[LONG VERSION] On the Death of Jonah Bascle, comedian, filmmaker, activist, rabble rouser. (Vice. December 2014).

CLICK HERE to read the official version of this eulogy/obit at VICE. The following is an extended version of the VICE obit, meant for Jonah’s friends and family.

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New Orleanians shed a tear this week upon the death of 28-year-old Jonah Bascle, local artist, comedian, filmmaker, activist and rabble-rouser. Jonah also happened to roll in a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy, which began attacking Jonah when he was ten years old. jonah for mayor button I felt anxious and melancholic, rolling up in front of the old three-story house occupied still by Jonah’s parents, Sue and Jimmy Ford, and their surviving sons Frankie Ford (20), and Jonah’s brother by Sue’s ex Barry Bascle, Jesse Bascle (29). Jesse also lives with muscular dystrophy, and drives the same Quantum model wheelchair Jonah did. On the street outside sat the family’s two huge European-style Sprinter vans, big enough to stand up in, or haul two 375-pound wheelchairs plus your mom and dad’s band equipment. In their driveway sat the giant pink and black Mardi Gras float that Sue and Jimmy ride each year as Pink Slip, the first rock band to ever play in the traditional, big parade routes. I sat for a minute in my running truck, not looking forward to going in and talking to Jonah’s two young brothers about the most depressing thing they’ve ever had to face. But when I turned the engine off, the loud drums and distorted bass blasting from the big house’s front practice room put my heart at ease.

Jonah Bascle attended high school at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), which boasts graduates from Harry Connick Jr. to a Marsalis brother or two. Jonah spent those days at Math and Science charter high school, before being transported to NOCCA after lunch to study visual art. He later switched to filmmaking. Neither Jonah nor Jesse opted to finish high school, but no one had to worry whether the boys would get an education. “Jonah taught himself everything he could,” says Frankie Ford. “Near the end he got really into the cosmos, and learned everything about black holes, and Stephen Hawking.”

Being funny was always important to Jonah. When Sue first brought Jimmy Ford home to the kids in 1993, they liked him enough, but Jonah had a serious question for his mother: “Do you think he’s funnier than me?” Jonah didn’t roll onstage at his first official comedy gig until mere weeks before Katrina’s flood filled his family’s Uptown house in 2005. After Katrina, Jesse and Jonah were mandated to live in Lafayette because their bodies couldn’t handle New Orleans’s overabundance of post-flood mold. “One night in Lafayette we were watching TV, and Jonah got really mad at me for laughing at this comedian he thought wasn’t funny,” remembers Jesse. “I mean, just really mad because I was enjoying something he thought was stupid. He yelled at me, ‘I could do that!’ And I said, ‘You’re not doing it though.’ And he went into his room and slammed the door…and started writing jokes.”

“You know, if you have sex with a person in a wheelchair, you get a tax break,” was one of Jonah’s better ones. Another more Andy Kaufman-esque conceptual piece involved Jonah rolling up to the stage and struggling to adjust the microphone, as if he just couldn’t manage. Beforehand, a friend would set a small table on stage topped with a glass of water so that Jonah’s wheelchair could bump the table over, and he’d bumble and stumble trying to fix it. Inevitably, sympathetic audience members would stand and approach Jonah to help. “No, no! I can do it!” Jonah would shout, and continue to simulate pitiful struggling. Sometimes people howled with laughter. Just as often, no even one caught on that he was acting out a concept. Either way, Jonah, Jesse, Frankie, Jimmy and Sue found it hilarious every time.

Jonah’s comedy didn’t fixate on his wheelchair, however. He peppered the handicap jokes in artfully—though he almost always closed his stand-up sets with, “I started taking Ambien because I heard it makes you walk in your sleep.” Jonah’s doctor didn’t laugh at that joke during Jonah’s recent last days in the hospital. In his weakened state but still smiling, Jonah, air tube down his throat, scrawled on a piece of paper for the doctor, “It’s a good joke, you just don’t get it.” It's a good joke you just don't get it In the years after Katrina, New Orleans hosted maybe one weekly open-mic standup comedy night–until a small band of local comics including Jonah began building a real comedy scene. Jonah helped establish and produced the “Comedy Catastrophe” night at the Lost Love Lounge in Marigny. These days, New Orleans is a minor comedy mecca, where amateurs choose from tons of clubs and event nights to practice their jokes. Most recently, Louis CK, Hannibal Buress and Zach Galifianakis have at various times done weekslong impromptu runs in New Orleans, presumably working on standup specials that they will later share with millions. They all followed in Jonah’s wheelchair.

Though Jonah Bascle would prefer to be known as a creative and artistic force, he got more press—tons of press, really—for advocating in extreme but thoughtful ways for wheelchair access, mostly in places where it was already mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jonah could have sued many establishments to make his point, but instead he and his family spent many hours building and painting wheelchair ramps personalized to each of Jonah’s favorite bars and comedy clubs. The “Ramp It Up” project, as it was officially known, served as a precursor to Jonah’s mayoral run in 2010 on a wheelchair advocacy platform, and under the slogan, “I Will Stand Up For You!” ramp outside the kingpin bar

Jonah’s most widely covered advocacy stunt involved the brothers parking their wheelchairs across both lanes of tracks on St Charles, stopping the streetcar for four hours. The RTA, which runs the streetcar, suggested the police not arrest Jesse and Jonah, but the city didn’t have a wheelchair accessible car anyway, nor was the jail equipped either; the boys would have been detained in a hospital room. The St. Charles line became Jonah’s primary target because it connected his Uptown home with almost every major neighborhood in the city, and thus every New Orleans comedy club. “Essentially he couldn’t get to what he felt was his job,” says Jesse. The wheelchairs’ batteries can take them in a six-mile radius of the brothers’ house. Jonah was fully capable of getting himself beyond that by himself—if only the St Charles streetcar had wheelchair lifts. In the last days of Jonah’s life, mayor Mitch Landrieu awarded Jonah a proclamation for his artistic contribution and his wheelchair advocacy. Neither the mayor nor the city have done anything else to honor Jonah’s wishes though. “We’re gonna bring Jonah’s ashes for a ride on the St Charles streetcar,” Jimmy joked to me in the darkest days after Jonah’s death, “since he never got to ride it his whole life.”

Because of Jonah, the city did mandate one single taxi with a wheelchair lift. “But I’ve never gotten it to actually come get me,” attests Jonah Bascle, chuckling because his life has been full of such bullshit. “I tried when Jonah was in the hospital. It was two hours late when they called me and said ‘it’s gonna be a while.’ It just never came.” Jonah had the bright idea to sign Jimmy Ford’s big Sprinter vans up to drive for Uber! But Uber rejected the Sprinters as “too old,” built as they were in 2004. Before Jesse told me all this, I’d never really considered how many people like Jonah and Jesse must be out there, raring to go out and live normal lives, but stuck at home because the city won’t do its job. Jonah’s handicap did not define him though. It merely added a layer of meaningfulness to all the great contributions he made. The Ford/Bascle household has always been one of the happiest I’ve ever witnessed.

Sue remarried to Jimmy Ford in 1993. Frankie was born very soon after. Jesse and Jonah—huge football fans like everyone in their house–were healthy and playing sports up until the ages of 8 or 9. “We would play sports with the kids in the neighborhood, but eventually it got to be unfair,” says Jesse Bascle. “So we just continued playing sports, just the two of us. That made it more fair.” In 2007, doctors installed a pacemaker and defibrillator in Jonah’s chest. Wheelchairs became necessary when the boys were 18 and wanted to attend college, Jesse at University of Lafayette, and Jonah at UNO for one year. Jimmy recalls with love how, “I just had a regular van at the time, and even just going for a trip to the store, we’d have to take the backs seat out, then you gotta lift two 375 pound wheelchairs in, then carry the boys and put em in the front seats. Everywhere you go, it was like moving a circus.” Though the family was forced to rebuild their house after Katrina (construction is still ongoing), the flood also provided them with insurance money to put toward buying the Sprinter vans that changed their lives.

And life was pretty good, until six weeks before this Thanksgiving Jonah’s heart began to weaken. At the hospital, Jonah’s health seemed to improve, but not the doctors’ attitudes and predictions. This might have served as a grim scene for some families but the Ford/Bascle clan’s wild charm took over Jonah’s whole floor. “Especially over Thanksgiving man, Jonah’s room, it was like a rave was going on,” brags Jimmy. “We had loud music, and they let us have a little bar and we were making cocktails for everyone. We should have charged admission to Jonah’s room.” Jimmy has traditionally served the family’s not insubstantial housewife role, while Sue is always away working her ass off as an artist in the Louisiana’s bustling film industry. Sue’s boss let her leave work and build props in Jonah’s hospital room: a replica “quiver,” like what Native Americans kept arrows in. During Jonah’s last days, Sue finally told him that he was funnier than Jimmy. After Thanksgiving, Jonah chose to take his breathing tube out, and signed a “do not resuscitate” order.

“He knew he couldn’t just live forever in the hospital. And he knew that if you want a miracle, you have to…” Jimmy trails off.

While over at their house—honored to have been let inside their family bubble at all–I  didn’t even try and talk to Sue Ford. She came home from work during our interview and walked through the kitchen without looking up. As the father of two girls myself, Sue is a parenting idol of mine, and I didn’t need to feel that sadness emanating her in person to know that a mother’s pain always runs deepest. But the rest of the family was happy to talk about Jonah. Despite that Jesse has lost his shadow, he and Frankie and I had a genuinely “fun” time talking about it all—because this is how they are. And this is how Jonah was. Jimmy Ford gets super happy describing the elaborate nature of Jonah’s upcoming jazz funeral, this December 28. And so I left the Ford/Bascle house feeling mostly uplifted, almost happy—because despite the tragic loss of Jonah, his surviving family remains the opposite of torn apart. Even in the face of such loss, they remain a perfect family.

(I didn’t have a picture that included Frankie, sorry Frankie.) jonah, jimmy, sue, jesse (everyone but frankie)

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The story of U.N.L.V.: Uptown Niggas Livin Violent (Narratively. November 2014).

New Orleans Rapper Tec-9 steps onto a helicopter to be flown to his lucrative gig. He’s been off work for two weeks but is about to embark on twenty-eight straight days of giving people what they need. “Mondays I cook anything I want. Tuesday is steak day. Wednesday I cook whatever I want. Thursday I cook what I want. Friday is seafood day. Saturday is steak day again,” says Tec, one half of the famous New Orleans gangsta bounce group U.N.L.V., “and Sunday is fried chicken day.”

Tec-9, a.k.a. Reginald Manuel, spends most of his time offshore, cooking for an oil rig’s crew — one of the few ways he could figure to make over $60,000 a year, enough to continue paying for whatever luxuries he got used to in the ’90s as a star on the fledgling Cash Money label.

“When I get jazzy with it I have a Mercedes R35, sitting on 22s,” says Tec. But today he meets me at the Burger King in his gimpy Ram 1500 work truck. He wants to take our hood history tour in my similarly shitty Ram truck. “My A/C is broken,” he tells me.

“So is mine,” I tell him.

“My transmission burnt too,” he says.

I don’t know what that means. But my truck runs fine, so I first follow him to his lil girl’s mama’s house around the corner. Tec pops into her small shotgun shack for a moment, then comes out and hops into my beater: “I only had one cold tea left. You want this cold beer?” He offers me a tall boy of Olde English 800. I have not had OE since college, and though it’s very presumptuous of him to think I’d drink malt liquor at all, much less during the daytime while driving, I thank him and crack it open.

Tec-9 has agreed to lead me on a tour of sites important to the career of his twenty-two-year-old rap group (now a duo) U.N.L.V. As teenagers in the early nineties, U.N.L.V. members Tec-9 and Lil Ya copped their name from their favorite college sports team, but then told the world it stood for “Uptown Niggas Livin Violent.”

“We started out as the Sporty MCs: Polo Pete and MC Food,” Tec laughs, flashing a bottom row of gold teeth.

“We was positive rappers then, we rapped about black situations, what crack cocaine and drugs do to you,” recalls Lil Ya (Yaphet Jones) via phone from Houston, where he’s lived with his kids since 2007, commuting often to New Orleans.

“A guy called Everlasting Hitman — deceased, rest in peace — he was one of the first people I knew who started doing gangsta rap in the bars,” Lil Ya continues. “Then everyone started doing it. We were better at it than any of those other guys, and the positive rap wasn’t poppin’ anymore. People didn’t want to hear that.”

Violence, too, was trendy in the Crescent City at the time and the Sporty MCs’ transformation into Uptown Niggas Livin Violent was inspired as much by New Orleans’s early ’90s crime stats. “We were the murder capital in 1994,” Lil Ya says, as if reminiscing about a championship season. The Sporty MC’s “black situations” were traded out for explicit lyrics like…

I got a bitch named Carrol
Fucked her in the ass with my double barrel
She enjoyed it a LOT
While I was fucking her with the barrel she was sucking the chrome of my glock

— “My 9” (1993) CLICK HERE to read the rest of the piece at Narratively…

Or listen to UNLV’s entire “Mac, Melph, Caliope” album on YouTube: 

Posted in Famous People I Have Met, MPW's published writing, new entries for upcoming "New Orleans: the Underground Guide" | Leave a comment

A Rape Changed Things Forever at New Orleans’s Country Club (Vice. November 2014).

This summer, Maria Treme was dru​gged and sexually ​​assaulted at the Country Club, a clothing-optional pool and bar in New Orleans’s Bywater neighborhood. On June 30 she spent several hours there, soaking up rays in the buff while sipping margaritas. Then, at some point, she blacked out. According to WWL TV, Treme didn’t remember paying her piddly $36 bar tab, or signing the credit card slip for another, more expensive, tab later. She remembers little besides waking up in her bed at home, bruised, beside a bottle of lube she did not recognize. Also, her car was gone.

When Treme returned to the Country Club to start piecing together the events with the venue’s concerned staff, ​she was shocked to watch a video of herself that she didn’t remember. After speaking to witnesses, she pieced together the horrifying fact that she had had sex in the pool with one man, sex in the sauna with another man, and then left the Country Club wrapped only in a towel with a third man.

This mysterious assault has made her life harder in all the expected ways—and then the city’s Alcohol and Beverage Control Board reacted to her allegations by dangling the Country Club’s alcohol permit over the club, threatening to take it away unless they made their clientele put their clothes back on. This misguided punishment led some in the community to harshly blame the already distraught Treme for ruining a New Orleans “tradition.”

Now the 31-year-old feels uncomfortable on the streets of the city where she was born and raised and suffers from panic attacks. Still, Treme refuses to remain quiet about what happened to her. Most rape victims’ names are concealed by the authorities, but Treme has spoken out and let her photo be published in order to empower other rape victims. “You’re always told you need to talk about your feelings,” Treme told me on the phone. “You’re told that talking is the only thing that will make you feel better—except in cases of sexual assault, then people shame you into silence.”

The beautiful Italianate raised center hall cottage that is now the Country Club was built in 1884. In 1977 it was officially but quietly established as a clothing-optional pool and bar unofficially but specifically for gay men. Attorney Jacqueline McPherson purchased the property in 1978 and expanded and added upon the pool area, which now has many private nooks and crannies. By the time McPherson sold the place in 2000, the Country Club had become ground zero for the gay-friendly Marigny neighborhood in the summers and for visitors during the Southern Decadence festival and other gay New Orleans holidays.

When I asked an older gay friend his thoughts on the Country Club for this article, he said only, “I went rarely; I’m just not that into public sex.” CLICK HERE to read the rest of this article at VICE…

Or check out the Country Club’s “drag brunch”:

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Six stories from travel site NewOrleans.me (Oct/Nov/Dec)

1) About the film “Oil & Water,” which explores the complicated relationship between indiginous Louisiana Cajuns, and the oil industry: http://www.neworleans.me/journal/detail/743/Oil-Water-Explores-Cajuns-and-Oil-industry

2) An overview of Filipino History in New Orleans: http://www.neworleans.me/journal/detail/761/NOLA-Filipino-History-Stretches-for-Centuries

3) About the funky, homemade “Blues Museum” in Algiers Point: http://www.neworleans.me/journal/detail/790/Blues-Folk-Art-in-Algiers

4) About the recent French-inspired “Luna Fete” light projection week at Gallier Hall: http://www.neworleans.me/journal/detail/779/The-City-Is-The-Stage-At-LUNA-Fete

5) About the GrisGris Strut’s call out for teen members for its dance troup and marching band: http://www.neworleans.me/journal/detail/798/Gris-Gris-Strutting-Their-Stuff

6) Railing agains the ferry’s truncated hours, and biggin up First Friday in Algiers Point: http://www.neworleans.me/journal/detail/800/The-Ferry-And-First-Fridays-on-the-Point

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[unedited 3,500 word version] Alligator Hunting With Dee Slut (Vice. Oct. 2014)

Decorated in alligator bones, Spanish moss and lazy outdoor cats, Dave Turgeon’s beautiful swamp shack in Lafitte, Louisiana sits at the end of a bleached white oyster shell driveway that his family laid down by hand. Today, fifty-one-year-old Turgeon readies the small, army green mudboat in his yard, four days into September’s month-long alligator hunting season, a lucrative period that helps assure his swampland is more than just a huge tax burden.

Turgeon has been known for the last 35 years as Dee Slut, legendary lead singer for New Orleans punk band, The Sluts. He still looks the part in his ripped denim outfit and crumpled straw cowboy hat, even if his long, stringy hair is now grey, and his back has been so broken by hard work that he can no longer rage on stage. In Lafitte though, he is just one of many residents who make their living off land that they own – in Turgeon’s case, 5,200 acres of swamp purchased by his family at a tax auction in 1910.

Turgeon’s heavily bearded, 23-year-old son Reed appears, walking on the oyster shells that lead from the Acadiana-style treehouse he is building for himself around back. Reed is wearing his swim trunks, “In case I have to get down in the water with an alligator today,” he says, not joking.

A man Dave’s age who wants to hunt alligators definitely benefits from having a young son, like all the hunters on the popular cable TV reality show Swamp People doWhile readying the mudboat, we all discuss the program, which pits the swamp against the people who inhabit it. Reed claims the show is only about 80-percent real, still he’s happy for its effects on the region. “It’s amazing, the world’s sudden fascination with Louisiana culture,” says Reed, who is a little crestfallen when I tell him it can probably be attributed more to Hollywood’s fascination with Louisiana’s Digital Media Tax credits, which make filming here a bargain; 2013 was the first year that more movies were filmed in Louisiana than California. 

The Turgeons have tried everything to make their swamp profitable. They recently ditched their seafood delivery business because “our love for it died,” says Reed, though his dad cites, “lower catch, higher prices.” They are getting permitted and insured for dolphin and birding tours and canoe rentals. At one point they were even pitching a fishing show that would take one local musician and one Bourbon Street stripper out on a boat with a cooler full of beers. “It would have combined all of the Louisiana clichés into one show,” jokes Dave.

The Turgeons have hunted gators for three years now. Dave spent last year’s gator profits on the new mudboat he now pulls behind The Sluts’ old gray Econoline van, a vehicle he starts not with a key but a small metal rod he sticks directly into the engine. His driver’s side window is rolled up but busted out at the bottom, creating a sharp M of glass that threatens to jab into the top of his straw cowboy hat when he sticks his head out the window to back his boat down into the water.

Dave tells me he’s taken many journalists, photographers and other gawkers out on his two-seat boat. He gives them the best spot, in between his legs as he steers. Reed barely fits in the very back with gas tanks and burning hot exhaust pipes. Looking around me, I have no idea where they’d put even a small gator in this tiny boat.

Various long-dead pipes and wellheads protrude from the water everywhere. The oil companies have promised to remove the gear, but who knows when. They’ve offered Dave’s family a couple million dollars to relinquish all liability. “Now they’re doing directional drilling, from where we launched at,” Dave explains. “We’re getting money for that, but out of that you’ve got to pay lawyers, and make deals with the people who make the deals, so the money just gets distributed down the line. No one around here’s getting rich like before.” They’ve had no real environmental problems, at least not with the current company. “The biggest damage was done when they dug canals in 1950s to get oil barges in and out,” says Dave. “I don’t think they meant any harm, but the canals created stagnant areas where the water and nutrients couldn’t flow through.” Like a lot of rural Louisianans Turgeon has what might seem like an odd tolerance for the oil industry. “We all use the oil and gas, and drilling has definitely lifted more people out of poverty,” he says. “So I don’t want to badmouth the industry.

Turgeon’s boat has a special Subaru truck engine under his seat that helps him cut through the invasive plant-life so dense it makes the water look more like verdant dry land. Locals trace the hyacinth back to the World’s Fair held in New Orleans at Audubon Park, where it was used for decoration at the century’s turn—if not for that Fair, Dave would be driving a different type of boat. In the last couple of years, the spaces between the hyacinth have been filled in by giant salvinia. When the invasive salvinia clumps together thick like cabbage, regular grass begins to grow up from the center, forming faux-wetlands. “It’s actually great for coastal restoration,” says Reed. His dad cuts him off: “It’s a real mess, actually. It means at least one less area we get to hunt this year,” says Dave Turgeon who, in contrast to his tolerance of the oil industry’s effects on his land, assumes that the new salvinia plague was caused by, “Some asshole emptying his aquarium into the water.”

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All this invasive water foliage seems to cry out for the helpful destruction of nutria rats, but we don’t see even one all day. Dave explains: “The alligator was overhunted and so the muskrat took over, chewing the marsh down like goats, and so the muskrats were trapped. A lot of marketing was done for the furs, and that’s when the nutrias were brought in–partly for their furs, since so much was made from Muskrats. But unlike muskrats, the nutria actually dig plants up by the root, taking out much more than they eat.” In 2000, aU.S. Geological Survey stated that nutria, “feed on vegetation that is vital to sustaining the Louisiana coastline. Their eat-outs create openings in the marsh vegetation… With Louisiana’s coastal wetlands converting to open water at a rate of 25-35 square miles (65-91 square kilometers) each year, nutria are an additional burden to an already stressed ecosystem.” Nutria became so problematic that local police began hunting the giant bucktoothed rats as part of their job description.

“Unfortunately, my grandfather was one of the people who thought the nutria was a good thing,” says Dave, whose grandfather first released nutria in this very swamp—the problem started here. By now though, the increased alligator population, plus the government’s five-dollar-per-tail incentive (for land-owning-or-leasing, specifically licensed hunters only) has put a remarkable dent in local nutria numbers. The Sluts even have a song about it:

Nutria, nutria, I shoot you in the head

I push pull my pirogue to see if you are dead

I throw you in the truck, take you down the road

I’m gonna sell yo ass for three dollar

Yeah I’m gonna sell yo ass for three dollar

One would think that living off the fruits of your own land might be a way to escape the world’s bureaucracy, but Turgeon’s life is one of constant governmental hoop-jumping: permits, insurance, taxes. Turgeon wouldn’t be allowed to hunt gators on his own land if his taxes weren’t paid up. Insurance costs thousands of dollars, and permits cost $25 per person–because I have neither, the men won’t even let me pass raw chicken to them on the boat. “Wildlife and Fisheries first does an aerial inspection to count the alligator nests. The more nests they see, the more alligator tags they are gonna give you,” explains Dave, who this year got 47 tags. “If you don’t kill 47 gators, you don’t get as many next tags next year.”

Today the Turgeons will check 25 different gator lines, each baited with a large piece of raw chicken hooked on a thick line dangling from the end of a 15-foot pole. Many gator hunters use PVC poles, but in an attempt to get as close to nature as possible, Turgeon uses green bamboo he grows at home for the purpose. We smell the rotting flesh as Turgeon’s boat breezes past two or three of the dangling, uneaten chicken he hung out yesterday. A couple of the lines are down in the water, with the bait missing but no gators. “We get a lot of lines that are knocked down where they’ve dragged it onto the shore and the chicken’s gone,” Reed tells me. “They might knock it off with their tail. Some of them learn to nibble.”

“You don’t get to be 80 to 100 years old by being stupid,” his father adds.

The fifth line is down and taut. “There is a big one that lives around here,” Reed tells me as we approach the line. “Last year he straightened a hook. It’s gotta be at least ten feet to straighten a hook.” Reed grabs the line and pulls, but it won’t budge. Wincing, he runs his hand down it into the water.

“We caught a 10-footer yesterday,” Dave tells me as his son blindly searches for the line’s end. “He was a fighter. When I shot him, he was so big, I thought I was shooting the back side of his head, but I accidentally shot in front of his head.”

“The bone sprayed my eyes,” Reed laughs nervously, feeling around in the water. “I had bone in my eyes and mouth. It hurt, like a bullet ricocheting and hitting my lip.”

“Usually they are pretty docile because they’ve swallowed a hook and its been rippin em up inside,” adds Dave. “They’re pretty chilled out then. If it’s a fresh hook, they’re still pretty alive and you’re in for a fight.”

Reed’s face relaxes as he finally unhooks the line from a log.

*

Dave tiny boat whizzes on past all the chicken parts still hanging in the air. The Turgeons wonder aloud if I am not bad luck. As they check more fruitless lines and rebait stripped hooks, a carpet of black clouds rolls in overhead. “When there’s thunder and lightening, they reaact like a dog; they get uncomfortable and move around a lot,” says Dave. “Instead of sitting on the bank, they swim around their canal, their territory, and basically they’re worried.”

Finally it starts to rain on us. The water is strikingly cold for August, still I laugh at Dave’s overreaction to the chill as he pulls the boat under some trees. “Hey man, I slept in a van in New York in the middle of the winter when The Sluts were on tour in the 80s,” he snaps back. “I know from cold.” Luckily the squall lasts under 20 minutes, just long enough to thoroughly soak our clothes cold.

The clouds remain dark as we head off to check the rest of the lines. The Turgeons have checked 24 lines by the time they approach a massive field of what Dave calls “Lundi Buf,” a Cajun word meaning ‘bull tongue.’ The entire horizon is carpeted with this taller and thicker hyacinth-like plant that the boat just cannot cut through. “Last month this area was all clear,” says Dave, as he and his son stand on their toes to look over the brush at their very last gator line.

“It’s down,” Reed says calmly. “And there are waves around it. That’s a massive gator.”

Anxious Dave rips his boat in a giant arch around the Lundi Buff, looking for a way in. There is excitement but little tension, since clearly the Turgeons will not accept giving up on the day’s only catch. Dave bullies us through a weak link of hyacinth and pulls the boat up to the downed line. Reed moves to the bow and I switch to the back, where I immediately singe my calf on an exhaust pipe.

All plants lay flat in a wide circle around the bamboo pole. In the center sprouts a bouquet of reeds wrapped tight in the black gator line. Just to the right of the trashed area, ominous bubbles rumble to the surface. Reed gets to work, dipping a paddle into the water, trying to hook onto the taut line he is tasked with pulling up. Reed’s oar eventually grabs it, but it takes him another few moments to untangle it from the weeds enough to start pulling it up. His face strains. The bubbles intensify.

Finally, an enormous green-black dinosaur head breaks the surface. The monster is in no mood to fight, but is still scary as hell. Turgeon quickly presses his 22 rifle’s skinny barrel directly against the back of the armored skull. A single hollow point bullet pops off almost quietly, and the gator’s eyes close, more like a wince than sleep. The hollow point shatters upon entry, instead of tearing all the way through the gator. One small red hole is left behind. Just to be sure, Turgeon squeezes off a second bullet before he and Reed wrap the gator’s mouth in pink tape then begin struggling to lift it. The two men together manage to haul the gator up and in without capsizing the boat. Curled in a giant circle, its tail almost touching its wide snout, the gator completely fills the bow where I’d sat on the way out.

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“You never see one over eight feet that isn’t at least missing a foot,” Dave says, pointing out the gator’s leathery right-hand stump. This won’t matter in the sale, but the gator is also missing almost twelve inches off its tail, which puts it in a different size class altogether, costing Dave five dollars per foot off his final price. The men are a little disappointed but still happy. “Gators will fight for dominance,” Dave explains. “That is nature’s way. The badass is always getting taken on by the younger ones. When the badass goes, next year there will another one approximately that size in that same spot.”

They still guess him to be ten feet, meaning he will bring about $300. “They grow really fast up until six feet,” Reed tells me. “Then they only grow a half inch a year.” They estimate this gator would have been just about eligible for social security. The meaning of this isn’t lost on Dave, who kneels for a second for a private moment of blessing down by the giant head, as even thicker clouds roll in, gunmetal grey.

Within minutes it is raining again, harder than before, with stronger wind. I wedge myself in between Dave’s knees and the big twitching alligator under my feet. Despite that we are not on true open water and surrounded by trees on every side, the tiny, weighed-down boat in the icy rain and wind feels dangerous as we cut a huge arch back around the thick Bull’s Tongue. Dave can’t stand the cold, and the boat really feels like it might capsize, so we pull into an enclosure of Chinese tallow trees, another unwelcomed invasive species. “They’re the scourge of the swamp, choking out cypress, gum and maple, valuable native hardwood trees,” explains Dave. “Seems people planted them for the beautiful fall color–we don’t get a lot of trees out here that will produce the gorgeous reds and yellows. Or it coulda been birds poopin the seeds out in the swamp.” Either way, the skinny trees do very little to keep us dry or warm.

“A ten foot gator, in the cold-ass rain in September! Woohoo!” Dave shouts over the wind, trying to boost spirits, which deteriorate regardless. The thick tallow trunks begin to sway dangerously around us. “Maybe we should step onto the shore so we don’t get crushed,” worries Reed, and before we can all agree, one medium sized tree cracks and falls onto the boat. Instantaneously, we are all transported onto soggy “land.”

After we each take a cold lash, the squall lightens up enough that freezing Dave decides to make another break for it. Racing across the swamp again in the mudboat though, the rain only intensifies. But we continue forward. I barely notice the cold wet as, for the next two miles home, I molest the humungous gator. Most people will never get to touch an alligator, much less one this big. Every inch of him is covered in armor. Even the pliable sections of his skin is covered in small shields that I’m surprised even bullets could penetrate. I grab and squeeze the huge white tits of fat on the sides of his jaw, and pull at the dangling skin tabs where his right hand used to be. I hold one of his surviving claws up to my similar-sized hand and he tries to make a fist. I run fingers along the giant spikes that trace down his back to the scars on his truncated tail. I rub the finger-sized teeth in his taped shut mouth. All the while he is still moving, reacting to my exploration. Every few moments he seems to try and stand back up, despite that he is definitely not breathing.

*

The gator stays curled up twitching in the boat, towed by the grey van, which Dave starts with the rod. We are on our way to sell the giant beast, but first: “You know I own a cemetery,” Dave says. “It’s the family graveyard, and I maintain it. Actually, anyone who is close the family is buried there.” He ads that the headstones will be extra photogenic in the continuing light grey drizzle. We decide to stop on the way.

The private cemetery is littered with traditional white headstones and New Orleans-esque aboveground concrete “copings,” all shaded by Live Oak trees. Water rushes by where the Intercoastal waterway meets the Bayou Barataria. An old Indian “midden,” the high ground has been built up with oyster and clam shells. Some claim it was once an Indian burial ground, but while digging several of the plots himself, Dave has never found one bone “We’ve had enough water though that a few cement have tops popped off,” admits Dave, who increasingly encourages his family to choose cremation. “Because coffins float.”

After the cemetery, we pause to buy ice from his neighbors the Higgins, who Dave swears sell “the best crab meat in the world.” While the neighbors gossip, I photograph the goats and pigs in the Higgins’ keep in their yard not for breeding and selling, but for next time the food delivery trucks refuse to come down to Lafitte for several months like they did after Katrina and Rita. City folks might laugh at people like the Higgins when they talk of preparing for when the shit goes down, but out here, it already went down. People like the Higgins are simply applying what they learned.

After covering the ten-foot gator in ice, we head out to a Ryder truck parked along another lonely rural road. A small crowd is gathered around staring into the truck at a pile of 100 alligators. The biggest is 12-feet long. The guy manning the truck, Troy Pizzani, works for American Tanning and Leather. “Troy used to be a tanner himself,” Dave tells me. “They used to have a gator processing area on the bayou, but it closed, so now he just buys them and delivers them. He’s also running for Constable.” 

Dave is in good spirits but I do catch him pacing beside his boat, worried that the shortened tail will cost him a lot of money. Meanwhile, everyone else is having fun opening the various gators’ jaws and encouraging their children to stick their heads inside the mouths for photo ops – in the process letting out the atrocious stink. “They throw up when you shoot them,” Reed tells me. “All the rats, nutria, muskrats, fish, it all comes up into their mouths when they die.”

Finally, Pizzani measures the Turgeons’ catch: nine feet, ten inches. Dave gets $35 a foot—$40 a foot if the tail had been in tact. In the end Dave loses about $35 for the tail.

At that length, Pizanni estimates Dave’s gator was 50 to 62 years old. When he tells us this, I can’t help but think about all the grey-haired seniors respectfully buried in the gorgeous ground of Dave’s cemetery –- while this alligator will be sold for a mere $300, then made into boots. Despite its advanced age, Dave says nothing will be wasted: the meat will be processed and eaten. The skull will be sold, possibly in some tacky French Quarter bead shop.

As we ready to leave, a boy of about six years old sits down on Dave’s gator for a photo, creating a striking juxtaposition of young atop old, and a symbol of the dominance by even the smallest human over one of the world’s largest, most intimidating beasts.

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The Last Good Cop Gets Blood on His Hands (Vice. Sept. 2014).

Charles Hoffacker is a compassionate cop who joined the eternally troubled New Orleans police department in 2004 because he wanted to make a positive difference. He is also an accomplished conceptual painter. Many of his fellow officers consider him a pussy—even as civilian locals who know 33-year-old homicide detective Hoffacker wish the rest of NOLA’s cops were a little more like him.

His most famous piece, “The Ghost of Telly Hankton,” renders the famous drug lord and killer using 14,000 rounds of spent 40-caliber bullets. He buys the cardboard signs from homeless panhandlers and paints their portraits on them. His more traditional oil and acrylic paintings depict things like AK-47s draped in Mardi Gras beads.

Recently, Detective Hoffacker came under investigation after being accused of letting his artistic side interfere with his professionalism. On a particularly violent night last March, Hoffacker visited 19 different bloody shooting scenes. According to a story by NOLA.com crime reporter Naomi Martin, as the site of one murder scene was about to be hosed down and cleaned up, “Hoffacker was looking for bullet fragments in the victim’s coagulated blood, which had pooled on the street. Hoffacker wiped his bloody hands off on the sidewalk, the source said, and then he appeared to start writing the word ‘Help.’ A nearby officer scolded him and Hoffacker stopped.”

“While compassion is certainly a noble quality in a normal human being, for a homicide detective, that can be something that is detrimental to you,” Eric Hessler of the Police Association of New Orleans told Martin. “You can only see so much blood and so much violence, and that was a particularly disturbing weekend for New Orleans. It was a particularly disturbing weekend for Charlie.”

Hoffacker was reassigned to a desk job while awaiting his investigation’s outcome—which has given him more time to work on his art. I spoke to Hoffacker about how his intense day job influences his art, his struggle to be a good cop in a city not famous for good cops, and what it’s been like living through America’s recent Ferguson-inspired love affair with hating the police. CLICK HERE to read the Q&A with Hoffacker at VICE…

Or check out the original news report of the Hoffacker blood incident: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/06/charles-hoffacker-new-orleans-cop-doodles-victims-blood_n_5459432.html

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Neighborhood Story Project book party (The Advocate. Sept. 2014).

The Neighborhood Story Project recently hosted a release party for its newest book, called “Talking Back to History,” written by teenaged students from Lake Area New Tech Early College High School.

For the past 10 years, the Neighborhood Story Project has led groups of all ages from New Orleans through the process of writing and publishing books detailing their own stories in their own words.

Teachers Woodleif Thomas and Jeremy Roussel led the seven students who wrote “Talking Back to History.” Thomas writes in the book’s introduction that his students “looked deeper into history and explored the stories of people, places, and events that might have been overlooked, repressed, or challenged by those who write conventional histories … [They are] attempting to shed light on stories that are in danger of being lost.”

“Talking Back to History” features two short stories by each student, many revolving around history-themed fieldtrips, such as a walking tour of the French Quarter. The book’s cover shows the teachers and students touring the Whitney Slavery Museum.

Kayla Palmer interviewed her grandmother about her great-grandmother, an activist and member of the Freedom Riders, whom everyone called “Dear.” Another emerging writer, Latrice Reed, recounts in heartbreaking detail her love for her brother, who served as her father figure until heroin addiction ruined his life. CLICK HERE to read the rest of the article at The Advocate…

Or watch this video of a reading by some NPS students: 

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