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!