Drew, Mississippi, My Mother’s Home

Drew, Mississippi

Drew, Mississippi

New Orleans   It was just another day for my mother, but it was her birthday, and she was now 92 years’ old, and that’s quite something in itself.

Several times during the week before she had asked me if her mother was still alive, and I would explain that she had died forty years earlier. She said she knew that. But, she wanted to know if she “could go home now.” Home was a small cotton farming down in the middle of Sunflower County in Mississippi in the rich delta land hardly thirty miles from the great Mississippi River about one-hundred miles south of Memphis and one-hundred miles north of Jackson. I would explain to her, as I had done many times before, that she no longer had family or friends in Drew. The house on Shaw Street was still there, but even though one of my uncles had refurbished it, their old family home had been sold twenty-five or thirty years earlier as she and her brothers made permanent homes in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Missouri. New Orleans would always be her home now. There was no going back to Drew for her, I patiently explained once again. The Drew she knew no longer existed.

Turned out I was being overly kind to Drew and Sunflower County.

Coincidentally, I was going through newspapers I had missed while out of the country, and stumbled on a reprinted article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune by a Washington Post reporter named Chico Harlan that carried a Drew, Mississippi dateline. The theme was inter-generational poverty and the quicksand of despair that continued to flood the delta counties, making them among the most impoverished in the country. The reporter had followed a young man in the chaos of his high school graduation up the road from Drew in Ruleville and then on to his desperate job search and then led him to a Nashville-based job training school with a $30,000 loan and hopes of walking out as a diesel engine mechanic. I felt thankful that the story ended there, fearing that the next chapter would be even worse.

imrs.php3imrs.php2Sunflower County is now the 72nd poorest county in the United States and has been experiencing steady population decline, and in fact is half the number it was in the 1950s. Drew now only claims less than 2000 people, though I swear there had been 5000 there when my family used to drive up from New Orleans for Thanksgiving every year in the late 1950s and my brother and I would spend a week there visiting my grandmother for several summers in our early teens. We would ride with my great aunt who was the Drew postmistress to deliver mail to the notorious Parchman Prison several miles up the road, our eyes big as saucers, partially because of the prison, and partially because Aunt Sue drove fast and kept two wheels on the pavement and the other two kicking up dust on the shoulder of the road the whole way.

The high school where my mother and my uncles Tom and Barton Wade graduated and where Archie Manning, NFL star and father of Peyton and Eli, was first a local football and sports phenomenon is no longer the high school, since the schools are now consolidated in Ruleville after the state took them all over as failing enterprises. We only knew Ruleville as the home of Fannie Lou Hamer and a better picture show than the one in Drew.

The one thing that is still true is that more than 70% of the town and county is African-American. The schools are virtually all black. A private academy formed in reaction to the civil rights struggles and mandatory integration now schools almost all of the whites. Todd J. Moye, author of Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986, wrote that the white residents of Drew had “traditionally been regarded as the most recalcitrant in the county on racial matters” and perhaps the worst in the state. Many arguments and admonitions underscored that memory too. The Post had a picture of drug dealing in front of an abandoned gas station that I remembered as well, claiming that economic refugees to the north in the great migration had sent their children back to relatives and brought the drugs with them. Unlikely, but simply harder to hide in a town so miserable and small now.

I found myself searching for a brighter story. There was some kind of a small economic development nonprofit located in Drew, claiming an office address on Shaw Street only blocks from where my grandparents had lived. Guidestar had no current information, but hopefully it was still at it. There were hints of one or two other efforts as well.

I found myself once again checking the distances on my monthly circuit from Texas to Arkansas to New Orleans even though I knew from earlier “roots tours” taking our own children through Drew would only add another hour or so to the journey and thinking, perhaps irrationally, that even if my mother could never go home, perhaps I could go for her and maybe, even more crazily, I could pop my head in here and there and see if there was any way to lend a hand if I had any skills to offer the Sisyphean task of Drew and Sunflower County trying to survive as something more than a shadow of their troubled past and endangered present.

Grandfather's Gravestone

Grandfather’s Gravestone

Grandmother's Gravestone

Grandmother’s Gravestone


U-Haul is Becoming U-Fixit, We Rip-U!

10795023-largeNew Orleans    There’s a U-Haul location right at the railroad tracks hardly more than a half-mile from where I live and even closer to where we were assembling to move stuff from half a shotgun double to a storage unit a couple of miles down the road. Given the convenience, it never occurred to me to call anyone else to rent a short bed 15-foot truck for the day.

I showed up, as promised, at 8:30 AM and for a minute was the only customer.  The manager said I had missed the earlier rush, and given the heat and humidity building on a typical, smarmy New Orleans summer day, I knew he was telling the truth. Inspecting the vehicle was easy, but seemed weird in some ways.  I was instructed to look for tiny “x’s” marked on the body of the truck where there was previous damage. Oddly, a long scrape across the entire top of the truck was unmarked.  The manager just laughed when I mentioned it, which I found a bit weird as well.  He laughed less when he told me from his screen that the gas tank was more than half-full, and I pointed out that the picture on the rental agreement showed that it was in fact less than one-half filled, but he corrected it quickly.  I thought nothing of it, and drove off to what turned out to be my hella-day.

Returning the truck though was even more bizarre.I rent cars pretty regularly, so I thought I knew the drill.  Wrong!  I got out of the truck with the keys and paperwork, but when the checker came to me, he took neither of them, and asked me to get back in the truck, which I thought was odd.  Odd though was hardly the word for it.  He then ran me through the drill.  Left turn signal, right turn signal, lights on, lights off, high beam on, high beam off, reverse then brake, etc, etc, and etcetera.  What the frick?

When I climbed down from the cab, I was pointedly clear in my query:  “what was that? It was the same routine as one of the state’s motor vehicle inspections?”

His response was glib?  “Yeah, we’re thorough,” he replied.

But me, being me, I wasn’t willing to pass it off even in my filthy, sweat drenched, bone-tired condition or maybe because of all of that, so I said, “Man, I’ve driving under the sun all day, how would I even know if the lights worked, much less the high beams?  Are you telling me that if one of the turn signals had gone out on your truck in the 7 hours I had it that you would have tried to charge me for the repair?”  Add a tone of dripping, semi-irate sarcasm, and you are standing right there next to me.

His answer was crisp and clear as he said flatly, “Yes,” and turned away from me indicating the inspection and the conversation was now over.

No ifs, and, and buts about it, that would have been a rip, but clearly that’s company policy.   No customer is asked to check the lights, turn signals, and whatever before pulling out of the lot.  In fact when you sign the contract you are shown the number to call if you have a problem on the road.  The real deal seems to be that if they run a brake tag like inspection on every returning vehicle they are clearly trying to nickel and-dime the customer into paying their minor maintenance costs on their trucks, despite the fact that none of the things being checked could possibly have been caused by the renter.

A quick Google search finds that U-Haul got nailed by the Los Angeles Times for running old, decrepit trucks and never doing regular upkeep and maintenance around 2007.  They seemed to have suffered through a class-action suit about it 2008.

They may have gotten the inspection religion around that period, but, unfortunately, they also seem to have come to the conclusion that, darned, if we’re going to have to finally inspect the fleet, then we better figure out a way to pass as many of the costs off to the suckers who are customers.

Well, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware I guess, but caveat emptor to any buyers walking into U-Haul, too!

Dirty Pretty Things – Bloodthirsty Bastards



MI-CJ839B_TINYF_9U_20150602184527New Orleans   In the red-hot real estate market in Hong Kong they are selling something called “mosquito” apartments that are less than 180 square feet.  There was a picture in the paper comparing the size, unfavorably, to that of a parking slot.  Real estate brokers were suggesting that you could use the window sill for “entertaining.”  For all I know they may now call jumpers, entertainers in Hong Kong.  In Mumbai, the redevelopment schemes when high-rise luxury buildings replace squatters’ housing in registered and unregistered slums put families in 300 meter spaces.

Many times these days I think about these situations with the contradictory notions of envy and horror as I try to figure out what to do with too much stuff.  I met a woman some months ago who had an occasional job in New York City helping families clear out stuff from the apartments of dearly departed parents.  I understand increasingly why such a job now exists, and why it might pay even pay very well.

Looking after my elderly mother, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that she will never set foot in the second floor of her home again.  Is there any good plan for her library and lifetime of books as a PhD of English Literature?  Or my brother, another English PhD with an even wider range of tastes and interests, and his thousands of books that even after six months I’ve hardly dented in his old apartment.  The Friends of the University of New Orleans Library are already in a quandary about whether or not there is something different they need to do about the twenty-five boxes of books we donated to them for their spring sale.  When the librarian at Benjamin Franklin High School, attended by my brother, my daughter, and me, received the several boxes of classic volumes in French, Italian, and Latin that had been my brother’s, she wrote me quickly asking was I sure this was what I wanted to do because some of them were knocking on the door of rare.  My response was equally eager, “no, please take them, what else might you need?”

We cherish all of this stuff, rich with memory and weighted with time.  There’s a calculation of triage that I find myself making as I balance necessity, meaning something has to be done, with nostalgia, stewardship, and procrastination. Finally, a truck gets rented, the whole family gets impressed into duty, a storage locker is secured, and the triage goes to a higher level on all fronts with some things finally hitting the curb and others at least out of sight in a stalemate of sorts for another time.  We have to move forward.

My father passed away almost exactly seven years ago.  Where my brother lived is next door to where my son still lives.   Half of the house my son and I painted a couple of years ago, and I look forward to finally painting my brother’s side soon.  My father used to paint one side, and I would paint the other.  It’s hard to explain to my son or really anyone else how much painting these houses and rooms means to me.  Every brush stroke allows me to be reminded that his hands held a brush here, stroking this wood, striding this ladder every several years as we did this together.  Yelling from ladder to ladder whether we “were having fun yet.”  Sometime in the future my family will argue with me that a contractor should paint the walls inside my brother’s old apartment on his side of the shotgun double.   There’s no rational way to describe the fact that many years ago he had personally and painstakingly painted three coats of these colors carefully on these walls.  I look forward to rolling the paint and applying the trim on the same walls that he did, whether I can fully explain the experience or not.

The stuff eventually will get sorted, stored, salvaged, or trashed.   I dread the day though when I can’t imagine myself physically in the same space and doing the same tasks as my brother and father.  Someday, I hope my children have the same legacy experiences as they push a brush of brighter, fresh color to once again protect the planks providing the skin on the hundred year skeleton of these houses.  It’s a strange labor and a pure joy.

In the meantime, I hope I do a better job figuring out what to do with all of this stuff and the burdens of love and time we must all carry.

Macklemore x Ryan Lewis “WINGS” Official Music Video


Are the People Finally Taking Over Mardi Gras?


A float from the Krewe du Vieux “Begs for Change” 2015

New Orleans         There’s just something about reading the rehashed stories every year on the front page of the local New Orleans papers about the surprise of some uptown swell at being named King of Rex and the shock of some debutante at being chosen as the Queen.  All of this balderdash we are supposed to stomach as we then read of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters who were in the Rex Court, Queens and Kings in ought whatever over generations.  Their pictures are always the same.  The stereotypes are always constant.  In recent years, as a mild concession to the fact that New Orleans is a majority African-American city despite all of this elite pretense, there are also stories about the selection of the King of Zulu which actually involves well publicized campaigns and voting, as opposed to the secret society affairs of the old time krewes and courts.   The Indians are also having their time in the sun given all of the attention by those in the know and faux Mardi Gras fictions like HBO’s Treme. 

I’m for having fun, but the traditional part of Mardi Gras is so not for me and sits at the top of the list of the things that are not my favorite here.   Until my son and I started pulling a shift for the regulars at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse every Mardi Gras morning, my most common remark about the holiday was that it was great to have a day off.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that there are some changes afoot that might save Mardi Gras somewhat for the locals and leave the show and the rest of the malarkey for the tourists, who are much appreciated and desperately needed for our service-dominated economy.  One big change is that women have increasingly forced their way onto the scene and away from the society and debutante balls.  There are women’s krewes now in reaction to the all-male bastions of the old line Boston and Pickwick Club outfits and some like Muses are huge hits.  There are lots of women’s marching and dancing groups now, many with huge attitude and some that must give the grand dames along St. Charles Avenue some pause.

In the almost ten years since Katrina, there also seems to be a democratization of the festivities driven largely by young people who want to mask and parade often in their own neighborhoods like my own Bywater where so many of them have flocked since the storm.  There is spirit there and even a bit of anarchy, as we saw some years ago in Eris where an unplanned and permitted route ended up with some arrests and hubbub.   Krewe de Vieux before the official start of the carnival season snubs its nose at one and all with often ribald results.  Societe de Saint Anne in particular has become wildly popular and amasses in Bywater literally doors away from our old home and only blocks from where we live now and is all about anyone who wants to join in and walk the streets toward the French Quarter from Bywater through Marigny.

In these downriver neighborhoods the chances are also good that you will stumble into a random procession of twenty or fifty or a hundred people following a concoction of their own making or perhaps it will stumble into you as a huge great white whale float reminiscent of Moby Dick did on my block this season.  Now that people seem willing to seize the streets, they may have a chance over time of pushing the swells off the front line and back to the society pages and the dustbins of history where they belong.

Here’s hoping!


Please enjoy, Billy Bragg’s “There is Power in a Union”


Where are People’s Needs in Modern Life Dominated by Computers and Machines?

talking-computerNew Orleans    Every year for the last number of decades I have saved my vacation so I can take off the last two weeks of the year.  This began when we had children of course, as our lives began to revolve around the competition between their school schedules and our work requirements.   This year I had big ambitions to finish the book I’ve worked on for 10-years, and am “oh, so close” to completing, but what’s that often repeated line about God finding humor in watching people make plans?

In fact,  I can hardly wait to get back to work because I’ve spent the weeks pushing rocks up a hill mimicking Sisyphus in classic fashion and trying to keep an avalanche from coming down on me and others, as I’ve tried to sort out my mother and brother’s affairs.  No small amount of that process has been opening and sorting through paperwork, unopened letters, bills, and strident written demands in capital letters living in silence and never read.  Corporations and governments talk about being “people facing,” but I’m pretty convinced by my last two weeks that is nothing but framing and marketing, and has nothing to do with how either of them work in a world of telephone prompts, computer directed web solutions, and resistant choice architecture.I have never been more convinced that not only do we need Citizen Wealth Centers, as we have been trying to build, but we also need an army of peoples’ advocates and ombudsmen to cut through the red tape and complete balderdash to help regular folks!

Take a simple thing for my 92-year old mother of moving her monthly teacher’s retirement check directly to her bank account so that she doesn’t worry about it constantly.  It says on the check stub that it’s
easy to do and lists the website.   Well in this matter and so many others, it’s reasonable to assume that I’m at least as smart as the average bear, so let’s just check that off the list quickly.   As soon as you are
on the site, you realize what they are saying is, “whoa, cowboy, not so  fast.”   A social security number is not enough to make this work, because you need a special pin she was issued to her email address on file.  Yes,
she had a PhD in English from Tulane University, but, no, she hasn’t been near a computer for at least six years, maybe ten, so let’s hope they are better on the phone when I call for help.

Two checks disappeared from the house before I was back in country.  We dutifully packed my mother off to the bank which had allowed one to be cashed and caught the second, when the thief left both the check and an ID when questioned and ran.   This should be easy, right?  Open and shut.  We opened a new account and were given six pages of paperwork which had to be filled out and notarized.  Interestingly, after I filled it out, I noticed that the bank was trying to claim that if the paperwork was not filled out by the account holder herself it was invalid, but that was so asinine and absurd that I ignored it, and proceeded to also find a lawyer to notarize the signature as required.   Oh, wait, a police report is also required the bank called me to say, so I call the police, but the first two days I tried to schedule they claimed I had to be physically at my mother’s house when they got around to sending a squad car at some unknown time, because that was the procedure.  After my second 3 ½ hours of waiting for them, I called the police and said I couldn’t
wait anymore and the female police dispatcher — a real person — finally told me that they could come to me wherever I was when I call the next time.  People matter it turns out.

We found great news when we discovered a card from Medicare enrolling my brother, but then found another letter disqualifying him because he didn’t show up for an appointment that was required, though he had not been out of the house for several years except when admitted to a hospital.   Other mail excoriated him for not confirming his home address, even though he had stayed with my mother for years to look after her,
leaving his apartment virtually abandoned.

You get the picture, right?  I’m not whining.  This is modern life when companies and governments make promises and hope that you don’t follow through or realize you have any rights or the meanness and persistence to make them do right.  They have all cut staff in an era of scarcity and turned their world over to telephone machines with computerized responses.  I’ll deal with all of them and try not to go all reptilian,
but what happens to the great mass of our people trying to navigate this modern world, and doing so without the internet, computers, or any help?

Basic rights.   Fundamental services.   People first, not last.  Has the tradeoff of modern life with technology now thrown out the baby with the bathwater and created nothing but tin-men without hearts?


Please enjoy Protection from Lucinda Williams, thanks to KABF.


My Brother, Dale

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANew Orleans       Telling my mother the news about my brother, Dale, waited for my return to the city, so now every day, she and I reestablish the facts of the matter, reconfirming his passing.  Somehow this seems so metaphorically appropriate for Dale, he is both there, and not there, both known, and unknown, both voluble, witty, courtly, and knowing, and totally inscrutable, contradictory, and an enigma to the end and beyond.

I loved him as you can only love an only, younger brother or, until I had children, “my closest living relative,” as he would describe himself.  I also knew a mountain of details about him, as only a brother might know and someone who worked with him, almost daily, for 36 years.

He skipped 2nd grade.  He ran up to me with a young girl in the cafeteria in elementary school to tell me they had just kissed 26 times.  He broke his tooth in a bicycle accident in 5th grade riding home from school.  We trekked through countless gulleys and ravines in the West with a BB gun for years, summer after summer.  We shared a bed during an earthquake when visiting my grandmother in California.  We drank Doctor Peppers and ate divinity fudge on the back porch of my grandmother’s house in Mississippi.

He made money in college playing bridge in New York City where he accumulated enough points to be a Master.  He wrote me notes from Yale in Sanskrit that were impenetrable of course, but he also read Latin, Greek, and was fluent in French.  He turned over a mail truck on a rainy curb leading to his being fired by the postal service during one summer job.  He worked as a cook offshore on an Avondale shipyard contract another summer, and later became a gourmet cook with a French culinary bias.  My parents were instructed not to tell any friend calling where he was when he was offshore.  Later, he told me one of his roommates had “investigated,” and determined that the family was wealthy, and he thought that was a fine fiction to maintain, no matter how far from the truth.  With a Phd in English literature from Princeton, he had no interest in teaching, but moved to New York City to look for some kind of job, making ends meet by collecting cash while he paid with a credit card and floated the payments.

He was an Eagle Scout.  He was valedictorian at Benjamin Franklin High School. He was born in a Chevron oil camp outside of Rangely, Colorado on the western slope about 20 miles from Utah.  His SAT’s in 1967 were 796 verbal and 800 math, but so high on the math part that he was literally in the top handful that took the test that year.  He had an English accent for a bit and though he was not political he demonstrated with others at Yale around the Bobby Seale matter.  He named his West Highland terrier after Kingman Brewster.  He stayed in Little Rock with me for a month, sleeping all day, and staying awake all night, trying to figure out his future.  I stayed up twice just to talk to him.  He taught in an almost all black central city school in New Orleans for a year, waiting for his low draft number to clear so he could go to Princeton.  He wrote thank you notes and expected written invitations even to family Thanksgiving dinners.  He cut his own hair. He never said so, but he in fact was always the “smartest person in the room.”

In 1978, I convinced him to stay in New Orleans during the Carter depression and take one of the CETA slots we had for unemployed workers and help us build out the office on Baronne where we were moving ACORN’s national headquarters and beginning to organize workers as well.  With a power saw he worked late into the nights to build all the desks and dividers single-handed.  I asked him to stay through 1980 during our 20/80 campaign to make sure none of us went to jail, and he ended up handling our finances for almost 30 years and then smaller corporations another 6 years after that for me, as we mop up the pieces now.  At different times, he was more our lawyer than our lawyers, more our accountant than our accountants, more our architect than our architects, and at all times both invaluable and irreplaceable no matter how infuriating or insightful.

He loved opera.  He kept every program of every play he ever attended.  He worked endlessly on all manner of brain numbing details.  He took computer programming courses so he could learn the languages and use them.  He could quote pages of poetry. He mastered accounting and was invaluable in managing the audits to the degree even when his misappropriation became known more than fifteen years ago, the auditors wanted him to stay on regardless.  The Stoics and Spartans were our family guideposts. He didn’t believe we were meant to be happy and would explain without hesitation the classic dispute on the issue involving St. Thomas of Aquinas and others, as best I can recall.  He believed we were meant for pain, discipline, and sacrifice.  He had no bank accounts and only used cash.  He would lecture us all on every lost receipt or missing invoice without ever a hint of irony.   He was generous with gifts and doted on his niece and nephew, who worshiped him in turn.   He was patient and long-suffering with people while teaching them tasks, but was brittle and intolerant of people who “knew better.” When our father died, he came back that night to my mother’s home, and never left again, watching after her in decline, even as he descended steadily and painfully himself.  One of my uncles would call him regularly for answers to Jeopardy questions while on the air, according to my son.

And, for all of that and an endless list of other things I could name, I didn’t know him at all, and never will.  He was a master of constant mystery and reinvention for reasons unknown and unspoken.  His demons were his own and unshared.  His friends and enemies alike were legion and equally loyal and devoted to their views.

A friend and comrade of long standing reminded me over the last year of a conversation more than a decade ago when Dale suddenly seemed to have different color hair.  He vividly recalls asking me what was behind the change, and side that I told him then, “If I ever get to know him better, I’ll let you know.”  Talking to my daughter on Skype from France, I told her we were going through his computer, and she said how much she wished we would find a manuscript from her Uncle Dale that would tell the story of his life.  I told her at this point I wasn’t sure that I would want to read it, our memories and the miracles of life with him were enough and more might be more than I would be able to handle.  We were on a “need to know” basis with my brother, Dale, and that’s always been a fair deal in my book, because my love and respect for him was absolute.

And, for all of his foibles and failings, his strengths and contributions were also mammoth, and my debt to him, and ACORN’s, was also just as expansive.  When one friend noted that we were “losing too many comrades now,” and another noted that he was “always good to me,” we embrace the contradictions, paradoxes, and the essential enigma of Dale that make all life and work so cherished and special.

He was never a weight.  I was never his keeper.  I’ll miss him like no other, because he was in every way my brother.