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