Thursday, March 6, 2008

Lessons From a First-time Hustler

There I was in my pressed black pants and suit jacket, the infinite florescence of the New Orleans Superdome ceiling draining the color from my cheeks, poised on my linoleum stage and ready for an audience of hundreds with weapon in hand: the Amazing Rubber Broom. That's right folks, step right up and watch us clean this same piece of carpet all day long. It's amazing! And not only that, I will personally spread shredded hair on a carpet all day long for this demonstration. Two for the price of one.

I never thought my first trip to the Superdome would be this glamorous. Looking above me, I can only imagine how fearful I would have been watching pieces of this endless cave collapse during Katrina. We watch a balloon travel upward and lose it in our vision before it hits the ceiling. All day families pass by and tell us how they would buy a broom, but then they are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt. That is amazing.

And so, thank God!, I have landed this job selling brooms in the Superdome. For I have become a connoisseur of random money-making schemes and a professional hustler. In fact, my favorite occupation thus far has been to distribute fliers. I walk through the streets of the richer neighborhoods advertising whoever, whatever for a reasonable wage. The direct benefit of this work lies in the wealth of neighborhood trash out on the street, the occasional item that missed the last yard sale. I'm on the scene. The challenge is that I get lost in the similarity of the houses of suburbia, and it therefore requires reading a map.

I work with a woman called Mrs. Mama, although that's not her real name. She doubles as a housemother in a local strip club. Mama tells me that if she had enough money, she would improve on any one of her looks, buy her some breasts and straighten her face out. I challenge her on this, although it's not fair to judge someone who spends her livelihood staring at fake breasts and fake tans, telling the dancers that they are beautiful. She would probably dance, except for a limiting beauty mark on her face and the way birthing three children have stretched and strained her body through the years. She feeds the dancers, is paid by the club to keep a small store with the essentials. She sees flesh and naked humanity entertained and intertwined in a dance that is about survival; there is a story here.

It's two in the morning and my body hurts from the restaurant, from crunching toes into these shoes for too long now. I want to go home. But I know I need to make ten more dollars. In the morning, my neighbor comes by and asks if I can spare eight dollars. He'll wash my car, which I can't afford to drive anyway, and serves as my dresser on good weeks when I can keep the mold at bay. Um, okay. Can't eat money, I hear my friend John saying in my ear. And there is always a small way to make more.

This is the story I continue to hold about New Orleans: there are so many ways to survive a storm. The woman on the porch in the downpour, talkin' about how she always should have learned how to swim, the restaurant owner who gets drunk daily and tears up recounting his grandmother's stories of being the first free black woman in her family, the street artist, the shotgun house spilling its contents onto darkened streets like a doll house, a Sunday on St. Claude Street in a second line parade, a migrant worker courageous every morning he watches for work. There are many stories about others and about myself that it may never be right or safe to share. I hold them in this sacred root cellar of my being, keeping them firm and ready for soup.

I will miss this place.

Below Sea Level from the Stars...Back to New Orleans

Today I went on a bikeride out to the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. On the way back, I passed a neighborhood where two trumpets playing were dueling out a tune, each from a distance of four blocks from the other. Then I went out for some coffee and heard kids from 4 to 14 be taught a free lesson by some of the best brass players in town while the rain outside our window teased out its own cacophony in competition. The music of New Orleans.

Avocados are called alligator pears in New Orleans. Their rough skin is like the roads I pedal down, covered with potholes. I pass flowers in bloom, lizards, and like, for we live on top of a swamp.

This magical, wonderland of sounds and sight I am leaving. I have come to the end of my journey with this place. The swamp- what is the hold she has had on me? I have heard it rumored that she takes her prisoners, sucking them into her skirts as they fall for this siren bayou. Musicians feel it, they just don't quite feel the same anywhere else. Even a young bible-touting fellow traveler at a hostel called it out, proclaiming that New Orleans was full of sin. Aw, but isn't that sinful inciting spoonful just delicious?

Beyond Saguero Bliss

I'm standing at another crossroads, la otra encrucijada. I am alone again, but this time I have no guitar in my hands. From the Rio Grande/Bravo the multinational forest of US/Mexico borderland stretches out before me. I have arrived at the banks of decision , muddied by the struggle as hands and hearts gasp for last breaths in the chilly waters of her currents. This river is split down the middle and owned by two countries, patrolled by one. This river-receiver splits a whole land in two. I search through the half eaten elotes (corn cobs), the multicolor plastic bags hurled up into tree branches by an errant windstorm or car tires, looking for a sign of movement.

In this deserted park, residents of Nuevo Laredo are taking Sunday, parked in vehicles with little bands of people, all too aware of this psychological journey. Yet just one mile across asphalt and river the same land offers a different landscape. As I turn river rocks over in my fingers and contemplate how people who have never learned to swim ford the stream tied to car tires, I am again struck by the answer to the question...why would you cross a river you can't swim across?

I traveled through Texas to complete my trip from Maine to Mexico, and to look at programs that assist migrants across the most dangerous leg of the journey. My first stop in US borderland was Laredo, TX and it's twin, Nuevo Laredo in Mexico. As luck would have it, I met a young woman in New Orleans who invited me to stay with her family, her Mexican parents and their Mexican-American children in Laredo. My first night with the Hernandez family convinced me that I would do anything to stall my departure. They were warm, open-hearted folks with a foot on both sides of the debate. Interestingly enough, they have two daughters working as civil servants, one as a probation officer, and the other as a parole officer. They have a range of experiences with US Border Patrol. They would become my escorts into Mexico.

Fernando and his wife work in Mexico and live in Texas, as many Mexican families have done for years. Their children were all born in the US, and my friend in New Orleans grew up without learning the language of her parents. In fact, we train as interpreters together, and I often catch her inventing words in Spanish. Reflected in her language is the survival of her parents; to become more "American" meant having greater benefits in this society.

Between dinners of stuffed chiles and hot Mexican chocolate and bread, slumbers filled with dreams of cactus fields and native drumbeats, I find "New" Laredo. Traveling with Fernando I visit a social worker friend of his at a public hospital, a crowded waiting room in the middle of the city. This gentleman describes what it is like to work with a population dependent on travel to the US. He is a team of one, and I apologize to at least ten people as he ushers me into his office for an appointment. His primary responsibility is to talk to people about benefits, but he sees a lot of mothers caught in the real war at the border, the drug war.

We travel to the Casa del Migrante, a drop-in center for migrants at all stages of the journey. I speak with a young man there, himself a Mexican native who lived in Chicago for years. I feel very much at home in their kitchen, where there is an industrial-sized pot cooking for many, the smell of burnt rice warm and inviting. The Casa provides housing, food, resources.

Over the border back into her US counterpart, Laredo, we have no trouble passing through immigration. Mine is an unearned privilege, I think, as I watch the faces of my hosts turn to relief as we pass the checkpoint.And they do this everyday....

Back in town I ask a young man what you could do for fun here. He suggests I climb up to the top of the highest building in town and check out the Border Patrol checkpoints. Hmmm.....

A call from a friend in El Paso sets my next course, and I have to say goodbye to the Hernandez family. But not before the grandmother in the family, a shy, girlish woman in her seventies, presses a twenty into my hand. Get yourself something on the road, she says...I know she somehow means to keep me safer.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

What's So Scary 'Bout New Orleans?: Masking Privilege and Power in the Big Easy

It's one am in the morning and I've just been released from my shift at the jazz club and restaurant where I work. After serving heaping dishes of Jambalaya and Crawfish Etoufee (etoufee, Brute?) and dubbing over in private the lines to the song being sung by tonight's musician, I am off to enjoy the fanfare in a city that practically invented costumes. In fact, the competition is so intense, I have decided to type cast myself as an overworked, trying-to-fit-in- newcomer to the city of New Orleans. I have my mask draped over my shoulder, my soiled apron in my backpack, and my red dress on. I am ready for my first night as more than a waitress, that is, as a human being.

Down past the French Quarter, swerving to avoid the revelers in matching provocation, dripping in sexuality. My crew sees quite a few priests and prostitutes, greasers and French maids and god knows what else. We careen around broken glass and rivers of beer. The frat party atmosphere leaves no one out, or alone for that matter. Musicians in masks push tip jars through the masses and their ethereal swaying in the nicotine haze feels dreamlike. Weeding through the garden gnomes and politically incorrect convicts and gangsters to find the more creative Halloween attire, I am catching my first glance of New Orleans at play.

Since I arrived in the city, I have had to do what most natives of the Crescent City do to survive: sell my soul to the restaurant devil. Yes, I wait hand and foot on New Orlean's wealthiest. Food on the left, drinks to the right, can I please kill myself for you for two dollars? Did you know I've waited my whole life just to clean up after you?

Yet, this is as real as it gets. I spent a long time thinking about coming to New Orleans, a culture and place so different from my home. While in Mississippi and Alabama I searched for clues about why I wanted to be a part of this masquerade. When activists from all over the country hopped on buses and planes after Katrina to be a part of the relief (and often, a part of the relieved), I did not feel compelled to leave my work in Maine. It felt like the work I was doing was a still a swirling, churning hurricane over our heads. Katrina only added to that disaster, and New Orleans felt so far away. Besides, the skills I had were better put to use elsewhere. Or so I thought.

And now, here I am, preparing for Mardi Gras in January in a distant city, singing with a band and making decisions about my life here for the next year. My own parade through the United States has never been as difficult as it has been for me in New Orleans. And Katrina is really only part of the equation.

I'm about to get really real, y'all. When I arrived in New Orleans, I still believed I could travel this country and not get really vulnerable. I thought I could balance my own poverty, work as a farmer and god knows what else and still be analytical. I still believed I could dance through the streets with my new freedom in cowgirl boots and not trip over the grooves left by power and privilege.

And I knew that what I would encounter in New Orleans would challenge and mold me. And not just because of Katrina- because of centuries of racism. I knew that the work I came to do- understand how to use my language privilege to provide health, safety and access to a new and growing group of Central American and Mexican day laborers- would have me questioning how I practice my politics.

I also learned very quickly- and got angry!- that the story of Katrina in New Orleans is not for the outsider to tell. I am not an expert, I was not here, moreover I stand humbled by the city and the resistance of its population. I refuse to tell it, except to ask, what is the Katrina in my homeland? With that message fixed to my heart like a nametag, I cry, "Hello, my name is Sarah and I'm starting with the story of my own privilege!"

So it was that I came to work in the blessed French Quarter, often riding my bike through a river of beads, fighting the urge not to scare off the tourists. I began to realize- and internalize- my place within this mafioso world of big money and big tradition. No matter what my background, my immediate financial situation saw me absorbed into a culture of racism and oppression. I was part of an all-white crew of servers, although I mostly hung out with the Black dishwasher and prep cook. I learned the ins and outs of the "back room" and the "front room" in the restaurant and even observed the separate relationships of wealth across race. I struggled with the decision to continue, because I knew I might have more freedom to choose. And then I didn't- my rich white male boss touched me inappropriately and then promptly stopped talking to me when I confronted him (we do things differently in the South) and I overdrew my bank account, made no money and had to leave the restaurant. I quickly became another desperate person in New Orleans- definitely with more privilege- but still, desperate.

As I waded through the restaurant and other options, my anxiety coursing through my veins like a bad trip, I experienced the other side of the Big Easy. Dripping with insecurity and inexperience here, I was not hired. It was as if they could taste my impoverished fear like a fine house wine. I was advised not to tell anyone I had left the first restaurant, as I would be marked for failure. When I finally was hired at a club, it was the worst possible situation I could have imagined, and I continued to face my failure.

The reason I am explaining my own story is because I want to be honest. I joined a group called the Anti-Racist Working Group here in New Orleans, a group of people who identify with having white privilege and want to do work with other white people. When I started to participate in this group, I struggled to explain my own intimate experience within this power structure. Whenever I applied to businesses in the Quarter, my race mattered. In fact, it entered first through the door. I wanted to talk about this, but I quickly realized that my current economic reality and bad luck distinguished me from other white people who were making it in the Big Easy. Why had I become afraid to just get out there and do what I had to do to survive while working for this really great free clinic intent on practicing health care with anti-racist principles? Didn't I know that most people in New Orleans had to do this type of work to survive? What made me so special?

I am still learning that the message of being in a Big Easy, turn-your-head kind of place is about access. Who has it, who doesn't. Even the message of Carnival has been about access for religious people unto days of free-spirited wildness. Some days I feel like I understand New Orleans, some days I just feel humbled by even riding my boat to the ferry. The beads are not the only things in my way; I have years of oppression caused by racist white people to ride through. (And ride through it I will...not around it or beside it).

The music, the heat off the bayous, riding decorated bicycles through neighborhoods crowded with multi-colored shutters...this is a culture so distinct from my own. I always imagine that while my own state lay dormant in winter, tons of plants and wildlife was springing into action on every little patch of earth in New Orleans. I am still asking myself if I can be a resource for anyone in this wonderful, difficult city, as she teaches me in so many ways to put down my masks of privilege and security to hear her tell her own story.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

In Search of the Jellyroll in the Mississippi Delta

How else would I ever have arrived to the Mississippi Delta? I absolutely had the likes of Elmore James, Memphis Minnie, and Robert Johnson in this here little VW. The monotony of the cotton fields in Mississippi certainly lend themselves to the familiar patterns of the Delta blues. Sweet Lord, when I passed over flat land and literally drove down a mountain of highway to get into the delta, I could hear 'em calling.

I had made a pit stop in Jackson, to go to the Canton flea market with a good friend, and hear about life in Mississippi post-Katrina. Folks in the city felt somewhat despondent about recent population growth, and some attributed the rise in violent crimes to the amount of displaced hurricane victims. I had passed through many impoverished regions of the country thus far but I had not seen the likes of poverty in Mississippi. My memories of travel in this Blues homeland will always be painted with images of the men at the tire stops who sit around all day without customers, the disgraceful condition of worker's trailers outside of the chicken packing warehouse in Canton. But also, thankfully, of the white sands on the banks of the Mississippi, the richness of the conversation at Miss Sarah's Kitchen, and the smiles reflected in a slide guitar.

But, yes, I return to the little matter of the jellyroll.

Wait a cotton-pickin' minute! What's this here jellyrollin' y'all talkin about? From the Piedmont in NC to the Delta, the soul, struggle, and sensuality in the blues I play kept me on the road and my heart in the game. In so many of these songs, colorful metaphors emerge to poorly disguise the dastardly riskee flirtations of the music. One of these is the jellyroll. "Best jelly roll in town", "My man makes the best jelly roll in town." Uh-huh.

So I just had to turn the Urban Merchant (my car) north a little bit to the devil-fearin' , juke-joint town of Clarksdale. I creaked my way out of Jackson, MI and traveled along highway 49 until I reached the crossroads.

At thirty, the crossroads is a perfect beginning for my narrative. I took this journey to keep my professional soul, to realize my potential as an anti-racist worker. But I also traveled to remember who I could be when I am alone, and that hasn't been easy. When that train pulls out, will I have sold my soul to the devil? Or is it really that I have learned I can tap into both the good and evil to create something honest and meaningful? Life is, after all, about embracing the swells and the calm ocean.

But now, the jellyroll, with it's soft, flaky pastry exterior and it's sanguine ooze interior...

So down I went to Miss Sarah's Kitchen to see if she knew a thing or two about jellyrolls. One would imagine a culinary expert and elder such as herself to be appraised. I sat with a friend from town, an artist, on a bar stool and watched Miss Sarah bother around her stove to fix up the biggest plate of beans, cornbread, and potato salad with sour pickles in it. I washed this soul food down with some sweet tea and the biggest slice of lemon pound cake this apparent ex-vegan could sustain, and then we got down to business. When I asked if they still made jelly rolls in town, Miss Sarah scratched her head and offered little more than a smile. In the open parlor of the restaurant, one of her grandchildren (or great?) was jumping around and causing a scandal for her mother. A distracted Miss Sarah said she thought there was a donut shop in town, hesitated, and went back to the task at hand. Maybe Miss Sarah's days of sampling jelly rolls were long past her.

Down to Robert Johnson's grave on the old blues highway to collect pecans, do grave etchings and meditate of the existence of the jellyroll. Robert Johnson is credited with being a father of the Delta blues, and there are as many stories about his actual grave site, as there are about him. Today most people find it next to an old church, under a pecan tree, and well-kept. I didn't get any answers from the wind over the cotton fields next to the petite cemetery, but I did reflect on the long journey in my life that brought me a love of the blues that had me kneeling at Robert Johnson's graveside.

Down to the banks of the Mississippi, and out to the cotton fields, still an industrial revolution, to work off the jellyroll. I had never seen the Mississippi, and for some reason I thought I could swim in it. Yet everywhere I went, the River, busy and massive, was full of industry, adding credence to the notion that folks downriver in New Orleans would be swimming in sludge.

And I had never seen cotton in full bloom. This plant wintering is so majestic, I have to remind myself it is not snow. The cotton fields are again transformed by industrial invention. Men sit in huge machinery lifting bale after bale of cotton to be compacted into huge packages that are transported across the country. This is an enormous industry that still relies on old money, tradition, and cheap labor, as I understand it. The only sweetness here is in the plant itself. And even the plant could tell its own sad history.

So down to the Riverside Motel to ask about the jellyroll and recline on linen that reminded me of naps at Grandma's in Maine. Every guest has a bureau drawer in this establishment, maybe even the devil himself. You might just be staying in a room where your favorite blues player left his favorite hairbrush in the bottom drawer. It used to be an old hospital, the hallways narrowing and carrying on as they usually do in such places, leaving you wondering what horror film was made here. The floor creaks, the doors beckon.

The owner of this fine establishment goes by the nickname "Rat". A thin, older gentleman with engaging eyes, Rat entraps you in his parlor with stories of a Clarksdale past, a smoky room laden with memorabilia and gifts from fans around the world (it's hard not to love this feisty gentleman). Luckily, Rat is able to tell me as much about the jellyroll as I need to hear, for he is a lover of women. When I let him in on my quest for the jellyroll, he leans in, as if his answer is a secret for our ears alone, and answers that the jellyroll is something so sweet. She's my jellyroll.

Of course, Rat knows a lot about lovin', and informs his guests that Sundays and Mondays no one plays the blues in town because these days are reserved for making love. He doesn't really need to tell me this is a part of the jellyroll experience, I already know. I can feel these walls pulsing, hear the beat of their music. As I remember sinking my teeth into today's version of the jellyroll, feeling the confection coat my throat, I can taste the sweetness of his words.

And did I get my jellyroll in Clarksdale, you ask? As the song goes, ain't nobody's dirty business if I did.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Freedom Walking in Birmingham

(stay tuned for some truly amazing photos that I currently can't get up....)

I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama on a rainy morning to visit the Civil Rights Institute. Back in Portland, Maine, the marches of the Civil Rights era seemed confined to the pages of my textbooks (if even!), and other historical reference points.

But in Birmingham, as the rain broke into humid heat, and the churches chimed out Amazing Grace and different songs made famous by the Civil Rights Movement, events were a bit more tangible.

Once upon a time, Birmingham was hailed as the most up-and coming industrial center. Access to the city by train was created by African-American laborers, their bosses chasing slavery into a new century. Despite segregation, Birmingham became home to one of the most successful Black business districts in the South. During the Civil Rights era, an important battle was waged here, as protesters risked their lives against police and their dogs and firefighter's hoses under the command of "Bull" Connor.

I was captured by the moments spent walking through the Civil Rights Institute, a museum of history that begins with a symbol not easily forgotten: a water fountain, from an era of blatant segregationist language everywhere. I walked through this historical tour of the Civil Rights Era, which encourages the journeyer to be enraged, to march for freedom, to mourn for Martin and Malcolm and quieter heroes. The water hoses, the police dogs, the fear of that era begin to be represented here.

Why did I come here, to Birmingham? I feel so immersed in this living history tour through the South. I came because I was encouraged to make this pilgrimage by certain elders in my community back home. I came because I know that my journey to practice anti-racism in New Orleans will not be easy, and that I have so much catching up to do. I came because being part of a multi-racial immigration struggle means honoring and learning about the struggle for justice of all people. To remember Birmingham, to be grounded in what was created here.

Leaving the CRI, I crossed the street to the Park of Reconciliation and Revolution, just as the sun was setting. The meditative me transitioned into the present as I was approached time and again for donations. I chattered away with many people in that park, feeling more myself in general with human collections than historical ones. My belly was advocating for the soul food that I had promised her, but my mission was clear. I would traverse the park, taking in the monuments to the students and adults who risked so much in their civil disobedience. At one point, I was aware of what was still being risked here when a seemingly agitated, older Black man moved away from my camera. This is a park still waiting for reconciliation.

In front of the 16th Street Church, where the four little girls were killed, a single tree was planted. Footprints in the form of plaques inform and capture still-lives. Hold fast the Dream! In a little while, they will march in with the setting sun, your sons and daughters, Birmingham, into the Park of Revolution and Reconciliation, to be fed not by Revolution, but by Wild Irish Rose. March on! There is still so much dreaming to do...

How She Lived in the Forest

The other day I was reflecting on my first experience solo-camping in Maine. During this trip, righteously freaked out with images of burly men in the night and anticipation of a whole night of listening to my own breath (which, in those desperate days, was probably the more terrifying). I carried a big knife, a big backpack and walked with a big dog.

We knew we would prevail, even when it poured harder the further up the mountain we walked. Rain was my favorite to sleep in. My dog agreed, and bounded through the forest. Exhausted, soaked, and trying to keep the canine within sight, I looked for a place to set up.

It became more than an adventure when it appeared I just couldn't get through the forest without my girl leaping over drenched tree trunks, and excitedly knocking a very unbalanced-packed me over on my back. Frustrated and even wetter, yelling out commands that were going nowhere, I felt a little defeated until I found our spot: a little patch of dryer land under a grove of deciduous trees. Educating myself that very moment about how to set up camp in the pouring rain, I slept in dry comfort, feeling the precious gift of taking care of the two of us. The journey was just as important as the settling in.

My gift on this road is still setting up and taking down camp. I self-imposed this job when I traveled across the deep south with ten dollars in my pocket to New Orleans, stopping only to reflect when my friend Alana remarked, "You're sleeping in the woods in Mississippi, alone? Girl!"Often frustrated with the reality of the difference in negotiating safety as a woman, so many times either pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised by circumstances, all the while thinking...we all must do this every once in awhile. I wanted to take the time to journey into Louisiana, to reflect and prepare, to be open to more surprises. To listen to a little of the language of this land.

So there I found myself in the Talladega National Forest in eastern Alabama, listening to the sounds of birds and insects and my own tent zippers. The patterns of tall, leafy trees reminded me of adults creeping around, their arms outstretched, with bedsheets over their heads to frighten little children. The night before I barely found my campsite before I up and turned around, headed toward Birmingham to the closest available motel for the night. I had already been lost twice when I stopped at the home of a native, a nice, older man out watching the sun go down. I asked for directions, adapting to speak 'bama, which sounds soft and gentle like Tennessee, but maybe a little faster. His directions led me to a creepy old horse farm, my imagination turning me right out of there. Alone, settled in my tent, water was dripping somewhere and I feel inundated with the weight of my own decisions.

So there I found myself in Mississippi, camping outside the ranger station where I have been instructed. The ranger had scratched his head and said, "Well, there are some spots you can camp, but we do have a local drunk who likes to go in there and mess with our water supply. But you can stay there for free. " Get what you pay for, I guess. I had a brief fantasy about swimming in the river, but the idea of poisonous water moccasins did away with that. I'm not particularly afraid of snakes, but I just figured I couldn't afford that hospital bill. I was so broke during this trip I actually had half a penny in my bag, like someone had taken a bite right out of it. Of course, I had a couple of dollars besides that, but it became symbolic, made me hungry just thinking about it.

I rested in places where I was amazed that the forest had not yet disappeared. On a map, I couldn't even decipher how much woodland Alabama actually had. And really, sometimes my motel experiences held just as much wildlife as the forest. Regardless, I have been challenged to rely on my survival skills (the greatest of which is patience!) and my extra-strength Benadryl in any and all accommodations.