miércoles, agosto 29, 2007

In praise of Gris-Gris

While we might have observed Gris-Gris’ birthday a month ago with all appropriate fanfare and enthusiasm, the second anniversary of Katrina is also the second anniversary of Gris-Gris’ membership in our family and is cause for celebration and reflection. These have been two years of change and adventure and the youngster has participated as a trouper through displacement and recovery.

Gris-Gris’ first days with us were spent in a cat-carrier. Originally, when I brought him back from the LA/SPCA Shelter, I wanted to introduce him into our household slowly. Since my house is one continuous space, there wasn’t a separate room I could keep him in and, anyhow, I wanted the older boys, Felix and Rocco, to become familiar with his sweet scent. And then Gris-Gris and I evacuated leaving his newly adopted brothers to manage for what we thought would be three days. It was only after our three months exile in Austin (reunited with the older cats) that the youngster had the run of my house in New Orleans. Did I say run? Well, Gris-Gris, at 4-months was an agile leaper and discovered nooks, perches and crannies that larger and less agile Rocco and Felix could never consider.

Fully grown Gris-Gris is considerably smaller than his brothers. They weigh approximately 17 pounds whereas Gris-Gris seems relatively small at only 12 pounds. My house is on three levels and there are many parapets (best translated as “for pets”) throughout. As I move through the house, Gris-Gris hops onto these low walls and meets me at the head of stairs poised for a petting.

Apparently, all of my cats are quite unusual in that they love to meet and greet any visitor. Growing up in our Forest Hills apartment, we never had any pets other than Gary’s tropical fish. My first cat, Black Tom, came about as a consequence of discovering a mouse in my apartment when I first came to New Orleans leading to a bad experience with a successful mouse-trap. I have had cats now for some 36 years. I have become more and more appreciative of each cat's unique personality.

Rocco lavishes affection and demands the same. Felix loves the attention of being fed by hand, comes when he’s called and loves an occasional snuggle. Gris-Gris is a gentleman, very courtly and with dignified. His solid warm-grey coat makes him virtually invisible at night but, in the day, emphasizes his sculptural form – very much the Egyptian. His long ears, pointed chin and luminous light brown eyes suggest that he is from another branch of the cat family than the chunkier two-toned Felix and Rocco. When you pass your hand in the vicinity of his head, he stretches up to be petted. Gris-Gris, you are an essential part of this family and we, the older members, hold you in highest esteem.

martes, agosto 28, 2007

Katrina – Two years later

This morning, I went down to the Orleans Parrish Criminal District Court to see one of my friends, a law school student, perform as an assistant DA. On the way down, I drove under the magnificent live oaks of Carrollton Avenue, at my end an area unaffected by post-Katrina floods. I turned onto Fontainebleau Drive, the first 10 blocks or so fully recovered from serious flood damage. Healthy trees, mown lawns and summer flowers suggested that the struggle to recover was, at least physically, over. Further down Fontainebleau, closer to where I used to live, restoration projects were still underway and Katrina’s damage had not yet been erased.

The trial I was hoping to attend was postponed. One of the police officers was engaged to escort President and Mrs. Bush as they toured New Orleans, two years after. I returned to my cozy house in my cozy neighborhood and prepared to begin the new semester at Tulane. While the University’s recovery was costly in faculty departures and building repairs, a casual tour of the campus suggests that Katrina’s floods had never occurred. (Please notice my emphasis on the flooding which was the principle cause of damage to New Orleans.)

On Sunday, I had dinner with my friend Janie. We reminisced about our experience as Katrina evacuees. We left New Orleans early Sunday morning, a day ahead of Katrina’s landfall. We drove west on the I-10, taking the usual outbound lanes. The inbound lanes were directed toward Baton Rouge whereas we headed north on I-50 intending to eventually head west ourselves but further from the coast. Happily, there was not too much traffic and as we approached the Mississippi border we were able to move at a fast clip (this seemed very important at the time.)

Just outside of Vicksburg, I got a call from my dear brother Gary and a half-hour later, he had made arrangements for us to stay at the Gold Strike Hotel in Tunica, Mississippi. (Did I mention that we were traveling in Janie’s Mazda with her dog Dolomite and cats Ishi and Muffaleta? I had left behind my big cats Felix and Rocco and was traveling with 4-week-old Gris-Gris who I had adopted the Friday before our evacuation.) All of us, and I mean every evacuee, was only expecting to be away from home for a few days and I felt confident that my big boys could take care of themselves. It’s interesting that those hours and days are so vividly engraved in our minds.

On Monday morning, images on the two large-screen hotel televisions showed the immediate damage to New Orleans caused by rain and wind – nothing that the city had not experienced many times before and not particularly serious. There were images of thousands of New Orleanians who had not been able to evacuate huddled in a Superdome who’s roof had two major holes. And then we learned that levees had been and breached and that water from Lake Ponchartrain was filling low-lying areas – indeed, most of the city. We stayed at the Casino for almost a week (along with many other evacuees.) We then moved to a motel in a nearby town. Janie and I were talking about how kind people were – organizations offering meals, Internet access, etc. We were able to see aerial images of the city and check the extent of the flooding. We ourselves were reassured but many of our fellow hotel guests were not at all so fortunate.

Gradually, we started to think of what we would do next. How could we get back to New Orleans, rescue our cats (poor Janie had been cat-sitting for friends prior to Katrina) and see to our properties. We contacted pet rescue services. I don’t know how I heard, but I received a message from Eliot Barron, the son of a Tulane colleague and my house sitter from earlier that summer. My cats were fine but the back door lock had been bashed open. He left the cats ample food and water and they greeted me when I got back into the city a week later.

Meanwhile, we were attempting to get closer to home – there were no vacancies at closer motels (we were 200 miles away.) We were attempting to rent an apartment or house in Baton Rouge. Eventually, Janie’s friends, Jerrye and Tommy Martin invited us to stay in their home in La Place – just 26 miles from home, . They had not lost power or sanitary services. We were able to sneak into New Orleans, retrieve animals (oh what joy!!!), scrub down our refrigerators and freezers (what a mess!!!) and remove clothes, papers and other essentials. By then, it was apparent that we would be gone for some time. I recovered my car and Janie and I went our separate ways: Janie to Albuquerque and me to Austin where I was able to take classes at the UT. (There were many other gracious invitations.)

Unlike so very many others, our properties and live were more or less unaffected by the storm. Without family or employment, my situation was so much simpler. Indeed, my time in Austin was filled with intellectual and physical challenges (the consequence of a ruptured Achilles Tendon and surgery.)

But more than anything, the pleasure of new friendships (especialmente Pepe Pierce – a kind and brilliant fellow grad student) and the renewal of others (the extraordinarily generous Clint Bledsoe and his charming family) and my gracious former student Gary Greenblum made my time in Austin so enjoyable, almost obscuring an uncertain future in New Orleans. So, this time around, the world of Stephen Paul Jacobs avoided a major setback while others continue to struggle and suffer. But the melodrama is not over.

miércoles, agosto 15, 2007

Rocco's Refined Tastes

As I rounded the corner from the kitchen bringing my salad, I was astonished to spot Rocco on the dining table tasting my gazpacho. Rocco has never been know as a gastronome. Indeed, he always seemed to prefer quantity to quality. Felix, on the other hand, has a distinct preference for smoked meat and is very fussy about the cat treats I proffer.

By the way, the Guadalajara Gazpacho from the uptown Whole Foods is really wonderful with its floating bits of avocado and corn niblets - perfectly spiced. This summer, I have become devoted to Whole Foods soups - the tomato basil bisque especially. Maybe it comes from my 7 weeks in Bolivia where wonderful soups are so much a part of every main meal.

These last weeks in New Orleans have been particularly hot. Until the end of July it would rain every afternoon, lowering the temperature and encouraging the lushness of our tropical vegetation. Lately, the sky's a pale blue and the sun is unrelenting. Walking out of the house even after dark is entering a continuous steam bath. I try to run my errands in the morning and even then the heat is oppressive. When I used to do darkroom work, it was necessary to correct for water temperature, so I know that cold tap water, this time of year, is in the 80s.
I had a long chat with my neighbor Donald, who was walking his poodle Tiger. He was concerned about the storms in the Gulf and the Atlantic. We agreed that if another hurricane comes this way, its all over for the city. That's an exaggeration but after all the effort that has gone into the recovery, and great progress is being made, a major storm would be devastating. The levee system has not been fully reinforced and any breach would be a repetition of the Katrina flood.