Monday, November 25, 2013

Baez on the Bayou

Last night I had a dream-come-true experience attending the third show of Joan Baez's "last-minute Louisiana junket" at One Eyed Jack's.

Despite the $60 ticket price - getting kinda bourgeois there, Joanie! - I decided to go after my mom, who resembled a Jewish Joan Baez in her youth, told me I likely wouldn't have too many more chances to see Queen B. Kinda macabre, but that's what you get from the Jewish Joan Baez.

Queen B
When I walked in, I was relieved to find I wasn't the only person in the crowd born after 1970, an unusual circumstance considering the careers of all my favorite musicians peaked during the Cold War.

[I did have to endure nonconsensual conversation with a Baby Booming idiot who, in discussing the ecological advocacy performance piece Cry You One, tried to convince me of the need to apply “a cost-benefit analysis to deal with" the environmental issues of the region. How about we analyze the cost of everyone in your family dying of preventable cancers to the benefit of petrochemical companies, pal?  Good thing the producers are considering an extended performance schedule - sounded like he needs to see the show a few more times.]

I enjoy a somewhat misplaced nostalgia for Joan's music, having for years reveled in recordings of her performances, while in school I studied the history of the time period when she became popular. To my delight, in concert Joan affected the political consciousness and signature wide-eyed, raised eyebrow expression she's used during key changes for decades.

The girl on the half-shell

New Orleans audiences appreciate when visiting artists make their sets personal, and one of the best things about folk singers is the relative absence of onstage ego. Joanie bantered charmingly about the difficulties of tuning her own guitar, and her partying in Breaux Bridge the day before ("It's the only place in the country where you can have breakfast and dance at the same time").

After admitting to Googling the lyrics right before the show, Joan sang “Stagger Lee,” and performed a serviceable two-step in the middle of another accordion-backed song. She graciously invited three talented Lafayette-based musicians, including the lovely Johanna Divine, to trade solos and share the spotlight for a few numbers. [I think if I were ever asked to sing with Joan Baez, let alone tune her guitar, I would probably lose consciousness.]
Joan's inclusion of fellow artists was endearingly folksy:

Bob Dylan, “with whom I will forever be inextricably stuck,”was referenced through at least four songs, during one of which Joan imitated the original vagabond's growl.
When someone in the crowd loudly and insistently requested "One Tin Soldier," Joan explained that it wasn't her song, and that people often mistake her for Judy Collins. "I have to say, 'Wrong!' when that happens," she sassed.
The queen closed her set with humble sing-a-long versions of John Lennon's "Imagine" and Dylan's "Forever Young." She signed two record sleeves, and a fan yelled out poignantly, "We all would have brought ours if they hadn't been flooded!"

Today’s soundtrack: "You Ain’t Goin' Nowhere" - which she played!! omg I died

Friday, November 1, 2013

Liveblogging Halloween from my porch in New Orleans

Usually I go out and get silly on Halloween but I’ve got lots of worky things to do and I’m just not feeling it tonight. The holiday is huge in New Orleans: one of my clients, fearing the bank would be closed on Halloween, asked me if she was still going to receive her disability check this week. In years past, my block has been pretty quiet by way of trick-or-treaters. I’m hoping to get more than a few visitors.

I’m finally home from a fucking emotional long-ass day at work and realize I forgot to get candy. Never mind that I’ve been chowing down on my office’s seemingly endless supply of fun-size Twix bars all week and definitely could have scammed a handful for my neighbors.

I certainly did not want to repeat my mistake of three years ago when I went budget and got called out by discerning pre-teen trick-or-treaters:

Discerning pre-teen trick-or-treater #1: “Did you get this [candy] at Family Dollar?”

Embarrassed me: “Um, yes.”

[Silent pause]

Discerning pre-teen trick-or-treaters #1 and #2, in unison: “No thank you.”

I decided to check out the selection at Mike’s Corner Store, a veritable cornucopia of items for purchase: batteries, goat weed pills, and organic vegetarian pizza, anyone? The owner, Sami, gave me a paper sack full of candies and wouldn’t charge me a cent.

“You realize I’m not actually trick-or-treating right now?” I asked him. “Sure, baby,” he said, before complimenting my Halloween vest and reiterating his weekly invitation to join him for a drink at Mimi’s.

The Halloween vest: Can you believe it was only $1.25?

“Trick or treat!” I yell to my neighbors Casha and CJ through their door.

“Wow, you brought candy with you to trick-or-treat?” CJ asked. “I thought it was the other way around.”

“Do you like my Halloween vest?” I asked.


I’m on the phone with a coworker discussing a grant we’re writing together. At least three groups of trick-or-treaters pass by me, even though I’m on the porch with the light on. Maybe my toxic attitude is scaring them away.

[Note to new New Orleans residents: Don’t you dare leave your porch light on and not have candy like two of my neighbors did, only to be met with the disappointed whimpers of a trio of child-size ravers. Ravers!]

My only trick-or-treaters so far have been four neighborhood boys – all around 8-10 years old – who were skillfully navigating their candy acquisition options. Not wanting to waste time, they had developed a canvassing system wherein one boy scouted for other trick-or-treaters leaving houses, and another for Halloween decorations. They all beelined towards the telltale porch lights. When I confronted them on their seeming costumelessness, one of the boys told me he was a celebrity. “Which one?” I asked. “A future celebrity,” he informed me. “It takes time.”

I go for a run and get invited to “ruin [my] exercise” by eating candy on the porch with two men.

“No thanks!” I shout back to them. “I’ve already had too much candy!”

“No you haven’t,” they tell me.

Gotta love a body-positive cheerleader…

I came back from my run and am heading to the shower when a barrage of Minnie Mouses, Scream villains, and generally terrifying four-year-olds shows up demanding something good to eat. I think they might believe my sweaty short shorts are a costume element, so I’m going to roll with it.

A group of Disney princesses and werewolves tromps up my porch steps with adult chaperones in what I can only characterize as sexy Americana-themed costumes. I'm able to provide a replacement trick-or-treat bag for a busted one, and they’re on their merry way.

It’s starting to rain. I’m down to one Super Bubble and two of those nasty fruit Tootsie Rolls. Not that I’m above that. Happy Halloween, y’all!

Friday, September 13, 2013

SMH, St. Claude Main Street, SMH

I found out through a neighbor (who found out from the radio) that St. Claude Main Street is hosting another event on my block this weekend. I was surprised that we again received no notification or invitation, especially because I've had extensive dialogue with the St. Claude Main Street (SCMS) director about how bad it feels to have an organization whose "community development" - based mission is chronically manifested in exclusionary and disrespectful practices in the neighborhood.

When I again raised the issue of neighbor inclusion, the SCMS director apologized and assured me the matter would be handled "internally," but I think the problem is that too much of what SCMS does is handled internally. The first night market here was held without any neighborhood notification whatsoever, and when I confronted SCMS on this, we got a notice asking for neighborhood input at a March meeting for which the location was not provided. We were informed that a night market in April would be held on the lot on our block, but then it was moved to a different place without notice.

True to form, after my neighbor and I reached out to SCMS to ask what was going on this time, we received typewritten flyers - devoid of any mention of SCMS - in our mailboxes on Thursday evening inviting us to the Saturday market and letting us know that "if you or someone you know would like to host a vendor table, we would love to add you to the list."
Do I qualify as a "Friend of the Park"?

I'm glad SCMS is now acknowledging that my neighbors might have something to contribute to the night market. But what food or crafts vendor could possibly pull it together for a retail event with two day's notice?

A construction worker on the block told me that one of the market organizers had mentioned "bribing" the market site's immediate neighbors with a case of PBR. "If that were me, I'd say give me Hi Life at least," he laughed, before telling me that he would also be concerned about the levels of noise coming from the generator that SCMS is planning to use. "It didn't seem like they had a good attitude about it," the worker said of the organizers. "You can't really come into this neighborhood and not care about the residents."

In talking with my neighbors, I found that while we are split on whether the market is good for our block or not, we generally agree that SCMS's sloppy outreach tactics exacerbate the tensions that exist between newer residents to the neighborhood and those with more longstanding roots. Many of us newcomers feel that the night market people are giving us all a bad rap for imposing our presence in certain spaces, even if some of us work hard to be respectful, friendly, and neighborly.

"It's like they get it, now they have to tell the neighbors when they want to do something on the block," one neighbor said. "But telling the neighbors is the 15th thing on the bottom of the list."

"The reason why they even have to tell us," I said in response, "is because they're not part of the neighborhood. They don't know us, and they don't try to know us."

"Exactly," she continued, referring to SCMS staff. "And okay, great, you delivered this flyer after someone sent you an email asking why we weren't informed again. It's not that fucking difficult - it's a flyer!"

I agree, and I think it's just silly at this point. It's silly that the burden is on me and my neighbors to find out what (and why) a private group is doing to promote my block - a quiet residential street - as a tourist destination. It's silly that they can't even talk to us to see if we want to participate, let alone know what's going on.

SCMS director Michael T. Martin - who first emailed me to tell me that notice had been given to residents, then later apologized when he realized it hadn't - explained that "seeking vendors and/or community groups to set up was done by putting flyers around the neighborhood as well as on our website and through email. I guess I just don't think that more outreach is necessary to have an event. It's free and open to the public and a physical note was given for any issues."

Sure. Maybe. I don't know. There certainly weren't flyers of any kind on my block before Thursday. And now there's a port-a-potty delivery truck facing the wrong way on my one-way street, blocking traffic for the second time since 11:00 this morning. Great - what a well-managed operation.

Tomorrow's event  - "Filthy Linen Night" - centers around a "retro party bus" to shuttle attendees between the Frenchmen Street night market, the monthly Second Saturday art gallery walk in the Bywater, and the pop-up night market on Independence Street and St. Claude (my block). In addition to the party bus, new elements to these event series include sponsorships by Yelp! and PBRart, a philanthrophic branding tool of the beer company: "Pabst is celebrating artists & putting their work up all over the country. Take our iconic logo & paint it, sculpt it, and then submit what you’ve done..."

I understand the idea of connecting the Frenchmen Street art market to the St. Claude art walk and night market. People who like art on Frenchmen Street will probably like it on St. Claude Avenue, so why not facilitate their ability to look at all the art, etc. In addition, "it might help businesses down here," one of my neighbors pointed out. "All those people on the party bus will probably buy stuff at Mike's," our local corner store.

Maybe work on this issue is outside St. Claude Main Street's purview, but one of the main criticisms of the Second Saturday event is that many of the participating galleries are separated by poorly lit blocks. There isn't a party bus every night to transport people from the Quarter to the Bywater and back; there is barely a public bus to do that. Money from the party bus fare supposedly is going "towards lighting costs for the new community park at Independence and St Claude," the night market site. This is a park being constructed on the private property of a SCMS Board member.

When I think about what is being accomplished through these night markets and park construction plans (delayed yet again), I can think only of the personal gain that this Board member will enjoy. Hell, he's not even paying for lighting on his own vacant lot!

SCMS is now developing an "outreach process," which is a good start. It seems silly that a community-based organization would have to codify such a thing, but maybe it will help me and my neighbors not feel so blindsided for the next time.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Going in gangbusters, for some unknown reason

Something called the Gang Squad Unit has been active in New Orleans lately, with local media gratefully reporting all the gangbuster success stories this and other NOPD taskforces - one is called the Violent Offenders Warrant Squad - have produced in conjunction with federal authorities including the ATF, the FBI and the DEA. Hallmark raid-focused policing tactics such as the use of flashbang grenades and aggressive arrests have produced deadly results in other cities, and the New Orleans version is proving (unsurprisingly) to be violent in its own right.

My work with New Orleans youth has cultivated my own suspicion of what constitutes a so-called gang, as many school districts here consider "gang fighting" - an expulsion-worthy offense - any fight that involves more than two students. By this logic, a kid who tries to help his friend in a hallway scuffle becomes labelled a gang-member and receives enhanced disciplinary measures.

Similarly, gang busts on the adult level in New Orleans seem like trumped-up wholesale arrests of suspected criminals and their affiliates, usually family members and friends. Reported gang-related activities include consumption and sale of marijuana, possession of firearms, and hanging on the corner- nothing particularly uncommon in New Orleans.

Police conduct during gang-related arrests has demonstrated violence and a downright denial of human dignity for suspects involved. This approach is evidenced in the recent roundup of slain toddler Briana Allen's relatives while they gathered grieving the death of their family matriarch. [This same woman reportedly had been forced - despite her ill health - to wait outside in the rain while police investigated Briana's 2012 murder.] In this most recent instance, men of the family were made to lie face-down on the ground in front of the house while the law enforcement agents conducted their raid.

A few weeks ago, on June 18th, I was leaving my house to go to work when I noticed that my car was boxed in by a number of police cars, both marked and unmarked. The cars were parked askew on the roadway, despite the availability of curbside parking up the block.

I glanced across the street and saw a group of men in blue polo shirts and what looked like large firearms strapped to their khaki pants. Crowded together on the second-floor porch of my neighbor's house, they busted in the door, pushed their way inside, and shouted something like "Get on the floor!"

I looked around and saw another neighbor watching the activity. "What's going on?" I asked. She shrugged and anxiously looked up at the porch.

A few moments later, one of the uniformed men returned to the porch. I called up to him, "Hey, what's the deal here?"

"Nothing, ma'am, just executing a warrant," he told me.

"Oh. Well, I need to go to work and my car is boxed in here," I said, gesturing to the impromptu parking lot.

"You're going to have to wait til we're done here," he told me.

"I really need to leave now. Can you please help me out here?" I asked.

Though I hadn't left the sidewalk in front of my door, he said, "Ma'am, please step back."

"Sir, I just need to go to work," I tried to reason with him." Can one of you move your cars please?"

Despite the absence of police tape or other visible boundaries, the cop said, "Ma'am, I'm not asking you again to step back from the perimeter. Step back, or you're going to jail!"

At this point my neighbor started laughing. "Huh? For what?" I asked.

"Just calm down, ma'am," the officer said. "We're doing our jobs here."

"I understand, but I'm trying to get to my job," I pleaded. "How long are you going to be?"

"As long as it takes. Calm down, ma'am."

"Sir, I'm being very calm," I told him, and I truly was, despite having been threatened with incarceration. "Can I please talk to someone who can move this car, please?"

Another man came down off the porch and crossed the street to where I was standing. Identified by his uniform shirt as "Det. Holmes" of the "Gang Squad Unit," this officer put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Ma'am, what's the trouble here?"

At this point, I started getting nervous. "Please don't touch me, sir," I said. "I don't like this."

"Oh," he chuckled. "Okay."

"I don't think any of this is funny!" I told him, my voice quavering. "I'm seriously just trying to get to work and I can't get my car out."

"Alright ma'am, just let's be calm here."

"I'm very calm, sir." And with a burst of chutzpah, I asked him to apologize for touching me without my consent.

"Yes," he said, continuing to laugh. "I'm very sorry ma'am. Now we're just doing our jobs. I apologize for the inconvenience."

"I understand you're just doing your jobs, but you're preventing me from going to work and doing mine."

"Yes ma'am, and we appreciate your patience, but we are just trying to protect your safety."

"You know what makes me feel safe?" I countered. "Going to work and being able to pay my bills. Now can you please move your car?"

Apparently swayed by my logic (or a really strong desire to get rid of me), the officer acquiesced and went to park one of the unmarked cars in a more appropriate spot.

"Watch the perimeter!" I called to my neighbor as I drove off. She laughed nervously.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Jury Duty, Day 1

I’ve been called for jury duty four times in my life, the first at age nine. My parents encouraged me to fill out the paperwork claiming exemption, which resulted in a handwritten letter reporting something to the effect of “My mommy says I’m too young to be a juror.” I responded similarly the second time I was called, at age 17. I was called again years later in New York, after I had moved to Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. “I can’t make it,” I told the court. “I’m in a disaster zone.” That seemed to be good enough for them, and I thought I’d be in the clear for a while.

But finally they’ve caught up to me, and I was scheduled to fulfill my civic obligation this morning in New Orleans Civil District Court. Actually I was supposed to go in on June 7th for something called “empanelment,” but the notice also allowed for an online check-in. I took advantage of this second option, which produced a message telling me to report on July 1st. I signed up for email reminders, but I thought to check again on June 30th after my friend A. told me her report date had changed after she had been called earlier in the summer. Indeed, my new date was now July 15th. I checked last night: same deal. [I disregarded the four emails I had received reminding me to report on June 7th.]

Proof of the pudding
When I went in this morning, my jury duty notice was scanned and I was told that I was in Group Three, which doesn’t report until next Monday. “But my notice says I’m in Group One,” I countered. “Well it’s wrong,” the clerk said. Apparently I wasn’t the only one fooled by this numerical trickery: At least 40 other people had filed into the juror pool waiting room with me by the time I got this information.

My boss, who by chance had also been called for jury duty in my pool, asked the clerk why the online portal had told us to come in today, though we were not needed until next week. “You have to call too,” the clerk said. “But it says you can check online,” another potential juror noted. “I don’t know what to tell you, ma’am,” the clerk replied. “You can check online but you still have to call on Friday for Monday.” Right.

Though we were told we were dismissed until Monday, I feared that this information could just as rapidly change as earlier truths had. After all, my friend A. had reported for jury duty on July 1st and having been told she was dismissed, she went back to work the next day only to receive a telephoned warning from the court telling her she was in contempt. And that wasn’t the only indignity: “Jury duty,” A. said, “was 80 angry people in a room with not enough chairs, all crowded around the world’s smallest coffee pot.” I guess they’ll have to look for me at the café if they want to execute that contempt warrant. It seems I’ll have my day in court on Monday, maybe!

UPDATE: I called Saturday night to find that the jury is not in need of my duty after all. "Thank you for your service," the nice automaton told me. You're very welcome!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

You’re invited to an input session, but don’t you dare have any input

On Saturday I was invited to an "informational input session" sponsored by St. Claude Main Street (SCMS) and its design partner, Tulane City Center (TCC). The event was to address the "pocket park" and "parklet" they're planning to install in my neighborhood.
"If you're interested in contributing..."

At the time, I was on the sidewalk talking to my neighbor and her friend when an SCMS representative came up to us and asked if we had received flyers about the info session. I had not, so she gave me the flyer and two other documents about the projects (pictured).

Discussion quickly turned to other neighborhood concerns, and my neighbor’s friend started telling us about a major pothole in the middle of her street.

“I think I’m about to fall in it one of these days,” she said.

But rather than listening and taking the opportunity to consider this resident’s “informational input,” or offer referral services to one of SCMS' many "neighborhood partners," the SCMS representative excused herself quietly and walked away from the conversation.

For all your neighborhood mini-transit hub needs

[Not to be nitpicky but if it is true, as it states on their website, that “it is a goal of St. Claude Main Street to improve the ground-level conditions on the St. Claude corridor,” I would imagine that pothole awareness falls under the purview of this mission!]

Afterwards, my neighbor wondered aloud why they weren’t building a park in the other empty lot on our block, the one which abuts N. Rampart, a quieter, less-trafficked street than St. Claude. “Yeah,” I agreed with her. “If people want to bring their kids and dogs to a park, they probably want a safer location than right off St. Claude.”

But of course, the lot in question on Independence and St. Claude is owned by Maurice Slaughter, an SCMS Board member. I do not know if SCMS considered other lots for the “pocket park” plan, but the use of this lot in particular begs a number of as-yet unanswered questions about the implications of creating a “public” park on privately owned land.

For example, who will be responsible for its maintenance? Will there be rules for its use, including limited hours of access? What happens to the park if the owner wants to sell the land?

According to a 2012 Tulane City Center brochure entitled “Vacant Land – Site Strategies for New Orleans”:

The implementation of a pocket park has the potential for strong community use, greater civic pride, improvements in real estate value, and increased quality of life. However, the potential downside of pocket parks are nearly the opposite of the upside if they are not cared for or are used for illicit activities. For this reason, establishing pocket parks should be approached with much consideration to the desire and capacity of a neighborhood to support such a site as well as the committment [sic] of a community organization to maintain a permanent neighborhood amenity. 

As I’ve written before, I don’t think the “desire” of my neighborhood to host a pocket park has been adequately established. The “Community Survey” distributed by SCMS and TCC even says explicitly that the questionnaire is a “great tool for beginning to understand what residents in neighborhoods along St. Claude Avenue are concerned with and excited about in their community.” Why, after so much time, partnering, and planning, and with the promise of “final designs complete by July 2013,” are these institutions only beginning to understand what we want?

Why also does the survey ask such leading and obvious questions as “How important [is lighting]…to a safe and useful public space?” The answer options from which a survey participant may choose are “Very Important,” “Somewhat Important,” “No Impact,” and “Not Important.” What is the difference here between “No Impact” and “Not Important?” Who would say that lighting is not important to a safe and useful public space?
Why do we need an area info map if we already live here?

Additionally, the survey asks what the respondent would choose as the “best use of public space” for the Independence Street pocket park. The options given are “Garden space,” “Play space,” “Open park space,” “Sitting areas,” and a tiny area to answer the question, “What else?”

The lot is empty – its only use in the past three years has been for an SCMS night market - which seems to indicate that it already exists, albeit unofficially, as “open park space” in the neighborhood. Actually I’m mistaken - the lot is empty except for a large wooden sign advertising a Slaughter family real estate company, potentially (intentionally?) leading passersby to conclude that the lot itself is for sale.

I’m also concerned about the “improvements in real estate value” piece, given that the lot in question is privately owned (and apparently for sale) by an SCMS Board member. He also owns a number of properties in the area, including a planned gallery across the street from the lot, two houses on the same block of Independence Street, and another on St. Claude between Independence and Pauline. This is a man who has a lot of financial interest in the neighborhood, despite the fact that he lives in Virginia.

If the park is installed on his lot, the real estate values of that lot and his other properties on the block will increase. This may provide more incentive for him to sell the pocket park land, leaving its future status uncertain.

SCMS’s director, Michael T. Martin, has repeatedly stated that his group works with many different neighborhood associations to ascertain and respond to neighborhood concerns. But so far all SCMS has undertaken are severely deficient and token efforts at neighborhood outreach and input solicitation. This suggests that a concerned resident must become a dues-paying member of a neighborhood association in order to be validated as a stakeholder in these projects.

Neighborhood associations are not synechdochically representative of the larger neighborhood: its residents, workers, renters, library patrons, parents of students, and so on. Voices of certain stakeholders like developers and landowners are heard much louder than others. This is why someone like Maurice Slaughter, who doesn’t even live in Louisiana, is afforded so much sway in groups like SCMS and the Bywater Neighborhood Association, in which he used to be a Board member.

I fail to see what is the purpose of participating in “visioning” the parklet process when public input has been reduced to ranking the importance of “Seating” and “Fences” on a limited survey that leaves a tiny space for “Additional Comments.”

Moreover, both of these park plans are marketed as "mini-transit hubs" for the neighborhood, but there is not actually a bus stop on Independence Street. It seems silly to have bike parking and benches a full block away from a bus stop, when the actual stop (on Congress Street) is a high-curbed, nearly impassable sidewalk chewed up by tree roots. I wonder if SCMS plans to have the bus stop moved from nearby Congress or Pauline Streets, or it doesn't intend for bus riders to use the park space at all.

Furthermore, some information on the handouts was conflicting, especially the commitment level to the proposed “parklet” at St. Claude and Desire. On one flyer, the parklet is referred to as “potentially” under construction in the near future, and on another, it says the parklet “will be located at a busy bus stop and adjacent to the bike lane that runs along St. Claude,” and it “will provide seating,” etc. When I reached out to him about this, Michael T. Martin said that the landowner’s approval was still pending for that space. I said that it seemed SCMS was going to do what it pleased regardless of any outside constructively critical input it received. In response, he told me I could “feel free to include [my] input on what should be in the park on that sheet of paper.” 

It's insulting to someone who actually lives here.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Crime at the farmers market

I was walking to the Sankofa farmers market on St. Claude this morning and had almost arrived when I saw a police officer forcibly pushing a young black man against the wall of the school where the market takes place. I watched as the officer handcuffed the man and then led him over to the police car parked on adjacent Pauline Street.

The cop pulled a number of items, including a fistful of cash, from the man’s pocket, all of which he put on the top of the car’s trunk. Pushing him into a seated position, he then instructed the man to get in the car.
Steve Earle gets his 5-a-day at a recent farmers market

Though I was about 10 feet away from the whole interaction, I did not hear the officer inform the man why he was being detained, if he was being arrested, or what his rights were if he were in fact under arrest. The officer repeatedly asked the man where “the drugs” were, to which the man kept replying that he didn’t have any.

After the man was inside the police car with the door closed, the cop asked me if I had seen the man running from him earlier. “No,” I told him. “I only saw you pushing him against the wall.”

“Well, he has drugs. You don’t see the drugs anywhere?”

“No, sorry,” I said.

A few more cops pulled up soon after, and some of them started looking around the lawn where the farmers market was set up. They told the vendors, including student workers, that they were looking for “a baggie of weed,” and that we should try to prevent children from finding it.

The whole thing was like an outtake from COPS: Amateur Hour. The police didn’t appear to be following a particular procedure for apprehending the man, confiscating and securing his belongings, and searching for the contraband he allegedly had dumped on the ground. Third-grade aspiring archeologists could have done a better job mapping out quadrants on the lawn and methodically looking for the “baggie,” no offense to third-graders intended.

I’m not sure what happened to the man or the contents of his pockets (especially the cash that was left lying on top of the cop car), or if the involved cops know that the recommended punishment for possessing a small amount of marijuana in the City of New Orleans is a summons, not an arrest

I’m pretty sure that whatever benefit to public safety was served by taking this alleged criminal off the streets, was overwhelmed by the negative effect on the student workers at the farmers market who watched yet another incidence of police misconduct against a black man. They were witnesses to the crime of a racist status quo.

And while I can’t exactly condone drug trafficking on school grounds, I also can’t get down with wack cop behavior. Acts of police aggression do not make us safer. They do not reduce crime and they do not build community. They reinforce structures of violent authority, and that’s just not for sale at the farmers market.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Day 27: Going to the candidates debate

Check out the Lenten Chronicles here!

The following opinions are personal and should not be considered representative of my place of employment.

Last night there was a candidates forum for the upcoming juvenile justice court elections in New Orleans. The event was relevant to my job - I work with court-involved teenagers - and with the promise of "light refreshments," I was good to go.

Little did I know what obscenities were about to unfold.

The four candidates were all middle-ageish with varying degrees of experience with the legal system and youth issues. They were speaking to an audience composed mainly of youth services and advocacy workers and students enrolled in a GED program, a demographic perhaps not ideal for the subsequent conversation about what type of youth can be "rehabilitated" and what type "needed" to be locked up. ["There are lions and tigers and bears that just cannot participate in our society," candidate Doug Hammel theorized. "And there are squirrels and rabbits that can."]

The questions for the candidates had been prepared in advance by the GED students, so they were usefully and amusingly direct: The first was something to the effect of, "What do you see as the role of a judge, aside from locking youth up and setting them free?"

Hammel introduced his credentials by speaking at length about his undergraduate "justice" studies at American University in Washington, DC. Now, I too studied "justice" at a well-regarded Northeastern college, but I in no way feel this qualifies me to be a criminal court judge in Orleans Parish. Actually, I've come to understand how such a pursuit counts against me in certain ways. At this forum, I might have highlighted my experience working with youth, or any other indicator of cultural competency. Obviously another audience member agreed with me; I literally heard someone murmuring, "Yankee go home."

Hammel also discussed his objective to enable children to "have the ability to participate in the school band," which is a goal I don't necessarily oppose, but it ignores the disjointed scholastic experience of many New Orleans children who frequently have to switch schools due to rampant expulsions and incarcerations, mid-year revocations of school charters, and other shuffles in our area public education system. That aside, where is the funding for all this musical training?

The other candidates sounded equally unpromising at first: George "Gino" Gates also played up his Washington, DC-based experience, having advocated extensively for alternative charter schools (aka privatized daytime jails for "bad" kids). Yolanda King talked about her work as a long-term criminal justice prosecutor, sporting an "80% win rate." Cynthia Samuel discussed the importance of not "chipping away at the right not to have cruel and unusual punishment," an extremely good - if awkwardly stated - point. But she went on to sing the praises of so-called child protective services which, in my experience, often do more to pull families apart than to stabilize them.

Throughout the event, I was texting updates from the proceedings to a colleague at another youth services agency. Here is a sampling of our correspondence, edited for clarity:

Me: I'm at the juvenile judge candidates forum and it's offensive.
L: I couldn't do it. Had to sit that one out.
Me: Yeah for real. They're all saying parents are the problem.
Me: They're talking about whether they would lock up nonviolent offenders. Two have said absolutely no, which is interesting.

Samuel agreed, saying she could not "imagine a circumstance when I would lock up a nonviolent offender. But overnight in jail," she elaborated "...sometimes - and parents should know this but they don't always - you have to be strict with they understand that you have to follow the rules."

Sure. Just like getting grounded, only they're in FUCKING JAIL.

The candidates continued to undermine parental authority throughout the conversation, King asserting that parenting classes would help parents "figure out what to do with their children so they don't continue to commit crimes."

There was a shared opinion that something is wrong with the child who gets arrested. Rehabilitation is possible, but only if (overworked? underfunded?) social workers, probation officers, teachers, and (stressed out?) parents act in accordance with the judge's wishes. There was little questioning of the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating problems for youth and their families. The law was seen as something absolute and unbiased.

Hammel and Samuel pontificated on the "multifaceted" issues some children have, including untreated emotional problems. Most of the youth I work with are on some kind of medication regimen to treat psychological disorders that the youth don't understand and in many cases can't even name. I would argue that the problem here is not a lack of treatment, but the assumption that the best course of action is to force a child to cooperate with the adverse conditions (poverty, racism, dysfunctional school system, etc) of his environment. In my opinion, it would be more effective to stop crime by interrogating those conditions.

Me: Gino Gates just equated getting arrested as a black 13-year-old in New Orleans to the black bar mitzvah, a coming of age ritual. I'm liking him more.
L: Is that real? Did that really happen?
Me: Yup.

All the candidates seemed to understand that court-involved youth typically come from distressed circumstances and are themselves products of difficult environments. However when asked more pointedly, the candidates placed the blame for criminal activity squarely on the youth "offenders" and their parents, with jabs thrown at probation officers, social workers, and teachers for not "supporting" the youth enough:

Me: The candidates have all said something about how parents are uneducated and don't know what to do with their kids ever. Probation officers need to be more strict. Gino Gates is talking about how probation should have athletic requirements.
L: Oh Jesus.
Me: I hate it. I want to throw up. I'm sitting behind Dana Kaplan. I can't tell what she's thinking.
Me: Nothing yet about the crushing effects of racism, poverty, and police brutality.
L: Haha of course not! Those things have nothing to do with the juvenile justice system.
Me: Oh we got something on probable cause from Gino. Police need to be better trained.

Indeed, when asked what they would do to a child who doesn't comply with probationary requirements, such as improved school performance or participation in a counseling program, the candidates all pointed fingers at "the parents," who supposedly need to be educated on what's right for their own children. This conception is extremely unfair, as it establishes a very specific paradigm for successful child-rearing that is not appropriate for all families. It ignores the difficulties particular to impoverished, overworked, single, and/or non-white parents and their children. It is also disrespectful of family structures in which biological parents are not the primary caregivers.

Furthermore, punitive measures that extend to every conceivably problematic area of a youth's life - "wraparound," as we say in the biz - do not alleviate the complexity of the youth's problems so much as create more opportunities for the youth to violate his probation and get in more trouble with a judge. Such measures also conveniently ignore the problems caused by court-involvement itself. Just today I had a client get in trouble with his probation officer for missing an appointment with my agency. The reason why he missed the appointment was because he was given detention at school for missing too much classtime. He missed the classtime because he had been incarcerated.

If this sounds ridiculous to you, it's because it is. Rather than being responsive to the needs of the youth offender, the court expects the youth to comply with a narrowly envisioned model of success. If he can't magically adapt, the youth is discredited as a contributing member of society. It is much easier to accuse an individual of being dysfunctional than an entire system:

Me: Yolanda King says not everyone is college material.
L: Oh my.
Me: Yeah. It's getting real. Hammel is trying to explain why a uniform school expulsion policy is different than zero tolerance.
L: How the eff is it different than zero tolerance??
Me: King says she doesn't believe in the school-to-prison pipeline. I think I did throw up. Discretely. In my brain.
L: Hahaha omg omg I'm dying reading this.
Me: I'm glad someone's amused. "Some kids aren't high school material," according to Samuel. We've reached a new depth of despair.
L: WHAT!!!!

King proposed that a judge might "get at the roots of a problem through social services and counseling," and the reason why those options sometimes don't work is because "the parents aren't educated" as to why they're important.

L. and I have seen in our work that when youth don't comply with probationary requirements, it often has less to do with parental indifference and more to do with logistics. For example, it may seem optimal or generous to sentence a kid to counseling instead of jail. But when the counseling center is two long bus rides away from the kid's house and he's afraid of certain people that hang in the neighborhood by the center, counseling becomes more of a burden than the "second chance" that so many judges are convinced it is.

Moreover, counseling is not always a positive therapeutic activity. Mandating a youth to participate in a counseling program is like telling him that he and his family are wrong or bad in some way. He must be "reconditioned," as Gates suggested. For many communities, counseling is considered invasive and degrading, and thus is met with suspicion or resentment. Such sentencing alternatives can further the general mistrust of the legal system that persists among many court-involved families in New Orleans.

Accordingly, rhetoric of salvation was strong at the forum. The candidates agreed that the most pressing community concern was the need to "save the children." From what?, I wondered. Their uneducated parents and lazy teachers, as the candidates suggested? Or the rolling wheels of a racist, classist court system? This truly gives new meaning to the idea of "blind justice."

Me: I was going to ask a question but I think I'll just go drink heavily instead. It seems more productive.
L: Absolutely.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Days 14-17, aka What is St. Claude Main Street up to this time?

Sorry - tiny text!
Check out the Lenten chronicles here!

On Thursday I made a trip home from work during the afternoon to pick up my forgotten lunch. [Go through the trouble of making it ahead of time only to leave it on the counter - frustrating!] I was chatting with my neighbor in the street when I saw two representatives from St. Claude Main Street (SCMS) walking down the block. They were distributing the flyers pictured, and I flagged one of the people down - it turned out to be the SCMS manager, Michael T. Martin - to find out what they were about.

Michael explained that he was flyering to announce conducting research that will inform the creation of a "mini-park" on the lot across the street from my house. This lot has served as the site of a SCMS-sponsored pop-up night market once before, and Loyal Readers will remember that the market, despite its merits, was experienced by me and many of my neighbors as an imposition on the space. It billed itself as a community event yet was hosted without the involvement of the very people who live on the block.

After the market took place, I told St. Claude Main Street's representatives that their efforts at neighborhood communication fell short and had a lot of us feeling left out of decisions being made on our behalf.

That they're flyering our houses now is a new and good thing, but the fact remains that since the first night market, they have done nothing meaningful to connect with us as a block or community. Michael told me he'd been working closely with the Bywater Neighborhood Association (BNA), but it would be supremely naive to assume that most people in the area are affiliated with or have any sort of relationship with the BNA. In fact, the BNA does a lot of things that go against people's interests in the neighborhood, especially with regard to zoning changes for popular or helpful causes.

Moreover, St. Claude Main Street conducted research on Friday (the next day!!) between 10am and 3pm. Sorry, I have to work at those times. I can't stop by and say hello. Should I have rearranged my schedule? Also, where was I supposed to go? There was no location listed on the flyer for the research event. If the success of the project depends on my participation, why is it hard for me to participate? And isn't it SCMS' responsibility to check in with me, not the other way around? I didn't feel like this was a real invitation, considering the short notice and lack of pertinent details.

I wonder what will happen if I email (or mail a letter to?) Alita Edgar. The last time I submitted my comments to Michael T. Martin, I got a blisteringly defensive reply and then an apology note in my mailbox days later. Frankly I did not feel like my input was received very well.

My neighbor who registered her dissatisfaction with the last night market, calling it a "retail event" that disturbed her rest on a worknight, is upset with this newest initiative. "These people are...relentless," she wrote me. And she didn't mean relentless in their efforts to improve the block. She meant they persist in doing what they want.

I believe it is incredibly important and valid to continue interrogating the intentions of groups like St. Claude Main Street. The burden is on them to prove their legitimacy to the neighborhood. They should not only research what the community wants but actually do what we want. They were fortunate enough to receive $275,000 to help our neighborhood; theoretically this should mean that they are accountable to the people their projects impact. And as one of those people, let me just say that we do not want to be included in "visioning" anything unless our input is seriously considered.

We need accessible and effective communication with the people making decisions on our behalf, and we need regular, thorough, and honest updates on the consequences of these decisions.

For your research, Michael and Alita, here are some of my present concerns:

  • You're planning a mini-park across the street from my house. Did you ask anyone on the block if that's one of our needs or desires? It seems that you're just informing us that that's what's going to happen there. Moreover, the lot in question is not public space; it is in fact owned by one of your Board members, Maurice Slaughter. That in and of itself indicates that public input is not required for the project. So why act like it is? Furthermore, are permits required for this project, and if so, what is the relevant public input process?
  • The language of the flyer is exclusionary in several ways. It presumes knowledge of your organization's mission, its programs, and its objectives. For example, who are your grant recipients and what activities do they promote? What is Second Saturday? What is Tulane City Center and what does it mean to be "partners" with this project? Nobody would be able to divine answers to these questions based solely on the limited outreach you've done with us. Instructing us to email you or mail you a letter is a pretty big stretch of the principles of community engagement.
  • Your push for "revitalization" ignores the reality that there is already a great deal of vibrancy in the St. Claude area. Instead it presumes an absence of neighborhood street life. Therefore by its own interpretation, SCMS is needed to produce street life and an appropriate kind of vibrancy in the form of night markets and Second Saturday events. But when I go jogging in the daytime or evening, plenty of people are on their porches, stoops, or impromptu sidewalk patios. Lots of people congregate outside of bars and corner stores. This all happens without SCMS intervention. Similarly, musicians, sculptors, and others make art in the neighborhood all the time, yet the "Bywater Art Garden" backed by presumed SCMS ally Pres Kabacoff is essentially closed to the public, although public funds supported its creation. In this way, you are creating a hierarchy of communal activities in the neighborhood by making certain forms of street life "official" while devaluing others.

Please don't jump to the lazy conclusion that I am a "Not in my backyard" kind of neighbor. I am not against parks or art markets. I am not against spaces that have "wide community benefit." In fact, I am for all of these things. I am also for improved street lighting, affordable nearby grocery stores, and riverfront access, which hopefully are objectives of your organization.

However I am not for some bullshit. So please, St. Claude Main Street, et al: Do not dismissively tell us we need to be revitalized when our community already has a lot of vitality. Do not be coercive or disingenuous in your tactics to engage with and listen to us. If you are actually my neighbor, you will hear and care about what I say. You need to build the trust, and honestly, you've got a long way to go.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Days 7-13

Check out the beginning of the series here!

Jared recovers from the revelry
Welcome back, Dear Readers, to my enthusiastic (if sparse) chronicling of this year's Lenten Challenge to not eat in restaurants from Ash Wednesday to Easter.

I've achieved an appreciation for two things during this time, one of which is how great it is to have friends who, unlike me, actually like to cook and are good at it and let me eat their tasty foods; and the other is how cooking is so much less terrible when you invite such friends over and make them do it with you.

In the spirit of this attitude of gratitude, last night I had a bunch of people over to celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim. As with most Jewish holidays, this one involves a predictable narrative of the Jews' near-vanquishment, miraculous survival, and subsequent invention of a special food to commemorate the whole ordeal.

In this case, the special food is hamantaschen, a triangular "pocket" cookie traditionally stuffed with fruit filling. As Loyal Readers know, this particular pastry also traditionally brings me a great many feelings of frustration and inadequacy in the kitchen. But this year I was determined to have success, and so it went:

Whether as a result of my newfound commitment to the social aspect of dining, or just my highly disorganized method of party-hosting, we all ended up making the hamantaschen together - mixing and rolling out the dough, filling and shaping the cookies, and counting down impatiently for the magic moment when they'd be done baking.

We deviated a bit from the traditional fruit fillings, lending a sort of kitchen-sink effect to the effort: A wasabi-asparagus variety shared the serving plate alongside cookies stuffed with tomato, basil, and feta; peanut butter and jelly; or kumquat-habanero marmalade lovingly preserved by the multi-talented Jessi Taylor (though I did have to veto the decidedly unkosher suggestion of "shrimp hamantaschen").

We had a great time together eating a ton of delicious cookies, and thanks to the masterful baking skills of our beloved bagel hero, Laura Sugerman, we didn't fuck up a single one!

Who's cooking for me tomorrow?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Days 5 & 6

Check out Days 1 and 2, Day 3, and Day 4 here!

I was asked recently by a Catholic friend why I'm giving up something for Lent. As I explained on my Days 1 & 2 rundown, I feel that as a resident of the United States, I am constantly surrounded by Christian culture, politics, morality, and other guiding principles: Streets are named after saints and other Christian heroes, the federal government celebrates Christmas, and even our currency has references to Christian monotheism. Here in Louisiana, our counties are called parishes, and the main annual tourist attraction is Mardi Gras, a precursor to the Lenten commemoration of Jesus' meditative fasting in the desert.

Indeed we are saturated by Christianity, and no amount of lip-service to the "separation of church and state" undoes such a reality. [For an even sassier perspective, here's a recent NYTimes article characterizing the Catholic Church as a "global business" and "service industry."]

As a Jew, I experience this saturation somewhat indifferently. My literacy - meaning my ability to survive and thrive - in mainstream American culture is greatly assisted by the fact that Judaism is, after all, integral to Christianity. That is, when I see "In G-d We Trust" printed on a dollar bill, I understand it. While I'm not quite certain why religious faith is relevant to our system of monetary exchange, I get that they're talking about monotheism, and Jews are down with monotheism (even though we don't like seeing the name of G-d spelled out on destructible or erasable media - that's why I substitute the "-" symbol).
Just like Moses ate

We are also down with getting paid days off for Christmas (or overtime pay if we "do a favor" for a Christian colleague). We like parades, so St. Patrick's Day is fine; we like retail sales, so let's hear it again for Christmas. And I didn't even get to Peeps, "Home Alone," or the floral hat processionals outside Baptist churches on Sundays. Thanks for all the bounty, Christians!

There's so much to enjoy about being forced to observe someone else's religion, but I'd be lying if I said things didn't ever get itchy. For example, I could tell you a lot about Easter, a holy event of the Christian calendar, but how many Christians know the significance of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day to Jewish people?

Also, when we testify in court, we are supposed to swear to G-d on top of a bible that contains both the Old and New Testaments. Jews are not permitted by religious law to swear to each other or G-d, so in court we "affirm" on the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament - the only one we believe in). While some view this alternative as a thoughtful accomodation, it actually detracts from our participation in mainstream culture. Who, after all, would not look suspiciously upon a witness who refuses to "swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you G-d"?

In so many ways, we non-Christians have to fit into the Christian mold in order to operate successfully in this country. Our traditions and holidays are, when acknowledged, treated as equivalents of Christian ones; our differences are oftentimes met with skepticism and interrogation:

Coworker: "Why don't you eat on Yom Kippur?"
Me: "Because we're so concerned about praying and repenting, we can't make time for food."
Coworker: "But why?"
Me: "It's kind of like Lent when you don't eat meat."
Coworker. "Oh."

To participate in such a social system, we have to have a deep understanding of Christianity both in theory and practice. I don't have any problem with Christianity as a religion or Christians as people (some of my best friends are Christians!), just the established cultural hierarchy that pervades my present experience as a Jew in this country.

It's for that reason that I feel totally comfortable "observing" Lent as a non-Christian.

If Christians are fasting and otherwise doing acts of penitence to enhance their spiritual development, I see no conflict with my own simultaneous pursuit of self-edification. Lent happens to be a great excuse for checking in with neglected New Year's resolutions. And because it is so mainstream, it also offers a convenient explanation for otherwise abnormal behavior (especially in New Orleans), such as abstinence from drinking, smoking, or eating out in restaurants. People seem to accept voluntary sobriety when they think you're doing it just for Lent, despite your actual level of long-term ambition.

All in all, my Lenten Challenge is the product of my adjustment as a non-Christian in a Christian context: I'm not repenting for my sins, but I am trying to lead a more focused and intentional life.  I'm counting and sharing my blessings. I'm taking care to ensure that my choices do not hurt others. I think Jesus would be down with that, and if not, I affirm that I'll continue to try.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Day 4

Check out Days 1 & 2 and Day 3 here!

People have been asking me if I'm doing this project for improved health, and the answer is “not really, but that would probably be a nice side effect."

It’s true that cooking for oneself yields greater control over one’s nutritional intake. Yet it’s also true that when people refer to “health,” they usually mean “weight.”

I usually avoid conversations about weight because I don’t think they’re useful beyond legitimizing the false connection between a person’s physicality and self-worth. This is a totally bogus framework to understand health and wellness.

For similar reasons, I also make sure to avoid dieting. I think it’s more physically and emotionally valuable to concentrate on overall lifestyle health. So if one day I want to eat an entire bag of Zapp’s pickle chips without sharing, I feel okay about that because there are other days when I am an exercise badass. It all balances out if you’re mindful of what your body needs.

This is not to say that I'm immune to the societal imposition of beauty and health standards on our bodies. To be sure, I find the conflation of health and weight to be not only misleading but damaging. Plenty of skinny people are unhealthy, and plenty of fat people are pinnacles of health. Everyone’s body is different. And such reductive logic tends to obscure the social determinants of health, such as access to healthful foods and medical care. Yet if we try to visualize “healthy” or “fit” bodies, we are likely to conjure up very specific images that are intended to make us feel inadequate, especially as women.

I recently came across this article on "Fitspiration," or how various industries collude to "inspire" us to achieve our fitness goals:

Pay attention to the advertising so often being done in these “fitness inspiration” messages and you will see what is really being sold here. Is it a message of real health and fitness or a message asking you to commodify yourself by buying sports bras, yoga pants, the latest fitness DVD, etc. to appear a certain way. Advertisers are VERY GOOD at framing their messages as an empowering “You Go Girl!” message with their fists in the air cheering you on. But pay attention to their swift move from using that pumping fist to cheer you on, to punching you in the face for not being enough. If you do not have rock hard chiseled abs, the right workout outfit, etc., you are not good enough until you do. These advertisers will make sure you know that, because their profit depends on your wallet and your beliefs about yourself.

Such messaging is empowering only when it can be read for what it is: profit-driven nonsense.

I think it’s important to try to be healthy, even though it is hard a lot of the time. It’s also important to recognize that a colossal amount of imagery and other media exist to make us feel like we need to change ourselves to fit a narrow mold of fitness and health. I think a great wellness exercise is to call bullshit on those who tell us we are inadequate.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Day 3

Check out Days 1 & 2 here!

Yesterday was the third day of my Lenten Challenge to not eat food in restaurants, and it was also the day when the real question became, "How much hummus can one person safely eat?"

The answer has yet to be determined but I think Sabra should be glad I'm not Boycotting, Divesting, and Sanctioning them, because they would seriously take a hit this month.

In related anti-colonial news, I was waiting for my bourgeois comeuppance with this project, and it arrived yesterday at work when I was again unable to enroll my client in a food pantry program because he's - get this - underage. Never mind that he is basically homeless - apparently in the City of New Orleans you need to do some serious legwork to get food to a hungry minor. Programs do exist to provide for such needs, but they are so underfunded and have such specific eligibility requirements that it's almost not worth going through the whole rigamarole unless you know a sympathetic social worker who can fill out the forms, you know, "properly."

In any case, I am eating - unlike my client - lots of apples, cucumbers, and avocados and am expecting to soon have the clearest skin this side of the Mississippi, if only I can stop also eating grilled cheese and chocolate chips. And they say vegetarians are so healthy.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Days 1 & 2

As a consequence of being immersed in Christian morals and politics, there comes a time in the life of every American Jew when you just have to throw in the towel and say, "Fuck it, I'm going to embrace this Jesus business and use it to my advantage." And voila, we get to celebrate theologically irrelevant things like Mardi Gras, paid leave for Christmas, and candy sales the day after Easter.

Yet along with the festive we have the morose, and so my Dear Readers, we find that Lent is again upon us.

Every year for the past however many years, I've tried to give something up for Lent. Since moving to New Orleans, I've found this practice to be a useful post-Carnival detox method. But some Lents (Lentos?) I am more successful than others. One year I gave up driving, which went well mostly because I bike 80% of the time anyway. Another time I gave up gossip, which went horribly: "If I hadn't given up gossip for Lent," I would whisper conspiratorially to a friend, "I'd tell you about what happened between A and B and why C is really really mad about it!"

What can I say - I'm a bad Christian.

I've heard that you're supposed to give up something that symbolizes a sacrifice. Most of my friends who are doing it are giving up things like cigarettes, meat, or Facebook, but I'm a nonsmoking vegetarian with a Media Empire to manage. So here we are at this year's creative Lenten challenge: no eating out in restaurants.

Dear Readers, you may already know that I do not like cooking, nor do I really care very much about food in general, unless it's offensively spicy. I have written about my disdain for the internet pornography that masquerades as food blogs, and indeed dislike that literary culture so intensely that it actually pains me to present to you my new Shtetl Chic feature: "Lenten Challenge: 40 Days of Feasting with Indifference."

Every day I will document my travails in home cookery, except for Wednesday, when I was still recovering from Mardi Gras and was thusly unable to leave my bed until 2pm, at which point I burned [ed: pan-seared?] cauliflower and ate it with carrots and hot sauce. Fancy, I know.

Anyway, yesterday was more successful because they fed me at work, and also I tapped into my pre-scheduled Valentines Day exception to the Lenten rule:

I had to attend a First Aid training at my job, and though I was promised a free lunch, I came laden with snacks, fearing (rightly, as it turned out) the inevitable ham&cheese sammy. But Readers, it pays to have friends in high places, and I was able to convince the house chef to hook me up with a veggie burger that managed to be both chewy AND soggy at the same time [ed: versatile!]. The experience of eating it was diminished [ed: enhanced?] somewhat by the photos of "Sucking Chest Wounds" that the First Aid trainer failed to obscure during mealtime, but hey, beggars can't be choosers.

All was not lost, however, as Valentines dinnertime rapidly approached. We had originally planned to go to the Waffle House in Waveland, Mississippi (because nothing says Valentines Day like the Waffle House in Waveland, Mississippi - no really, it was my idea to go), but we went to Lost Love Lounge instead and ordered everything vegetarian on the menu, which suited my purposes just fine.

So I have survived two days of my Lenten Challenge for this year, and I feel much closer to the spiritual enlightenment I will surely achieve by Easter, a day I will forever henceforth associate with take-out.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Evidence of a rape culture

The first news story I read yesterday was about a 30-year-old woman being abducted and raped by three men in the Garden District, an area of New Orleans generally regarded as "nice."

I searched the article for mentions of the time of day of the attack, the woman's race, if she knew her rapists - anything anything to make me feel better about the situation, to make me feel like this would not happen to me. I realized that I was trying so hard to "otherize" the victim and details of her attack that I was ignoring the obvious point: Violence is personal. Any attack against a woman in my community is an attack against me.

I am a victim of sexual assault. I am a victim of sexual assault because we are all victims when sexual assault occurs, whether it happens specifically to us or to others. I say this not to degrade or diminish the experiences of those of us who have endured actual physical affronts and violations. I say this because this particular woman was not attacked out of context.

We live in a very dangerous world in which it is not rare for something like this to happen. It is not rare for women to live in fear, shame, or ongoing emotional distress. It is in fact common. What is thankfully also common is that people get outraged about this type of thing, and I believe that if we are outraged for the right reasons, that energy can bring us all to a healing place.

I think it is correct to be upset over this attack as an isolated event. After all, a woman was hurt and violated in a most intimate and physical way. She was denied agency over her body and her sexual choices. She was taken advantage of and she was injured. Her emotional pain will probably last for her entire life, well after her body heals. Yet her assault is one in a long, seemingly unending chain of violent acts against women in our city and our world. I take her rape personally because it could have happened or maybe someday will happen to me, and also because it reflects the darkest quality of the world in which I live.

"I'm evidence," she was quoted as saying, covered in her own blood and the semen of her attackers. Yet she is evidence of more than an attack. She is evidence of a tacit social understanding that rape is inevitable and the only recourse for us is to feel bad about it and maybe involve the police. And then what - lock up the offenders? Will that stop rape? Will that take away this woman's rape?

Some people have created a successful crowdsourcing campaign ("Support NOLA's Most Badass Assault Survivor," as if there were a contest for such things) to give the victim money for a down payment on a house. A house would give her more support and stability, they say. A house would be her own.

I agree that we, in acts of communal empathy, should give her money, and hugs, and flowers, and a new home, and whatever else she needs. But the more lasting gift would be to give her a real reason to feel safe, and that will only come if we say "We do not tolerate this. We do not want our women or anyone else getting attacked or fearing attack. We do not support the social circumstances that create helpless victims or necessitate the celebration of resilient survivors. We actively resist the violence that our men are taught to perpetrate in order to assert themselves fully as men. We want healing for those who have fallen prey to our collective violence as a society. We want healthy, strong communities that do not condone rape and other violence, and then turn to the police as flawed adjudicators of justice in the aftermath of such terrors. We want self-determination and liberation for our bodies and minds."

We need to build a safer way for ourselves.

I did not know what to do or how to think yesterday after I read that news article. I felt vulnerable. I wanted to stay inside and whimper. But then I thought about resistance and how I, as a female-bodied individual, could stand against such horrifying anti-female violence.

I decided the biggest act of resistance was to just be, to honor my existence as a person. I needed to do something that made me feel alive in a positive and physical, life-affirming way. I decided to go out and ride my bike at night in the Bywater. I decided to get drunk and hear music. I decided to say a big "fuck you" to the rape culture I live in.

I don't know if I was more careless than usual on my bike ride, if I made some more dangerous turns than I normally would have, if maybe I went the wrong way down a one-way street on purpose, but I knew that a motorist honking at me was affirmation that I was alive, that that person did not want to hurt me, that that person was actually ANGRY that I was in harm's way.

I biked very fast up to the French Quarter, so fast that I almost took a spill on the Press Street train tracks at Chartres, where there's cobblestone instead of pavement. And I felt that "about to crash" adrenaline rush as a confirmation that my body was alive and alert and going to do everything it could to protect itself from danger.

I went to the Spotted Cat and had too many vodka cocktails and listened to Meschiya Lake, who emanated force and strength with her voice and salty admonitions to the audience not to "touch any of my musicians or I'll punch you in the face." I thought about whether she was guilty of cultural appropriation when she covered "Indian Red." I went across the street to dance to a banjo duo's send-up of "Saint Louis Blues." I went to Walgreens and ignored all the products designed to make me feel inadequate, which coincidentally was 90% of the inventory. I went home and made tea and played with my cat. I made causes and effects. I barely drank the tea. The cat ran away from me. I had a nightmare about sexual assault. I got up this morning. I had to clean the teapot. The cat knocked over a houseplant. I was late to work. There was evidence that I had lived and done things and had an impact on my surroundings.  I'm evidence too. I'm evidence of a woman who fears, who makes impulsive decisions anyway, who rejects the perception that I am, or any other person is, a walking sexual receptacle. "I'm evidence," she said. I'm evidence too.