Leonard Cohen, Buddhist

March 31st, 2014

An address to the White Heron Sangha, San Luis Obispo CA March 30, 2014

[Note: Song titles link to current YouTube movies of performances]

Like Henry David Thoreau and Jack Kerouac, two prominent North American writers who found in traditional Buddhist texts and practices a validation for their own renegade spiritual explorations, Leonard Cohen is another rebel hero whose life and work can profitably be examined from a Buddhist perspective.

Unlike those two great outdoorsmen who died young, Cohen has never expressed much appreciation for nature, and he’s still at the height of his game at age 80. But he’s often been compared to the irreverent Cold Mountain poets of Ancient China, who Kerouac and his friend Gary Snyder referred to as “dharma bums.”  Like Thoreau and Kerouac Cohen combines longing for transcendance with earthy iconoclasm, and always writes about himself. Also, like Thoreau at Walden Pond and Kerouac on Desolation Peak, Cohen spent an important period of his life in monastic isolation–6500 feet up in the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles, where studying sutras and meditation practice offered refuge from a secular world of distractions and a source of creative inspiration.

All three writers have produced large bodies of work and have attained the status of cult heroes, attracting devoted followings worldwide. Cohen has published 14 books of poetry, 2 novels, and 19 albums of his own songs, which have in turn been covered in more than 2700 commercial recordings by other artists. He has given hundreds of filmed and written interviews and is the subject of seven documentary films and an array of scholarly websites, the most authoritative of which is The Leonard Cohen Files containing over 1000 pages, listing 3.4 million visitors, and hosting a 25,000 member discussion forum. Already the subject of several full-length biographies, including the highly regarded 600 page I’m Your Man by Sylvie  Simmons that appeared in 2012, Cohen’s 80th birthday this year is marked by the publication of six new books about him and his art.

A blend of religious and erotic themes has permeated Cohen’s work since his first album 47 years ago. Like the medieval courtly love troubadours whose songs about illicit passion inspired the devotional poetry of Dante, Petrarch, and John Donne, Cohen sings of the links and tensions between body and mind, in particular between sexual and spiritual desire, links and tensions that lie at the heart of Classical, Jewish, and Christian mystical traditions:

Suzanne (1967)

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.

For Cohen desire is intrinsically tragic. It drives him to endure and to inflict betrayal, and it induces harrowing guilt. And yet it is this force and its consequences that bring him close to the Divine, that render him “holy and broken,” as it did the Hebrew Bible’s King David, who fell in love with another man’s wife and had her husband murdered.  Cohen identifies with him as a psalmist of penitence, woe and praise.

Hallelujah (1984)

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

While continuing to observe Jewish customs that he inherited from his prosperous Montreal family, when Cohen moved to Los Angeles in 1969, he was attracted by the Buddhist teachings of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, a Rinzai Zen monk who had established Mt. Baldy Zen Center in the facilities of an old Boy Scout Camp. Cohen regularly spent time there, studying and attending retreats and sesshins. The two developed a close personal friendship, often staying up late drinking expensive whiskey and cognac. Cohen’s affection was undeterred either by the Roshi’s lack of English or by the scandal of his continuing sexual abuse of nuns and acolytes. (Sasaki retired in 2012 but is still alive at age 107)

The themes of brokenness and transcendence in songs Cohen wrote began to take on an explicitly Buddhist tone, echoing the four noble truths: the suffering of the self and the flaws of the world are inescapable; only by acknowledging and submitting to that is it possible to find redemption:

Anthem (1992)

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

In 1995, his career as songwriter and performer at its height and engaged to be married to the talented and stunning actress, Rebecca de Mornay, Cohen unexpectedly abandoned the role of public celebrity and took up full-time residence at the monastery, where he worked as cook and as private secretary to Roshi. This high-profile retreat attracted much media attention. His sojourn there was chronicled in a 45-minute French documentary film and by many reporters, among them the well-known writer, Pico Ayer, who wrote a lengthy article about it in Shambala Sun.

Cohen was forthcoming with explanations for his retreat: it was an escape from the ordeal of stage fright and the pressures and intrigues of the entertainment business; it was an alternative to marriage, which he regarded as  “the hardest spiritual practice in the world”; it was a cure for his excesses: “…I had been drinking tremendous amounts on the road and my health was shot.” The monastery provided a hospital, he said, for “people who have been traumatized, hurt, destroyed, maimed by daily life.” (Simmons, p.406)

At Mt. Baldy, he found what he needed:

What happens in meditations that last ten, fifteen hours is that you run through your top ten erotic fantasies, ambition fantasies, revenge fantasies, global ratification fantasies. You run through them all until you bore yourself to death, basically, and the faculty that produces opinions and snap judgments and unrealistic scenarios for your own prominence, after you run through them for a number of years, they cease to have charge. They bore themselves into non-existence. You see them as diversions from another kind of intimacy that you become more interested in—and that is what Socrates said: Know Thyself. source

Three years into his residence Cohen took ordination as a Zen monk, and was given the name Jikan, which translates as ordinary silence, the silence between words.

At Mt. Baldy Cohen said he experienced moments when “the sky opens up and you get the word.… what rushes in, in the same way that light rushes into a room when you switch on the light, is another kind of mood that overtakes you. (Simmons, p.416) That sensation is evoked in the song “Love Itself,” recorded in the 2001 album, Ten Songs, dedicated to Sasaki.

Love Itself (2001)

The light came through the window,
Straight from the sun above,
And so inside my little room
There plunged the rays of Love.

In streams of light I clearly saw
The dust you seldom see,
Out of which the Nameless makes
A Name for one like me.

I’ll try to say a little more:
Love went on and on
Until it reached an open door –
Then Love Itself
Love Itself was gone.

All busy in the sunlight
The flecks did float and dance,
And I was tumbled up with them
In formless circumstance.

I’ll try to say a little more:
Love went on and on
Until it reached an open door –
Then Love Itself
Love Itself was gone.

Then I came back from where I’d been.
My room, it looked the same –
But there was nothing left between
The Nameless and the Name.

All busy in the sunlight
The flecks did float and dance,
And I was tumbled up with them
In formless circumstance.

I’ll try to say a little more:
Love went on and on
Until it reached an open door –
Then Love itself,
Love Itself was gone.
Love Itself was gone.

The Leonard Cohen Forum contains extensive discussion of this song, including links to YouTube films recording a dharma talk about it that closed a 2009 fourteen day intensive retreat in Santa Barbara conducted by a meditation teacher named Shinzen Young.  Young claims that this is Cohen’s version of Sasaki’s teachings about the oscillating expansion and contraction of the universe which “generates a vibration which is space.” The true Master, according to Young, reaches a condition of detachment from this vibration and thereby finds nirvana, which is the experience of “Love Itself,” and then arrives at a state collapsing the distance between ultimate reality and the finite illusory ego—between the Nameless and the Name. At this point, “Love Itself is gone.”

One commentator on the Forum claims that this doctrine is not specific to Sasaki but belongs to the tradition of Thathagata Zen. He relates the lines

And I was tumbled up with them
In formless circumstance.

to those in The Heart Sutra:

Form is emptiness
Emptiness is form
Emptiness is not other than form
Form is not other than emptiness

Another participant plausibly traces the imagery of sunbeams entering and leaving the room to writings of the sixteenth century mystic, St. John of the Cross.  And a Canadian Professor of Literature draws parallels to Dante’s account of becoming one with God at the end of his Divine Comedy.

Cohen’s stay at the monastery also generated abundant artistic creativity.  In his few free hours, he wrote poems later assembled in a large collection, The Book of Longing; he composed music on a crude computer synthesizer, and he produced hundreds of remarkable drawings, a number of which he emailed to the editor of The Leonard Cohen Files and later included in The Book of Longing.



After five years of respite at Mt. Baldy, Cohen reported that in 1999 he was seized by “a state of acute depression and deep distress” that forced him to leave.  The Book of Longing suggests other motivations as well:


In several interviews he explained that he moved on because “I had completed that phase of my training.”

After a period, I began to feel that my knowledge had reached a certain point and I had a revelation: I realized I do not have a talent for religious studies. I did not feel conflicted, but relieved, relaxed: I no longer had to study anymore. It is not that I found what I was looking for, but I believed I had arrived at the moment of descending, so I asked my old teacher for permission…. I was not able to obtain an understanding of Buddhist concepts, I tired of trying. (source)

A week after coming down the mountain, he flew to Mumbai India to seek relief from his distress with another teacher, Ramesh Balsekar—a former bank president who gave informal talks on the Hindu concept of nondualism every morning in his apartment.  For the next four months, Cohen lived anonymously in a small rented room, meditated, read, wrote and swam daily in a nearby hotel pool. When he returned to Los Angeles, his depression was gone. “By imperceptible degrees this background of anguish that had been with me my whole life began to dissolve.  I said to myself, ‘This must be what it’s like to be relatively sane.’”(Simmons, p. 425)

Although Ramesh’s method of lecture and discussion contrasted strongly with the ritualized rigor of Rinzai Zen, they seemed to mesh well together. In a statement reflecting the lighthearted acceptance of one’s fate preached by Ramesh, Cohen mused, “I read somewhere that as you get older the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die. So, I might have saved myself the rigours of monastic life if I had just waited until it happened.”(Simmons 425) That same whimsical spirit appears in self-portraits he drew during his occasional returns to Mumbai:




His contentment coincided with a focus on his family: celebrating Friday night Sabbath dinners with the children and grandchildren who share his small house in a rough L.A. neighborhood and fostering the artistic careers of his son Adam and daughter Lorca. But this serenity did not diminish his creative energy. He began collaborating with two former back-up singers, Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas on several albums of their songs and highlighted their vocals and musical settings of his lyrics on his own, and he developed a long harmonious romantic relationship with Anjani, 25 years his junior.

Cohen’s resilience was manifested in his reaction to his 2004 discovery that his longtime financial manager and friend, Kelley Lynch, had embezzled nearly all of the $13 million worth of assets he had earned over a lifetime of royalties and concert ticket sales. Though he was embroiled for years in the ensuing litigation, which found her guilty but failed to recover most of the money, he never expressed vindictiveness or resentment.  Instead, in order to restore his “retirement fund” and provide for his family, he decided, at age 74, to return to touring for the first time in 15 years. He travelled the world from 2008 to 2010, performing 84 three and half hour concerts to sold-out audiences enchanted with his self-effacing stage presence, which he maintained despite being showered with lifetime achievement awards from every quarter.

In 2012, no longer out of financial necessity, but to promote his new album entitled Old Ideas, he embarked on another two-year worldwide tour of over 100 concerts. He was adored not only by audiences but also by his fellow performers and support staff. According to one, “He meditated in his dressing room, in the hour and a half of quiet time he liked to take between the sound check and the show.  He meditated on airplanes too, back straight, eyes cast down, hands cupped in his lap.”(Simmons p.502)

Despite what sounds like the extended happy ending of a life story, Old Ideas balances sunshine against shadow, as suggested by its cover art.

One song, “The Darkness,” adopts the ghoulish voice of suicidal depression. “Different Sides” portrays a bitter fight between lovers. “Anyhow” and “Crazy to Love You” regards past affairs with hunger and regret. “Going Home,” “Show Me the Place,” and “Come Healing” are addressed to a vividly personified God by an awed and humbled penitent in the presence of approaching death. But that death is confronted with acceptance, consolation and even welcome.

I’d like to conclude by playing one song from Old Ideas that gives expression to an idea as old as the Psalms of David and as the Medicine Buddha Sutra. It’s a fervent prayer longing for surcease of all suffering and for the wholeness of Love Itself, offered by an old man at the boundary of his life.  His deep bass chant accompanies childlike angelic voices in exquisite harmony.

Come Healing (2012)

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The Heart beneath is teaching
To the broken Heart above

O let the heavens falter
And let the earth proclaim:
Come healing of the Altar
Come healing of the Name

O longing of the branches
To lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries
To purify the blood

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

O let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

According to recent reports, since the end of his tour last December, Leonard Cohen is back in L.A. working on another album for release later this year.

The Sunset Limited (5)

January 5th, 2014

Saturday December 28

The sound of rain pouring on the tarp covering the hotel courtyard awakens us in time for an early departure.  We ask the cab driver to wait while I go shopping for provisions at a huge supermarket near the Amtrak station. Jan learns that she’s an immigrant from Ethiopia, has come here from L.A., has a degree in Social Work from USC and has another job working with neglected kids.

We line up in the terminal under an interesting mural starkly portraying the violent history of the city as rain continues to dump.




All the roomettes between New Orleans and Tucson were sold out when we bought tickets, so we’re spending the first 36 hours of the trip in coach and providing our own food. The seats are no less comfortable than those in the roomette. We read and doze and eat rare Humboldt Fog cheese and Kavli crackers.  Approaching  Houston at sunset we have drinks in the observation car before proceeding to the diner, where we share a table with a couple from Lafayette Louisiana on the way to the Rose Bowl parade in California.  He’s a crawfish farmer and broker and she’s a hospice nurse for children.  It’s hard to understand the explanations of his trade through his Cajun accent but not his affection for guns and fantasies of shooting intruders. She shows pictures of abandoned children with whom she’s bonded before they died.

After dinner, the coach is dark and quiet, the passengers sedated by the rocking movement. Jan struggles to find a position allowing her to straighten out. The leg rest is broken and needs to be supported by the suitcase I bring upstairs. It turns out our seats are closer to the ones in front of us than those on either side. I search the train looking for alternate empty seats without success.  The conductor appears and lets us know the passengers directly behind us are getting off in five minutes and we can take theirs. The rest of the night is easy.

December 29 2013

After another full day and night traversing Texas we cross back into New Mexico at El Paso.  I chat with a retired geologist returning to California. Another day of reading–Jan’s on her third Donna Tartt novel on the Kindle and I’m studying the New Orleans atlas and The Bible in Shakespeare–writing, looking out the window and watching the little blue dot cross the desert in satellite view on the iphone. At nightfall we reach the Tucson station in the center of downtown and cross the street to the Congress Hotel, another railroad district historic building now decorated with lights and mylar fringe and posters advertising an upcoming public New Year’s Eve party with an “I love New York” theme.  The staff are young, urbane and jolly, the food–albacore salade nicoise and “Queer Burger”–excellent and reasonable.

A short cab ride takes us to our accommodation, La Posada del Valle, a Bed and Breakfast across the street from the University of Arizona Medical Center.  This is the review I submitted to Trip Advisor:

I chose this place for a two night stay enroute between New Orleans and Los Angeles by train. At the suggestion on the website I phoned and spoke to Janos the manager who was personable and helpful and promised to help my wife and me with transportation while here. He told us he wouldnt be available for our late night arrival but gave us the door combination. The view through the window when we pulled up looked most welcoming, and coming inside nearly floored us. The historic old adobe was decorated with unique flair and exuberance, filled with beautiful and beautifully arranged furnishings, informative books and maps and magazines about Tucson and surroundings, and homey atmosphere. Our room with private bath was spacious and filled with treasures. The bed and bathtub were unusually comfortable. Breakfast the next two mornings was custom prepared by an amiable housekeeper/cook with fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, and baked goods. There was no room for lunch later in the day. Our host showed up during the first breakfast, welcomed us, shared stories and then drove us across town to a car rental place. After we left this morning he emailed us the bill, which seemed astoundingly reasonable. When can we come back?





December 30 2013

We share the breakfast room with a couple our age who live in Seattle.  They’ve been here for four days to hike in the desert.  Not surprisingly we have some experiences in common.  Both were in the Berkeley FSM 1965 sit-in that Jan joined as a freshman at Stanford.  He got a PhD in English, taught for several years at Whitman College in Washington and then decided voluntarily to give up his tenure-track job and partner with a friend to start a social work consulting firm, from which he has now retired. He still conducts workshops in organizational development.  She got a degree in social work at Berkeley but after several years in the field switched to a career as paralegal.  Their daughter got a PhD from Yale, but was so outraged by the treatment of graduate student TA’s trying to organize that she’s become a full time union organizer of clerical and maintenance staff.

Janos shows up to welcome us and take us in his new Mercedes to the car rental place.  We learn that he and has wife run another B and B, that she is a retired Wall Street banker and Harvard MBA who loves to decorate, that he was manager of a high end restaurant in New York, that they have travelled to fifty countries, and came to Tucson to slow down and enjoy the atmosphere. But at age 70, he’s more than ready to retire from the hospitality business.

We drive west in the radiant winter light to the outskirts of the city and up a tightly winding road to a pass in Tucson Mountain Park amidst a forest of familiar yet still bizarre-looking Saguaro cacti.



On the other side of the pass, an immense valley spreads before us harboring “Old Tucson,” a theme park built on the site of the movie studio location for hundreds of Western films.


We drive onward toward a less obtrusive attraction in the valley, The Desert Museum, which appeals both to theme park visitors and nature lovers.  The parking lot is almost full on this holiday occasion, but the crowds of multi-generational families add to my enjoyment of  exhibits of desert ecology, many of them hard to distinguish from the surrounding wilderness.


There are animal enclosures allowing close-up views of mountain lion, bear, wolf, and javelina, none of which have the downcast look of many captive animals.



as well as artfully designed shade structures and benches necessary for less temperate times of the year.



Cold symptoms are creeping up on Jan, so  I leave her resting in the hummingbird enclosure, head for the Desert Loop trail, and find myself surrounded by a dense crowd waiting for the “Raptor Free Flight” performance to begin. An amplified voice from nowhere warns us not to place children on shoulders because the birds will be flying fast and close to our heads. Suddenly two gorgeous hawks dive from aloft and alight on nearby snags.


These we are told are gray hawks.  As trainers hiding in the vegetation make chirping sounds and hold out gobbets of meat, the hawks criss-cross the crowd inches overhead and then disappear.  Next come two barn owls, soft and cuddly looking until one whizzes straight for me with its sharp beak agape.



Then we see two peregrine falcons, according to the speaker, the fastest animals alive, which have been clocked at 242 miles an hour, and finally a whole group of Harris Hawks that hunt as a family, working together to corral and trap their prey.


We meet as planned by the hummingbirds and drive back to our beautiful lodgings, rest,  then go for dinner to Downtown Kitchen, the restaurant recommended by our breakfast-mates.  Its publicity about celebrity chef and fresh local organic ingredients is not overblown.


December 31 2013

The festive meal served on the the last morning of our stay at La Posada del Valle is shadowed by the story of the other guest who is here from Scottsdale, not for vacation but because his wife has had to return to the medical center for treatment of ongoing complications attendant on the removal of her pancreas.  She’s a nurse who’s lost her job because of her affliction, their young kids have been cared for by friends at home, and he’s here on time off from his math teaching job at the Community College. I think of my friend Peter in Canada who has just passed through life-threatening complications after the removal of cancerous tumors from his kidney. I think of Steve, the old friend in his quadriplegic’s wheelchair with whom I roamed this neighborhood and the medical center across the street five years ago and who died soon thereafter. The young teacher tries to smile as he affirms hope that eventually his wife will recover.

We head for the train station to leave our baggage before returning the rental car, and it becomes clear that Jan’s cold is turning into something worse.  She agrees to go to a nearby urgent care clinic where she is diagnosed with a serious sinus infection and prescribed antibiotics by a doctor who recognizes her Rotary button and agrees to meet her next June in Australia at the convention they both plan to attend.  Another CVS around the corner dispenses the medications, the car is returned, and we have the rest of the day, slowly, to explore downtown Tucson, before reboarding our train.

The district has undergone major redevelopment, with hip new multi-use businesses and residences sprouting in the shells of renovated old buildings, with a multi-modal transportation center, with signage about the impending opening of SunLink, a four-mile  trolley system on newly laid track.



We pass through the elegant courtyard of the County Court and Administrative Office, fortunately preserved when the rest of this government center must have been demolished to make way for the surrounding ugly skyscrapers.



With heroic resilience braced by the new medication, Jan makes it to the museum, where we enjoy exhibits of early Latin-American and ancient Chinese artworks donated by local collectors and feel less positive about acquisitions of contemporary “Cowboy Art” and modern conceptual works centered on themes: “The Hand,” and “Scissors, Paper, Rock.” We are entranced by a work of borderland latino folk art called “Nacimiento” housed in an old adobe.


As the sharp shadows lengthen and the year draws towards its end we walk slowly back to the railroad station. Still nourished by breakfast,  instead of dinner we share a small thin-crusted pizza at the gourmet market and delicatessen on the platform. We talk to Joe and Ethan and Abel in Idaho and Claire and Lucas in California.


Across the street at the Congress Hotel a crane lifts a great ball of mirrors and the searchlights rehearse for the midnight extravaganza.

I run over there to buy a pint bottle and some mixer for our New Year’s Eve on the train. At 7:00 p.m. it arrives and we climb aboard the sleeping car and find our cozy compartment. Reminded of her name on the downtown bus station, I play some Linda Ronstadt songs on the little stereo and then the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds: “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” “Dont Talk, Put Your Head on my Shoulder.” A beautiful young woman approaching the adjoining compartment grins at us and says, “Nice ambience.”

The train’s staff has organized a New Year’s Eve party, including champagne and games in the observation car starting at 10:30.  I’d like to take part, but, predictably, late night activities are beyond our capacity. We drop off to sleep in our berths and wake up refreshed in time for the 5:30 A.M. arrival in L.A., transfer to the Pacific Surfliner, and the final leg of our trip home.

For full-size and more pictures, click here


The Sunset Limited (4)

January 5th, 2014

Friday December 27, 2013

Though optimally located in the center of the French quarter, Jan and I are uncertain of what we should do for the day. Roaming its tourist-crammed streets yet another time is getting old.  We think of taking one of the carriage tours recommended by friends but are put off by the drivers and prices. Instead we sign up for a two-hour full city bus tour beginning at 2:00 p.m.

To make use of the time before then without extensive walking, we take the streetcar along the levee to the river ferry terminal. Probably due to its major diversion by dams upriver, the Mississippi isn’t as impressive here as we’d expected.


But on the ride across, the sight of a tug maneuvering a huge barge through the current at the crescent curve which accounts for the City’s original location gives a sense of being at the drain point of a whole continent.



Following a suggestion in The Unfathomable City, we pick historic Mandina’s Restaurant as a destination for lunch. It’s another gratifying streetcar ride to an outlying district, partly through a vast construction site of new medical facilities. The restaurant is located in a charming old frame house and packed with animated locals, but the supposedly distinctive Italian-Creole food is not worth the cost or the long wait.

The streetcar back is delayed by traffic jams and we are concerned that we will miss our tour.  I run ahead to reach the meeting point just in the nick of time, and the dispatcher tells me the bus is late but will wait for Jan.  I’m relieved to see her shouldering her way through the crowd before it arrives, but then it turns out to be an hour late.


Sipping Vodka daiquiris from the adjoining dispensary relieves our impatience, but most of the other waiting passengers ask for their money back and leave. The apologetic young man who finally shows up explains that the delay was caused by unexpected traffic congestion and the dispatcher’s mistakes.  He offers little information about the city sights we pass, but stirring stories about his family’s escape from the flooding and his sister’s permanent mental derangement resulting from it. Only when he stops behind another tour bus outside a cemetery in the Ninth Ward do we learn that he’s just a driver delivering us to the guide and the rest of the group.

By this time the confusion of the delays combined with the effects of the daiquiri have rendered us receptive to whatever happens next.  The real guide, whose name I regret not learning,  is a round, white-haired gentleman with a sonorous voice and a preacherly eloquence.


He regales us with the some of the peculiarities of NOLA’s necropolis culture, among them that bodies cannot be buried but are housed in weighted above-ground tombs to accommodate flooding  and that crypts are continually recycled because the summer heat quickly decomposes earlier remains.

Sinking into the driver’s seat as if it were a bathtub, he drives us through the adjoining neighborhood, pointing out the modest homes of legendary musicians like Fats Domino and the Marsalis brothers, all of whom he knows personally, and tells us that the government was interested in reconstructing this district after the failure of the ship canal dykes because its artists form an important part of the economy. He assures us that contrary to earlier occasions when dykes around low-income areas were deliberately breached to protect the precincts of the wealthy, the worst destruction of Katrina was caused merely by the negligence of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The onset of dark and the heavily tinted windows of the bus make it impossible to see or photograph the features of the city through which he drives us for the next two hours.  But he’s a good enough story teller to keep the tour group engaged and laughing.

Many of the district’s modest houses have been refurbished by Habitat for Humanity and lifted three feet off the ground on cinder block piers.  Some remain dilapidated and some lots are cleared while owners wait for property values to rise. Many are only about ten feet wide.  At first I think they were former slave quarters, but then see that they extend far toward the back of the lot.  Called Creole Cottages or Shotgun houses, we learn they were designed like this before the advent of fans or air conditioning to promote cross ventilation in the unbearable summer heat.

We hear of the  development of the different faubourgs or neighborhoods by ingenious and often scandalous land developers over two centuries, the division of the city into downriver Creole and upriver “American” districts, the unceasing corruption of city politicians, many of whom go directly from office to jail, about universities and private schools and mardi-gras parade routes and the demolition of sections of the French Quarter replaced by disastrous city housing projects, of the outrageous number of annual murders, of the benefits and losses of gentrification since Katrina, and about the architectural styles  and residents’ private lives of countless houses.

We’re dropped off in another traffic jam a block from our hotel, the city now packed with  New Year’s eve visitors arriving as we prepare to leave.  Thrashed by our colds, we retreat to our hotel, again forgoing the chance to taste the nightlife and the music, but inspired enough by the surroundings to seek more alcoholic relief. A big bouncer at a strip joint on Bourbon Street informs me that the best place to buy a bottle is the CVS around the corner. Hurrying back to our room with my paper bag through the earsplitting noise of revelers, I feel as excited as any of them.

The Sunset Limited (5)

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The Sunset Limited (3)

January 5th, 2014

Thursday December 26

Drawn by the promise of beautiful buildings and streets uncrowded with tourists, this morning we head for the Garden District, a section of the City in the opposite direction from the French Quarter, upriver and “Uptown.”  The St. Charles St. streetcar takes us there along the wide tree-lined median traditionally known as “neutral ground.” Its varnished wooden seats and thick painted steering handle bring me back to the noisy trolleys I loved to ride on Broadway and Dyckman Street in New York before we got a car and moved to the suburbs in 1950.




Relying on the information available on our phones instead of getting an adequate guidebook to the City was a mistake, but we know enough to find the cross street leading to a breakfast place kitty-corner from the the centrally located Lafitte Cemetery.


The trees along the boulevard are festooned with beads and we realize that this must be a  main  parade route of the Mardi Gras whose influence remains here all year long.


Though Gustave had referred to it contemptuously as a mini-mall, the coffee shop here is warm, welcoming and full of cosmopolitan looking residents.


Fortified by a bagel and cup of the local café au lait, whose flavor is strengthened by the addition of chicory, we explore the cemetery, which features multigenerational crypts and stacked stone graves.


The puddles in the walkways demonstrate why bodies are not buried in this city and the need for a specialized technology to keep them where they’ve been placed.  The remnants of a shredded blue tarp and a dilapidated entry building show that even in this ritzy part of town, Katrina still leaves traces.



Now we walk along streets tunneling through the oak canopy of this real urban forest admiring the elegant and varied architecture and marvelling at the challenge of upkeep of both plants and structures in this corrosive tropical climate.







At a corner of more modest houses, an amiable man sweeping the steps talks to us  about the joys of living here, the regeneration of many sections of the City after Katrina, the satisfaction of gutting and refurbishing his young family’s home.


Needing a rest we head back to the minimall, where we find a bookstore next to the coffee shop offering a selection of works about New Orleans.  Rather than a conventional guide, I find a recent volume called The Unfathomable City, by Rebecca Solnit, whose name I recognize as a powerful writer for Orion magazine. Billed as an atlas, the book consists of 22 beautifully designed and annotated maps accompanied by essays categorizable as cultural geography or place studies.  Each has its own stylistic flair and dissident political slant. This book could provide an initiation to many of the City’s mysteries hidden from us three-day visitors. Exploring it during our rest periods and on the train ride back home feels like extending our stay.

Back on St. Charles Street, while waiting for the trolley, I snatch a little Mardi Gras by climbing  a tree and grabbing some beads. We check out of La Pavillon and move into Le Mazarin hotel, located in the middle of the French Quarter. It’s comfortable but expensive and disappointing by comparison.  We walk a new route to Jackson Square and find a table for late lunch at Muriel’s, whose setting, décor, service and distinctive Creole cuisine live up to its reputation.




After a late siesta, Jan remains in the hotel and reads while I take another trolley up and down Canal Street, too late for the ferry but not for encountering some loud and scary characters in the terminal. More wandering fails to discover any of the music venues I’d been hoping to come across.


Instead I’m repulsed by the huge complex of Harrah’s Casino at the foot of Canal street, its valet-parking drop-off crowded with Cadillacs and fancy pickup trucks, evidence, I assume,  of Las Vegas colonization.

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