Monday, December 28, 2009

The First Time

The first time I went down to New Orleans, it was with a common purpose. I travelled down like thousands of others wanting do something concrete, with my own hands, to add a tiny smidgen of relief. It was 2006, and a year, to the week, after Hurricane Katrina. I went down with Al, my husband and comrade, driving from New York, for what we figured would be a week's worth of something physical. Maybe so many people wanted to "get physical" because they [we] were so angry. A new way to give meaning to "if I had a hammer." Because Al is asthmatic, we couldn't sign on with Habitat for Humanity

This is Al. you'll have to tilt your head to the
left, I'm afraid. Can't figure out how to
rotate my pics yet. They came un-done once
uploaded. Beginning blogger, what can I say?

to do house gutting which would put us in contact with vast amounts of mold, dust and unnamed harmful substances. We perused our options on the web. We found an easygoing, come-on-give-us-what you-can little organization called Emergency Communities. We liked what we read. Come chop onions, serve the residents up glop, serve the house gutting Habitat people, bring your own tools, massage tables, hands, songs...They were the next generation hippies? Myself from the Baby Boomer Generation, they sounded like our people. We took our time getting down there, as we wanted to explore some of the South. We stopped in at Lexington, Va, visited the tomb of Stonewall Jackson, a dark tall monument in the local graveyard -- I always go to the gravesites of famous people. Something always...happens -- and checked in on in one of the houses he'd lived in briefly. I asked the guide, who I guessed was retired, and a volunteer, whether Jackson -- who was a widower by then -- had slept with his house slave. Something about the situation there... Him alone, a woman devoted to his care...I would have been surprised if things were otherwise. Mr. Volunteer Guide grew taciturn and hustled us out of the tour so fast. We strolled through a Fiddler's Convention in Galax, Va. If you go, don't bother with the competition performances. The performers seem so nervous to be on stage and not in the comfort of their front porches, They stand stiffly, seem to want to close their eyes to avoid seeing the hundreds of people in folding chairs in front of them, and saw, or painfully plunk their way through three minutes of music they've...rehearsed. You don't want to witness rehearsed fiddling. Go instead to the trailers, where the musicians live and jam, at night. You'll find the same people you saw in the afternoon, but they're alive. They stand around in the light spilling out of the trailers, or prop up a flashlight and in small pick up bands fiddle, strum, sing their hearts out. Requests? Salty Dog! I shouted. It was glorious! From there we drove down to Birmingham and visited the Civil Rights Museum, listened as the congregation of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where the four African American girls had been killed by a bomb nearly fifty years prior, just a block from the Museum, belted forth its Sunday Gospel. Though a latecomer beckoned us inside, we wavered. I should say, Al wavered. I would have dashed through the doors. But Al said, no, we're not meant to be there. Al, a student -- in the depest sense -- of American history knows the story of the Civil Rights movement in complete detail. As full recall as though he'd been present at each march and act of civil disobedience, sit in and strike. Al isn't a tourist or voyeur when it comes to living history. I didn't question his judgement. We stayed outside, as the church doors closed.

Picture of church was intended for this spot. How DO you put a second pic up
with blogger? It's a small, red brick church, on the corner, with a white steeple. It's pretty but normally, you wouldn't look twice.

We drove on, stopping in Montgomery, Ala for the night. Snapped a pic of a really beautiful monument outside the office of the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) -- and I'll get that up too, once I've mastered the system -- and then headed for lunch at this famous diner/restaurant in Mobile -- lot of b&w photos of previous owners, you know the format. Then headed due West on Rte 90 right on the edge of the Gulf through Missippipi, where out to the left we saw nothing but white sand where dozens of gambling resorts had once stood. We detoured around Bay St. Louie where the bridge was still down a year later, and on the sixth day drove into New Orleans.

one for fox, one for crow

Portrait of August: sometime in the Spring of 2007
Violet, La.

August had come through Katrina decently, with the help of Georgiana's car. Georgiana is the woman he lives with, down on Guerra Drive.

Decently is a strange word to use of course. But I mean it in the sense that the travels, which they could never have afforded to undertake without the largesse of strangers and and the money supplied by FEMA, was an eye opener to him. Many times I heard him talk about just how nice the people in Beaumont, Texas were. I think it taught him firsthand the lesson that he was aching to learn -- that hospitality and generosity abound in certain places in this country. According to August, just not in St. Bernard.

August's penchant is for the countryside ... and solitude. It's not for his home town of New Orleans, cities, people. And I get it. St. Bernard, for all its stuckness, is where you'll still find traces of the old Louisiana -- the independent fisherman, trapper and rough builder. Everyone joked that St. Bernardians were a good group to get wholloped like they did, cause they're "handy."

Anyway, St. B. It's flat as a pancake, but as you head South towards the Gulf, and the Parish dead ends at a place called "End of the World" right at the Gulf of Mexico, you'll see nothing but an emerald expanse of marshland, crisscrossed by bayous and canals. Egrets in droves, something that looks like a cross between a duck and a heron, and those wonderfully droopy beaked ibis.

Boys head out on pirogues (old wooden rowboats) on weekends to fish in these water-roads. Alligators course through them. Deer, coon, rabbit on the banks provide ready food, (and these were welcome to the refugees of Katrina who'd dared to come home.) I was startled very early one morning, to see a man skinning a coon in the middle of the road. Alligator meat is a delicacy served up at weekend barbecues.

So August loves the southern end of St. Bernard. I don't know what he means by the "Fish Pond," but that's where he heads on most days he can't find a day job and I'm sure it's somewhere on a bayou down in that green nothingness.

Three years after "the storm," the brick house he and Georgiana lived in on Guerra Drive had been rebuilt and their FEMA trailer towed away. The government had left the cinderblocks that had supported the trailers behind and August found the perfect use for them. He took groups of four or eight into the backyard and arranged them into small enclosures. He'd drive down to some farmers he knew and collect horse manure and fold it into the tiny plots and inside each one he planted seedlings -- and occasionaly seed right into the "serl." His okra, tomatoes, mellaton (a Louisianan fruit I've still never tasted) broccoli, cauliflower, mustard greens grew up under his care tasty and almost always abundantly and strong. He spent lots of time with them, even, he told me, singing to them. He quotes me an Indian saying and I take every opportunity to repeat it. "One for Fox, One for Crow, One to Rot, one to Grow" (an Indian saying) Seemed like he's figured out all you need to know to get an organic garden going.

So August has been chosen to be the Master Gardener of the garden that we're starting. He wants nothing to do with the planning of the garden -- how we actually get it going, and more on that roller coaster of a trip in a later post, or how we raise the money for it -- or nuthin' and there's some resentment about that. He doesn't want to go to seminars or workshops. I nearly killed him when he opted to not go hear Will Allen --master (Afr.-Amer) urban farmer up in Minneapolis -- speak about composting when he came to the Lower 9th for a fundraiser. The Lower 9th, August! It's not the hated Arabi! No, I didn't actually say that. But that's who he is. One of those "I want to be alone" types. Somehow ya gotta respect it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

August, aka World

Two days later...the blizzard ended, of course. The clouds blew over, revealing blue skies.
I stirred from a dream this morning, in which two of the subjects of my film were talking quietly to one another. This would not happen in reality. August is a 63 yr old African American man living in a rundown section of Violet, which is a community in St. Bernard Parish, La and Mama Sue is a chatty, voluble woman, 55, with too many problems. She really has them all, I'm afraid. Just one I feel at liberty to share -- her daughter is due to be married New Year's eve in a bright red dress, and Mama Sue can't afford to get herself there -- Phoenix, Az from NOLA (new orleans) is a hefty ticket next week. So April will, what, walk herself down the aisle?

But that's not the least of it! The woman carries just a ton of burdens. Sue wants to talk to a receptive ear -- who doesn't -- but it aint gonna be August's ear.

Mama Sue is white and I can see how race plays a large role in the direction of friendship. Sue unburdening herself to August?! Literally -- in my dreams.

August -- aka World. Down in Violet, the black men of a certain age have street names, known only to each other. "World" must have an ironic tinge, because August hadn't ever left the state of Louisiana until Katrina demanded it. He and his partner, Georgiana, spent the better part of the three months after K travelling to Belmont TX and then settling in Lafayette, La. for three months.

I met August one evening when I was walking Violet -- my dog -- down Guerra Drive, one run down, down home long street that stretches from the 40 orbit canal to the Mississippi. It's about a mile long. I was living at the corner of Guerra Dr. and East Judge Perez. (You'll want to find out who Judge Perez was. Later. It's another irony that the black community of St. Bernard Parish straddles E. Judge Perez Boulevard.)

So walking Violet (my foster catahoula) down Guerra, stopping to say 'hi' and wave to my neighbors, everyone one of whom spent their evening outdoors, escaping the heat of their FEMA trailers, I met August and his friend Phil, aka Pipe (so named I guess because he's tall and very thin). Like everyone else, they were sitting on garden chairs, imbibing beer and chewin' the fat.

August and Pipe liked dogs, and I'd stop to let mine run with a neighbor's dog in front of his trailer. I'd hoped to interest the two men in joining my workshop -- making documentary films. But, August was quick to tell me that he wouldn't travel up to the Arabi, in the Community Center, where my workshop was held. A shake of his head, and large knowing smile. Nooo, I'm not goin up there. He didn't explain, but I understood.

Old habits die hard. Habit, though? Or old, historically-born, legitimate fear. Twenty years ago, or even less, a black person "knew his place" and Arabi, or Chalmette, just South of Arabi, or Meraux, further south, were *not* his place. A black man in his right mind wouldn't think twice...

But now, changes are in the wind. August has told my camera how much he'd like to be able to walk into white domains. Black and white shouldn't be in different parts of the City, different bars. Georgiana, his partner, disagreed firmly -- no the two races shouldn't party together -- then later said she regretted saying that.

We're -- all of us, Mama Sue, August and a couple more -- working hand in hand to develop a community garden down there. It's called Garden of H.O.P.E. which stands for Helping Other People With Everything. The name was borrowed from a now defunct group of volunteers, the most anarchic, disorganized, sometimes macho, free-spirited to the nth, and as warm-hearted a group as you'd hope to find. Anyway, they may reappear in my tale -- I hope so -- to come down for a long weekend, to help build the garden. The garden will be the second thread in this blog, along with the film, which soon, soon, I promise, I'll get to.

After returning from my walk in the Park today, I called August. We need to test the soil in the two lots we've been offered by Mr. Dean, the millionaire who owns land all over the Parish and who has one generous, eccentric heart. We can have one, and eventually more, of his one acre lots. One lot has a high level of zinc, but it's in a beautiful spot. It backs up against the Mississippi levee and the towers of freighters can be glimpsed travelling up and back down to the Gulf. You can't get a more romantic location I sigh, every time I see it. I try to will the zinc away. It's probably in a tiny, localized spot, I pronounce, hopefully. Mr. Dean, who owns the land, is almost incensed. How can his land be flawed? I want to see the report on that he tells me in his clipped, authoritative way.

August depends on me to make phone calls to "the man." If I were to give him the phone number of the Ag-extension contact in the next Parish over, Plaqueminnes, who'll handle the soil sample, he'd demur. There'd be a confusing, garbled excuse.

Plaqueminnes is maybe even worse in terms of its history than St. Bernard. Judge Leander Perez was based down in that Parish. If I were Afr. American, I can tell you, I'd steer clear of Plaquemmines. The things I heard on my first visit to Plaqueminnes. Unh uh. Unbridled, 50's -era racism. Or would I? I don't know. What is the extent of white racism against black? And the other way. I've heard stories about broken windows, and taunts from Mama Sue's daughter in law. August's friends tell him it's not safe for a black man to attempt what he's doing -- work an acre down there by the Belle Chasse Ferry, the crossing point into Plaqueminnes. August blows them off. It's left that I'll make the call to the the Ag-Extension and August will call when he's collected the samples.

So, ha!, August and Mama Sue were talking when I stirred this morning, readying myself to get to the park before off-leash hours ended. I miss New Orleans when I'm in Prospect Park. Joggers, cyclists and other dog walkers pass and we don't make eye contact, let alone exchange the hearty 'hi, how are yous?' I'd be graced with on my travels up and down Guerra Drive. True, no one walks a dog in Violet. They're free to wander the streets, but mostly, they're tied up. They're guard dogs. I must have been the "northern novelty," carrying plastic bags with me on my daily walks with Violet to the levee.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

in Prospect Parks' field

My first post should be my introduction. So allow me ... I'm a documentary filmmaker which is to say I've finished a film and am working to complete the second -- it's a Katrina film -- and this one has opened up a world that has as they say expanded horizons.

But before getting into what happened, why I'm bursting with questions and have lots of problems and wonder how to go about negotiating the intersection of life with film...let me tell you that the snow that fell on Prospect Park last night was nothing short of miraculous.

I headed out with my two dogs -- catahoula curs and if you don't know what one is, google it. They're beautiful, and very energetic dogs. They're not recommended for city life. I live in a city (Brooklyn) I wind up walking a lot, which is probably good for me.

Together with Princess JO and Violet, I headed into the onrushing blizzard, and into the Long Meadow of Prospect Park. Although it was night, the dome of the sky was -- glowing with the falling snow. The sounds of the streets had gone quiet, the buildngs that look down on the park had disappeared.

I had a Monk/Coltrane concert on my iPod. You know how sometimes the music is the perfect accompaniment for what you're looking at? Bach, eg is perfect for a crowd of pedestrians crossing the street. But now, Monk and Coltrane had melded into just.the.right music for the melancholy beauty of the snow in the night. The dogs were subdued (for a change) I dropped their leashes and I started to dance. Just me -- out in the vastness. I even started to really dance.

My first post ever,