Tag Archives: New Orleans

Maintaining in the Pandemic

New Orleans       I’ve got no complaints.  Regular calls around the world tell me every day how lucky we are.  We have a roof over our heads, so we in fact can shelter-in-place, and that’s not true for hundreds of millions.  We have food to eat and children who scold us for not being more careful, stand in line at Costco, pickup at Walmart, and did I mention, scold us for not being more careful.  Yes, right I did say that already.  So, take none of what I might say is now different as a whine or a grievance.  It’s just a statement of fact.  A notation of the changes now and perhaps those that are to come.

Since 1975, I’ve traveled almost 50% of my working career.  It’s been a different experience canceling trips and airline reservations, rather than making them and running to the airport.  Not having been in New Orleans for an entire spring since I was in high school, I had forgotten how truly amazing the weather can be this time of year in this part of the country.  The mornings are cool and the days are warm making jeans, flipflops, and long sleeve t-shirts my permanent uniform this season.

As mi companera and I have worked across the kitchen table form each other, computers blazing, we’ve occasionally walked over to the window to see the blooming pink oleander and yellow cassis.  Stay-at-home now means she has put bird seed and feeders for hummingbirds and whoever flies by, and, indeed, build it and they do come.  We have not only had the usual cardinals and bluejays, but in fact hummingbirds, black capped chickadees, catbirds, and more.  Azaleas have bloomed weeks ago and now the firecracker plant is attracting butterflies and, my favorite, the red powder puff is bursting out.  The bougainvillea will be blooming soon.  Spring roses are out on the fence.

No longer leaving the office to roll to the gym at the end of my work day has meant getting the bikes out of the shed and fixing them for the first time in a decade. In the early evening when we can, my son and I ride along the Mississippi River on the Crescent City Park.  We marvel at the size of cruise ships, and sometimes stop and stare at the freighters and barges making the turn at the crescent in this time of high water with the spillways wide open above the city.

Over the last month, I’ve paddled canoes more than I have cumulatively in the last twenty years on one bayou or another.  I’ve followed alligators at a distance.  Lowered my head as a pair of Canadian geese honked at me as they flew over, and then let me paddle farther down the bayou within feet of them before they rose and showed me their tail feathers.  I’ve seen the bass jump two feet out of the water and flushed mallards out of the byways.  I’ve brought home to my love water lilies, iris, and a purple thing, I still can’t name.

Not having to go to the office, I walk Lucha at 5am, start working before 6 am and am out and about before the sun sets to do something or other, but I’m not going to lie, I’ve come to enjoy a brief siesta in the early afternoon after I take my lunch break.

For now, I’m maintaining, not complaining.  But, I think a lot about the coming weeks as things return to a new normal and what will stay with me and others from what we have learned during this terrible time when we have been lucky enough to be sheltered, fed and employed, and stop smelling the roses, listening to the birds, and watching the fish jump, and join hands again with all of our people in the long process of rebuilding something new and better.  It will be hot and humid then, and we’ll feel it.


A Funeral Processional

New Orleans       I didn’t know Rev. William Barnwell or his family well, but I knew them for a long time and in many different capacities.

I first met Barnwell and some of his family when we were organizing the Household Workers Organizing Committee, a union of domestic workers in New Orleans in 1978-79.  The organization, which was in many ways the precursor of our efforts in the 1980s to organize and unionize home care workers, began as an effort to organize domestic workers to take advantage of finally being covered under the federal minimum wage at that time.  Among our ideas was to try and operate a hiring hall of sorts and to sign labor contracts with employers for domestic workers.  Searching for allies during that period we somehow found Barnwell who was connected to Tulane at the time as an Episcopal minister.  Over a period of several meetings and back and forth, we negotiated a labor contract for his maid, which became the first and only such agreement we had.

Barnwell was in and out of New Orleans, but I started running into him again over the last dozen years in the city.  His daughter lived in the neighborhood and was a sometime customer at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, and she reconnected us.  Barnwell wrote a book, and we had him talk about the book at one of our Fair Grinds Dialogues.  He would delight in telling me the story of how his maid had come to them a year or so later to talk about some work or wage-related issue and said, they could handle it “without bringing in the union man.”

He had become a prisoner rights advocate and showed up regularly as an activist on issues of racial, social, and economic justice.  He was a regular at meetings of the Justice and Beyond coalition where mi companero and other old ACORNers were in constant contact with him.

Word had been filtering into the house while we were working during this stay-at-home period that Rev. Barnwell was in the hospital.  One day doing well, and another doing poorly.  He had been having health issues, the kind of underlying issues for a man of eighty-one, that are the hallmark of coronavirus victims.  Some reports list him as having the virus, others say he tested positive.  It hardly matters in the end.  It’s a footnote at best to a life lived on principle and for purpose.

The family had a small funeral, but how in corona-time do others celebrate his life and speak of the loss to his family?  Justice and Beyond organized a mobile processional that convened on a usually busy street bisecting the deserted Tulane University campus.  We were car number six of perhaps thirty, not counting several bicyclists that pulled out at 6 PM with flashing lights to slowly drive through the neighborhood to his home.  Rev. Gregory Manning, one of the J&B conveners, stood on the curb with a cross.  Neighbors, dressed casually or in athletic gear with children and dogs, lined the street offering waves and thumbs up.  We slowed down as we passed so mi companera could hand a small vase with flowers from our yard to a neighbor so she could bear it to the widow, then we turned at the next street and made our way back home.

Somehow this makeshift processional in honor of Rev. Barnwell’s life was both fitting and oddly appropriate.  It wasn’t a second line, because it couldn’t be.  It was unique.  It was somber.  It was silent.  It felt right and gave comfort to his community and family perhaps in an even more powerful and collective way than the traditional course might have offered.