My 5 Katrina 10th Anniversary stories, and TWO NEW BOOKS from Defend New Orleans

Feeling ambivalent, at best, about Hurricane Katrina’s 10th anniversary and the monetizing of said event as a writer, I wanted only to write AROUND Katrina, not address it directly. I didn’t totally stick to that plan but… I believe the work I did at least added to the conversation in unique ways, and I hope even a local who went through Katrina and never wanted to hear about it again might find the stories I did pick interesting.

The following is the complete list of stories (and TWO NEW BOOKS) I published to explore and commemorate Katrina’s 10th anniversary, and to honor the great city of New Orleans.

  • One of my two BRAND NEW BOOKS, Transport Instinct (Defend New Orleans), tells the tale of Chauncey Gardner, our first pet goat, who was born just in time to evacuate Katrina, and who died just before K10. He led a storied, Forest Gump-esque life, and even proved impetus for my family to start a goat-powered blight-fighting company. Chauncey’s story also slyly tells tale of what it’s been like living in the 9th Ward in the ten years after the flood: I also released

Or just sit back and enjoy–again–this video of prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison gambling, smoking crack, shooting heroin and playing with a loaded gun, all while saying “y’heard me” thousands of times (there’s never NOT a good time to watch this video again): 

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Panel discusses mental health and race in N.O. (Louisiana Weekly. July 2015).

Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry told the dozens assembled at the New Orleans Jazz Market in Central City on Tuesday, June 20 the story of Alfred Postell, picked up for homelessness in Washington D.C. and charged with sleeping outside a building. Postell wished to defend himself in court, having graduated from Harvard Law school in 1978—alongside Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. “Even with all his intelligence,” DeBerry came to his point, “he ended up on the streets in a very desperate situation.”

In honor of national Minority Mental Health Month, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hosted this panel regarding mental health and race in New Orleans. Led by DeBerry, the discussion, titled Minorities Use Mental Health Services Much Less than White Counterparts with Disastrous Consequences, also featured Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, forensic psychiatrist and New Orleans Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, retired Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson, NAMI board member and licensed professional counselor Chantrelle Varnado-Johnson, plus Charlotte Parent, director of health for the City of New Orleans, and Lisa Romback, NAMI’s local executive director.

Deberry began with a broad question: “What’s the difference between a white person and a person of color receiving treatment?” According to the NAMI, 40 percent of whites will seek mental health services, down 15 percent for African Americans and Latinos to about 25 percent, and even less for Asians. Because, NAMI claims, homelessness, family trauma, crime, and addiction all have roots in untreated mental health issues, New Orleans in particular would benefit from focusing on mental health.

Dr. Rouse, who ran the mental health division of the coroner’s office following Hurricane Katrina, explained that he and his office exist partly to help people get mental health aid. “One thing unique to NOLA: the coroners are also the goalies so to speak, the last ditch effort in someone not hurting themselves or others through substance abuse and mental illness,” Dr. Rouse explained. “It’s always better to want to get help…but some people don’t want the treatment…so as a last ditch effort a person can call the coroners office at 2 a.m. on Saturday morning or whatever, and we can start walking that person through the process of getting someone involuntarily committed.” Though extreme sounding, an order of protective custody, as it’s called, protects those with mental health issues from being labeled criminals, says Dr. Rouse: “An OPC is not a criminal charge and doesn’t go on a person’s record. It’s to get people into the treatment system so they don’t end up in jail…or in the back of my office. It’s kind of like an order to the police department so they pick the person up and take them to the hospital, not arrest them.” CLICK HERE to read the rest of this piece at Louisiana Weekly…

Or watch Dr. Craig Coenson discuss New Orleans’s mental health crisis in The Hot Seat: 

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Why Save-A-Lot Doesn’t Count in New Orleans’s Downtown Food Desert (Gambit Weekly. July 2015).

St. Roch resident David Roe says he lives in a food desert. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that’s not the case. The nearest food desert to the corner of St. Roch and St. Claude avenues, site of the recently opened St. Roch Market, starts just northeast of the census tract — pretty much at the front door of the Save A Lot grocery store on Almonaster Avenue, north of North Claiborne Avenue.

Whether an area is considered a food desert is determined by how many low-income residents live in each census tract, how many cars they own and the location of the nearest grocery store from the center of each tract. The last USDA map of food deserts was compiled from 2010 census data.

“We hope it is close to the truth,” says Shelly Ver Ploeg, an economist at the USDA. “We are in the process of updating the map for 2015.”

Ver Ploeg says she has no data before 2010, but that the New Orleans Healing Center’s Food Co-Op, which opened in 2009, may have eliminated the “food desert” designation from the area, even though prices are higher than in standard supermarkets. According to the USDA’s map, Save A Lot doesn’t help the St. Roch neighborhood, nor does it count toward the census tract where it is located.

“Our map doesn’t take the cost of the food into account,” Van Ploeg says, explaining that the area around that Save A Lot remains a food desert because the store sits more than 1 mile away from the center of its census tract.

The St. Roch Market — with its many prepared foods and chic displays — has been a controversial development in a neighborhood underserved by traditional supermarkets. But those who complain that the new St. Roch Market is not a grocery store, or that the New Orleans Food Co-Op across the street in the New Orleans Healing Center is too expensive, need travel only another six-tenths of a mile to the Almonaster Save A Lot, or 1 mile west to the smaller but locally owned Circle Food Store on North Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues. CLICK HERE to read the rest of this piece at Gambit Weekly…

Or watch this Save-a-Lot employee training video: 

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Quintron makes music with the weather – to forget the pain of lymphoma (The Guardian. May 2015).

The humidity peaks in the dark nightclub packed with hundreds of excited, drunk bodies, when New Orleans one-man-band Quintron turns the key on his “Drum Buddy”, lighting it up like a miniature aurora borealis.

One of several esoteric instruments Quintron has invented over the last 20 years,the Drum Buddy begins to spin beside his humming Hammond organ, emitting percussive analog bleeps and bloops.

With a magician’s grace, Q’s long hands manipulate the strange glowing totem, stretching the sawtooth notes. The crowd remains transfixed, focused on the Drum Buddy until the stage lights blast on, unveiling his puppeteer wife Miss Pussycat beside him, shaking her maracas in a hand-sewn, anthropomorphic dress. Quintron’s drum machine beat and the room’s barometric pressure drop simultaneously, and condensation gathers on the floor as dancing erupts.

This is what New Orleans music legends Mr Quintron and Miss Pussycat were born to do.

But their skies darkened in 2013 when, on the verge of a 40-city US tour, Quintron (born Robert Rolston) was diagnosed with stage-four lymphoma. He and Miss Pussycat quietly cancelled their tour, explaining why to as few people as possible.

“To be totally honest,” admits Quintron from his home in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, “I did another tour after I found out in the window before the chemo started. I brought all my friends to just forget everything. I didn’t give myself time to feel something. We called it the ‘Isle of Denial’ tour,” he says, appropriating the nickname given to the tiny area of New Orleans that didn’t flood in Katrina. “I had to cancel the last night, the Nashville gig, because I felt too sick. Not to sound heroic, but I played until I was about to die.”

The couple would perform just two or three more shows over the next year, including a cameo on David Simon’s HBO Katrina drama, Treme.

Miss Pussycat

Miss Pussycat.

Instead of lying in bed during his mandatory downtime, Quintron found solace in the creation of a new invention: the 7ft-tall Weather Warlock, a synthesizer that reads the outside temperature, wind, sunlight and rain, and reinterprets it as droning, oscillating “music”.

“I wanted its sounds to be mostly beautiful,” says Q, who sculpted the sound palette partly for his own therapeutic purposes. “When I first built it, it was screeching horror, white noise static, sharp-edged oscillations. I slowly worked it into what I wanted it to be: harmonious sounds. But I do still have some ugly ones – lightning would be one of those. And sometimes before sunset it emits some atonal surprising things.” CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THE PIECE AT The Guardian…

Or check out the Weather Warlock band at a church in Holy Cross, 9th Ward, New Orleans, LA: 

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Mad Mike, the homeless blogger who became a millionaire overnight (The Guardian. March 2015).

Missing the Austin ditch in which he’d slept most nights for the last two years, Mike Wille curled up on the front lawn of the large house his mother had just left him via her suicide note. Her death meant that Mike – known to fans of his street music and his homelessness blog, The Ground Score, as Mad Mike the Hippy Bum – would soon be a millionaire. Mad Mike worried that, given his love of drink and drugs, he could not survive such a lifestyle shift.

At birth, Mike’s left leg was shorter than his right by an inch, with no defined calf muscle and an under-formed foot sans big toe. When I visited his mother’s former home near New Orleans recently, he showed me a box of family papers he’d unearthed regarding the lengthening of his leg by the famous doctor Gavriil Ilizarov, who invented the procedure.

Still, the bum leg helped Mike nurture a negative outlook that, once he became teenager, fractured his relationship with his already volatile parents. “My mother was a fairly erratic person. Sometimes extremely benevolent and generous, other times scathingly cruel,” Mike told me. “When I was in the seventh grade, she tried to kill herself in front of me because I got a D in history and I said I didn’t care. Later we found her passed out in the garage with the car running and my dad freaked out, showing more emotion than I’d ever seen out of him.

“Things came to a head when I was 17 and had a fist fight with my dad, causing him to have me arrested. This was my first time in jail,” says Wille, who immediately moved out of his house. Mike has more recently written exquisitely about subsequent trips to jail (most for public intoxication) at The Ground Score:

Immediately upon entering, one of the prisoners, a skinny guy about my age, walked up to me, looked me in the eyes, extended his hand, and in a welcoming voice said, “Hi. My name is “John.” Now I knew I was in luck. Not only had I stumbled upon a harmonious pod, but also one which contained at least one smart inmate. If you ever go to jail, I recommend doing just what he did, and greet any unfamiliar inmate coming into your living space in exactly this way (almost any). You can learn a lot from a guy by presenting him with the option of civility.

I gave this gentlemen amongst the despondent a firm handshake and said, “Hey man. I’m Mike.” Over the next two nights I ate, slept, watched TV, read a book about Marlon Brando, and talked to John. A decent conversation is hard to find in jail, and I could tell he hadn’t had one in a while. As for me, it had probably been even longer. In this town, the only class of people less worthy of respect than prisoners, are the homeless.

Thanks to his blog, Mike received fan mail from Scotland, New Zealand, Latvia and the Ukraine. To a homeless bum, this meant everything.

Mike the homeless blogger
photograph: Jonathan Traviesa

Mike’s deceased mother’s house, a nicely appointed junior McMansion 45 minutes east of New Orleans, represents the first roof over Mike’s head in four years. Mad Mike spent the last 15 years blowing back and forth from Texas to his home state of Louisiana, surfing both couches and park benches.

I met him in New Orleans where he played music in the French Quarter – songs like I Love the Devil and Money For Drugs, which he’d specially designed to make shocked tourists pause. “But after I got them to stop I’d get them to listen to a more substantial song,” Mike clarifies, “usually getting them to tip more money or buy an album in the process.”

Wille, now 36, first played music on the street in Austin at the age of 19, and he ended up spending his last two years in a ditch there because it does not snow and the attitude is fairly liberal. That, and there are drugs on the ground, everywhere. “The main reason Austin is such an ideal place for ground scoring is that it’s a college town with a heavy drinking culture. Drunk young people love to buy drugs, but they aren’t always the best at holding on to them,” Mike explains. “So not a day went by that I didn’t find a few nugs and a pack of cigarettes.”

Highly intelligent, Mike could probably hold a job despite his handicap. He was not, however, what they call in New Orleans a “fauxbeaux”— one of those grungy traveler kids who begs for change even though they have a safety net.

Mad Mike chose homelessness, feeling cast out from normal society. Since it was technically his choice, Mike held onto a strict rule against ever bothering anyone, even for a cigarette. “As a homeless person I always tried to be self-sufficient and not reliant on others,” he says. “Partly because I’d found in the past that others are not always all that reliable. Also, I don’t like it when strangers come up and ask me for things, and can only assume other people feel the same way.”

As a result, Mad Mike became a highly skilled scavenger. During an early trip to Houston, he found $700 atop a toilet paper dispenser in the bus stop bathroom.Another time he found what he estimated to be $500 worth of crack cocaine, which he intended to sell but instead smoked with his musical partner Ray Bongin a single evening. Soon after, he sniffed out a bottle of Dom Pérignon 2005 from behind a restaurant’s dumpster.

His mother gave him his first laptop. They’d reconciled somewhat in the years since Mike’s 48-year-old oilman father died of cancer in 2001, leaving his mom a rich widow. She and Mike occasionally bonded by getting drunk together, but most of these hang sessions devolved into brutal, raging arguments. She gifted him the computer, unaware that any drug Mike found, whether or not he recognized the plant or powder, Mike would ingest and write about on his blog.

Mike daily sat outside on the back steps of an Austin coffeeshop with Wi-Fi, blasting out touching and hilarious stories; as such, he possibly was the world’s first homeless blogger. His direct, pathos-driven diary entries smirked along with what most would consider an extremely rough life. Mad Mike’s economy of words and life of hardship even reminded some of Bukowski.

With his writing, he was able to provoke in readers an empathy for homelessness that most Americans do not regularly feel. And to accomplish that, he gave deeply of himself. “I mean, what did I have to lose by telling everybody everything about my life?” Mike asked me as he sat on the throne behind his brand new DW drum-kit, and lit a cigarette in what was once his mother’s living room. CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THIS PIECE AT The Guardian…

Or watch this video of Mad Mike playing “I Just Want Yr Booty” under the bridge: 

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Dillard’s AfroAmerican Arts Fest, a precursor to Jazz Fest? (Louisiana Weekly. April 2015).

Beginning in February 1968, before “Negro History Week” eventually became Black History Month, the Dillard University group African Americans for Progress helmed the “Afro-American Arts Festival,” featuring various well-known and underground Black artists of all different mediums and genres. Some say Dillard’s AAA event inspired the Jazz and Heritage Fest, founded in 1970.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” says John Kennedy, the Assistant Archivist at Dillard who, fascinated by the AAA festival and why it went extinct, dug up yearbooks detailing the annual event. “It was basically the same thing Jazz Fest is now. It was a wide range of famous people from actors to singers, the prominent poets and cooks of that time. There wasn’t another major arts festival that drew in prominent Black artists of all types.”

Before Jazz Fest, there was the Afro-American Arts Festival

Carl Baloney, now a mortician in LaPlace, was a founding member of African Americans for progress in 1967. “I remember during college, we were mandated to go to church, and then after church they’d have entertainment for us, all paid by the Lyceum board. They’d have us watching some glee club or something from the North East, about 20 white boys trying to sing negro spirituals! We were like, ‘What the hell? This is our money being wasted. We need to bring in artists that represent us. Why can’t we get someone like Cannonball Adderly?’ We brought in everyone from Amiri Baraka, LeRoi Jones IV, Maulana Karenga who started Kwanzaa. We had local artists too: Earl Turbinton, Lady BJ, Tambourine and Fan was there with the Indians, and Danny Barker led a second-line around the campus.” CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THE PIECE AT Louisiana Weekly…

Or get down to the Staple Singers’ singin’ “Slippery People”: 

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New Orleans goes smoke-free: a breath of fresh air or a blow to its character? (The Guardian)

As of today, you can no longer legally smoke a cigarette inside a bar in the world’s drinking capital, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Perhaps you gasped upon reaching the very end of that sentence. City after city have dealt Big Tobacco the harsh blow of banning indoor smoking. But other cities don’t lure in tourist dollars by aggressively advertising a “do watcha wanna”, laissez les bon temps rouler, attitude. An indoor smoking ban here – which also forbids “vaping” – will reap consequences as unique as New Orleans’s cultural ecosystem itself.

“You just opened up a can of whupass on lots of neighbors in the city,” says Nick Scramuzza, one of three owners of Lost Love Lounge in New Orleans’s Marigny neighborhood. Scramuzza doesn’t look forward to the new noise complaints he’ll receive when half of his customers end up spending their time five feet outside his door (the legally mandated distance) enjoying that holy trinity of smoking, drinking and carrying on. Nor is he necessarily in favor of the government bossing everyone around in such a sweeping manner. “But I wake up with a hangover just from working around the smoke,” Scramuzza shrugs. “So I’m excited about the ban.”

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, New Orleans city government has, since Hurricane Katrina, begun trying to prune some of its cultural shrubbery, turning down the volume a bit. Abetted by uptight neighborhood groups, the city has begun policing bars and nightclubs more strictly, while at the same time fighting a protracted battle to implement a new “noise ordinance” (read: music ordinance) while also debating an impending Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance for the entire city that, to some residents’ dismay, creates more permissive music laws in some instances.

“This is just the wrong time for them to have pursued something like this,” rails William Walker, another of Lost Love Lounge’s owners who, for reasons of personal choice and personal inconvenience, hates the anti-smoking law. “Forcing people outside the bar to smoke is going to exacerbate the tension that’s already there. And when they look to fix that problem, what they will say is ‘no go-cups’, which the neighborhood groups are already working on …”

Lost Love Lounge lives in a relatively quiet residential-seeming neighborhood – as do many of New Orleans’s best bars and some of its live music spots. This neighborly coexistence is a big part of what makes New Orleans different, and charming like some alcoholic Sesame Street. Recently though, this unique social contract has become unacceptable for those they call nimbys (Not In My Backyard), and the fate of New Orleans’s musical personality feels at stake. CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST AT The Guardian…

Or watch this video of the SMOKING Time Jazz Club playing on Royal Street: 

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