Sunday, February 04, 2007

How Are You?

I have to wonder: Just how is everyone doing?

Within my closest circle of friends, it's quite a mix. A business owner loses money every day he stays open. A self-employed image maker sits in the red, waiting. It almost seems that the tighter one holds to New Orleans, the greater the chance for unhappiness right now.

But can I type these words? Even think about it? That to move on, recover to good health, I have to let go of New Orleans? Is the City to be relegated to party destination in mid Winter and Spring? And if so, what does that say that I've become, to say nothing of the City itself?

Two other close friends have bought homes in distant cities. They seem to be flourishing, making better money, doing better work, living in safer cities. The home purchase, of course, stakes a real claim. A decision made. A commitment. Done.

Not to say they don't miss New Orleans as much as anyone else. Nor to say that the decision was in any way more fulfilling than living a full life in New Orleans could have been. But the deal breaker is more with "could have been" than with "living a full life in New Orleans." Once forcibly displaced, who's to wonder how, if, when life will or will not catch up with you no matter where you lay your head? Who can create a working scenario that includes another move to a less-safe city? And with a family?

The diaspora is fairly set, as is the population of the City of New Orleans. It is less likely that anyone who has not already returned ever will return than it is likely that they'll keep their higher paying jobs and better schools for their kids.

My status: I have not bought a house.

Drop me a line each of you, would you? Tell me how you're making out....

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"Speaking of New Orleans..."

Seems I posted not a single blog entry in all of 2006. I've been remiss. How did that full year pass so quickly?

I've made editorial revisions to the blog. Gone are any references to currency trading. (Surely there are already too many millions of words devoted to that topic; the world needs no more, especially from me.) And in all honesty, I intend this blog for my closest friends and I to stay connected, separated as we are by the events started on 29 August 2005. To the unlucky others who'll read these words, thanks for being here, but surely your time is better spent on a more talented writer with whom you share common interests. You're very welcome here, all the same. Don't be surprised, however, if discussions focus far too intently on the quality of reuben sandwiches at Liuzza's By the Track.

"Speaking of New Orleans..." Now that's a phrase the President can't say today, as last night he delivered his 2007 State of the Union address and said not one word about the Gulf Coast. He expressed greater enthusiasm for the rebuilding of Baghdad than for the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward, or Mississippi, or anywhere else that flies the flag stuck in his suit lapel. No matter, to be frank; he's a goner, a loser, an anachronistic coward from the past, who'll be personally forgotten despite the lasting consequences of his decisions. The uninspired and uninspiring Child King. He's nothing now. His war is significant, but anything the man said, or left unsaid, is insignificant because the speaker is nothing but a shadow of emptiness. His administration implodes.

So with an absent president, is there another leader for New Orleans?

Ray Nagin seems missing. He's tired, surely. And how I wish he'd not run for mayor again, let alone bait race as a means to re-election. He lost me after he had me. When he spoke with Garland on the Thursday after the storm, when he told the world what was really going on in the city, as I listened to the radio huddled up with the dogs, my ear pressed close so as to not miss a word, I swear I'd have defended the man with my life. Since then, however....

Governor Blanco. Remember her? I don't.

Bobby Jindal. Hmmm, now there's a big brain misapplied. For all his reputation for smarts he works more for a bankrupt political philosophy than he does for the men, women, and children in his district. But he's running to replace the already gone Blanco, so we'll hear a lot more from the brain. Dislodging Blanco shouldn't take much money; Governor Opportunist is on his way to Baton Rouge.

There are two United States Senators in Washington who are working hard for you and me. I don't doubt their sincerity, but where are the results of their labors?

One wonders why leadership is lacking in New Orleans. Some will say that "political correctness" stifles leadership. Others might guess that there's a lack of backbone. Or maybe leadership comes with too high a cost, or too little reward. Regardless of the cause, New Orleans is staggering its way along, dodging bullets (sometimes) and dodging more hurricanes (so far.) Parts remain empty. Parts are rebuilt. Parts are in limbo, with the souls tied to those buildings sharing the fate. State Farm remains reviled. But thankjesuschrist you can savor the butter in an almond croissant at La Boulangerie on Magazine Street. And thankmorethanjesuschrist that the Saints won their division and played hard in the NFC Championship and provided us all with laughs and an occasion to call each other with fun news.

I hope to hear from you all. You know you own my love and friendship. I'll be more responsible when writing. Until later...


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Faces of Kindness

Despite recent blog entries that focused on the heartless nature of some employees of rental offices in the City of Richmond, the kindness of others overwhelms the ill-generous and reduces me to a humbled "thank you."

Check it out: yesterday Maura from Catholic Charities called to inform me that they would be paying my deposit and first month's rent on the little house I'm so desperately trying to rent in Church Hill.

I don't know what to say.

She had called to follow-up and I informed her that I remained in a waiting mode. The rental agency (not Cindy's Main Street Properties) is in possession of 1) a co-signer; 2) documents from FEMA saying that I qualify for future rental assistance; and 3) assurance from me that I'd pay the deposit, October rent, and two additional months early. Despite all this, I'm still waiting. And add to it now the commitment from Catholic Charities for their aid.

As of Tuesday, I'm still on pins and needles. The search for housing equals the stress of the flooding... no kidding.

I need a house!

Others have pledged their help, too, and I'm moved by their kindness.

So for those of you keeping track, please know that not everyone is as rotten as Cindy Proffitt. There are so many others whose kindness diminishes the impact of the unhelpful.

Thank you, everyone, for your care and concern and support. I'm unable to communicate what it means to me right now.

It means my world!!!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Friendship That's Gold

I'd like the world to witness true friendship in action. Check this out:

October 5, 2005

Cindy Proffitt
Main Street Properties
2111 Main Street
Richmond, VA 23220

Dear Cindy,

I spoke with you on the phone today regarding Joe Kight's rental application. I understand that you are simply doing your job, but perhaps in some circumstances, a little human compassion is permitted. Giving that he had $6000 in the bank, and work lined up, requiring a letter from FEMA was completely unnecessary. Do you realize how difficult it is to even get someone on the phone at FEMA, much less write a letter? He offered to have someone co-sign for his lease. Why was that not sufficient, given his circumstances?

As you can see from my return address, I am also from the devastated area of New Orleans. My home is not going to be habitable for at least 6 months. I am in Nashville, and relying on the kindnesses of many random strangers, who, thankfully, have bent some rules for me. My landlord here in Nashville gave me my apartment on a month to month lease, and no deposit, because he understood the severity of my situation. He didn't even have me fill out an application, much less do a credit check. He simply met me at a coffee shop, and decided to trust me.

I know Joe Kight well, and if you met him and didn't trust him and like him immediately, then there must be something wrong with you. If you did trust him, and like him as I'm sure you did, then here was your opportunity to do something tangible for someone who has lost everything, but someone who is smart and capable and optimistic enough to start his life over in a new city. And he chose Richmond. Unfortunately, you were one of the first people in Richmond who could help him.

When I spoke to you, I, rather rudely I admit, asked if you could sleep at night. You responded very calmly, "I can."


I can't. Joe Kight can't. Half a million displaced Americans can't. It must be nice for you. I hope and pray that the city of Richmond never ever has to experience anything even close to what we have gone through in New Orleans. If you do, Cindy, don't bother coming to New Orleans. No one there will help you. His story and your behavior are becoming well known.

You should read more than just what he wrote about you. Read the horrors of what people have been going through, and you might get an inkling of the audacity of your request for a letter from FEMA. I'm sure there are kind and sensible people in Richmond, and I know Joe will find a place to live. I'm sorry you missed this opportunity to do some good in the world.

Sweet dreams.

Sara Essex
PO Box 22093
Nashville, TN 37202

cc: William White, President of the Board, Richmond Association of Realtors;
and L. Douglass Wilder, Mayor, City of Richmond

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

I'm A Blank To Fill In

Her name is Cindy.

She works at Main Street Properties at 2111 West Main Street in Richmond.

Her number is 804-355-5775.

And here's how she's screwing with my life:

I've applied for a wonderful apartment in Carytown. Lots of windows, a sun room, a deck out back with a large fenced-in yard. A comfortable front porch, too. And it's just at my limit for rent. $595 a month.

After being forced to abandon my dream to re-create a bit of what I enjoyed in New Orleans, namely, a place where I lived, worked, practiced drums and often threw loud drunken parties, I resigned myself to live in simply a "residence" like in the rest of America. Okay. No big deal; I'm making arrangements to do my artwork outside of town in a building on a farm north of the city and the partying will just have to wait.

I'll adjust.

Well, I applied, told them everything they need to know and don't need to know and then I waited the weekend to learn my fate:

Yes, I have rotten credit.

Stop the presses! Joe Kight, artist, has bad credit!

There's not a soul on the planet who doesn't know that!!! And for the past year I've made great gains on the problem.

Really. But rental agency clerks couldn't care less.

So I called for Cindy on Monday. Twice she couldn't talk to me. But she called me back just before 5:00, deliberately, surely, to tell me that she couldn't help me.

"But I've qualified with FEMA for housing assistance," I told her.

"Then I'll need a letter from FEMA telling me that they'll pay your rent for twelve months." (I'm sure FEMA is filled to the brim with secretaries with nothing to do but write direct, individual letters to people like Cindy.)

"What?! I've shown you the paperwork from FEMA that says: 'you're qualified for assistance'."

"You're unemployed," she said.

"The whole Gulf South is unemployed, but I'm self-employed" I responded. "Look. I've got six thousand bucks, FEMA as a co-signer, and work waiting for me once I get a damned house to live in."

Cindy was "sorry."

Sure. I offered other co-signers but to that Cindy responded not.

Richmond's hard-hearted candidate of the month, no doubt.

Rental agency office clerks of the world are putting the screws to Joe Kight.

Frustrated. Angry. Displeased with myself. Feeling vulnerable. Wishing somebody in a rental office would treat me like a person instead of a blank to fill in on an application.

When, when will the winds from this damned hurricane stop blowing???

Want to do me a favor? Give Cindy a call and tell her you know me and that I'll pay my rent on time, will you? Vouch for your little writing buddy over here.

Homeless in Richmond, Virginia is becoming no fun at all.

Thanks, Cindy.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Other Experiences

It's been difficult for me to post new blogs; I'm using public library computers and the experiences become difficult to recount. In the past week, however, I've received two emails, both forwarded from someone else, that I consider significant. I'm passing them along to my readers, editing only as needed for privacy, readability, and anonymity.

It should be noted that this morning I heard an interview with Eddie Jordan, New Orleans district attorney. He claims he has seen only four bodies at the morgue from the Superdome and Convention Center.

Somehow, that's bullshit to me.....

First, this email received last week. I do know the persons involved... :

If I have remembered your e-mail right I am amazed. Of course I took our rolodex which doesn't have a lot of e addresses in it, but yours is memorable.
We hope you and others fared well in the storm and mess that took place after.
We are in New York City with Mom in their old apt so it has a very homey feel.
We were among the 15,000 left to rot at the Convention Center. It was unbelievable. No food or water, no electricity, bathrooms piling up so badly that they spilled out on to the floor of the center leaving a stench I will never forget. Then there were the dead bodies and of course, the gangs and guns. I got shot at in a crowd which in turn caused "my wife" to start having seizures after the next loud bangs we heard. Anything you see on the news - don't believe most of it. They are still not telling the world that all those people who "would not or could not" leave were actually NOT BEING ALLOWED TO LEAVE THE CITY. We were forced at gun point by the NOPD to leave our animals (we had brought them to a store on Bourbon where six of us were going to hold up) but the NOPD saw us on the balcony and got all assholeian and put the guns to us and made us leave. This was by the way for our safety. We would go to the CC {Convention Center} where they had food, water, medical care, etc. The NOPD were shaking they were so scared, but they sure were assholes to us. And if you wanted to leave or have someone come into the city to get you, they wouldn't allow it. Only after the army got there FOUR DAYS LATER did that start to happen. Good, but not good enough. We saw enough dead bodies and people die right in front of us that it all became truly surreal. We are currently being debriefed as the hospital told us we "are like Viet-Nam vets returning to the USA from the front line. The only difference is the Viet Nam vets had some training for what they were going into beforehand and we had none." Oh and they are saying 24-25 dead at the center I SAW more than that. Plus they are also not talking about the fact that after they got the initial people out, they went in and helped out anyone who wanted to leave and couldn't get up or whatever. When they got them out, they went back in with a ton of people from groups I didn't know existed like the ATC (Alcohol, Tobacco Control) I knew they ATF, but never heard of these people - and shot the rest. Apparently it is something of a standard practice in these situations, it made me sick nevertheless.
I have to say that for the most part people were really good to each other and I saw some beautiful grace and amazing gestures of kindness between people while we were there. I questioned for a while, given what I do for a living, why the gods had let us down. Then I realized that I was seeing the face of spirit everywhere. It was the governor and the president whose face I didn't see once.
We know that some of the animals have been rescued and the rest are getting fresh water and food left for them. We poured out about 100lbs of food ourselves and two cases of bottled water as well as a bath tub full. So they should be fine, just a little pissy. The big snakes are in our bathroom with a big full tub of water in the dark humid room just their size. The small ones have been rescued and are currently being taken care of at the SPCA's "exotics" division. We will pick them up or our friends will when we can. We'll probably be here another 2-3 weeks. No point in going back until there is safe water, electricity and a way to get food. Plus a working airport so we can get there, cab service, a working 911 system and I don't want to live with the current curfew of 6pm to 8am. The hurricane itself was not that bad, the way they handled the aftermath - they created a war zone.
I am planning to take advantage of every small business assitance program available when we get back. It turns out I'm a good business person. If there is any work connection that you can think of that would be advantageous to us both, I am open to any ideas. I really want to be up and running and to help a bunch of others I know who will need our help more than ever.
Again, we hope that you are all safe and well and hope to hear from you soon.

---- And I received the email below just today. I find it chilling... :

Dear Mom:

This is pretty much what happened to us as far as I can remember it. Some of it is probably off because we lost track of time and days and nights blended. I'm still feeling very angry and sad. Watching the news outrages me. I see "Dr. Phil" opining on why people didn't evacuate New Orleans. He says they didn't believe there would be a hurricane or they didn't want to leave, etc. Well there was no way to leave. We had no way out. People with families and no resources had no way out. There were no buses coming for people or shelters to take people to. Just announcements to leave. So naturally the poorest, sickest, etc. were left behind. No one as far as I could see wanted to be there or elected to be there. No one really allowed them to get out!

Anyway, we began hearing hurricane news on the television. By Saturday we were hearing insanely frightening news of a direct category 5 hurricane hit and projections of massive flooding and deaths of up to 30,000 people. Despite being through several hurricanes this seemed worse than imaginable. We were pretty scared. "B" and I had tickets out for Sunday , 8\28 at 2 pm so we weren't worried. I called all the airlines and finally got "E" a ticket to Chicago for 1 pm the next day.

Sunday morning we sent E back to school to get his things. I called to check on my reservation and was told the flight was cancelled. B and I had no way out. E's flight was never cancelled but there were no taxis, buses, etc or any way to get to the airport. So we bought some wine and canned goods and waited out the storm in the hotel.

With all the dire predictions it was pretty nerve wracking to wait. I don't remember the storm too well. The winds picked up at night and really roared during the day Monday morning. The electricity went but we had water. We watched the hurricane from our room and from the lobby of our hotel. The two restaurants attached to the hotel made coffee and sandwiches for the guests. The bar was opened. Everyone cooperated so it was not nearly as bad as predicted. Being in the city, the hotel was pretty well protected by other buildings. It was not nearly as bad (or impressive) as the hurricanes we passed in Cupey. So everything was fine and we were just waiting for the next day to see when the airport would open and when we could get out. It was quite a relief.

Tuesday morning at about 8 am the hotel people knocked on our door to say we were evacuating the hotel immediately for their sister hotel the Saint Marie. The wanted to get all the guests together for protection from looters at nighttime, because the Saint Marie had a generator, and because it was 5 stories high and there was lots of talk of floods of up to 20 feet. So we left for the Saint Marie, two blocks away. When we got there we were herded into the ballroom and told to stay there. As I kept inquiring about our room I was finally told there were no rooms, that we could stay in the ballroom if we wanted as the flood waters poured in, or we could go to the official evacuation center at the Convention Center. We were effectively kicked out of the hotel.

So we left with about 15 other guests and walked through the streets, about 10 blocks to the Convention Center. Water was clearly coming down the streets from the direction of Lake Pontchartrain and the flood news was terrible. At the front door the workers there told us to go around to the side. At the side we were informed that the Convention Center was not an evacuation center and that no one was permitted inside. There was no one else there except for our group. Our concern at the moment was not to be caught up in the flood. Behind the Convention Center ran the "Riverwalk", a Mall and outside walkway along the Mississippi. Right on the side of the Convention Center was an escalator that ran up to a maybe 100 foot long covered walkway that led into the Mall. The walkway was about thirty feet high. We decided that it was the best place for now to ride out the flood. So we all went up and put down our bags. E and I walked to the mall entrance but the doors were locked. We thought maybe moving into the mall might be better and safer.

At the very corner of the front windows to the entrance to the Mall we found a window shattered on the bottom by the storm. I broke the rest of the window out so we could walk in. The Mall was full of shops and food and drink kiosks. We showed it to the other people with us. Since it was hot inside the Mall and the people were still afraid of getting in trouble for "trespassing" they elected to camp outside. We decided to stay all together as a group. Since we had no food or water and no way to get any we went into the Mall and began "looting", gathering food and water for our survival. At this point there was no communication with anyone. No one knew what was happening. There were no police. There was nothing other than news of terrible floods. Everyone was on their own. So now with some food and water we sat down to wait. The entrance to the Riverwalk had part of the roof still intact, so we were able to wait in the shade.

Shortly after we noticed a man with a rifle and duffel bag walk up to the door to the Mall. We see him try the door and find it locked. Then he simply smashes out the door with the butt of his rifle and walks in. We, of course, decided to not enter again until he left. Maybe a ½ hour later he marches past us and is gone. His duffel seems a bit fuller. We went in again and explored more, located where the food was, found stores on a lower floor etc. Some time passed and then the person with the rifle returns again. This time we notice he is a cop and he is with 4 other cops and they all have arms and duffel bags. And their only purpose is to get whatever they can. And that really opened up the Mall for us. We gathered food, drinks and explored the stores. Some other tourists appeared and joined us. We took chairs and tables out of the mall. The police had "opened up" Footlocker and other stores, so there were shoes and clothes available for the taking. I wondered through looking for bedding and ways to set up camp. I took the covers off of some kiosks to use as a bed. B found some semi-cushioned furniture and we took cushions. One day we found pillows in a store.

Our group grew as new people came looking for ways to get out of the expected flooding. At some point I started to walk back to our hotel to find out if we could stay there. On the way I ran into an employee of the hotel and her family who had also been kicked out of the hotel. They came up and joined us as well. The first night we were about 30 up on the bridge. The next day some others arrived. I think the 2nd day, Wednesday, might be when the Convention Center opened because one family decided to move down there. I think it was one of the families of the hotel employees. They had been enjoying the provisions of the Mall with us. Once they moved down to the Convention Center word spread and there was a steady stream of people coming up and sacking the Mall. People came out with everything, as did we. More stores were broken into and people came out with bags and bags of goods. And it spread and spread. We went in systematically all day long taking out food and provisions.

During all of this there are no police around. There are no authorities around. There is no food. There is no water. There is no information other than the hysteria and rumors from the radio. No one knows how long we'll be there. No one knows when the floods will reach us. The news indicates that the airport is under ten feet of water. That the main shelter, the Superdome, has lost part of its roof and is flooding. That there is killing and looting and who knows what else.

Everything is rumor. No one knows anything. If you see a cop they are on their own. They are also homeless and if they talk to you it is to say you are on your own.

By Wednesday the streets are filled with people who are at the Convention Center. There are thousands of people in the streets. No one has food or water. It is hot and miserable. It was maybe Wednesday or Thursday that some people on the street are yelling about dead bodies and toss a body wrapped in a sheet on the side of the Convention Center just below us. A little later a wheelchair with a dead woman appears there as well. Again, everything is rumor. People are saying that the dead woman in the wheelchair was bludgeoned to death in the Convention Center.

At the same time hordes of people are coming up the steps past us and into the Mall. They are breaking into all the stores, smashing cash registers, etc. There is desperation all around. And anger. And violence. Our group is about 50. We are mostly tourists from the US, Australia, England etc. There are also several families from New Orleans who were flooded out who have joined us.

Two of the people are nurses. The bathrooms in the mall have overflowed. There has been no water since Tuesday night. Food is rotting. Everything smells, as do we. But we are organized. We have set up buckets behind broken pieces of zinc roofing as bathrooms. We have sodas and water stacked up in our kitchen. While there is still ice in the Mall we have some hams buried there. We have umbrellas and trash cans and trash bags. Even disposable gloves to help avoid disease. We also have dead bodies, dead rats, and shit and stink all around. And we have no idea how long we are here for.

Our group is mostly white and from Middle America. They decide that the blacks (the Convention Center is 99% black obviously) are planning to murder us to get attention and help). There is mass hysteria in the group and racism is rampant. People don't know where to flee. Rumors are everywhere about murder, rape, etc. There are shots during the night (Thurs ? Fri?)

At 2 am there is a huge explosion across the river and a huge fire. Smoke pours in from fires in every direction. There is some nasty racism in our group. One day, when the hysteria is greatest a black man stands up and says-- why do you think these people want to kill you? They are surviving just the same as you. Struggling just the same. Just as desperate as you. They don't care anything about you. They are concentrating on surviving, etc. That calmed people a bit and made them feel particularly foolish. At the same time more and more families from the Convention Center were moving up to the walkway with us. Our group grew to about 80.

Each morning people began to bag the garbage. Others swept the walkway. Some set out breakfast for everybody. Two women who were home care workers for the elderly emptied and cleaned the shit buckets. A group would go into the Mall and forage for provisions. Then we would sit all day and wait.

I think on Friday the helicopters began to arrive dropping water and MRE rations in the parking lot in front of us. It was the first food and water ever to arrive----3 [5 actually] days after the hurricane. And it was just tossed from the helicopter for people to run after and gather. The old and the sick had nothing. Again, no one knew what was happening. Fires were burning all around. Everyone was desperate and frightened. Everyone was just trying to survive. And everyone, other than us tourists, was there because they had been completely wiped out---had lost their homes and every possession and had young kids and elderly parents to feed.

As the helicopters arrived we also ran down and gathered what we could. We began to survive on the army rations. E and I became friendly with the man who had given the speech chastising our group. He invited me to go with him to the Convention Center and distribute whatever Army rations we could pick up from the next helicopter to the disabled there since they had no way to get rations. We gathered about 30 meals off of the next drop. (The drops were scandalous--throwing food and water out of a hovering helicopter---people scrambling for food to survive. Reduced to animals foraging---when the copters could have landed, imposed order with guards, and distributed food with some respect and humanity)

Anyway, we walked through the Convention Center distributing food. The Center takes up about 8 city blocks. There must have been 25,000 people camped out there without provisions, without bathrooms, without water or electricity. With no means of survival. Families with little kids. Old people. People in wheelchairs. There was no medicine. No nurses or doctors.

There was filth and garbage everywhere. Some people asked for food and we gave it. Others said they were fine and had eaten. Some pointed out others who needed food. Like our group, they were doing their best to survive and sharing whatever they had. We kept walking. The crowds went on and on. People with nothing. Every one of them had lost everything. Abandoned. Not knowing how they would eat, how they would survive. It was the most disgraceful, sad, infuriating thing I had ever seen in my life. Poor people discarded like garbage because they were poor people.

Everybody was waiting for the promised buses to evacuate us. Every day there were rumors of buses. Every day we waited and watched. Nothing ever came. Every day there was more filth. More people fainting from dehydration. Children were getting sick. Disease was becoming a bigger worry.

Our community on the walkway was interesting. One day a reporter came by and asked me if we had a "mayor" We didn't. Everyone worked. Everyone joined in. Everyone did the job that made them most comfortable. And everything functioned. And as people joined us, they automatically joined in the work. There were differences but everyone worked. When there was talk about leaving or looking for ways out, it was discussed collectively. There was always a sense of staying together and getting out as a group.

There was also nastiness and racism and comments about "the people down there" in the Convention Center. We intervened a lot with people in our group who were blaming all the "people down there" for the violence. We intervened when reporters started to come and were told that "the people down there" were looting and killing. We told them that they were doing just what we were doing----doing what was necessary to survive in desperate circumstances. I don't know what else to say.

We were anxious all the time. The nights were the worst. Partly because nights are generally more frightening. Also because there were often shots or explosions. There was always a surprise. And it was always bad news.

It seemed like it would never get better. We just waited and scavenged. We worried that things would get more violent as they got more desperate. We also made incredible friends and saw amazing acts of kindness.

One morning we woke and packed at 3 am because of a rumor that the buses were coming early in the morning. We waited and hoped. No buses came. We cleaned up camp and sat down to wait again. Hoping to get through another day without tragedy.

It was Friday or Saturday that we heard the news that Bush was coming to view the disaster. That was when I first thought we would be getting out. I knew that New Orleans was another stage and that the president wasn't going to show up unless the troops were coming and the mess was going to be cleaned up. Here was a chance to improve his ratings. Here was a place where an appearance without an immediate success would be a political disaster. Here was another excellent political stage.

And of course we looked down the next day at noon and there were the troops. And a perimeter was set up. And piles of water and food were set up in the parking area. And that was the beginning of the evacuation. By the next day the buses arrived. I think we finally left round 4 pm on Saturday.

Once the troops arrived the general anxiety level went down. Now it was just a question of getting out. Fires were burning. When the wind shifted it was hard to breathe, but we knew if no other disaster hit, we would get out soon. As always they told us the buses were coming. We didn't believe it for a minute. The National Guard told us we had to vacate the walkway and go down onto the street to await the buses. Of course we refused. We told them we had a community here that was self sufficient. There was no need for us to be on the street and in the sun for nothing. That here we were supplying food, medical services, etc to ourselves and to anyone who had a need.

By this time we had about 5 or six elderly incapacitated people in our group. They had been left behind by a hospital when they evacuated. They were with a nurse who had been abandoned with them. We pointed out that our sick could not go down. We had another nurse in our group who was very well spoken and helped convince the National Guard that we had to stay for reasons of the health of the children and the elderly. So we stuck together and stayed on the walkway.

No body left until we finally saw the buses and were assured that everyone would get out. And then we marched out together as a group with much of the group still intact. In convincing the National Guard to let us stay, one of the more hateful and delusional of our group argued to the Guard that we should be left on the walkway because of "racial tensions". This was the same woman who had been telling everyone who would listen that the blacks would slaughter us to gain media attention so they would be evacuated. Anyway between all the arguments we were allowed to stay. And it also resulted in one of the most shameful moments of our stay. When the meals were distributed in the parking lot several distribution lines were formed. We were given a separate line. Our line was escorted to and from the food by Guardsmen. No one from our group was ever able to walk alone. As always, it is the racist hysterical argument that prevails. It was better not to get food then to pass through that disgrace.

We were amazed when we walked down to the corner where the bus was supposed to be that there was actually a bus. It took an hour to get out of the city. The driver did not know where we were going. As usual, we knew nothing. At some point the cop leading the line of evacuating buses informed us that we were going to Fort Chafee Arkansas. All we wanted was an airport but there was no way off a moving bus. Later we were told we were going to Fort Smith, Arkansas, even farther away. We demanded to be let off. The cop told us that we would stop to eat in Shreveport, Louisiana and we could get off there.

Of course the bus didn't stop. It did stop just across the Texas border where a group of people had voluntarily set up tables to distribute food and help to the refugees. We grabbed our bags and decided to find a ride into Shreveport. There was no good reason to go to Fort Smith for us. E found a volunteer to take us to a motel by the airport.

Our first priority was to bathe by this point. An airplane was next. Of course no motels were available. So we decided to spend the night at the airport. Another man offered to take us. As we were getting in his car he also offered us a shower at his house. We took him up on it and headed off. We showered, chatted, etc. I made plane reservations for 7 am the next morning.

They invited us to stay and sleep for the hour and ½ that remained of the night. They gave us food and little presents, a tee-shirt from their local high school baseball team, etc. They were kind, concerned, and really wanted to help and do the right thing. As we talked it was also clear that they were religious conservatives, racist, homophobic, etc. East Texas. Kindness and hatefulness on the same plate.

Anyway we're home. We're still angry and anxious. Writing all this makes me re-live it. Reading it makes B cry.

What we saw was just too raw. Poor people abandoned because they were poor. Poor people treated as trash. Poor people being branded as looters and thieves for trying to survive. Our own country treating us just as we treat the Iraqis, Palestinians, and every other country that we exploit or invade. How can we ever deny class warfare?

The other thing that struck me were the contradictions in people. How the kindest people in our group who gave aid and compassion individually to blacks and whites, rich and poor, also painted all those people at the Convention Center with the same brush----animals, looters, ignorants.

And it is no wonder when all the papers write and all the news reports is looting and violence---as if there was no need or reason to "loot". Sure, there were some violent people there. There are everywhere.

But this handful gets turned into "those people". And everyone gets branded. So no compassion is needed for the poor. After all they brought it on themselves. They wouldn't let the government help even though the government tried so hard. And that becomes what this country believes. And then of course the government can "morally" do nothing for the poor----which is what it intended in the first place.

That's all I have for now. After you read this give me a call and we can talk.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

"I Hope You Good Luck"

"I'm sorry?" I said.

"I hope you good luck," he repeated.

We sat only one seat apart in the waiting area of the Richmond Salvation Army, a place of remarkable activity.

I've never heard his good intentions voiced quite that way before. But I've been thinking about it, and I've grown quite fond of the phrase, with wishes being so un-worldly, so unattainable.

So Cinderella.

True, our ears expect such phrases to be repeated -- we don't say "Happy Christmas" or "Merry New Year" now do we ? -- but his intention rung so real and unmistakably sincere. I dig hopes; they trump wishes. I'm hopeful right now.

Last week wishful. This week hopeful.

That's progress, moving beyond wishing.

Last week I wished the pain and destruction of this storm away.
Last week I wished I could return to my studio as it existed before.
Last week I wished I could get a full night's sleep.

The sleep has yet to return but the Kubler-Ross denial stage fades and the studio is undeniably wrecked. Period. Facts be facts, damnit.

As Richmond and I grow closer, I'm visiting houses looking for a place to live and work. And I'm hopeful.

And yesterday gave cause for a true celebration, too: a commission that had been in discussion before Katrina has moved forward. I've been green-lighted on a $2200 piece and the 75% deposit is on its way.

I'm working again!!!!

Well... Soon I'm working again!!!!

How's that...?

One's dignity, I'm discovering anew, weaves tightly to work and my own independence remains a central issue. As soon as I rent a house, I'll start up the artwork.

Bring it on.

Learned today, though, that not everyone offers help. The weasel behind the desk at St. John's Realty on the corner of 22nd and Broad Street gave me grief and assured me "his boss" would deny my application because I'm currently unemployed. I reminded him that the entire Gulf Coast of the United States is currently unemployed! Bozo.

I'll go elsewhere.

And I'll go there confidently.

Because I and so many others have been hoped good luck from a kindly soul also in need and waiting near me in the reception area of the Salvation Army.

I hope you good luck, too.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Generosity and Gratitude

Some of you know of a twisted path I've walked with religion. From my religious days -- literally so, as being a member of a "religious" order in the Catholic Church is a specific and differing identifier from being a "secular" priest -- to my days now as totally a-religious, a tranformative journey has occured, changing my life for the better in ways I'm unable to describe. The Katrina event sharpens my perspective about religion: I place my trust in people and nature, beautiful and endless are they. I simply see no need to jump to other-worldly entities when the people and lives right here around me are so deeply blessed. I don't care if god exists. I don't care about Jesus. (Poor fellow, the crap people have laid on him these past two millenia.) I don't feel aggressive about god; I simply see no justifiable need for the distraction of believing in him.

Perhaps this puts others off? It doesn't matter; your experience is cherished and fulfilling, I hope. And so is mine.

Everything is made of Love. Everything. Love is the brick and mortar and the bricklayer. Love is literally the Stuff of Everything. It's pre-existent. It's the start, the Alpha. And god, at best, is only the beta, an invention of humanity.

Trusting Love challenges me far more than spitting out rote prayers in church, fooling myself into thinking some entity cares about my fate and affects it only because I've quietly asked him to. Strikes me as a foolish idea, really.

Contrast that with a story from last night, when I went out with brand new friends to a nice little place in the Fan neighborhood here in Richmond. Trisha and I were talking about things and next week she and some friends are travelling to Iceland to celebrate a birthday. Her original plans included a trip to Sweden after Iceland, but she changed her mind when she saw the devastation from Katrina and instead of travelling further, she has donated the money she would have spent to the Red Cross.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the Red Cross debit card that has made such a difference to me these past few weeks. "Then it's you. You gave me this, Trisha."

Feeling a wave of gratitude, I've learned yet again the lesson of Love and the power of humanity to make this world perfect and gorgeous. I can't buy gasoline with a prayer. And your bible doesn't find me a house to live in.

So Trisha, to you and to every generous soul like you: You are god to me and people like me who need you. You are Love and caring, food and water, safety and warmth. You are comfort in my storm, the mast I trust I can tie myself to in the churning waters. You are the hope and strength I need to re-build a broken life. You are the role-model, the example of living that challenges me to be like you later, when I'm in one piece again. You expand, fill, calm. You delight in dark moments, ease in troubled places, hold me when I'm desperately lonely for friendships swept away in a moments time three weeks ago. You have changed this little life. And a million others.

Everything is made of Love: hurricanes, houses, dogs, forests, seas, you, me, Trisha.

Everything is made of Love. Can you handle it?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Re-New Orleans

It's bizarre this morning. Hurricane Rita spins toward Texas and I'm forced to recant all the jokes and prods I've ever teased about the place. I always wished for a nation with 49 states, wished that Texans would invoke that option in their constitution to withdraw from the Union. I'd read the "Don't Mess With Texas" bumperstickers and say "Oh, you don't need to tell me!" And now, especially after Texans opened their doors, their domes, their hearts, and their wallets to my own neighbors, those generous folks are hunkered down for a slamming of their own and I regret every single hardcore joke I ever made about the place and its people, its cowboy culture and its Tex-Mex mushy food, its stretch limos and ugly Dallas architecture, its "howdy" greetings, Branch Damned Davidians, and space shuttle firey fly-overs.

One ranch near Crawford, Texas, however, still carries my wrath but I won't go there.

Diasporans are evacuating from the evacuation and Texans and New Orleanians are wondering where to go? Where is safety? For Chrissakes, where can we go to be safe?

Remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs from chapter two in your freshman psychology textbook? I thought about that yesterday, that the basic needs must be met before other, higher pursuits can be sought after. A million people at once are working on all the lower levels of the Maslow pyramid: escaping temperature extremes, securing shelter for their families, feeding their kids, looking for work, figuring out a new bus schedule and confusing new and old zip codes.

I can only wonder what level I'm on. It's down there, let me tell you. Way, way down below.

Unfortunately, I know the level the City of New Orleans occupies.

Tuesday I re-entered the city, as I've written earlier. But nothing, not even staying throughout the flooding itself, could have prepared me for what I encountered. Cars parked on the high neutral ground in front of Jesuit High School on Carrollton Avenue had been entirely submerged. Buildings are crumbling from being soaked for weeks. Front doors are sealed shut after having swelled and fused to the doorframes. Roofing nails are strewn about and threaten car tires and feet bottoms. Structures are weakened, many having been burned to the ground in natural gas fires. Plantlife is killed. Dead fish lie on the street after having been washed inland in the flood. Everything is an ugly gray after being coated with the horrible petroleum skin that floated on the flood waters; anything you touch feels like it was dipped into a can of motor oil. The putrid smell of decay, mold, and death catches in the nostrils and causes one to gag. Flies are everywhere, buzzing into your nervous system, stopping up your throat. Piles of debris have been pushed to the side along the roadways. The SPCA has placed open bags of animal food on the sidewalks for the poor animals left desperately behind. The bright orange spray paint used by rescuers catches your eye on every house in the city: were there souls in there? or corpses? Gladly, I cannot discern their codes; I don't wish to know.

Before leaving, I wrote on my front door: "There are no dead bodies in this entire house."

My house! The place I've loved my friends, partied, created. The place so many of us have smoked in, laughed in, joked in. The place I slept safely in snuggled up with my catahoula. My house. Not some far-away place in the Pacific. Not some doomed city on a fault line in California. Not some washed away spot of Bangladesh.

My little corner of the world in Fauberg St. John.

My house. For god's sakes. My house.

There are no dead bodies there.

I cannot know the futures -- plural intended -- that await my city and its people. Which future will function for a city in need of long-term resurrection? Which future for the poor? Which future for the carpetbagger land speculators? Which future for the corrupt officials, the city planners, the designers, the architects, the school kids, the small business owners, the chefs and waiters and dancers and fire jugglers and piano players and WWOZ radio jocks and Tulane students and backgammon porch dwellers and coffeehouse addicts and crawfish boilers and oyster shuckers and zydeco dancers? Which future will work for a city whose history remains special in global scope? Which future for a Re-New Orleans?

Too big. These questions are too big right now.

Dr. Maslow has taught us so.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

1.3 Million People -- And Their Friends -- All Going Bonkers

I'm writing from a public library in Richmond, Virginia, my newly adopted hometown. Staying briefly with a rather new friend, I've checked out the city and find it completely liveable. Since I consider the Gulf Coast as permanently unliveable, I'm here. It's a good place. I genuinely like it.

After driving more that 3200 miles since leaving New Orleans, I need to rest. But I can't. Others are far too rested and want to move. I'm far too moved and need to rest. But I've got some possessions still in New Orleans. Dogs and a car (newly purchased by my mom from a friend of hers for the generous price of $1.00 -- true generosity!) wait in Daytona. And there's a studio and home to find and create here in Richmond.

I've left my brain somewhere around here. Which city, I wonder? Or is it only in pieces along the side of the interstate? I-95 or I-65 or I-85. Take your pick.

And money is as tight as ever. And I have a home to make????

Anxious, I've yet to pass a night of unbroken sleep. The nightmares being almost too predictable, the other night I dreamt I drowned in my own bed. I sat up in a panic and I know I yelled "NO!" at the top of my lungs. What a freak. I stayed that night with Jimmy and Penelope Descant; I hope I didn't wake them or scare them.

But I had entered New Orleans that day to retrieve some of my stuff. It's horrible. Really awful. I can handle the death of an individual, you know, an old family member. But this is the death of everything. Cars that had been submerged entirely; buildings coming apart from being soaked for weeks; trees brown and gray from the polluted, brackish water. The city remains mostly empty, it smells a putrid, nausiating odor, causing me to gag a few times as I entered my house. Without a doubt, the return two days ago shocked me and sickened me more than any other part of this entire ordeal.

A word about another part of all this: all of us Diasporans are imposing, and we know it, on others. We're in the extra room, the game room, the garage, the barbershop. Our dogs are in friends' yards. My new friend is great and caring, but I'm very careful about presumption. I mean, if an old friend literally set up shop in my house while I was away on vacation, I wouldn't mind. But can I ask a new friend if I can stay for two nights? Three? Can she accept some mail for me? Can I wash my clothes there? I'm doing what I can to reciprocate and express my thanks, but money is short and my gratitude must be expressed in other ways.

So we're aware that we're putting others out. We're pacing the floors waiting to go home, only to discover a stomach-heaving place when we return. We're out of money. We're out of patience. We're out of touch with friends who we know we might never see again.

I've got the blues. The anxiety-producing, sleep-stealing, rotten-feeling-in-the-gut blues.

And from what I'm hearing from my friends, I'm not alone.

There's no corney "hang in there" line that will suffice. And christ knows I don't want to hear a single word about god and prayer. What crap.

So like a spider on a hot skillet, there's just no place to get comfortable.

No rest. No peace. No home.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

New Orleanians of the Diaspora

Richmond, Virginia.
Nashville, Tennessee.
Texarkana, Texas.
Cleveland, Ohio.
Lafayette, Louisiana.

This is a list of only myself and close friends.

We New Orleanians of the Diaspora have found ourselves everywhere. And my mind races as I wonder: What are all of these people doing?

At the "Katrina + 11" mark, my group successfully escaped flooded New Orleans. As communiciations slowly improved since then, I've learned the whereabouts of many of us, those who evacuated before the storm and those, like me, who stayed for a time. The few I've been totally unable to reach are those who stayed in New Orleans for the entire duration, who remain there right now. I suppose these folks will throw the first "Welcome Home" parties for the others.

I've travelled from New Orleans to Daytona Beach. And from there to Richmond and back. I'll return to New Orleans for my stuff, then back to Florida? or to Richmond? I've decided to move to Richmond; logistics will not be simple.

And all of this is costly.

Within the larger volume of sadness associated with this disaster, there's one chunk of it that weighs very heavily on me right now: We'll never be together again. Never again will my group of friends, as we were, find ourselves at my studio for Sunday brunch. Never again will my studio host a band on the stage with a few hundred friends all over my house. Never again will we fall into Cafe Degas or meet by the flagpole at Jazz Fest.

Don't get me wrong; I know some of us will return for the Fest. But...

As the initial reaction to this comes and goes in waves, added to it is the secondary reaction, the realization that nothing in my life will ever again be as it was. My studio will soon be changing. My hometown will change. My artwork will change. My friendships, my habits, my diet, my radio stations, my sausage from Terranova's is no more to me, my coffeeshop, my neighbors, my walks on the bayou with Ida and T-Bone, my visits to the sculpture garden in City Park, my Pabst Blue Ribbon at Pal's on the corner.

Those of the Diaspora, we're all over, sure.

But we've all remained throughout in only one small, lovely space on earth: New Orleans.

Monday, September 12, 2005

A Category All Its Own

My story is one of bad decisions followed by good luck, good friends, and good choices. I have no gritty life and death struggles with bandits. I've seen no dead bodies floating in the streets. But can I tell you: Katrina plus eleven days made for the saddest and most challenging experience of my life.

Of course, I should have left before the storm. Had the destructive eye plowed through vulnerable New Orleans instead of Mississippi, I might not be typing right now. I exhibited a stubborn stupidity before the storm, convinced that it would be better to secure my home after the worst had passed, frightened more of what possessions I might lose than what life I might lose.

Bad decision.

I rode out the storm with five others, a family named Pedeaux, in their big, old, sturdy-as-a-rock house on the high ground of the Esplanade Ridge, on Ursulines Street, just around the corner from my studio. Amazingly, we watched much of the storm from the front porch, tucked surprisingly safely into the recessed area of the front door. Huge limbs crashed to the ground. The howling wind producing awe, beautiful in its own way.

When the worst of the storm passed, I walked on dry sidewalks to check on my house. The house remained fairly dry, though beaten up badly.

I returned to the Pedeaux's for much needed sleep and woke to the fateful words: "Joe, the water is rising."

I dashed now through sloppy streets to my studio and raised my possessions, any that I could, ever higher. I returned again and again as the waters rose. And on Tuesday night I returned in haste and anguish as the mayor told us there could be nine feet of water on Saint Charles Avenue. Chairs stacked on tables stacked on larger tables. The stereo and computers and artwork raised to safety on platforms suspended from the ceilings.

Forcing my way through the waters and around fallen tree limbs, I checked on my house and possessions daily. Shocked at the quickness of decay, I watched mold form almost immediately.

After a few days, I returned to the house in a canoe. I opened up the windows, removing the boards that earlier had protected the house from windswept debris but now were locking in moisture, converting my house into a huge terrarium. Water dripped from the large plate glass windows, everything above the waterline taking in moisture and working its way to ruin.

Since the Pedeaux house had remained mostly dry (only two or three inches in a basement kitchen), I have stored the most important of my possessions there. On one return visit, I rowed straight through my open front door and into my studio, with several feet of water inside.

Because I stayed on, and able to check on the house and return to it with a canoe, I have saved my power tools, my paints, clothes, computers, stereo equipment and disks, artwork, even golf clubs.

I'm very aware of my good luck.

At the Pedeaux's, we never suffered. We had all the food we needed, with three dwellings' worth of provisions. A neighbor had left five, five-gallon bottles of water on the front porch of his house: it saved us. We took a generator from the same neighbor's basement (just in time, before the flood waters engulfed it) and syphoned gasoline from neighbor's cars. We ran the generator sparingly, creating a cool room for elderly Naomi and the others who are accustomed to cooler air. We were constantly aware of the news. We cooked on a Coleman camping stove, though the gas stove worked for the first day or two after the storm.

During a rain shower on the Wednesday following the hurricane, we collected rain water in a 30-gallon crawfish boil pot. Adding a touch of bleach to the water, we could bathe ourselves outdoors each day.

We kept a bucket of hard bleach water always ready for cleaning ourselves after any needed work was done in the floodwaters. Antibacterial medicines stayed ready on a corner of the kitchen counters and Nancy checked Bryan and me after each time out, rubbing iodine on any cuts or scrapes in our skin.

Our challenge was one of patience. By definition, the floodwaters would receded enough to drive out someday. The house is situated on the high ridge, so we'd go earlier than most in the city.

Our wait lasted eleven long days. Imagine inviting five friends to your house to watch paint dry or grass grow. I've never, ever wished away more time than the days spent watching waters recede in New Orleans. They are days lost forever and I'll spend my life trying to make them up.

We rarely, if ever, snapped at each other. And any snapping came from me more than any others. Never too bad, however, and quickly ending.

Paranoia and rumors didn't make the stay easier. Would they force us out? Would they euthanize our dogs? Would they toss our scant possessions if we needed to be helicoptered to dry land? Would they bring us to the dangerous Superdome or to the Convention Center?

We dodged rescue and asked for nothing from the military but to be left alone. We had gotten ourselves into this, we'd get ourselves out.

Bryan and I took soundings of the water levels and checked the owner's manual for each vehicle to learn wade capacities. We discovered the most shallow route out, cleared broken limbs, and waited for the moment when the water would fall to allow safe driving passage.

Finally, this past Thursday with a few pumps running, we got our chance, made our way, and escaped the flooded city.

I took in the site as much as I could as I drove through the streets. The images are seared into my memory. Gladly, many of the homes I saw are not as damaged as I had thought they would be. Though much of the city is totally ruined, of course, many houses will need only repair, not demolition.

IF the waters don't ruin them.

I've driven here to Daytona Beach, my hometown, in a car loaned to me by the generous and caring Pedeaux group. I'm sleeping each night with the dogs in my dad's barber shop. And I might have a chance to return to the city as part of the clean up team with a company based here in Daytona who will tow ruined vehicles from the streets.

Despite that possible return, I have no plans to live in New Orleans in the future.

Florida has been hit with seven hurricanes in the past two years. The Gulf has taken a few of its own and Katrina has caused damage to 90,000 square miles. Since I don't own a house in the city, and since I'm on my own with only two dogs, I have the option of leaving and I'm taking it. The risks have become too great to stay in the storm-prone Gulf Coast region.

I'm still unsure where I'll go.

As with so many others, options are many but means are dwindling. I need to act quickly and sooner more than later secure a new home and studio. I'd like to get back to work at first opportunity and complete some artwork on order from pre-Katrina days.

I'm very fortunate. Had I left the city, my possessions would be totally lost. My dignity and ability to work would be ruined.

But I also could've been killed. Next hurricane, should I ever be near one again, I'm gone. Early and far away. Gone!

Like so many others, it's a day at a time, taking opportunities when they come and struggling to grasp the enormity of this destructive event. My gut is wrenched. My heart is broken. My body is fatigued; rest and sleep have not returned despite coming here to safety.

My thanks and gratitude to so many friends who have expressed their worry.

I've exited this thing with more than most. And for that I'm very grateful.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Category 4

We're expecting quite a blow here on Monday, so I'm out of touch for a time.

I cannot know how long.

Wish us all luck.

I'll be placing orders to sell the dollar on Sunday, as Katrina will take out oil rigs. Let's hope this hurricane pays for itself, damnit.