Sunday, March 30, 2008

Last night, 2006 Grammy Award winner Irma Thomas put on a fabulous nearly two-hour show, singing her throaty up-tempo rhythm and blues, bare-footed through the second half, her plain black dress shimmering in the stage lights, her voice bringing tears to my eyes. And the songs: "After the Rain," "In the Middle of It All," "Another Man Done Gone," "These Honey Dos," and my favorite, "Time is on My Side." Unforgettable, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, there on the stage, glittery lights behind her, stomping on the stage in her bare feet, her entire body quivering with the emotion behind, "If you don't know love, you don't know, you don't know, you don't know."

Irma Thomas, personable, approachable, immediate, told a story about shopping in Wal-Mart right after Katrina. A woman said, "You here?" And Irma replied, "Yes, darling" (everyone says darling or dear or honey here). The woman said, "But you're Irma Thomas." And Irma replied, "That's right, honey. But if they've got something that will cover all this, I'm here, just like everyone else."

This wonderful, unforgettable artist, 67 years young, celebrates her creativity and her life with pure exuberance. What a memorable night and what a memorable close to our month in New Orleans.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Today was a magical day. We began in the morning, loading up a 40-gallon pot, frame and butane tank in our trusty Toyota, with many oranges, onions, potatoes, lots of spices, and then drove out to the bayou for a crawfish boil. We were visiting Georgia, our friend we haven't seen in nearly a decade, since San Miguel days.

Georgia's house backs up on a bayou, so after greeting four dogs, unloading the cooking supplies, and admiring the view, Georgia and I hopped into a canoe, loaded with crawfish traps, a bucket of fish heads, and oars, to bring home dinner. We poled through the marshy grass, got green slime all over ourselves, laughed a lot, but didn't fall in and brought home the biggest crawfish I've ever seen, some as big as my hand. One even pinched me!

Then the Guv popped all his special incredients into his giant pot, fired up the "boil", and the crawfish turned bright red for dinner. We sat out on the porch, tossing our shells over the side, and joked about how many crawfish we could eat as the sun set, the purple martins came home to roost, and egrets flew along the border of the swamp.

We drove back home along Interstate 310, up over the Mississippi River via the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge, some 150 feet over the river, and admired the skyline of New Orleans. Tomorrow's our last day of volunteer work at the library where we'll say goodbye to new friends, and maybe, just maybe, tomorrow night we'll see Irma Thomas in concert.

Oak Alley Plantation, a sugar cane plantation established along the banks of the Mississippi about 35 miles outside New Orleans in 1835, welcomed us with a double-row of 28 oak trees some 300 years old. It was 79 degrees and sunny, but the breezes up from the river were cooling, and the grounds meticulously maintained. This old Greek Revival style mansion was furnished with period pieces, including intricately painted cypress wood fireplace mantles, made to look as if they were marble.

If you were an honored guest, you would be greeted with a fresh pineapple each morning. If you outstayed your welcome, your morning would begin with two pineapples, a subtle hint to take one home on your journey.

The entire house was built with slave labor. The owners kept some 20 house slaves and 93 field slaves, their names, ages, and values commemorated in a bronze plaque. As we read the names, it was hard not to draw conclusions about each person listed: Desiree, Creole (meaning born in the West Indies) female field hand aged 16, value $200; Louisa, female field hand aged 15, value $25; Mary, mulatto (meaning born of Caucasian and Negro parents) female aged 35 with her five children, seamstress, value $1,500. Four slaves were over the age of 60: Mary, aged 69, cook for the Negroes, value $50; Mercury, age 62, African Negro field hand, value $100; Louis, age 62, American Negro, one-armed field hand, value $50; and Leandre, age 63, Creole Negro field boss and driver, value $500.

This undated photo above, most likely late 19th or early 20th Century shows the former slave quarters, now burned down. You might recall the threats Southern slave owners made to sell their slaves down river to the cotton and sugar cane plantations. This is that land, and a way of life that ended with the coming of the Americans, the Civil War, and the civil rights movements of the 1960s.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

While on the road, we needed groceries and couldn't find a grocery store. So we broke our own guidelines and yes, we shopped at Wal-Mart, the store that has a history of mistreating its employees and providing shoddy benefits. I was shocked at the prices. A box of my favorite cereal cost $2.50, well under the $4.59 at traditional grocery stores. A typical weekly shopping that cost us $60-$80 at a conventional grocery store came in under $40. I thought at the time that Wal-Mart would do very well in the coming months as the recession worsened. Some people have no choice; they have families to feed.

But then I heard about Debbie Shank on Keith Olbermann last night. Here's a woman who stocked shelves at Wal-Mart in a small town in Mississippi. She was severely injured when she was hit by a truck and won a lawsuit against the trucking company. The money was put into a trust fund for her long-term care. Using a provision in the Wal-Mart health benefits, Wal-Mart sued her for $470,000 and won. The complete story is at this link. The week following Wal-Mart's victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals, this brain-damaged woman (who can barely understand what happened) lost her son in Iraq.

It's time for Wal-Mart to say we won a victory in court but decided not to take the money. Otherwise, I agree with Keith Olbermann. Shame on you, Wal-Mart. For now, I absolutely refuse to shop at Wal-Mart. I've sent a letter to Kit Bond, the U.S. Senator from Mississippi, and hope you will follow some of these links to take action.

Additional links: You can sign a petition at, or read the original article in the Wall Street Journal that tells Debbie Shank's story and summarizes trends in the insurance industry at

Monday, March 24, 2008

It's the morning after the day before, Easter parades, that is. We all walked through the French Quarter and along the Garden District to watch Easter finery in two parades, one featuring white convertibles and the other a small marching band and mule-driven carts. Both featured beads and bunnies thrown to the admiring throngs. My favorite moments came, though, when we walked atop the levee along the great Mississippi River, passed the Natchez steamboat complete with a calliope concert. Click the PLAY button!

New Orleans is a city of joy and celebration, hope and mystery, a love of life, yet a history of hidden lives. Now, post-Katrina, fearsome challenges remain that call for a community dialogue that stretches throughout the city and across our country.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Red beans and rice! This traditional Cajun recipe comes from the Guv. He made it right in a 10-gallon pot in our kitchen. The result was heavenly, and I think would feed 20 or so. Bring a little New Orleans into your kitchen!
When I was 15, my sister, cousin and I went on a blind date to a high school dance. There, in the small California town of Millville (just outside of Redding), I experienced Fats Domino. He played one riveting song after another, "Blueberry Hill," "Blue Monday," and "When the Saints Go Marching In". It was the summer of 1958. We danced so close to the piano, I could reach out and touch him, but I didn't. I just danced and danced and loved every minute, never realizing that this great musician was a human being instead of some marvelous god of music.

Fats Domino lives in New Orleans. At 79, he played a benefit concert recently here, all those greats from his long career. I wish I could have been there to cheer him on and to say how much I've loved his gravelly voice, his heavy-beat stride piano playing, his songs, and his joyous music. For Fats Domino was skittish about coming on stage. Apparently he suffers greatly from stage fright, but this was a fund-raiser for rebuilding New Orleans, so he went on.

A few weeks ago, our friend the Guv of WWOZ fame took us through the Lower 9th Ward here in New Orleans. Wow! Fat's Domino's house. But you can still see the four-foot high water line mark on his garage. Early reports had him dead, along with 1,000 others. Today, a sign on Fats' fence says "Tipitina's Foundation proudly helping Fats Domino Rebuild his neighborhood." But the Tipitina Foundation does more. It's raised $1.5 million for musical instruments for school bands and has been at the heart of efforts to support the music community here in New Orleans.

Still so much work remains to rebuild this beautiful city. The French Quarter, downtown, the Garden District, the neighborhoods of the privileged: all these are coming back. Yesterday we walked all along the levee, Jackson Square, and had cafe au lait with powdered-sugar-laden beignets at Cafe du Monde with our friends from Oregon. The sun was out, making another memorable day for tourists and residents alike.

But here's a picture I took of the house directly across the street from Fats Domino's house.

We can drive through, we can volunteer, but we don't really know the back story of what happened here during Katrina. But we can see what remains to be done and come to New Orleans to be a part of the rebuilding. John Edwards talked about the need to put in a hand, ending his campaign here by working on housing. Put in a hand.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Just finished reading Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, a complex and beautifully written 600-page fictional and sometimess vituperative critique of post-colonial India in the 1970s through the experiences of several empathetic characters. Allen says it captures the India he traveled through in the 1970s quite well, the crowds, extreme poverty, and rural traditions. I'm left feeling impressed and depressed at the same time. The characters are exceedingly well drawn, with strong family ties and dreams, yet poverty and government inefficiencies and brutalities grind them all down. After 600 pages, the reader (and the characters) are left without hope. Maybe from a Western point of view, I anticipate some kind of redemption, growth, or a sense of achievement; here, the characters, in spite of their best intentions and efforts become tragic heroes in the classic sense, destroyed from within and without.

So, the picture above is of a lovely house in the Garden District, formerly the home of Anne Rice, the house now on the market again. She lived here while writing some of her vampire novels and has since turned to writing the life of Christ, an interesting turn. New Orleans is quite seductive, with its lovely old homes influenced by French and Spanish colonial architecture, oak-lined streets, and sense of history everywhere. We walked through the Garden Quarter, a residential area set up by the Americans who moved here after the Louisiana Purchase. I don't understand the history all together, but the Creoles felt tremendous animosity against the Americans for changing their way of life, arguing even today that their Creole culture was more diverse and less racially divisive. The Americans were not welcomed or accepted; in fact, New Orleans became a divided city.

What remains truly vibrant, though, is the primarily black culture of blues and jazz that comes up out of this history of slavery and exploitation. Monday night, a rare night out on St. Patrick's Day, we ambled with our friend, the Guv, down along Frenchmen Street in the Marigny neighborhood, along narrow streets with two storied houses from the 1860s, the open French grillwork everywhere in overhanging balconies, past the Spotted Cat jazz club and then stopped. The music held us in sway, and here we'll return. We'll also return to Adolfo's, an upstairs four-star Cajun-Italian dining experience that leaves your mouth savoring every zippy bite.

The real draw was the St. Paddy's Day Parade, a neighborhood parade that never starts on time, as it wends its way from bar to bar, but the night was warm, the music very mellow. Finally, a platoon of police on motorcycles came by, their sirens blaring. A long wait. Then another group of blaring horns, the Shriners also on motorcycles. Another long wait. And then they came, the marchers, the floats, the music.

I saw mothers with little kids on their hips and shoulders, hoping for some green beads to take home, and some younger people traveling in groups of four and five, drunk already, thinking the whole day and the whole night was just for them, and it was. Pretty girls already roped in green, dancing in the street right along with the marching bands and the little floats. The music, the Irish music blended with rock music as each club passed. The whole crowd was dancing. A string of beads for a kiss. A sip of someone else’s beer. Another string of beads. Men passed by wearing kilts and top hats. Old guys, festooned with white beads, too old to march, perched on flatbed trucks and the backs of cars, waving to the crowd. Handsome young men danced behind the floats, beads piled up around their necks as they kissed every woman they saw, giving away strand after strand. The music changed with each float, funk, Irish tenors, rock and roll. Allen danced in the street and was rewarded with many beads and a few kisses. We loved it all.

The last float passed. The street emptied; a few forgotten beads, gold, silver and green glittered on the pavement. We walked along the park where we'd parked our car, the noise of revelry still going on behind us, the cool night air making me glad to be alive and a part somehow of New Orleans. What a night. Then on to WWOZ for the Govenor's Mansion on Monday night, to listen to the greats, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and the irrepresible Bobby Lounge. New Orleans is definitely back.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

New Orleans. Palm Sunday weekend. The Guv said to skip the Saint Paddy's Day parade in Irishtown (the parade features cabbages thrown from the floats so folks could make their own Irish corned beef and cabbage).

So down we went to Marvin Garvey Park, in the heart of New Orleans to listen to blues, gospel and New Orleans funk, people dancing on the grass, smelling the sweet smell of barbeque. We spent a mellow afternoon waiting on the infamous and sometimes secretive New Orleans Indians.

Long ago in New Orleans history, slaves escaped to the swamps. Some were taken in by Indians, and the escaping slaves have never forgotten their generosity. For many generations, the Mardi Gras Indians have celebrated with elaborate costumes, exhuberant dancing and music. Katrina left its mark, however, as this year's informal parade went past houses in every stage of reclamation. But when the Indians came, dancing down the sunlit streets with their fabulous costumes, every heart lifted.

Check this site on New Orleans Indians (and I posted more pics and my first video ever in Webshots (see link under LINKS to the right). May you be dancing where you are!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Thursday, the weather was fine. We walked through Audubon Park in the heart of New Orleans and came across this tree filled with egrets napping. Old oak trees everywhere, people out enjoying the sun, pink, orange and white azaleas as big as rhododendrons, and everywhere people painting, rebuilding and reroofing houses.

Fodor's New Orleans (2008) says that out of the 200,000 houses damaged by Katrina, about 71% were damaged by flooding, some with 9 feet of water, and about 80% of the city was flooded. Out of some 460,000 residents pre-Katrina, some 260,000 have returned (as of May 2007). The result is easy driving (except for potholes). The city just announced a major street repair effort; they plan to repair 27,000 damaged or destroyed streets over the next 18 months. That's a lot of potholes. And that's only New Orleans. This doesn't include all the work needed along the Gulf.

Today we visited the Botannical Gardens in City Park to find volunteers from Massachusettes down for the week, digging weeds. Many plants were destroyed by the flood waters that came through here in a surge, but it's still very pleasant to stroll through the gardens, admiring the ferns in the Conservatory there, especially the Dwarf Fern, and stopping to appreciate the lovely sculptures throughout, especially those by Enrique Alferez, a Mexican artist who began working on sculptures back in the WPA in the 1930s. I'll close tonight with a picture of his larger than life "Renascence" (cast stone, 1998). I love this sense of rebirth that's emerging everywhere here in New Orleans. Make it a good week. Beth

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Can you imagine 50 million pounds of frozen chicken, stuck in an enclosed warehouse, defrosting and then sitting for over a month before clean-up began? I get stuck on statistics like that. Here's a picture of the famous New Orleans trolley running along St. Charles Street.

Today I washed my hands several times unpacking books that were covered with mold. Libraries and individuals here in New Orleans and all over the country donated books to help the library here get back on its feet. We're still sorting those books, boxes and boxes of them, and every once in a while we find treasures, a first edition by D. H. Lawrence, a three-set volume history of Spain dated 1853. The New Orleans Public Library is in the process of opening six temporary branches to serve those communities most affected by the flooding, generously funded by the Gates Foundation, the Bush-Clinton Foundation and numerous corporations. The library full-time staff, originally 213, is now at 86 hard-working individuals. The volunteers I work with are cheery, well-organized residents of New Orleans who struggle with painters who don't show up, who live in FEMA trailers, and who come to the basement of the Latter Library to sort books twice a week.

This week's highlight was visiting the National World War II Museum, in the warehouse district near Riverwalk and the Mississippi River. Higgins Industries, run by the charismatic Andrew Jackson Higgins,designed innovative landing boats based on his experience in building boats used in the Gulf. He believed the boats could bring soldiers closer to the beach, but the Navy and Army wasn't convinced. He invited the military down to New Orleans to see these amphibious boats in action; when one of the PLPs was having trouble driving the boat up on the beach, he told a supervisor to "fire that s.o.b.". "But Mr. Higgins," was the reply, "we can't fire your son." This hard-nosed guy ran a boat-building factor employing 50 people before World War II, but employed up to 25,000 (including women and minorities) before war's end. More about D-Day later, and we saw the famous Enigma codebreaker machine. Time to make sandwiches and go to Rigoletto on a preview.

Friday, March 07, 2008

It's fairly cold this morning, only in the 60s, but we walked to the New Orleans Museum of Art near us in City Park, passing these beautiful old mansions with Spanish iron grillwork on windows and doors. The sidewalks remind me of Katrina, like some gigantic hand tipped the concrete up and down, even in City Park with its open expanses of land. As a temporary visitor to New Orleans, I notice the sidewalks. Many houses have been rehabbed or boarded up. Streets have been patched, though driving requires vigilance to avoid the deeper potholes. But the sidewalks remain a low priority (understandably), so let the walker beware!

We saw the work of George Rodrigue, creator of the Blue Dog, in a grand and inspirational retrospective. This Cajun artist began by painting the bayou, then portraits, then spun out into his very colorful and now famous Blue Dog phase. Currently living in New Orleans, he comments during the exhibit that he was unable to paint for a year after Katrina. I can understand why. The scope of the storm damage, even after two years and a half, still remains in the imprint on a garage door of the flood line, two feet off the ground in our little neighborhood.

Much has been done, but it may be generations before New Orleans fully returns. I'm sure the French Quarter still hops at night. It always does. The heart of the city remains in warm southern hospitality, Mardi Gras beads everywhere, and truly great music. I can report that beignets and cafe au lait at the Cafe du Monde are still incredibly delicious. Street musicians (and an electric violinist) around Jackson Square play their hearts out.

We see demolition and reconstruction going on, in every neighborhood. In some neighborhoods, more is needed. We pass mini-shopping malls, boarded up, not ready to return. I'm feeling a little sad, as I'm not quite strong enough to pull moldy sheetrock out of houses, but I still feel we haven't done enough, that more is needed, and that the people of New Orleans are coming through a tragedy almost beyond comprehension. What's needed here are electricians and plumbers and construction workers.

So I'll remember the Blue Dog, and we'll go volunteer with Friends of the Library book sales here on Weds and Saturday, as the libraries are not quite back, and with limited hours and limited facilities. With something like 100,000 volunteers in town, and the indomitable spirit that has brought so many this far, the healing continues. New Orleans is back.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

It's our fourth day in New Orleans. I'm reading 1 Dead in Attic, by Chris Rose, a little 158-page collection of columns and stories he wrote between August through December 2005. Rose, previously an entertainment reporter for the Times-Picayune, talks the reader through his impressions and observations during the five months following Katrina. The book is available online at Amazon. This article, "1 Dead in Attic" (November 15, 2005), comments powerfully on the people who survived Katrina.

Yesterday, we drove through the 9th Ward in the Guv's 1975 Toyota, visited his house in the early stages of rehabbing (2 feet of water throughout meant he had to work down to the bones of his house, removing moldy sheetrock. Strands of Mardi Gras beads hang outside, next to that cryptic and undecipherable code painted on by the police and the National Guard in the first sweep through the neighborhoods in the days following Katrina. He's got some of the wiring in, most of the new sheetrock put up and plastered, and a plan: Build a fence first to keep the looters out.

Last night we visited WWOZ for the Guv's Monday night show, "The Governor's Mansion," two hours of an eclectic tour de force: Dinah Washington, Irma Thomas, Tom Waits, Etta James, Blood, Sweat and Tears; Fred Astaire, Paul Simon, Sonny and Cher, Judy Roderick, Norah Jones, and ending with the inimitable Doctor John. I sat in the tiny control room, watching the Gov spin his CDs, surrounded by bookshelves of at least 5,000 more CDs, a little window looking out over the French Market, rain, frequent lightning, and severe storm warnings punctuating the sound of New Orleans, music and more music filling us up and keeping the storms away. Just like other PBS stations, WWOZ, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station, is holding its pledge drive. Jump over and visit their page. You can listen online. You can make a pledge.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Monday afternoon in New Orleans. The Guv took us on a tour of the 9th Ward, his house and FEMA trailer, Fats Domino's house, and down through the parrishes, St. Bernard, and Lakeshore by Lake Ponchatrain where 15 to 20 feet water surges inundated houses during Katrina. I'm not yet ready to write about what we saw, neighborhoods struggling to come back, one street full of FEMA trailers in front of houses at every stage of rehabilitation, work crews everywhere; other streets devoid of any life, row after row of boarded up houses, some obviously marked for demolition. Yet hope abounds. The newspapers are full of stories about college kids coming down for Spring Break and volunteer work.

We're still settling into our little basement apartment, a sense of home for the next month. Bless Skype for letting me see Rachel and Nick, where all is well with both of them. And I'll close today with a picture of the beautiful, tranquil McClay Gardens that I took near Tallahassee, a true Southern garden, just four days ago. Beth

Saturday, March 01, 2008

We skirted along the Gulf coast yesterday, leaving Panama City Beach far behind and stopped for quick sandwiches made on the trunk of our car at a roadside rest just after the bridge into Pensacola. We're starting to see storm damage from Katrina and Wilma everywhere. We whizzed through Alabama, all 60 miles of its toe close to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now we're seeing trees everywhere, their trunks just snapped off about 2/3rd's up, and as we drove south of Biloxi, the effects of Katrina's storm surge are apparent everywhere. Concrete pads for houses stand empty. People are friendly, gas prices are lower than I've seen elsewhere ($3.05 a gallon), and there's a sense of energy. But I'm seeing storm-damaged housing everywhere right next to rebuilding efforts, roofs ripped off, top floors rebuilt and being lived in, lower floors empty, windows gaping or boarded up. "For Sale" signs pepper high-end beach frontage, and road crews vie with resort building crews wielding massive cranes along this barely restored Highway 90.

Finally, we came to a small resort hotel, just west of Biloxi, Mississippi. Armed with our discount coupon book, we settled into the night and then made our first room change (broken micro-fridge, leaky faucet). Our second room change came when a rock shattered the window of our room at 11 pm. Here, the staff works as hard on rehabbing as on hospitality, with a full-time crew still repairing storm damage, two years after Katrina.

We're more than a half-mile from the ocean, yet damage from flooding can be seen everywhere. The Veterans Hospital near Gulfport, once a large complex of buildings (1930s architecture) overlooking the sea, is completely boarded up. We knew that the entire region, that is the northern coast of the Gulf (Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama), was hard hit, but we did not anticipate beaches swept clean of housing and rebuilding efforts so extensive. Now, we don't know what to expect in New Orleans, but tomorrow night begins our month-long stay there.

The New York Times highlights a useful study of mental health effects for those who lived through Katrina. I'm wondering how a city and a region can be rebuilt and if our government (state and federal) has failed in meeting the people's needs. The headlines have moved on, but the people who survived Katrina are still struggling to rebuild their communities. The extent of the damage makes normalcy seem a luxury.

Friends who recently visited New Orleans and worked with Ginger on the Project Resurrection--Furniture Bank report even greater needs and that homelessness is increasing right now as FEMA trailers are being re-possessed. Nearly 12,000 people are living on the streets and under bridges in New Orleans (source: Miami Herald Feb 2008). Where does any one begin to work on this massive recovery effort?