Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007 NOLA Trip Part 5: Picture Gumbo

Hiya. Here are just a few pictures I took over the course of the week.

Here's my digs at Camp Hope. The sleeping bag I got as a loaner from friends Courtney & Kris -- I actually borrowed it for the March 2006 NOLA trip and have yet to return it. I'll return it soon, honest! In the top right corner of the bed, you may be able to barely make out the flannel lamby sheets I brought with me to put on the bed. I tried to make sure whenever I got up for the morning that the lamby sheets were covered by the sleeping bag. I felt like a dork for having them in a room full of 20 or so guys, and I unfortunately had the bed you see whenever you first walk in the room. But hey, flannel lamby sheets are so darned comfy. What ever did I have to be embarrassed about?

On one of the mornings in Camp Hope it was quite foggy. Seeing the sun through the fog and the trees made me think of the bayou, which, for all practical purposes, we were surrounded by.

When Andy and I went in search of the levees, it was foggy as well. Here's a picture of a bridge I should probably know the name of, but don't. I do know the bridge was over one of the canals, however.

Saw this bird on the canal. DGuzman, or anyone who wants to wager a guess, please lemme know what kinda bird it is. I actually saw a whole flock of them by the ruined warehouse documented in Part 4, but couldn't get close enough to get a decent picture.

Just down the road from The Joint (a restaurant described in Part 3), there was a sign in the window of a house. I liked the verbiage -- "Appropriateness". Hey, I'm a sucker for verbiage.

A quick snap while crossing Canal Street. A little dark, but festive.

I like me some neon! This is in the French Quarter.

This hotel lobby in the French Quarter just looked too damned snazzy for me not to take a picture. No, I don't remember what hotel it was, please do not ask me.

Just a door I thought looked nifty.

The aftereffects of Katrina ripple in the most unexpected of places. Stenciling hours, for example.

A trolley line right near the Mississippi River. Not pictured, the Mississippi River.

Some people are drawn to "TOPLESS", others are drawn to "BOTTOMLESS". For me, it's "MODERATE PRICES".

2007 NOLA Trip Part 4: Despair and Hope

Boy, it's been hard to get to this post. I'm visiting my folks in Springfield for a belated Christmas, but that's not really the reason for my procrastination. I guess I just don't want to dwell on "despair" (I shouldn't have put that in the post title, I suppose).

When I was in New Orleans back in March 2006, six months had passed since Hurricane Katrina happened. To me, it looked like the hurricane had just hit the day before we got there. Some neighborhoods on high ground (like the French Quarter), got off easy, relatively speaking. Aside from a general lack of tourists, you wouldn't know anything was wrong. Outside the Quarter, it was an entirely different story. There were countless destroyed homes, destroyed businesses, and just a sense of utter devastation.

Coming back in December 2007, a lot of things were growing back in the places that were hit hardest by Katrina. It was similar to visiting a field a while after it's been burned up in a wildfire -- signs of life amidst the destruction. But I could look at a nicely repaired, painted house, and without turning my head, just moving my eyes, I could see more destruction.

Much of the population of New Orleans has still not returned. Crime is a growing problem there. I talked to shopowners, one of which indicated he heard gunfire in the Upper 9th Ward, almost on a nightly basis. As Andy and I were driving on I-10 outside the city, I looked down below onto a city street and saw someone bent over a police car (I'd like to stress though, that I never felt in danger during any of my stay in New Orleans, either in 2006 or 2007).

Some of the longtime residents I spoke with are increasingly frustrated with Mayor Nagin, and the government in general. One of the shopowners I spoke with said he moved right next to the Interstate. If another storm like Katrina hits, he'll just drive away, and leave his house to float away.

I initially resisted taking pictures of the destruction still evident. I felt like a weird kind of tourist, documenting the misfortunes of others. It didn't feel right. But as I was hanging around the neighborhoods we were working in, I eventually started taking pictures anyways. I still don't know how I feel about taking them, but here they are.

Basketball hoop near the house on Gallier

A recently completed Habitat house on Gallier. Behind, the wreck of an old house.

Some closed almost-built housing projects near the house on Gallier. Someone from Habitat told me no work has been done on them since Katrina.

Maria's Market, which is directly across the street from the Gallier house.

A structure right behind the first two houses I worked on off of N Galvez

Andy and I drove around a bit, looking for some levees. We passed by a structure. I'm not sure what it's purpose was -- I think it might have been a bar, I don't know...

A beer ad cutout right next to the warehouse

We also saw this sign near one of the levees.

It really is quite shocking to witness the effects of Katrina firsthand. Pictures and video can't compare to driving through it.

So, that's the "despair" of it.

So, where's the hope? There are so many people who care about New Orleans. There are so many people who want it to live on.

Andy and I drove through a neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward, filled with pink houses. It was part of a program started by Brad Pitt here to try and rebuild the 9th.

Habitat for Humanity and Americorps continue to build houses for people displaced by Katrina.

I talked to a few people who only moved down to New Orleans in the last few months. People want New Orleans to live, and people want to live in New Orleans.

Andy and I left New Orleans directly from the worksite on Gallier on Saturday afternoon. There was a church flier on Andy's windshield we saw as we were getting ready to go.

I'm not a religious person at all, but seeing that flier as we were getting ready to leave -- it was an invitation to join a community, it was a sign of hope, it was something positive.

And the thing is, it's really not that difficult for anyone to be part of something positive. If you have the time to volunteer, you can be a positive force for change.

Here's a couple of songs which I feel are appropriate to share here:

Something optimistic:
Curtis Mayfield - I Plan To Stay A Believer

And a song with some of my all-time favorite lyrics:
De La Soul - Tread Water

The lyrics:
"Mr. Squirrel," I said, "I'm sorry, but the problem can't be solved
If there's no one here to help and no one to get involved."

I have one more installment planned: 2007 NOLA Trip Part 5: Picture Gumbo. This will just be a collection of pictures I took that didn't fit elsewhere in my 2007 NOLA posts.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Seven Untrue Facts About Splotchy

Thought I'd break up my labor-intensive, exhausting NOLA posts with a little levity, especially since my next post will be titled "Despair and Hope" (zoiks!).

Herein please find seven completely untrue facts about me.

1. I can spit a watermelon seed with enough force that it shatters glass.
2. I coined the phrase "God don't make no junk" (well, I was part of the phrase's steering committee, at least).
3. My real name is Ted Lange, and I played Isaac the bartender on TV's Love Boat.
4. I have faithfully visited a tanning salon for daily one hour treatments since I was fifteen. After getting cancer of the hair in the late 90's, I now wear a swimcap while tanning.
5. I only take right turns in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere I only take left turns.
6. My real name is Jessica Lange, the award-winning actress.
7. I'm typing this post while naked and covered in fancy mustard.

Okay, I tag the following people to provide seven untrue facts about themselves. Think of it as a belated Christmas present you never asked for and don't want -- a fruitcake meme, if you will.

Here are the lucky victims:
Dr Monkey Von Monkerstein - because I won't rest until he is tagged so much there's nothing left but a greasy spot on the wall.
Johnny Yen - because I want to get to the heart of what really doesn't make him tick.
SamuraiFrog - because I'm wondering what he's not all about.
Bubs - because I personally witnessed him sell my eldest son a variety of malarkey on Christmas Day, and he seemed to have plenty more to share.
FranIAm - because I said so.

2007 NOLA Trip Part 3: Food, Drink, Music

I have to admit it. New Orleans in and of itself was certainly a big reason for me to go down and volunteer. The first trip I took there was was driving down to New Orleans in the late 90's. It was New Orleans where I loosened up a little. I drank, I ate, I listened to music, I rented a bike and rode up to Lake Pontchartrain, through parks, to old cemeteries.

I wouldn't be back until March 2006, when I tagged along with Bubs, who was volunteering through Habitat for Humanity. I took the spot left by his eldest daughter, who had a foot injury that prevented her from going. Bubs was a bundle of energy down there. It was an effort to keep up with him as he showed us all his favorite places. I got introduced to the Sazerac cocktail at the Napoleon House. I had fried pickles. We heard some great music on Frenchman Street. It was a good time.

So, I'm just trying to say something, that any of you that have been there already know. New Orleans is reason enough to go and volunteer.

What kind of person would I be if I didn't devote at least a little space to food, drink and music? There's no need to contemplate that question, because here comes the food, drink and music.


I'm not going to describe every single meal I had in New Orleans -- I'll just give the highlights (of which there are many).

Monday dinner - Oceana - Crabcake appetizers, blackened catfish with grilled vegetables

We got into town on Monday night and checked into Camp Hope. Camp Hope is actually in St. Bernard's Parish, and is a good half hour away from the French Quarter. We decided to drive in and find something for dinner. Bubs had given me a little cheat sheet to restaurants he was fond of (many of which we had been to in 2006). We parked in the southwest corner of the Quarter, near Frenchman and Chartres. I saw the Praline Connection, which I had eaten at the previous year, but Andy wanted to walk into the Quarter a bit. After we wandered aimlessly for a while and couldn't find a place to eat, I eventually asked a police officer for a recommendation. He pointed us to Oceana. We had some incredible crabcake appetizers. I had a very good blackened catfish dish with grilled vegetables, but the crabcakes were the highlight of the meal.

Tuesday dinner - Gumbo Shop - Chicken Espagnola With Rice, and Corn Macque Choux

A group of volunteers met here and had a lovely meal. I think there was some delicious bread, but I didn't get a picture of it. My memory is fading, but I think I also had some soup or appetizer or something.

Wednesday lunch - Poppa's Seafood - Fried porkchop po' boy and fries.

This restaurant was just down the street from the first two houses I worked in, on N Galvez. I don't know if the picture does the sandwich justice. It was freakin' enormous. As you can see in the picture, my abstinence from cola drinks was put on hold during this trip.

Wednesday dinner - Acme Oyster House - Grilled oyster appetizer, followed by fried catfish platter and hush puppies

I had been here in 2006 with Bubs. I have now definitively learned I am not really fond of oysters, but have a special place in my heart for fried food (probably not the best location for fried food).

Wednesday dessert - Cafe du Monde - Beignets and hot chocolate

I have been to Cafe du Monde during each trip down to New Orleans for beignets and hot chocolate. The food is delicious, but the actual act of sitting down at a table and peoplewatch, enjoy the outdoors, etc., is one of my favorite aspects of this place. If you go to New Orleans and do not visit Cafe du Monde, I will be waiting for you at your house when you return and give you crap about it.

Wednesday turned out to be a completely fried day for me -- fried porkchop sandwich for lunch, fried catfish, french fries, fried dough covered in powdered sugar, fried, fried, fried. Oh, that reminds me. I was registering to volunteer online, and since there was more than just me, I registered as a group. They give you the opportunity to name your group. I chose the name "Fried What?", which is a name I got from a food booth at the 2007 Illinois State Fair.

Thursday lunch - The Joint - Pulled pork sandwich with mac 'n cheese and slaw sides, and peanut butter pie for dessert

This place was in the Bywater neighborhood. We passed it every day, and decided to try it out. It was dee-licious. We actually had lunch there again on Saturday, BUT THEY WERE OUT OF PIE. Yes, you heard me, I was unable to get another slice of peanut butter pie.

Thursday dinner - The Original Pierre Maspero's - Pork chop stuffed with shrimp, crabmeat and dirty rice, topped with bleu cheese. A salad with raspberry vinaigrette. Some delicious mushrooms. Followed by some sort of triple chocolate dessert.

This was my favorite meal for this New Orleans trip. My meal was that night's special, and it was fantastic. The chef actually came out and asked how everything was. Our waitress was from Indiana and had just moved down there a couple months prior. We had a long, friendly conversation with her about New Orleans, and about stuff in general. While we were eating, news of the protests about the violence at the recent City Council meeting (regarding the demolition of some housing projects) came on the news.

Friday lunch - Nawlins Flava - Crawfish beignet appetizers, with a shrimp and hot sausage pasta entrée

This turned out to be more of a coffeehouse. I find the name annoying. Okay, sure, use "Nawlins" in the name or use "Flava" in the name, but don't use them together. That's just goddamned obnoxious. We were the only customers there, but it took a horrendously long time to get our food. The fried crawfish beignets were tasty, as was my pasta dish, but it just took entirely too long for the time he had alloted for our lunch break. I had wanted to stop in Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo which was literally next door, but we had to head back. No time...

Friday dinner - Coop's - Cheeseburger 'n seasoned fries (not pictured)

I was feeling a little crappy as the day wore on, so much so that I didn't know if I wanted to go into town that night. But, I sucked it up and we headed to the Quarter at around 9:00pm. After walking around for a while, talking to some shopowners, etc., I felt a little better. We stopped in at Coop's, which I had been to on my first trip to New Orleans on the recommendation of a local merchant. I just ordered a plain old cheeseburger to get me focused. It was delicious, and set me on the path of drink and music. Thank you, Coops!


I have no pictures of drinks. I am sorry!

I had tons of Abita Turbo Dogs during the trip. I tried the Abita Amber and the Abita IPA (which tasted strangely metallic), but the Turbo Dog reigned supreme.

I had what I believe may be my first shot of Jägermeister at Coops (the first I remember, anyways), which tasted good enough.

We went to the Napoleon House and had a couple Sazeracs. It's the best cocktail I've ever had. When Andy had it, he said the same thing. I remembered the bartender from my 2006 trip. He was a nice guy. I also tried a Pimm's Cup, but it didn't hold a candle to the Sazerac. I recommend that you get this drink at the Napoleon House. Tell them Splotchy sent you! That will almost certainly result in a resounding "Huh?"


Music, sweet music.

After a couple days of volunteering, we drove around the neighborhood next to Musician's Village and saw this:

We got out of the car to get a closer look. As we were gawking, a man came out of the Katrina Band House to say hello. His name was David and this was his house. He invited us in. A Fats Domino concert was playing on his TV. We talked to him about Katrina, about how it affected him and those around him, etc. He was a really nice, personable guy. He pointed out a piano in an adjoining room. While he and Andy were talking, I sat down and futzed around a bit on it.

As we were talking with David, a man in a motorized wheelchair entered the house. David said that the man was Fats Domino's drummer. He pointed at the TV screen. Sure enough, he was the drummer in the video. The man's name was Smokey Johnson.

Unfortunately he had had a stroke, and currently got around through the use of his wheelchair. We talked with him for a while too. We asked him what would be the best place to catch some live music. He recommended Snug Harbor.

We had to get back to work, so we thanked them for their time and headed out. I was having a great time on this trip, but presented with the hospitality of David, and being able to talk with him and Smokey, it just sent the trip to a completely different level. It was too much for words.

On Friday night, after I had gotten my Coop's cheeseburger medicine, we headed down to Frenchman street, just west of the of the French Quarter. Bubs had taken us in 2006 down there, and this time it was no less lively.

We first stopped into the Blue Nile to see a holiday show of Margie Perez. She was dressed up in a holiday outfit. She was wearing a large, sparkly green bra with a red ball on each breast. I think they were supposed to be Christmas trees, but she looked like she was sporting two large olives. She was vivacious and a great singer, and the whole band just had this we're-so-glad-to-be-alive vibe going. It was joyful, it was tight, it was infectious.

We scooted over next door to catch a reggae band, playing before a room full of dancing people. I did my reggae dance, which mostly just involves me rhythmically nodding my head and bending my legs.

We finally made it to Snug Harbor, just in time to see Ellis Marsalis (Wynton and Branford's dad). Well, we saw him, but we didn't see him. He was in the bar, but we missed his two shows (8:00pm and 10:00pm).

We saw one more band before we left Frenchman Street, a Black Crowes-sorta band called Liquor Boxx (which I insisted on pronouncing as "Liquor Boxox"). Looking at their MySpace page, I see that they are a Chicago band! Godspeed, Liquor Boxox! Godspeed!

While we were wandering around, I saw the record store Vieux Carre Vinyl and headed in. I asked the man pricing some CDs and records (I presume the owner) if he had a UK-release double-LP by the Method Actors (an 80's Athens, GA band) that I had been looking for. He said he didn't have it, but he showed me two of their 12" singles.

You should know that I don't own a turntable. I have nothing to play records on. Of course I bought the Method Actors records. What am I, crazy?

This record store man clearly had tastes that surpassed my own. He had several Jimmy Castor Bunch records on vinyl, there was a rare John Fahey record on the wall, etc. So, being a musiclover confronted with a musiclover with a wider palette of music tastes, I asked him to recommend some music to me that I hadn't heard.

He pulled out two CDs by a band called Parlor James. They were from his own collection. He had ripped them to MP3's, and was willing to finally part with them. He said he would be happy to see the CD's go to a good home. Maybe this sounds hokey to you, but I believe he was being genuine. He said they were an alt-country kind of band, but with some interesting electronic stuff thrown in. So I bought the two CDs, too.

Hey, he was right. I really like Parlor James.

Turning Point - off their second album, Old Dreams. A nice rocking number with some enjoyable electronics underpinning it all.

Cheater's World - A more straightforward country song off their first album, Dreadful Sorry. Sad.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of my 2007 NOLA Trip: Despair and Hope.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

2007 NOLA Trip Part 2: Homebuilding

I was in NOLA this past week to help build homes through the programs of the New Orleans Area Habitat For Humanity and Americorps.

We arrived at Camp Hope at around 7:30pm on Monday, December 17th. We missed the orientation but were able to check in. Camp Hope is an old school that has been converted to house volunteers, as well as some Americorps staff. For twenty bucks a night, they give you a place to sleep and shower, and provide three meals per day.

The next morning we reported to Musician's Village in the Ninth Ward neighborhood. It turned out that we didn't actually work on any houses physically within the village, but we were working on some houses nearby.

I preferred the construction work we did more than the gutting work I did last March in 2006. Gutting, though necessary, is a sad endeavor. The best you can say to a homeowner is, "You know that sludgy, moldy pile that used to be your worldly possessions? Well, it's out on the curb now! Good luck with the rebuilding!" Construction is something I could feel a lot more positive about.

The houses being constructed are 12 basic templates, all variations on a shotgun shack.

Here are some pictures to illustrate the basic architecture -- a narrow house with a main hallway running its length, with rooms on either side.

Looking to the back from the front (from the house on Gallier)

Looking toward the front from the back room (from the house on Gallier)

The first house we worked on was almost finished when we started working on it. Mostly we were just applying a couple coats of eggshell white to the interior, and doing some miscellaneous touch-ups. There was a house right next to ours where the walls were going up.

The just-started house and the almost-finished house, both on N Galvez, photographed from behind

I spent some time in the just-started house doing "blocking", which consisted of hammering pieces of board between the studs in what was eventually to become the kitchen. We were putting these boards in so the kitchen cabinets could be hung from them.

Work being done on the just-started house

The day we switched to work on the just-started house it was sunny, and must have been in the low-80's. I was actually sweating in the middle of December. Crazy, for an Illinois boy such as myself. We only worked a day on this house, as the next two days were rainy.

The last house I worked on was further along than the just-started house, but not as far as the almost-finished house:

There was a lot of trash outside this house, two large dumpsters and plenty of crap on the ground, which we did our best to clean up. And wouldn't you know there was an iSplotchy in the debris.

During the time I was working in it, I paused and took a picture of this paint bucket to remind me where this last house was situated:

In the house on Gallier I got to learn how to use a circular saw. We were "casing and basing", casing the doorways and putting baseboard down. I cut a fair amount of baseboards, and did my best at hammering them in.

I couldn't help but think of the Simpsons episode Hurricane Neddy, in the scene where Ned Flanders has a mental breakdown. The scene would pop up often in my head, particularly if I didn't get a nail into the baseboard exactly the right way.

Sadly, the fine folks at Fox have disabled a YouTube video of Ned Flanders freaking out after the house his well-meaning neighbors built promptly collapses into a rubble pile (his original house had been destroyed by a hurricane).

Here's a link to the episode on another site. It takes a long time to load, so you might be satisfied with some choice Ned Flanders quotes.

I'm not sure how much better I am at construction, but seeing as my prior experience was nil, I'd say it's better now. There weren't lots of volunteers down there during our week, but an Americorps worker said he expected the number to double after the first week of January. By spring, there are probably going to be over one thousand volunteers, consisting mostly of good-hearted college kids.

What volunteers I did meet and work with I had a great time with. Everyone was concerned with doing the best possible job they could. I met the homeowner of the last house on our final day. I just hope it can be finished soon and she can move in with her family.

Here's one last pic, taking a break on the front steps of the first house we worked at:

Clockwise, from the lower left:
Maria, a French woman visiting from her home in London
Elaine, a sweet person from California, who came out after she recently lost her job
Andy, my travelin' buddy
Natalie, a quick-witted smartypants getting her PhD at Vanderbilt

Not pictured: Lots of other wonderful people I had the good fortune to meet and volunteer with.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of my 2007 NOLA Trip: Food, Drink, Music.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

2007 NOLA Trip Part 1: Elvis

So much happened over the course of the week in which I traveled to New Orleans. Where do I start? I guess I'll start with Elvis.

I'm not a big fan of Elvis - I don't hate him, I don't love him. I think "That's All Right" is one of the best songs ever recorded, but that doesn't stop me on occasion from launching into a mocking imitation of the King singing the maudlin "In The Ghetto" with my own snide version of the lyrics.

This was my third trip to New Orleans, and also the third time I'd be passing through Memphis, via the lovely I-55. I had decided in my own mind that this was it -- I was finally going to see Graceland. Andy, my fellow traveling companion for this trip, is a pretty easygoing guy, and had also not seen Graceland. He was up for it.

I reserved a room at the Graceland Days Inn off of Elvis Presley Boulevard (it was just a bit over fifty bucks!), and we set off from Chicago around 1:00pm on Sunday, December 16th.

Our trip on I-57 through the majority of Illinois was absolutely awful. It had snowed several inches the day before. While it was bright and sunny, it was bitterly cold, and the snow was whipping across the highway, creating hazardous road conditions. We passed many cars that had wiped out in the ditch by the side of the road.

An obligatory roadside sunset shot

What would normally have been an eight hour trip lasted almost ten hours. We checked into the motel and got to our room.

Elvis photos festooned the walls

A TV channel in the room gives one access to Elvis movies, 24/7

I was pretty exhausted. Andy was flipping through the TV channels and settled on the Matthew Broderick - Danny DeVito Christmas movie Deck The Halls. I protested weakly. I felt this sappy piece of dreck perch like a vulture over my soul as I just lay in my bed, barely able to move after our long trip. After the really, really sentimentally terrible ending I quickly dropped off to sleep.

I woke up after a relatively comfortable night's sleep. The longest part of our journey was over. It was only six hours to New Orleans, and we weren't checking into Camp Hope until later that evening.

So, to Graceland!

But first, some things I took note of when I got out of the motel room in the morning:

Guitar-shaped swimming pool

A nice juxtaposition of signs in the motel parking lot


We forked over fifty more bucks for two basic tickets to see Graceland and took a tram across the street to the house. The tour was self-guided with audio accompaniment. I spent a good amount of time in each room, just taking it all in.

I really hadn't counted on this trip to Graceland to be as moving as it was. I believe I got a really good sense of at least a part of who Elvis was as a person. I hadn't known what to expect. There's plenty of people making a buck off his name, but the trip through his home was something strangely contemplative. I took a lot of pictures, but when I got to his resting place, that also had the graves of his parents, grandmother, and a marker for his twin brother, I just couldn't take any photos. I just stood there, feeling something strong and overwhelming. I can't really explain it.

The people at Graceland had adorned the various rooms of the house with Christmas decorations, which gave the place a nice feeling that people visiting during the more busy summer months don't get the benefit of seeing. So, some Graceland pictures for you, a lot of them with a bit o' Christmas:

Living Room

Dining Room

Jungle Room

Just 'cause I'm a dork, here's the fusebox for the house

The below picture is a portrait of Elvis' dad, Vernon Presley. It was hanging in the living room. I thought it was special, and took a picture of it.

One of the later additions to Graceland was a racquetball court Elvis had built behind his house. The court is now used to house all sorts of memorabilia. It's a pretty impressive room.

If you haven't seen Graceland, it's worth a visit. Something moving and a little sad lives there.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my 2007 NOLA Trip: Homebuilding. In the next installment, I answer the burning question -- what the hell was I doing there, anyways?