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.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Treme and My Fridges

EDIT 4/18/10: This post cross posted at
Back of Town Blog. I will update my blogroll this week. Also the link to the referenced photo from HBO's Treme has been changed and I have replaced it with the photo itself (HBO photo) generously supplied by the WetBankGuy.

As most of you know, I have a sister blog called Katrina Refrigerator which was begun on September 12, 2005. (You'll find a link to your right on this screen.) We were here long before the time frame of the new HBO series Treme begins.

I will also, just as a warning, let you know that in this house we are rabid David Simon fans, from his books to his past forays into television. A DVD of the Wire is staring at me from above this monitor with a post it note on which I wrote, "OMG! He killed OMAR!" Mr. Simon laughed and signed it, "Yes, I did! David Simon." It is one of my great treasures. I'm telling you all that so you know that I expect nothing but excellence from Mr. Simon as that's all I'm used to getting from him.


I watched the debut of Treme last night, giggling with anticipation. I was not disappointed. Simon and his team absolutely got it right. There were little lines, tell tale lines, of dialogue that were unique to that time and place. Things like casually asking "Did you get water?" and not meaning did you buy a flat of bottles over at the Sam's Club. "How's your house?" followed immediately by "Don't ASK about my fucking house" were dead on. "He went to Irene's. They're payin' $10 bucks an hour." Oh yeah. Ask the folks at Yo Mama's one day how many cooks they went through in the first six months. Labor was hard to come by and if you wanted to open, after you jumped through the hoops, you needed people, but so did every other place trying to re-open. It was a bidding war for dishwashers. What an amazing statement that was to write. In any other context it would be considered an absurdity.

While everyone else picks apart the Magic Hubig's pie, the Bracato's reference, the fact that Jockamo's wasn't made yet (and as my friend and fellow writer mentioned, Restoration Ale WAS all the rage at that time with giant gorgeous blue neon fleur de lis in various shop windows), I will limit myself to the emotional rollercoaster this show took me on in its very first show.

Here in this living room, we alternately went from flashback tears to raucous laughter to shouts of YEAH THAT IS HOW IT WAS to dancing, even after having danced most of the day at French Quarter Fest! We were so proud of the people of this city, we were so proud to BE people of this city, we were so proud of Simon and his writing team. We said we wished we'd gone to Vaughn's again before the show aired as it will now become a place of pilgrimage. Good for Vaughn's though!

The one thing they couldn't do was convey the smell, the all pervasive smell of the houses, the duct taped and subsequently decorated fridges (one corner of the Quarter alone once had a phalanx of fridges, about 20, just lined up next to each other like mute soldiers with trenchfoot), the weird black slimey spider-webby grunge that got into your hair, on your skin, the smell of that, the fear of it---what the HELL was in it?---rumors swirled about a refinery down river leaking petrochemicals in various forms, now dried, now in your hair. No one knew for sure. The changing smell of the mold as it turned blacker and blacker. They did do the mud in the houses justice though. One's foot just kinda sunk in, but the summer sun had baked it til it cracked and looked like the Rio Grande river bed in July. But, the smells. . . .

The look of amazement, shock, horror and despair on Clarke Peters' face as he saw his house for the first time was perfect. I have no doubt it had been my mask many times over those months, and I saw it on hundreds of others.

But it was Treme's writers' powerfully but quietly written moment of defiance in the face of that destruction that got me. I'm still teary.

Two weeks ago I took this photo and 200 more like it:
This photo was taken on a beautiful day, nearly five years after the storm, after the super Super Bowl, after, after. . .

Last night, on Treme I saw this,

this absolutely perfectly shot moment, a uniquely New Orleans moment. I dreamt about it after laying my head on my pillow, wanting to be no where else on earth, grateful that we are still here and that our love of this place and our defiance of devastation was and will always be, worth it.