Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Just Kids

I am reading Patti Smith's award winning book, Just Kids. Borrowed from a friend, it has made my "immediately buy" list. Everyone who knows me well knows she's a hero of mine: we inhabited the same environment, read the same books, had the same heroes, grew up believing ourselves to be artists. Whatever that meant. Granted she was a few years older than I, but when she talks of places like the Electric Circus, now defunct, I remember my first visit to that place. When she talks of living in the Chelsea Hotel, I am jealous. It's where my first husband and I aspired to live but never quite made it. She talks of poetry readings, off off off Broadway plays, the unknown bands playing the downstairs of the Village Gate and I remember bitching about the cold as I loaded in amps and guitars out of a beat up van in the alley behind that place. But for his band to play there was the big time. My god, one of our idols might be in the audience.

We held intermittent jobs, had a friend who was a printer who would work just long enough to collect unemployment so he could travel, then return and do it again. Made sense to us. We were regularly evicted from our apartments for being in arrears on the rent. No credit checks back then. Just grab your paltry belongings and move to another. We lived in huge houses with ten other people, until the Health Department told us we were in violation of some bizarre law stating that no more than three unrelated people could inhabit a 7 bedroom house. We all had dogs. We all had drawings or chord charts taped to our walls, and books on the occult or Eastern religions near our copious candles in second hand holders. We had tons of books, all also bought second hand, all passed around, all discussed at length. We dreamed not so much of fame, but of achievement, accomplishing something in whatever art was our forte that had never been done before while holding true to the grand romanticism of Rimbaud and Beaudelaire and Van Gogh. Patti followed Rimbaud's footsteps to his hometown, saw omens in things that happened on his birthday. I get her.

One scene of her pocketing two steaks, one in each pocket, made me laugh. I remembered my first husband putting a London Broil down his jeans and the rest of us saying he could have found a better place to put it as we all chowed down on it. Patti had a job at the point that she grabbed those steaks, just as we had jobs when the London Broil became dinner. As I recall I was working at an employment agency, one of those private ones long before the word head-hunter entered our lexicon, he was delivering auto parts. Where did our money go? We'd dutifully put a little in the community coffee mug designated for rent and utilities. Yeah, yeah, we bought some recreational drugs, but the rest went for art supplies and guitar strings and a payment on the wah wah pedal down at the Main Street music store. The owner was kind and understood it would take us forever to pay it off.

We were young. Eighteen to twenty. We were just kids. We believed in the purity of art in and of itself and in terms of our lives. Uh huh. I know. Incredibly naive, incredibly selfish in its way, incredibly irresponsible by most standards, and incredibly beautiful. But I'm a long way from that place now. Many decades past it. I have owned cars, houses, raised a child, worried about college funds, come up with stories for the light company when times were tough. Other than the child, I wasn't wild about any of it. In fact, my moving to New Orleans was an attempt at divestment, a return to a more art-focused than stuff-focused life. My bones are too old for constant moving now, and I don't do the cold as well as I used to, so a place with a bed in it has become a necessity. No more can I sleep on someone's floor with my jacket for a pillow and a samaritan's blanket not long enough to cover my toes.

Last night a second line for John Flee, as he was known, passed my house. I knew it was scheduled and I heard it coming. Bundled up in my robe I went out to the front gate catching it just as it turned off Architect Alley. People, lots of them, turned the corner onto Port. Guys on two story bikes Flee had probably helped weld together at Plan B towered above the mourners and the motley collection of musicians playing. It certainly wasn't a standard second line with an organized brass band giving them a beat. It was a "hey, doesn't Tommy Socks play tuba?" kind of music. It was lovely. And very very sad. John Flee was shot in his home and the thieves, from reports I've read, only took a couple of computers. Friends in the second line group stopped by the gate and we hugged. Two young women asked if they could hug us, offered us whiskey, cried on my shoulder. I told them to dance their little feet off for him. They said they would.

Among that group marching somberly in front of my house were eight kids who had no idea that this would be one of the last things they'd ever do. Eight kids, squatters, gutter punks, nuisances, non-contributors to society, died in a fire in a warehouse last night trying to keep warm, their bones still young enough to sleep on a hard floor. Most probably still clinging to the sorrow of the loss of their friend and many of them still believing in the romantic freedom of an unencumbered life, offering whiskey generously to two old people who had a roof over their heads.

In my day, there were certainly plenty of folks who thought we were nuisances too. They definitely reminded us of our lack of responsibility. They told us we were dirty, un-American, un-patriotic. They told us we needed a back up plan "in case we didn't make it as artists." They told us there were rules of society that we needed to follow. We didn't understand why. We were making our own. I never expected that my generation would wind up spouting some of the same vitriol that was hurled at us. I, naively it would seem, expected that our generation would somehow be more tolerant, more understanding, would remember the couch surfing and the purloined dinners. I expected that we'd understand when we looked at the young ones among us that they were just going through the same paces we did at their age. Yeah, yeah, the issues and manifestations would be different: Iraq instead of Vietnam, two story bikes instead of mocassins and beads, guerilla art installations instead of portfolios, Fringe Fest instead of off off off Broadway, pitbulls instead of labradors. And while we were certainly not all saints, hardly, neither are they. To lump them all in the vagrant category does them a disservice: some of them deliver your food to you on bikes, some of them run community bookstores, many of them helped gut houses after the storm. They are not all good. Nor are they all bad. They are not all artists trying to live the life of pure art, nor are they all aggressive junkie panhandlers.

And no matter what, we need to remember, those of us with some of the alleged wisdom that comes with age, that compassion is ageless and timeless. There will always be kids who do not choose to throw themselves headlong into what grownups think is the societal norm.

That young woman with the whiskey may turn out to be the Patti Smith of her generation. That kid on the two story bike might toss it away and decide that Bernie Madoff had the right idea. We don't know and neither do they. Yet.

Because they are very simply, just kids. Nine of them dead in a week. Perhaps those two among them.

It breaks my heart.
EDIT 1/29/11
Some wonderful photos of the Second Line Memorial to these people can be found HERE.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Wish I Could Tell Louis.. . . .

. . . .about this article in the Times Picayune today about two police officers lying about a shooting at the Convention Center after the storm. Last time I saw Louis, which was about four years ago, he was a much changed man. He had lost his nephew at the Convention Center and then had lost his beloved son to a heart attack following the storm. His son, for whom he worked himself to the bone, was in his early thirties, and no drugs or alcohol were found in his system at the time of death. Following all that, and what had happened to him in the storm, he rarely smiled. He drank a lot. He told me once when I asked if he had told anyone else about what he'd seen at the Convention Center that it wouldn't do any good. He was beaten down to despair. I've since lost track of him, but ask every time I'm in the old neighborhood if anyone has seen him. The answer is always no. I am in hopes that he hears about the cops being exposed, his recollections being affirmed as opposed to being relegated to the category of urban myth.

Below is his story, actually only a fragment of it as I never got a chance to get it in its entirety. It was written December 29, 2005. I never knew his nephew's name. I'm wondering if his name was Danny Brumfield. If not, I'm wondering if Danny Brumfeld was the only one shot there. I've heard multiple stories from multiple people who are not wingnuts, so I tend to think not. No age is given for Mr. Brumfield, so I certainly cannot say that this man was Louis' nephew. I would, however, like to tell Louis that saying something, maybe even now, might do some good.

We were standing outside, the weather was warm for this time of year. Zack and Melissa's folks were here, and they're always a joy. So we stood out there talking, laughing, having a couple drinks. David was due home shortly but was still at work. I had come back in the house for something and the doorbell rang. When I opened it there was a man with a wonderful smile on his face, dressed in a bright Christmas red sweatshirt, black pants, and red hush puppies. It was Louis Towns, our neighbor. All he needed was a bow on his head and he would have been the best gift of Christmas. Before he could get the "Hello Miss Marie" out of his mouth we were hugging each other. Then the phone rang and it was David. I told him there was someone here who wanted to talk to him. I handed the phone to Louis and he said, "Hey, Mr. Dave!" David was thrilled and hurried home.

I still don't have the whole story of Louis' odyssey, but I'll give you what I do know. First a little bit about Louis. Louis is one of the most decent and one of the hardest working men I've ever known. A black man, born and raised in Louisiana, very intelligent, not very well educated. He's married, has a son who wants to be an engineer, and he had two grandsons. He may have former wives, other kids, other grandchildren, but we've never discussed any of that. Pre-Katrina David and I met him on the Ferry as it seemed we were usually coming and going at about the same time, all on bicycles. He lives a few doors down on our block and of course we'd seen him, but it was on the Ferry that we made friends. Many nights we'd be coming home from work the same time as he did and we'd talk about lots of things. He worked in a warehouse in Metairie, which is by bicycle a very long way from Algiers Point. Louis is in his early 50's and he rode his bicycle to and from his job in a warehouse every day. If we didn't see him on the Ferry we knew that his boss, who thought he hung the moon, must have picked him and his bicycle up over near the bridge, but usually if the boss did that it was at 4:30AM. Louis, grateful for the ride, would go to work early then ride his bike home. Our relationship was casual. He'd come to our porch to talk, we'd stop at his porch to talk, but we always talked on the Ferry.

About three weeks before the storm, Louis had somehow dropped either a pallet full of stuff or a large 5-600 lb drum on his foot. I can't remember which, I only remember him telling me the story and it was a totally freak accident. His foot had been literally smashed and the doctors had put multiple pins in it just to keep the bones together. One of the pins was sticking out of his big toe. Just looking at it made you cringe because you could imagine, or thought you could, how painful this injury was. David and I had talked back then about how difficult it would be after this accident for Louis to do his daily Algiers to Metairie ride. Louis said he'd find a way to get to work because he was trying to help his son become an engineer, besides, he had said, he'd been saving up some money to buy some old beater car. About a week before the storm, Louis moved up to a friend's house in Metairie, or near there, because it was closer to the doctors who were treating him and walking to and from mass transit wasn't really an option for him at the time. Then came Katrina. We didn't see him again. When his family returned to the flat up the street, we'd ask every time we saw them if they'd heard anything from Louis. They had no idea where he was. They were worried too. We all knew that he had been in a part of the city that had flooded. At least once a week David or I would wonder if Louis had made it. It was one of those vague little aches that we didn't know how to fix, someone once there suddenly gone. We didn't know his last name---he was simply Louis and we were David and Marie, a name that I am not sure how he ascribed to me but he's always called me that and I've never corrected him. We weren't really close with his family so felt like we'd be intruding if we asked for last names and we figured they'd already checked all the various lists.

On Christmas Eve when he showed up on the doorstep we found out what had happened to him. Unfortunately, it's not a particularly unique story. He's just one of many. He had been in Utah. I should have figured that out by looking at the Utah Utes red sweatshirt, but hadn't noticed anything but his smile. How he got to Utah is a story that I hope to get in toto one day. He says he's written some of it down and has warned me that his spelling is no good. I don't care. I got the "short" version the other night and want to hear the complete version. (He said he'd been interviewed several times by the Utah newspapers. I wonder what they made of his story.)

When the storm hit he was lakeside in the City, either in Metairie or nearby. That is the area that the 17th St Canal breached and flooded. His foot still full of pins and in a cast, he walked through waist deep polluted water until someone rescued him and took him to the Convention Center. There he spent five days. Another couple of friends were also in the Convention Center and have told me about the level and degree of filth, including two inches of urine on the floor. He was there with his 19 year old nephew and some other friends or family. His nephew went to get bottled water for some of the elderly people near them at the Center, and somehow he wound up in the chaos of evacuees and police and was shot and killed. Louis stood in my kitchen at one point and sobbed saying, "I watched my nephew die and all he was doing was going to get some water for the old people." He looks utterly bewildered when he says this. There is some anger in him, but his anguish over not being able to help his nephew outweighs the anger. At least for now. At this point his feet and legs were in terrible shape from walking through the water in combination with the injury he had sustained prior to the storm. He left the Convention Center on foot and joined the people on the Crescent City connection. He was one of the people the Gretna police turned back. Remember, he lives over here. He was told that if he could get someone on the phone to come and get him, that he could come through. He didn't have anyone's phone number and no cell phone, so that option was gone for him. He walked back to the other side of the river and through some intervention, not sure whose intervention, he wound up on a Jet Blue to Utah.

When he got to Utah, they put him straight in to a hospital, where he was told that his feet and legs were so horribly infected that they might have to amputate them. Evidently his feet and lower legs were triple the size they normally are. They pumped him full of antibiotics and painkillers, and remarkably, saved his legs. I told him he was actually lucky not to have been allowed to cross the bridge because at that point I'm not sure that there would have been a hospital in the area who could have taken care of him. There was still no power in most places. He spent weeks in the hospital and was so sick and so out of it that he said he didn't realize how much time had passed and he didn't know where the rest of his family was either. Finally he was released, evidently has been set up in some kind of living arrangement, still has medical issues that need to be dealt with so he could only stay here for a couple of days before heading back to Utah. He also found out once he got in touch with his family here that one of his grandsons had died. So his return here was bittersweet, but he was so grateful to be home. He says he'll return home permanently at the end of March, but for now he'll be in Utah not liking the snow but grateful for all the help he's had. He believes absolutely that he was saved for a reason. His emotional pain will take much longer to heal.

--This is also an excerpt from the Christmas in New Orleans piece published in A Howling in the Wires, 8/25/2010

Monday, June 28, 2010

Emperor of the World

EDIT 6.29.2010
I just got off the phone with Miss Betty Fox to make sure I was reading this article by Alison Fensterstock correctly. She confirmed that she's going to try. And that means WE have to try. We can't just sit back now and say, "Phew, I'm so glad the Mother-in-Law isn't closing. We have to go OVER there. Spend some MONEY there. She was so ill from stress yesterday that she had to go to the hospital. It's up to us to not just flap our jaws in support. We need to get our butts over there. The events listed at the bottom of this post are STILL ON. That means head on out. Let's support her decision and her courage. She says she doesn't want to let US down. Let's make sure we don't let her down.

Get your snickers and giggles and bad mother-in-law jokes out now. . . . tap tap. . . .looks at watch. . . .I'll wait. . . .done? Now, admit it. If I was to sing the chorus of the song, you'd all follow along singing it with me.

Here in New Orleans we have three images that spring to mind when we hear the word "Mother-in-Law." We have Ernie K-Doe, the singer of that song, both alive and, well, still alive after a fashion. We have the wonderful Miss Antoinette K-Doe, now sadly gone. And we have the Mother-in-Law Lounge, the enduring monument to them both. Never heard of it? Take a look at this, photographed in 2008 by Monique Armstrong:

Now, after having survived the loss of Ernie K-Doe, having survived the floodwaters of Katrina, after having been helped out by Usher when the waters receded, having survived the loss of Miss Antoinette on Mardi Gras Day 2009, it will soon be a memory.

I went to watch the finale of HBO's Treme with the Emperor of the World and his minions. I got there early to insure having a seat and some of the mean red beans Miss Antoinette's daughter, Miss Betty Fox, makes. Miss Antoinette had once told me you could "cheat" with red beans, didn't have to soak them overnight, just cook them in a roux and they'd be creamy. The red beans were ready when I walked in on Sunday, June 20. Miss Betty was behind the bar. We talked for a long time before others came in. Tears in her eyes as she explained the situation, tears in mine as I listened. The Emperor sat in the corner, taking it all in.

The Mother-in-Law has been in business for 16 years. I've heard many stories about how it started, but they all, in the end, come down to the tenacity of Miss Antoinette. One story goes that the Emperor, for all his flamboyance, was a bit down in the heel when he met Miss Antoinette. She brought him around, probably through a combination of sweet encouragement, love and putting her foot down. She was amazing in her ability to be both forthright and powerful, and playful and loving, sometimes all in a span of ten minutes. The Mother-in-Law opened and became a venue for the Emperor, a gathering place for musicians and Mardi Gras Indians, and Miss Antoinette re-started an old Mardi Gras tradition called the Baby Dolls. There it stood on Claiborne Ave. with history happening inside alongside some rather remarkable photographs, posters, and memorabilia of all types--from precious little angel figurines to a paper mache head of the Emperor himself probably originally on a Mardi Gras float.

Miss Antoinette was a formidable fixture in New Orleans. She is reputed to have gotten more than 50 kids through school using the same combination of encouragement, love and firmness, along with her own two daughters. When the Emperor passed away, he lived on in the form of a mannequin made to look like him, dressed like him, enshrined in the club and occasionally taken to dinner and other social functions. The Emperor-as-mannequin was as familiar a character in the landscape of New Orleans as Miss Antoinette was. If he was wheeled into a club, the crowd parted, smiled widely, and greeted him. It just seemed the polite thing to do.

When Miss Antoinette passed away, the news spread through the streets on Mardi Gras Day. Many, including the group of people I was with, made a pilgrimage to the Mother-in-Law to leave something for her, to pay our respects. There were flowers, notes, candles, beads of course, photographs. I took off my choker and tied it to the front door handles. It was a somber walk home.

From then until now, Miss Betty has tried to keep it open. With regular postings on Facebook and various other special events, the place stayed there, struggled but stayed there, it's murals all cleaned up, the outside garden/shrine full of flower planted bathtubs and toilets kept weeded and watered. Then a car careened off course and straight through the front doors of the club.

After 18 months of living in the club, sleeping on the couch in the main room, working a day job to keep her mother's club viable, that car through the door pretty much broke that proverbial last straw for Miss Betty. Insurance paid the landlord, the door was never fixed and still isn't. The rent had been raised after the storm. Other areas that needed attention for mold or termites leading up to the living area above the club haven't been fixed. Miss Betty has been paying for repairs out of her own pocket and it's clear that she's just plain exhausted.

She is planning to take everything out of the place and put it in storage. She'll probably need some help making sure nothing gets broken--so many frames, so much glass. Her plan is to put it in storage until she can find an affordable place to start a museum to showcase all that memorabilia. Everywhere I go talking about this, people mention having an investor or someone that would buy it up from her to keep it going. She would prefer that no one make that offer to her. She is intent on keeping the K-Doe legacy together and wants to do it on her own terms.

The murals will probably be painted over. Get your photos while you can. There is too much on those walls, inside and out, to be handed over to someone else who might plan on making money off the name.

It will be another loss for New Orleans, but can be a great step forward in Miss Betty's determined quest to keep the legacy alive, while keeping herself from working a day job so that all of us can show up and keep her awake into the night. She's just plain worn out, and I don't blame her one bit for her decision, hard as it is on her.

With her positive outlook, she's planning a couple of events to take the place out in style.

On June 30th, there will be a Celebration of the Lives of Miss Antoinette and Ernie K-Doe starting at 10PM. It will include a vintage radio interview with Ernie K-Doe.

And here's an easy one to remember: 7/10/10 @ 10AM there will be a party, garage sale and silent auctions on many pieces, including, she says, the bathtubs. Clear a space in your yard and bring your money! Bid on something you can say is a true piece of New Orleans history.

Oh yeah, if you have any ideas for affordable spaces for the museum, please contact: Charles Holmes at 504.473.1297.

Miss Betty is gonna need an actual place to live, a real bed, probably some help boxing and storing the memorabilia, and possibly some of us to volunteer to paint over the murals (gulp). I'll double check that with her, but that's what she planned on doing when I talked with her last. If you can help in any of the above things, please call her at 504.236.6086. We all need to pitch in to help her. It's the least we can do for her herculean attempt to keep the Mother-in-Law open for us to enjoy for all this time.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

No Street Music in New Orleans? That CAN'T Be True.

Believe it. It could be true very shortly if the current ordinance isn't changed and fast.

Brass bands, and other street musicians have been informed in the last two weeks that they must stop playing by 8PM. To Be Continued Brass Band, at Bourbon and Canal, Young Fellaz, at Frenchmen and Chartres, and Little People, at Royal and Toulouse, were all visited by police this week. It's not just brass bands being targeted, it's all those wonderful musicians whose notes carry over our heads as we walk down Royal Street or Decatur Street at night. It's even the ones who aren't so great but they try.

We're also wondering how this ordinance is going to affect impromptu second lines that routinely wander with costumed revellers through the Marigny, or even the bike in movies at Architect Alley. The other night I cruised Royal, Chartres and Decatur on my bike to see who was still out. I found some very cute young tourists, slightly drunk but having a wonderful time, on Chartres about a block upriver from the Ursulines Convent. There were six or eight of them, singing at the top of their lungs (and there are great acoustics on that block!). Unfortunately they were singing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." I am in hopes that this is not the only evening street music we'll be hearing down the road as that song has popped up unwanted in my internal jukebox at inopportune times. (Wait, for that song I'm not sure there IS an opportune time.)

I find it incredibly ironic that yesterday on CNN, I found this article about HBO's Treme and the producers' use of great New Orleans music in the show, including the fact that they record much of the music live, as it's played in the streets. The very thing this show depicts so well may not exist for visitors who, after watching the show, decide to come down and see for themselves.

The press has been covering the issue, thankfully, here, (the first article on nola.com was the top most commented on article for a couple of days), here, (the Gambit has several pieces on Blog of New Orleans this week), and here. Glen David Andrews led a second line around Jackson Square and promises to fight the ordinance. A Facebook page, begun Tuesday night in the wee hours of the morning out of outrage, called Don't Stop the Music. Let New Orleans Street Musicians Play, has reached 9000+ supporters in under five days. The people behind this page are hoping to get the ordinance changed, an ordinance by the way, that was created in 1956 and allows power tools and lawnmowers to run until 10PM while shutting down musicians at 8PM. (Powertools also have an earlier starting time allowance, go figure.)

As we watch the issues that were so much a part of our lives post-Federal Flood so well depicted in Treme, and now we deal with an oil spill of, as Creighton Burnette would say, "of epic proportions" that threatens an entire way of life and has tourists afraid to eat our seafood, we take a little solace in the fact that we can still walk out the front door and find music instead of an Appleby's next to a Long John Silver's.

So while we are watching HBO's Treme's final episode tonight, pay attention to all those scenes of musicians playing the music that sustains us. If this ordinance stands, it may be the only place to see it: on television.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Gang Watching Treme

This piece cross posted at Back of Town
So, I decided a few nights ago, with only two episodes to go that I'd like to see the show with a lot of other people. I typically hunker down on the couch in my living room to watch Treme. Now and then a wayward HBO-less friend saunters to the front door to join us. It's wonderful. But I'd gotten an invite to a screening at the HiHo Lounge on St. Claude with the extra incentive of Mardi Gras Indians being there, and went.

My close friends all love the show. We're rabid about it. We talk about it, we conjecture, we email. These are people I know and love and we had all waited impatiently for Treme to air. It's a slightly insular group. I wanted to see how the general public and the Indians felt about it.

I got to the HiHo early and the place was pretty much empty but for the two buck Abitas slung across the bar by the pink and blonde haired bartender who also happens to be the very talented artist, Mardi Claw, whose work has been seen a time or two on the walls in various scenes of Treme. Two other women sat at the bar. The conversation was laced with Katrina stories and oil spill grief and anger. Time passed and a few more beers were slung.

A bit before 8PM two men come into the bar. They are Wild Man John of the Wild Tchoupitoulas and a young man whose name I didn't write down from the Creole Wild West. By now there were about 40 people in the bar. The crowd was almost exclusively young and white. The Indians explain that the Creole Wild West is the oldest gang around, they then proceed to explain a bit about their culture and attempt to get the bar crowd to learn the responses to various songs. Wild Man John leads a second line out to St. Claude and quickly returns. A few more songs and the Wild Man asks if we're ready to watch Treme. The crowd yells its assent and the volume is cranked up. A cheer goes up as they hear, "And now. . ." The clips from last week's episode flick by, the scene of the Indians in the dark, Wild Man John hollers "That's ME!"

Sonny and Annie on the river. Boos and hisses for Sonny, laughter as someone yells "Douchebag!" then silence. The crowd has grown to probably 75 people, it's not a huge place but it was packed, and they were all listening to the couple on screen. People standing everywhere as the seats were gone, with folded arms and faces tilted up toward the screen. Theme song comes up, beer orders are put in, most sing along with John Boutte.

As dire as some of the situations were, the jokes got huge laughs, Janette's duck fat quip, nothing in the perpetual care package, like Allstate, Mardi Gras fuck and closed legs, Davis Rogan saying he couldn't BE Irma, back gonna hurt for the next 40-50 years, the work ethic line was a particular hit. "You know nothing of my alchemy" may become a tshirt. Oh yeah, they were loving it.

The people in this place were totally invested in the show and the characters. These characters have become extended family to New Orleanians. You could hear breath being held all over the bar at certain moments: the blank blue screen that turns out to be in front of Creighton could have caused a riot had it lasted a second longer. Everyone thought the connection to HBO had been lost, it was a short term panicked moment until the camera pulled back to reveal Creighton. The sadness was palpable as Janette drops the tray and walks dejectedly out of frame. When Kermit hit the screen the entire place cheered, he was ours, our guy, up there. It was a moment of collective pride. A sense of "Kermit will show them how we do it!" "Them" being the folks out of town watching the show.

By the time Creighton asks for a cigarette on the Ferry followed by the "bullet in the chamber" line, no one was drinking, no one was talking. As the show ended people just stood still, waiting for more.

Some interesting observations were made. We were never shown LaDonna's notifying her mother of Daymo's death. We didn't have to watch their agony. Someone else noticed that the crypt that was in such bad shape said Batiste, begging the question was LaDonna a Batiste before she married Antoine. It is a huge family, could happen. Lots of people said they were kind of dreading the last episode, figuring it would be St. Joseph's Day and wondering if Albert was going to "step past the fight." There was also a lot of musing about what they were going to do until the second season started. Several people said they'd buy the DVD's and watch it all again.

Lawdy lawdy lawdy Miss Clawdy raffled off some of her paintings. I won one of a Day of the Dead Jean LaFitte, which totally cracked me up after Davis' turn as LaFitte last week. As I walked out with my painting, Wild Man John was getting ready to leave. His incredible suit laying in the back of an open pickup truck. I asked him if he was sure it wouldn't blow outta there on the way home. He said it would be okay. I then asked if he thought the Treme writers were getting it right. He said yes, mostly. He was overall pretty happy with Treme's treatment of the Indian gangs, said no one could get it ALL correct unless they were in it, and that he was happy that that part of New Orleans culture was being showcased. I told him that some people didn't think these men would really be sitting and sewing all the time. Both men told me that they did indeed sew all the time and were already working on next year's suits.

Now, where will I watch the final episode?

(More photos from last night can be found here.)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Big Chief's Stand

Once again, there were plenty of things to write about in this episode, but I kept going back to Albert's fury about housing for his gang.

Jacques Morial sits talking to Davis and says:

"Whole neighborhoods are being written off. Nagin's talking Chocolate City but he's not pressing the Feds to bring anybody home." He then asks the question: "Why won't the Feds move?" Poor Davis looks clueless, so Morial explains, "If New Orleans becomes whiter, the state turns from purple to red." He then talks about the infrastructure necessary to sustain culture not being attended to. While Davis tries to find a rhyme for "infrastructure" we are allowed to let that last statement sink in and remember that Albert and his gang are exactly a part of the culture that Morial's talking about.

Later, as Albert makes his stand, finally the cops come. The first ones to arrive tell him pointedly that the unit he's in "don't belong to Perleen Cross. It belongs to the Housing Authority of New Orleans." Nevermind Perleen had a lease on that unit, which is in great shape, probably had that lease for years and was given no notice that her lease had been rescinded in any way. Nor had she been to court to be stripped of her rights according to the lease. There had been no legal process started against the pre-Katrina residents by HANO at that time, I don't believe. As a reporter interviews him, Albert asks why with all this housing available, housing that's in good shape, and with so many wanting to come back home, the projects aren't being opened. "I need someone to explain that to me."

Me too. I was asking the same questions at the time.

Finally, the Community Relations Officer arrives saying that "the Mayor and City Council President Thomas want to resolve this without any real conflict." Uh huh. Oh I bet so, although I've often wondered in light of Barbara Bush's comments at the Astrodome if anyone outside of New Orleans would have wondered why we wondered.

The officer goes on to say that the Feds control the projects. Albert's bewilderment when he says, "Don't make no sense that nobody in New Orleans is fighting the Feds on this one," was my bewilderment. Perhaps I'm an idiot, but at the time I really did not understand it one bit. When the officer follows that with, "The people who vote in this town, black and white, have been awfully quiet on this thing don't you think?"

The truth is that there were a lot of us at the time who were really concerned with the housing/projects situation. Prior to Katrina some of the projects had already been demolished to build what they called "mixed-use" housing, and others were slated for demolition. Talk around town prior to the storm was that people really, really wanted Iberville gone. I mean, c'mon, that's some prime real estate there fo' true. The St. Thomas projects were already gone, other housing and a giant Walmart had been put in its place. Once before the storm hit, I'd gone to the St. Patrick's Day parade in the Lower Garden District and struck up a conversation with a family who lived down the way from the route. They were having a party and were decidedly not Irish. We talked for a long time and I missed a lot of the parade. They told me that a lot of the housing in the area was now lived in by former tenants of St. Thomas because "this is where their people are at. This is where they grew up. They don't want to leave the neighborhood even though they might find better housing somewhere else. And the rents around here have gone way up since the projects went down."

On the Westbank, I know they were already starting to eliminate the projects and some of the new housing had been built pre-Katrina. The problem was that they seemed only to be rebuilding half or less of the number of units that existed before the wrecking ball hit. I wondered then, what happened to those other families? The other half?

Fellow BoT contributor GBitch wrote in June, 2006:

My mother grew up in what was the Magnolia housing projects Uptown. Back then, as in many ways recently, it was a place for poor people with children and elderly people living on pensions. Poor people who worked, older women who planted flowers and tomatoes and scolded children no matter who they belonged to, cooperative communities.

After promising that all have “the right to return,” the federal government through HUD is now saying that there will not be enough room for everyone. While multiple condominium complexes go up around the CBD and Lower Garden District, condos that start at $200K, HUD has decided to raze and redevelop 4 housing projects over the next 3 years and to (eventually) redevelop them as “mixed-income” housing. Only 1000 more units will be open by this August, bringing the total of available public housing units to about 2,100, which is 3,046 fewer units than pre-Katrina. What most focus on in the housing projects is drug crime, teen pregnancy and welfare dependency. They ignore the elderly who have lived in (and anchored) neighborhoods all their lives and who, even if they wanted to move, couldn’t afford to live anywhere else in the city. They ignore the working poor, the single parents.
(You should read the entire piece Who's Right to Return here.)

What's happening in Albert's neck of the city was happening in other housing projects. Next time you are having coffee, put Magnolia Projects into your browser and read who grew up there. You'll see links for other New Orleans projects, with lists of other people's names that you have on your bookshelf or in your CD collection. The video below is what happened at the St. Bernard Projects which admittedly got more water than some of the others. It's a tad long, but for those of you reading this who live outside New Orleans, it's important that you see how determined people were: both those who wanted to come home and those who enforced the you-can't-come-home policy. Albert's storyline is entirely plausible and completely real.

Oh yeah, and I found this today:Harmony Oaks Apartments. In Central City. With a special link for former C.J. Peete residents. Rents from nearly 700-950/month depending on number of bedrooms. I'm going to have to check out how many units C.J. Peete had before demolition and how many units Harmony Oaks now has built. And hey, it's only five years since the storm!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Thick Black Bubbling Rage

Hey you! Yeah, don't do a DeNiro impression, I am very definitely talking to YOU.

I've been relatively quiet these days. Downright fucking sedate, at least for me. Today you're just gonna have to put up with me. You can, to steal a line from the HBO show Treme, tell me not to "be appalling." I'll get over it. Unfortunately none of you will say that to me. Instead you'll tell me not to be appalled. Different syntax, just as dismissive. You'll try to walk away. You'll shake your head and say, "Well, we always knew you were gonna lose it, and the day has come to pass." Humor the lunatic for a minute. Consider it a good and charitable act. Appleby's doesn't take reservations, they'll still have a table for you when you get there a little later than expected. The cupcakes you need to bake for the second grade fundraiser will still get baked in time for tomorrow morning's deadline. You've already TIVO'd the finale of Dancing with the Stars, or whatever you were waiting til the kids went to bed to watch.

Just humor me for a minute here even though, yeah. I've lost it. Lost a lot, in fact, these last five years.

Oh please, you say. What have you lost? Oh yeah, the photos. You still on about those? Get over it, nothing you can do about it.

You're right. Nothing I can do about those. And yeah, those were lost, but they were spit in the oiled ocean compared to what I've really lost, and what I've lost should worry you, no matter who you are or where you live. Yeah, you! C'mon over. Join us. The others will teach you how to roll your eyes and take a step back from me as my hair turns into Medusa's snakes and sparks of rage pop off my skin like carpet static, if for no other reason than you'll have a great story for around the watercooler tomorrow.

Faith. That's what I've lost. I hope you recognize that for what it is: a monumental loss for someone who has always been an optimist. I am now a faithless heathen, a pagan baby, a soul beyond redemption. Pray for me if you feel the need. I'll take all the help I can get. Eye each other uncomfortably as I continue. It won't hurt my feelings.

I watched as the Christian right ignored all Christian principles becoming hate-mongerers. I watched as they bashed gay people, founded mega-churches that espoused all manner of hatred and intolerance for women, Muslims, liberals, or anyone else who disagreed with them. I saw them toss the term Christian into the flames of the inferno.

I watched as the country I believed in went off to a war based on lies. I watched as citizens of my country agreed that torture was a reasonable way to treat prisoners. I watched as those same citizens decided that our Constitution didn't apply to those prisoners, that our rules of law could be chucked out the window. I watched as the same people who sent our kids off to that war sat in shiny wood panelled rooms and cut costs on kevlar to protect them, bought helmets that were defective but cheap, put them in unarmored Humvees, paid giant corporate contractors to build showers for soldiers that were badly wired and electrocuted some of our own, and decided that medical care for them after they returned, wounded in mind and body, was too expensive. I watched as the pictures of flag draped coffins were finally shown to us against the Pentagon's wishes.

I watched as people drowned in my city's streets, bodies floating by underpasses turned into islands by the depth of the water. I watched prisoners be locked into cells and left to die. I watched the guy who made that decision get re-elected. I watched people jammed into a stadium and a convention center hold their crying children's hands, begging for water, as their grandmother sat dead in front of them. I watched as our President said he'd fix the levees, help rebuild, stay as long as it would take. I saw him turn his back and place hurdles in the way of recovery so high that many couldn't jump them. I watched our governor abdicate her power instead of turning into an Amazon warrior. I watched our Mayor turn recovery into a personal ATM for partying. I watched entire neighborhoods remain un-recovered and dark five years later. I watched white people cheer behind closed doors that many black people would never make it home. I watched as kids shot each other in the streets and barely anyone noticed as long as it all stayed contained in "those" neighborhoods.

I watched as Arizona militia men went a-huntin' for illegal immigrants. I watched as the news was full of fear that the Mexicans were gonna take all the jobs. You know, those jobs standing in the heat on the chili farms or fruit orchards, or the ones in the kitchens and nurseries of affluent families that everyone's lining up for. What? Your kids aren't just dying to be migrant workers and maids? You're kidding, right?

I watched as we slowly let corporations take over this country. I watched the Supreme Court say a corporation had the same rights as an individual and could donate whatever obscene amount they wanted to a political candidate. I watched as the banks sold air and paper numbers as good investments only to wind up forcing thousands of people out of their homes because they bought that song and dance. I watched as corporate owned coal mines ignored safety rules and killed some workers. I watched as none of them went to jail.

Now I'm watching as the same state that drowned in water five years ago becomes suffocated by oil. I watch the executives blame each other. I watch them ignore the 11 dead workers as though they didn't matter. I watch as they continue to lie and no one steps up with a plan and some action because there is none. I watch as the President I had great hopes for lets this continue after a month. I watch as the fishermen cry and a centuries old culture dies. I watch as an entire state is given over to the executioner and instead of being offered a merciful blindfold we see boom, pelicans that can't fly, families that can't eat, marshland laid waste. All this to feed our country's insatiable oil and cash hunger.

I watch video and screen shots that may be showing me how the ocean bottom blows up and crumbles. I watch and wail at my helplessness to fix it. I watch as we seem determined to steal every conceivable money making resource on earth, no matter the cost in human lives or damage to the planet we live on. I watch as bonuses are given for increasing a bottom line that does nothing to improve the lot of those who are victimized for it. I watch as stockholders become the only creatures who matter.

I'm sorry! You look a bit uncomfortable. Nevermind then. My faithlessness will not have an effect on you. None of that stuff I just said has anything to do with you. Go home. Climb into that SUV, step's kinda high, can I help you? There ya go. Hey look! It's only 6:30! You still have time to hit the grocery store and grab that shrimp from Thailand. You'll still make it home before E!Entertainment's special on Lindsay Lohan's latest court date airs. Not a problem. And you, Appleby's guy, their regional burgers menu will probably still offer some bastardization called a Cajun Burger Supreme or something.

Carry on. But don't look back. My snake hair will be writhing and you'll turn to stone.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Nagin, the McAlary's and FEMA Trailers

Cross-posted at Back of Town


I find myself in a rather surreal position these days. I have been reading words written during the time period Treme is depicting, thousands of them, for weeks now, as part of another project. I was also here during that time. Now I'm watching it on my TV every Sunday night.

This week, in a very busy episode, Simon and the guys got me several different ways. I couldn't decide which thread to write about as they were all viable, so have decided to do little snippets on each of them.

First up: Ray Nagin

In reading all the words these weeks, I've noticed over and over again references to Nagin as Hero. Stemming from his radio interview shortly after the storm, most of us were thrilled that our Mayor was saying what needed, in our opinion, to be said. He was cussing on the radio, pulling no punches, people were dying, we needed help. Oh yeah. We loved it. I heard from two writers this week whose work I've been reading. Both were concerned that pieces I chose included laudatory comments about Nagin. They asked if they could remove them. One guy wrote that in Alabama there were evacuees holding up signs for the press that said, "Viva Nagin." Another writer had written, "Nagin for President." In our household we had jumped up and down screaming and hugging when we heard that radio interview. Finally, finally, someone had said what needed to be said. We weren't the only ones who felt that way. On Treme this week, Nagin was skewered, becoming a, um, self-pleasuring papier mache effigy. Please remember that the series is now around about January/February of 2006--a mere five months after that interview.

How did he go from hero to hated? Lies, inaction, divisiveness, that's how. As it turns out there was also a mighty large dollop of corruption mixed in with all that, but at the time we didn't know that. We only knew that we felt let down. We were hurt. We were very, very angry. Yeah, we were pissed at the Feds, and Bush/Cheney in particular, we were pissed at the State, Madam Governor will you please quit equivocating, and we were pissed that the guy we thought would be the one to fight for us, for our City, turned out to be a peacock who really liked the color green and didn't really give a hoot about human colors, black or white--regardless of his polarizing chocolate city remark. We were defending ourselves in the national media, defending our right to exist as a city, our right to rebuild, frantically typing facts against "below sea level" bullshit in comments sections all over the nation, and the one guy we thought was with us on our side of the barricade was actually on the beaches of Jamaica looking at real estate ads for homes in Dallas. (Quick aside: Loved Toni's phone conversation with Creighton on the way to Port Arthur: "YOU swore a solemn oath. I didn't.") We felt utterly betrayed. Yup. All that happened in those five months. Nagin as a KdV float has pretty much been standard ever since.

Next up: The McAlary Family

The Treme writing team did an great job showing the disparity of conditions here at that time. The McAlary family, obviously well to do, are having martinis in their unwatermarked, perfectly furnished, unblemished parlor. Only sunlight and intact paintings and upholstery are seen through their un-boarded up windows. Truth is they probably had a couple of Blackwater's hired guns sitting on their porch during the darkest days. They no doubt hired someone to get rid of any unsightly and annoying tree branches that may have been broken in the storm. They are not talking about insurance adjusters or FEMA. They were covered in every conceivable way. The storm has had very little effect on them. Their conversation with Davis, pointing out their strong ties to the Confederacy, is marvelous. His saying that he usually tells people he was named for Miles, Sammy, Ossie or Angela was hilarious and his "veiled racist" statement was far more restrained than my response was to comments about "that element" now being gone from the city. I heard similar sentiments from my own not-from-NOLA family and I came unglued. That element. Last week Davis got punched out for using the N word. No one punches Mr. Perlis-wearing McAlary for sitting mum as his wife, pinky raised, says those words: Code for black people, black neighborhoods, all filled with criminals and drug addicts and welfare queens. Davis' family has a bottle of Jim Crow right next to the Jim Beam on their bar.

Meanwhile on Miro Street, Big Chief Albert is cutting and sewing in a barely lit, empty but for tables and supplies, bar where he is living with several other men. None have a place to live. Vans and cots in a bar are their only choices. The number of men living with Albert keeps growing. The Feds won't open the projects (from the McAlary's point of view the best news EVER) and those who had homes, like Albert himself, will have to wait for insurance company's pennies on the actual dollar value checks (should that actually come through), FEMA, gutting, stud drying and mold deterrent application (a process that takes months, I might add) before they can even think of putting in new drywall. Nevermind the various plans that were bandied about back then. You might get to come home if your zipcode happens to be printed on the piece of paper they pulled out of the hat last night. You might get to stay if after the latest plan is accepted your neighborhood is considered "viable." Next year it might not be considered viable. Roll the dice. You might have to re-do any rebuilding you already did if they decide that your house has to be raised. Oh yeah. Didn't tell ya? Insurance which already screwed ya isn't going to pay for the raising. There were raging arguments about the use of the word "refugee." I wrote a piece sometime back then defending its use, as opposed to "evacuee." I got emails. Lots of emails calling me lots of names for using the term refugee, but when all was said and done, the guys on Miro Street are for all intents and purposes refugees. Albert saying that they were making it impossible for "folks" to come back: folks being his own code word, and that he felt like a refugee in his own country was absolutely right on. The Lambreaux clan and the McAlary clan are having very different experiences only a few miles apart in the same city.

And finally: FEMA Trailers

Antoine with the stripper asks how she got a trailer so fast. The answer is obvious. City official's assistant comes to the bar and tells Albert that the official pulled some strings and got, wait for it, ONE FEMA trailer. Nothing he can do about housing, it's the Feds issue to deal with. Only one trailer. Take it or leave it. After the storm there were some great ideas for housing, including something called a Katrina Cottage. These were basically modular homes that would be permanently installed on the property where your house used to stand. They would be tricked out a bit so that they would fit in with existing architecture. They were cheaper than FEMA trailers. FEMA said no can do. Stafford Act. FEMA can pay for nothing permanent, no infrastructure, no Katrina cottages, nothing permanent even if it was more cost effective and humane. So instead they bought the formaldehyde exuding trailers. Thousands of them. Nearly 40,000 of them died a useless death in Arkansas after sinking into the mud there. Millions of dollars wasted and 40K families still waiting to come home. There were also arguments about where to put the trailers with 50% of the parishes outside Orleans saying no to any FEMA trailer set up sites as they were afraid they would become permanent like some did in Florida years ago.

While the rest of the country had gone on about their business, these issues were real here. I remember being astonished when I finally saw a FEMA trailer. It wasn't an apparition but it certainly was a rarity at that time, and I had no idea they were so small. A friend of mine who is an elementary school teacher knew entire families of two or three adults and several children all sharing ONE FEMA trailer. Albert's astonishment and disgust was the only reasonable reaction to the housing debacle. I'm expecting that story line to develop well. I can see the militance in his face.

These guys have the big issues nailed dead to rights. I actually had to re-read some of my old pieces to remember the numbers and some of the issues. Clearly the writers have some killer researchers. This episode was rich with portent. I only wish they hadn't rushed through the first few months as fast as they did, bypassing the holidays almost entirely as the holidays of 2005 were tough stuff. But I figure they didn't know they'd be picked up for another season and were trying to get as much into 13 episodes as they could, if that was all that it was gonna be. I am looking forward to the watching the development of these story lines as so far, these guys are diving into the deep water with their eyes open wide.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In Defense of Davis McAlary: Epistle in B Flat

This piece cross posted at Back of Town.

There are a lot of folks who absolutely hate the character, Davis McAlary. Others who just don't like Steve Zahn. The nola.com site was full of commenters applauding poor Davis' come uppance.

I was not among them.

I love Davis. I know this guy, and lots just like him. Tell the truth. So do you. We all have a friend who's a bit over the top, a little bit out there, annoys the hell out of us, but still we shake our heads and regale our other friends with stories about him. As he walks out after talking us into something of a dubious nature, we do the same thing one of the guys he talks into playing on his record does: We smile, laugh a little and say, "Asshole."

Davis is absolutely self involved, no doubt about it, but he's also absolutely passionate about New Orleans, the people, the music. He's completely caught up in the sheer joy of living here, even with the sudden drops into despair or anger.

In Episode 4 he made me laugh at myself. We were here right after Katrina and in the first two months we replaced one tire and repaired one with five nails in it. By the first year anniversary we had replaced them all. I even laughed at the "Lagniappe Guy." One of our tires blew out in, yup, truly, a hole Entergy had dug on Whitney Blvd on the Westbank. I pulled over to the side and voila! Like magic a guy came off his porch with tire changing tools. A buddy of his sidled down to help out. They probably made a hundred a day putting on spares. They just sat there waiting for the next tire to blow, knowing that those of us with no inflatable Santa or Entergy exec to kick would drop a twenty on him for helping and another ten for his helper. My guess is he was very sad when that hole got fixed.

In that same episode, he stood in the Apple Barrel and ranted about FEMA, Bush, Nagin, Entergy, and all the other usual suspects, while raising a glass and eliciting groans and cusswords from the other patrons. It was a scene I'd seen played out over and over again during that time. Hell, all anyone had to do to get the bar patrons to holler something in unison was say "Bush SUCKS!" The entire place would stop, mid-pool shot, mid-conversation or mid-pickup line to raise their drinks hollering, "Yeah, you right. The fucker." I used to laugh and say that if anyone got out of hand in a bar, the bartender could ignore the baseball bat on the bottom shelf. All she had to do was get up on the bar hollering "FEMA SUCKS!" and the problem would be solved without violence as everyone's attention, including the out of hand patron's, would have been riveted to Norma Rae in tats and black torn tshirt standing on the bar decrying in two words the commonality of despair felt by the people with reams of paper in their pockets stamped with the words PENDING.

Lost property ("Hope there was nothing of value in there."), a stint in jail ("Davis, you don't motherfuck the National Guard!"), blown out tire, the city he loves in ruins, politicos yammering instead of doing, an ambivalent girlfriend ("For a private life I've got YOU!"), lost job--Davis maintains his passion and more importantly, his optimism. It's clear he's not stupid, and not oblivious to the problems of post-Katrina New Orleans. He's just simply trying to get by, live his life as normally as possible and have fun doing it. There were folks like him, still are. We need them. While sitting in a pity pot, miserable and angry, a wild eyed guy like him stands up and says, "Pot for Potholes!" Magically you find yourself laughing, agreeing, enthusiastically supporting the idea and your issues are gone for a little while. Oh how important those people were then and still are now.

Davis is the personification of the people of New Orleans' ability to use humor to get through a crisis, dark humor often, but humor nonetheless. He's the personification of their ability to make art out of pain, scrawling lyrics on the wall to turn into music a half a bottle of wine later. He's the guy with no hot water unabashedly running through the second line dancing like a scarecrow for the joy of it.

In Episode 5 his speech to the musicians he's trying to recruit is inspired. As they sit eating, he assaults them with reasons to do it: not for the money, for posterity, for New Orleans. And they agree because as bizarre as his idea may be, it CAN be done, and there was so much at that time that could NOT be done. And ya know what? They showed up. The smiles on those musicians' faces said it all. Laughing out loud as he did his Bush imitation, "Your City's WET." His Shame, Shame, Shame rendition was great! ("Should we lay down the bass and drum tracks?" "What band is this? Journey?") He said in that song what everyone was thinking.

Finally he ends up drunk in a bar with two black friends. He quotes Antoine Batiste, unfortunately using the n-word. Clean cut guy takes issue. His friends try to shut him up. He's not seeing the problem. Hell, he said in his recording that folks were stuck listening to this white guy because the great black musician was stuck in some town far away with no way to get back home. When the clean cut guy clocks him, one of his friends gives the hitter a shame on you look and his other friend tries to help.

Although he's clearly chastened by the incident, we all know that Davis' enthusiasm won't be dampened for long. And that is his appeal.

As for Steve Zahn, I love that guy too. Before this series started I saw him hanging out at Vaughn's one night. He talked to us for a while (and no, he did not behave like the Davis character) but was clearly there to hear the music. I saw him darting in and out taking photos at Super Sunday. It seems Mr. Zahn has been "gotten" by New Orleans, somewhere between the solar plexus and the heart.

I am looking forward to watching Davis develop as a character. And if I ever see Mr. Zahn in Vaughn's again, I want to buy him a drink.

Two great lines from the Davis storyline this week, one was nearly a throwaway.
The gay guys next door saying to an incredulous Davis, "We're your NEIGHBORS." One of the musicians at the Shame recording session hollering out when they finished, "That was true shit!"

Yeah. They right. Along with the music, there are the people of New Orleans. Davis' passion is not misplaced, and he knows that as he lowers his uber speakers down from their perches in the windows.


Oh yeah. I should give a shout out to David Kern for his appearance in the Krewe du Vieux captain's scene. He had a great time doing it and now feels that his battered signature hat should be placed in the Smithsonian. Not for the money. For posterity. For New Orleans!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

X Signs and Obits

This post cross posted at
Back of Town Blog.
Simon and company's attention to detail, adding a literal t-shirt thread here or there, to put the story together with accuracy and small, almost subconsciously assimilated cues, was very apparent in Episode 3 of HBO's Treme. And sometimes, it's the little things that grab ya.

Sonny and Annie, playing on Jackson Square, right in front of my favorite people watching lamp post at Chartres and Pirate's Alley, are joined by an accordion player. Not just any accordion player, by the way. That was Sunpie Barnes, one of the best to ever squeeze air through pleats, and also a force in our community in so many ways. Sunpie was wearing a tshirt over a long sleeved shirt. The long sleeves were skull and crossbones, the tshirt was an orange "X-sign" on black. If memory serves, the date on the tshirt X-sign was 9/23, but I could be wrong.

Meanwhile, over in Gentilly, Albert searches the obits. His buddy notices and asks if he's looking for anyone specifically. Albert answers in the negative and his buddy remarks offhandedly that the obit section is a lot bigger since the storm.

So what's the big deal? Again, they got it right and they did it in quiet soul wrenching ways.

For those of you who weren't here, the X-sign was and remains ubiquitous. Painted on every single structure in the city, noting which agency had been there, what date, what they found or didn't. I still find myself reading them as I pass by, always hoping for a zero on the bottom, meaning no one found dead there. I've seen some with ones and twos. One in the Lower 9 had a zero with a note: "Possible body."

There's currently a tshirt with that sign for sale on CafePress. I've seen people with X-signs tattooed on their bodies. I've seen art inspired by X-signs. And yeah, folks, they're still on homes all over the city. Some have painted over them, others have left them, almost like a badge. Here at my house, they got sloppy, no X, but the other info is there. Some days I want to paint it over. Some days I feel like putting a frame around it and gussying it up.

Ya know, that is almost a month after the storm hit, and they found a cat here. For anyone who thinks that Albert's finding his Wild Man's body THREE months later is a stretch of the imagination, I'm here to tell ya that it happened. A lot. Sweep after intense sweep and bodies were still found months and months later. Unless you actually saw the scope of the devastation, with houses on top of each other and cars on top of that, you might doubt the plausibility of that story line. I'm gonna have to watch that episode on the On Demand channel so I can pause it as Albert heads into the Wild Man's house. I want to see if there's a zero in the mark.

The X-sign on Sunpie's tshirt in the very beginning was a warning to me in its own little way. Uh oh. Somebody dead. Somebody gonna get found. In a building. In a kitchen. Oh. Under a boat.

Hey, wait, you mentioned the obits! Yeah, I did but poor Wild Man Jesse hadn't made it into them yet.

The post-Katrina death toll was extraordinary. Studies were done showing that the number of suicides and heart attacks per capita in New Orleans was beyond the pale.

Just put yourself in LaDonna's shoes for a minute. Husband and kids in Baton Rouge, roofer being a flake, brother missing, Mama AIN'T leaving, brother-in-law judge is condescending and not returning phone calls, lawyer is working on it but still can't find the brother, husband is dealing with the insurance people, the "good hands" people who are giving them the run around and she kisses him and says, "See ya Sunday." And she didn't even have a funeral to plan. Many did. This was the pattern of life for many many people after the storm, a pattern that pulled apart what was left of their emotional strength. (For those of you unfamiliar with our geography, Baton Rouge isn't that far away, depending on whether you break the speed limit or not, you can get there in a hour and a half easily. But not after Katrina. It could sometimes take people twice that or more to get to Baton Rouge if it was rush hour and they were trying to get back to the rented place in Baton Rouge after checking on the house they were still paying a mortgage on in New Orleans.)

At the three month mark, the obits were full of the names of people just found in the debris of their homes, people who had finally been identified, claimed and released to family from the coroner's office, and the suicides and heart attacks and stress related death people who passed last week. The Obits were a grisly read, but they were regularly searched by people like me who still didn't know where neighbors were.

As late as six months later, March of 2006, I had been sitting on a levee on the Westbank. When I came back I wrote this:

A woman came up to us with some binoculars. . . . We started talking with her. She lives on Powder Street here on Algiers Point, a street that we delivered lots of food and water to in early September. There was an entire family that hadn't evacuated and they had nothing. One of the women we met up there was an elderly woman, about 83 as I recall. She was one of the women who needed her medication refilled and was part of the surreal tea party under the Army tent at Blaine Kern's as she waited with the others for a ride to West Jefferson. Her hair was black, her makeup severe, her laugh raucous and wonderful. I can't find my notebook (been searching all morning, her name is in there), but I think her name was Joy Boudreaux, a very common surname here in New Orleans. She told me that she had been born on Powder Street and had lived on Powder Street her entire life. She was a fascinating woman. She died this week. Evidently she had other ailments, as her list of prescriptions could attest to, but her heart gave out.

The woman we were talking with was probably in her late 50's, also lived on Powder Street. She said she had a circle of girlfriends that consisted of 12 women. They'd known each other for years. Five of them have died since the storm, of heart attacks from stress. Four others had moved out of New Orleans because of their jobs. She just shook her head, still not believing her personal human loss.
~Katrina Refrigerator Blog originally written 3/26/2006~

There are still many people missing, just flat out unaccounted for, some by choice no doubt, others just gone, bulldozed under, grown over. There are still others who were never identified or claimed.

There were about fourteen things I could have written about this week's episode, it was so rich. But it was the X-signs and the obits that kept coming back to me as I went to sleep at night.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"You had him all the time!" ~Toni Bernette, HBO Treme

This post cross posted at
Back of Town Blog.

Last Sunday's episode of Treme nailed so much about that time in this place that I couldn't decide what to write this week. But I kept going back to LaDonna Williams' search for her lost brother, who, she finds out, had been sighted on the overpass among Orleans Parish Prisoners.

It made me click on stories a friend of mine had told me when he was staying with us shortly after the summer of Gustav and Ike. I sat at the kitchen table listening to him, in his quiet way, tell me what had happened to him in that place. Now and then there would be a flash of anger, but mostly the story was told in even tones of resignation accompanied by shrugs. I will change his name to protect his identity, but the story he told me has haunted me.

Ike Hodgkins is a tall, gaunt, black skinned man with long natural dreads. He is a spiritual man but not naive. He is a musician, a dedicated spiritual seeker, well read. He knows a lot about Buddhism, Rastafarianism, other world religions and reggae music. He grew up in a huge family on St. Anthony Street, just two blocks from the Quarter. The house he grew up in is gone now. It burned down years ago, probably says he with no proof at all, for the insurance money once the old house passed from his family's landlord to the landlord's son. He has travelled extensively with various bands, has seen the world, and observed.

He was in OPP when Katrina hit. He'd been picked up, if memory serves, for a missed court date for an arrest involving a couple of joints in his possession.

Until today I had no real idea how enormous OPP is. Nor did I realize that it houses city, county, state and federal prisoners. Our trashed storage unit was one block down on Tulane, really just catty corner to OPP, but still, the size of the place hadn't registered. When Katrina hit there were 6500-7000 prisoners in OPP, some of whom had yet to be charged with anything at all. Sheriff Marlin Guzman said we needed to keep "our prisoners where they belong," and there was in fact, no plan for evacuation in an emergency. OPP was taking in prisoners from other parish jails. These poor bastards had been evacuated from their parish jail to OPP. What was Guzman thinking? Certainly not about the prisoners, and certainly not about his staff.

Until Ike told me, I didn't realize that those incarcerated were sorted out: violent offenders on one tier, jaywalkers on another. I guess I figured everyone was sort of put in wherever there was room. He explained that most of the violent offenders had been on an upper tier. He was on a lower one. He told me about the staff just abandoning the place and the people in it, at least where he was. We poured hot sauce on our scrambled eggs and he told me about the power going out and the water rising. One of the guys with him had been locked up the night before the storm for failure to pay his child support, another for an unpaid traffic ticket. Ike told me about spending 12 hours standing on his toes to keep his head out of the water. A guy next to him noticed a shorter cousin and held his cousin on his shoulders for those 12 hours as he was tall enough to keep from drowning. Ike kept eating his eggs. I had put my fork down.

Eventually he was one of those ferried to the overpass. No water, no food, no information at all. Only sun. He said he noticed his skin was in bad shape from having been in the water with god knows what else polluting it. Eventually he wound up at Hunt in San Gabriel. There 3000 OPP inmates were put in a maximum security prison (remember, many had not yet been charged or were in for minor misdemeanors) in a field. At this point there was no more sorting. No more protection from the violent offenders. Everyone was dumped in the field. There was a young man who'd never been in jail before near Ike. The kid was panicking and falling apart. Ike got hold of him and calmed him down, explaining that he didn't want to draw attention to himself or he'd be in danger. The young man listened and glued himself to Ike, shaking the entire time. He was shaking not only from fear, fear of the other prisoners and the extremely hostile inmates of San Gabriel, but also from dehydration. He remembers it taking a long time before the prisoners got food or water.

As for the authorities, they had no idea who any of these guys were. No records had accompanied them, not only because of their evacuation but also because most had been destroyed in the basement of OPP. So the authorities now had 7000 people in their custody and no earthly clue who any of them were. Were they violent rapists or a guy who mouthed off to a cop on Frenchmen Street? No idea. Families had no way of finding these prisoners and the prisoners had no way of knowing what had happened to their own families, much less a way to contact them when communications were completely useless at that time. Lots of people just got lost. The public defenders were gone, many just quit, already overloaded with casework before the storm ever hit.

The LaDonna Williams story line in which she is looking for her brother with the help of Toni Bernette, a lawyer rings absolutely true. (I was delighted to see Anwan Glover, who played Slim Charles on the Wire playing the guy they all thought was LaDonna's brother.) I'm guessing that a lot of guys became someone else during that time. Bernette's search through photos and printouts only to find LaDonna's brother in the photos on the overpass, but not in the records, is probably a story that played out hundreds of times the same way. The already tenuous justice system of New Orleans was completely broken down.

I had heard Ike's story. Today I looked into the reports from back then. Once again David Simon and his researchers and writing crew have it right. As viewers sit watching and wonder how such a mixup could happen, and complain that it might be a dramatic exaggeration of things, I'll be remembering Ike's story and pointing them to the links below.

This article, Down by Law, written in 2006 gives a great overview of what happened at OPP and why.

Regardless of your view of the ACLU, take a look here. Lots of links on that page.

And finally, I think Toni Bernette's character may be based in part on a Defense Attorney named Phyllis Mann. This 2007 BBC Documentary, called Prisoners of Katrina, has Phyllis Mann's description of what she was up against at about the 35 minute mark. There is also footage and descriptions of San Gabriel at about the 37 minute mark. It's a tough documentary to watch. The inmates interviewed vary from a death row rapist to a murderer to a guy who hadn't been charged in a drug possession arrest to a guy who never did find out what he had been arrested for.

I'm betting Simon and company have seen all this. I'll be curious to see what happens in the "missing brother" storyline, cuz from what I can tell from the real stories, he could be anywhere.