August 29, 2007

Return to the Convention Center

"We should get a picture of the two of us with the two of them."

"That would be COOL!"

So this sweet lady who'd stood on this same sidewalk 2 years ago sidled up to the thief for the second time and asked him if we could all get together. I handed my camera to an elderly woman and showed her how to work the button, and we got together.

And people say the city is plagued by disharmony....

I took the afternoon off and walked home from the office under gathering clouds which mercifully held off until I was safely inside. In my last bit of business-as-usual for the day, I called Cox and had the internet situation straightened out, very effective was I.

My first business of the day was the hand-off of a claim form to a lawyer so that my employer can join a class action suit against the Army Corp of Engineers if things come to that. This involved a semi-frantic lawyer calling to tell me "We're leaving the hotel now," then pulling up outside my office in an SUV with another lawyer, both in shorts and t-shirts, and receiving the form through the driver's window, reviewing it, and telling me that, of course, "who knows where these things end up."

Anyhow, as I waited out the rain at home, I watched a replay of Bush's morning comments. He noted that he hadn't forgotten about us and I found myself yelling, "This is the only time you even mention us, ever!" at his oddly sunburned face. At that point, I knew it was time to go outside and face the elements.

As the barrier is now completely gone, replaced by a slick intersection with a traffic light, I walked towards the river on Melpomene for the first time. Most of the houses on the block are boarded up, victims of which failure, I'm not sure. A small, brick apartment complex sits there dead, though probably a handy hideout for the weaker among us.

I crossed the parking lot of the old Robert store, which replaced the Schwegmann's around the time that the St. Thomas Projects were demolished. In the Schwegmann's days, that parking lot was just about the illest place you could be after dark, even with the store open, the kind of place where you might see two crackheads fight, or find a busted-out old limousine. Three 18-wheeler trailers sit in front of the store now, left behind by somebody.

After walking along Calliope and down Tchoupitoulas, I hit the Convention Center, site of this afternoon's Day of Presence. A white tent and small stage take up about 100 yards of the street. Black people in white hats wipe off rows of black chairs with white rags.

I take a place along the curb, right behind a small platform where a female television reporter receives make up and wiring. Suddenly the sound of a drumline thunders through the carport, but no musicians are visible. Then it cuts, only a recording, and the sunny voice of Blues Traveler fills the air.

We seem to be running late this afternoon, though we're keeping it languid, as usual. Preparations and personnel stroll past--publicist types, a man with a hammer and tool belt, slick types in suits opening and closing cellphones, older ladies in pairs setting up as if for a parade. The television reporter's producer has the typical black rimmed glasses. Kermit Ruffins talks with a couple policemen. I think about Oliver Thomas and how he must have had plans to be here, but all the plans have changed.

A guy walks up to me and silently hands me a white hat, courtesy of the mayor.

How odd to be on this side of the city today, I think. On the one hand, this is the ground zero of governmental collapse, the site of horrors even the President will carry with him into history, the stains of the state's failure. On the other hand, the Convention Center bears no physical evidence of that travesty. We could be at any convention center in the country, with the hotels across the street and the media wearing badges. This is where New Orleans makes money from outside business, so whitewash and amnesia reign.

Through the gathering crowd, a homeless white kid passes by with "House" printed on his blood-stained t-shirt.

The rain starts up again and the few people seated in front of the stage pick up their chairs and move under the carport as a photographer gets a shot of two gentlemen from the Nation of Islam.

And the rain is barely more than a mist, but might go on for awhile, I think. And I think about this anniversary, how instead of a point in time--That Day--the Storm has yet to stop. This event, and all the talk today, is not concerned with the event, but with its continuance. People continue to suffer, the government continues to fail on all levels, and there is no end in sight.

And, after I move to the far end of the crowd opposite the stage, the guy next to me notes that, once again, people are made to stand outside the Convention Center with no access to bathrooms, no food, and no water. As nice as this gesture by the Essence people is, it's a shoddy set-up we have here.

The show begins with an unnamed jazz group playing "So What?" by Miles, a curious choice. Our emcees today are two dj's from two local stations. The male DJ, a tall, skinny guy with braids, starts things off tough, lambasting everyone and reminding us that, in the end, we're responsible for stopping this bullshit. A good, reasonable start, I think. He says we need to keep our goals in my mind when listening to today's speakers: 1. a Marshall Plan; 2. Right of Return; 3. Social Justice.

A reverend from the SCLC offers a prayer as noise gurgles from the "VIP" section. Then the emcee introduces a 7-year old girl who sings Amazing Grace and devastates us. I end up staying for almost 5 hours, but this is the only emotional release of the day.

Of course, you hear children like this almost every year at Jazz Fest in the Gospel Tent, small geniuses with uncanny voices. The difference today is the time and location: the very place that offered forth these children, that populated American culture with their voices, is under such grave threat that even the survival of that genius is in doubt. I listen to that little girl and get chills and am all choked up because there's no telling if, in 20 years, I'll see another like her. That was never in question before the storm.

The speeches continue, with actresses and lawyers and union organizers all demanding our just desserts. Again and again, we hear about the raw deal we've recieved from the federal government, with no mention of the city administration or the police, or even much mention of crime. Worse, there's very little said about what actually happened on this street outside the Convention Center two years ago. We don't read off the names of the dead or mark the time with memories of terrible events. Instead, speaker after speaker demands justice, which is all fine and good, but can't we mourn? Can't we relive what happened and relate and curse the criminals who stranded the poor and sailed past this spot without stopping? Everyday in this city, people deal with the set-up and the malfunctions of the recovery. Today, though, I thought we'd look back for a moment.

Seeing Nagin begin his approach to the stage, I slide into the VIP section and look around. People continue to backslap and converse, even as the emcee lectures them about showing respect to the speakers and not acting like Very Important People. Nagin mounts the stage stairs and I move over to get closer to the front.

Nagin is greeted by applause, but nothing extraordinary, and he begins his speech with his stock joke: "I've been known to get into some controversy," and then pauses for laughter, none coming. It's truly incredible what a warped sense of self he possesses, and theorizing about his internal logic is impossible.

I know someone who worked in his office. This person did a bunch of work to get grants to start a program for the homeless, a hot topic recently. When it was time for Nagin to sign off on the program, the mayor informed this person that he wanted to use money from another pool. "But why, this money is there, you just need to sign here, and besides, you can't use that other money, it's allocated." Nagin's response? "Make it happen." Program died.

After describing his conversations with Bush earlier in the day, Nagin notes that maybe it's time for a new president.

"Watch," I say to the woman next to me. "He's gonna say he's running for president."

"Pfft, I'd like to see that," she says.

No, Nagin has another idea.

"I think maybe we should call up Colin Powell."

Huh. Well, I guess...yeah, Colin Pow--wait, what? I'll take a stab: we're at an event sponsored by an African American magazine and attended by mostly African-Americans, so maybe Ray thought this new balloon was worth a float? Colin Powell, that's what this city needs, according to the mayor.

I start talking to the woman next to me. She's probably in her late 30's, African-American, was at the Convention Center 2 years ago.

"People don't just get over something like that. I mean, what we saw...a woman killed herself in front of her children...What do you tell your children?"

We talk about how shameful it is that no one's mentioning the people who died, or what happened on this very ground, how we wore black because we wanted to mourn. She says she and her kids are about to be evicted from the Marriot, where they've been staying. So every time a politician nears, she's going to tell them she needs help or they're on the street by Friday.

"What do you think's going to happen?" I ask. She shakes her head.

"I'm going to walk into City Hall."


Nagin is so damn uncomfortable, you'd think this woman was asking him to move into his house, or that she was a degenerate, instead of the obviously stressed out but intelligent person and CITIZEN that she is. He winces so hard, his skull looks like it might burst through his sagging, sallow skin. When she returns, I ask what he said.

"He said this," she says, showing me the business card of the mayor's PR guy. She holds the card over her head. "We can't live under this, I don't think."

We continue to keep on a eye on Nagin as Congressman William Jefferson slinks through the crowd and onto the stage. His daughter the state rep precedes him at the lectern with the hurried speech of a valedictorian who barely knows her classmates. Clearly the machine is battered.

Jefferson's manner is a cross between Jimmy Carter and a flasher. He tries to give us a lesson in math, the point being that the $117 billion the federal government didn't make it to New Orleans. It comes off like a junky snake oil salesman. He says the feds cheated us.

I tell Dimetra that Jefferson has a lot of nerve talking about cheaters, and that perhaps, as our representative for 20 some years, he might've asked about the levees before it was too late.

As Jefferson descends into the crowd, we note how he keeps his distance from Nagin. When the representative and his wife get closer, Dimetra says, "Oh, he doesn't want to cross my path either."

"Go ahead and talk to him," I say when Jefferson is at arm's length.

Now, Jefferson is a lot slicker a pol than Nagin, throwing his arm around Dimetra and getting close. He listens as she explains that she's on the verge of homelessness, then tells her he get his associate to get her info. At that point, I suggest the photo and we all huddle up.

After the picture, I don't say anything to Jefferson or wife Betty. We all stand there, waiting for an associate, and soon Jefferson is alone, no one talking to him, no one waving or greeting him. His blue back is turned to me, though he keeps peeking over his shoulder, and I give him the thousand yard stare. I can't say much, cause I don't want to fuck things up for Dimetra. So the man who once controlled politics in this city has to slump nervously and wait for some attention.

He is not the only one pathetic. We are all in a pathetic shape with him in our midst, the gagged voice in the House, a walking corpse who casts his odor over our hopes yet will not go away. Finally the adviser returns and speaks to Dimetra, tells her to catch him before Jefferson leaves.

After slinking around in similar, lonely fashion, ex-mayor Marc Morial takes to the stage. If things continue on the pace of the last year, Morial, too, will be indicted for various corruptions. The circle tightens around him with each former associate who cops a plea. For now, he's the head of the Urban League and one of the city's most famous sons. Dressed in a strange mock turtle neck, and with a decidedly NO Museum of Art manner, he tries to rekindle the romance by appealing to our love of neighborhoods.

At some point I realize that Dimetra is gone, perhaps off to catch another political adviser. Just as she did two years ago, she's fighting to stay alive outside the Convention Center. And with no mention of their names or suffering, the ghosts of those who died there mingle among us, only slightly more invisible to the VIP's than Dimetra herself.

I slip away, through the vacant streets of the Warehouse District, home to many a spiffy loft and boxy bar and grilles. I don't know where I'm going, I don't know where Dimetra went, I don't know what comes of speech-making, or what to do with grief. Through all the handshaking and applause, I saw no one weep for the dead, never heard them named.

Yes, I believe we need a Marhsall Plan, the right of return, all of that. But with the same old, grotesque bagmen allowed to make claims on behalf of people who still have to stand outside the Convention Center, I wonder what the fuck will come of surviving.

And I wonder why those who did not survive are lost in the shuffle, ignored in death as they were in life, even by those who claimed to care for them.

August 26, 2007

A Soundless Dirge: The Musicians' Solidarity Second Line Protest

This afternoon, just as the sky finally gave up some rain, we joined around 100 of our fellow citizens in a silent second line to protest the treatment of musicians in this famously musical city. Instead of whirling parasols and the blare of brass instruments, we shuffled along under a black umbrella as a motley of guitars, trumpets, and tubas sat dormant in their owners' arms.

The march began outside of Donna's, then crossed the street to launch from the gates of Louis Armstrong Park at a little after 12pm. The procession made it's way up Rampart Street with a two-man police escort. Music-lovers and players of all ages and colors then took a right towards the river at Conti Street and padded through puddles in the quiet of the Quarter on a Sunday.

Well, here we are, I thought: a hardy, unadorned crew of people fed up with the low wages and shoddy treatment endured by the very people who make the Quarter and the rest of the city worth a damn; who fell from the tree of Louis and scramble to survive on minimum wage, ever threatened with quick replacement by the too-common scoundrels in charge of the hotels and nightclubs; who have no hope for a fair shake from a local recording industry, as there is no such thing; who have blown and cried at the short end of the stick since the first note sounded from Congo Square; who watch far-off celebrations of and toasts to their culture while making $8 a shift on Bourbon Street, if they can find a job there, just as their predecessors watched the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc., swim in gold on the TV with songs lifted from these sidewalks; who are lucky to get a gig at the Fairgrounds in late April while Rod Stewart receives an athlete's salary for an hour of lame covers; who are expected to suffer and smile and make due when the rest of the nation shows up to get tanked, soiling their heritage while barely making enough to feed their families....

Then we turned left on Bourbon Street and passed by the junk and neon and rock bands of that great gutter. Though we go there quite a lot, much more than your average citizen, Kim and I noted the bewilderment of some of our group, people who rarely see the newest mutations on the city's most famous blocks. The few tourists awake on a rainy Sunday watched us in mild perplexity, unsure if this was part of the Disney-fying, or some sort of threat.

We took another right and walked to Jackson Square, where the group gathered around a microphone, some holding banners. The first speaker was the great Antoinette K-Doe, wife of the legendary Ernie K-Doe, and owner of the bar that keeps his memory alive. Miss K-Doe promised every musician a fair wage and free food at her place, and was the one club-owner present who put anything on the line, which is a little astounding when you think of the size of her joint vs. the big fish who didn't show up. Union Head Deacon John also spoke, along with Uncle Lionel Batiste and some others, and then the whole thing broke up, with not a note played in front of the cathedral.

The overcast skies, as well as Miss K-Doe's black hearse, lent a somber air to the event, and the stillness of the square reflected the seriousness of the problem. For over a century now, this raw deal has persisted, and with so much of the culture under fire after the storm, a lot more protesting needs to happen to stop a larger recession of what's important.

I'll just say it right now: this is going to be one fucked up, sad week.

August 21, 2007

From MSY to PIT to LAG to MSY: Structures

With a great crash, the polar bear appeared in the water above our head. Like space travelers we watched through the glass as the murderous giant became a clumsy swimmer, shredding white fish in his jaws. Only a few feet from our pointing fingers, the polar bear’s menace disappeared in the cool blue of aquarium innovation.

I’ve been to the north, have seen its advancement, revisited my family and friends, and retraced old steps. From the Pittsburgh Zoo to the Museum of Modern Art, I sampled from the world-as-usual and felt the distance between there and here. And I returned, refreshed and embracing again my love and city, with the knowledge that the far off is even farther off now than it was when I first returned to New Orleans 9 months ago.

Some images, some text…

Andy Warhol Bridge in Pittsburgh

Andy Warhol got the hell out of Pittsburgh as soon as he fucking could,” my friend Jyp once said. Now Warhol brings thousands of tourists to the city each year, many passing over this bridge to visit the North Side shrine/museum to him. Silk-screen that irony, son.

On Sunday afternoon, I had the good fortune to take a trip to the zoo and a “Ducky Tour” with one Jack Boyles, his father, mother, and grandmother. It had been a long time since I'd visited the zoo, and there were some changes. The tunnel in the aquarium that gave us a view of the polar bear's underside was one, as was the merciful absence of Chuckles the dolphin, dead after years in six feet of water that depressed the hell out of a young me and several generations.

Chuckles: 1970-2002

This stoner/acting student played the part of Ducky Tour guide when he wasn’t slumped in a hungover snooze in the rear of the amphibious vehicle:

Ducky Tool

On Monday, Jack and his father joined his grandfather and I at PNC Park for what may be the last appearance of Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh, his first stop in the major leagues, some 100lbs and 760 homer runs before.

Boyles men at the game

When his name was announced, a majority of the crowd cheered, many of them on their feet. This surprised me, but applause is a complicated reaction, aimed this afternoon at a complicated specter. As I said to a guy in a bar a few weeks ago, there goes Bonds as America: severely bloated, his balls shrunken, his would-be government unable to respond to his lawlessness, selfish, driven by numbers, not victories. I suppose we get the champion we deserve.

Space available

Up in New York City, buildings erupt from the soil like hulking transformers, blocking out the sun in the strangest of places. I stayed four days in Greenpoint, BK, not far from McCarren Park. Behind what was once a dusty soccer field (now turned to Astroturf), the dynamos arise.

Brooklyn keeps on takin it

This condopolis was covered in wood paneling. Stay gully, Brooklyn.

Over in Manhattan, fashion is a killer:

Ron Mexico Jr.

And I was fortunate enough to hear the new Hoarsemen album before it goes in for the final mastering; to accept Steve Cannon’s invitation to a meeting with the Venezuelan cultural attaché at the Tribes Gallery; to visit the Slam Magazine offices and have lunch with Lang, Sam, Khalid, and Ben; to check in at MOMA for the Richard Serra retrospective;

Thinking hard, modernly

To receive the new American String Conspiracy CD from the chieftan Gary Keenan; to talk friendship in a rainy Bryant Park with RD Hanson; to kick the New Science with Jess Slote; to get on the list to hear Archie Shepp with Steve Dalachinksy.

Shepp came out perturbed, informing the waitstaff that “I can pay for my own meal. Next time, please just give me the real menu. Thank you.” His set was excellent, with a riotous slaughter of one standard and a would-be finale with a dark ballad. Yet the Iridium manager wanted one more, and she sidled up to the stage as the last song ended, one finger aloft.

“One more song?” Shepp deadpanned. Then he pulled his drummer out from behind the kit and ordered a demonstration of a “hambone,” the slave’s percussion routine of beating your body and chair while singing. This was followed by an awe-inspiring “Mama Rose,” a song Shepp wrote for his grandmother, born into slavery.

On Saturday night, my soul brother, Davidi Tirosh and I attended the Living Theater’s new incarnation of “The Brig,” their legendary piece on the American military, power, and the absurdity of order. Afterwards, we rode Davidi’s motorcycle on the BQE to Queens, almost as scary of a trip as “The Brig.”

Rivington Hotel

But before I met up with Davidi, I spent some time on Rivington Street in the LES, staring at the new hotel between Essex and Orchard. See, I remember when that thing went up, remember the first Eurotrash customers filtering in. I remember going in there when it was half-open, trying to track down an actress for a Brecht thing I did. And I remember saying to people, "You see that? That's gonna be the end to everything, right there." Maybe I was right. If I ever sound cynical about New Orleans high-rise dreams, I suppose that hotel started it all.

And then I missed my plane, blah blah, flew standby, blah blah, Memphis, yep, fuck, whatever. Traveling alone was a mistake, will not happen again.

There are good people up there where new structures rise without a thought and fine things are at your fingertips. Subways work, bars close, and streets are safe. But I know I’ve come to far into the heat now, and must work in it, work it out. New Orleans is home, and I was glad to get back.

In the taxi from Louis Armstrong International, I asked the cabbie, “What’s the latest?”

“Well, the only thing I can think of was Oliver Thomas resigning.”

“Are they gonna have a special election?”

“Yeah, in October. You’re welcome to put your name in.”


August 5, 2007

Snatch-mo Fest/White Livin' Night

“That is?”

“Yeah, that’s him!”

“Right over there? Coco Robicheaux?”


“Let’s go.”

These two bozos climb around their wives, wobble and nearly fall through the Apple Barrel window, I guess to harass Coco Robicheaux.

“Let’s split,” I say to Kim.

Down the block, a movie flickers black and white on the side of an apartment building. Louis Armstrong talks with someone, we cannot hear what they say. We hear the sound of someone playing Miles Davis inside Snug Harbor. While most of Frenchman Street is crowded tonight, this end is fairly empty, and we lean against a car and stare up at the projection.

Once upon a time, the malfunctions of government and culture frustrated the citizen in pursuit of public works or speedy service, taught each and every one to slow down, to keep calm while waiting in the K&B checkout line, to let it slide. This, after all, is the Big Easy, and some molasses in the gears was what you accepted in order to get the leisure, the random joys, the access to secrets and the chance celebration. If you worked less and partied more than anywhere else in the nation, you paid the piper with potholes and a barely readable newspaper. That seemed like a good enough deal.

Now, you get near standstill at the Walgreens, absurdity in the city administration, and Stooges-esque confusion in the single biggest recovery any US city has ever faced. The trade-off? Golf shirts drunkenly protecting their seats in tiny bars, protecting seats they don’t even need but are too fucked up and confused to understand what as you patiently explain that. You get leathery executives and their wives swaddled in all the same fabric, chests hanging out, sipping Chardonnay and sampling paintings like hand-served cheese skewers. You get a strain of the Bourbon Street virus in every gutter, in places that were, so-to-speak, safely off the guidebook path. You get piglet cops shuffling down a closed off Frenchman Street, monitoring the baby boomers who’ve paid for all access bracelets.

Am I some cranky elitist? Do I look down my nose at what I perceive as “uncool” or “bourgeois?” I don’t know, I suppose so. I know I have a memory of the cops busting up Frenchman Street when people lit fires in the middle of it, and the sidewalks on both side lined with handcuffed, supine weirdos. And I know I have a litany of bad, underwhelming recent memories that begin with me in a good humor, approaching a performance, a free show, what I think is a sure-thing, and then me finding myself surrounded by fucking Key West. I have several vivid recalls of reaching a well-known door and realizing I lack a) the will to spend so much to enter, and b) the desire to rub shoulders with easily-tickled voyeurs.

I’m sorry. I never thought the Jimmy Buffet thing was funny, but was cool with it having a clubhouse next to the French Market. I’m a little bent when now that clubhouse encompasses every place with a stage. Again, I hear you, we need the money, we need it any way we can get it. But what the fuck’s going to be left?

Louis Armstrong had this thing where he gave out laxatives all the time, to friends, to heads of state, to anybody. As someone put it to us the other night, “he really believed in them.” That man was a prophet of many truths, even inadvertently hinting that someday, the anal and old would come together to drink their tummies full under his image.

Or at least down the well-guarded street from it.