random thursday night at the gold mine

Nov 15, 2008 by

The Gold Mine is one of those French Quarter joints where the tourists dare not tread.

It’s not so much a hole-in-the-wall as it is a smoke-filled brick cave where mysterious moisture drips randomly upon the heads of patrons and brilliantly disturbing works by obscure artists stare down from mortar-crumbling walls positioned above bluntly printed placards bearing the artist’s last name in bold print and no other information whatsoever. It’s a joint where barrels stand in place of tables, where charming degenerates merrily hit on your wife right in front of you, where the men’s room features an old-fashioned urine trough that affords anyone with a penis the opportunity to mingle his piss with that of the dangling stranger beside him in real time – a weirdly intimate thing for people to be doing in the anonymity-driven electronic 21st century if you ask me. It is a rough and tumble joint, but also a haven for poets and artists; a relative rarity in this town. Musicians have havens aplenty around here, and I’m glad of that; they have their own free medical clinic, a “musician’s village,” and more city, state and corporate-sponsored charitable causes named for them than you can shake a stick at. Meanwhile, if you’re a writer or an artist you’re mostly on your own, expected to stop fucking around with your silly hobby and get a real job – or else you can get your drunk on at the Gold Mine on a random Thursday night and meet up with a tidy mob of compatriot sorry-ass artsy motherfuckers who gather with sooty smiles and know the score.

Right in the door, our friend and good neighbor GiO the Burlesque Queen of New Orleans introduces us to the proprietor, the Poet Dave Brinks. Dave’s passion is clearly to seek out and shine a light on the ever-elusive art of the every-man – I liked him right away. Regulars ranged from the shy to the surly; an interesting cross-section of two-legged animals from all walks of the city that shared exactly one thing – the desire and need to tell their stories through the art of the written word.

The evening’s theme was to pay tribute to a fellow poet who’d recently died; a man I’d never met named Paul Chasse. Today was his birthday. From what I gathered, Paul was a biker, a jailbird, a Haunted History Tour guide, a dyed-in-the-wool Quarter rat, a gleeful troublemaker, a friend, a husband, a resistor of all things mundane, a decent man with a good heart – but mostly he was a poet.

Dave started the night by reading a few of Paul’s poems aloud (all of which were brilliant), along with Paul’s wife Beth, and closed by stating the following truth, “If you didn’t know Paul, you do now.” Because the work was that good.

Paul’s poems were the carefully chosen words of a survivor. One was about his time in prison, contrasting good days from bad in the form of a laundry-list-diary-from-hell that balanced fleeting rays of heaven with heavy slabs of hell, as in; “Today this happened. Today was a good day. Today that happened. Today was fucked.” Never overstating, always just enough so that you got it, and I mean really got it. Another poem was about his experience of shooting abandoned refrigerators for sport in the aftermath of the big storm, and why that maybe wasn’t such a good idea after all. Another, called “No Pain on the Highway,” was about how he only felt free and completely without pain while riding down one. Another was an even-tempered response to the casual cult of religious bumper-sticker slogans we all love so much, and included a line I’ll never forget, that being;

“My redemption is none of your concern.”

Which, ironically, would make a hell of a great bumper sticker.

I never knew Paul Chasse, but I miss him anyway now, and I’m glad to have gotten to know him in this strange way. It’s my understanding a book of his collected works will soon be released. I’ll buy one and so should you.

Members of the audience were encouraged to come forward and take turns reading from a stack of Paul’s poems. Even the lovely Elly (my wife) took a turn, moved as she was, and read a poem called (at least I think it was called), “Farewell, Big Easy.” She finished by singing a Haitian prayer for the dead that translates loosely thus:

“The angels are here at last, and now all is well again.”

The tribute to Paul was followed by the open mike ritual, hosted by a cat named Jimmy. The readers came up one by one, some clearly nervous and some wildly confidant, while Jimmy supplied humorous or insightful commentary in-between. Surprisingly, there were few displays of raw ego along the way.

Imagine standing in an endless line at the DMV, and instead of viewing the people in front of you as a parade of nameless drones intent on sending a few hours of your life into a deep black hole called wasted time, that you could look into the soul of each and see something beautiful, meaningful and worthwhile. These are the angels of the DMV. These are not bongo-beating cool-shade-wearing hippie poseurs; these are real people with real hearts on real sleeves.

Some read for laughs, and some to air out their wounds, while others were just riffing on imagination – but all offered something needed saying, as far as they were concerned – and I tend to agree. Some wrote well but read poorly, some read well but wrote poorly. The good poems were often stunning while the bad ones were often better still; the ones that tried too hard or missed their mark or didn’t seem to have a mark in mind at all; just random attempts at cleverness lined with hints of unique and private pain; these were the ones that cut to the bone and revealed most about the writer, about the listener, about the city, about the joint, about the moment.

In the course of the night, the good and hopeful name of Barack Obama was not mentioned by any. It was almost a relief.

Too wrapped up in the moment to comfortably read my own stuff, GiO stood up and read a short chapter from my book, a page and a half about the endless circle of life and death, as it exists in New Orleans. She dedicated her reading to the memory of Paul Chasse with no complaint from me.

GiO is pure charm and grace; she introduced the piece briefly then dove right in. The crowd was restless at this point and so she had to raise her voice slightly, but 30 seconds in and there was a hush followed by complete silence. The fact that these people were listening – really listening – to these heartfelt scribbles of mine touched me greatly. And what writer can ask for a higher honor than to have his work read aloud to a roomful of unruly working class poets by the one and only Burlesque Queen of New Orleans?

Let this be today’s reason for loving and never leaving the City of New Orleans.

Apparently, this sort of thing happens every Thursday at 8PM.

705 Dauphine Street. See you there, so sez me.

– Louis Maistros



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