I Can See Lincoln From Here

The month before Katrina I quit my job, totaled my car and the cat died.

There are hundreds of thousands of Katrina exile stories and that's the start of mine. The day before the levees broke I was visiting family on a week-long vacation when it became apparent that my husband and I weren’t going home any time soon. After cashing out the 401K, we stayed out on the road for four months bouncing between family, friends and FEMA rooms.

We went on morning shows across the country talking about displaced New Orleaneans and I sang a version of “It’s Raining,” that I would not want Irma to hear. Ever. But it seemed to get the point across. We downloaded some of the thousands of digital photos from home as background - I didn’t have any photos of the wreckage until we came back.

As we received text messages from our musician friends around the country, Jeff and I founded the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund, Inc. The 501c(3) tax-deductibility was achieved between Starbucks internet connections and many, many e-faxes. It came through just as Wilco did a fund-raiser in Chicago and NOMRF was able to start sending out cost of living grants to displaced musicians. NOMRF has sent out hundreds of grants so far and may go out in a blaze of glory if donations dry up, but for now people around the world are still reaching out.

Being displaced ourselves made for strange interviews - whenever a reporter asked when we were going home, we would turn to each other and start to discuss it. A woman I had never met put us up in Milwaukee for weeks – she left a welcome sign, a bottle of wine and three cats. One was a jerk but it was a cozy place to stay and the scratches have healed.

My brother and sister-in-law put us up in a nicely furnished basement room. At the time they had a bald cat in an orange polka dotted sweater that seemed to run a temperature of 200. She may have had intestinal problems and after each noxious smell everyone would yell “Wendy!” My other brother would drop $50 dollar bills and say they were mine because he’s too polite to offer a loan. I wouldn’t have survived without them.

A commune on Martha’s Vineyard put us up while we went on the Plum TV Network. They kept telling us they weren’t a commune but the communal living indicated otherwise. I didn’t care for the draft from the compost toilet but it is good for the environment. They were very, very kind people as many across the country were at the time. I was looking for a new home.

At one point I called a woman from a housing web site who was offering a 1950’s Winnebego in Maine. Her grandfather had rented it to his tenant for 60 years at $100 a month. “And if you don’t like vegetables just ignore them because grandpa will leave them on your doorstep no matter what. The cows will probably poke their heads in the windows but they’re just curious. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

I was intrigued, but we passed on the farm.

I barely consider myself displaced because we’re home so much, but we did rent an apartment in Bloomington, Illinois because there were no other affordable options in December and I was tired of not getting mail. Our apartment faces a giant courthouse dome with a statue of Lincoln. He sits on a bench and you can lean against him and relax. Sometimes people dress him up and that makes me more homesick than anything else.

The town is throwing NOMRF a Halloween Masquerade and putting beads around the courthouse so that’s encouraging. They have a giant No Racism sign as you drive into town and another one as you drive out in case you forget not to be racist.

And it’s good to be near my father who’s battling Alzheimer’s. Some days I’m his favorite daughter and some days I’m his favorite niece, but so far I’m still the favorite.

We’ve come back to New Orleans for a toy drive, the Anti-Versary, to welcome Joe Topping who walked from Chicago, Jazzfest, Mardi Gras, instrument drive, basically at the drop of a hat. My brother’s hint for making new friends here is “Stop talking about New Orleans.”

Fat chance.


Like a Bad Neighbor, State Farm Cancels Calendar

Photographer Tony Saluto is my upstairs neighbor. Sometimes he drops by with gourmet chocolates and asks what’s up in New Orleans, so I was glad to hear about his planned Women of State Farm New Orleans Benefit Calendar.

He talked with us about donating some of the proceeds to the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund. Bloomington has been a supportive community where we moved after being displaced. It's also State Farm Headquarters. When our shutters are open, we can see the neon State Farm sign glowing red into the night.

No good deed goes unpunished, and State Farm’s backlash to Tony’s announcement ended his calendar project. The reporter who covered the calendar was surprised at the vitrolic comments, and soon after the paper changed its comments policy to delete anything overly discourteous.

ARTICLE: Dear readers. . . if you are a regular reader of the comments or a contributor, you have probably noticed that many people take full advantage of their online anonymity to not only speak their minds but also to offend their fellow users.

POST: Thanks wrote on January 11, 2007 8:16 AM:"Now we can comment on stories and not readers. Do you think there is any coincidence that there was a State Farm article and many rude postings were directed towards State Farm employees and now, one day later, The Pantagraph changes procedures?"

This could partially be my fault. I may have implied that if the State Farm did not want to help New Orleans with a calendar, perhaps they could have stopped the storm surge by backing into the gulf with their fat asses which they sit on all day denying claims and fighting lawsuits. The post was called, “Congratulations State Farm, My Mother-In-Law is Homeless.” The comment was censored and I’m glad because State Farm employees may not be out of shape at all.

After all, the company just donated $1.5 million to Bloomington’s YMCA which could only increase their fitness level.

ARTICLE: State Farm Companies Foundation donated $1.5 million for a new family YMCA . . .

POST: Amanda wrote on January 11, 2007 3:23 PM:"anyone else find it interesting that this was released the same day that State Farm was found liable for not paying claims as a result of katrina? Hopefully more local organizations will benefit from this type of pr stunt. Now's the time folks, get your requests into State Farm for donations while the iron is hot and their name and image are tarnished."

And State Farm just brought an Indian outsourcing company to Bloomington. That could lead to new vegetarian restaurants and healthy dining.

ARTICLE: Patni Computer Systems, Inc. opened next to State Farm’s downtown building to service its only Twin City client, said company Vice President Avdhut Nadkarni, who would not mention State Farm by name.

POST: smythe.... wrote on January 17, 2007 7:53 AM:"now we don't have to think of our jobs going "over there" we can see them right in our own downtown!!!!! "

But after settling on the Mississippi lawsuit and anticipating more, maybe there are a lot of would-be State Farmers calendar girls chewing their nails and comfort food – especially after paying about $80 million to 639 policyholders.

ARTICLE: In his closing argument Thursday, one of the Broussards' attorneys, William Walker, said State Farm had breached their contract "in a bad way" by denying their claim. State Farm "acted like a chiseler," he said, adding, "The pocketbook is what they listen to."

POSTS: They didn't pay for the coverage wrote on January 12, 2007 1:14 PM:"I think this is bogus, these people didn't pay premiums for this coverage. The insurer only covers certain things under certain policies, if they would have paid the correct premiums for flood insurance then I agree, but they didn't have to correct coverage so therefore shouldn't get anything. I thinks this is terrible for SF."

good point wrote on January 12, 2007 2:07 PM:"I work at State Farm and your statement is so untrue it shouldn't be posted. If you can please show me these minimal profit margins State Farm made from homeowners. We just posted record profits this year. I got a raise, and people got hoodwinked. We make a substantial amount of our profits off our home-based insurance. Do you even work for an insurance company?"

It’s been an interesting window into the community, but Tony was slammed by many posters like this one:

Saluto IQ???? wrote on January 09, 2007 10:55 PM:"For a person who thrives on word of mouth I wouldn't think it too intelligent to offend 3/4 of the 13,000 people that work at State Farm. Well, I think you managed to do just that. Well done Anthony Saluto.... oh, and good luck finding wedding and family portraits in this town now!! "

If some of the proceeds had been given to the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund, Tony’s calendar would help recipients like the 7-year old boy who watched his father, a New Orleans drummer, shot and killed in front of him; a living legend trying to save up for a deposit for his Habitat for Humanity home; and a brass band member who is lying in a coma with escalating hospital bills. The calendar would have been done by September.

The following are just some of the avalanche of responses to the Women of State Farm Calendar proposal. Read from bottom to top for chronological order. I'm heading back to New Orleans soon and will be sad to come home to fewer comments.

ARTICLE: He announced his calendar plans last week and quickly received a letter from State Farm, informing him that he couldn’t use State Farm’s name for commercial gain.

SF Employee wrote on January 13, 2007 7:34 PM:"For the ones that are talking bad about the women employees of SF, or should I say SF in generally. You need to know all the facts! This gentleman that wants to use SF women for a calendar is totally out of his mind!!! Let's recall ALL the contributions & MONEY that SF gave to the Katrina victims at the time of need, some of the victims of Katrina where not even policyholders of SF but they received money at their time of need. So before you people on this blog start bad-mouthing us Sf employees know the facts before you start overloading the blogs. P.S. Note the time of this entry and did any of you see Willie Brown in the Pantagraph yesterday for helping out the Y??? What was that donation for ??? Helping ??? I do believe so!!!!!!!!!!!!"

I know Tony wrote on January 13, 2007 12:55 PM:"I know Tony personally and I do not think he is a sleeze, however Im not sure what his goals are by taking these photographs of the State farm employees... Probobly not a smart move on his part, but he isn't a pervert by any means. He's a great guy, and a wonderful grandfather and he does take very amazing pictures. I have never heard of him taking nudes either. I do know that his main subjects are his 2 beautiful grandchildren and his photographs are always beautiful and very tasteful. "

Genius wrote on January 10, 2007 8:28 AM:"For whatever reason (i.e. Katrina), I don't care. This man is a genious. Too bad so many conservatives are opposed (are you the same bunch that bad mouthed Hooters, but now sneak over once in a while?). There definitely is a market for this sort of thing. Playboy has done it with Girls of Starbucks, McD's, Home Depot, Enron and WalMart, not to mention Hooters, issues, and by golly, I don't believe Playboy got sued. Mr. Saluto, congrats...just get a good attorney to research your legal plan, bc the big boys don't like controversy. They want the masses to fear for their private lives and live under the weight of their Code of Conduct (I actually hear Ed is asking the Pope to consider adding it to the Bible). And to all others, there are PLENTY of hotties that work at SF. They could have a new calender every year throughout the millenium and not reuse a single gal.

Rumor Mill wrote on January 09, 2007 3:32 PM:"I heard the provocative spread is going to be titled "Premiums, Policies, and Pantyhose: Intimate Portraits of Insurance Executives." I can't wait!!!! I'm sure this will more than smooth over SF's image problem with the folks in New Orleans."

Bill Lumbergh wrote on January 18, 2007 8:30 AM:""Uh....yeahhhhh...... I'm gonna ask you to go ahead and cancel that calender plan. M'k? By the way... did you get that memo on the TPS reports?""

Ed Jr. wrote on January 18, 2007 12:03 AM:"I work at State Farm there are some fine fine ladies working here i wish he would have finished this project. Lets get some support behing him and try to get this project going again. It's for the good of the people in new orleans anyways they are not going to have a football team to cheer for after sunday so lets get these fine ladies half nude "

hm... wrote on January 17, 2007 10:02 PM:"You'd think with the recent count decision, the pending class action lawsuit, and upcoming investigation by homeland security that the lawyers would have better things to do than worry about a calender. "