As if we hadn't seen enough devastation, Michael and I revisited the Lower 9th Ward this morning. Today our guide was Roger Lewis, saxophonist with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who grew up in the leveled neighborhood. First, we stopped by his house at 2626 Myrtle St. in the Edgewood section. It's not in great shape. He's had the house raised up three feet off its foundation and has a work crew gutting the interior. "I'm lucky," he says as we drive away. "I've got a wife who took full coverage." They received over $100,000 from their insurance company.
We cross the bridge into the Lower 9th. Roger wants to take a look at his old homestead at 1910 Delery St. Everywhere houses are in disarray, toppled on cars, spun around completely, splintered like huge matchsticks. It's mind-boggling. Roger pushes open the front door of what was once a cute pink and green cottage. "You can't even get in there," he sighs. "You don't want to get in the house because of the mold. You don't want to breathe that. You stay here, you'll die."
We stumble around the backyard, making sure not to get cut on the rusty fence or protruding nails. A huge pecan tree is on its side, tumbled over. "We used to have some good pecans," Roger says. "This is a trip."
His brothers were living in the house when Katrina hit. They got out in time. "Daddy worked hard to build this house," he says about his father who died four years ago. "I'm glad he wasn't alive to see this shit."
As we wind around the annihilated blocks, Roger provides the narration: "Everytime I come down here I see shit I haven't seen. They're still finding bodies. I don't know what they're gonna do here. People's history is gone. Everything's got to be torn down, ain't nothin' salvagable. Who the hell gonna live down here? This shit is finished. They need to raze the land to the height of the levee. It's really the Corps of Engineers' fault. They knew. You seen the levees. This is total destruction. Shit make you wanna cry. This is fucked up - pardon my French. They ain't got the manpower to clean up all this shit. The streets are not even recognizable."
He tries to locate one of his fellow band member's house, to no avail. Street signs are handwritten and spotty at best. As we go past one pile of rubble, Roger recalls, "The Lastie family lived there - Herman, Melvin, David, Betty, Walter, Ann. I used to hear them play music. Ornette Coleman played there. Jessie Hill - 'Ooh Poo Pah Doo.'" He points out a house where he got his hair cut. "He was a postman," Roger says of the barber. "It was a side hustle."
Like the day before, we find the blue house run by the Common Ground folks. Today I meet Gabriel Cohen, a volunteer from New York. "When I came down in October, everything was totally brown, there were no living things," he says. "Today birds are chirping and houses are being gutted. It's an overwhelming amount of work, but it's doable."
Common Ground started with 12 people and now numbers as many as 250 volunteers (60 to 80 are involved long-term). They provide 3,000 meals a day and have a tool-lending shed. The volunteers are very crunchy granola with Deadhead smiles and fatty dreads. Gabriel lives in a tent down the block. "It's bizarre," he says. "It's strange to live amidst the remains of peoples' lives and collapsed houses. But for me this is a vital, exciting place to be."
To find out more about Common Ground or to make a donation: CLICK HERE
We head back downtown and chow on a great breakfast at Mother's (crawfish etoufee omeletes with grits and biscuits!). Our next stop is Tattoo Ya on Canal St., where we hook up with Emily Harris, known around the HIGH TIMES office as the weed girl of New Orleans. Emily captured our hearts and bongs just days after Katrina when a photo of her appeared in a New York Times story about "New Orleans holdouts." The front-page piece focused on Emily and her boyfriend Richie Kay, who refused to leave town. Towards the end of the story, Emily told the reporter, "I haven't run out of weed yet." More than two months after we posted it on hightimes.com, Emily left a comment ("I'm glad so many have an opinion about what I said - thanx for including me in HIGH TIMES") and her email address. A few weeks ago I contacted her, asking if we get together when I was in New Orleans for Jazzfest. Emily accepted my offer.
It turns out today was just her second day at Tatto Ya. She does tats, but mostly has been making a living lately gutting houses. After Katrina blew through New Orleans, Emily and Richie stuck around primarily because they had a canoe and decided to help standed neighbors. "The first guy we picked up in the boat," says Emily, who has red-dyed dreads and blue nails, plus a few tats. "When we took him to his house, he came out and gave us a huge of weed. It must've been an ounce."
Without marijuana, she says, Katrina would've been "too much to submerge yourself in. I wouldn't have been able to handle it at all." They left New Orleans two weeks after Katrina "when we ran out of weed and whiskey, and there was nobody left to help." When they returned, "everything was better - no trees were in the roads or bodies in eyesight. Harsh things were gone."
Emily's from Alaska, where she says people grow better weed because "they don't have that many distractions and can really focus on their weed." She was born and raised in the infamous Matanuska Valley pot-growing region, known for the strain, Matanuska Thunderfuck. "It definitely helps cabin fever," she says.
Like many locals, Emily has no faith in the government to solve New Orleans' problems. "I haven't seen one government-paid official do shit in eight months," she states. "Every level of government has failed us for so long that there's no way to fix it all."
She firmly belives that another catastrophe is just around the corner (hurricane season begins on June 1). "They didn't fix the levees," Emily rails. "They're gonna kill us all."
But back to pot - she says the average New Orleans price ranges between $60 snd $100 per quarter. "That's what people do with their FEMA checks," Emily says with a smile. "The only thing I spend money on is weed and rent."
We walk down N. Ramparts St., and in broad daylight, Emily sparks up a joint. Michael clicks his digital camera for the impromptu photo session. We all puff and then say our goodbyes.
A few hours later, after eating beignets (fried dough with lots of powdered sugar) at Cafe du Monde and sucking down Hurricanes (super-sweet rum punches) at Pat O'Brien's, we catch the reopening of Preservation Hall on Bourbon St. It's a star-studded affair. U2's The Edge is there for the brief ceremony and performance by Preservation Hall band members, Meters' guitarist Leo Nocentelli and pianist Henry Butler. The Edge joins them for an unremarkable version of "Vertigo." His interest in dixieland music has something to do with his organization Music Rising, but since he never speaks to the crowd or the media, we learn nothing about it. The band parades into the street, and the second line follows. Jazzfest has begun!
Actually, it begins tomorrow at the Racetrack Fairgrounds, where I'll be reporting from for the next three days. For information about Jazzfest: CLICK HERE
To read the original New York Times article featuring Emily Harris: CLICK HERE