Still Lives: Vincent and Tyrone
The two pieces below are from a project of oral history turned poetry tentatively titled Still Lives. It began with an aborted attempt to found a dirt farm on the Mississippi Gulf Coast during the summer of 2017 that I had the luck to be a part of. We had three miniature horses named Lucy, Red and Midnight. There was too much oil in the soil on our land off Highway 90. The sunflowers grew crimson. There was no running water. Every morning and afternoon I would lug coolers to fill a kiddie pool for the horses. We had dreams of them becoming therapy horses. People would pull over with questions and exclamations. We would talk for hours by the roadside. After a storm softened the soil beneath the fence, our horses escaped. They required bail posted at great expense. The land was taken away for reasons of liability : we did not own it. Still, I had the people who had paused on the side of the road. I began to interview them for an oral history project on the ecological crisis of the gulf. But what interested me most was their life stories, the arc and perspective. Together, the narrators and I collaborated to transcribe and fashion these interviews. When trusted, people raise themselves to the standard of reality. Below are two oral history poems. First I will introduce the people.
Vincent was born in Waveland, Mississippi, grew up in Gulfport and lived and worked in D.C. before moving to the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans. He is very tall and thin, with a voice that always seems on the edge of laughing. I met him, a friend of a friend, at a rally demanding the fully funded relocation of the residents of the Gordon Plaza development, where he has family. These Gordon Plaza homes, marketed and sold to lower-income black residents of New Orleans in the ’80s, were built on a toxic dump. An activist, Vincent has participated in rallies from Gulfport to Delaware, to St. James Parish. After teaching middle school history for 17 years, Vincent now makes his living working at the cafeteria at Xavier University, his alma mater, where he lobbies incessantly for vegetarian options. He is called here by a pseudonym he selected himself. “I was almost named Vincent.”
Tyrone was born in New Orleans and lives, now, in Waveland where his family is from. He is a retired mechanic, who worked in maintenance at NASA’s Stennis Space Center for most of his career. He is an active member of the NAACP of Hancock County. I met him at a meeting at an old gathering place in the Fourth Ward of Bay St. Louis, Drummund’s Auto Shop or “Champs,” gutted by Hurricane Katrina but still inhabited by old timers, playing the radio and telling stories. Tyrone is known there for his particularly encyclopedic knowledge of the music that plays on the vintage stations. “That’s Ernie K-Doe. Remember Ernie K-Doe? Te-Ta-Te-Ta-Ta.” Tyrone is a pseudonym as well, chosen by the narrator.
ABOUT OUR PERSISTENT UNDERESTIMATIONS OF THE SUBCONSCIOUS
To watch the fishing birds. A pelican’s dive, with the twist, really notice that. An anhinga, silverfish, the dive down, wade and wiggle it down its long neck, drying out after on a bank or perch. So many people have dreamed of becoming birds. Strut and peck. Swoop. Suddenly there was a rooster in my neighborhood, nobody called the police. It cried and cocked, a little bit of a late riser honestly for a rooster. I think it was around daylight savings. Some blamed Merv with all the refuse tossed off his porch, peanut shells, coffee dregs, strong undiluted spittle and chicken bones. You should see the discomfort a rooster brought. How far gone people are. A little fuzzed over around the eyelids, losing an hour of sleep. Folks started sending kicks at their passing our rooster. Black, silk, spotted white in gold down the neck, an upright specimen, firm bit of red, always with his plump perky henwife in tow. Kristen opened hostilities, spreading gibberish about disease, filthy feathers, bird flu. “Lost Chicken” in an ignorance was posted up by one neighbor suspected of being a yankee. Drunk Kevin lurching with a cleaver. Never could find where they roosted come dusk. I was practically pariahed when I encouraged the liveliness with some scattered seed. Not to be had. Not in our neighborhood, which I will remind y’all was thriving marsh not eighty years since. More than chickens, alligators. They tried calling 311, they tried calling the cops. But it was a vigilante deal finally. Susan with her husband’s .38 on a Sunday. Pop and rooster cooked. Left the body in the curb. Gutter. Maybe rain got it to its resting place. Probably every time it rains the feathers clog and flood us all the little more in justice.
That was just before Mardi Gras, I remember. As if the thing we need in this world, this town, is a time to go wild, for, you know, excess and waste. Because the rest of the time we just eat almonds and prunes and drink rainwater. Uh huh. That’s what we need…
The fact that it’s sin just makes it more fun. I have an undergrad in psychology. [He laughs.] So what I’m saying is I don’t understand it all. You need a degree in theology.
…Don’t underestimate the subconscious. People want to talk about it in their personal lives. Or, like astrology, tarot, you know. That’s all fine and good. But then people act like it’s bullshit when something like the look of the guy does an election. Or it rains on election day. Like people suddenly ain’t gonna be petty just because they’re told it’s important. Or people ain’t gonna be human. The opposite. So you want to tell me that everything I think is progress is murder. Fuck. You can’t even get the average American to separate his plastic and his cans. Once you start how far are you gonna have to go? If you save the sea turtles you might just have to save the polar bears. Now that would be too much. So fuck ’em all… I don’t consider myself a pessimist… You know me, I’m actually a very cheery guy… I been doing the fight for water rights about the canal there in Gulfport. They built I-10 straight through the neighborhood just to be a little closer to the port. A couple miles up there was no neighborhood but they put it there. I guess that is what passes as efficiency. Where I grew up gets terrible water but now we have this Barnes & Noble here. I actually like this Barnes & Noble. I came back, you know, I spent some time in D.C. getting my lobbying chops. But these are real bastards who they get down here. Whenever they’re doing something toxic in Mississippi they ship in folks from Texas or Arizona or New Mexico. I mean people who won’t even recognize the landscape they get to do the work. If you grow up with a cactus you’ll have an easier time wrecking a swamp. That’s their insurance for if you can afford to have a heart. I think they know this. So this is the jobs they’re creating. Jobs! You know the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in the news, all the protests. You ask them how many permanent jobs, they finally tell you. Eight. Eight jobs. Cancer and spills whatever, eight jobs. But don’t worry it’ll actually make more than that because those eight people on their way to work will stop at the gas stations and buy breakfast burritos too. This was in their report…
I wish it were as simple as greed. Here’s the thing, and I almost don’t want to be associated with this thought. Do you know how they would transport the oil if not for that pipeline? They would truck it. That’s basically what they’re doing now. So the pipeline is, you know, if we’re gonna be getting all this oil around… The pipeline is more efficient, basically greener. You’re not burning fuel to move the fuel. Although of course it’s gonna leak but… I guess the question is how dug in do we think we are? Definitely there’s no evidence of slowing down. “There’s no victories in environmentalism, only delays.” That’s John Muir.
…Alright, the subconscious. I’ll talk about it. We’re used to living downstream. There’s no mountains here. Everything flows straight to us. All the refuse and bad ideas. All so y’all can have that alpine breeze.
ABOUT HISTORY MADE FLESH; or, FLESH MADE HISTORY
History’s history if you ask me. You ask a young kid about all the martyrs and they don’t wanna hear. They want to gamble on their smartphone, I don’t know. I used to be all about that freedom ride, that M.L.K., that Malcolm X, and if you ask where I came from that’s who I’d say… Now you ask where I came from you’ll understand if my answer is the john or a particularly gorgeous evening on earth outside when I find it agreeable to live by the water… Not because I do not love those martyrs of ours and live everyday by them but simply because I have stopped relating.
When I was a boy, we had a neighbor who would take me to Cat Island. They took a kindness to me. They felt pity and they were, I think, the first people from California to discover Mississippi. They were what I can now call typical liberals. Cat Island, it was just a washed out sandy place for me, dropping my big toe and blue crabs in the summer. My parents were afraid of me going to the water. They had a fear of the sea. And I never did learn how to swim.
Why is it called Cat Island? Some people say there used to be hundreds of wild cats, that’s easy. Or it was shaped like a cat, before Camille. Or simply Don Juan Cuevas the founder of that little island colony liked cats. Well where did those cats come from? Were they on the ship? At least two? Or did they float over from Europe, a miracle, like the cocoanut that floated over from Jamaica to Florida? You know palm trees are not native to Florida. And what did they do the first time they saw a cocoanut in Florida? Why the thing you do to anything you don’t understand, they buried it. And that’s every palm tree on this continent… I’ll tell you, it’s called Cat Island because it was inhabited with racoons and the Spanish thought they were cats. They write about the aggressive cats they found. It’s pretty funny. Who knows? Certain things are lost in history. Or maybe history is the place things go when they’re lost.
There was one refrigerator truck they brought in during Katrina. Guess where it went? Not to food, not to old folk. We buried all our food and still the smell of stunk beef came up through the soil, and we buried some old folk. But to the courthouse to keep all the records of who was a bad man forever back in this county. That’s where the refrigerator went. So I got to thinking about those records and after some was set straight… I had always known a story of my great granddaddy being hung on a tree, really, and I actually found a record of some men charged with “harassing a negro” spending a night in jail around the time of the second world war. Well we know what that means. But I was curious that they were so specific naming the tree. And this is an old town and you can always find relatives and you can even find the tree. So I began to make a fuss about the people who hung my great granddaddy. They were mad it was so close after the storm for a seperate kind of fuss but they agreed to talk about it. To talk to me. I remember standing in the mudroom, their ceiling collapsed, and they said, “Well what can we do?” Good question. I went outside and I showed them the tree which was still on their property. A beautiful virginia oak. You can guess the branch he died on, spanish moss, the whole nine yards. A beautiful tree. They said do I want a plaque on the tree? I said no. They said what. I don’t know what I wanted. They wouldn’t stop talking. They said, “Do you want us to cut down the tree?” And I said damn. I said, fuck. I do not want you to cut down a tree.
Daniel Horowitz is a Science and Garden teacher in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He holds an MFA from the New School, and is currently in the Biography and Memoir program at the CUNY Graduate Center. A New York native, he has lived in New Orleans and Mississippi. He is in the process of finishing this collection of oral histories.
Please contact Daniel at email@example.com