Archive for October, 2005

The Hester Report

99351137.jpgOne of the recurring themes in conversations I’ve had over the last two months has been Sandra Hester, a beloved local watchdog of sorts who appeared weekly on her cable access show “The Hester Report” on Cox channel 8. The show was classic; one solid hour of trash talk, politician bashing, and entertaining call-ins. She had no reservations, commonly lashing out at the city government and school board, calling people “honkeys”, “uncle toms”, and “bourgey blacks.” Hester said whatever the hell she wanted to, and lambasted anyone who tried to complain about it. The show’s production values were enchantingly low. The show was actually produced by her husband, whom Hester assaulted in a domestic dispute this year. She was arrested in that incident. Needless to say, Sandra Hester is one of our favorite New Orleanians. A friend saw her in public this year and tried to introduce himself, to which she responded “I don’t need to know any more crazy people.”

In watching the news coverage following the storm, and the lack of government response, a frequent question that popped up was “I wonder what Hester is thinking right now.” Some of us surmised that her stubbornness and mistrust of government may have caused her to ignore the pleas for evacuation and stay behind. Others surmised that even if she had evacuated, her anger at the government probably caused her to die from sheer rage.

Having been back for a month now, I’ve seen no sign of her– the Cox 8 studio was flooded and the station is not on the air. So, curiosity finally got the best of me and I got on google. This is what I found:

http://www.komu.com/html/htmlSummer2005/hesters.htm

Turns out Sandra is “critical” of FEMA as of 9/15/05. I’m sure that’s an understatement. But that’s all I could find. We’re eager to know when she’ll return and if the show will ever be back on television. Someone should set her up with a blog.

I’m 51! I’m 22!

A scant 90 days ago, I was building a new company. I had clients spread from Jacksonville FL to Dallas and was on the verge of the greatest season my company had ever experienced. Despite going into monstrous debt and taking a lot of chances, things were coming into focus and, dammit, everything was just about to pop bigtime.

This morning, I started my new job at Parasol’s up the street, making $9 an hour slapping together po’oby sammiches and scraping out greasy pots and wondering how the hell to reassemble everything that was shaping up so perfectly. I have gone from being middle-aged master of my fate to being a 22-year-old with a new degree in something useless like Asian Prehistoric Topography. TBK (The Beautiful Kim) has resumed her old job, selling overpriced toys to the wealthy on Magazine St.

And, yes — we now have a food stamp card.

But y’know what? It’s fun.

My business will be rebuilt and things will get back to normal because it just takes time to do this kinda thing these days in New Orleans. There are thousands of us in the same situation, going back to familiar streets in unfamiliar circumstances. Very unfamiliar circumstances.

Please be patient with your server or your bartender or your chef or the retail help in New Orleans for a while. Many of us are doing things we weren’t doing 90 days ago and haven’t done in years. And, as fun and rejuvenating as it it is, we’re also seriously weirded out sometimes by this new reality.

That said, we’re glad to be on the train.

Hell, high water, and now, contractors…

Construction workers are trying to kill me. In fact, they’re trying to kill all of us–my neighbors, the cutie from the coffee shop with whom I occasionally flirt, that crazy old woman who shuffles around in a patchwork coat 12 months out of the year, everyone.

If they wanted to get creative in their “Final Solution” for New Orleanians, these skilled manual laborers might hurl hammers at us from atop seven-story scaffolding. Or maybe line the roads with [still more] roofing nails. But no, these guys–and yes, they’re mostly guys–are going about it the old fasioned way: they’re trying to run us down in the streets.

The first couple of times it happened, I gave ’em the benefit of the doubt. “They’re new to town,” I thought to myself. “They haven’t gotten the hang of our roadways just yet.” Then, I found myself face-to-face with a late-model Ford F150 hurtling the wrong way down Royal Street at about 40 miles an hour.

The driver clearly saw me, saw that my hands were full trying to guide four nutty, hyperactive hounds across the street, but he didn’t stop. He didn’t even slow down. I waved my arms, yelled something to the effect of “You’re driving the wrong way down a one-way street, asshole,” but he just flipped me off and kept going. This has since happened half a dozen times–oddly enough, usually when I’m walking the dogs.

The problem is this: in New Orleans’ older neighborhoods, most streets are just wide enough for one lane of parked cars (since few of us have driveways) and one lane of traffic. Add a third car-width to the mix, and civilization as we know it begins to crumble. If you’ve ever driven along the few two-way streets Uptown and had to negotiate the right-of-way with someone coming from the opposite direction, you know what I mean.

So to all you contractors from Wisconsin or Florida or wherever contractors come from, lemme say two things: (1) thanks for coming, ’cause we need the extra help, and (2) if you choose not to read our “one way” and “no turn” signs, you should know that I bruise and sue very easily.

Sobering

We went down to Jackson Square this evening to enjoy Rebirth Brass Band and have a few drinks around the reopened Cabildo. A delightful crowd and lots of fun and we decided to top it off by walking over to the river and watching the boat traffic near the Sqaure. We met up with a family of locals (dad, mom and son about 10ish) and sat on the steps watching the lights of the passing ships and just enjoying a cool evening.

But this is when this otherwise delightful evening started getting, um, serious.

Seems this man and his family were in the Superdome for the first four days after Katrina struck. His account is chilling and, at least for us, it marked the first time we had heard a first-hand account of what went on, unfiltered by the mainstream media (who, far as I can tell, didn’t have anyone living in the ‘Dome either). I cannot vouch for the truth of his account and I have no independent verification. But this is what he told us…..

His first fear was that he would be killed, his wife raped until she was dead and their son left to the non-existant mercy of the crowd. He says personal, violent assault (sexual and otherwise) was common and the crowd was literally held inside the dome’s perimeter at gunpoint. He says the National Guard had only an outer perimeter, disregarding what was happening inside because they knew the dome occupants were thousands of people they wouldn’t have to try to keep up with on the streets.

This man says young men ripped tampon machines from the walls of the womens rooms, took the money, then sold the individual tampons for $4 to $8 each. He says lines were formed for such sales of what few personal hygiene items there were — lines long enough so that once a person procured something, they would have to get back in line in hopes of getting another if supplies lasted.

This family finally made their way out of the dome after four days, first walking uptown in hopes of finding food and then being taken by a passing driver back to their own neighborhood off Esplanade. They tried to stay at their own place (which was in reasonable shape), but soon the heat and the possibility of violence forced them back out and eventually to catch a ride out of town. They are now temporarily housed in a downtown hotel under a FEMA program while they await a move to Covington.

Again — I cannot vouch for this man’s story. But I can say he appeared to be Joe Normal who clearly had been terrorized. Neither he nor his wife had been drinking, but kept stepping on each other’s stories to add more detail. I cannot remember all they told us, but I intend on talking more to them tomorrow.

I’m not relating this to stir up controversy or distribute false information. I’m only relating what we were told by someone who takes responsibility for not knowing enough about hurricanes to get his family out of town while they had the chance (they’re from NV and have lived in New Orleans only about four months). We literally didn’t know what to say, other than to invite them to our house so they can experience Normal for a while.

We’ve heard so much false information over the past two months that it’s hard to know what to believe. But I believe this man. And, in the wake of what he says, I’m just speechless.

A wacky weekend in the works

jack-o-lantern.jpg

  • Among the surprising number of festivities planned for this holiday weekend is the New Orleans Bookfair, a seriously boffo literary free-for-all featuring scads of indie publishers, readings from indie stars, and other indie-type events. So, you know, if you’re into the whole “indie” thing, you should head on up to Barrister’s Gallery and check it out. [Note: the Bookfair’s website is screwy at the moment, so you can’t see a full listing of events, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one. But c’mon, would I lie to you?]

  • Also this weekend: 9th Ward/Bywater legend Otter reigns as Queen Katrina at the First Annual Halloween Parade of the 6t

Cruising around

I finally got a chance to cruise around a bit today and take some pictures, getting a sense of things as the city reorganizes. I also began asking about temporary work and it quickly became apparent there’s a need for just about anything.

Mail is a big issue, since most folks haven’t gotten any for two months. We’re finally getting a little at the house, but so far it’s been for the former resident who’s still in serious trouble with the law. Nearly everything that has arrived with our names on it came before the hurricane or has been junk. We took a trip to the USPS center near the Superdome, only to be told there was nothing there for us and to wait for stuff at home. I figure it’ll catch up eventually and all my creditors have my phone number anyway. A few have called, but most back right off once I mention “New Orleans.” I wonder how long that’s gonna last.

One industry that’s thriving locally these days is the sign industry. There are even signs that tell you how to order more. As is the landfills aren’t already getting enough crap.

There’s plenty of political commentary as well, this one reflecting the feelings of pretty much every evacuee we’ve run into lately.

But, in the midst of it all, true love flourishes at Fat Harry’s. And, since there are no streetcars for now, you can park on neutral ground because it’ll be awhile before they’re running again.

Hurry Up and Wait

One of the many new realities we’re getting used to in our post-Katrina world is standing in line.

For instance, the Uptown Sav-A-Center and the Winn-Dixie are both open. But, due to limited staffing, their hours are limited to 8-6 and 8-5 respectively. This means anyone who has shopping to do, particularly in the late afternoon, has to be willing to wait in line. More restaurants are opening by the day, but those already open face a similar staffing shortage. Your wait for service might be a bit longer than normal.

We’re all taking this in stride, using the wait to get to know those folks next to us. “How’d you do?” is the usual opening line. Given the condensed hours, we’re also more likely to see neighbors (such as running into Chris Martel and our neighbor Tim yesterday at Sav-A-Center). We’ll have to stand in line to get our mail, since there’s no delivery yet, and to do just about any of the required things that usually come to us when times are normal.

I got up early this morning and went for a drive around Uptown, forgetting there’s supposed to be a curfew in effect. There’s usually some fairly heavy traffic on St. Charles about 5am, but this morning I met only a couple of Humvees near the Louisiana intersection. Nothing’s open that time of morning, at least for now, so I headed back home and waited for the paper. I went back out about 7:30 and found a few convenience stores open. But, again, there were long lines of construction and demolition guys from all over. It’ll be that way for a while.

All the abandoned refrigerators have been removed from our street. This is good, but I miss seeing some of the creative artwork.

Just so we’re clear…

One of the hands-down funniest moments at Monday’s circus of freaks  dress rehearsal for It Takes a Village of Idiots neighborhood association meeting came during the segment I like to think of as “Ask Officer Trying-to-be-Friendly,” when one of the only sane people in the room asked the policeman at the mike to clear up the confusion about curfew.

Frankly, I was glad the guy asked, because I’d asked a dozen people myself, and I’d gotten a dozen different answers. 6pm. 8pm. 12am. 2am. Technically 12am, but they’re not being assholes about it in the Marigny. Technically 12am, but they’re not stopping white folks. Technically 12am, but who gives a crap ’cause they don’t have enough officers to enforce it anyway….

Anyway, the officer blithely responded that curfew was 8pm. This did not sit well with the crowd. In fact, their reaction was not unlike the one congregants at Touro Synagogue might give David Duke if he were to walk in one Friday night and announce that the Holocaust was a sham. Basically, there was lots of screaming and breast-beating and rending of hair (very “Greek tragedy,” very Oresteia), with everyone yelling their own version of what they’d heard from their neighbor’s brother-in-law, who used to work in city hall.

Ultimately, no consensus was reached, and we all left confused. So, perhaps in response to that–or perhaps in response to the (admittedly low-key) festivities planned for this weekend–the Mayor has issued an update/extension of the curfew for most of New Orleans. It’s officially 2am – 6am. Remember, kids: you read it here second. (That’s our unofficial motto around here, BTW: “We bring you the news you could’ve read somewhere else!”)

Well, THAT was interesting…

Marigny/Bywater Community Meeting

I’d never been to a meeting of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association. The group regularly convenes in the basement of St. Paul’s Lutheran, which is right around the corner from my house, but the meetings are always potluck, and I’m not much of a cook, so rather than show up with nothing, or bearing something that might kill off half my neighbors, I’ve generally avoided the get-togethers. Which is just as well, ’cause I think my parents would, like, totally flip if they knew I’d set foot in a Lutheran church.

Last night, though, I broke with tradition. Meeting notices were posted on the many, many refrigerators lining the streets (they’re bigger than light poles, and you can spray paint ’em, too!), all saying that our councilperson Jackie Clarkson was going to be there with reps from Entergy and the NOPD and the Sanitation Department and so on. Since I’m unable to take most of those folks and the services they offer for granted right now, I figured it was in my best interests to attend.

I toyed with the idea of picking up something from the grocery store for the potluck portion of the evening, but then I remembered there aren’t any grocery stores open in the ‘hood, so I nixed it. Big deal: I didn’t bring anything, I wouldn’t eat.

It’s a good thing I didn’t bother. There were several hundred people from both the Marigny and Bywater in the room, and practically no one brought food. Frankly, everyone seemed a little too edgy to eat. While most of us have power and water and phone and cable service, none of us have gas service yet, which means no hot water, which means no hot showers. At the moment, we’re living like old French whores.

Two remarkable things about the meeting. First, Jackie Clarkson–who’s always struck me as a typically grandstanding politico–showed remarkable poise. Though there were clearly moments where she was laying the groundwork for her next campaign, by and large her comments seemed sincere and loaded with common sensical goodness. The same can be said for the various representatives on-hand–especially the Entergy dude, who was, safe to say, easily the least popular man in the room.

The second thing of interest: I realized how completely gentrified my neighborhood has become. Very white, very middle class, very “We could live Uptown but there’s so much more character down here and the prices are cheaper, too.” And, like, really, really gay. Not that I thought my boyfriend and I were the only cakeboys around, but man…. At times, it was like a chorus of asps.

Overall, the meeting was pretty good, pretty informative. The folks at the mike tried to give as many direct answers as they could, sometimes shouting their reponses so that the folks in the courtyard who couldn’t fit in the room could hear. Some of the audience members were good, too, respectfully asking solid, important questions about past performance and plans for the coming weeks. But others…I mean, Jesus H! At one point, I fully expected to turn my head and see folks in mob caps bearing torches. A handful of my dumbass neighbors (mostly the ones who stayed for the whole ordeal and went kinda feral) thought that last night would be the perfect opportunity to yell at some overworked, thoroughly bewildered public officials in a crowded room–which, of course, got us nowhere. By the time the conspiracy theorists started in, it was time to leave. I didn’t even get to hear when they’re going to pick up my garbage. But then, I suppose I’m lucky to have garbage to pick up….

Now I get it….

From the days of the Vietnam conflict to today’s fighting in Iraq, I’ve never understood why someone who goes to war can come back home, re-enlist and volunteer to go back to the fighting, after they’ve done their bit. I know the American soldier fights for his/her buddy more than for an ideal, but I’ve still wondered why anyone would want to go back to those kinds of conditions, particularly when someone is trying to kill you.

But I think, now, I’m getting an idea.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not equating what we have been through in this hurricane and aftermath to going into a shooting war. Our house is fine, the neighborhood is basically okay and, though the business is wrecked and I’m beyond frustration with our federal government, we’re among the very lucky few who actually have something to go back to. And, of course, no one is trying to kill us. Yet. That I know of.

But I’m now in Dallas (again) for a couple of days to do some family things and now I DO understand the nearly manic desire and need to get back to the mess to share in what’s going on. We have neighbors who need help. There’s an economy to revive. There’s a mess to clean up. In short — there are jobs to do and, because we are part of the fabric, that’s where we belong. That’s despite the smells, the lack of power, the trash heaps, the uncertainty of basic services and all the rest of it.

So I think I understand a little more this evening. At least I hope so. I’ve always thought it’s good to be part of Something Much Larger. I just hope like hell we can get it moving in a good direction.

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