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Jamal Mecklai, "Goodbye Joe"

"Goodbye Joe"

Jamal Mecklai

me gotta go, me oh my oh

me gotta go pole the pirogue

down the bayou…

The heartbreaking scenes out of New Orleans these past two weeks brought to mind the lyrics of "Jambalaya," one of thousands of great songs that sprung out of the bayou mud of Southern Louisiana over the past few hundred years.

I know – I guess, "knew" would be a better word today – New Orleans, the Cajun country stretching across South Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast extremely well, having been taken to New Orleans on my first fall break in college – a wide-eyed 21-year old graduate student (relatively) fresh off the boat from India.

It was – to use a contemporary phrase – awesome. Not only did we drink all night and whatever part of the day we were up – I particularly remember sitting on the sidewalk swigging Boone’s Farm Apple wine (99 cents a bottle, I kid you not) – but we danced on the streets, heard the finest music and I almost ended up married to a girl who was dancing naked on my table at a bar just off Bourbon Street one night.And that was just the beginning. Over the next fifteen years, I went to New Orleans maybe twenty thirty times, each time getting in deeper and deeper. In a few years, I even had a table – the one on the left in the corner when you enter – permanently reserved for me at Napoleon House, a wonderful old bar in the French Quarter, on the corner of Chartres and St. Philip (I think).

We – and over the years, the composition of the “we” changed quite a bit – ate the finest Creole cuisine at Antoine’s, breakfasted at Brennans, waited in line for late night omelettes at the Camelia Grill on the corner of Carrolton and St. Charles, and lingered over beigneits, doused in powdered sugar, and chicory coffee at Café du Mond at 2, 3, 4, even 6 in the morning. And, of course, we ate oyster po-boys. Available all over the city, but the best by far were at Cassamento’s uptown on Magazine Street.

And we drank. And drank. And drank. From frozen daiquiris to mint juleps to bourbon to, of course, Dixie beer in longneck bottles. New Orleans is the only city in the U.S. where it is almost mandatory to drink while you’re driving. I don’t drive, so I was compelled to drink in every bar – and there’s one on every corner and sometimes five or six to a block. From the classic tourist traps – like Pat O’Briens, where, after several too many Hurricanes, I once turned into a cockroach and had to keep scrambling to get out of the way of those shitkicking tourist cowboy boots – we drank at bars all over the Quarter, on the other side of the river in Algiers, uptown bars on Napoleon Avenue, and (almost) always ending up at Molly’s at the Market (the best jukebox in New Orleans) in the Quarter.

And we dressed up. We haunted the thrift stores in the gay and voodoo section past the Streetcar named Desire across Esplanade – way back before all of the Quarter had become gay. Bought plum colored pantyhose at Woolworths and wore them decorated with hand-sewn on fried pork skins for the “Every Pig has its Day” Mardi Gras parade over in Gulfport. Wore a hat with a foot and a half long feather to a wedding in the cathedral on Jackson Square, almost upstaging the bride. [This paragraph is constrained of further details since this is a business report.]

And we danced all over the city. On the streets, of course, competing with the old drunks and little black kids tap dancing for quarters. At parties all around town. Jumping out of the car, when we were driving out to hear Zacharay Richard at the Zydeco festival, and doing a wild-ass Cajun shuffle right there on the highway. And, most memorably at a little wooden shack of a place a bit uptown off Tchopitoulas, which was the wildest blues bar I’ve ever been to. I can’t remember its name – it was Billy’s or something like that – but the shack was a little box of a building, which had been blown to a tilt by a hurricane back God knows when, and the owner never bothered to get it fixed. I guess it only stood up because of the music. I remember one night hearing a guy called J.B. Hutto, who had come back from Chicago. He was a little black guy in a pink suit and a strange hat – kind of like a demented Cardinal’s – whose wife, a big black woman, carried his guitar on-stage for him like it was a baby. And, boy, did that baby wail! We danced like crazy people till it got so hot and I was sweating so much that I had burst out the door to get some air. It must have been 3 in the morning, but when I went out – and boom! It was even hotter outside. But that sweet, heavy breeze just off the Mississippi was intoxicating, perhaps more than the several dozen cocktails I had consumed. [Again, abridged, for business reasons.]

And we became the music. Music was the air in New Orleans. Jazzfest. Mardi Gras. Preservation Hall, where the black guys playing were so old, you could hear the records scratch when they played. The Neville Brothers, Dr. John at Tippitina’s, Professor Longhair at Commander Cody’s. And one-eyed Billy Wolf, our guide to the nightlife.

Ah, New Orleans! The Big Easy! Laissez le bon temps roullez – let the good times roll!

And now, Goodbye Joe.

Breaks my heart. Will we ever meet again?

But, in any case, God is great and, perhaps, the other result of Hurricane Katrina may be the end of the “zero tolerance, winner takes all, let’s buy everything at Walmart” way of life. The most interesting analysis I read of the horrible mess was in an article in the Financial Times, which pointed out that the tragedy of poor, black Americans suffering like people in Bangladesh or Africa was a direct result of the political belief – started by Ronald Reagan, and continued through all the the Republican-dominated Congresses since then till it is the accepted wisdom today – that Government is basically the problem; and the less government there is the better. Living here in India, we could be forgiven for feeling the same way, but, as the events of the past few weeks have graphically shown, this “tending-to-zero” government leads to trauma, tragedy and, yes, a failure of civilization.

And that, too, in the richest country in the world, which is also these days globally famous for delivering lectures on “a civilized society”.

Huge numbers of Americans, already fed up with their current government’s misadventures are horribly upset with what they have seen on TV. And while peoples’ memories are notoriously short – how many of us in Mumbai actively remember the trauma we suffered with the floods just a month or so ago, perhaps, even turning it back towards a more interventionist government for decades to come.

So, what does this imply for financial markets, and, more specifically, the dollar? Well, a more interventionist U.S. government means a higher budget deficit, greater protectionism and a weaker dollar. Global growth may not suffer immediately, since the balancing force of Asian mercantilism may continue to keep interest rates low. But, at some point, U.S. growth will have to slow down, and, then, unless Japan, China, and the rest of us have continued to really accelerate, look out…

In particular, Katrina may well bring the long simmering racial tensions in the U.S. to a boil. That the U.S. has, over the past few decades, become two countries – one mostly white and the other mostly black – has been obvious. What has amazed me is that there haven’t been any significant racial tensions there for years either. Judging from the temperature of recent rhetoric, this may be about to change. Perhaps, we may have to add increasing internal instability in the U.S. to the long list of event risk factors that overhang financial markets.

In the meanwhile, of course, the Sensex blew through 8,000 like a hurricane. Like the song goes

Jambalaya, crawfish pie and file gumbo

’cause tonight I’m gonna see my machez amio

Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh

Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.