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, Piña 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.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Swampish and the City

I'm not in New Orleans this week; instead I'm sitting in rainy New York, trying to finish up some longstanding business. So, there won't be "Where I Got Them Shoes" for this past Wednesday.

But New Orleans is never far from my mind, and yesterday I saw something that made me think about home. To explain, maybe I should back up one step. Or a couple of steps.

You see, everyone living in post-K New Orleans has dealt with the realities "on the ground" (as they say) in his or her own way. Some people have tried to ignore the changes. Some have decided to become activists, joining neighborhood associations or attending city government meetings. Some people have apparently decided to shoot one another. We all have our own way of dealing.

One of my friends spent some time in the role of (in her words) "Crazy Letter-Writing Lady." Filled with righteous zeal, she would fire off blistering letters to the editor flaying local ineptitudes and plain bad decisions. And more than once, Crazy Letter-Writing Lady found her way into print. My wife has now decided to become (again, in her words), "Crazy Trash-Pickup Lady."

Each day, when she walks our dog, she takes along a trash bag and picks up the garbage that litters our neighborhood, some of it dropped casually by callous passersby, some of it spilling from overfilled trash cans awaiting the not-quite-reliable weekly pickup, some of it left in the wake of the trashmen's nonchalant efforts. Each week, the size of the trash bag has grown, from a convenience-store sack in the beginning, to the tall kitchen, and finally to the full-on contractor size, the only size that faces the problem honestly. A couple of weeks ago, I took a photo of her in action:

So far, she still hasn't been able to make it the four blocks to the river before completely filling the trash bag. Is there a size beyond Contractor? Government Contractor? Halliburton?

In New York, though, they always manage to go that extra mile past the mild lunacy of the provincials and assert their claim as neurosis capital of the world. So, I shouldn't have been surprised when I saw New York's version of Crazy Trash-Pickup Lady, decked out in jogging clothes and straw hat for the effort, wearing latex gloves, picking up every cigarette butt and candy wrapper on sidewalk and in gutter using a pair of metal tongs. I congratulate you, New York Crazy Trash-Pickup Lady, you clearly claim the crown, brushing aside legions of amateurs with their brooms and rakes and shovels. You, my dear, put the pulse in "obsessive compulsive."

So, next Wednesday it's off to the St. Bernard Area. Wish me luck.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Where I Got Them Shoes: Lakeshore/Lake Vista

Neighborhood: Lakeshore/Lake Vista
Bar: Pontchartrain Point Cafe
Drink: Abita Amber (Draft)

From river to lake, New Orleans must be around eight or nine miles. Following Orleans Ave. all the way from Tremé, the terrain changes so completely that it feels much farther: setting out at the empty and vast Lafitte housing project--metal plates covering the doors and windows, No Trespassing signs on every unit--you wind your way up through haggard and half-empty Mid-City, out past Bayou St. John (more drainage canal than bayou), up through the tranquility of City Park, where kids play soccer again and the green has returned, continuing on up to the very top of the park, past the riding stables where I saw an Appaloosa placidly cropping new grass, and finally arriving at the park-studded cul de sacs of Lake Vista, nestled between park and lake shore.

Lake Vista is the closest New Orleans comes to suburban idyll. If not for the great Live Oaks that shade the communal parks, this neighborhood could be anywhere. Well, anywhere affluent. The residents had posted hand-lettered street signs to replace those that disappeared in the storm. A particularly lovely one graced the corner of Warbler and Swallow: a trompe l'oeil pattern imitating decorative ceramic tile, complete with images of the eponymous songbirds.

The pattern of damage here is almost impossible to trace: seemingly untouched houses stand next to gutted shells or houses with no visible damage except the tell-tale FEMA trailer. A resident I asked explained that the water from the 17th St. Canal breach flowed out toward the city before settling back in these areas when the water levelled. Still, it's puzzling to see houses just yards from the lake utterly untouched by the flooding.

Speaking of the lake, last Wednesday the view there was ridiculously beautiful. Sailboats bobbing on placid water before a sherbet-colored sunset. It reminded me of one of those inspirational workplace posters: "Dreams: Believe in your own; crush those of your underlings." Or something like that.

From the lakeshore, I doubled back to my intersection of the week, Gen. Haig and Jewel, which just happened to be the site of one of the few levee system upgrades that the Corps of Engineers finished on time. It was here that I saw perhaps the surest sign that things are changing. So, I took a photo of it:

You can imagine my relief.

I pulled up to one of the canal levee walls and leaned my bike against a tree, studiously ignoring the security patrol car that slowed and hovered near my bike. At the top of the levee, I surveyed the scene. The Orleans Ave. Canal did not breach (although, apparently it did overtop nearer Midcity). Each side of the canal itself is bordered by boulders and stones not native to this part of the country. Giant stands of bullrushes spring up in a bend upstream. Mullets jump purposelessly. Across the way, a man fishes, pulling a long lure across the canal's surface. Above him, a massive construction crane is frozen in the act of lowering a large curved pipe, like something on the deck of a cruise ship. Cicadas sing.

I left the tranquility of Lakeshore and decided to find a beverage. Around West End, the Lakeshore takes on the air of an oceanfront town, and here you could once find rows of seafood restaurants just across from the yacht club. It was getting dark as I passed Joe's Crab Shack, but still I could tell it wasn't coming back anytime soon. Sail boats still appeared tossed about in the docks. Many were under repair, some back under sail, others looked abandoned.
At first I thought the restaurant row was completely deserted, but then I saw a sign announcing one place "Opening Soon," and down a side street I saw the parking lot of the Pontchartrain Point Cafe full of cars.

Inside, I ordered a half-pint and eavesdropped on lawyers talking cases and politics. The customers not wearing suits wore polo shirts with yacht-club insignia. Employees or members? Not sure. Beside me at the bar, two middle aged guys who hadn't seen each other since the storm went through the standard litany: for one, no flooding but a new roof, mother-in-law's Biloxi house completely washed away, so he had bought her a house nearby, tree recently removed; the other's place? he shook his head, named the neighborhood; that was enough. His boats? Lost one of the three; not complaining.

Alex, our bartender, knew everyone's name, including mine after my first drink. She turned to one of the guys at my elbow: "Mike, how you doing?"
"Crazy as a shithouse rat."
"Well, I knew that. Scotch?"
"Yeah, and a menu. I always order the same thing, but it still takes me an hour to decide. Go figure."

I struck up a conversation with Mike in the usual way we have now, "How'd you do in the storm?" Surprisingly easy to get into it. He said his was one of three houses on the block that didn't flood. His house is 7 feet above grade; his nextdoor neighbor at 6' 8" had flooded.
"Felt guitly as hell about it for three months. Depressed. Everybody's telling me I'm crazy, which I guess I am."

I asked him if people were coming back to the neighborhood. "Here, yes. In Lakeview, no."
We talked about his mother-in-law's place, the relative merits of Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria as places to evacuate. "Baton Rouge has no culture. There's maybe one, two decent restaurants in the entire place. Well, before. Now they got Galatoires, all the rest."

A friend of his stopped by and chided him: "I thought you'd quit drinking."
"I did. I go back and forth, you know."
"Well, I'm just gonna make sure you only have one. You need to take it easy, now."

Later on we started discussing the bad habits we'd readopted in the past year. He told me he used to be in AA, and there was one guy in his group who was the pillar of AA, the member everyone else relied on. After the storm, he sees the guy in a liquor store, carrying a case of beer and a bottle of Dewars. "I ask him, 'How you been doin?' 'Not so good,' he says."

I took the long way home, looping around the other side of City Park. I crossed the I-10 overpass in near-total darkness. To my left, the L.S.U. dental school building looked like a deserted prison. (Of course, in the best of times it looked like a working prison, so there you are.) I could see the lights of the CBD off in the distance, but not much light between here and there.

Riding my bike around the lake front reminded me of the Abitaman triathlon I'd seen up there the summer before the storm. I was in training for a triathlon myself (and no, I'm not kidding), although since I'd only been training for four months, I didn't think I was quite ready yet. At the very back of the pack was a competitor who must've weighed nearly 300 pounds. As he came out of the water, I wondered, first, how he could possibly finish the race, and second, if he could do it, why couldn't I? I watched the leaders finish the bike portion, and met up with Sarah for a long walk along the lakeshore. As we headed back to the car, we saw the race crew folding up the water station tables, picking up the orange cones that marked the route and throwing them into a moving van. A few minutes after they passed, along came the big guy, completely forgotten by the event staff, not even part of the race anymore, but not giving up, either. He lumbered along, in obvious pain, and he still had another mile left. We applauded him as he passed, but I don't think he noticed.

So, as I stood on the I-10 overpass and looked back toward the city, I thought about that guy, and I thought about New Orleans. Sure, we weren't in the best shape before this all began. And, yes, it's true that everyone else will probably move on, and we'll be forgotten, chugging along far behind pace, receding into irrelevance. But remembering that big guy somehow made me feel a little better anyway.

Near the end of my ride, down on Esplanade, I heard the unmistakeable strains of a dixieland band, the clarinet carrying high out into the street. St. Anne's Episcopal Church had started a weekly supper and concert series to support New Orleans musicians, and this week's band was just wrapping up its set. I leaned my bike against a pole and watched them joke and laugh as they put their instruments away. And I thought to myself, "Go 'head on, fat boy."

Sunday, September 03, 2006


What I did not do on my Labor Day vacation: manage to take in the festival whose name I relish above all other Louisiana festival names: Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. Let us hope that I can get my act together for the second place winner: Basile Swine Festival. Yes, it's fall, my friends. (Not officially, of course, but since they kicked out Pluto, who listens to astronomers anymore?) So, the mean reds of August are behind us, and the long season of Louisiana festivals is underway. Every town has one: "Cameron Fur and Wildlife Festival," "Crowley Rice Festival," "Ragley Heritage and Timber Festival," "New Iberia Sugercane Festival." You get the idea. Many of these places took a beating in Rita last year, but you can bet your last link at the Broussard Boudin Fest those Cajuns are gonna come back and have them some festivals this year!

Speaking of coming back, here's what I did do on my Labor Day weekend: checked in with the Grand Reopening Party at Quintron and Miss Pussycat's Spellcaster Lodge. One of the grave omissions in my Ninth Ward experience has been a visit to the Spellcaster, and the grand reopening seemed the perfect opportunity to redress this lack. Although the visit was brief, I did get a good gander at the place, enough at least to convince me to come again.

In some ways, the Spellcaster is an underwater-themed fantasy lounge, simultaneously whimsical and avant-garde. In other ways, it's the sweaty, overcrowded ground-floor basement of Quintron &Miss Pussycat's 9th Ward house. So much depends upon the frame of mind, you see. And, to be honest, there was ample ventilation in the main room--a post-K improvement, I understand.

I convinced a couple of my more daring friends to come along with me--the Spellcaster was old hat for them; so they came, not for the novelty (nor for my company, if I'm completely honest with myself), but for the chance to catch DJ Jubilee,1 one of the originators of Bounce music (another indigenous New Orleans art form). Seduced by the strains of "Back that Ass Up," they led me into a much hipper world than I'm really fit to inhabit. Neither DJ Jubilee nor Quintron was playing when we arrived, however. Instead, we were treated to the oddity that is Uncle Flim Flam's Electric Nightmare, a particularly ingenius variant on the one-man-band tradition. Uncle Flim Flam, who sports a fine Ron Jeremy mustache and has been known, I believe, to play Tuba for Egg Yolk Jubilee, performs on the lead tri-tom, that staple of the high school marching band, complete with metal harness. And while the tri-tom might not seem the ideal lead instrument, it makes perfect sense when backed by the "portable calliope bandwagon."2

Now, the portable calliope bandwagon looks a bit like an instrument designed by John Carpenter. Or, for another horror movie analogy, consider what might happen if, rather than a man and a fly climbing into that teleportation device, you put inside a player piano, a polka band, a small steam ship, and a marching band. And say that what emerged on the other side was electric powered and in the shape of a three-foot cube. That should give you some idea of this device. I was mesmerized by the tiny mallet striking the minature bass drum in time. While we were there, he performed some John Philip Souza, a couple of dance numbers, and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." During set break, we decided to grab some air and quickly realized that we weren't making it back in for the other sets. The yard had become as crowded as the bar area, and people continued to stream in somehow. Apparently we weren't the only ones in town who thought this seemed like a good idea. I still vow to see Quintron and Miss Pussycat perform there, but this wasn't the weekend for it.

So, about my ongoing project. Two things:
  1. Considering changing the name. Rather than "Where are we now," I think I'll call it "Where I got them shoes." (If you've been here, you'll understand.)
  2. Gonna be an interesting week. Rolled the dice, and here's what came up: Lakeshore/Lake Vista. I think this is a shot of the neighborhood during Katrina.
Off now to see Alex McMurray and Luke Allen at Mimi's (how convenient is that?).

1Sidenote: looking for a DJ Jubilee link, I came across this page for the album Take it to the Saint Thomas. The content-related ads popping up: Selected Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. Ah, the all-knowing interweb; it does all cohere after all.

2This term is from the artist's description on the tip's foundation site: New act on the scene:A portable calliope bandwagon with hundreds of songs of all types,from original wurlitzer arrangements to Santana,to Jethro Tull and even Professor Longhair.Fascinating to watch and hear.38 calliope pipes,percussion,glockenspiel and automatic accordian.Electric-powered ,not steam.Operated and manipulated by Uncle Flim-Flam himself.Suitable for indoor or outdoor use.AKA: "Crescent City Calliope"