Monday, May 05, 2008

Last stop: Atlanta

Atlanta, GA. (that's right, start singing Georgia on my know I just did) I haven't been to this city in 13 years (it does not seem possible that it was that long ago) and who knew that it would be the last official stop on this...I can't just say "trip"...this journey I have been on for the last 29 days. I had planned to drop in on Washington, DC, but I admit it, I miss my husband and the idea of getting back a day early overruled hitting the nation's capitol. And knowing me, I would have slacked off more than I did in New Orleans as I just love all the Smithsonian Museums and would have decided to just walk through all of them and forget to talk to people at all...unless I saw somebody intriguing in one of them...

Anyhoo, once again, my friend Doug provided me with a lovely interview in the form of his college friend Rivka. (by the way, Doug, I have now seen the picture of you when you were 4...sooooo cute!) Rivka has indeed been asked "What are you?" but finds that it is more often in the rural areas than in Atlanta proper. She explained how this most likely is probably due more to the fact that the folks who immigrated to the south tended to be white Europeans - your blond or sandy- haired Irish, English and German. Her people are Russian Orthodox Jews with primarily fair skin and dark hair (Rivka does have a quite amazing mane of black curls...if I could be sure my hair could look like hers as it grew out, I'd actually consider doing it). Like the majority of southerners I have met, she does agree that the blatant question of "what are you?" is rather rude and intrusive and prefers - and has more often been asked the more polite and subtle "Where are you from?" or even "What is your heritage?" She is happy to oblige with an answer, but at the same time, particularly as a performer, would prefer not to be pigeonholed. "What about the rest of me? What about my personality?" The "what are you?" factor for her also means, like for the Native Americans I spoke to, straddling two worlds. She grew up in and lives in an Orthodox household, but in order to perform, she did have to give up living the Orthodox lifestyle as in that culture, women are not allowed to perform in front of men. She did struggle with this decision as she feels very strongly about her faith and culture - "it is very much a part of who I am", she says - but she also feels that she was given this gift and passion for a reason. I gotta agree with her after seeing her perform at the Georgia Renaissance Faire with her groups Three Quarter Ale and Half Pint. She does at least have one outlet that allows her to live in both worlds: she directs a musical every year at the Jewish girls high school in her neighborhood and just loves it. If her girls read this, she just brags on you and is so proud. "I just love my girls!"

I have to say that this was a nice connection not only because Rivka was such a cool host and fun person to chat with, but also because her father's side of the family goes waaaaay back in New Orleans. If you know any Levine's down there or see store fronts with that name down there, they most likely are her people.

It was also fun to go from JazzFest to the Ren Faire (ah...memories of my days at the Medieval Manor...yes, I was a wench once...)

So what have I learned along the way? That, like Wendy is LA said, "there's no distinct face of America". We truly are our own entity and the "what are you?" culture we have, which is everything from honest curiosity to learn more about each other and our many mingled traditions, to something used in judgement or as a litmus test (though I am wagering with the younger generation that this is increasingly less frequent), is an ever evolving part of who we are as a people. I also feel I had it confirmed for me that, as I say in my show, we are not whats, but endless generations of whos and it does not matter "where you are from", because "we all got somethin'". There is still so much more learning to do... :p

I am presently on the train back to New York, where the next phase of this journey begins: some last interviews and then putting all this material together. But before all that begins, I have so many people to thank. There are the people who donated funds for this ages ago and just before I left (and even while on the road - thank you Michael!). There are the people who put me up and put up with me in their homes: old friends, new friends and new family. There are the folks who have been reading this blog and sending comments and positive thoughts along the way. And then there are all the people who took the time to talk to me, whether it was for five minutes or for an hour, it was such a pleasure and an honor. I have to say I've been truly blessed all around. And particularly with the support of my husband without whose encouragement and support - emotional and technical - this trip may not have happened and certainly would not have gone as well.

I should be home soon, and for those not in NYC, I hope to see y'all again soon either here or back where you are. There's still work to be done, hence this blog is not done, so come back if y'all want to stay updated on the latest! In the meantime, be well and...

Peace --Alex

Rolling with the good times...

We all know the motto of New Orleans: Laissez bon temps roulez! (let the good times roll!) And it is very hard not to live by that motto while in the Crescent City. Being poor/on a budget actually kept me out of real trouble, though not out of Jazz Fest.

Wednesday night was spent first settling into the hostel I was staying and then getting a bit of my bearings in the city. My friend Rachel, a native New Yorker now living in NOLA, started us off by having us meet at Lafayette Park for a food and music festival. Blues artist Marcia Ball was performing when we got there and serenaded us through sandwiches involving pulled pork (hers) and handmade sausage with the place's own mustard (mine). Just when I thought I was slipping back into decent eating habits, I hit New Orleans; though I suppose the New Orleans sense of "decent" and mine differ...and I happen to like their "decent" better...

After checking that scene out for a bit, we mosied by foot through the warehouse district and eventually to "the quarter". I have now seen Bourbon Street in its tacky, neon, tourist-geared glory...and somehow managed not to get a yard of Hurricane. The rest of the quarter is lovely and I could tell that should I have time to spend there, it would be a dangerous place full of small shops, galleries and antiques. And there does seem to be a constant hum of music throughout the place.

We later got dinner at a fine restaurant called August where we shared a tasting menu that included crawfish and other fab fare...the food is just ridiculously tasty there. And I had to remind myself, "wait! I'm here to get work done!" I actually got a little twitchy about it as it was becoming painfully obvious that it was going to be hard to do that here.

Thursday: JazzFest. This day had been planned as such as I had been told that besides all the amazing music (excuse me, was I drooling?), and food (gotta stop that), they do have tents dealing with the traditions and heritage of New Orleans. The city truly is it's own entity with history that precedes it's annexation into our nation, down to fairly laissez-faire race relations until slave revolts firmed up anti-miscegenation laws. I went to one of these tents that dealt with cultural traditions such as the parade and costume clubs. I met two ladies from the Ladies of Unity: "a social and pleasure club" that has been around for decades and mainly gets ladies together to do events and fundraising. They are one of the last groups in the city to hand make their own costumes with elaborately beaded sashes and brightly colored fans of ribbons and feathers. One lady, Elaine, had never been asked "What are you?" and also wouldn't think of asking it. The other lady had been asked a few times, did not necessarily find it rude, but did find it unecessary as most people are "something" here anyway. She knows that besides being black, she's "a little Chocktaw, a little white" and "it don't matter" as that's just the way it is.

Another woman I spoke to across the way at a table about the making of the floats for Mardi Gras said that she had been asked "What are you?" fairly often as, while French and Italian, she is often mistaken for Mexican or other Latina cultures. She feels that it is general curiousity and generally feels bad that she can't reply to the people who may just go right up and speak Spanish to her.

The last woman I spoke to creates Day of The Dead work (truly gorgeous and as I have a thing for skulls, some of my favorite art). She said she frequently has been asked "What are you?" from her home state of Virginia, to the Southwest, to New Orleans. And while working on Day of the Dead pieces, which many in New Orleans see more as VooDoo pieces...and she herself is often seen as Creole...she decided to explore her own culture more as she had never really gone into the depths of her own Mexican and South American background. She feels that making the Day of the Dead work is an expression of that exploration of her roots, herself and her art.

And then, it was back to the music...

Friday was spent with beignets, beads and a muffaletta sandwich as well as searching for a not so busy coffee shop in the quarter, but with NOLA being a tourist mecca AND having JazzFest in town, it was something close to impossible. And then there was more music to be seen...depsite the heat...and the intermittent rain...and with humidity that rivals a New York or Boston summer; it's the kind that makes you feel like you can never quite get dry or clean. It makes you see why things move a little slower in the south.

At the finish of Stevie Wonder, I did manage to pull a guy aside for an interview (and it turned out he also happens to play in a favorite band of mine called Topaz). Bob is from Texas and has occasionally been asked "the question", but doesn't think that much about it. His grandfather was adopted so there is some missing info as it is, but otherwise, he is "a Texas boy" and that is what he knows most and best.

Today, I am on the way to Atlanta for the final stop on the trip. It, again, boggles the mind that I have been traveling for a month and this journey is nearly over. As I got out my ticket for today, I saw that I only have one left from the pile of over twenty. Tomorrow I will use that last ticket to get back to my home and my husband and my own bed...and then get crackin' on putting all of these experiences together.

Peace --Alex

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Gentile South...

When I was first entering into Jackson, MS on the train, and it was taking a bit too long to get to the station platform, after taking a bit too long to get to Jackson, period (did I mention the sinkhole in Memphis: 24 feet wide, apparently, and one of a handful that are reeking havoc on train travel right now?) I was talking to some ladies and one of them asked me about my travels. When I explained how I am exploring the "What are you?" culture of America, she replied with "What an ill-mannered question!" and that is the general response I got from folks here.

One girl I talked to, Rita, is Hispanic-Italian and does get the question a lot, but does figure it's curiosity, let's it slide. But doesn't think it's necessarily polite either.

Another woman I spoke to, a Coast Guard gal who's name I cannot remember to save my life at the moment (sorry! but I have it on tape!), said that she has not been asked the question, but has asked her head. She believes it is terribly rude to ask someone that, particularly if you barely know them. "Maybe after you know them a while..." and both of you are more comfortable, but otherwise, certainly not. She does believe it is something unique to this nation, mainly as "Americans are bold."

Lastly, I spoke to a great woman named Leah on the train. She is Cajun and yes, she gets asked all the time about it. She also finds it rude to ask, particularly as a first get-to-know-you question. She also finds that many men use this as an ice-breaker and perhaps a way to judge and finds it awkward. She told me that I ought to talk to wait staff on Bourbon St. or elsewhere in the French Quarter: "If they're Cajun...Creole...they will not hold back..." Looks like I'll have to check this out when I get there.

In the meantime, Jackson, the home of Eudora Welty, Jackson State University, and the Mayflower Cafe which has been around for 73 years, was a lovely place to stay, and thank you Pastor Rob for not only being a pleasant host but recommending Cups cafe as a place to camp out :) And look out for his friend Henderson at the Democratic Convention as he was elected as a delegate for Obama from MS.

Peace --Alex