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Words We Live By

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The worst of many faults popular among writers is writing about writers -- yeah, what I'm doing now -- over and over.

In the front of the room sit the novelists. Beginning novelists write novels about writers who can't get their novels published. Veteran novelists write novels about writers who can't write novels anymore.

In the back of the room squat the journalists, hoping that by recording the right gossip or reflections we can keep the gossipers or reflectors alive and thus ourselves the recorders alive, too, for just a little while longer. Here in the back we fling our spitballs, some surly, some cheerful, all in hopes of being caught. Here we test the skimpy limits of immortality, and we, more than most, should be aware of those limits because this morning, where, say Longinus or even Tasso? We're all poor players, strutting and fretting away our hour upon the stage, trying hard to stretch it to an hour-and-a-half.

This is this newspaper's 25th anniversary. A nice solid number, but it's hard to fix a number with meaning, even the same number on different days. Yet it's a handy place to hang a remembrance on, or was it a retrospective? Well, here goes. ...

In order to have a memory of any kind now, you need help. Help from librarians, those final barriers to oblivion, and their rows of blue-bound ledgers. And inside those ledgers, the profit and loss of many a boy and girl at least temporarily in love with the angel of storytelling. ...

Never can I get through books like this quickly. Always I must stop in front of names, especially those names that don't turn up in newspapers so much anymore. Time, that tireless eraser, ever at work: John Hainkel, Donald Mintz, Lenny Simmons, David Duke, Rickey Jackson, Mike Stark of the Little Shop of Fantasy. Once they were called on to interest us; we've moved on to other names. ...

There are stories, too, or at least their headlines, to remind us both how far we've come and how we've changed. Here's one Clancy DuBos wrote titled "Why There Will Always Be a Charity Hospital." That tale of chilly poignancy was written in June of 1989.

That same summer, my column began in Gambit. My typewriter was drenched in my figurative blood and some of it had even splashed on my cuffs. I had most recently been employed as a thrice-weekly columnist for the daily paper in town, an arrangement which ended when I forgot the axiomatic truth that freedom of the press only extends to those rich enough to own one.

I headed for the shelter of Gambit, any port in a storm. And on its pages and in its halls, I learned to enjoy the thoughts and language of the likes of Don Lee Keith, Jason Berry, Pierre DeGruy, Stephanie Riegel, Connie Kringas and the great "cayenne" cartoons of Bunny Matthews. There was immediate and long-term comfort that I was in the company of those who flew so close to the sun. I took the comfort. I could use it.

Almost from the start, the column was slugged "Razoo." The word was from out of my past, a kid-term yelled out when someone had spilled something coveted and now anything grabbed up could be kept.

A relentless number of those early columns were "about" some slice of local life that usually sailed under the radar of newspaper coverage. Here's one titled "Better Days on Dryades Street," harkening back to Joe Barkoff and Irving Gerson and the mostly Jewish merchants of the street. Then one on dirty laundry at the Alamo Cleaners and late-night sightings at the Greyhound bus terminal and a remembrance of Pontchartrain Beach. And others on some of those great, good places that define a community and what it believes: "Staff of Life" (Leidenheimer's). "Bar Stool Baseball" (Milan Lounge), and "B-I-N-G-O" (Jefferson Garden Club).

Here is one called "Black Cat's Call to Post" about the last rites of Allen "Black Cat" Lacombe. He was a boxing and racetrack character who had more personal color than a large box of Crayolas. On the way to the cemetery, the hearse stopped at the racetrack to give Allen one final try at getting first to the finish line. The Black Cat's story was so good; it lacked only a storyteller as good as him to tell it.

Yes. Look and listen to the inane cellphone bleatings up and down the aisles of your best supermarket. We talk much more and say much less. Our talk now is more a tehnological achievement than the sharing of a single thing. I came from a culture, a town and a time, that cherished the continuity of family, of neighborhood and could talk about it. I didn't realize then that this cherishing, this love, was not a universal or an eternal. When I did, I set out to catch some of it as it checked out, even though time and talent left me only a sleeve here, a coat-tail there. ...

But wait. Here's a column named "Sure I Could Write," and it was about a guy from the Bywater who was selling his Smith-Corona Coronet typewriter, who was surrendering his long-held and seldom-realized dream of being a writer.

"I guess I wasn't that disciplined," the Bywater guy said. "You've got to sit down and write, whether you feel good or not, whether you're accepted or not."

And there it was and is. All we know or need to know about writing, summed up by one of the many who loves it more than it loves back. It was a simple truth and being taught me by someone I was writing about. You can learn if you don't teach too much. ...

The writing of a column? A column lies in the dust between an article and an essay. It has a regularity that articles frequently lack, yet lacks a profundity that an essay frequently has.

A column aims at what is the main object of television commentators, and that is the erasing of anonymity between teller and audience. It's an erasure I've never been comfortable with, because the teller of stories, if skilled enough, discovers and reveals secrets about the people in those stories. To learn those secrets, the columnist sometimes acts interested when he is not, sympathetic when he is not, caring when he is not. Columnists are egotistical to pretend to love all. The best among us pretend the best.

What else goes into the composition of a columnist? Yes, of course, the love of language, but this is loving a language the way that Casanova loved women. The kind of love that would drive you while standing on a bus to mentally come up with a 50-word description of the disheveled, disinterested woman standing next to you. And then the surrender, ceaseless and complete, to what one fine writer described as "the hum of perpetual noticing."

And what can you notice now? The New Orleans that was I can only guess at, and the New Orleans that will be I can only guess further at. All that I really have is the New Orleans that is now, and even that is limited to things seen and things remembered. And as our houses sit there without song or sound, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, something vital seeps from them, the energy that is special to each of them bleeds away. After a time, it will be like picking up a horn that has lain unblown in an attic for decades and trying to coax true music from it. So in the meantime, I try to bargain with this force, beg it to stay. ...

A help will be the next 25 years of Gambit, a perpetual noticer of all things Orleanian, both as they are and as they should be. And as a home for those who paddle a little out of the mainstream. Who can measure the buck-up that comes up when you glance left or right and see another paddler there?

For unless we are foolish enough to long remain in the company of those who would discuss it, we don't much know our own work. But here at work is where we pick up our encouragment, better by the pinch than by the dollop. From a colleague, a smile, a nod, a lunch, a drink. From someone who knows. I have been lucky. I hope I have not been ungrateful.

Because if the moon and the months had not met in some conjunction those several years go, the banquet of my days would have tasted bitterly different. Life, at least the part of it sacrificed to work, has been good to me since coming here. In an overwhelming majority of the time, I have been allowed to succeed or fail at places of my own choosing. I didn't always choose the best stories or the best words to tell them, Lord knows.

But where to put them? Good choice, old man. Real good choice. ...

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