Friday, May 21, 2010

Lettie during an interview
marching in a Second Line

I haven't written much about Lettie Lee, yet as you can see from the photo on the left, Lettie is one of those people who gets involved.

Or to put another way, Lettie Lee is fully engaged, but unlike many engagists, she does it in an utterly unassuming cheerful way, knowing to the minute what's going on in her Parish, St. Bernard, where she was born and has lived her entire 70+ years. Engaged in working for councilmembers, the sheriff candidate she supports, staffing the election tables.

Whenever I go down for a visit, she gives me a large paper bag to take home, full of unexpected things -- newspaper clippings, beads, travel brochures, tee shirts. She'll give you anything of hers too, if you admire it for longer than a second.

I met Lettie while I was living down in "da Parish" as it's known, where I was drumming up business for a documentary film class I was offering, thinking I'd offer people a way to give voice to their lives, firsthand. Thought it wasn't my job to make a film as an outsider looking in, though that in the end is what I've wound up doing.

In the end a dozen people signed up, maybe two thirds of whom actually came regularly -- all of them hesitant, having come out of curiosity or hope. I'd say without a doubt that they were all overwhelmed. James T, a truck driver came to the introductory session, brimming with religious fervor and but it turned out absolutely no interest in giving voice to anything but the Almighty and James didn't come back, though he lived across the street from me and gave me a huge smile and a wave whenever I walked past. A young woman who spoke in a voice that barely rose above a whisper hoped she'd find a way out of her depression. She never came back. A high school student showed up, who'd had an extra family move in with his into their FEMA trailer. Many came for a class or two, leave, maybe return for another class. About five hung with the full ten weeks. (I should give a huge thank you to the New Orleans Video Access Center, NOVAC, who loaned me four cameras for this workshop.

While I was wondering whether what I'd begun was really a good idea, Lettie Lee, who I don't think ever owned a camera, called and left a message on my voice mail. Carefully enunciating her words and in a loud voice she asked if she could register for my workshop. I knew this woman! She sounded just like the elderly Jewish women from the Borough Park section of Brooklyn where I used to work as a tenant organizer. As she spelled her name, and repeated her phone number, I could see her neat as a pin home, curtains and windows closed, smell her lingering smells of cooking...

Lettie Lee is not Jewish. She's a descendant of the Islenos, 18th century immigrants from the Canary Islands. The Islenos came to St. Bernard because it was warm, because they could, because it was surrounded by water and they knew how to fish. Proud Spaniards, they became Southern to the core, and they rooted themselves in the Parish, giving names like Nunez and Perez to the roads and schools. Lettie does not keep a neat home, she doesn't like to cook.

Like everyone down in this part of the world, it seems, Lettie has a very long name (Lettie Anne-Marie, something something Lee Henderson...) a few middle names, a name received at Communion, a maiden name, a married name. None are foresaken. But she calls herself Lettie Lee.

When I met her I immediately felt like Lettie was family, from the side that's rock solid. Reliable, emotionally stable. Lettie always looks and sounds as though she's had a good night's sleep. Of course I was wrong. One afternoon, her broad, sunny face relaxed and grew drawn, as she mumbled, barely in earshot -- 'Katrina ruined everything.'

She spoke these words as she was heading into her tin can of a FEMA trailer, where she lived alone. Lettie's husband died in the 60's from an electrical explosion on the job. Lettie makes ends meet now by working as a driver for Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Lettie's trailer was lined up with 150 others in a flat, featureless FEMA trailer park. Dreary, like in refugee camp dreary. How come there was not the smallest amenity? Like -- a bench? These homes were small. You needed a place outside to sit, and to find companionship. The place could use a planter I thought, with geraniums. 'Temporary' rang out from every detail, although the residents of this FEMA park had been there for over a year, so you'd think that temporary wasn't the right attitude on the part of the government who'd doled them out, painfully slowly, often years after the storm. I'm a complainer. Lettie does not often complain. It's a roof over my head she'd say. without a hint of despair as she moved her clothes over so she could get into bed at night (there was no other place to store her clothes, so they were arranged in no particular order on one half of the bed)

The first assignment, that chestnut beloved by documentary teachers -- the vox populi, voice of the people "man on the street" interview. Ask a half dozen people the exact same (single) question.

OK everybody. You're going to work in partners, one person holding the camera, the other handling the social aspect of the project -- deciding on a question, choosing the spot you'll stand to find your populi, the people, and then ingratiating yourself with these total strangers and convincing them to stop for a moment and talk to you. Then you'll switch roles.

I paired Lettie up with a man about the same age, whose name I no longer remember, though I remember his shiny bald head, his sad smile. Like Lettie, unfailingly polite. He called me in the afternoon to apologize. He couldn't accompany Lettie on her assignment that evening. He sounded tired. Because he'd had a heart attack that morning. He was very sorry.

So I went with Lettie that evening, taking the job of cameraperson. The place she wanted to start was her FEMA trailer park. Under a bright street light (I forgot. There was one amenity. Blazing lights which went on at dusk, and flooded the park with light till dawn) Lettie found a security guard. Would he talk to us? I was sure I knew the answer, but Lettie would never assume. She asked would he talk to us. No. He wouldn't answer any questions, especially (as I'd asked) not the name of his employer, whether it was the same outfit -- Blackwater -- that was earning notoriety in Iraq. (It was.)

But we weren't there to investigate. Lettie was there for what she's best at -- coaxing conversation through gentle and genuine interest and a touch of hilarity. We left the park in search of a subject, and we found one after another outside the Walgreens, at the busy intersection of Judge Perez and Paris Road. Who would have guessed that Lettie -- my little old Jewish lady student -- would be so magnificently suited to this kind of activity.

"Do you have a junk drawer?"

I don't think there will ever be a better vox populi question. Not ever.

A couple stopped and happily responded to this apparently innocent query.
Man: 'Yes, it's where I keep keys, socks, photos of old girlfriends ... and many many slides.'
After I go, my hope is that my wife [whose standing right next to him] will go through them.
Wife: I plan on getting remarried.
Lettie: How will you find the time to find someone if you're going through all those slides?

Second interview subject: My FEMA trailer is a junk drawer. Entergy promises to turn on the electricity soon. Hey Herman (calling over to a grizzled toothless man standing by their car, a dozen yards from us) You gotta junk drawer?

Yes ma'am.
Whaddya got in it?
Junk. [grin]

A heavyset man who calls himself Slim pulls a pair of crab forks out of his pocket. I forget why he did this but you can tell he adores his crab forks. Lettie talked to Slim and his eerily cheerful wife, Elsie, until she found out they couldn't return to their home because of some bureaucratic detail -- like no deed for the trailer they'd lived in for their entired married life. I heard of a woman who drowned in the attempt to return home to retrieve her documents.

And so Lettie, as she would unfailingly do every time she encountered a stranger who was overwhelmed by the problems of returning home, offered to help. If I find something out, she tells Slim and Elsie, I'll come find you. Tell me where do you live? She smiles, laughs, Slim and Elsie laugh, roar even.

I promise to post a piece of the interview -- which we edited down to a 15 minute film that won 2nd place in the shorts category at that year's Nunez College - sponsored Pelican D'Or Film Fesitval.

Lettie, of course, gave me the statue of a pelican she received.

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