Friday, June 27, 2008

New Orleans to Iowa

This was sent to me in my email from one of the premier local blogger/activists, Karen Gadbois. Since I know so many of you reading my blog are out of towners, I wanted to post this in toto. It's important and really wonderful.

Please, if you have it in your heart, send some bucks to these folks. We know how they feel and know how much public generosity meant to us.

A collaboration has been formed between Beacon, LCIA and Episcopal Diocese. We have started a fundraising campaign for the flood victims of Iowa. We will buy gift cards to give to displaced residents that can be used for clothing, food, water or building materials. On-line donations can be made through our website: using PayPal or Just Give. Please make checks payable to Beacon of Hope and write Iowa in the memo. Checks can be dropped off or mailed to: 6268 Vicksburg Street, NOLA 70124 or 145 Robert E. Lee Blvd., Ste. 210, NOLA 70124. All donations are tax deductible as we are a qualified 501(c)3. Donations received will not be spent on our travel expenses.

Connie Uddo, Al Petrie and me, Denise Thornton, are going to Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 13 through 17th. The Episcopal Diocese and Vineyard Church have already set up a distribution centers and camps in Quincy and Cedar Rapids. There are approximately 5,000 displaced residents in Cedar Rapids. We're taking Chef Mark Uddo to do a community dinner, New Orleans style. The distribution center will get flyers out in advance of our arrival. We will hold workshops like contractor fraud & mold remediation. We will hand out the gift cards at the dinner in exchange for their contact information and we'll start a database and try to identify a Beacon Administrator and a Volunteer Coordinator. We're taking the Beacon Procedure Manual. We will make contact with government leaders. I have obtained letters of support from our city council and police department which will give us instant creditability in that arena. Connie's 18 year old daughter is going with us and she'll try to start a Youth Recovery Program which will involve the high school(s). We have learned so much about our own recovery that will be helpful to them long after we're gone. If any of you have any thoughts or ideas on how we can make this trip more productive, please let me know..

h/t Karen Gadbois

Thursday, June 26, 2008

On a First Name Basis

So nothing's been posted here for a long time. Here's why.

I was out with a friend a few nights ago. We talked about his recent trip to France, various family stories, how squinting one's eyes to really helps one see what the Impressionists were doing. We also talked about the last three months in my life, and my determination to write a ruefully sardonic piece called, "I Know Too Many People Who Die," playing a bit on the inevitability of death. He laughed and then said, "Hey, you live in New Orleans where people have always been on a first name basis with Death. Why do you think we have Mardi Gras?"

We both have dark senses of humor, and that's one reason we're such good friends.

Nevertheless, the last three months have made me wonder if I need to just turn this blog into an obituary column and be done with it. Three months, three deaths. Okay, four actually, but one had had a good run and had been ill for a while, so fell into the "very sad but inevitable" category. The other three came outta nowhere. We've had lots of folks telling us, "Well, ya know, you're getting to that age!" Yup, true enough, but these three all in a row just don't fit that truism.

April brought the loss of Ashley Morris. A firebrand, an activist. A young man, only in his 40's, leaving a wife and three pre-school children. All of us who knew him have written something about the void he has left, and we still instinctively click his link with our morning coffee. Gratefully his wonderful wife has taken over his blog and keeps us in touch with what's going on with her. We are all concerned. (BTW, we did collectively get a donation point together as the family needed and continues to need some help. Let's not let that dry up. Please remember Ashley and help his family by making a donation at: or you can just click the photo of the young man with the hat on on the upper right side of this blog.) Young man, young family, sudden heart attack. In typical New Orleans fashion, one of the first responses to the news was, "Geez, I am REALLY hoping this is an April Fool's joke." His funeral was also terribly sad, but raucous, with donations of food, booze, cigars, books, beads, you name it, tucked into the coffin with him. The wonderfully understanding funeral director asked tentatively, "Um, does all this go WITH him?" Well of COURSE it does was the answer. His interment was followed by wild dancing, life affirming celebration and roller skating.

He's still very much missed but we got through the initial sadness, knew we couldn't do a thing about it, and continued on. What else can ya do? But the "getting over it" doesn't just take a week or some particular increment of time on a calendar. There's no such thing as the definition for time of grief: Grief: an emotion that generally evolves into acceptance within two weeks of the initial loss. Uh uh. It just ain't like that. Anyone who's lost a loved one can tell you that.

So while still feeling that loss, May arrived. The phone rang and my sister told me that my Mama's husband had passed. He'd been ill for a long time. He wasn't hurting anymore. I felt for my Mama, she'll miss him. But this was the "sad but inevitable" death. It was different. Still I felt badly for Mama, and was out running some errands that day when I got hungry. I stopped into Buffa's on our corner for a quick burger, and upon sitting down heard the bartender say, "I just can't believe it! It's not LIKE Little Kenny at ALL." She continued to talk for a bit before it clicked in who she was talking about and I asked, "What? What are you talking about?" I'm really quick on the uptake. A look of horror came over her face as the horrible words, "Oh my god, you haven't heard" came out of her mouth, slowly, with lots of distortion and reverb. "Haven't heard what?" came my voice, barely audible, with an echo. Then came the story, quickly, like water over a levee, it poured down on me fast and dirty and cold.

"Mid-City Couple Stabbed to Death" read the headline.

Ms. Brenda, as we called her, Brenda Joyce Lee Jackson as she was named at birth, and Kenneth Lewis were stabbed to death in their home on Orleans Avenue, allegedly by Mr. Lewis' 20 year old son. They hadn't been found for a couple days, it was Little Kenneth who found them, and it was Little Kenneth who turned himself in days later. Each had been stabbed more than ten times. This was a real horror show.

Ms. Brenda had cooked at Buffa's for years, ever since the storm I think. She had cooked for the Rising Tide folks as we held meetings there last year. She was a good friend of mine, and I had intended for her to be my first Katrina's Daughter, but she worked so hard with a difficult schedule that we never could get the hour or so I wanted to just sit and listen. I did, however, get some of her story in bits and pieces as I'd stand in the kitchen at Buffa's and talk to her while she cranked out burgers and fries and tamales and BLT's. She had lived in a hotel up until about 6 months ago having been unable to find an affordable place to rent since the storm, and this woman wasn't making buckets of money, nor did she collect welfare, nor did she get thousands from FEMA and buy a big screen TV. She worked. It's what she did all her life. She came from LaPlace, pretty much raised her 11 brothers and sisters, was devout in a non-pushy kind of way. She didn't smile often, but always when I'd say hello and hug her, or my grandson would go into her kitchen and ask her to make him a burger "you know how I like it" with a big grin on his face. She'd just light up and make it special. If he saw her walking to work, trudging slowly down our block, he'd run up the block to give her a hug. She'd see him coming and then, boy then, she smiled. She was so thin we worried she'd work herself to death. At 57 years old, she wouldn't have known what to do besides work and "do" for someone else. She wrote poetry, had copyrighted a piece about 25 yrs ago. Always wanted me to read it but we could never find it and the only copy had been washed away in Katrina's waters. She was very proud of it. She was proud of having written it and under different life circumstances she probably would have been a teacher. She would have been good at it.

She was so quiet that we've all been searching for three weeks for one photograph of her. Finally I heard the other night we might just have one.

Actually she did teach. She taught me patience and forbearance and how to make a roux, which of course, requires both. One night she was thinking about making a gumbo I think it was. She said, "Well, first you need a roux." I told her I didn't know how to make one, hanging my head in shame. Looking shocked, she started firm but clear instructing: "You need flawr and erl. That's all you need girl, and a patient arm." She poured the ingredients into a huge cast iron skillet, checked the heat, and handed me a spoon. "Stir," she said. "How long?" I asked. "I'll let ya know when it be done." So I stirred, and I stirred, and I stirred. Occasionally she'd come over and nod and smile, other times she'd come over and tell me to smell it, "It need to smell like that, then you know you got the proportions right. Keep stirring." I stood there stirring for an hour and a half, but when she finally decided it was done, it was a glorious brown, "You gotta watch for the right color. Proportion, smell, color, consistency, that's what make a roux right." I thanked her, she thanked me and we both laughed in the narrow kitchen as the owner came in and said that we hadn't made enough, needed more. She was a sweet friend, sometimes sitting on my stoop talking before she went off to make yet more burgers.

Kenneth Lewis was a Mardi Gras Indian, "Wild Man" member of the Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indians, had graduated from Mc35, was pretty well known around. He was 46. He often did odd jobs at Buffa's and he and Ms. Brenda had lived together on and off for ten years. He had gentle eyes, drank a little too much, couldn't be relied upon mostly, but every time he saw my grandson he'd teach him another Mardi Gras Indian song, his eyes sparkling. He had lost his suit and all his beads and feathers in the storm. I had a fishing tackle box full of beads, so I took it over and told him to take what he wanted. He was so grateful, kept saying I understood how expensive those beads could be and was I sure I wanted to give them away. One day about a year ago, my grandson and I were approaching the corner of Burgundy and Esplanade, and I heard "Mighty Kootie Fiyo on a Mardi Gras Day, If ya don’t wanna play get the hell out the way!" then Kenneth's face appeared around the corner of the building and he smiled and danced and taught my grandson how to say those words correctly.

His son, Kenneth Johnson, or Little Kenneth (always somehow pronounced without the final H, like Kennet) turned himself in and has been charged with the horrific crime. This is a bafflement. This was not the "nice quiet young man" that you knew would snap. The cops couldn't find more than a traffic ticket on his record. He didn't hang with gangs, I never saw him even drunk. We talked a lot about his going to college. I'd often see him as I walked my grandson home from school, or when I stopped into the Esplanade Mart across from Port of Call. He lived upstairs and would sit on the stoop sometimes watching his nieces and nephews and we'd say hi and talk a little. I would have trusted him with anything. He has not confessed, contrary to some printed reports. If he did it we all want to know why. I mean, really, WHY??? What kinda rage does twenty stab wounds take? Was this sweet kid really capable of that? No one knows. The rumors are rampant. My personal thought on the subject is probably Kenneth, Sr. owed someone some money, but I can't prove a thing and don't know anything first hand. I do know that Kenneth had a huge Mardi Gras Indian funeral. Ms. Brenda was quietly laid to rest with no fan fare, probably in LaPlace. Everyone wants to do some kind of memorial for her. She was a friend/aunt/mother to so many and suddenly she was gone. Neither of them deserved this kind of violent end, and Little Kennet::::::::::::::all I can do is shake my head cuz I can't put that kid and this act in the same context::::::::::: If he did it, then there are three ruined lives here. I have more to say on that, but I'll save that for another time.

So April, May, June.

The phone rings. A friend who had moved to Portland. "So good to hear from you," I say. Then come the words, "I guess you haven't heard." "He's gone," say I. "Yes," she says. "Overdose?" "No, brain hemorrhage on his 34 1/2 birthday." I was gasping for air.

Adam "Dean" Lutz, 34, died suddenly in San Francisco. Memorial was this Monday past. We all knew he'd be a short timer on this planet. He was too sensitive, too brilliant, too brave, just too bright a flame to last. We nevertheless all hoped that he'd be like the birthday candles that you can blow out and they come back, blow 'em out again, and back they come. Nope. Nice idea though.

Dean, as we all knew him, was also known to denizens of Checkpoint Charlie's Bar, Grill and Laundromat as Patient Zero. I had started a short story on him and that place about a year ago. Read part of it at his memorial and evidently touched some people with it so I guess now I'll have to really finish it since I can't bear the thought of both him and the story being unfinished forever. He'd slosh down the beer, a xanax, smoke a bowl, then come out with some of the most insightful and interesting comments before launching into either an flagrantly political song or a patently obscene one. He had put out a CD, which included one of his fans' all-time favorites, "Vote Like a Fag," the actual title of which is "Go Ahead." In this song he tells everyone to vote "like they're gonna act." The guy was the bravest bastard I ever saw. Ever the clown but always the philosopher. At the memorial as we're coming through the Marigny in the second line, more than one of us expected him to be onstage when we got to Checkpoint's laughing and saying, "Hey, y'all, I figured this would be a good way for me to announce my homecoming! Tell everyone my head exploded! Hey, Shayne, can ya get me a Jaeger?" laughing with his neon orange dreadlocks shaking around his head. He would have loved that. He would have written a song about his cause of death, I can almost hear him now, hollering, "My head exploded! Don't ya LOVE it? Now ya all KNEW that's what would happen! Too bad I couldn't have figured out a way to do it at my Halloween show! And believe it or not, my tox screen was virtually CLEAN, man! No kidding!" It was, as it turned out, virtually clean. Everyone danced, cried, laughed, and sang along with his songs at the memorial Monday night. His guitar will now be a permanent fixture at Checkpoint's, a dubious honor to most, but he'd love it.

June is almost over. I will probably not answer the phone in July. I will most assuredly hang up if I hear the words, "Oh my god, I guess you haven't heard." No, I won't really. I'm too curious for that. I could, however, stand a month of not being on a first name basis with death. A month where I didn't hear the word "memorial." One single month where my poor white handkerchief wasn't going to flap in the wind to a second line for a funeral. We'll see.

Below is a compilation of various performances of his song, "Go Ahead." It is copyrighted by big medicine production, shot and edited by Michael Bradley. If you have a problem with a warped sense of humor or four letter words, don't click the video. If you're curious, please do, then you can "Come and MAYBE Get It" as he named his CD. The editing can be a bit jarring, but we're so grateful to Michael for getting this footage of three different performances (in fact, you can hear my husband hollering "we KNOW that, Dean" in one of them), it's worth the time to watch it all the way through. Then, maybe if you're really brave, go watch "I am the WalMart" at his website.