Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tuesday at the Maple Leaf

Maple Leaf Bar
8316 Oak St.
Just after Midnight
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends--

Last night, when the Rebirth Brass Band's drummer walked through the door 30 minutes late, no one batted an eye.

"They need you," the bouncer said.

Rebirth is worth the wait. They began at 11:30 for a 10:30 show, administering their instant injection of pro-New Orleansness to a mixing pot of college kids, hipsters, brothers, sisters, barbie dolls and senior citizens.

The senior citizen part is true. They enter at their own risk, with no guarantee of replacement if a hearing aid breaks.

The Maple Leaf bar is positioned on a road out of a Jack Kerouac novel. The store fronts have character because the proprietors have character. Oak street is stuck in a time warp, but has installed wi-fi and bikram yoga spots to suit the needs of our 21st century quest for information and spiritual centering.

Its music hall is small, and fire codes are broken. People file in and in and in. At the end of the herding and beginning of the brass player's craft, your shoulder is next to a person whom you don't know but don't mind bumping into. Two vintage ceiling fans are doing a terrible job of circulating air. Fifty-watt light bulbs are off and the collective bounce of the crowd makes the little metal chains attached do their own jigs.

Everyone sweats. I'm talking man my clothes are sticking to me and I'm wiping my forehead every 30 seconds sweat. I bet girls hate this, especially the ones that put stuff in their hair to make it "volumous." The light is just dark enough so the condensation factories we call our foreheads aren't on display.

The light is so good in fact, that a goofy guy bobbing unnaturally and wearing a bass fisherman's hat looks cool.

I love this place.

You can do anything and have no fear that about people watchers sizing you up. I've found several places like this in New Orleans-- places that don't wholly follow trends or fashion labels or attract women who've bought into the one-look man.

Outside, my friend Cole and I meet a French girl. She says New Orleans isn't anything like the European or American Cities she's visited.

Her response solidifies what many transplants from around the world have been suspecting-- there is no place like New Orleans. I know you've heard it a hundred times, but it's true and you must see it for yourself.

You can stay on my couch.



Saturday, November 17, 2007


Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
National League of Cities Conference
November 14, 2007
New Orleans, La.

Dear Volunteers,

The free-filled days of the average Southeast Louisianan are gone. So, when we write this letter or shake your hands, thanking you for your time, it’s sincere. Because we know what your time is worth. Many of you may have lived in the Cities represented this week at the 84th Annual Congress of Cities. The mayors, city council people and other officials from Sandusky to Seattle are here.They want to know about what it means to live in New Orleans. They want to know what it’s like to operate in a post-disaster environment. They’ll get information from the local leaders of the Southeastern Louisiana parishes. But, you, the citizens have the stories they need to hear as well. Your duties this week are to greet and disseminate information, distribute bags and take tickets. But at the end of the day, we ask you also to tell your stories of life in a post-disaster environment. Tell the Mayor of whateverville your story. If they return to their City remembering only the conversation with you--call it a success.

The mayors flew in from the east, the west, leaving their towns full of grain mills or expansive office parks. They came to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for the Congress of Cities, an annual convention of locally-elected officials. The Convention Center, over 1,000,000 square feet feels more like an international airport concourse than a meeting place when you first walk in.

The students who came to the Convention Center this week to greet the mayors were honor students and homecoming queens, athletes and class presidents. Both teachers from Cox and McDonough 35 spoke proudly about their students.

"People stay in New Orleans," Helen Cox teacher LaToya Bailey says. "It's just how it is down here."

But Bailey says many of her students are on their way to colleges around the region and country. Many will stay here in New Orleans and attend historically black colleges Xavier University and Dillard University. Xavier, McDonough 35 teacher Dan McLean says, produces more African-American med students than any other school in the country.

Helen Cox junior Greg Monroe came to greet the mayors. Monroe is attending Georgetown University once he graduates from Helen Cox in 2008. He's 6' 10 and the top-ranked high school basketball player in the country for the junior class.

When the Helen Cox students formed a gauntlet at the entrance of the escalator, Monroe manned the last spot. "Welcome to New Orleans," the students sung and yelled.

This was the only time I've ever seen middle-aged, middle-American, slightly uncoordinated men and women dancing--feeling like rock stars.

Over 300 volunteers helped welcome the locally elected officials. The Council of United Way agencies donated over 500 hours. Trinity Christian Community, based out of Hollygrove, donated 200. They did it because so many in the non-profit and relief effort down here believe that visitors aren't getting the whole story. This was a way to tell the leaders of other communities what's happening here.

Boisterous volunteers with a little gumption went up to people and began conversations. Most of the Mayors told me when they left that New Orleans wasn't what they had initially thought.

I have a theory about this.

This, whatever this is down here, has too many layers and niches, nuances and details to be condensed into a news story by a national syndicate. What you get in your living rooms or on your coffee tables is the stuff that is digestible.

It takes a trip here to see the progress and the struggle. Five-thousand mayors and city council people had the opportunity this week. Twenty-thousand ophthalmologists did the week before.

Somewhere in blank-ville, a mayor has stashed a folded "I love N.O." shirt in her closet.



Thursday, November 1, 2007


Frenchmen St.
November 1, 2007
3:45 a.m.

Dear Family and Friends,

I'm not alone. Six-thousand of my closest friends will be hitting snooze this morning. Fear of oversleeping runs wild in our thoughts. It's a quarter to four and five hours until the experiment we call work after Halloween in New Orleans begins.

In New Orleans, much like New York, the new attitude is work hard, play hard. People tell me, that pre-K, it was more like work some, play more. Dr. Edward Blakely, the City's recovery czar, says there should be no more "Easy" in the nicknames for New Orleans.

The work hard play hard mentality that is beginning to permeate this place, especially with the 22-34 demographic. I hope it defines post-K New Orleans. Maintain the coffee at sunset, the cocktails at sunrise, dance six feet from of a trumpet player all night long activities. Right after work is finished.

Frenchmen Street occupies a sliver of New Orleans that is steeped in funky. Architecture, people, smell sometimes. The neighborhood, called the Marigny, has residents who follow the building structures: they are often colorful, sometimes tilted, but overall incredible to look at or know.

On Halloween, Frenchmen Street turns into a mass of alter-egos. Wonder-women, Harlequins, Marie Antoinettes, Bumble-Bees. Beetlejuices, Where's Waldos and Larry Craigs (Ha). The area can hold 10,000 people I'd say.

The it's ok to take alcohol outside as long as it's not in a glass container law promotes the makeshift-no-invitation-necessary-because-this-a-street-and-not-a-living room party. They tend to sprout up often in New Orleans.

On holidays like Halloween, these parties turn into massive celebrations where new friends are made, acquaintances reunite, and several people try to take snapshots with police officers.

The no glass rule kinds of goes out the window by midnight. Jules Goins, my friend and roommate, dresses like Tiger Woods. I'm his caddy. We bought a roll-out putting green and brought it to Frenchmen St, put it down and started yelling "Putt for beers!"

There is something special about watching a vampire with a golf club. No way this would fly at New Orleans Country Club. By the end of the night we'd gone through our inventory, and our last spot was at an intersection. Twice unrealizing motorists had to be escorted through the crowd by the New Orleans Police Department.

"Game on," Wayne from Wayne's World yelled.

Right out of a movie.

Eight hours earlier, New Orleans under 12 population is spending Halloween in Palmer Park. The Mayor and his wife have outfitted it with hot dog stands inflatable play pens, fire trucks, police cars and one scary guy who is 7-feet tall with a tiki torch and a fierce make-up job.

The trick or treating and costumes have put smiles on children and adult's faces. There is a feeling a safety and community here. The Mayor says to the crowd thanks for coming and that more events like this will be planned for the City's children.

Nights like these are a litmus test of this recovery. New Orleans knows how to celebrate holidays. In a symbolic sense, I think a City without hope wouldn't celebrate.

The funniest thing is, several people told me, "Just wait until Mardi Gras" with you haven't seen anything yet looks.

This makes me scared, happy.