Archive for November, 2005

The musical instrument, not the housing project

Shortly after the earth cooled, I graduated from college with a degree in English literature, which, as everyone knows, is about all you need to work in a French Quarter clothing shop. I landed at French Connection, a then-hip, now-passe boutique that aims squarely for the post-Benetton, pre-Lerner demographic. While selling stretch-velvet stirrup-pants to overweight hausfraus from Nebraska didn’t allow many opportunities to employ my appallingly vast knowledge of surrealism in the writings of American expatriates from 1910 to 1948, it did allow me to work with a hangover, which, at 22 years old, was a good thing.

The only thing I really hated about working at FC was hauling the garbage to the dumpster, which sat outside our back door, in the Jax Brewery parking lot abutting the Mississippi River. First, my stomach would churn from the stench of the trash bin, then my head would split as the calliope on the Steamboat Natchez roared to life with a rousing rendition of “Has Anybody Seen My Gal” or, if it was overcast, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” I’d look up, across the levee wall, and see Debbie Fagnano perched atop the boat, her head bouncing in time to the music, and I’d think to myself, “I’ve got a clear shot. I could end my own pain and that of thousands of others. It would be a good deed for humanity!” Alas, despite dad’s repeated offers to load me up with guns–“You gonna need these one day, down in that city of sin!”–I never took him up on it, and Debbie lived to torment me for the remainder of my tenure in retail purgatory.

It’s a good thing, too. ‘Cause, honestly, of all the tiny, creeping signs of revival and regeneration I’ve seen in the past few weeks, none has affected me more deeply than hearing that very same calliope blasting out a ham-fisted version of “Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do” yesterday afternoon. I don’t know if it was Debbie up there–my vision ain’t what it used to be–but it nearly brought a tear to my jaundiced eye. Oh, how a decade or so and an unprecedented natural disaster can change one’s opinion about things.

More Depressing Thoughts

I don’t want to alarm anyone or cause a panic, but store shelves have been wiped clean of Crystal sauce for quite a while now. I noticed at Coop’s Place the other day that they’ve only got the Extra Hot Crystal sauce and the only other option is — *shudder* — Tabasco sauce.

Now of course, this is hardly a suprise. The Crystal bottling plant is on Tulane Ave over there behind the Rock ‘n Bowl, and there was probably 7 feet of water over there. I always assumed they had another bottling plant somewhere else though. I never really thought the stores would run out of Crystal sauce, and now I’m starting to ration the one remaining bottle in my possession. It’s scary. I’ve been checking their website but there’s no news, and you can’t order their stuff online anymore.

Another thing nobody has mentioned is the absence of Dixie Beer. Maybe that’s because nobody really misses the stuff, I never really drank it myself. The reality that nobody is talking about is that we may never see Dixie Beer being sold again. Their already dilapidated brewery flooded and is probably going to cost a whole lot of money to bring back. I sure haven’t seen anyone over there at 2401 Tulane rebuilding. It’s just another example of the bits of culture that have literally been washed away by the hurricane.

This cultural erosion was underscored as I was listening to the Ragin’ Cajun yesterday, and they brilliantly played the novelty tune “The 12 Yats of Christmas.” Half the things they mention in that song are gone- Manuel’s Tamales, Chalmette refinery, Dixie beer, lower ninth ward, Arabi. Some of these things will return, but the yat culture of our city has definitely suffered a major blow.

At least we’ve still got the West Bank.

Andrei, encore

Knowing the way I feel about Andrei Codrescu, a friend and neighbor just sent me the dust-jacket copy for his new book, New Orleans, Mon Amour. Not only is it thoroughly tedious and hackneyed (did you expect anything less?), but it’s completely put me off breakfast, and I was really looking forward to breakfast, ’cause there’s still a sandwich-sized chunk of holiday ham in the fridge.

Anyway, I’m not in the mood to suffer alone on this gloomy Saturday morning–which will certainly get gloomier before long, when it starts raining and my power goes out for the umpteenth time this month–so I’m sharing the dreck with you:

For two decades NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu has been living in and writing about his adopted city, where, as he puts it, the official language is dreams. How apt that a refugee born in Transylvania found his home in a place where vampires roam the streets and voodoo queens live around the corner; where cemeteries are the most popular picnic spots, the ghosts of poets, prostitutes, and pirates are palpable, and in the French Quarter, no one ever sleeps…. Alas, as we all now know, Paradise is lost.

New Orleans, Mon Amour is an epic love song, a clear-eyed elegy, a cultural celebration, and a thank-you note to New Orleans in its Golden Age.

from Amazon.com

All of which begs a few questions for Mr. Codrescu, who’s probably enjoying a similarly gloomy morning 80-some-odd miles from here at his home in Baton Rouge, where he’s reading the New York Times or the Bucharest Times or any number of things besides this website:

1. This book: was it your idea or your publisher’s? I mean, it’s an allegedly free country, so you can publish whatever you like whenever you like, but don’t you think–and don’t take this the wrong way–don’t you think it’s a little soon? From where I sit, it reeks just a teeny, tiny bit of opportunism, like all those Time-Life books about September 11 that were on the bookshelves by October. But then, I’m sure you’re planning to do something charitable with the proceeds, aren’t you? …Aren’t you?

2. The hint of rushed opportunism is exacerbated by the book’s title. Did you spend much time on it at all? Was New Orleans, Mon Amour the best you could do? A slovenly reference to Walker Percy, who was himself making a half-hearted, pun-ish homage to Alain Resnais? At the very least, egomaniac that you are, I would’ve thought you could come up with something like, Apres le Deluge, Moi.

3. I don’t know if you penned the dust-jacket copy yourself or if it was done by some intern just out of Bryn Mawr, but from the way it’s written, it sounds like New Orleans was experiencing some kind of Golden Age immediately before Katrina made landfall. Um, not so. I mean, don’t get me wrong: things were fine–good, even–but “Golden Age”? The last time we had one of those was 30 years ago, when we were flush with oil money and folks were clamoring to get into the Superdome. Or possibly 100 years ago, when jazz was just getting started and Storyville was America’s first experiment with legalized prostitution. …New Orleans under Mayor Nagin? Brass, maybe. Possibly even bronze. But hardly gold.

Hey — it’s tradition, okay?

Thank God for seasonal traditions like this one, which have survived for all these years and are being passed from one generation to another. My holiday seems to leave me feeling a bit bereft, partly because of distance from my kids and partly because our city is so broken right now. Fixable, but broken nonetheless. And there’s such a huge gap between some parts of town and others — separated by only a few blocks. This has always been the case in New Orleans, but now the gap has more to do with electricity and roofs and waterlines than it does with economics.

Example: TBK (The Beautiful Kim) works at an upscale toy store on Magazine. For the past month, Magazine and other nearby streets have been increasingly jammed with shoppers, drinkers, eaters and stand-arounders, so that nowadays (except for some boarded-up places and bent power poles) it’s virtually impossible to tell there ever was a Hurricane Katrina. Their day-after-Thanksgiving sales total was up 30 percent from last year. That’s certainly a wonderful testament to the willingness of locals to shop at home and to the many great people from outside who want to shop in Orleans Parish and do their part to get things moving again.

But cross St. Charles and drive toward the river, up Louisiana or Washington or Napoleon, and watch the waterline get higher and higher. There are a few more lights on at night these days, but driving across darkened Mid-City is often like sailing a boat toward a light on the horizon — is it two miles or 10? The open doors and windows gape stupidly between the debris piles. And there’s simply No. One. There. And it goes on like this for miles — all the way to the lake.

It’s a schizophrenic experience, moving back and forth from the near-normal to the near-lifeless several times a day. So much busy, then so much nothing. But more of the busy is returning to the nothing — such as the creepy Chevron station at Canal and Broad, or what’s now a virtual Party Island at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl.

New Orleans has always been a city of extremes — and we’re experiencing the ultimate in extremes these days. For every drink or Christmas present being served on Magazine or Bourbon or Royal, there are 25 no longer being served on Carrollton or Canal.

That said, we bought our (fake) Christmas tree yesterday and I’m eager to put it up. It’s gonna be a highly weird holiday season, but I’m sure lots of new traditions will be born for a lot of folks this year. Decorated debris piles? Duct-taped refrigerators wrapped in twinkling lights? It’ll be fun to watch.

Today’s forecast

Sky: clear

Temperature: 70 degrees

Relative humidity: 70%

Gumbo: chicken and sausage

Turkey: brined and basted (courtesy of Nigella)

Stuffing: gingerbread (courtesy of same)

Expected attendance: between 20 and 30

Kick-off time: 4:00pm

Thankfulness rating: 10+

All things considered, this may damn well be the best Thanksgiving New Orleans has ever seen.

The Weather Channel Visits

Last week Randy Flinders called me out of the blue to see if would take him and his crew around to interview some people in Gentilly and Lakeview for a special they will be airing around Nov. 29th for the official end of hurricane season which is Nov. 30th. They will run the special over a couple of days. Randy found me because he had read my entry regarding the Rapid Population Estimate being done by volunteers. Of course, I agreed to help him continue to keep the recovery of our city in the spotlight.

I asked my friend, Gayle Rhode, who works with me at La Crepe, if she would do an interview. She’s the chef’s sister and although she was building a successful real estate appraisal business, we needed her past years of kitchen expertise to get the restaurant open. Although her home had over 5ft. of water in it and her son is having to live apart from her in Houston, Gayle has a cheerful attitude and never misses a day of work. Five days in the kitchen wears me out and I have not lost everything I own. Gayle’s a wonderful woman and I am really proud of her for doing the Weather Channel interview.

We also did more interviews in Gentilly with myself and Jen, the Tulane Grad student who got me started in some of this volunteering. Randy and his crew then headed to Treme to cover the work at the Second Harvest food distribution center! Randy’s team was great to work with and very sensitive to the emotions behind the story he is trying to tell. My work here led me to this very fulfiiling opportunity to tell our story. I hope y’all get to see some of the clips.
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NY Times op/ed piece

Interesting reading, this….

Turkey With a Dash of Bitters

By JOHN BIGUENET

New Orleans

I don’t recall much about last Thanksgiving. Happy days tend to blur together, I guess. But I’ll remember for the rest of my life every detail of the bitter holiday we’ll celebrate tomorrow.

The mood here has turned angry in the last month, as we’ve begun to lose hope we will get the hurricane protection the future of the city depends on. On the street, the sense of betrayal boils over into empty talk of closing our oil and gas pipelines, which supply much of the nation’s needs: “They won’t build us levees that work? Then let them freeze in the dark.”

Even the reliably conservative Times-Picayune ran a heated front-page editorial on Sunday, blasting the federal response to a disaster caused by one of its own agencies. Noting the false assurances we received that our
levees would protect us in a Category 3 storm – all that was left of a weakened Hurricane Katrina by the time it sideswiped the city on Aug. 29 – the paper exhorted its readers to flood Washington with demands for
protection against Category 5 storms: “Flood them with mail the way we were flooded by Katrina.”

Why are we all so angry? An afternoon working beside me would make that clear. Like many of my fellow New Orleanians, I’ve spent much of every day for the last two months gutting my flooded house: dragging soggy furniture and reeking appliances to the curb, ripping out moldy walls, throwing my children’s mementoes on a huge trash heap of ruined clothing and family photos and books and artwork.

On my way every day to where we used to live, I drive through a city I love that lies in ruins. The park that lines one side of a boulevard I follow home is now a solid wall of debris 20 feet high. On the other side of the street, desolate houses destroyed by the flood gape back with shattered windows, open doors and ragged holes in rooftops kicked out by families trapped in their attics when the water rose. Every single thing – wrecked houses, abandoned cars, even the people – everything is covered in a pall of gray dust, as if all the color of this once vibrant city has been leached out.

And why have we had to face this ordeal? Because, as has been amply documented, the Army Corps of Engineers designed and oversaw construction of levees so defective they are now the subject of criminal investigations by the Louisiana attorney general, the United States attorney here and the F.B.I.

We New Orleanians would have been back home two or three days after Hurricane Katrina if a manmade catastrophe had not engulfed the city in a flood. Instead, nearly three months later, only 15 percent or so of
residents have returned. Most people can’t come home. As The Times recently reported, half the houses in New Orleans are still not reconnected to the city sewer system and as many still lack natural gas for heating and
cooking, 40 percent have no electricity and a quarter of the city is without drinkable water.

New Orleans is on the verge of death, but still, just as in the days after our levees crumbled, the government dithers, refusing to offer an unequivocal commitment to provide protection against Category 5 hurricanes.

Why is this so critical an issue? After what we have been through in the last three months and face in the coming year, there is not a homeowner or a business executive who will invest insurance proceeds in rebuilding if we
are to remain vulnerable to a similar catastrophe every hurricane season. Anything short of protection against Category 5 hurricanes will condemn the city to a slow death.

So far, the president, Republican leaders in Congress and even the reconstruction czar, Donald Powell, have declined to provide any commitment beyond repairing the levees already breached. But if the United States
refuses to protect New Orleans, what will the world – and what will history – make of a nation that let one of its most celebrated cities die?

When we sit down to dinner tomorrow, we will be thankful that our daughter and son-in-law are expecting their first child. We will be thankful for the enormous generosity of the individual Americans we encountered in our
3,500-mile odyssey after we fled the storm. And we will be thankful to have at least one more Thanksgiving in New Orleans. But without the government’s commitment to protect the city, by next Thanksgiving we won’t have New
Orleans – or at least the New Orleans we have known and loved – to give thanks for.

uh, yeah, about that….

NOPD now stands for Not Our Problem Dude according to at least one officer on the force. Nice to see they’ve maintained their sense of humor and incompetence through all of this. Eh, whatever. They’re they last ones I want to show up when there’s a problem anyway.

Couldn’t get out of town to see family this weekend because of logistic complications but there are plenty of people having parties. The current plan is to go pick up one of the new XBOX 360 and squander the next few days.

Got myself ordained as a minister last week: “so I’ve got that goin’ for me; which is nice” [easy quote]

In other random news, I shut down my personal website this morning because I got tired of being almost constantly attacked by friends. Hopefully that will just mean that I’ll be able to post more here. But to be honest, I really liked my site and I’m a little soured by the whole thing. It may not have looked like it, but I put a lot of time in on that site.

Since its after noon, I’m going out for a drink. Happy Holidays!

Bidness is bidness

During the past 24 hours, I have been to two gatherings for local businesspeople — both designed to drum up some private sector support to rebuild. Though my business is trashed and won’t be operating for a while yet, I figured both meetings would be a good chance to meet some folks and get involved in at least some way.

Today’s gathering at Woldenberg Park along the river was to kick off a new round of the Young Leadership Council’s Proud To Call It Home drive. A worthy operation, seems to me, and I’ll be participating in some yet-to-be-determined way. This organization raises lots of money for various projects around the city.

Last night, I went to the meeting called by Da Saints to drum up buiness support to show the NFL we’re serious about keeping the team. Not much we can do about things the rest of this season, except buy a few tickets. But (if Mr. Benson can minimize his hissy fits) I’m hoping the team can put together some kind of inducement for small business owners next season. I know the Saints are a private business and I know Benson has been a turd. But I also view the team as an extension of the city and I’m hoping their owner realizes the public trust he has charge of. For now, at least, I’ll choose to be a foolish optimist about a lot of things. Call it my way of coping.

On another note — my business insurance people finally called me today. I was hoping they’d inform me how much money I’d won in what has turned into Insurance Lotto along the Gulf Coast. But noooooo — they called to inform me my adjustor DIED this past weekend from some sort of seizure. So we have to reinvent the wheel with another meeting with a new (and hopefully healthier) adjustor next week.

Rest in peace Sam (my deceased adjustor). I’m not laughing at you — I’m really not. But you gotta admit the situation kinda sums up where we find ourselves as a city these days.

Get Your Daily Horoscope @ Still Perkin

Overnighters in New Orleans could use as many clues to our future as possible right about now. Even something about the next 24 hrs could help us make a couple decisions when our brain suddenly slips into power-saver mode. Thankfully, Brent Badeaux over at Still Perkin coffee shop on Washington and Prytania has come to our aid with some sassy advice to help you get through your day. His handwritten horoscopes are geared for those of us on the island, they’re hilarious. You’ll find them hanging in the hallway by the bathroom.
Here’s a sample:
Cancer for 11/19/05
It’s no secret you have the gift of gab. Everybody’s talking about how much you talk. Tonight, write a letter to someone you miss. This gesture will be appreciated and satiate your communication fix. Tomorrow, find out how to mail it.

Pisces for 11/18/05
Your day is full of waiting – from your latte, to your roof, to the next population shift. You wonder why the traffic light at Napoleon and Magazine blinks. I mean, if they can make it blink, can’t they make it work?

Still Perkin has great coffee and it’s not the mad scene that CC’s is on Jefferson. They are also selling some nice Xmas items if you need them. Still Perkin is appropriately cheerful. I strongly urge you to go in and have a read.

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