The Whole Civilized World

In Which Back Yard Tire Fire Learns Crack Alley

I’ve lived in Bloomington for a year as of today, with no prospects of moving home. It must be harder still to make it back to New Orleans and know you can’t stay unless something changes.

I read in NOLA.com that out of the 40 percent who have come back to New Orleans, 30 percent are considering moving in the next two years. That’s constantly reflected in talks with musician friends. Aside from those whose name recognition and touring have increased post 8/29, they sound more worried with each call. They made it back - but for how long with tourism down and crime up? The Road Home is now up to 65 grants out of the billions they were given to pave it.

There's a chain letter circulating that says 58 percent of Americans do not think New Orleans should be rebuilt. It may be true, but it doesn’t stop the draw of home. A grant recipient just wrote, “I can't tell you how much it means to me to know somebody cares. Since the price of gas heating is so high here in Ky. this will help pay my bill. I want to go home but its hard to find a place to live down there.”

Most of NOmrf’s grants go to musicians you probably never heard of stuck in towns I’ve never heard of. An artist’s manager recently told me backstage that “this is the best thing that’s happened to some of these old timers. They’re getting more famous than they ever were.” He’s wrong. No one was better off in the Astrodome and no one is better off now.

Next week, families from around the country are bringing gift cards and volunteering their time in New Orleans. For the second time, we’ll have a trunk full of instruments from WGLT, the NPR station in Bloomington.

Some musician friends in Back Yard Tire Fire are playing a benefit for the local homeless shelter tomorrow night before we drive south. They learned Barry Cowsill’s “Crack Alley” so my husband Jeff can join them on the song. Barry was Jeff’s bandmate in the Stragglers, and he’s a friend we lost to 8/29. It’s strange to think that Back Yard Tire Fire is keeping Crack Alley alive.

Tomorrow is also Jeff’s birthday and we finally have enough friends here to throw a small pre-show party before walking up the street to the show. The charity had reservations about “Crack Alley” benefiting a homeless shelter, but I think Barry would have enjoyed the juxtaposition. A year ago, the same Salvation Army not only let us gather winter clothes to send home to friends and family, they got a list of everyone’s sizes and helped us fill the basket. Bloomington is supportive that way.

It may be a midwestern legend, but rumor is that we live in the building where Abraham Lincoln was talked into running for the presidency. That’s probably true, because there’s a copper plaque at the antiques mall listing of all his failures. It cost $1,100 so I just committed a few to memory. Apparently you can free the slaves, but there will still be a plaque somewhere about everything you didn’t do.

At the same antiques mall, I bought collectible cards about the San Francisco fire’s aftermath. We were supposed to be furniture shopping, but at least I didn’t buy all the disaster cards. That would have indicated that I’m fixated on disaster. Here’s what some of them said on the back:

“The soldiers are just leaving duty from among the refugees at Ft. Mason and returning to their camp at the Presidio . . . But for the gallant services of the government troops crime and looting would soon have become rampant;

“This structure was one of the finest built by the Y.M.C.A. Organization and like other buildings, whether church, saloon or theatre, had to succumb to Nature’s will;

“The wealthy were on the same level with the lowly once more, for when they fled their palatial homes or houses into the streets, they were almost naked and without money, and as helpless to get away as the poorest beggar. For many days after the catastrophe many well educated ladies could be seen in the parks, dressed in overalls and striped sweaters, or in other coarse masculine garb,” (I ended up in donated pink socks as I only packed sandals, and kept being surprised by my pink feet.);

“With spontaneity and liberality without a parallel in history the whole civilized world answered the unvoiced appeal of ruined San Francisco. Not only from every city, town and hamlet in this country, but from over every sea humanity in its profound sympathy showered material aid upon the stricken city and its beggared people. No more amazing instance of worldwide generosity ever has been recorded.”

The disaster cards made me wish New Orleans still had spontaneity and liberality from the whole civilized world. Or at least the 42 percent who care.

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