The Digital Journalist

Letter From New Orleans:


by Jim Gabour

August 2006

You might not have even known your home was infested.

Then, one early morning you find yourself stumbling home after a long night of music, leaving the parade sounds of the Frenchmen Street club scene and entering the much quieter residential portion of the Faubourg Marigny.

After five hours of clubbing, yours is a slow walk, a step-by-step pace, mind pushing body through a seemingly endless wall of steaming, cloying fog. Your clothes drip with a combination of swirling airborne moisture and the sweat generated by your passage home. In late July, New Orleans maintains the summer's heat throughout the night, and movement takes great effort.

At 3 a.m. the fog seems alive, resisting your passage. She is a physical creature set internally aglow by the few unbroken streetlamps, her aerie flesh wrapped about a softly diffused skeletal structure, the blackened bones of stark, storm-ravaged Washington Square oaks. Their shadowed limbs embrace sidewalks and wrought-iron fences with thin fingers moving ever so slightly in a rare breeze.

And there is motion beyond that, all but concealed in the fog. Something there.

A bit of a shiver travels up the spine. You are reminded once again that this is a dangerous place. In the short term, close attention to the walking process is a necessity, despite the residual demands of the evening's beverages, and the continued echoing of a horn section in your ears.

An instant later you awaken, a zombie magically transported the last few blocks without incident – "I don't remember crossing Elysian Fields Avenue…" -- standing at your front door, key in lock, still sweating profusely.

And suddenly you are desperate for a glass of cold, cold water.

There follows a quick transit of living room and dining room to the kitchen. You reach out in the darkness, fumbling on the wall beside the door, until you find what you are looking for and flick on the lights.

You are blinded for a moment and then look down to see the countertops alive and moving.

"My god! What is this?" you yell over-loudly at the receding hordes. The cat awakens and runs into the kitchen, knocking over a pot, yowling, knowing someone, or something, must be at his tuna.

Roaches. Omnipresent elsewhere since Katrina. But not in this house. Without thinking, you blindly smash dozens of insects with your hands.

Weeks later, even after the fumigation is complete and the insects are gone, the memory still makes your skin crawl.

In the last two weeks, the National Guard has become the switched-on 200-watt light bulb in New Orleans' night, and the vermin are scurrying for safety. Oddly enough, the drug dealers and looters seem emboldened at being flushed, and small groups are somehow reappearing in every neighborhood, many brazenly doing their business in the open. In daylight.

Like on my very street corner.

Yesterday I opened the front door, hedge trimmers in hand, to find three NOPD cars, half a dozen police officers and a Humvee full of soldiers all milling about, going in and out of properties at the intersection two houses up the street. They looked very serious and several had their weapons in their hands.

And again, I was glad to see them. That corner, inhabited before The Storm by the El Palaceno Cuban Grocery, had been a neighborhood center for decades, serving steamed yucca, four kinds of fresh bananas & plantains, Cuban roast pork and pastries, and double-sized homemade tamales in corn shucks. It had been robbed before, but the Castro family refused to desert the community. People gathered on the curbs to eat rich food off plastic plates and converse about work and home life.

But the looting after Katrina was complete and vile in its extreme to the grocery. The family abandoned New Orleans, and the extended community of El Palaceno will never return. There was a vacuum, an unfulfillment of sorts left on this once-powerful corner, and the dealers, chased out of other parts of the city, were drawn to it.

For the last few weeks they have been showing up late at night to pursue their drive-by business, and just recently began staying on, often through whole days, drinking and dealing and harassing locals.

My neighbor, a large and intimidating street musician, had enough of it a few days ago and not only started calling the situation in to the cops, but walking right up to the dealers and yelling in their faces until they began to back off the corner and look for escape. He has a great bass blues voice and knows how to throw to the back of a large crowd without amplification. The dealers heard him, took note and temporarily disappeared.

The two women at the other end of the block picked up the challenge and began harassing dealers from their balcony, too, calling in the NOPD every time they saw a dealer approach the street. And now the Guard, noticing the shift from the dead areas back into surviving neighborhoods, has begun secondary patrolling as backup to the NOPD. As I walked to the other end of the block during the police action yesterday, I saw two more Hummers, one going each way on Elysian Fields. The neighborhood was surrounded. Again.

When I arrived back home one of the soldiers came over and asked me for identification, then questioned me as to where I live. I told him and he took notes, though I had no I.D. I had been planning on gardening in my front yard, you see, and was unprepared to pass military checkpoints.

I asked what was happening and he said that this time most of the dealers had fled before they had arrived, but that they were now planning on leaving stakeouts unobtrusively throughout the neighborhood for the next week, and would catch anyone who returned.

I saw one man, an habitual drunkard and drug user born and raised in the neighborhood, glaring at me from his stoop as I spoke to the soldier. Here is a parasitic creature who has actually been in his element since Katrina, openly selling goods looted from the nearby shoe store on the street in the post-storm weeks. That business also has not reopened. This fellow was happily in his element with the dealers and thieves who had begun to congregate at our intersection, and as I looked up and saw him staring at me, he plainly mouthed the words: "You just wait."

I point to him, and then to the Humvee and its occupants.

These soldiers are ready to commit Insecticide.

I want the roaches to know that.

© Jim Gabour

Jim Gabour is an award-winning producer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures, such as directing a four-hour worldwide BBC broadcast live via satellites from the carnivals in Rio, Trinidad and New Orleans. Twice named the featured director of the year at the International Broadcasters' Conference in Amsterdam, Gabour produced and directed Norah Jones' multi-platinum DVD concert, and counts subjects as varied as Jamaican hip hop duo Floetry, famed Memphis soul singer Al Green, and recently a concert celebrating the post-Katrina return of traditional Creole jazz families to New Orleans. He is currently finishing a film on composer Terence Blanchard, and serves as Artist-in-Residence and Professor of Music Technology at Loyola University.

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