Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Grand Central vs. Penn Station

As Grand Central Terminal celebrates its 100th birthday this year, its magnificence is more meaningful when measured against its cross-town competitor, Penn Station.

As someone who has at one time commuted daily for a span of two years in and out of each station, I’m in a good position to compare the two. The New York Times said it well from the architectural side in February 2012. “To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift. To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.”

I never appreciated Grand Central until a two-year purgatory in Penn Station reminded me that you don’t miss your water until your well runs dry. New York is a different city viewed through the grandeur of Grand Central.

The two stations carry commuters to the contrasts of the New York metro area. From Grand Central, Metro North serves Connecticut, Westchester County, and the Hudson Valley; from Penn Station, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road serve their respective suburbs. 

I grew up in Mount Kisco, a stop on the Harlem Line 36.5 miles north from Grand Central according to the old sign affixed to the ticket office across from the platform. To this day when people ask where I am from I tell them Mount Kisco, a little town about 35 miles north of the City. These days I live in Brooklyn; I take the train back to Mount Kisco once a month or so to visit my country home (otherwise known as my parent’s place).

Grand Central, as a figure of speech, indicates a place of great comings and goings (at least to this New Yorker) like the hallways of a high school at the bell, a hospital emergency room, or a busy office reception area.

Penn Station doesn’t stand for much of anything, so I propose a coinage. For stranded travelers, the captives at an airport subjected to never-ending flight delays, that place is like Penn Station.

Grand Central is one of the grandest public buildings in the United States; Penn Station is one step above a subway station.

Grand Central, The Oyster Bar; Penn Station, TGI Fridays.

The two stations are also defined by the company they keep. Grand Central sits in the heart of Midtown, white shoe law firms and posh private clubs speckle the surrounding blocks. Have a drink at the Yale Club or hop a train to Yale.

Penn Station’s home in the mid-thirties is a no-man’s land of the Lincoln Tunnel, the Port Authority Bus Station, and a massive mail sorting facility. 

At Grand Central trains are ready for boarding precisely 20 minutes before departure. At Penn Station, the lack of track space forces passengers to stand around the departure board in the main concourse waiting for a track to be announced, often three minutes before the train is scheduled to leave. A mad dash ensues.

Nothing defines life in the rat race like the presence of alternatives offering a way out. The departure board at Penn Station is a catalog of escape routes courtesy of Amtrak with enchanting names like the Lakeshore Limited to Chicago (Amtrak’s gateway to the west), the Crescent to New Orleans, and the Palmetto to Miami. You, however, are going to West Babylon…just as soon as your track is announced.

At Grand Central, everyone is united in the same purpose, commuting in and out of the suburbs. 

Penn Station transports passengers through the industrial expanses of the Northeast, barren swampland segues to factories and refineries. Halfway houses on a smoke break out back; billboards remind the reader of the penalty for buying a gun for those who can’t. The train stops at newfangled neighborhoods like Metropark that don’t designate an actual city, but a place to park your car between a budding of office buildings that would make a good location for a satellite office of Dundler Mifflin.

In comparison, Metro North on the Harlem Line is like a stroll through the woods. The Hudson Line hugs the river heading north.

Metro north trains operate with Swiss efficiency. They are rarely late. NJ Transit and LIRR are on island time. Of the 20 lines in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system, the route I took, the Northeast corridor ranked dead last in a New York Times survey of on-time performance. My train to New Brunswick was once delayed every day for a month, so I adjusted my time back ten minutes. Then one day it came on time and I missed it. 

In the intervening 100 years since Grand Central’s inception, design theories on the most efficient patterns of people movement have come and gone, but one simple solution endures. Make the space big enough.

An example. The ramps leading to the train platforms at Grand Central are wide enough for an elephant to waddle down, sideways. Thousands of people can use the ramp at once, the lack of stairs ensures a fluid pace.

At Penn Station you descend to the tracks on narrow stairwells or escalators. On a bad day an entire train uses one exit, funneling passengers when they’re supposed to be dispersed. 

Often both an incoming and outgoing train will share the same platform and stairwell. Commuting through this chaos makes you want to take that Palmetto to Miami.

I once tried to remedy the situation and ended up in court.

Rush hour. The train pulled into Penn and a charge of people got off. Our herd was forced to walk to the other end of the platform to shuffle up a single stairwell. Meanwhile, an escalator spit stairs at our feet, headed down in defiance when we wanted to go up.

The escalators have emergency stop buttons at waist level. I mashed the little red button to kill it, and lead the charge out of the dungeon to the daylight. 

This is standard operating procedure at Penn Station; it happens every day. This time though, an Amtrak employee stationed at the top screeched after me like I had just snatched her purse. A cop stopped me and issued me a ticket for disorderly conduct with a court appearance in two months.

My court date was a cold January morning. I waited in line outside the court building in Midtown with a group of guys who were mostly cabdrivers. Upon entering, I took my seat in the courtroom to await my fate. My plan was to explain to the judge that while I received a ticket for disorderly conduct, I was actually making Penn Station more orderly.  A lawyer friend wisely advised me against this tactic. 

A court appointed lawyer spoke with me for a few minutes before I approached the judge.  He asked me what happened. After I explained the situation, he wanted to know if I was drunk at the time. Clearly he was not a Penn Station commuter.

I stood in front of the judge for less than 30 seconds; she never looked up at me. I received a stay-out-of-trouble-for-six-months dismissal, and left. I didn’t even pay a fine.

After that experience I never pressed the emergency stop switch again. I let other people do it for me (and let them go first).

It’s not all perfect at Grand Central. This is commuting after all. In an effort to cut costs, Metro North disposed of their 1-800–METRO-NORTH number and switched to a 212. A minor sleight, but they also rolled out a voice-activated system. “Leaving from which station?” “Thanks.” “And going to which station?” I preferred the old system of dialing the first four digits of the station I wanted. Now I am forced to shout into my phone like I’m ordering from a drive-thru.

It also requires you to call from a quiet place. This failed miserably when I was at a concert with my friend Louis whose wife was eight months pregnant. She developed complications and he needed to catch the next train back to Brewster. Shouting “Brewster” into the phone while the dude next to you is woo-hooing for one more tune is a waste of time.

Most landmark buildings are best admired as works of architecture rather than as experiences. The New York Public Library, two blocks down 42nd Street from Grand Central is a good example. I remember working in the Great Hall seated at a table beside a dictionary opened on a pedestal. I watched as a European tourist, hands clasped behind his back, stood over the dictionary and admired its definitions for a few minutes like it was an exhibit of early Etruscan artifacts.

100 years on, Grand Central is an experience in itself, people watching, eating, shopping, and the light show of stars twinkling on the ceiling high above.

Grand Central Market stocks all the specialties, from fresh caviar to chocolate covered Oreos. Hudson News has entire sections devoted to Italian, Spanish, French, and German magazines. (It carries Philadelphia Magazine, Boston Magazine, and the Washingtonian.  Although Penn Station trains depart daily for these cities, you can’t buy their namesake magazines.)

The Apple Store occupies the space at the top of one staircase overlooking the main hall; Cipriani Dolce with $39.95 entrees, the other. In a display of contemporary capitalism the world's most profitable company hawks planned obsolescence in aluminum canisters up the stairs, while at ground level arch rival Samsung heckles the competition with movie poster-sized advertisements strategically situated throughout the main hall.

The information booth at the center of everything is Grand Central’s most famous landmark. Though it’s where everybody meets, I think it’s overrated as an option. The information booth is the size of an old growth redwood, if hollowed out you could drive a car through it. Your friend could be waiting for you on one curve, you on another, and never the twain shall meet. 

The best place to meet in my opinion is the Ticketed Waiting Area. It’s the size of a storefront church, pew-like seats line the walls, and two oak benches sit back to back in the middle of the room. It was originally the women’s waiting room and over the last few years has reclaimed this distinction in spirit; the renovated bathrooms now serve women only. 

The information booth on this day is manned by a guy with dreadlocks who feeds directions to tourists to Times Square in a voice his microphone renders like a robot with emphysema. I have a 10-pass that I buy just before the recent fare increase. I ask information if I will need to pay the difference onboard. It’s a lightweight question.  I'm good to go. 

I hear two friends successfully making the meet. They greet each other. “How are you big boy?” “What did you do to your lip?”

Penn Station doesn't have people like Ben Rey. I have seen him in print a few times over the years, and have encountered him at Grand Central in as many instances. Sure enough, he is hanging by the information booth on my last visit.  I want a picture of the 100-year sign; he is standing right below it, so I get both. Believe-it-or-not, he lives in Greenwich.

I’m not the only one with a camera. A tourist is taking a picture of her friend whose arms are outstretched in a mid-flight jumping jack pose; the starscape ceiling provides the backdrop.  These two from Tokyo are here to take pictures, not trains. They have come to Grand Central as a destination in itself, not as a portal to another place. 

Grand Central is an experience. No ticket needed. At Penn Station, you wouldn’t think of visiting without one.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I Got it So Good - Gospel Music in New York

Summer’s come and gone and with it outdoor concerts in the city.

Summerstage in Central Park and Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park are the season’s marquee events.

Less well known is the Martin Luther King Concert Series, held on Monday nights every summer for the last 30 years at Wingate Field in Brooklyn, near the end of the 2 train in Flatbush.

Though these concerts are the product of the same city government, they take place in almost an alternate reality.

I heard about them in an unlikely way. Before budget cuts, the New York Philharmonic performed one night every July in Prospect Park. Like any event in Brooklyn with more than 50 people in attendance, Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz appeared on stage, sounding off one-liners in his Sheepshead Bay accent.

“Last night’s concert in Central Park was a warm up for tonight’s show in Brooklyn.”

Markowitz went on to mention the various musical events taking place throughout the borough. The Celebrate Brooklyn concerts at the Prospect Park Bandshell gravitate towards indie rock and world music for the soy milk drinking set; the Coney Island dates showcase Doo Wop and vocal harmony groups of bygone Brooklyn; and the Martin Luther King Concert Series.

I dig Doo Wop, but the MLK concerts are what caught my attention. When I saw the annual gospel night in the lineup on the ‘90’s-vintage website, I was there.

On a Monday night.

The concert is a simple production, nothing more than a stage set on the infield of an outdoor track. The only items for sale are sold at neighborhood houses on Winthrop Street on the way to the subway; bootleg gospel compilations, bottled water, Jamaican patties.

Long lines are common; a maze of barricades snakes back and forth like an airport check-in on Thanksgiving eve, as everyone gets patted down prior to entry. At a gospel concert this is an extreme measure, but the routine here whatever the crowd.

I slip in 10 minutes after the music has started but well after the lines are gone. I hover near the back; I never really know what to do with myself when I attend concerts alone. Many of my musical tastes aren't shared by my friends, so I often see music solo.

I trickle in back, and position myself next to a guy in dreadlocks who has a spot staked out next to a garbage can.

I stand with my arms crossed, nodding my head to the music.

Though Rock & Roll originated from country music and gospel influenced rhythm & blues, there are few remnants of either style in rock today.

Gospel music has its own festivals, Billboard chart, and Grammy category, but has limited crossover appeal, and with the added specter of religion, gospel music is on the fringe of the mainstream music world.

For the early generation of Rock stars though, the church was their farm team.

Tonight’s opening act, Ricky Dillard, hails from Chicago. He began directing the youth choir at his church at the age of five and now leads a group that blends dance music with a choral delivery.

The headliners, Mary Mary, are two sisters from Los Angeles. Their parents were gospel singers and they followed, breaking into the music business as R&B backup singers, and then recording their own material. They’re said to be one of the top gospel acts going.

Spotify lists Jennifer Hudson, En Vogue, and Carrie Underwood as similar artists. With equal parts autotune, scratching, vocal duets, and Jesus name checks, this seems fitting.

Recently an article appeared in the New York Times about a preacher who promotes the gospel of wealth in his sermons throughout the country. The article profiled a man in Norfolk, Virginia who is once big in real estate and then crashes with the rest of the economy. He gives the last of his money, a $60 offering, to the preacher, a man who flaunts a lavish life of furs, private planes, and a 20,000 sq. foot house.

The man described the moment he let the envelope go as ‘an explosion,’ when all the guilt and shame he had been carrying melted away. He vowed to stay debt-free and ‘to owe no man nothing but love.’

$60 was all he had to his name.

My first reaction: you fool. This too was the tone of the article that asked the educated reader to mock the stupidity of the gullible masses.

Then, I came to another conclusion.

What does a $60 offering buy you in drinks from a bar tender? How many minutes on a shrink’s sofa do you get for $60? Do patients feel an explosion leaving a psychiatrists office? A bar?

Gospel music makes moments like these happen; and tonight’s show is free. No donations accepted.

Though I don’t often listen to lyrics, gospel is the exception. The message often preaches happiness in being grateful for what you’ve got.

A favorite from the Jackson Southernaires: “I once complained that I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet to use.”

Though I am the only person of my color in sight, gospel concerts always make me feel welcomed. The performers are fond of asking you to turn to your neighbor, grab their hand, and make declarations. During Ricky Dillard’s set it is: “I got it so good.”

The girl standing next to me takes my hand and starts it off. I repeat the proclamation. “I got it so good.”

She’s a small-featured college-aged girl with short hair, and she holds my hand with conviction now as the tempo accelerates to a rave up. Her friend takes my other hand; one on each side of me, and we twirl around as a unit. Then, the leader takes over and it is just the two of us spinning around and around, faster and faster, getting more manic with the music.

For that brief minute, we are the spectacle of the show.

I would like to think I held my rhythm until the music ends and I am full of dizzy energy. I must do all right though because I get a high-five from the dreadlock dude by the garbage can.

When the song ends and Rick Dillard signs off the stage, I stop to catch my breath and find out more about the girl who takes me for a spin.

Ingrid is from Grenada as is her friend Tammi. She asks me where I go to church, and invites me to the New Directions Church on 94th and Winthrop where she attends. Services are held on Saturdays as is the tradition for Seventh Day Adventists. The pastor is Jamaican and real friendly, she says. I inquire about the congregation—they are mostly from the Islands too.

The program is the same every year I’ve attended. After the first group get off the stage the break between performers is filled with various announcements and advertisements, with Marty Markowitz as MC.

This year, the Honorary Vice General of Austria makes an appearance to promote his country; the City Council member representing the district plays to the crowd with religious references in his political appeal to the audience.

Markowitz then introduces Zane Tankel, the short, bald owner of the many Applebee’s franchises in New York City and the yearly sponsor of the concert series. In his nasally senior citizen delivery he appears more out of place then even me, but he is clearly right at home in this crowd.

Behind Zane stands of chorus line of waitresses outfitted in tank tops and hot shorts like Hooters Girls. Each takes a turn at the mike to sound off their specials.

Toya from the downtown Brooklyn location offers curbside delivery right to your car.

Tiana from the Bed–Stuy branch tells us the special on Saturday is sangria for the ladies. For the fellas, she says, there’s Henessey.

As we wait for Mary Mary the Applebee’s girls are a good diversion and a yearly highlight for me.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to do much dancing that night. Rain is threatening all evening and with the first few drops Markowitz cancels the concert, apologizing profusely for having to call it a night.

As everyone heads to the exit a middle-aged woman in the crowd mentions Curtis Mayfield to no one in particular. Mayfield was paralyzed here in 1990 after lighting equipment fell on him during a windstorm.

And then I met a man who had no feet to use.

I got it so good.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A New Coat of Paint

The A train to Queens. The car I’m riding consists of tourists headed to JFK, surfers with their boards enclosed in carrying cases headed to Rockaway Beach to catch the swells from the latest tropical storm, and black folks headed to areas of Brooklyn left blank on the tourist’s guide book maps.

This trip is an epilogue. After four generations of New Yorkers, I am the last of my clan living in the City. The house I’m headed to in South Ozone Park was once the home of my grandmother, grandfather, great aunt, and great uncle.

One by one, they have all moved to the hereafter. And now the family is selling the house. Before it’s market-ready, we have to clean it out, paint the walls, and sand the floors. Erasing history so a new one can be made.

If you’ve been to New York, you’ve been to South Ozone Park, Queens. The neighborhood’s most defining feature is the planes flying overhead to JFK located next door.

These are the rows of non-descript houses you see in their miniature size on takeoffs and landings. My family has lived here from the glam of Pan Am to the delays of Jet Blue.

Planes never fly over the iconic landmarks of a city; it’s always the outer edges, where the cookie cutters seem to go to work.

Life is never so simple. Let’s zoom in to see what lies within.

The yards are enclosed with gates of ornamental ironwork welded into white sunrays. Steel awnings cover the doorways and windows; hyphenated Queens addresses like 118-07 post to door frames in scriptive black lettering. The lawns are clipped in short tufts spiked over the gray sidewalk.

A plane rumbles overhead, casting a shadow on the street. Inside the neighborhood’s living rooms, tv remotes raise the volume, green bars build on the bottom of the screen.

The house is located on 150th Avenue, two places from the trainer’s entrance to Aqueduct Racetrack, which now sees more traffic from the weekend flea market than from racing. The two-story, two-family house has one car in the two-car garage behind it, and a hot dog truck-sized lawn in front.

It’s the place of childhood vacation breaks where I would spend a week at a time with my grandparents and shuttle between the upstairs where they lived and downstairs where my aunt and uncle lived.

John Gotti’s annual 4th of July fireworks display was a highlight of these summer holidays. His Bergin Hunt and Fish Social Club era has given way to a largely Indian population and complaining funeral directors who lose business from cultures with different death traditions.

My Uncle Eddie died at home in April. The family assembled the day before he passed from all points in the metro area, Connecticut, Long Island, Westchester, and the City. We held the traditional wake and then a military salute at the cemetery.

He was a flight engineer and tail-gunner who flew dozens of missions over Europe in World War II. When he returned, he turned to photography for a living.

Uncle Eddie (until I was a teenager I thought his first name was Leddie) lived with my Aunt Helen who we called Chocha: Polish for aunt. They were brother and sister, not husband and wife. I was a teenager before I figured this out too. My grandmother and grandfather were in fact married.

After every visit to Queens to see the family my grandfather gave my mom containers of Polish food he had prepared, and toilet paper because he thought we used too much.

We used all the toilet paper, but never ate the food. I don’t know why. It went from car to freezer and stayed there. Most of the family freezer growing up was overtaken by my grandfather’s food, frozen in perpetuity. It left little room for ice cream, but preserved a lot of memories.

The food sat in the fridge for 15 years until the unit died while my parents were away. My brother lived at home; I was in to visit. In the kitchen I found a jumbo beach cooler keeping the frozen food on life support like it contained a recently harvested kidney.

It didn’t make it to the new donor fridge.

The wall calendar says December 1993. It is September 2010. The upstairs apartment has sat vacant since my grandfather died. My aunt and uncle never rented it out, forgoing the fifteen hundred a month rent for piece of mind.

There are five of us painting: my father, my brother Gregg, Sammy, Antonio, and me.

Sammy lives next door where he grew up. He doesn’t say much, he spends most of the day painting in the bathroom. We occasionally call him out to translate for Antonio, a day laborer from Ecuador we hire from outside Home Depot to help us with the job.

My Dad doesn’t speak any Spanish. I even have trouble understanding him as he alternates ideas from spackling this, to cutting that, to rolling, ceilings, trim, closets, walls. I pick a room and just get to work.

Antonio paints the ceilings. He calls my dad, Poppy. Poppy plays foreman like the old days when he ran a carpentry crew summers when school was out. Now that he’s retired this keeps him busy.

My father points with the paintbrush. “Uno coats. Dos coats of paint.” My brother’s Spanish doesn’t include the construction category. (I later learn coat of paint in Spanish is “capa de pintura.”) I know a little Italian and try to converse in Spitaliano.

I mix the milkshake thick paint and dish it out like porridge at a prison cafeteria. We order it in buckets and slurp through three of them.

Lunch day one is turkey sandwiches; the second day pizza. We sit at the kitchen table, the last piece of furniture left. It’s pretty civilized for a work crew. It’s usually a bucket for a seat; a meatball sandwich perched on your lap and a bottle of Snapple sitting in the sawdust at your feet.

With this arrangement I can lay The Post out on the table. Antonio eats two slices. My Dad, in the spirit of someone trying to fatten up a too thin kid, forces a third slice on him.

I fold my pizza slice in half, lengthwise. I remember eating pizza in Scotland with some friends from there who made fun of me because of how I folded my pizza. What do they know about pizza in Scotland?

Antonio folds his pizza horizontally, and then again into fourths. It looks like a burrito. He turns it on its side and begins eating the tube from one end to the other. It looks so foreign it probably tastes different. He is anxious to get back to work, but he eats.

I spent a few weeks one summer during graduate school on a carpentry crew framing a house. Though I became handy with the nail gun, my main duties were as a laborer, hauling sheets of plywood.

One Wednesday afternoon, the boss told me he didn’t need me again until Friday. I used Thursday to find a job that promised steadier work and air conditioning.

When I returned on Friday I learned they needed my help the day
before and had to hire a day laborer in my place. The temperatures approached 100 degrees everyday that week; I worked right through it. The guy they hired in my absence worked a few hours in the morning, said “nessecita aqua” and left to find some.

He never came back.

It was a major point of pride that I handled the work that a day laborer could not. To me, immigrant labor is some of the most hardworking and honest of all.

And beer thirty translates to any language.

The mission today is just to make it look nice for prospective buyers. 90% is sufficient. We are wiping away history, leaving only white walls and wooden floors. The next family needs to envision the house as their own if they are going invest their stake.

Prior to our painting, the walls from the kitchen to the living room were trailed with a smudge of handprints from years of my aunt holding onto the walls as she hobbled on countless back and forth trips.

Antonio doesn’t quite grasp our purpose; he mistakes my shortcuts for an amateur outing and decides I need a quick lesson. I once worked an entire summer painting houses, though mostly exterior. As much as I know what I’m doing, maybe I lack a certain finesse needed for indoor work.

Though the job isn’t a 100% effort we try to make it look nice. The walls are painted linen white, the ceiling an eggshell white, and a third shade of white for the trim.

We move room to room, memory to memory. Paint moves from big bucket to little bucket, into trays, onto rollers and pressed onto the walls and ceilings, corners cut with brushes. First coat, second coat, touch up. First floor, second floor, basement.

The basement was my uncle’s territory, marked by a tv for football games and a darkroom with enough chemicals to refine crude oil into vinyl.

Weddings were his livelihood; bar mitzvah's, school pictures, and family photos filled his schedule. I accompanied him to an event at an elementary school that called for group photos. He mustered the patience and made it happen with the help of an oblong piece of sanded wood the size of a roll of dimes.

He placed the piece of wood on his head and let it drop off. A quick save for a flourish broke the ice and brought out their smiles. He repeated the procedure until he got his photo.

His territory was Queens and in essence the world. His collection of Yarmulkes could outfit an entire yeshiva, hundreds of prints of Hindu brides in yellow and red, the Italians, the Irish; the crack dealer who paid him $500 dollars in $5 bills.

I’m wedged in a corner painting the shelf where among other items my uncle stored a six-pack of Schlitz he used as hairspray to manage the perfect mane of grey hair that persisted until his last day.

Furniture is easy to cart away (beer even easier). It’s the boxes of little stuff left behind that forces us to sift through the accumulation of life. In the darkroom I find a can of Counter Assault Grizzly Tough Pepper Spray, Un-Du Quick and Easy Adhesive Remover, Dymo Laboratory Label Maker, a box of Swingline Staples, and enough fishing lures to extract every large mouth bass in a 50 miles radius.

We’re all going to go at some point. In Somalia, imported used clothing is called huudhaydh – translation: ''Who died?”

Our things may outlast us. What you leave behind are the pages to the story of your life.

Money doesn’t make the object or the memories. Most high-priced items have less utility than a Phillips-head screwdriver: clothing depreciates like ripe bananas. In five years the computer I’m writing on will be less valuable than the boots I’m wearing.

It’s the good stuff that lasts. Timeless they-don’t-make-em-like-they-used-to items of weight and importance, some worthy of heirloom status.

Furniture fits that bill, musical instruments, artwork. Fishing poles are a less likely contender. My uncle had a half-dozen rods that I distributed amongst my brother, my cousins, and myself; allowing each of us to have an item and a piece of memory, provided we don’t drop it in the drink.

As I look around my apartment at my possessions, I ask myself what will survive me?

What’s left over after we are laid to rest? Hopefully some symbols of your legacy, and more importantly a family that remembers. And if you’ve created something, that may last the longest. The black and white's were taken by my uncle in New York City in the 1940's and 50's.

You can’t see the story from an airplane. Up close, a house is a generational epic, one whose walls are now painted for the next family to hang their memories.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Five Years After the Storm: A Celebration of the Crescent City

This story was written in the Fall of 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina. Five years on, I'm posting it here as a tribute to the city and the friends I made there.

Darrell Breen was born and raised in the same New Orleans neighborhood where I lived in the spring of 2000. When Darrell grew up there, the neighborhood was known as the Irish Channel. He summed up his life to me with a memory of sitting on his grandfather’s lap as a boy of five. “Half Irish,” his grandfather says looking at him. He bounces Darrell to the other knee. “Half Italian,” he says shaking his head at Darrell. “Lad, yer fucked.”

Italians and Irish have been marrying for generations in America, the Italian women assuming the easy Irish surnames and keeping their Catholic faith. In the neighborhoods of New Orleans in the 1960’s it was not so easy for the offspring of these marriages.

When I met Darrell (spelling deliberately changed) in New Orleans, he was 43 years old. He looked and spoke like he was from a Springsteen song; a Louisiana man drawling New Awe-lee-ins through rotting teeth. He had a thin frame, thin arms, a scruff of beard that wouldn’t grow, and a woman’s hair band tied around a ponytail that slithered from the back of his head like an eel.

Darrell’s family, on his mother’s side, dropped off the lemon boat from Sicily. After a century in America, Darrell lived a half-mile from the port where both sides of his family first arrived. He was one of the few remaining folk of Irish ancestry in the channel. Like much of New Orleans, white flight to the suburbs in the 1960’s changed the neighborhood demographic.

The St. Thomas Projects, a low-rise housing project with sprawling dirt courtyards, dominated the character of the neighborhood for decades. When I moved in, the area had recently begun to swing towards gentrification. The realtors christened it the Lower Garden District. Darrell mentioned with pride how the neighborhood was rated one of the hippest in America by The Utne Reader—a magazine that could not be bought off the rack anywhere in the neighborhood.

Darrell’s people returned from the suburbs for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, held in traditional New Orleans style. They loaded floats right below my balcony on Race Street. Hundreds of old-time red faced men hurled cabbages to the crowd lining the parade route up Magazine Street.

Darrell and I were not introduced. We met on the street, on the sidewalk of St. Andrews Street a few doors down from his house. He was kneeled over an iron gate, shaping it with a blow torch. I walked by in a saunter slow enough for me to stop in a neighborly greeting. Darrell took off his welder’s mask to talk. We chatted a few minutes, then I headed down the street to see a building with apartments for rent.

I walked into the dim lobby of the building, knocked on the first door on the right and waited for the landlady and the sound of her walker to make their way to the door. When she finally appeared, she gave the standard summary of the rentals and closed the door. I left and continued my conversation with Darrell outside. He told me the place was a drug den, and the plague of the neighborhood.

Darrell opened his own business the month before called Steel Deals Iron Works. I figured he named it after the Rolling Stones album Steel Wheels, because that’s what he looked like, a cross between a car mechanic and a rock & roll roadie.

Darrell invited me to work for him the next day. I spent a third night in a hostel on the other side of St. Charles Street, unable to escape the travelers that alighted in New Orleans to continue their Lonely Planet treasure hunt. I shared a bunkroom with an Australian woman who gave massages on a cruise line, and an Australian bloke who was enlisted to carry her luggage since she just had a boob job and didn’t want to pop a stitch. The Australian guy had spent four days in New Orleans and left the next morning for Disney World. He said he’d seen all that he needed to see.

Like any city, New Orleans has a tourist checklist that starts from the time the shoes step off the St. Charles Trolley ready to stroll the French Quarter with a cup of beer in hand, cigar in mouth, and plastic beads around the neck in the August heat, tipping wrinkled jazz musicians to play ‘The Saints,’ again.

I stood to catch a transfer bus every morning on the cusp of all this, on a corner of Canal Street, a block from Harrah’s Casino and right in front of a tourist shop that played Zydeco music in an endless loop. Ascending grades of hot sauce tempted in the window, the grand finale had a cadaverous name, something like Billy’s Body Bag Hot Sauce.

I stepped aside as the ladies arrived off the Desire bus from the Ninth Ward to their jobs cleaning rooms in the downtown hotels. From here, my bus swung past Jackson Square, then up Elysian Fields Avenue to the University of New Orleans in the Lakefront neighborhood. Two buses, one transfer, 90 minutes each way to class.

Before classes began, I worked three days for Darrell painting a primer coat on the raw metal he welded into a hurdle-high fence enclosing a front yard the size of two parked cars. I wore the oldest clothes I could find in my suit case. Darrell wore stained jeans that tapered over his work boots and a black t-shirt.

These were the only clothes I ever saw him wear. He had few possessions, didn’t smoke, and was a light drinker. He didn’t try marijuana until well after he apprenticed on the needle. He was self-described white trash, an item he offered as a disclaimer for his use of the word nigger to describe what he called trash of a different color.

This was the life story that he began that first day. Looking back, I realize I was paid for my labor and for listening, though I was a know-it-all college kid whose opinions outweighed his experiences by 10-1. Darrell spent the day convincing me that Cajuns are as likely to live in New Orleans as New Mexico and that there isn’t a basement in the whole city.

At day’s end, he paid my wages from an ATM and we walked back to his apartment. Darrell lived in a 1,000 square foot space for which he paid $375 in rent. A florist living downstairs decorated the balconies of the pink building with a flair that suggested a seductress with a Gone-with-the-Wind accent, but Darrell and the florist’s station wagon parked out front filled with black garbage bags shattered any fantasy.

Darrell’s home had the appeal of a priest’s apartment in the back of a church rectory. His possessions consisted of sparse furniture pointed at the tv, pots and pans, and a stereo a price tag away from a yard sale. He invited me to stay with him while I looked for a place, offering to drive me to the hostel and shuttle my stuff back. I agreed, but as we were ready to leave, he stopped to explain the full implications of his jail time. I stepped back and leaned over the couch listening.

If you are a convicted felon, at what point do you come clean with people about your past? Darrell decided protocol merited full disclosure with me as a potential house guest. After he left the service, Darrell got into a fight outside a New Orleans bar and killed a man with a pipe. He didn’t elaborate, but his gaze shifted as his memory recalled every frame.

Darrell was convicted of manslaughter and spent seven years at Angola State Prison in Baton Rouge—his father’s alma mater. His dad gained admission to Angola by robbing a liquor store when Darrell was a kid. Although cliché, I figured it happened long ago, before all the melodies had been played out and all the stories had been told. Maybe robbing a liquor store was still a novel idea in 1960’s New Orleans.

I don’t remember if my thoughts scrolled through the mental rhetoric, like he paid his debt to society and such; I just went ahead with the plan. I figured Darrell was the kind of guy who would give me the shirt off his back—if it didn’t expose the track marks on his arms.

We drove across St. Charles Avenue to the hostel. My mother taught me to look both ways before crossing the street, Darrell taught me to look both ways before running a red, gunning his white Pontiac two-door through intersections. Darrell talked to the manager while I got my things. The manager, another New Orleans native, spoke with the accent movies make you believe is standard—a soft southern inflection with a drawl that melts butter. He absorbed Darrell like an adult handling a precocious kid.

I watched Darrell contain himself later that evening as he fielded a phone call from a woman who had seen his Steal Deals ad in The Times Picayune. He called her ma’am throughout the exchange as he computed a quote in his head and assured her of his professionalism. But it’s hard to have confidence in a contractor who would show up to a construction job in a car better suited for delivering pizzas.

With his father in prison, Darrell and his little sister were sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Florida. He wasn’t against physical punishment, but Darrell said that as an 11-year-old kid, he didn’t understand the difference between his father beating him in a drunken rage and his uncle hitting him for misbehaving. After a few months in Florida, Darrell pulled a knife on his uncle during an argument and was sent back to New Orleans to live with his alcoholic mother. His sister remained in Florida and, as an adult, lent Darrell money when he needed it.

After he left prison, Darrell spent 10 years traveling across the world installing gas station canopies from New Orleans to Norway. The money was good, and he met his wife along the way. They settled in Seattle, her hometown. For a time, they lived in happy stability. But he found the needle again and brought his wife into the game with him. A few years later, his wife died of a heart attack at the hands of heroin. Her family blamed Darrell for her death and he didn’t disagree. He knew he had to leave, and back to New Orleans he went.

I met the other woman in Darrell’s life two days after I moved in with him. I was helping
Darrell to install a chain link fence on a Habitat for Humanity house near the St. Thomas Projects. Darrell preempted my next line, sensing in the spirit of our banter I would say something I might later regret about the dirty haired bag lady hobbling up the street looking like she wanted to point her finger at someone. This was Darrell’s mother.

Darrell’s mother lived alone, the bottle kept her company through the years. I tried to extrapolate her age through her son while accounting for the ravages of her lifestyle. Given her occupation, she was pushing her luck every morning she woke up. She moved in with Darrell a few weeks later and soon after, Darrell returned to the needle.

After Darrell’s mother stopped by, we resumed work, trampling the freshly seeded grass at the Habitat work site while we set the fence and Darrell told Marine stories. I managed a few months as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point. I left because I didn’t like authority.

The military functions as an escape hatch for many rural and inner-city Americans. Leave a 17-year-old kid to his ghetto neighborhood or crystal-meth cornfield and you can bet the percentages of him ending up dead, in a dead-end job, or in jail are higher than the chance of battlefield casualty. The military instills confidence, brings pensions, lifetime health care, and may be the only industry in America where race doesn’t factor, not with life on the line.

Out of high school, the Marines saved Darrell. He was honorably discharged into the civilian world, but his past caught up to him. His father’s rage surfaced that night outside the bar while he was drunk. It left a man dead.

Boot camp. Parris Island, South Carolina. A black recruit stands at attention for morning roll call with a wood the size of a night stick popping out of his boxers. The drill sergeant walks by and hangs a towel on the hard-on without missing a beat. He orders the private to hold the

The recruit struggles with the task while the rest of the barracks strain back laughter. This is how I remember Darrell, holding back a laugh like his face was compressed by a fierce wind. When I knew him best, he seemed happy, but it was a constrained happiness that spoke of his cloaked past and present troubles. When the towel dropped off the rod, the recruit took a beating from the sergeant.

I lost touch with Darrell as he settled back into his addiction, and I into an apartment a few blocks away on the river side of Magazine. Though the space was as big as the coffee shop around the corner, I spent most of my time on the balcony, blowing cigarette smoke into the overhanging magnolia tree. My rent was $450. Darrell gave me a plastic chair and table set for my porch. I didn’t see him much after I found my place, even though it was close enough that I could easily roll the plastic table down the sidewalk from his house to mine.

After I tired of the three hour daily bus trips to school, I began looking for a car. Darrell let me borrow his ride when I went to see used cars from the classifieds. I settled on a 1988 Chevy S-10 pickup I found in Jefferson Parish. The Louisiana sun turned the navy paint job purple in places. The emergency brake didn’t work, but there weren’t any hills to contend with.

It was a vehicle from an era that allowed car owners to do their own repairs. Two months later, I changed the radiator myself. I wonder what will happen to today’s aging cars that end up in the hands of the poor. The computerized engines won’t warm up to a monkey wrench.

My daily ride to the University of New Orleans took me on I-10, over the French Quarter, past a billboard for vodka that read: “Don’t you wish your commute was so smooth.” The exit ramp off I-10 drops you onto Elysian Fields Boulevard running north to Lake Pontchartrain and UNO’s campus.

UNO is a commuter school built 50 years ago on a former Naval air base. The trees perch on grass humps that allow the roots to grow over the tarmac underneath that was never stripped. The school is no different than any other suburban campus, save a few cultural subtleties like the bottles of Budweiser and fried okra for sale in the school cafeteria.

Tuition was $1,200 for the semester. I had a $1,000 scholarship and paid the difference with cash. I spent more on books, mostly on the anthropology class I took as an elective for an easy two hours of Kung! and Kalahari Bushmen.

During a discussion of sickle cell anemia and genetics, I raised my hand and made what must have been a smart comment because two guys sitting nearby approached me after class like I was a cute coed. The first guy introduced himself and suggested we go shooting, the second was Lester Moorehead.

Les has sandy blond hair that he wears in a part and pale skin that isn’t fond of the sun. He looks most like himself with Saturday stubbles sprinkled over his chin. Even at 25, crow’s feet fanned like the delta beside his eyes, signaling the life he lived beyond his years. His wardrobe consisted mostly of black jeans and size small soccer jerseys he collected while overseas in the service. He liked to mutter under his breath in class. My regular seat was two rows behind him and before we met, I decided I didn’t like him. Probably reminded me too much of myself.

Les was born at Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans. Most of his classmates growing up were from the Iberville Projects, the brick housing complex north of Rampart Street that is the crown jewel of what remains of the project system—no doubt due to their proximity to the Quarter and I-10.

Public school children in New Orleans wear navy blue Dickies and white polo shirts. Spotting a white child in this uniform is rare as a sun shower in most neighborhoods. This was Les. Though he claims black ancestry, it reads like a stock quote: 1/16th. His two brothers went to college out of high school. With no money for the middle child, Les enlisted in the Navy.

The summer before we met, Les spent eight straight weeks on an oil rig in the Gulf of
Mexico out of Port Fourchon, Louisiana working with roughnecks who called Les “The Horse.” Most men work two weeks on—two weeks off. Les never took a day that whole summer, fearing he wouldn’t come back. He was paid $8 an hour, but racked up overtime pay working endless 16-hour days.

Les is a Democrat in the FDR tradition, a friend of working stiffs. He considered it a shame of his upbringing that he knew GM cars used two keys, one for the locks and a separate ignition key. My Chevy pickup was no exception.

We often rode home together after class. Always the same route; Elysian Fields, to Claiborne, to Washington Avenue, past the Magnolia Project and into the Garden District; but always a new set of landmarks to point out: “You can’t beat” Wagner’s Meat, the Spur gas station that always had the cheapest gas in the Parish like their pumps were on the mainline to the Gulf. The dental clinic on South Claiborne and 1st where you could get your grill slugged up with gold fillings. Les, like I, was fond of people and place watching, and observational generalizations. My favorite of his: the higher the ponytail, the dumber the girl.

Les has been called Doc since he was 18, when he joined the Navy as a medic caring for a floating city of men swelling with tension. Two out of the three women aboard his ship got pregnant during his first tour. A sailor was killed aboard the ship in the middle of the Pacific. The murder was never solved.

While a student at LSU in Baton Rogue, Les postponed his education to finish his reserve commitment with a six-month tour in Panama that he later regretted. He lost a soldier to a sniper wound deep in the jungle. The tour wiped out his debt to the military, and wiped him out in some ways. I don’t think Les was too affected by caring for casualties; I think he felt left behind, trying to catch up with his life in a city that didn’t take to progress.

After leaving Panama and the military, Les returned to New Orleans and enrolled at UNO, more bitter and a few more months behind on his plan. He worked evenings at an uptown hospital, drawing blood, and a stipend from the GI bill that carried him through college.

Classes didn’t seem to faze him; there are many pre-med casualties who can’t seem to make it past animal physiology. Though Les pulled an A in organic chemistry—the bellwether course—without a sweat, he approached his intelligence with self-deprecation.

Les is fast to agree, but at times easy to offend. Light a cigarette around him and you would be in better company smoking beside a propane tank. He can dismiss a subject with a sneer; he is fond of calling people jokers and would be the first person to throw a dirty look at someone yammering on a cell phone. He is fearless of reproach.

One story sums this up. Les took the Desire bus to visit a Navy buddy in the Ninth Ward. He was the only white person on board. He took a seat in the back. Four black men sitting across the aisle demanded that he move to the front. Les turned around, and said, “Make me.” He earned the respect of the group, and taunts toward the ringleader whose command went unheeded. Les had protection for these scenarios. He always carried a Bic pen, for phone numbers, and as a weapon that would fit nicely in someone’s neck.

Two years later Les finished at UNO and got accepted to medical school in Brooklyn. Though his younger and older brothers are both licensed vets, Les was the first person to graduate college in his family.

At Downstate Medical College in Brooklyn, he was one of two out-of state students in his class (the other was from Connecticut). Les has always wanted to be an internist. An internist in Scotland once jokingly described to me the universal difference between general practitioners and specialists. Specialists will diagnose an infliction consistent with their specialty. See a gastroenterologist for cramps and she’ll tell you it’s a stomach problem, for the same symptoms, a urologist will describe a bladder related diagnosis. An internist, the doctor said, won’t know anything.

During his medical school interview in New York, Les was the only interviewee not to
show up in a full suit; he wore slacks and a sport jacket. The interviewer, an Italian-American woman, asked him what specialty he hoped to practice. Les joked that he wanted to be a Mohel, doubtless a southern cracker had career intentions of performing circumcisions on Jewish babies.

While many American doctors are products of pushy parents who spend thousands enrolling their children in Kaplan courses to prepare them for years of overwork and worries, volunteering in hospitals and joining honor societies; Les was a working man. The education system in America stresses excellence in standardized testing, but nothing, especially in medicine, comes standard. When Les was accepted to medical school in New York, he said he shot for the moon. He was accepted not because he would make a good student, but because he will make a great doctor.

New Orleans is the biggest city in the Deep South, a fabled landscape of Cajuns and cotton fields, lost to the American consciousness since the civil rights era. Before Katrina, New Orleans popped into the national news once a year, during Mardi Gras when snippets of Carnival footage were broadcast for a few seconds at the end of the evening news as a smile-inducing send off that lets the viewers at home forget about the preceding 30 minutes of bad news.

The television showed scenes of third-world helplessness in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that evoked hushed observations from around the world. But long before Katrina, the people of Louisiana knew the deal. Rampant corruption, record crime, poor education, the Napoleonic Code, David Duke, and pandemic potholes set the scene of a state that sits at the fringes of America. A popular bumper sticker and t-shirt campaign created in the 1990’s stated it for all eyes, in red lettering on a white background: Louisiana~ Third World and Proud of It

To understand the big and little picture of a city such as New Orleans, of her people and
her customs is to understand their planning and response. It’s not easy to rebuild a city that wasn’t too fond of progress to begin with. Those intent on making it big, move to the great metropolises, those retreating from the trauma of the wide world, like Darrell, return to the womb of a city where just getting by is ambition enough.

This is New Orleans, where the neighborhood traffic lights sit on posts anchored into the sidewalk at each side of the street. The two lights stand as insurance; when one fails, the other light is left as a safeguard until symmetry is restored.

This is New Orleans, where inside every cornershop, a direct link to slavery sits on the counter, pickled pigs lips encased in plastic and buffered with juices to preserve all their puckered glory. The master of the house got the choice cuts, the slaves were left with the scraps.

This is New Orleans, where frat boys, conventioneers, and dumbstruck tourists (in New Orleans, they’re always from Iowa.) sling beads from balconies on Tuesday nights in November, they buy hot sauce and pralines, eat jambalaya, and drink hurricanes.

New Orleans attracts the tattoo set, the party girls from Florida with sun-kissed faces, cigarette stained vocal chords, and stock tattoos. They stay for a while, then twirl to the next cool town. The professional drunkards, dream chasers, white boys who want to play the blues; the graduate students who take their degrees and training to states where the money’s nicer and the neighborhoods whiter.

For a city of its size, New Orleans has more traditions, history, and popular influence than many small countries. New Orleans is a city tied to its neighborhoods, and housing projects that are shouted out in hip-hop tunes and saluted silk-screened t-shirts with the same reverence given to fallen heroes.

The projects are slowly dying within New Orleans and across America, but rare is the city that sanctifies them. The St. Thomas Projects were razed in 2001 and replaced by a Super Wal-Mart that was heavily looted after Katrina.

Regard for the law in Louisiana is best described by its drive-through Daiquiri stands. You can roll up to the window and buy a cold daiquiri, in such a variety of flavors that Ben & Jerry would be jealous. But, there is an open container law in Louisiana that applies when alcohol and moving vehicles are concerned. Daiquiri stands are not exempt.

This is how they get away with it. The cocktail cools inside a plastic cup with a lid. The straw slides through the slit. The tube of the straw in itself would constitute an open container as the law would have it, but the inch of paper wrapping left over the top of the straw fits it within the law.

New Orleans will always have that pickups and palm trees vibe, where you roll the windows down, rest your elbow on the doorframe and make an uptown loop past the oaks and mansions and swing back through downtown, past the palms trees lining Canal Street. Except for about three weeks a year, it feels like a Riviera. There’s not a beach for 50 miles, but after a day of work, driving home, you feel like you are heading to one.

The last time I saw Darrell, I drove him across to the West Bank of the Mississippi on the Crescent City Connection. We headed to a Home Depot to return leftover fencing material from a job never completed. Afterwards, we stopped at a diner for low-grade steak that required Darrell to summon the waitress twice for more gravy.

He called her daw-lin’ through rotted teeth as he poured on the gravy and explained his situation. He needed a new liver because, after many dormant years without detection, Hepatitis-C started smoldering in his immune system, progressing beyond a cure. Darrell put his name on the transplant list, but he didn’t think it deserved to be there.

The next day, Darrell held a yard sale on the lawn in front of his house. He didn’t advertise in the paper, whoever drove by bought away his furniture until he was left with almost
nothing. I salvaged a Phillips head screwdriver with a neon green handle. Darrell took the money from the sale and booked a one-way flight to Seattle where he was prepared to die in the city’s VA hospital.

Les predicted his demise with realistic detachment when he heard of Darrell’s situation. The only question was time. Les described the dire circumstances doctors find themselves in with patients who are in too much pain to go on, but their bodies won’t let them die. For drug addicts with helpful friends, the way out is easy: Dr. Death is sold on street corners all over America. Pump too much heroin in your veins and you’ll die of euphoria. As Les described the scenario, you’re so happy, you forget to breathe.

The message flashes on a city bus creeping down Canal. IT’S CARNIVAL TIME Anyone still left in the city who hasn’t gone on vacation somewhere with ski slopes comes out of the woodwork to see the parades on St. Charles. Les and Darrell and I, watching the people, the floats, and the marchers. The white bands from the Midwest play the same songs as the local boys from the public schools in a stream of sound that perfectly showcases their distinct souls.

The white kids marching firm as a flagpole, the black boys kicking and flapping like a flag in the wind. Fish nets secured over the bell of the tuba avoid the target practice of beer cans and beads aimed at the opening. White people make fun of the what-time-it-is? sho’ nuff speech of the St. Thomas folk and they return the favor toward the honkies from Iowa. And it’s all right.

That’s when New Orleans is back, when getting back to work as usual, is ignoring work as usual, and the laws that infringe upon the irreverence in us all. This is America, because a place like this can’t exist anywhere else. Come heaven or high water, there’s no place like home, however you imagine it.


Darrell left town two days after his yard sale. I inquired about him at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Puget Sound, Washington. The social workers there didn’t have any record of him since the 80’s. He may have checked into the Portland V.A.; he may have ignored his condition, finding work as a welder to sustain him and his habits. I’d like to think he returned to New Orleans. The city could use him and his torch.

Les graduated medical school in May. A week later he married his classmate Emmy, a Bronx Science graduate from Ridgewood, Queens. The wedding was held at the Queens Botanical Garden and the reception at the Sheraton in Flushing. The ten-course meal was a traditional Chinese celebration, as was the bride’s dress, red Mandarin silks that served a perfect contrast against the seer-sucker suits worn by Les’ father and infant nephew.

Les started his residency in July at Bellevue Hospital. I’ve called him a few times, but haven’t heard back. I understand; he’s working like a horse. This is New York: this is where he belongs. But New Orleans needs him more.

Update: Ark-La-Tex, September 2010

Les returned to Louisiana to complete his medical residency. He lives in Shreveport. We found each other on Facebook. He asked: “What time it is?”

Darrell lives on. He’s based in Arkansas. I was astonished to find him pictured online in a photo from the Texarkana Post Gazette. He’s looking good, but somewhat constipated, probably because he’s full of shit sometimes. Long live man.

Harvest Bowl

Longtime New Orleans Saints fan Darrell Breen reacts to a play Sunday while watching Super Bowl XLIV at Hopkins Icehouse. The downtown restaurant hosted a Super Bowl party in conjunction with Harvest Texarkana to help collect canned food and donations. For more on the Saints’ first Super Bowl championship,

see Page 1B.
Texarkana Gazette