June 26, 2007

Endgame at the Barrier: Whither the Expendable?

The barrier is almost gone now. Last week the bulldozers began to move and the dividers were spread wide enough for cars to pass between them. Now a large pit of sand takes up the intersection, with cones in the middle and two piles of dirt on either side of Magazine, so that for a little longer, the block is closed. The lake side of Melpomene was laid with a tarp, then filled in with more sand, and a proper Road Closed sign sits at the end facing Camp St.

I sat down there on a concrete slab and stared towards the river, a large pile of dirt blocking my view, the West Indians/Africans visible in their front yard, the normal drifters crossing the parking lot. As so often, every kind of cloud spread across the dusk, high and low and speaking of the ocean, and I heard faint shouting. One atop the other, the two billboards peeled further, decaying into a collage of bygone advertisements perhaps set up when the barrier first arose.

A white man in a tie rode by on a bicycle, then a black woman in tight jeans rode by on a bicycle, then a white girl on a moped crossed the barrier and parked. She entered the house next to the hoarders with their porch full of refuse and their junkyard dogs. As I chucked pebbles into the sand, a black man in a tank top and shorts walked up to other side of the barrier, a cell phone in his ear. He looked across at me but spoke into the phone, “Well, when you think you gonna be home, then?”

We wander through states of change all day long in this city, all of us. Some changes we notice, some we lament, some we applaud, a whole lot we never notice; each of us has our path and our position. When we come upon a change in the landscape, the distinctions might be: benign/malignant, positive/negative, due-to-the-storm/unrelated or only exacerbated-by-the-storm. Or, at least we hope there’s a distinction, any parcel of understanding, and realize its our job to search for an understanding, as citizens of a city undergoing intense change. When the future is wholly unknowable and you’re unmoored from so much of the past, every little corner holds potential clues.

Since we moved here, I felt a basic attraction to the barrier. Kim and I said it to each other right when we got here—we wanted to see that barrier stay. Instead of the choked throughway that is Magazine Street between Washington Avenue and Louisiana Avenue, we essentially have a long cul-de-sac. Along with the school across the street, its playground empty after 5pm, the neighborhood is almost always tranquil.

A block down from us, the barrier is a clearing, a gap in the world, where no cars can travel, where the weeds surround ancient brick walls and men with oddly-shaped heads sit under street lamps, a rusting RV squats in the mechanics’ parking lot, and the mechanics’ shed is painted gold, red, black, and green, with a palm tree as its logo.

Perhaps because the street is sunken, there’s a sense that you’re on an island or in a hole, caught in the traction of a secret, safe to light up or paint over or break things. It feels like the scene of an unsolved crime, or proof of a mistake that went uncorrected, and so what? The barrier predates the storm, was abandoned for its own reasons, and for a long time it felt ownerless, unhinged, and squalid, like a tropical Saturn or a lunar Lagos.

On our block, we’ve witnessed armed robbery and murder, bizarre forms of prostitution, and the general traffic and commerce of the neighborhood flophouse. Some people claim that the shadowy divide in the street caused the proliferation of shifty activity, including the chop shops and the squatters, as if this neighborhood was somehow upstanding before the barrier ruined everything.

That’s of course bullshit, despite the laments of people like the whiny prick next door, who waters his overstocked lawn two hours after a rainstorm and parks his Escalade next to the house he’s equipped with a marble front porch, from which the chirps of his two wiener dogs punctuate his grotesque, disgruntled, homeowner’s-rights fantasy-investment mansion.

Along with whatever other pathologies he harbors in his air-tight palace, there’s a pea of truth in his mattress: the division of this stretch of Magazine Street has blocked the all-important commercial development that has forcibly ambled downriver over the last decade, smiling robustly as the dive bars and furniture stores shut down, and only temporarily halted by the bursting of a water main and the collapse of two houses almost five years ago.

The consumptive joy-couture suckled by the wealthy along most of the street can’t travel any further with that goddamned barrier blocking its way, fucking shit, ok? There are hair salons, bistros, and property values at stake, alright? Shit, it’s just typical New Orleans that such a dumb thing could cost so much money….

By persisting, the barrier demonstrates all the reasons the city didn’t become a sultrier San Francisco a long time ago. Instead of taking advantage of our assets, we’ve allowed them to rot, and crime has sprung up, even after the projects were torn down and the problem was solved.

(Oh, and please ignore the swathe of deserted, pseudo-lofts along Annunciation, models for the great condos-to-come we read about (some apparently with bated breath). Don’t give second thought to the poor of the projects we shipped down river to drown in New Orleans East. No, catering to the leisure class, it just works out for the best, get fucking with it!)

We could’ve had more gelato joints; instead we have an old drunk limping past, not harming anyone, just boozing vacant-eyed through his own lonesome life, but certainly not “contributing,” not in the way Escalade conductor does. Maddening, uncooperative New Orleans, shooting itself in the foot—that’s the barrier to a lot of people.

Point taken. Proceed with normal traffic patterns.

And where do all these things go? Those abrasive hoarders will be ordered to dismantle, they’ll be found out and sanitized away, dogs and bile and kittens and piles of board and broken stereos along with them, to god knows where. Glorified slumlords like mine will buy more property, drive up rents, and then no more teenagers playing football and hip-hop in the street, no more new cars pulling into the chop shop, no more spooky fellows in front of the bookstore, no more stray dog in steady trot, balls still attached and swinging in the breeze. With the barrier open, the salon will flourish, a new coffee shop will open across the street, and our neighbor will have his latte. No one will even remember the barrier, and maybe someday all the dirt and dirty people will be gone for good.

That is progress. Increased tax revenue, fewer hookers screaming below our balcony (although the old orphanage on Race St. is hanging quite tough, dear neighbor). I only wonder what else goes with them. Maybe I overstate the barrier’s importance; maybe it’s romantic to think that danger and shadow and the illicit still have a place in this city, still contribute more than they steal, may even mean more than a well-designed lounge. I want us to squash the violence, the inequity, the idiocy, I really do. But I’d like to know what we’re getting in the trade.

How can the removal of the barrier help everyone, not just the designer sunglass-ed drivers of retail commerce and safety? When did those things take control of New Orleans? Who said that’s what we should all want? Why is the unprofitable expendable? Why is the weird and illogical now not a part of this city? Can we afford to lose any of it?

When I was down there last night, the dusk bathed the barrier in purple and gold. The battery on my camera went dead before I could capture those moments, so I just sat there on that concrete slab and let the evening play out in front of me, with its riders and callers and bums. Tonight we walked in muddy sand under a gray sky, the bulldozers asleep for the night but well positioned for tomorrow.

Two puppies, the spawn of the West Indians/Africans’ rough mutts, played in the dirt piles, tumbling over each other and barking at us. Kim said she thought the upper billboard carried a fairly new slogan, but I said, no, that couldn’t be. “Why would anyone have advertised here?” And if we walk down there tomorrow, more questions, more shifting sand, more signs to read, more change to ponder.

We know where we are when we are at the barrier, but tomorrow more of what was will be gone. I wonder where we’ll be then.

June 21, 2007

Tonight on WTUL: Summer Soul-stice

Tune in at midnight tonight to 91.5FM, end the longest day of the year with soul.

June 12, 2007

The Future Guv'na = Exorcist?

"In a voice I had never heard before or since, Susan accused me: 'Bobby, you cannot even love Susan.'"
Weird stuff to consider in the coming gubernatorial race.

June 6, 2007

Freret Street, Bill Jefferson, Hamid Drake & Kidd Jordan, and Sandy Alomar Jr.

From 1998-1999, I lived at the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Freret Street, in a small studio apartment upstairs from a gay couple who owned the large house. Apparently, they panicked after the storm and attempted to raise the building 8 feet, setting off a chain of events that led to the house’s current state of vacant decay. Whenever I drive by that corner and see the empty trailer wedged in the backyard where once a dainty garden bloomed, the foundation of the house splitting, and the doors pried open to the elements, I lament the fate of those poor guys and my former home.

Because that was my apartment when Kim and I started dating, the spot holds an important place in my heart, as does all of Freret Street. That year we attended what must have been the 3rd Freret Street Festival, with Walter “Wolfman” Washington playing from the back of a Ryder truck and the two of us dancing among a modest crowd of neighborhood people. The stretch of Freret above Napoleon has a very Caribbean vibe to it, with old stucco buildings and some tile roofs, and, though it’s a central street uptown, I guess that part always seems like an island to me; sorta romantic, always sun-baked, self-contained.

This year we returned to find a festival with 3 stages, probably the best line-up of any of the free festivals in the city, and thousands of people filling those blocks. More importantly, Kim is now director of the new neighborhood center, so we’ll be up there a lot from now on. A double-wide shotgun, the center is close to finished, but not fully opened. There is a stage in the backyard, though, and a talent show went on most of the afternoon. Mardi Gras Indians, spoken word, and a loose funk band gave way to some R&B, some crunk, and some straight-up N.O. hip-hop.

Game Tight Records
(that's a grown-over satellite dish behind them)

Grand Jury


Monday brought the news of Rep. Bill Jefferson’s indictment on racketeering, obstruction of justice and money laundering charges, and with it another sad chapter in the story of old sins coming back to cripple the city’s recovery. Caught just before the storm with 90G’s stuffed in his freezer, Jefferson faces ouster from the House after giving up positions on the Trade, Ways & Means, and most recently the Small Business committees.

Think about what that means: instead of a senior representative in the House on three of the committees (hypothetically) most import to New Orleans, we get an impotent soon-to-be felon whose own family is implicated with him in a scheme to bribe Nigerian officials. Just when we could use maximum efforts in Washington, we get a soiled void.

What hurts is that the people voted him in last fall knowing full well that he faced just such a fate. Victorious by way of a long-established machine and an appeal to suburban conservatives, Jefferson represents the most needy district in the country as a pariah in his own ruling party. All we can hope for is his forced ouster, if hope is what you want to call it.


In New Orleans, music’s ubiquity always threatens to make it too accessible, and thus taken for granted. The epiphanies of great performances come too easy at times, and so their magnitude lessens and we miss gigs we should make, sure that we’ll catch the next one. Great musicians who do their thing end up not being enough because, even in the disarray of the current scene, that’s what New Orleans cats do—survive and blare.

At the same time, with the stakes so high today, a show that might’ve been great 10 years ago shifts into transcendence now when certain musicians, in the grip of those stakes, decide to take things further. And for complex reasons, it matters more. Many times in the 1990’s, I had my mind blown. Nowadays, when the sound is right, my mind focuses and tunes into line with my heart; I am reassured and given direction.

On Monday night, we stood in the Dragon’s Den and listened to Kidd Jordan play with the Rob Wagner trio, which features Hamid Drake, the great Chicago drummer. I’ve heard Kidd and Hamid play with different ensembles, mostly in New York, and so I’ve been telling Kim to get ready for weeks now. But Monday night was different.

The gig was the trio’s 2nd night in support of a new CD, which I hear is dope. Kidd Jordan played the Monday gig only. At times it felt like this was the first and last gig he’d ever play, like he had to get it all out on the canvas Hamid wove, and fuck everything else. Really and truly: Hamid Drake must be the greatest drummer alive and perhaps ever, and Kidd just turned and played right back at him and with him and people stood in a trance, sometimes broken by yelps of disbelief.

When free jazz hits me right, I am prone to laughter, which is not the norm in the often museum-like crowd at a lot of those shows. This time I didn’t need to worry about that, as other people got carried away. Kidd Jordan and Hamid Drake proved that sometimes a moment comes and will definitely pass and you make the art you have to in that space. From the get, you could see that Kidd was so glad to play a night with Hamid and that appreciation, that sudden shock and then work—that’s what I keep reminding myself to keep close.


Is it for the money or the love of the game?

Games played in New Orleans must suffer from more rain delays than almost anywhere else in the country. At this time of year, the skies behave in true tropical fashion, with a strong shower in the early evening that gives a brief respite from the humidity. So far we’ve had a mild spring, but the heat lurks, ready to slow things to a crawl.

Last night, we drove out to “The Shrine on Airline,” aka Zephyr Field, the minor league baseball stadium on Airline Highway, home to the New Orleans Zephyrs. Kim had coupons for $1 tickets for volunteers, courtesy of the United Way. Instead of the usual get-what-you-get cheap ticket, this put us in the first row just to the first base side of home plate.

I was pretty amped about this positioning, as the Zephyrs feature one Sandy Alomar Jr., the former All-Star catcher who, at 42, is on a quest to return to the Majors, this time with the Mets. From our prime seats, we could watch Sandy call the game, and peek into the dugout to check in on, among others, former Yankee Ricky Ledee and hot prospect Lastings Miledge.

Mostly, though, Sandy Alomar Jr. I mean, after a fairly illustrious career, why try to get back to the show one last time, especially when already the Mets sit in 1st place with an all-star catcher? Sandy’s chances are pretty slim, but there he was, doing the Bull Durham in Metairie.

Equipped with two beers, two dogs, and an order of nachos, we sat down for the beginning of the game vs. tonight’s opponent, the Salt Lake City Bees. After the bottom of the 1st began with two hits from the Z’s, the rain started and grew increasingly fierce, soaking the nachos and watering down the beer. We didn’t give up until the grounds crew, which included members of the crowd, announced a rain delay by dashing onto the field.

At the top of the bleachers, we watched the storm and ate our dogs. For some reason, the scoreboard showed an old clip of Sheriff Harry Lee marrying what appeared to be two mascots on the grass of Zephyr Field.

Harry Lee Loves Nutrias

The delay lasted about 40 minutes. When the game resumed, the Z’s stranded the two runners and the long 1st inning was over. In the 5th, though, they could not be denied. Things got nuts when Sandy took one deep for a 3-run homer, followed by one hit after another until Ledee knocked another 3-run homer.

Then two utterly ridiculous things happened: the Salt Lake pitcher attempted to attack the ump and was thrown out, along with the Bees’ manager. Then Kim reminded me that the homer run meant the first 100 people to the beer stand won a Miller Lite "foamer." I raced up there and took my place in the long line. An old feller came up and started telling the guy in front of me that he didn't "drink the stuff, I'm just getting it for Ledee's wife." And sure enough, each of us got a 10oz cup of beer, thanks to Ricky Ledee.

I’m rooting for the Zephyrs from now on.