new orleans Archive


Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts









The young author of “Harlem is Nowhere,” ( in repose. In New Orleans. At home in the world, which is “nowhere,” that is, an ever present state, her home being herself, sometimes dressed in blue, her hair plaited in a way that suits rather than frames the image that is her face, with sculptural properties Brancusci could not shape ore re-shape via his imagination since his African-ness came from Europe and Sharifa’s Africanness was shaped in America, which is flat and big, or round and small, in any case Texas is her home but at present she’s in New Orleans and tomorrow it could be some place else, since her blue dress will make an appearance, always, in the space called somewhere else. She may not live with you since she lives in the world. Her blue dress, the green leaves of her salad. I can smell both (smell is the way I take people in, or expel them; I can’t love you anymore if I can’t bear the way you eat or smell) just now in New York, days after sitting with her in a cafe in New Orleans, where she told me something about herself and told me the brownie I picked up for desert would get smashed flat in her bag if she didn’t eat it right now. I know her, and don’t know her, and want more of both experiences: knowing and not knowing her. In thinking about her, I had to read about her, and there is some of her in Gaston Bachelard’s beautiful “The Poetics of Space,” when he writes: “The house furnishes us dispersed images and a body of images at the same time….Our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty.” That is Sharifa’s work: looking at things intimately, humble or no. But there’s a second level of work– her body, her corner of the world, a structure–her body, her self–that young women rarely claim as freely as Sharifa has. So doing, she has created a body of images in my mind that includes her making her way through green leaves on her plate, or in her neighborhood in New Orleans, wearing her blue dress, lit up with herself.


New Orleans (for Truman)

In 1946, when he was roughly twenty-two years old, Truman Capote published an essay about his home town–New Orleans. In that beautiful piece of writing, the author observed: “New Orleans streets have long, lonesome perspectives; in empty hours their atmosphere is like Chirico, and things innocent, ordinarily…acquire qualities of violence.” So saying, Capote was, of course, describing the imagination, and how it can get to work in a place like New Orleans, which is empty and haunted and struggling and alive, all at once. He was not wrong about the “long, lonely perspectives,” that can haunt you as you move from Treme to the Quarter to Canal Street, then Uptown. The heat seals New Orleans off from the rest of the world while citizens wouldn’t have it any other way: who would want to be like the rest of the world? Palm trees and cement, wide avenues, balconies made up in the old colonial style, and then, over in Treme, row houses built on high foundations, with slats built into doors, so air circulates through shotgun houses, but actually you’re not living on air in New Orleans anyway but liquid that sits on top of air, squishing it with a laugh. And at night the insect world that feeds on liquid feeds on New Orleans; the city is alive with the sound of insects, Northern girls scream and Southern Girls giggle as the sound of their skirts swishing in the dead of night mingles with beetles singing and the sound of a cigarette being lit. What can happen to your body in that night? Near Congo Square the air is as black as your worst thoughts; a gas station is a figment of your imagination, your dreams, your nightmares. Fill ‘er up! But where’s the attendant? Where’s the rest of the world? A shirtless Creole-looking boy crosses N. Rampart Street and disappears, and then you disappear, too, down Royal into what? A street scene near the Hotel Monteleone, and on corner where there’s a drug store with the old neon sign: an impromptu street scene, a woman dancing near a trombone: New Orleans as a living cliche that lives. Sometimes, afraid of the night or what I might look like in it, let alone what might happen to me in it, or sometimes, late in the afternoon, when I can no longer swim in the swimming, steaming, air, I go to the Napoleon House, a bar and restaurant in the French Quarter, I always forget it until I see it again, over on Chartres Street (pronounced Chart-ers Street; don’t make the mistake of pronouncing anything French-like, no one will understand you). Napoleon House sags and stands erect in its middle, the walls a victim of that Louisiana air, an element that makes a play thing of paint and plaster, and finds doors obscene. In that place of wooden tables, palms, and white table clothes, air circulates with the help of fans, and the bartender conducts his own personal business as you decide whether or not your body can afford more delusions over ice, or another sandwich made of peppers. Excess is this city’s middle name. Have you ever felt like you had an excess of time? New Orleans days are stretched to their limit, and then night appears as suddenly as it was forgotten, and then it starts again: the lonely perspective, the violence, a political disaster where no one passes you without a lovely “Good morning.” Or slow and comprehending, “Good night.”

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Versions of Masculinity

In New Orleans. Clouds like planes of solid atmosphere. The heat that sends you scurrying and then laying flat. An atmosphere of dazed reconciliation. My gay pride was spent here amidst sudden showers, and not knowing the gay scene at all. The feeling of being displaced, uncomfortable, was balanced by the joy of not knowing who one is when one travels. Before I left New York, I stopped in at a party where I was pleased–indeed, honored–to run into the brilliant stage and costume designer Machine Dazzle, whose decor strikes me as the most original I’ve seen in years. Dressed in his customary original manner–his dress looked like the lining one would find in an expensive coffin–Dazzle offset the other versions of maleness that have enriched me over the years, including another reveler whose chest hair was as much of an accessory as his angel wings and the rose tucked behind his ear. In New Orleans, the late Sylvester glowed like an angel as one of his old videos played in a dark, wooden, bar, the rain falling out a sun bright sky, and then there was this young boy today, who was working out in the hotel gym just now, frightened and then not, to look at his evolving gay image in the mirror.