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.

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...

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