Fushan kids back in bus

New OrleansMay 2011:
Putting My Feet Up in New Orleans



This morning I got a call from my brother:

"I just called to let you know that dad died last night."

I don't know why people always say "just" when something has monumental significance.

"Dear, I just want to let you know that I'm having an affair with your best friend, Larry. You don't mind, do you?"

 If possible, try to stop such people when you hear the word "just."

"I just called ..."

"Whoa, wait a minute, let me brace myself."

But you're never quick enough.

"I just called ..."


" ... that dad ..."

" ... DON'T SAY IT, STOP ..."

" ... died last ..."

" ... NOT, IT'S NOT TRUE! ...

" ... night."


But it doesn't work.

"Only" and "merely"—watch out for the words too. They can be heart breakers also. Combined with "dear" they can be deadly.

Dad was a swell guy. How can you say something like this to me, your brother!

"Grow up, squirt!"

Yes, grow up, face life, depression; you, too, well die someday.

But why shouldn't it be all the bad guys? There are lots of 'em. But my dad, then me? Why, why, why?

Okay, it wasn't a great shock, actually. It was expected. He was very old and not well. He had not been well for several years. In fact, every time I saw him in the last five years, he would tear up and say it would probably be the last time he saw me. I would protest but I, too, thought that was very likely. So I had a lot of mental practice at loosing my dad.

In fact, initially the news did not impact me greatly. It was expected. But then it began to sink in, the finality of it all, and I gave into sadness and reflection. You see, he was a really a good guy and I began to "list the ways."

First, maybe was his support of the living. He was always helpful, promoting what he thought had value. If you needed something, like a new musical instrument, say a trumpet, because you had outgrown the old, cheap one, he had the money to buy it. Or if he thought a cause was a good one, he gave to it. For instance, later on I worked as a volunteer for a soup kitchen and helped to put on a fund-raising event for it. He donated 500 dollars, knowing nothing personally about the event but trusting that if I were working on it, it was a worth-while cause. I had not even asked for or expected a donation. There is much else.

We all pass along through life, then away, ceasing to be in this world; and some people are much better than others and more memorable. My father was one of the really memorable ones.

But he wasn't just a do-gooder. He had a life and a good one. He was the quintessential Southern Californian of another era. As a young man he build a surfboard, then known as a paddle board—it was bigger and heavier—before surfing became popular. He also built an engineless type of aircraft known as a glider and flew it off a cliff in Palace Verdes and survived. Later he became an engineer and was the head wing designer for several McDonnell Douglas planes. He was head structural designer on the lower stage of the Saturn II project, a project that developed a booster rocket that was eventually used in the Apollo program to put men on the moon. This was in an era when the NASA space program took huge risks. His project did not crash. These days mention the space program and you will see a broad yawn. Mention its parent, the core sciences, and you are likely to hear a loud scoff. Only by mentioning one of sciences' great grandchildren, say some mobile device, will you evoke any interest at all. Of course if the device is an "i" device that makes a fashion statement, you may unleash a torrent of interest, prejudice, and clashing opinion.

He was a conservative and a Republican in an era when being a Republican did not imply avarice and depriving others of basic services; it implied conserving what was good and being careful about change. He was not a poet but he had the conservatism of Robert Frost when Frost says:

Don't ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.

 Poet e.e. cummings was also a conservative and a Republican—no, I'm not kidding!—but I don't think you would find him voting Republican today. Too much like voting for a cloud of despair, flowers and towers crushed beyond repair.

Though my father never switched parties, I always found it interesting that starting with Ronald Regan, he never voted for a Republican. He essentially became an independent.

At the dinner table nothing was off limits for discussion, though later he might ask you to consider something more fully. He loved 3-by-5 cards and could drive you nuts with them. After a talk he would jot things down for further discussion, then present you with them the next time you talked. What could you say? Better a thoughtful listener than an indifferent one, though I didn't fully appreciate that till later on.

I could list other memorable qualities.

I had a plane ticket to fly to Barcelona in a week. I cancelled it and bought a ticket to Los Angeles where the funeral would take place. That left me with a few more days in New Orleans but once again I had to move from AAE Bourbon Street Hostel to another hostel, as AAE Bourbon Street was booked up over the weekend. I moved to Flow & Joe's Candlelight Hostel. I quickly dropped the "Candlelight" appendage to the name, as candlelight seemed to have nothing to do with the place, and I might have dropped "Flo and Joe's" too—there was no Flo or Joe there—but that would have left me calling it just "Hostel."

Flo & Joe's is just a few blocks west of the French Quarter. So maybe it wasn't all bad, as I would have easier access to the Quarter. But as it turned out Flo & Joe's had bed bugs—a lot of them—so it was mostly bad. Another problem with Flo & Joe's is that there were no good markets anywhere near it. That caused me to get out and do some walking.

When I first asked about markets near Flo & Joe's, I got the usual response you get at a hostel when they don't have something either at the hostel or nearby: who needs it?

"But I need food to eat and survive," I said.

Flo & Joe's is an African-American-owned hostel. I rather like the folks there. They speak a language of compassion and understanding.

"But son, there's food right over there in the French Quarter."

"Yes," I said, "but it is very expensive food. If I eat there I won't be able to sleep here."

"Yes, uh huh, well let me see. I think there may be a market ..."

I went in search of where there might be a market. That is, over on Claiborne Avenue, through some bushes and under a freeway ramp. It wasn't a very pleasant walk, but I wasn't mugged or bitten by a snake, and it turned out to be an interesting walk.

As I began walking up Claiborne, I noticed houses that were falling apart and had rotting foundations. Or I saw empty lots full of weeds. I began to wonder. Was this Katrina damage? It had been five years. Hadn't these places been either fixed or torn down and rebuilt? If not, this seemed pretty serious. Many businesses and shops along Claiborne were closed also. A few block further up the street I came to a solid yellow house, brick or stucco, I suppose. There was a guy on a ladder painting around the windows. I was having one of my "quiet days" where I purposely don't interact too much with other people, and I was also reflecting on my father's passing, but I could not help but stop and ask some questions.

The guy on the ladder was a black, handsome, and solidly-built man about 40-years old.

"Do you mind if I ask you a question?" I asked.

"No," he said, "go ahead." He stopped painting and stepped down from the ladder.

"Are those houses back there, are they part of the Katrina damage?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Water was up four to eight feet in this area."

"Wow!" I said, sounding a little childish. "That is what I thought. I'm kind of stunned."

"Well, there's still a lot of work to be done but we'll get through it."

"I know," I said, "but ... but a lot of people died, didn't they?"

I was overcome with the sight of the decaying houses back down the street. It didn't seem proper after all this time that nothing had been done. It was like looking at dead bodies.

He hesitated a moment, then said, "Yeah, I lost my brother."

"I'm sorry," I said, my eyes filling with tears.

Then I blurted it out: "I lost my father last night."

"I'm sorry," he said.

I don't know why I said it. Maybe to let him know that I felt pain and I connected with his pain.

We both stood just looking at each other for a moment. The pain welled up, then seemed to subside. I guess it found somewhere to go.

We talked a bit more, he about being from New Orleans and not wanting to leave it. A lot of African-Americans had gone elsewhere.

"I was born here and I love this place."

He said he was sad about one thing. There were jobs now available for kids who wanted to do work fixing things up—I had in fact seen the signs—but he said they didn't want to work.

"If I had a change like this when I was a kid, I would have jumped on it," he said. "Gotta work!" he said, then added, "But they'll learn."

I thanked him for the information, then went on down Claiborne in search of a market. I finally found Family Dollar and got a few things. Then on the way back I spotted a liquor store and bought some beer. I would get by easily.


Rebuilding With Style