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.



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