Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Two Years Later...

August 29, 2007
5223 Basin View Drive
New Orleans East

Dear Family and Friends,

It's midnight in Katrina's garden of ups and downs. Yes, two years ago Michelle Mohammed, like so many other New Orleanians watched her city drown.

She lived in Portland, Oregon for over a year after the storm. In October, 2005, she flew from the Northwest to see the home she'd owned for 11 years for the first time.

"There's nothing else you can do when you see that, I broke down and cried."

I work with Michelle. I went to the University of Oregon so we had a connection from the first day. Over time Michelle and I grew closer. She has a 23-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son.

One day Michelle said to some co-workers, "Look ladies, that's Robert, that's my son!" We joked about it. A black woman with a white son. We joked about going to restaurants and telling the waiter.

And then something real happened. On my 24th birthday, Michelle showered me with gifts. Like only a parent gives kind of gifts. A new shirt, a tie, a pair of pants, and a bottle of cologne.

"I wanted my son to look sharp on his birthday," she says. Later that week, a friend and I spoke of the gesture. What started out as fun had become something much more for the both us, my friend said.

"Robert, you know she's really adopted you. You're her son, she tells us that when you're not around."

Mohammed's house took eight feet of water. Her husband still lives in Portland. The 21-year-veteran of the New Orleans Public Schools was without home or career because of Katrina.

She's shown me that people overcome obstacles and do it with grace.

"It's been a struggle."

It's close to 1 a.m. She walks me back to my car.

"I love you," she says. "I love you, too."

"You know I pray for you, Michael and Aryanna every night. It's the only way I can go to sleep," she says.

I drove home.

And slept well.



Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Katrina's eve. How about something good?

August 25, 2007

Circle Food
1522 St. Bernard St.
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

Wherever you are, New Orleans will be on your tubes and your screens, your breakfast and coffee tables this week.

Whatever you read in the big shop media this week--read it with a critical eye.

There will be stories of struggle and heartache. The ones that tug and make you say, “Oh my.” It’s what writers want you to feel. It’s what writers dream you feel.

These are good writers. Human interest is what we--humans--are all

And then you’ll read about the crime. And the still partially sutured status of what The New York Times calls our “Patchwork City.” You’ll read about the lack of this and that and slowness of here and there. And the “Two years later the Big Easy struggles to Recover” headlines.

It’s all true.

But, know that buried underneath the stories of struggle and patchwork, stories of strength and persistence are here, too.

And I’d say: Where are those stories?

Take the Circle Food, a grocery store in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, which had been in operation since 1938 until Katrina. This weekend, the owner, Dwayne Boudreaux opened Circle Food in its parking lot to test the viability of reopening.

“We were the original one-stop shop,” Boudreaux said. “We tried to provide what the community wanted and needed.”

I met a woman and her mother at the parking lot grocery store. People came and shopped, I asked them whether they’d shop at Circle Food if it reopened.

I must have seemed out of place. After all, I had a clipboard.

The interactions with a few discrepancies went like this,

Excuse me, mam, may I..?”

“Oh, Baby yes, bring my Circle Food back!”

“Well, why?”

“Because I’ve been coming to this store my whole life. It’s the only place in town where you could get five peppers for a dollar and pay your utility bill too.”

I think Circle Food will reopen, insiders tell me so. Boudreaux wants to do a few more one-day sales to gauge the community need. Again, he’ll bring people in for a make-shift block party where people leave with peppers and seafood, toilet paper and iced tea.

Saturday was hot like everyday. A sheen topped the parking lot. People without sunglasses looked funny, really. One eye open or squinting, saluting the sun while they shopped, socialized and listened to a DJ underneath a tent.

If Mr. Boudreaux has anything to say about it, they’ll be inside the store soon enough.

Chalk this column up in the Boring Category. Circle Food is a solid this is happening but not quite amazing enough or sad enough or despicable enough story for a headline. But it's good enough to know New Orleans will be ok kind of news.

And I’m ok with that.



Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Day 163

Day 163
New Orleans, La
August 16, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

You could call my 163 days a whirlwind. The nights are long, days are bright and it often doesn't matter if my eyes realized the transition. People in New Orleans a
re saying more and more, "New Orleans got you didn't it?" Yes--like an addiction--New Orleans has me.

But no one ever said honeymoons last forever.

There have been days filled with frustration. What is frustration for a healthy-white-24-year-old with a degree, a job and a place to stay anyway?

It's nothing like what the people here experience daily.

Maybe Webster could condense the word for the rest of us--we could call it "frust."

Or frustralite.

For the transplants, these are the days you look around at mothers with children, dirty and unhealthy. You drive by vacant residential and commercial real estate. You listen to stories of struggle and heartache. The ones that begin the same, but always take unique twists, making each increasingly harder to hear than the previous.

And then I go home to my ap
artment, which I'll never have to rebuild. Or I go to the romance of the French Quarter and refuel my affection.

"Frustration" should only be used
by New Orleanians.

People down here call i
t "Katrina fatigue." Everybody gets it. My friend at work lives in a three-bedroom ranch house with 11 people. She sleeps in a twin bed and jokes that her seven-year-old doesn't realize, "Mommy doesn't like legs in her face, honey."

But she remembers
the king bed she used to have. She remembers the home she used to own.

"How long do you think it will be until you have your own spot," I ask.

"Probably another couple months," she says.

Like I said at day 77, the human spirit is stronger than I initially imagined. But
people are tired and more and more I hear, "I don't even want to hear the word Katrina."

I ask my co-worker how she does it.

"It's what you gotta do," she says.



Saturday, August 11, 2007

Baseball and levees

Lower Ninth Ward
Intersection of Roman and Reynes
New Orleans, La.
July 30, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

Ray Chang’s professional baseball journey started in stop-light towns like Beloit, Wisconsin where mayors double as maintenance men. But with every promotion, Chang, a 23-year-old with a gregarious school-boy’s demeanor in a Major Leaguer’s body, plays in bigger, more glamorous cities.

He isn’t quite two full seasons into his professional career, but the undrafted, a-scout-found-me-at-an open-tryout-shortstop, finds himself playing for the Portland Beavers, one call away from becoming a San Diego Padre.

Recently, he played in New Orleans, a City, it seems, in the eternal international consciousness. His travels have never taken a turn quite like this, he says.

Storm surges sometimes topped 20 feet in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. City-owned street signs rarely exist. At the intersection of Roman and Reynes, a centerfield to home plate’s throw away from Hurricane Katrina’s Florida Avenue Canal breach, a house sits doorless, a house sits roofless and a foundation sits houseless.

Several foundations on this block idle in the Louisiana heat. So Chang brought his glove. At least for a day, this former kitchen floor served a purpose. As he plays catch, the only returned resident on the block stops his yard work and stares.

Leaving the Lower Ninth for the higher ground of New Orleans, where the romance of the French Quarter and the majesty of Garden District mansions are, Chang turns back.

“That was mindblowing,” he says.

He went 3-4 the night before, but he’ll never remember New Orleans for the baseball. He’ll remember this stop for the nights in the French Quarter socializing in buildings nearly 300 years old, and for the disparity of existence between the haves and the have nots of the Big Easy.

The Lower Ninth Ward is nothing like he ever imagined, he says.

“I’m glad I came.”

We talked about the lack of residents in the neighborhoods closest to the Florida Avenue Canal breach, and the flow of outsiders driving around in taxis stopping in intersections and snapping photos.

After all, Ray and I are them minus the taxi.

The resident who watched Chang play must have been confused. Baseball? On an empty foundation?

This time at least, the gawker wasn't a visitor.



Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Face #3 New Orleans Mental Health Crisis. Meet Raymond Hall

Duncan Plaza
New Orleans, La.
July 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

Raymond tried to eat the slice of pepperoni pizza. He really did. Problem was, his teeth are falling out. But before they leave, he says, the teeth break off in pieces.

Hall was one of the first homeless New Orleanians I saw who came to protest the inadequate public housing in Post-Katrina New Orleans. Over 100 people night after night sleep in the shadow of City Hall at Duncan Plaza. They sleep in the gently elevated grass and under a statue of George Washington. And next to a boarded and vacant state office built the same year as City Hall.

As I walked by them the other evening, the air had cooled, many people were up telling stories, smoking cigarettes. The main branch of the New Orleans public library is next to Duncan Plaza. About 30 people sleep under a library canopy too. An electrical outlet is used by a woman’s boombox. It’s not quite a nightlight, but she seemed peaceful.

Hall, 56, wasn’t here for KATRINA. He’s one of the few, I’m sure. But, as a Vietnam veteran who lost two young children, ages three and five, in a house fire, he deals with his share of psychological trauma.

“In less than 30 days I was back on a plane to Vietnam.”

He, like many homeless, are in “as is” condition. His chest is ribby, with wispy grey hair. He could use 25-30 pounds. A crucifix hangs from his neck. Hall isn’t the only one who sleeps outside with a faith in a god.

He came to New Orleans after losing federal disability assistance in Florida. He tried to explain what happened, but it was tough to follow. It’s a similar story for many I’ve spoken with. Hall couldn’t remember dates, he jumped around, didn’t know names of lawyers instead beginning with “The guy said…”

Carl Davis was the same way. “He’s out of DC, ah, I can’t remember the guy’s name” kind of thing.

It’s one of the most difficult things about learning their stories. Truth is, often Davis and Hall probably remember only half of their own.

But, Hall came here as a musician. A percussionist, he says. Like Davis, Hall hears voices, “They say different things, like spirits” he says. He’s diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, but has no prescriptions to tame anxiety.

When he feels bad, Hall says he just wants to go away. He understands his problems.

“I need medication,” he says.

Problem is, there aren't many here to prescribe it.