Tuesday, August 31, 2010

5 years later

Happened to be down in NOLA (New Orleans La) this past weekend, not becuz it was the 5th anniversary, but because Lorna Donaldson, that straw bale maven, was arriving in NOLA and I needed to gather a little bit of pick up footage. The timing seemed to meld with our personal missions perfectly.. Only after I booked my flight did I realize...good lord. Five years to the day. And the TV was , excuse me, flooded with mini and maxi documentaries, all of which I watched. I'm afraid nothing totally lit my jets. No, not even Spike Lee's If God willing an da Creek Don't Rise. Harrowing scenes, and the pain Lee found was painted in living color, and it was terrible to watch but there was something else I wanted to see and exactly what that is, I don't know.

Lorna has been loaned a double shot gun, which is a house design that has an unfortunate connotation, but refers to the possibility (ONLY please, the connotation, but good god, not the reality though it sometimes is) -- of firing a shotgun and having the bullet sail cleanly through the front and back doors, passing through the living room, a bedroom, another bedroom the kitchen a wash room -- every room in the long narrow house. In New York, we call them railroad apartments. The function of the shotgun design is to allow fan stirred breezes to cool things down. And they do. Beautifully. In the mornings of my four day stay, I threw open the inner solid doors, front and back, kept the wrought iron gates latched, turned on all four fans, and did my I Chuan exercises, and it was exhilerating to feel the breezes whipping through the house. Traditionally, the shotguns in the Lower 9th ward didn't have doors (according to mama sue) and the hard wood floors have mostly become linoleum.

The stats say that only 25% of the residents of the Lower 9th have returned. Here are four shotguns I took pictures of. One (right) has been rebuilt to a faretheewell, including a sweet front yard flower garden. The house has been painted meticulously, but amazingly, AROUND, not effacing, the crude 'X' that the City inspectors drew in the days after the storm, noting three things -- at the top, the date, the initials of the inspector and in one space inside the intersecting lines whether any dead bodies had been found. Or dead or living animals. The owners of this house, as with many around the city of NO, have chosen to preserve the X and the hastily written code. No, we don't want to forget how it looked. That 'X' was the best bit of memorializing "art" I've seen.

So many have become overgrown with vines, the land and power of nature drawing them back into the dense Mississippi delta mud. The one at the top of the post I worried had been left to rot, but I'm hopeful still someone might adopt it. There's someone who cares, at least a little. A small business card with the owner's name is wedged into the brand spanking new chain link fence that has put up to guard against the crackheads who are causing mischief up and down the streets. I was -- strangely, I know -- tempted to jot the e-mail address down. I loved the way it was set back from the street, and boasted a second story. Imagine the breeze on that upper balcony. I'd keep the strangling vines.

The one Lorna and I stayed in (above) has been rebuilt, painted a sober New England gray, the 'X' covered over, for what seems to be an investment. In about four months, after which Lorna will mostly likely have left, paying tenants will live in them. But down the road, in the farther along the way future, when the fate of the Lower 9th has been decided, these shotguns might fetch a good price.

So, our lovely double Shotgun begs the question: What will happen when the city of NO decides enough is enough and the 50+ percent of these houses have to be razed? Who is going to lay claim to the land, the real estate of the Lower Ninth? That's what I haven't seen in the gut wrenching films that have chosen to revisit the Katrina disaster. The wailing continues in the poor districts, and among the poor in general. I know from Mama Sue how the debt to that storm will never be paid off. But now it's time to look into the board rooms, and back rooms. Have yet to see some fine journalism on that subject.

But for me, looking at the face of an aging Katrina meant looking at the clapboard shotgun houses. How are they looking five years later?

Monday, August 23, 2010

The main thing this week -- or the one I'm writing about -- is about August's computer. My plea for a donated laptop, so that August could be connected to the plans and ideas for the Garden of H.O.P.E. (Helping Other People with Everything) Being as I worry he's not connected with we planners and plotters and since we do most of our communicating on the internet, shouldn't he be able to read and "talk" back to us?

One lead and conversation leads to another, and after mentioning my wish for a donated computer to a friend I learn about Alan of Alans Affordable Computers and Repair. Alan is noted for his computer donation program. He donates computers to poor school children around the U.S., veterans groups, dozens of computers are sent to people living in Gaza. Alan loved the mission of our Garden down there in St. B.

Long story short. Two nights ago, one came in! in. Keys had been pulled out by the previous owner’s children, the screen is a little funky but very serviceable. It's def internet-worthy, Alan said. Ran down Saturday a.m. to get it. And sure enough – it works!

The great thing is I found a neighborhood cafe (on - line of course) called Kitchen Cafe, around THE CORNER from August's house (I couldn't believe this. There's not much in that part of the Parish and at first I could only find places with names like Latte Cafe up in Meraux and no way August was going to spring for a $3.-- cup of coffee in the "wrong" that is white part of town. (There's that crazy gap – racial gap I mean. It’s closing, in all the corners of the Parish, but there are folks who still feel that it hasn’t, and sometimes I think August fits into that group but I know I don’t know what the real story is. And to be sure there are some who wish that it isn’t) So yesterday, tooling around for the second time on the web, when I found the Kitchen Cafe, walking distance from where August lives on Guerra Drive, there was that feeling of aha! A new spot, whose owner, Selma (as in Selma, Alabama she told me) was in the process of hooking up her router. She has a high counter where people who just want a cup of coffee and to spend time on the internet can sit. And too, Selma is very interested in the Garden, or at least the affordable organic produce that is soon going to be available. I was pleased, talking to Selma, networking like this. Let’s hope things keep on keepin' on like this.

I leave Thursday for New Orleans and will be staying in a house in the Lower 9th that some very kind woman, a hydrologist, is loaning Lorna, our straw bale maven.

Will try to post something every day if I can figure out how to do it on my phone.

Many pieces still to be put in place, like how hundreds of straw bales are going to be transported from somewhere in the mid-west to New Orleans. Like how they will get from the train yard to the acre in Canaervon. Like who will unload them. Like finding the funds for a ton of compost and finding yet more funds for a nice fence. I insist that it not be chain link. Want those square holes and how wonderful if the posts could be round, to match the posts of our future gazebo.

Wish us luck and send money!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Straw Bale Gardening Here We Come!

Mama Sue has surfaced! Shot me an e-mail to say she's home, looking forward to seeing me. She's been moody. Hmph. That's a euphemism for somethin'

But this post is exclusively about The Garden of HOPE, a name which Sue gave our proposed garden, which she says stands for Helping Other People with Everything. This was a field of dreams for Mama Sue, August, Lettie Lee. Not a baseball diamond, a real garden, a community garden with different fantasies for each person. Mama Sue envisioned a "place of peace." With all her infirmities, she wasn't goin' to do no plantin' but what she wanted was to recreate a bit of the feeling she had as the neighborhood "mama," who kept a pond in her front yard full of minnows, small turtles, gold fish and what all, where kids would stop by, and in delight watch these specimans of small aquatic life. This is how she got the moniker -- Mama Sue. Hurricane K swept it all away. If she could sit in the Garden's gazebo which she envisions is surrounded by a small stream and four little bridges crossing into it, and tell stories to the kids who'd drop by...(the pic you see here is of a gazebo that sits in a pond in a park "upriver" in St. Bernard and this is the idea Sue has for our -- for her -- gazebo in the Garden of H. It's nautical with its round piling-like posts, and such a lovely bit of architecture, but convincing the hard-nosed gardener types who are involved with us that we need a gazebo at all is requiring all our skills of persuasion.)

August envisions a place where he would work the land, and teach the youth of Guerra Drive (August always shakes his head and smiles ruefully when he says "Guerra Drive.") Give 'em something' to do, he says. And we both know that if he could turn one kid on to growing and harvesting, he'd have accomplished something. The Garden of HOPE Is far from Guerra Drive. You need a car (bus lines were swept away by Hurricane K) but they'd get down there with help from a parent or August himself, and in time, the idea would "ketch on." and they could start small gardens on the empty lots all along Guerra Drive - which are abundant, little reminders of the houses that used to exist before Katrina. Thousands of cement slabs waiting to be torn up are all over St. Bernard. The pop. in St. B is down by about half.

Lettie Lee just likes the idea. She's got a black thumb she says -- all her house plants die promptly under her care -- but she's very civic minded and like August thinks that this might be good for the children of St. Bernard Parish.

But our green acre has in all honesty been going nowhere. I've envisioned what it would sound like if it were a sound effect which is like a car in the deep trenches of winter that grinds painfully and you know is not going to start up. Or a computer that whirs quietly and pitifully and won't boot up. I have to be honest, it warn't goin nowhere. We have exactly $400 in our bank account, nitrogen-poor soil that needs major amending, the promise of a free tractor, which has yet to materialize, and receding hopes.

Until Lorna Donaldson, a retired organic farmer from Tennessee got wind of our garden, our dreams for it, and swooped in like a fairy godmother to say she'd help us get the full acre planted this fall. Seeds to be donated by Baker Heirloom Seeds. Yes! Since, like all of us, she watched in disbelief as the BP spill ended most of this season's (we all know it might be much longer) fishing along the Gulf, she's thought long and hard about what can be done -- what she can do.

Lorna is promoting an old, but little used method of growing called Straw Bale Gardening. Instead of soil, you use bales of hay (or straw), covered with a thin layer -- 1 - 2 inches -- of compost. You don't need to mess with soil, bugs are minimal, back aches are less severe because you're not bending down so far. And she will give us enough straw bales to cover the entire acre, and help raise the money for the compost and the fence (didn't have the heart to mention our need of a fence) and provide August a bit of training. But I don't think he'll need more than five minutes. I hope only that there's no disagreement about what our first crop should consist of. The dark greens of course -- collards, and what not, tomatoes, okra (gumbo ingredient) Someone who lives down in St. B told me that African women would stow okra seeds in their hair as they were being hauled away to slavery. So okra has to go in there.

Our plans are to meet in a week and a half, a week from Thursday -- all of us -- Mama Sue, August, Lettie Lee -- over a plate of red beans and rice somewhere in da Parish talking it all through with Lorna and get this ball rolling. Please -- no hitches please!

I'm looking forward to seeing my old friends. Plan on shooting an hour of August describing his boyhood when I have a feeling practically his only pleasure was simple gardening. A 9 year old boy enjoying nothing more than growing beans. August has told me stories about how it was the nuns in the orphanage where he grew up - in the 50's -- who taught him how to grow things. So much detail I've wanted to glean, but which he hasn't parted with. But I've learned that he raised chicks too and the nuns gave him baskets of eggs to take door to door. August has bemoaned (miserably) growing up in an orphanage. He's also told me that he'd be another lost soul if he hadn't. I'm very curious to see what he'll teach these boys on Guerra Drive to do.

A plea here. If you happen to have a laptop, notebook, iPad, netbook that is available to donate to the Garden of HOPE. Totally tax deductible. August is going to have to be in e-mail touch. Is going to have to receive materials from Lorna, and myself and be able to send us information far more easily than he's been able to with his very temperamental cell phone. His phone is frankly a pain in the ass. Thanks!

More info on the garden (and lots of other stuff) can be found on my website: www.oneeyedcatproductions.com/ along with a way to get in direct touch if you happen to have a laptop or $5,000 for a fence. Website still a little rough in places. Why I haven't mentioned it till now.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Family Reunion

Sometimes, as with the demonstration in behalf of the mosque being built in Brooklyn -- and I have to add an update on that soon because the ADL has really pissed me off -- things in my own life become front and center. Going back a couple o years to describe my live as a hapless videographer in a disaster zone which I've been attempting to do -- even that recedes into the settled past. And anyway, Mama Sue has not surfaced. She's back in Texas maybe, still comforting an ex-, whose wife recently died. And I can only wonder...has she reunited with Anthony? Is she dumping Lou? She's the subject of my film, the sole focus of my strange task, and it seems I should try to find out. Then, too, the lines dividing filmmaker and subject have tangled, and we have become (in a way) friends. But it's also possible she's dumping me. Maybe my camera and my eternal questions are one more part of the Katrina aftermath, and when she said at one point "I am remaking me" she hinted that she was going to decide that that included ultimately throwing over her chronicler (me).

But the last week I've been -- whew! -- engaged in a family reunion. A friend wrote in an email, 'Hope your reunion wasn't too stressful, as family gatherings can sometimes be (or maybe always are!).'

The night we were supposed to be watching a slide presentation of our geneaology, which stretches back only three generations before mine (born in the 50's) child of the WWII generation, and grandchild of immigrants from the shtetls), I was curled up under the covers, unable to face the crowd. Cousins gently knocked on the door and offered reasons to ignore the slights and join them down in the hotel dining room. If for no other reason than it would please our Aunt Sylvia -- our elder, at nearly 98. And our younger cousin, who has been washing and cleaning old photos by the hundreds, and wading bravely into geneaological software, was camped out at the side of the road in New Hampshire, similarly unable to face it all.

This was Day One of the family reunion. We, young geneaologist and myself, had been cajoling others to not forsake us, and to attend the presentation of photographs, videos and an extended diagram of our family tree, but as camped-out younger cousin noted, "not everyone is interested in our family history." So we had to plead, and by the end when younger cousin, our slaving over chemical trays cousin herself grew lightheaded, couldn't drive any farther and e-mailing from a library begged for our forgiveness, there I was, weeping. But what is a family reunion without weeping and the *star* freaking out on the roadside?

And then Aunt Evelyn cracked me up, when all was forgiven and we'd washed our faces and came to the table, threw the family geneaology up on the computer screen -- when she said with her trademark startling honesty -- it -- geneaology -- is "boring." And to be honest, it's not that interesting. The chart with little circles for female relatives and squares for males (or maybe it's the other way around) And names in tiny print stretching sideways so far, you have to scroll the page left or right to take them in, the page lurching haphazardly towards one wing or another. Who cares?! That I have second cousins in Akron, or that so and so married and has three children?

Until I learned that my grandmother's brother, Charlie, had scarlet fever at age 4, and became deaf and wound up in a Catholic (or Protestant) boarding school for the deaf (all this was in Montreal, back in the 20's) where he flourished, marrying Pansy, also deaf, and mute as well. We murmured when we learned that they remained Protestants, or Catholics -- out of gratitude we all assumed. Back then, people stared solemnly into the camera, as though they were sitting for an oil portrait, but not my great grandmother, Channa (changed to Anna by immigration). Her smile was crooked, wide, rich. From the gut. What/Who gave her that supremely contented smile? With her big floppy hat, and sun dresses in every shot, we all agreed she could have been part of the impressionist movement of painters. Widowed three times (though first husband is only a rumor. Who was he we murmured) she stood, like a pioneer woman, looking square into the camera, her daughter, granddaughter and occasionally great grand daughter in the shot with her. Young cousin geneaologist remarked repeatedly -- "the four matriarchs!" David Zvi, whose name matches that of a name on a list found in an on-line note, that of a tinker in the tiny shtetl, Pode Illoie, in Rumania, where we had the Rumanian spelling of our name -- Hahamovici -- moved to then-Palestine, and started a family line one of whom marrired into a line that changed their name to Gur. Gur? Like the name of the Hebrews you read about in the Bible?! Was that their idea? Were they Biblically-oriented immigrants? Why did they take on the name Gur? The Hahamys, the offspring of that fleeing resident of Pode Illoie struck out for a life in Palestine, while my grandparents, after a new tax on the Jews of Pode Illoie, scrambled for enough money for steerage to Canada. Pa (as my grandfather was called) sought to bring his sister Fagie over, and with his brother Louis received permission, even though she was not going to be a farmer, which as one document our geneaologist uncovered, was the sole skill sought after by Canadian Immigration. But if she were free of diseases, if she were literate, and if she would promise to work in their coffee and tea business...then she could come. And she did. Our Uncle Dave, who had remained silent whenever asked about his experiences in WWII, a "just war," he said, revealed his memories. When Uncle Dave, a self described Socialist, knew he was dying, he finally spoke about it, answering a dozen questions posed to him by our family historian. It was nearing 1 a.m. and a few of us read his words over each others' shoulders. He had ridden onto the beaches of Normandy two weeks after D-Day. (young cousin, the interlocutor) Q: 'What were you feeling then?' He replied, 'What was I -- a Jewish kid from Montreal -- doing here?' 'He must have other thoughts and feelings' I said aloud. 'That was a cover up for something more.' 'No, that was it!' the historian replied. 'That says it all.' We read, we pored over the pictures, discussed, argued and glanced at the spindly, many armed tree.

The past. It throws as much mystery at you as it provides information. But it's the mystery of it that gives you a kind of thrill. And there's a feeling of arriving at corroboration. History is real, it's true! Finding my place in the common history of the world has a sort of wonder in it and somehow -- it's strange how intense the feeling is -- it fills me with joy. And I feel literally connected. Those long skinny lines, taking left and right turns and dropping down and down like the thread of a spider, until there I am, a circle below a circle and a square. A square (or a circle) next to me, labelled Al. Some day maybe there'll be a descendant of my wing sitting on the floor around a coffee table with a bunch of cousins and someone will throw out a detail about their distant cousin, a generation or two above them on the "family tree." And that as yet unborn being will muse, "I think she was a filmmaker" Someone else as yet unborn: "Oh yeah?"