Entergy Writes Back

Remember that letter I sent to Entergy? I got a reply.

Entergy Writes Back

July 22, 2009

Dear Mr. Everson

As Director of Customer Service at Entergy New Orleans, Inc., I wanted to thank you for your recent letter regarding the hours of operation at our Customer Care Center located on Canal Blvd.

The business hours of the Care Centers are always a primary concern to us as it is our goal to be available to the greatest number of people. We have conducted many different studies with our customer base and the results show that the majority of our customers prefer doing business after their work hours rather than before. We are constantly monitoring and evaluating the needs of our customers and will adjust our business practices and hours of operation as these needs change.

We do encourage and appreciate the input of our customers and want to thank you for taking the time to let us know how you feel that we can better serve the community. We will keep your letter and definitely consider the suggestions as we continue to change and adapt our service to better fit the needs of the community.

Sincerely,

Melonie P. Hall
Director of Customer Service
Entergy New Orleans, Inc.

I feel like a response is in order, but I’m not sure what angle to take.

Two Lightbulbs

This house didn’t have a light in the stairwell when we bought it, but we had one installed during our post-Katrina rebuild. After a year or two it burned out, and the stairwell has been dark ever since. I tried a couple times, but it’s hard to reach that damn bulb.

Last night, I balanced a step ladder on some telephone books in the middle of the staircase and managed to replace the bulb. I had to do it twice because the first bulb I grabbed didn’t work. A precarious proposition, but I survived, and now the stairwell is illuminated once more.

Bolstered by my success, I decided to press on. The light in the middle of our hall stopped working six months ago, and it appeared to be an electrical issue rather than a bulb. I swear I had tried two different bulbs in that socket. But last night I decided to give it another try, and what do you know: It worked.

So. Perhaps our luck is changing.

I guess this might be a good time to express my gratitude to all the many people who have wished us well over the last week, who’ve gotten in touch so many different ways to express their concern, to share information, and just generally to let us know we’re not alone. I really appreciate it. And I know that for every person who actually articulates such concerns, there are probably several more who are just thinking good wishes in our general direction. I can practically feel the good vibrations. Thank you, everyone.

One Little Number

My world turned upside down Wednesday afternoon based on a single number. That number is driving me crazy. But that number is derived from a single test — a capillary test, basically a pinprick to the finger. Surely it would make sense to have another test. She is scheduled for a follow-up test in three months — a venous test, not another capillary test. That’s standard procedure. But why wait? Perhaps we need a second opinion now, preferably done by a different lab.

I’m not nourishing false hopes; I just want to be sure. If we’re going to stake so much on one little number, shouldn’t we be sure of it?

Plus, there were some aggravating administrative screw-ups at our doctor’s office. I like our doctor, but I don’t like the system in which she’s ensconced. They have have undermined my confidence in their reliability.

So. I called down to the City’s prevention program and talked to a guy there who was very helpful, about this idea of getting a second opinion. I learned from him something which I had sort of inferred already, that a venous test is more reliable than a capillary test. He mentioned that capillary tests sometimes yield false positives. Apparently the nature of that method is such that it is susceptible to contamination by environmental lead particles. (But reference what I wrote above about “nourishing false hopes.”) If we’re getting a second opinion, it might as well be via the more reliable venous method. He gave me the number of a clinic.

But when I called the clinic, they rebuffed me. The venous test has to be done by the same physician that did the initial capillary test. One can’t just drop in and get a venous test.

That gave me pause to slow down and consider. The only reason I’m pursuing this is for my own peace of mind. Having blood drawn repeatedly could be more traumatic for our daughter. The public health guidelines and procedures are there for a reason. Let them work.


These last six days have been pretty rough for Xy and me. A certain amount of self-recrimination is inevitable. Have we not kept the house clean enough? Have we not washed her hands often enough? But mostly I’ve just been sick with worry about what the girl’s future might hold. So much uncertainty, so many questions.

As corny as it sounds, I’ve found a certain strength in the following mantra: We are going to get through this together as a family.

I hope someday I can look back on this and think I was being overly dramatic. Nothing would please me more.

A Trip to the Beach

Sunday we made a quick jaunt to the beach, kind of a last hurrah for our summer. It seems hard to believe but Xy’s vacation is pretty much over, and starting today she’s working to prepare her classroom at her new school.

We always find the ocean waters rejuvenating. Waveland, Mississippi, is less than an hour from downtown New Orleans. The beaches are decent, though the water’s only ankle-deep.

Xy made me float on an inflatable raft for a little while. It was very peaceful. Balm for the soul.

I wish there was a balm for my girl. I wish there was some process, some magic formula that could extract the lead from her body.

We showed her how to scoop sand into her pail. She was so happy to sit and slowly fill up that pail.

Playing in the Sand

Humans have been digging around in the dirt for millennia. Lead is just one of the many things that we’ve extracted from from the earth. So many environmental nightmares are of relatively recent vintage. But some people say lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.

Still, most of us are carrying around a lot more lead in our bodies today than people did back then. A lot more. We make quite a mess of things, us humans.

You can’t see or taste or smell tiny lead dust particles if they are in your environment. You can only take a swab sample and send it off to a lab and wait.

And there’s absolutely no evidence of poisoning in the girl’s behavior. She seems so happy and healthy. Damage from lead might not show up for years. If, of course, there’s any damage at all, which I sincerely hope there’s not.

It’s all so very intangible.

We got a packet of information from the New Orleans Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Amongst the helpful pamphlets was a beer koozie promoting the program. Xy put it to good use there on the beach.

Lutheran Invasion

There’s some 37,000 Lutheran kids volunteering in the city of New Orleans this summer. I was surprised to discover approximately half of them working next door Saturday morning.

Lutherans

I think they were mostly from New Jersey.

Their project: gutting Craig’s house. Craig was our next door neighbor, but he’s now living in Texas. He never returned after Katrina, except to remove some of his possessions, most of which were destroyed by the floodwaters.

I talked to him on the phone a couple months ago, expressing my concern about the continuing deterioration of his property, especially with regard to how it was affecting us and the quality of life on the block.

Lo and behold, he agreed to donate his house to a worthy cause, if only I could find one. I asked around, and some folks I respect recommended the Preservation Resource Center’s Operation Comeback. They acquire homes, renovate them, and sell them to first-time home buyers.

I hadn’t mentioned any of this this publicly before because I didn’t want to jinx the deal. I knew Craig might have a hard time letting go of his place. After all, one gets attached to a building after living in it for a couple decades.

But apparently the deal went through. Way to go, Craig.

Which brings us back to those Lutherans.

Inside

I had never seen the inside of Craig’s house before, yet still it brought back memories — memories of cleaning out our own house back in ’05.

The space between our house and Craig’s was filled with weeds twelve feet high or higher, not to mention a variety of shrubs, trees and other plants. No lie — were able to look up at the weeds from our second story window.

Deforestation

These Lutheran volunteers made short work of it in a single morning.

(By the way, these are ELCA kids. I was raised LCMS. The doctrinal differences between these two Lutheran denominations are “a source of great sadness.”)

I was amazed to see there was still so much furniture in the house.

Whoa

I had thought most everything had been removed. This was some nice furniture once upon a time. It was kind of sad to see it sitting on the curb. I rescued an incense holder from the pile. But it surely made me happy to see some progress on this house. The restoration of this property could have a huge positive effect on this block.

Close Encounter

I had just dropped Xy & Persephone off at the house of some friends and run a few errands. I stopped back at the house to take care of a few things. I was surprised to find a cop car parked in the middle of the street and an officer standing nearby.

I parked my car, a little further from the house than usual because the cop was blocking the way. As I walked past, I asked, “You looking for someone?” He replied in the affirmative and waved me on.

I went inside and checked my e-mail. Read a few, sent a few. I was feeling like lying down in bed and having a good cry, finding the revelations of the past few days somewhat overwhelming, but first I decided to go out back and take care of a chore, namely bagging up some old screen frames with peeling paint.

I opened the back door and started to step outside when I saw something that made me freeze in my tracks.

It was somebody’s shoulder, in a black tee shirt.

That was all I saw, but it was enough. I retreated into the house and locked the door and went back upstairs. By the time I got to the front of the house to confirm the cops were no longer there (they weren’t) I had already dialed 911.

Soon the cops were back. I was sitting on the front steps. The cops had their guns drawn. I told them where the guy was. Peeking around the corner I could see he was still there. He must have either jumped our gate or climbed over the neighbor’s fence.

Our gate was locked, with the key inside the house. I explained that to one of the cops, and he asked, “Could you expedite that, please?” So I got the key and unlocked the gate and the cops went through.

Next thing they’ve got the guy with his hands in the air, and then in cuffs.

I kept my distance, not particularly interested in letting this guy see me, but that meant I couldn’t see him too well either. He was a black male with a fauxhawk haircut, wearing a black tee shirt that said “Bienville” on the back. When I described him to Debra later she said, “Oh yeah, he’s one of the guys who hangs around on the corner, meaning Bienville and Gayoso, I think.

When I asked one of the cops what it was all about, I was told, “He beat somebody up.” And since he trespassed on my property, would I be interested in pressing charges? I said I didn’t think so.

After that I went over to our friends’ house and had a good stiff drink.

Perhaps it is time to move.

Waiting

Today we had our house tested for lead again. The results will be available next week. And so we wait.

I’ve been learning a lot about lead poisoning. Back in the 70s some 17 million American kids had it; these days that number is down to around 350 thousand.

I still can’t believe we’re in that number.

Some people think of this as a “disease of poverty,” but that’s somewhat misleading. Poor people are more likely to live in old houses with lead-based paint. But what with gentrification and the return of middle class folks to the inner city, there’s more people of various incomes levels living in such old houses. And there’s a strong correlation between living in an old house and lead poisoning in children.

The symptoms of brain damage and learning disability are really not testable or noticeable until a child reaches six years of age. That diminishes whatever solace I might have taken in our daughter’s lack of symptoms. So for now we can only work to eliminate further contamination, give her a good diet, monitor her blood levels, and hope. Even if we moved to Utah immediately, even if we see nothing but decreasing lead levels in her blood tests, we still won’t know the damage for at least four and a half years.

That seems like a long time to wait. And even then we may not see the full picture right away.

A couple people asked me about the blood test. I believe these are simply routine tests administered to most children on the recommendation of the Center for Disease Control. they recommend a test at 12 months and another at 24 months. We were supposed to have her test five months ago, but that didn’t happen through a series of rather infuriating screw-ups at the doctor’s office. I can only wonder what we’d have found if she’d been tested on schedule.

I have talked to a couple of experts in the field — Dr. Howard Mielke and Dr. Andrew Rodgers — both of whom used to work here at the University. When I asked for a recommendation on someone for testing, Dr. Mielke said he’d like to do it himself, but unfortunately he has no funding at present. Through a separate channel I got in touch with Dr. Rodgers who is now the Lead Risk Assessor for the City of New Orleans. It seems that child lead levels are reported to the city, and if our girl had scored a couple micrograms higher, a visit from Dr. Rodgers would have been mandated. As it is, I hired him to come out as a private contractor. I met him at our house this morning, and as mentioned we are now waiting for the test results.

Both Dr. Mielke and Dr. Rodgers were concerned but also felt that our daughter’s lead levels may be “manageable.” That’s not truly comforting, though, when I consider that they have seen such a broad range of severe cases.

We have switched to Kentwood water rather than tap, just in case.

Doodie Calls

In other news: A portable toilet has showed up in front of Craig’s old house next door. That’s good news indicating work will begin soon. Of course I’m worried they may create more lead paint dust… but in the meantime I am getting a much-needed laugh from the name of the toilet service: Doodie Calls, Inc.

Lead Poisoning

Despite our efforts, despite testing our water, despite an extensive lead abatement program conducted on our house by ACORN, we got word yesterday afternoon that our little 17-month-old girl has a high level of lead contamination.

How high? BLLs > 13 µg/dL. Translation: blood lead level greater than 13 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Is that a lot? Well, the bad thing about lead is that there’s really no safe level. She doesn’t have to be rushed to the hospital for chelation. But it’s still not good. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, permanent damage to the central nervous system, even death.

Needless to say we are very upset. There are a thousand things that can happen to an infant child, but this was the one thing that I focused on and tried to avoid. I was aware of the danger, and still we have this threat to our baby’s health.

In old urban neighborhoods (like Mid-City New Orleans) we need to be especially vigilant because of the prevalence of lead-based paint on many of our historic buildings. Of course, I thought we were being vigilant. That’s what makes this doubly frustrating. Indeed, it’s difficult to type this without using expletives.

I understand it’s not so much the exact level of lead in the system that is the primary concern. Rather, it’s the symptoms associated with lead poisoning. Fortunately we haven’t seen signs of any of these symptoms. That’s the one tiny little bright spot here.

Right now I believe there is only one course of action: Eliminate the source of the lead contamination, give her a balanced diet (with an emphasis on calcium, iron, and vitamin C), and then re-test later. But before we can eliminate the lead, we have to identify where it is coming from. The primary suspect remains lead-paint dust in and around our house. As mentioned previously, we had work done on our house by ACORN, but it may not have been sufficient. So now we are looking for a reputable commercial service that can test our house. I’ve got some leads which I will be pursuing vigorously.

Seventeen Months

Dear Persephone,

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Colander Head

Of course I have to add a few hundred words of my own.

You’ve been growing so fast that sometimes it seems like one can see changes on an hourly basis. I don’t mean physical growth — you’re still tiny, only around 21 lbs. — but rather your mental development. I think you’ve got about a dozen words in your vocabulary now, mostly beginning with the letter “b.”

Over the last month or two you have been out of daycare, but we’ve taken you in for a day or two here and there when your mother has pressing engagements. (For example today she’s moving books and equipment around at her new school.) Lately you’ve been getting more upset at the transition point, continuing a trend that began in late spring. You would cry sometimes when I said goodbye and left the room. More recently, you started crying when we entered the room together. The next time you started crying when we entered the building. After that the tears began to flow as we we approached the building from a block away.

And yet, your caregiver Summer pointed out that the period of time you cry after I leave has gotten shorter. As soon as I’m out the door, you adjust and are generally happy for the rest of the day. So it’s that transition point that’s difficult. Sometimes at home you will cry when I go downstairs to take out the garbage or some other chore, not realizing that I will be right back. And however much anxiety you have about my departures, double that for your mother.

There have been some truly horrific stories in the local news involving little children. A baby was found dead in her crib in Westwego, covered in rat bites. She was three months old. A toddler your age ingested a quantity of cocaine and amphetamines in Terrytown. That child appears to be okay, but it’s the second case in the last month in which parents were arrested after their babies ate coke. I’m sure even if I wasn’t a father I would have found these stories alarming, but all the more so since you’ve come into my life.

I had an interesting conversation with a faculty member here at the University about a program advertised on TV that promises to teach babies how to read. It appears to be yet another piece of the “baby genius” industry. I greatly value intelligence and hope you grow up super smart, but I won’t love you any less if that’s not the case, and I am surely not interested in pushing you. I’m generally staying away from these products that seem to capitalize on parental anxiety. My understanding of the human psyche and its development is that if we just give you opportunities and encouragement, you’ll pretty much develop on your own, automatically.

I do know it’s easiest to acquire a second language when you’re under the age of four. I wish they had some Spanish-speaking people at your daycare.

What else? Your sleep habits have deteriorated severely since our vacation. Those two weeks of chaos seem to have really thrown you off. At some point, eventually, I know you will sleep through the night. Your mother and I are looking forward to that.

By the way, seventeen is one of my favorite numbers. I expect this next months will be pretty exciting.

Catching Up

Lots of stuff going on lately, and so little time to write. The days slip away uncounted. I can’t stand that. So here are some things that have gone down over the last five days or more.

  • Xy made a trip to the north shore with Persephone and Daisy and Lavender to visit the splash park there in old Mandeville. They also stopped by a furniture store in Slidell; while Daisy was shopping Xy gathered some tadpoles and aquatic snails. Next thing I know she’s set up an aquarium on our kitchen table and added some goldfish and water plants. I said, “You’re turning this place into a frickin’ menagerie! Wasn’t the rabbit enough?”
  • Our former neighbor Jesus replaced our screwed-up lattice panel near the front door of our house. He said he would do the job two months ago, and I had kind of given up hope. And to top it off he also installed a door there — that door has been missing for years, since old Dan’s crucifix-rig disintegrated some time after Katrina, I think.
  • Xy tried her hand at painting the posts under the deck. Unfortunately she’s kind of sloppy — splatters and drips everywhere. I’m not the most fastidious person, but I’m taking the paintbrush back. I did the second coat myself and also got the new lattice work painted. I like bold rich colors but this is a pale lavender, so pale it’s almost gray.
  • Speaking of Lavender, we celebrated her first birthday Sunday. There were pony rides on the neutral ground. Persephone wasn’t terribly interested in the ponies, strangely enough, but it was still a fun party.
  • I gave a talk and led a walk along the Lafitte Corridor to about 30 kids as part of a summer program called Job One, run by the Alliance for Affordable Energy and the Louisiana Green Corps.
  • I’ll admit I get a little misty-eyed when remembering the moon landing. It’s not nostalgia, exactly, as I was only two when that happened. It’s more the grandeur of human achievement or something like that. Yet at the same time I do have mixed feelings about the whole space program. I’ve heard a bunch of lunar-themed songs lately, as DJs commemorate the event, but I think the best one is Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon, which expresses my misgivings eloquently and is a hoot to boot.
  • Aftre three weeks of bureaucratic delay, I finally got my annual letter reconfirming my employment. Hooray, I still have a job. Even got a decent raise. In this economy that’s saying something.
  • I do occasionally read books outside of my club selections. It took me a few months, chipping away at lunch time, but I finally finished Goth: Undead Subculture which the library purchased on my recommendation. Fascinating stuff. It’s the first and only collection of serious academic essays on the subject. I don’t usually read much academic writing, and this was heavy going in some places, but overall I think it’s pretty accessible. I think what I found most provocative is simply the idea of subcultures themselves as somehow resisting mainstream culture. I don’t know if subcultural studies is an organized field of study, but I think I’d like to learn more about it.
  • In case you’re in the mood for a weird link, here’s Oxidation Paintings by Mambo.

Also, the weather has been lovely for this time of year, by which I mean highs in the upper 80s and humidity below 50%. Is this really July in southern Louisiana?

Dear Mr. West

Entergy New Orleans
1600 Perdido St
New Orleans, LA 70112

Attn: Rod West, President & CEO

Dear Mr. West,

I just had a brilliant idea on how Entergy can improve customer service in New Orleans. Please allow me to explain.

Every morning I ride my bike past the Entergy office located at the corner of Canal and Jeff Davis. Before 8:30 AM time there’s always a dozen or more people standing in line, waiting for the door to open. If I don’t see the line of people, I know that it’s past 8:30 and I’m running late.

As much as I appreciate the handy time-check, I’m pretty sure the people aren’t happy about standing in line. After all, no one likes to stand in line, especially in inclement weather. But the people are always there, rain or shine, waiting patiently.

I got to thinking. Why would anybody rise early and come to stand in line before the office is even open? Why not wait and come later in the day? Let me tell you, Rod, they aren’t standing there for their health, that’s for sure.

The answer is clear. These people have jobs. Most jobs are from nine to five. They are trying to take care of their business with Entergy before they go to work.

Therefore it seems to me that Entergy could save these folks a lot of hassle through a simple expedient which I will share with you now:

Open the office earlier.

Such an easy way to better serve your customers! Sure, it might cost a bit extra to have the office open longer, but I’m sure you can afford it given the $11 billion annual revenue of Entergy Corporation.

No need to thank me for this idea, Rod. The knowledge that the citizens of New Orleans are getting better service will be all the compensation I require.

Well, I guess if you wanted to knock a few bucks off my next bill I wouldn’t mind. Whatever you think is fair.

Yours sincerely,

Editor B

Update: Shortly after writing this letter, I opened up the Times-Picayune to see the following article at the top of the Money section:

Entergy Louisiana ranked last in J.D. Power customer service rating

Continue reading Dear Mr. West

Junior Portrait

Greenwood, Indiana, 1983 or ’84: I took my glasses off for this high school yearbook photo. Note the acne. Note the haircut. Note the enigmatic expression. I’m not smiling — not quite.

Junior Portrait

It’s hard not to smile when you’re having such a photo taken. I imagine I was pretty pleased with myself for resisting the photographer’s instructions.

I was 16 or 17 years of age.

Groups

I used eGroups back in the day. They got bought out by Yahoo in 2000 and became a part of Yahoo Groups, but I know at least one guy who still calls ’em eGroups.

Sometime thereafter Google got into the game. I believe Google Groups started as a Usenet archive, but they rather quickly deployed a service that was basically a Yahoo Groups clone.

I’ve continued to use Yahoo Groups for a decade now. They don’t have that sexy and shiny Web 2.0 veneer that we all know and love, but they get the job done. They are fairly easy to manage, even for people who aren’t terribly tech savvy, and they enable large (or small) groups of people to communicate with one another easily from all over the world. They have a kind of easy egalitarianism which I like.

I have set up such groups for two branches of my family, my book club, Friends of Lafitte Corridor, my neighborhood group, the local Green Party, and several others I’m not remembering right now.

Yet sometimes Yahoo Groups feels kind of clunky to me. Surely there must be something better, with all the innovation on the web.

Such is the luster of Google these days that, at some point, I assumed Google Groups must be that “something better.” After all, many of their other products are pretty amazing. (I hear their search engine is pretty good.) That led me to create a couple or three groups on Google.

After a couple years, I’m ready to say conclusively that Google Groups aren’t that great.

Yahoo Groups has a number of features which Google hasn’t bothered to implement, even after all these years. Want to poll group members about something? Want to start a simple database everyone can add to? Yahoo makes it easy. These features are not to be found in Google.

But the real pisser is the basic functionality of Google Groups just isn’t there. In essence the idea of a group is like a mailing list. A user subscribes and then gets updates sent to the group. Simple, right? Yet in Google’s version, the basic functions often don’t work. Problems with joining the group, problems with dropped messages. Sure, any system has glitches, but I see a lot more of these problems on Google than on Yahoo, despite the fact I’ve at times been responsible for a lot more users on Yahoo than Google — like an order of magnitude more.

In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, but Google Groups just plain kind of suck. Yahoo has the better product.

I’ve heard it said that “Google gets all the attention, but Yahoo makes all the money.” I don’t know if this is an example of that, but it certainly goes to show those whiz kids at Google aren’t infallible.

Testify

My neighborhood organization alerted me to the fact that a bunch of properties in Mid-City were coming up for code enforcement hearings. I noticed that 3016 Bienville was on the list. (I wrote a letter to Code Enforcement about this property back in April.) My neighborhood organization further advised me that “the city is more likely to take action against negligent owners if neighbors appear to testify.”

So I decided that I would testify. But first I had to appear, and that was trickier than I expected.

For one thing, properties are not scheduled for a specific time. Rather there is a designated period for a bunch of properties, running three hours or so, with no clue as to when a specific property will be heard.

Also, one little piece of information was missing in the message from my neighborhood organization, namely the location of the hearing. I didn’t realize this until I was almost headed out the door.

Hmm, well, surely it’s at City Hall, I thought to myself. So I jumped on my bike and rode down there. Locked up the bike. Removed my belt. (I always have to remove my belt when I go to City Hall in order to get through the metal detector.) Once inside the security checkpoint I looked at the directory and realized that Code Enforcement was actually at 1340 Poydras.

So I rode my bike over to 1340 Poydras, only a block away, and took the elevator up to the eleventh floor, where I wandered aimlessly like a lab rat for a while until someone asked me if I needed help. Oh, the code enforcement hearings? They’ve been moved to the Sheriff’s office. First time they’ve ever had them there.

And so it was that I found myself riding up Poydras to Broad Street. After a bit of tomfooolery involving the Broad Street overpass I finally found the correct building. I had to knock on a locked door to be admitted from the sidewalk, and I brought my bike right in with me. By this time I was about to melt from the heat and nearly delirious and just grateful to be out of the sun. I was in a large room with all kinds of people sitting around waiting.

I was late, and the hearing period was well underway. I checked in with a couple women sitting at a table in some sort of official capacity; they assured me that 3016 Bienville hadn’t come up yet. Luckily a guy I know from the Lakeview neighborhood organization was sharp enough to notice that they were wrong, that the hearing for this property had just started. I was ushered to an alcove around the corner where a couple of judges were sitting and talking to a contractor. Also at the table: my hero Karen Gadbois.

The judges asked for my testimony. I said something along these lines:

I live just around the corner from this house. I have here a couple of photos which I took myself. This first one is from 2007.

3016 Bienville

And this one was taken just a short time ago.

3016 Bienville

As you can see, nothing has changed except the weeds are taller. The front door is still standing wide open, and all the flooded furniture is just sitting there rotting.

So when I heard this property was on the docket, I decided I wanted to come down here and say that something needs to be done. It at least needs to be boarded up, and whoever is responsible needs to be held to account.

The contractor said he was working on the house now, that he’d put a dumpster in front and they were cleaning it out and that it would be gutted and boarded up in a couple days.

I added: “I think this house does contribute to the architectural fabric of the block, so I hope it isn’t torn down. I would like to see it renovated.”

One of the judges said she’d take a very dim view of any demolition request from the owner. They found him guilty. That’s a $500 fine, plus $500 per day if the property remains out of compliance starting 30 days from now. At least I think that’s right; I was still somewhat delirious.

Boom, that was it, I had made my testimony, and I was free to go my way. Shortly thereafter I passed by 3016 Bienville and saw that indeed there was a dumpster there and indeed it was being filled with the flooded contents of the house.

Dumpster

I saw the contractor on the front porch and I gave him the thumbs-up and congratulated him on being a man of his word. He said something, but I couldn’t hear him. I was listening to music on my headphones.

Whitney?

When we moved to New Orleans ten years ago we set up a bank account with Hibernia. We wanted to bank local, and we heard Hibernia sponsoring the local NPR affiliate, so we figured they were as good a choice as any. They had branched out to Texas and Mississippi and Arkansas, but their headquarters were in New Orleans. It was the largest and oldest bank based in the state of Louisiana at that time.

However, Hibernia was acquired by Capital One in 2005. (They say Katrina knocked a good $300 million off the purchase price.) Capital One of course is not a local bank. They are headquartered in Virginia.

We’ve stuck with them so far, more out of inertia than anything else, but I’d rather use a local bank. (Why bank local? For the same reasons it’s good to shop local.) Also, I’m kind of put out by some of Capital One’s questionable practices.

And another thing: I’m still ticked off about the way Capital One configured their Mid-City branch when they rebuilt after the flood of ’05. They’ve got an ATM in the lobby, but of course that’s only available when the bank is open. I asked them (both before they built and after they reopened) to consider allowing extended access. No dice. Most of the time when I come by to use the ATM I’m locked out. I have to stand in line with the cars. Obviously that’s not the worst thing in the world, but it is an annoyance. I said to Xy that I’d move our account to the first bank to open a 24-hour walk-up ATM in Mid-City.

That brings us to Whitney Bank.

Whitney

They have just built a new branch office at the corner of Canal and Jeff Davis, quite close to our house, much closer than Capital One. This is on the site of the old Walgreen’s that never reopened after Katrina. It’s a much better design than Walgreen’s, as they built to the corner in a pedestrian-friendly fashion. In fact, that whole intersection is looking halfway decent now.

But what’s that on the side of the building? Could it be?

Walk-Up ATM

Yes, a walk-up ATM, available anytime. Be still my heart.

Whitney is a local bank. With Hibernia out of the picture, it’s now the oldest bank in the state.

So why am I not rushing over there to deposit my pennies and nickels? Well, in part I’m given pause because a few years ago I read Rising Tide by John Barry. This is a fascinating history of the big flood of 1927. (Buy it from a local bookseller.) And it does not paint Whitney in a very good light. In fact it makes the institution look positively evil. But then again, Hibernia was characterized in much the same way. Also the Times-Picayune, yet I’m still maintaining my subscription. Then again, the T-P is the only daily paper in town. There are other banks — but none so convenient.

Also I have a friend, not the most progressive-minded person in the world, who nevertheless seems to think Whitney is a regressive old-line elitist institution that is holding New Orleans back.

So I’m curious what other people might think. Is Whitney really that bad?

Seasoned with Blood

Today I took it upon myself to season up a cast-iron grill-plate which we’ve had for a long time but never used. It was a gift from my father-in-law many moons ago. After washing the thing with warm soapy water to remove the factory coating and accumulated crud, I began coating it with some bacon grease which I had stored in the fridge in an old cat food can. As I did so I wondered to myself if this would disqualify the grill-plate for use in preparing food for our vegetarian friends. Then I cut my finger on the edge of the can and found myself smearing blood on the cast-iron surface. I was listening to some Ain Soph at the time and frankly it all seemed very appropriate so I just went with it. I put the grill-plate in the oven to bake for an hour and a half. I guess I probably won’t be grilling anything on it that our vegetarian friends would want anyway.

Tales of the Cocktail: Day Three

If my second day at Tales of the Cocktail seemed to focus on the art and science of mixing drinks, my third day was more about the history and tradition and cultural aspects of mixology.

Audience

My day began with a panel presentation on “Jazz and Cocktails: The Music and Drinks of Storyville.” As a New Orleans resident I’d heard much of this before, but it never gets old, and David Wondrich, Allen Katz, Phil Green and Chris McMillan did an admirable job of highlighting little nuggets that were new to me and tying it all together.

Prostitution seems to have been a key theme in the development of both jazz and cocktails. Kind of makes you think.

Served during this session: Parlor Punch (garnished with raspberries), a Jack Rose cocktail, and a Ramos Gin Fizz. One of the panelists said that if New Orleans could have another official cocktail (in addition to the Sazerac) it should be the Ramos Gin Fizz, invented by Henry Ramos in the late 1800s. (A presenter yesterday called it the most famous cocktail in the history of mixology.)

Here’s an action shot of the ultimate old-school New Orleans bartender Chris McMillan at work, mixing a Ramos Gin Fizz.

I rode home for lunch — a nice advantage to being local — but it was almost like I was still there, because I was able to tune into 690 AM and hear Eric Asher broadcasting live from the Carousel Bar. Many of the national hate-mongers on that station are execrable, but I like Eric.

When I got back to the Monteleone I found time to stop in at the Domaine de Canton tasting room, where I sampled some ceviche and coconut sorbet, both made with the liqueur. Oh, and you can drink it too: I had a cocktail made with the stuff.

Canton Ceviche

Then it was time for my afternoon seminar, “The Long Legacy of Cuban Rum,” with Paul Artrip moderating a discussion between Pepin Argamasilla and Jonathan Pogash. I mistakenly thought this session would be a broad overview of the history of rum in Cuba. Instead, it was about the story of one rum only: Bacardi. But that is a fascinating slice of history indeed, going all the way back to 1862. Did you know Bacardi was primarily a beer brewer for decades, with rum a mere sideline? And did you know the Bacardi Cocktail was once the subject of a lawsuit? And so now if you advertise that you’re making a Bacardi Cocktail, it must contain Bacardi brand rum — by law.

I’d always thought of Bacardi as Puerto Rican rum, but that just shows my ignorance. They were based in Cuba until the (second) Cuban revolution when Castro nationalized the Bacardi company, and the family fled the country. It was riveting to hear this story from Pepin Argamasilla, the official Bacardi historian. I almost took him for one of the Bacardi family.

Shake It Up

Drinks served included the Bacardi Cocktail and a daiquiri. Jonathan Pogash also mixed a Cuba Libre but this was not served, much to my chagrin. It was probably the only drink featured at Tales of the Cocktail that I’ve actually made myself.

Swimming in the Rain

As I prepared to leave the Monteleone I saw that it was raining. That didn’t stop the revelers in the pool, and it only slowed me down for thirty minutes or so. I know a New Orleans summer shower may come down hard, but it’s usually over within the hour.

I rode home happy but with a tinge of regret. This is my last day of Tales of the Cocktail, even though the festival continues over the weekend. Alas, familial obligations and previous engagements will likely prevent my participation. But my liver could use a break, and I thoroughly enjoyed these past three days. I hope I can make it again next year, and I unreservedly recommend the event to anyone with an interest in cocktails and spirits.

Tales of the Cocktail: Day Two

Day Two got off to a rocky start. Xy wasn’t feeling well, and I thought I might have to stay home to take care of her and the girl. But she rallied after a nap, I hopped on my bike, and got down to Tales of the Cocktail for a second day of spirit-stirring activities.

I started off with a seminar on “The How’s and Why’s of Cocktails.” This was basically an opportunity for superstar bartender Audrey Saunders to hold forth on her art and craft.

Audrey on Mint

She struck me as something of a perfectionist. She described training a bartender by mixing six gin sours with six different gins and tasting the differences. Then she’d do it again with lemon. Then again with lime. Then again with bitters, and again with a different bitters, and again and again and again, exhausting every variation, all with a goal of understanding the basic structure of the cocktail and the flavor profiles of the various ingredients.

The lecture was made all the more enjoyable by a couple of cocktails: the classic Ramos Gin Fizz and one of Audrey’s inventions, the French Pearl. She described this as a gin mojito with a touch of Pernod, and she created it for people who say they don’t like gin and don’t like Pernod.

There were a number of fascinating topics that were discussed at some length in this session. For example, Audrey seemed to express some regret for the “monster” she’s helped create with bars like the Pegu Club. They’ve emphasized heavy whiskey cocktails to the point of hiding the vodka beneath the bar. “Are we fascists?” she wondered aloud. These were issues of which I was not even aware. It made me realize what an utter freakin’ bumpkin I am in the world of mixology.

I didn’t have much time between seminars, so I stopped at the Bourbon House oyster bar for a couple dozen raw. Said hi to Rickey the shucker. Xy taught one of his kids.

Then it was back to the Monteleone for “The Molecular DNA of Classic Cocktails.” This was definitely the most entertaining event I’ve attended so far. You’ve got to love any presentation that starts off by citing the Futurist Manifesto from 1909. Sebastian Reaburn and Jacob Briars took some of the philosophy behind so-called “molecular cuisine” and looked at how they might be applied to cocktails. Apparently this is somewhat controversial. They made a convincing argument that the early pioneers of mixology were in fact innovating in a way that would be described as “molecular” today.

Jacob Briars

They served up a very spicy Bloody mary — did you know it’s the biggest selling cocktail in the world? — as a way to open up the topic of the taste palate. They brought out that hoary old tongue map we all learn in school and debunked it. They claimed that palate fatigue is caused by the brain being overwhelmed more than the tongue. To cleanse our mental palate, we just need a little shock and surprise, which they provided in a unique way. Half the people in the audience were given thumbtacks, and they were instructed to pop balloons given to the other half.

Balloon Poppin' Time

You can listen to audio of the popping. Surprise! The balloons were not empty but filled with absinthe.

Thus our brains were reset and we were ready for another drink. Some of us got the old classic Corpse Reviver #2. I was in the second group that got a weirdly purple drink. I didn’t like the taste of it at first, but then on a hunch I tried it with my eyes closed. Sure enough, the purple drink was a Corpse Reviver #2 as well — with a bit of color added. The point being that the cognitive palate can be addressed in many ways. They claimed that by applying the scientific method they had derived a way of making (European style) Old Fashions in batches, a claim which is apparently tantamount to sacrilege on the other side of the Atlantic. They served us some Tequila Old Fashions to prove their point. They had been batch made and used gum arabic as a sweetener. I thought it was very tasty.

After the session, a wrong turn led me to the Cathedral room, which was not listed on the program schedule. Soft music was playing, two women were getting massages, and a bartender was mixing Cointreau Kisses — made with peach tea. I had one. Very nice.

Later I had a bit of Averna neat, a High Plains Drifter, some Bénédictine, a Disaronno Intertwined.

I then stopped by the main Cointreau tasting room and stumbled onto a bizarre scene.

Mad Scientists

A bunch of people were gathered around a big table with lots of lab equipment while a couple guys in white coats directed an experiment.

The fruits of their labor? Something that looked like giant caviar with gold flakes at the center.

Caviar Gold

But it was made, of course, with Cointreau.

I tarried in the Cointreau room perhaps a bit too long for my own good, sampling Cointreau Noir, a Cointreau Cup and a Barbados Brit. Then, heading out on to the street, I wound my day down with a refreshing St-Germain cocktail once again.

I didn’t stay for any of the many late afternoon seminars or the special evening events. I wish I could have, but I felt the need to get home. Besides I don’t really have the stamina required. Still those spirited dinners sound delicious.

Tales of the Cocktail: Day One

Somehow I wangled a press pass to Tales of the Cocktail. I’ve always wanted to attend this event, and if you have even a passing familiarity with ROX you’ll understand why. Tales of the Cocktail is without doubt the world’s most important conference on the subject of the mixed drink. And since mixed drinks are perhaps America’s most important contribution to global culture, that’s saying something. And people come from all over the world to attend this event right here in New Orleans, the birthplace of the cocktail.

I’ve always wanted to check it out. But it always seemed to sneak up on me, and I would find myself entangled with other engagements or on vacation and unable to attend. This year I made sure my calendar was marked well in advance. And as I mentioned, I scored a press pass despite my lack of mainstream media credentials, on the strength of this blog.

So today I was at the Hotel Monteleone bright and early. I sat in on a seminar, tasted numerous cocktails, rubbed elbows with the mixological elite, and generally soaked in the ambiance of this fine event.

The Bittersweet Truth of Starting a Bar

I began my day with a seminar: “The Bittersweet Truth of Starting a Bar.” It was fairly interesting, but clearly geared toward people with a serious interest in starting a cocktail bar. I have little interest in such a venture, so it was probably not a good choice on my part. (Did you know your lease should be no more than 6% of your total sales revenue?) However, I was delighted to learn that most of the seminars appear to feature mixed drinks. We were served a Winter Sour, basically a Campari Sour with rosemary syrup. It was foamy and tart and garnished with a sprig of rosemary — delicious.

I frequented a number of tastings throughout the day. I had something at the Cocktail Fresh Market made with organic vodka. I had a São Paolo Sour made with Cabana Cachaça and whiskey and egg white and bitters. I had a cucumber-flavored concoction made with mezcal and garnished with cilantro.

James Has a Cocktail

All of these diverse drinks had one thing in common: They all had subtle flavors which might appeal to a sophisticated palate.

What makes this conference unique is that everyone’s walking around in a perpetual state of mild intoxication. I hasten to stress that qualifier, mild. Don’t get the wrong idea. While I’m sure most people were copping a buzz, no one was inebriated. Drinks were generally served in thimble-sized servings, which is the right size if you plan on sampling all day long.

Ann Tuennerman

In the early afternoon there was a special event, a toast to kick off the seventh annual iteration of this festival, and also to honor the fact that Herbsaint is now 75 years old. I recorded this, but as my general ineptitude would have it, my batteries ran out just seconds before the actual culminating toast itself.

Here’s the almost-complete audio: Tales of the Cocktail 2009 Toast [mp3]

I guess that’s why I don’t get paid for this.

As for the toasting beverage, we had a choice between an Herbsaint Frappé and a Creole Julep. I opted for the latter since it is the official cocktail of the festival.

Creole Juleps

Here’s the recipe:

The Creole Julep
Created by Maksym Pazuniak, Rambla/Cure

2 1/4 oz. Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum
1/2 oz. Clement Créole Shrubb
1/4 oz. Captain Morgan 100 Rum
2 dashes Fee Bros. Peach bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
8-10 mint leaves
1 Demerara Sugar Cube

Muddle sugar, Créole Shrubb and both bitters until sugar is dissolved in a 10 oz. tall glass. Add mint and press to express oils. Add cracked ice. Add Cruzan and Captain Morgan 100 and stir until frost appears on outside of glass. Garnish with mint sprig.

Mmmm. Good. And strong too.

Well, after all that I was feeling pretty mellow, so I decided to kick back in the Monteleone’s famous Carousel Bar and check out Chef and the Fatman. I scored a really nice whiskey glass, with some Bulleit Bourbon in it. Chef Gus Martin of Muriel’s prepared a shrimp dish that smelled delicious, and I could have sampled some, but tragically enough shrimp no longer agrees with me.

For those who might be put off by the price of some of the ticketed events, I’d like to point out that everything mentioned above, with the exception of the seminar, was free.

There was plenty more to see and do, but I’d had a full day so I decided to head home. Only at the door I noticed they were serving cocktails made with St-Germain Liqueur. This is an elderflower cordial which I had never tasted before. They mixed it with dry champagne and (I think maybe) some club soda. It was light and refreshing and provided the perfect end to my day.

Now I’ve got to get some rest because tomorrow looks like an awfully big day. I think a big breakfast will help.