept under the carpet, because the problems of the poor tend to be difficult to address or get any traction with. They're a real bummer, a buzz killer. They mess up the ratings and depress people, and when people are depressed they don't feel like shopping and we can't have that. Better to lede with a story on giant stingrays off the coast of England, or some prurient stuff about teen sex. That always perks up the proles.
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, things creep along. The big building boom never materialized. The forest of construction cranes never appeared. The billions of dollars the president promised languish in a bank account somewhere collecting interest for the feds, a victim of the red tape they promised to cut. And it becomes increasingly clear to us that this is it. This is the way it's going to be, for the rest of our lives. Yet we stay, because we can't turn our backs. The place is just too real, too vividly present in both the now and the then. The past really does live here, and walk among us and influence our contemporary affairs. There a ghosts here, and spirits and Lwas and saints.
They say New Orleans is a dying city, but if we are allowed to slip away, through neglect, or outright malice, or whatever...it will be the rest of the country that's dead. Not us.

Comments on "Why am I here?"

 

Blogger doctorj2u said ... (5:37 AM) : 

You have come to the same conclusion I have (and I am one of those people that stupidly believed the president). New Orleans will be fine as long as the levees hold. It is the soul of this country that on life support.

 

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