Part 1: Katrina Journal
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 www.stealthisdesign.org. Some of the black and white will flow with the text of the stories here, more of the black and white will be at www.stealthisdesign.org 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."