Sunday, December 10, 2006

Because Nobody Demanded It ...

... my band Smuteye has our first official bar gig this Saturday, the 16th, at the Bottletree in Birmingham, Alabama. Our massive winter tour has begun; next stop - world domination!

So if you have a taste for country-punk - and who doesn't? - we'll see you there. Country-punk? What's that? That's what happens when a massive flood drives away a silly country band's banjo player and rhythm acoustic guitarist, who sensibly removed to North Carolina, and the band is left with a bassist who learned to play during the heyday of '80s hair metal, not to mention Schlong's guitarist. The drummer's ocassional attempts to rein us in have, so far, been mostly for naught. Schlong, by the way, is reuniting for a couple of shows in San Francisco for New Year's.

In other music news (because I don't really feel like writing about Dollar Bill's re-election just yet), we recently caught El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, who does one fantastic Christmas show. If you haven't seen his illegal immigrant take on "Run, Run Rudolph," then your life is, as yet, incomplete. Clockwork Elvis opened, and yes, he dresses like Alex from Clockwork Orange and sings Elvis. Plus, he comes with his own burlesque dancers, which Gav and I immediately agreed is the certain je ne sais quoi that Smuteye has been missing and anyone interested in filling those positions should immediately contact us.

Finally, just last Wednesday I left work and spotted a flyer for an Asylum Street Spankers show that very night at Tip's to benefit their foundation helping local musicians recover from Katrina. Now, I don't know how the Spankers snuck in without me knowing it, but combine them with recovery efforts, and I dropped everything to make the show. Grading, what grading?

They played an almost all, um, "adult content" show, including "Shave 'em Dry," "Tight Like That" and "If You Love Me (You'll Sleep on the Wet Spot)" plus stuff like "Wake and Bake" and "Winning the War on Drugs." If you somehow aren't familiar with the Spankers, they play music that sounds like it was written in the '30s or '40s, but with turn of this century content. Plus, their Mohawked fiddler/mandolin player Sick used to be a New Orleans street musician. They also played a new song (at least to me), the hilarious satirical protest song "Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your S.U.V." I wanted to tell everyone about it, but of course couldn't remember any of the lyrics. Thanks to the magic of web, though, everyone can enjoy the video here. Rabid neoconservatives with tendencies to accuse any and all free speech that doesn't agree with their views as treasonous and threaten dissenters with execution (hi, Ann Coulter!), need not click.

And that, folks, is what some New Orleanians do for fun when not trying to rebuild our houses in time for Christmas.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

1 Down, 99 To Go

Did anybody else notice hurricane season ended? As of midnight, November 30th.

I missed the celebration at Finn’s (though I’m typing this there), but I did mark the occasion with a humble flip of the calendar page. Actually, to tell you truth, I breathed a quiet, private sigh of relief as soon as September was over. See, everything bad happens in September, at least for me – relationships end, jobs fall apart, disasters strike. I know Katrina and the Flood happened at the end of August, but that’s close enough for me. While I’m sure my belief in the inherent horribleness of the month in between August and October is just coincidence, superstition, and self-fulfilling prophecy, it is true that no major hurricane has ever hit New Orleans after September.

So I wiped the sweat off my inner brow once October rolled into town, and I imagine a lot of other people did too, though nobody talked about it because, I suspect, we didn’t want to jinx it. Now that hurricane season is officially over, though, I think it’s time to mention what happened to the Big Easy this hurricane season, namely…

Nothing. Nada. Zip, zilch, zero. Not a hurricane landfall, not a tropical storm. Not a single evacuation when we had been told to expect six or seven. Not even a scare, those times when we start watching the weather with one eye as we go about our business, not evacuating but tracking a storm in the Gulf. Nothing happened.

I think it’s important to point this out because I’m tired of people (and you know the kind of people I mean) acting like we’re crazy or foolish or both for wanting to live in New Orleans because – as these people never tire of pointing out – “It will happen again!”

First off, not necessarily. The real damage to New Orleans – as I never tire of pointing out – was from the man-made flood, not the storm itself. If we take care of the wetlands and build better levees (both entirely possible), then if or when another Katrina comes, the Flood won’t happen again.

More importantly, as this last hurricane season did a little teeny bit to demonstrate, the odds of another Katrina and subsequent Flood coming any time soon are, well, nothing you would want to bet real money on.

My home is 80 years old and never flooded or suffered significant hurricane damage; I know because they have to tell you that kind of thing when you buy a house. Not only that, but Katrina is classified as a hundred-year storm. If we go another 80 or 100 years, not only will I not be living in my house anymore, I’ll be dead. We all will be. So I’m not sweating it.

Remember the movie version of “The World According to Garp,” when the plane crashed into a house and Garp bought it because what were the chances of that ever happening again? Just call me D. S. Garp. (That’d be Dale Steven, though the S. could stand for Smart or Sad or even Sexy if you want.) What looks crazy to everyone else seems imminently sensible to me.

Could I be wrong? Sure, it’s within the realm of possibility. But if anyone wants to put money on it, I’ll take the bet.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Resistance is Futile

Polls just closed here, NPR is calling a few things, and I'm not even going to pretend to have any idea what's going to happen, though certainly "Dollar Bill" Jefferson had the money to litter our already too-littered little city with signs.

That said, I do want to pass along my voting story. First off, I should mention that ever since I've been voting in New Orleans, we have always had electronic voting machines, and I've never had trouble before. That "before" pretty much gives the story away, doesn't it?

Here's how the machines here work: the whole ballot appears before you, not on a screen, but on a big piece of paper over, well, I don't know exactly what, but when you touch the little box next to a candidate, a green "X" lights beneath the paper that can be easily seen through it. You hit everything you want, check to make sure your little Xs are all in the right places, and hit the big orange vote button. The machine makes some distinctive clicks, a little read-out at the bottom says "Vote registered," and your little Xs go out.

In I go and stab all my little boxes (a congressional race and a bunch of amendments), and the little Xs came on, but when I looked back, no Xs. Huh. I punched the first one (congress) again and the light came on for a couple of seconds and then went out. Same with all the others. My votes wouldn't stay lit.

So out the curtain I go and tell the poll worker. Happily, professorial scheduling allows me to vote in the middle of the afternoon, not to mention the fact that New Orleans has a third of its usual population, so the poll workers weren't exactly overwhelmed. The poll worker asked me if the upper light was on, to which I responded, eloquently, "Huh?" She pulled the curtain back and pointed at a white light up at the top of the machine and asked if it was on. I admitted that I hadn't actually paid attention.

She did something behind the machine, and it made that distinctive "vote registered" click. The light she pointed out went on, and little Xs lit up all over the board, above all the various choices. This time, when I stabbed my boxes, the Xs above the choices went out, and my Xs stayed on. I hit the big orange vote button, got the clicks, saw "vote registered," and went on my merry way, full of fervor for democracy.

Okay, actually not. While I'm pretty sure my vote registered, I'm wondering about the person before me, and I'm wondering about that distinctive clicking after I'd stabbed a bunch of boxes. Did the person before get their vote registered? Did I get to vote twice? Was it just a minor glitch, and everything's hunky-doory? I don't know, and that's perhaps even more disturbing than the possibility that the voting could have been fucked up. It's one thing to have a fucked up vote that we then spend days or weeks or months arguing about, fighting about, going to court about, etc. That's bad enough, but how about a fucked up vote that we don't even know to fight about? Without a paper trail, without anything to check the machines against, there's no way to look for mistakes. And machines ain't so great at noticing their own mistakes.

Perhaps I jinxed myself, but like I said yesterday "trust the machines ... the machines know what's best ... obey the machines ... "

Monday, November 06, 2006

Hey You! Yeah, You, in the Other 49!

It's Election Eve, and everybody's talking about a wave of Democrats knocking Republicans out of control of the House and possibly the Senate. Personally, I prefer the term "surge," like the one that broke the levees and flooded my house. More evocative, don't you think?

Unfortunately, I also think the levees that Republicans have built around their indumbents through redistricting are much stronger than the levees around New Orleans. While the country seems to be waking up to all the myriad reasons to run the bastards out of town on a rail, I'm not sure how convinced I am that it'll happen. Confident enough to have twenty bucks riding on the Dems taking the House, but hey, it's only twenty bucks and I have an insurance check coming.

I just re-read that and realized I typed "indumbents." Is it possible to type a Freudian slip? That's too good to fix.

So the buzz is all about the surge, and I want to take just a few minutes and remind everyone who might read this tomorrow that, wherever you are, your vote has a real impact on New Orleans. Here are a few of the ways:

1. Despite the fact that lots of indumbents are claiming to have helped the Gulf Coast with appropriations of "$100 billion," please remember that most of those people are also the ones who decided that Louisiana would be the first state required to pay back federal emergency loans that have always been forgiven in the past. As for what party those people mostly belonged to, here's a hint: they're represented by an elephant. Also, the actual number is $88 billion and only about half of it has made it.

2. Wetlands absorb storm surges. The more wetlands you have in between, say, New Orleans and the coast, the less storm surge makes it to New Orleans. Protecting wetlands falls to the EPA under laws voted on by Congress. Do I have to actually mention that the party with the vastly better environmental protection record is often represented by the color blue?

3. Let's say a storm surge makes it to New Orleans. The last thing we need is a giant canal that funnels it straight into the heart of the city, but that's exactly what the MR-GO is. The people of New Orleans have been trying to get the thing closed for years, but that decision is up to Congress, and oil companies lobby hard to keep it open. Why does somebody from Montana determine if a canal in New Orleans stays open or closes? Beats me, but that's the way it is. I would have really, really loved to see people all across the country asking candidates, "Will you vote to close the MR-GO?" just to witness the befuddlement.

4. Congress will soon be voting on an oil tax revenue sharing plan. The basics: when you drill for oil in this country, the money you make is taxed. If that oil well is on land, half the tax goes to the feds and half to the state the well is in. If that oil well is out in the Gulf and the canals and pipelines servicing it go through Louisiana, all that tax money goes to the feds and none to Louisiana. Not only is that unfair, but we could really, really use that money to fix the damage done to the wetlands.

5. The Senate has approval and consent over the President's nominee to head FEMA. Congress recently passed a law laying out the minimum qualifications for the job, but Bush signed one of his hundreds of signing statements saying he feels free to ignore that law. I'd prefer it if you would vote for the person who would make Bush obey the law rather than just rubber-stamp the next Michael Brown - thanks!

Just a little reminder from F&L that, whether you like it or not, New Orleans is still a part of the U.S.A. and we're still all in this together.

Not that any of this really matters, because the winners are really going to be picked by the voting machines. Trust the machines ... the machines know what's best ... obey the machines ... resistance is futile ...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Saints, Sinners, and Rollergirls

I tried to get a picture of the skeleton faces and bloody prom dresses as they skated by, bent low, arms swinging, pushing and shoving for position, but the light just didn’t work out. It could have been because I just couldn’t squeeze myself into a decent enough viewing spot to get a good picture, or perhaps I am simply not tech-savvy enough. Either way, I have no Rollergirl pictures from the special Halloween bout for you – my apologies.

Months ago, Gav and I discussed picking up tickets to a couple of Saints games, namely the Washington and San Francisco games. Pre-season hadn’t even started yet. At the time, I even imagined that perhaps the Saints would do well enough to desperately need a win against my utterly dominant hometown team. All I can say about that now is, our predictions are all 100% accurate until the season actually begins. But we waited too long and can’t get tickets now.

So what do these two things have in common, besides physical contact, high speeds, risk of injury, and arcane rules puzzling to the novice spectator? The similarities between roller derby and football are remarkable - as Concerning Pudding’s Brooke drunkenly enthused, “It’s the football I always wanted to play!” Though she now denies it vehemently, we here at F&L know the truth. That aside, what I’m really driving at is the fact that both sporting events sold out, and that’s pretty remarkable.

I don’t think I’m the only one in town who has noticed that everything around town from the big events – Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, Saints games, etc. – to the little ones – Morning 40 at Les Bon Temps, my classes, etc. - have been just as crowded as ever. It is, at least, a definitive fact that the Saints have NEVER sold out a season before. Hell, part of the reason everyone around here hit the bars on Sundays is because it seems like half the time the Saints were blacked out. For those of you who grew up in places like northern Virginia, “blacked out” refers to when an NFL team doesn’t sell out a home game, and then the local broadcast network doesn’t show it on tv. You can, though, catch it on satellite in a well-equipped bar. I know, for folks in the D.C. area this is a foreign concept, but really, even a couple of years ago that still happened around here.

Now, while I can’t prove that all events are just as, if not even more, crowded than they were in prediluvian (I just coined that neologism) times, that will not stop me from hypothesizing on possible explanations.

Certainly there’s something to the idea that, as Spike Lee succinctly put on that Monday night when the Saints first returned to the Dome, “This is all they got. It’s three hours of this and then back to the FEMA trailer.” No doubt, we New Orleanians will take our fun when and where we can get it, no questions asked. As for those who thought we shouldn’t celebrate the Saints coming back to town when so many of us are still homeless and displaced, unless you’re one of us (and I didn’t hear of any New Orleanian complaining) you can go to hell.

It could be that those of us here feel an obligation to drive as much of the economy of the city as possible, to make up for those that aren’t here. That’s a lot of drinking, eating, and partying on everyone’s shoulders, but if there’s any people up to the challenge, it’d be us. Also, there’s nothing like total destruction to light a fire under your butt about doing things. That “Oh, I’ll catch Voodoo Fest next year,” excuse rings a little hollow when nobody around here yet trusts that there will be a next year, at least not as far as our little city is concerned.

But while it’s true that New Orleanians love a good time, there’s more to it than that. Some have suggested that there’s nothing like winning to bring out a crowd, and that’s definitely true, but it’s not just the Saints that New Orleanians are jumping up, getting out and spending money for. Plus, the Saints were breaking ticket sales records before a game had been played.

There’s an old Saints p.r. slogan you still see around town on bumper stickers and the like, back from the days when it seemed the Saints could always find a way to lose: “You gotta have faith.”

You want to know why I think the Saints and the Rollergirls sell out? Why, even though there’s only a quarter (okay, maybe a third) of us that there used to be, we’re still getting what’s left of our city to chug along as best we can? Because we do have faith. We might not have homes to live in or the jobs we had a year ago; we might not have working street lights or decent roads or reliable water service; we might be missing the friends and relatives that used to make up the community of people we saw every day, but we have faith, faith in this city and faith in each other.

(And trust me, it’s not faith in government, be it local, state, or federal. If anything, New Orleanians have even less faith in those peculiar institutions than the rest of the country. Not that I can imagine why.)

No, it’s the city itself we believe in, our dear, odd, eccentric mystery of a city. We believe it will pull itself up, brush itself off, and dance again. Can I explain why I’m sure this will happen, why I know New Orleans will one day be its old charming self again? Nope. Can I point to anything that convinces me that this will happen, despite all the misery I see every day? Not really.

Sure, there are plenty of little things; signs of slow recovery are everywhere, from the pothole around the corner that finally got filled in, to the walls in my house, to the Saints winning in the Dome, but what convinces me that any of it will last, that all the horror won’t just happen again? Nothing, actually, but then that’s the very nature of faith, isn’t it? You don’t know; but you do believe.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Julie's Pics, or I'm A Big Lazy Butt

My old college bud Julie came to Louisiana recently to volunteer. She spent most of her time down in Buras, which is in Plaquemines parish, a rural and totally devastated part of the state. She stayed in a tent in the wreck of what was a YMCA, doing whatever needed doing, and there's still plenty to be done. The organization she was with, Emergency Communities, sets up to provide food, a laundromat, baby-sitting, internet access, you name it. She did spend a little time up here in the Big Squeegee, just long enough to eat at Coop's, drink at the R Bar, and shop at Winky's. She left yesterday, and already has pictures up, while I, on the other hand, have this faboo new computer and still can't get around to it. In my defense, it is mid-terms around here, which means that from last Friday to next Monday, I will get two classes worth of re-writes, one class of essays, one class of literature papers, one class of literature tests, and two classes of argument analyzes to grade. On the other hand, many of the pictures I intend to put up are over a year old, so really I have no excuse. However, if you want to look at pictures, you can check out Julie's here.

Monday, October 02, 2006

New Orleans Review

Today, Salon published a (very positive) review of the latest issue of the New Orleans Review, the literary journal Loyola University puts out. The issue came out after the flood, and features New Orleans writers on New Orleans, both pre- and post-K. I'd like to bask in a little of the light coming from that, but I actually didn't have anything to do with it. The credit goes primarily to Chris Chambers, whose office (complete with Ralph Steadman "MacBeth" poster) is right next to mine, though, so I've got that going for me. Since Salon has plugged the New Orleans Review, I don't have to, but needless to say, you should buy yourself a copy. You can order one from the N.O.R. website, or you could, you know, call me.

Ramblings on Returning

A year ago today I got home.

Of course, my home was a horrible mess, but I got into it. After dropping Darv off at his car, I met Arwen at Molly’s in the Quarter and then we went to check out the house. We weren’t supposed to be back in our neighborhood, as Mid-City wasn’t officially opened until Oct. 5 (my birthday present last year), but nobody stopped us. They didn’t seem to care where we went in the city as long as we did it before curfew.

We had to kick in the doors because they were all swollen shut and, after five weeks of trying to figure out just how bad the flooding was from blurry satellite photos – “Is that a hole in the roof, or just missing shingles? Does it look like the water is to the roof of the back porch or is that the railing?” – I finally got a first-hand look at it. You can see those pictures here.

I still had a key to my old apartment, and my furniture and clothes were still there, so even though I hadn’t been able to get in touch with my old landlord, I just moved back in. At the time, I didn’t think I’d still be living in this apartment a year later, but so it goes.

A few weeks ago, I was flipping through the notebook I had with me in those days, trying to find a FEMA registration number or something, and I found this scribbled in it. I’m not sure exactly what day it was written (second night back? third?), but I figured I’d type it up just to give people an idea of where we were a year ago. I decided not to edit it (beyond spelling errors) to keep it more accurate to the moment.

Here it is:

I don’t know where to begin – anywhere seems inadequate. Besides which, I can barely scribble legibly. I’m in my apartment with AC, and yet my house is a wreck. I’d like a drink of this J.D. but I have no glass I trust. There are glasses here, but they are packed away and dusty, and I can’t trust the water rinsing them off, so out of the bottle it is. On the one hand, Gavin conjured up a fabulous pasta dish from thin air tonight (keep in mind his refrigerator is currently duck-taped up on the curb awaiting removal. My refrigerator is disgusting but I’m still considering popping open bottles of Pilsner Urquell in there – hey, they’re cold. I’ve heard, by the way, that refrigerators are, of course, impossible to come by, but also that insurance will pay for the food that rotted in the fridge, but not for the fridge itself – it’s the “storm vs. flood what’s covered” debate, which is clearly going to be the debacle of this disaster.)

Anyway, after having a fabulous dinner at Gavin’s, I then had to take off to get home by curfew. Writing about the house is impossible at the moment, but the apartment is in fine shape – I have a perfectly good bed to sleep in. I can listen to the radio, and they keep telling me to look at some website to get updates on the city and services. “If you are re-entering the city, you must be aware of the warnings and regulations, especially the curfew, which are available at” Fair enough, but granted nobody in New Orleans has web access, how about giving us those rules and curfew hours?

Meanwhile, the radio station continues to simply broadcast anyone who can call them, which ranges from people wondering if they can come in yet, to people looking for people either to a – reconnect with families, or b – hire people to clear junk. Whatever it is, they seem to be doing the best job of getting info. out to folks actually in N.O., which I mention because how odd it is that the oldest technology (radio, tv, internet) is the only one working. Currently people are calling in to complain about not being able to get help from the Red Cross or FEMA. I have no idea if that’s typical or not. I’ve heard everything from impossible to fantastic job. I’ve apparently dropped back into the zone of “no good info” which the entire country was in a week or two ago.

So I came home and surveyed the damage, both house and apartment, but found myself incapable of doing anything today clean-up wise. In fact, I filled my bathtub with water (theoretically uncontaminated) before Katrina but I have no idea if the rather greenish and dirty water in my tub is safer to bathe in than the stinking of chlorine water that comes out of my faucet. So that’s what my life is down to, but as soon as I think that, I remember that at least I have a life to have stuff to get down to, so no complaints.

And that’s where it stops. Not the most coherent thing I’ve ever written, but I wanted to share anyway. Reading it now, what mostly strikes me is the stuff I didn’t bother to explain, like the curfew time (8 pm) or that only one radio station was broadcasting or that the water was unsafe for bathing and drinking. I had forgotten how quickly the completely fucked up aspects of being in New Orleans in those days became standard, assumed, normal.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Anniversary Wine & Air-Conditioning

A year ago today I was in Virginia at my parents' house, the place I grew up in, with no idea of when I would be able to live at my home. All I knew about my new house was that it was still sitting in fetid water (assuming it was standing) and at the time government officials were telling us that it would take months to pump all the water out of New Orleans. My rather half-baked plan involved living at my parents' place (exactly what any college teacher fast approaching his 37th birthday wants to do) until I could find a job and a place to live somewhere relatively close to New Orleans, like Jackson or Baton Rouge, where I would stay until the time in January or May or who knew when that I could move back home. Or until whatever was going to happen to the house happened to it - knocked down, repaired, set aflame? In the meantime, I spent all my time on the phone talking to FEMA, Loyola, two different mortgage companies, two different insurance companies, and various credit cards and banks, all in an effort to get my little life in order. When not doing that, I sat on the phone with whiskey in hand, tracking down friends.

Obviously, things worked out better than that, in most ways at least. Plus, I have a new computer, officially entering the 21st century. My last computer ran (if you could call it that) on Windows 98, and I must say that so far, I’m enjoying this new-fangled, futuristic 21st century technology. Like most people, I’m using this technology that was near-unimaginable when I was a child to post pictures online for all to see.

First off, anniversary wine. When I mucked out my house, I found three unopened bottles of wine. Since they had been sitting underwater and in 90+ degree heat for a month and a half, I had my doubts about them, but since no grocery stores were open and the curfew was 8 and I knew I was going to want a drink later, I took them back to the squatter apartment. I opened one (Menage a Trois red) and discovered it tasted just fine. That night, I decided to open the other two on the Katrina anniversary and on the first night I spent in the house. I popped the next one (Sin Zin) on the anniversary, and it too tasted deee-licious. So I filled my glass and held it up and said a hearty "fuck you!" to Katrina, floods, and governmental incompetence.

Two bottles down, one to go.

Here, just about a year later, is the living room. Doesn’t look like much progress, but remember, at this time last year, nothing there but disintegrating books floating in three or four feet of water.

Another view. I’m hoping for walls soon.

Here’s the bar. You can see the new wiring. Should be dancing on it anytime now.

My new closet. Shotguns don’t come with closets (everybody used wardrobes in those days, I guess), so I took advantage of the opportunity and had Gavin build me one.

The attic – not a great picture, but there’s insulation and central AC/H units there – very exciting; very, very exciting.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Tales of the Couchless

I finally saw "A Love Song for Bobby Long" the other day. If you don't know, the movie is set in New Orleans, based on a novel called "Off Magazine Street" (hey - I live off Magazine Street!) and stars John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson, and Gabriel Macht. Now, of course, seeing any movie with Scarlett Johansson in it is a moral imperative, but additionally did I mention this one is also set in New Orleans? It finished filming here shortly before The Thing.

The movie starts with Travolta walking through New Orleans, a meandering wander that makes no sense geographically but beautiful sense architecturally and aesthetically. It was actually a bit spooky watching him make that walk and seeing all those places in the background, most of which I recognized. Hell, I even recognized a tree. Yeah, a tree. As in, "Oh, I know where that tree is." Live oaks grow awfully individualistically. It's easy to forget just how gorgeous a city New Orleans was - the most gorgeous in the country - when too much of it is still dirty and brown and stained, but if you want to see how beautiful this place can be, watch this movie.

The three live in a beat-up old house, which I knew immediately, with its wood floors, high ceilings, rickety porch, and door-sized windows. Even if I didn't know this particular house, I knew so many like it that it feels like home. The house is mostly full of books, with lawn chairs serving as the furniture.

A couple of months ago, I went out of town for a week, which Albus the Wonder Kitty didn't take to too well, a message he communicated to me by peeing on the couch. Now, understand, I hated that couch. I got it for free when I first moved here from a friend of a friend and the damn thing has been with me since, from my first French Quarter apartment to Esplanade Ridge and even out to the dark days in Alabama and then back to New Orleans. Many people have crashed on that couch, including me, but any sentimental value could not overcome its essential identity as ugly and uncomfortable. I truly hated that couch, but I really hoped it would last another few months until I could move into my house. Therefore, when I discovered its new role as litter box, I was less than pleased. I spent a good week soaking it with anti-odor and disinfectant sprays, and finally seemed to defeat the smell.

So I'm sitting on my couch again, reading something with the tv on, and Albus jumps up on the couch next to me - no big deal, he's allowed. He seems to sit, but his posture seems a bit odd out of the corner of my eye. I turn my head and look, and lo, he is peeing right in front of me. "Albus!" I cry, "No!" and I swat him (very lightly, just to get his attention). He slowly turns his head to consider me, giving me that disdainful look that cats have that somehow says "I will kill you in your sleep" and then turns away and resumes peeing. I swatted Albus again, and that finally got him off the couch, but I knew the couch's days were over. Since the couch was too big to get out the door of the apartment (we had to take a door off to get it in, and that was when the apartment was empty - no way the thing was getting out now that the apartment was full), the next day I attacked it. It's amazing how you can tear apart a big, solid piece of furniture with nothing more than a hammer, a pocket-knife, and a little pent-up rage. Before too long, I had reduced the thing to rubble that easily fit in the dumpster out back.

All of which is to say, I now have no couch which puts me on equal footing with the majority of New Orleanians, and watched "A Love Song for Bobby Long" from my floor, sitting on a couple of pillows, and I know how it is when lawn chairs are your furniture. But I also knew these people, the people portrayed in the film, writers that drink too much, but also people that sing old blues songs sitting on the levees, that will do every meager thing they can to help someone from down the block or down the bar, that are deeply attached to the city they live in.

It's not giving anything away to say that Travolta's walk is echoed by Scarlett at the end of the movie; she walks down the streets and through the neighborhoods and past the buildings and the trees that I knew and loved and it all looks just as it did Before, before the levees broke, before the flood, before everything. I was only gone for five weeks and I've been here for over eleven months, but watching that made me realize how much, how terribly, terribly much, I miss New Orleans.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My Last Normal Days

Tomorrow is The Anniversary, which seems a strange way to refer to it, anniversaries generally being good things. Certainly there isn’t anything much to celebrate, which is what we usually do with anniversaries, unless you want to celebrate our continued survival, though with hurricane season only half over and a flood control system held together with duct tape, spit, and desperate hope, that feels a bit premature yet. No, this anniversary will be a day to remember and mourn, though I can’t recall any day in the last year when I forgot for even a second.

Still, I thought I’d go back over a year ago and try to remember those last normal days pre-K, maybe to recall what normal was, maybe to understand a little how and why things happened like they did.

On Tuesday, August 23rd, the tropical depression that would become Katrina formed east of Florida, around the Bahamas, not that we were really aware of it. I was furiously trying to accomplish two things before the next week came – get ready for my first full-time year at Loyola and finish renovating my house enough so I could move in at the end of the month. I’m pretty sure I spent Tuesday shopping for floor tile while letting the newly sanded and sealed wood floors cure.

Finding the tile proved difficult. Nobody had what I wanted in stock and ordering would take weeks, but I only had one week to move in, which required an installed bathroom, which required a bathroom floor. Finally, I found a store with some hexagonal white tile someone else had ordered and never picked up. I was disappointed with the lack of color or pattern, but Gavin came up with the brainstorm to get a pottery store to glaze and fire some of the white tiles for us. We found a place willing to give it a shot, though it was something they’d never done before and didn’t know how it would turn out. We left them some tiles to experiment with overnight.

Sometime in the morning of Wednesday the 24th, the tropical depression turned into a storm and got named Katrina, the eleventh named storm of the busiest hurricane season on record. It headed northwest.

Meanwhile, Gav and I liked the tile results and ordered a bunch more, which would take a day. I, no doubt, worked on my class syllabi since every summer, no matter how many times I swear it’ll be different, I’m always scrambling to get ready at the last minute. New Orleans went about its usual business, not really concerned about a storm that wasn’t headed in our direction and had to cross Florida still.

Sometime in the morning on Thursday the 25th, Katrina turned west, heading for southern Florida. Gavin and I picked up the tile, and my mom and stepfather flew in to help me pack and move. I was in a panic over this because I hadn’t even started. Less than a week before I was to move out of my crappy apartment and into the first house I had ever bought, and I was completely unprepared, so my mom and stepfather were coming to my rescue. I excitedly showed them the house for the first time, the newly painted walls and shiny floors, and then showed them the plans for the kitchen laid out all professional-like on graph paper. About the time I was doing this in the bar of their hotel, Katrina became a Category 1 hurricane a couple of hours before making landfall in southern Florida. It rolled over the Everglades and only briefly returned to a tropical storm before hitting the Gulf of Mexico six hours after its initial landfall. At this point, early Friday morning, it was still expected to turn north early enough to land somewhere along the Florida panhandle or perhaps Alabama.

So Friday Gavin and I laid tile, or, to be accurate, Gav laid tile and I cleaned up behind him. We carefully arranged the gray and red tiles in the pattern we had decided on, making only one mistake. (If I can save the floor and you can spot the mistake, you get a shot.) My parents, meanwhile, packed up my books, cds, kitchen things and a whole bunch of other stuff and moved it all over to the house. By the end of that day, with most everything moved but furniture and clothes and the tile laid, I was feeling like moving was something I could manage, especially since my parents weren’t leaving until Monday. As for the rest of New Orleans, everyone went to school and work while Katrina spent the day hanging out in the Gulf and not doing much of anything.

Saturday morning, Gav and I went back to the house to grout the floor. Once that was done, the plan was to get the bathroom fixtures installed and hook up the brand new stove that had been delivered the day before. The house would be livable, though lacking cabinets and a refrigerator and a kitchen sink, just in time for me to move in on the 31st. By the time we finished grouting and I got back to my apartment and turned on the news, Katrina had doubled in size and become a Category 3 hurricane now expected to strike close to New Orleans, and Nagin called for a voluntary evacuation. I told my parents to get to the airport and try to get a flight out. They tried all day, but in vain. They were either going to have to stick it out or find another way out. I went to Les Bon Temps with some friends for beers. This had, by the way, worked before. I remember sitting there drinking when another hurricane turned aside and headed east and a cheer went up around the bar, but no such luck this time. I woke up on Sunday to a mandatory evacuation.

I grabbed Albus the cat and set off to get my parents, packing maybe three days worth of t-shirts, the standard evacuation gear. We spent the day driving east out of New Orleans and then turned north and back west until we ended up in Jackson, Mississippi. During the drive, Katrina went from a Cat 3 to a Cat 5 in less than 12 hours, and grew until it was about 400 miles across. It was after hearing this that I called Brooke and left a message that went something like, “Well, it was a nice city to live in for a while.”

My mom called ahead to every hotel she could to get us a room for the night. I knew Gav and Allison were evacuating to Jackson, but I couldn’t get through to them to find out where exactly. By the time we got to a hotel that night, Katrina looked as big as the Gulf itself.

Monday morning, the outer bands of Katrina were lashing water and wind across Jackson, but I finally heard from Gav and Allison. I drove my parents to the airport where they picked up a rental car to drive to Memphis to catch a flight back to Virginia. Albus and I found Gav, Allison, Oscar and Vato (their dogs), Pele (their cat), and Little (the kitten they found while driving). By this time Katrina had weakened to Category 3 and come ashore near the mouth of the Pearl River at the Louisiana/Mississippi border. We all hunkered down in a lake house with a generator and watched the news.

As it turns out, Katrina did turn aside a little and we were spared the direct hit we feared. In fact, on the news New Orleans looked dry and seemed to have dodged the bullet yet again, through some combination of prayer, voodoo, and the luck of drunks. Little did we know that the levees had already breached and water was flooding into the city. That night, exhausted, relieved, and a little drunk, I went to bed vowing to go home the next day and “make sweet love to the levees,” which I thought had held.

The next morning, Tuesday the 30th, less than a week after the beginning of what would become Katrina formed in the Atlantic, we got up to find out about the flood, and then all the horror after. I never wrote about the before part, because I only started writing about this after that point. Until then, there wasn’t a reason. It was just another normal evacuation from a storm, perhaps a little more stressful than some but still not truly remarkable. The levee breaches shoved everything out of normal, though I didn’t know it until almost 24 hours later, and everything has stayed out of normal since.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Incumbents Don't Need No Stinkin' Democracy

We love big choices here in New Orleans. Fast on the heels of the mayoral election, we have a nice, round baker's dozen of candidates for Dollar Bill Jefferson's seat. Twelve people have officially declared against him, which is good news. The investigation/indictment/appeal process could easily stumble forward through election day, and Dollar Bill's determined to run again; so much so, I think he'd do it even if he did get indicted. At any rate, he's on the ballot now, and I don't think he can pull himself off at this point (see the whole DeLay thing for an example of those complications).

Anyway, I was beginning to worry that I was going to have to run myself if we were going to have any choice beyond the Republican who declared against him early, but happily a whole slew of Democrats, independents, Libertarians, and who knows what all else have jumped in the fray. Since we do run-offs instead of primaries, clearly we will be getting our choice of the top two after election day in November. Given the number of candidates, and the near impossibility of unseating incumbents, I would not be surprised if Jefferson is one of those two even if he is indicted in between now and then. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if he won.

On the flip side of the coin, up in Connecticut, Joe Lieberman lost his primary run and declared himself an independent candidate for his Senate seat (and is ahead in current polls, by the way). Oddly enough, two other incumbents lost their primaries, too, (in the House - one R, one D) a pretty unprecedented development, indicating a fairly serious anti-incumbent feeling among voters. Which, by the way, is I think about the only meaning to be derived from the Lieberman loss. Everyone seems to want to spin it one way or another, especially the right-wing and their media mouthpieces with lots of talk of the Democratic party being hijacked by the extreme anti-war left-wing. Considering that the majority of the country and the vast majority of the Democratic party now favor some sort of planned withdrawal from Iraq, anti-war sentiment is either the very definition of "mainstream" or the administration, with its bungling, incompetence, and refusal to learn from its mistakes, has turned most Americans into pot-smoking, patchouli-scented, hippie pinko peaceniks. Either way, Joe's loss looks like good ol' fashioned democracy in action, also known as "majority rules."

But what do these two things, Dollar Bill's determination to run and Joe's independent candidacy, have in common? Politicians nakedly trying to cling to their power for no other reason than their own greed. Clearly Dollar Bill is no use to New Orleans, Louisiana, and the country while fighting the inevitable indictment, and just as clearly Connecticut Democrats have said they don't want Joe. Despite their similar protestations of running to serve the people they claim to represent, those people are really, really hoping these guys won't represent them anymore. So why do they continue? Greed, for both money and power, and the fact that they are very, very likely to succeed.

How likely? If you're an incumbent, your chance of getting re-elected is better than 99%. Condoms are more likely to fail than incumbents. Looked at another way, since Katrina and the levee failures caused a "hundred-year" flood (as in, a flood that bad only occurs once every hundred years), an incumbent losing is an event as momentous as Katrina.

As Louisiana's favorite ex-governor and current convict Edwin Edwards put it, he wouldn't lose unless he was caught in bed with a "dead hooker or a live boy."

What keeps incumbents in power? Money, obviously, since the money all flows to those who can grant the favors as opposed to those who promise to grant favors while assuring voters they won't do any such thing. And money rules politics. With campaign costs long since rocketed out of the sky and currently heading beyond the solar system, legislators raise money full-time, while actually governing the country is more like a hobby. They noodle around with it in the garage in order to get away from their wives.

But even worse than the money is the gerrymandering. Again, see DeLay as a perfect example. The people in power, usually the representatives and/or their parties, arrange districts block-by-block to construct inviolate Republican or Democratic voting communities. Combine that with a two-party stranglehold on our elections, and we have congressional districts that resemble monarchies, little medieval fiefdoms, more than democratically elected offices.

So what do we do about it? Solutions abound, though given that the only people who can change the rules are the ones in power, and they have no desire to change the rules that got them that power, the chance of any of the solutions getting enacted are remote at best.

Getting the money out of the election equation is a good first step. There has been some campaign finance reform lately, but it's just a start, and some of it has been derailed by the courts. (A Supreme Court that doesn't believe money is the same as speech, and thus unregulable, would help, but that would take replacing at least two or three of the conservatives with moderates.) Leaning on the broadcasters could also make a difference. After all, they were granted access to the public airwaves under the requirement that they air a certain amount of content for the "public good." That all got de-regulated with Reagan and further deteriorated under Clinton, but forcing them to show political ads for free during election season in return for broadcast rights would strip away a lot of the necessity for campaign money.

However, given the rise of cable, the web, and other media sources, I'm not sure how much difference jumping on the broadcasters would have. Not to mention the fact that if the money is there, the politicians will find a way to spend it. Personally, I'd like to see political ads completely outlawed and/or strict public funding of campaigns, though both risk running afoul of the First Amendment.

Term limits could help, too, though again trying to get those elected to sign off on their own eventual ouster is damned difficult. Remember all those Republicans that came in with Gingrich, taking the House, advocating term limits, and promising to leave after they had served a term? Most of them are still there, and none of them quit of their own volition, and nobody has said squat about term limits in ten years.

All of that would help, but none of it would address gerrymandering. I re-read the Constitution, and it doesn't actually lay out how Representatives and Senators are to be determined; that's left up to the states, so theoretically the states could put the district-mapping process in neutral hands, like California is trying to do by leaving it to judges. That, however, only works if judges are actually neutral, which is asking a lot, especially in states like Louisiana where judges are elected.

It also doesn't say anything about dividing states into districts, though; it only mentions population, so I'm wondering when and how districting became the law of the land. Because I think we need something more radical than finance reform, term limits, and altered district-mapping processes. I think we need to re-do the way we elect officials entirely. I think we need proportional democracy rather than our current winner-take-all system.

Sidenote: I also think we need to re-structure the Senate. Why do the 100,000 people in Montana get two Senate votes the same as the however many millions in California or New York? It violates the basic democratice principle (1 person = 1 vote) besides currently tilting the country towards rural and conservative interests. And I think we need to directly elect the President. A majority of Americans think we should get rid of the electoral college, though talk of it died almost immediately after George II's initial election, despite the obviously debatable nature of that election. Both of those work against one person, one vote, which is actually exactly what they were designed to do. Despite their obvious smarts and vision, the founding fathers were distrustful of the common man, even the white males they restricted voting to when they wrote the Constitution, so they created buffers. That said, I'm going to try to stay focused on gerrymandering, though you guys know how hard it is for me to focus. ("Oooh, shiny! Hey, do I smell beer?")

In a proportional democracy, you would vote for a party's slate of candidates statewide, which makes sense given that these Representatives are supposedly representing the state to the nation. Then, given the percentage each party has, that determines how many of their slate goes, so if the Democrats get slightly more than fifty percent in Louisiana (for instance) then 4 Democrats go and 3 Republicans. I know, that's actually who we have right now, but bear with me anyway. This also avoids the possibility of one party getting slightly less than fifty percent of the vote in every district, leading to a nearly evenly split electorate being represented by just one party. District-by-district winner-take-all voting definitely defeats true democratic representation.

Plus, by making people vote for a slate of candidates from a party, it would de-emphasize the person, and elections might actually be about issues instead of a bunch of Brie-eating Republicans raised in privilege buying a pair of cowboy boots and accusing Democrats of not being in touch with the "common man," whoever the hell that might be.

This would also, by the way, allow third parties to do more than act as spoilers, because if they got enough votes, they'd get a representative, too. Imagine a Louisiana that sent 3 Democrats, 3 Reps, and a Green or Libertarian. Politicians might actually have to learn to work together instead of simply bashing everything the other party wants.

With sincere apologies to John Lennon, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm really not the only one. Besides, I say dream big. If I'm going to advocate and hope for reform that will never happen because the Joe Liebermans and Bill Jeffersons of the country only care about staying in power and will never change the system that put them there and keeps them there, then I might as well advocate for the reforms I really want.

Finally, while I'm on the subject of incumbents clinging to power for no discernible reason (and to return to New Orleans, since that is F&L's supposed raison d'etre), what's a guy gotta do to get mayor recalled in this town?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Promises, Promises

Four weeks from the anniversary and we still don’t have a plan. In fact, until a week ago we didn’t have a mayor. Now our mayor has re-appeared to announce that, at some point in the near but still non-dated future, there will indeed be a Plan!

Forgive me for being under-whelmed.

After getting re-elected, C. Ray Nagin virtually disappeared. Sure, we would hear reports that he was showing up at the Essence Festival and other, farther-flung events and happenings, making speeches about how New Orleans was “on the right track,” but if we had thought the Mayor of New Orleans would appear around town with actual, real, solid plans for rebuilding, well, we were sadly mistaken. Perhaps it was too depressing around here, what with not much getting done and all.

Now apparently back from his good will tour, last week C. Ray held a big press conference to trumpet the exciting news that New Orleans is, in fact, “on the right track.” He also informed us that he would soon appoint a Rebuilding Czar to oversee the rebuilding effort. He didn’t name this Czar, mind you, but told us that there will be one. But that’s our Sugar Ray – he promises everyone everything, but doesn’t understand why we expect him to actually keep those promises. Eleven months after and this city still doesn’t have anyone in charge of its recovery, and no, I never bought C. Ray’s assertion that he was performing that function, even before he spent the first two months after being re-elected everywhere and anywhere but New Orleans.

Did I mention being under-whelmed?

The other thing Sugar Ray wanted to trumpet was that people are “tending” to get rebuilding permits in higher spots in the city as opposed to the low-lying areas, which he used to defend his “market-driven” rebuilding process as opposed to government telling people where to rebuild. But a tendency isn’t a plan, and the one house per block in the Lower 9th or out East is going to want water, electricity, sewage, fire and police just as much as those clustered Uptown, and they deserve it, too. But how much is that going to cost this bankrupt city? Not to mention the question of where the promised improvements – the parks, the commuter trains, the “big-box” retail district, the Cat 5 sized levees – will go, and what happens when one of them goes where someone’s “market-driven” rebuild happens to be, the rebuild that they have spent the last year and thousands of dollars on. What then?

Proclaiming the debatably positive effects of not planning isn’t the same as leadership. New Orleans needs leadership now, someone to make tough decisions rather than empty promises; in fact, we’ve needed it for eleven months.

New Orleans needs a plan, not the promise of one. We need someone to tell us where services will go, where we can rebuild with the knowledge of levee protection and what kind of protection it will be. We are about to (finally!) receive billions of dollars in aid and New Orleanians and all other Americans have a right to know how that money will be spent. We need a leader who will lay that out in detail.

Unfortunately, instead we’re stuck with Sugar Ray Nagin.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

F&L on the Radio

UPDATE: Because time ran out today (those chatty Rollergirls!), I'll be on next Saturday, somewhere between 8 and 10. I know, I know - I'm going to have to set my alarm, too.

Because I know you are all dying to hear the dulcet tones of my voice...

Schroeder over at People Get Ready got in touch with me the other day about putting my post "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" on the radio. In his other life, he djs for WTUL (that'd be Tulane's radio station) and does "Community Gumbo" for them, and he liked that post and wanted to broadcast it.

Somebody wanting me to read something I wrote? No problem, anywhere, anytime. I'm easy like that.

It should be on sometime between 9-10 am this Saturday the 29th, at WTUL, 91.5 on your radio dial. He may even play a Smuteye song, though I don't guarantee it, nor do I guarantee you'll enjoy it if he does.

"But Dale," you say, "I don't live in New Orleans, and I will simply die if I don't hear you."

Not to worry Gentle Reader, for there is a simulcast. Just go to WTUL's website, listen in and don't be left out.

"But Dale," some others protest, "I live on the West Coast and, while I love you more than life itself, that's 7-8 on Saturday morning our time, and I'm only up that early if I've been partying all night."

Never fear, for Schroeder plans on putting the recording on the Community Gumbo blog called, appropriately enough, "Community Gumbo."

So check it out. I'll probably even listen myself, but mostly for the stuff about the Big Easy Rollergirls that's on the show too.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

GMAC Mortgage Comapany is Stupid and Annoying

Lately we’ve been struggling with the mortgage company. We got stuck with GMAC after the mortgage company we made the deal with immediately sold, within a month, our mortgage to them. Okay, fine, not unusual. Our first mortgage payment, by the way, was due September 1st, 2005. Yeah, three days after. Obviously that didn’t happen, and we were told that payments didn’t have to be made for three months, which only meant that in January we owed them everything we hadn’t paid all at once. I’m not sure exactly how that was supposed to be helpful.

After much wrangling, everything got re-negotiated and we had a new payment plan, slightly higher than the old payment plan. We sent payments off to them and then they called us saying we had to re-negotiate again or go into default. Apparently, they rejected one of the payments because they said they didn’t realize it was part of the same payment.

Okay, fine, so we re-negotiate again. Now the payments have really jumped, much higher than our original payment plan in order to get everything we owe them from the last half a year paid off within a year.

Meanwhile, every time I call I have to go through the same routine, changing the address because for some reason they never know the new address, despite the fact that I have told them again and again not to send anything to the house address because there is no mail delivery there. The phone conversations always started the same way, “We mailed you the blah-blah-blah weeks ago.” Then I explain I never got it, ask where they sent it, and give them the new address again.

So we send off our re-re-re-negotiated payment. The money disappears from my account just as it should. A few days later I get a phone call saying we were going into default unless we made the payment. I call and explain how we sent the payments. She asks for the address. Then she asks if anyone is living in the house.

“No, it was wrecked by the hurricane.”

“Well I have no way of knowing that.”

Really? No way? GMAC keeps its employees on a news blackout? The fact that I’ve changed the address a million times didn’t clue you in? Or how about this – how about that the company you work for is holding onto my insurance money?

Now, I understand that GMAC is an unbelievably large corporation, but I still think such a large corporation with billions of dollars and thousands of employees would be able to make some kind of notation on our account indicative of the hurricane damage, not to mention that they’re holding our insurance money.

After I count slowly to ten, I find out they have a record of my portion, by not Dr. A.’s, and I have to make a payment immediately or we will go into default the next day. I mention that this has happened before, and we’re making payments, and could she explain why they won’t take our money. She tells me the payments have to arrive “at the same time.”

“Okay, what does that mean?”

“At the same time, they have to arrive at the same time.”

“We scheduled them for the same day.”

“No, at the same time.”

The conversation pauses here while I bang my head against the wall a few times.

“Okay, so two electronic payments from different accounts on the same day doesn’t count?”


“Okay, so what does count?”

“They have to arrive at the same time.”

I then spend five minutes running through every possibility I can think of, electronic payments, checks, same day arrival, to finally get down to what “at the same time” means – one electronic payment, or one envelope. Apparently, two checks in one envelope is okay, but two checks in two different envelopes is too confusing for GMAC to match them to one account. This would have been useful information for them to pass along to us, say, six months ago.

I point out that one envelope will be difficult given that Dr. A. and I are two different people, with two different checking accounts, living in two different places. She understands, but is adamant – one electronic payment, or one envelope.

Fine, I make a payment over the phone and call Dr. A. Dr. A. checks her account and, sure enough, they took her payment as well. In fact, she over-paid a little to get us closer to the time when we go back to regular payments, so they not only got more than enough money up front and on time, but then asked us for more money which I gave them. Naturally, we call back the next day to get this straightened out.

We ask the woman on the other end of the line (Dr. A. having arranged a three-way call) what happened to our money, and she proceeds to tell us a lot of stuff we know, like we’re in a re-payment plan, none of which answers the question, and finishes with “You received an insurance payment, so you’re capable of paying off what you owe.”

Now, how is it that she knows this, but other people don’t know we got wrecked by a hurricane?

“No,” I say, “actually we don’t have an insurance payment because you’re holding onto that money while we rebuild.”

At this point, she hung up.

To be fair, we could have just been cut off somehow, but that timing sure is something, isn’t it?

So we call back again, get bounced around a little bit, and finally talk to someone who tells us we owe them a little less money next month.


After much questioning, we find out that first, they did indeed get all the payments including the extra one I made, and are in fact capable of matching payments that don’t arrive “at the same time” to one account, and furthermore, already made the recalculations to reduce our payments over the rest of the year by the amount we over-paid this month. Which is awfully sweet of them if you ignore the idea that we arranged the payments that we did because we could afford that each month and not the extra they squeezed out of me.

Plus, since they reported the non-payment to credit companies already, they’ll send us letters saying it was a misunderstanding and not our fault that we can show to people for the next year when they refuse us credit because our credit rating is screwed because GMAC Mortgage Company is stupid and annoying.

I feel this is somewhat akin to getting knocked in the head with a cast iron skillet and bequeathed with a Band-Aid.

It’s enough to make me wish I could just take the house back to the store and return it because it’s broken, but houses don’t come with 30-day guarantees. Not to worry, though, because I won’t give them the satisfaction. There is no hoop they can devise that I can not figure out a way to jump through it, not to mention that I get to bitch about them here, and there’s nothing they can do about that.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Unbearable Heaviness of a Dollar Bill

Okay, so I’m a little behind the news curve on this one, but unfortunately I think we’re going to be stuck with U.S. Rep. “Dollar” Bill Jefferson in the news for some time. Actually, that fact is something I want to write about.

I won’t go into all the details of the bribery scandal here. If you don’t know them, search, uh, anywhere. Actually, Dangerblond gave a pretty good run-down on the whole sordid family and friends way back when, which I think was called “Fuckheads from Fuckland.” The latest juicy bit concerns ousted Council Member and Jefferson protégé Renee Gill-Pratt using an SUV donated to help the city as her personal vehicle. Jefferson arranged to have the vehicles put under her control. A couple of days before she lost her election, she donated the one she had been using to a non-profit, which hired her immediately as soon as she left office, and - ta-da! – she has the SUV again. She, by the way, attributes this lucky coincidence to the largesse of God. Oh, and speaking of Pratt, can I somehow cite her for still having a campaign sign littering the St. Charles neutral ground a block from my apartment? Is there some sort of citizen’s campaign violation fine I can impose as a good New Orleanian? Or how about just plain littering?

Okay, back to Dollar Bill. I do have to say I almost wish the $90,000 had been in his New Orleans freezer instead of his D.C. one, because I have sweet visions of him facing five weeks worth of refrigerator rot and trying to decide if getting the money out would be worth it. $90,000 under pounds and pounds of veggies, chicken, beef, shrimp and oysters all melting together in a small space for over a month in constant 90+ temperatures – what to do, what to do? By the way, if you’re ever faced with this question, the answer is “forget it.” Not only would it be unspeakably disgusting getting it out, but nobody would accept the money because of the stanky stankitty stank. Of course, that never would’ve happened because Dollar Bill has no problem with commandeering military vehicles, including a helicopter, to get a briefcase out of his New Orleans house (the last $10,000?) in the first chaotic days after the flood, vehicles which should have been rescuing people off roofs or at least helping restore order (And isn’t that illegal somehow? Since when do members of Congress have military authority?). Not to mention that said helicopter blew bricks off his house and rained them down on my friend’s car, thereby wrecking one of the few vehicles in New Orleans still unflooded and serviceable.

I was glad to see Dollar Bill removed from his position on the Ways and Means Committee. He argued that he needed to stay because the people of New Orleans need him on the committee these days. Would it help us recover to have influential people on important committees? You bet, but somehow I don’t think people whose own party is trying to oust them really have all that much influence. Another argument he made was that nobody else had ever been removed from a committee before being indicted, to which I was like “Whaaaa?”

Now, I’m all for innocent until proven guilty, but if someone is being investigated for stealing chickens, you don’t leave them in charge of the henhouse. Dollar Bill used his position in Congress and on the W&M Committee to bring in at least one bribe – the way I figure it, he’s suspended. Besides which, they found the marked money in his freezer before Katrina even struck – if he wasn’t in Congress, does anybody believe he wouldn’t have been indicted by now? Charges of racism surrounded Dollar Bill’s removal as well, to which the only real answer is to see what happens next time. Now that the precedent has been set to remove members from positions of power if they are being investigated for abuses of those positions, let’s see them stick to it.

Hooray, by the way, to the Democrats for doing it, even if they did it just to help them in the upcoming elections by way of contrasting themselves to the Republican’s “culture of corruption.” Since Congress usually does the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, I’ll take doing the right thing for the wrong reason any day.

Which brings us to this point – why am I not surprised the only time Republicans come to the defense of one of their Democratic colleagues is the time when it is completely and totally wrong to? House Republicans got all up in arms over the search of Dollar Bill’s office, finally having second thoughts about His Moronic Majesty George II’s abuse of executive power.

Could somebody explain to me why warrantless wiretaps of any old average American are hunky-doory while the warranted search of a Congress member’s office is an offense to truth, justice, mom, apple pie, Superman, and the Constitution?

Unless, that is, members of Congress get to play by different rules from the rest of us, even though I thought we were all created equal and nobody is above the law. And, to misquote a favorite talking point, if the members of Congress have done nothing wrong, then they have nothing to hide.

And as for those Democrats who also bitched and moaned about the search of Dollar Bill’s office (Pelosi, I’m talking to you) – shame on you, too. Again, just like removing him from the committee, part of the uproar was because it had never been done before, as if doing something stupid for hundreds of years is reason to keep doing something stupid.

Anyway, they're all wrong, at least for now. A judge ruled that the search of Dollar Bill’s office does not violate the Speech and Debate Clause of the Constitution. (A Reagan appointee, by the way, before anyone starts in on “activist judges.”) Now, I’m no Constitutional scholar, but I read that clause and it’s pretty clear to me that it’s about protecting members of Congress from harassment over legislation and has nothing to do with criminal investigations, as Dollar Bill and his lawyer claim. In fact, to make that claim would, in the words of Judge Hogan, “have the effect of converting every congressional office into a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime.”

Dollar Bill is, of course, appealing the decision, which brings me back to my first point, that we’re going to be hearing about this for quite a while. The first appeal goes to a three-judge panel of U.S. District Court, and then the Supreme Court, and you can imagine how long that will take. Until then, the material seized in the search remains sealed, which means the grand jury doesn’t get to see it, which means they have to wait to indict Dollar Bill. What that means is I’m stuck with a worthless representative for the months (years?) it takes for this to work through the court process. Then, finally, there will be an indictment or not, and Dollar Bill will get his day in court. That’s an awfully long time for New Orleans to be stuck with him.

So, William Jefferson, let me appeal to you directly. If you really want to help the people of New Orleans as you keep claiming, don’t appeal. If you’re indicted, then you can give us your “honorable explanation.” If you’re indeed innocent, you can have your old job and position back and we can get on with the process of recovery. If you’re guilty, we can get you out of the way and get someone in who will help us.

Until then, you’re dead weight, an anchor, and we don’t need anything dragging us further under the water.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Shameless Self-Promotion (Mostly, Anyway)

A very short piece – and I mean really short, as in only a page long - of mine will appear in Louisiana in Words, a book coming out from Pelican Publishing in the spring.

Not too long ago Pelican put out a submission call for the book, looking for writers to describe the real Louisiana, minute by minute. The book will collect them together, giving people a snapshot of a day in the life of Louisiana. They specifically asked for some stuff not set in New Orleans and not about the hurricanes, and believe it or not I managed to come up with something, and I recently heard mine got accepted. I have to say I’m quite excited and proud to be in the book, not just to be included but also because of the company I’ll be keeping.

Also accepted was Kelly Wilson, my friend and office-mate from Loyola, as well as John Biguenet, also from Loyola and author of the books The Torturer’s Apprentice and Oyster. There are some other heavy hitters in there, too, like Andrei Codrescu, as well as other friends of mine from New Orleans, Charles Cannon, Joe Longo and Sarah Inman, but the one I’m actually most excited about is Linda Rigamer. See, I gave the call for submissions to my Intro. to Creative Writing class as an assignment and encouraged them to submit; Linda did, and she got accepted, and that’s just really cool. If you want to see the full list of authors, go here.

The book should be out in the spring sometime, at which point I will remind everyone about it again, here and in emails and phone calls and possibly by running around for Mardi Gras wearing nothing but my page like a fig leaf. Here’s hoping the book isn’t pocket-sized.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Nine Months, One Week, and Four Days Later ...

… I got my insurance money. I mentioned in the last post that my blue roof is among the many in New Orleans that are, officially, gone. The roof was the first thing to get fixed because fixing anything else only to get it leaked on really sort of defeats the point.

For all this time, the first question most everyone asked me whenever we spoke was, “How’s the house?” Still, I’ve been putting off writing about it because first, there wasn’t much to say, and second, it’s boring, mostly a tale of bureaucracy and regulations, minutiae and percentages, inspections and waiting on hold, oh, so much waiting on hold. In short, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, more often than not signifying nothing. Still, things are finally happening, so here goes.

First, history:

The Good Dr. Arwen and I bought the place together – it’s a shotgun double which, for the non-New Orleanians, is a traditional style house here with two front doors that both open to a long row of rooms one after the other, with no real hallways. They say the name derives from the idea that you could shoot a shotgun through the whole house, front to back, if you wanted.

We bought it “as is” from people who weren’t finished renovating it on July 29th, and spent the next month finishing renovations. In fact, we worked right up until evacuation – Gavin and I grouted my new bathroom floor on Saturday, then evacuated Sunday, and Katrina hit Monday, August 29th. Actually, the house survived the hurricane pretty much intact, losing only a handful of shingles from the roof, which resulted in the leaks that were the first things to be fixed. The failure of levees – thank you government and Army Corps of Engineers – wrecked it, though.

The three feet of water that sat in the house for about three weeks pretty much destroyed everything inside. If you doubt that, take a yardstick around your house with one end on the floor and imagine everything within its length soaking in water for almost a month. Then imagine mold growing up the walls and over everything else straight to the ceiling. Pretty much does it, doesn’t it? Plus, since I was just moving in, everything was packed up in boxes on the floor. If you haven’t read “Operation Bass Save” from way, way back in October, it’s got a quick description of the results of that particular misfortune.

So the first thing I had to do was shovel all the moldy, stinking trash out. Wearing big rubber boots, a respirator, and gloves, I tossed to the curb, oh, almost every book I had ever read, along with hundreds I hadn’t gotten to yet, and somewhere in the gluey, slimy, largely unreadable mess, my copies of the journals that had published my short stories. Since I’m a writer and English professor, I did that first because I knew, for me, that would be most upsetting – the books themselves are of course replaceable for the most part, but all the scribbled notes in the margins were not, nor were the signatures and dedications from all the writers I met, nor were the first editions and antiques, like the complete Poe in ten volumes published in the late 1800s. They made a pile about ten feet long, a couple wide, and three or four feet high.

On top of that went photos and posters, the hand-made “7 Deadly Sins” sign my friends and I carried around for the Greatest Mardi Gras Ever, all my notebooks and papers from college, not to mention costumes and toys and videos and kitchenware and beer-brewing equipment and all the other little knick-knacks that clutter up our homes because they remind us of who we are. That took a long, lonely week in early October (happy birthday to me!). At the end of every day, I would go back to the old apartment and shower, even though we weren’t supposed to bathe in tap water those days, but I couldn’t live with the sweat, stink, and muck on my skin.

Meanwhile, my neighbors, who had actually lived in their houses, threw out even more.

It’s an odd thing to have your whole life rotting on the curb for all the neighbors to see, waiting to be picked up by the garbage collectors. I felt totally exposed. My friend John said to me one day, “I saw your Tank Girl down the street,” and I wanted to cringe because it’s a comic book and it’s embarrassing to still be reading comics at my age, especially one called “Tank Girl” and this despite the fact that I knew John would hardly hold it against me, in fact had read them himself. But what of everyone else? The piles sat there for quite a while, weeks in fact, plenty of time for anyone who cared to learn about my reading habits, or to note the Star Wars toys that came out of the house of a single thirty-something non-parent. It’s also plenty of time for you to remember that “adult novelty” tucked away deep in a box and think, “Oh gee, I hope that’s on the bottom somewhere.”

I did rescue three bottles of wine that had spent those five or six weeks in the house. One I drank the night I rescued it, with a hearty “fuck you” to all that had happened and all that had caused it. I saved the other two, the first of which I plan on drinking my first night back in the house, the second on the anniversary of Katrina, though the way things are going that order will probably be switched. Either way, both will be drunk with some sorrow but with more defiance and determination, and don’t worry, if they’ve turned to vinegar, I’ll have back-ups.

After that came the gutting. I got help from my dad, as well as my friends Gavin, John, and Karl. As soon as we pulled the drywall down, we discovered the mold covered the plaster underneath, since the previous owners had put drywall up on top of the original plaster and lath. If you don’t know, lath are narrow thin boards nailed horizontally on the studs all the way up a wall, with maybe a half-inch of space between them. Cover that with plaster and ta-da! Wall. At least that’s how they did it around here in the days before drywall. Preservationists insist the plaster should be cleaned of mold because it’s part of the history of the house and whatnot, but I was too busy getting that moldy shit out of what was left of my house to listen.

And what a nasty, dirty job it is – first of all, the plaster crumbles into small chunks and powder which gets up your nose and into your eyes and ears no matter what kind of mask and goggles you wear. They help, but the stuff is insidious. So you break the plaster with a hammer or crowbar (I called mine “Big Max”) and it flies off in all directions, and then you pull the lath down with Big Max or your bare hands. You would be surprised at how much of a house you can pull down with only your hands. I just imagined that rather than plaster and lath, I was pulling Brown’s vapid stare and Bush’s smug smile off their bloody, shrieking skulls and the rest was easy. Pretty good therapy, actually.

After getting all the walls down, then I just had to spray the whole place down with bleach, which makes all the dried mold puff out in clouds of powder. Even with the respirator, this doesn’t feel exactly healthy. All of that – the trash, the gutting, the bleaching – was done before October was out, and then all I had to do was wait for the insurance money to come so I could start rebuilding.

Did I mention that I finally got the insurance a couple of weeks ago?

For the seven months in between, the house sat – gutted, bleached, ready – waiting. So when you all asked me what was going on with the house and for months I said “Nothing,” it wasn’t that I was being rude, or didn’t want to talk about it, or didn’t want to bore you with the details, it was because literally nothing was happening.

During that time, I spent an awful lot of time talking on the phone, working my way through endless bureaucracies, inching toward that ever-elusive, apparently mythical goal – rebuilding money.

For those with a tolerance for financial minutiae, here’s how it works: the insurance adjustor comes out (this happened in October) and works up an estimate of damage. This then needs to be okayed by a gazillion cubicle-dwellers in a gazillion offices around the country if not the world. All of these people need to weigh in with their opinion, even though they’ve never been anywhere near N.O. and haven’t taken one look at my house, as far as I know. Once they all decide that the adjustor knows what he’s talking about (or haggle out the differences), the insurance company actually cuts a check. In our case, two of them – homeowners’ and flood. Homeowners’ covered the minor roof damage, flood everything else. Luckily, homeowners’ didn’t try to blame everything on flood (a common problem around here that leads to court cases and even more delays). Both checks arrived sometime in May.

Here’s where it gets fun. The flood insurance comes in two parts – contents and structure. We easily maxed out the contents coverage, so when they tell you most people go with $25,000 – don’t listen. It won’t even begin to cover everything, and we didn’t even live there. Then, the structure check was made out to us AND the mortgage company. Apparently, we’re not to be trusted, though how it could possibly be to our advantage to run off with an insurance check that doesn’t cover what we owe in mortgage in an age when running from your debts is practically impossible, that eludes me.

So the money to repair our house passed briefly through our hands, only there as long as it took us to sign it, and then off it went to work it’s way through the mortgage company bureaucracy. That only took several phone calls (“Yes, I swear we’re fixing the house. No, we’re not living there – there’s no power, no water, no nothing. No, I didn’t receive that – please don’t send anything to the house because there is no mail service there.”), as well as many signed documents, all of which had to be signed by both me (here in N.O.) and Dr. Arwen (3 hours away where her job has gone since New Orleans’ version of a psychiatric hospital is an emergency room set up in the old Lord and Taylor’s). One of those documents had to be notarized, requiring we were both present at the same time. Lastly, they wanted a signed, detailed estimate from the contractor. After all that, the mortgage company consented to send us a third of the money.

Yep, just a third. We get the second third after the mortgage company has sent out an inspector who confirms that half the work has been done, and the final third when an inspector determines that 90% is done. Interesting how we’re supposed to get 90% of the work done with only 60% of the money.

Again, that check stuck around just long enough to get signed and then off it went to the contractor. Gavin took maybe a week and a half to get to my place, which is remarkably fast considering the amount of work in this town, but then if I hadn’t been a good friend with a contractor, I probably wouldn’t have considered buying a house in the first place.

In the last few days, the roof has been fixed, a floor torn up and redone, a couple of closets torn down and another two put up, and the egregious errors of other renovators fixed (they took out a load-bearing wall, which John discovered while walking in the attic and almost falling through). Gavin said it could take as long as six months before I can live in it, an estimate not based on the amount of time the actual work takes, but rather on waiting – for an electrician, for inspections, for getting appliances delivered, and for money. We’re hoping for better.

All that said, and it was rather a lot – anyone still with me? – I do a little jig every time I think about how the work has finally begun, even if it was 9 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days later.

I try to go by everyday and see if anything needs doing. I’m probably more in the way than anything else, but when we started renovating back pre-K, it was Gavin and John and Karl and me – I ran wire, I knocked down a wall, I laid tile – and that’s the way it’s going to finish (with a little help from some more friends). So far, this house has claimed my blood, my sweat, and my tears, and probably will get a few more things before it’s done, but when I’m home that first night and I uncork that bottle of wine, well, nothing will be sweeter, and everyone’s invited.

Friday, June 23, 2006

In Which Our Narrator Discovers the Recuperative Benefits of Travel

I went on vacation, got out of town and visited Brooke and saw some other friends. (Here comes the annoying shout-out to people you don’t know – hi Sarah, Brandon, Laura, Benjamin, Jennifer & Jennifer’s funny drunk friend!) I meant to blog from there, but not surprisingly that didn’t happen. I should have put up a post like newspapers run, explaining their columnist is on vacation and will return and here’s a greatest hit from a couple of years ago. Though I suppose to deserve that, I would need a regular schedule like newspaper columnists …

At any rate, this was the first time I had left New Orleans since December. Everyone I mentioned this to agreed that six months is a REALLY long time to spend in this town without a break, and they’re probably right. One tends to forget what it’s like to be somewhere where everything works and the streets aren’t constantly lined with trash. Places where firefighters don’t have trouble putting out fires because the water lines are all broken and leaking or where restaurants and bars don’t have hand-written signs on their doors proclaiming their “temporary hours,” and it’s important to remind ourselves of stuff like that because if we do forget, then we don’t mind. We accept that things are just that way now, and we don’t stay angry, and we don’t turn that anger into resolve, and we don’t demand change. (Our ability as a species to adapt to just about anything is a double-edged sword.) The long march to a repaired New Orleans, that “bigger and better” one we kept hearing about several months ago, is a very long one, years long in fact, and we have to fight exhaustion and depression every step of the way.

So here are a couple of the things I got excited about while visiting Jersey and New York – no blue roofs! Flying in to Newark, the only blue visible was the light, translucent blue of swimming pools. Someday, I thought, New Orleans will look like that again from the air. Also – working public transportation! Not that New Orleans ever had great public transportation to begin with, but I really miss the St. Charles streetcar. Also, taking the train from Jersey to NYC got me really hopeful of the plans to expand the streetcar lines and add some lightrail commuter lines to Baton Rouge and the Gulf Coast. Just being where those things actually exist and work was a good reminder along the lines of, “Um, hey, we could do that, too.”

Here’s a funny thing about people that live Out There – they’re not obsessed with New Orleans. I know, I know, totally crazy but true. Don’t get me wrong, they do care; they’re just not obsessed with it to the exclusion of all else. People would ask how things are here, and I would launch into what surely would be an absolutely fascinating lecture of several hours full of telling detail and perceptive observations and strident recommendations, and then people would tune out after a couple of sentences. It was shocking and a little upsetting (why isn’t everyone totally centered on MY problems?!?), but it turns out they have their own problems. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to ask a cab driver if he or she thought we should rebuild New Orleans, but I really wanted to.)

Brooke took me to this musical, “Spring Awakening,” which I’m not giving too much away about by saying it was all about sexual repression, teen suicide, and death from illegal abortion. It was based on a play written in 1891 that was banned for seventy years. Not only was it very well done and extremely well-performed, but it was a good reminder that all sorts of old problems and fights are still here, that many things haven’t changed significantly, an idea they underlined by punctuating period scenes with songs with contemporary lyrics and music. (Some of the recent legislation passed by the Louisiana legislature also reminded me of the same old fights, but more on that later.)

I’ve been pretty tunnel-visioned lately, and it was good to shake that off a bit. A broadening of horizons, if you will.

In a kind of opposite directioned connection, there’s a production of “Waiting for Godot” up in New York that takes place on a roof surrounded by floodwater, where the implication is that the Godot the characters are waiting for is FEMA. If anybody’s seen it, I’d like to hear about it, because I like the idea of connecting the disaster in New Orleans with something beyond the disaster itself.

Here’s one last observation from my trip Out There: as we flew into New Orleans, I watched out the window as we soared over Lake Pontchartrain and came in over the suburbs. The last couple of times I did this, New Orleans was Blue Roof City, but this time, they were actually few and far between. I was so surprised I kept staring, looking around, trying to find all those blue roofs I had seen in December, but they just weren’t there. (Including my own, by the way, but again more on that later.)

From the ground here, while in the middle of it, I just couldn’t see much progress. In fact, I came back to a city where five teenagers were gunned down several blocks from my apartment last Saturday and the National Guard has returned, which looks and feels more backwards than forwards. That expanse of repaired roofs was the best evidence of progress I have seen in six months, and if I hadn’t gotten anything else out of the trip, that alone would have been worth it.

Monday, June 05, 2006

"The corps is responsible"

That's from Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, on the failure of New Olreans' hurricane protection system. For the full quote, see this Times-Pic article from last Friday that I'm linking to because I suspect the rest of the country didn't get the story.

In short, the article relates the results of an eight-month Army Corps of Engineers-sponsored study of New Orleans' hurricane protection system that concludes that the blame for the catastrophic failures lies with the United States' inherently flawed flood control planning.


Added some more. Most of them are New Orleans related to some degree, though not all. I considered slapping up every New Orleans related thing I could find, but quickly realized that, first of all, that's really tedious, and more importantly, other people have done it for me. So instead, it's just stuff that I've enjoyed and/or felt was important lately. Hopefully, there will be more in the days to come, so you too can spend your entire life reading everything on the web, every last page.

Nothing Works, and My Apartment is Slowly Killing Me

My car has been in and out of the shop so many times in the past two weeks I can't even remember what I originally took it in for, and it still has a nail in one of the tires (the fifth or sixth since my return) and has developed a mysterious clunking noise it didn't have before. Everytime it goes in, it comes back worse.

Meanwhile, my computer is crashing in slow motion. I took it in for help and the guy told me he could recommend a few good places to buy a new one. It can't even handle routine maintenance anymore - any defrag attempts always end in seizure. I waste so much time everyday waiting for it to catch up with my typing, and don't even ask about trying to read everybody's blogs. Every day feels like Russian roulette - will today be the day of the Black Screen of Death?

Then this evening I stuffed my clothes in the only washer the apartment building has, fed it my quarters, poured in the detergent, closed the lid and got ... nada. No amount of turning switches, checking plugs, or switching fuses achieved anything. When I tried to call someone for advice or at least an ear to vent in, I got a "we can't place this call" recording and flipped.

I think I can at least partially blame my perhaps inproportionate fury on PTSD - that recording took me right back to the days immediately after when phones were useless, so naturally I flipped out. I did what I usually do when I'm angry and lacking anything or anyone to righteously take it out on - pace up and down the apartment muttering angrily about why the religious right are evil and unAmerican. A few minutes of that usually works the anger out of my system.

Also for the past couple of weeks, I haven't been able to shake this annoying phlegmy cough, which I finally figured must be allergies even though I have never had allergies before. I started paying attention to when and where it was at its worst so I would know what to avoid if possible, and discovered that it's worst at night and first thing in the morning. It always gets better when I go outside. The conclusion: I'm allergic to my apartment.

This isn't nearly as far-fetched a notion as it sounds. My apartment is in this old mansion that has been chopped up into oddly shaped little units, and it is slowly but surely disintegrating around us. The landlord takes exactly zero care of it, so I've always been plagued with leaks and other annoyances. One time I found a mushroom growing out of a crack in my wall. This was even before the storm, and I'm sure it has only gotten worse. No doubt there's some sort of horrid mold growing in the walls, giving me and my cat mutant black lung or something. My flooded-but-gutted house is probably healthier to live in, and it doesn't come with loud downstairs neighbors trying to drive me crazy, like in "The Tell-Tale Heart" except I didn't kill anyone, not yet at least.

Hmmm ... apparently I wasn't entirely done venting.

But hey - maybe this is a sign that I'm returning to something akin to normal. Even as I write all this, I can't help but realize how trivial it all is, but perhaps that's a good thing. Getting all worked up over this stuff is actually a nice change of pace. Maybe I've really turned a corner here - it's okay to hate the neighbors and the landlord and the mechanic again. Ah, sweet, sweet normalcy!