In April, I’ll be making a presentation to a special interest group of the AERA titled “The Role of Blogs in the Rebuilding of New Orleans.” My plan is to tell five separate stories that have emerged in, around, through or about the local blogosphere since the flooding of the city in 2005. I thought I would share my notes here as I complete them. So this is the third of the five stories. I welcome any feedback.
It’s with some trepidation that I now direct my keyboard to the subject of Ashley Morris. In the interconnected web of the local NOLA blogosphere, Ashley is a revered and iconic figure — I almost said “saint,” but that might be going too far. Or maybe not; Loki called him the “NSFW Patron Saint of New Orleans Bloggers.”
Suffice to say, he looms large.
I still remember when my boss first pointed me to Ashley’s blog. “Have you heard of this guy?” But I only met Ashley in the flesh a few times. Once at the Mother-in-Law Lounge he complimented me on my Saints baseball cap. And of course I was there at the first Rising Tide, when Ashley slogged through the rain with lunch for everyone — and somehow no one saved one back for Ashley. Trust me, you did not want to get between Ashley and his fried chicken. Especially chicken from Dunbar’s. Truly a moment to remember.
Unlike the bloggers in my previous two profiles, Ashley began blogging before Katrina. It’s instructive to examine his earliest posts.
His very first from January 3rd, 2005, is aptly entitled “The first rant.” It’s about his favorite football team, the Saints, “getting shafted” by the NFL. His second post is an elegy for the late Warren Zevon, one of his favorite musicians. His third post is an angry rant about HBO’s relationship with The Wire, another one of his favorites. It’s here that Ashley drops his first f-bomb. I’m sure many will be impressed by the fact that he made it through the first two posts without cussing.
In his fourth post he recounts how he hasn’t been blogging as much as he’d planned, because his daughter (six months old) was diagnosed with a possible tumor. He reveals an interesting twist of his family history: “I was raised by my grandparents, and the person I was told was my sister was actually my mother.” He tells how he called up his sister/mother and demanded medical records. “I threatened their lives if they did not send these histories. I truly meant it.”
And so a portrait of the man quickly emerges. Unlike Karen Gadbois or Ashe Dambala, Ashley Morris began (and ended) in the classic, personal, confessional mode which I believe to be the most popular style of blogging. (To clarify, it’s the most popular style in terms of what gets written, not in terms of what gets read.) He wrote with his heart on his keyboard and his name right at the top. I mean, the actual title of the blog? Ashley Morris. The web address is ashleymorris.typepad.com. It’s not difficult to figure out who this guy is, where he’s coming from, what he cares about, or the particulars of his life. He spells it all out for you, with gusto.
His fifth post is an ode to New Orleans, and to being a Southerner.
And there you have it. He expounded on other matters, but he basically defined the scope of his blogging activities and his online persona at the outset, well before the flooding of New Orleans.
His eighth post came after a six month hiatus, in November of 2005, and it remains his most famous and quintessential utterance to date. I’m speaking, of course, of the immortal “Fuck you, you fucking fucks.” I tried to grab an excerpt, but it’s really not possible. It’s unexcerptable. You really have to read the whole thing. This outpouring of rage and frustration struck a huge chord. It was probably not the first expression of a post-Katrina NOLA-centric patriot fighting spirit, but it was certainly one of the most strident and heartfelt.
In his ninth post he describes how he ended up buying his home in New Orleans after Katrina.
I drove down to eat at K-Paul’s. I told Chef Paul that I was supposed to close on September 6. He said, “I bet you’re glad you didn’t.” I said “Are you kidding, I’m closing tomorrow.”
He started laughing and said “New Orleans needs more people like you.”
He closed the deal November 4.
I could go on, but the point is that, unlike the previous two stories in this series, Ashley didn’t build his rep on investigative journalism. Sure, he did some; for example, he looked into the Musicians Village pretty thoroughly. But that’s not what made Ashley great. Rather it’s the fact that he wrote, and wrote, and wrote, about his real-life experiences on the ground in and around and about New Orleans. In other words, he was engaged in the same chore as many others (such as yours truly). But Ashley wrote with such overwhelming passion that he ultimately accomplished, with greater frequency, what many of us can manage only on occasion: Namely, he got his point across.
As Greg Peters said,
Ashley was fire. Ashley was the furnace where the rage was forged, where the steam pressure built, where raw anger began its conversion to power and motion.
(I’m sure this quote is lurking somewhere on Greg’s blog but I’ll be damned if I can find it.)
Unfortunately many of the accolades for Ashley came posthumously. There’s a whole raft of tributes collected at First Draft. It’s an unfortunate truism that we don’t generally recognize our “saints” as such until they are gone.
Because, of course, Ashley is no longer with us. About the circumstances of his death in 2008 I know little, except that he was way too young. He left three young children and a wife behind him.
Ashley has been memorialized and remembered in many different ways here in his adopted home, from t-shirts to websites. Most notable, perhaps, is the creation of the Ashley Morris Award, given annually at the Rising Tide conference. Ashley himself was the first (posthumous) recipient; the subjects of my previous two profiles have also been so honored.
Here’s a photo I took of the most recent recipient, Clifton Harris, accepting the award.
But Ashley’s been recognized far beyond the local blogosphere, most notably in the first season of HBO’s Treme. The character of Creighton Bernette, played by John Goodman, was based in part on Ashley Morris. There is a fascinating interview with Ashley’s widow Hana on TV Squad that gets into some of the details of this.
I can’t imagine what he would do if he could see this (laughs), but one of the big reasons I’m happy this is happening, he died when my kids were really little. My son was just barely 2 years old. He really does not have much of a concept of what having a dad means, and he does not remember him at all. It will be really nice when they grow up one day and I can show them the show and tell them this is what it was like after the storm and this is what your dad was saying and this is kind of how he was.
In Treme, Bernette is not a blogger, exactly. Instead, he posts videos on YouTube. Videos are more conducive the televisual medium than blogging. After all, the act of blogging is nothing more than the act of writing, sitting at a keyboard and typing — not too interesting to watch. YouTube launched in early 2005, and was just hitting big at the time of Katrina, so it’s a plausible substitution.
Personally I found the portrayal a fitting homage to the man. Given the fact that Ashley was a hugely vocal fan of David Simon’s work, I could only think he would have been pleased.
Ultimately Hana seemed to agree:
So I am watching the interview with David Simon about Treme. And watching the bit with John Goodman. Listening to him saying Ashley’s words.
And all I can think of is How fucked up this is. Thinking how much insecure Ash was, how he thought nobody took him seriously. Always doubting himself. Always trying to be better, smarter, more informed. Always thinking that his work does not really mean much to anybody.
And now he is a character in a movie! Movie by David Simon whom he admired tremendously.
Now the whole US will finally hear him. They will hear what he was saying 4 years ago. His work will finally have a meaning. To hundreds, maybe thousands.
And how fucked up is it that this happened after his death. I don’t know what he would do if he saw this. Being portrait by John Goodman. Him, a poor boy from Pensacola. A son of a used-cars salesman. I wonder if he would finally believe that he meant a lot to a lot of people. That he changed this world without knowing it.
But regardless of the amplifications of Treme, Ashley’s work would still have meaning, would still be remembered and revered by those many whose lives he touched. The reason I list Ashley as one of the top stories to emerge from the post-K NOLA blogosphere is that he showed how a person can make an indelible impression in a community through sheer force of passion.
By pouring his heart out into this medium he did what many of us are still trying to do every day. I count myself in that number. Ashley remains an inspiration to us all.
I believe the Ashley Morris Fund is still accepting donations.
Photo credit: “No Silence” by Alexis Stahl, copyright 2007. Used by permission.