One of my great pleasures, in the wake of reading Dan Baum’s wonderful Nine Lives, has been meeting and getting to know JoAnn Guidos, owner of Kajun’s Pub in the Marigny. Kajun’s is the place where all patrons, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are welcome AND made to feel welcome. And JoAnn is the person to enforce that notion. In addition to meeting with the 2014 New Orleans class, JoAnn allowed me the opportunity to see progress on the renovation of her early 19th century Creole cottage behind Kajun’s, of course. I snapped this shot during a visit in June 2014.
JoAnn Guidos Monday, Mar 7 2016
Strength and Rebirth: New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Wednesday, Apr 4 2012
It was our last night in the city; the air was warm and the city was alive. Despite the fact that it was around one in the morning the city was showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. It was then, as we were heading back to the van, that Shanti asked me what my favorite part of New Orleans had been. I thought about it, and gave her my honest answer: “I don’t know.” I asked her the same question and she told me it was the spirit of rebirth that the city embodied.
I digested this and realized how perfect of an answer it was. I was even a little embarrassed that it did not come to my mind. When she had asked me I thought of obvious things like the food, the craziness, and the music. I know these are all a major part of the city, but when it comes down to it, none of that would be there if it weren’t for the strong inner spirit that the people of New Orleans have.
Thinking about it brought me back to the Lower Ninth Ward where we had visited on Sunday, our first day there. I just remember standing there when we learned about the destruction and how all the houses we were seeing would have been completely submerged in water. I tried to take it in, to fathom the magnitude of the damage and horror, but I just could not. It was surreal, like none of it had happened. But I know it did. Even when we saw where the levee broke, it still didn’t quite hit me, and I don’t think it ever will. No one can imagine such an event unless it happens to them, the rest of us just have to try to do what we can to help. And people did try to help, just as residents tried to help each other.
Today the Lower Ninth Ward, even though it has a long way to go, is looking infinitely better. I remember long-time resident Ronald Lewis telling us that one of the things that made him happiest was the sight of children playing in the street in front of his house. This hit me and I thought it was a beautiful way to describe it. It meant that life was truly coming back to his home and neighborhood. At first, I was surprised to learn that not all of the efforts into helping the Lower Ninth were fully appreciated. For instance, the modern and energy-efficient homes built by Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” Foundation. But now I understand that many residents just wanted help getting back to their old lives, they didn’t want everything to change. They just needed some support to get back on their feet.
Although foundation support is mostly a good thing; I can see where the mixed feelings are coming from. I think these feelings are embodied through a song written by Paul Sanchez for a musical based on the Dan Baum’s book “Nine Lives.” Ronald Lewis’s story is one of the nine. The chorus of that song states: “We were fine in the Lower Nine.” These words are drawn straight from Baum’s interview with Lewis. The song reflects Lewis’s exuberant pride in his neighborhood and helped me to further understand the feelings held by him and his neighbors.
As I walked down the streets of New Orleans for the last time, these were my thoughts. As music played and people laughed and danced and stumbled all around me, I knew that the city was once again a place of high spirits despite the tragedy and devastation that it had faced. It took me some time, but I finally saw and realized that the spirit of rebirth was alive and well in New Orleans and I watched as it pulsed through the city. And maybe, I thought, this is my favorite thing too.
The City of “Nine Lives” Saturday, Mar 26 2011
I am reading Dan Baum’s incredible piece of non-fiction, Nine Lives, for the third time. It makes me laugh and cry and muse in all of the right places. It is the next book I have assigned my New Orleans class and while I always intend to re-read the books I assign, it doesn’t always happen. But this book, with great stories and realistic, yet poetic language, reminds me why I love the city of New Orleans. And when I am still in mourning for having left once again, that is a very good thing.
The shame is, most tourists associate New Orleans with beads, breasts and booze, but that is a fiction meant to attract convention-goers and Alabama frat boys to the corporate, soulless squalor that is Bourbon Street. It has little to do with the city and the residents who make it unique. And I love it unconditionally, not because it is perfect or special. It is not Disney World or the new, improved version of Times Square. It is a real place with all of the problems that most urban centers have — and then some. The people are maddening and lovable all at the same time. The place just doesn’t work — and I can mean that in a number of different ways — but folks just keep on living in the moment, without the strictures of time or goals or planning. As Baum suggests: “In the context of the techno-driven, profit crazy, hyperefficient United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience.”
And, in looking at what we’ve been through since the economic collapse in 2008, perhaps they could teach us a thing or two.
The census tells us that New Orleans is no longer a major city. It has lost 29% of its population since 2000. But it is still a force to be reckoned with. It is no longer the economic colossus that it was in the 19th Century. Even though it is still a major port, it is not a major player in banking and international trade. Today, it plies a laissez faire attitude that might forstall the self-immolation of the most staid and driven Puritan. It is the antithesis of America, and conveys a spirit that could rescue us from the self-doubt and meanness into which we have descended. It seems to be our collective natures that “when the going gets tough, the tough attack someone else.” Forget “blame free” organizations, New Orleans is a blame free city. And they accept the consequences, both good and bad. Or as Baum once again suggests: “Stop thinking of New Orleans as the worst-organized city in the United States….Start thinking of it as the best-organized city in the Caribbean.” [I can actually think of a couple of Caribbean cities that might be better organized, but this is neither the time nor the place.]
Where else could a popular open air venue, Cafe du Monde, survive for decades by serving only two items — beignets and cafe au lait? Look at the lines on a weekend morning and tell me it’s not working.
Where else would a city decide to reverse history and replace bus lines with an expanded system of streetcars? Your stimulus dollars at work!
Where else would citizens of all classes and colors budget large-scale money for balls, Mardi Gras “throws.” social aid and pleasure club accessories, or Mardi Gras Indian outfits?
Where else would some of the most accomplished musicians in America play for tips and a cut of the bar receipts?
And where else could I sit, in a greasy spoon in the quiet corner of the French Quarter, at 6:00am in the morning, with a television blaring MTV and the gay guy behind the counter dancing along with Lady Gaga? There is no place else on Earth where you get that kind of entertainment with your eggs and grits.
And I love it.