Second Line, First Rate

Matt Labash, one of my favorite writers over the last decade, turns in this stunning Weekly Standard piece about the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras in New Orleans. If I actually had the nerve to write for a living, I would hope to God that I’d be able to write like this:

Shane, once a happy-go-lucky type, quick to laugh and slow to anger, often feels as though he’s losing his mind. His wife, Christine, tells me that he now barks at her and everyone else over the slightest provocation, or over none at all. He also drinks too much. Formerly a good-time social drinker, he now drinks during the day, and can only sleep after several glasses of bourbon and a Xanax. “If I don’t drink, I don’t sleep–period,” he admits. When he’s not thinking about the insurance money that he can’t spend, he thinks about the savings that he already has spent (about $60,000 of it, between rentals, unreimbursed repairs, and transportation to and fro, which has seen him put over 30,000 miles on his truck in four months).

Since Katrina, he’s spent over $10,000 to board his beloved five dogs. He’s considered putting slugs in their brains, just to end their anxiety of being checked in and out of kennels when they’re used to living in a spacious barn, and having pastures to run. Because of it, they have skin problems, and have dropped all kinds of weight. The other night, Shane ended up in the emergency room, his throat swelling so severely that he had to spit in a wastebasket instead of swallowing–perhaps because of the stress, perhaps because of the mold and the toxic mud which comes up through holes in his first floor. The air quality is causing a discharge from the baby’s eyes.

Shane misses a lot of simple things: lying on a couch, which he no longer has, getting a glass of water in the middle of the night without putting on a coat, thawing his seafood in the kitchen instead of the bathroom sink, walking barefoot in his place without getting an infection. He wants out of what was once his dream house, since he can’t afford to fix it. It’s strangling him. But a part of him wants to stay.

Or this:

Rebirth [Brass Band] got their start two decades ago, hauling their high school band instruments home through the Quarter, playing for Popeye’s and beer money. A motley crew in Rocawear jerseys, Saints shirts, and headbands, their music is fierce without being angry, exuberant without being giddy. They do a short set at the Zulu event, then move across the street in front of Harrah’s casino to really air things out. I watch them take the stage, their music pulling in throngs of unsuspecting stragglers as though they had magnets attached to their foreheads. Rebirth doesn’t just kill, they smite, and not just men, but women, children, and livestock.

Their bass drum and tuba lay a tandem, chest-thumping bottom, while their stable of horn players hold the loose groove, careening around each other through the intersection, then smacking together like bumper cars. They sing, “Feel like funkin’ it up.” And they’re not the only ones. White girls in tight jeans feel like funkin’ it up. Black men in Kangols feel like funkin’ it up. Old white women dancing with young black men (not a sight you see everyday, even in New Orleans) feel like funkin’ it up. I might’ve felt like funkin’ it up, too, if I hadn’t been taking notes on all the others funkin’ it up, which, mercifully, I was.

A 12-year-old black kid jumps on the stage and feels like funkin’ it up for the rest of the show, dancing every dance he knows: the dandruff-brush, the jump-the-turnstile, the Azusa Street Fire-Baptized Holiness shake. He dances so hard, and with such conviction, that he distracts the trumpet players, making them forget themselves, as they so skillfully make the rest us do the same. Philip Frazier, the band’s cofounder and tuba player, explains how it works to me after the show: “You get white and black together. Everybody in one accord. The music just takes their souls–that’s when we’re doing our job.”

Or… oh, hell, just read the whole thing.