"Screw him." Those two words represent the first time I was put on notice by Ashley Morris. With typical bluntness, he had posted his thoughts about some first-person articles I had written for alternative weeklies (including Gambit Weekly) in Katrina's aftermath. I had described my family's decision to move from New Orleans and mentioned an upcoming visit for Mardi Gras. That's what set Morris off. "He abandoned the city; he doesn't get to go to Mardi Gras," Morris wrote. Ashley Morris was emblematic of the new wave of post-Katrina bloggers in New Orleans: fiercely local and quick to take to the guard tower against those who might malign or even misunderstand his beloved home. He was more volatile and more entertaining than most writers who cover the city in any media. He lived on the rough draft, which made him invaluable during rough times.
Morris died last Wednesday, April 2, at age 44. He leaves behind a wife and three young children. He is also survived by a legacy of postings on his Web site, www.ashleymorris.typepad.com.
Morris' own words reveal citizenry at its most passionate, both online and off. He taught computer science at DePaul University in Chicago and chose to commute each week from his home in Uptown New Orleans. He championed local music, local food and local writing. He railed against mainstream and alternative media alike. He called out local political, business and education leaders with some of the most creative cursing this side of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. His activism took many forms, including a mime suit in a Krewe du Vieux parade, where he appeared under a banner that read, "Buy Us Back Chirac!"
He located the soul of New Orleans in the city's finest details. In one of his final posts, he railed against Entergy for allegedly paving over a set of inlaid street tiles and included the Entergy online complaint form for good measure. In another, he rapturously described the simple act of picking up lunch with fellow blogger Ray Shea at Dooky Chase and taking it over to a stoop in the shuttered Lafitte housing project, lamenting the lost Lafitte community in what became a protest meal of sorts.
Councilwoman Shelley Midura cited that post in a tribute last week, crediting Morris as a "champion of his neighborhood." His friend and fellow blogger Mark Moseley cited him as an influential founder of the now-annual Rising Tide conference. "The impression of him as a raging online maniac is incomplete," Moseley said. "He was the friendliest, most generous bastard you'd ever want to meet."
I would eventually learn that much for myself. After Morris' post about my Mardi Gras plans, we started an email exchange and finally hashed it all out on his front porch with some Abita Restoration Ale. His last email arrived a month ago some real estate listings for my family's upcoming return to the city, and to inform me that Plum Street Snoball was opening.
'Ashley knew that any moment in New Orleans was unlike any moment anywhere else in the world, that typical days here are not typical days anywhere else on this planet, and that being a New Orleanian, especially now, comes with a special badge of honor," Midura said at last week's Council meeting.
Even more importantly, he reminded us to never shut up about it.
At press time, funeral plans for Ashley Morris were incomplete. Check www.righthandthief.blogspot.com for details as they emerge.