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A weekend in New Orleans

A weekend in New Orleans: My family and I By Jeffrey Blair jr. (The Grandson of Shadrock Porter)

“In times of hardship,” my grandfather Shadrock Porter said, “black people are most in unison.”  This was true.  I remember recalling so many instances in my mind of times in history when black people were in unison for a cause, and each time it seemed to be a time of hardship.  I could only imagine slightly how much unison there must’ve been for a hardship like Katrina.

There seems to be an unintentional form of deception overlaying the busy streets of the French Quarters or the roads along the French Market.  The whispers about Bourbon Street stretch out for miles in every direction.  The stories of late festive nights with cheap liquor and music linger throughout the countryside like a sweet aroma, reeling in the young, freshly adult, middle class party animals. 

Along the Mississippi river I laugh in my heart when I see couples hold each other arm in arm, wearing shirts that proudly show their love for a city they will only know for one weekend.  Though I am no different than them—the tourist—I have learned within the few days of my stay, that to be a tourist in New Orleans is to be misguided.  Take a step outside of the tourist zone for just a moment and step into the backyards of those who live and party and struggle and die in New Orleans, and you will hear the crying spirit of New Orleans, crying something far grander than alcohol or intimate nights near the river currents.  It is a cry for change.

The levees were more like small hills than anything.  On one side of the levees—the side where the grass grew—were the remains of a devastation that had yet to be resolved.  The houses barely stood on their foundations.  I could hear my grandfather’s voice, (Shadrock Porter) “Oh lord.  It’s so sad.”  Vacant homes had their roofs caved in by the waters or, like many of the graffiti colored homes, had small holes in their ceilings just large enough to fit a person through. 

As Officer Caesar spoke to us, all I could think about was that single image of men in damp clothes climbing through their ceilings, standing on their roofs and reaching out towards a boat or to men dressed in their costal guard uniform, asking them to save them, and tears pouring down their faces in disbelief that the storm had gotten so bad.  As they stood there on their roofs watching the water surround their small part of New Orleans, they must’ve looked up to the heavens and in their minds or aloud, they must’ve said, what they believed to be, their last prayer as they heard the mouths of the coastal guards say, “I’m sorry, only women and children first.  You’ll have to wait.” 

On the other side of the levee, across the pebbles and small stoned pathway that reached as far as the eye could see, where the stones and rocks piled on top one another along the mounds of dirt and dying vegetation, was the calm, collective waters of Lake Pontchartrain that had once risen above this same levee in a destructive fashion.  Standing where I stood, on top of the levee, able to see down both sides of it, I looked out at the water and tried to fathom with my own mind what it must’ve been like to see the water come swooping down this hill and taking apart homes, buildings, storefronts, and anything else in its path.  Though I tried, I could not imagine it.  Not with words.  I just kept thinking of the words that I, myself, had spoken just a day before on a ship, sailing down the Mississippi river while reciting poetry.  “God I used to know you.  I used to see you in the mirror every day when I awoke.  I used to feel you like music—like slavery on my back.  You were that Jazz in my stomach, that blues in my throat.  You were that blackness with a crown.  You had a smile like a crescent star, but now you are so far away, and I can’t see you anymore”

I spent three days in New Orleans.  My family and I were there to celebrate in honor of a very important occasion in my uncle’s life.  It was his 8th cycle feast (meaning he had just turned 56 years old).  My family and I traveled to New Orleans from all over North America—some from Toronto, Canada, others from Atlanta Georgia, my parents from Missouri, and myself from Pennsylvania.  We stayed at a bed and breakfast called, The Hubbard Mansion, which was owned by a man by the name of Mr. Don Hubbard.  Mr. Hubbard was an older gentleman of average stature whose slow southern speech gave him a knack for being able to tell jokes nonstop with perfect timing.  Mr. Hubbard and I had a few conversations, but the one conversation that we had about my own academic aspirations allowed me to see Mr. Hubbard’s true comedic side. 

We were standing outside in the back lot of Mr. Hubbard’s mansion on the back patio.  Mr. Hubbard stood with his black sandals pressed against the red-bricked floors and I leaned on the dark metal railings that stood firm on either side of the three or four steps below that patio, waiting for my mother so that we could set out on our plans for the day.  While I waited Mr. Hubbard asked me what it was that I wanted to become after I had finished school, and I told him that although I had a passion for writing, my utmost goal was to, one day, become a cardiac surgeon.  His eyes widened, and he went on to tell me a story of a time when he was speaking to his niece, who was a practicing surgeon, and he showed her a rash he had grown on his hand in hopes that she would be able to help him figure out what it was and how he could get rid of it.  His niece replied that she would have to cut it open to find out.  “You must like blood,” he went on to say.

The Hubbard Mansion was a large home built by Mr. Hubbard himself many years ago in honor of his wife who sadly passed away when the mansion opened as a bed and breakfast.  I would later learn from my grandfather, Shadrock Porter, who had spoken to Mr. Hubbard briefly, that when Mr. Hubbard was younger, no older than seven years of age, it was on that same street that he had been chastised for walking through because he was a black boy.  Now, decades later, he owned an impressive piece of property on that very street. 

The mansion was beautiful.  A white gate bordered the front lawn, which was split by a large cement pathway that led all the way to the four or five bricked steps and a front patio.  The windows were rectangular shaped with opened dark olive colored window shades.  There was a balcony too, straight above the front patio.  There were two large double-dutch doors that served as the entrance to the inside of the mansion.  Once inside it was impossible to not be overwhelmed by the dark mahogany colored furniture with deep red seat cushions, the pink walls which had painted on it some kind of mural; an image of a tree and various, New Orleans’ oriented flowers, birds and butterflies.  The spiral steps were also impressive and the glass chandelier that hung over the center of the main room.  On a far wall were various black magazines and newspaper clips placed in a glass display.  One of the clippings read, “I feel frustration, pain, and despair.”  The display hung noticeably above an award of recognition, given to Mr. Hubbard for some kind of humanitarian service. 

The furthest room in the mansion was the dining area, a beautiful display of glass chandeliers over a long wooded table, covered in various shades of reds and white china, large clear glasses and clean silverware.  A fireplace stood large and stagnated on the furthest wall, although I couldn’t imagine it would ever be used, seeing how New Orleans was experiencing such beautiful weather.  Ironically, however, my family and I spent very little time at the mansion.

Our first night in New Orleans consisted mostly of laughter and music, which I found to be a consistent theme throughout the time of our stay.  My mother, father and I arrived in New Orleans around one in the afternoon where we met up with other family members, including my uncle who was celebrating his cycle feast.  After saying our hellos our first stop was the French Quarters, a beautiful area of music and New Orleans style buildings with small balconies and open Jazz clubs and shopping areas.  We walked the streets where talented musicians, tricky magicians, and extraordinary street performers performed for our amusement.  I was even pulled from the audience to assist in a stunt, which had my heart racing with such excitement (and a bit of nervousness too).

We also enjoyed a stay at the Café du Monde where we ate New Orleans’ famous beignets (donuts) with white powdered sugar and sipped black coffee and milky hot chocolate as we spoke about our plans for the rest of the evening.

That evening when we arrived back at the mansion the hot New Orleans’ sun had begun to set and a cool breeze began to flow through the air.  As we waited for the rest of my family to arrive, including my grandfather Shadrock Porter, we stood on the back steps and spoke with one another until sky was in complete darkness.

What started out as a discussion about our lives back at home, turned into a discussion about black culture, Israelite culture, and God. Seeing the talent and beautiful scenes of the black culture in New Orleans was mesmerizing but each and every one of us knew the struggle behind such talents and gifts.  My uncle, a tall dark skinned man with a thick checkered, black and white beard and a bald rounded head, always shining from the reflection of an overhead light or the raze of the sun, struggled to find the words to describe how frustrated he had become with the current conditions of the African American community. 

As our discussion shifted from a hopeless one to one with hope and faith that one day the black communities would understand their true culture and relationship with God, the time rolled by and before we knew it, the rest of my family had arrived, and the fun time had just begun.  Later on throughout the night two other individuals, Mr. and Mrs. Caesar, accompanied us in dance and cake in an early birthday celebration for my uncle.  Mr. Caesar (also known as officer Caesar) was a very large man with a very loud voice.  He stood about six feet and three or four inches and had a voice that made his presence known in any crowd.  He was pretty well known around the neighborhood as well.  Wherever we went with Officer Caesar he always knew the manager or the owner—whoever was in charge. 

The rest of the night was filled with New Orleans’ style music and dance, which in more ways than one is inevitably difficult to describe.  The sound of New Orleans music is one of Jazz, with a lingering blues feeling to it; however, it is often joyous and even resembles a touch of Caribbean Soca music.  The horns and drums are played like no other, keeping you up and on your feet for however long the music plays.  Needless to say the music had to come to an end.  Afterwards we all followed Mr. Caesar to a nearby nightclub that belonged to a friend of his.  There we sat and drank and discussed amongst ourselves while music played in the background.  The next day after our continental breakfast and relaxation, we set off to have the celebration for my uncle’s cycle feast.

After nearly missing the steamboat that would take us on the Mississippi river, we were finally able to begin the celebration in a private room on the boat.  As I entered the room I noticed the many round tables with white tablecloths and the three chefs who stood with their hands to their sides or behind their backs, smiling and repeating the phrase, “Good afternoon,” to each and every one of us.  There were rectangular tables off to the sides where trays and trays of food resided, looking delicious and appetizing.  I could smell the southern style fried chicken and seasoned rice and even the New Orleans styled bread pudding.  For the next two hours we each went around and said a few words for my uncle, giving him our blessings as he entered into his next cycle of life.  When it was my turn, I spoke to my uncle briefly, and then I went on to articulate my emotions and feelings the best way I know how, which is through poetry.

God I used to know you.  I used to see you in the mirror every day when I awoke.  I used to feel you like music—like slavery on my back.  You were that Jazz in my stomach, that blues in my throat.  You were that blackness with a crown.  You had a smile like a crescent star, but now you are so far away, and I can’t see you anymore”

I would think back to these same words the following day as I walked with my grandfather Shadrock Porter up that levee and stood on top of it, seeing from afar just the foundations of homes left behind after the Katrina storm had wiped away the actual housing structures.  Hearing the stories made all of us emotional and at times we felt sick to our stomachs.

“When the buses came to take the people out of the city they let the white people on first and when the buses were full, the black people had to sleep under the bridge for nearly two days.”  Officer Caesar was on duty during the hurricane.  It was a normal process that the people of New Orleans were used to—leaving town and returning back the following day or so after storm warnings had worn down, but no one thought that the storm would have gotten as bad as it did, not even Officer Caesar. I shook my head in horror.  Looking over at my grandfather, I knew we were both thinking the same thing, “how could people be so uncompassionate?” Officer Caesar’s eyes began to grow moist.  His wife held his shoulder and then looked at all of us.  “He gets emotional thinking about it,” she said.  This was because Officer Caesar’s mother was one of those blacks who were forced to sleep under the bridge as they were trying to evacuate the city of New Orleans.  “His mother asked one of the officers if he knew her son, Ralph (Officer Caesar).  He said he did, and he gave her his sandwich that he had and his drink that he had.  Being the nice woman that she was, she didn’t eat or drink any of it.  She brought it back to her family and let them eat it.”

Earlier that day while we were still at the bed and breakfast my grandfather (Shadrock Porter) had been lying across a cushion at the foot of the master bed in the master bedroom in the bed and breakfast where my uncle and his wife, Lisa, stayed.  Lisa, though she was not in the area at the time of the storm, she had an experience that she would never forget. 

The room was silent as she spoke about a dream she had six weeks prior to the storm.  There was water everywhere, almost like the image of the red sea in the biblical times.  The water rose up houses and there were hills in the distance with people standing on them.  The realness of it all left Lisa shaking as she awoke in her bed in a sweat.  The dream made her so worried that she called her boyfriend at the time who was a pastor and told him about the dream as well as her employers who she had provide her with the proper forms to be able to work in another city just in case something did happen that caused her to not be able to work again in the area of New Orleans.  Little did she know that six weeks later, a storm so devastating was going to take place.

“When we decided to leave the city,” Lisa began, “…there were so many cars and so much traffic that people were literally outside of there cars walking their dogs and stretching and talking in the middle of the road,” she said. Mrs. Caesar raised her hand like she was in grade school before she spoke and all of the heads in the room turned to her.  “All of the women and children were in the car driving to a hotel we had booked in Texas, but the sun was blazing—it was so hot.  We even stopped and slept at the gas station.  We stayed in the car the whole time.  When there was no gas station people were just using the bathroom outside, but it was alright because everybody was doing it.”

“In times of hardship,” my grandfather Shadrock said, “black people are most in unison.”  This was true.  I remember recalling so many instances in my mind of times in history when black people were in unison for a cause, and each time it seemed to be a time of hardship.  I could only imagine slightly how much unison there must’ve been for a hardship like Katrina.

“The media was saying that there were rapes and looting among the blacks.  The hotels wouldn’t let the blacks stay in there because of the rumors.  But it was a lie.  There were crimes, of course, but not anything like the media made it out to be,” officer Caesar said in a loud voice.  “Now the areas where the blacks live are still pretty bad and you can see some places where they try to fix it up, but its real bad out here.”

As I stared out at the neighborhoods that had been damaged by the storm I saw the broken down schools, the wires that dangled from telephone poles, the mattresses that rested on the sidewalks and the houses marked with an “X” along with the date of whenever the government had checked the house for those trapped by the flood, and I heard one of my family members ask Officer Caesar, “what was the neighborhood like before the flood?”Officer Caesar’s eyes widened.  “Well these neighborhoods were filled with a lot of crime before.  Now the crime has died down and sure there are some newer homes built after the storm for people to move back into the neighborhood, but that doesn’t change the fact that the [people] that lived here previously were [underprivileged].  So what do they do?  They just do the same thing.”

I looked over at my aunt who had been shaking her head for some time as she wrapped her arms around her body in grief.  I could see the pain in her eyes—the sorrow in her gesture.  She looked outwards at all the destruction and in a low voice said, “The storm just made it easier to hide the conditions of these people previously due to prejudice.  Now they can just blame it on the storm.” As we got into our vehicle and drove down the street to head back to the Mansion, away from the more destructive parts of town, we passed by a home that had been decorated very strangely.  In the front was a wide structure built by two-by-fours and instruments.  Drums, trumpets, and figurines of some famous New Orleans residents.  On the house the owner had painted several phrases, one of which he wrote in thick black ink above his door. 

The phrase read, “The Spirit of New Orleans is home.”  That phrase stuck with me for the remainder of the time it took us to reach back towards the mansion.  I thought about the trueness of New Orleans, behind all of the tourist spots.  I believed that there was truly a spirit in New Orleans, one that was as heavy and muggy as the humid sun that rested on our black backs as we walked down St. Charles Avenue to catch the trolley.  There was something in the spirit of New Orleans that was truly crying—wailing outwards—for something.  New Orleans wanted something larger than politics or capitalism.  It called for something larger than racial equality or social reform.  It cried for something much deeper than tourist spots and newer homes.  The spirit of New Orleans was crying, and standing there with my grandfather Shadrock Porter on that levee, I tried to listen.

God I used to know you.  I used to see you in the mirror every day when I awoke.  I used to feel you like music—like slavery on my back.  You were that Jazz in my stomach, that blues in my throat.  You were that blackness with a crown.  You had a smile like a crescent star, but now you are so far away, and I can’t see you anymore”

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