New Orleans, Mississippi, Guns, and Whiteness
August 12, 2010 1 Comment
We fly, my son Daniel and I, from the triple-digit August heat of Dallas, to the mere double-digit heat and triple digit humidity of New Orleans. The swelter is hard on me.
Daniel and I have traveled many places together, but never the Deep South. And I can’t think of anyone better equipped to make that breezy introduction than my Big Easy friend, Medlock. A New Orleans native, Medlock interned for Senator Fitzgerald (R-Ill), at the same time I was counsel to the Senator half a dozen years ago, and we became friends. Now two or three years shy of 30, he awaits the results of the Bar Exam.
Though fitted with a law degree and plenty of smarts, his projected self-image is tied more closely to the fact that he failed pre-K and had to repeat it. He repeats this bio-factoid more than once with his signature laugh, as befits Southern self-deprecating humor and the sly Southern disdain for them’s what read good.
Daniel comes from a family of smart people. His Daddy passed through excessive years of schooling in high-geek style and still reads real good – but that direct exposure is limited to six or seven weeks a year, and tempered by a very normal and amiable Macdowell family in Texas. His Israeli family is a bright bunch indeed (family name: Breitman). No budding intellectual – Daniel dislikes reading – he takes the obligatory pursuits of the young mind seriously, aims to please, and does quite well. He can feel shame, thankfully, at poor academic performance – though nothing perturbs him too much.
I could fancy playing God or genetic overlord, tweaking the dispositions here and there to get a “better” mixture – but it would reek of artifice and intellectual hubris and fail. Daniel’s natural path is as good as it gets. His inventory of strengths and weaknesses suits him perfectly for now. And it will self-correct as experience dictates.
We’re in New Orleans for experience – even the heat-sapped absence of novel experience that dominates our four days. Medlock and Sarah live in the truly picturesque Garden District, close to the home of Anne Rice and the double-plaqued and fenced home where Jefferson Davis died. So we’re already in awe.
I am extreme in preferring the Inside always in all circumstances – but New Orleans in August nudges others into my camp. Unfortunately, in the evening, the sun is merely unseen, not unfelt. But the one thing per day we resolve to do – and one realistically only pursues one thing per day – usually happens in the evening.
The evening of Day 2 is White Linen Night in the Warehouse Arts District – a tradition occurring the first Saturday of every August, and a nod to the oppressive heat of the season – hence the donning of white, the color least receptive to sunlight. Participants, and they are legion, wear white suits and white dresses, drink, and stroll the art galleries.
I like the sound of it, though Daniel and I neglected to pack anything white in our carry-on bags. I’m obliged to don an ensemble of blue and green, Daniel blue and brown. We’re a walking sacrilege in the Warehouse Arts District that evening – and people notice.
At a pre-party hosted by a friend of Medlock’s, where Daniel and I are the chronological bookends (by far the oldest and the youngest), I meet a jocular lad who ends the introductions with “nice to meet you, wrong color.” In the Arts District, a lovely woman bums a cigarette from me, but tarries to speak a few moments – such is the grace in the South that obliges at least a brief human connection when something as valuable as a cigarette is transferred for free (no such grace in the North) – and her first question is why the colors?
I’m no art connoisseur – I gave up presuming opinions after reading Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word in the late ‘70s, and the exercise of discrimination for one with no particular artistic talent or passion became more burdensome than it was worth. Nevertheless, I secretly know what appeals to me and what doesn’t. The art in the two galleries our aesthetically-disinclined group manages to visit appeals to me much more than the art I’ve seen in the last two Washington DC galleries to which I was hauled by friends.
Chiefly, however, the galleries have the virtue of air-conditioning. Not to sound melodramatic, but I believe the galleries may have saved my life. Standing interminably on the street in the swelter, pouring sweat faster than I could wipe it away, and feeling the nausea that (I am convinced) precedes death by failure to wear white at White Linen Night – I am beholden to art (for my life).
Daniel, meanwhile, dwells comfortably in that teenage space of incomprehension and proto-bemusement, the early flickers of adulthood – coupled with his own characteristic solicitude. He cares, often even in ways he’s not particularly good at showing, though he doesn’t let caring become consuming. “Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still,” wrote T.S. Eliot in Ash Wednesday, and Daniel has been well-instructed. “Are you okay Daddy?” Bless his heart.
I want Daniel exposed to guns by someone (unlike me) with a clue. He enters his mandatory Israeli army service next year. He will learn about guns, and I want him to have a little American head-start. Medlock loves guns, knows them intimately, and has many. His gun stories run, I think, into the thousands, judging from the ease with which diverse topics and circumstances yield gun stories.
Most importantly, Medlock embodies the grace of the gun, its power and proper modesty, the gun-carrier’s body language of seamless pleasure and safety. Medlock will impart to Daniel the way of handling a gun without caring too much or too little.
These, like so many man-things, are beyond my ken. I know nothing of consequence about guns, or cars, or appliances, or tools, or fixing anything. I am paternal, as to man-things, only insofar as I entrust my beloved son to trusted surrogates (my brothers, his mother’s partner, certain friends) who know what I do not know.
And so the three of us head off to a patch of Mississippi country a short ways across the border, where Medlock’s family owns some land and a house of sorts – partially rebuilt by Medlock after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We pass the flea market where, Medlock tells us, the stuff stolen from his property gets sold. He has a passel of burglary stories, including his rigging of a trap that fires a blank, which works once and then gets stolen, and his nighttime confrontation of the burglars with his rifle and their slow backing out of the property.
Once we turn into the property, it is not so much a road as a light mitigation of overgrowth. There are nature trails, Medlock tells us, but neither Daniel nor I have a particular yearning. The house has neither electricity nor running water – but a portable generator works two ceiling fans, which help me survive.
Medlock shows me his hollowpoint bullets, and begins to explain them to me. I interject with a casual observation about how they’re less likely to cause collateral damage because they’re more apt to stay in the body. Medlock is surprised. Not one with an appetite for trivia or those who hoard it, he nevertheless recognizes trivia of consequence when he hears it.
I had only known this bit of trivia for about a day. I like to buy magazines at airport shops to give me something to do while suffering. One of my three purchases at DFW before our flight to New Orleans was the August 2010 issue of Harper’s – the cover story of which was Dan Baum’s “Happiness Is a Worn Gun: My Concealed Weapon and Me.”
Now what are the chances of that? Timed to coincide with my son’s introduction to gun culture, Harper’s (Harper’s!) features a cover story that is sympathetic to gun culture and concealed-carry laws. If you’re not yet seeing the hand of God, consider that the author, Dan Baum, most recently published Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans. Spooky.
Baum’s engaging article notes the prevalence in gun culture of the concept of “conditions of readiness,” color-coded as White, Yellow, Orange, and Red. While color-coding has become a cultural joke, the “conditions of readiness,” unlike the silly DHS “Advisory System,” actually do point to identifiably distinct attributes of people, rather than speculative “threat levels.”
As Baum describes, “Condition White is total oblivion to one’s surroundings—sleeping, being drunk or stoned, losing oneself in conversation while walking on city streets, texting while listening to an iPod.” Conditions Yellow, Orange, and Red describe progressive states of awareness to threats and response to danger. “Contempt for Condition White,” Baum writes, “unifies the gun-carrying community almost as much as fealty to the Second Amendment.”
This is why I need Medlock to introduce my son to gun culture in the year before his military service. I’d like to say I skip sprightly amongst the colors, but I pretty much embody Condition White – though not for any of the reasons set forth in the description of Condition White. Except in the grip of focused conversation – and occasionally even then – my mind wanders fiercely. I am notoriously unobservant. I would make an abysmal eyewitness and I fear the day I am called upon to describe what I remember of a crime scene, or what anyone wore, ever. On the plus side, I have many random thoughts and sleep fairly well.
There is, of course, no Condition White in Israel, where it would be suicide. If Daniel carries a genetic disposition from me, his culture powerfully overrides it.
The first night in New Orleans, Medlock started Daniel with a pellet gun in the backyard and taught him basic gun rules (stance, grip, sighting, never pointing). In Mississippi, Medlock can build on the basics and get Daniel immersed in the nuances of loading guns, shooting them accurately, and holding or holstering them comfortably while not shooting. He walks Daniel carefully through the techniques and the tips, all liberally sprinkled with the stories. I am proud of my son. He takes the exercise seriously and does well, I think, particularly with the Glock (oddly).
Though I never shoot (except photos), I hold a rifle a few times, and I am immediately afflicted with heaviness, greater alertness, more spatial awareness, the irritating remission of my random thoughts. I am sliding yellow-ways. I give the rifle back at the earliest opportunity.
(Naturally, then, my mind wanders. Is it possible to be truly Condition White and be aware of Condition White? It’s the same epistemological paradox as awareness of naïveté. Is it possible to be thoroughly aware of being naïve, to explore the contours and contents of one’s naïveté and still remain naïve? Or does it become a kind of winking naïveté, as Condition White becomes a kind of Condition Off-White? Has Dan Baum disabused me forever of my authentic Whiteness?)
Daniel shoots a fresh can of Barbasol, the white foam bursts upward and outward, and that’s what happens to the hapless Condition White. Daniel and Medlock are delighted; I am vaguely disturbed.
My boy’s first day with bullets goes well. Most importantly, he begins to understand guns in context, a textured context, a context that transcends the political debate – which, for Daniel, is largely irrelevant, as he will become intimate with guns whether he wishes to or not. I hope he has a head-start not so much with respect to gun usage as with respectful gun culture.
Thank you most kindly Medlock. And thank you Sarah (Medlock’s lovely girlfriend whose hospitality with Medlock’s ensured the comfort base for our modest explorations). Sarah will read this post to Medlock, because she reads real good and he doesn’t.
Postscript. Back in New Orleans that evening, our last, yes, we schlep to Bourbon Street – thus accomplishing two things that day, but only because, having traveled to many famous places without having bothered to visit The Really Famous Place, I didn’t want Daniel to have to slog through the tedium of explaining why not back home. I think we are, again, the Oldest and the Youngest. Daniel gets a cool tee-shirt for the cost of three magazine subscriptions, and scoops up some shiny beads.