Like much of the rest of the US, I was riveted to my TV set last year when Katrina hit- like watching a car crash, worse. As worried as I was about the state of this Nation, I quite honestly never thought I'd see citizens of the US stranded on rooftops and floating dead down the streets of one of America's most important cities. And, significantly, they were mostly people of color from low income neighborhoods. Any pretense that the US had finally risen above class and race was literally washed away along with the notion that the Federal government will protect us when we need it.
It was the kind of event that made me want to do something, physically do something. But I didn't know what to do. Then a couple of days after Katrina hit, I got an email from the folks at MoveOn.org about a website they were creating where people could list available housing for NOLA residents forced to flee. I remember that there was a lot of "whining" from the right wingers who comment on the HuffPo postings about the left's "pointing fingers" of blame for the NOLA tragedy and not actually doing anything to help the situation. Here was something that these "lefties" were actually doing, and it was very compelling.
In no time at all, thousands of people listed available housing. Most of these listings came from middle and low income (as usual) Americans, who were almost literally offering the shirts off their backs. I remember blogging on the HuffPo about a few of the incredible and heartfelt offerings:
"Offering my queen bed to one or two people who are in need...Don't have much to offer past a bed, shower, and warm meals."
"I live in a small 2 bedroom home. I figure a couple of people could fit in my Daughters room. It is not much, but it is available for someone who needs a place to stay."
"My wife and I have very limited space in our one bedroom apartment, but will be happy to have a mother and her child stay with us. We have a couch and an air mattress."
"Small but cozy one bedroom apartment...there are already two of us but we can offer the floor with a mattress and help you get back on your feet. I would never turn anyone away because you could be me if it were different circumstances."
Reading these very personal "ads" conveys "progressive values" at their best. And so, I decided to join the attempt and place the guest room I have here in Sunset Park, Brooklyn on the list.
Within a couple of days, I was contacted by a guy from NOLA who calls himself "Esquizito" - his stage name, a jazz musician (You can hear some of his new, post-Katrina music on his website: www.esquizito.com) Real name: Eric Paul Perez. I can't tell you how, but I just knew, through his emails, that we would get along and it would work out. Can you feel these things through the net ether?
Sort of ironically, he arrived at my place on September 11th, after having stayed with various friends in the South, with his rottweiler Dorian, two brown bags full of clothes and his guitar.
Eric picked up a couple of gigs in NYC, but obviously, his ability to make a regular living in NOLA was gone. Frantic calls were made to find out about his friends and other musicians, people who hadn't yet been located.
Esquizito and I became fast friends, and I think it's fair to say we're part of each other's "family." I went to my first Mardi Gras this year and stayed with Eric, whose house had sustained roof and other damage, but was mercifully spared major flooding.
We got a call from the MoveOn staff about a book of housing "stories" they were working on, and they asked us to be in it. That book, which includes 29 stories in all, will be "officially" released on August 29th, Katrina's 1 year anniversary. Titled, "It Takes a Nation: How Strangers Became Family in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina," it's a hopeful look at the powerful response, not of our morally bankrupt federal government, but of regular Americans. There a "pdf" version available on MoveOn's website - here's the link.
Eric and I are the last story in the book.
So, on this anniversary, Eric and I are going to share this posting - one year later, what's really going on in NOLA? How has it been "getting back to normal," and what does that mean?
As a matter of fact, Eric and I are going to try to give our own NOLA/NYC perspective on things over the course of the next few months. We're not sure how this will work out or what it will sound and look like, but it's our small way of keeping the connection going, and of keeping the actual residents of NOLA in our collective consciousness.
On this sad anniversary, I'll be quiet now and let Eric do the rest of the talking:
Eric Paul Perez aka Esquizito:
I am thrilled and honored to have this forum and I greet all of you with a full, though weary heart; full of the love that is present in this city - this town, really (it was a town, always, prior to Hurricane America.) But weary from the work it takes to manage one's life here - particularly mine.
As always, I encourage everyone to come to New Orleans - any time, not only to see what has been done to her, and what has not been done, but to also share in the love that is among the residents now here. Generally speaking, if one is here now, then one's presence is intensely meaningful. There are two camps of New Orleanians, those of us who were here before 8/29, and those here in some capacity because of the storm. The most notable now: Military Police. HumVees are a common sight again, and apparently will be for a while. Some have speculated that it's just the beginning -- though it's not the first time New Orleanians have had their way of life interrupted by the United States Military.
But I come from a long line of "uppity Creoles" and I stand on the shoulders of my Ancestors. You know, we have a respectful mourning period - one year and one day. The above ground tombs that are but one of our landmarks were not to be opened for that time period following an interment. This made for a dilemma during the several epidemics that routinely attacked the population only a little over a century ago. What was the solution? Holding Tombs. That is - if a second, or third family member, was stricken during the mourning period, the newly deceased could be interred in a separate tomb until the year and a day had come and gone.
It seems that many, including me, are ready and willing to approach the reality of our surroundings with a different attitude following the anniversary of the storm; on August 31st, our traditional year and a day period of mourning will be officially over.
It was apparent months ago that we would be "on our own" here. We cannot sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is probably the only explanation for their admission of inadequacy. Strangely enough, we are quite accustomed to being on our own and, admittedly, in a way, that's our desire.
See, perhaps the most threatening force that New Orleans has always represented is freedom... unapologetic and "unrespectable" freedom; "unrespectable" with regard to bourgeois notions of propriety, but ultimately the most respectable because of its honesty and courage in the face of hypocrisy and of the mundane. New Orleanians don't wait for someone to grant them freedom - we create our own. It's why Homer Plessy decided that he would buy a 1st Class ticket and board a passenger train that had been designated, by a new set of laws laid down by state of Louisiana in 1892, for whites only. (He boarded the train just blocks from my doorstep.)
This force is the same spirit that led some musicians in town about 100 years ago to play military marches and hymns not in the way that was taught to them, but in a way that would most satisfy their souls. We have hungry souls here. The folks down here don't wait for the authorities to hand out food and water, or clean and dry shoes and clothes that are on the other side of a locked door.
New Orleans confronts America - it always has and it always will. Thus, we fully realize what we are dealing with.
In essence, there is nothing really new about the new New Orleans. Our culture, this honest and unapologetic culture, has always been the bane of America's existence - but a desirable one as long as it can be profitable. Indeed, the Port of New Orleans is still very much profitable - thus, I and others wonder: just what is the plan for New Orleans?
Many have heralded the arrival of National Guard MPs, even though they apparently have been given directives to issue traffic tickets for running red lights that haven't worked consistently for several months now. There are also those of us who are staying vigilant with regard to their long-term maneuvers. A friend, and younger brother of a former New Orleans mayor, has speculated that if conditions grow more critical in this city due to more powerful storms, and the loss of wetland protections and inadequate levees - (we apparently can withstand our local flavor of corruption) - then Washington will have no choice but to turn the Port into a military base in order to maintain the flow of goods and... sho'nuff - oil.
But who has time to speculate? Most of us here are simply making it day to day, managing the unmanageable and of course, loving along the way - every day. We have always been aware of our precarious existence, and now more than ever, we are living life fully and wonderfully unrespectably. It would not be correct to say that we are attack by the forces of nature - indeed I love and respect those forces more and more everyday. They wake me with music in my head, and they grant me desires that I never could have imagined.
These same forces impacted on a black, bastard-child who didn't finish the 7th grade - who dug around in trash heaps for food, who tried his hand at pimping (and failed miserably) but who eventually went on to change the world. That was Louis Armstrong. He was born in New Orleans, and through his music, and his writings, his legacy of unapologetic "unrespectability" will live forever. This legacy is highly threatening, but it will continue to impact generations to come with its message of love, freedom, and greatness in the face of mediocrity.
Eric Paul Perez -- "Esquizito" -- is a vocalist guitarist who performs jazz and blues in an uncommon league. He is planted in the firm tradition of three generations of jazz music and seeks to find a sound never heard before. Esquizito makes his home in New Orleans and comes from a long line of Creoles that include cornetist Manuel Perez, and saxophonist Harold Dejan. His vocal style contains all the subtlety, nuance and feeling of the "classic era" of American song, yet does not stagnate in a sentimentality of days gone by. After studying arranging and composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he temporarily relocated to NYC, where he performed extensively as a solo artist, before returning to his ancestral home of New Orleans. He's performed with a wide variety of other artists, including Ellis Marsalis, Jason Marsalis, Betty Shirley, Katrina Geenen, the Lavender Light Gospel Choir, and M*Thang. Find out more and listen to some of his tunes online: www.esquizito.com