A year ago today I was being kicked out of a FEMA room while running a holiday toy drive for New Orleans musicians' children.
The hotel manager made us bring our credit card down to cover the room, then we headed out to collect toys. My husband called WGN with the story, and by the time we got back the hotel manager tried to get us to stay until March. But we left the next day. Thanksgiving in an Illinois snowstorm.
I was still thankful enough that we had lived through 8/29 and our families were safe and healthy that I wrote a letter to the editor in Lake Forest thanking the people we had met for their hospitality. A realtor later read the letter and offered us a free home for a year.
That was the day after we moved into our current apartment. A glimpse into how my timing's been working out.
A year later, and it's Thanksgiving again. I've heard friends from New Orleans come up with the thinnest excuses for thanks in the last year, the pinnacle was, "I was lucky. Not everything got wet." In the face of that, you lose your capacity not to find room for gratitude.
I'm thankful that my husband wrote a note on the inside door saying, "I am crazy, I am here and I will shoot you" with a stick figure being shot in the head by a giant gun. Then he nailed the door shut from the inside with 2 by 4s. All this seemed excessive at the time, but the neighbors got looted and we didn't.
That's what's hard. Everything you're thankful did not happen to you did happen to loved ones. There is no schadenfreude.
This Thanksgiiving is grim because of jazz siren Timothea. NOmrf had given her grants to get north, then to get further north. I talked with her for a story in the fall, but was waiting until she felt better to finish it.
The last time I talked to her she had just called FEMA asking for help but was told she didn't qualify because she wasn't back in New Orleans yet. She said, "I told him, I'm not back because I got sick. I said, so you're just gonna let me die? He said 'there ain't nothing I can do about it.' He was the meanest man I ever met in my life."
Touring at 12, two kids before the age of 18 and an appearance in "Down By Law," Timothea came by the blues legitimately. She was excited about finishing a new film score. She called to say, "I don't want to die. I'm only 55. I got so much more music in me and this whole great movie score and I'm not just saying it because I wrote it."
She had Hepititis C.
"When I get better, I'll speak and tell you how bad it can get," she said. "Nobody ever told me it can enter your lungs. They won't give me a lung transplant until the liver one. It's just the challenge of living and living calmly."
I talked to her about trying to rest, but probably wasn't much help because we were both crying for most of the conversations.
"I've been an independent woman all my life and I want to continue it. But you can't if you have 10 dozen worries on your mind. I'm homesick like everybody else, but I can't go home. I've got to stay inside. And I don't have portable oxygen anyway." I told her everything would be okay.
Timothea died waiting for her liver transplant. She never did make it home.
Bluesman Bryan Lee came through Bloomington Saturday and we were able to pass along WGLT's replacement amp built for him. We told him about losing Timothea and he played some smoking blues. It helped a little.
I'm thankful for Bryan. I'm thankful that a talent like Timothea was in this world.
But to put it in New Orleans terms, I'm not quite ready for Thanksgiving, me.
When our local Illinois Red Cross volunteer asked me last week, "Is FEMA still paying your bills?" I knew how bad the Katrina preconceptions had gotten.
In the middle of the night, I woke up and thought of changing the definition to 8/29 for another chance to open the dialogue as an evacuee. The RE-Define 8/29 campaign attempts to open a new dialogue about the flood's after-effects, without the negative associations that have started to follow those of us who are still displaced.
It's about redefining what it feels like to still be far from home with no return in sight.
Hundreds of the musicians our grass-roots charity, the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund (www.nomrf.org) helps are now located in towns where their music is largely unknown. Many of our grants go to Houston where New Orleans musicians who had nothing to do with the rise in crime have been labeled "Katricians." Texas alone has absorbed a quarter of a million New Orleaneans who have no home to return to. Georgia houses another 100,000.
We're working to RE-define 8/29 by changing the dialogue about the biggest forced migration since the Dust Bowl. Our definition of 8/29, 2005 is that it was the last day most displaced New Orleaneans could go home.
The RE-Define 8/29 campaign is also about dropping preconceptions of Katrina victims buying designer purses with their FEMA money. It's about displaced musicians needing NOmrf grants to quite literally survive. They still face problems including lack of proper health care and not making enough money to support their families. Many are still trying to replace their gear and CD merchandise.
The national media has passed us by. That's why re-framing the language and letting go of Katrina preconceptions is a start in helping the musicians who have not made it home.
Eighty thousand families in Louisiana are still living in FEMA trailers. Not enough low income housing is available in New Orleans for most musicians to return. NOmrf offers an apartment for returning musicians on a rotating basis, but we would like to offer more.
Barriers to coming home include the fact that the $10.4 billion Road Home CDBG program does not apply to renters. Out of the 77,000 homeowners who applied for the CDBG funds, 28 people have received grants. Amnesty International USA is campaigning against the demolition of viable low-income housing.
Re-Define 8/29 is about emphasizing the need for safeguarding the musicians who do make it back to New Orleans. When a 28-year old bass player was shot and killed on his way home from a French Quarter gig, his father asked that donations be made in his memory to help other musicians.
"What Becomes of the Brokenhearted by the dB's, my husband¹s old band, is the official download for the campaign. (www.thedbsonline.net).
Anyone interested can help RE-Define 8/29 by making NOmrf part of your holiday purchases. A year in the making, we finally have merchandise. Everything from a RE-Define 8/29 Beer Stein to prints of what remains of my mother-in-law¹s family piano. (www.cafepress.com/nomrf).
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.”
Man on Fire
My best friend called to tell me her husband is the executor for Malachi Ritscher, the Chicago musician who set himself on fire to protest the war in Iraq.
She and Bruno received the keys to Malachi’s home in the mail on the same day he immolated himself beside the Kennedy Expressway during rush hour. Next to him was a small handmade sign that said “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” By the time they got the note, Malachi was already dead.
I’ll see them tomorrow and hear stories about their friend. Adrienne’s the one who talked me into moving to New Orleans in the first place, and they found us a place to stay in Milwaukee for a month last fall. When she called to tell me the story, it felt incongruis. Like you can be geographically separated from tragedy.
I can't know Malachi’s inner turmoil or mental illness enough to have the right to judge, but part of me is angry with him for a) not waiting until after the election in case it made a difference to him, and b) giving up on life when it’s still a daily struggle for so many New Orleaneans.
Last month a jazz legend NOMRF helped get to Long Island for medical treatment called to tell me, “I don’t want to die. I’m only 75 and I got so much more music in me.”
Malachi was a true lover of music. He was known for giving artists tapes of their shows. Many of his recordings were eventually released commercially as a favor to jazz groups who couldn’t afford studio time. Bruno now has the task of archiving tapes from more than two thousand concerts. He owns a jazz label and is generous with his time so Malachi made a good choice.
Aside from the political statements in Malachi’s self-written obituary, this is how he described himself:
“One of his proudest achievements was an ultra-searing hot sauce recipe, which he registered under the name 'Undead Sauce - re-animate yourself!' It was a blend of tropical peppers, which he grew indoors in 5-gallon buckets, and a few secret ingredients that gave it a unique flavor (pomegranate, pistachio, and cinnamon).
He was a collector of several things: books, records, meteorites, butterfly knives, keris, glass eyes, fossil tully monsters, microphones, medium-base lightbulbs, and instruments, especially snare drums.
He could shave with a straight razor. He loved cinnamon rolls.
His favorite joke was to walk into a room, sniff the air, and observe "it smells like snot in here".
The handwritten manuscript of his 'fictional autobiography', titled "Farewell Tour", was under consideration by publishers. It had a general theme of shared universal aloneness, and was controversial for seeming to endorse suicide after the age of fifty.
He was deeply appreciative for everything that had been given to him, but acutely aware that the greater the present, the higher the price.
Reportedly, his last words were "rosebud... oops". “
When you’re compelled to be that funny in your obituary, it seems you deserve to be where they second line to celebrate your life. I wonder if he would have made it in a town that can absorb mania so gently that sometimes you can forget you’re crazy. He was a member of AA and Mensa.
His self-penned suicide note is less slapstick.
“What does God want? No big mystery - simply that we try to help each other. We decide to make God-like decisions, rescuing falling sparrows, or putting the poor things out of their misery. Tolerance, giving, acceptance, forgiveness.
If this sounds a lot like pop psychology, that is my exact goal. Never underestimate the value of a pep-talk and a pat on the ass. That is basically all we give to our brave soldiers heading over to Iraq, and more than they receive when they return. I want to state these ideas in their simplest form, reducing all complexity, because each of us has to find our own answers anyway. Start from here...”
He ends, being an Illinois boy, with this quote:
"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government... " - Abraham Lincoln
These were his last written words:
“Without fear I go now to God - your future is what you will choose today.”
Rest in peace, Malachi, and please look up the friends we lost in the last 2 years to drowning, illness, suicide and heartbreak. They are all gone too soon.
"What Becomes of the Broken Hearted" (Benefit song by the dB's)
For all of us who worship REM like gods, there's one more reason to.
Our friend Mike Mills came to jam with the
"New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund All-Stars" James Andrews, Stanton Moore and Craig Klein this summer at Dr. John's benefit for Wardell Quezergue, and he's catching up with them at the Future of Music Coalition gathering this week.
Bass player John Stirrat of Wilco, a NOMRF board member, was also hanging out at our Chicago benefit along with bass player Jeff Beninato, my husband and NOMRF co-founder. Jeff's former alternative band the dB's toured with Mike and REM when they were label-mates. (Photo of Bass Summit above.) I ditched them all in the green room, as it seemed like a good chance for a bass players only conversation.
Speaking of dB's members, Peter Holsapple, now also with Hootie and the Blowfish, just came back to town to help gut former Continental Drifter bandmate Mark Walton's home with Craig Klein's Arabi Wrecking Krewe. Peter lived in Arabi and has relocated to North Carolina with his family.
Yet another dB's member, Will Rigby, is the drummer for Steve Earle who's in town with the FMC. The dB's recorded "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted" (click here) as a download, and it's an amazing version as well as being NOMRF's only merch.
The dB's are described in the Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama history of rock and roll volume in Peter's essay, "The dB's - What Happened?"
It includes how their song about a suicidal teen was pulled from MTV following a rash of unrelated Texas suicides; How record label owner Albert Grossman, former manager of Bob Dylan, died aboard a plane while holding their contract which would have released them to move to a bigger label. It was unsigned. Their potential hit single was the right sleeve but the wrong song - Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes was inadvertantly inserted instead. Peter's essay explaining all of this is one of the classic pieces of rock and roll literature. The original band reunited last year. These guys are troupers.
Jeff and Mike Mills have stayed in touch since the dB's days, and he got the full New Orleans experience while he was in town. Mike went on a tour of the devastation with the Jon from FMC and Craig from the Wrecking Crewe. Today Jon's visiting Wardell and bring him his monthly NOMRF grant from the Dr. John show.
He's lucky to get to hang out with Wardell who told me when I was moping about missing all the rock: "Like they say Karen, sometimes it be's that way."
Even from up in Illinois, NOMRF was well represented all weekend by Board Member Robin Chambless, the city's best stage production coordinator who worked in the time after Voodoo Fest and before Comic Relief.
And it's great to know godfathers of alternative roots music like REM and the dB's and their successors like Wilco are still looking after their Crescent City brethren.