Music as a Barometer of Our Times Calls for a Better Man

New Orleans   It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I helped my son open up at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse for the regulars. Once or twice a year it’s “training day” all over for me. I’m help, just not great help, but I don’t mind getting bossed around. It’s fun to see everyone, wish them well. After decades, Mardi Gras is a chance for me to come off the road and get a day off for me and take a Trump relief break.

Alexa is playing alternative country and that’s a nice break as well. We’ve had some problems in country music recently. I’ve loved it for years, but almost had to swear off last year. It had become boring and ridiculous. Last year there was a song that said it all, as someone whose name I didn’t catch sang, “It’s hard to be a woman in a country and western song.” She mourned the fact that it all seemed about going after a girl and driving her to the lake or river in a big pickup truck.

But, maybe times are changing? I heard a song about how the trick of driving across the border was to put a Bible on your dash. A real sign of potential change though for women, and we can hope for their men as well, is a recent release by the group, Little Big Town, called “Better Man” where the refrain continues to “wish you were a better man.” No standing by. No taking the blame. None of what my companera calls “whining women singing.” It’s mournful about losing the man, but it’s clear it simply came down to the fact he just plain wasn’t a better man. That’s a standard we have to be ready to step up and be judged by.

Here’s Better Man:

I know I’m probably better off on my own
Than lovin’ a man who didn’t know
What he had when he had it
And I see the permanent damage you did to me
Never again, I just wish I could forget when it was magic
I wish it wasn’t four am, standing in the mirror
Saying to myself, you know you had to do it I know
The bravest thing I ever did was run

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again
But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
And I know why we had to say goodbye
Like the back of my hand
And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
A better man

I know I’m probably better off all alone
Than needing a man who could change his mind at any given minute
And it’s always on your terms
I’m hanging on every careless word
Hoping it might turn sweet again
Like it was in the beginning
But your jealousy, I can hear it now
You’re talking down to me like I’ll always be around
You push my love away like it’s some kind of loaded gun
Boy, you never thought I’d run

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again
But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
And I know why we had to say goodbye
Like the back of my hand
And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
A better man
Better man

I hold onto this pride because these days it’s all I have
And I gave you my best and we both know you can’t say that
You can’t say that
I wish you were a better man
I wonder what we would’ve become
If you were a better man
We might still be in love
If you were a better man
You would’ve been the one
If you were a better man
Yeah, yeah

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again
And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
And I know why we had to say goodbye
Like the back of my hand
And I just miss you and I just wish you were a better man
We might still be in love, if you were a better man
Better man

And, if those lyrics aren’t enough of a surprise, then here’s a big one: the song was written by Taylor Swift, who now styles herself a pop diva.

There’s some hope for all of us and a Happy Mardi Gras!


The Dilution of Class Privilege on Mardi Gras

s.mgpastpresent.2New Orleans    Mardi Gras season is rough for year round residents. It’s not the going to parades but navigating the parade routes so that regular work and life maintains its semi-normal routine. It’s also stomaching the symbols.

Mardi Gras marks the beginning of Lent on the Christian calendar with Easter forty days away. Historically, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a guilty pleasure rife with class and racial entitlement. And, like so many rock-ribbed Southern traditions, the traditions of the upper class continue unabated. The daily newspapers continue to parade front page pictures on the Sunday before Mardi Gras of an elderly white man anointed as the King of the Rex parade, the premier old line outfit, and a young, white woman debutante as the Queen of Rex. This year’s queen looked twelve in her picture. She is no doubt an accomplished young woman who is now attending Yale and speaks Mandarin, but has never gone to school and hardly ever lived in New Orleans, as distant from her disloyal subjects as the planet Mars. The uptown island of wealth and privilege in New Orleans continues to float aimlessly in a sea that is 60% African-American and one of the most crime ridden and poorest cities in the United States. There’s something distinctly unappealing about watching self-proclaimed royalty throwing trinkets to the out stretched arms of the masses, but maybe that’s just me, because it is certainly deeply rooted in the New Orleans culture.

There’s pushback though. The Endymion parade celebrated its 50th Mardi Gras and along with other so-called super-krewes have left Rex in the dirt as the most popular parades. Endymion was a middle and working class parade interloper now claiming thousands of members, open to pretty much anyone willing to come up with a couple of grand. Not for everyone certainly, but compared to the high society swells, a democratic revolution. Such parades chose their royalty from the ranks of local and other celebrities focusing on the crowds and popularity, maybe even the fun of it all, rather than the pomp and prestige.

The post-Katrina surge of the young and the hips detached from any tradition, but looking for a good time, has also leavened some of the more troubling pieces of the Mardi Gras tradition and added a somewhat more democratic tinge to the experience. The African-American Indian “tribes” and costumes were neighborhood based and outside of the main culture, and now newcomers have brought some of the same topsy-turvy to tradition. There are walking parades, makeshift floats or none at all, and costumes of all description often to musical accompaniment. There are parades for dogs and neighborhood parades of floats the size of a shoebox. Some are bawdy and racy, while others are political and satirical. Many are unannounced without routes or routines and therefore all of the more exciting. When you hear the music, you can run to your front stoop and with some joy and surprise catch a glimpse of the passing parade.

Gradually the people are stealing up on the big whoops and making Mardi Gras their own as the natives and the newcomers make it more fun and celebratory, rather than a painful parody of the city’s racial and class divide.


Personal Parade

New Orleans    At the crack of dawn something was passing in front of the house.  There was some solitary shuffling, some rattling, a shout of “come on!,” and the deep, hollow blare of a long horn.  I didn’t move a muscle.  No reason to heed any of this.  Today is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and that was simply the sound of someone having a personal parade.

Worth thinking about but for all the finger pointing and harrumphing around the world about New Orleans and Mardi Gras, perhaps the world would be a better place if there were more opportunities for people to have their own personal parade from time to time?  There are a lot of worse ways for people to make their mark than by grabbing a long horn and letting out a deep cry in the early morning fog to greet another day.


Pulling Shots in the Service Industry

2 Mardi Gras Costumers Get their Coffee at Fair Grinds Before Hitting the Streets

New Orleans   Getting up at 430 AM to go to work reminded me of the days worked in the oil fields and offshore after high school where the clock started at 6AM and I had to be in the field or on the boat, or at Luzianne Coffee Company when I was 19 and 20 and had to catch a couple of buses to make it for 7AM.  Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday and all of the baristas were hitting the parades and partying down, and I was going to open until noon to support our regulars and those who might be in need of a good “cup of coffee for a change” until noon.  A couple of hours playing with the cash register months ago and a quick couple of hours of training on Saturday and another hour on Monday, and I was ready to try and open up, pull shots, pour java, and make it work in some form or fashion.   I was counting on some Mardi Gras good spirits from customers willing to be more patient than usual perhaps, and the fact that the tip jar was going to support ACORN International organizers in Latin America as well as anything we cleared on my time and effort.  Of course as I told more than one customer, I was also in that rare position where I couldn’t get fired!

In the almost 6 hours I kept the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse open, believe me, it was hopping.  I never had a break, not even a cup of coffee, from the time I poured the first cup for a tired regular that had been cleaning up her family’s parade watching spot.

Here’s what you notice behind the coffee bar, sometimes with a bit of surprise:

  • I was surprised how few people I saw in costumes?
  • It was embarrassing how happy – and patient – most people were at seeing that we were open!  One young woman blurted out how happy she was in the thick of a long winding line, I thanked her, and it turned out she had gone to school with my nephew and was another Little Rock girl!
  • Standing there working the bar gave a fair number of people the opportunity to mention ways in which they knew me or someone in my family or supported the work or one thing or someone we knew in common, and that was especially nice.
  • I did more than 100 tickets and got raves for my espresso drinks (maybe I have a future!), and I bet some 20 or 25 actually thanked me for being open on Mardi Gras, which didn’t make me less tired at the end of my 8 hours there, but did make me feel at least as smart as the average bear for doing this crazy thing.

As an organizer it can be easy to forget while crunching the numbers, evaluating job classifications, and emerging formal and informal work settings, that the service industry, growing so rapidly as a job source throughout the USA and in many places beyond, really is about service.   But more than that, embedded in that relationship when it works is not simply a master-slave hierarchical situation, but a sense of shared community, a recognition of commonality that counts as currency both need and mutual dependence.  Who knows where the widgets go, highlighting some of the alienation of production, but it seems in the service industry if we embrace it more fully and deeply, we have to be able to use this sense of community in both organizing and, ironically perhaps, delivering better service.

Perhaps my favorite customers were a younger couple, perhaps pushing 30 or so, that came in around 11 or so.  It came out that both of them were bartenders working at different places in uptown New Orleans and they had both pulled double shifts the night before.  The woman might have been pregnant by 5 or 6 months, though I’ve never been able to tell age or such conditions worth a darned.  She wanted a “vampiro,” which is a beet-ginger-etc drink we make that is our most popular new, health juices addition and he wanted a cappuccino, which ended up at 4 shots, 2 of which I “comp-ed” him as it developed.  My son, Chaco, had showed up to help me at the tail end of my shift and had two great quiches in the convection oven for them, and while I was pulling his shots, they kept looking at the brownies and chocolate chip cookies, and before it was all done, I had rung up their first order and their second order, and he had thrown $8 or $9 bucks in the tip jar to support ACORN International.  They were service workers, too, so when we pulled the quiches out too early, they had quietly gone around the coffee bar and gotten Chaco to put them back in for another couple of minutes.  As I move out to lock up the patio door, I saw they were still sitting at a table, food and drink long gone, bent forward to animated and serious conversation.

I’m rootin’ for them and a lot of other folks who shared a minute of conversation, needed their coffee and appreciated getting it hot and strong, joined our community in a quiet spot on a beautiful New Orleans day, and found a piece of peace as the parades rolled on.

Back-atcha and thanks! Fair Grinds Regulars Get the Conversation Going Early on Mardi Gras


“The Greatest Mardi Gras Illusion: The Happiness of the Poor”

06_rexMarch 8, 2011 In the Bywater – New Orleans Cheyenne, my old, arthritic Australian cattle dog, needed walking so we jumped out on the street early in a light, warm drizzle hoping to beat the crowds moving towards parades in a couple of hours. No such luck. Within a block from the house we ran into a curious tribe of more than 100 marchers with halloweeney kinds of shirts, calling themselves “The Bones,” accompanied by clanging street signs, pots and pans, noise makers, and smoke bombs.

They went to Rampart and I continued on course on my normal route towards the Press Street railroad tracks, the dividing line between Bywater and Marigny. A straggler group of twenty or so ended up somehow behind me so it seemed as if Cheyenne and I were acting as Spy Boy for this crew. Reaching our old shotgun double, I saw my daughter, Dine’, in the living room and called her out for a look. She hipped me to the fact that the Bones were trying to revive an old Mardi Gras tradition in the African-American community of neighborhood marchers.

Continue reading