Death Comes in Threes

Elliott and Elizabeth had to put their old friend Slim to sleep Wednesday. He was almost 14.

Also on Wednesday my Aunt Suzanne passed away at St. Vincent’s hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’m not certain but I think it might have been a stroke. I don’t know her age, but I’m guessing she was around 70.

And my friend “Tall” Steve Volan lost his sister on Sunday to complications from Marfan syndrome. Angela Volan was 36.

May they rest in peace. My thoughts and sympathies are with my friends and family. I grieve with you.

Just Chillin’ Poolside

I didn’t think there were in any time-share condominiums in the Vieux Carre, but apparently I was wrong. I can thank my in-laws for hooking us up with a nice place at the corner of Bienville and Burgundy. I think it’s called the Chateau Orleans or somesuch. Doesn’t look like much from the outside, and the condo itself is functional, not fancy. I can’t tell how old the building is, as some parts seem quite old but there’s been extensive remodeling.

Our balcony overlooks a shared courtyard with a pool, a grill and lots of tropical vegetation. The courtyard really makes the place: You can hang out, swim, bask in the sun, meet your neighbors… And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

The weather’s turned cooler, if you can apply that term to the low 90s. It’s too bad we had record-breaking 100º+ heat for Scott and Justine’s visit last weekend. I’d call this weather just about perfect.

I can feel the accumulated stresses of the last weeks and months melting away. This is exactly what I needed.

This evening, a walk around the Quarter, some drinks, maybe a little shopping, some dinner.

Tomorrow, back to the fray.

Overwhelmed

This past weekend felt like a watershed for my neighborhood, but it also left me feeling overwhelmed.

Our Mid-City recovery planning meeting with Clifton James took place Saturday morning, and it was both uplifting and inspiring and surprising. We’d expected Clifton to make some sort of presentation. Instead, he pretty much turned it over to us, the community of neighbors. I was a little taken aback at first, but one by one people stepped up and reported on the planning work they’d done in various areas like education, housing, healthcare and many others. We only formed these committees a couple weeks ago, and I was amazed and heartened by the amount of thought my neighbors had put into their plans. It was particularly gratifying to me because I’d written the tentative first draft of this plan back at the end of May. Here it is less than a month later and that skeleton has gained flesh and might even come to life.

Planning Meeting

I’m telling you, it almost moved me to tears. I was proud and happy and deeply moved.

I was very skeptical of this process when it first began, and I’m still cautious about the final outcome. But I also think that if we can keep up this level of interest and involvement in the community — and increase it by reaching out to more people — that we can not only dream big, but make our dreams come true. Not by trusting anyone else to do it for us. By doing it ourselves.

The planning meeting was followed by the Festival of Neighborhoods, which was a screaming success. Simply mind-blowing. (It was also very hot and our Midwestern guests pretty much melted.) Then there was the public kickoff meeting for FOLC Sunday afternoon, and the Mid-City recovery planning committees meeting Monday night… It just doesn’t stop.

We had some old friends from out-of-town visiting this weekend: Scott and Justine Evans of Bloomington, Indiana.

Scott & Justine

It was their first trip alone together since their first child was born five years ago. We ate at Coop’s, Jacques-Imo’s, the Parkway Bakery, and Café Atchafalaya, plus had a home-cooked meal (grilled salmon and curried tomato bisque). I took them on the Mandatory Misery Tour. Scott played at the Neutral Ground Open Mic Sunday night (I’ll post media soon). They are very dear friends, but it was difficult to juggle spending time with them and all these meetings. That led to some tension, and I’m afraid Xy got the worst of it. We fought, and it was ugly, and even though she doesn’t read these postings, I want to say it: I’m sorry, baby. Of course I told her in person too.

What an emotional roller coaster.

So yesterday was Monday and I was feeling really taxed. Stressed. Strung out. Overwhelmed. A little hungover too. First thing when I got up, I had to make a bunch of decisions on the renovation of our house. I’d wanted to take the day off but it seemed there were work responsibilities I really had to attend to. I got to work to find a virtual mountain of e-mails. The phone was ringing a lot and there were also lots of people to talk to face-to-face. Even when I ran home for lunch the cell phone kept ringing. So much to do, so much information to process, and everything’s urgent. By the time my afternoon committee meeting rolled around I was having a hard time staying focused. I thought I might even have a Katrina moment right there in the conference room. That would have been embarrassing.

But we had a wonderful dinner last night at Café Atchafalaya. I even skipped the meeting that night. Scott and Justine headed home this morning. Today I’m getting my second wind. It’s not a sprint, I know, I know. It’s a marathon. I’m trying to pace myself.

Fire Putter-Outer

So we’d just gotten in the car with our friends Scott and Justine who are visiting from Bloomington. We hadn’t even left our block when Xy noticed smoke rising up from the porch of the house on the corner. Images of the many recent fires in New Orleans flashed through my mind as I jumped out of the car to investigate. The source of the smoke: the head of a mop which had spontaneously burst into flame in the blazing sun. I had a bottle of drinking water in my hand, so I poured it on the mop and extinguished the fire. A tenant popped out of the apartment and saw what was going on and thanked me. “Gracias.”

If Missoula Can Do It…

Los Angeles has them. Atlanta has them. Even Missoula, Montana has them.

I’m talking about Neighborhood Councils. In Atlanta they call ‘em Neighborhood Planning Units. I’m sure in other communities they go by other names, but the basic idea is the same:

Neighborhoods need control over the basic decisions that affect our lives.

If they can do it in those other cities, then surely we can do it in New Orleans. Now is the time! We have a reform-minded City Council and civic involvement is at an all-time high.

We need to decentralize governance in a way that gives control to the local community. Each neighborhood in New Orleans should have a neighborhood council with the power to initiate, decide, and execute the affairs that concern it closely: land use, housing, maintenance, streets, parks, police, schooling, welfare, neighborhood services.

Mid-City Neighborhood Organization has identified this idea as a key component of our recovery plan. Now we need to reach out to other neighborhood organizations, share ideas, and work together to promote democratic reform in the governance of our city.

From New Orleans to the Midwest

A few months ago I helped some students at Indiana University who were working on a short documentary titled “From New Orleans to the Midwest.” They got in touch with me through my video mentor and teacher Ron Osgood and asked if I could shoot some footage of New Orleans. So I shot some scenes of the things they needed: Superdome repairs, vacant houses around Mid-City, newspaper headlines about crime.

Their subject was New Orleanians who’d evacuated to Bloomington, Indiana. Since most of the people they interviewed in Bloomington seem to be staying there for the foreseeable future, they also asked me to shoot an interview to provide a little balance. After all, we evacuated to Bloomington but have returned to New Orleans.

Xy Evacuee

So I shot an interview with Xy in our kitchen, and for good measure I shot an interview with myself as well. That was kind of funny. To make it fit with the style of the documentary, I had to pretend I was talking to someone just to the right of the camera, even though I was in the room alone.

B Evacuee

This documentary also use of footage from ROX #93.

With gracious permission of the producers, I’ve uploaded the video as a QuickTime Movie [29MB] and as a higher-quality MPEG 4 Movie [54MB]. I’m pretty sure you’ll need QuickTime 7 (which is free) to view either one. It’s about 14 minutes long.

Hats off to Valerie Lisa Bartelt and Sang-Jin Kim for a job well done.

A Serious Question

A reader named Shana sent me the following query:

i’ve been reading your blog for awhile. i adore new orleans and about two weeks before katrina my husband and i decided to move down. katrina (and my grandma) put a damper on those plans. (we have however come down to volunteer a few times and plan on coming again.) but some like-minded friends are going through with their plans. he got a great job teaching and she’s got a few things lined up. they’re there now looking for a place to live, opening a bank account, getting cell phones, and she’s having SERIOUS second thoughts. i just got off the phone with her and tried to chill her out, reminding her of all the amazing and wonderful things that she fell in love with in the first place. that the crime of the past weekend was not normal. that indeed new orleans is still a city with all the problems of a city, exacerbated by katrina but its still a wonderful place. am i wrong? is she wrong? i realize this is odd but…

Here’s my answer:

Shana, I wish I could lay to rest your fears, and those of your friends. I wish I could say, “Come on down!”

But I can’t.

Yes, New Orleans is still a wonderful place. It is also a strange and sometimes frightening place to be. Living here is a difficult proposition, no question.

Crime is on the upswing, and that is a very serious concern for all of us, but personally Xy and I haven’t felt threatened. Two years ago a teenage boy was shot in broad daylight a block from our home. We did not feel particularly frightened then — sad and alarmed, yes, but not frightened. If you play it smart and don’t go looking for trouble, your chances of getting shot or knifed are less than, say, getting in a car accident or any of the other risks we all take for granted.

But crime is only one of many worries. There are so many other challenges to living here now. Trash piles up on the street. Mail delivery is spotty. There are abandoned buildings rotting everywhere. We have a real rodent problem. Medical services are few and far between. On top of all that, it’s hurricane season, and our flood control systems are not really ready.

On the other hand, we need good people to rebuild this city. One of the greatest things about New Orleans right now is that, for the most part, it’s a city of people who really want to be here. How many cities can say the same?

So, sure, come to New Orleans if you really want to. We will help you in any way we can. But I’m afraid I can’t encourage the ambivalent. You must be passionate about New Orleans to move here. Otherwise, the aggravations will drive you crazy.

Capitalist

We got an insurance payment for the flooded contents of our house months ago, but we can’t refurnish until the renovation is complete. So I’ve got some extra cash on hand, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I put it in a savings account for safekeeping, but I figured it might be smarter to invest it in the stock market. I have no clue about stocks or anything financial, but fortunately my father is another story. In fact he’s what most people would call a Financial Wiz.

So after talking it over on his recent visit, I opened an E*Trade account. Today, Dad called me up and guided me through my first purchases: a little CHK, a little BHP, a little EP. Dad specializes in selling covered call options, but we were unable to sell options on these stocks today because my account is too new. That’s fine, because I want to take baby steps and understand what I’m doing.

I’ve already made $20 in the last hour, which is kind of fun, but I have a lot of questions about this whole process. Who are these companies I’m investing in? What am I really promoting? I’ll sort that out eventually, but for now I’m just trying to understand the basic mechanics. It’s fun to be able to do something like this with my father, and I’m grateful that he’s sharing his wisdom with me.

Crime Prevention

I’ve been thinking a lot about crime and violence lately, because it’s clear that it’s coming back to New Orleans. This point was made in dramatic fashion Saturday morning, when five teenage boys were murdered. The story is making international news but it’s indicative of a problem that’s been plaguing urban America for decades. It’s in all our cities, but in New Orleans it has been just about the worst.

Sometimes a mugging will get violent, and that’s always big news here, but the vast majority of our violent crimes are related to the drug trade, and were so frequent pre-Katrina that they often didn’t make the front page.

When I mention “drug trade” it might conjure images of deranged addicts, so let me be clear: These slayings are about drug money and drug “turf” and the blood feuds that arise from these issues.

If you live in the inner city, this is an undeniable truth: The black market for drugs is lucrative, violent and unstoppable — and attractive to disadvantaged youth.

I know in my heart that the vast majority of violent crime would go away if we got rid of the black market in drugs. Anyone who lives in New Orleans could tell you that.

People have always done drugs and prohibition doesn’t work. The only way to end this reign of terror is to legalize drugs and destroy the black market.

But we can’t do that, because it’s a matter of federal law. People outside of the inner cities tend to have a different perspective on the drug trade. I’m afraid racism raises its ugly head here: Too many suburbanites regard violence as the curse of racial and ethnic minorities. It’s something that happens to “those people” in the inner city, and it’s tragic, but that’s their lot in life.

If we legalized drugs, I do believe drug abuse would escalate somewhat, for a while. But I also believe violent crime would plummet. In the long term, relatively benign “soft” drugs would become more popular than the more harmful “hard” drugs which are so lucrative for criminals now. Ultimately, society would be better off.

I never could have understood this so clearly if I hadn’t moved to the inner city. The rest of the country, non-urban America, will never let us end prohibition. They certainly don’t want their sons and daughters having easier access to illicit drugs.

So what can we do to end this madness?

Sighting

Last night I dreamt we entered one of the many vacant houses nearby and found Lucy just sitting there staring at us. Alas, in waking life she remains missing. We finally put up flyers and talked to neighbors today. Some guys who appear to be squatting on the 200 block of North Gayoso said they saw a cat last night and again this morning who matches Lucy’s description, collar and all. The back yard where they saw her is practically across the street from our house, so it seems plausible. There’s also a skinny black stray with no collar running around here, so we take any sighting with a grain of salt.

Strangely enough, an extra large tabby tom cat has appeared on the scene and wangled his way into our household. I hope he likes to hunt mice, because I just saw one run behind our stove.

Burned Again

I finally got to see “This House Must Go,” the special that aired on The Learning Channel last week, thanks to the efforts of a friend who recorded it and rushed me a DVD.

The program itself was somewhat interesting, but of course I’m preoccupied with the segment featuring Xy and myself. I’m happy to report that we don’t look like idiots. Our story is presented with some sympathy and respect. They didn’t get into the termite damage we discovered when I gutted our house, which is funny considering that was their initial interest. But I think we come off as resourceful, creative people who are coping with disaster pretty well. We represented New Orleans in a positive light, and I’m glad of that.

B & Xy Shooting

If it was just a matter of coming into our home and interviewing us, that would be the end of my critique. But it’s more complicated. I let them use our creative work, namely, snippets from ROX #93, depicting our evacuation and my return to our flooded home. It’s gripping stuff, if I do say so myself, and I think it adds to the interest of the program. I didn’t ask for financial compensation in return. All I wanted was a little publicity for our show and/or our website. I said back in April that if I didn’t get that, I’d feel burned.

Well, guess what?

OX Episode 93

The ROX title does appear on-screen for almost three seconds. However, the editor chose a portion of the title sequence where only the letters “OX” are visible. The “R” never makes a full appearence. The web address rox.com does appear in the end credits for one-third of a second. The title of our series is never mentioned in the voiceover. The closest they get is to note that Xy and I met “while making a show for cable access television.” While that’s true, it makes it sound like we’re a strictly local proposition. And note what they didn’t say. They didn’t mention that we’re now on the internet and on satellite.

The upshot is that I’m certain virtually no one viewing this program will be aware of the name of our television series or the fact that it’s on the web or that it can be seen on satellite. In other words, this has no real publicity value for us at all. They got value from our work. What did we get in return? Nothing that I wanted. And yes, I feel burned. It’s Time Magazine all over again. I mean, really — would it have hurt so much to put a graphic on the screen that said “footage courtesy of rox.com”?

No, I’m not angry. I’ve got Katrina perspective, so I know this is not a big deal in the scheme of things. I am disappointed, but only a bit. Maybe I’m a little wiser, and that’s surely worth something. Thank you, Beyond International, for reminding me to stick by my guns next time. From now on, we won’t license ROX for any commercial production without a clear contractual stipulation of attribution that I’m happy with.

If you have cable, you still have a chance to watch a repeat of “This House Must Go” and judge for yourself. It’s airing on TLC June 17th at 11:00 PM and June 25th at 02:00 PM (times are Eastern, I think).

Spray

Add this to the list of “crazy things white people do”:

First, we collected our urine in a bucket.

Piss Bucket

Then Xy poured it into a spray bottle.

Xy Pours

Then I sprayed it around the perimeter of our house.

Spraying

Why? The vet recommended it as a way to help Lucy find her way home. We also made a bilingual flyer which we’re going to post around the neighborhood.

Lucy Please Come Home

We haven’t seen Lucy since Saturday afternoon. She was lying on the curb in front of our house, kind of a strange place for her to be hanging out, but when we pulled up in the car she got up and ran off in perfectly normal cat-like fashion.

But we haven’t seen her since, and here it is Tuesday afternoon. That’s three days. This is the longest she’s ever gone missing, and it’s making us rather nervous and sad.

We adopted Lucy and Bilal just a month or two after we moved to New Orleans, back in 1999. Here’s a picture of the two of them as kittens, at our apartment in the Warehouse District:

Leg Shave

We lost Bilal when he fell off the roof of our house on Mardi Gras in 2002. We lost Van in April of 2005 when he was apparently run over by a car. We never found his body.

But Lucy was my favorite. Is my favorite. I’m already using past tense, but I shouldn’t. She could very well still be alive. Cats freak out and hide. It’s what they do. Bilal disappeared for ten days once. Folds went in hiding under Xy’s parents’ house in Bloomington during our evacuation and stayed hidden for a whole month. And since we’ve gotten back to New Orleans, Lucy’s been ranging farther afield, prowling through abandoned houses and generally getting a little wilder. Over the last few days there’s a been a lot of noisy activity in the neighborhood. Maybe it’s spooked her.

Anyway, as I was saying: Lucy is my favorite of all our cats, and she always has been. She’s intelligent, playful, friendly and a good mouser.

Please come home, Lucy. Your mom and dad are worried. It would break my heart to lose you. I really couldn’t take it.

(Damn, just thinking about this has got me so broken up I had to shut the door to my office and get out a handkerchief.)

More pictures of Lucy.

Parental Visitation

My parents are here for an absurdly short visit. Yesterday I gave them the Mandatory Misery Tour. First we drove to Lakeview. Then to Gentilly. Took a gander at a breach on the London Avenue Canal.

Mom and Dad at London Ave Canal

Then we headed down to the Lower Nine.

Kitchen

Wow. I’m still blown away every time I go there. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

My parents are here to do some volunteer work for a local church. This morning Mom & Dad got up at 4 a.m. to serve breakfast to a hundred-odd people who then in turn went out to gut houses. My parents will also serve them dinner when they get back. Tomorrow they do the same thing, and Wednesday they go home. It seems silly to drive 1700 miles roundtrip and only stay two full days, but they’re older and wiser than me. I’m very glad they’ve come to help.

At the Meeting

At the Mid-City planning meeting this morning, somebody was asking about garbage collection and Shelley Midura was explaining the rules for separating household waste from storm renovation debris.

The questioner said, “If there are rules, publish the rules and we’ll follow them.”

Shelley said the City Council could publicize the rules in newspaper ads.

I injected, “Print them in Spanish!”

This comment was greeted with spontaneous applause from the group.

Another guy, about three rows back from me, responded by calling out, “That was uncalled for. That was totally uncalled for!”

I yelled back, “What the hell are you talking about? If you can’t read English how are you supposed to know?”

Shelley, still on the mic, asked for everyone to embrace unity as we work to rebuild our city.

I was still pissed at the guy three rows back. “You’re gonna try to make me look like a bigot in front of all these people? It’s on, motherfucker!!!” And I leaped across the rows of people, grabbed him by the neck, wrestled him to the ground, and strangled him to death.

OK, that last part didn’t actually happen, but I fantasized about it. Fortunately, the next time the guy spoke, he conceded that he had misunderstood my meaning and he apologized. That was very nice, and I didn’t have to kill him after all.