Coming Attractions, Big Easy Style

4 May

 

Khari and the rest of the collective put some body English into Jazz Fest.

Khari and the rest of the collective put some body English into Jazz Fest.

NOTE: Serving the Story has taken to the road, journeying from coast to coast in search of stories of service, as well as chances to volunteer. My original vision for this blog series of road encounters was that each would be a profile of a particular person engaged in service, and/or my own experiences in doing that service.

But it turns out that doing service, getting to know others who do service, transcribing interviews with said people, and writing coherently about all of the above – well, at some point you must choose. Specifically, choose between being fully with the people and place – or, in one of the cruel ironies of the travel writer’s life, hiding away in some quiet room, hunched over his keyboard, with every word writing himself further and further out of the here and now. Out of the moment.

And in New Orleans, there are a LOT of moments – one hates to miss a single one of them.

So in the place of whole narratives, accept for the moments this montage of my first eight days in New Orleans. View them, if you will, as a preview of coming attractions, the promises of movies to come.

In the impressionistic swirl of visuals, imagine, above all, lots of purple and green and gold – it is New Orleans, after all. After that, visualize Khari Allen Lee and the rest of the quartet known as the New Creative Collective on stage Sunday at Jazz Fest, as I sit in the seat saved for me by his romantic partner, music educator Kaya Martinez – who, despite me having only met them in person once, has gone out of her way to point me in interesting directions whenever I come here.

Smiles 2 Geaux founder Fatou Saar and son Oumar flash smiles of their own.

Smiles 2 Geaux founder Fatou Saar and son Oumar flash smiles of their own.

With the background of one of the collective’s compositions, cut across town to a bus parked in front of a senior center near Elysian Fields. Only the people who board the bus aren’t going anywhere – they’re getting their teeth cleaned. Riding herd over the operation is its founder, Fatou Saar, originally from Senegal – and, after Hurricane Katrina, briefly of Worcester, Mass., where she stayed with my friend Stacey Hill. Now, after returning to New Orleans, she has created Smiles 2 Geaux, an award-winning mobile dental clinic for school children and seniors.

From there the camera lifts up to an aerial shot and pans down the Poland Highway and over the water into the Lower Ninth, once flooded seemingly beyond hope of redemption, now decorated with bright, unconventional and progressive homes provided by Brad Pitt’s foundation. Thom Pepper works out of the second floor of Common Ground; Brad and Angelina and the kids once hung in the first floor, meeting to map out his project. (Hey, what are a batch of movie previews without either Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie?)

 

The homes built by Pitt's foundation incorporate solar tiles, as well as other modern elements.

The homes built by Pitt’s foundation incorporate solar tiles, as well as other modern elements.

From there a quick cut to the Audubon Nature Park, where eighth graders from St. Louis whack and cleave the pervasive Chinese tallow, a water-sucking invasive species who were a force to be reckoned with even before Katrina’s flood waters swept their seeds from lawns to the Audubon sanctuary, making them a threat to the rebuilding of the ecosystem in general and the wetlands protecting the levees in particular. Supervising those kids is one Amy LeGaux, who, as a young San Diego Zoo employee, stood behind the curtain at The Tonight Show, handed exotic critters to Joan Embery, who in turn amused Johnny Carson and the nation. (Hey, where would the movie industry be without The Tonight Show.)

Slide to another part of town, and you find volunteers of ranging ages painting and mudding part of an 1849 house; United Saints removed the black mold that made the owner ill, and are renovating a back portion in which he can safely live upon his return to New Orleans in a month or so. Meanwhile, folks will continue to work on restoring the rest of the pink two story building; it was two of Jerry’s neighbors who stepped in when the city started “blighting” procedures. They’ve already repaired the roof, which was enough progress to staves out the city for now. Meanwhile, in the lot next door, they’re moving around the smashed cars to be used in the new Terminator movie being filmed here. A year after Christian Bale was in Worcester shooting American Hustle, he seems to have followed me here — giving me my own celebrity stalked. (Notice how our cast keeps expanding.)

Now back downtown on Canal, Hands On New Orleans executive director Chris Cameron sits in his brightly colored tie and seer-sucker suit, looking very much the New Orleans native during Jazz Fest week — or any other week, really. With looks that remind me vaguely of the 50ish Timothy Dalton, he laughs at my astonishment when he mentions accommodating a group of 150 volunteers in a single project. “Oh,” he said, “that’s easy.”

St. Louis eighth graders located and take down Chinese tallow, which causes havoc in the wetlands.

St. Louis eighth graders located and take down Chinese tallow, which causes havoc in the wetlands.

Then picture a stately white two-story home on Louisiana Avenue, where the owners have converted the first floor into the administrative offices for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic; with a wall of autographed musician photos behind her, Erica Dudas tells me how the clinic serves roughly 2,500 New Orleans musicians, from well-known but financially strapped names to the street-corner buskers and even, of late, club managers who employed them. The latest fundraising letter was signed by musical legend Dr. John and TV Series producer David Simon, he of The Wire and Treme. (Enter HBO.)

And, finally, to one of those clubs – where a weary travel writer is ready to quit gathering material until he’s processed what he has, wait until after he’s done some writing to interview another do-gooder – with the aid of local blues guitarist and singer Walter “Wolfman” Washington. Only said travel writer starts talking with the couple sharing a bench with him before the show gets them all on their feet. They’re from New York City. The wife is a corporate headhunter – good, no notes the travel writer needs to make there – but then it turns out that in her spare time, she channels that expertise into teaching disadvantaged women how to interview for jobs.

On the way back from the club, said travel writer walks past a self-styled haunted house. Overhead, an eerily familiar voice repeats itself in a continuous loop, a voice that does indeed give him the creeps: “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job … Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job …”

Well,  a lot of people actually are.

Their stories are coming soon to a blog near you.

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