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.


Anonymous said...

you have GOT to investigate this!!

Transvestite gang pesters Magazine Street
By Richard A. Webster Staff Writer

2006-06-26 10:24 AM CST

NEW ORLEANS — Robyn Lewis, owner of Dark Charm fashion and accessories for women, represents the first line of defense for the Magazine Street shop owners. She is the first to see them come strutting in their pumps down St. Andrew Street, the bewigged pack of thieves who have plagued the Lower Garden District since May.

Like an SOS flare, Lewis grabs her emergency phone list and starts calling.

“They’re coming,” she warns Eric Ogle a salesman at Vegas, a block down Magazine Street. Ogle, who was terrorized by the brazen crew two months earlier, alerts neighboring Winky’s where manager Kendra Bonga braces for the onslaught.

Soon every shop owner in the 2000 block of Magazine Street has been alerted.

Sarah Celino at Trashy Diva eyes the door, ready to flip the lock at the first sight of the ringleader’s pink jumpsuit and fluorescent red wig.

Down at Turncoats, where the fashion-happy gang once made off with more than $2,000 in merchandise, store manager Wes Davis stands ready.

Davis said it wasn’t supposed to be like this. They survived Hurricane Katrina’s Category 3 winds and the ensuing looters. They reopened despite the long odds of doing business in a devastated city. The last thing the Magazine Street shop owners expected to threaten their survival was a crime ring of transvestites.

“They’re fearless,” said Ogle. “Once they see something they like they won’t stop until they have it. They don’t care, they’ll go to jail. It’s really gotten bad. You know it’s ridiculous when everyone on the block knows who they are.”

Expensive tastes

The transvestites first appeared in March when they raided Magazine Street like a marauding army of kleptomaniacal showgirls, said Davis, using clockwork precision and brute force to satisfy high-end boutique needs.

They first hit Vegas March 31 while Ogle was working.

“They come in groups of three or four. One tries to distract you while the others get the stuff and run out the door. It’s very simple,” Ogle said.

Next door at Winky’s, Bonga heard people screaming inside Vegas, then saw a blur of cheap wigs and masculine legs in designer shoes streak past her door.

“All of a sudden our UPS guy dove out of the store and tried to tackle them and there’s little Eric from next door on the sidewalk with a bunch of stuff he managed to grab from one of the guys,” Bonga said. “The other two guys took off down the street and jumped into a car driven by a real girl.”

Ogle gave police a description of the perpetrators — African-American males ranging in height from 6 feet to 6-5. They all wore the same midriff shirts and wigs with twisted, dreadnaught hair.

“They’re all very skinny and very flamboyant,” Ogle said.

Two hours after the police left, the transvestites returned to Magazine Street to storm Turncoats just a block away from Vegas, and made off with more than $2,000 in merchandise.

“They move like clockwork,” Davis said. “Two thousand dollars is a lot for our store to lose, especially being in the slow summer season. It makes it so I can’t even mark my stuff down as much as I want to because I’m trying to make up for what I lost.”

In the ensuing weeks, the gang of transvestites continued their reign of terror. Sometimes they come dressed as men, though Bonga said it is obvious who they are based on their delicately plucked eyebrows. Sometimes they bring 2-year-old children to add to the level of distraction. They once returned to Vegas holding an “infant” that really was a Cabbage Patch doll wrapped in a blanket.

“They’ll make themselves scarce for a few weeks and then one day you’ll be busy with a customer and all of a sudden there’s a whole slew of them in your store and there’s nothing you can do because you’re there by yourself,” Lewis said.

Scarce evidence

The New Orleans Police Department investigated the Turncoats robbery but unless police catch a shoplifter in the act or in possession of stolen property there is little they can do besides take a report, said NOPD spokeswoman Bambi Hall.

“If store security states that someone took something, and then by the time we apprehend them they don’t have the property, then there’s really nothing we can do because it’s their word against the (suspect),” Hall said.

Lewis said she understands the understaffed NOPD has bigger priorities than to “catch a drag queen running down the street with an armful of clothing.” So the store owners created their own watchdog system unofficially known as the “Drag Queen Alert List,” a comprehensive phone roster of every business on the block with stars next to those who carry guns.

When one shop owner spots a gang member, they immediately warn everyone on the block and raise their defenses in unison.

When they enter Turncoats, Davis said he locks them inside the store, which “freaks them out,” and they leave.

Celino said she doesn’t even wait for them to enter the store.

“A couple weeks ago, a group of them was outside and one looked like the guy who came in here and ripped us off so I locked the door on them,” Celino said. “I know maybe that’s rude, if they really were innocent people, but there’s nothing else we can do. You look like the queens who ripped us off so I’m sorry but I have to lock the door.”

Ogle and Bonga say they regret being forced to resort to such profiling but they feel they have no other choice. The transvestites, Ogle said, appear to be drug-addicted and fearless in their lust for designer shoes, jackets and jewelry.

“The city’s not functioning the way it was and I’m sure a lot of them were getting some kind of government aid, which they probably aren’t getting any more so they’re incredibly desperate,” Ogle said.

And sometimes violent.

When Lewis co-owned Trashy Diva, they attacked one of her partners in the French Quarter location, throwing her to the ground and tossing a heavy mannequin on top of her.

“They’re kind of confused because they think they’re women so they don’t mind hitting women, but they’re dudes. If you get hit by one it’s like getting hit by a dude. ... Because the police are so poorly staffed, we’re kind of on our own but the system we have seems to be working. I haven’t seen them in at least a week but they’ll be back. They’re never gone for long.”•

Sophmom said...

I'm glad you had a nice trip. I think it helps all of us to get away for a perspective adjustment.

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