Dirty South Bureau

April 29, 2007

Ed the Cake Man

Filed under: The Feds,We Are Not OK — christian @ 6:05 pm

I went out to Lafayette on Saturday for the Festival International. I got a little carried away, stayed too long, skipped out on my ride back, drank too much, spent too much money, said the wrong things and spent the next morning hung over wandering the streets of Lafayette, feeling like Johnny Cash’s Sunday Morning Coming Down. Lafayette is a pretty town, and feels affluent; everywhere I saw happy, well-fed Cajuns. Of course, every American city I’ve gone to looks affluent after New Orleans.

Made my way down to the Greyhound station and borrowing a cell phone I met two other New Orleanians, a girl going to school at Loyola and Eddie the Cake Man.

Eddie lived in the seventh ward before the storm, in an apartment building on Claiborne next to the freeway painted purple and yellow. When I met him he had a small bag at his feet with his rolling skates; he was headed fifty miles away to Baton Rouge to go skating and would come back tonight on the Grey Dog. Ed is fifty-seven and a veteran. He is soft-spoken, and gentle, and looks you straight in the eye when he talks.

Eddie’s story came spilling out of him like an open bag of rice falling over.

Ed’s mother died during evacuation in Michigan. He showed us pictures of his mother on his camera phone; kind of like a digital version of the photos of my ex-girlfriend and little sister that I have in my wallet. He had several pictures of her in there, and scrolled through them for us. Another Katrina casualty; an eighty-year old woman in poor health who had to take a road trip that lasted more than twelve hours. He says her house was almost fixed up when she passed in Michigan.

Ed’s father died a year before, and his sister a year before that. A friend of Eddie’s and his whole family died in their house in the rapid flooding in the lower 9th. Eddie tried to move back to New Orleans and live in a FEMA trailer, but the formaldehyde off-gassing made him sick (like most people he didn’t know that you are supposed to run the air conditioning all the time to help deal with the toxic gas chamber that FEMA trailers are). He says the city was just too much of a mess, so he came out to Lafayette to live with his daughter.

Eddie got a job with a baker here, he says he just called him up and he hired him. His specialty is cake decorating, he says he can do everything including comic book figures for kid’s cakes. Never went to school just taught himself. He says his website is on the way.

Eddie says that the Prozac helps, that before he started taking it he would just ball of on the sofa. He can’t afford individual therapy but is going to group therapy. He speaks slowly and with no shame. The thing that really helps him, though, is skating; before the storm he would go to the lanes on Terry Parkway in the West Bank. And now he waits for the Greyhound to go to Baton Rouge.

Someday he says he wants to move back to New Orleans but he doesn’t know when.

I wonder how many people there waiting at Greyhound stations like Ed. And it matters, because it’s more significant when two people suffer than one. On the other hand the mathematics of suffering can be misleading; the other people aren’t Ed and they aren’t standing in front of me with their soft voices, steady brown eyes and roller skate bags. There is aggregate of human misery, the numbers and statistics, and then there is Ed the Cake Man.

Ed tells us that a doctor he saw in Lafayette told him that the Hurricane was two years ago and that he should get over it.

“What a bunch of bullshit”, I respond.

“Thank you”, he says quietly. And he goes on to explain the thing that everyone down here knows and that for some reason people in the rest of the country seem to have a hard time grasping. The hurricane is not over for Ed the Cake Man. And it won’t be any time soon.

April 27, 2007

Mid-City

Filed under: Mid-City — christian @ 7:13 pm

So I moved six months ago to a new apartment, which is in Mid-City/Bayou St. John. I always have to explain to folks who are visiting that there are actually neighborhoods and meta-neighborhoods in New Orleans, and that they sometimes have the same name, for example Uptown can mean anything on that side of the interstate or it can mean Uptown proper, which is a much smaller area. So Mid-City is my meta-neighborhood, and Bayou St. John is the neighborhood, though my block feels more like the back of the Treme (which is right across Broad). I guess I am also living in the 5th ward, but I am neither black nor did I grow up here.

Today is a beautiful day, first day of Jazz Fest, and the streets (which often have no sidewalks) are filled with parked cars. A high school kid is playing the trumpet outside.

Bayou St. John is a funny neighborhood. It’s mildly affluent in parts, Ursulines which is one block away has noticeably wealthy sections. But the part I live in is mostly low-income and mostly black, but with enough other white folks that I don’t feel like an intruder. This part of Mid-City feels sweet and lazy and even more laid back than other neighborhoods here. More private too, quieter than the neighborhoods nearer the river.

Of course on New Years my immediate intersection was a war zone of fireworks from five in the afternoon to four in the morning. People get down here, but mostly you see them on stoops and porches, or coming home from work. A man named Blue with gold teeth talked to me last time I was working on my truck about carpentry work. I have discovered no way as good to meet my neighbors as regular automotive repair.

Pal’s is my new neighborhood bar, a bar that I had been flirting with for years. It used to feel cool and quiet and like a getaway- six months after moving down the street I don’t go there as often. Reminds me of some relationships. I, like most other people, must be a sucker for the allure of the inaccessible. Or maybe it’s the new bartenders, some of whom fail to live up to the legendary charm of the old ones.

Soprano’s, the local grocery, has not lost its charm. The place is your typical ghetto grocery story, canned food, toilet paper and beer, except that it has a kitchen and serves hot food. The walls are decorated with autographed photos from the Soprano’s TV show, which the proprietor, a man from the Middle East, is apparently obsessed with. I don’t know how long he has been here, he halfway talks like a Yat and has decided that I am German, so he greets me with a “boomstig shaiza! (or something like that in German) every time I show up. He has a mischievous gleam in his eyes and is constantly in motion. I wonder about the source of his constant energy, stuck there behind the counter with toothpaste, chewing gum and cheap cigars.

Whenever he grabs my hand to shake it vigorously I notice again that he is missing the last digit of his index finger. There’s a small sticker of a flag on the back of his car, I think it is Palestine. I can’t seem to bring myself to ask him about either one of these things.

And he’s hard to keep up with sometimes. At times like this I will smile and slip out to the street, to the cool under the oaks, to the stars which are more visible with the lack of streetlights, to the night air which is filled with distant sounds- cars and children, couples arguing, and the sounds harder to hear, and indistinct, somewhere out there people are making love, fighting, eating, living. And the clean smell of the banana trees, of food cooking, all the growing things, and the earth.

April 8, 2007

Mixed

Filed under: Race — christian @ 12:04 am

I found myself in the Dragon’s Den the other night to catch some hip-hop. For those of you who don’t know, the Dragon’s Den is a little club in the Marigny that used to sit on top of a Thai food place (which has been replaced by Z’otz 3, which is a far cry from the elegant weirdness of the original Z’otz; duplicates and sequels are almost always inferior, but I digress). Regardless, Dragon’s Den is a strange dark space reminiscent of a broke downtown take on an opium den that has a wide assortment of music ranging from hip hop to gutter punk orchestral pieces.

I digress again… this night the music was something between hip hop and soul. Being a consummate honky, I find myself at a loss to describe it further. Music, most things in New Orleans, is subtly but definitively segregated, and I was glad to have yet another opportunity to view this other world without feeling like I was intruding. Besides, the music was good, even if I didn’t get all the musical and cultural references. I had come with my friend Miss Maybe, and we made our way back to sit on the wrought iron porch which is among Dragon’s Den’s best features. Before long we were beset by a number of lost individuals including a self-important Common Grounder. We sat and smoked an enjoyed the light rain despite these distractions.

Before long a couple sat down across from us; a black man and a pretty woman with blond curly hair. As we sat there, the delicate quiet was broken by a question:

“Are you mixed?”

The question was directed at Miss Maybe. She is someone who is fairly obviously of both African and European descent, pale coffee colored skin and facial features that suggest both. I winced- Miss Maybe is quite capable of laying down the law when confronted with someone saying something inappropriate, and questioning ethnicity is a hell of a way of saying Hi.

Miss Maybe took a moment to respond. “Yes, I am.”

The woman did not miss a beat. “Was your mother white?” she asked.

“No”, replied MM, her voice betraying a hairline crack of annoyance. “My father is white.”

“Oh.” Said the girl. There was something doe-like and innocent about her large eyes, which were focused on Miss M. “Do you identify as mixed?” asked the girl, blithely.

This was really too much. Who was this white girl to be asking M. Maybe about the details of her ethnicity? What fucking business was it of hers? Yet she approached with a naiveté that was curious and somewhat unnerving.

“I identify as black”, Miss Maybe stated. “Mixed has no political power.”

In addition to “What the Fuck?” another question was standing outside ringing the doorbell. Who isn’t mixed? I mean, I look damned “white” and despite nearly all my known ancestry arriving from Northern Europe fairly recently, I’ve got Paiute Indian blood five generations back (or so my family thinks). How many Black Americans don’t have some European ancestry after centuries of slavery and rape? How many white people whose families have lived in New Orleans for a few generations don’t have any African blood somewhere in there? How many people successfully “passe blanc”, to create this utterly false and hegemonic idea of “White”.

And if you want to go back further, how many Europeans don’t have an influx of East Asian genetics via the Mongols and the Magyar (Hungarians), or the Finno-Ugric peoples (Finns, Estonians)? Or Turkish blood from the centuries the Turks were in the Balkans? Or African blood in Italians, Spaniards and French via the Moors? Or Semitic blood? What the fuck is “White”, anyway?

My annoyance finally broke through, and I asked the girl- “Are _you_ mixed?”

“Yes”, she replied, and immediately I saw the African features in her face, and the green eyes under the blond hair. And I realized that she was asking these questions as much of herself as of Miss Maybe.

And I shut up.