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.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Orange, Texas

While waiting for David Self Ford, who's owner's face is featured in ads all over town, to complete the repairs on Tourtoise, I made some photos of the local area.  (Click here for a Flick slide show)


I also spoke with Kelly, an unemployed mechanic who was waiting for Ford to complete warrantee service on his pick up.  "So long as I'm under warrantee, I'm not touching it."  Kelly had been making $70k per year as a diesel mechanic for a number of years, and being single, he had a very nice life.  He owns his house in Orange, a hunting cabin in Montana, and seven cars, the customizing of which was his main interest.  He boasted about "mods" he had made, which one was his favorite, speeds he had driven, and crashes.  "I've broken bones in roll overs.  Its  not unusual.  We all have.  We're just a bunch of kids down here who like to play outside and stuff happens.  We don't go to raves or nothing like that."

Kelly went to Louisiana to help after Katrina, and described seeing massive looting, and even being shot at.  He also described how Ike and Rita had destroyed Orange, and noted that there was no looting or violence whatsoever.  He accepted without comment my observation that New Orleans had suffered from chronic poverty and urban tension long before Katrina.  I confessed I was a liberal east coaster and he said "The main difference between people from different areas is the cooking."  We then both agreed that there was something particularly mean feeling about parts of South Carolina and Georgia.  Kelly said he still got enough "side jobs", meaning mechanics work for individuals, to keep his life style pretty well in tact.  "There's still a lot of construction going on here." he noted when I said I was an unemployed architect, but he was referring to the oil and chemical businesses, which are still expanding their refinery facilities.  "If Texas wanted to secede from the US, and we're the only state that could," he said, indicating the geometry with some hand motions, "the US would fall apart.  We've got all the energy business for the whole country.  We could be a rich country by ourselves."  I had no feeling that he was suggesting this, or that he was specifically angry at anything in particular, but the notion had a presence in his mind that made it seem to him that it was merely topical for casual conversation.


Here is a small Mexican restaurant where I bought breakfast burritos these last two days.  The owner, who with his wife worked behind the counter from before 7:00 a.m. opening to well after 9:00 p.m. closing, said he started the restaurant with no loan, relying instead on money he had saved over the years.  The mechanics at David Self Ford said a year or so ago, people lined up at Taqueria for breakfast, but not so much this year.

F U N : Here is a map of the route...

....through New Mexico and Arizona, recommended by my friend Alicia, the experienced bus traveler.  (Click the pic for a larger view)

I'd love to hear your ideas and suggestions, things not to miss, or whatever :-)

Ford Tough

I'm at the third Ford dealership/service department I've been to since Friday, this one in Orange Texas.  My coolant leak has been fixed; burst hose replaced, some $20 in parts plus two hours labor.  As for the erratic transmission behavior, this service department pretty much repeated the diagnostic steps completed Saturday at the first and second Ford places, but in greater depth and reaching a slightly different conclusion.  Yes the PCM was fried, but the reason it was, was due to a short in the wire harness feeding it.  The short was missed by the first service department, and had the PCM just been replaced, it would have re-fried.  Now, the short has been fixed; one and a half hours labor.  They are about to order the new PCM ($512, plus shipping), which most likely will be via overnight from one of two dealers (either Utah, or California), or 7-10 business days directly from Ford (ughh...)  So far I spent Friday night parked in front of the Ford place in Jennings, Louisiana, waiting for them to open Saturday to look at my transmission, then Saturday morning at the Ford in Crowley, and Saturday night in the Welcome to Texas info center, with the coolant problem, Sunday and Sunday night in front of the Ford place in Orange, Texas, waiting for them to open Monday to fix both problems, all Monday while they fixed the hose and diagnosed the PCM, and now at least today and tonight while they get the part.

UPDATE:  The PCM will be here tomorrow, via UPS overnight.  Today, someone at Ford backed my bus into something (see light circle highlights in photo), denting the rear arched top. :-O  They will have a body shop estimate in the morning, and presumably offer a deduction off my bill.

I can't wait to be out-a-here!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

* T * E * X * A * S * (and more car trouble)

I'm in the first Welcome/Tourist Info stop on I-10 in TEXAS!  Wooohooo!  Or, I think here it's Yeeeeehaaaaaa!

The reason I pulled in here is that a few miles back, as I crossed over one of the improbably high overpasses that are so common here in the industrial south, this one seemingly right at the border between Louisiana and Texas, possibly to discourage immigrants (har har), just then I noticed a low coolant indicator on my dash, and a mile or so later, I noticed the temperature gauge was nearly at the top.  The dreaded H.  Almost 1 1/4" above the desirable C.  Drat.  Thankfully, I made it here, the next exit, without boiling over, seizing up, or any of the other picturesque meltdown scenarios that come to mind when I think of radiator problems.  I had set out on this push westward from the Atchafalaya Basin on the assurance of two mechanics that driving the truck with a faulty PCM or wheel speed sensor would not be dangerous or destroy the transmission, so I had hoped to get to someplace I would want to be for 3 or 4 days while a Ford dealership there gets ahold of the needed somewhat obscure part for me.  Now, I opened the hood and saw that all of the coolant in the reservoir was gone.  When it rains it pours.  I am fairly confident that this new equipment failure has nothing to do with the prior; I had been told back in Mississippi to keep an eye on the coolant level because the water pump had a small leak.  I guess it's a big leak now, because I checked the level this morning and it was fine.

Somehow, I am still in a great mood.  Perhaps it's just moving.  Perhaps I actually enjoy the engagement of overcoming adversity.  In any event, I found myself humming and singing as I readied myself for the night here at the rest stop and prepared to go to the next town in the a.m.

I have two water containers.  The first is a clear, hard, polycarbonate 2 gallon container with a lever controlled spigot, which I bought when I was outfitting my Volvo for the trip.  It's a lovely and functional design for a picnic's supply of water, and it nestled nicely into its spot in the Volvo.  The second container I bought a few days ago at Outdoor World, a humongous camping store that looks like a Disney park with a hunting/safari theme.  The building's facades are broken up so that it appears that the place has grown rough wood wing by rough wood wing, and corrugated metal gable by corrugated gable, as do many farm buildings.  The interior has vaulted spaces looking up at the bottom of the rusted metal roofing (probably a dropped second layer hiding modern construction, insulation, and ductwork) with impressive trusses of rough hewn timbers spanning great distances.  There are vines and rustic hand panted signs with occasional intentionally backwards letters.  I smiled when I noticed that by far the largest departments were for clothes, women's and men's.  But the gear departments were extensive as well, and well stocked with generally rugged equipment.  Thousands of fishing poles, aisles of lures, racks of boats and oars, shelves of rope...  I found a nice simple gimbaled cup holder of chromed wire for my dash.  Easily 75 varieties of back pack.  Climbing gear.  Cooking and BarBQ equipment.  Tents, knives, and on and on.  And of course, guns.

I moseyed up to an unoccupied spot at the 50' gun counter that meandered in gentle turns, in keeping with the rustic theme park look, and behind which were 2 or 3 hundred riffles and shotguns standing side by side like pool cues in racks.  I couldn't resist.  I put on my best this-is-completely-normal face and asked a salesman "What would be the cost of an entry level shotgun?"  The mustached man with the round head mounted directly on his slouching shoulders, sans neck, like Gerry Garcia after an improbable visit to a barbershop, asked almost without hesitation "For hunting or home defense?"  There was in fact a tiny hesitation which I think was intended to ease me over my slightly visible discomfort.  "Home defense," I replied.  "Pump or lever?"  "Pump," I say, now getting the hang of this.  He took out of the rack an all black shotgun saying "This holds seven shells, six in the (long tube below the barrel he pointed to, I can't remember the term) and one in the chamber.  It has a synthetic stock."  It's blackness and precision were everywhere, including the sleekly shaped very hard plastic stock.  It bore an engraved Remington logo, in slightly old looking familiar type, slightly italicized, with the right leg of the R swooping a little below the letters that followed.  The rest of the design was timeless, crisp, clean, functional.  If I were to buy a gun, this would be one I would choose after scrounging forever, as I scrounge forever for many well designed things large and small.  I'm currently on a quest for a cordless vacuum.

Some of my friends suggested I would need a gun if I were traveling in remote parts of the county.  I dismissed these recommendations, of course, but as I stood there at the counter, lofting this beautiful, brutal thing, I did consciously take a moment to evaluate how I would feel if I were forced to defend myself with it.  My examination of the thought made clear it's preposterousness immediately, and I handed the weopon back with thanks.  I did ask the price, so as not to seem to be wasting his time, but I realize now that I never did the obvious hold-it-to-my-shoulder-sight-down-the-barrel routine, my conclusion having been reached so quickly, and this probably revealed me as an impostor.  I had an acting teacher who would notice these kinds of omissions in a students performance as an indicator of a lack of careful preparation.  I guess I hadn't prepared for gun shopping adequately.

I can not conceive of a situation where escalation of a conflict to a level where I am menacing someone with a gun would be the right move.

So, anyway, I bought my second water container.  It holds 5 gallons, and has well positioned handle and hand grips, a spout that reverses in it's retaining ring to rest inside, which spout is intentionally flexible and includes an air passage down it's length for pouring through a tight opening, and a nicely designed final gasket, and an air release from the container itself with a cleverly designed captive cap.  It's brilliant.  It's light blue, for water.

Now at the Texas welcome center, after determining that I would stay the night here and try for the next town in the morning, I took my water containers up to the info center to fill them.  I got the smaller one into the men's room sink with just a little trial and error.  To fill the large container, on a second trip up, I used the water fountain, accomplishing this by supporting the 5 gallon container, which would weigh 40 lbs when full, on a slippery-when-wet sign I turned on it's side, and using the container's removable spout as a viaduct to steer the drinking stream into the mouth of the container.  It's a beautiful design.

I'm hunkered down now for the night, writing.  Ah, the cell phone is ringing.  It's my friend from NYC, David Intrator...

Car trouble

Two days ago, after Happy Camper fixed my AC, I finally headed off westward on I-10, towards Lafayette, La.  I happened along in a jolly way and came upon a tourist info center in the Atchafalaya Basin (at-ch-fa-LIE-ya), America's largest swamp river delta wetland.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atchafalaya_Basin)  From among the bounty of available pamphlets, each one folded to the exact same 3 3/4" x 8 1/2" dimensions to fit in info center display racks, I selected a 4 hour boat tour catering to serious photography, and using my cell phone, which to T-Mobile's credit works in America's largest swamp, I arranged to join the next morning's 9:30 trip.  With a few hours remaining before sundown, I drove an hour to Abbeville, a town in an area just inland of Pecan Island, where Alicia had noted there would be interesting little fishing villages.  On the way I passed through towns with light industries like sheet metal folding, printing, and furniture.  It was nice to see communities with a fabric of real small businesses, not franchises, although the mix on the larger road also included Auto-Zone and the the fast food places, etc.  I stopped for directions at Auto-Zone, as a matter of fact, and helped a woman carry a fender to her pick up truck, and she gave me detailed directions to Abbeville.

I have pictures of Abbebille to upload, but my camera gear is stashed in a hidden way below my bed; more on that later.  Abbeville is a very picturesque little town with a lovely church, tree lined streets with closely spaced Victorian houses, and a town square where this afternoon the residents were setting up sound equipment for a local band.  I met Mitch, the Mayor of Abbeville, and David and his wife collected $3 from me for the Jambalaya being served by the Jambalaya Team, six middle aged men in aprons encircling a gas heated skillet about 4 feet across, full of Jambalaya.  The event was part of the ongoing Abeville revitalization, one event in a series of weekend events intended to draw tourists to the town.  The proceeds for this one are going to the restoration of Frank's theater, which was being orchestrated by Onezieme Mouton, (http://onezieme.com/) a thirty-ish architect who had returned to and settled in this, his home town.  This afternoon, he was accompanied by Laurie Ryker (http://www.studioryker.com/directory.html)  I was happy to be able to offer some tools and screws for Onezieme to use to put up a sign describing the event.  (Pictures and more later.)

That night, I drove back to Atchafalaya, parked in the tourist info center, met miraculously healthy 80 year old tour guide, Kirk, in the morning, and went on the tour with his son Ken, veteran helicopter mechanic, outdoors-man, and non stop story teller.  (Pictures and more later.)


Forgive my brevity.

I headed out west on I-10 again and soon my transmission went nuts.  The truck engine raced, the speedometer went to zero even though I continued at about 40, then 30, and then started to loose power.  My overdrive indicator light flashed and the engine chugged.  I made it up a little hill in 2nd gear, and rolled into a truck stop.  I chose a place to park that was visible and well lit, in case I would have to stay the night in what looked like a rough place, complete with a sleazy mini casino, a fixture in this kind of truck stop.  (Pictures and more later.)  I hid my camera stuff under my bed and went inside the convenience store, where I got lot's of advice from folks (Pics and more later) and with the use of Brenda's phone, I spoke to two mechanics.  As advised, I added 3 quarts of transmission fluid, but rather than getting a tow to a Ford place in the previous town off I-10, I tested the the truck by circling the truck stop a few times and headed back on the service road.  I made it to the Ford place, and pulled in, prepared to wait until morning.  But it turned out there was a young mechanic, Erik, 24, working on his motor cycle now at about 9:30 p.m. in a rear building, with is girlfriend watching.  He checked and pronounced that I had plenty of transmission fluid, and then noticed a puddle under the truck, which he sniffed and said was diesel fuel.  He advised me not to drive anymore.  He gave me a few phone numbers to call in the morning and said the dealership would open in the morning, too (Saturday) and that I could spend the night where I was parked.

It's Saturday morning here now.  I'm going to walk down the road a bit for some breakfast.  (Pictures and more later.)

UPDATE:

Soon Corey came to work on his own car here at the Ford place.  He diagnosed the bus' problem after a short test drive.  "It's a wheel motion sensor.  The two for the front wheels are out, so the transmission is using default info to change gears and it's a little erratic.  We don't have any, but you could try over in Jennings' Ford," and he gave me directions.  He thought the diesel fuel puddle was a red herring, probably not from my truck.

I found the Ford place in Jennings, 12 miles further down I-10.  Keith was sure the front wheel sensors have nothing to do with the transmission, but thought the one on the rear must be the culprit.  He replaced it, but the problem persisted.  Then he researched on Ford's website and determined that there is another speed sensor on the drive shaft, which he then changed, and then still found no improvement.  "It has to be in the wire or the PCM (Power Controll Module)." So, using an Ohm meter, he traced the wire from the transmission sensor back to the PCM and found that the wire had no break.  "You need a new PCM.  Ford will charge you $1,000, but you can go to O'Riely's and get one for about 200 bucks."  "How about Auto-Zone?"  "Sure," he said "but you'll have to order one."  "Ok, and if I work it right, I could order one in one town, for pick up further west."  So that's my plan now, with one lingering doubt.  What if Kieth is still not right about the PCM being the culprit?  I'll have a new one and no way to return it.  Still, if I let Ford order one on Kieths say so, and he is right, I'll have a new Ford PCM, but be out an extra $800.  I think I'll try the Auto-Zone approach, risking just the $200.  Oi.

Time to use the net...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

On the Road Again...

I spent most of March upgrading the creature comforts of Tourtoise.  (My friend Margareta calls my bus by the blog name, and I like it.)  I've completed a lot of cabinetry, and put up some shelves that I think are rather clever.  They are supported on heavy metal brackets which I installed below or above the shelves between alternating 30" windows, so that the 60" blinds could operate between the stronger bottom mounted brackets, while the upper mounted brackets still cut the spans in half and support the middles of the shelves.  The shelves are made of 1 x 3 inexpensive "white wood" (a Home Depot mystery species that looks a little like a very light fir or dense spruce.)  The 1 x 3's are spaced 1 1/4" apart to allow bungee hooking.  The fronts of the shelves have a 1 x 3 oak trim board, mounted to form a raised 3/4" lip at the edge of the shelf, as well as a 1 1/8" lip below, forming a lighting valence for lights mounted on the bottoms of the shelves.  The oak trim board is spaced 1/2"away from the first shelf board by 3/8" hex nuts and two washers which I put around each of the trim board's mounting screws, to provide another gap for bungee attachment.  There are a few pictures in the previous post, below.

The night before last, I had dinner in New Orleans with Alicia.  She shared lots of maps and notes from her bus traveling days, and helped me plan my route, upon which I will elaborate in a bit.  I took off in the morning, after calling Eli to thank him for all of his help and hospitality in New Orleans.  He was disappointed that I was leaving without visiting him again, and I felt a little guilty about that, but in the end he understood that I was impatient to get going.

But it turned out I had one more chore to deal with.  Tourtoise has two air conditioners; a normal system discharging from the dashboard for the driver, and a huge unit mounted on the ceiling at the rear of the bus, for the passengers.  Driving down to Alicia's, I discovered the large unit was blowing it's fuse immediately upon start up, and the dash system was blowing only hot air, even when set to vent.  I knew I had to have these fixed for my desert adventures.  I thought it might have something to do with the other electrical equipment newly connected at Happy Camper, but I was reluctant to drive back 40 miles or so for them to look at it, until Alicia persuaded me what I already knew on the other hand, that a new mechanic down the road would have to spend a lot of time just figuring out what HC had done.  So at about 7:30 a.m. I headed back to Mississipi, deciding to just show up at HC, rather than give them an opportunity to put me off to another day.

I greeted Jeremy, who was on top of a huge motor home, mopping the roof, and I explained the problem.  He said "We can look at that for you," and climbed down.  Jeremey is amazing.  In the next hour and a half, he probed, reasoned, metered, fearlessly openned panels of the interior, and using an amp meter, he tracked the short to ever decreasing possible locations, until voila!  When I had mounted my shelves, I had hit an air conditioner cable and pierced and shorted three wires.  In my defense, the cable had fallen from a wire chase at the ceiling line into an unpredictable location just above the windows, but we all had a good laugh at my expense.  As Jeremy repaired the cable, he said he loved when a customer blames them for something and it turns around to be the customer's fault.  I saved the piece of pierced cable jacketting, and mounted it on the bulls eye of Jeremy's archery practice target; Jeremy is 2nd place Mississippi State Champ, his assistant and friend Duncan is State Champ.

AC repaired, I got on the road again.  I meandered down to I-12 west and stopped at Target for sun glasses and some food provisions.  And across the parking lot was a Verizon store, and I remembered Margareta's reminder to me to get a broadband access card, as I had weeks ago complained about having to organize my days around finding Starbucks for internet, and that the cost of the coffee alone would pay for broadband access.

So, last night I parked at Wal-Mart near Baton Rouge, and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting at my drawing table, the one I've had since I was eight, and using my under shelf mounted light, connected to my 200 amp hour deep cycle battery, to which was also connected my 1250 watt converter, into which I had plugged my laptop, which was connected to the net via Verizon broadband, and I reached into the propane powered refrigerator behind me and retrieved a Red Stripe Jamaican Ale and a few slices of Provolone, and for the first time in a long time, I feel really optomistic.  I will look into taking on some easy drafting work for two days a week to fuel the tank, and this will be great.

Thursday morning I start down I-12 west again, and a red break light comes on on the dash.  Crap.  1/4 mile further, there is a Ford dealership.  I pull in.  I describe the break light, and also the roughness of the engine at 35-45 miles, which two previous mechanics have failed to fix, and I also mention a funny ticking/screeching sound that just started, which I suspect is a belt.  I'm sitting in the Ford waiting room, waiting for the prognoses, sigh...  And I plug in my broadband and type this story :-)

UPDATE:  One hour later, Ford has officially pronounced the Tourtoise healthy.  They could not find anything wrong with the breaks, and the warning light no longer shows.  We chalked it up to possible water infiltration from the rain last night, wetting a signal wire.  They also said there is nothing wrong with the engine, though I still feel it's objectionably rough at 35 to 45.  Oh well.  And the screech?  Must be my hyper nerveousity getting the best of me over a normal sound.  And they charged me nothing.  Thank you very much, Wes!

Here I go....

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Shelves...good for your posture,

and with good posture comes a good view of the horizon. 

My favorite inventions: The pencil, antibiotics, the airplane,
the umbrella and it's cousin the bicycle, stairs,
and shelves.



Saturday, March 20, 2010

Getting close

I awoke at 4:30 today, as I have every morning for the last 3 weeks.  Most of these days have been filled from before sunrise to after sunset with work at breakneck speed, on the bus conversion, and it has been a lot of fun.  Yesterday was the first since my two days at Happy Camper RV Repair, where Jeremy and Duncan did an amazing job hooking everything up.  Since then, and especially this morning, with the deadline of making my appointment with them behind me, my pace has slowed and a deep melancholy has laid itself over me like a thick blanket of snow.  My friend Scott Gusmer once noticed that a project is a reason to live, and when it's over, there is a void.  I am not done with my bus interior, there is plenty more to do even before I head west, but a major push is complete, and I have some time to be morose (so why pass that up? :-)

I have a habit of buying more of a fastener than I need for any given project, so that I have a good supply on hand for the next time I might need it.  Before I left Massachusetts, I organized in little 6 mil poly bags I ordered from the internet for the purpose, dozens of sizes and varieties of metal bolts, Phillips and slotted, nuts, washers, lock washers, sheet metal screws, wood screws, Phillips and slotted, pop rivets, screw eyes, toggle bolts, and other bits of hardware (about a third of which is in the picture to the right.)  After a stopping point on a project, I like to straighten up all of my tools, and sort any stray hardware back into their pouches.  This morning, I re-sorted the hardware that had been left spilled on a Sterilite lid for use during the recent push.  But, my usually joyful hardware husbandry felt lonely and futile, today.  I thought about the house in Fleetwood I didn't get to buy.  I thought about how this is clearly a replacement project.  It's just a bus/camper, but it's my territory.  I live here, wherever here is at the moment.  What will I find out west?  (If it's an endless series of creepy paid camp grounds and WalMarts, I'll be very disappointed.)

Despite some despair, I completed my sorting, noted which bits need replenishing, and I'm off to Home Depot to get wood for shelves over my windows, and I'll restock the hardware supplies too.  Who can travel without at least a couple dozen wood screws in each of sizes 1 1/4 x 8, 1 1/2 x 10, 2 x 12?  And some 6-32's, 10-24's, and 1/4-20's in a variety of lengths, with nuts, washers, and locks?

Got milk?  Got Screws?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Building the furnace enclosure with a camera safe on top

Still need the fridge front, and a grill for the furnace outlets...

Click the purple for a Flicr slide show: Building the furnace enclosure w/ insulated top

Bus... the cabs go in


Click the purple for cabinet placement and my trip to Happy Camper RV Repair, where Jeremy and Duncan did an amazing job of hooking it all up.  Cabs go in, systems hooked up

Sunday, March 14, 2010

And...

More doctoring of the electrical cabinet..

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Yet More Work on the Bus

Find this picture in the right hand column and click it to see a Flickr slide show of me cutting holes in the side of the bus, and some cabinet work, too.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ok, so it's a little bit about the bus...

Here is progress rebuilding the front of the Lowe's kitchen cabinets to match the IKEA

Friday, March 5, 2010

Some work on the bus

I am preparing for my next leg on the trip, out west to New Mexico, Arizona, and then north.  I've decided to put some creature comforts into the bus before I go; a big "house" battery for light and laptop, a propane furnace, a refrigerator that runs on AC/DC or propane, and a microwave.  I spent a week engineering a system,...

Monday, March 1, 2010

My Time at Kamp Katrina

Some weeks back, I visited Kamp Katrina, the bunk house haven for mimes and street performers.  Though I had hoped to stay there for a while, I felt unsafe in the neighborhood and the living room/bunk room offered no privacy or security whatsoever.  I’m glad I have a little time to tell more of that story, because although I will never forget it, details fade in time.

I've uploaded some photos of Ms. Pearl and two of the residents:

Click purple for - Kamp Katrina on Flickr

The house called Kamp Katrina is in the section of New Orleans a mile east of the French Quarter, called Bywater, presumably because it's by the water, although other sections are just as close to water.  As I approached from the north east, I passed through increasingly more rundown neighborhoods, arriving finally in front of a small 2 story rectangular house in need of new siding.  I parked hesitantly on the street between vehicles in various states, across the street from one surrounded by a group hanging around.  Overseeing them, on a porch opposite Kamp Katrina, was a fellow standing with arms folded.  I made my way over there and asked him if this was Kamp Katrina, pointing over my shoulder, knowing that this would elicit a "Yes", and begin a favorable encounter.  "Yes" he said.  "Do you know Ms. Pearl?"  "Uh-hu..."  I knew he had more to say but I went no further.  "My name is Roy."  He answered "Roger" we shook hands and chatted a bit.  I later learned he was a lookout for the crack house in front of which he stood.

The Kamp Katrina house has a concrete side driveway and a yard that also extends around the back.  These are enclosed by a waist high chain link fence.  The entry gate has the remains of decorations that connote some ritual when installed, but now droop, tired from the weather.  A weather wilted banner hangs on the house itself bearing the name, "Kamp Katrina" in spray painted letters.  The yards contain various incongruous but mostly yardy things; an over sized bird fountain, a bath tub, stones and seashells carefully placed to form some figures, a garden table holding some toys, a bag of seed, some bicycles in various states of disrepair.  Around the back are some tents which have lost their tension.  All of these items are carefully arranged, but deteriorated; time here has stopped some time ago.

I approached the side door, as Roger had told me to do.  Through its glass panes, I could see a young man of 17 or so, sitting at a small old wooden desk placed to face the door, but only perhaps 30 inches back.  I stepped up two of the three wooden steps and tapped.  The young man got up in a methodical way and opened the door.  There was an incongruous formality to his manner.  "Yes?" he enquired, holding the knob as people do to prevent visitors from entering.  "I'm here to see Ms. Pearl."  "Step back."  I backed down the stairs, which retreat he watched me complete before adding "One moment, please." He shut the door, and through the glass I could see him ascend some stairs.  He returned in a minute and announced that "Ms. Pearl will see you," and he beckoned me in.  I entered about 16 inches and he directed me to "Sit here, please," pointing to a simple wood chair with its back to the wall, crowded about 2" from the front door by the nearly adjacent corner of the room.  He returned to his seat behind his desk.  We remained in silence for a few minutes, sitting at most four feet apart.

The young man returned to his work, which was painting.  His desk was almost entirely covered with small bottles and cups of paint, brushes, and piles of paper, and he worked in a small clearing in the middle.  Again, engineering a yes reply to a first question, I said "Painting?"  "Yes."  "I'm Roy."  "My name is Bo.  I'm the Maitre de.  Ms. Pearl will be with you in a minute."

Directly behind him were two twin beds, and to my right were three bunk beds arranged with two narrow walkways between them, across the openings of which were strung sheets for privacy, but these were presently open.  Personal belongings were strewn about some of the beds.  A wrought wire chair next to one lower bunk served as a night stand of sorts.

After a minute or two passed Bo said, "Would you like to see some of my paintings?"  "Yes I would."  He turned and took one of three stacks of identically sized pieces of foam core stored with precision on a shelf to his left, and handed them to me.  Bo's orderliness stood in stark contrast to the general disarray.  The paintings too, followed a strict format.  Each was surrounded with a painted border, with fabric triangles almost as thick as carpet glued on to each corner.  In the center of each was a portrait set in an abstract fantasy background.  The faces were rendered with some precision.  "Very nice," I said, returning the stack.  We repeated this for all three stacks.

At some point I could hear half of a shouting phone call upstairs.  I recognized the voice as Ms. Pearl's from our phone conversations, which were all cordial and inviting, and laced with southern ease.  Now, she shouted "You could be a fucking human being, that's all..." etc.  It sounded like she was talking to a stranger, as there was anger, but not the rage one hears in a fight with a loved one.  Bo and I exchanged no recognition of this awkward moment, except that soon he was moved to inform me that  “Ms. Pearl has a few rules.  The first, and most important one, is never talk to anyone from the house across the street.”  Oops.  I never learned the other rules.

Soon, I met David, a stocky but sturdy 18ish former coal miner from Virginia, probably with a runaway story.  He was preparing his silver mime costume.  A Silver mime is a performer dressed head to toe in silver colored clothing, with silver makeup completing a completely metallic appearance.  The mime performs by holding still for great lengths of time.  Some also perform mechanical motions of the early genuine break dancing sort from the 80's, creating a robotic appearance.  I couldn't understand much of David's rapid mumbling, except that he had something emphatic to say about his machine gun, which turned out to be a large plastic water gun, painted silver, too.  Later, David showed me some sores on his arm, one on the top of his wrist was an open crater the size of a quarter, on top of a lump the size of half a lemon  There were several smaller lumps further up his arm.  "You have to go to a doctor," I said.  "I am, on Wednesday."  “Why are you waiting?"  "Free clinic on Wednesday."

David seemed to communicate with Damon.  Damon sat on the bottom bunk, furthest from me.  His long, curly, dark, unwashed hair hung at the sides of his round face, which was perched above the dog collar he wore.  He had returned from some outing with a bag of little things, cheesy peanut butter crackers, Mardi Gras beads, and so forth, and he soon got up and made presents of some of these to the others.  Then he slumped into a chair near the bunk.

Mike, very thin in figure and hair, but with full mountain man beard, appeared from a room beyond.  I learned he was a poet.

The three passed a joint, while Bo worked at his desk and did not partake.

And then, Ms. Pearl descended the steep attic stair in the corner opposite my chair.  She wore bright red, loose fitting slacks and a red long sleeve T, over which she had on a black and white button less jacket, with a strongly graphic weave and noticeably simple lines.  She is thin and wiry, resembling a cross between Lily Tomlin and Mick Jagger, and it is hard for me to estimate the age of her long, well lined face.  There is a sparkle to her, and also a haze, the remains of tragedy, survived.  Ms. Pearl's greeting released me from my chair and we shook hands, I taking really only her fingers in my grasp, as I always do with women.  I don't know where I learned to do that, but it's my habit.  Ms. Pearl, I never learned any other name for her, spoke almost continuously, frequently gesturing for emphasis, and yet I cannot remember much of what she said.  There was internal continuity, and I could follow at the time, but the total had a rambling feel, caused partly by the beer she was drinking, but also, she explained later, she has never been the same since a very strong electrical shock.  "I've become more outgoing, for one thing.  Completely different personality."   But also, the output seemed partly formed by an inner complicated dialogue, metered only partly by the present circumstance and the discipline of an experienced performer, and also partly by a southern, graceful manner.  She was free, yet self conscious and lucid and a little confused, in turns.  I mostly spectated, tried to feed her what she needed, and after a time, asked if I could take photos.  I knew by then that I could not stay even one night, and that this would be my only chance.  She seemed glad for the opportunity to pose as she spoke.

Soon, her attention turned to Bo, and they began to play with Barak and Michelle masks.  I moved about more freely after that, my camera justifying my exploration of the other rooms on the first floor.  There were no halls, just connected rooms.  After the bunk room was the Kitchen, piled on one side with non kitchen things, and on the other, with quite a bit of cookware fitted into moveable shelves and stands of all sorts.  There were remains of meals here and there, but some order for preparing food.  Beyond the kitchen was a room cluttered with unarranged furniture and boxes; it seemed to be an unused room.  I wondered why the bunks were not in there, for some privacy.  There was also a closet full of somewhat tattered costumes, neatly hung.  A final room, off of the opposite side of the bunk room, and accessed through a door at the end of one of the walkways, also seemed unused and was filled with furniture, a rolled carpet, and other clutter.  Beyond this room was a bathroom.

I was glad to have an opportunity to photo Damon; his sad face pleading into the camera.  He asked if it was expensive, and I answered yes, and added a little detail about my beloved 24mm f1.4 lens which is so good at gathering light, because the glass opening is so large, that I can shoot indoors without a flash.  Damon also asked me to take a picture of him with his phone, and asked again if my camera was expensive.

Soon, I followed Ms. Pearl up the narrow wooden stairs, to her attic.  The walls and ceiling of this inner sanctum had had their plaster finish removed, revealing rough Cyprus boards almost 12 inches wide.  There was a long table made from a featureless door slab, and around the walls some miscellaneous furniture, and in the far corner a small kitchen.  It was clear that Ms. Pearl spends a good deal of her time here, with a computer which was set up on the door table, and her phone.  On the wood walls, boldly scrawled in colored chalk, in theatrical 4" block letters, were notes to herself, reminders of things normally found in an appointment book.  Ms. Pearl continued her story telling, and soon came to her lost love, Shawn.  I've forgotten his street name, which she used most of the time.  He had been a street performer, a silver mime, and a guitarist, and they had performed together and built this world into which they took other performers and artists.  They were a visible and well known couple in the French Quarter and beyond.  She showed me pictures and YouTube videos of them together, and you could see they were a magical couple and very much in love.  She pointed to the tents outside in which they slept at times, and told me of how they took in and helped Katrina survivors, and how Shawn had been a song writer and an activist for the community.

Then she told me he had disappeared 8 months ago, without a trace.  The police had looked at the time, and there were some conflicting stories from some friends, but essentially, his disappearance remains a total mystery.  I learned later from Alicia, my friend the former bus traveler, that his disappearance was traumatic for many people in the area. Still, Ms. Pearl told me, the Police have given up.  "They search for small children, but not for adults, I'm tellin ya'.. Why is that?"  She showed me a shrine she keeps on her long table; a Missing Person flyer, his driver's license, a playing card, a religious picture, and a small statue of an angel.

                * * * * *

…time here has stopped some time ago.

                * * * * *

 Soon, I realized it would be dark and I would need a place to stay the night.  "Ms. Pearl, I have to tell you something honestly, and it's a little difficult.  I hope you won't take this the wrong way."  "What?"  "I don't think staying here will work out for me.  For one thing, I'm a lot older than the kids down stairs."  "Yes I know what you mean," she said, visibly disappointed, but containing it well enough for me to feel comfortable, and I appreciated her doing so. I also mentioned my concern for my bus parked outside, and we debated that a tiny bit, but she could see I'd made up my mind.  I stayed a little longer, and we made promises to let each other know about our street performances.

I left and made my way closer to the French Quarter, pulled over, and called Dixie Brown...