Hot Reads 8/17/14

Another week has passed and another list of great reading to share with you. First up are three essays about New Orleans. Well, we can never get in enough reading about our city, now can we? One is about cocktails and culture, one has all the color and flair of the French Quarter and one of its legendary characters, and another features one woman’s unique way of coping after Katrina and how it changed her life. All three are wonderful in different ways.

Photo credit: Pableaux Johnson for The Bitter Southerner

Photo credit: Pableaux Johnson for The Bitter Southerner

First up, from The Bitter Southerner (an online journal I just love): “No.4” in their Cocktail Series featuring SoBou bartender Abigail Gullo.
Favorite quote: “Steen’s Cane Syrup is such an integral part of my own life that I’ve often worried that eventually I’ll be drowned in a great wave of the sticky-sweet cane juice, preserved forever like a gluttonous bug in amber.”
Note: True dat! If you grew up in Louisiana or Mississippi and didn’t have Steen’s in the house, what was wrong with your family?

 

 

 

 

 

 

From The Oxford American: “The Chess King of Decatur Street”
Favorite Quote: “Acers pushed his plastic chair back, stood, and made a grand bow, sweeping his arm from high above his head to down around his ankles. “Dear sir,” he cried, “we shall not speak of things that cannot come to pass.””

Image Credit: Dadu Shin for The New York Times

Image Credit: Dadu Shin for The New York Times

From The New York Times: “What the Sparrows Told Me”
Favorite Quote: ” My father had been told that he had terminal cancer 40 days after Katrina. He didn’t know a Mugimaki flycatcher from a Hudsonian godwit. But during his last days he loved to watch the birds come to his feeders. If watching birds could help my father die, maybe it could help me live and teach.”
Note: I remember well the eerie quiet after the storm, the absence of birdsong. It was a sweet moment when I realized I was hearing the tweets of the first returned birds.

 

 

From Unclutterer blog: Modified Principals of Sanitary Design
Favorite quote: “This list may seem restrictive, but we have found when items do pass the test, they last longer, we use them more often, and we have very little mess to clean up afterwards.”
Note: Despite the dry, textbook title of this piece, it has some good ideas about what to take into consideration when you’re about to make a purchase. This was a timely article for me because lately I find myself thinking, “I wouldn’t have bought this if I’d realized what a chore it would be to keep clean”!

Photo Credit: Antoine Bruy

Photo Credit: Antoine Bruy

 

From HuffPo: “Photographer Documents The Men And Women Who Choose To Live Off The Grid”
Favorite quote: “These are, in some ways, spontaneous responses to the societies these men and women have left behind. This documentary project is an attempt to make a kind of contemporary tale and to give back a little bit of magic to our modern civilization.”

 

From Women Writers, Women’s Books: “5 Life Lessons From Women Writers”
Favorite Quote: “And finally, Maya Angelou, Pam Houston, and Amy Tan taught me that laughter, and in particular the ability to laugh at yourself and life’s absurdities, is key to moving from merely surviving to thriving.”

 

MILLENNIALS_COMBO-master495From The New York Times: “The Millennials Are Generation Nice”
Favorite Quote: “Taken together, these habits and tastes look less like narcissism than communalism. And its highest value isn’t self-promotion, but its opposite, empathy — an open-minded and -hearted connection to others.”
Note: This piece made me look at Millennials in a deeper way, as more than social media addicts and narcissists.

 

 

Our book list of the week comes from Bitch Media:  “Hot Off the Small Press”, “As summer is quickly coming to a close, take some time to bask in the sun and soak in a good book. Here are some short, sweet, stellar reads for the rest of August, all works are recent releases from independent publishers.”

And, finally, our poem of the week is “Long Gone and Never Coming Back” by Michael Gillian Maxwell on Literary Orphans.
Favorite Quote (rather,stanza):

“a soldier in fatigues, just back from deployment
tattoos on his knuckles, his face a mask
of sorrows and regrets”

Have a great reading week, y’all. Don’t forget to check in with our Hot Reads From NOLAFemmes.com Pinterest board.

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Women Who Write: Valentine Pierce

This is the final interview in our four-part series featuring Louisiana women poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. Each profile has featured a poet from New Orleans or Southeast Louisiana including interview, biography and an original poem selected for this feature.

Valentine Pierce

Valentine Pierce

Valentine Pierce is a New Orleans poet, writer, graphic designer, visual artist and actor. A bit of her wisdom: “We are all many things, a vessel of triumphs and trials, worlds within the worlds of all the people in our lives, singular wonders and curiosities of humanness.” Pierce’s debut book, Geometry of the Heart, was published in 2007 by Portals Press. She has been a resident writer at A Studio in the Woods in 2006, had her artwork displayed at Tulane’s Carroll Gallery, and performed in several productions at Ashé Community Art Center. She even won two awards from the American Academy of Community Theatres—to her surprise.

Fishwife

Melissa is a late baby,
Born in the waters of the Atlantic off the U.S. coast.
Her mid-November birth so far from land destines her
To be a fishwife, to hurl her insults at and spin herself down
Back into the waters from which she came.
No land is near enough to this child of the waters.
Even though her foul-mouthed sputterings
Come as tropical storm winds
And sheeted rain far across the waters,
By the time they reach us they are merely a severe rainstorm,
An accustomed annoyance;
Her voice echoes in the thunder but rallies no fear.
We will feel her wet, latent fury but no one
Will be running for higher or distant ground.
She will die as she was born—helpless and hopeless
In the mid-Atlantic waters in late November.

(Note on this poem: A couple of years ago I heard meteorologist Margaret Orr call a storm a fishwife. I’d never heard of a fishwife and didn’t know how it applied. I did some research and learned about fishwives and why some storms are called such. In November 2013 I finally got to use that word, which had been sitting in the word box of my mind.)

 

What is your earliest recollection of the desire to write down your own thoughts?
I don’t recall when I started writing—grade school, I guess. That’s what we called elementary school back then or grammar school.

Do you remember your first poem? What was it about?
The first poem I ever had published, according to my mom, was in the school bulletin at Joseph S. Craig, when I was in the second grade. The only line I remember is “on the outside looking in.” I remember the first poem I ever got published, in 1983. At that time it was titled “Always Strong.” I revised it so the theme was more universal and retitled “Soul of the Universe.” It was published in the now defunct Day Tonight/Night Today.

Is writing your full-time occupation?
Writing was my full-time occupation. I was a journalist for about 30 years. I was a journalist, photojournalist, layout person, editor, managing editor and press chief. I also had a weekly column, “Marrero Musings,” in the Times-Picayune for seven years. And I did freelance writing. Now my full-time job is graphic design and most of the published work is poetry. I also have odd jobs including freelance graphic design, sewing, and crafting.

Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?
Poetry is my primary genre but I write in a variety of genres from simple prose to essays to plays, to one-act-shows. I really don’t categorize my work in the sense of right now I am going to write an essay or now I’ll write a poem. I just write and let it happen. I even have a novel in progress—since July 2005. It is called “Dead North.” It got it’s name from the Federal Flood commonly known as Hurricane Katrina. It is a novel about a major hurricane. I’ve been interested in hurricanes all my life and said to myself, hey, “No one has written a novel about a hurricane.” It seems centuries ago that I read a book about a major storm that brought a bad spirit to a certain island. That was part of my inspiration. Hurricanes were the other part and I had tons of secondhand research. A month later I began to get firsthand information. I am not sure that that novel will ever be finished because going from poetry-length to book-length is a feat.

I write short stories, too. They have never been published because most need a tremendous amount of work. I did have one critiqued about 10 years after I wrote it. The ending was weak but the person who critiqued it, a writer I respect, said it would only take me about 20 minutes to fix then ending. He was right but I’ve never had it published. I have a three or four other books that are laying around in a bin somewhere, too.

I even have a whole book, a short one, called “Boundaries of a Life,” which is journaling and poetry about coping with grief. Hmmm, perhaps I need to pull that one out.

As you can see, writing is my life—paid or unpaid.

Do you have a favorite place to write or a routine that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?
Generally, whenever the muse strikes. I don’t usually decide to write, that is decided by my muses, my environment, my mood. Writing just happens for me. But, if I were to choose a place, it would be my home because there are no interruptions. I don’t have to be concerned with time, place, space. When my children were young, it was after they went to bed. Generally thought, poetry hits me in the midst of everyday living and I write it then to keep from losing it.

Where was the strangest place that inspiration hit you for a poem and how did it turn out?

Probably the seafood market that was once on St. Roch at St. Claude. I wrote a poem on a napkin with a burned out match. I can’t remember the name because I was a teenager but I still have it somewhere.

Oh, wait, once, in a restroom I pulled a paper towel off a shelf. When I had entered I wondered why so many of them were on the floor. When I pulled mine, a second one just floated down like a butterfly so I wrote a brown butterfly poem about it. Don’t know where that poem is right now.

Are there any recurrent themes in your poems? If so, why do you think that is?
I think the only recurring theme in my poems is life. That’s what I write about. The here and now, the hurt and happiness, the smiles and tears.

I am somewhat a collector of words. Do you have any favorite words?
I collect words and phrases. Often they end up in poems. Can’t think of any phrases to share but some of my words have to do with poems like Onomatapeia and iambic pentameter. I also collect names because they are amazing Like Beth Kneebone, She Ping, Cleopatra Pendleton, William Dear, Freeman A. Hrabowski III., and Jacqueline Goodchilds are just a few I have on my desk right now.

Do you have any tips to share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?
I don’t know what tips would be useful because writing is such a personal art. Sometimes you have to stay still, stay home, skip the television program to work through a piece, sometimes you have to set it aside long enough for other things to fill you mind and then go back to it because it becomes fresh again that way. Sometimes you have to leave home and go to a park or a retreat. When I had the opportunity to be the writer-in-residence at A Studio in the Woods in 2006 it was the first time in my life that I could spend every waking moment writing. And I did. I was amazed at the amount of work I completed in one month. I wish I could do that all the time. I have several friends to thank for that for constantly telling me to submit until finally I gathered up my courage and did it. My fear was that I didn’t stand a chance because there are so many great writers in New Orleans. I came back from Phoenix, AZ, where I was living with friends after the storm.
(Editors note: the storm = Hurricane Katrina)

Who are some of your favorite poets and why?
Goodness. That list is so long: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, all of the Black Renaissance poets, just about every poet in this city, the poets I recently met at the Acadiana Word Lab, most of the poets I’ve met in my life. What I like is the work, the words they put down, the sound, rhythm, music of the words, how they approach their topics whether main stream or taboo, the many ways writers write. I am probably not explaining this well because it is impossible to say exactly. I just know that poets inspire me, cause me to challenge myself, bring me great joy and sometimes bring tears to my eyes.
I have been inspired to write many poems based on hearing other poets read their work.

Finally, do you have any upcoming readings or appearances you can share with us?
My next events are workshops at the Algiers Regional Library April 19 and 26, 2p. It’s called “Stand Up, Look Up, Speak Up: How to present your work in public.”
__________________________

Thank you, Valentine, for sharing your work and your thoughts with us today.

Thanks to all of the wonderful women poets that participated in this series. It was great!

To read all interviews for Women Who Write, click here.

August 29th

It will probably be mentioned as an afterthought on the nightly news, but here in Southeastern Louisiana August 29th is a day that is more memorable than the rest of the year.  On this date 8 years ago – August 29, 2005 – Hurricane Katrina roared ashore on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, devastating the small towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis.

She also flattened Gulfport and Biloxi.

I’m not even going to go into the political impact of these storm. I’m also not going to dwell the repulsive comments from our “fellow Americans”. Although the haters represent a small chunk of our fellow citizens, their vitriol hurt. And they’re still at it today. I feel sorry for people with that much hate in their hearts.

A lot of the immediate coverage was centered around New Orleans, and rightly so.

There are so many stories of horror and survival. Even today – 8 years after the storm – when you meet someone in line at a festival or in the store, the subject usually comes up. We survivors feel the need to talk about “The Storm”. I don’t think we’ll ever NOT want to talk about it. It’s therapy to those of us who lived through it and still want to live here.

I’ve put together a montage of Katrina’s devastation on this page. After The Storm I was out of work for 2 months, so I taught myself basic HTML and created the page. It kind of helped my survivor’s guilt.

Memories of The Storm are anywhere one travels in Katrina’s path: overgrown lots, forgotten decrepit houses, flattened beachfront properties on the coast. To offset those sights, it is still evident that the area is still coming back, 8 years later.

Oh, yeah. Something else happened on August 29th: Hurricane Isaac. The odds of this storm hitting on the same date as Katrina blew us away. Isaac blew away our electricity for almost a week, flooded our streets. He did much less than Katrina, he was just a nuisance.

We survived both storms and the ineptitude of the U.S. Government in the aftermath. Today – August 29, 2013 – we are blessed with cool weather and clear blue skies. Many thanks to those who’ve cared, contributed toward our rebirth and all of the prayers.

Bucktown Bash – 4th of July

Bucktown was established over a hundred years ago as a fishing village along the 17th street canal. Bucktown has been somewhat of an enigma, straddling the boundary of New Orleans and Jefferson parish unlike anywhere else in the well defined city, with both sides peacefully claiming the village as part of their own. A variety of entertainment venues hugged the lake in Bucktown with brothels, bars, restaurants and dance halls coexisting alongside the boats. Mother nature however has not been very kind to Bucktown, virtually flattening it 6 times, with the most recent being Katrina.

After the storm, the fleet of fishing boats and trawlers formerly docked along the canal were relocated to the Bonnabel boat launch, after the Army Corps of Engineers took over the mouth of the canal to install a new pumping station. So finally with the money from the storm and the impetus to build, the Bucktown Marina came to life after the initial proposal to build it in the 1960’s. To celebrate, the Bucktown Bash was held today, complete with bands, food, kids activities and the Blessing of the Fleet at noon. Here are a few pictures…

The Marina sign

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There was a $5.00 entry fee, and temporary fencing was erected

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There were vendors and booths selling tickets for food and drinks

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The crowd got thicker as the afternoon progressed

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There was a kite building tent that the kids were enjoying

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About a dozen vendors were selling food, drinks, beer, daquiris and snowballs

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The boats were decked out for the blessing of the fleet in 4th of July bunting

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The Navy brass band was having fun

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The Bucktown Allstars had the crowd on their feet dancing

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The weather cooperated and a good time was had by all

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Happy 4th of July!

Mold by John Biguenet

Southern Rep Theater, in conjunction with the CAC presents now through April 14 the latest play by John Biguenet in his Rising Water trilogy, Mold. His previous two installments, Rising Waters and Shotgun received critical acclaim, and this third installment also rises to the occasion. Be informed, there are spoilers to follow.

I knew this would be a difficult play to watch, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be until I walked into the theater, saw the stage and then felt the wounds of Katrina reopening inside. The set evoked a visceral reaction: the screen door wide open, the furniture looked as if it had been agitated in a washing machine, the buckled floor and warped ceiling fan blades drooping from gravity’s pull and the splattered walls of Katrina patina that looks like a speckled yard egg. When Emile Guidry (played by Trey Burvant) and his wife Marie (played by Kerry Cahill) pushed open the swollen front door, the audience could then see the orange Katrina X-code: 9/21 – CA7 – 0 – 2 dead.

In the first act, Emile and Marie are in his parents home 1 year after the storm waiting to meet the insurance adjuster. It took them a long time to return and the shock of the condition inside as they push the front door open is overwhelming. The third character, Mrs. Delachaise (played by Carol Sutton) a volunteer with the City of New Orleans shows up first, and is tasked with condemning properties and marking homes for demolition, the Guidry home included. Emile is beside himself dealing with the grief of destruction as he meets the coldness of bureaucracy embodied by Mrs. Delachaise, but as he sulks off, Marie and Mrs. Delachaise bond on the porch with Mrs. Delachaise reliving her experiences going through Hurricane Betsy and then astutely diagnosing Marie expecting a child. It was one of those bonding experiences we all know during a storm: with the power out and no electronic gadgets to distract us, we turn to the old ways of conversation and story telling and bonding with strangers while sharing the experience going through the disaster.

The second act opens with the fourth character Mr. Bernard the adjuster (played by Randy Maggiore). He introduces Emile to the 5th kingdom of mold, and the battle that everyone endures fighting for insurance payouts to become whole again. The arguing sets off Mr. Bernard, who angrily relives rescuing people with his boat in the aftermath of the flood, pointing out that Emile was far away, sipping coffee in Houston. Turns out after all the discussion, Emile’s parents don’t have flood insurance, and the grand total of the settlement comes to a measly $1200. It is after Mr. Bernard leaves that the struggle ensues between Emile wanting to remain in New Orleans, the proud mantra that “I’m a New Orleanian and anything is possible” clashing with Marie’s realistic view that there is no money to rebuild, nowhere to live if they did decide to do it themselves and no point in living amongst the ghosts of what New Orleans was and will never be again. Then she reveals to her husband that she is pregnant…

In the brief Q&A that followed the play, Biguenet informed the audience how he had stitched together all the vignettes from countless Katrina stories into the script of Mold. He indicated that Mold was written for all the New Orleanians caught up in the diaspora who remain in exile, as much as for those mold rooted, tenacious New Orleanians that were able to return and rebuild. One audience member wanted Biguenet to add more stories to his trilogy, but others said it was complete. I believe he has covered the experience of enduring Katrina. Mold ends with the couple holding onto each other, the future unknown, the collective experience of discovering the extent of destruction in the immediate aftermath having passed and coming to terms with the loss of loved ones and possessions. The rest of the story has yet to be written with the next step down the path different for everyone as life moves on, and that is where the trilogy ends, for now.

Thanks to Southern Rep for extending the invitation to attend. Experience Mold for yourself, its an entertaining and thought provoking journey to traverse. I hope that this trilogy makes it to the New York stage: in the aftermath of Sandy there will be a whole new audience that can appreciate the relevance and profound message Biguenet’s stories portray.

Sandy, Katrina and Life Thereafter

I can’t get Sandy and it’s victims out of my mind. I live my life as does everyone else, day after day doing the best I can but always, always in the back of my mind are the people who’ve lost everything to this storm, as many here in New Orleans did to Katrina and the failure of the federally built levees. Every news story I read brings back the memories of life after the storm and I grieve for those going through that hell now, as we did then. I didn’t lose my house, my loved ones, my life as so many did but I lived the days afterward in a broken city. I was lucky. I may have been inconvenienced for several months, I might have suffered survivors guilt and depression but I knew, I knew in my heart that I was one of the lucky ones. Be that as it may, I do believe that my close proximity to disaster, loss, death and despair made me a more empathetic person. I know personally people who did lose everything, who put their lives on the line to help others, who lost their own lives in the face of a disaster.

When I read how Congress has waited so long, so very long – 78 days – , to vote to give aid to the victims of Sandy it makes my blood boil. Yes, we may have lost many more lives to our storm than theirs but that should only make us all more empathetic.  We have lived through disaster, we have slogged through the red tape and politicians bullsh*t and that should make us more empathetic. The comparisons between the storms really don’t matter. This is not a competition as to who suffered more. We all have suffered. It doesn’t matter now who opined that we lived below sea level and deserved our fate and whether or not they say the same about New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. No one – no one- deserves to lose their entire life like this. But, it happens. Through natural means or man-made means, it happens.

We, as New Orleanians, know just how devestating and how damn hard it is to live after a disaster such as Sandy. We lived through the pain, the despair, the hardship, the depression. We lived through months of Fema trailers, garbage, no city services, the stink, the flies, the limited store hours, the food and gas shortages, the lack of medical facilities, the fight with insurance companies and on and on and on. We know the hard, relentless slog of life and the mental fortitude it takes to keep on going. We know what the Sandy survivors are living through right now.

May it never happen to you. This is what I think about at 1:30 in the morning when I cannot sleep. The memories may fade a bit with time, but they never pass entirely.

A Reminder of What Was Lost….

Losing my mom at the age of 64 six years ago was the most difficult thing I have ever been through. It all seems rather unfair to me that she was taken at such a young age and I feel like I have lost my best friend, confidant and mentor. By nature, mothers and daughters have a special, unbreakable bond with each other and my mom was simply AMAZING.

I miss talking to her every day and I miss getting random phone calls from her to just “check in.” As in most families, especially in the south, my mom was the glue that kept everyone together. Over the past 6 years, our family has changed so much since she passed.

At first we rallied together to try to get through the hurt of losing her and the losses of our family homes in this new version of our life we were still adjusting to post-Katrina. Today, our family has drifted apart and has turned into something I don’t even recognize. I’ve tried to fill her shoes to be that person to keep our family close like we used to be, but there’s just too much resistance and I can’t bring everyone together like she could. I know she is watching over us and I would guess that she is probably very hurt to see that things just aren’t the way they used to be.

My kids are the youngest in our family and I often feel like they missed the amazing opportunity of getting to know their grandmother the way I knew her. My son was only 4 when she died and he doesn’t remember her other than through the photos, home videos and stories that we have shared with him and this hurts me more than anything.  My daughter was very close to my mom – she was only 9 years old when she died and I don’t think she has recovered from losing her either.  Like most grandmothers, my mom had a way to make each grandchild feel like they were special and that they were loved. I know my daughter misses that feeling and I just wish my son was able to experience it longer.

Today as I reflect on the past six years without my mom, I realize that no matter when this inevitable day would have happened…the result would be the same for me – I miss her every minute of every day. We shared a very close bond and losing a parent, especially your mom, is the hardest thing in the world. So, whenever I hear my friends talk about how much of a pain their mom is being – I remind them that life is short – whatever you do – please give your mom a big hug and tell her how much you love her as often as you can. Don’t fight over the petty things…they don’t matter. Spending quality time with your mom = PRICELESS.

There are reminders, signs if you believe in them, of her every day. From the yellow butterflies that I see following me along the path to work, or the images of giraffes that I spot in random places and then there are the times when I look at the clock the same time almost every day that I like to think is her way of telling me “I’m still with you.” Not everyone believes in life after death but this is a discussion we had several years before she died and she knows I’m a believer.

A Look Back

Over four years ago, I starting taking pictures of a number of the abandoned, rotting public school buildings of New Orleans.

I didn’t intend to, it just happened. There was an initial effort to connect some dots, when I was urged by a fellow local blogger to see what community input into the School Facilities Master Plan meant. I learned that it didn’t mean a hell of a lot – it was window dressing for plans already in motion for areas of the city caught in a Catch-22 situation of New Orleans recovery after the events of August 29, 2005: utilities and city services would return if certain numbers of people came back to stay in these ruined areas, but more people would be more likely to stay if they were assured of those services right off the bat. New Orleans East, the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Pontchartrain Park, and Treme were frontiers in that respect. Return and live here at your own risk, the city seemed to say. And nothing screamed that attitude louder than the ruined schools.

Two years into our second period of living in New Orleans and here I was, climbing through the wide-open shells of buildings that had been under water or had been boarded up despite their lack of damage from breached levees because there weren’t any plans as of yet for the hastily reorganized and heavily charterized Recovery School District to use them or demolish them. Beyond that initial foray into what happened with Lake Forest Montessori, I got curious for two reasons: the realization that there were many more school buildings that were going to face bulldozers without much say from the surrounding communities, and the blanket acceptance by so many I knew that the charters were going to be the cure for what had long ailed New Orleans’ public schools. The latter assurance by friends of mine that bluer skies were around the corner for public education here made no room for my questions and doubts – in fact, I was roundly scorned. Things had been SO BAD under the old OPSB that any idea that charters might not be the cure was instantly interpreted as a longing to return to the bad old days rather than an honest critique. I was also seen as a hypocrite because my son was currently attending a charter – if I dared question charters, why didn’t I just pull him out and send him to a traditional public school?

At the time, I guess I was looking for clues that some of these buildings could be saved. That the surrounding communities’ input would be taken more seriously if the schools that were beyond repair had to be demolished. That people’s lingering grief from events that happened nearly three years previous wouldn’t be used against them. That, despite the crimes the old OPSB had inflicted on the children and the facilities of the public schools pre-August 2005, the people actually entrusted with educating the kids had tried.

I discussed this some with Megan Braden-Perry a few weeks ago when I joined her on one of her trips on the RTA bus lines, but I could only articulate how heady a year 2008 was if one was a blogger in New Orleans. There was a feeling of urgency, of needing recovery in the city to move one way or the other…hopefully, it would move in a direction that would benefit those who called this city home no matter what part of the city they were in. I caught that fever and dared to think that the pictures I was taking might change some things. I look at those photos now and wonder who that person was.

No, I didn’t manage to take pictures of all the schools, but I did go through 33 of them. I had to stop when I discovered evidence of someone staying in the upper floor of one of the schools, at which time I felt like I’d seen far too much abandonment for my taste…for anyone’s taste. But I had to see it for myself.

I couldn’t understand at the time how so many could put their hands in front of their eyes and see nothing. Something in me still doesn’t understand…but I do know that whenever I feel the urge to give in to that same impulse in myself, I think of these places and I remember. I question. I critique. And I do my best to do it constructively, knowing that all that will be left if I and others don’t dare to do so will be something equivalent to the acres of crumbling schools I saw, moldering shells that accused us all of having stood by idly when their lives were on the line.

The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans, Part 2

David Lummis’s second installation of The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans was recently published. Whereas the first part, reviewed here, was more a “lighthearted and irreverent and even campy” (as Lummis himself describes it) romp in and around the French Quarter, Part 2 is a more serious work. A more serious tone, a more serious topic. And a more true voice, I suspect, of Lummis. And for that, a far richer gift to the reader. Lummis lays bare his soul as he writes of the tormented soul-searching done by the last son of an old-school blue-blood New Orleans family, and the struggle of those who love him to keep him from losing himself in the process.

As Katrina approaches New Orleans, B. Sammy Singleton is on the search for his missing friend, Catfish Beaucoeur. Sammy, in a role similar to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, is the narrator but not the star of CSCNO2.  In his frenetic search for Catfish, Sammy encounters Lee Ann, Catfish’s oldest friend. And when it is clear Catfish is well and truly missing, Lee Ann decides it’s time for Sammy to know what Lee Ann herself knows to be the truth of Catfish’s tortured past.

And in this manner, Lummis takes us to 1970s New Orleans and pre-Civil War Louisiana. And the curses that were cast in the long-ago past and the long spidery legs that still stretch and scratch into the present.

Although it is Catfish that is the subject of the novel and for whom the reader will root, it is Lee Ann for whom the reader will relate: Her struggle to love, and be loved, in an imperfect way but in a way as pure as imaginable. Even when she knows it is utterly and completely hopeless.

Upon one reunion of the teen-aged Catfish and Lee Ann, with Catfish recalcitrant as always for having had to leave Lee Ann to fight his own darkness alone, Carfist extracts a vow from Lee Ann never to give up on him.  Here’s Lummis’s description of Lee Ann’s coming-of-age moment:

 And with that vow, Lee Ann felt herself letting go of all she knew she should do, not for Castfish, but for Lee Ann. And it was as if she were taking leave. And as she sat in the Firebird and listened to Catfish read “Old Glory” out loud, she saw the Lee Ann who knew better, the Lee Ann with the Lucky Strike rasp, open the car door and stride out onto the water. And as she watched herself go, this wiser Lee Ann kept on walking out onto that vast pool of night until she reached the center of Lake Pontchartrain, where she stopped and turned back as tiny waves lapped her calves. It was pitch dark in the Firebird and she was a long way from shore, but she could see Catfish plain as day, his eyelashes, the spray of freckles on the back of his hand. She could feel him too, his essence, his beating heart. Negating the distance, he was bigger than life, while the little girl to his right was scarcely a silhouette. From her marine outpost, Lee Ann waved but the little girl wasn’t looking, so she whistled, then called out. No response. The windows were closed and the words hit the windshield and flapped outward like Halloween crows. Her only chance of getting through to the girl, Lee Ann knew, was to return to dry land, but with the first step she comprehended her ability to walk on water was, like most things, imagined, and that all she could do to keep from sinking was to stay where she was, dead center on the lake. So this she did as Catfish started the car, and the headlights broadcast over the water, and the Firebird backed away from the curb and crawled along the shoreline, then winked red and disappeared.

This is not a cliff-hanger story-plot-twist of a novel. Rather, it’s one of strong character development among real-life afflictions and the struggle for regular folks to face life on its darkest days and push to get through to fight another day. And to love others enough to help them push on as well when they fail to find the strength on their own. CSCNO2 is at times lyrical, at times heart-breaking; and it is part historical fiction. But at all times, it is an attempt to explain who we are by where we—be it an individual, a family, a city, a society—have been. It is genuine and palpable. Written with a deftness so that the reader understands the love, and struggle thereto, Sammy and Lee Ann have for Catfish, and, more, to understand the demons that haunt Catfish. Even if the solution to exorcising those demons is not so obvious.

And best of all, it’s not the end of our journey. Part 3 is yet to come.

Survivors August

It’s August in New Orleans and autumn seems as far away as Australia. Forget the dogs, these are the cat days of summer at my house. The yard cats lie around making barely a bump in the languid landscape. They follow me as I perform my gardening snips an sweeps with eyes both exhausted and persnickity as though I alone were responsible for their unwelcome malaise.

August and September are the months I dread the most. They’re the hottest and most humid months in a city that’s often hot and humid and they are the most likely months to host hurricanes, with September 10 being the peak of the season. Although we New Orleanians bitch and moan about the humidity and heat we are a stalwart clan so we slog through these wretched months the only way we know how: dancin’, drinkin’ and singin’. We go to Satchmo Fest early to get seats under the tents and under the oaks and settle in for an afternoon of lawn chair bump-and-grind while keeping a firm grasp on our Abita’s. We run, walk and stagger through The Red Dress Run employing veteran strategies for making it all the way to the end without heat stroke. We revel in the best live music in the world at The Maple Leaf and Tipitina’s, stepping out to catch a cool river breeze when bodies get too sweaty and the air too electric.

In these ways, and others, we mark off the days of August and occupy ourselves so as not to dwell too long on the date that sends prickles up our spines. For those of us living in New Orleans in 2005, memories of a rushed and nerve-wracking evacuation followed by anxiety ridden weeks of an enforced exile loom larger each day that brings us closer to the 29th day. Thoughts of the fetid flood waters that drowned our city and took the lives of our loved ones and neighbors come at unexpected moments throughout the year while shopping at Rouses or on Magazine Street or as we sit in our courtyards and on our porches watching the sun set over the city we love so much. But the memories come hard and fast during August and they still make the heart pound and the ears ring.
Our collective experience of the hours before and the months after the levees broke bind us together in a unique way that only a catastrophic event can do. We may have returned to a certain complacency about some things in the seven years since Katrina but we will never forget the price that was paid nor lose the bond that was formed in the aftermath.