Update: contact, give thanks, dream monuments, sugarcane


Things should be winding down, now that it’s fall, but a frenzy of energy picking up. I don’t know if it’s me or just the universe in general. Despite what’s going on in the world and our own personal troubles, people have a way of show kindness and good humor even in the harshest moments.

 

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This week has been filled with new experiences. Last week, I tried contact improv, a free-moving dance form without many boundaries or choreography. I would describe it as modern ballet without the structure, but it’s not quiet that. You’re dancing with another person in a back and forth, flowing movement, as if balancing each other—pushing and pulling. I also went to a poetry reading with bluesy jazz. I have read for other local poetry events, but since I was new to this one, I didn’t have any material that I felt was relevant, or that would go with the melodies of blues jazz and accompaniment of the piano, bass and drums, but I heard some powerful slam poetry, and a girl who usually sang, felt like rapping, since her voice was raspy. It was her birthday and she had requested another Hennessey shot from the bartender. Her voice and a guy playing the drums were in unison, as if they had practiced for hours, but most likely it flourished in the spur of a moment.

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Earlier this month, I got to see what kind of monuments third graders at Homer A. Plessy Community School want to see in their city. I helped them craft short essays on their favorite historical figures, places and things. It’s amazing what kids will write about when you ask them the big questions, like who should be given a monument, those they admire and deserve to be remembered. This Big Class in-school project allowed kids to come up with thought-provoking writing to convince readers on why their monument ideas are the best, and it also allowed them to read in front of an audience once it was published in a book form, under the titled of Courageous, Eccentric, Diverse: New Monuments for New Orleans. The student’s picks, included Solomon Northup, pelicans, beignets, Ruby bridges and more. Proceeds from book sales will go to funding Big Class’s new youth writing center, which will be the first 826 National chapter in the South.

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I’m not one to make a fuss about the holidays, especially as it pertains to the shopping spree that ensues as an excuse for consumerism. Also, celebrating thanksgiving is detached from history, since most people don’t think about what it means for Native Americans that have suffered since pilgrims made contact and colonized their lands. I do see the good intention in giving thanks and the opportunity to gather with family and friends and enjoy a descent plate of food, and be cheery in unison. For give thanks day, I visited Thibodaux with my partner to have lunch with his family. It was farther south, almost heading to Isle de Jean Charles. On the way we passed Raceland, and the frequent sugarcane fields lining up on side of the road and expanding outward—some of it tall and ready for plucking. Getting closer to Thibodaux, we saw trucks carrying loads of sugarcane to be processed at refineries visible from the car. These faded white factories with long chimneys threw out steam and smells, like molasses burning. Later, I saw the distinct Southern oak trees with moss hanging. They are not as robust as the ones in New Orleans. They are smaller and quaint, and usually standing next to distant white and reddish houses that seem to have less permanence than the trees. I wanted to get out of the car and take a photo, but we were moving fast. They reminded me of old paintings of the south I had seen in NOMA. I spent time with my partner’s relatives, talking to his dad and getting to know about their family history and feeling happy being in warm company. We had some yummy southern food: mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, gumbo, collard greens and more. There was also turkey, so I said goodbye to my vegetarian (sometimes fish) routine that I had been keeping for the last couple of weeks. But it was worth it—you only eat turkey once a year.

 

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Update: trying to get back into the habit

 


A certain kind of Southern fall is upon us with slightly cold mornings and nights. The days are often still too hot for a sweater. Over this past weekend, I was out playing pool with some friends at night, and it felt nice wearing my hat and sweater. I was hopelessly giddy. “I’m in my fall mode,” I said, knowing the temperature would probably go back to being hot the next day. Also, I don’t always play pool but when I do, I swear I’m not terrible.

 

 

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A girl like me searching for a quiet moment in Astoria Park.

Ever since I got back from NYC, it’s been harder to get back into writing regularly on here. Although, I started editing my poems and looking for places to pitch my articles, I still feel distracted. My mind seems a little more cluttered, since I got back. The constant flow of people, and the need to go out and do something left me feeling empty. This feeling is also attributed to the constant news updates regarding our collective national drama. I mean you want to be informed, but not so preoccupied.

With so many things going on when I visited, there was hardly any time for sitting down and contemplating. Sometimes you really have to isolate yourself if you want to get any work done. I’ve realized, it’s harder to get back into the habit of writing when you’ve abandoned it. You often go days without jotting your thoughts, and they start piling up and you don’t know what you’ve done, or your thoughts in that particular moment. Things fade when they were never reflected upon in the first place.

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Stumbled upon this cool alleyway in the lower east side.

When I landed into LaGuardia Airport and walked off to take the local bus to my house, I was immediately met with an onslaught of confused people, who didn’t know how buy Metrocards for the M60 bus. Sadly, I was one them. I was suddenly a tourist coming to visit. “You mean you can’t buy a Metrocard from the machines?” I asked a guy. “Yea, you have to go back inside the airport to get one if you don’t all ready have one.” I remembered then that you had to insert your Metrocard to get a ticket in order to board the bus, and I also remembered how stupid this was.

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I decided to sit down in Union Square Park for a bit and look at the landscape of people passing by.

My neighborhood isn’t the noisiest, though on some nights walking by the N train in Astoria, it was suddenly livelier than usual. I noticed some new bars and restaurants, and there was even a lounge, a place for casual dancing on Ditmars Blvd with its name written in neon pink letters. Had I been a freshman in college, perhaps I would have welcomed a site like this. One night walking back home I noticed, smoke encircling customers sitting by the bar with neon pink lights. It was clear the establishment was going for a club atmosphere even within the small confines. It was a bit outlandish, and not remotely associated with the quaintness of Ditmars. I found comfort in my family, the cats and a quiet garden to sooth the busyness of the outside world. It also didn’t help that on my first night back I found myself in Hell’s Kitchen for a friend’s birthday party. It was a chaotic welcome to my old city. Granted, I was happy to see my friend, and the view of the rooftop lounge made up for the commute.

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I stopped by to see this lady on a sunny day, and discovered how extensive the creative process was to sculpt and build her.

I had some wonderful days in NYC, visiting the MET and getting lost with my sister, hanging out at a bar in Woodside with my favorite couple, seeing One World Trade Center for the first time, including the Oculus (transportation hub) which was probably dreamed up after a Sci-fi movie, visiting the east village with friends, and thinking I was too old for this place, sitting by the staircase in Grand Central, wandering around my favorite bookstore—Strand, taking the ferry to see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty with my family (I know it’s touristy, but all this time living in New York, I never visited), a surprise stop in the Queens Museum with a friend from college, hanging out by Prospect Park, getting a tour of a Red Hook brewery from an old friend, and showing my partner around my city. On one of those nights, I also went to a poetry reading at the New School.

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Surprise visit to the Queens Museum exhibition on my last day, brought the trip full circle.

I miss the array of activities one can find in NYC. There’s a wider possibility of outcomes, but the same can be said for New Orleans, although here, the land stretches out farther.

 

Retracing the French Quarter


I found myself in the CBD (Central Business District) the other day without my bike, so I walked around the French Quarter, knowing I rarely go there. I stopped by a store that sold 1950s dresses and other rockabilly accessories. I browsed around, knowing I probably would not purchase anything. I even looked at the sales section so I wouldn’t feel guilty, but there was nothing worth buying. Everything appeared in drab colors except for a pair of baby blue, glittery cat sunglasses, but the pointy ending at the end stuck out too far.

 

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I bought a dress from here a while ago, which had not seen the light of day in several months. The sales girl approached me, and asked if I was looking for anything in particular. Her orange hair was pushed back by a headband. Every once in a while, she would ask if I needed help or had any questions. I tried to disappear by the section of sunglasses. I felt pressured to buy something, but that was how the game went. Other people walked in so she flocked to them. I didn’t feel pressured to take any of the clothing pieces seriously. Eventually, I grew tired of pretending, and I thanked the girl and said bye. As I was leaving, I noticed a song playing; it was coming from the stereo just outside the store. Just as it appeared on my phone, the sales girl came out and rolled the stereo back inside. She was no longer smiling or happy as when she first approached me. The was “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” by Paul Anka.

I kept walking down Decatur St., and turned on Bienville St. I thought, if I had one of those colorful dresses stamped with ice cream cones, life would be so much better. I walked by the giant parking space near the river, then Jax, then the common stores: H&M, Urban Outfitter, etc. I quickly walked by, as I hated going to into those stores with countless of racks and customers, making never-ending lines. I kept walking past Jackson Square, wondering what other people saw when they visited the French Quarter. What did my friends and family see? I overheard a Spanish lady telling someone “Mira esa calle pequeña,” (look at that small street) and she pointed to a quiet narrow, empty street, where the houses were painted in hues of dark reds and soft pinks with decorative, lacy black balconies and vines falling on the side. Many of the images in front of me passed along, without giving me much thought. I walked by Molly’s, down to the thrift stores.

 

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The thrift store where I had once bought a blanket was closed. A sign on the door said, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I never knew when any of these places closed. The messy thrift store across the street was open, so I crossed the street, and a guy who was sitting by the gates of the Old Mint building, started saying something in my direction. “You look young—way out of my league, but maybe my friend could talk to you.” I don’t know who he was referring to, as I saw no one else on that street. He was severely toasted, sweaty and drunk, almost as if he had been sitting out in the sun for too long.

I walked into the messiness, seeing as how it was the only one thrift store open. I browsed quickly. There wasn’t anything worthwhile, and everything seemed devoid of color or the whimsicality that I had come expect from this store. Perhaps it was me, but some sections were empty. Had they forgotten to replenish? I reminded myself that I came here for a top hat. Still, I tried on a shirt and a large skirt, clearly intended for a bigger person. I browsed through the costume section, knowing I would not be getting anything. I was senselessly killing time. I found a hair clip, a small bow adorned with a pattered fabric that resembled textiles I had seen from Mexico or Guatemala. I picked up different colored bows, eventually finding a small green one. I used the same mirror I had used when I tried on the articles of clothes. I picked up a bit of my hair, clipped it to the right side, and tilted my head slightly. I decided to take it with me.

 

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Over at the store counter, I flicked through a stack of old photos, possibly from the 80s or 90s of yellow Mardi Gras Indians, little kids, parents, and some guys walking out of a theater. It felt odd browsing through the photos of strangers; they were private and distant memories. Black, white families from the old New Orleans: weddings, babies being carried, friends gathered in a living room. I found a set of small photos that had a rare cut of paper. They were small, maybe 4×3 and the edges were jagged. They depicted a castle and its surroundings. Each one had a different part of the entire scenery: a lake, a bridge, a view from afar towards the castle, and finally the castle up close, or perhaps I saw them in reverse. They were numbered on the bottom, but it was almost hard to see. I realized, I didn’t care much for castles, and put it down. I wondered if it was possible to re-create the look of the black & white hue, along with the soft, thick paper and its jagged edges.

Opinion: Nola Floods


Luckily, around our way the water didn’t get beyond covering our sidewalks. I peered out outside—and not a soul wandering around. The water covered the streets then the sidewalks. Once the rain calmed down, some cars began passing. Since there was still a large concentration of water the cars pushed the water to the side making it likely to enter someone’s  house. I don’t think the water went into anyone’s house in my block, but it looked like a shallow river out there, as the water moved in waves. I’m not sure if any of these cars actually had a reason to be outside. In other neighborhoods, people complained about the water being knee-deep. Some kayaked and drank whiskey. Luckily, our place was unscathed, but I wonder if next time we’ll be so lucky. Had it kept raining for longer, how high would the water have risen? Several days after the flood, I biked to Circle Foods and saw it was open, but there was yellow tape around the entrance. A lady outside told me it was closed. “We will be open next week, give us some time,” she said. I told her, I was glad they were going to stay open. Inside a group of men dressed in button ups and suits huddle around the now empty produce aisle.

I went to another market on Esplanade where a lady told me that the water didn’t reach her store, but had it kept raining it probably would have. We talked about the drains, commenting how they were filled with garbage. “The government use to clean them before.” She said. I don’t know why they don’t anymore.”

I find it frustrating that the city doesn’t do enough when it comes to the cleaning and upkeep of the drainage system. As I see it, there are two problems here: the drains are filled with garbage so water can’t pass through and the pipe system needs to be updated, so the water can be moved off the streets quickly. Seeing as how the city government doesn’t clean the drains, a while back me and my partner cut the overgrown plants that covered the closest drain to my house. I also removed some of the garbage that was sitting there, mostly plastic bottles or bags. It wasn’t hard removing the garbage from the top, though arduous in the hot sun, but at some point you couldn’t clean anymore because most of the garbage was mixed in with the soil, and it was too deep to retrieve it.

For many people this was close to home. It reminded them of how the streets flooded during Katrina, especially with the photo below of Circle Foods. The pipes should be able to handle this much rain, even if it was concentrated for a span of four hours. Sadly, not enough is being done to secure New Orleans from another major flood event.


 

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[photo credit]

Surveying in the summer


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When did I start surveying? It feels so long ago. The summer has dragged on for too long, and there’s no winter coming. I’m not sure if I ever wrote about my surveying experience with Fund 17. I might have mentioned it in passing or if something drastic happened while I was out there. But for the most part, I’ve been going out into the street, knocking on people’s door since May. At first I walked closer to St. Bernard, passing streets like Roman, Annette, New Orleans, Aubry―side streets that I usually never biked or walked through except for Roman. I felt out of place most of the time. A girl wearing a teal shirt with Fund 17 written on the front and a clipboard. At first I didn’t have a shirt, since we were just getting started, but they gave me a name tag. Walking alongside broken sidewalks and underneath palmetto trees, I saw abandoned homes, loose houses about to fall, houses that had let themselves go to nature with weeds growing in and out. But there were also blocks with colorful houses that people lived in or homes that were being fixed, and sometimes a person would be sitting on the porch waving at me. In most cases when I knocked no one answered, and that was because no one was home, they were sleeping (if it was early afternoon), or the house had been abandoned. One time on Roman I stopped by a house and knocked a couple of times. I noticed one of the windows were broken. A car stopped by and the girl inside told me the people had left for several months. In some instances neighbors would say, “No one has lived there for a while.” Whenever someone asked me what I was doing, I told them I was doing surveys for a non-profit that gives one-on-one assistance to small businesses owners. Some people were interested and asked for more information, so I talked to them and gave them a flyer. They didn’t have a business, but they were interested in starting one or knew someone that would. People were usually friendly and said hello. Here and there I got stares as if saying, “ You sure you want to be walking around here.” On those quiet streets behind St. Bernard, I often shrank thinking something could happen to me. Sometimes there was no one around, not a single person on their porch, not a sound except for crows. I was happy when someone answered the door even if they did not want to answer the questionnaire, they were there, others had a story about starting a business that never took off, or they did have one but they never called it that. “Oh you mean that.” It was just something they did on the side like fixing cars, construction or selling food at festivals. I was happy to see families or hear music on the street, because then I knew I was not alone.

When traveling


New Orleans gets plenty of tourism, and it’s no surprise friends and family come to visit. It’s always a revelation to take them to the French Quarter and the surrounding neighborhoods like Marigny and Tremé, depending on their curiosity. I find it interesting the way they perceive what is unfolding before them, often expressed in simple comments, awes of silence, the flashing of photos, the way they interact with people or their nervousness when seeing a new place. They may notice everything at once or notice nothing at all. The most annoying aspect is when you find a visitor glued to their phone and failing to interact with anything outside social media.

While some are open to everything a place has to offer, others may want to frequent the same corners they would encounter back home. And it’s not abnormal to want what is familiar, because we all want our comfort—to be in a safe, secure place that makes us happy and fulfilled, and usually those places are the ones we feel close to. On the spectrum of possibilities we search for the closest avenues to our reality, ones that would easily satisfy us. While this seems to be a practical view in the short-term, and uses time efficiently, it can also prevent us from a genuine experience that could teach us a profound lesson.

It’s not surprising to find that tourists carry their life with them, as if in a suitcase, often comparing their home to the new destination. I wish they could leave their home for a bit and explore with fresh eyes. But that can be difficult for anyone, since we are tied to the place we live, which is inevitably attached to biases. This affects how we perceive a new place dissimilar to the one we encounter everyday. A trip anywhere could be more fruitful if you go with an open mind. I have come to understand that not everyone is willing to fully immerse themselves in an experience.

Some people are initially cautious, but despite their fears do eventually jump at the chance to be active explorers. Their hesitancy quickly fades when they acknowledge that experiences don’t have to fall into two categories good or bad, and that there’s a spectrum of emotions each rich with thought. They give themselves a little more room to explore even in places they had not expected to encounter. Traveling often challenges our way of thinking in one way or other, even if we don’t want to admit it. Traveling changes us and I think that’s the whole point.

Update: not yet a fall day

It’s summer out there, in the street of New Orleans, under the trees—the crows will have you know, you haven’t escaped the hot sun just yet. We do get some respite from the sun in the early mornings and nights, starting around six. I miss the energetic breezy, fall days of New York, the ones that include scarves and gloves. I told a friend the other day, I’m so excited for winter.” Whenever I say this, I receive a look of, are you serious? Surely I wouldn’t be saying this, if I were up North. But we always miss what we don’t have. Soon it will be November and it will get slightly colder, and the birds will be down here, keeping us company until the ruthless sun comes back next year. Below are some  of my wanderings last month.

Mobile Museum of Art

When I was in Alabama last month I visited the Mobile Museum of Art. They have three floors of displays with most of the modern art in the first floor. The museum once hosted an art fair, and some of the pieces from the time were kept. My favorite floor was the one displaying period pieces: sculptures, ceramic, glass, tapestry from different parts of the world. American, Chinese, Tibetan, and European. There was a section that had a large timeline of America. It felt surreal seeing all these dates and historic events, and it made think about my place in history? The last floor was mostly abstract or self-taught art— some of it moving, like boats in the ceiling floated that floated in my mind.

St. Claude and French Quarter Galleries

Sometimes you stumble into creepy art exhibits while getting free wine on a second saturday of every month. Usually at St. Claude but surprisingly there was something similar in the  French Quarter galleries that one night. I didn’t know what to make of the two male mannequins holding the rabbits in the New Orleans Art Center, was upside down and the other by the ear. It made me think about the secrets of childhood and sharing them with your siblings in this case twins. The photo on the right is a dollhouse living room shown in the Antieau Gallery; it’s a replica of Killer Clown’s actual home, the one where he buried a bunch of people. Notice all the clown portraits (scary). Dollhouses are so cute, until it’s a replica of a killer’s home.

Butterflies at the Insectarium

In all my time in New Orleans, I never wandered into the Insectarium; surprising, since I love butterflies. The day I went, they were having a free day. I walked in to find families and little kids running around, saying “look mommy!” And babies being only slightly creeped out. Some people stood by the plaques of info, read and took photos of live and dead insects on display. There was a room just for butterflies, live ones that fly over you head, sometimes deciding to pay you a visit and sit on your head or shoulder. Other ones pretend to be dead on the floor but are recovering slowly because they been flying around too much and have broken off a part of their wing.

Making a bird house

I finally made a bird house, granted all the materials were provided in a bird house class at the Botanical Garden, but I built one, and more work is needed since I still have to paint it. These fancy bird houses above were made by some talented bird house makers. The person who taught the class is an avid birdwatcher and bird house architect John A. Talluto, who makes the cutest bird houses, some distinctly New Orleans style. We made the basic shaped ones, but the bird house exhibit made me think about creating new designs.

On St. Charles

Some time last week, I was walking on St. Charles, killing time until a writing workshop. Apart from looking at the old mansions, the runners, and sighing at the elaborate gardens and fountains with the street cars brushing by every so often, I saw a Halloween display, filled with skeletons, some in the gaudiest outfits, loungy pajamas or totally naked, displaying relevant puns and humor. A creepy mansion with funny skeletons: this is Halloween in New Orleans.

Update: rain, flood, thoughts

That time there was a giant puddle in the park.

The last two weeks have been consumed by rain with intervals of frustrating heat. It was strange for me, especially knowing that a few miles away a flood had devastated parts of Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes (20 Louisiana parishes were designated as federal disaster areas by FEMA), while my house was sitting untouched in New Orleans. There was ongoing rain and large puddles nearby but nothing serious. My parents were worried about me after seeing reports of homes under water and people rowing boats. I had missed their calls during that weekend, making them more worried, but I eventually called them back to tell them I was safe. They were under the impression that New Orleans had also flooded. I would not know what to do if that was the case. I guess my desk would float or we would be evacuated (this is probably the best scenario).

During the week I did have some troubling dreams, including me wandering around with my dad and sister during a flood, wondering why we didn’t have boats when everyone else seemed prepared. We managed to climb our way out of the flood through a solid ladder that later turned into a cloth ladder and almost ripped when I was climbing. We made our way up to the balcony of a marble building. Days later, my sister texted me: you need to get a boat.

The damage in Louisiana wasn’t a result of heavy winds like Hurricane Katrina, but record rainfall. Also outdated infrastructure couldn’t hold the heavy amounts of rain, and failed to drain water out of the streets. The storm brought 7.1 trillion gallons of rain to Louisiana, three times more than during Katrina. Local rivers like Amite and Comite had record water levels causing the biggest flood since Sandy. Some 20,000 people were rescued and about 110,000 homes were damaged. The Advocate investigated the deaths of 13 people who lost their lives; some swept by the storm while in their cars, others swam for safety, but didn’t make it.

I imagine the disarray.
I imagine the disarray.

Days after the flood, everyone was trying to out figure how to respond; whether to donate to bigger non-profits like the Red Cross or to local businesses and residents who could easily navigate the area and get resources to BR and surrounding areas quicker than national organizations. On Facebook and twitter, people posted photos and videos of how they were helping to evacuate folks with their boats. Some had cookouts or donated food. I saw a video on twitter of trucks hurrying along i10 to get to BR. Even a basketball team showed up to help. People are amazing.

Questions arose about what kind of things to donate. What was appropriate during an emergency? Some local bars and art galleries also held fundraisers where they collected a list of goods and money to donate.

Supply vessels that trasport equipment and personnel to offshore oil and gas platforms passing along the Mississippi River.
Supply vessels that transport equipment and personnel to offshore oil and gas platforms passing along the Mississippi River.

By now most of the water has receded, but up until a day or two there were areas still submerged. At this point affected parishes are in recovery mode, as people try to rebuild their homes, try to get back to normalcy which won’t be for a while. If you’re in the area, and want to lend a hand, there are many local organizations setting up volunteers. This is something I want to be doing in the next couple of weeks. Natural disasters get a lot of attention at first then fade from the news cycle, but the people of Louisiana are still in need: check out these organizations accepting donations.

The conversation surrounding the floods has expanded to infrastructure problems. Scientific American explores how BR and other cities need to modernize their drainage system in order to face future storms that will be exasperated by global warming. As the earth heats up, more moisture is produced which increases average rainfall, making future floods more likely. The occurrence of floods also become more likely when coastlines erode and wetlands that normally mitigate floods and soak rainfall disappear. As Louisiana continues to allow offshore oil drilling, these natural buffers zones will disappear making it hard for residents to continue living near the gulf, as the The Times-Picayune reports.

 

Ariel views of the damage in Louisiana.