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 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!