Bastille Day Blues in the Big Easy

Like, I imagine, a whole lot of  people,  I spent last Saturday night online, venting about the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial and taking what solace I could in everybody else’s equally futile vents.  But  I knew I couldn’t keep at it forever, and not only for my blood pressure’s sake.  I wanted to make sure I’d be up in time for Sunday morning’s wreath-laying.

No, not in Trayvon Martin’s memory.  This one was at Joanie on The Pony’s statue in honor of Bastille Day. Summoning Decatur Street’s T-shirt shops to battle from her gilded mount at the French Market’s upper tip, she’s better  known to history as Joan of Arc, and her statue has a special meaning for me. Partly thanks to George Bernard Shaw, who wrote a not-bad play about her, Joanie on The Pony is my favorite saint  -- a category, I suspect, especially dear to atheists – and my first sight of her more or less sealed the deal on my wife and I moving here.

Admittedly, my Francophilia is a form of Stockholm syndrome. Due to my father’s diplomatic career, I was a product of the French school system up through age 12, and experiencing that should logically leave a man rooting for the Kaiser’s army to make hay while the sun shines. But I still cherish the inconspicuous Jackson Square fountain commemorating Charles de Gaulle’s visit to New Orleans in 1960. More restrained here than he was to be in Quebec seven years later, he didn’t urge New Orleanians to secede.

The Bastille Day wreath-laying at Joan’s statue was my favorite kind of ceremony, too: the sort that takes place for the benefit of a few dozen acolytes amid traffic’s honks and heat-slugged tourists’  indifference as they shlep onward.  There couldn’t have been more than 40 people there.

 Among the speakers was New Orleans City Councilmember Jacqueline Clarkson, who said all the right things. Giving due credit to NOLA’s status as “America’s most multicultural city” – Los Angeles might argue that, but what the hell – she reminded us that our former French masters were responsible for founding it all.

The handful of genuine Frenchmen on hand probably had to resist an urge to make with the footnotes.  Even if few Americans  know it, Joan has largely been taken over in France by the xenophobic right wing, much as our own Tea Party has corrupted Revolutionary War imagery by claiming a monopoly. (We should never have ceded it to them.) But France’s current Consul General in New Orleans, one Jean-Claude Brunet, had the skill to cope with that: Joan, he told us, represents “the fight against despair – not an enemy.”

Which is nonsense, since she loathed the English so much that it was almost as if she’d anticipated Sting’s existence.  But it wasn’t a bad thing to hear the morning after the Zimmerman verdict.

As my wife and I headed back to our house on Rampart, we detoured to take in the vintage French cars parked along Frenchmen Street to celebrate Bastille Day. Foreign Service brat that I am, each Citroen and Renault detonated a Proustian whammo. I could remember how each one’s upholstery smelt and how the seat mattings chafed in West Africa’s former French colonies.  One reason I’m grateful that the weirdness of it all was my one and only childhood is that, at a time when the United States was still in the throes of desegregation, I got very used to seeing my parents and other white Americans pay proper respect and deference to our African hosts.

Got home. Checked Facebook. Learned that a “Trayvon Martin Solidarity Rally” was scheduled to start in an hour in Washington Square Park, which we’d just left. I told my wife I guessed we were going out again.

 But when we headed back over, we were pretty disappointed: Just the usual clutch of white Marigny hipsters. There couldn’t have been more than 40 people there.

When we heard a voice call, “Does anyone here have a megaphone?”,  I turned to my wife: “I think that’s strike three.” She agreed,  and we left the park to stroll along Frenchmen Street. That’s where we ran into our friend Andrew, who was beerily celebrating another successful discharge of his weekend duties as  Pope.

Years ago, when New Orleans’s annual Running of the Bulls was in its infancy – our parody of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona features roller-derby queens replacing the bulls –  he’d been appointed to wear a miter and give a  blessing.  This year, he gave it to 25,000 people and more international news coverage than Pamplona probably rates these days.

Andrew is my fellow State Department brat, though he made much better linguistic use of his time than I did. He was off to give interviews to Pakistani TV in his fluent Urdu and Polish TV in his unpolished Polish. But he found time to give us his latest CD – a collection of American chestnuts sung in Urdu.  “You have to hear ‘You Are My Sunshine’ in Urdu!” he said.  

Then he confessed that he and his band had recently performed it for Bobby Jindal’s sister, with Bobby present and apparently delighted. “You’ll have that on your conscience forever,” I teased him. “You gave  him a moment of happiness he doesn’t deserve.”

“I can live with that,” he said. “I was put on this earth to give moments of happiness to everyone, deserving or not. Even Bobby.”

Waving goodbye, we  headed back along Frenchmen Street. The Trayvon Martin rally was still going on.  It had swollen to 150 or 200 people, observed by three mounted policemen. All three were African American, and they’d all taken off their helmets at their horses nuzzled the park’s gates.  Most likely, it was just on account of the heat.

Lesbians in hoodies were holding hands. Out of the blue, a typically dotty Lene Lovich song I hadn’t thought of in years popped into my head: “Like Joan of Arc, you must be brave/And listen to your heart.” We stayed for a few speeches, and then we went home. 

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