Thursday, May 25, 2006

Homecomings, Homelessness and a Book

The house across the street from us had been boarded up since the storm. That's what we heard when we moved in here. We were told that the people "stopped by every now and then to check on the house." It's a good sized double shotgun with a big area like a playground next to it.

I hadn't heard any activity over there since we moved in and this is a very quiet street. I'd have heard it if there had been some. One day when I was laying on the couch bemoaning the state of my health, I heard the sound of children. Then the sound of doors slamming, and laughter, and music. Two families, probably one large extended family seemingly headed up by women, were going in and out of the doors. Obviously cleaning out both sides of the house, the women were industrious. The children, three or four of them, were running up and down the steps and getting hollered at every now and then for going into the street. A car pulled up and the wails of welcome filled the street. People jumping out of the SUV, leaving the doors open, running up and hugging everyone else in succession. Beers were opened, music was cranked up, the women and the visitors were dancing on the porch, and the sounds of hurricane stories filled with laughter and tears were told all round. One little girl, with a myriad of shocking pink hair ribbons in her perfectly braided hair watched the adults with bemusement, then shrugged and skipped up and down the sidewalk. The welcome back party went on for hours. It was so beautiful to see that it brought tears to my eyes. They were finally home.

A couple days later, we went to Checkpoint Charlie's. One of the most interesting establishments the city has to offer. It's complete name is Igor's Checkpoint Charlie. It's a combination pool hall, bar, grill, music club and laundromat, complete with poker machines. A brilliant combination. We happened to get there to do our laundry on a Monday night, just in time to hear Patient Zero, a very very smart young man who is a post-Katrina combination of Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Skinny, bright eyed, with very blond dread locks and a very funny between song banter, he sang, we ate, and got our laundry done. He led the bar in a huge chorus of Glory Hallelujah, but with decidedly anti-Bush lyrics which we all knew. (Probably most of us had gotten it in our email at one point or another.) We ran into some other people we knew and since Zola the dog wasn't allowed in (at first, anyway), I set up a stool outside at a table near the window so I could see and hear.

Later on, as we waited for the laundry to dry, and everyone had had a few drinks so objections to the dog had gone out the window, I came inside and sat at a table. We talked with our friends who were there, and the dog just laid on the floor next to us. Suddenly we look up and there is a well dressed black man, in his fifties, with a nice briefcase, wearing glasses with no glass in them. Very dapper, clear skinned, all in black, with a look of fear on his face as he heads for the door. He sees that he has to pass our German Shepherd and he is not happy about it. We convince him that Zola won't hurt him, and the man proceeds to sit down with us. He introduced himself as Welmon Sharlhorne, "the artist." Welmon is a very serious man, slow talking, deliberate in his words. He shows us his art, tells us that his art is in the Ogden Museum (and as it turns out, in quite a few other museums in the folk art collections---do a Google search and there will be pages and pages of his art.} His art, begun while serving 23 years in various stretches in Angola Prison, is all pen (Bic pens) and paper (mostly manila envelopes.) He told us that he could not get paper to draw, but could get manila envelopes by saying he had to write his attorney. He then started creating his drawings.

His drawings always include a clock, set to 10 after 10, which clearly has some significance to which I am not privy. They are fantastical architectural pieces replete with columns and building facades in unexpected places or they are some kind of fantasy bird type creature. They look almost Mayan. Quite remarkable actually. We talk and talk some more and find out that this man is homeless. He lives on the streets of the French Quarter, does most of his work at a table at the Cafe Envie on Decatur and often sleeps on the Moonwalk. How he remains so clean and unwrinkled is a mystery.

Since we have this huge house, we told him he could stay for a night. He wasn't convinced that the dog wouldn't eat him, but as we found out, he wasn't convinced that everyone wouldn't kill him one way or another. He will only eat something that he sees made, will only drink something that he sees made. Totally paranoiac. We put some sheets on the couch for him and had to close both doors to the living room so the dog wouldn't get in. A man of impeccable manners, he told us that he'd been born in Houma, was 53 yrs old, and had only gone to the third grade in school. Well spoken and undereducated, but well versed in getting by, he left the next morning asking only for a washcloth so he could wash up, probably in some public restroom. We told him he could use our bathroom, but he declined. He believes that his time in prison was good for him, that it in fact saved him. I truly don't think that he will ever be able to find a home, pay bills, do the things the rest of us consider normal in this life. A classic New Orleans character, living on the streets and getting by through the kindness of strangers, for sure.

He called for a couple of days, but my husband and I had made an agreement that we had to set boundaries or we could wind up with a dependent. We saw him on the street one day as we went out on our bikes to run errands. He was going to take a bus to the Ninth Ward. He hadn't seen it yet. I wonder if the sight of that area will have an effect on his artwork. Next time I have a couple extra bucks, I'll go track him down, buy him a bottled water and ask him.

Then yesterday I read a book that was remarkable. The book is called, The Five People You Meet In Hell: Surviving Katrina. Written by Robert Smallwood, it is an account of his experiences with staying through the storm and the days after. I know many of the people he talks about in this book because the Quarter is really a small place. Sooner or later you're going to meet everyone or at least know them by sight to nod to as you pass them. It's a quick read, mostly because you can't put it down once you pick it up. He manages to relate the realities and the emotions of those days without being overwrought. I felt as though he was telling me the story. I had actually bought it because I tend to buy books by local writers a lot, and because so many had told me that all the writing I've done since September should be turned into a book. I decided to read Smallwood's book in hopes that I could figure out how to do that. I know nothing about book proposals, etc. Once I started reading it, I was laughing with him, crying with him, and wanting to have a drink with him. He talked about hearing Ray Nagin's radio interview in which Nagin told the nation in no uncertain terms that New Orleans needed help. Smallwood said he went out onto his balcony and cheered. My husband and I had cheered too when we heard it. We had tears in our eyes and cheered.

Interestingly, Smallwood evacuated the day we were sneaking back into town. (His description of the airport is harrowing.) Our story starts where his story ends. Reading his book was like getting the missing puzzle piece that fell between the couch cushions. (His book is available at Amazon---here's the link--it took me three hours and four bookstores to find it here in town. It's evidently selling out. Seems I missed him at Acadia Books on Orleans by two minutes.) Although the book could have used a better proofreader (although I loved the irony of cavalry being mispelled as "Calvary"), it is compelling. This guy doesn't bash you over the head with "gee it was horrible." He talks instead about the people of New Orleans, how they managed. He completely captured the spirit of the place that we returned to.

He loves the carriages and knows Armando's cigar store. Sweet Armando helped me pick out a humidor for my husband's cigars. I'm bound to run into him one day and when I do, I want to thank him.


Mark said...

Your husband will have to look up Ashley when I put a blogger party together to burn one. I'm not a connesieur, but do light up a Macanudo every now and then. (My wife used to have to run out and buy them for Sen. Edward Kennedy when she was a junior member of his staff). Personal aside done, a fabulous post. I am absoloutely going to have to find Five People.

slate said...

We are so looking forward to your arrival! Have a safe journey.

Yes we'll see to the cigars, and I did have a drink with Robert Smallwood. Met him by chance at Molly's on Decatur. He's getting a lot of flack about the language in the book, my god--you used the F word! I think that's hilarious in view of the situation he's describing. We talked about a lot of things for a long time, and he seemed happy that someone "got" his book. Understood what he was trying to convey.

Thanks for the pat on the back. It's much appreciated.

See you soon!

Anonymous said...

Hey there. I'm a local artist who sells on Royal St. by Pirate's Alley (weather permitting, haha). I'm a fan of Welmon Sharlhorne and have made mention of him in my website...and have included a link to this blog, if you don't mind. The site is and the link is found in the description of the piece "Labyrinths." Please contact me if you would like the link removed, but I think your insight into Welmon is up-close and personal and would like to share it. --- On a different note, and as a comical aside, the night I was hanging out by the gate with some fellow artists freaking out about the coming storm (Saturday, August...what...27th?) your buddy John the writer-guy was sitting out there on the curb wearing a straw hat, drinking a beer out of a paper bag, grinning like a little kid and filming the panic with a hand-held camcorder. That Kool-Aid grin strikes me as fantastically ironic now, in retrospect, with consideration for the success of his book. Ha! Only here, man. Only here. :-)

Anonymous said...

Correction: "ROBERT the writer-guy". Sheesh! Long nights on the computer!! Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

My name is Jake, and I encountered Welmon (aka "Shadow") in a cafe while staying in New Orleans for only two days in June of 2004. My friends first met him there while he was drawing, and asked him if he would be there the following day. He was, and we all met with him and went to a museum where he proved to us that he was a "legitimate" artist because his art was indeed hanging on their walls. I don't recall the gallery name, but it was definitely Welmon's art hanging there. He told us that if we gave him $30 and a ride to a liquor store, he would meet us at the cafe again the following day with a picture dedicated to us. Skeptical, but thankful for the museum tour, we gave him $30 and a ride. Sure enough, he was at the cafe the next morning and cranked out another drawing, which one of my friends still has.

I'm glad that you posted this story about Shadow, because I was not sure if he survived Katrina, and had no way of knowing what had become of him. So, thanks.