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.



  1. Hey CS - found a way to read through the white on black by blowing up the print. An enjoyable read, even though I know a lot of story, and I somehow stand beside you in thinking it a good to put oneself out there. Now - the film!!!