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Careful of What?

October 22, 2012

In last week’s episode we were gifted with the appearance of James “Sugar Boy” Crawford on screen singing secular music. Davis McAlary was awed, as were we. Why? Oh so many reasons, not the least of which is that Mr. Crawford went home in September 2011, which means that that scene is probably the very last recorded note, visual or audio, that we’ll ever have of him. Every single time you hear Jockamo/Iko coming over your iPod speakers, on stage, on your car radio, it’s this man you can thank. (We’re not going to get into the whole Jockamo-Crawford-1953/Iko-Dixie Cups-1965 history here. I’ll post some links in the comments if you’re really interested in that, and it is interesting.) Those of us here in New Orleans, however, know the back story to why he only sang in church, or occasionally with his grandson Davell’s band, for the last 40+ years of his life.

Before I explain that though, I gotta say that all week, I felt a dread-that “waiting for the other shoe to drop” dread. L.P. Everett in Sofia’s car, both looking over their shoulders in the dark, and the overwhelming sense of a powerful darkness following them. No words. No chainsaws. No screaming girls falling down in the forest. No big chase scene. Just big, quiet, unspoken fear that was more frightening than any slasher film. It’s the kind of fear that ties your guts into a knot. This week that other shoe dropped. This was not something unknown in the City of New Orleans or the State of Louisiana, not something brand new that Katrina short sheeted so that the dropping shoe was finally recognized as a boot. That boot had been around for a long, long time, the bogeyman’s boot, but here the bogeyman wore a badge.

Mr. Crawford’s appearance was a warning, again unspoken, except by his grandson who gave a short explanation to Davis, when asked why his grandfather no longer sang secular music. He said, “Police beat all that out of him. Now he’s singing for the Lord.” He followed that up with, “That’s New Orleans.” You see, Mr. Crawford and his band were in a nice car, going to a gig in Northern Louisiana in 1963 when they were stopped. According to a great interview in Offbeat Magazine in 2002, one of the state police officers didn’t much care for Mr. Crawford’s attitude and set about pistol whipping him to such a devastating degree that it took him two years to recuperate. According to that interview, he attempted a comeback, but by 1969 he made his choice to sing only in church, only for the Lord. We sure can’t blame him as he most assuredly wasn’t the only person to find himself on the wrong side of a conversation with a police officer in the 40 intervening years.

As we watched that episode and felt the fear becoming more and more palpable, the appearance of Sugar Boy Crawford singing was akin to keeping an eye on the canary in the coal mine. This week we saw what we were being warned about.

Grayson’s face as Toni tries to reason with him about family being off limits, is stony and openly hostile. The police wielding pepper spray and tazers in the midst of the housing protestors are wreaking havoc with relish. The uniformed cop who knocked on the door to inform Toni that her windshield had been smashed was almost mockingly and defiantly nonchalant. Super-imposed over those events is the image of Henry Glover’s skull flickering on a laptop screen, still with us from the week before.

So now the bogeyman has been shown to be a many headed creature, and Toni’s mild reassurances to L.J. about attorneys or journalists having relative safety compared to “people who live round the way” have been shattered along with her windshield.

For our City this was a frightening time. Crime was up. Housing stock was down and soon to be down even further. Monied interests were heading in with the New York-ification ideas that are behind the Jazz Center and Janette’s restaurant and the knocking down of the “Big 4” (which is a whole topic in itself.) Reeling from the storm, the staggering challenges of rebuilding and disappointment that followed, we watched as the bodies fell in the streets wondering sometimes if we’d be the next one whose photo would be surrounded by votives and grief on the street corner we fell on. We were vocal but ultimately helpless as LSU decimated Mid-City with guys like Hidalgo charming people out of their homes. We saw the wrecking balls and sorrow of the NOAH catastrophe. We formed committees and neighborhood groups and called our City Council person and wrote letters to the editor (we still had a paper then) and the Mayor. We were sad, angry, disillusioned, disgusted, disheartened, but we held each other up as we joined with our friends, downing our Prozac with whiskey and a beer back. We played our music loud, danced til we collapsed and wished we could sit astride Old Hickory’s bronze horse in the Square spouting the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V to rally our flagging spirits. In short, we did whatever it took to keep it together to fight the good fight again tomorrow.

But the bogeyman lurked and the fear made itself at home in our bones as we heard multiple stories of regular folks calling the police to report a crime only to wind up handcuffed in the backseat of the cruiser themselves. We watched the news reports of indictments on the Danziger Bridge cops and knew they weren’t the only ones out there who might wish us harm on any given night. We saw a badge not as a sign of protection and security in this trying time, but as a warning to abandon hope all ye who enter here. In a time when a sense of community was so necessary, and folks were still trying to stand strong, it was an us vs. them time instead, and the number of “thems” grew by the day. We despised the way the recovery was handled by the “thems”, but we were frightened by those sworn to protect and serve.

I had been told long ago that there was no black and no white, only blue, on the police force. This is not entirely unique to New Orleans. During that time we knew it, we knew the bogeyman when we saw him (or her), so while we sobbed over the murder rate we felt no sense of safety or hope because the police had been shown to be murderers and thugs themselves. Certainly not all of them were bad cops, but the bad cops didn’t have a special insignia designating them as such so all were given a wide berth.

Had L.J. come to any of us at that time and asked his question, “Careful of what?” we would have asked him to take another look at young Mr. Glover’s skull and to listen for the sound of the other boot dropping as he looked into the powerful darkness behind him.

These have been tough episodes to watch, but that tells me that the writers can pack a lot of PTSD into a 2 minute exchange, and that’s great drama. Although, frankly, I would have preferred a bit less drama in our real lives at that time. This season is at the half way mark, so we won’t be faint hearted, but will go once more into the breach, my friends. Still wish I could shout that drunkenly from Old Hickory’s horse.

By the way, the Offbeat interview from 2002 is wonderful and can be found here: .http://www.offbeat.com/2002/02/01/james-sugar-boy-crawford/

7 Comments
  1. October 22, 2012 4:57 pm

    Strong stuff.

    As you say, and this kind of cop and coply behavior is not confined to New Orleans, not by any means. Or even to cops.

    Love, C.

  2. October 23, 2012 7:33 am

    Sam, I looked forward to this post since you mentioned you were writing it last week. Thank you. I would imagine there are many who find the show simply too difficult to watch, or if they do watch it, find themselves immobilized for days after a given episode – standing in front of the cupboard with hand outstretched, mind too busy to remember what it is that one started reaching for.

    PTSD. No doubt.

  3. October 24, 2012 10:37 am

    Our off-duty (security) cop used to ask me out as I walked home to my car at night. I told him I’m married. It only made him ask more. Some evenings he wasn’t there at all when he should have been. A number of those times, my colleagues were held up. Lots of other less-benign things happened during that time, but I like the windshield on this blog.

    Sam, baby, where is your anthology of somewhat-known New Orleans history?

  4. dexterjohnson permalink
    October 24, 2012 1:09 pm

  5. October 25, 2012 4:40 pm

    It took me a while to get back to reply to this. Clearly the writers and director managed to create a tremendously atmospheric sense of dread and apprehension. I wonder how successfully they have built empathy for the characters for viewers outside New Orleans. I imagine there was a pause to discuss what was going on before they unpaused the DVR and moved onto Boardwalk Empire. I wish we were as lucky to have that sort of compartmentalization The fictional events are too close to the bone. I have to be on a panel after a preview showing Sunday night, and if something happens in the Toni/LJ story line it’s going to be a lot like the political cocktail party I attended just a few days after the flood, at which some wildly insensitive remarks were made and the former chief of staff of a United State Senator has no idea how close he came to being a splatter on the sidewalk six stories below the rooftop bar.

    Remember, in New Orleans the P stands for Permanent.

  6. October 25, 2012 11:05 pm

    Speaking for myself, Mark, when I watch the episode of the week, usually that is the only TV I watch that night. I need time to try to figure out what I learned, or why the show made me feel a certain way – to digest it. Watching anything else afterward would be like going to MacDonalds for a burger chaser on your way home from a 7 course meal at a gourmet restaurant.

    (OT I watched the first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire, but by the end of season 2, I realized that it was truly just violent for violence sake. No more, thank you.)

  7. Beth Arnette permalink
    November 5, 2012 11:01 pm

    Brilliant blog. Treme is my show period, not just my HBO show. Won’t know what to do when it ends. Maybe we can still talk about it, and/or some New Orleans. I am a Hurricane Ike survivor from Galveston, Texas. (I watched part of a Boardwalk Empire episode because the home interiors and costumes caught my eye; but, to me it’s just another gangster show, even if the story is based on a actual person). This Treme episode showed some gangster menace from law enforcement that is all too real in everyday life.

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