Putting My Feet Up in New Orleans
KATRINA & A CHANGE OF PLANS
This morning I got a call from my brother:
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
"I just called ..."
"NO, I'M NOT READY FOR
" ... that dad ..."
" ... DON'T SAY IT, STOP ..."
died last ..."
" ... NOT, IT'S NOT TRUE! ...
" ... night."
"NO, NO NO. SAY IT ISN'T TRUE.
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
& 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.
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
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
"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."
sorry," I said, my eyes filling with tears.
Then I blurted it out: "I lost my father last
"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
"I was born here and I love
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