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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Smoking sections and Recycling

I sat next to a guy on the plane who remarked that plane travel used to be so much more fun when you could smoke. My first reaction was to ask him where he was from since I couldn't remember any smoking on planes. He said it was okay until 1995 and then I remembered those smoking sections on every plane. Though it's a bit scary to think my mind can be wiped clean like an eraser board after not seeing such a common image for a while - there is also something hopeful that something so woven into the cultural fabric can be removed. Maybe unfettered capitalism can actually be smoked out too.

On a related note, New Orleans doesn't have recycling pickups in most (maybe all) neighborhoods. I assume this is a post-Katrina phenomenon. But boy did it feel weird to throw bottles and newspapers into the trash buckets even though the number of years we've had recycling services aren't all that many. It's ingrained.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Coincidences on the Road

It's 1:30 AM and I just got back from bowling with my boys and Erin. The bowling alley had kept its 1960's era motif - none of those automatic pin counters and monitors above the lanes. We kept score with paper and pencil. Next to the very weathered lanes was a large dance floor and a little stage with a live blues band. Snooks, the bandleader, was as old and battle tested as the antique bowling pins, but nimble as a track star on his keyboard. People danced waving white white napkins and cloths as I guess they do in the "second line" brass bands that play for funerals in New Orleans.

On Christmas, when we exchanged Hannukah and Christmas gifts, Zac gave me a framed photo he'd taken of a "hippie looking woman" dancing at the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Fest last April.

Who do we see at this bowling-blues place, dressed much more demurely, but still partying hard, but this same random woman from Zac's photo. We introduced ourselves and told her how her likeness would now grace a home in California. She loved it. Turns out she lives in Austin and was just visiting her sister in New Orleans which makes it an even bigger coincidence.

Long ago I learned that when traveling, expect coincidences. Some cork gets unplugged and as routines get spilled out on the ground, the unexpected pours in - finally free to show its face. Or we're finally free to turn and notice.

Two days ago I went for a jog and stopped to walk through one of the many cemeteries lining both sides of Canal streets. Cemeteries with their countless stories etched in stone are always a draw for me, but New Orleans cemeteries, with their above-ground crypts and monuments are an amazing site in themselves. After a few random twists and turns through crowded rows of crypts, whose family do I come upon, but the Nevilles - ancestors of my favorite New Orleans band! A year or two ago I read a spellbinding oral history of the Neville Brothers. There before me was Arthur J. Neville Senior and Arthur Junior. Out of easily 10,000-50,000 graves in those neighboring cemeteries on Canal Street, I end up at the foot of the Nevilles. What's more, Arthur Sr. has the same birthday as me, or vice versa. I'm not sure how distant these Nevilles are from the brothers in the band, but the oldest of the Neville Brothers is also named Art.
Tomorrow is my last day in New Orleans. What a treat to have spent so much time with Alex and Zac and so myuch better than phone calls.

Alex the organizer. new Years.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Young Love, Family, and Good Ears are Blessings

My son Zac and the love of his life, Erin, moved into their own cozy apartment, after sharing a house with a fellow Habitat for Humanity worker - roommate for the first year or so of their relationship. He is 24 and she is 21. So young. On the first day of my visit to New Orleans, I had a start when I walked into their bedroom and saw a large photo of me and Zac's mom when we lived together in St. Louis - all decked out in our embroidered hippie clothes and headbands. We were about the same age.

Zac's brother Alex is also visiting from San Diego - his first time in New Orleans. Alex and Erin got along famously during this first meeting.

Zac & Alex at one of Zac's Habitat for Humanity Houses in Progress

We went to an NBA basketball game the first night. I had a wonderful feeling sitting next to the three of them high up in the New Orleans Arena (next door to the infamous Superdome), enjoying their laughter and the great energy they were sharing, only slightly bittersweetened by the fact that I couldn't make out much of what they were saying, now that my ears aren't doing the same quality job that I took for granted all those years when I was younger.

New Orleans - not Mr. Rogers neighborhood

Deborah, Jan, Alex, and I all made our way on separate flights to New Orleans yesterday. Zac and his vibrant girlfriend, Erin made a lot of airport trips in heavy traffic. We got to see their new one bedroom apartment on a different end of the Uptown neighborhood than their big old rental house. The house has four units that were recently restored very nicely. The houses just next to them are still vacant, boarded up, and one is completely crushed in on itself. It looks like at least half the houses in their neighborhood are still boarded up.

House next door to Zac & Erin:

House across the street from Zac & Erin:

Jan's friend generously gave us her home in the Mid-City neighborhood. It's amazing - twelve foot high ceilings and large rooms on both floors, lots of wonderful built in shelving; big, inviting kitchens on both floors; lots of art. Her house is one of only two inhabited ones on her block. They had a couple feet of water flooding their home after Katrina but have renovated it.

Yellow house we are staying in:

Same Yellow House (photo) during Katrina flood:

The good news is that some people are moving back home and reclaiming their neighborhoods. But meanwhile, there is something surreal about these neighborhoods. I wonder what the kids who live here think about coming home from school to a block with no other people.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Goldman Sachs distributes wealth to each other

According to Wikipedia, Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, has been on the Fortune 100 list of best places to work since 1998. No wonder, since the average salary of its 30,522 employees was $661,400 this year. That's a bit misleading since the median was somewhere in the $300,000's. The happiest employee must be the CEO, Lloyd Blankfein who took home over $70 million this year. He must have put in a lot of overtime... many a late night moving money from hither to thither and back again.

It had to be the overtime, because if he only worked a 40 hour week and took two weeks vacation, he'd have been earning $35,000 per hour.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Phone Home

photo by David W. Quinn

AT&T announced that it is getting rid of its telephone booth and public pay phone business. The telephone booth is an integral feature of my personal urban geography. Throughout my high school dormitory years, I depended on pay phones for my favorite parts of my week - my link to worlds outside the cloistered yeshiva-seminary. There was one in the hall with a long shelf below it that I could squeeze myself onto for my Sunday night calls with my Mom. There was a booth on the first floor where I had more private conversations with Estee, the girl I befriended who wound up in an adolescent mental ward after hurting herself. We'd exchange late night stories about our respective institutions. Somebody showed me how to drop a nickel down the nickel slot and in the same fluid motion, hit the coin return gizmo as the nickel was falling, and the dial tone came on. Later we learned the formula for creating credit card numbers and made countless long distance calls on some unsuspecting business' dime. I'm sorry AT&T, if I hastened your departure from the business. Actually the pay phone business kept growing in spite of all the felonious adolescents of the '60's. Cell phones have been the undoing of the business and in ten short years we've gone from 2.6 million U.S. pay phones to under a million. Lord knows we could use the booths today as much as ever - even phoneless ones - so all those cell phone users could take their business meetings off the sidewalks (especially the "bluetoothers" who look insane as they walk along gesticulating and shouting and scaring the subdued homeless folks who have to share those downtown walkways.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Flow of Memory

I've heard that smells are the most effective trigger for old memories, but sounds can work too. It just might take longer for a sound-memory to activate. Last night at 3 AM, one finally kicked in for me.

Living with Sally, I've found that it's best when (not "if") I wake up in the night to pee, to find my way to the bathroom and fumble for the toilet and sit down rather than stand. I don't want to turn on any lights and wake Sally or myself any more than necessary. Also the seat will be down. Also, in the dark, it's just a much safer practice than aiming in the dark. Last night while sitting and peeing, the sound brought me all the way back to my childhood home and hearing my rather modest mother pee. (She never left the door open as my brothers and even my dad were wont to do.) Her sitting made a different sound than what the rest of us intoned and I must have noted it at the time and filed it away for a 3PM retrieval, at least 45 years later. (I left home at 13 for a high school yeshiva-seminary.) If I've peed four times a day and add a bunch for all the nighttime excursions over the past decade, that would come to at least 70,000 urinations before everything synced up for a memory of my long departed Mom. Not the one I would have chosen, given a choice, but the truth is, I like just about any that ever bring her directly into my brain for a moment. At 3 AM in the dark, I smiled and appreciated the sound.