Sacked by the "downturn", an unemployed architect touring the country in a bus...

I used to live in New York City. I designed homes for the tycoons of Wall Street; Park Avenue, Scarsdale, Greenwich. It was great fun. And, after years of saving up for a down payment, I was just about to buy my own little place in Fleetwood, half an hour north of the city, when the economy fell apart. Architects are like canaries in a coal mine when the economy slows, and true to form, there were massive layoffs in firms all over the country. Devastation of the profession. So, I decided to try to find something else to do for a while. I bought a 23' school bus and I'm on the road to see if I can figure out what that might be.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

An amazing thing has happened....

I have stopped tearing now.  I am still shaking.

I received an invitation to join a haven for street performers, artists, musicians, and other creative people inventing their lives, here in New Orleans.  I am stunned by this turn of fortune.  I can not wrap my head around it yet...  The generosity is of this is beyond my experience.

I am looking at my belongings and thinking about what I have to do to get down there.  Weather will be good for the next two days, then rain for three, then a clear weekend...

Still shaking, can not sit still.... more later.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sleepy Band on Royal St.

Check out the pics of this sweet, sleepy band that played on Royal Street, and if you ever see them live, I promise you will smile :-)  Find this picture over in the right hand column and click it for a Flickr slide show...

Friday, January 29, 2010

How I made $17, fulfilled a dream, and other odds and ends... (part 2)

First, scroll down and read "How I made $17, fulfilled a dream, and other odds and ends... Part 1," below.

Part 2....

After wandering and shooting in the French Quarter, my cousin Eli (left) returned my call from earlier in the day.  He was having diner with Kate, a young opera singer friend of his, and he invited me along, saying he'd already asked her.  Generous host.  He picked me up on his Honda and we rode about 8 blocks to Kate's recently renovated second floor 1 room apartment, which was about large enough for the three of us to find places to sit at the same time.  I was introduced to Absinthe.  Curious drink.  It reminded me of the Italian anise-flavored liqueur, Sambuca.  Kate fills in and around singing gigs with different jobs, including guiding tours at the Absinthe museum, so she was well versed in the details, it's concentrated proof near 150, and how to dilute it in water for serving, upon which it turns from clear to milky.  We had a glass each, and chatted about, I don't really remember :-)  We ate pizza , and later went for crapes, and stopped at the largest head shop/ T shirt store I've ever seen.  I think Eli wanted to just browse the weirdness.

Eli bought us all crapes, and later gave me a lift on his bike back to my bus.

I went over to talk to attendant Ron and said I would like to keep my bus there for the night and that I would like to put my head down for a few hours nap.  Ron said the day man had told him about me and he'd have to charge me for two spots (because the bus hung over the yellow lines a bit), and they don't encourage people sleeping there, but even so, he suggested I set an alarm to wake up at 3:30 when my present ticket would expire, and then buy another 12 hours, so I could stay the next day 'till 3:30, and that would be for $50, total.  I said OK.

With my domicile now secured, I ran across the street to a gas station and bought a beer from the cashier behind a Plexiglas partition.  At the window with me were some pretty tough looking teenage black kids, with chain necklaces, low sloppy jeans, and one with a nylon stocking cap.  Not a really reassuring looking clientele.  I took my purchase wordlessly and returned to the parking lot, glad that it was encircled by an iron fence, attended by a guard, and located across the street from a police station.  And despite some traffic noise, including an occasional boom-car and diesel truck, sleep came easily.

I woke up at 5:30, wriggled out of my sleeping bag, pulled my clothes back on, peed in my water bottle from the day before, and stumbled out into the early brisk morning.  Scanning the now nearly empty lot for a place to move where I would have room to open my bus' lift, I stood there staring for a bit, and Ron yelled out "What do you want to do?"  I went over and explained that I wanted to move and why.  "What's the story with that pad over there?" I asked, gesturing to a 20 x 30 patio next to the back of a building, but on which there were no yellow lines defining parking spots.  "Well if you could get in there, it would be OK with me."  "I'll do it right now" I say, converting his conditional to action.  Re-parked, I returned to the booth and Ron handed me a new stub.  "OK, I'm not charging you for the 2 hours from 3:30 to 5:30, and it'll be $20 'till 5:30", which means he considered the previously never occupied pad one spot, not two, and I felt fine.

I now had five and a half hours before Royal Street, the street performer's Mecca in the French Quarter, would close to traffic at 11:00 a.m.

Breakfast.  I made it over to Bourbon and St. Anne, where Eli had tutored me on my previous visit to find a 24 hour luncheonette.  I was giddy with confidence inspired by this morsel of familiarity.  Two eggs, two sausage patties, wheat toast and some potatoes, and  I went back to the bus.  Four and a half hours to go.

Can I do this?  I paced.  I thought of what my shrink Peter would say.  "What do you imagine will happen?"  Nothing.  I could be bad.  I could make a mistake.  I could be embarrassed.  These are the worst possible outcomes I could imagine, yet the terror of putting myself into that position was as if I were contemplating a parachute jump. At last, and partly out of fearing the humiliation of not having tried, I decided to execute the first step and see how I felt.  I rearranged things in the bus so I could get to the vibraphone cases, and set it up.  Not so bad.  I folded the bed I built in Durham a month ago into it's sofa configuration.  Sofa so good, I mused to myself, enjoying my word play as much as the success of my design for the folding bed.  I pulled out the cases from under the bed now sofa.  Still no catastrophe.  Three hours.

And I continued in this way, removing one obstacle after another, inching my way closer to my goal, yet still not necessarily committing to the final act, retaining a right of refusal by which I could abort at any moment.  I set up the vibe frame near the lift, moving and exchanging the places of things inside the well packed bus in turns as necessary, as one would move the sliding tablets of "the 15 piece puzzle" until the desired final arrangement is attained, and in time I had the vibes set up in front of the lift.  Still no disaster...

Two hours left.  Time to practice a bit; I hadn't played since early December.  I played in my bus, in the parking lot, for almost an hour, and I lost myself in the lovely musical world where everything disappears except what I am doing, thinking, and feeling, and the sound, the wonderful sound of the vibraphone.  Eventually, spent, I came to rest and only then wondered if anyone in the parking lot was listening to the music coming out of the parked bus.

One more hour.  Now came a new threshold; I was about to open the side door and extend the lift.  I was going out into New Orleans air space with my vibraphone.  Again, baby steps, I first tried opening the door; I could always close it.  I rolled the vibraphone out on the cantilevered platform.  Is anybody staring?  Nope.  And from here, it became easy.  Lift down, vibe rolled off, parts checked, doors shut and locked, and I was soon rolling my TriChromatic Keyboard like a hospital gurney, carefully navigating around pot holes and cracks, down Conti Street, toward New Orleans' Royal Street.

Now I was at ease, and soon even became annoyed at traffic.   How dare they, how could they try to get around me?  Couldn't they see I was wheeling this heavy thing?  Didn't they realize I belonged there as much as anyone?  That I was doing something important?  What were they thinking?

At about 10:30, I found a spot on Royal in front of a closed store....


OK, readers, It's 10:30, and I need a break... back soon :-)

Another neighborhood

Here are some pictures I took along Magazine Street, which is the commercial spine of the Lower Garden District.  This area has a vital bohemian feel; lot's of kids and artists taking advantage of cheaper space.  It reminds me of New York City's Greenwich Village, East Village and Brooklyn in the 70's and 80's, except without the nihilism that was in fashion at that time.  It's very exciting.

Lot's of restaurants and internet cafes...

I wish the Alligator Museum was open!

Nice houses, many with apartments for rent...

Dan "has traveled all over and landed here" and has opened a vintage clothing store...

Dan's store.  Not a Starbucks in sight!

How I made $17, fulfilled a dream, and other odds and ends... (part 1)

I play an instrument called the vibraphone, or colloquially, vibes.  When the master marimba and xylophone craftsman and bar tuner J.C. Deagan invented it in the late 20's, he called it the vibraharp, but a later competitor, Ludwig/Musser, won the name game with their equally excellent instrument.  I played a Musser vibraphone for many years.  The vibraphone is similar to the more widely familiar xylophone, except it's bars are much larger and it has a tuned pipe under each bar to amplify the sound in sympathetic vibration, much as a bathroom stall will amplify your voice if you hum the right note.

I have a good musical ear, and have learned to play a bit on a number of instruments; some guitar, some cello, some piano.  I had been a fan of the vibes since I was an early teen in the sixties, when I heard my brother's Milt Jackson records, so when I was in my 20's and opportunity presented itself in the form of a deposit for my first architectural commission, I naturally bought a marimba, which is very much like a vibraphone except the bars are made of wood instead of aluminum.  And a few years later, I bought a vibraphone.

I studied and practiced for 20 years and acquired some ability to improvise, but the layout of the instrument, the logic of the actual arrangement of the notes, remained a mystery to me.  The arrangement of the notes follows the same design as a piano, with certain notes colored white and put in one row, and other notes colored black and put in a second row in an irregular pattern.  When I was still a child, I had learned from my father, a brilliant and inventive man, that this arrangement was a convenience for some kinds of music, but an obfuscation of the uniformity of the field of twelve notes that we use in western music.  My father shared with me doodles of designs he had for keyboards in which the uniformity was restored.  Those conversations and his sketches stayed with me through all of my years of study, and I worked on the problem myself soon after college.  Over the years, I continued playing and studying the traditional vibraphone, but returned to the idea of a uniformly arrayed instrument time and again.  Perhaps about ten years ago, I finally convinced myself that I had a workable idea for how to mark such a keyboard in a way that helped you orient yourself, but still introduced no asymmetry whatsoever.  Three years after that, I commissioned the construction of a vibraphone according to my design.  Nico vanDerplace took two more years to build it in his workshop in Holland.  And so, in 2002, I put aside the instrument I had been struggling with for more than two decades, and began again on my new version, which I call the TriChromatic Keyboard.  You can see my YouTube video demonstration of my instrument if you click on the picture of it in the right hand column.

All aspiring jazz players are well versed in the legend and lore surrounding the birth of Jazz in New Orleans, and I am no exception.  And so, part of my motivation for coming here was to witness and perhaps even participate in the tradition; I dreamed of somehow getting to play in this town.  That's why I have my vibraphone with me and part of why I thought a bus was a good vehicle travel in.  Vibraphones are big and heavy and mine took up most of the space in the back of the Volvo wagon in which I started my trip.

Tuesday morning, I made my way back down to New Orleans for my second visit.  I parked my bus in an outdoor lot on Rampart street, which borders the north edge of the central part of the French Quarter and is just a few blocks from Royal street; street performer's Mecca.  I chose this parking spot knowing that, should I decide to wheel my vibes down the street in the fashion of a hospital gurney, I would have a short distance to go over relatively smooth streets.   Ron, the gruff 60ish attendant who spent entire days in a 4' x 6' guard booth, turned out to be perfectly willing to look up from his news paper and accommodate reasonable requests.  I maneuvered into what seemed the only out of the way spot long enough for my 23' bus, fully aware that I was going to be too close to the fence to allow me to use my wheel chair lift for the vibes, but I had not fully committed to playing out, so I accepted this compromise.

I wandered the streets the rest of the day, taking pictures of some of the French Quarter buildings, and some of the characters who live or perform or generally demand attention on the street.  Mr. Jaxx, with painted face, spangly beads, a floppy green jester's cap, and a smorgasbord of quasi renaissance costuming, is a tall and slightly queeny street tough, with a broken heart visible behind the defense.  He reclined in a low folding beach chair, near one of many psychics and fortunetellers, and enjoyed waving and interacting with kids, even ones before speaking age.  (I considered calling the other buskers "alleged psychics and alleged fortunetellers", but that seemed cumbersome... )  He sternly demanded of me $2 for permission to take photographs.  With the fee paid, he proudly posed and preened in the sun, obviously enjoying the attention and chance to be on display.  He was a pro.  I soon lost interest, as I preferred his candid demeanor.  I wish he'd tied his shoe or pulled up his belt.  Maybe I can still do something with those photos.

Silver Steve, covered head to toe in silver clothes and makeup, looking like Alice's mad hatter ready for oven baking, is one of the living statue performers who's talent on display is the ability to hold still for very long periods of time, which would be, from an engineering point of view, a way to earn a living with a ratio of dollars earned to energy spent that would seem near infinity, except that it is in fact difficult and strenuous and energy consuming to hold so still.  Steve engaged easily in conversation with me, gave directions, revealed that he had traveled the country and landed here, a familiar tale to me now, demanded a buck for photo opportunity and immediately struck pro-poses for my camera by cocking his head and slightly raising some of his extremities, an eyebrow, and selected finger tips, vaguely recalling gestures of magicians and Victorian portraits.  Ugh.  I told him of my plans to play vibes and he dropped back into person hood and happily offered advice.  I'd have photoed him then again, but I didn't want to break the tiny connection of the moment by raising my camera.  It's clear, shooting the underbelly of New Orleans will take patience.

Adorable waif urchin Elaina is a stunningly capable classical violinist who plays with courage, precision, and tender passions.  I drop the buck in her case and start shooting.  She breathes a sweet appreciative smile between crescendos, how could I not be a little smitten by this improbable creature.  The piece ends, I applaud and then tell her that I had heard of her.  Eli is my cousin and he said I should keep an eye out for a great violinist with pink hair.  She smiles again and says "Eli is your cousin?" confirming the link is genuine.  I smile.  She plays more and I photo more.  I change to a wide lens, hurrying so as not to loose the moment, and step in close for the close up exaggerating her tininess (above).  She flourishes with ease through Beethoven, filling the cavernous street space with sound for the few passersby.  Then suddenly, she packs and is off down the street.  I follow and give her a card, telling her to e-mail me so I can send her copies of the pictures.  She says she will.  A few more steps and I ask "I didn't scare you off, did I?"  "No, not at all," she laughs "I'm just late."  I hope to see her again. 

I don't know his story.

These guys played nice Dixieland stuff.  The clarinetist had fun ideas in his playing, and a presence that let him lead the group easily, while he watched the audience to pace his performance in accord with their attention.  I liked him.


I'm going for some luch..., back soon.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pictures from a moving afternoon....

The previous post is in "INTERMISSION" while I take a moment to post some pictures from yesterday.  Be sure to read the previous "I'm still here.." and I'll pick up soon.  Also, new readers, please don't miss "Katrina Relief" down a little bit, to see what I'm doing here.  But for now, check out the right hand column and find "Manuel and Lucinda" for yesterday's pictures from a moving afternoon.

I'm still here..

Some soul searching, then redoubled commitment, and I'm still here and going strong.  There is so much that has happened...  I went to New Orleans last weekend, and met a cousin I learned of only recently.  Turns out that's not exactly true, I had met him once before, when he was a few weeks old.  His father, then 53 if I recall, somewhat shocked relatives with his new baby, and sadly, then in fact passed away 8 months later.  Eli, however, went on to grow to 30 and we re-met last weekend.  My cousin Mark, who is a very good friend, and the person who first suggested I might like New Orleans, had recently informed me that his half brother, Eli, moved here 3 months ago, and gave me the introduction via e-mail.

I went to meet my newly found cousin in a hip part of New Orleans which I think is referred to as the triangle.  Lots of internet cafes on tree lined streets filled mostly with wood Victorian houses containing the up and coming and homesteaders, with bohemian art on their lawns displayed to the street; a sculpture of piled, huge rectangular solids (made of window screens?), figures posing, an enormous water slide and tree house.  There is a wonderful sincerity about it.  I think of Greenwich Village in the 70's (I was not there in the 60's.)  Even in the 80's, it was possible for kids and creative people to find cheap space in the East Village or Brooklyn and pursue whatever.  Now, NYC, Brooklyn, Long Island City, Astoria, Forrest Hills, Hoboken, Jersey City, event the Bronx, are all priced too high to allow any real bohemia to survive.  But here in New Orleans, it looks like the kids/artists/experimenters have a good foothold in the depressed and somewhat abandoned, but rebounding City of New Orleans.  It is intoxicating.

Eli reminds me of a Nicholas Cage character, any of several.  Eli talks with intensity, irony, occasional sarcasm, and always a merciless frantic rapidity; no time to waste if you don't catch it, but then time wasted on repeats (my nearly consonant-free hearing making matters worse.)  He has Cage like one liners, a cigarette lighter emblazoned with a fan of playing cards, and of course, a motorcycle.  But Eli is an original, and I later found myself complimenting him for living an off beat life he was trying to invent.

Eli landed a job here writing for, of all things, a gun magazine.  "I like guns" he says, tilting his head to one side with a half shrug of one shoulder, that self referentially acknowledges the take-it-or-leave-it-ness of that self evidently inadequate explanation.  Pure Cage :-)  Most of all, Eli recounts hopes, encounters, and exploits with the ladies, many of whom are locals, many tourists.  "That's what they come here for", he offers with another tilt head shrug, and an outstretched palm up hand, for good measure.

We visit his apartment.  The street door is wood.  We pass into a very small court yard, maybe 20 x 20, contained on 4 sides by the 2 story apartment building.  The yard has just enough room for some wood, some small planters, some bicycles, a spot for my motor scooter near a wood ladder, and a hose coiled and jumbled in the only path between bikes to the stairs leading up.  The winder stairs, wood bare from age and decay, slope towards their center post, with the exception of a few near the top that seem to be letting go of that support entirely.  We both avoid putting too much weight on these as we make are way up to the 2nd floor exterior landing in front of Eli's apartment.

Charm.  Provance has nothing on this, I think, and I plan to come back and take photos.

The door in is just the one that works of a pair under an air conditioner Gerry rigged onto a shelf at the transom above.  There is a lock, but it seems it's been years since the door fit within the frame well enough to align the bolt successfully.  Inside, red walls.  Pink walls.  I recognize the kitchen by appliances, and the archeology of the debris from various meals.  Bachelor pad.  The next room has a mattress on a box spring, various anonymous used dressers, etc, and despite some clutter, a still slick computer desk of perforated aluminum, cantilevered in various clever ways from it's wheeled "A" frame support, and a laptop with a very large external screen, and i-pod accessories strewn about.  Somehow, I am comfortable, and Eli and I continue talking and bantering as we have all afternoon.  Eli is a brilliant and passionate conversationalist, and I am grateful for his generosity as a host.  We divide the bed and box spring, set up a few incidentals and go out for beers...


Readers, I have pictures of New Orleans from last weekend, and lots of stories which I will get to posting.  And in the intervening week since then, I have made two cyber connections with women who live in New Orleans and we'll be followin' up... And, I have recovered from a serious computer backup fiasco that deleted among other things, my single copy (which I was attempting to back up) of photos of my work for the last 10 years.  Happily, this has all been restored from a combination of zip backups I made in Massachusetts in November, combined with the current drive contents not eaten by the back up program... several days of sweat went into that rescue.  I have completed the design for the RV park, and I made a present of a drawing for a new friend.

I will elaborate on all, including my visit with Eli, my motor scooter trip accidentally through the 9th ward, and  down a highway with loooong bridge over "The Canal" with traffic wizzing by at 70...I will, but I will stop now, because I want to post some pictures from yesterday, and then get some sleep.


Friday, January 15, 2010


Hi Readers.  It's been a few days since i posted.  Things have been very busy here.  I also learned that putting systems into my bus would be very expensive if I had it done by an RV repair place.  I am thinking about my commitment to this trip; getting this far has been such an ordeal, pressing on without some more creature comforts seems daunting, and my financial situation is not good.  I question why I am volunteering to help people, some of whom are in a better position than I am.  And yet, the trip and writing about it, and the photographs, feel important.  And there is so much more to see and wonderful places to go.  Last night I talked with a very good friend and realized that the next few steps are clear; finish the design for the MEMA housing clusters, photo some of Katrina's wake, see New Orleans, and see what happens after that... possibly some paid work or other leads here.

I've posted a picture in the right hand column, titled "Friends at Katrina Relief."  Click on it and see a Flicker slide show of some of the wonderful volunteers here.

More later...


It's amazing how a nap can refurbish will.  I think I do my best thinking when I am asleep.  I know two things: I can get what I need done for a lot less, and two, things would be a lot better if i had a job.  Time to pursue both.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Katrina Relief


I talked to Kathleen Johnson, who runs the Katrina Relief program in Poplarville Ms.  I said I was in Apalachicola and would be there in a week.  Kathleen, with the directness I noticed from our first conversation, said "We're doing an RFP for 400 homes and we don't have an architect or an engineer to sit at the table when we present in 7 days.  How soon can you get here?"  I stammered just a bit and said, "In a couple of days."  I arrived the next day, at 11:00 a.m.

Along the way though, I stopped in Pensacola, bought some supplies, and made a phone call to a potential client to whom I had sent a sketch a week ago; a masterplan deign for a 130 acre residential developement.  The client loved the idea so I described the next steps and a schedule for compensation, which was thought to be very fair.  Nice day, Thursday :-)


As I mentioned, I arrived in Poplarville Friday, and though we had previously only talked on the phone, Kathleen and I recognized each other immediately.  After two sentences, Kathleen handed me a 2" thick RFP to read, and described a sketch that she wanted me to prepare for Bill and Julie, showing how we might install MEMA housing units in their RV park in a way that would create civilized shared outdoor space, even though the units are to be raised 10' in the air, above the flood plane.  I hadn't had a cup of coffee or peed, but said "Sure."

Soon, Bill and Julie were driving me around this part of Mississippi, which had been wiped out by Katrina, along with which they had lost their RV park, 4 years ago.  In their late 40's, the English couple had come to America to pursue entrepreneurial opportunity, which they found here in their RV park.  Fortunately, they had savings and could rebuild, and they are still here, but the depressed economy has devastated the value of their investment.  Bill showed me this overpass and said the water rose above it's roadbed.

He and Julie had left early the day of the storm, but even where they were in Arkansas, some 400 miles inland, Katrina reached them with hurricane force sufficient to rip the roof of of one wing of the the hotel they were in.

I was familiar with some of the images of Katrina's wake, but I had no idea of the extent of the damage that still persists to this day.  Here is Main Street, Bay St. Louis.

The wreckage in some places still extends as far as you can see, with a few houses still standing, in shambles, abandoned and untouched since the storm.  I will photo some of these in the coming days.  Also visible are wrecked homes with inhabitants who lack the resources to repair them.  I hope I will be able to photo those too, without intruding.

My host, Kathleen Johnson, the director of the WCF Katrina Relief Program, is a force of nature herself.  Australian born, she seems at least 6 feet tall, and in her fifties still has strong broad shoulders and hands.  Her tawny hair hangs loosely at the sides of her ruddy face, with light brows and lashes flashing behind thick lenses.  She is constantly in motion, and constantly narrating a stream of consciousness about events in her life and the life of her work, which is the program.  This is not her first relief effort, I soon learn, as she jumps back and forth in time telling anecdotes about battles with bureaucrats for funding, now and in past positions, and she liberally peppers her stories with detailed recollections of wrongs done by some to others, and sometimes to herself.  I don't think she is a vengeful or peevish person, but her memory is long and detailed, and she implies a faith in just outcomes in the long run.  I also learn that she knows a lot about construction, including light and heavy trades.

She runs her present organization from a brick facility with two wings, one a brick church about 40' by 100', with a formal but modest interior, and the other a similar size but oriented at right angles to the first forming a T in plan.  The second wing has on the first floor, a large dining room with vinyl tile flooring and folding metal picnic tables, and a large kitchen at one end of the room, cobbled together out of various simply but competently built oak veneer plywood cabinets, 3 refrigerators, two microwaves, and so forth.  The cabinet doors have hand lettered stick-on labels indicating their contents, and the whole is very well organized to manage the constant stream of volunteers who come and go in groups from around the country.  There are ample but frugal supplies stacked and ordered everywhere.  In the back end of this floor of this wing are a few offices, including Kathleen's and Laurie's, a case worker here for four years whom I also met briefly when I first arrived; even though it was her day off, Laurie was working on some cases.  She and Kathleen share a despondent knowing look from time to time.

The second floor of this wing has the dormitories; about 8 rooms along one side of a long dimly lit featureless hall, perhaps as narrow as 3'.  Each dormitory room is about 10 x 12 and contains3 or 4 double-decker bunk beds to sleep 6 or 8 volunteers to a room.

The facility is nearly empty when I arrive.  It is the weekend.  One group of volunteers left earlier today.  The case working staff works 10 hour days, Monday through Thursday, with exceptions as was Laurie's case today, when they choose to work an occasional Friday.  But in addition to Kathleen, who is here with me, I soon learn that there are a few homeless people as well.   There is at least one homeless couple staying in the church wing, in quarters behind the pulpit.  I never see them, but I hear their television through their windows when I am outside in the rear of the building.

M also is living here.  He is in his 50's, from Kentucky, and is proud of his seven children and two grand kids.  He is melancholy when he says he has not seen them in 4 years.  He grins when he says that he talks to each of them every day.  He is missing two joints from his pinkie, possibly lost working at his carpentry and drywall trade.  His face has a swollen redness that suggests a hard life and possibly some alcoholism, though I suspect it is at least now under control, as the facility will not tolerate any drinking.  Dressed in jeans and a green sweat shirt, I see him do occasional chores, sweeping, changing trash bags, and cooking an occasional small meal for whoever is around.  I presume these gestures are in exchange for the roof over his head.  Mike is reading a book about "keeping children in the faith."  "There's Key Lime pie", he offers.  "No thanks, I can't eat sugar."  "Neither can I, I'm a diabetic" he grins with mirth, knowing Key Lime crumbs show on his lips.  M had just moved to the gulf and was living in his trailer when the hurricane hit and rolled him over 4 times.

N is in his early thirties.  He wears a hooded sweatshirt with a sports team logo, and I think it conceals a very undernourished physique.  Very soon after we meet, he reveals he has lived in his car for a while before landing here, his wife having left him with their new born baby a year ago, and he having exhausted other family living situations.  He recites these from his drawn face, and with staring, almost pleading dark eyes that make me feel he want's something as yet unspecified. 

* * * * *

I am overwhelmed by everything I have seen so far.  I wanted an adventure; it seems I have fallen into a third world country.  I am nearly in tears as I sit at a card table as the evening winds down, and I toss and turn most of the night.

* * * * *


Kathleen and I run some errands.  She gives me a lift to see if an RV place nearby might have parts I want for my camper (deep cycle battery, isolator, charge controller, 3 way refrigerator, cook top, water tank,.. I must make the bus livable while I have this base of operations.)  I pick up a lockset doorknob to replace the passage knob on the office I will use to do architectural drawings.  We browse two thrift stores and I pick up some groceries.  I later bag these and put them in the bottom of the public fridge to keep them for myself.  During our outing, Kathleen and I are largely silent.  She seems glad to be away from the place for this short bit of time, I am simply exhausted.  But we are comfortable in silence.

We had spoken easily and frankly the night before.  I told her what I thought of the RFP, that it was heavy contractor work, not suitable for volunteers, which she knew and she intended to do it to make the place some money, and she freely and insightfully critiqued my napkin sketch design.  I also said to her at that time, "I'm not a religious person.  Do you have any problem with that?"  She laughed and shrugged it off, and added that before she came here, she was not religious either.  "We let everyone do their thing, and we keep the chapel as a chapel out of respect for the community's sentiment, but we don't have any services of any kind.  I don't think politics and religion should mix."  I like her.  And today, while we are driving back still mostly in silence in her very noisy van, with her little dog Shorty on my lap, she soon easily jumps back into a story of conflict and vanquishment with local bureaucrats, and her energy returns.

Saturday night

A new group of half a dozen volunteers arrive from Virginia Tech.  They tumble into the room next to me, and I am awakened from my nap.  They are completely familiar with dormitory routine, and they drop their knapsacks and so forth and head to the common room downstairs.  I follow them down, soon, and start to write this.  As I listen to their easy banter about games they are playing and music they like, I realize how lonely I am.  Soon, two of them return from a trip for groceries and they are cooking an evening meal.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Apalachicola, Fl.... a gem

Two nights ago I stayed in Apalachicola, Florida.  This town has never been devastated, not by hurricane or developer.  So there are 100 year old trees and 100 year old buildings.  There is a fishing warf and a quaint main street and it's surrounded by a historic district.  It's the kind of "Our Town" Thorton Wilder must have had in mind, complete with a spooky graveyard.  Click the picture in the right hand column for a Flick slide show.  The picture here, to the left, is of the Hotel I stayed in (I needed a shower.)  As I walked up, I thought, if it's $300 leave, under $150, ok... it turned out to be $90 for a twin, but I upgraded to $95 for a queen.  The picture here to the right is my bus interior after two weeks... just kidding, it's the 95 dollar room :-)  I was practically in tears.

In the morning, I had a great phone call that changed things for me, which will be in the next post...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How my Wheel Didn't Fall Off and I Didn't get Killed

Clinch County, GA

I'm not sure of the name of the town anymore, I could look on the repair bill.  I do remember it was fairly small as I passed through.  A few miles further down the road, I noticed that the front end rumbling that started recently, was now getting much worse.  I figured a tire had never been balanced, and it's uneven wear was now just running away  compoundingly.  I debated whether I should press on to the next town, but caution and the desolate looking road ahead persuaded me I should go back to the nameless junction I had just left behind.

I circled back and found a shiny gas station complete with convenience store, which told me there would be no mechanic.  Fortunately the man behind the counter, an educated Pakistani I think, very articulately directed me to a wheel and brake place less than a mile away.  "They also do everything" he called after me, letting me know that their knowledge went beyond wheels.

I found Bo working on a truck, and despite his slack jaw, young age, and general roundness, he conveyed an air of authority, and I knew he was in charge.  I described the rumbling and wobbling I thought was coming from the front right wheel, and offered that he could drive it a bit and see.  Half a mile later he said, pointing at the left rear view mirror, "It's the left rear, see?"  I peered over his shoulder and could clearly see the left rear wheel gyrating so dramatically that it came in and out of view from behind the wheelwell below the side of the truck.  "Oh, yeah!" I hear myself exclaim, somewhat dazed...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Savannah, GA, 27 deghrees...

Last night was cold.  27.  I was fine inside my Slumberjack, zipped up to form a bag around me head to toe, and with my second Slumberjack opened up flat and laid over the first.  Toasty warm.  But now, sitting here writing, I'm in full street clothes, thermal underwear, a flannel shirtjack and my Dickies insulated denim jacket, and I'm still pretty chilly.  I just had a little warm meal at a MacDonald’s inside the Wal-Mart, where I am staying the night outside Savannah.  Egg and sausage on a muffin, coffee.  Nice.  I hear gulls crying as they circle overhead.  They're a small comfort, their pathetic pleas momentarily filling the void I feel in my isolation.  Just over a week.  I am thinking more and more of Kathleen Johnson's Katrina Relief program, my destination in New Orleans.  It sounds really good, a base from which I can draw some support so that I can afford some spare energy to work on my electrical system and cooking (I still haven't looked into why my propane grill wouldn't work the other morning, when I tried to boil eggs; the first mechanical failure of the trip and what felt like a big blow.)  But New Orleans is still a long way away, though I am comforted that I am two thirds of the way there from my start in Boston.

I've installed window sash locks on my IKEA drawers to keep them shut as the truck moves.  I'm proud of them and I think of the beautiful hardware I used to specify for doors and cabinetry I designed for my clients, hardware costing thousands of dollars, with patina carefully hand applied to their surfaces.  My sash locks were $2.50 each at Home Depot, and their warm slightly bronzed nickel color is a lovely match to the muted coffee colored oak of the cabinet.  Aesthetics are more about careful choice than dollars.


Yesterday, I went out on my motor scooter with a full pack of photo gear for the first time on this trip.  Savannah is adorable, everywhere lush with overhanging trees laden with ancient southern charm.  The gridded city plan is regularly punctuated with green park squares dotting about every 4th intersection along a few boulevards, like cabochon stones inset into the corners and forming octagons out of otherwise square marble tiles.  Cabochons are usually set diagonally to the rest of the floor, but Savannah's many park squares are orthogonal to the grid, and make a remarkable pedestrian experience.  You can walk through each square, but cars must go around .  Scootering around was great, I'm sure car navigation is a pain.  But the numerous tourist trolleys do it on a fifteen minute schedule, and with competing companies, you see a trolley every few minutes.  They are old timey looking, but run on propane.  There are also lots of churches.  And homeless people.

I find myself only mildly interested in capturing the city with my camera.  Travel photos.  Carefully composed pictures of the landmarks.  Still, I feel somewhat obliged to do my duty as a traveling architect.  I happen across Damon May, playing saxophone and flute for the squirrels who gather around him, harvesting the peanuts in shells he has sprinkled on the ground for them.  But, I am vaguely disappointed in myself for these photos, too.  Am I so disheartened that my sympathy for his plight bores me as well?  It's kind of a Hallmark moment of journalistic photography; formulaic.  What will grab me?  My friend Sandy, whom I met in Dade County getting out the vote for Obama, advised me that my social life will not start until I get to New Orleans.

I am out in Savannah again now, after my cold morning start in the bus.  I’m taking a break, sitting in an internet cafĂ© filled with SCAD’s; Savannah College of Art and Design students.  It’s like an episode of Friends.  Savannah is overrun with kids in their 20’s.  They outnumber  the tourists .  And the homeless people.  Classic romantic jazz vocals are playing over the sound system;  Mel Torme,  Johnny Hartman.   Barbara Streisand, even with all of her milking populist appeal, is killing me with her slow “Make Someone Happy.” 

Friday, January 1, 2010

Pretty tired...

I've been on the road now since Monday.  This is just the beginning of my trip, but I am now quite tired.  Not only is there a lot of physical work involved, moving things around, stowing things, building in, driving, etc., but also it seems that every decision is consequential with few if any fallbacks available.  Is everything charged up; phone, computer, GPS, cameras?  Will I have electricity tonight?  Yes, if I find a suitable campground, but some are so skeevy (more on that in a minute) and the Walmarts have supplies.  Did I get everything I need out of that box before I strapped it down under those other boxes?  Do I have food?  Will it keep in the cooler?  (Last shopping, instead of ice, I bought frozen broccoli to keep the other stuff cool :-)  Should I wait here in Savannah for the weather to clear up, or press on to Tallahassee?  The stress of meeting all the challenges that come up is exhausting.  This morning, after my usual awakening to pee at 6 or so, I went back to bed and slept 'till 12:30 for the first time in years.

Last night I stayed in a skeevy trailer park...