FAT MAN ON THE LEFT XXII
"When we met in London, he was on his way to Belgrade, if I remember right. Much as I developed a love and obsession with London, and felt more at home there than in my own city, he felt similarly about about Belgrade. At least for a while. He had met some good friends there and fell in love with the place. In turn, I fell in love with Sofia, Bulgaria, and ended up marrying a nice girl from Varna on the Black Sea."
By Lionel Rolfe
COPYRIGHT © 2006, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Rod Amis. Katrina and the Los City of New Orleans. Lulu.com. ISBN 1-4116-6303-0. It can be purchased at http://www.lulu.com/content/ 170780
I first met Rod Amis face to face in London when he came to visit me at my mom's place in West Hampstead. He was a black man with lots of missing front teeth which made him look like he had had a tough life. His image was a bit jarring because what came through in the G21 World Magazine that he edited was a worldly, intellectual view with real depth. He also obviously was a professional journalist.
I felt some an immediate connections to him, in part because he was a peripatetic journalist I met from San Francisco. In other words, he was a “wandering newspaperman,” a breed I had once been a member of. I had hung around in San Francisco, even been employed for a while as s a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Later I wrote essays for them.
What fascinated me about Amis was that he was black and poor and I was white, from a “cultured” background that you could say was a bit elitist. Still, we came at things with similar wold views.
When we met in London, he was on his way to Belgrade, if I remember right. Much as I developed a love and obsession with London, and felt more at home there than in my own city, he felt similarly about about Belgrade. At least for a while. He had met some good friends there and fell in love with the place. In turn, I fell in love with Sofia, Bulgaria, and ended up marrying a nice girl from Varna on the Black Sea.
Things didn’t quite work out in Belgrade for Amis like he had hoped, and the next thing I saw he had settled down in “Nawlins.”
I hadn't really thought a lot about New Orleans, although I thought it was a city I should visit one of these days.
Anyway, the next four years I read his account of his life in "The Big Easy." It was a harsh life, but "on paper," it was all very colorful and made for good reading.
From his gonzo journalism, I could see where it was all headed. It came to a head in a way you would almost expect it to happen to a black in a racist, southern city. He was arrested and jailed in front of a Circle K convenience store because, in essence, he was "walking while black."
His story -- I'll spare you the details here -- put him on the cover of The Gambit, the city's alternative newspaper, as a prime example of someone getting fucked over by the cops.
He ended up spending two weeks in jail and racking up big legal fees, most of which were paid by his friends in the French Quarter where he was well known because he was a colorful bartender in a city full of colorful (and rarely black) bartenders.
"The most troubling part of the entire experience was listening to one of the two white police officers blatantly lie on the stand in court,” he wrote. “Luckily, my lawyer was able to expose his lies, the judge looked exasperated, and the Assistant District Attorney who had been assigned to my case came up to me and apologized, before everyone present, for all I had been made to endure.”
Although a lot of people came to his defense, the experience obviously soured Amis on "Nawlins" enough that he left it -- even if it was one of the most interesting and unique of American cities.
"Nawlins" was, as everyone knows, the home of jazz and creole culture which obviously were African and French in origin.
None of this changed the fact that the whole place, despite its swinging image, was a bastion of institutionalized racism at its worst, which became obvious to the nation and world after Katrina when George Bush and others like him condemned thousands of blacks to watery graves by not so benign indifference .
As Amis pointed out, Nawlins had twice the poverty level of the rest of the country. It is not coincidence that the third biggest business in Nawlins is jails. Suddenly the face of poverty and oppression which Amis had been writing about for several years came clear to the world in the pages of G21.
"America's economic predominance requires that there always will be a New Orleans,” he wrote. "It is the fifth largest port in the world.”
In his book, Amis says that the New Orleans he got to know was gone and never would be rebuilt. “But there will always be a New Orleans because the great river of this country is still there,.
If Bush & Co. have their way, the port will of course remain, but instead of blacks there will be a kind of French Quarters "Disneyland."
"If the Baptists up at the Louisiana state capitol have anything to do with it, they will replace Marie Laveau's city with a damned neutered theme park, sanitized and rated PG," he writes.
All this is why Amis writes that New Orleans is "the Lost City of America."
"We had always known in New Orleans about those body bags they had waiting for us. With the fatalism characteristic of romantics and drunks, we joked about those body bags and how one day -- who knew when -- rather than waking up from the latest storm off the Gulf of Mexico, we would be zipped up and carted away. Let's face it, almost 30 percent of the people in town didn't even own a damned car. Most of that 30 percent were black people but they -- we-- were not the only ones," he said.
Amis also notes that, "It is not at all difficult to assert that New Orleans has died for Iraq. Money that could have shored up that city's infrastructure, money requested by the Army Corps of Engineers for just that purpose, was instead allocated to pay off contracts for the reconstruction of the newly-occupied Middle Eastern nation and line the pockets of executives at Halliburton subsidiary Kellog, Brown & Root."
Katrina hit New Orleans just a few weeks after Amis left New Orleans. Since he had edited G21 from the Ninth Ward where he lived, he became frantic trying to find out what had happened to his many friends there, the characters he had written about. There are still many of his friends he has not found.”
At one point, Amis asked me for an agent to find a good publisher. I suggested an agent, but before he had a chance to contact the agent, he had found a small on-demand publisher, who departed from form, gave him a few hundred dollars advance, and decided to publish his book in a hurry.
I would have preferred to see him get better publishing treatment, but perhaps the book in this form will attract much deserved attention.
One day I had a discussion with a guy who worked in the press room where I worked. As we watched the images of Katrina unfold on the press room television, Richard Winton, who works for the Los Angeles Times' but hails from Merry Ol' England, asked me if I knew of another city that was built below sea level?
No, I said, wondering what city he was going to name.
London, he said. They just keep their levees in shape, he said.
That gave me pause.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lionel Rolfe is the author of "The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather," "Literary L.A.," and "Fat Man on the Left," among other volumes.
Photo by Boyd Lewis