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.