March 28, 2007

Backstage at the NBA Circus: Kobe hangs 50 on Toney Blare

The Hornets played their last game in New Orleans for this season and alter ego DJ Toney Blare covered the game--including Kobe Bryant's 4th straight 50+ points performance--for SLAM Magazine. Check it out HERE. And here's what it looks like after the game...

March 20, 2007

Super Sunday 2007: We Won't Bow Down

“Yeah, lemme get a Corona, man.”

I straddle my bike in front of a cooler chest. One of two salesmen digs into the ice and water and pulls out a bottle.

“That cold enough for you?”

“I hope so. I’m gonna need it today.”

I give him $3 but he can’t open the bottle with his lighter, so his partner does it, and then scoffs at the other’s ineptitude. I thank them both and pedal slowly into the intersection of Washington and LaSalle. The block is full of people, with a large crowd at one end gathered in front of a line of cops on horses. Feathered headdresses are visible above the fray, the sky is bright, and the air is warm but dry, perfect March weather in New Orleans.

Today is Super Sunday, the traditional parading day for the Mardi Gras Indian tribes held the Sunday before St. Joseph’s Day. Back when the Indians were violent and illegal, this was the day of the year when they could come out and show their colors. Now we’re standing in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city and the tail of the parade is beginning to move.

I ride down LaSalle to check out the spy boys, braves, and chiefs preparing. The street has a neutral ground in the middle and various pieces of costumes rest in the grass. At a break in the neutral ground, I u-turn and ride back up the street towards Washington Avenue. Lone Indians stand stone-faced in full “mask,” clusters of onlookers surrounding them.

The crowd: young men with the practiced thousand-yard stare; older guys who get in the face of the Indians, alternately trying to crack them up or boost their egos into full whoop as the maskers stay intense and serious; the wives and mothers of the Indians, who help them put on their costumes and straighten their headdresses; children in and out of costume; white hipsters young and old, cameras at the ready.

What I notice immediately (and start to record with my own camera) is the prevalence of cameras. Any immobile Indian has a phalanx of cameras around him, held in white and black hands, snapping away. Some are huge video cameras with long lenses, others just the camera phone. The Indians are such wildly vivid figures, it’s hard to stop snapping, and indeed there are dudes who walk backwards in front of the marchers as they begin to move down LaSalle.

It’s weird to watch people squint and focus so intently on capturing the exotic, like we’re all on a safari rather than in a neighborhood. I don’t know if that’s always been the case on Super Sunday, but it’s safe to say that more people own cameras these days, and have them always on-hand in phones or in handy digital models. What do we get from photographing something? What do we lose by pausing to record, rather than allowing the experience to unfold? Can you have any sort of epiphany with one eye in on a screen?

Aside from these questions, I wonder about the younger white kids like me. Are we simply voyeur witnesses to the last embers of a culture, or will we help lay the groundwork for a more equitable city, one where the Indians and their neighbors survive and prosper, every day of the year? Obviously, we have some interest; some love of this side of New Orleans, but how many of us ever walk these blocks the other 364 days of the year?

That’s what struck me over and over again today—how rare it was for any white person to be in this neighborhood. That’s an old fact, but, again, what do we do in this new landscape? What does it mean that one race simply doesn’t cross into a certain space? How does that affect all of us?

I stand with my bike in front of me as the crowd grows thick and begins to follow the last tribe and brass band. When a space opens up, I join in behind another beer salesman. He tows his cooler on a battered hand-truck, wears a gray-black-white camouflaged suit, and seems nervous, not stopping as people place orders. Instead, he’ll pull out the beers, then the customer takes over and drives the hand-truck while the beer man makes change.

It’s not a fluid operation, but it works, and I keep wondering what’s the rush. Then I hear a snort, and turn to see that the line of police horses is only 5 paces behind us. I pick up the pace, order a Budweiser. Another white dude is doing the same, and he ends up just buying my bottle for me, saying, “Happy Sunday,” so that all of us can keep moving.

LaSalle turns into Simon Bolivar and an Indian runs by whooping, feathered tomahawks slicing the air. Another group of Indians in white skull faces menaces the crowd. Down here people loll in the shade on the neutral ground, drinking and lighting blunts. I stand between some cars to watch the parade pass. A beat-up old lady comes to talk to me, and we walk together for a minute.

“Enjoying yourself today mmm, hmmm, mmm,” she says with a vacant smile. Her voice is low and she seems lost.

“Oh, yeah, it’s a fine day,” I tell her.

“Hmmmm. Since Katrina, my head still ain't right….” She says it like a question, like she’s in disbelief. “Hmmmm…..19 feet of water…..walk on water…..”

I tell her to take her time, then cross to a boarded up seafood store and lock up my bike. It’s getting hard to hold a bottle in one hand and walk the bike with the other. The parade turns onto Jackson Avenue and I let it pass me so I can buy another beer. The guys I ask aren’t selling, but they point me across the street to another pick-up truck.

When I get there, a couple stands in the bed of the truck with a full bar’s worth of liquor sitting on the roof of the cab. They have gin, whiskey, schnapps, vodka, everything. I try to order a 7 and 7, but the woman asks me to explain what that is. As I do, a cop walks u

“I got no problem with your operation,” he says, “but can you move it to the side a little, you’re blocking the street.”

So the truck backs up as the lady makes my 7 and 7, which turns out to be just gin and some flat seltzer water, no ice, in a small plastic cup. And as I hand up the money, it turns out she’s not a lady, but a man in some very basic drag, with long sideburns and a mustache and trucker’s cap.

“Thanks, baby,” I say.

I’ll admit, the last thing I need is gin, but I dug that operation, too. Anyway, things get a little hazy for the remainder of the day. The Indians and I move at about the same pace, so I see the same few tribes and band again and again, followed by the line of police horses. We walk in the street, the Indians vibrant and pulsating, many of the buildings windowless and weather-beaten. Chants rise up and braves dash about, regroup, strut, squat in wait.

At one point, I’m watching an Indian in all red feathers approach, and can hear only a tambourine. As he passes me, I hear a burst of sound from an un-costumed brass band; they look like one family, mother and 4 children, almost hidden behind the Indian’s headdress. Everywhere along the street, people whoop and call out, take photos and drink and smoke, take it easy in the holiday afternoon. Along with Mardi Gray Day, and maybe New Year’s Eve, this hour of walking feels as close as it can get to the pre-Katrina city I knew.

The funny thing is, it’s only in the extraordinary moments that things feel normal, like nothing happened.

On one stretch of Martin Luther King Drive, I stop to take in a very strange sight on the neutral ground. Someone has tricked out a convertible Mercedes coupe in ridiculous fashion. Not only is the light gray interior done up in what appears to be fake alligator, including the cup holder, but the gearshift is a fake pistol.

Yep, what looks to be a glock is mounted nose-down on the console. The doors of the coupe are vertical, ala the DeLorean, and in a true stroke of genius, three Chucky dolls stand in the back seat. The top is down and kids take turns jumping in the front seat for pict
ures. I start taking close-range self-portraits in various ill poses, arms crossed or cup of gin held up to my lips. I guess I’m causing a scene, because a few white kids come up and remark to me on how crazy the car is, alright.

“It’s the dumbest car ever,” I tell one.

“I love it!” he says. I move on.

At the corner of South Claiborne and MLK, a very ingenious person opened a large convenience store and gas station, with hip-hop clothing for sale on one side of the building. Most days, this is where day laborers, Latino and black, gather to wait for work. Today, the parking lot is full of speed bikes and their riders. Maybe 60 bikes are out there, taking up one whole corner of the parking lot.

I stand under the shade of the island and take them all in, then give Kim a call and give her my coordinates. I walk into the store to get more beer and water, and she meets me in there a few minutes later. Once again, I’m sure glad to see my woman. She can see I’m a little loopy and hands me the water, takes the beer.

We continue down MLK. The parade is thinning out as we go, the space between groups of Indians growing. Occasionally, we sit down and watch it pass, then get up and catch the tail. At one point we’re right next to the horses when we notice two white chicks wearing identical fluorescent green hats and armbands. The armbands read “ACLU,” and the girls carry clipboards.

“Say, what are y’all up to?” I ask.

“We’re here to monitor the police,” one tells me.

Apparently they accompany the cops at many parades, noting when they get out of line.

“What kind of stuff do you write down?”

“Well, like this right here.” She points to another line of horse cops who cross in front of a group of parade goers, almost running them
over. I wish them luck and move on.

When we get to Jackson Avenue, I see a group of cops handcuffing a guy. It’s the beer man in the camouflage from before. A burned nub of blunt sits on his cooler. He isn’t resisting. That man probably made 700 bucks today, all right in front of that line of horse cops. If he hit that blunt, it must’ve been more than once. But now that we’re near the end of the parade, he’s under arrest. Seems like a convenient time for someone to pick up an easy $700, right?

“Fuck,” I say. I walk up fast and slip my card in his pocket, which is a stupid, futile thing to do. Kim gets the attention of the ACLU. We stand on the corner and swear. What a bunch of bullshit.

Across the street, a group of Indians in pink and brown feathers attempts to join the parade. A meeting of sorts ensues between what looks to be several chiefs of different tribes. There’s some posturing, the ritual plays out, and the new tribe joins the march.

If this was the beginning of the 20th century, this is the kind of run-in that could result in violence. Today, the argument is probably about the proper show of respect and order. Indians are serious about this and the disputes they have concern precedence and honoring past “maskers” and their teachings. The fierce defense of heritage might just save this whole place, and that’s why I follow the Indians. Of course, this stops the parade and causes the police cruisers to honk.

We reach Marcus Garvey Park at Washington and S. Claiborne and push our way through one small gate in the fence. Inside, the whole parade—Indians and followers—fills in the lawn, drinking, inspecting costumes, lounging in the sun. On a stage at one edge of the park, a speaker informs us of a march on City Hall. I think about Ed Blakely, how he might have the right idea but how he should be here today if he’s really going to solve things.

After awhile, Kim and I agree we’re hungry and ought to be getting out of there. It takes long waits at two different, over-matched food trucks, but I get us an order of some pretty damn good fries. We walk down Claiborne to Jackson and head towards the river. In the middle of Jackson, a single Indian in royal blue and orange feathers marches in the early dusk.

“He’s like the King of Jackson Avenue,” I say.

A car with its flashers on follows him slowly and soon a line of cars trails lazily down the avenue behind them. Kim and I are talking, not paying attention, then we see the line of traffic has stopped. Some dude with short dreads and a bright orange shirt has stopped his Saturn behind the Indian, gotten out of the car, and challenged the driver of the car guarding the Indian. The driver keeps telling the dude to chill as the Indian looks on.

“Are you ready? Are you ready, bitch?” the dude in orange asks, fists now held up. The two of them are 10 feet from us. On the corner behind us, a group of men and children watches as the fight starts. Some punches are thrown, they lock up in a bear hug, the Indian’s driver down lower around the dude’s torso. Eventually they work their way to a telephone pole where the Indian comes up behind the dude and tries to pry him off.

“We oughta steal his car,” I joke, nodding at the idling Saturn.

The people on the corner continue to tell the dude to step away, as it’s now a stalemate. Kim and I start to walk away, but I turn once more to look back and see the dude’s head banging over and over against a parked car. The Indian’s driver really whips the dude’s ass, leaving him lying on the curb, struggling to get up. The Indian sits down on the hood of his friend’s car and they pull away, charioteer and chariot, disappearing down Jackson Avenue.

On the next block, a group of old ladies sits on a porch. They ask us what happened and we tell them. We all shake our heads.

“He should’ve known not to mess with that Indian,” I say to general assent.

“He does now,” Kim says.

March 6, 2007

Resurrecting the Golf

Where is Dr. Love?

I hurry past the French Market, scanning the crowd. Tourists drift by in healthy number, a good sign two weeks after Mardi Gras on a cool, overcast Sunday. Kim waits in the car outside Café Du Monde and when I reach her, she is still alone. Dr. Love is a no-show.

Which isn’t much of a surprise. The first time we told him of our plan, he protested the dangers involved.

“You know what an anaconda can do to you?”

Our second meeting took place Friday night, but Kim had to remind me on Saturday morning that we’d made a promise; I did remember Dr. Love and I talking in drunk-sincere tones. Now it’s Sunday, and Dr. Love hasn’t held up his end. Oh, well, he only had one club, anyway, and his fear of snakes seemed quite real.

Our plan: play a few holes at the golf course in City Park. We figured no one had swung a club there since the storm, so we’d likely be the first hackers to walk what now resembles the African Savannah. Dr. Love entered the picture when we met him at the Apple Barrel on Frenchman Street a few months ago and noticed him using two golf clubs as crutches. He was a slender black guy, looked to be around 65, and said he’d fought in Vietnam, the origin of his anaconda phobia. We were mostly interested in the clubs, though by Friday we’d already enlisted my friend, Tom, who had his own set, so now Dr. Love was the last member of our prospective foursome. But since he’d missed the meeting time, we continued on to Tom’s house in Lakeview.

(Click here for more photos)

Lakeview, as its name suggests, abuts Lake Ponchatrain. One of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods, it was also among the hardest hit by the storm. And though Lakeview’s relative affluence means it’s recovering faster than similarly devastated areas, it’s still a mess, with blocks of gutted homes, restored homes, and muddy front yards. A decorated Vietnam veteran himself, and a lifelong pal of my father, Tom suffered heavy losses from the storm, with ten feet of floodwater completely destroying the first floor of his home. After being rescued from the second floor and spending time in Pittsburgh and in a friend’s house on the Riverbend, he moved back into his place about a month ago.

When we arrived, the golf clubs rested on the front porch. The set of Ping Zings had sat in the floodwater for 2 weeks and the bag still had some mildew on it, the heads and shafts of the clubs muddy and slightly rusted. A couple dozen Titleist balls were still in the pocket where Tom had stashed them prior to the storm, the head covers still sheathed the woods, and the grips were surprisingly intact. For this return to City Park, these were just the clubs we needed.

Before we left, Tom walked us down the block to show us “Desolation Row,” as he called it. Several identical shotgun houses stood in a line along an overgrown alleyway, all gutted, or so it appeared. We walked into the third house. It wasn’t gutted; in fact, it was barely touched.

Two playpens sat in the front room, along with a couch and coffee table, everything covered in mud and mold. A collection of men’s shirts still hung in the closet in the bedroom, and the bed still had sheets on it. In the next room, a wall of shelves heaved with warped books and dusty CD cases. A stereo, a desk, a bed, more CD’s, a poster of Charlie Parker, a map of Spain---all untouched. The kitchen was full of stacked dishes and all the markings of a busy life. We guessed that a young couple with two children had lived there.

The things they left behind, particularly the volumes of history and selection of jazz recordings, especially chilled me. This looks like my shit, I thought. I have that book; I own that CD. Whoever they were, these people never came back to get a thing; everything was as it was left before the storm. I’ve walked through a lot of freaky shit in the last few months, but this house of petrified life felt particularly creepy, like a nightmare where you recognize things you’ve never seen before in real life.

We left and walked back to Tom’s, put the clubs in the trunk of the LTD, and followed Tom’s directions to City Park.

The park’s driving range is open now, and when we pulled into the parking lot, we could see men hitting balls along the concrete porch. I took a towel from the car to wear under the bag strap to protect my sweater from the mildew, but soon found the strap’s velour more than clean enough.

As we walked to the first tee, Tom reminded me that this was the first hole I ever played in New Orleans, back in the late summer of 1995 when he and I and my father came out for nine. Now the tee markers were gone and the first fairway spread out before us in ruin. The grass looked burned, hay-colored with pockets of green weeds and mud hills. The oaks on either side of the fairway stood leafless and weathered, almost frazzled.

Tom unsheathed his driver for the first time since the storm, I pulled out a dusty three iron, and we handed Kim a sand wedge, as it was the shortest club in the bag. I dropped three balls onto the wiry grass and proceeded to stretch out a little and take practice swings. A non-golfer, Kim struck the first ball of the afternoon, and won a bet with Tom that she’d make contact on her first try, though the ball traveled only a few yards.

As Tom stepped up to make his first swing, a National Guard Humvee appeared at the end of the cart path. It proceeded slowly towards us, its tan body a perfect camouflage against the devastated landscape. Undeterred by the approaching patrol, Tom hit two balls in a row in the Humvee’s direction and we laughed about our “journalists” alibi. It was my turn and as I took a practice swing, the Humvee reached us.

“How y’all doing?” I called over my shoulder to the two soldiers. I heard no response and took my swing. The ball cut a bit to the right but the distance wasn’t bad at all. After watching the ball land, I turned to see the Humvee continuing down the cart path and into the parking lot. I felt like a phantom, like the soldiers didn’t even see us out there, like we were just ghosts of golfers past. Kim whacked her ball a few more yards, I picked up the bag, and the three of us made our way down the fairway.

The first thing we noticed was that this hole had been mowed at least once since the storm. Neighboring holes appeared more unkempt, but the grass on No. 1 was relatively low, though pocked with anthills. Every few yards we came upon another anthill, and though they looked dormant, a whack with a 3 iron revealed each to be populated by a swarm of fire ants. Those bastards are having a field day out at City Park and I was careful to avoid them for the rest of the afternoon.

Tire tracks ran down the middle of No. 1, though they appeared too narrow for a Humvee. Clusters of weeds and musk thistle hugged the edges of the fairway and sprouted here and there in the middle. The swamp is coming back. The centuries-old trees looked ghoulish and untamed. All over the fairway, insidiously and aimless, the spiky dandelions and soft clovers will take back this entire course in another year or two. The dead grass felt spongy and sprayed up each time one of us took a swing. We knew where the green was supposed to be and marched steadily towards it, knocking our Titleists as we went.

I hadn’t golfed in probably 4 years, but when I was a teenager I played semi-regularly for a few summers, mostly with my father. The game always struck me as too frustrating to enjoy, though I liked walking the freshly combed fairways and the feeling of striking the ball with the sweet spot of my club. My swing is decent enough, and I have a fair understanding of iron play and the proper velocity for certain shots.

Today, of course, this was all fairly pointless, and I took few practice swings, instead walking up to the ball, lining myself up, and hacking away. On No. 1, this worked fine, because the dead grass propped the ball up a bit off the ground, in effect teeing it up for each shot. Tom reached the green first, and when the three of us made it there, I pulled out the putter. The green was just as rough as the fairway, but the originally finer grass there had matted in different fashion, making it bumpy but fast enough to putt on. Tom selected a cropping of weeds in the center of the green as the hole, and we knocked our balls towards it. On the first hole, I’m guessing we took a total of 30-40 shots between us, and lost maybe 3 balls out of bounds. There was no pin to replace, and we made our way over to the ninth tee.

The ninth appeared completely untouched since the storm. The tee was thick with weeds separated by dried mud. We gave Kim the 3-iron and I took the sand wedge, skying up my first shot. As we began to walk, it quickly became evident that No. 9 was a total ball trap. The dried grass was a few inches thick, and walking was akin to trudging through fresh snow.

In the first 40 yards, we lost countless balls, as the grass swallowed them up. Several times, one of us would barely hit the ball, sending it two or three yards, then spend another 2 minutes trying to dig the ball out of the grass, into which it had settled like an egg in a nest. Large clumps of hay came up each time I swung, and several times I banged my club on the ground in faux-golfer fury, cutting a swath in the earth. No greenskeeper was there to catch me.

“Hey,” Tom reminded me. “A bad day on the golf course is better than a good day at the office.” Throughout the afternoon we made comments like that, complaining of slick greens, absent rangers, and thick rough, and citing “winter rules” when we made friendly drops or dug balls out of the grass. We joked a lot during the “round.”

On a deserted stretch of a park that 18 months ago sat under a few feet of water, I felt at times like we were at the bottom of the ocean, or on the surface of another planet. I’m almost certain that ours were the first clubs swung through that grass since the storm, and likely ours were the first feet to tread some stretches of that land. Yet our footsteps were light, we laughed at our location, the pace of play was dreamlike and unburdened by time or score.

The course may never come back, but we played on it this afternoon. To employ golf terms, we live in a city of hazards, of gaping wounds in the landscape and destruction that trivializes idyllic games and the idea of “par.” With so much of the city’s space crumbled and disfigured, it’s very hard to tell what’s off limits or out of bounds. At City Park, I felt like a humble pilgrim, ambling through a routine ritual that bore no resemblance to my soiled surroundings.

This happens now and again in New Orleans these days, a sensation that you’re uncovering a secret that sits in public view, or that you’re sneaking around in someone else’s house. More and more people return, but still there are vast expanses like City Park where nothing’s happened, and no one is around. The great thing about the golf course is that it’s public—anyone can go there, it belongs to all of us, it isn’t dangerous or up for grabs. So to swing a golf club there felt comforting, or rather, it felt like we were comforting the course, forgotten by a public with too much to worry about right now. And in a city where the rules are a source of frustration these days, we reveled in the freedom to make up the rules as we went along, to make believe we were out for a quick round of 3.

Eventually we reached a stretch of fairway that was slightly mowed and finished out No. 9. We decided to walk back to the car, stopping at the ranger’s station to inspect the empty hut. There was no door and Kim went in and looked out at us through the dirty glass like she was working a summer job. Inside, we found everything gone save for a lone plaque dedicated to the winner of some tournament’s “Flight D.”

IDEA FOR A TOURNAMENT: Nike or Titleist or some company should sponsor an “Extreme Golf Challenge,” bringing Tiger Woods and other golfers to play a few holes on the City Park course. The proceeds could go to restoring the park and the course and golf lessons for children. And I wonder how the pros would fare in conditions like this, which make Scotland look like a country club in Florida. Who wouldn’t pay to see that?

We drove to another section of the course, closer to the art museum, and teed off in front of a grove of immense oaks. As we set up for our second shots, a Siberian Husky or possibly a Malamute came running onto the fairway. It circled Kim and me, then crossed the road that runs through the course, and disappeared into the wilds.

“Look out for that wolf!’ I yelled at Tom, who was searching in vain for his ball under a tree. A minute later, the dog’s owner appeared, smoking a cigar and wearing all black. We directed him up the road, and after awhile he sauntered back across, wolf in tow.

On the green, we made our final shots into a cluster of clover and shook hands. “Good game.” Later at lunch, we promised to play on the first Sunday of every month, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to stick to that. As I said, golf never was my game, but this afternoon was different, something between golf and hiking, trespassing and reclamation. And I’m sure we’ll play better next round, knowing the lay of the land and all. Like a lot of things lately, we’ll just have to bring a lot of balls.