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 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
towel.

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.


Epilogue:

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

1 comment:

Michael McCafferty said...

I really like your writing style.
And, I always learn something!

Keep on scribbling, typing, and telling stories!