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
New Orleans Miscellany for a New Year Friday, Jan 3 2014
We are three days into the New Year. I’m sitting in my home in New Orleans looking over a foot of fresh snow. The temperatures are expected to be double digits below zero tonight. Little wonder that my thoughts are on New Orleans, where I’ll be with my class in 66 days; not that anyone is counting.
I have been an exceedingly negligent blogger. Last year was a banner year for this blog, but I have fallen down on the job since the spring. I even returned to New Orleans in August, yet wrote very little about it. However, the eighth installment of the New Orleans class will be starting in a few weeks and I have to get my head in the game. Therefore, I hereby resolve to blog at a rate commensurate with the interest shown past entries. Well, this is a start anyway.
There have been a number of big New Orleans stories in the past few months, but in honor of the New Year I’ve decided to graze among a few topics that fit a new beginning. Some are significant; some are silly; and hopefully all are interesting.
No Falling Bullets — Traditionally, folks in New Orleans fired guns into the air to celebrate the New Year. In fact, a young Louis Armstrong landed in the Colored Waifs Home when he was arrested for firing his father’s gun into the air on New Year’s Eve. However, what goes up, must come down. So, after numerous injuries and even deaths from falling bullets, the New Orleans Police Department has slowly brought a halt to the practice. I looked everywhere and could not find an incidence of an injury or arrest for the practice this year.
Drop in New Orleans Murders in 2013 — For the second year in a row, New Orleans experienced a drop in the number of murders and overall gun violence. This is in spite of some high profile incidences, such as the Mother’s Day second line shootings, or several horrific murders involving the accidental shooting of children. In a trend that mirrors that of other cities, New Orleans had 155 murders in 2013, which represents a 20% drop from 2012. And while its murder rate is still high relative to the population, the total is a far cry from the 424 recorded back in 1994. The city likewise experienced a 15% drop in the number of people shot and wounded, which went from 378 in 2012 to 321 last year.
Coroner Frank Minyard Will Not Serve 11th Term — After qualifying as a candidate for the upcoming election, the 84 year-old New Orleans Parish coroner has decided to call it quits after 40 years. The colorful coroner’s selflessness during Hurricane Katrina was profiled in Dan Baum’s Nine Lives, but in recent years, he has been criticized for not listing the cause of death on a number of high profile murder cases. Moreover, in a city with such a high murder rate, he has been faulted for running an antiquated facility on a meager budget. Three candidates remain on the ballot for the forthcoming election.
Who Dat “Rocky Run” Cancelled — A band of New Orleans Saints fans have dropped their plan to run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art while in town to attend the NFL playoff game. They were looking to relive a scene from the movie “Rocky,” in which actor Sylvester Stallone runs up the steps as part of his training routine. The Saints fans cancelled the run after a large number of Eagles fans threatened them via social media. It seemed like such a cool idea for visiting fans; however, they did not take into account the fact that Eagles fans would actually hurt them. Eagles fans have already been warned that Philadelphia police officers may attend the game dressed as Saints fans as an attempt to curb violence.
58 Days of King Cake — The Times-Picayune reminds us that Carnival season is quite long this year. In fact, there are 58 days between Epiphany (January 6th) and Mardi Gras (March 4th). There seems to be little need to encourage New Orleans folks to celebrate during Carnival; however, the T-P entertainment staff has valiantly agreed to take one for the team. Among other things, Carnival is marked by the consumption of King Cake, a multi-colored confection that first appeared in 1871. These brave souls have decided to try a different King Cake every day during Carnival. They will then report on each one, every day throughout the season. It is not clear rather they will rate them, but I figure that is not the point. Come to think of it, what is the point?
Well, that should be enough to get all of our thoughts turned to New Orleans and the New Year. If not, I promise more in upcoming weeks. And, Happy New Year!
Mr. Lewis’ Neighborhood Wednesday, Mar 13 2013
We woke up to a much clearer, albeit chilly morning. We huddled, shivering again in the yard of lowernine.org, but this time with sun on our faces. All three groups were sent to their previous locations. Van 2 to work on Royal Street to work on insulation and sheet rock. Van 3 to reinforce floors, rebuild walls, etc. for a sad shotgun house on Deleray Street. I returned with Van 1 to work on the floors of a home on Gordon Street.
We encountered some bottlenecks in work because we had to lay special board to serve as a foundation for a tile floor throughout the home. The board is like woven concrete, which means we do not to lay cement for the base. But is heavy and needs to be cut to fit in many places. Through the lack to tools, extension cords, goggles, masks, etc., there were some delays, but spirits remained intact. The long-term volunteers working with us provided a certain international air. Liam, the workhorse, from South Korea; James, the heartthrob, from England; and we’ll add the wise and acerbically funny Eileen, from the nation of Nevada.
To the eye, Van 2 probably made the most headway, as it is easy to follow the progression of installing insulation and walls. And Van 3 clearly had the grimiest work situation as they were working with old rotten and termite chewed wood.
Our group, Sam and Casey’s Van 1 also suffered from the fact that we had to take Van 1 to the shop to get the windshield installed before the trip home. A previous replacement was clearly not properly sealed. And given the realities of post-Katrina New Orleans, the nearest Ford dealership on this side of New Orleans is in Slidell. Casey made the trek across the City to Metairie and I followed to pick him up. And because this is New Orleans, a simple windshield replacement will take a day; well, as it turns out — more.
While I was out getting much needed Ibuprofin, James packed all of the vanless students into the back of a pickup and took them down to where the Industrial Canal flows into the Mississippi for a picnic lunch. The hazard did not escape me; however, the fact that I missed it was quite annoying. They had a memorable lunch, snoozing on the levee, although many returned with distinct pink patches of skin.
At 4:00pm our group walked one block to Ronald Lewis’ House of Dance and Feathers. The rest caught up with us and we spent the next hour being educated and entertained by the unofficial mayor of the Lower Ninth Ward. From a childhood on Deslonde Street to his current home on Tupelo Street, Lewis roots in the Lower Ninth grow deep. From laying streetcar track, to union organizer, to community leader, Ronald’s passion and determination flow throughout Dan Baum’s Nine Lives. Meeting him will make reading the book all the more meaningful.
The House of Dance and Feathers is Ronald’s collection of Mardi Gras Indian and second line paraphernalia from groups in the local nine. Again, it reflects Ronald’s gritty pride in his neighborhood and the distinct African-American culture that it holds. Ronald took half of the class into his museum (although it had climbed into the mid 60s, he had the heat on), while his granddaughters entertained the rest in the backyard. Then we switched. Afterwards we took pictures and said our goodbys until next year.
As I left the yard, I encountered a French-born anthropologist from Brazil. She is studying the relationship between the Indians and similar neighborhood groups in Brazil. I gave her a ride into the City so that she could catch the streetcar to Mid City. I showed her the location of the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme, where Sylvester Francis maintains a larger collection reflecting the traditions of his neighborhood. I dropped her off in the Quarter and suspect that we’ll cross paths again on Super Sunday or St. Joseph’s Night.
In the evening, the students feasted on spaghetti and salad and returned to the French Quarter. I joined up with friends Burt Feintuch and Gary Sampson, who are working on an illustrated book of interviews with New Orleans musicians. Appropriately enough, we met at Bullet’s Sport Bar on A.P Tureaud Street in the Seventh Ward, for Kermit Ruffins’ longstanding Tuesday night gig. From Kermit’s showmanship to some fabulous guest vocalists, to the grill of barbecued meats outside (yes, I did), it did not disappoint. In addition to neighborhood folk and tourists, the audience contained Derek Shezbie, trumpet player for Rebirth, and actor Wendell Pierce, the hapless Antoine Baptiste on HBO’s Treme. Gary, who has never been to New Orleans, was clearly living a photographer’s dream. Hopefully, I will get to talk to him at some point during his visit. As it approached 10:00 pm, we left the Tuesday night revelry and headed our different ways.
lowernine.org Tuesday, Mar 12 2013
The first day. Stowing belongings while half asleep. Putting together lunch with 30 fellow students and strangers. Getting to lowenine.org late because of erroneous information. Rain. Wind. Uncertainty. It had all of the makings of the worst start to the work week ever. But it was not.
From past experience, the worst thing that can happen is to get to work that first day to find that they are not quite sure what to do with you: “Well, we would use you on this and that, but we already have a crew on this and that. Wait a few minutes while we figure this out.” I understand that this is the product of spring break, when organizations are awash with volunteers, but it is hard to communicate to students who have anticipated this moment for months. Working with lowernine.org was not like that.
We huddled together in the cold by the banana trees, waiting for our assignments. Laura introduced herself and the Lower Ninth. I think the reality of what the people here have faced Katrina really became a reality to the students. A wall of water. Weeks of flooding. 100% of the housing in the ward ruled uninhabitable.
Within 30 minutes we were spread out around the Lower Ninth. Shoring up flooring in an old double shotgun house. Preparing to install insulation and sheet rock in a home in the Holy Cross neighborhood. We spent the day ripping up linoleum and carefully removing baseboards to make way for a base and a tile floor through one half of a home on Gordon Street. We were almost exactly a block over from Ronald Lewis’ backyard museum on Tupelo Street, which we will visit after work this afternoon. Happily, I think most groups will stay on site and task throughout the week, which should provide them a sense of what a week’s worth of work can accomplish.
Even after seven years and nine visits since Katrina, the abandoned, overgrown homes and empty lots are haunting. The Lower Ninth is only 30% occupied. Government neglect, corporate racism, shady contractors, and socioeconomic realities have combined to create a perfect storm of dysfunction. And the people here have to live with. Still, most of what happens, comes from agencies like lowernine.org with volunteers like us.
We got to know the homeowner immediately, which is an important connection with the neighborhood and why we are here. And more importantly, for the students, we got to meet his 92 year-old father’s dog, Oreo. Work went in spurts, but it is clear we are readying for more work intensive tasks down the road.
We took a short break for lunch. Visited the corner grocery across the street. And several snoozed in the van. Afterwards I visited the other groups to see how their day was going. Unfortunately, work was easy compared to the confusion of organizing shower opportunities, with limited access to belongings, because of the afternoon program at the All Souls Church.
To avoid the confusion, I decided to take a short trip over to the Chalmette National Battlefield and Cemetery. Sam, one of the leaders, and a couple of students in her group, Jenn and Anna, came with me. As it turned out, we arrived just before closing, but one of the rangers gave us directions to park outside of the gate at the cemetery, which we did. The weather had thankfully cleared and the walk under the live oaks, surrounded by the mostly Civil War-era graves was quite moving. And I reminisced about that first March after Katrina, sitting under those same oaks, reading, thinking, and coming up with the idea for the New Orleans course.
We came back to All Souls and I cooked a batch vegetarian red beans and rice while, Theresa orchestrated two beautiful salads. I think sitting down together and eating took the edge off of a frustrating post-work experience.
Most of the students went into the French Quarter for beignets and cafe au lait. I literally walked the Quarter. I took Royal from Frenchmen Street and crossed to Canal, returning by Decatur. It was cool and not very crowded, unlike the Spotted Cat, which was packed. As a result, I decided to head over to Kajun’s Pub on St. Claude. It was on the way back across the Industrial Canal and one of those places I’ve meant to visit for years.
From all appearances it is a simple neighborhood bar, which on the edge of the Marigny makes a very interesting neighborhood. Its story is one of those wonderful tales that flow through the pages of Dan Baum’s wonderful book, Nine Lives, which chronicles the experiences of nine very different New Orleanians from Hurricane Betsy through Hurricane Katrina. And beside Ronald Lewis, one of my subjects is bar owner Joann Guidos. I won’t go through the details of Joann’s life journey; you should read the book for that because Baum does a much better job of it. Suffice it to say, she has built an environment that is the triumph of acceptance and tolerance; one that stayed open through Katrina due to her grit and many gallons of fuel for her generator.
I talked to the bartender, a history major at the University of New Orleans; naturally, we do make the best bartenders. She asked what I did and I told her about my job and my teaching and this class and that we are using Nine Lives, and on and on. She turned away to wait on another customer and furtively called upstairs for Joann to come down and meet me, which she did. And it was a most delightful experiences.
We talked about her path, the bar, and the book. I hated to leave, but it was getting late. She offered to meet and talked to the students in the class, which I am seriously considering, and I promised to come back over the weekend.
Potholes and pitfalls notwithstanding, it was a good start to the work week.
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.