Friday, January 04, 2008

Contrite Reflections after 1 week back

Did I mention the Australians have eliminated the penny? When your grocerybill is $19.78, next item is "Round-up $.02" Total: $19.80. (They round down as well.) That's advanced.

The GST (state tax) is included in the price of every item. It's like the entire country is run by Brooklyn bodega managers!

After every transaction or interaction, no matter how lucrative or problematic for the Australian you are transacting with, the response is "No worries."

Example: "Can I give you $1000AUD?"
"No worries, mate. Not a problem."
Lest you think this is irony: The same affirmative response is given when things are actually a problem.

Watery domestic beer (Fosters is NOT widely available, Victoria Bitters is) starts at $12-15 a six-pack, while overstock, unmarketed "Clean Skin" wines begin at $3.99. I literally saw a single bottle of the yellow piss water commonly known as MGD for $2.99 in the same Bottleshop that had a clean skin Syrah for $3.99.

Australia makes being declasse extremely pricey.

Monday, December 17, 2007


A tall Swedish man in black is mowing a foot path around his house. We are not far from Officer Crescent street in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.

Monday, December 10, 2007

11:00AM on Tueday in Sydney is 7:00PM on Monday in New York

Good morning from the day following the one you are currently in now, America. Here are the advancements I've gathered from life 14 hours ahead of the one you are living now:

1. Sockets have power switches, thereby eliminating the power drain all electronics and appliances pull on live sockets (about 60% of their total consumption).
2. There is one button on toilets for No. 1 and a larger button for No. 2.
3. The probability this city will do away with me via car (always a high probability) is increased exponentially due to the fact all cars make illegal left hand turns and my head swivels to the right looking for insane drivers driving and/or turning from the left, and so on. I'm working overtime to not become Sydney's newest flavor of street meat.

Syndey is a combination of San Diego (terra cotta, temperate, uninsulated, easy living), San Francisco (lush with hills) and Toronto without zoning (mixed residential, shopping, train and light industrial all over the place). Sydney is sprawling with a true western contempt for good city planning.

Individualism clearly runs rampant and 'I'll do it my way.' whether my way works in any way but for myself -usually temporarily - or not seems to be the modus operandi from the mini-time warp into the future.

I can't knock it. They got a lot done here: Took over a continental size island and made it almost completely safe for white people.

And now what I see is a fair representation of the success of global capitalism! Yesterday was spent in Balmain, the dirty, coal-fired suburb of Sydney of 30 years ago that has wealthy office dwelling yuppies of today drooling over it's enticing combination of non-thru traffic and easy drive to Sydney.

It's a dream come true of million dollar plots of land and $20 dollar cheap umbrellas and $3 sodas that is not so much different than New York, Stockholm or London I expect: The success of capitalism taking all the wiggle room out of pockets of economic losers like myself. It's nice to be reminded that getting away from the screw means leaving the company of the modestly civilized white people. It's good to know what version of discomfort you don't aspire to.

There are a tremendous amount of birds. I have no idea what kind they are, but they are loud as hell.

People say things like "Everything you want to see is around the Central Quay" (pronounced 'key') which is the ferry hub of downtown Sydney. Maybe it's true. Maybe I don't want to actually see how people live in Australia. Luckily the neighborhood we are staying with Rebecca and Katrina's (R's sister) old family friend Patrick and his woman, Rebecca, Marrickville provides a nice window onto the experience of the steadily immobile treading along within the Australian economy.

Despite being a stone's throw from the airport, the cab driver had no idea where he was taking us. I don't think this is where civilized people coming off $1500 plane (and that's cheap) trips from America go. The cab fare was $25 and it must have been 4 miles at the most. This rate makes NYC cabs look like a bargain, even with the 2007 rate hike.

Generally everything under $10 is about $2 more than the states. If you buy ten Energizer AA's at the Chemist the bubble wrap also contains a free Schick razor with the latest number of redundant blades which make it Extreme or Ultra or whatnot. Aside from this kind of promotion, you'd think they never heard of China - despite it being so close - but then again they don't have the economy of scale to drive prices so far into the dirt, the way we can with 300 million to supply. So the fruits of China cost that much more.

I explained to Con, short for Constantine, the small business owner of Munch deli on Marrickville Road - the main strip right up the way - ("Give Way to..." is equivalent to Yield here), what Michael Moore explained to me in Sicko on the plane over: If I accidentally chop off the ends of two fingers and one costs $10,000 to put back on and the other cost $40,000 to put back on, I will be forced to weigh debt load against finger re-application to come up with a decision that 'fits my budget.'

This small business owner looked on bug-eyed. Apparently the US medical system gets a lot of horror coverage in the local media. He seems to think it makes sense for people to NOT pay a per visit price for healthcare or be forced to self-insure for $200 a month or to even be rejected based on pre-existing conditions. He is even happy to pay a percentage of his higher income to cover the medical expenses of people in his society who make less. What freaks these Australians are!

Today is downtown Sydney before a rendezvous with an old neighborhood friend from Bangor and Gulf War I vet, Greg. Frisbee golf is also in the works. The weather is overcast, 20C, and mildly warm. Jet lag seems to be wearing off.

Au revior!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Itinerary and departure

Charlie and Shadow, the Toyota Tacoma and Volkswagen Jetta respectively, both needed moving this Saturday morning. The parking lot will be plowed at 9AM. It's uncommonly cold. Minnesota has it's first complete early winter blanket of state-wide snow cover in 10 years - temperatures are normal, meaning a lot colder earlier than I've experienced.

I wonder what the temperature actually is as I drive past a black man, with a black beard and white icicles coming off his face this morning. Did you assume he was homeless? Just in case, he's an affluent Kenwood businessman out on a morning pleasure walk...with icicles in his beard. Gloves with high tech thermal begin to feel invisible.

The current temperature in Sydney, where I will be on Sunday, is around 70 degrees. The current time there is 2:49AM, tomorrow night.

Here is the approximate itinerary:

08 DEC Depart MSP
10 DEC Arrive SYDNEY, visit with Rebecca's mother's sister, Lila and daughter Chechnen's family. Also Greg Andle, an old Lost Boy from Bangor back back in the day, lives with his wife Asa (pronounced Ossa - also originally Swedish) in Syndney - serious catch up time is in the pipeline.
15 DEC Decamp for BUNDEENA which is a large park just south of SYDNEY, camp for a while
17 DEC Arrive CANBERRA, about 60km south of BUNDEENA, the capital territory and where more family live and Jenny, Keith's girlfriend has a house
18 DEC Travel along the Southeastern Coast - very scenic - towards Melbourne staying at small coastal towns along the way with Rebecca solo. 3 nights on the road taking our time.
20 DEC Arrive PHILLIPS ISLAND, south of Melbourne, for a family reunion on the Harrison side of the family (Rebecca's father Keith Harrison)
27 DEC Fly back to SYDNEY, one night before departure back to the US
28 DEC Arrive in LA before we left SYDNEY

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Rebecca's Qualifications: Syllabi for U of London Masters Program in Comparative English

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Part 4: Katrina Journal

Rebecca Harrison's Report from October 19, 2005 in St. Bernard Parish

On Hamburg Street: A Day in New Orleans

Text by Rebecca Harrison
Photos by Tobin Russell Brogunier

On Hamburg Street in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, cars lie stranded, their innerds eaten away by saltwater in streets where the drains never worked, even before Hurricane Katrina. A rusted tool kit lies on the sidewalk by one salt-encrusted car, open as if abandoned in mid-use. Perhaps the owner tried to repair the car in a panicked attempt to flee the city. Like the lava in Pompeii, there are instances all over the city where the water stopped time, flooding the interstices between humans and their now useless machines.

A rusted tool kit and salt-encrusted car on Hamburg Street in New Orleans.

After the hurricane, the Seventh Ward was left in a strange purgatory: Unlike the now infamous Ninth Ward, it wasn't completely destroyed, and unlike the affluent Uptown area, it wasn't untouched either. Depending on their foundations, houses in this area were flooded with somewhere between a few inches and six feet of water. Although the homes are still standing, water damage has caused a rapid mold growth that makes them dangerous to live in. Despite this, several hundred residents have stayed on in this ghost town that once had a population of 50,000, living in homes without electricity as they fight contamination, bureaucracy, and despair.

Mold is the only living inhabitant of an apartment in a housing project (top); a line
on the St. John's Church shows how high the floodwater reached (bottom).

One of these residents is Coma Lewis, who is in her late sixties. In addition to the home she is still living in, Lewis also owns two rental properties in the area. Because her husband paid off all three of their properties before he died two years ago, Lewis has no mortgage payments. But she has lost all of her renters and she cannot simply collect insurance and leave town. "On the house, we had wind and fire," Lewis says. "The flood insurance was cancelled in the 1970s when my husband bought the house, and they said this is not a flood zone." Lewis says she received a letter from her insurance company that said she did not need the flood coverage. I asked her if she still has a copy of the letter, as she may be able to sue. She doesn't know where it is, but she said it wouldn't help anyway. "The problem with my insurance on this house, we've been living here thirty-two years and it went from company to company," Lewis says. "We took this insurance out with Geddes agency, they sold out to somebody then that somebody sold out to somebody. Nobody knows what nobody said."

Coma Lewis outside her damaged home (top) and sitting on her back stairs (right).

While waiting for an agent to come out and determine what exactly will be covered, Lewis has applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration to repair her floors. In the interim, she spends her time tirelessly cleaning the mold from the baseboards and clearing up the debris surrounding her house. "The SBA told me they don't know if they're going to give us the loan or not. Me being 67 almost 68, the way he talked would be my ability to pay since I'm retired." Lewis did tell the SBA representative that she collects
retirement from working for the state of Louisiana for thirty years as a teacher and a social worker, and that she also collects a pension from her husband, who was a service-connected disabled veteran. "But [the representative] wanted to know, how much money for this and that. I told him, I'm a heavy diabetic.
Every one of my prescriptions costs $50. That is my co-payment, because the State of Louisiana regulates my medicine. So I told him, it doesn't take long when you're on ten of those. My medicine is three hundred and some dollars a month."

One of Lewis's rental properties (top); Lewis rests outside her home, which faces the St. Bernard
Parish housing project (bottom).

As insurance adjustors and loan officers decide her fate, Lewis and her son Melvin are living on the undamaged upper floor of her home. Lewis sleeps on the floor, insisting that her son take the bed. And she refuses to feel sorry for herself. "Long as I got my life, I can recover. When my first husband left, I lost everything. I been through this before, I know what it means. But I trusted God. He gave me this. This is his stuff. It's not my stuff, it's God's stuff. And you don't know when he'll come back for it."

It is also not clear when then government will come back for the people. There is still no electricity in the Seventh Ward, and all the businesses are closed in the area. There is running water, but when Melvin brushed his teeth with it, he immediately became ill. And there is no relief in sight. "The mayor was crying and everything, but we wait on word and we just don't hear anything. So we don't know what is what,"
Lewis says. "They don't know. Nobody's ever been faced with this before. Everybody's feeling their way, including the mayor, the governor."

A few residents still live on the upper floors of the St. Bernard housing project,
despite repeated attempts by authorities to remove them.

Pastor Bruce, who runs the church next to Lewis's home as well as several community centers for educating and housing troubled youth, is in an even worse dilemna. He had no insurance at all, which is very common in the South. In the Pastor's GED training center, twenty-six new Dell computers are destroyed. A shelter for pregnant teens who had been kicked out by their parents is how inhabited by mold. As the weeks pass, the mold keeps growing, and termites are moving into the ceiling of the church. Time is running out. "FEMA won't come in here," says Pastor Bruce. "And Mayor Nagin is only interested in casinos, the appearance of rebuilding. Nobody from the city comes to visit."

Pastor Bruce outside his church (top); the interior of the church is contaminated
by mold and termites are eating away at the ceiling (bottom).

But former residents are coming back to visit, and to survey the damage. While we were walking down the deserted street with Pastor Bruce, a couple driving by pulled over to greet him. They had lived in the area, and they were driving around looking for a truck they left behind. They are currently staying with family in Texas. Pastor Bruce asked if they were planning on coming back. They said they were not sure. "C'mon, there's no place like home," Pastor Bruce said. "It's gonna be alright-we still havin' church every Sunday!" The couple brightened at this, and said they are thinking about returning home some day. The woman told me she grew up on the projects across the street. "We sure do miss it," she said sadly.

As we drove out of town, from the overpass we could smell rotting food from a supermarket over a quarter of a mile away-with the car windows closed. Everywhere we looked, car dealer lots were filled with thousands of new cars, now completely useless. And yet the very poor had no way to leave the city in the days before the hurricane. One of the greatest mythologies spun in the aftermath of Katrina by some politicians was that the poor didn't want to leave. This is simply not true. When you are living paycheck to paycheck, when you have no car, when you have no family to go to, it is not a matter of desire.

Pastor Bruce's mold-infested office in the church (top); the hard drives of all the
computers in the GED training center are destroyed (bottom).

I lived in New York during the cleanup of Ground Zero, an ungodly mess. Progress was hindered by underground fires, dangerous chemicals, flooding, and sensitivity to human remains—not to mention infighting among city agencies, survivor families, and residents of the area. But it was finished in just one year. Two months after Hurricane Katrina, neither the local nor federal government have sent real relief into the greater part of New Orleans. Lewis was amazed that people could come to New Orleans all the way from Minnesota when their own city officials are completely ignoring them. As we leave, I tell Lewis we won't forget her, that we will tell SOS Katrina—the organization we are working for—that she needs their volunteer carpenters. "I'm not goin' nowhere," she says. "We stayin' right here. I sure can't come up to Minnesota—it's too cold!"

Desks in the GED training center sit empty next to a water-damaged bookshelf.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Part 2: Katrina Journal

VIII. Bellingrath Estates a.k.a. 'The Compound'

If you're looking for Veterans for Peace in Mobile, Alabama, you should have no problem finding them. Just take exit 15a off I-10 and head south. After a couple of miles, past one of the two Waffle Houses which sit like bookends on both the North and South bound exits of I-10, past a shopping center or three, past a billboard requesting Tsunami relief, you will see on your left a billboard rise out of the strip like a horticultural Disney.

"After you've been driving a couple miles you'll see a billboard on the left for Bellingrath Estates. Take a left there," Lee, SOS Katrina's mild mannered phone jockey, had directed us earlier that day. We see the billboard Lee's talking about. It's hard to miss the lurid colors as they've been pumped through Photoshop's popular 'watercolor' filter. The hoarding shows, set alone among immeasurable shrubbery in innumerable colors, a stately home of grand post-1998 American proportions. The lush growth around the mega-structure is either the work of gardeners who have been landscaping for a generations or the work of a commercial illustator who's making bank on outright deception. Rebecca wonders aloud what both of us are thinking, "Are some rich people putting up the Veterans?"

We take a left as directed. It's nighttime and through the tunnel of darkness we see the outline of an ostentatious steeple-sporting, welcome-to-my-gated-world building brightly lit, perhaps 100-150 yards ahead denoting the beginning of something vast, something landscaped, something developed. Just over the railroad tracks, and...hard right onto Smith Street. And suddenly its...they're...abandoned. Houses are abandoned. Single level ranches everywhere. Beyond modest. The roads are dirt. It's becoming clear we aren't headed to some kind of Xanadu of the South.

IX. Elmo Street: Pay Dirt

The driveway is a lateral piece of lawn stretched across the length of property. A wide array of vehicles are parked along it. We find a place and pull in, finally at rest. Two buildings set on the property, one of them occupied with a crowd of about 12 under an awning. The time is 10 o'clock. We've been pushing along for more than 9 hours since Memphis.

It's ALL about Mississippi around the Gulf Coast. You can go here, you can go there, but wherever you are going YOU ARE GOING THROUGH MISSISSIPPI. That's just how it is. So we're trying to shake our Mississippi off before heading into what looks like a night gathering on porch or patio. It takes about 10 minutes just to exit, as the Colon Crusher – as the Galant has now been dubbed – has done a good job crushing my colon.

I step out of the car and immediately run into a guy with a Moxie shirt, Maine's notorious mouth-numbing soda. "Nice shirt," I tell him. I'm wearing my Dysarts sweatshirt, the Bangor truckstop and trucking company. His name is Iggy and it turns out he's from Portland, Maine. The first guy I meet in Mobile, Alabama is from Maine. I'll be damned, things might turn out alright. Judging from the crowd, most people strike me as secular – another source of immediate relief. I don't know what I'd do if I stepped out of a hellish trip through Mississippi and into a throng who are all staring at exactly the same bright, unyielding light of wholesomeness.

Introductions are quick and a bit of a blur. Clearly some have been expecting us, while others seem surprised we ever made it from Memphis. We had phoned the day before to Lee about our car trouble. But no matter, Warm greetings all around and Here, have a beer. I introduce myself to a guy named Don. "I won't remember your name," he replies. "I just call everyone Babe." That's fair enough when you've lived on a campground in Covington, in a church somewhere inland in Louisiana, and now on Elmo Street in Mobile, Alabama, all in the past month. Add a rotating cast of at least 60 characters who have come and gone volunteering for SOS Katrina and Veterans for Peace and you have a reasonable excuse to call everyone Babe.

It appears we've arrived during a nightly tradition. Whoever feels like it sits outside and shares stories, plays music, drinks wine. It's cozy, but my body is still vibrating in a forward direction from the catapulting it's taken in Mississippi. I sleep off my motion sickness and hold off on getting my bearings until the morning.

X. Tuesday Morning, October 18: The Real Quest is for a Real Map

Thankfully the Veterans for Peace corps do not run their outfit like the military. After pitching the tent outside in some beautifully mild fall weather, we were able to sleep past 9am as a slight antidote to our building state of exhaustion. These small moments of respite being rare, we learned to cherish them and give thanks for take-it-at-your-own-pace attitude embraced at The Compound and SOS Katrina alike.

We finally make it to SOS Katrina's supply warehouse in northwest Mobile at 11am, a well-organized operation.

Here, Katie and Lee are slinging the phones in the modest office area. .

Katie is seated on one of the ubiquitous wheelchairs, found at both warehouse and Elmo StreetOf course we were curious to know what our assignment would be. Exactly what supplies would we be running, exactly where would we be going? We knew we were in the Colon Crusher for the day. We knew we'd be traveling. Where we were going was to be determined by Vivian, SOS Katrina Gulf Coast Regional Director. What we were taking was to be determined by a vague "Need Assessment Sheet," our own judgment based on that information, and the stock available to the SOS warehouse supply operator, Erlene. We familiarize ourselves with the warehouse, fill out the obligatory paperwork and patiently determine we must simply wait for our assignment while the office staff integrates us into a fairly strict daily routine.

Erlene [left] stands for a picture with two other volunteers in the cargo bay of the Northeast Mobile SOS Katrina warehouse.

Our first assignment is Bogalusa, Mississippi. Vivian, not pictured and freqently too busy to track down, has printed us a map pulled off Yahoo! maps or MapQuest to take with us. It takes me awhile to process the undesigned illegibility of the condensed online map. Actually it takes me half the day, which is good, since the map directs us straight back to the heart of Mississippi.

Why? You ask. How? You wonder. Here's how it works: Bogalusa, Mississippi does not exist. Bogalusa, Louisiana is right on the border of Mississippi and whoever filled out the Emergency Need form accidentally dubbed it Bogalusa, Mississippi. These things happen. And when this things happen and you involve a computer brain without the blessing of intuition, this is what happens next: You request directions to this destination from the digital mapping entity which has NO idea what you are talking aboutl, in this case because it does not exist. Despite all this, I did not notice the map title: "100 S. Bessemer Ave, Mobile AL 33610 to Mississippi."

Rather than inform you it does not know what it's talking about, the computer forges ahead with its mistake and selects the center of the state you entered and provides you a route there, to the center of the wrong state. Luckily, despite being armed with a map to the center of the Wrong State [pictured], we were also armed with The 2004 Rand McNally Road Atlas, the one truckers like my brother who suggested I buy it last year, rely on.

I set aside the errant map, which was so incomprehensible it took me several hours to realize it was wrong, and took up Rand McNally to see what story it would tell us. This is what it said, "You are driving clear across the entire southern piece of the State of Mississippi and back today. You will be driving minimum 120 miles each way." Which is the same thing it said the next day when we went to New Orleans. The Colon Crusher was well on its way to making its reputation and then some.

XI. Benefits in Bogalusa

Brisket. Maw and Paw bathrooms. Toothpick pine trees. Tree down. House. Lumber. Rooster across a dirt road.

That pretty much accounts for 120 miles of inland driving on or about Route 26 in Mississippi. We arrive in Bogalusa, Louisiana with supplies for cleaning after a flood. Whoops, that was New Orleans. We're in Bogalusa, a mill town not unlike Lincoln, Maine, about 40 miles north of where I grew up. Blue FEMA tarps cover roofs all over the area and the town. Who needs bleach and mops? How do we find them? Who knows? Let's go to the gas station!

Let it here be said mistakes were made and I am responsible for all of them.

We're checking out at the counter of the Bogalusa gas station, finishing our 140+ miles of driving, getting ready for the next excessive round of mileage, and I'm determined to deliver something. I ask the old man merchant behind the counter if he knows anyone in town who needs cleaning supplies, that I am in town on a supply mission for SOS Katrina and so on. The blankness and confusion of his single blink stare is profound. Rebecca informs me later he'd probably be happy to sell it if we wanted to give it to him.

Before he can say a word along those lines, "I do," projects from a strong but quiet voice coming from behind me. "I need cleaning supplies." I look around and spy a short, somewhat shriveled, savvy-eyed, lady of about 40-50 years asserting her claim on our Katrina supplies. I've always been of a mind to reward those who make their needs known, so I proceed thus: "That's what we're here to do. We're here to find people who need cleaning supplies." "I most surely could use them she says." "OK. I'll meet you in the parking lot outside."

Time passes slowly in Bogalusa, so I manage to loiter long enough to read backwards FEMA's announcement of it's "Blue Roof" program as it's posted on the glass door. Long enough for the hill country lady, chauferred by her son in a pickup, to buy her two packs of Marlboros and head out to meet us. Another minute later we're engaged in a supply-transfer rendezvous in a Bogalusa parking lot.

The son pulls up in his truck. Everything gets dropped into the flatbed. "You need some bleach?" She gets some bleach. "You need a bucket?" She gets a couple of buckets. "Mop?" She gets a mop. "Sure you'll use it?" "I'll use it alright." "OK. Good then, as long as you can use it!" "Oh, thank you kindly."

"These supplies are for people who need them." We're back in the car. Rebecca's voicing her reservations. "The bleach is for people who've been hit by flooding. Who are battling mold. That lady just wants cleaning supplies. Who doesn't want cleaning supplies? If someone walked up to me and offered me free cleaning supplies, I'd say sure! No one wants to buy cleaning supplies!"

Rebecca is speaking the truth, again. I'm confused. I just want to deliver supplies to Bogalusa. "We don't have the right supplies for this run. These are supplies they need in New Orleans, not here." As we say in Maine, she's sharp. And she's an angel for not busting loose on me in the middle of a bogus Bogalusa parking lot transaction. I always had the feeling everything could go worse for us at anytime in Bogalusa, like making it here was a miracle.

And then it's water under the damn. This relief stuff is confusing. Give us a break. Its our first day and we're supposed to construct a relationship with a benevolent Church-like entity in a town and region that by all appearances is functioning normally? It takes practice figuring out what to do when the hurricane's been forgotten by the people your supposed to be helping. At least it looks like Rebecca's gonna role with it. After brief decompression in a parking lot [pictured]

we're back on the road. Whatever the reason we are here, sticking around is not an option.

Just in time to break the tension we drive downwind of the Bogalusa mill, and the paper product product reminds us what it's like when all humanity farts in concert, to make its drawings and print out it's bogus-lusa MapQuest directions.


Friday, November 04, 2005

Intermission: After the first installment, I realize there is a time sensitive issue that should be addressed: most of New Orleans - particularly the extensive area below Lake Pontchatrain but before very downtown - about 40-50 square miles I'm estimating - still does not have electricity.

When I visited this area two weeks ago, only the most adventerous had returned: the streets are dark at night, the water cannot be ingested and there are no stores for miles - one of the closest supply locations is on the other side of Lake Pontchtrain - across that enormous, contractor congested bridge. Much of the northern neighborhoods are continuing to rot.

This is a serious issue for property owners. They can't reclaim their land. Without power in an innercity, it's some kind of extreme camping especially with grocery stores and conveince stores for miles in the exact same situation - rotting, powerless.

After Wilma hit Florida, it was news that it would take 3 days to a week to restore power, but we are not hearing about the continued no-electricity situation in New Orleans. These neighborhoods are in a geographic pocket. Bixoli, Gulfport and other hit communities have the advantage of through roads. Northern New Orleans is very much out of sight out of mind right now. I'm posting 6 images now, 30 later, of a complete unedited roll of film taken in the 7th Ward on Wednesday, October 19.

The man pictured is Pastor Bruce who runs several properties in the community and does a tremendous amount of work. The woman with Rebecca is Coma, a woman who owns her house and two other properties on the block. Of the 50,000 residents, many property owners, these 2 estimated maybe 100-200 had returned to the ward. Rebecca is writing a piece on her interview with Coma. The large buildings are a massive public housing project.

7:15am, November 4

Monday, October 31, 2005

Part 1: Katrina Journal

I. Introduction

Dear Friends and Family:

Many of you are understandably eager to hear details of last week's trip to Mobile, Alabama and the gulf coast region. My original email left some with the impression I would be sending regular email updates, which was never my intention, so apologies to those of you who thought I'd be blogging from the road.

Putting together the documentation on this trip has taken substantial time. Last week was spent processing 5 rolls of 35mm film, 2 rolls of b+w medium format portraits from Veterans for Peace and 2 rolls of color medium format, one of them interiors and exteriors of the Mobile VFP Compound. In addition to the hundreds of 35mm prints, the contact sheets and all the scanning that requires, I have a 20 odd page sketchbook I am scanning and posting in galleries at Some of the black and white will flow with the text of the stories here, more of the black and white will be at as well.

If that isn't enough, Rebecca has been writing an article about her interviews and observations from New Orleans and I have been working steadily on this post-trip journal. A lot of time was spent sitting in the car, most of the recording time in the passenger seat was dedicated to visuals: sketchbook or camera. Rebecca was in charge of audio with her voice recorder. The actual writing of this journal has had to take place since our arrival home last Sunday, October 23. Regaining bearings has been a major task in itself this week, Rebecca at work, me again in my own company and periodically at a studio. So it's taken almost a week to get the writing to a 'breakout' point of reflection: The point at which I've told the stories a few times, people keep asking and enough people are like..."I thought you'd be writing from the road."

That was my miscommunication. My apologies for that. To make up for it I've dedicated some concentrated mind-time to busting out this record, and that is what you are about to read, more or less in chronological order from Friday, October 14 until Sunday, October 23 when we arrived back in Minneapolis. It was a whirlwind of incessant driving – no small feat for myself or Rebecca: neither of us much enjoy the car. We persevered however, and came to realize "Saving Our Selves" does not refer exclusively to Katrina victims. It refers to all of us, because when times get stressful and you have to put yourself out there into a sometimes responsive, often unresponsive and callous world and society, it takes a lot of work to just deal with your own issues. Here is the SOS Katrina journal.

We were, in fact, mostly separated from web access and computer technology. I took several rolls of 35mm film, mostly black and white, of a deserted 7th Ward of New Orleans, Pastor Bruce and a local property owner, Coma, who was occupying her house two doors down from Pastor Bruce's church.


II. Friday the 14th, Jetta Outta Town

Getting out of Minneapolis proved successful on the evening of Friday, October 14. We managed to pack and leave by approximately 6:30pm and were well on our way through Iowa into the evening and night. Iowa has the unfortunate distinction of a capital place to die on the highway, if you are not human. Even in the dark, we could see the roads painted in blood splashes that trailed from a central splatter along for another 40 feet.

A night trip through Iowa City found a surprising variety of both alternative radio and at least two classic music stations. Perhaps the latter was related in some way to the local Czech and Slovak museum we blew by sometime around 11pm. After refueling in southern Iowa, the road increasingly dark (not a major highway) and full of 18-wheelers making big runs, we decided off-the-cuff to do what good Americans rarely seem to do anymore: camp roadside.

The rest stop just over the Missouri border was carved out of a cow field, yeilding a night full of trucks steaming by and a morning full of very vocal 'moo moo moo' from the field. We awoke to realize we were surrounded by the local herd. After taking the requisite pre-Memphis insurance snapshot of all valuable contents contained within Shadow [our name for Rebecca's Volkswagen], we were off on an early morning jaunt through some rolling eastern Missouri country, and south towards Memphis via Illinois after St. Louis, if you follow.

Illinois goes on and on, it seems. So we dipped into that state briefly on our approach to Memphis. A visit to both a state park where everyone owned same truck, trailer and hitch (see illustration) and to the apropos town of Anna* [Rebecca's actual first name] brought us through that very southern tip of Illinois and right into Eastern Arkansas. Here the landscape turns into some kind of Vietnam scene, which I later learned from an Arkansas native is due to tremendous rice production in the Mississippi sodden lowlands of East Arkansas. Coming into Memphis, it looked like fields of who knows what with Dr. Seuss-like trees stuck in at random angles. Just another part of America, although roadside sentiments were getting more notably southern in outlook.


III. Memphis I: The Street Hustle Goes Legit

Having somehow conjured the foresight between the two of us, Rebecca had made contact earlier in the day with the AAA hotel person in Memphis. She referred us to the reasonable and fairly nice West Memphis (in Arkansas) Hampton Inn. After decompression, we made our way from West Memphis, back over the Mississippi river (third crossing of four that day) to the tourist trap Beale Street.

As a New Yorker something inside me sounds an alarm when throngs of aimless people with pocketfuls of cash assemble. This little voice says something like, "Unless you are here to do some hustling, prepare to be hustled." Which is why, after a few times in and out of local bars – thrust into the nonstop outdoor carnival – I had some difficulty with a crowd which had seemingly escaped the street hustle altogether. It just did not make sense, but I wasn't complaining.

Eventually we find a hole-in-the-wall bar with no cover charge serving, of all things, a drink called the 'Big Ass Beer.' [not pictured] The Big Ass Beer, in a rather tublike plastic disposable cup with those very words emblazoned in Comic Sans blue font across the side, was the option. So we had the bartender fill the Big Ass Beer with some Cheap Ass Domestic and settled in to watch the black dude in faux diamond-studded Elvis shades and a big red suit do some singing.

The drummer, strong and steady, looked like a hefty Spike Lee. The bassist, either a Japanese exchange student who never went home or perhaps Native American, never once made any kind of expression. The dude running the show in the red suit was also actively engaged in promoting his daughter variously through having her and a friend do excellent back up vocals on stage and by attempting to hawk one of three of her albums to bystanders like myself.

The album was one of those things you wanted to own just to prove to yourself it existed. And that you could tell people the father of the singer is the man who sold it to you. The most memorable CD featured a detail of the singer's ass against a red background clad in skin absorbing red polyvinyl. The title track I believe was, "I Need a Big Stud to Ride My Little Pony." I told dad it looked great and that I really liked it a lot. I didn't mention anything about buying it.

Of course the band is playing for tips. But getting tips takes a lot of waiting – it's no way to get paid. So here comes the hustle... "We got people from all over the World here tonight. I know it. I can feel it. There's people who come from all over the World. Come on down and tell me where You from and drop somethin' in the bucket while you here." After a few people come down, including myself (I had actually tipped him before the hustle) to drop a bill and have him announce your place of origin in the way only a Mississippi Juke Joint hero could, a Hasidic Jew comes down from his table of orthodox fellows, talks to Mr. Feelgood, and turns to leave, is approached by our singer once more briefly and then comes the voice: "Here from Brooklyn, New York, ladies and gentlemen! My man is a little tight on funds, tonight."

This guy honestly deserved every penny he could hustle. He put on a great show. But finishing a 32oz tub of beer takes awhile, so we managed to see the complete act exactly twice. "It's vaudeville," Rebecca says. Hell yes. It's on auto-repeat, which gives me more respect for the guy than before. When you're sixty, pimping your daughter whose 8x10 glossy is propped prominently on the bar and running a band that has a Jim Jarmusch lookalike on keys and a thick Spike Lee on drums, it's gotta be mad work to do the same vaudeville act four times a night.

If you think it isn't, then you go out on the street in your red zoot-suit and pull your audience in one by one through charm, not harm. I think Dick Cheney works that angle. Exactly in reverse. Pimpin' ain't easy. However, the Memphis hustler does have one distinct advantage: At least the street hustle has a roof over its head.

(Later outside of Memphis, as seen on black late model luxury vehicle, "Artist Representation/Record Producer for MAJOR LABEL DEALS." Wow. Here's the first guy contracting with 'MAJOR LABEL' who had to advertise it on the side of his car. In photography, it's the modelling hustle: Convince people they're a natural, but only need to pay you a couple thousand to make the necesary contact sheets, prints, books, etc. And then another couple of thousand so you can go work your 'big-time' connections. The aspiring model most definitely gets a shot that way – if you don't play, how can you win? No guarantees...of course!)


IV. Memphis II: Shadow Pulls a Disappearing Act

Rebecca and myself have not been the best 'parents' to Shadow. As someone who has drifted back and forth between total indifference and outright loathing of automobiles, I have been most guilty of verbally bad-mouthing the leased 2005 Jetta. Much of the problem lies in my feeling that machines need not think. When you shut the door, the lights go off. When you turn off the headlights, they don't stay on. When you unlock the doors, they stay unlocked. Shadow, as her name implies, is programmed to be an unrelenting second guesser of just about everything. Many times I havtyle="font-size:130%;">--

IV. Memphis II: Shadow Pulls a Disappearing Act

Rebecca and myself have not been the best 'parents' to Shadow. As someone who has drifted back and forth between total indifference and outright loathing of automobiles, I have been most guilty of verbally bad-mouthing the leased 2005 Jetta. Much of the problem lies in my feeling that machines need not think. When you shut the door, the lights go off. When you turn off the headlights, they don't stay on. When you unlock the doors, they stay unlocked. Shadow, as her name implies, is programmed to be an unrelenting second guesser of just about everythip>

Likewise in contemporary brain-cars, the use of subtlety or stealth has been usurped from the human who, say, would like to roll up to a residence WITHOUT headlights on. The car has already discerned unerringly that it is best to have headlights on IN ALL CASES WITOUT EXCEPTION. The continued transfer of judgment calls from human beings to machines I find vile and usually causes more frustration than benefit. The situation might improve if marketers weren't convinced "improvement" exclusively means the installation of more self-governed gadgets. Oh, if improvement were things like BRAIN ON/OFF button, some level of control rather than more levels of being controlled by whiny machines...but I diverge.

Suffice it to say I struggle for control of my car experience with the car itself, an admittedly wasteful and useless pursuit, and have said unpleasant things in the course of that struggle. Shadow, it seems, has been hurt by this and craves positive attention and appreciation like all Good Machines might. Let me explain:

It's high noon in Memphis and we're looking at the city. The city is huge (see illustration, "Struggle with Memphis street map") and has quite a lot of character. Part of this character came to my attention while driving somewhat lost with aforementioned map on Orleans street just east of downtown. On approach to a corner of what we later learned was called Victorian Village, a giant heap of decayed grandeur called out to my patina-driven eyes that we must park and gaze above those giant rotting sills, through those wavy melting panes, at the giant untended mess of paint and plaster crumbling off hundred year old moldings. It was a piece of antebellum South cross-bred with Cuba in Memphis that neither I, nor the Homes Editor of Mpls/St. Paul Magazine, were about to miss.

So we pulled around the corner and parked in front of the building. Disembarked from underappreciated Shadow and made our way instead to appreciate a hulking heap. I took note of and made eye contact with the guy sitting watch on the opposite corner. He's about 20 and has a full untamed afro. We check each other out, it's all good.

Rebecca and I have made our way from the mud room/giant sunporch to the front porch – are viewing the crumbling condemned vista of the living room when I turn to check on the abused child of a car and notice, to my dismay, that somehow by a trick of vision, these columns have managed to block out Shadow completely! Some kind of strange Memphis magic, I think to myself. I do a little back and forth, get right up to the edge to look, but still no Shadow. We've been out of Shadow for four minutes tops. We have heard nothing. I noted a woman and her kid walk quietly by about two minutes ago. The guy with the fro is still there.

"Rebecca, where is Shadow?"

Shadow is gone. Gone like Mephis magic gone. Gone like disappearing gone. No broken glass, no people on the street, no other cars have driven down this sleepy corner of Memphis on the slow southern Sunday. We look up the street, down the street. From where we are standing as far as we can see: one straight, uninterrupted road into downtown Memphis, no Shadow.

We're calling the cops. Various pieces of paper are out. The cops are coming. All our stuff is gone. Shadow is gone. No car. No bags. Just our wallets and phones. Rebecca keeps it together but freaks a bit, "We're going to have to get on a plane right now. This is it, we can't go any futher, this is the END of this trip. We have nothing. We have to get on a plane home immediately."

I've already had the conversation with the guy in the fro, "Did you see anything? You saw us pull up in the car, right? We did park RIGHT THERE, right?" "Yeah, I saw you guys pull up. Saw you get out of the car right there. Have no idea what happened to the car. Of course I am blind in this eye." (Points to eye on the right side of his head. The eye that would, if it could, see us, the decayed house and the missing car.)

The mellow, friendly, and after we speak with her, totally confused black female police officer shows up. We give a description of the car, a description of the event as it transpired. The guy in the fro is backing us up on everything, then he's back on his perch. The cop sends out a description of the stolen car.

"The dealer told me this car cannot be stolen. It literally cannot be hotwired, so I didn't get theft insurance," says Rebecca, "...maybe it rolled." Lady Officer and myself are in agreement: There is no way in hell it could've rolled that far. You can see a quarter mile down the road and it's clear as a bell. Then again our Lady Officer has exactly zero leads on this very mysterious case of a car that cannot be hotwired being stolen in four minutes without a sound. Rebecca has one key on her. I have the other. So our representative from Memphis PD goes to check it out, leaving Rebecca and I for some paralyzing moments of deep reflection into what actions to take now.

Two or three minutes pass. Lady Officer is back leaning out of cruiser window, "Yep. It rolled. Rolled into a parking lot down the hill. Go on and get in, I'll take you down." We drive the full quarter mile. This massive of block comprises the whole of juvenile detention in Memphis AND the Victorian Village, the collection of vintage houses at which we had been gawking. The very end of the uber-block opens up to a little car shop on the corner called High Gear. And there is Shadow, looking delinquent as a rebellious German youth runaway could, run aground on a low curb, innards bent from below, and falling just short of nailing High Gear's signage support beam.

It takes a second to figure out why there's a dumpster on its side in the middle of the street. Shadow launched it there and took the dumpster's place in the lot. Now the wrecker has showed up and he's clearly amused. I'm taking pictures. Rebecca is relieved. Another cop shows up and can barely contain himself.

Officer 1 writes up the accident report and a ticket for 'Failure to Secure Your Vehicle.' I'm happy that's all we got. Rebecca's happy her car's not stolen. We load into the back of Officer 2's cruiser. Our seats for that ride were elevated not a foot from our own feet, and consisted of a single molded bench of formica or plastic. The minute your back touches this 'seat,' it's aching like you've been sitting on it for a week. Officer 2 takes us several miles outside town to Gossett Volkswagen to drop Shadow for some early Monday service. The wrecker's meeting us there with that prissy German, Shadow, and to collect his $75 cash. Shadow clearly has no interest in dealing the Deep South, in retrospect this was probably a good decision on Shadow's part.


V. MEMPHIS III: JOIN THE CLUB: Chip did and it's working for him.

Chip wants to know which car we want. In car dealer fashion, he's got a fistful of car keys. Enterprise, he tells me, has an office right out of this here VW dealership. He's got everything from a Ford Expedition to a Neon available. "This one here, this one's real nice. And this one's pretty nice too. These [stacks three in a corner] these here are your basic..."

It's still Sunday, Rebecca's car sits grounded outside Gossett VW and AUDI garage. We've relocated to Covington Boulevard, a classic American autobody and car dealership strip. Chip may not exactly work for Enterprise, but he's got no problem renting us one of their cars. I begin to meditate on the life of the car salesman: so free. so easy.

Rebecca is in 'the club' afterall, he explains. That's the 'leasing a VW' club for the uninitiated. Suddenly I'm very happy I travel with someone who pays her lease and insurance promptly. This whole leasing arrangement has opened doors, opened arms, and most miraculously, turned a faceless car dealership outside city limits into an administrative homebase and damage-control task center. My inner beauraucrat is jumping for joy. And this guy Chip really likes us, or maybe he's just hoping the Jetta is totalled so HE can sell us the new one. He mentions he wouldn't mind selling Rebecca a car.

Chip has directed us to take whatever desk and phone suits our convenience. While Rebecca is on the phone to Geico and doing various other phone chores. I'm left to Chip, who very pleasantly inquires what the hell happened to the Jetta anyway. I'm already diagramming the whole debacle in my sketchbook, which makes it easier to explain to Chip how an unmanned vehicle had it's very own accident. "This is what happens," I explain "when flatlanders travel. They aren't expecting hills. There's no use for emergency brakes in Minneapolis." Word has spread around the dealership and at least one salesman is telling his girlfriend the story on his cell phone.

Chip wants to see the damage. Can we go look at the damage? Chip explains about how good Rebecca's lease is. Chip explains about gap insurance, how VW picks up the difference between the insurance company's payout and the remainder of payments of the lease, and installs you in a new Jetta, if the vehicle is totalled. I'm impressed. Chip wants to know all about what a Minnesota lease goes for. "Oh, you got a good deal. A real good deal." I hear him say that at least twice.

When confronting a variety of chintz options for a car to cannonball yourself into the deep south with, I recommend picking the one that most looks like it belongs on the set of Miami Vice. That is how we first got involved with one very distinct, flimsy-trunked, blinding white, low-riding, spoiler sporting car called the Mitsubishi Galant. "It's a car," says Chip the following day. Who could ever guess it beat Shadow's gas mileage hands down? All while burning up Mississippi highways like they're made of third growth white pine pulp from depleted southern forests. The Galant is as innocuous to the south as the Jetta is to Minneapolis, as the Cutlas Sierra is to North Dakota, as the Subaru is to Maine, as the Lexus is to Bethesda.

We've just picked up the ultimate in southern incognito. It doesn't even have a license plate, that's how southern it is. Just the temporary marker tag in the window. By the time we're cruising the Gulf Coast, our registration status is mirrored by about every other car. It's probably not that surprising new car sales skyrocket after hurricanes.

Shadow will be getting no tender loving attention until tomorrow morning. We're now sporting the Galant, and Chip's getting philosophical and a bit dreamy about a lazy Sunday afternoon in Memphis, "There is nothing you can do about this situation right now, absolutely nothing. The best thing you can do right now is head down to this little Irish bar in midtown...[to self] It's such a beautiful day. I can see myself there now [visualizing], under the trees on the patio... with a fresh Guiness."

I don't think we are ready to start drinking yet. We need to figure out where we're setting up camp for a second freakish Full Moon night in Memphis. Certainly not in the Red Roof Inn where the incessant wails of transvestites getting ready to go out would probably keep us up. It seems both ourselves and the 17th Annual Miss Gay America Beauty pagent are sharing the weekend in Memphis. We learned later that we wrecked at about the exact moment Sunday's Gay Pagentry finals began. No wonder we keep riding hotel elevators with transvestites.


VI. Canton, Mississippi: Our Gateway to the South OR Memphis Seems Northern

We manage to leave Memphis on Monday morning. Transvestites moving from hotel to hotel prop the front door to our second night at a Hampton Inn open with some bottled water and proceed to move in eight weeks worth of wardrobe. It's kind of hallucingenic when you're certain that car has a mannequin with a wig on top of it. We meet the insurance adjuster, talk to the shop, get no promise for a Friday finish and take to the highway with the gallant Galant, loaded to the brim. "I think this'll work for you, if that's [pointing at bedding in back] how you travel," Chip said yesterday.

Today Chip was busy placating the Enterprise agent, who informed us that Chip quoted a price twenty dollars below what he should have and had done none of the paperwork correctly. Happily, she was willing to honor Chip's 'verbal agreement,' and we escaped with the Galant for 20.+ less per day. Geico wasn't helping us on this one, so the salesman's discount came in extra handy for our southern sojourn into Mississippi.

No one moves in Mississippi. Obstruction is the way. Obstruction on the highway. Obstruction at the counter of every gas station. If you're moving at a Northern clip, you're some kind of alien. Cars will be travelling between 80 and 85mph, with pass and travel lanes matching each other's speed perfectly as though everyone's in a hurry to go somewhere, but no one's ever getting out.

By our first rest stop in Mississippi, the atmosphere has noticably changed. Canton lies just north of Jackson, we've been travelling for several hours and are still not halfway through the state. "Rich Past, Bright Future" is painted across a few peeling walls of downtown Canton. Pickups with cattle on hitch trailers make their way across the intersections of Main Street. Even the businesses that Wal-Mart and Target like to destroy still exist. You can still buy a vacuum cleaner downtown and the girl at Subway recommends I go to Sears to get a washing machine.

As we're ordering from one of the quaintest and most questionably sanitary Subway's I have ever been in (it would've had balcony seating if it moved next door), I realize it's time to shut down the inner smart-ass. I'm in the south now. People don't understand when you make wise comments about Sandwich Artists and foot traffic. Or they think you're really in the market for a washing machine when you're actually doing a half-assed sociological survey of the area. It's time to shut the fuck up, even if every bathroom has the distinct smell of, is it really?, the Ocean.

Standing on the corner of central Canton, crowned by a decaying civic structure encircled by ancient wrought iron fence and various unused half-full tubs and fountains of the same vintage dispersed along the sidewalk, we stand out like big blue-blooded blisters errupting from the natural landscape. Even the Gallant, soon to be crowned Colon Crusher for reasons we have yet to discover, stands out like a gleaming jewel. We've been driving for hours – perhaps 3 or 4 – all of it in Mississippi. This state is freakin huge.

After driving through one side street with three maybe operational juke joints (one ironically dubbed "Shadow's" in thick peeling font) we head out of Canton, what must be called our gateway of shock to the deep south. I am a rich northerner. Period. No more feeling sorry for myself, that's for damn sure. I am becoming now, a bit concerned. Concerned I'm in way over my head.

VII. Goin' Down: Hitting the Lowlands, Into the Disaster Zone

Mississippi is on it's way to eating 8 hours drive time all by itself. In Jackson, we hang a soft left 'downeast' as we say in Maine, towards Hattiesburg on 49, then to Mobile on 98. It's a straight shot on curvy, narrow roads. The highway proper has been left behind in Jackson, now it's trees, darkness, stud farms, gas stations and the beginning of what I call Florida strip mall culture, a particularly ugly manifestation of civilization, but civilization nonetheless.

As we listen to Leonard Cohen's dark figurings, a low lying full moon blends nicely into the light scheme of the oncoming Gulf Coast gas station strip.

Trees are down. More noticably illuminated business signs are shattered. Periodic gas station canopies are collapsed. Hattiesburg is approximately the beginning of Katrina's disaster zone, perhaps 50 miles inland. The smell is all woodfires, all the time. A 24 hour vigil for fallen trees is going on all over Mississippi, probably even now.

*In a bizarre coincidence, a week after arriving back in Minneapolis, Rebecca was purusing my September/October 2005 issue of Clamor Magazine and came across Edward Burch's article, "James Lowewen on Sundown Towns." The article gives Anna, Illiois as it's first example of a "Sundown Town," towns which have historically acted to insure they are all white. Let it be said here that Anna and myself believed at the time Anna was selected as a quaint town name by some Northern European immigrants. We did not know it is considered an acronym for "Ain't No Niggers Allowed."