Consuming Culture in New Orleans

Sometimes doing research feels a lot like pure nosiness.  I’ve been calling around to retail businesses to ask about their policies regarding employees with tattoos…basically, can they show tattoos at work or not?  More than one person has been rather put off by this and it is getting tiresome to keep calling and pestering new people with the same question, fearing their ornery wrath.  It’s part of a project that I am working on for the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference in New Orleans this fall.  I’m chairing a panel on Consumer Culture.

To be honest, I’m a little more riveted by the idea of writing short stories in Jackson Square, while covered shamelessly in powdered sugar from about eighty beignets.  I will also purchase cat art and quite possibly a gator head from the barrel of them that they sold at the Canal St. Walgreens, assuming that that Walgreens still maintains the same high quality level of inventory that I remember and cherish.

I really liked New Orleans when I was there last.  I loved all the street music, vibrantly colored homes of the French Quarter, artwork being sold in and out of galleries, etc.  I feel so lucky to see the same things that I am reminding myself to also look at different things too.  I might see the wax museum, get a tarot card reading, or try exploring one of the voodoo shops.  Of course, all of this is a hazard for my friends and family, who still hear about the trip from a couple years ago.  I overshare about it with the kind of frequency and reverence of Cliff Klaven talking about Florida on Cheers.

I’ve wondered at times what it would be like to live there.  However, I’m worried that if I did it would start to lose the magical associations that I have with it.  That is, my wonderment at staring at Fats Domino’s post-Katrina piano might stop being wonderment.  It might become just a place where I take out the trash, buy a bag of oranges, or trim my toenails.  I like to think of it like I have slipped worlds and slid into this very special space where I feel very free and very much myself.  Of course, I still look like a shy, mild-mannered tourist with a decent alcohol slushie buzz, but inside I feel this laxness, this okayness.  (That could be the slushie, I know.)  Maybe all of the strip joints and the jumbo Hustler store somehow make me feel like an acceptable person, like all of the things I write about are ordinary here.

This is a problem that I have:  writer versus writing.  People introduced to one often feel flummoxed by the other.  I am really rather docile looking.  I like polka dots.  I call my cats “Mama’s babies.”  However, I write fiction about sexy things, dark things, sad things, so many things.  Anybody reading my stories will quickly spot an ongoing obsession with the body.  I’d like to think it is a positive obsession, more about connection and desire than anything else.  In some idyllic part of my mind, I’d like to think that the strip clubs that I pass share that feeling with me.  They probably don’t.  I want to think of these women as empowered, joyously physical people having fun teasing an admiring audience.  However, I have heard men (I’m sure women do it too) lament stripper’s breasts, weight, etc.  I’m not turned on by every woman I see either, but this kind of thinking depresses me.  Just because I’m not attracted to her doesn’t mean that there is something wrong or unacceptable about her.  I don’t need to demean her for not being what I desire.  Why do we do that?

Stranger judgement of my own person seems pretty dang irrelevant.  I am flattered when admired, accepting when I am not–both in terms of my writing and myself.  New Orleans has such a vibrant array of culture that it feels like you can pick what you dig and leave the rest for somebody else.  It gives me a sense of artistic spaciousness.  There are all these people creating their various types of art and I go on my little journey to snap up and bring back the things that speak to me.  I don’t want to buy my art, literature, music, etc. because it is what is popular with everybody, I want to seek it out.  I want to find the things that bring me joy or a sense of connection and hoard them into my little studio.  If I am going to consume culture, I want it to matter.  Think of it like when you were little and you dressed yourself according to no rules, but your own.  It was spontaneous and satisfying.

I feel that way about tattoos.  No matter how much you plan them, when they happen you are letting them happen.  You are also decorating yourself according to your own rules.  This picture goes here because I said I wanted it to, whether it has a meaning or is just an image that I like.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s my body, my choice of art or words.

That reminds me, I have businesses to call.  I need to ask about visible tattoos.  I need to research and edit and organize.  All this work to say one simple thing:  we live in a world that focuses on buying products, and crappy mass produced ones at that.  We could be purchasing only what inspires us, not what is marketed to our given demographic.  I don’t want perfect things, perfect people, a perfect body, or a perfect self.  I want real.

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