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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The City of Refuge (Part 2)

I’d been in New Orleans for about two months, subletting a house over in mid-city.  It was a nice neighborhood by most standards, but it kind of lacked the grit I was looking for at that time.  One night I ventured back into the 9th ward and found myself over at Vaughan's, a small juke-joint type bar on Dauphine St and Lessups.  The 9th ward had a reputation for violence, yet seemed to be where much of the city’s art and music was coming from.  With the sounds of Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers and the wild carnivelesqe mix of bar patrons I instantly fell in love.  One of the best jazz trumpet players, Irvin Mayfield, showed up and battled Kermit.   There was hootin' and hollering and jazz rhythms bouncing off the walls.  Drugs and booze, red beans and rice, beautiful women and much laughter and dance.  I was mesmerized by it all and wanted to somehow be close to it. 

For the next week I drove all around the streets of the upper and lower Bywater looking for a place I could afford.  Then one day I was sitting in a dark, gothic-type bar next to Vaughan's and saw a flyer that was advertising a shotgun 1BD for $400 two blocks away.  I called the number on it and by that late afternoon I was drinking bottle after bottle of wine with Harold and Holly, my new landlords, at their home off of Louisa St.  Though they were in their mid-fifties they seemed to have the energy of a high-school couple.  Harold was wild and electric, dressed in his surfer shirt and Bermuda shorts, cloud-white hair and beard and little lightning eyes.  Holly seemed to be just as animated, a little more refined and intellectual, but fun to talk to. 

Harold and I found ourselves later that night at BJ’s, the dive bar across the street from my new place.  It reminded one of an old living room rather than a bar.  It seemed like the type of place where everyone knew everyone and if they didn’t know you they were going to make sure they did real soon.  Harold was bouncing all around the bar, throwing quarters in the jukebox, pulling women off their stools to dance.  He would kneel down on the floor with an invisible microphone, doing some bastardized Elvis impersonation, as the sounds of Fats or Ernie-K or the Neville Brothers played on the speakers. 

He brought me over to the Triangle later that night, a small warehouse by the railroad tracks a few blocks back.  Inside were broken-down VW bugs and computers and records and paintings and stacks and stacks of old suitcases.   There were all kinds of different cameras, a huge barber’s chair, and a make-shift kitchen and a mattress.  Out of those suitcases he pulled large black and white photos he’d taken years earlier, all of them mostly documenting the punk/new wave/art scene in San Diego in the late 70’s and early 80’s. 

To this day, I consider them to be some of the greatest photographs I’ve come across.  Why they’re not sitting in some museum or never made it to the pages of LIFE magazine is beyond my understanding.   His portraits of girls with Mohawks, men being ripped down to the ground by policemen, Asian cooks in front of old diners, seemed to beautifully portray a different time and place that is no more.  

He also once gave me a memoir type piece he wrote about the origins of punk rock in San Diego during the late 70’s.  At the time he was a struggling jeweler living in a house with hippies and then punk/new wave bands started to pop up: The Penetrators, The Dils, The Zeroes.  He writes about their first shows put on in VFW halls and small clubs.  Tragically, much of the scene came to a crash just as fast as it started.  Violent crowds took over shows, cops were shutting down clubs, and before he knew it, much of that era was gone.  What he wrote isn’t necessarily the best in form, but the feeling of longing and missing of what once was a time of rawness and freedom of music and art, comes across in a rather beautiful way. 

Me:  How did you meet Harold?

Eddie:  Actually, that’s a weird story.  I kind of met him years and years ago when I was a punk rocker living in California.  He used to have a magazine in San Diego.  He had a little space where bands would play.  He doesn’t really remember it, but I remember him.  He was kind of eccentric and weird and I was more of kind of a straight punker.  I wasn’t into that side of the scene. You know that wave, arty stuff.  He was a genius to talk to though.  We'd talk about art. He was incredible.  He used to build his own 360 cameras.  Just a genius.  His story is his dad died.  His dad owned a lot of land.  San Diego a long time ago was mostly military and really small cottages and there wasn’t much of anything but there was a lot of farmland that took care of all the navy personnel.   His dad owned one of those and he died and he gave Harold and his sister a few million dollars. That’s how he was able to buy all those houses. When I first knew him he made jewelry.

Me:  Didn’t he have a store in the French Quarter?

Eddie:  Yeah, he had a store in the French Quarter when I first moved there.  And Holly was a semi-famous sign painter in San Diego.  She did a lot of signs.  She was the first person I ever saw do wallpaper, but in a way that was like painted art.  She’d do all that high brow, multimedia shit.  She made a lot of money doing that.

Me:  I actually have a memoir type piece Harold gave to me all about punk rock starting in San Diego in ’77.

Eddie:  Yeah, he was a punk rocker in that area.

Me:  He talks about the Zeroes and The Penetrators.

Eddie: He was a punker and a surfer.  What happened was I was living up on Magazine and Tchopotoulis, by Tippitinas, over by Grandma’s Place and My Mother’s place.   I’d hang out at this place called The Nest .  There was a bunch of punk rockers, artists, and musicians that hung out there.  I’d broken up with my girlfriend and one of the guys that lived there was a painter and knew I also did some painting.  He told me there was this guy across town that had a house that I might want to know about.  So I met up with Harold and it turned out we’d known each other 15 years before, but we weren’t great friends. I worked on the house and he let me stay there.  He kind of knew me from the past, but honestly, I was kind of scared of him.  He was sort of like a father figure though.  I was in a bad place at the time, and in a financial way, he kind of picked me up, you know what I mean, kind of my savior, actually.

Me:  What was with the little warehouse he had over by the railroad tracks?  

Eddie:    Him and Holly had been married since they were really young.  And they were going through some problems.  She was a little overbearing and he wanted a place where he could go study,  do photography, get back into it, listen to his records.  It used to be a repair place for printers.  And he bought it for nothing.  I think maybe $40,000.  I’d step out and visit him over there. 

Me:  I remember he had all of those broken down VW bugs in there.

Eddie:  Yeah, he had a VW affinity his whole life.

Me:  A bunch of records.

Eddie:  Oh yeah, a great record collection. From punk rock to blues to jazz. 

Me:  I remember all of the old suitcases with the black and white pictures from San Diego.

Eddie:  Yeah, he had all kinds of suitcases from the 1950’s that he kept them in.  He also had that doctor case.  With doctor intials.  It was made of Buffalo hide, tan black.  He was a genius, but I kind of stopped visiting him.  When he moved into the Triangle he got kind of weird acting.  Girls would come around and he’d get drunk and go right up to them and touch their boobs.  Not in a cool way though.  Reckless acting.  I’m not really sure what was happening, but he kind of scared me.

Me:  Yeah, I liked him though.

Eddie:  I loved the guy.  I have nothing but full respect and admiration for him.  I don’t know where I’d be without him.  He was such an incredible artist.  Almost too good though.

Eddie’s probably the only artist I’ve ever known and respected that also knows how to frame a wall.  Who knows how to raise a house from its foundation and replace the beams.  Who’s hiked in the dead of winter and slept in the mountains of Canada.  Who’s crashed on people’s floors for months at a time and who’s constantly roaming the earth.  Survivalist is the word that comes to mind.  At one time or another he’s lived in D.C., New York, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angelas, England, the small towns of Northern California, Hawaii.  Tell him he’s a great photographer and he’ll just laugh at you.  His last set of camera gear and lenses got stolen out of his jeep years back when he was hiking and he’s not like those other rich kids with other people supporting him.  I tell him he needs to get back into taking pictures and he laughs and says, “You got twenty grand to give me?” 

He’s an aging punk rocker from back in the day living somewhere in the strangeness of the modern world.  Some of his friends have either gone on to be quite successful, artists, businessmen, screenwriters.  Some of them still popping pills and supported by the government.  Some of them still playing the same three-chord songs from years ago.

He's an artist, but you’ll never see his work in any museum.  You won’t even see it on the walls of the coffee shop.  If you lived in the Bywater you might have come across him roaming around with his camera.  Maybe you’d wake up to find a picture he printed out stuck in the shutters of your front door.  Art for art’s sake.  There’s thousands of them.  Mardi Gras Indians.  Street musicians.  Cheifs eating Fritos.  Funeral Marches.  Hawaiian cemeteries.  Kids fishing.  Spanish moss and the swamps of Lousiana.  Shrimp boats.  Abandoned cars in the snow.  Torn women drinking whiskey in junkyards.  A man in camaflogue who spends his life walking from the south of California to the north and then back again.    A local band playing in a bar to a crowd of blow-up dolls.  A fat man standing over a pot of gumbo.  Tent revivals.  Snow in New Orleans.  Beautiful women in innocent moments.   The list goes on and on.

He can take things that sometimes at first glance are perceived to be ugly and make them beautiful.  A polished keyhole into the underbelly of America.  He’s got that ability to capture irony and certain moments that put words to images.  He has very little need for trickery or fancy camera angles, but when the pictures are blurred there’s a reason, there’s a sense of poetry and style to it.  When you look at his pictures you don’t get the feeling he’s just walked up and snapped a photo.  No, he's known all of these people in one way or another.  The camera was second thought and because of that, the photos tell stories.   If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.  But, the world can be a fucked-up place.  The real artists struggle without a dime to their name and it seems as though a lot of the time the losers get most of the fame.

In the end, Eddie’s got a good heart.  Through a lot of ugliness he sees the humanity in folks.  I suppose it can be frustrating at times, but its’ something that should be admired.  He spent ten years living in New Orleans. Before Katrina hit I was there for a year.   One night I decided to turn the tape recorder on and let it roll.  Is there any wonderful insight, any magical quotes?  No, probably not.  This is just an hour long conversation of two friends talking about our memories of a time and a place.

Me:  What was the story behind Poland St?  Was it haunted?

Eddie:  Well, Poland has a really weird history.  At one time everyone on that street committed suicide.  Everybody in every house committed suicide all the way up to the wine place, which used to be a carriage house and also was a place where they stored ammunition during World War II.  Everybody from St. Claude, all the way to the Poland Pier, every single house there had a suicide.  Isn’t that bizarre?

Me:  And what did people in the neighborhood say?

Eddie: Well, for a really long time they said it was haunted from back in the slavery days.  The houses were really beautiful at one time.  If you look at him they’re really big.

Me:  Yeah, the lots were huge.

Eddie:  They all had carriage houses in the back for the slaves.  Our section was more blue collar.  That section was more expensive.  I always liked working on the French homes.   Some guys I worked with  would be digging out old bottles from under the house, but I’d always go under the front door and find old coins.

Me:  Damn, all I ever found was an old Budweiser can.  So back to Poland, no one knew why it was haunted?

Eddie:  I guess if you look into it you might find something.  I just remember what they said.  I know when I lived there was one person that killed themselves.    But I don’t really know what was going on.

Me:  I remember sitting on the steps with you and the neighborhood seemed to be changing and lots of gay yuppie couples were looking at houses to buy over there and we were kind of laughing, wondering if they knew the real story.

Eddie:  Who knows, maybe they’re all dead now.  France Street had some really wacked out stuff that was happening.   At one time there was a lot of Mafia dudes and then it turned into a gay mafia,  these guys from New York, I forget the name.  The something Ferries.

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