23 May 2014

Leaving Las Vegas

Early morning, Las Vegas. 

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I zip my bag. One last look around and I drop the bag to the ground, its handle sliding into place with a gentle snick.

Footfalls echo in the seemingly endless corridor as I head for the elevator. Going down.

Through the lobby, where people who have no business being awake are laughing and smiling and taking pictures they will never see again, I pull my bag. Silently, gently drifting side to side as I walk, the bag follows without question.

There is no line at this unholy hour. The first cabbie stubs out his smoke and asks, "where to?"


And we're rolling. Out the long driveway and onto Las Vegas Boulevard.

Buildings slide by my window, just hours ago bathed in light and life. Now, they stand dormant, quiet coccoons for those inside, sleeping like the dead.

Out onto the highway and across this corner of the desert, I can see the glint of aluminum and glass that marks the airport, and the movement of aircraft that signals the reality of life beyond this place.

Pulling to the curb, I slide my card in the machine that was, moments ago, reminding me of all of the things I am leaving undone, and my fare is paid. No need to talk to the driver. Just a quiet "thanks," as he hands me the handle of my bag (snick), which follows me, again without question.

Through security, my bag and I head toward the tram, avoiding travellers and their seven dollar cups of coffee.

Gently rocking back and forth, I am whisked, alone, beneath the desert floor, toward my concourse.

The doors of the tram open, and a mechanized voice reminds me that it is time to walk again.

Past magazines, neck pillows, and old ladies with their tiny dogs in tiny bags of their own, the jetway is open and waiting.

My bag and I glide past them and toward the plane.

And home.

Ten O'Clock Sunday evening, in a WalMart.

Ten O'Clock Sunday evening, in a WalMart.

I sit in the McDonald's that they built here, drinking an iced tea. I'm here because I forgot bandages. Again. But, when I walked in I remembered that I haven't had anything to eat since breakfast. Again. Don't know how I remain so fat when I keep not eating. Scratch that. I know the answer.

Beyond the stainless rail that divides the dining area from the walking dead, I can see this community's cross-section drift in and out.

The Hispanic couple with more kids than I have fingers, and their train of full baskets.

The girl with the asymmetric purple and black hair and her generously pierced and inked boyfriend, who regard my mid forties balding and paunching personage with palpable disdain as they walk by me. I can almost hear her, "never seen anything like me, old man," in her mind as she looks back. This makes me smile a little. I do look a little normal.

The twenty-somethings, roommates looking to restock the beer fridge.

The thirty-somethings, married, looking to restock the baby formula and Lego supply.

The ladies of all ages, who all seem to have outgrown a bra at the same time. I wonder briefly, after looking at all of these women, if I will need a bra as some sort of secret admission ticket to the checkout line here.

Listening, I can hear the clicks, snicks, and clangs of the carts in and out of the store, and the vaguely metallic sound of the hangers on their racks, being searched endlessly for just the right thing, or maybe just something that can be afforded. These are the sounds of the mechanics of life in this corner of the world.

Sipping on my tea (which tastes suspiciously like the tea that my aunt brewed for me as a kid, but has the dirty overtones of the endless string of focus groups that were needed to arrive at Exactly This Flavor), I look around and notice the clientele has not changed here since probably well before I arrived. No new orders. No trips to the waste cans. Just a few old Asian guys and a couple of ladies. Lots of single tables, and lots of small cups of coffee. And a lot of staring into the store looking at nothing in particular.

A fleeting question materializes in my head, wondering just how bad your homelife must be to spend a Sunday evening alone in a Wal-Mart McDonald's just letting the world run down around you.

I whisk the question away, and take another sip of my tea, and stare back out at the cogs in this human machine. In Wal-Mart. Alone. On a Sunday evening.

29 May 2009

Cybersecurity, My Foot

Image Stolen From Here

Bear with me... I try to avoid talking about technology here, what with spending my life in that arena, and all. (Actually, I just reread the next two posts, and this statement is apparently a big ol' lie.)

However, I've just been sent our Illustrious Leader's "10-Point CyberSecurity Action Plan," and I had to comment.

Applaud a federal move to ensure "cybersecurity" all you like, but this has the stink of Big Brother all over it.

The Feds here are looking to be able to "ensure security" on the public Internet. That same Internet has always been (at least since the demise of ARPAnet in the face of commercial network access) a loosely controlled interplay of networks which are, for the most part, wholly owned and operated by either private or public companies, and in some cases, individuals. The controls placed over traffic traversing those networks is entirely up to those same entities.

Since the Internet we know is essentially a dynamic and loosely-coupled aggregate of smaller heterogeneous networks, under widely varied management regimes, it is naturally fairly insecure. But it is that same lack of overarching policy and organization that makes it eminently flexible and usable. Without the flexibility of the current Internet (the ability to introduce new protocols and information interchange methods at will, for instance), even the establishment of the ubiquitous World Wide Web could not have taken place.

The only way for the Federal monster to "ensure security," unless I understand things poorly, will be to ensure that there is a high degree of federal control, either physically, or in the form of policy and law, applied to the infrastructures provided by the alluded-to companies and individuals. This may take the form of federally mandated software or hardware, and federally dictated settings for either or both. And it would be hard to envision such measures without some degree of direct federal control.

And once the Feds have direct controls on, and visibility, into the Internet at its most critical areas, how long before they will want to actually see the content flying around? (Yes, I know, the prevailing belief is that the Boys and Girls at Fort Meade already do this.) "No problem: encrypted traffic with SSL," you say? Well once unencrypted content analysis is wholesale, then how long until only "approved" cryptography is allowed to traverse the 'net? I'll give you a hint: federal back-doors, a la Clipper and key-escrow.

I have very little to hide, or at least very little I'm willing to go to great lengths to hide, but I'm still not interested in some GS-8 field agent being able to look at my bank statements or snag my passwords in mid-stream, for cause or not.

And, as a personal aside, it annoys me to no end that our Commander in Chief insists on using the term "Cyber"-anything If you're the Leader of the Free World, then you or your advisors ought to be able to come up with something more serious-sounding than a damned pop-culture reference.

Rant off.

18 March 2009

Mac and Cheesy

(image shamelessly stolen from: http://foozle.wordpress.com/)

I don't care if you have a Mac. Nobody does. Except other Mac users, that is.

I'm not saying you should choose one platform over the other. If you like using a Mac, or a Windows box, or Linux, then you should use that. I am fully aware of each platform's superiority or inferiority relative to others with respect to certain activities or qualities. Frankly, I don't care. I use what I like.

Myself, I am a part-time Windows user, but mostly, I use Linux. Not because it's better, so much, or because I live my professional life immersed in UN*X (in fact, this is a great reason for me to not use Linux), but because it was free, it boots fast and shuts down fast. Really. That's the whole reason why.

It's just that I'm tired of reading about how someone's doing this, that, or the other thing on his or her Mac, MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac, Mac Mini, or any of the other instances of that lineage.

How, exactly, does this conversational brand-injection help to convey any idea? Of course if you're actually talking about your Mac, in a way that is specific to it being a Mac, then sure, I can see that. But identifying your computer by brand and model every time you reference it should strike you as a bit elitist, no?

Why not "the computer," "my computer," "online," or nothing at all. It strikes me the same way as a guy who stands around talking about "driving my Mercedes," or "parking my Porsche," or, for all you highschool contemporaries of mine, "cruising in my Camaro."

Maybe it's that Mac folks believe they're part of a move toward a more perfect computing world, free of the iron-fisted control of a corporate giant, and the lemming-like jump off of the Microsoft cliff of the masses at large. I hate to rain on that parade, but Mac isn't a movement; it's a product. Apple Computer is simply selling the market on a free-thinking, revolutionary, counterculture image that just doesn't reflect reality.

Go to any coffeehouse or college lounge. Look around for the big glowing white apples. Lots of them, right? Tough to use your computer as a symbol of free thought or your rebellious, counterculture nature when you're just doing what everyone else does. Seriously, if you think that big apple throbbing on the cover of every MacBook is for anything other than creating more marketshare, you're fooling yourself.

Now, maybe it's that people need everyone to know that they're being creative with their computers rather than stooping to the pedestrian activities of the Microsoft drones. Sadly, and contrary to what people would have you believe, Mac owners, by and large, are not A) in need of a professional audio or music production facility, B) an independent ("indie" for all you hipsters) film producer, or C) a professional photographer.

For some of us, clearly, that is not true, but, for the most part, almost all of us all do the exact same lowbrow crap with our computers. I've been observing for months in my local coffeeshops what people do on their laptops. Shockingly, here is what I find:

  1. Me: Mail, Googling things, social networking, eBay, Craigslist, wordprocessing, and blogs.
  2. Typical Windows user: Mail, Googling things, social networking, eBay, Craigslist, wordprocessing, and blogs.
  3. Typical Mac user: Mail, Googling things, social networking, eBay, Craigslist, wordprocessing, blogs, and telling everyone how much better a Mac is for creative work.
My best guess is that these usage patterns change dramatically at home, each requiring the addition of "porn."

So, yes, perhaps the Mac is a better creative platform, but we as users are, on the whole, not a terribly creative lot, and we probably need to turn down the conversational product-worship just a tad.

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10 February 2009

In the age of Google, the lazy will inherit the Earth

So, I'm an admitted social networking profile junkie. And, I tend to read WAY more blogs than I ought to. What has all of this yielded? Knowledge that people are too stupid, or at least too lazy to even Google for items they don't know, or even to run the now-ubiquitous spellcheck.

And, the worst part is, this isn't even email, private between two people. It's out there for the world to see! I am more and more convinced that people don't understand what "your comments will be visible worldwide," even means.

Here is but one example, from: http://burbia.com/node/754

"cold stone is going cold
- submitted by jason11 on 02/06/2007
cold stone is going cold dead. remember frujan gladje (sp??) exactly. krispe cream. add cold stone to the list of disappearing"

Cold Stone, and proper sentence structure, that is.

Not a capitalized proper noun in the whole thing, nor a single capital to start a sentence.

Frusen Glädjé. I know it's hard to remember, but I Googled it. It took three seconds. Actually, the Google auto-complete guessed, before I got the "Frus" typed in, that I was after "Frusen Glädjé." Then, it was all cut-and-paste.

It's "Krispy Kreme," not "krispe cream." That's a brand that still exists. It's got a website for crying out loud!

And punctuation... There are a ton of periods in the comment, but not so much one, you know, at the end of the comment.

Now, that's a lot of problems for a comment that's, let's see, twenty words long. If I had submitted that sort of writing to any English teacher I had in school, I would have been summarily demoted, with extreme prejudice, to the prior grade.

There's a cool gajillion examples of this in the online world. At what point did our lives get so busy, or we get so lazy, that using a backspace key every once in a while is just not doable?

02 July 2008

Violence, redux

I posted last week about witnessing the impending death of a young man at the hands of a shooter on the street some eight blocks from my apartment. As it turns out, the day after I wrote, and across town, violence would take another swing...

Hansen's Sno Bliz is the iconic snowball stand in the City. If you live outside New Orleans, you might think I mean Sno-cone. You would be mistaken. These creations are lovingly made from the finest hand-hewn ice shavings on the planet, and are adorned with the sweetest and finest of homemade flavors (I said homemade, not natural), like Cream of Almond, and Orangeade, and the mysterious Snobliz flavor itself. And, behind the creation are three generations of the Hansen family, lately in the form of Ashley, "the granddaughter."

For years, my personal ritual has been to arrive at the stand about fifteen minutes before closing, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, and try to get the last snowball of the day. Along with this treat came the sometime responsibility of closing up the front door, and allowing customers out, one-by-one, until no more remained, in club-bouncer style. The whole time, I'd be shooting the breeze with Ashley and, in years past, with the other family members running the stand. Eventually, it would just be us, and I'd eat my snowball there in the stand while the family cleaned up.

More recently, that ritual has been broken. In fact, I've only been into the stand a couple of times this season. Mostly due to a grossly inflexible schedule... But, in some part because Ashley's life and my life have moved on to a degree, and there's just not the closeness I once enjoyed.

So, lately I've not been the doorman. And, lately I've not been there when the last customer was in the stand. And I wasn't there last Friday.

The man had waited in line, patiently (you always wait at Hansen's... it's the way of the world), then ordered a snowball. Ashley made it, cheerfully, I imagine. She and her family are known for their incredible congeniality, no matter when you walk in, right through to closing the doors each day. Only after he took the snowball did the gun appear.

With a gun pressed into her stomach, Ashley was forced to surrender all of the stand's take for the day. (A take that is substantial, but arguably not enough to warrant a container stronger than the traditional cigar box). The man disappeared out the door, leaving Ashley physically unharmed, through the crowd of people who were still standing around enjoying their snowballs.

Nobody saw a thing.

I can only imagine that Ashley's a good bit shaken up, with thousands of questions, doubts and what-ifs running though her head. As for me... I'm just mad. Mad at someone who would take advantage of her complete kindheartedness and innocence. And, I'm mad at me for not being there. (I kid myself into thinking there's something I could have done.)

Days later, I don't know what she'll do about the stand. A detail police officer for security is likely to cost a significant portion of what the stand does in revenue, and the on-duty patrol is very clearly not enough. I don't expect she'll continue with no protection. I wouldn't.

The stand has been a labor of love for the family for years, not sustained for the profit, but for the sheer joy of pleasing its generations of patrons from everywhere in the world. And that's perhaps the biggest tragedy here. The stand wasn't just robbed of its money... It was robbed of its joy.


I've not mentioned it here, but I've taken up running, to a lesser or greater degree. This evening, I took almost a minute and a half off of my two-mile time in the Frosty Two Mile run in City Park. This, needless to say, was a pretty happy thing for me, since it was both for a good cause, and a personal advancement. But, that was before I drove home.

I crossed the City on Bienville St., toward my apartment on Governor Nicholls St. in the French Quarter. As I approached the I-10 overpass, I passed a car stopped in the oncoming lane. I didn't really think about it at first, since New Orleanians have a nasty habit of stopping right in the middle of the road to talk to one another. But, as I got about ten feet past, my mind's eye saw the blown out driver's window, and the baseball cap laying across the back of the driver's seat. I reversed.

As I rolled backwards, I could hear "help me," from the vehicle. I looked across as I came even with the driver's door. There was a young man sleeping on the seat. Check that. There was a young man dying on the seat.

The young man had taken at least one round in the neck, and possibly one in the head. There were at least twenty bullet holes in the car. And not the academic happened-a-while-ago-and-may-have-been-staged kind. The really-just-happened-some-thirty-seconds-ago kind.

I hopped out of the car, and the young lady (who would turn out to be fourteen years old) crawled over the driver and spilled out onto the street. I did everything I could to convince her that she shouldn't move. "Just sit down. Don't move." and went to grab my cellphone to get 911 on the line.

"Hurry mister... I'm bout to die," I heard from the girl. She wasn't. But she was awfully bloody, and she was certainly in pain.

I stopped, and looked back at her bloody shorts and shirt, checking to see if she really had been shot. I thought not. (I was wrong). This was just before I saw the blue lights from the multitude of police cruisers arriving on the scene.

After the swarm of officers stabilized somewhat, I asked one of them what they needed from me. He simply asked what I saw. Nothing.

"Go on home, you don't need to be here."

Relieved, I walked back to my car. Just before I opened the door, I looked back at the young man in the driver's seat. Our eyes briefly met.

I think I was the last face he ever saw.

01 October 2007

Is this it? Parking Tickets?

For the twelfth year, I entered the Deutsches Haus on South Galvez for the annual Oktoberfest at the old German consulate. Same oompah bands... same beer steins hoisted aloft... same Schnapps girls... Ok, different Schnapps girls; it IS twelve years later, you know.

But, for the first time, the lady taking my five dollar cover asked me where I'd parked. "On the neutral ground, like always," I said.

"You know they're out there giving parking tickets to the cars on the neutral ground, right?" Well, let's just say that I was a little stunned.

When I first found myself in New Orleans, almost thirteen years ago now, the very first event I attended was the Oktoberfest celebration at the Deutsches Haus. I already knew New Orleans was the place for me, but that first foray into the huge celebration in the tiny Deutsches Haus courtyard might very well have been the catalyst that set the cement on my feet here.

Since that time, the M.O. for Oktoberfest has been roughly the same: If you're driving up, rather than park throughout the semi-business-semi-residential area, simply pull your car onto the neutral ground in front of the Haus, so the detail cops can keep watch while you go have your good time. There were no tickets for this, for as long as I can recall... Just friendly NOPD watching over you as you went to your car, or, if you'd had one too many, suggesting maybe you ought to call yourself a cab.

But, this year, on both nights of the opening Oktoberfest weekend, city officials were on hand to issue tickets for parking on that same neutral ground, in the same way we always have. And, there was a fleet of tow trucks, idling, waiting to drag away any vehicle sufficiently out of line with local ordinance. At first I thought that we were just dealing with some very new NOPD, maybe hired since Katrina, who didn't really understand that people NEED to park there in order for this festival to be a success. .

Then, I remembered, New Orleans is trying to reclaim that neighborhood for use as an expansion to the downtown medical complex. Suddenly, the mass issuance of parking citations during a very popular event in the neighborhood doesn't seem so innocuous. It seemed, in fact, to be an effort sanctioned by the city to make attending the Oktoberfest a wholly unpleasant thing, and to undermine the strength of the Haus.

I thought that, at least after Katrina, the city government would have moved beyond such blatant tactics of public manipulation. And, frankly, I thought we as Orleanians would have evolved to a point that we can recognize and defuse such efforts. Not so, it turns out.

I spoke to several people about this and more than a couple indicated that they wouldn't be coming back to the remaining four weekends of Deutsches Haus Oktoberfest because they weren't willing to risk the tickets or they weren't willing to park around the neighborhood (frankly understandable, as uninhabited as it is) just to come to the Haus, which is, presumably, exactly the desired effect.

So is it this, then? Is this what it has come to? For our own city to turn against us for its own desires? And will we be defeated, after surviving 300 years of wars, disease, and hurricanes, by something as simple as a bunch of parking tickets?

Please tell me no.

09 July 2007

We Are Not OK

The Old Milne Home for Boys
Franklin Avenue, New Orleans
Twenty-two months Post-Katrina
I am not ok. The most visible of my symptoms is that I'm getting entirely resentful of the essential ignorance of the tourists (and, as a corollary, the people that they report back to in Real America) about the state of New Orleans. Since I live in the French Quarter, I am face to face with tourists all the time. Used to be, I had no trouble with that. These days, however, in passing tourist conversation, I cannot detect that anyone is even the slightest bit upset by the condition of the city... Near as I can tell, not only are they not bothered by it, they don't seem to even notice. They're getting their gumbo and their Huge Ass Beers and that makes New Orleans OK, right?
I would encourage them to drive in Violet, count the houses off slabs that still straddle roadways; to drive in Chalmette, and count the number of strip malls that still sit empty, wind whistling through blown out storefronts; to drive through Lakeview and count the number of orange X marks left on the houses; to drive through mid-city, and count the brand new piles of debris that people are just now pulling out of their long-destroyed homes; to simply absorb the emptiness, still the most prevalent aspect of our city... Do this and take that image back to Suburbia, USA.
This is a problem, this misperception of our recovery, and it has the potential to cripple any remaining efforts. I just don't know where to even begin to address it. I want... no... need to yell from the blue-tarped rooftops...
We are not ok!

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20 January 2007

Suiting Up

I never played football as a kid. I never played in high school. I went to maybe five or ten games total in college. In short, by American standards, I have a pretty poor football history.

So, how do you explain to your friends and family, who know perfectly well that you hated football as a kid, that you'll be out of touch because it's Game Day?

How do you explain that you won't make a prediction about the outcome because you really, truly, seriously don't want to jinx it?

How do you explain that, yes, this game is more important than anything else that you can think of right now, because to rob this City of its newfound unity and joy would be as big a tragedy as the hurricane that almost killed her for real?

In my twelve years as an Orleanian, I became a Saints fan, not because I had a great love for the sport, but, because I had a great love of New Orleans. and New Orleans is never better than when she has just won a football game. And I have had my heart nearly broken because the owner has quote seriously thought about taking the team to San Antonio or Los Angeles. (Come on, Los Angeles Saints? Please.) But you always knew this might happen, because, let's face it, the team was never really any good.

But, this year is different. The team is really, truly good. Today, the New Orleans Saints are competing for the first time to be NFC Champions, and for the Super Bowl berth that comes with that title. And the response from the city is far beyond anything I could have suspected. People who don't know each other shake hands and hug on the street. People who do know each other simply got closer. People who've fallen out of touch find themselves in long conversations again. All because of the Team and of the Game.

And, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that the team could have done as well or gone as far without the absolutely loyal fans that go to Every Single Game Without Fail, upon whose sheer willpower the saints have limped along these 40 years. They call us the Twelfth Man because of the unbearable noise we make in the Dome that invariably provides some advantage to our Saints.

But I really believe we're more than that. That when we show the team how much we support them... hell, how much we need them... that it helps to drive them forward. And that, when we get together and really really try, sometimes we carry a game out of sheer will. And it'seasy to feel that because we're part of the team, we deserve to share in the sweetness of the victories and must share the pain of defeats as much as anyone on the roster.

I sat last week in the Superdome, for the Saints' first return to the playoffs since 2000, and the first Divisional Round game in history. I sat in seats so high I needed a sherpa to get me back to the beer stand, and so expensive that I'm not entirely sure that the hotdogs I ate that day aren't the last food I'll be able to afford until next payday. But it was the greatest single event I have ever been a part of. It was a win that I am positive I played a part in, even in Section 615.

And now I walk among these same New Orleanians, my teammates, every one charged as they never have been before, and I feel am part of... no, that I belong to... something huge. Something the city needs right now. It seems frivolous and counterproductive to spend so much energy on a game, but I know better. It has made this city one in a way that government and disaster cannot.

I go to my closet and pull out my number twelve jersey. I hold it in my hands I think about where the team has been, and how far it has come. And, I think about how hard today is going to be. I put it on not because I want to show support the team, but because I am part of the team.
It's game day, and everybody knows you can't play if you don't suit up.

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11 September 2006

Getting Older

I had mixed feelings about going to my 20th High School reunion, since my High School experience was not one that I would wish on many... But, when the anouncements came, my gut overrode any doubts that my mind could create. "Hey, dummy, you don't get a chance to redo it later if you miss it this time around." So, I took the drive from Floodsville, New Orleans to High Point, North Carolina.

After much hemming and hawing (I'm not sure how to "haw," exactly, but I'm sure I was doing it), I drove myself out to the first event, a Friday night football game... I made the long walk from lot 1 at the AJ Simeon Football Stadium, stomach turning flips the whole time, wondering whether the blob of a human that I'd become would even be recognized.

The first time I looked down into the stands, I didn't recognize anyone, and I was sure that nobody had shown yet, and I was going to be stuck by myself until they arrived. Turns out, I just wasn't looking for people that had changed as much as I had.

I spent the night floating amongst the bleachers, making smalltalk with these people I hardly recognized. Each time I reintroduced myself, each time I shook a hand, and each time I met a spouse or a child, it got easier. And, though it took most of the evening, I began to really look forward to the meet and greet that was scheduled for the next night.

Arriving at High Point's String and Splinter Club on Saturday, I was beside myself with nerves. I knew there were going to be a lot of folks there that had not attended the game, so there were plenty of opportunities for disastrous reintroductions, and the same reticence from Friday was creeping in. Even though I had the RSVP list, I really didn't know who to expect, and more importantly, what to expect from them. Nevertheless, a couple of deep breaths later, in I went.

It's a strange thing when you see faces that have been absent from your life for that long. The waves of memories were irrepressible. For most of these folks, once I recognized them, there were stillframes and clips from my life that poured forth, from as far back as first grade. And, though not one of these memories was complete, they were suddenly fresh, like they'd happened just last year. All sorts of things... A joke told in the back of the band classroom. A party I went to. Even things as simple as a passing greeting in a hallway.

Now, among those newly fresh memories there was the crop of terrors that came back, too. Lots of embarassing moments. Lots of ill-spoken words. A terrifying presentation in class. A facefirst fall in the middle of the cafeteria. A date that never happened. Lots of things that I won't talk about here. For these, I expected to feel a lot of sorrow and resentment. I have always known these ghosts were there, and I was sure they would make an appearance.

But something unexpected happened. The fears came, but they didn't matter at all. They were rendered powerless because the same people I was once terrified among and embarrassed in front of were happy to see me. And, after twenty years. I was genuinely happy to see them.

We didn't have life-changing and enlightening conversation. There wasn't a late night recounting of the hundreds of stories from highschool years. And,, there were no confessions of years of undying secret love. There was just the togetherness. An acknowledgement that we had shared these years of experience, and a silent knowledge that, because of this, we really were of a common cloth.

I hadn't expected it, but there was comfort in being with these people. We had all been reduced down to what we all really are... just people getting older. But, despite fears and history, we were together again, and that reminded us that we were young once, and that we were young together.

02 July 2006

Welcome to Shangri-La

I keep hearing the same question... "So, is New Orleans getting better?" I know the answer, but it's hard to describe. If, like me, you live and love here, you know things are getting better... Slowly, like a child grows.

But, it's still plain to me that nobody outside has any idea how bad it still is here in my personal Shangri-La.

What do you think?

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28 April 2006

Another friend. Another story.

I apologize, but I had to write it down. It’s not complete. And, it may never be

I have a friend, Liz, with a green thumb like no other I’ve seen. Her modest home sits on small lot in Gentilly in New Orleans. The lot’s nice sized, relative to other lots in the city, but the back-forty, it’s not. Nevertheless, Liz has spent most of the time I’ve known her cultivating beautiful plants and flowers all around her place, transforming an average New Orleans home into a comfortable garden spot. When I would visit her, she always took me outside to show off he latest little victory. I was always amazed. “Oh, I got a million of ‘em!” she’d say.

I’m in her neighborhood again today, for the first time in eight months. I didn’t even recognize the place as I drove by. I had to turn around and creep up on the house, staring in disbelief the whole time. Not a live plant in sight. Not a human-raised plant, anyway. Gone are the azaleas, the lillies, the ferns, the sago palms and everything else Liz spent so many years cultivating. All replaced by a few wild weeds, with even fewer blooms.

Despite the structure that still stands, I do know that the home she had just doesn’t exist anymore. I know there are some of you who would say she got lucky, because she still has a home, when so many others are just vacant pilings or a concrete slab. I don’t know. I just know that this place doesn’t have the life that it once did. It seems to suck the happiness and hope from me.

I don’t see her around, but there are signs that she has been here. There’s a FEMA trailer out back. That might or might not be hers. She’s just the kind of lady that would let you park a trailer on her lawn. The dead plants are not just baking in the sun, they have been removed by someone, save a few stems and sticks, leaving empty beds and empty pots. The hose is stretched across her front lawn toward the dying trunk of a tree in one corner, evidence that its loving owner (or at least someone) has been making the last ditch effort to save something.

Her patio, once virtually invisible for all of the greenery that graced it, is barren, an empty flowerpot here and there, lake silt and floating pollutants not entirely cleaned away by the rains and winds since settling there nine months ago. In defiance of the disaster that has claimed nearly everything everyone in this area had, someone has attached a pair of wood clamps to the patio awning to suspend a flag.

The stars and bars, a proud symbol of an America that has forgotten her and her garden, hangs here blowing gently over the emptiness, its purpose reduced to a desperate reminder that someone was here.

30 March 2006

My Cup Is Empty

These cups should be filled with the sweet summer goodness that can only be had in New Orleans.

But they're not. And they never will be again.

I'm not talking about the snowballs. I'm talking about the feeling of love and community that came from the family store that made them, run by three generations of the finest folks I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. These cups were filled with that love. The best snowball money can buy... well, that was merely a garnish.

Ernest Hansen, the pleasant old guy on the cup, helped his wife Mary found the snowball stand back in 1939. He designed, built, and patented the machine that made her treats. And, he stood by her side until she passed on September 8, 2005, just nine days post-Katrina. Last night, a mere seven months later, Ernest passed on. He may very well have died of a broken heart.

He was the one with "the touch." When the machine acted up and nobody could get anything but chunks from its fickle blade, he'd make his way over, holding onto the counter the whole way, and he'd take the handle, and make the finest snow you'd ever seen outside of Colorado.

Ernest was very frail in late years. He would shuffle around the snowball shop (we called it a stand, but it was a whole walk-in building.), making those seemingly gruff comments about his protege's performance at the sno-bliz machine that only a man of his advanced age can make and get away with. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was simply getting a little senile and a lot crotchety. But it was really just his bent-over look that made him appear that way. When you got to talk to him, he'd look up at you through Coke-bottle glasses, start telling stories and just laugh the afternoon away with you.

It used to make me cringe when people would come to him, and speak loudly and as if they were speaking to a child. He seemed to tolerate it well. Especially so, since I have the good fortune to know that behind the failing eyes, and controlling the hands that shook as he reached to steady himself was a mind as sharp as anyone I know. Ernest just never missed a trick.

One summer, as the stand closed for the final time of the season, he was in the middle of telling me a story about a bear he'd seen at a hotel in Alaska. "Twenty feet tall," he'd said, holding his shaky hand high over his head. Now, at that time, I didn't see much of him off-season. So, the next time I saw him was the following May, on opening day. He got a look at me when I walked into the stand, and called me over.

"I know you don't believe me. But, I've got a picture I'll bring. Damn thing was twenty feet tall!" And again with the hand. Nine months, and he just picked it right up.

Like I said. He didn't miss a trick.

I'm not sure what it was about me that appealed to him... I'm not the easiest guy to get along with. Although, as I think of it now, perhaps that was why we got along. Whatever the reason, ever since the first time I came in the shop, he'd call me over and start talking about his travels around the world (which he actually did) or his time in The War (which he did not... at least not in the capacity that he always protrayed). Sometimes he'd show me a poem he'd written for Mary. Sometimes, it was a song. But he always made a point in using the brief time we had to share something of himself with me.

As I sit here typing, I can't help wondering how it is that I am going to enjoy summer afternoons in that sacred place without him. To this, I have no answer. All I know for sure is that I am thankful and honored to have been counted among his friends.

15 March 2006

What's in a Name?

"I am from New Orleans."

I've been in New Orleans for about eleven years now, and I always thought that as I stayed in New Orleans longer, I would feel better about saying I was from here. But, it never really happened that way.

This is one of the facets of life in New Orleans that is both endearing and annoying as all hell. The culture of New Orleans is so self-centric and self-aware that there is a birthright in the phrase "I'm from New Orleans," and those born here protect the right to say that phrase with a suprising ferocity. I'm sure a lot of Orleanians are not aware they are doing this, and even fewer are aware that it is anything like combative.

The first thing an Orleanian does when you tell him or her you're from the city is to ask polite but very telling questions like "Where'd ya go to school?" If you're not aware, the proper answer is not where you attended college, but rather what high school you attended. More often than not, it's expected your answer will begin with "Saint," or "Our Lady," Though there are more schools called by just a regular name in the burbs (even though they are spoken often with a silent "Archbishop").

Now, if you answer something they don't know, or just plain wrong, then it's assumed that you're really from elsewhere and that you don't know what it means to be a real New Orleanian. And it doesn't mean that they will be less friendly to you, just that you'll get a polite reminder that you are not from here and you can never be, and your conversation will carry on. The first time this happens to you, it can be a little disconcerting, and even a little hurtful. OK, not just the first time. If you're like me... every time.

So, eleven years after the first time I mistakenly informed someone I was from New Orleans, y friends say I have developed an Orleanian personality so true that it surprises people when I tell them I was born elsewhere. But, it doesn't surprise them enough to keep them from reminding me, "oh, I thought you was from here, baby." I'm not from here. I just live here. End of story.

Or, so it would seem. Enter Katrina.

My friends lost everything. Some of them lost everything in the sense that I talked about before... nothing but pilings or a slab. I saved everything... just in time to be forced to leave my home. My job is 1200 miles away. My remaining friends are scattered to the winds. My city looks like a bomb went off everywhere. Some of my favorite music, food, and places are never going to be seen again in the city. Businesses are leaving in droves. People are leaving faster.

And yet, I return to New Orleans. I return out of a sheer love for the city. Of the hundreds of things in my life that I could have or should have committed to, this city is the one that remains true. The life that people lead here is right for me. The people that live here are the people for me. The music that lives here is the music I love. The food here is my food. I have made an effort to immerse myself in her, and to know the city. My heart lives here. Belongs here.

That's something a lot of "real" New Orleanians can't say.

I was standing at Johnny White's on Mardi Gras day. (I know. It's redundant. Move on.) I was talking to a fellow who works at Ingalls Shipyards in Mississippi. We're talking because we work for the same Large Defense Contractor. He's from New Orleans. He's half drunk and asks me where I'm from. Oh, hell.

I say, "right here."

And it starts. "Really? Where'dja gotah school, pahdnuh?" So I tell him that I didn't go to school here, and when he presses further, I tell him that I came here eleven years ago.

"Aw hell, man, I thought you said you was from here! I'm talkin' generations, man!"

So I thought about it for a minute, and I told him he was full of shit.

"I am awful tired of that shit, man! Just 'cause you had the good fortune to have been born here doesn't make you any more from here than me!" I went on, making sure he understood that I was the one that kept his home in New Orleans. I am the one bringing his job back to the city. No matter how crappy life has gotten in the City on a day to day basis, I am coming back for good. I, and thousands more like me, are going to bring the city back to life.

I told him that gives me the right to say it. He didn't say much after that.

But, in retrospect, I think I was wrong. That simply makes it true.

I am from New Orleans.

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