Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Convention Center

Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
October 31st, 2007
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

You may remember, over two years later, the images of the Superdome and the Convention Center. Images of heartbreak.

I'm not the one to tell you why. I wasn't here.

But my friend Teddy was. He says that living for three days outside the Convention Center were the most horrific of his life. Teddy says that all the rumors you heard about the Convention Center were essentially true. Some of the crazy stuff like rampant rapes weren't. But, guys with guns and the rising of underworlds and tribes like something out of "Survivor" did happen.

Teddy left the Superdome because like thousands of others, he heard that the government had opened the Convention Center as a shelter. No order was ever issued. There was no food, water or preparations for the Convention Center to be used as a shelter.

Teddy tells people he's going to charge for the next time he tells his story. It's true, this guy should be getting paid for his knowledge. Journalists, even embedded journalists, can't tell a story like the one he has.

Dead New Orleanians were left for days on the street outside the Convention Center, he says.

Generally, like the ways of our primal world, these people were our elderly or special needs citizens. Just goes to show how fragile civilized society is. I'm not a New Orleanian, but I'll use pronouns like we to describe this. This was a national event. These were all of our brothers and sisters--our grandfathers and grandmothers.

I went to the Convention Center today. Sixty million dollars of renovations later, the one million square feet of space looks pretty darn good. Hall "A" the oldest part of the Convention Center, built for the World's Fair of 1984, was the most heavily damaged during Katrina and the days of pain after.

One of the Convention Center's event planners gave me a tour of the place. Every square foot of carpet has been replaced, all doors repainted, he says.

New Orleans has always been a Convention destination battling Las Vegas and Orlando for top honors. The convention are returning steadily to New Orleans. I've read some of the welcome brochures of these conferences. No matter whether it was the American Association of Surgeons or the World Association of Police Chiefs or architects or pharmacists, each welcome letter focuses on "the feeling that we must help New Orleans in it's time of need."

True that.

The Convention Center canceled all events from September 2006 to March 2006 due to Katrina related damage. In 2007, the Convention Center says it expects 324,568 people to visit and particpate in events held at the Convention Center. For 2008, they've booked 382,914. In 2009, they've booked 541,860 and 504,240 for 2010.

What happens when the feel good stuff runs out though?

It's the thing I fear most for this City's economic livelihood.

The airport reports as of the two-year anniversary that it's operating at over 80 percent of it's pre-storm level. That means visitors are coming here. Convention visitors are coming back and big events are coming back.

But these things can go elsewhere if New Orleans, the City, doesn't amount to a fantastic destination anymore. All indications point towards that not happening. The people I've met and spoken with who've come to New Orleans say they're gonna go home and tell a friend, "hey, New Orleans was great."

For the paradigm of how we think about New Orleans to shift, it will not be because of the national media. It will be a few consecutive years of millions of visitors coming--and leaving--with the "New Orleans was great" attitude.

"Do you do exit interviews with Convention people?" I asked

He says they have people rate their satisfaction with the Convention Center and the City. "I don't think I've seen less than a 7 since the storm," he says. Overwhelmingly, the response has been fantastic, he says.

This was good to hear.

The feel good Katrina reasons for coming here will dry up, it's inevitable. But, New Orleans' hospitality won't go away, no matter how you get here.

See you soon.



Monday, October 22, 2007

After Midnight.

1:30-2:30 a.m.
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

How do you connect with the people that sleep outside of your comfortable and secure apartment building? I hope I never have to use a cardboard box for a pillow. At first, I thought it was stupid to bring food outside in the middle of the night.

I have food. No wallet.

Henry Gray, 51, of no address is “High.” “On Budweiser,” the old-timer says.

A woman is on the neutral ground too. She speaks in tongues and walks in circles. Rollers are wound tightly in her hair, a soiled week-worn sun-dress covers her.

The two actually aren't unlikely characters for this time of night in this type of neighborhood.

Gray and I dig into leftovers from early in the evening--red beans and rice from Mother’s Restaurant. It is a great time for midnight snack. I splash some hot sauce, he grabs a spoon.

And we listen to her.

“Jesus Christ” she says. “Mistas please buy me some cigarettes.”

“Nothing is open,” I say. She doesn't hear me. She's retreats to tongues, her comforting circle-walk.

I turn to her, “What’s your name?”

“I don’t have one,” she says. “Actually, I don’t remember my name.”

Henry and I watch the elderly woman, a hospital id bracelet is affixed to her left wrist. Maybe she had worn the dress under different circumstances--before becoming one of the walking forgotten of post-KATRINA New Orleans. Maybe she used to be the matriarch of a family.

She comes back to Henry and me.

“Those red, beans and rice?” she says. Her gums smack together when she speaks, no teeth to buffer her speech.

“Yeah,” Henry says.

“I make me some good red beans and rice,” she says.

“What’s your secret?” I ask.

“Honey, just gotta make sure them beans be tenda,” she says.

Henry and I hear water flowing. No, it’s urine streaming down her legs. She begins an internal but audible conversation with a family member. A sister, perhaps.

Regina” she says. “Regina, why don’t you come on over here.”

Henry and I talked about the embarrassing ironies of post-KATRINA mental health care in New Orleans. Over 80 percent of New Orleanians have reported battling a least one bout of depression or some sort of post-traumatic stress since KATRINA came.

“Did you know that there was an exodus of psychiatrists and psychologists after Katrina?” I say.

“No, man,” he says. “But that lady needs some help.”

The sanctuary for the mentally-ill, Charity Hospital, closed its doors after Katrina. New Orleans went from 412 psychiatric beds to 82 after KATRINA.

She had been in a hospital.

There were id bracelets to prove it. But what happened? No beds and no doctor to care for her, I’d assume.

I start taking pictures of Henry and me. The first one doesn't come out. You know the ones. When you get together and hold your hand with the camera out. We look at the picture: my face and Henry’s knees.

“Don’t be snappin’ no pictures of me,” she says.

But I had to. I needed to. She was the face of the New Orleans’ mental health crisis. I felt anxious, but took the picture.

No flash.

“Quit that boy,” she says. I take two more duds. She’s after me now in a hobble. She is at least 70 and hardly a thoroughbred. I walk away from her and back around to say goodbye to Henry.

“Bring me some Budweiser when you come back in the morning,” he says.

I say I’ll try, knowing water is the only thing he’ll get from me. The camera is in my pocket. Still with no clean image of the woman with no name, I take it back out. Her reaction is different this time.

“You want to take my picture?” she asks softly. “Yeah I do, can you smile for me?” I ask.

“Is this for my obituary?” she says.

“You’re not going to die,” I say.

“How do you know?” she says.

"I just know," I say.

I focus and shoot.

“Mista, print that out for me when I die.”

She goes back to her circle dance, her foreign tongue.

Henry and I have lost her for the last time.



Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New Orleans' Music. The Second Line.

September 30, 2007
Congo Square
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

When I die, throw me a party.

It's the only way it should be. Like the ones who thought up jazz funerals so long ago will tell you, the dead are off to a better place. Pick up your feet, raise your hands and celebrate cause you'll see them on the other side.

I went to a second-line the other weekend, the formal name for a musical procession through the streets for an event or more historically to honor a fallen New Orleanian musician. They call it a second-line because the first line is typically the band and integral members of the deceased's family and friend circle. The second line is the scrum of people--old and young, friends and never-knew-hims who dance behind.

Sometimes, I hear, they last for miles.

The one I went to wasn't a celebration of a musician's life, it was kick-off of to a music festival--and my first time. I went telling everyone, "it's my first second line!"

Such a tourist.

A friend told me, "Do you see why New Orleans is worth saving?"

There is this old-guy in the band. I've seen him around town. He's always wearing a bowler's top hat, the one that famous pale white guy with the funky mustache wore.

Charlie Chaplin?

But this guy, a member of the famous Treme (Treh-May) brass band, he's cool. Cool, like only a guy who plays an instrument and knows it like an extension of his hands. Many of the city's musicians have moved on, taking their acts to the clubs of Austin, Tex. or New York City.

The ones who've made it back, including the bowler-top-hat-wearing-I'm 70-years-old and cooler-than-most-gen-y'ers, have the soul of this city in their lungs, hands and feet. In New Orleans, people say, the music must continue, the show must go on.

This second line started at a church called St. Augustine. It ended in Congo Square, the section of land just outside the French Quarter where African slaves spent Sundays playing music and dancing in 18th Century French and Spanish-controlled New Orleans.

It rained. People danced without regard. Others hid for cover.

This is New Orleans. And Austin, you can't beat it.



Monday, October 8, 2007

Remember Carl Davis? An update

New Orleans Public Library
October 10, 2007
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

Carl Davis looks skinny. Skinnier than the first time I met him in June, when he told me things I felt wrong to repeat. Davis says its ok to repeat these things.

A man on the ropes isn't much on maintaining an image, I guess.

But, it's a man on the ropes who isn't afraid to give a story, a real oh my god that's whats going on and I'm no shrink but that's some crazy stuff kind of story. That day, Carl Davis told me how Hurricane Katrina had psyched him out. Voices that talk to him everyday. Voices that have told him to kill himself twice since the storm.

The last three months have been better for Davis physical condition. The terribly-sun blistered lips are now more healthy. The damage, I'm sure, will always keep Davis' lips looking a little off.

His head is still in shambles though. "There are two voices," he says. I asked what they look like--if voices had a face. White guys he says. The bad one, the one that tells him to kill himself looks like the devil.

"The good voice is telling me you're alright, Robert," he says.

Knowing that Carl has something else making judgments about me are unsettling sure, but he is a gentle man, whispering when words matter and other people are around him.

Davis weighs 135 pounds. "The voices tell me not to eat," he says. "It's poison," they say.

"The bad voice told me to kill myself the other day."

He's living in an apartment with the help of a homeless shelter in town. They gave him a deposit and first month's rent on a little place off MLK Boulevard.

"I got robbed again," he says. "It was stupid, I bought me a piece of ass."

"I hadn't had no ass in a year."

Asking was shameless and intrusive, but the answer would be a market rate snapshot in America's underworld of desperation--so I wanted to know:

"How much?"

"She had charged me 20 dollars and stole my keys. Her boyfriend came back with a gun."

They took 600 dollars, he says.

After we met in June, I didn't think I'd ever see him again. He's a classic disappearing act, but not in the romantic world traveler way. When he came to see me, we hugged. We walked three blocks and sat in the shade, ate snickers and drank orange juice.

"I'm glad you came in," I said.

"I just heard you were giving away tennis shoes," he said laughing. "I'm an 11 and a half."



To see initial Video and Column about go to the "JUNE" Folder