Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Orleans is a big mess

Hell and high water.

I’m heading home from two-and-a-half days in New Orleans. It’s the post-Katrina New Orleans I’ve shunned for two years. Please forgive my previous utlra-cranky post. After this trip, I have nothing to be cranky about.

New Orleans. Thick with wet air, temperatures near 90 degrees, crime-filled and corrupt, it’s one of those places I’ve never understood. I had visited once before, about 15 years ago, with my grad school pal Roger. His brother taught at Tulane and his Quebec-born sister-in-law had a certain impatient flair that seemed fitting for New Orleans’ curious ways.

I found the city as eerie as an Ann Rice novel. I expected witches and vampires to be lurking in the azaleas and bougainvillea. I expected to be jumped by a mob of angry Black teenagers from one of the run-down public housing complexes that ring the French Quarter. I expected cockroaches to crawl out of my etouffe. I expected the water in the river, the river that crested on the bank above the streets below, to overflow and wash me away. I expected to be stabbed. I expected to get mosquito bites. I felt an emptiness, one that seemed sinister compared to the feeling I got in other humidity-drenched cities like Atlanta and Savannah and Cincinnati.

When the hurricane hit the city, I watched the images of angry mobs and dead animals, the collapse and destruction, the flooding. And I thought, “I knew it! I knew it was going to happen! I must have just had that weird feeling all along. Gosh, that’s creepy.”

I read in today’s Times-Picayune that the police were enjoying a three day reprieve from the city’s insane violence. This weekend, no one was killed. One person was shot and a few others stabbed, but the city couldn't claim a single fatality. This is apparently good news. The paper reported that two weekends ago eight people were killed. And in early August, 11 were murdered.

The freakish brutality made sense to me. I had a disaster show-and-tell this afternoon. My nearly three-hour tour in the comfort of a New Orleans transit coach showed me destruction and hopelessness. The bus wove past broken levees and weed-filled golf courses. Popular malls that had been knocked down. Boarded up, crumbling Winn Dixie stores and McDonald’s restaurants – things that don’t usually shut down unless a new and improved version is being constructed a block or two away, allowing the existing spaces to make the transition to Dollar General stores and Irma’s Burritos, usually with a new coat of paint and replaced signs.

Grocery options are limited, even on Canal Street.

We drove by thousands and thousands and thousands of houses, from tattered to collapsed. And thousands of empty lots, where the debris had been cleared and replaced with ‘for sale’ signs, sometimes spray painted on scrap wood. Our bus passed piles of trash: broken beds, toilets, cars, sinks, dog houses. We passed trailers parked either in FEMA lots or in front of the houses that were too dangerous to inhabit, but whose owners didn’t have the money to make their homes safe enough to go inside.

Golf anyone? The lack of people means there's no rush to fix what was once one of New Orleans' larger golf courses.

Hosted by the bus company, RTD, we silently rolled past the agency’s three transit facilities, looking at the hundreds of buses that were flooded, looted, smashed, and destroyed. The transit agency currently operates only 20 percent of the service they operated in August 2005.

Most of the buses don't look so good.

Amid the mess, houses had been rebuilt. Some were on stilts or manmade hills. For those without enough insurance money to cover a big redesign, new houses were perched right on the concrete slab where similar houses once stood. No logical order to why some houses had been rebuilt and others had not, these rebuilt or remodeled homes are scattered across New Orleans like small residential compounds: miniature Green Zones, each for one family, surrounded by the remnants of destruction, loss of community and a sense of lawlessness.

Two years later, this is the dominant scene.

But some construction is underway - in pockets everywhere.

The French Quarter seems intact. If I hadn’t ventured out of the tourist and historic zone, I might have thought – after a fifteen-year absence – that it looked a little rougher around the edges, but still maintained about the same level of rundown charm and overall uneasiness I had perceived during my previous visit. Across Canal Street, downtown looks a little worse than other American downtowns in Detroit or Oakland, but not markedly so: plenty of abandonment, but also signs proclaiming McDonalds “now open” or Eugene’s “coming back soon.” Just north of downtown, like a reminder of the war zone, several buildings between six and 15 stories still hover over Canal Street, windowless and missing signs.

I was directed by my tour guide to return home to San Francisco and write to my congressional representatives, informing them that I believe more funding should be directed to Louisiana. I was also implored to tell my friends and family members to go to New Orleans, to enjoy the Creole restaurants, suck down a bunch of Hurricanes (the drink!) on Bourbon Street, and enjoy the city.

I’m sorry. I can make this plea to send money to New Orleans: please send money to organizations trying to rebuild. But I can’t tell you to visit. I couldn’t tell you to visit after my first trip 15 years ago and I can’t tell you to go there now if you want to relax and enjoy yourself. But if you want a reminder of how fleeting everything really is, how countless communities have disappeared and how depressing an American landscape really can be, then you should go.

I have no doubt that the destroyed neighborhoods will be rebuilt. It’s happening already. It will be very different.

A rebuilt levee wall. The neighborhood to the right of it is gone.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I'm really cranky right now

I'm sitting on the plane en route to New Orleans. I just discovered I forgot to charge my computer so I thought I'd try typing on my Sprint Mogul. I'm sitting next to the fat white retard in his late 40s who is listening to his iPod and beating on invisible drums in the air in front of him.

I'm all about ‘getting into’ your music in private, but there's nothing like an ugly fat guy enjoying his music too much to make you wish the plane had an ejector seat.

This turd actually was listening to his music while we were waiting to take off and while we took off. I realize that his stupid iPod is unlikely to really interfere with the plane's navigational equipment, but I suppose I really am a rule follower and disapprove of ugly stupid people who don't follow directions.

I know I should really be more respectful of idiots because I fasted yesterday and enjoyed a little introspection on the occasion of Yom Kippur. I sought forgiveness for all evil actions and thoughts. And I suppose I've already gone ahead and started to have evil thoughts.

I'm a bad person. I'm sitting here in seat 11D enjoying The New Pornographers on my iPod (saw them in concert Monday!), but was respectful of the FAA's dumb regulations. I was also considerate of the people around me by not behaving like a freak. I bet he's listening to Jimmy Buffett or Van Halen. I tried to sneak a peak at his iPod to see what this psychotic behavior was all about, but couldn't get a good look.

I think I'm just in a cranky mood because I have to go to a conference and I'm not so sure I'm feeling so confident about my presentation tomorrow, so I need some time to rehearse, but I'm going to have to go schmooze with other conference-goers. Maybe it will be more enjoyable than I envision.

Or maybe it's just that it's hot outside. Or that nearly everyone in the Charlotte airport, where I just changed planes, was superfat and I'm tired of seeing superfat people because they represent the decay of this country. People who drive SUVs to CostHo and Wal-Fart and vote for George Bush.

Okay. Deep breath. I'm starting to calm down to the sounds of The Decemberists. It's a nice way to tune out the rest of the world. And not think about the annoying fat people drinking Diet Coke and tuning out the world by tuning into their iPods too. And I'm thrilled to know that a drained battery on my laptop won't keep me from complaining.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The FBI trend

As modeled in a Mississippi drug store in front of my camera phone. The $7.99 pricetag was too high to make this a souvenir.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as God meant it to be.

The FBI movement is kind of freaking me out.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. That's what FBI stands for and should stand for, at least in this country.

I learned not long ago that FBI stands for about two dozen other things. They all pretty much make sense to me because the three words that are abbreviated F-B-I have a first word that starts with an F, a second word that starts with a B and a third word that starts with an I. According to the Farlex dictionary, some of the other meanings of FBI are as follows:

  • Famous But Incompetent (apparently common slang used by militia groups)
  • Fiji Born Indian
  • Forbrukerinspektørene
  • Fubu Bodywear Incorporated
  • Funny Business Inc. (Danish, Copenhagen, Denmark)

Another meaning listed by Farlex is Firm Believer in Islam. That makes sense, too.

But what have craziest of Christians gone and done? They’ve hijacked FBI to stand for “Firm Believer in Jesus” or “Firm Believer in Christ.” Fair enough, but it just doesn’t make any sense. Hello? That would be the FBC or the FBJ. Using that rationale, I live in the USO: United States of America. Secure Storage and Retrieval of Information would be SSARO instead of SSRI. Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide would not be AAFSW, but would instead be AOTAF. NARAL would be NAARR. NASCAR would be NAFSCA. The Ohio Association of Secondary School Administrators would be OAOSS! What would this world be if we left off all of the final important words in their abbreviations?

Anyway, the stupid people who’ve Christianized FBI in the worst of ways have used it to market a host of products. It assigns that "dark suit FBI thing" to followers of Christ, converting a government bureau into some weird thing. Maybe the government really is hunting you down for a crime if you don't proclaim you're an FBI Jesus.

So join the trend. Buy some FBI's at your local Christian bookstore or website (or, in Mississippi, your local Fred's Drug Store). Some retailers include,, and all over eBay.

One version of this attractive shirt available at a Christian store near you

Need a hat to go with the shirt? The little 'I Heart Jesus' on the lower one reduces, for me, the fear of God that this hat puts in your heart.

This bumper sticker would like nice on your SUV and would scare away the abortion-seekers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Becoming a mess

After eating just about everything produced in Mississippi, it was time to think about a quick low-carb period in my life. So I returned home and decided to banish cake and breads and sweets and alcohol from my diet for ten days. It usually works for me to feel healthier, energized and skinnier. And my stomach has been feeling overly acidic lately, so it seemed like it would be a nice break to re-center me.

I was very good at eating egg whites and low-fat cheeses and vegetables and legumes and avoiding anything sweet. After seven days, I felt better, but I wasn’t getting much sleep and I clearly wasn't getting the fiber I needed (sorry). Of course the few times I’ve done this, it reminds me of the one low-carb experience a few years ago that got to me try toxic Splenda instead of sugar and end up covered in rashes.

Anyway, after days of being really great and low-carb, I flew to Indiana for a two-day work extravaganza. There I remembered how hard it is not to eat carbohydrates when one travels.

I slipped first thing in the morning, awaking in the flickering fluorescent lights of the Courtyard by Marriott and ate an apple. How could I feel guilty about eating an apple? Then my colleague Rachel and I drove to Lafayette and were ‘blown off’ for our first scheduled meeting of the day with a merchants association there. A weird quiche-like puffy thing at Panera around 10:00 AM held me for the rest of the day. But at 6:30 PM, after a 4 hour and 30-minute workshop with the transit board, I took a dive right for the chocolate/white chocolate/cherry chunk cookie that was packed in the lunch box they had prepared for me. Then the teeny bag of Jelly Bellys (it really was teeny – maybe eight or nine of those colorful little sours). Then the Mento in its individually wrapped Mento wrapper. Then the potato chips.

Hell, I’d started. When I got to the Hilton Garden Inn in West Lafayette, I sucked down the sandwich. I threw the plastic container of field greens with balsamic dressing into the fridge and completely forgot about it.

I think bodies are meant to have carbs. Sure, they make your stomach pooch out, they make you tired, and they age you. But they taste so great.

At that point, after the meetings and the previous night’s sleep in the hands of Lunesta to battle the carb-free energy, I decided I’d just stick with a healthier low fat eating routine. Avoid frequent trips to Mississippi. Go to the gym. So I walked over to the Snowbear Custard joint adjacent to the hotel and ordered a small serving of pumpkin custard. Then I went back to the hotel and downed another Lunesta.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Room and board in Mississippi

Beautiful public art in Jackson, Mississippi

I’ve now been to Mississippi three times. The first time was December of 2006, when Brad and I went down to Oxford to ride around on his father’s four-wheelers on the tree farm, to eat fried peach pies, to visit his grandmother and to explore Oxford. The second time was later the same day, when, after returning to Memphis, we drove back to Olive Branch for a fried dinner extravaganza.

Last Sunday, I arrived back in San Francisco from a couple of days in Hazlehurst. Hazlehurst is about an hour south of Jackson in southwest Mississippi. I joined Brad and his family for a wedding in Wesson, but we stayed at the Western Inn Express in Hazlehurst. Hazlehurst was selected because it’s the closest “wet” community, meaning you can purchase booze, something not so readily embraced in much of Mississippi. Not that there were really any places in Hazlehurst to go drinking. But I can see why, if you lived there, you would want to go drinking often.

The Western Inn Express is a two-story motel on a highway, down the street from a Piggly Wiggly, next to a Taco Bell/Kentucky Fried Chicken, and less than a quarter-mile from a soon-to be replaced Wal-Mart. The rooms are painted blue, a darker shade than any wall I’ve experienced in a lodging establishment. The three flickering 40-watt fluorescent bulbs barely illuminated the shadows of the room, which was perhaps a good thing. At one point I thought I dropped an earplug behind the side table and discovered a Wal-Mart receipt, a penny, a used tissue, and a ball of dust and hair. I decided to leave it as a tip for the cleaning staff. The tip being: If you clean behind the furniture, I’ll give you a bigger tip (Okay, okay – I left them a couple of bucks, but they didn’t even take it the first day. Perhaps they were warned not to take any money in the room or they’ll be fired).

Little treats behind the bedside table. Enjoy the blue walls.

Actually, the motel wasn’t the worst I’ve experienced. What was worse was the restaurant across the highway from the motel. Known as Stark’s, it’s the favorite local hangout. Running across the busy highway and walking up the broken gravel driveway to the front door sets the stage for what’s inside. A former Dairy Queen, a sign posted just inside the door advertised the day’s special: “Fried Bologna on Jalapeno Cheese Sourdough Bread Sandwich.” (It remained the day’s special for the duration of our stay in Hazlehurst). Delicious as it looked, I opted for nothing, but returned later in the day for a caramel shake, which tasted like someone dumped Winn Dixie caramel-flavored topping into a blender with some milk and ice. Sweet and flavor-free.

Stark’s was filled with the diversity that is Mississippi. Fat white people, skinny old white people, fat Black people, skinny old Black people. They were all packed into the greaseball of diner playing cards, talking about guns and church and politics and the Hazlehurst High School football game that would be played later that night. The soles of my shoes easily slid across the grimy tiled floor, nicely coated with the oiled offgassing from thirty or forty fried bologna sandwiches sold over the course of the month. Some of Brad’s relatives who had eaten at Stark’s said the burgers there were the best around. And I wouldn’t doubt they were.

Stark's special treat

After the previous night’s dinner at the Family Catfish Restaurant — about a mile down the highway — I couldn’t get an appetite to eat anything at Stark’s. I was still wearing the same shorts I wore the night before (I forgot to bring more than one pair). My butt still felt sticky from the evening’s dinner, where it adhered to the bench that was my seat while I ate fried catfish, french fries, sweet potato fries, hushpuppies, fried okra, fried onions, and deep fried hamburger dills. We pushed it down with some extra creamy cole slaw and some sweet turnip greens.

Hazlehurst, Mississippi has much to offer. Lypsinka was born here.

So instead of Stark’s, we drove to the next town. Brookhaven was more upscale than Hazlehurst, so I was able to get a more upscale breakfast at Cracker Barrel. (We could have stayed in Brookhaven instead of the Western Inn Express in Hazlehurst, but Brookhaven is a “dry” town.) I was craving fruit for breakfast, but all they offered were candied cooked apples: a bowl of apple pie filling. Delicious.

The visit to Mississippi was not really about the lodging or the food. It was a family visit, and for a family visit we all make sacrifices on our weight and sleeping comfort. I easily gained four or five pounds on the trip. Of course, the lack of fiber in my diet there didn’t help too much.

The wedding ceremony celebrated the second marriage of both bride and groom. Gathered on the expansive front porch of their new farm home that resembled a hunting lodge, we watched the three-minute ceremony. It was performed by a retired pastor who proclaimed the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. The bride and groom said their vows, the pastor mentioned something about Corinthians and everyone around me bowed their heads. And then we ate boiled shrimp, jambalaya, pasta salad and a darn good white wedding cake. Easily the tastiest of the three wedding cakes I ate this summer. From The Cakery in Brookhaven, I was told.

Getting ready for the wedding on the front porch

Brad’s relatives were warm and friendly, adjusting with curiosity and easiness to their son’s wedding guest. Lots of hugs all around and invitations to visit Nashville and Overland Park and Oxford. Lots of cigarettes too. And with Brad’s parents planning a move from Tennessee to Mississippi, it looks like I’ll have many more opportunities to visit this fine state.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Other things that suck: Sprint customer service

Amp'd. I ranted about Amp’d Mobile at the end of July. The company shut down and left me without mobile phone service. Then they had the balls to send me a final bill a month later with the notation that I could only pay by check, and if I didn’t pay, my name would be turned over to a collections agency. AND, no customer service number is available if I have any questions. I called the law firm representing them in their bankruptcy proceedings and was told I’d get a call back. I never did. I hope their chief executive gets an undiagnosed case of giardia. In the billing envelope, I sent Amp’d back a note that said I would willingly pay if I could talk to someone. I also said I’m not sending them a check. I’ll let you know what happens.

Anyway, after a month on a pay-as-you go plan from Verizon -- easily able to make my Amp’d phone work on their network -- I jumped ship to Sprint. I used to have Sprint and had no problems, but in my never ending quest to get the best possible deal and the most unique product on the market, I switched to Amp’d. We know where that got me.

With much Web searching, I stumbled upon an impossible deal: $30 for unlimited mobile web access/text messaging/downloads, 500 anytime minutes, free calls to other Sprint customers and unlimited evenings beginning at 7:00 PM. All you had to do, according to one sneaky website I discovered, was go to the Sprint employee referral website and give the referring employee’s email address as

I did just that. Even ordered a semi-cool Mogul phone, typing in an additional $50-off coupon code I found elsewhere on the web. I submitted another $100 rebate for the phone. No, it’s no iPhone. But for Sprint it’s one of better choices for a web-enabled PDA phone with a pop-out keyboard.

Of course things got screwed up. Verizon refused to port over my number from Amp’d (Amp’d ran their network on Verizon). To deal with the porting issue alone, I spent about four hours, maybe five, on the phone with polite but untrained customer service staff in the Philippines and somewhere in the Caribbean. They kept transferring me to other untrained people in other locations. Actually some of them weren’t only untrained, but were just stupid and incompetent (perhaps that’s a cruel thing to say, but it’s true). And they kept giving the standard international call center answer: “The computer says everything is still in process, so please be patient.” One employee told me I’d already accumulated $200 in download charges, which made no sense and infuriated me even more than I already was. I also got disconnected by a very flustered and quite inept man in a Philippines call center, after spending 48 minutes on the phone.

One customer service agent mistyped my social security number when I was first registering the account, which also screwed everything up. She transposed a couple of the numbers in the last four digits (She also changed my plan to the wrong plan). Another representative told me I had to go to Sprint store to correct the Social Security number typo, so I went to the local Sprint store and was told by the high school student working there that they couldn’t change it. After my second visit to the store, when I demanded that they “get the right person on the phone” who could change it, they did, and it was changed in a matter of minutes.

I also took advantage of a promotion on the Sprint website to download a free ringer. When I went to purchase the ringer and entered in promotion code to make it free, it went ahead and charged my account $24.99. After eight emails to someone named Pearlie S., the charge was eventually reversed.

At one point in the whole debacle, I was transferred to a woman whose voice I recognized as 'Black American.' A person on US soil. Perhaps my questions would finally be resolved. When I told her my account number, she said, “Aw, damn. I can’t do anything about that. I work in long distance. That’s a cell phone number.”

At last. One person I spoke with knew what I was talking about and said, “That’s an employee referral account. You need to speak to the Sprint Employee customer service department.” I can't tell you how many times I told the customer service reps exactly this. Can you believe it? After about seven hours on the phone and in the Sprint store, someone supposedly knew what to do to secure my phone number, correct the plan, remove incorrect charges, confirm the adjusted Social Security number, confirm my coupon, and fix other things that I can’t even remember. I still haven’t received the bill yet, and I’m sure problems will surface, but at least I finally know the correct toll-free number.

So my advice, if the plan is still available (and I’ve confirmed that it is as of this posting), get a deal on the Sprint SERO plan. And then don’t dial any of the numbers in any of the printed information they send you. Don’t even dial the number taped to your phone to activate it. Dial only the Sprint employee customer service number. And then we can enjoy unlimited Sprint-to-Sprint free calling. Talk to you soon.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

August break over

Images of early August: My neice and nephew ate spaghetti.

Back to work. I took a break from my Spenda Sucks e-journal in August. The reason: I didn’t take too many of my usual long flights. Flying gives me ample opportunity to rant as I sit in an uncomfortable seat for hours coasting miles above the planet. But that’s over.

Greetings from 39,000 feet.

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