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Share My Work Ethic

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If the Tax Day Tea Party which took place locally out by Lakeside Mall in Metairie on April 15 were seeking converts to the cause, there was probably no better audience than myself. I had just spent a grueling weekend filing my taxes; I had that morning attended an employee meeting for a group of us who are hired to hustle beer during the upcoming Jazz Fest; my wife has a baby on the way; I daily interact with citizens who are unemployed and who do not seem to be actively looking for work, and the ones that are looking seem somehow “illegal”; my home has burglar bars on every window; and the online magazine which I edit (for no money) has recently featured stories recounting home invasions.

So if ever I was ready to entertain the notion of washing my hands of all things New Orleans and give myself over to the suburban idyll, to make friends with other put-upon Americans who feel besieged by the direction our More Perfect Union has shifted, it was now.

And there they were, ready to welcome me as I rejoined America: a little girl sitting atop a military jeep, waving a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag; an old fellow dressed as Kim Jong Il, an Obama/Biden button pinned into his lapel, WWII propaganda-style Japanese teeth jutting out of his mouth; a sea of spirited citizens waving signs signifying their frustration and outrage:

I Am Now A Government Target
Don’t Share My Wealth, Share My Work Ethic (multiple signs)
One Big Awful Mistake America (catch the acronym?)
Overburdened Middle-Class Taxpayer
Drill Now (the two lls in “Drill” made to look like a map of Louisiana)
I Am Not Your ATM
Free Markets, Not Free Loaders

And my favorite:

PECANS, Not ACORNS

PECANS, it took me a minute to decipher, stood for People Embracing Capitalism And Not     Socialism. ACORNS, you may know, is a reference to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a group thoroughly unloved by white conservative America and a frequent target of criticism.

And I might as well come out and say it: this was a staggeringly white event. It would be disingenuous for me to pretend I was surprised, but even David Duke was able to trot out a black minister to support him here and there. I counted exactly one black person in attendance that was not employed by the news media, and she was there to hand out flyers on behalf of Senator David Vitter. (One has to consider the irony inflicted on this poor young woman. I imagine her Southern Baptist social conservatism precluded any chance of working for a pro-choice politician, so she found herself employed by a Values Republican who got himself caught cavorting with a prostitute.)

A reasonable response to the whiteness of the crowd might be: So what? No one was excluded from the event. It was an act of free association in a free society. And, I’ll even offer, most of the fey, artsy events I attend in my “charmingly diverse” Bywater neighborhood are pretty fucking white, too. So I won’t make any more of it than is justified.

But I will admit to this: For the entire time I stood among this crowd, I was filled with dread. Dread like a-cop-pulls-you-over-and-you-have-a-bag-of-weed-under-your-seat-dread. And I knew, almost instantly, that the suburban idyll, at least as it is practiced in Jefferson Parish, is not for me.

And what, exactly, had this crowd so riled up? Wasteful government spending, of course. But as one by one folks got up to speak, not one single example of wasteful spending was cited. To be fair, one of the speakers admitted that not everyone agreed on what constituted wasteful, but that everyone agreed in general principle. But I am left wondering what folks think of the massive federal highway project on the I-10 which was taking place a 1776-era musket shot away, a reconfiguration of the Causeway which when completed will whisk people away from the cesspool of New Orleans to the magical North Shore in a more efficient manner. Or how about the construction of the new parking garage adjacent to the Macy’s in Lakeside Mall, where many people gathered for a bird’s-eye view of the rally. If the financing structure is anything like the one that is bringing the Carrollton Shopping plaza into existence (both properties are owned by Jeffrey Feil), a healthy tax credit and GO Zone funds were a part of it.

Perhaps most disappointing of all was the utter nationalization of the event. Glenn Dubroc, the man credited with organizing the event, went to great lengths to assure the crowd that this was not some FOX News Karl Rove-ish master manipulation, but in fact was an organic uprising, one that began, as he said, with “one email.” Still, weren’t all Louisianans relatively united four years ago in the mission to thug as much federal money as we could out of D.C. to fix our levees, rebuild our coast, revitalize neighborhoods etc? When did we become “Americans” again? (And rest assured we were reminded of this fact: in the course of one hour, we were treated to renditions of “Don’t Tread On Me,” “Proud To Be An American,” “America The Beautiful,” the Pledge of Allegiance (massive crowd emphasis on “under God”), “God Bless America,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”.) If it weren’t for a few friendly folks sipping Fat Tuesday Daiquiris, we could have been anywhere in the United States.

So what happened?

And here opinions will diverge. The crowd at the tea party will blame New Orleans for being an untrustworthy steward of the funds. They may believe that all the recovery money was squandered on spinning rims, drugs, and baby formula. Other people may look at companies like KBR and Bechtel, who landed the initial federal cleanup and construction contracts, which then got sub, sub-sub, and sub-sub-sub contracted until only a fraction of the money got on the ground. Still others may say, as they said at the rally regarding the failed companies seeking bailout money, that if people can’t recover on their own, make their own way back to New Orleans, then so be it. They need to fail.

The reason closest to the truth, however, is that Barack Obama happened, the same way Bill Clinton happened.

And here’s my dirty confession: I’ve been to this show before, sixteen years ago. It was 1993. I had spent the past 3 years devouring all of Ayn Rand’s writing; I carried subscriptions to National Review, The American Spectator, Chronicles (so conservative I bet you never even heard of it) and, to keep tabs on the opposition, The New Republic. I had an autographed copy of Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought To Be, had gotten it by driving to New York to attend his TV show. I rejoiced at the 1994 Republican takeover of the House and Senate.

I confess all this in order to lend some Ethos to the following unsupported assertion: fuck all that.

I left the rally and got back to Orleans Parish as fast as I could. I bought a six-pack and sat in an empty lot in the Marigny and watched my pregnant wife hula-hoop. It was a perfect dusk evening. As I drank, dozens of the city’s destitute lined up along the river to receive food. The hula-hoops caught the attention of a young woman on a bike, and she asked to join in. After she worked up a sweat, she asked me for a beer and I gave her one. I asked her where she worked. She asked, “why do you assume I work” then confessed to a job at a bar on Bourbon Street. I told her about my gig. We toasted to making enough money over Jazz Fest so we wouldn’t have to work for a while.

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