This is the third post in a mult-part series on New Orleans. Part I: The Magic of New Orleans: Bon Jovi and Cats; Part 2: The Magic of New Orleans: Saturday Night on Frenchmen.
There is no way to do justice to “the people” of New Orleans in a blog post, a book, or even a thousand books, and that is not my goal here. Instead, I will introduce a few of the people I have come to love while living and working part of each year in New Orleans since Katrina.
Malik Rahim, a former member of the Black Panther Party, community organizer, and frequent Green Party candidate changed the course of his life after the human-made disaster following Hurricane Katrina. With “Fifty Dollars and a Dream,” Malik started Common Ground, a relief organization that served over half a million people in the wake of the storm. He was also the whistle-blower who brought attention to the 15 to 30 white men who admittedly blockaded the streets in his Algiers neighborhood after Katrina, and shot at/killed black men for racially motived reasons.
I first met Malik about a week after Katrina over a steaming plate of crawfish at his kitchen table for a KPFK 90.7 interview about locals’ response to the disaster. Malik’s house was a hub of busy volunteers, and he was exhausted from sleep deprivation and 100 degree heat. After five years of this tireless pace, Malik is now living a quieter life, taking annual pilgrimages to the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival, running programs at his church, and making wedding plans.
The French Quarterly recently dubbed Miss Elizabeth a “French Quarter icon.” She reads tarot cards and offers spiritual guidance from her table on Royal and Toulouse, one block over from Bourbon and Toulouse, the corner where she worked in a different capacity when she arrived in New Orleans at age fifteen.
I first met Miss Elizabeth at the Common Ground volunteer housing site (a school building furnished with cots) where she was working the front desk and providing case management for homeless individuals who found their way there. We became fast friends during a hokey spiritual seminar when we both realized we were suppressing laughter. Miss Elizabeth and I have rarely suppressed our abundant laughter since.
Miss A. “directs traffic” in the French Quarter. I first knew Miss A. as B.J., the person who gave me hell when we opened a women’s shelter in a space he was occupying. My primary interactions with B.J. mostly involved him telling me that he could break into the house any time he wanted, and my responding that I knew how to call 9-1-1 any time I wanted.
I ran into Miss A. again this past winter when she thought one of my students was working her corner during a game of urban capture the flag. Despite past disagreements, she was often friendly and generous with her time and help. I now make trips to dreaded Bourbon Street to visit her.
Maurice, or as I called him for an entire summer, “Nemesis” (imagine a Stephen Colbert fist shake here) used to checked IDs at my favorite club, The Spotted Cat. In 2006, the summer I decided to dance every night, Maurice would not let me in the club when I would invariably forget my ID (about once a week), despite our friendly conversations and a face well older than 21. We develope a pattern of me walking home, coming back a few minutes later with my ID, and sharing a mutual laugh. Maurice now sells long-stemmed roses in front of the Preservation Jazz Hall, no ID required.
A former exotic animal handler from Ohio, Andy Howell is one of over a million volunteers who have come to the city post-Katrina, dubbed the New Orleans Rebirth Movement. “From Liberal Christians to young anarchists, white volunteers have deluged New Orleans, offering assistance, services, and advice” (Luft, 2006: 1). Like many others, Andy planned to stay for two weeks. He is still here, and after five years of volunteer work, he now manages Mojitos, a popular new club on Frenchmen Street.
I met Andy during spring break of 2006 when he was the Common Ground Volunteer Coordinator, managing the 500 people who were gutting houses. Our gutting crew, Big Kitty, broke a few water lines, so we got to know Andy well. We bonded later that summer over shared dreams of cell phones chasing us, a testament to the non-stop ringing of Common Ground phones that first year.
Miss Carol is a life-long New Orleanian who runs the neighborhood bar, First and Last Stop Lounge, with her husband, Kool, and their orange toy poodle dog, Little Kool. Family pictures, quotes, and awards line the back of the bar, some yellowing with frayed edges that go back several generations. On occasion, Miss Carol adds to the collection, just to keep her regulars on their toes. Locals flock to the bar once a week for her free fish fry, and Andy thinks her burgers are the best in the city (sorry, Port of Call).
I met Miss Carol only last year, and when we met, she insisted I attend her daughter’s 40th birthday party the following week, so I did. That’s the New Orleans way. And of course I had the time of my life, dancing and eating and dancing again. There’s nothing better than getting life advice from Miss Carol with classic soul pouring out of the jukebox.
I have greatly benefitted from spending time with children in New Orleans through a stint as a summer school first grade teacher, the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, and work with the Lower Ninth Ward Village community center. Siblings Cyntrell and Charles can often be found at The Village, using the computer lab or playing basketball. Cyntrell, 11, is a talented writer and dancer who talks about publishing books when she is older. Charles, 8, wants to be a police officer. Cyntrell teases him about wanting to work in law enforcement so he can use tasers.
Like many of the children I’ve met in New Orleans, Charles and Cyntrell panic when it rains because they remember Katrina. Even Charles, who was two at the time, vividly recalls being on his father’s shoulders as he waded through chest-high water. Charles also remembers spending several days on a bridge, waiting for help to arrive.
Charles and Cyntrell are amazingly strong and resilient, like so many people I have met in New Orleans. In general, I find New Orleanians to be more friendly, open, fearless, generous, and loving toward strangers than people in other parts of the country. The remarkable people here are one of many reasons to visit, live in, and rebuild the Crescent City.