March 2007 Archives
One of the most startling moments of the (at least) year-long culture shock I experienced when I first moved to New Orleans from New York in 2002 took place in a public middle school. I was there trying to teach an after-school newspaper class -- I say trying, because I quickly found out many of my students considered reading and writing to be forms of punishment, who hadn't been taught to do either and resented being asked to try, especially *after* school.
The state's dreaded standardized test, the LEAP, was coming up soon, and I noticed that there were construction paper signs all over the shabby bulletin boards warning/encouraging the kids: "Have faith in yourself, and you will pass the LEAP"..."Pray, and God will see you through the LEAP." It was so depressing to me that the message these kids were getting, from the teachers no less, was that they needed a miracle -- not actual education -- to make it to the next grade.
So when people here point to the "positive" impact that Katrina had on shaking up the broken public school system, it's hard not to agree, and I do think it'll bear out in the long run. But for the kids currently in the chaotic school system, it's a continuing disaster.
Still, that the kids who evacuated now have some awareness of the bum deal they've been getting represents a seismic shift, and last night the news reported on a Town Hall meeting where the students themselves were invited to give their input. These kids were more articulate, and more on point, than anyone currently on the City Council, and it was pretty amazing to hear them represent themselves so well when every other facet of this society has failed to.
The girl in this clip put it so simply: "We deserve better."
When I first read Michael Lewis' NYT article "Wading Toward Home," a native Uptowners' account of coming home in the days immediately following Katrina, I admit had a hard time accepting that there might be any humor to be found in this mess. It seemed a little soon for levity -- not for people here, really, some us had been laughing, in some cases hysterically, from the start -- but it was only October 2005, and it seemed important that the rest of the NYT-reading world understand how desperate things continued to be.
But I recently came across Lewis' hilarious account of bringing his daughters to the New Orleans Fairgrounds during Mardi Gras -- part of his "Dad Again: Notes on Fatherhood" series in Slate and was inspired to go back and reread the "Wading Toward Home" piece. I don't know what's better - that piece, which really was pretty brilliant, or the fact that I can finally find humor in things Katrina-related without falling to pieces.
I was also happy to come across former Times-Pic reporter Tara Young's Houston Chronicle blog, Post-K: Life After Hurricane Katrina in Houston. She used to write some pretty hard-hitting reports for the paper here, so it's interesting to hear her more personal stories, and she does a good job of describing both why she's decided to stay in Texas and how heartbroken she is about it.
Last night, I went with a couple of people to eat at Cochon, one of New Orleans' post-Katrina culinary success stories. (I was slow to embrace Cajun food -- boudin especially -- when I first moved to La., but honestly now I think I might need to form a Fried Boudin Balls-Anon. support group. They could do a drive-thru window and sell only that by the dozen, and I'd be there every day.)
Present at dinner were: my friend Stephanie, a former New Orleans resident who now lives in Michigan; her friend, Esteban, a native resident who also happens to be a medical resident; and myself, a perpetually fretting and on-the-fence resident.
The good thing about Cochon is that, for the menu-challenged like myself (Stephanie confessed to having this affliction as well), you really can't go wrong. That phrase -- "you can't go wrong" -- is often uttered by impatient waiters who don't know/don't care/don't respect patrons who can't make their own decisions, but it happens to be true in this case. Point being: we pigged out.
Sitting at one of the bench tables just behind us was the city's esteemed recovery director, Ed Blakely. I don't know too much about him other than that he has an impressive track record helping cities rebuild after fires and earthquakes (Oakland, CA; Kobe, Japan), although a decisive hurricane recovery plan has yet to emerge under his direction.
As he was leaving, Blakely came over to our table and shook hands with each of us -- his grip was certainly impressive -- and, looking each of us in the eye, and with that politician's trademark hand gesture (sort of a sideways fist, as though you were handing someone an invisible ticket) he said, a little too loudly, "We MUST Recover!"
It was deeply weird, and it made me nervous. I wanted to ask him something pointed yet encouraging, but I couldn't come up with anything on the spot, so I said "Are you doing OK?" which my friends and I agreed was even weirder.
I think what I meant was, "And how's the recovery coming along, from your seasoned perspective?" And maybe I was attempting to abbreviate that with something like "How are we doing?" but it came out as "Are you doing OK?"
I should have just said "You sure you're alright to drive?" and let him figure out what I meant.
Overheard in The Bean Gallery (formerly City Perk):
Man: Is that your biological child?
Woman: My husband is black.
(Really, who asks that of a total stranger?)
I was driving home from the West Bank the other night and just couldn't pass up a stop -- my second in as many days -- at Taco Sanchez, the tiny little wooden taco stand decorated in bright neon lights that sits just in front of Nine Roses, the popular Vietnamese restaurant.
It used to be a snowball stand, and while there was a long time there, post-K, when any reminder of The Way Things Used To But Never Again Would Be could make me all teary, I have to admit that this little taco stand - like its many competitors that have sprouted up in gas stations and Lowe's parking lots all over the metro area - seemed like a sign of Good Things To Come, or at least Good Mexican Food to come. We definitely don't get enough of either around here.
So I stopped, plunked down three bucks and entered into one of those tender little cultural exchanges where both parties are overly eager to use the four or five words they happen to know in the other person's language:
"POR FAVOR! TACO! POLLO! DOS!" (me)
"YES! YOU! TWO! OK!" (him).
When my order was ready, he proudly yelled out the ticket number in English, and the line of workers waiting for their orders all turned to smiled at me - I don't think it was condescendingly, but I can't say for sure -- and I smiled back and said GRACIAS!
I like to imagine that was what communicated in between the lines was the following:
Me: Hi! Please forgive my rudeness, I've been seeing you guys around for over a year and a half now and I know it's a little late to be politely offering an official welcome, and to be honest, I wasn't really sure how I felt about it at first, what with so many people who used to be here not being able to be here anymore and all that, and, wow, it must be weird for you, huh? -- but you seem to be happy to be here, and I hope that's true, because for the most part I am still happy to be here, too...
Him: Yes! You! Two! OK!
There's no place to sit in front of Taco Sanchez, although sometimes you'll see folks hanging out and eating in their cars, so I brought my tacos over to my friends' house in Algiers Point. My friends were hosting an artist pal of theirs, Jeffrey Marshall, who was making his second visit to New Orleans post-K. Jeff first came down to New Orleans in the early 90s to teach in the NO public schools through Teach for America and wound up staying for six years. He's now a landscape artist and instructor at The New England Institute of Art, and last year he received a grant to do some drawings in the Ninth Ward.
One of the funny things Jeff mentioned about working in the Ninth Ward is how surprised he is by how much people seem to appreciate him being there doing his thing. "All day I'm around all these people who are working so hard to rebuild, and I'm sitting there drawing," he said. "Sometimes I feel like it's not enough. But this is my calling, and in a lot of ways I feel like everything I've ever done in my life has been preparing me for this."
He said that he mostly likes it when people come hang around and talk to him while he's working - and God knows people here still have a desperate need to talk about all this. (He finds the National Guardsmen, on the other hand -- who are mostly just bored boys with guns -- to be sort of a nuisance.) One afternoon, a man stopped by to check on his progress; after they exchanged pleasantries, the man paused for a minute, and broke the silence when he offered, matter-of-factly, "You know, if you come at night, you can see the ghosts."
We all agreed there was no reason not to believe him.
Cultural exchanges of the unedifying kind
Last night, one of the kids in the tutoring program was telling me about how he got kicked out of Texas. "All of Texas?" I asked. "The whole thing" he said, pretending to feel some remorse about it. But really, it sounded like he enjoyed himself just fine when he evacuated to Houston after Katrina.
"It was good to do some sight-seeing," he said. "I mean, man, I ain't never left the Sixth Ward before that - I got to Houston and I was, like, on another planet. I was wildin' out."
"Wilding out" apparently consisted of transferring from school to school ("I just told 'em my grandma's cousin's baby daddy died and so I had to go..."), bagging babes along the way. "Had girls taking care of me, buying me clothes and stuff -- it was nice," he said. "I'd put the toe tag on 'em when it wasn't no fun anymore, and move on to the next."
It's a little alarming to hear a 17-year-old use the term "toe-tagging" to mean he dumped a girlfriend - especially a 17-year-old who did 18 months in prison for attempted murder (he was released just two days before Katrina hit).
"You want to be a kept man, you better start treating your girlfriends better," I told him, and I should have anticipated his response: "You married?"
A busload of volunteers arrived, a dozen white college students from the Northeast, mostly. "What's a Connecticut?" my student asked, and even though he was trying to be funny, I honestly don't think he'd ever heard of it. The girls from Connecticut were easily charmed, though, and within minutes of break-time no fewer than four of them were touching the tattoos on his arms and shoulders, offering him compliments on the bandana he wore, Tupac-style. I couldn't help but think that this little cultural exchange wasn't exactly edifying for my student -- the volunteers might learn a thing or two, I suppose, but he definitely wasn't going to learn anything new.
I keep meaning to point out this great BET reality TV show (great by reality TV standards, anyway), called "One Night Only." (Tuesdays 7:30 ET) (I caught it randomly one night while on the treadmill at the gym, and it inadvertently extended my workout by 30 minutes. If that's not an endorsement, I don't know what is...).
The show follows a group of New Orleans students from McDonogh 35 Senior High School as they attempt to stage a production of "Dreamgirls." One of the best parts of the show is witnessing the resilience of these students, who, when not at school, are filmed either in their FEMA trailers, in their friends' FEMA trailers, or standing outside a FEMA trailer of a friend or family member. Their entire lives are constrained by physical circumstance, but despite all these Katrina-related struggles, they're still kids - hopeful (mostly), full of energy, and alternately nervous and excited about their upcoming performance.
The plot is artificially thickened, of course, by the presence of 'real' Dreamgirls Jennifer Hudson and Broadway legend George Faison, among others, but it hardly needed to be. Still, some of the most hilarious moments can be credited to Faison, who's brought in to bring the performances up to speed. He's a theatre queen through and through, but he admits he was unprepared to face real-life drama on this scale -- in scene after scene, the guy just can't stop crying.
In a made-for-reality-TV moment that's equal parts awkwardness and tenderness, Troy Poplous, the no-nonsense McDonogh teacher and local director, finally feels compelled to give him a little hug as Faison stands sobbing on the porch of someone's flooded and abandoned New Orleans home. When Faison thanks him -- "I want to thank you, too, for letting me be myself" -- Poplous tells him, "Aw man, that's what it's all about."
I seriously doubt whether that was ever true on Broadway, but I'm glad it's still true down here.
More from the local music front:
Anyone who's lived in New Orleans knows that the local indie rock scene has always been pretty anemic, especially when compared with jazz, although that's changed some in recent years. So I was really excited when the surly girl who sometimes serves me coffee (is there a barista's union here, I wonder? It seems like the same people serve me coffee no matter where I happen to be buying it...) was handing out flyers for her record release party along with lattes and cafes au lait.
Her name is Blair Gimma -- I'd seen some of her posters around town and was curious about her, in part because women make up such a small percentage of that already small scene, but also because her impatience seemed to stem from a sense that she really does have something better she could be doing. Like recording more music.
You can listen to some of it here on her myspace page.
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Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Rebuilding Gulf Culture after Katrina
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Elizabeth Zimmer on time-based art forms
Public Art, Public Space
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog