Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

City of Refuge (Part 5)

My introductory to construction work came about in New Orleans.  The neighbor at my first place I stayed in did jobs around town and hired me as a helper.  I’d done quite a bit of manual labor over the years, but nothing with much skill involved.  My boss Pete was a good carpenter and plumber, often drunk and in a bad mood, but he taught me a few things, like hanging sheetrock, painting, fixing bricks, how to carry a 500 lb clawfoot tub up the smallest set of stairs imaginable.  It was all under the table and paid decent, and I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I worked hard and I showed up on time, two traits that seemed to be lacking in much of the workforce that was down there.  I did some temp jobs here and there, and then I worked with Eddie about three months. 

Eddie painted a lot of houses and did carpentry around the Bywater neighborhood.  He needed help on a home over on Poland; sanding, trim work, so I did that for about a week.   We then got some work over at this house, a fixer-upper that was bought by the son of Wille Morris, a famous novelist who at one time had been the head editor of Harpers Magazine.  Originally the job was to just paint a few rooms.  It turned out the many of the studs and beams behind the old barge wood walls and burlap were rotted.  The foundation that held up the house was also eaten away by termites.  The bathroom was a mess.  Windows had to be replaced.  The electrical wiring redone. 

We spent a good couple of months there, building temporary walls, painting all of the rooms, redoing the bathrooms, hauling crap out to the backyard.  It was a good gig since it was only two blocks away.  We’d walk to work with a bucket of tools, go home for break, maybe have a beer and a sandwich, take a nap, and then we’d head back and finish the day.    It was so much different than the large-scale, sometimes quite stressful, union construction life I’d later be exposed to, but as I look back on it, they were good, simple times.  Eventually, the job was finished, work dried up, and I got a job washing dishes in the French Quarter.

Me:  I can’t help but laugh when I think of us riding around with a bucket of tools in it.

Eddie:  Well, I couldn’t drive.  Actually, I saw everybody else around with bikes so I went over to French Quarter Bikes and got a basket.  I bought everything smaller, got a smaller nail-gun,  and when I needed something bigger I’d hire Harold’s brother in law that had a truck.  It was actually cool.  After you left I got my license back and I was driving all the time and I was like, fuck, it was cool to drive around, but I felt a lot healthier riding my bike around and in the neighborhood.   Folks identified you with it.  I liked riding to work and people would say (In 9th ward accent)  “Hey Painter!”

Me:  Hey Painter!

Eddie:  “Hey Painter!  Wud up man?  Where y’at?”  I loved that.  I was part of the neighborhood.  I wasn’t some rich guy with a truck.  It made me more connected.

Me:  You remember that guy sanding in the bathroom of the house we worked on?

Eddie:  Oh jeez. 

Me:  I swear he was in that bathroom sanding for over a month.  Must have been on some good shit.(Laughter) 

Eddie:  There’s so many people you didn’t even meet.  Right around the corner was this cop.  He used to try to get me to do cocaine with him.  He’d come over sometimes before he got married.  His deal was he used to drive down to Mexico and have half of a gas tank un-welded and put half gas in it and then use the other half to put pot in.  Then he'd drive back to New Orleans and then unweld it and sell all the pot to the neighborhood people.  He couldn’t have really had that much.  It was something he did for bragging rights.  It wasn’t like he was doing pounds. I don’t know.  I don’t know what he was doing.  It  seemed like a waste.  He just liked to have something to tell people, be part of the community.

Me:  You have to some kind of fixture.  I was just kind of there.

Eddie:  You actually came at the right time.  It was safe enough, but still had all the elements of insanity.  All the cool people were there.  You had Indians, Blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans...

Me:  There was that fat plumber always over at BJ’s with his son.

Eddie: They had a towing company, were plumbers by trade and made all their money selling cocaine.

Me:  Father and son.  They’d try to sleep with the same chicks.

Eddie:  Along with their brother. 

Me:  Those guys were scary.  Not the son, but the two older ones.

Eddie:  The fat one would knock on my door, really late, I’d have the light still on.   I’d open the door and he’d say (in nasaly Louisiana accent)  “Hey Painter, let me use your mirror.”  He’d sit in the front room with the mirror laid out with this huge rock of coke for about twenty minutes and chop it all up and put in bags.  He’d say, “You want any?”  And I’d say, no man.  “Well, here’s forty bucks.”  He’d do that and then go back over to the bar.  They were all jacked.

Me:  I forgot about it, but now that I think about it, if I was to walk into BJ’s, I would think jesus, everyone’s on so many damn drugs.

Eddie:  Oh yeah, the booze was just to mellow them out.

Me:  Here I’ll meet people, maybe they’ll go do coke in the bathroom, but down there it was something else.

Eddie:  That girl I used to date that bartender there, she’d be all coked up.

Me:  And the girl that looked like Olive Oil.

Eddie:  Yeah, they’d be all wacked out, but you know, it was fun to be around them.

Four years after Katrina I finally made it back to New Orleans.  My cousin, who had spent years living in Nepal, helping to build schools and hospitals, was getting married to a New Orleans native.  They had a beautiful Tibetan style wedding in Mid City next to the old dueling area.  It was led by a monk chanting, and friends and family from all over were in attendance.  And of course, who was playing the reception, but no other than Kermit Ruffins.  There’d had been questions of whether or not he’d show up.  His dad had died the night before, but true musician he is, Kermit proceeded to play three gigs the following day.  Kermit blasted his horn in Louis Armstrong fashion, with that same friendly grin I remembered.  Little kids and old folks danced around.  Gumbo, seafood, jambalaya, ribs, and endless amounts of beer were had.  I couldn't have imagined a better wedding.

I spent most of my time with my parents and relatives, showing them around the French Quarter.  I tried to play tour guide and give them what little history I could remember.  I went into the café I used to work at and surprisingly, some of the same people were still there.   I walked into the kitchen and found Paul, my old manager, huddled over the grill frying some eggs.  "You know how it is down here.  Shit don't really change that much.  My boy's 5 now though."

On Sunday before my afternoon flight I woke up around seven.  I got a cab and had the driver take me along St. Claude, past the seafood shacks and the run down hardware stores, the old Baptist churches, and abandoned homes, the Saturn Bar, the dilapidated schools.  He dropped me off at Poland next to the canal.  It was still early.  The neighborhood was most likely just settling into their drunken dreams.  I was hoping that maybe I’d come across a familiar face, but I hadn't really kept in touch with anyone I knew there.  I heard so many stories of people leaving, new people coming down, and now I was regretting that that life was so far away from the world I now knew.  

I walked by my old place and was pleased to find “Stay off, fuckin’ hipsters,” on the front steps.  There was now a trailer home in the driveway of the Christian ladies home and Horatio’s house was boarded up.

I walked over to Burgundy and Lessups and stood in the weeds in front of Vi’s placefront of the shotguns across from BJ's.  Vi was a beautiful spirited traveling artist, who I’d always wished I’d kept in touch with.  I always remembered the time she took me out to Lafayette for a Cajun party in the middle of the swamps that run alongside the Atchfalyan River.   In the middle of nowhere with friendly French folks, polka music, amazing food, drinking endlessly and dancing with the trees.  Years later, I’d find out that she lived in Brooklyn, had been a writer for Harpers, and then tragically, died in a car crash on a visit down South.  I remember that day, just staring at the computer in shock.  It didn’t seem right.  And yet, when I came across the pictures of her funeral - an army of rag-tag 9th ward locals, young and old, dressed as if they were in some 30’s carnival parading down the street, then torching a boat and sending it out to the Mississippi, I thought, only in New Orleans.

I then got to thinking about the younger girl from Minnesota that lived in the shotgun next to Vi's.    We used to spend a lot of nights listening to Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline on an old portable record player and drinking lots of wine and boos.  She dressed rather dirty and professed to be a lesbian, but with me she made an exception.  She hung with the younger punks and gays and squatters and sometimes I’d follow her around in search of other worlds I knew nothing about.  We’d ride our bikes in zigzags through the streets of the 9th ward late at night, and once a week we’d end up on the second floor of some club on Bourbon St. where you got popcorn and 3 movies for 5 bucks.  We’d find ourselves drunk, making out on the sidestreets, and then back on Burgundy.  Often times we'd lay in  her broken down car out front, putting in on a tape of Otis Redding, blaring it loud, climbing on top of the roof, staring at the stars.  We'd have the windows rolled down, listening to the regulars over at BJ’s, sometimes fumbling around in our nakedness, sometimes arguing, but then turning up “Try a Little Tenderness,” and all was right with the night.

People come.  People go.  In.  Out.  Back again.  I walked down Burgundy and Royal St.  I saw the remnants of Katrina still close at hand in a number of homes.  The spray-painted circles with symbols for gas leaks and the number of people dead were still marked on front of homes.  Some had even been repainted and kept these.  I guess it was a reminder.   I tried to picture what it must have been like to go through the flood and I really couldn't.  I had an uncle that had been in the center of it all, working in Charity Hospital at the time, and I could remember when I first saw him months after, and him explaining what had happened.  The intense look on his face as he described the people he'd seen dying, the water rising,  the snipers guarding him on a parking garage roof, the insanity of it all.  Part of me was thankful that I hadn't had to go through it all.  I wondered what I would have done, what would have happened.  I thought about how different my bond and ties to that city would be. 
The neighborhood looked bad, the streets cock-eyed, the lots abandoned, but parts of the Bywater had looked like this when I had lived there so I wasn’t sure just how much had changed.  There was something that resembled gothic folk art placed on the side of Fradies, a staple neighborhood convience store on Dauphine and Piety.  It had a scary looking man with a black eye.  Around him were the words, “Beware, there’s a mugger in the hood.”  It then listed the addresses of separate incidents.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  Maybe it was folk art, but I had a feeling this was the locals version of neighborhood watch. 

I reached the train tracks along Press St., and then passed Elysian Fields, through the Marigny and into the French Quarter.  Everywhere I seemed to go held some sort of memory, all distant and jumbled, but beautiful at the same time.  I wanted to cry, but it wasn’t crying for longing or sadness, nor really for happiness either; just that crying you get when you’re filled with emotions that don’t have definitions, crying because it’s the only outlet that makes sense.  Crying because it’s probably the most human of all emotions.  I thought about the times I had, good and bad, in such a short amount of time there.  It was strange to think that later that night I'd be sitting in my quiet home in Portland, in my relatively mundane life.  I stood out in the hot morning sun, trying to understand the strange realities of time, and the stark contrast with that life and the one I had before.

I can see what Eddie means.  It’s a hard thing when memories get disturbed.  We find ourselves standing in a place that is no more.  That time is gone and the fact that we can’t get it back is a hard thing to deal with.  But at the same time, I suppose it’s a good thing.  It reminds us of who we are, the places we’ve been, and the beautiful people we’ve been fortunate to come across in our lives.  Sometimes, if we're lucky, maybe it tells us where we’re going.  Hell, maybe we're not supposed to try to figure out.  Maybe it's as simple as the words to that old Neville Brother's song, "Let's Live."  Y'heard me?





No comments:

Post a Comment