May 29, 2006
The old heads around my way say my crazy behavior should be overlooked because I was a smack baby—and for all I know that could’ve been true—but I didn’t care what none of these know-nothin’ bustas thought they knew. I had damn good sense. And I was determined to prove it the minute I walked out of that crowded, filthy holding pen better known as Central Lock-Up of the Orleans Parish Prison. But you know how that goes. Shit rarely ever falls in line according to the plan.
What happened wasn’t supposed to happen, but I can’t see how it could have been avoided. I mean, what the hell was I supposed to do? Be down with letting some over-privileged twenty-one-year-old white boys on a Katrina expedition treat me like I was some kind of minstrel show darky perched out on the stoop for their amusement?
The whole senseless incident happened like this: I was just lay ing back chilling, enjoying a refreshing beverage while listening to the Marvin Gaye song that was coming from the speakers of a car down the street. I was feeling too low to get any real work done, but my ice-cold Budweiser and “After the Dance” were helping me sort a few things out in my head as I looked out at the wasteland in front of, behind, and on all sides of me, trying to decide if it would make any sense for me to spend what I knew it was going to take in order for me to rebuild after that hellish storm. Then I saw those yahoos coming up the street in that yellow Nissan Xterra.
Now at the time, Flanagan Court was mostly deserted because it wasn’t even three o’clock yet. Folks who had jobs were still at work, the kids still in school, that sort of thing. There were a couple of neighbors digging through trash piled up on the sides of what used to be their houses and backyards. I just so happened to be the only fool out front. While those boys were snap, snap, snapping away on that damn camera, I was sip, sip, sipping away on what was my eighth bottle of beer for that day, ’cause I had some heavy stuff on my mind. Ig’nant-ass tourists, was one of the many thoughts swirling around in my head as I scoped them out, hoping they’d just snap a couple of shots of the abandoned houses, stripped cars, and overturned dumpsters and get the hell up outta dodge. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t see one of them lil’ stringy-haired suburbanites point in my direction and yell out, “hey dude, look! A real-life wino! Keeewl! Pass me the camera, Ethan! Hurry!”
From that point on, everything was a blur, because next thing I knew I was seeing myself, this kid, and what had to be a thousand-dollar Nikon camera all go crashing to the sidewalk. I felt my body being pulled across one side of the yard as this kid was bending over on the other side trying to catch some of the blood that was pouring like a fountain out of his nose. Not only that, I saw flashing red and blue lights and felt myself being rushed and lifted off the ground by a couple of New Orleans’s Finest. And that Bud I’d been enjoying? A sudsy mess running along the side of that SUV. I know words had to have been exchanged, but I don’t remember saying any of them. Not even when the cops threw me across the patrol car and, fastened on the cuffs, and hauled my black ass up to this temporary minimum security joint.
During the four hot, miserable weeks I had to serve for drunkenness, battery and resisting arrest, I learned that I also had to pay a two hundred dollar fine
and attend some dumb ass anger management classes. Now, finally about to walk back out onto the street, I could scarcely believe that I found the incident
not the least bit embarrassing. Hell, that time in the OPP had allowed me the opportunity to cool off and do some much needed reflection. Much to the
contrary, I was feeling rather grateful.
A couple of other cats who’d recognized me from some of the clubs where I’d had gigs, asked me if I wanted to hold on to the deck of cards we played spades
with before my ride showed up and I got changed out of that scratchy orange jumpsuit and those silly ass house shoes.
“Nah, y’all hold on to those shits to keep my memory alive,” I joked as I was escorted to the front desk to collect my belongings. “And keep your heads up,’cause the way I see it, things are bound to get better. Eventually.”
If the New Timers, the band I played trombone and trumpet in, hadn’t had a gig that night, and if I hadn’t promised my old college chum, high school band director Lemuel Franks, that I’d help him whip his weak brass section into shape for the upcoming football season, I wouldn’t have even bothered to call our imitation Rastafarian bassist Errol “Flynn” Tucker to come get me out of lockup. I was just that blasé about the whole thing. I would’ve just picked a fight with some punk in the joint over something silly like a smoke, a soggy candy bar or even a decent chunk of soap, just for the hell of it, so I could sit my black ass right there in that nasty cell until they got tired of housing and feeding me. But the fact of the matter was I had two growing sons, Romie and Chris, and I needed to get my place fixed up so I could go get them from their ignorant grandparents in Missouri and bring them back home where they belonged. Wasn’t any more room for half-stepping on my part.
On August thirtieth, it’ll be a year since their mama’s been gone. Pam and I hadn’t been getting along for some time. Earlier last year when I told her I was leaving my low-level supervisory job with Parcels Ex press so I could devote myself to my music full-time, she flipped out on me. Guess she figured that if I quit steady work, then everything would fall on her shoulders. I don’t know why though. I mean, we weren’t exactly going to starve. The renovations we’d had done on Uncle’s old house had been paid for, and we were scheduled to make our final payments on the vehicles before the year was over. I had a fair amount of dough stashed away for a rainy day, and I’d lined up some extra session work in Mississippi just before the storm hit. Plus, Romie and Chris were well past that delicate baby stage—they’re twelve and ten now—and both of them have always been more or less healthy.
I tried to relay to Pam as best I could that I just couldn’t take that damn job anymore, but what did she do? She pitched a bitch and went off and told every
family member and so-called friend within a two hundred mile radius that, “Neo has decided he doesn’t wanna work anymore.”
Next thing I knew, I was getting all these dirty looks from her Tweety Bird-looking mama and her thumb-headed daddy, like I was about to run out on my own family or some other such nonsense. Still, I told her, “hell yeah, at some point in the near future I’m leaving the job. I have almost enough session work lined up to last a year. Hell, if need be, I can work with one of these schools, write some field songs, whatever. I’m sick of being just another P.E. drudge. Why the hell can’t you get that through your thick skull, woman?”
After that, we just let the issue die to keep the peace, but on the day I found out that one of the other operations managers, a skinny, poker-faced broad with
nothing but a high school education and a couple of community college business classes, had gotten promoted to branch manager over my college degree-having ass, I just said to hell with it. I sat down at the nearest computer and calmly typed, printed, signed and handed over my letter of resignation.
I was done. Done with being a silent, obedient workhorse that never asked questions and took whatever crap upper-level management dished out because I
just had to be in possession of a j-o-b. Finished jumping through hoops for peanuts when there was so much more I had to offer than timely packages and
a fake smile. I was through with that office politics bullshit and all the ridiculous, daily shenanigans of my coworkers and so-called superiors. No more
busting my ass only to get passed over because somebody’s homely daughter no longer wanted to get her precious, lily white hands dirty doing real work. And
through with all the goddamn headaches that made carrying around an industrial-sized bottle of Advil a necessity. I had officially joined the ranks of the underemployed, and it was an undesirable situation for sure, but let me tell you, when I burned rubber on that Parcels Express parking lot for the last time, it felt like I’d shed a hundred pounds of dead skin.
The real test began that afternoon when I stepped through my front door and presented my wife of twelve years with the resignation letter whose ink I don’t believe was even quite dry. At first she laughed, be cause I have been known to play a practical joke every so often, but this time I wasn’t smiling. It took a minute or two for it to hit her, and when it finally did, Pam went straight up ballistic.
“You know, Neo,” she’d said, with a hand on one hip and a serious mama bear scowl on her pretty brown face, “at first I had my doubts, but today you have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that you just about the stupidest son of a bitch I’ve ever known in my life!”
She immediately sent me and all my shit flying to the curb, but shortly afterwards,when she remembered that I’d been the one who’d inherited the house we lived in, she packed the boys’ and her shit and headed straight on back to mama and daddy.
Luther and Pauline Prejean, my denser than dense in-laws, were living at the time in a renovated old house in Marigny. In my mind, this was just a cooling off period for Pam, and I was willing to give her space. As far as I knew, neither one of us was thinking seriously about getting a divorce.
Weeks later, when the storm came, I naturally assumed that Pam was with her parents and the boys over in Kenner, because when I last talked to Romie on the phone that’s where he said they were all planning to meet up. Those Prejeans are some noisy, take-charge kind of folks, and I usually ended up feeling like a fifth wheel when I was around them, like I was just in everybody’s way. Most of their people live up around St. Louis, so when Mayor Nagin issued the evacuation order that Sunday morning, they got on the road with Romie and Chris, and Nate and Tamia, my nephew and niece by marriage. Good thing Luther had that Suburban, because those were some big ass kids, mine included. I didn’t give my own family’s safety much thought because from where I was sitting, everything seemed to be under control, and hell, I could fend for myself. Besides, I was busy with the rescue effort in my neighborhood.
I tried getting in touch with Pam no fewer than two dozen times, but she never answered or returned any of my calls. Figuring I was running low on time, I broke down and called Luther, who told me that last he knew, Pam had gone out to Whispering Lake Nursing Home, which was located not too far from the Industrial Canal, to look for her older sister. Nobody ever actually gave me any specific details, but they didn’t need to. I already knew they were relying on me to locate Pam on my own and get her out of New Orleans. Only problem with that was, Pam was nowhere to be found, and believe me, I did look.
Rain and wind were coming from everywhere, and there I was out there in it, searching high and low for my wife. I even went to Whispering Lake and stood
under the scrutiny of her evil sister who, for the record, didn’t know where she was either. Paula and I had a couple of angry words and I wound up leaving
before she could tell me what she didn’t know. At some point I just stopped myself and remembered that Pamela Prejean Henry was a grown woman of
thirty-two, and if she really wanted to be found—by me, that is—she would’ve let herself be found. And with that thought, I went back to help out my
stranded neighbors over on Flanagan.
People love to sit back and say that hindsight is twenty-twenty, and maybe it is for all I know, but evacuating from our homes was the last thing on our minds a few days earlier when we watched report after report of the approaching doomsday in store for the Gulf Coast. My family had fairly decent means and enough vehicles to quit this place, but what about all the others who didn’t? A lot of thoughtless and mis informed folks seemed to be under the impression that packing up and outrunning a hurricane was just a matter of loading your two point five kids and your dog into your big, deluxe SUV with a full tank of gas and riding off into the sunset to settle down somewhere new, simple as that. Nothing to it. The so-called pundits didn’t know or, more to the point, didn’t bother to remember that New Orleans was chock full of poor folks, many of whom depended on the transit system to get where they needed to go, which in most cases was never that far to begin with. So, for the sake of all that’s right with the world, would somebody please tell me how one just picks up and moves the hell on when, in some cases, you don’t even know what lies more than ten miles beyond your own damn front door?
Storms had come and gone over the years and washed various things away with them, and yet we were still here. Had always been here. What reason did we have to think we wouldn’t still be here after this particular calamity called Katrina had come and gone?
My boys, Basil and Tyree Broussard, went out and scrounged around and found an old boat that had been abandoned—at least that was what they probably told themselves in order to ease some of the guilt for what was probably looting on their part. Trapped inside my attic at the time, I grabbed a hatchet and a mallet out of the old toolbox I kept around the house for repairs I never did find the time to do, and after I escaped through a jagged little hole that I
managed to knock in my roof, the three of us went on an old-fashioned rescue mission. We did okay, but I’d be lying’ my ass off if I said we weren’t overwhelmed. So many old ladies and kids and babies tucked away into so many nooks and crannies it was unbelievable. But it was like some kind of obsessive-compulsive fog had settled over us, because we worked nonstop for hours and hours on end. While the other rescuers ate and slept, we circled back around the same houses and buildings two and three times just in case we’d missed somebody the first go around.
After getting all the babies and old ladies loaded into choppers and rowing ourselves to the Superdome, the three of us wound up being forced onto a generic charter bus headed for Houston with a gaggle of other cats, most of who had little more than the clothes on their backs. We were considered the lucky ones. At least we had I.D. and a little bit of cash.
We roamed around in a daze inside the Astrodome for three days before being put up in a Motel 6, and I liked to have gone stir-crazy those three months I spent in limbo. Calling, emailing, craiglisting, you name it, nothing. No results. My sons were safe in Missouri with their grandparents. Pam’s sister, Paula, as it turned out, had left Whispering Lake—less than an hour after our confrontation— with a vanload of her coworkers after they had a disagreement with management over what to do with the patients who didn’t have no family to come claim ’em. Come to find out, Pam and Paula had talked in person just before I made it to the nursing home, and Paula had convinced Pam to go back to the rest of the family in Kenner and Paula would catch up with them in a couple of hours. That was the last anybody had seen or heard from Pam. And for three long, agonizing months, that was all we knew. To get through it all I took a little of the cash I had on hand and went to this place called the ‘Bone Yard and bought myself a cheap replacement trombone and played at every club and function that would have me. It was the only way I could stay sane. And alive.
Then one day in early November I got a call from out of the blue, and the male voice o the other end asked if one Pamela Prejean Henry was my wife. I rsponded, “Yeah…so what you got?” The voice politely informed me that I needed to get back to New Orleans as soon as I could.
I met up with my play cousin, Clyde Chenier, or C-Dawg, where he’d been staying at his boy’s apartment complex in Laplace. We rode over to the coroner’s office in his boy’s pickup truck. I took one look at my wife’s bloated, greenish-brown body laid out in the temporary morgue, with all the others that looked more or less the same, and blacked out.
When I came to, I found myself rolled up in a corner of C-Dawg’s boy’s living room, laid out in a puddle of my own piss, next to two empty bottles of Seagram’s gin that I assumed I’d drunk. And I’ve gone out of my way to be drunk nearly every day since, in much the same way normal people make it a point to eat, sleep, and bathe. To this day, I can’t recall C-Dawg’s boy’s real name—I believe it’s something out of the ordinary, like Tennessee or something other— but I do remember him as a passive-aggressive jackass and I couldn’t wait to get out of his noisy, funky domain and into my own.
Luther and Pauline and the boys learned the bad news by phone call, text message, or hell, maybe telegram for all I know. What I do know is none of them will have anything to do with me. When they came in for the memorial service, they offered me no condolences whatsoever and refused to accept mine. In fact, they wouldn’t even look in my direction. When I insisted that they at least give me a chance to talk to my own kids, things got really ugly. Miss Pauline broke down, the boys followed suit, and Luther and some of the unruly male cousins acted like they wanted to throw down with me right there at the gravesite. As far as I was concerned it was on, and that was the start of my off-and-on affair with the NOPD. But with nothing to offer the boys, no home, no money and no security, I had no choice other than to watch them be taken two states away, knowing full well that their minds would be thoroughly poisoned against me. My only solace was that at least they’d be well taken care of.
When they had in their possession an autopsy report that revealed that their daughter, sister, aunt, granddaughter, whatever, had drowned in her own car
when it got swept away by floodwaters less than a mile away from Whispering Lake, the Prejeans simply wrote me out of their lives. According to them, their
loved one was out there on her own be cause her selfish, trifling thug of a husband was too damn stubborn to hold down a job and keep his family tight.
With that chapter of my life forcibly shut for me, the next thing I did was drag myself down to the FEMA office, get a trailer, and put it beside the half of my wood-frame house that was still standing. I never spent much time in it because I couldn’t stand being by myself. Lately, I was spending my days with C-Dawg, who was still dating that spooky chick Sabine Parish, who lived with her senile father in a FEMA castle just a few doors down from my own. Even though it wasn’t his place to do so, C-Dawg had even had a key made for me and told me that what was theirs was mine, but I could see through that bullshit like a pane of cheap glass. Sabine had a younger sister named LaSalle, and Sabine and C-Dawg were always trying to hook the two of us up.
So far it hadn’t worked from my end because I wasn’t exactly in the mood for a broad, even if she did have a big, firm ass. At twenty-six, LaSalle was a bit
young and silly for my taste anyhow. And it didn’t help that she was already involved in some sort of romantic, sexual, whatever, situation with Farron
“Fatso” Lacour, this gangbanger and mid-level dope dealer who hailed straight from the Desire Projects.
Still, I humored them. On weekends, we hung out at Shank’s, that lame ass pool hall on Morrison and watched ball games, ate barbecue, gossiped, and commiserated. Long as I had those ill-mannered idiots in my corner, I had no room to be alone with these morbid thoughts of mine.
Photo Credit: The Trombone Player www.peggycook.net