PORTRAITS FROM MEMORY: NEW ORLEANS IN THE SIXTIES
by Darlene Fife
($12.00 Surregional Press
1539 Crete Street New Orleans,
Reading Darlene Fife's memoir makes me think about how times have changed, and not necessarily for the better. Her moving recollection, told in a simple, down-to-earth style, brings to mind certain moments in my life when I realized things had changed. Like the time a boyfriend admonished me for buying bottled water. He thought I was trying to be chic, or something, when my real concern was with the lead pipes in the building we lived in. This may have been 1979, I don't quite remember. What I do remember was how heartsick I was at having to explain the probability that, because we were poor folks, our immediate living environment was contaminated. Such moments, in hindsight, portend what is to come. Darlene Fife's moving, sometimes funny, sometimes scary, reflections on her time as editor and publisher of the infamous underground newspaper NOLA Express is a book filled with clues and signs of what was to come.
This book is broken into four sections, and Darlene Fife tells the story of her adventures through the lives of her friends. Fife's description of beautiful Lindy Brown's credo, "the most important part I find myself playing in the revolution is to always be high," is a key moment. Evoking a time when people made it a point to pursue their bliss, it does not escape Darlene Fife that making life, work, and play an integral whole is the cornerstone to creating a truly just society.
"I have seen my neighbors...whose rhythms of planting corn, weeding the garden and sitting on the front porch make life and work indistinguishable," an observation whose simplicity and sanity may yet save the world."
The section on Women Strike For Peace is one of the most telling in the book, demonstrating that grassroots organizing and visibility was what turned the nation around on Vietnam. Imagine such brave people on the trolley on St. Charles leafleting against U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the mid-sixties in New Orleans; Louisiana speaks of a kind of bravery and commitment rare at any time or place, much like Fife's good friend Jim Degroff, who "sold marijuana and LSD not for the mundane purpose of making money but as a public service."
Allen Ginsberg makes a special guest-star appearance, suggesting people shut off their air conditioners to save the environment from further ozone depletion. Although not mentioned, as an editor of NOLA Express, Darlene published a number of beat poets including Diane di Prima, Harold Norse, and Ed Sanders. A brief correspondence with Charles Bukowski, whose stories suited the atmosphere of the French Quarter, is featured.
Of course, not all was love and light in New Orleans even in the sixties. The description of Kumi Maitreya, the acid dropping Geraldine Hooper, as "over weight, matronly, middle-aged women with brown stringy hair," known to herself and followers as an avatar, a Living Buddha, is one of the most hilarious entries in the book. It is also one of the most riveting. After all, isn't this the kind of weirdo acid logic that made for Heaven's Gate, Charlie Manson, Hare Krishna's Monkey on a Stick, and all the rest? Luckily, Kumi's final bizarre crime, driving her car in a continuous circle at a busy intersection, ends up being a case dismissed after she tells the court she was performing a religious ritual.
Police State, drug war harassment, institutionalized violence, militarism and pollution, the causes and concerns that so absorbed the lives of Darlene Fife and her friends, are as pressing as ever. Cancer is now rampant. Cops killing black men is a daily event. Kids shooting up the schoolyard seem to be a national trend. Acid festivals and pot parties gave way to crack wars and meth factories. The rich got richer, and the poor got homeless. And the U.S. continues to bomb Baghdad, Khartoum, Belgrade, Philadelphia. For a moment, a vision of something better was in the air. One can only hope that the cause for clean water, uncontaminated food, free erotic play, poetry and love, health and nutrition, peace and general goodwill, will return to stir the minds of ever dreaming humanity. In the meantime buy this book.
© by Ronnie Burk