Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Shoeless in Swamp City

Mea Maxissimoso Culpa for leaving either or both of you (previous estimates of readership apparently being off by an order of magnitude) hanging on my tale of Village de L'est. I did make it out there last Wednesday (although I had to break my own rules and take the car -- crossing the twin-span on a bicycle being akin to crossing the runway at LAX on a pogo-stick and therefore more befitting a Super Dave stunt than something I'd really be interested in doing, even for your sake, my blogospherical confreres). And I paid a follow-up visit over the weekend, dragging the wife along to sample some of the much-touted Vietnamese food out there. Alas, I've been too swamped (get it? no, I'm not above that) with work this week to upload the photos and type the tale. And in a tragic happenstance reminiscent of young Hemingway in Paris, I lost the little notebook I use to capture my impressions. (What, that doesn't remind you of Hemingway? It was a Moleskine, I swear!) So, it looks like I'll just have to wing it. Somehow, I doubt you'll notice the difference.

This is just to say, therefore, in the hallowed phrase of car mechanics everywhere, "'ey, I'm working on it, ok?" And also, I'm not going to be able to do a run this afternoon. I haven't even put the digital ping pong balls in the cybernetic turning cage for this week yet, so how can I possibly have the time to do the extensive historical, geographical, socio-cultural and, let's face it, metaphysical analysis you've come to expect. Plus I've got to get ready to go out of town again.

Anyway, lest it be said that my blog has come to consist of a series of elaborate excuses for not blogging, here's a youtube link that you really need to watch.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Is Libya too far for busing?

Why I shouldn't read international and local news at the same time:

International: Libyan pupils 'to have laptops'
Local: Problems Plague N.O. Schools Recovery

So, every school-aged child in Libya (LIBYA!) might be getting
a laptop. And here in N.O., the kids don't have books. Or teachers.
Or classrooms.

Hey Professor Negroponte, how 'bout sending some of those lime-green toys
this way?

Off to Village de L'Est this afternoon. I'd better pack a sandwich.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Where I Got Them Shoes: Desire Area Edition

Neighborhood: Desire Area
Flood Depth: 4-10 ft.
Bar: none
Drink: none

Before the Industrial Canal breached on the Lower 9th side, unleashing the explosive power that levelled block after block of that neighborhood and introduced "the Lower Nine" to a national audience, it breached on the upriver side, shredding the houses and apartment blocks of this neighborhood. The Desire project itself, in the process of being rebuilt before the storm, was shaken apart and soaked through, neither the new nor the old sections left intact. This was a neighborhood that was barely livable before the storm. Not only did it face the interlocking web of problems that gather around poverty, but it contained a Superfund site that activists claim is connected to the unusually high cancer rate in residents. Ringing the residential areas is an industrial corridor that contributes to the feeling of being out on the edge of things here, when really you're only three miles from the French Quarter. For a good introduction to the neighborhood, its residents, and its fate, you might want to check out this article.

Despite seeing the L9, Lakeview, and St. Bernard (both the parish and the housing project), I was ill-prepared for the devastation here. I guess I figured that, having seen the worst, nothing could surprise me now. I crossed the railroad overpass on Almonaster and headed up to Higgins, which would take me to the heart of the neighborhood. An electric transfer station hummed ominously; all else was still. There at the corner of Almonaster I had my first taste of the wreckage, a house completely caved in, a plastic chair in an upper room the only
immediately recognizable effect of the former inhabitants.

And it continued like this, for block after block after block. The only sign of repair seemed to be the occasional blue-tarped roof, long past its interim period of usefulness. The Desire project itself was deserted, save a single FEMA trailer. An entire exterior wall had been shorn away from a two-story apartment building. A statue of the Virgin Mary still stood before one of the apartments, abandoned and neck-deep in weeds. The only activity resembling recovery: a maintenance man running a weed wacker between sidewalk and street, cigarette dangling from his mouth, behind him, the school dark and deserted. As I passed by, he stopped his trimmer so that I wouldn't be blasted by severed weed tops, and he mumbled an apology. A heady whiff of pot smoke told me that that wasn't a cigarette in his mouth. Didn't seem like a bad idea, given the situation.

So far, these weekly treks haven't exactly been uplifting experiences. The luck of the draw has sent me to or through some of the worst-suffering neighborhoods in the city. Now, that either says something about the extent of the damage and the lack of progress or it says something about my luck. The former is definitely true, but I'm staying away from casinos just in case.

For the most part, Desire lacked even the smiles and waves I had seen from FEMA trailer residents in the St. Bernard area. It even lacked the FEMA trailers. But then, at the end of a block, I happened upon a cluster of six houses, all either repaired or undergoing repairs, four of them with FEMA trailers in the yard. I stopped to chat with one of the residents who was waxing his pristine red pickup. "Oh, we're coming back." He assured me. And he ticked off the names of each of his neighbors who was back, pointing out that nearly every house on his block had already been gutted. "They're just waiting on the money, you know. It's slow, but they're coming. By this time next year, I think we'll all be back."

There were three houses on the block too damaged to be repaired. Those, he assured me, would be torn down and rebuilt. Beside the row of repaired houses across the street was one still abandoned. On the plywood that still covered the front window, someone had spray painted, beside and partially covering the black search-team markings: "Do Not Bulldos Mr. Presiden." Apparently they ran out of space, but we get the message.

I headed up Almonaster to look for a seafood restaurant I'd found in the open restaurant listings. On the way, I passed a makeshift RV campground that had taken over a wide, curved section of the neutral ground. Three battered Winnebagos sat beside two truck campers, the kind usually attached over the bed of trucks, but here resting on cinder blocks. The campers were a rough looking bunch--mountain man beards and beer guts, relaxing in lawn chairs around a hibachi pit--and I figured they were a group of the storm chasers who've been amassing here, laborers and roustabouts who came looking for work from employers in need who may not ask too many questions.

The restaurant, "St. Roch Kitchen #2" (which, I assume, is owned by the same Vietnamese family that ran the seafood market and creole/asian plate lunch restaurant in the historic St. Roch Market near my house--either that or somebody is courting a lawsuit), was closed. Toddlers played inside while their older brothers mopped up and put the food away. I took a few turns around the Gentilly edge of the neighborhood but could find neither food nor drink at 7 p.m. So, glumly, I headed home.

Down on St. Claude, I decided to lift my spirits by enjoying one of the undeniable benefits Katrina's wake has brought us: the taco trucks. If you live in the Southwest, you're already privy to the wonders of the taco truck, but they are a new emergence on the culinary scene of New Orleans, arriving with the waves of hispanic workers who are doing the lion's share of the gutting and roofing and sheetrocking around town. These rolling restaurants, portable taquerias in delivery trucks, have set up shop on the parking lots of gas stations and building material suppliers. Like a spicy version of the ice cream man. My nearest truck is Taqueria Las Cazuelas. I was mentally practicing to order in Spanish until the grandmotherly proprietor greeted me with "How are you tonight?" Watching her prepare my tacos, I was struck by the unmistakeable care she showed: lime wedges cut on the spot, shredded lettuce artfully arranged, sauce and salt containers set in counterbalance to the two lime wedges, the plate carefully wrapped in aluminum foil. It was the antithesis of the distracted, rushed, slightly annoyed manner of the typical fast-food worker. The tacos were first rate, and the sauce--an edgy burn around the lips lent character and nuance by cilantro and tomatoes chopped infintely fine--is calling me back as I write this.

O Madonna of the Cazeulas, our Lady of the Double Tortilla:
wield your saute pan of mercy and dispense the balm of your chopped cilantro.
Fortify your faithful that they may vanquish the night of the blue roof.
And intercede for us with your Patron, who has granted us your vision as a sign of our renewal.

TFW: Terribly Foolish Words

Sorry, but I just have to get this off my chest. The TFW spray painted on a huge number of New Orleans houses by the search teams does not stand for "toxic flood water," as claimed here, here, here, here, here, and just about every other blog entry that a college student who spent his or her spring break in the L9 has made. Kids, thanks for coming, really, and please come back. But would you quit it with the Toxic Flood Water talk? Please?

First, it can't mean that. My house didn't flood; none of the houses riverside of mine flooded, and yet TFW is as common as TX-1 on the houses around ours, houses that all remained dry. Either TFW means something close to TX-1 (designation of the military unit making the search, which is where I'll put my money) or the rescuers decided to err on the side of caution and simply label everything in sight as potentially hazardous and uninhabitable. Which seems more likely to you?

Second, it's an especially unlikely abbreviation. It's along the lines of those "Fornicating Under Consent of the King" kind of urban legends, folk etymology taken as fact. "Toxic Flood Water?" Really? Why not just "TW" then? Or "TF"? If the flood water was toxic, then it's redundant to spray it on every single house. As far as I know every house that flooded on a block was pretty much flooded by the same water, toxic or not. And besides, there was already a pretty clear mark on the houses that flooded; no spray-painting necessary to let you know about that, thank you.

I was relieved to see that blogger Matt Robinson offers a much more likely origin, and a CNN correspondent confirms it. I'll admit that neither of these is a definitive explanation or an authoritative source (a key to the markings of our houses would have been a nice addition to the paperwork tacked on our doors when we returned). But they're both a good sight more convincing than Toxic Flood Water. Sheesh.

Okay, I feel better. Sorry I had to do that.

Visited Desire Area this evening. I'll fill you in later.

Oh, and the OED suggests ME. type fuken; others, Dutch, fokken, in case you were wondering.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Once Upon a Time in the Projects

So, the fates and the GNOCDC map have conspired to send me back to the projects (or at least the area around a project). This week's flavor: Desire. I know that Desire was in the process of being rebuilt before the storm, but I have no idea what it's like now. Guess I'll find out.

All those railroad tracks surrounding the neighborhood make me think that, this time, I'd better take a little more care with the route.

Cowboys and Convicts

When we were living in New York, my wife took to answering the question of how we met with the immediate and unblinking response, "prison rodeo." Fellow expat Southerners seemed to find this the most deliciously outrageous thing they'd ever heard. Non-Southerners, on the other hand, were often given a bit more pause. While not technically true (and by "technically" here I mean, "in any way resembling what is actually"), this response created an air of absurdity and strangeness that seemed about right for a couple from Louisiana. It's hard to think of two words that, yoked together, could produce a more curious setting or evoke a thicker fog of assumptions--a sort of short-hand cultural Rorschach test.

This past weekend, we finally got around to attending the famous rodeo at the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary. It's something I've always wanted to do, particularly after reading Daniel Bergner's God of the Rodeo. If you know nothing at all about the Angola Prison Rodeo, a quick glance at the list of events is a good start. But you should also be aware that these events take place within a county-fair atmosphere: rides for the kids, dozens of food booths, and hundreds of craft stalls in which the inmates sell their handiwork. And the larger setting is "8,000 acres of the finest farm land in the south," accoding to the prison website. "The Farm," as the prison is commonly known, is indeed a massive working farm and ranch spread over gentle hills and manicured drives, a gorgeous setting when not viewed through razor wire. It is also the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S., a place in which (again according to the official website), "86% are violent offenders. Fifty-two percent (52%) of the inmate population are serving a life sentence and will never be released from prison." Okay, now imagine the county fair there again, kids with snow-cones, adults haggling for fine woodwork (rocking chairs, armoires, gun cabinets, toy trains and trucks) with inmates who stand behind a chain-link fence, just behind the tables on which their crafts are displayed. Add to that some novice bull-riding, the "inmate poker" game--inmates seated around a card table with playing cards in their hands who play a game of chicken with a wild bull loosed into the ring and taunted by the rodeo clowns into charging the table; last inmate still seated with his cards wins--and you have some idea just how surreal this event is.

The prison rodeo bears about the same relation to a professional rodeo that the tough-man contest bears to professional boxing, and it's probably the closest we come to the lesser spectacles of the Roman Coliseum. The day's final event, "Guts or Glory," pits man against animal in a way that taps into some primal neck-hair-tingling fears from deep in the evolutionary memory. A dozen or so inmates all vie for the chance to snatch a poker chip (worth $500) tied to the forehead of a 2,000-lb brahma bull. The bull charges erratically, flinging inmates into the air with a toss of its head, and the helpless contestants go airborn as though thrown by an explosion. A great gasp from the audience, the breath held until the contestant picks himself up from the dirt arena floor and scurries to climb the fence. The difference in scale between a 150-lb man and the mountainous bull is alarming, terryifying, and I must admit, exhilarating.

Many of my friends won't attend a rodeo because they consider it animal cruelty. The inmates have made their own decision, they figure, but any harm that comes to the animals in this display is inexcusable. They needn't have worried Sunday; the animals seemed to get the best of every contest. Serious human injuries were mercifully few, as well. One of the first bareback riders did come down hard on his shoulder and back, though; he wasn't moving when the EMTs hauled him away.

I wondered at the time and still do what exactly to make of the whole affair. The inmates are participating of their own free will (the m.c. on horesback was sure to make that point, when he wasn't engaging in Hee-Haw banter with his counterpart in the announcer's booth). But, honestly, given the prison statistics above, these men were not exactly choosing from a full menu. Life in prison or a quick and glorious exit before a crowd? Not a choice I want. There is, as well, a plainly sadistic element to the events dreamed up particularly for this rodeo. Standard rodeo events such as the "Buddy Pick Up" or even bull riding seem unexceptional beside "Inmate Poker" or "Guts and Glory." Each time the m.c. announced an event "unique to the Angola rodeo," I cringed, knowing I was about to watch something brutal.

And yet, it's impossible to experience the rodeo and not sense the honor that co-exists with the brutality. We saw some incredible acts of courage in that arena, and even if the inmate-cowboys had left behind the better part of valor when they walked into the ring, the indefatigable determination with which they took up these challenges--challenges for which they were ill-equipped and in many cases, it seemed, set up for failure--created a sense of dignity there. I watched a man sit, unflinching in his chair, as a bull lowered its head and smashed to splinters the table at which he was sitting. I saw that same man keep his seat as the bull lowered its head and charged directly into the man's chest. (The warden allowed that this particular inmate, although he was eliminated from the game, should receive $50 for hanging tough.) And the rodeo clowns, the same clowns who taunted the bull into charging the card table, performed extraordinary feats of courage as they turned the attention of enraged bulls on themselves and away from a prone and dazed contestant who had just been thrown. I also saw one of the contestants in the wild-cow milking contest dragged across the arena floor, refusing to let go of the rope, in some impossible hope that he could muscle the cow to a standstill. After the rodeo, I saw this same inmate, his striped prisoner/cowboy shirt streaked with red dirt, step out into the crowd of visitors milling among the crafts (one of the trusted inmates allowed beyond the fences). He was maybe forty, his hair thinning a bit, his mustache thick and dark, his face as filthy as his shirt and deeply lined under the dirt. And he was beaming.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lafitte est mort. Vive Lafitte!

Looks like the steel plates are coming down from the Lafitte housing project.
Looks like the Lafitte housing project is coming down with them.

I'm not sure yet how I feel about this development. From the Walmartification of St. Thomas, I think we should learn to be very wary of developers and Big-Idea public housing initiatives. Hell, the history of the superblock public housing trend should in itself make us wary. Across the country, cities have been tearing down their superblock housing for something more livable (often, something resembling what was there before). Whose bright idea was it to create massive blocks of poverty, anyway? I know that, when I saw the banners at the St. Bernard complex, claiming the "right of return," I couldn't help but ask myself, "return to what?" If the only way we can imagine bringing back the residents of these complexes is to put them back in the same substandard, dangerous situations, then that seems to me a dire failure of imagination.

So, on the one hand, a mixed-income development seems to make much more sense. And, on that same hand, the group that is planning the Lafitte redevelopment sounds pretty noble, promising "All 865 residents/families will be welcomed back. Additionally, we have a commitment for a one-for-one replacement of the 896 subsidized units located on the site prior to Katrina." But then, there's that other hand, on which decades of empty promises are stacked like a Dagwood sandwich.

Where I Got Them Shoes: Lakewood Edition

Neighborhood: Lakewood
Bar: Semolina
Drink: Pinot Noir, Sangria, PiƱa Colada (blame Lainie)

The Lakewood neighborhood isn't actually near the lake. It also isn't very woody. And, from what I can tell, it isn't really a neighborhood. Apparently, it's one of the many "official" neighborhood names that would make no sense to someone who actually lives in that neighborhood. The people I talked to in this odd uneven paralellogram of earth called their neighborhood Mid-City, a name which, in itself, might be confusing to someone from, say, New York, where Midtown finds itself in the unsurprising space that separates Uptown and Downtown. But to look for Mid-City New Orleans between Downtown and Uptown would be like looking for Madison Square Garden in Madison Square. Mid-City is midway between the river and the lake, lying in casual disregard of the Uptown-Downtown relationship that orients the river-dwellers.

But whoever created the 73 divisions used in the GNOCDC map seems to have approached his or her task with a sense of near-Adamic license, and Lakewood seems to be the rhinoceros of New Orleans neighborhoods, strangely named and oddly shaped. Its sidelines are the 17th St. Canal (border with Jefferson Parish) and the I-10/Pontchartrain Expressway (originally the New Basin Canal). The dominant features are massive cemeteries and the New Orleans Country Club. In addition, the neighborhood is further subdivided by railroad lines and a curve of the interstate. All of which, I'm hoping, excuses the rather embarassing fact that I was effectively lost during much of my visit.

My planned route was simple enough: straight up Canal, left on City Park Blvd., circling the neighborhood by running along the 17th St. Canal up to its upper reach, and then winding through the streets to get a feel of the place. But City Park Blvd. was right-turn only, and every time I tried to make my way back to my original path, it seemed I ran into a new obstacle: the Interstate, a dead end, the railroad tracks. I was riding around singing to myself the old REM tune, "Can't Get There from Here." In the end, I had to double back and be satisfied with seeing only the lower portion of the neighborhood. I'll have to figure out how to get to the upper reaches of "Lakewood" some other time. (Maybe up there they really do call it "Lakewood," after all.)

In addition to the country club and the mammoth Metairie Cemetery (which, as you've probably guessed by now, is not in Metairie), this neighborhood is home to the Longvue House and Gardens, creating a near-contiguous expanse of green space not to be trod upon. Which didn't stop the jogger I saw, in biking shorts and polo shirt with collar turned up, iPod buds in place, setting out along the gravel paths of the cemetery. It did leave me with the continual sense of being on the perimeter, but there were some fairly compelling sights even in the borderland.

One of the things that I found most striking along the route was the direct correlation between the size of a house and the likelihood that its occupants were back in it. The great majority of the stately houses lying between Metairie Cemetery and the canal had lights burning in them. On the front lawns of the few unoccupied ones, FEMA trailers were less likely than port-o-johns for the construction workers. The more modest homes, in the area bounded by the curve of the I-10/I-610 split (which might technically be part of "Navarre," another neighborhood no one seems to have heard of), were even-parts occupied, FEMA-trailered, and ghostly. And a fair number of the houses in each category had "for sale" signs out front. I snapped a photo of a house that seemed to make a definitive statment, "Can't get fooled again." Then there was the neighborhood at the lower edge of the country club. Here, where the smallest houses of the area congregated, I saw fewer FEMA trailers and more remaining debris. It's not that there isn't a general correlation, citywide, between financial status and the chances that you're back (with some major exceptions), it's just that this area provided the handy graphic to go with that data: little green Monopoly house means struggling to get back; big red Monopoly-hotel-sized house means "we're back and love the new kitchen."

By the way, the cemeteries here are "cities of the dead"--to use the goth-club-cum-drama-club tourguide term of choice--just like the more famous St. Louis Cemeteries. But the vaults and monuments in Metairie and Greenwood Cemeteries are much grander. I love the great elk stag standing guard at the Elks club tomb at the gates of Greenwood. But, since biking around cemeteries after dark isn't exactly a hobby for me, I decided it was time to find a drink.

In my quixotic circumnavigation of the neighborhood, I had crossed a number of promising local taverns, but none of them appeared to lie within the bounds of the Lakewood neighborhood as defined by my trusty map. Under the shadow of the I-10 at Metairie Rd., however, was the lately reopened Semolina pasta restaurant, a place I had heretofore only seen from the vantage of my car at 60 mph. A sense of duty to my self-appointed task combined with the fact that I had skipped dinner seemed to make this place my next logical stop. Now, in another lifetime, when I was living in Baton Rouge, the Semolina franchise there once seemed the height of culinary hipness, their world pasta serving as the culinary equivalent of "world music." So, on minor special occasions (e.g., payday), we would sometimes indulge ourselves by going beyond our usual burger budget and attempt such exotic delicacies as Pad Thai. Since then, Semolina had somewhat fallen in my estimation and had become for me (unfairly, I must admit) a local would-be Applebees. So, to be honest, I wasn't expecting much from this visit.

My visit began unpromisingly enough with an apology from my bartender (later identified as Lainie, accomplice to a more liquid evening than I had anticipated) for the lack of top-shelf booze behind her bar. The bar seemed to have a dispraportionate number of liquors that generally contribute to the psychedelic hue of the Bourbon St. gutter sludge on spring break weekends, bottles whose labels promised unholy infusions or announced the physical repulsion appropriate to their contents ("Pucker?" Espresso-laced vodkas? (yes, "vodkas," plural)). So, I decided to play nice with a glass of Pinot Noir and a plate of shrimp portofino over linguine (which turned out to be a succulent treat).

If my embarrasing failure to navigate the neighborhood had not been humbling enough, Lainie's contention that I was still a tourist in New Orleans (because I haven't lived here 10 years yet) certainly sufficed to put me in my place (or make me wonder what that place might be). (Although her residency test--ability to find one's way around on the West Bank--did seem a bit arbitrary.) I asked her how the neighborhood fared during the storm: "Well, we had water everywhere. We were living in Venice for three days, I always tell people." Apparently she and her boyfriend, both bartenders in town, had loaded up on ice from their respective bars, stockpiled food in the deep freeze, filled the bathtubs with water, and rode out the storm. Surrounded by water, they grilled out, lit mosquito coils, and waited for the flood waters to subside. "We'd see the police coming by in boats, and they'd call out, 'Y'all need anything?' And we'd say, 'No, thanks. Y'all want something to eat?'" And, according to Lainie, everything was fine until they were forced to evacuate, when they spent two nights sleeping out on the I-10 by the Kenner Galleria, suffering sunburn and dehydration while awaiting a bus that would accept them with Laine's three dogs, one 17 (with two teeth, she says), one 12, and one year-old puppy. Eventually, they were picked up, but they weren't allowed to stop in Baton Rouge (where she has a brother). Instead, they were forced on to Houston, where they had to rent a house until they could get back into the city.

In the middle of her story, a waitress named Gabriella came over to the bar and insisted on watching "America's Next Top Model" on the bar television. She solicited opinions from fellow waitstaff as to whether she should attempt Tyra Banks's latest hairstyle. Lainie wondered aloud whether she should be tending to her tables, but Gabriella insisted, "Hey, I'm doing them a favor." ("Them" apparently meaning the management.) "You're doing them a favor by watching 'Top Model?'" "Girl, I'm doing them a favor by being here. They know I don't work on Wednesdays when my 'Top Model' is on."

Gabriella was slim and sassy with sculpted, high-fashion makeup, but I kept finding myself looking at her hands and wondering if maybe . . . if maybe she was only a part-time female. Lainie quickly cleared that up for me before I could find a way to phrase it: "All my gay friends just love that show. Particularly the ones who do drag." And maybe it was just the effect of the series of lagniappe drinks that somehow found their way in front of me (the first, a glass of red Sangria mistakenly poured for a customer who had ordered white sangria--something none of us at the bar had ever seen), but whatever the reason, I immediately became quite fond of the place. Watching Gabriella go about her shift reminded me that, even at its outer reaches, New Orleans is still New Orleans.

I took Lainie's advice and headed home via Esplanade, rather than Canal. It was one of the handful of temperate nights we get each year, and the city's wild and distinctive odors spread out along the night air, each waiting to ambush my senses. From the fungal, fetid dankness of rotting sheetrock to the seductions of night blooming jasmine, I could mark my progress (and the city's, it seemed) nearly by scent alone. Down by Port of Call, I passed a couple skirting a tiff: he hung back, an "aw-baby" sheepishness in his step and on his face; she strode ahead, knowing he was coming after, knowing he'd better be coming after. And half a block past them, her perfume caught up with me, stronger than the jasmine, and I thought I felt some hint of her sway.

Down on Frenchmen, every bar had a band worth seeing. I peeked in at Walter Wolfman Washington before checking out my friend Sticky-T's all-girl blues band. When I finally decided to call it a night, the girls were playing "Don't Advertise Your Pain," and I wasn't feeling any.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Back to the Lake

Pulled a number from the electronic hat: it's off to Lakewood tomorrow.
Starting to seem like a conspiracy to get me out to the farthest reaches of
Orleans Parish.

Oh, and by the way: Who dat?

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

This past weekend was the anniversary of Hurricane Rita. (On an inconsequential note, it was also the anniversary of my first post on this site. Rita received slightly more national attention.) On hearing that the commemoration would include a cattle drive in Cameron, led by General Honore, I knew right away that I had to be there. To be honest, I thought maybe I could put together a longer piece tying together stories of Rita and stories of Katrina, looking at the events of the past year in a larger essay about the two very different communities affected by the storms of '05. I was hoping, immodestly, that I might even be able to sell such a piece (now, the four of you know you're my only real readers, but I have to admit that I do sometimes fantasize about seeing other people; it's not cheating if it's just in my head, right?). Alas, the longer piece was not to be (at least not yet), so you'll have to settle for my vague impressions in this forum. Tant pis.

The cattle drive was scheduled for 9 a.m., at the corner of Trosclair and Jimmy Savoie roads. When I asked directions, my father told me just to go to the end of the earth and hang a right, which ended up being surprisingly accurate.

Cameron is due south of Lake Charles, which is where I grew up. It's the Parish seat for Cameron Parish, the largest parish in Louisiana, running along much of the western Gulf Coast of the state. The people of Cameron Parish are largely fishers and shrimpers, oil and gas workers, cattle ranchers and farmers. As I drove down from Lake Charles, I was having a hard time imagining these people at the center of a national media event. I needn't have worried.

I stopped at the Boone's Corner convenience store for my morning coffee. Several older guys in camouflage baseball caps were milling about, heckling each other and the bemused woman behind the counter:
"You going down there?"
"Yeah, he's going. He's gotta talk to the governor."
"Gonna get you a free hotdog?"
"I got some ducks to pick up. That's the only reason I'm going."

Clearly these were men with a proper sense of perspective.

Along the route, the marshy prairies stretched out low and wet and wide, and I remembered taking long drives out along these roads to work off some of my teenage angst. Not many buildings on the horizon, but then there never were that many buildings to be seen here. Where there had been homes, though, now there were only slabs or piers. On empty lot after empty lot, only the concrete steps the once led to the front porch remained. By some estimates, as many as 90% of the homes here were destroyed. If you want a strong visual, check out the beach photos from what was once the Cajun Riviera, Holly Beach. Acres of beachfront camps were tossed aside, disappearing in the marshes or raked back into the gulf. I once spent a 4th of July down at Holly Beach, swimming and crabbing, setting off bottle rockets. I remember a parking lot full of pickup trucks parked around a local bar, the cajun crowd overflowing into the lot, supplementing the music from the bar with their truck radios. The good news, which I heard repeated everywhere I went, was that there were no reported deaths resulting from Rita. The people of Cameron had learned the lessons of Katrina and had mostly wisely evacuated.

The riders were already gathering at the starting point when I arrived. There must have been 70 people of all ages on horses of varying ages and condition, warming up for the ride. A three-year-old girl rode in front of her mother. An eight-year-old had her own mount. Everyone, it seemed, wore cowboy boots, some tucked under pant legs, others, knee high, pants tucked in. I saw four or five different kinds of spurs.

The serious cattle handlers were taking their horses through their paces: a rider would suddenly make a quick dash near the cattle pen and then swing the horse around, pulling up. The true cattle horses were wild-eyed with excitement, and they whinnied from time to time all around. Ernest Broussard, the trail boss, looked the part. A big man on the ground, he's a giant on horseback, and everyone looked to him for direction. He wore a shirt advertising his rodeo credentials and a pair of the tallest boots around, and he scared the hell out of me when he dashed by, just a foot away, warming up his restless horse.

Not a single journalist was on hand for the start, although some local newspaper and t.v. reporters did show up eventually, and I saw an AP photagrapher from New Orleans later in the day. A woman with a camera asked me who I was "with." I stammered something about being an "independent journalist," which is one of the more ludicrous phrases to pass my lips in some time.

Soon the politicians began showing up: Governor Blanco, wearing flower-embroidered jeans and looking more than a little awkard in a tiny leather hat with chin tie. Her ass-skyward mount into the saddle was less than graceful, but once up there she seemed to know what she was doing. Mary Landrieu arrived in double denim and hopped on a speckled horse like she'd been doing it all her life. Then Mitch Landrieu showed up with General Honore. People largely ignored the politicians, but everyone wanted to shake Honore's hand, have a picture taken with him, tell him how much good he had done for the people there. I overheard one man telling him, "You may not remember, but that night you asked me what we needed, and I said we needed some helicopters. You turned to the guy next to you and said, 'Got that, Ford? We need two 'hooks, a Black Hawk . . .' The next morning by 9:30 it looked like Iwo Jima out there. We saved 2, 3 thousand head of cattle because of that.'" Honore was given a horse named Preacher, and he took him through a couple of parade turns before lining up with the others. Later I saw the mayor of Lake Charles on horseback, looking like a man who often wears cowboy boots on his day off. I overheard someone ask if "Chairman Powell," the Bush Administration representative for the recovery, had found a horse yet. "Yeah, he's on, but he's never ridden." David Vitter was at the ceremony at the end, but I don't think he rode--I didn't see him on the trail, and he was wearing the standard Republican casual, loafers and blue button-down, when I did see him on stage.

Fortunately, the parade of politicos headed up the drive, with the real riders hanging behind and actually managing the cattle. Being horseless, I was relegated to the rear in my Jeep. As soon as the politicians had cleared out, the gate to the pen was opened, and the cattle--horns long and short, stretched out wide or curving down--began to trot out. Almost immediately, one of the steers broke from the herd, tearing across the Trosclair Road and through the tall swamp grass on the other side. Three of the cowboys headed after it, lassos at the ready. As they circled around, disappearing in the swamp grass, the steer lurched up from the ditch and barrelled across the road just in front of my Jeep. A cowboy yelled, "Ho!" and crashed out after it, finally throwing a rope over it and bringing it in.

I must admit, this was a bit more excitement than I had expected. For better or worse, though, that was the full extent of interest for the day. After a half-hour ride that went two miles down the road, we arrived at the tents and stage for the official event, sponsored by Shell Oil and America's Wetlands. About as many people showed up for the staged event as actually participated in the cattle drive itself, and they seemed none too impressed by the speeches. I saw one woman at the drive with a poster, "I lost my cows, so I don't need your bull." Fair enough.

The politicians said what needed to be said. They made a fairly strong economic argument for restoring the Gulf Coast. But of course, they were preaching to the choir. They mentioned the staggering material losses--20-30,000 head of cattle, 80-90% of the structures--and were thankful that no lives were lost. General Honore addressed the crowd in French and said it was good to be home. I lasted through most of the speeches, ate my free hamburger, and headed back to New Orleans.

On the way back to Lake Charles, I stopped off to look at a house where I had spent part of my childhood. (You probably won't believe me, but it was just off Black Bayou. I come by my blogger name honestly.) The old clapboard house was gone, and in its place was a half-finished McMansion, straight out of the suburbs. Tant pis, indeed.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Where I Got Them Shoes: St. Bernard Area Edition

Neighborhood: St. Bernard Area
Bar: B&L Lounge (not in the St. Bernard Area)
Drink: Gin Tonic, High Life

Empty, empty, empty. That word kept circling through my head as I rode around the neighborhood of the St. Bernard project. One house after another, gutted, abandoned, silent now as they were a year ago. Front doors standing ajar reveal the bones of houses, two-by-four skeletons of dark rooms that left me feeling like a spectator at an autopsy, something simultaneously compromising and clinical. On streets whose names conjur luxury and glamour--Cadillac, Paris--there is instead an oppressive and pervasive torpidity, the weight of destitution.

Where the Lafitte complex seemed fortified against reentry, the St. Bernard project seems forgotten. True, it is shuttered as well, and metal plates do cover some of the windows and doors, but far more doors and windows are left wide open, and children's riding toys, bicycles, barbecue pits stand where they were one year ago. Inevitably, Pompeii comes to mind.

Back in June, protestors demonstrating for the right of return had set up a "Survivor's Village" on the neutral ground across from the main entrance to the housing complex. The tents they had pitched are now abandoned, the signs and banners left to the weather. Across from the tents and banners, behind the hurricane fence, weeds grow up around the sign marking the St. Bernard complex. Looking at the shells of apartments in this shell of a neighborhood, it's hard to imagine anyone ever returning here, hard to imagine wanting to return. But the call of home has its own ineluctable pull. That much I do understand.

A fair scattering of FEMA trailers mark the houses in the surrounding blocks where some have already returned. Functioning cars are interspersed among the abandoned wrecks, parked outside houses and apartments whose second storeys were undamaged. I heard a hammer here and there. One older gentleman was burning trash in his backyard, a sight quite common where I grew up, but, as you might imagine, not so common in urban New Orleans. He smiled and waved, seeming eager to strike up a conversation. I waved but kept pedaling, reluctant, for some reason, to stop.

On the fields behind the deserted Edward Henry Philips Jr. High School, the football team from McDonough #35 was wrapping up practice. I was drawn to the sound of kids' voices, bantering, clowning, as they loaded the buses for home. I watched them for a while but, beyond asking the team's name, I still didn't much feel like talking. Broken windows marked the face of the jr. high school, and weeds nearly covered the nursing home across the street.

I passed a couple of small groups of neighbors and family members who carried on the tradition of stoop-sitting in the only way they could now. One group had set lawn chairs outside the 7-foot hurricane fence behind the housing project, where they chatted over an Igloo ice chest full of bottled Miller's. Another group gathered around a picnic table under the I-610 overpass. A lone old-timer sat on a lawn chair in front of his FEMA trailer. He seemed excited and surprised to see me, smiling and waving as though to a fellow castaway just spotted on a neighboring island.

As I pedaled past, my reluctance to stop and chat with these people weighed more and more heavily on my mind. I knew that, in part, it was related to my sense of survivor's guilt. But this was more than the self-consciousness of the disaster tourist. It was also a nearly subliminal awareness of the racial barriers separating me from the people who lived in the St. Bernard development. Before the storm, to bike around the project, around its immediate neighborhood even, would have been unthinkable. And even now, I couldn't get past feeling that I was an alien here. I had internalized those barriers, and even the welcoming faces of the few returning neighbors couldn't convince me on the deepest level that those rules no longer applied.

On my way back downtown, I came across one of the few hopeful signs I encountered: Stop Jockin Barber & Beauty Salon, which had expanded its business to include a snowball shop, had evidently reopened since the storm. A snowball is the New Orleans version of a snowcone: a flavored ball of shaved ice. I had my mouth set for some creamy flavor--maybe a peach cream (drenched in condensed milk, of course), but apparently they had decided to close up shop a little early. I still had fifteen minutes, according to the sign, but no one was around. Two FEMA trailers, where I imagine the proprietors are living, were set up in the side lot on what used to be a basketball court. I took a photo and headed back down St. Bernard Ave. toward the Marigny, passing the first (and only) "Re-elect Congressman Jefferson" sign I've seen.

Since there were no bars open in the neighborhood, I decided to have my official drink back downtown, and I knew immediately where I would have it: the B&L Lounge on Rampart St. It's the one bar in my neighborhood that I had never visited, and I had never visited it because I knew I would probably be the only white guy in the place. Many times I had walked by and smelled fish frying or crawfish boiling; I heard great blues from the jukebox through the open door. I recognized some of the people milling around the crawfish pot as my neighbors. Why should the simple act of having a beer with them be so damned fraught? (Well, besides the whole 300 some-odd years of past history, of course.)

Racial relations in New Orleans are impossible to understand from outside. And they're nearly impossible to understand from the inside, as well. I have never lived in a place more integrated than New Orleans. Black and white people know each other here in a way that is rare elsewhere in the country. But at the same time, in ways as subtle as the tilt of a head in greeting or as flagrant as the bigotry of the old Carnival krewes, New Orleans retains deep lines of racial segregation. Add to this the complexities of Creole identity, and suddenly you're faced with an intricate system of relationships, secret signs and subtle understandings that no one born elsewhere can really understand and no one born here can adequately explain. So, in the end, I decided, "To hell with it. I'm not going to understand it today, I'm probably not going to understand it tomorrow, and I'm certainly not going to change it. I'm going for a drink." And I did.

The B&L is pretty much exactly what you want your local to be: great jukebox (Aretha, Irma, Sam Cooke), cheap drinks, pool table. I had a gin-tonic and divided my time between watching the muted disaster movie on television and watching the bartender flirt with a patron. I was one of six customers at the time (two of whom never looked up from the video poker machines while I was there). I had a hot link (approaching, but not crossing, the line between spice-pleasure and spice-pain) washed down with a High-Life. It reminded me of nothing more than bars where old Cajuns hang out near my parents' place, bars in which old R&B is as likely on the jukebox as country songs or cajun two-steps, and in the afternoons and early evenings drinkers sit for long spells and listen to the music from their younger days and let their thoughts drift back. Like those bars, the B&L has its livelier side as well, event nights that bring the crowd and the rowdiness that force the afternoon drinkers from their reverie. By the time I left, the bartender had invited me back for the Thursday night fish-fry and the Monday night red beans and rice (a New Orleans tradition). There are squares open for the football pool, too, I hear. So, when the media frenzy descends for the reopening of the Dome, I think I'll stick to the neighborhood, wander back to the B&L and try out the red beans.