Wednesday, July 28, 2010

She's a Survivor

Back to Mama Sue. When I think of Mama Sue now, I see a rapidly aging woman, a woman growing old way before her time. With an eye out for "the Katrina story" I would always ask, was this -- your unravelling health -- or your marital, um, stew -- or your lack of work -- or... -- the result of Katrina or would you have been "miserable" anyway? Strange things to be asking. Looking back, not a necessary question at all.

But Sue, though in her mid 50's, hobbles with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. And, as a result of Katrina, which she survived through a set of events, decisions, quick thinking, and as Sue would say, with the intervention of "God or the deity of your choice," she developed the nastiest of foot infections and had a few front teeth knocked out. But hair was gelled and she was wearing maybe a touch of mascara when she sat down opposite me to relate her Katrina tale, and I could see she'd been a "beauty." She loved to tell me about her straight chestnut hair so long she could sit on it.

When I moved down to Violet, three years ago, one of the first things I did was invite Sue over for dinner. Sue is now heavy, and due to the pain, she has a stiff kneed gait and she walks leaning forward slightly. After she made it to my door, my landlord called to ask if everything were OK. I don't know what he saw when he saw Sue come into my apartment, but whatever it was it worried him. As I poured the wine, which Sue couldn't drink with all the medication she took, but probably politely raised and lowered, she told me I was her only friend. Thankfully I didn't ask whether that was a Katrina problem. Anyway, I knew the answer.

Sue isn't good at chit chat. It seemed as thought she's cursed with -- the artist's curse maybe. The need to organize her thoughts wholly according to an inner light. Often it seemed she was (is. She is still very much alive! though I do worry about that constantly) musing so hard she'd forget she was in company. I'm painting a picture of a distracted genius. No, not that at all. Maybe Sue is an Outsider Artist. She planted her front garden with plastic flowers after the storm. "Nothing would grow," she said, "everything's dead." (hence the name of my film, mama sue's garden). The front garden was ablaze with bright pink and yellow flowers, and they were pretty! Not tacky at all. Mama Sue has a hearty laugh, she can be wicked, can get hopelessly tangled up in petty BS with a neighbor but who can't, was (is?) a great friend and companion to her daughter, April, who was finishing up her last year of high school. Anyone looking at the two of them, would see a couple in love.

A couple of weeks later, maybe less, I found a large brown envelope under my windshield wiper. Inside was Sue's memoir, 200+ pages of Sue's life. I got to it within a day, and could not put it down. Whether I knew Sue or not, I think I'd have read until dawn. It read like a potboiler, that is fiction, bodice ripping scenes included. Such as married to a dashing navy enlistee and living with him in his idyllic Hawaiin posting. Followed by infidelities and the mean and heart rending lows of husband number two, whose drug addiction and physical abuse never for a minute it seemed stopped her from loving him. To the next guy, Lou, who she hardly mentions at all.

And Katrina, which doesn't appear for a 100 pages, and then reads like a film starring Clint Eastwood, an early one, with so many moments when you think, this couldn't really happen. Like a CE movie, you know from the beginning that she makes it but all the way through you're on the edge of your seat.

Sue loves that she survived the storm on her rooftop. She told me more than once that she'd do it again. The first time she said that I think my jaw dropped. I don't understand people who climb Mt. Everest. But I'm beginning to get it. To know that you can survive the worst natural disaster with nothing but the intelligence of your muscles and quick wittedness. To confront it without -- nuthin.' Just you, as everything that had that ever held you up, let you sit, provided food and warmth, as all of it turns into an obstacle, an enemy even (as her refrigerator did when it floated towards the door and formed a blockade, as her roof did as it shredded between her fingers, while she was attempting to pull, climb, stretch and haul her body onto it) and everything you depended on vanishes one by one and then flies at you in 150 mile an hour winds "as though you had a bullseye painted on your back." Baking in the sun and as the days wore on, joined by two of her dogs, who'd chase away the rats. Other small animals, seeking high ground, were allowed to stay. At night she'd sleep in a pirogue which had floated by. "You sent me a boat God?" Survival of the elements. But surviving with faith, as Sue did, conversing the whole while with God or thedeityofyourchoice. It is something to be proud of. As my editor said the other day -- Sue was a heroine.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Hey Sue,

I had called you this morning and left a message, then two minutes ago, got a call back from Lou. learned from him that you left for TX this morning. Missed you by a hair! Damn!

2 things urgent. Want to send you the herbal hepatitis capsules. A box of them has just arrived and can get them in Saturday's mail.

Then -- got a call from August. He wants his copy of the contract y'all signed for the land. He wants to start tilling, as you suggested, but is afraid to go out there without that piece of paper. A black man in Canaervon kind of thing. Is sure he'd be arrested and jailed.

So, if you could tell your husband where that piece of paper is, and perhaps August could go pick it up? Is that possible? Or will the two of them be some kind of absurd unhappy about making direct contact. Perhaps Lettie can pick it up from your house and bring it to Aug. That would probably be the simplest

So - hoping you get back to me soon. And hoping you're doing OK! Been leaving messages for you, and got around 12 hours too late to calling.

Regards to Timmy and family.

much love,


The above a message sent to Sue about a week ago, after August got to thinking that if he went down to our lot, without a tractor, but just a hand tiller, or just to mess around, that more than likely he'd be arrested and jailed. And as though getting arrested and jailed for wandering around on a plot of empty land was predictable and by some stretch of logic, acceptable, he added that that kind of thing 'stays on your record.' August was more perturbed about his criminal record it seemed than getting arrested and jailed. I was ready to jump in right there and say, "oh come on." Though I wouldn't say 'you're being paranoid,' or that 'we're not in Jim Crow times any more. You have to give people credit for growing out of their old and base ignorant ways of thinking.'

Thankfully, I say instead, 'let me call Sue and see whether she can run you over the contract.' August was one of the signatories on the ten year lease for this luminous acre hard by the Mississippi levee in the village of Canaervon.

But, I learned the next morning Sue had left for Texas. She'd gone, without telling me, her chronicler, her personal memoirist, that she was going anywhere! Felt as though she owed me an explanation! How dare you move around the country without informing your filmmaker? Well, she had -- had left for Texas to be with her son for two weeks and whatever else she wasn't telling me. I had no way of reaching her, Sue's cell has long ago run out of minutes, so tried in vain by e-mail (see above) tho' haven't gotten an e-mail reply from Sue in weeks and this one is no different. Why do I feel so responsible for the success of this garden? for Sue? For August? That's a question for a shrink/guru, neither of which I have at the moment. Maybe only a filmmaker, who's got 100+ hours of footage on her cluttered study floor would understand. Finally made contact with Sue that evening by phone and was told that the contract was buried in a "black suitcase in my closet." She'd get Lou to find it.

Lou, Sue's husband, is not a paper kind of guy. He doesn't make out his own checks, you never see him with a book, newspaper or pencil, unless he's making a mark on a piece of lumber in preparation for cutting it with a power saw. Lou is very handy and his humanity is in his construction and repair projects. There's even a hint of whimsy in some of them. Lou built a floating chair after the storm waters of Katrina had subsided out of a lawn chair, somehow sticking the legs into two oblong pieces of styrofoam. This adorable contraption floated even with the weight of an average size St. Bernardian! Lou and Mama Sue called it their pontoon chair and Lou sat in it and paddled out into this newly existing body of water to retrieve a sunken trailer. The painted, polished and gleaming black trailer (not the kind you live in, but the kind you use to haul stuff) now sits in his driveway, pride written all over it. Lou still refers to black folk sometimes as "coloreds." Sue rolls her eyes.

Asking Lou to find the contract in the black suitcase in the closet in Sue's den and arrange to hand it over to August, who in turn thinks of Lou's kind with utmost wariness had me tied in knots. Should I instead ask Lettie Lee to pick the contract up and bring it over to August's place? But that would have been solidifying some old habits of thinking, wouldn't it? I wouldn't be helping to change a situation that damn well has to change if we're going to start farming a plot of land with a racially integrated team next to a somewhat racially integrated church in a white neighborhood and I wasn't going to be any part of the old way of doing things!

Katrina had some good effects. When I went that Spring of '07, less than two years after Katrina, with Lettie Lee to Easter Mass, I was surprised to see black and white people in dresses and suits heading together for the doorway of the church. When I asked Lettie about this she told me that there just weren't enough churches that had been able to rebuild for the old segregated patterns to continue. In other words Katrina had shoved black and white into the same church.

He was hesitant. 'August, you'll stick your hand out, take the piece of paper from Lou, say thank you and leave.' He laughed and asked for directions. The next day August was at Lou's house at noon, as Lou had asked him to be. When no one came to the door, August called. No answer. August went home. All of this was told me last night by Lou, who hadn't woken up until 4 pm that day, and didn't hear the doorbell.

p.s. Lou did the right thing -- two days later, he brought the contract over to August.

Friday, July 16, 2010

cell phones

I don’t mean this as a digression from where I left off last week. But I want to convey the fabric of a community, and a snapshot of the times, the moment that I happened on mama sue, or she on me. More on mama sue… coming next week

So, before I get to Mama Sue, and that whole tangled yarn, I have to ask…is it true? That the oil has stopped gushing into the Gulf? I hadn’t heard the news yet while watching footage shot three years ago, of August baiting a hook and casting into one of the still, still rivers of Delacroix Island, which isn’t really an island, but the name of a neighborhood at the southern end of St. Bernard Parish. I couldn’t help but be wistful watching his relaxed way of handling the hooks and lines and setting the rods down on the beach. That day I managed to hook a catfish and he pulled in a striped drum. I was wondering as I logged the scenes of this afternoon hour - so casual I might have forgotten it if I hadn’t caught in on tape – whether August would thread a hook with shrimp pieces again in his life. No, I wouldn’t have forgotten. It was an unusual day, a beautiful, languid, somewhat unnerving day. The water, air, trees, sky all utterly still and it seemed untouched by human beings. And unnerving because I hate fishing. I never go. And here I was with a virtual stranger, who was teaching me how to attach a tiny piece of bait… I was horrified when I actually caught a fish! I didn’t have the strength to haul the thing in. It was heavy, or it was fighting. I couldn’t tell. August, so pleased with me, and himself I think for having taught me how to do any of this, reeled it in. “She caught a fish before August!” he declared. I was a good filmmaker, I thought, keeping focus on the catfish as it thrashed around on the dropped-down gate of August’s pick-up.

And I haven’t forgotten the first afternoon (spring, '07) I returned to my new temporary apartment – a one bedroom on the second floor, above a soon-to-be-renovated row of stores. They, the future stores, all sat empty, holes in sheetrock which would soon accept electric panels, plumbing fixtures. Grimy windows which would one day be clear and showcase some kind of retail activity. Up an exterior iron stair, there were about 6 small, unadorned apartments, all except mine rented by laborers from Latin America. Only one of these construction worker had come with his family – his wife and young daughter – who prepared out of their tiny kitchen (I had the same four impossible electric burners) dozens of tacos every day for sale to the Mexicans who’d relocated up in the NOLA area for Katrina work. The rest shared with one or two other men. Only one of my neighbors spoke any English.

I didn’t know any of these details when I returned home from my first major shop at the newly rebuilt Winn-Dixie, back seat and trunk filled with at least 20 small bags of cereal, soy milk, frozen crawfish pies. It was night, and completely dark. I was startled – putting it mildly – to see at least three small trucks parked in the lot that adjoined our apartment strip, where I too had pulled in, in my Prius. I was surrounded – or so it felt – by a posse of lone-man occupied trucks. All I could think – since I was on Guerra Drive, a street everyone spoke about in dejected terms, shaking their heads – that they were doing drug deals. I froze. Here was I, a gringa woman who lived alone. How could I get out and start carting my grocery bags up the stairs? They would see I saw them making their deals and maybe not that night, but some night not too far in the future, they’d come for me. My thoughts about what “come for me” meant were vague. I think I assumed they’d shoot me. I sat for what seemed like an hour. Then, when the men all seemed to be not going anywhere, I decided that I could either sit all night with my lettuce, or be brave and get out of the car and go to my apartment.

I learned not too long after that evening that these men used the nighttime hours after work to place calls to their families in Central and South America. They were sitting in their trucks, clutching their cell phones and receiving -- who knows? Perhaps stories about this relative or that, reports of illness, death, a new baby, the marriage of a cousin, any news they could strain to hear about their native country in their native language. They were probably describing their day. By March when it started to get warm, I’d look up at at our common balcony, if you want to call that narrow cement strip that ran outside our apartments a balcony, and see many of the men leaning over the metal railing, for hours, the tiny lights on their phones glinting like fireflies. The man who lived in apartment #1, the one who spoke some English, worked part time for our landlord as a sort of super. He’d helped me assemble my sofa bed. One afternoon, he tapped on my door. I opened it hesitantly – still not absolutely sure of things, though by this point I was sure that I didn’t know a thing about my neighbors – and he asked if he could use my laptop to look at the CD his wife had sent. When he sat down at my computer, and the images of four adorable girls, his daughters, the oldest twelve I think, popped into view, he told me that he had left for the United States one afternoon, without letting his wife in on his plans until after he’d reached the States. He hadn’t seen his wife or children in the seven years since.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Never say never

Under-exposed. The stuff that’s not in the film

That was originally going to be name of my blog -- "under-exposed." But boy was it taken, by every blog system there is. And so now I'm going to post something about these experience, these feelings, I experienced while shooting, kind of aimlessly at first, on the modest streets of St. Bernard, a year after the storm. How it all began. After Katrina, I said to myself that I would never make a film about such a huge event. Hundreds of filmmakers would be heading down there, and I wasn’t going to be one of them. I wasn’t going to enter what was an unmistakable feeding frenzy (albeit a slow one).

Yeah, you guessed it. Never say never. Fast forward three years. I am waist deep in footage about a woman who barely made it through Hurricane Katrina. Mama Sue is the name she goes by, and now entering post production, spanning three years, the film in progress is called “mama sue’s garden.” (there's a website, if you want to learn more about the film,

It’s always interesting to trace your steps from never to never say never. I started out with a cleaver volunteering for ten days with a small, funky organization – now defunct – cutting onions and making sandwiches for a community kitchen. With a lot of enthusiastic support from the young folk who were running Emergency Communities, I’d packed my camera in the trunk, and in the evenings, offered people – Katrina people – the chance to record their stories. What everyone said they missed more than anything, more than their homes, cars, flatware was their photographic and film record of themselves and their families. Finding a salvageable photograph of a wedding, or a legible diary, would bring tears of joy to their owners.

Would people want to talk to this New Yorker with her Northern ways? One weathered gentleman -- who looked as though he’s spent more days on a boat with a line out for catfish – asked whether I were a psychologist. A lot of shrinks had come down, and so here were these fishermen and hunters, carpenters and oil rig workers chowing down on the food we'd prepared -- suddenly sophisticated about this urban and urbane avocation. And the sense I got was that they didn't see much use. But, to my surprise, a couple of people, at the appointed hour, peered into the lounge off the dining room where I’d set up shop and … entered.

One of them was Susan Veronica Boutwell LaGrange, aka Mama Sue of course, accompanied by her teenage daughter, April. Both talked to my camera for two hours and asked if they could return the next day. I said yes.

Five months later, I'd cleared the decks of work, assured my husband I loved him, and drove my car down to this place and tried to insinuate myself into the abnormal rhythms of a jimmy rigged society of volunteers and weary residents, of ruin, of illness, and poverty, and the sound of boats calling from the Mississippi, crawfish Fridays, which I never got used to. Come Friday evening, lots of homes would religiously drag a large collapsible table out into their backyard, put up a huge pot of seasoned water -- everyone used the identical seasoning that came in a box. damn, what's that box's name? - and boil hundreds of these little crustaceans. You didn't have to be invited. Just walk up to any table with its pyramid of crawfish, say "hi" and pull one off the pile, laid without any fanfare directly on the table. Have you ever pulled the head off a crawfish and sucked out the innards?

And the best thing of all, though -- I know I've said this before, but I continue to miss it -- the way total strangers wished me a good morning. Occasionally, to be able to feel better about myself, I toted a hammer. I also ran a documentary workshop, but more and more I wound up at Mama Sue’s colorful home -- pestering her as she went about her daily activities, and, was gratefully amazed when she handed me the key to the workings of her mind..

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Accordianiste

I took this photo -- the one on the right-- a couple weeks ago. Yes, it is a small orchestra made up entirely of accordianists. Would you have been able to resist running down to hear this extremely ad hoc group, who had been collected together by the man in the foreground, to create, as he put it, "a forest of accordians?"

When I heard they were going to perform, for one time only as part of a day called Make Music New York (held every summer solstice, or June 21st) from Staten Island to the Bronx, and all places inbetween, I called my good friend and neighbor, sure she would be as excited as I. Would you like to go with me to see, and hear a forest of accordians? Brett said that as far as she was concerned, one accordian is grating. I don't think there could have been anything less appealing to Brett than the thought of forty of them echoing and reverberating as an ensemble. But the accordian. No seat at the orchestra for the accordian. It's the orphan of instruments. I associate it with Paris or Berlin "between the wars." In the movies of the era, there's an old man in a beret, shambling down a cobble stoned street, playing for pennies. It's the instrument of the European blues, the accordian accompanies the down and out, Edith Piaf... It's regret and Regrette. (Who doesn't love The Accordianiste? I wonder if Brett doesn't) I know that the accordian has found its "serious" modern and American interpreters. Have had the wonderful pleasure to hear Pauline Oliveros, an accordianiste who has successfully escaped the French and the shmaltz.

But, still. How disappointing when the "forest" didn't succumb just this last time to the je ne regrette themes I so much wanted to hear! Instead, the conductor, a conceptualist of some kind, had one of those schemes, in this case impossible to decipher. All these accordianistes, as far as I could tell, were to waft between a few notes, coming in one at a time, at random, and then mush around until everyone had joined in. It wasn't a forest so much as a fog. After five minutes, I fled, and hung out by this "cool" jazz combo across the street in front of The Gate, a local bar which is always packed and tantalizingly rowdy.

The picture on the left is of an unknown accordianiste, spotted in an alcove of the stairway of the downtown A train. He probably couldn't get a permit to play on the platform -- yes, you need to audition to play on the subway platforms! And if you don't get the permit, you play, for pennies, in small out of the way hideouts, hopefully outside the notice of the transit police or whoever enforces these wild laws. So there he was -- yards away from the platform, in a spot where people rush by, not where they hang out waiting for the train. And he played the heart-breaking, Piaf-era tunes. Though it was unexpected, and I was rushing...there he was, the man in the beret so to speak.

If I don't have anything more to write this week about what's happening down in St. Bernard Parish with "World" or Mama Sue or Lettie Lee, it's because ... I wonder if the terrible things that are happening in the Gulf and to the Gulf are unravelling our -- imaginations, our faith in the project. In other words, we're drifting. I'm being a tad melodramatic. What's really happening is we're on a wild goose chase of a search for a tractor and of all yuck, coincidences, an oil company has snagged the one and only rental tractor in the entire Parish -- to cut the grass around its refinery.

I've been listening to "misery's the river of the world," by Tom Waits with the pleasure you get listening to incredibly sad music. Imagine these lines sung in the deep, impossibly gravelly growl of Mr. Waits:

for want of a a bird, the sky was lost, for want of a nail, the shoe was lost, for want of a toy, the child was lost, for want of a knife, a life was lost...

For want of a plow, the land was lost. So we can't find a plow, or we have to wait, the rental place said, until the oil company is finished with it, which may be a month from now, or longer. He implied the length of the wait is really completely uncertain. Kind of like the oil spill itself. Why should a month's or so delay bum me out like this?

It feels like "the last straw," I worry that the garden may be doomed, but Al assures me that it most definitely isn't. But bummed I am. Anyway, this post is dedicated to the tragic musicians of the world -- those seers.