Wednesday, October 15, 2014


San Miguel De Allende: Mirage in a Desert

"What makes the desert beautiful,' said the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well...'"

- Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

           I eventually learned to love Mexico City but I'd be lying if I didn't confess having suffered a near coronary upon stepping off the plane into the Districto Federal.  Maybe it was the fact for my first meal, I inadvertently ordered a soup that had a flaming shot of mescal poured into it.  Or maybe it was trying to sleep in a hostel that resembled what I imagine purgatory to be like.  Or the conversation I tried to have with some Mexican travelers from Monterrey who insisted on conversing with me in Spanish about Buddhism.  And though I had every intention of soaking it all in, I just wasn't ready for it quite so suddenly.

        So it made perfect sense when the conversation about Buddhism evolved into a conversation about a small town a four hour drive further into the desert called San Miguel de Allende.  In the guidebook I have borrowed there is no mention.  So what if this was a conversational suggestion made at 2am after a couple of tequilas?

        Barely half a dozen hours later I am curled up in a contorted fetal position on a bus, trying to catch up on the sleep I didn't get during the hostel snore-a-thon.  I am groggy when we drive past a couple of industrial towns in the middle of nowhere.  Other than that, the vista is a bit bleak... hundreds of miles of cacti, brush, chaparral-covered volcanic hills.  Dry, dusty and desolate, even in December someone could die of dehydration out here without a soul to notice.  Eventually the bus driver pulls over to the side of the highway without uttering a word other than the name of my destination, leaving only a cloud of dust for me to swallow.

        My God.  What have I done.

Dry desert on the way to San Miguel De Allende
         I'm picturing my parents having to fly down to claim my body in an unmarked shack serving as the local morgue.  After fifteen of the longest minutes of my life, a taxi appears, and with my backpack bouncing on my tailbone, I desperately chase him down on the other side of the highway.

        "El Centro por favor," not knowing what exactly the center town entails, gambling heavily on a church, a plaza, possibly an ice cream push-cart.

        A mere seconds pass when we enter cobblestone streets carving through piles of brightly-colored Spanish stucco buildings, illuminated bell towers, and a panoramic vista overlooking a hillside town dotted with lights.  In the center, as suspected, is a Spanish cathedral, gracefully illuminated.  Snacking on fresh churros in one hand, hot chocolate in the other, I wander around a stunning town square, and my biggest concern is to not spill the hot chocolate as I cross the cobblestone streets.  For a while I see no Westerners and hear no English.  My plaza companions are well-dressed Mexicans.

          In a cafe I eventually encounter something of a curiosity:  an elderly gringo, possibly in his eighties, skin light as day.  To his companion he mumbles something in American English, but then just as easily orders his drink in perfect Spanish.

         Later that evening, I am seated a bit awkwardly on the corner of my bed, in attempt to invoke the wisdom of wikipedia on my smartphone in my charming but budget hotel with concrete and stucco walls.  (Turns out that colonial-style walls are not so wi fi-friendly.)

        The town was originally named after a man of the cloth named San Miguel who, with the help of dogs, discovered a spring and founded the town under Spanish colonial rule.  Ironically, the town also bears the name of Ignacio Allende, the Spanish nobleman turned insurgent who fought for Mexican independence from Spanish colonial rule.  The town was his birthplace and the first to declare independence from Spain.

         The town of San Miguel de Allende won its political independence from Spain, but cultural independence it did not.  To this day its architecture is pure Spanish colonial and was such when it was discovered by Stirling Dickinson, a wealthy American Princeton graduate, trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, fresh off a stint in World War II.  At the time of his arrival the city had been long suffering from an economic decline with the collapse of the mining industry and general post-war blues.  So enamored was he with the town that he first became the director of the newly created art school, the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, and effectively lured a number of his fellow veterans armed with education stipends from the GI bill and eager to continue their international experience.  He then started his own institute after accusations of Communist sympathies led to his dismissal.  Quiet and unassuming, Dickinson lived modestly despite his inherited wealth, and by his own admission was a mediocre artist at best.  In his days as an art teacher, he instituted a curriculum based on Mexican culture and tradition and was fluent in Spanish.

        Eventually the economy had been fully transformed from agricultural to one based on tourism.  Today, visitors from all over Mexico are driven to its abundance of galleries and theaters, all featuring local artists and musicians that since flourished beginning with the influx of expat investment in the 1940's.  Inconvenient enough from the capital city and devoid of beaches or resorts, the foreigners it attracts tend to prefer aesthetics and culture.  English is seldom heard on the streets and the art schools place heavy emphasis on Mexican-rooted culture.  Diego and Frida are the icons of choice and no one mentions MTV.

        Despite my best intentions in my five days here, I've failed to make it inside a single gallery or museum.  Instead I've managed to while my time away wandering up and down the cobblestone streets, through the artisan outdoor markets, the produce markets, the public squares.  I have sat inside the towns' cathedrals staring at life-sized sculptures of the Passion, I have stalked my favorite fresh churro vendors, and I end every single night listening to live music be it Latin jazz or Mexican folk.

           With the restoration of colonial structures funded by American expat investment, San Miguel de Allende has been likened to Disneyland.  I am the first to be embarrassed by loud American tourists.  It is a city that once existed as a Spanish colonial city before the Americans got here, and the "Disneyland" was eventually resurrected by a group who chose to serve in a war against Fascism and racism, and returned home with a new appreciation for culture and a desire to create art, and learned to speak the language.  Not the most terrible set of Americans I've run into;  certainly less distasteful than the twenty-something set in Mexico City I overheard from the other side of a cafe clarifying to a Mexican that they hailed from "Brooklyn, not New York."

        And of course, the story of Dickinson in itself is intriguing.  A mediocre artist himself, he seemed to be more blessed with vision than artistic talent;  not only did he move to a foreign country, facilitating the creation of a fine arts school, but he also effectively convinced his brethren to leave their homeland to do the same.  To have lived part of his life in war to support his political beliefs, then to turn his energies to an equally daunting task of creating and facilitating art and beauty--it is an ideal easy to admire.

        As an American traveler, I belong to one of the most elite demographics on the globe.  As in the case of Sterling Dickinson, the effect of American money has an impact of exclusion every place it touches, despite even the best efforts to avoid this.  But if only we can at least funnel the effect of our wealth to in some way facilitate the flourishing of art and music.  I aspire to one day be as much of a contribution to the art and music of a traditional culture as at least one American has done before me.  Sterling's impact was undeniably a form of colonialism, as is my sheer existence as an American in Latin America.  But it is one I can stomach--alongside those freshly made churros.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Punch Drunk

"There was an old ring proverb that "Youth will be served," but the annals of the ring offer a great number of exceptions."

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Croxley Master"

       At the not-so-tender age of 36, I decided to enter the ring and box a 21 year old, former college athlete, in her 1st year of law school.  It was a long-time coming, three years in fact, that I first walked into a boxing gym and started training.  After about a year, I finally felt ready for a fight, but it took two more years before USA boxing changed their amateur rules: no longer was I prohibited from fighting anyone under the age of 34.  The pool now enabled me to fight anyone between 19 and 40 years of age.

      From the very beginning, I declared boxing a mere hobby.  Yet that seemed irrelevant once Mike, the owner of the boxing gym and promoter of New Orleans' renowned Friday Night Fights, found me an opponent  a month and a half before the fight.

Frank the Trainer

      Next step was to find a trainer.  The deal with boxing trainers is a whole story in itself for another day.  In short I have gone through more trainers than underwear--with varying levels of articulateness, reliability, sleaziness, and criminal records.  The most previous trainer was a woman, and my favorite thus far.  But Anika was also a burlesque dancer and recent law graduate with extremely little time to spare a month and a half before my first ever fight.

      Then I found Frank.  Forty-six years old, former boxer himself turned private eye.  He and his twenty-three year old son have been gym rats for as long as I've been coming to the gym plus decades more.  As soon as my fight is set, I corner him and successfully implore him to train me.

      "You've decided to inflict bodily injury on another human being, Kim.  Now you have to live with this decision."  Those words were his first to me at the end of our first training session.  They were an indication of the intensity of the days to come.  But they did not indicate the level of pain I would be inflicting on myself.

Training Days

      Jumping jacks with a barbell in my hands, being spun around in the ring 20 times 'til I was dizzy, then taking a knee right before launching into punches running into the center of the ring, then 100 sit-ups to cool down.  For sparring, my partner was another of Frank's stallions, except 21-years-old, fit as an ox, and with Olympic aspirations.

     I am reasonably fit for my age but the regimen was exhausting and at no point did I enjoy an evening free of aches and pains.

      But in sparring I surprised Frank.  I surprised them all including the ever-cynical Mike, when I punched a contact lens right out of Scottie's head after she gave me a bruiser under my left eye.

      My reputation amongst the gym rats began to improve noticeably:  after a couple of gnarly sparring sessions, fist bumps were at an all time high, a seal of approval within this population.

      "I'll be honest Kim, I didn't think you'd be able to handle her, but now I think it's even.  You got heart kid, you got heart," says Mike.  From a man who owned an overweight pit bull and typically only spoke for the purpose of telling dirty jokes, this was high praise.

       Translation:  I can take a punch.  By all accounts, including my own, my advantage was internal--and lay deep underneath that belly fat I was striving to reduce.  In our qualifying spar, my opponent had superior arm strength and fitness; but truth be told, her face contorted to near tears after each punch I landed.

      The fact that she was sweet and hard-working was all irrelevant.  I wanted this fight.  I thought I didn't care about winning but the more I trained, the more I craved victory.

      I was not a particularly nice person over these six weeks.  Jamie was my opponent, and she weighed 10 pounds less than me a month out from the fight, despite being at least 1-2 dress sizes larger.  And it was likely that she was losing weight as she trained.  As a USA-Boxing Association-sanctioned event, I could not weigh more than 5 pounds than her.  To get there I had to stop drinking alcohol, a martyr-like act in a town like New Orleans, especially for a music manager.  I cut out most forms of fat including my beloved butter.  And it brought out my worst:  I picked fights with my band, I became ornery around loved ones.    By fight day, I was 10 pounds lighter.

      "Why" was the question asked most frequently of me in those weeks before and even after.  Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure why.  Clearly, I relish the difficulty in the task and the feeling of physical strength after training.  Adrenaline is a drug I enjoy.  And Frank, in all his verbal awkwardness, brought up another reason.  "Things have been tough for me out there there.  I lost a lot when my mom died a couple years ago and I am still rebuilding my practice.  But this place and this body, this training is the one thing I feel I can control."  Like Frank, I believe that for me too boxing is about gaining a sense of control.

      However, ultimately I believe my desire to box is because I am a born weirdo; my family will attest.  Despite all my privilege and education, I left the legal profession and have been selecting steadily less lucrative jobs.  My personal life is on a comparable trajectory as I select partners with increasingly unlikely odds of success.  And as for amassing wealth and stability, for my first house I chose a formerly blighted one in a historically dangerous neighborhood in New Orleans.  It would seem that my motto in life has been, "Why do things the easy way?"  

      But it truly has not been a conscious effort to be difficult.    After one of my less spectacular sparring sessions of getting the brains knocked out of me, I would not give up.  Frank ended that session with the following observation:  "I bet you were a real pain in the ass to your parents as a kid."

      He was right.  I was a difficult child, and I still am difficult.  Maybe that's why I like boxing.

Fight Day

      On the morning of fight day, it is raining cats and dogs, threatening to shut down the fight which is scheduled to be held in a parking lot of a bar and a Burger King.  I am dejected, hungry and cranky.  For consolation, I call my closest, gentlest friend, Taylor, a vegetarian jazz musician who has spent significant time in Vermont.  In consolation, he offers, "Well, maybe you can take up another activity that's not so concentrated on just one event, ya know?"  He is struggling for words, completely unable to understand my draw to boxing.  I try my best to gently end the phone call before he can suggest I take up yoga.

      Eventually the skies clear up and I check in for the fight.  I'm barely within 5 pounds of my opponent despite having lost 10.  I'm cranky as hell and have already snapped at the gym owner who has annoyed me to no end.  I sit down for my check-up and the doctor introduces himself as "Rocky."  I laugh uncontrollably.  "I mean, just for tonight?   Is that really your name?  Do you box?"  He explains that he doesn't and that's it's a family nick name.  Dr. Rocky checks my blood pressure, purses his lips and says, "That's ok, you're fine."  Frank glances over and looks at the numbers.  I'm confused given that I've always had an extremely low blood presser.  Frank also purses his lips, "That's normal for tonight, right doc?"  He confirms, "Yeah they all get amped up right before and she'll be back to normal after."  I don't bother asking for the numbers.

       About 30 friends and acquaintances have come on my behalf to cheer me on.  I appreciate their support and nervous of not disappointing them with a loss.  Co-workers have made a "Vicious Vu" sign to rally me on.  I have problems remembering names.  I have no intentions of ever doing this professionally, but I am nervous.  I am the the favorite, bets in the gym are placed on me, but I am clearly the underdog physically.  Three rounds, a minute and a half each.  Objectively very doable but subjectively inducing fear in my heart.

      Inside the ring the lights are bright.  I can't hear a thing except Frank.  "You've got to take this first round, you can't let the judges question your strength."  The bell rings and I explode into a fit of energy.  She is fighting completely differently from how she sparred, moving backwards almost constantly.  Despite her superior strength and fitness, she is on the ropes twice.  Bell rings.

       As I plant my butt on the stool, Frank says, "Keep going.  You need to get as many punches in as you can because she's strong, and you're not gonna knock her out."

      Round two starts and I'm still at it.  But her strength finally rears its ugly head and she lands a left straight in my head.  I am as unstoppable as her left straights which she is able to land even as I return her to the ropes.  Suddenly, just as the bell rings my nose feels hot.

       The crowd goes wild as the ring card girls strut their stuff and I use the melee to urge Frank to stop the nosebleed.  He shoves the q-tips as far as he can but unlike in training, he stops short of using the spray and blocking the flow with petroleum jelly.  I'm confused...what gives?  "Make it stop Frank!"  I am determined to keep fighting and I'll be damned if the judges stop the fight for a little nosebleed.

      In round three I am tired but I don't stop moving forward for fear that if I do I'll fall.  All the training tips, the techniques of stick and move, moving out of the southpaw's way, I've thrown it all away.  It is because I've looked into my opponent's face, and only I can see the abject fear in its contortions.  She is so much stronger than me, but her mind is not.  She looks dangerously close to tears, despite landing more right hooks in my face.  My nose won't stop bleeding and the ref calls for the doctor.  I implore Dr. Rocky and he lets me go back in.

      Round three ends and we are both exhausted.

      Back in the corner Frank attends to my still-bleeding nose as I dangle my lifeless arms.  For the first time that night I see my friends have taken up the entire front side of the ring.  Nose still gushing, I raise my lifeless paw in the air and with a big, dumb smile on my face they erupt in cheers.

      Back in the middle of the ring we wait for decision.  She clearly possessed more strength and physical control but I landed plenty of punches and consistently held the offensive; she was on the ropes at least three times.  In my mind I am Manny Pacquiao but in my body I am a lump of jelly.  Not until the ref raised my opponent's arm in victory was I able to discern who won.

      I stumble back to my corner more dejected than I previously imagined.  Frank gives me kudos and assures me that I didn't disappoint.  From the corner of my eye I catch Mike across the ring.  He gives me a nod and a wink.

      On the way to the fighter's section, Dr. Rocky rattles off a series of questions to check for concussion.  "What's your name, what day is it, where are we?"

      "I'm Kim Vu-Dinh, we're in New Orleans, and I just lost."

      He pats me on the back.  "You fought well Kim.""

      Immediately after my wraps are removed, two of my professor friends steadily make their way towards me with a beer and a flask of whiskey, and after a sip, I am immediately in good spirits--evidence that they are in fact my smartest friends.  I am congratulated by a series of friends and co-workers.  My vegetarian friend hugs me and is on the verge of tears.  I am high on adrenaline of boxing and losing.  Throughout the night I'm approached by at least half a dozen strangers of all races, genders, and sizes.  Clearly some were boxing-followers, some were fellow fighters, some I'd never met.  "Good fight, kid," and "Hey lady, I thought you had that one."  It was decent consolation after a physically painful loss.  A couple of the gym rats straight-up bear-hugged me.

      It was not until the end of the night, in the privacy of a porta-potty did I feel tears roll down my face.  I tried so damn hard and I lost.  That and my nose hurt.

      Surprisingly the day after was the hardest.  I had been training hard for a month and a half, two hours a day 4-6 days a week, yet those six minutes left my body in abject pain I'd never before felt. The day after was a cold and cloudy one, and the vegetarian drew me a bath and iced my nose, took me to a movie and picked up take-out.  The bruising around my eyes set in and my nose hurt to no end.  Despite even sparring half a dozen times with a fighter better than my opponent, I felt a touch of shock--both body and mind--which took me by surprise.  Chatting on my phone with a friend, he pointed out, "Well sure, it was just four and a half minutes, but it was like a four and a half minute car accident."

      I've been reasonably successful in my life, but I have failed before and I know what disappointment is.  But this was definitely the first time for me that failure was accompanied by physical pain.

      A couple days later my face is bruise-free and looks more or less back to normal but for weeks I'm left with a tender nose to remind me of my defeat.  Friends ask if I'll do it again.  "Maybe," I answer.  "Really?  Why?"  

      And though I can't explain it, I know I probably will.  In its own way, it was a journey unlike any other...I remember the few minutes in the ring, and get a little punch drunk.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

At Home In Central City

Mardi Gras Indians on Washington Ave on St. Joseph's night in the Central City Neighborhood of New Orleans
Five years ago when I was living in a cabin in Alaska with a tree growing on the rooftop, I would have been incredulous had you told me that I would end up buying and living in a house in a historically high-crime neighborhood in the middle of New Orleans.  

And yet somehow here I am, walking my dog through a mixed income housing development where just two years before stood arguably the single most dangerous public housing project in the country, former stomping grounds to New Orleans gangster rappers Li'l Wayne and Juvenile.  But my decision was not made brashly; only after having worked in the neighborhood for two years did I decide to make the single largest investment in my life in the Central City neighborhood.  The cultural prevalence of second line parades, brass band culture and Mardi Gras Indians made the decision to buy a rehabbed historic house attractive to me, almost as much as the affordability factor.  After working in low-income housing development for a non-profit which developed houses in an area about a quarter mile radius around my current house, upon signing my closing documents I already knew which blocks were family friendly, and which blocks were criminal, where the neighborhood organizers lived, as well as the dealers and the druglords.  

And so it came as no surprise when I got a text from my friend and neighbor, while I was out drinking cocktails at the Columns Hotel in the posh Garden District neighborhood just half a mile away, enjoying a perfect evening listening to live music being played by the band I manage on the side.  "Someone got shot on LaSalle, get ride home from one of the boys."  Or another text a week later, "Were those gunshots?"  I confirmed that they were when I rode my bike past an ambulance and a score of police cars.  This event was proceeded by a stabbing two days prior.

A day later I walk two blocks from my house to the historic and dilapidated graveyard on Washington Avenue.  There are scores of mausoleums lined up over three or four city blocks, and it is picturesque as the sun sets behind them.  
Graveyard on Washington Ave on St. Josephs Night

This night belongs to the Mardi Gras Indians, a secret society of African-American New Orleanians who spend tens of thousands of dollars and months of their year sewing elaborate costumes comprised of beads and feathers arranged to resemble the regalia of Native Americans.  The tradition supposedly originated as a commemoration of the Native Americans who gave asylum to escaped slaves.  Today it means much more.  Tribe members are typically low-income people or once were, and generally claim stake in neighborhoods flanking public housing projects.  And though many of the City's projects have been demolished and redeveloped, the tradition remains.

Tonight it is St. Joseph's night, a celebration in which scores of tribes of Mardi Gras Indians greet the sunset in full regalia, mock-fighting with one another.   The selection of St. Joseph's Day is rumored to pre-date World War I, when Italian Americans celebrated this religious holiday throughout the city, enabling the contraband celebrations of the Indians to occur reasonably undetected.  St. Joseph's marks the last episode of the Mardi Gras Indian season, the final battle, whereas the previous appearances (Mardi Gras Day and Super Sunday) are more community demonstration events.  And unlike the first two events, there is hardly a caucasian spectator or telephoto lens to be found.

It is my second time going to St. Joseph's but the first time I am able to walk from my house.  I meet up with some friends and we wander the streets, just blocks away from the shooting that occurred a week before, or the stabbing days prior.  Despite being a little behind with work at my day job, I discipline myself to go out; it is all I can do to remind myself why I decided to choose a home right in front of all of this violence which, from this proximity, has left my mind a little fogged.  

In the dark I can smell the half dozen barbecue vendors selling their wares, and can hear the rhythms emanating from Indian drums.  I see a shock a feathers spinning almost uncontrollably, illuminated by a lone street light.  I am surrounded almost exclusively by African-Americans.  I have just enough alcohol in me for a little buzz, the best state in which I can absorb chaos immediately before me.  It is a New Orleans that is just five miles from the tourist-laden French Quarter, and it is the New Orleans I know and love.  

Central City has been described by more than one friend of mine as the Caribbean section of New Orleans -- replete with celebrations, music, Afro-influences, street food, brightly colored houses, and also poverty, working people, potholes and crime.  It has remained fairly untouched by the forces of gentrification, a little pocket of three public housing projects flanked by workforce housing.  Since the redevelopment of the housing projects the buildings have changed, but many attitudes of outsiders have not, and those who do not know and love Central City fear it like an impending plague.  

Living here it is hard to understand certain things.  Who gets murdered, and why, and why not me.  And why my drug dealing neighbors down the street whose life decisions I loathe are kind to me, and pick up their dogs feces in front of my house.  How there can be murder at the same time that there is kindness is a phenomenon all over the world that I never been able to understand.  

Particularly when I've traveled, there have been times in my life where I have found myself in peculiar situations, not understanding precisely what led me there but knowing that it is the right place for me at the time.  A little faith, and a whole lot of love for the intangible thing I'm in search of that I know is there.  Being homebound in Central City is one such moment.  I hope and pray that the violence goes away soon.  And I know that the good things are real, and that these traditions will stay in these very blocks I walk my dog in, as they have for a hundred years now.  It is strange but good to call Central City my home.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Stormy Weather

They say bad things occur in sets of three, and after hearing my story, even the least superstitious of you might agree.  

At the beginning of this summer, I was on the brink of a major transition.  For the first time in my life, I finally found a place so culturally rich, so entertaining, and so professionally stimulating that I decided to buy a house.  It is not something I pictured happening at the ripe age of 35, single, and without children, but there I was, preparing to move out of my apartment in the elite dollhouse Riverbend neighborhood of New Orleans, into the distressed, predominantly African-American neighborhood of Central City.  It was a move I took time to make after moving here--a year to be exact--and it has taken another year for the blighted house I identified as my future home to finally complete construction, under the direction of the non-profit housing developer for which I work.  I was scheduled to close the first week in August.   

I can say without exaggeration that after living in nine different cities in the past 17 years, it is the first real commitment I have made in a very long time.  

This decision was not without tests, three of them to be exact, all of which occurred in the month of August.  But now it is September and I can look back knowing that I have learned invaluable lessons about commitment, friendship, and this place called New Orleans.

A Collapsing House and a Demolition
A New Orleans summer is not without its challenges, and this past one was no exception.  June and July brought monsoon-like showers that beat down on the city and its aged housing stock, many of which were left blighted and abandoned after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  One such house loomed eerily next to my targeted new home and I only signed a purchase agreement because I knew that the monstrosity was on the City's demolition list.  It was rumored to be a once a historic home, characteristic of the Caribbean architecture imported here by freed slaves originating from the West Indies.  But by June of 2012 it was a decrepit mess with a caved-in roof, serving as a squatting location for homeless junkies looking for a dark corner in which to shoot up.  Its owners were wealthy residents living in one of the most elite neighborhoods of New Orleans, who claimed for years that they were saving to fix it up.  Twenty thousand dollars later in back taxes the property made its way onto the City's obligatory demolition list, but not in time to keep it from collapsing under the pressure June rains, causing it to crawl closer and closer towards my would-be home just days away from completing construction.  On July 27th, after a thunderstorm, it looked like this:

It made its way on the fast-track to demolition.  I was slated to close within days, and after an analysis of my Asian lunar calendar fortune, I was instructed by my mother to avoid, at all costs, closing or moving into the house on August 3rd, 4th, or 5th.  Despite the convenience of asking friends to help with the move on Saturday August 5th, I heeded my mother's advice.  The move was scheduled for August 6th, two days before I was scheduled to leave the state for a friend's wedding.

On August 5th, the City conducted the demolition of the neighboring structure.  I stopped by to find a pile of rubble, disturbingly close to my would-be home.

And on further inspection, I saw my the bedroom of my little house was not spared.

Repair work started two days later by the general contractor who had been hired by my work.  I stayed in town to make sure all was in order with the repairs to begin and missed the wedding of my long-time friend in California but still had time left in my planned vacation.  In my absence my pets stayed in my apartment with a friend who agreed to house-sit.  I hoped to get away from the commotion for at least a little bit and relax in California for two weeks with my nieces and nephews.

A Fire
I was not in California for more than four days when I learned that the apartment building where my stuff remained, with my pets and my house sitter,  caught on fire.  The handyman and plumber, fond of my dog Milo, came into my apartment even before the firefighters arrived.  They called me while I was in California to tell me that they saved my dog.  

But they forgot about my cats.  

After a flurry of phone calls, the cats were eventually saved by firefighters on a second trip into my apartment, this time escorted by the housesitter.  The fire made the evening news.

Though the fire-starting culprit lived in the apartment above mine across the hall, the entire building filled with smoke, and after all was said and done, the entire structure resembled a war zone.

My apartment was covered in soot, some of it drenched in stale water from the fire hoses.

I came back the next day, and after sending a few texts, several friends offered housing,  petsitting, help in packing and moving.  My boss offered a place in her own home for me, and also offered that I move into the new house before the closing date; the general contractor sped up repairs, working his crew overtime on the weekend.  

My friends moved me into the home which was not yet mine, pets and all.

A Hurricane
And, after two weeks of putting the finishing touches on the house that would be my home, with closing prolonged by my lender for a few more days, Hurricane Isaac decided to pay New Orleans a visit.  With my pets just barely starting to eat and poop normally again, I was in no mood to relocate them.  So-called expert predictions on Isaac's scope varied from a category 1 to a category 3 back down to a mere tropical storm.  Mayor Landrieu declared a state of emergency but did not require evacuation.  

A self-selected group of friends with strong stomachs decided to stay in town, and Hurricane pods were formed as designated by neighborhood and friendship proximity.  The decision amongst five of us was to hunker down at my house, located geographically on the incline of the flood plain, which did not see too much water during Hurricane Katrina.  

Three of us were Hurricane newbies, unused to the howling sounds of winds, rain, thunder, of  crackling houses busting up, of transformers throughout the neighborhood blowing once every few hours.  While I distracted myself with the tasks of hosting, others would crack jokes, suggest games to play, or help prepare the next meal.  We had all cooked up our perishables for that night, in contemplation of power outages and failing refrigerators.  We ate like kings, and frequently so, in order to pass the time.  

"It's not the Hurricane that sucks so much, it's the boredom without electricity," said Ryan, a veteran of Hurricane Gustav.  I spent my energy prioritizing items to be cooked next, and frozen yogurt to be made, based on a hierarchy of perishables.  I focused on cleaning and making sure my guests were comfortable.  I focused on hosting my first dinner party which happened to be in honor of a hurricane.  I focused on whatever I could to distract me from wondering if this newly rehabbed 100-year old house would keep us all safe and dry.

It did.  While others had rows of downed trees, missing siding, yards of shingles stripped from their roofs, collapsed fences, I counted on one hand the number of missing shingles.  Massive oak trees and medium sized banana trees took out fences, windows, and power lines.  We were lucky, I was lucky.  And for the second time in two days, I burned incense in gratitude to and in memory of my grandmother as tears quietly trickled down my cheeks.  The worst part was over.  Well, almost.

For two more days, we hurricane buddies gave eachother space but also stuck together, some of us going to work, others whiling the daytime hours with busy work in our houses, all of us staring down the dark, hot, muggy night, in the blackness of a place that once was and still is a swamp.  With no air-conditioning, no fans in our own homes and neighborhoods, we all gravitated to the French Quarter, the one neighborhood in town with electricity, spared from the blackout by the sole subterranean power grid in the city kept perfectly in tact.  We ate and drank like newly released prisoners, though we had been eating and drinking for the past two days just to stay sane.

The company helped us all get through the hot, sticky nights, as did the battery-powered karaoke machine, and our determination not only to stick it out, but help one another do the same.  And maybe the alcohol helped too.  The heat was a relentless, unforgivingly moist heat.  My heart wished in vain that Isaac had enough mercy to at least leave a little breeze.

By day four of no electricity, my determination waned and I second-guessed my decision to stay.  I did not contemplate that riding out the storm also meant enduring the merciless dank heat without power, and I accumulated less than 10 hours of sleep over the span of four days.  I took brief naps at houses that had  their power restored earlier than mine, and for one night I even camped on a friend's couch with my dog while her cats took refuge in her bedroom.  

In the daytime, I rode around the city, taking in a scenery of downed oak trees tangled in electrical wires in the wealthiest neighborhoods.  I saw tanks parked in front of French cafes, and the National Guard scurrying about in various spots.  

I saw electrical lines drooping from tilted poles, and portions of fences completely missing, wind-borne elsewhere.

The storm hit on Tuesday and not until Saturday evening was I able to enjoy the privilege of hearing the whirr of the motor on my central air-conditioning kick back on, of feeling the breeze from my ceiling fans, or of enjoying the sound of music from my computer.  Some of my hurricane friends had left town as planned for the long Labour Day weekend, others had their flights cancelled, and those of us remaining in town continued to check in on one another, for safety and for moral support, to stay sane after a hurricane which was more of a mind-bender than a natural disaster.

At some point my co-worker Charles called, a life-long New Orleanian who lost everything in his Lower Ninth Ward home in Hurricane Katrina, and said, "You're not a virgin anymore, baby girl!  Congratulations!  Wooo hooo!"  Isaac to him was a blink of the eye, his family safe and sound, well-fed by his hurricane-ready barbecue grill.  Charles and his family weathered Isaac and its merciless heat like professionals.

In the process writing this blog entry, part of me is surprised that I didn't pack my pets and bags and hit the road for good.  My first real attempt at commitment seem to be jinxed, and a different me in a different city might not have stuck through it, overwhelmed by negativity.  But instead, thoughts of this past August and all its disasters give me comfort.  I think of my new neighbors who stood by my side when a chunk of the house in between us flew through my would-be bedroom during a demolition; the new romance sparked between two close friends--never having met one another before--who came to my rescue to move my remaining possessions out of a charred apartment building; the hurricane-inspired slumber party-bender and the company of friends working hard to distract one another from the stress of impending natural disaster; my own brief hurricane romance involving a third generation barber whose swimming pool I enjoyed in my third day without electricity; and most certainly, the beautiful house in which I now sit, hurried to construction completion by general contractors who felt empathy for me and my odd housing luck--a house which kept me, my pets, and my friends safe and dry in a nasty little storm.   

New Orleans is a test of loyalty with its hurricanes, heat, and dysfunctional infrastructure, all of which work against those of us who live here, even in post-disaster times.   But the past month, with all its misfortune, served to galvanize existing friendships and spark new ones.  The way I see it now, bad things happen everywhere, so if they are going to, there's no place I'd rather be than here, and I am proud to call New Orleans home.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

California Dreaming

I was raised in Orange County, California. In the 1980's, it was still a place where a child could run through acres of orange groves, throw rocks into large quarries from the edge of a neighbor's backyard, and at night, hear the not-so-distant howl of coyotes in the brush-covered hills. In the 1980's I was young and so was Orange County--sparsely dotted hills with large houses comprising neighborhoods where children in a mile radius played with one another.

Beyond those couple blocks were miles and miles to be driven. And by the time I reached my teenage years, normal destinations such as school, movie theaters, and malls, required transport by car, in my case, an old hand-me-down that my conservative immigrant parents did not allow me to drive until I was 18 years old. Though less than 50 miles northbound, Los Angeles seemed a world away, and even on occasional big-girl visits to the city with friends for punk rock shows or shopping trips, the massive expanse seemed so unapproachable, so wealthy, and so lonely. And, by the time I left the area to go to college a universe away, less than 400 miles northward to Berkeley, the orange groves and brushy hills I grew up with were dotted with thousands of over-priced tract homes in various shades of pale earth tones, surrounded by secured gates. The skies of all of Southern California were cursed with low-hanging clouds of brown brought on by industrial productivity and wealth-induced car culture. Southern California was chock full of either wealthy families, or middle class folk aspiring to break the seal, exchanging good credit records for shiny cars and overpriced clothes.

And, though I was fortunate enough to be from a family of two professionals with at least one luxury car in the garage, by 18 I had already smelled something afoul in Orange County-land. Maybe it was the sinister rash of sex scandals throughout the areas' private Catholic high schools involving teachers and students. Maybe it was being called a "bleeding heart liberal" at the age of 17 in a classroom social studies group exercise. Or maybe it was the loneliness brought on by miles and miles of separation from one part of the city to the next. By the time I left, Southern California just seemed like a massive sprawl of land filled with small-minded people aspiring only for personal wealth. Big, dumb, shallow. And Los Angeles seemed just as much a part of that sprawl and isolation as Orange County.

But Southern California was not always a place of stranded people. As early as 1872 the City of Los Angeles began exploring a municipal transit system involving horse drawn cars. Not too much later, while in the process of connecting all of California to itself and the rest of the country by train, members of the railway baron Huntington family explored the development of a municipal light rail system within Los Angeles. It eventually comprised of 316 miles of lines within the city, and 1164 miles throughout Central and Southern California. This newfound transportation became integral in the development of various communities throughout the southland, and at 1500 miles total at its peak, was the most extensive network in the country. By 1924 the system served 109 million passengers annually, and maintained in excess of 54 million even after the development of the automobile. Then beginning in 1940, the system was systematically bought out and dismantled by General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil in a concerted effort to decimate the competition to the personal automobile. (The three companies were later held liable in Federal Court for doing so in L.A. and numerous other cities; but the systems remained inoperative.) By the 1950's, the stage in Southern California was set for an era of cars and car culture.

This had not changed much when I left in the 1990's.

I wandered through many places after I left the Southland, eventually ending up even further south in New Orleans. In the Big Easy I found a lifestyle I have come to adore, characterized by strong cultural tradition, a living culture of live local music, neighborhoods filled with people proud to be neighbors, and a joie de vivre unlike any in the country. I also found an intriguing and fulfilling new profession in urban development, filled with both bountiful federal funds and new developments, but also entrenched systems of local government characterized by caste-like nepotism and backwards mentalities, with what often seems to be lip service to forward-thinking development and no real commitment on the financial level.

So I was happy to accept the opportunity to travel back to Southern California recently for an urban development training conference, to see how others do it--to get a little break from the sometimes stuffy swamp life.

Though I have spent a handful of weeks each year returning to California for family visits, my exposure to the changes of the time were limited as I quarantined myself to the houses of my parents and sisters; I've had no interest in the place I grew up and committed what little time I spent there with my half-dozen nieces and nephews since I left in the mid-1990's.

So I had not guessed what I would see. The conference was held in Downtown L.A., a formerly under-developed area which, when I was growing up, at night would tranform into a breeding ground for scores of homeless who slept in doorways of office buildings shut down for the evening. Since then, oversized buildings of defunct banks have been converted into sleek architecture offices, and the former Superior Oil Company high-rise is a major glam stop in its boutique hotel-bar formation. At night, the homeless have for the most part gone elsewhere, and the streets are now flanked with skinny rich girls with fluffy dogs going for a brief walk just outside their high-priced loft apartments.

But the changes haven't all been for the just the rich. In the '90's, not too long before I left the area, L.A. County and municipal governments began reinvesting into its once awesome transportation system. Line by line the system was expanded and today five different metro lines cover over 70 stops throughout the county, serving a ridership of approximately 35o,000 per weekday. From Rodeo Drive, to Crenshaw, from Long Beach to Chinatown, a limitless, all day pass costs $5.00.

Since my Southern California exodus, the trend of re-thinking urban development transferred to housing policy as well. Individual cities throughout L.A. County began designating certain areas as "inclusionary zones," regions where developers are forced by local government to dedicate between 10-30% of their development to benefit low- and medium-income households. Scores of mixed-income developments sprouted about the newly reinvigorated transportation system, resulting in pods of transportation-oriented multi-family developments for mixed income households.

On our various training field trips during the conference, my New Orleanian co-workers and I wander the streets of Pasadena, looking at the inclusionary development flanking the the metro station which has been rehabbed to its charmingly historic facade.

We ride the metro through Downtown L.A., Chinatown, Pasadena, through the hills of California.

We walk through the recently-rehabilitated Union Station in all its historic glory, its tall ceilings and tiled floors, the former virtual gift from the City to the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Santa Fe Railways, three robber baron railway companies that once held a stronghold on state industry and development. We walk around Downtown, around the gobbly-shaped, Gehry-designed Disney Music Hall.

We see mixed-income housing that blows out of the water New Orleanian efforts to do the same.

Throughout the week I am finding it ironic that it is here in the very placed I was raised--and eagerly fled from--do I find the cutting edge work being done in the field to which I have just recently devoted all my professional efforts. Even now, in a period of draconian budget cuts, L.A. outpaces New Orleans in urban development more than ten-fold.

The California trip has left me feeling a little bit like the protagonist in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, who travels the world in search of an unknown treasure only to find it buried not so far from the village in which he grew up. I wonder if I would have ever left had I seen California for the potential it has rendered into a place I never could have even dreamed of during my upbringing in Orange County. I am confused; in a way I am liking L.A., and at the same time, its cutting-edge glamour, its largeness, its vastness, has made me feel strange; I feel a little left behind, a little amazed, and a little lonely.

At the end of the week I return home to New Orleans. I ride my bike to one of my favorite burger shops to meet up with friends, then later to a bar with my favorite local jazz band playing their standing gig. I am happy to be home to be comforted with the liveliness of the New Orleans neighborhoods, away from the confusion and loneliness of big old California. I get ready to return to work, for the frustrating tasks at hand involving dealing and working with various local government entities per norm. There are times when the oldness that makes this city so great can also frustrate me. It is a place that is entrenched in its own history, its own nepotism, its own tradition, even at the cost of its own development. But I love it. Geographically it is in fact a little big city, and already I know it fairly well. It is a sweet little place with both dark corners and big, happy celebrations, lovable despite its backwardness. But it is, in many ways against its own good, backwards.

And then I remember that it is possible for a place to change its most unlikable traits. California of today reminds me that those dreams can come true.