Sticking It Out in New Orleans. . . t...

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Andrew Fox
Posted on Wednesday, November 22, 2006 - 01:15 pm:   

First off, a very, very happy Thanksgiving to all the regulars and not-so-regulars on these boards, and a happy holiday to your families. I apologize for having been pretty much "off-line" this past month. Much has been going on, including mucho aggravation, but plenty of good things, as well.

If I can ask y'all a favor, please be sending some good thoughts and positive wishes my way this coming week. Last Friday, I interviewed for a temporary (well, not really that temporary -- two to four years) job as a Quality Assurance Manager with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, here in New Orleans. Yes, I know, many of you out there in Internet Land would equate this job to Head Leak Plugger on the S.S. Titanic. But, based on what I've been able to pick up around town, FEMA is making a genuine effort to make up for past failings and to actively reach out to the community; in fact, this new quality assurance unit that I've applied for work with is part of their effort to change and improve. They're bringing on board a whole bunch of new people with fresh outlooks on the problems and challenges the agency (and our region) faces. The two managers who interviewed me had been employed by FEMA for five weeks, in one instance, and five days, in the other. I should hear back from them regarding my hiring status sometime next week. Getting this job would represent a huge increase in salary for me. It's kind of pitiful that a starting salary for someone with my background at FEMA is 40% higher than my salary as a statewide program manager with the Louisiana Office of Public Health after fifteen years' employment.

Anyway, if I'm able to land this job, and I sure hope I do (for multiple reasons, not all of them financial), I'll be sticking around New Orleans for a while, at least for the next two to four years. Honestly, packing up the household and moving to another state with two toddlers and a newborn in tow was not an appealing prospect, but I've been prepared to do it if I have to. I'd just rather not have to. Plus, even though this city's star has dimmed for me a whole heck of a lot over the past six months, I still feel a very strong emotional bond with New Orleans and the people who live here. So if I can be a part of the region's rebuilding in a new and exciting way, as well as get to stick around for a while to see up close how everything pans out around here, I'm all for it. Of course, I've had to promise Dara that, yes, dear, we will indeed move to a more family-friendly locale by the time the boys are in elementary school.

So please send those positive emanations our way this coming week. If nothing else, getting this job will provide plenty of eyewitness/insider background for the current novel, The Bad Luck Spirits' Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which happily bashes all levels of government regarding our city's recent tribulations.

Also, please keep your fingers crossed for Dara and me between now and Christmas. Little Fox Boy #3 is almost ready to pop out of the toaster oven!
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, November 22, 2006 - 01:23 pm:   

Promising news Andrew-- I fervently hope you get the job.

Have a very happy thanksgiving.

Of course, I'm keeping fingers --and toes--crossed (although that makes it hard to walk) for you and Dara and the newest Fox!
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Gordon Van Gelder
Posted on Wednesday, November 22, 2006 - 06:22 pm:   

Good luck on all counts, Andy. I have a hunch that if you get that job with FEMA, it'll be good for both you and for a lot of people in the Crescent City.
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Andrew Fox
Posted on Sunday, November 26, 2006 - 08:47 pm:   

Double great news! The bigger of the two announcements I'll share in another thread, but Friday morning I got a call from the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, and they want to hire me for the FEMA job in New Orleans! So now they'll do a full background check on me, which should take about four weeks. That plus two weeks notice with the State Office of Public Health means I'll probably start the new job by mid-January. About 80% of the work will be in the Metro New Orleans area, with another 10% in coastal Mississippi, and the remaining 10% divided between Texas and Alabama. There'll be travel involved, of course, but the great thing is that my office will be located only seven minutes from my house (and three minutes from the coffee house where I do my writing). Can't ask for any better than that!

Gordon and Ellen, thanks so much for your good wishes. Obviously, they helped!!!
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Monday, November 27, 2006 - 02:50 pm:   

Yayyyy! (I saw the other post first)
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Robert Wexler
Posted on Monday, November 27, 2006 - 04:02 pm:   

Congrats Andy! We'll have to clean up these boards, in case they come looking.

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Posted on Monday, November 27, 2006 - 04:43 pm:   

Conga rats, Andy...

With FEMA, I'm sure you'll carry on their grand tradition of....er. well, never mind. Go get 'em!
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Andrew Fox
Posted on Monday, November 27, 2006 - 09:16 pm:   

Thanks for all the good wishes, Ellen, Robert, and Lucius. I'm looking forward to providing you all with more good reports as the weeks pass by. I took one of Barry Malzberg's collections with me to the hospital for good luck, along with my lucky Loyola hooded sweatshirt, the same one I wore to Levi's and Asher's births. I guess all my little good luck talismans paid off in spades this past week.
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Andrew Fox
Posted on Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - 10:26 am:   

I was planning to write a long, pissed-off post about the reelection of "Dollar" Bill Jefferson to Congress from the Louisiana 2nd Congressional District, but my baby's health crisis has suddenly made William Jefferson's infamy and my fellow voters' foolishness seem very, very insignificant to me. Rest assured, I was plenty outraged over this past weekend, but right now, I just don't have the time or patience to focus on this relatively peripheral stuff. I wouldn't have any fresh nuggets of "wisdom" to add to what the Times Picayune's editorial writers have already posted, anyway. And if you want to know what I think about our local political climate, read The Bad Luck Spirits' Social Aid and Pleasure Club, whenever that tome eventually hits print. I haven't written a word of it since Judah's birth, but I'll get back to it in another few weeks or so, God willing.
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Andrew Fox
Posted on Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - 11:28 am:   

Sometimes you need to leave home for a while to rediscover what it is that made you love your home in the first place. I think this is especially true about New Orleans in this day and age.

My wife has been begging me to move the family away from New Orleans (of course, she wasn't all that fond of this place even before Katrina). Every week, crime seems to get worse in our little corner of the city, once-sleepy Algiers. About ten days ago, my mother-in-law's car was nearly stolen from her driveway; the thieves rolled it into the middle of the street and busted open the steering column before something spooked them and they ran off to steal a van a few blocks away. Last week, a twelve-year-old riding a skateboard two blocks from my house got mugged by four teenagers who jumped out of a passing car and stole his skateboard and his wallet. A few blocks further away, at a local car wash, a man got his car carjacked at 6:00 P.M., in daylight and right underneath a security camera. Two weeks ago, I walked out to my car at my office building and heard four gunshots coming from apartment complexes less than three blocks away.

And crime's not the only bummer around here, of course. There's the endless, dreadful soap opera of the Road Home Program, that befuddled bureaucratic mess that's supposed to make home owners who suffered catastrophic damages from Rita or Katrina whole again; the latest news is that the program is running four billion dollars short, thanks to way overly optimistic projections on the part of our State government. There's the fact that my homeowner's insurance has nearly tripled in cost in one year and that I've been forced into a State-run program for wind and hail coverage which only offers pitiful protection for a price that, by law, has to be ten percent above the highest commercial rates. There's the fact that my local elementary school no longer offers pre-school services for my two speech-delayed boys. There's the fact that every time my kids and I visit our local playground, one more piece of equipment has either been stolen, vandalized, or otherwise so damaged as to be dangerous or unusable, and the New Orleans Recreation Department has no money to fix anything.

So, this Memorial Day Weekend, I wanted to get us all out of town and give us all (Dara, especially) a break from the quotidian chores and frustrations. We decided to drive west to Lafayette and check out whatever was worth doing there for families. As matters worked out, none of the destinations I'd picked out ahead of time ended up panning out; the Children's Museum was closed on Sunday and Monday, the Planetarium didn't offer any shows over the holiday weekend, we didn't make it to the Acadian Village, and we couldn't find the Oil City shopping district. But we ended up stumbling into activities as good as, or better than, any of the stuff I'd planned. The State Fair was being held at the Cajundome, so we drove the kids over and let them ride the kiddie rides and pet animals in the midway's exotic animal petting zoo (which featured llamas and weird-looking Asian cattle instead of the expected goats and sheep). The boys loved the playground equipment in Girard Park downtown, where a bunch of Mexican-Americans were having a family reunion and blasting samba music (much, much preferable to the rap and hip-hop we generally hear blasted in New Orleans). Better still was when stumbled upon the Acadiana Zoo on Highway 90 on our way home, a quaint little family-owned attraction which reminded me of the Monkey Jungle and Parrot Jungle and Serpentarium of my South Florida youth.

Alas, Lafayette is no dining capitol for a family which is trying to stay even somewhat kosher. After the State Fair, everybody was starving, so we ducked into the first promising restaurant we saw, a Chinese buffet. Now, in New Orleans, Chinese-Japanese-Vietnamese buffets are golden -- there's always plenty of broiled or fried fish (not catfish) available, plus many varieties of vegetarian noodles and kosher sushi. This place, however, catered to Acadian tastes, as I should've realized it would -- absolutely everything was larded up with bacon, pork, shrimp, or crawfish. We ended up spending nearly twenty-five bucks to eat white rice and a few pickings from the salad bar (and I fed my boys some fried fish, until Dara informed me it was catfish, darn it).

The upshot was that we ended up eating the rest of our meals, after a few long and fruitless drives around town, at chain restaurants. In and of itself, that would be enough, perhaps, to make me thankful for what we have in New Orleans. But this isn't the point I'm aiming at (and I am getting around to some kind of a point here). On our drive home, we stopped off in Morgan City on Memorial Day Monday (when all the local restaurants were closed, in any case) and ate at a Shoney's. Before I had kids, I used to snear at Shoney's. Oh, sure, I'd eat there on road trips, but that was out of pure necessity. However, once you have at least one child under the age of ten, the virtues of Shoney's become trancendently apparent. They sell food your kids are willing to eat. They offer your kids coloring books and crayons and toys to keep them busy. They like your kids.

At this particular Shoney's, we had a waiter who liked our kids so much, Dara and I thought (for a few uncomfortable minutes) that he was going to sit down and eat with us. He was a man in his late twenties named Pedro. He did impressions from Shrek and Fraggle Rock and The Muppets in Hollywood for the boys, and he told Dara and me all about his history of childhood illnesses and disabilities and how painfully shy he'd been back when he'd been Levi's age (Levi, of course, adored the guy and tried to follow him back to the kitchen). Now, a little of this personalized service goes a long way; he'd already earned his 25% tip by the time he'd finished his first Shrek impression. After the meal, I mentioned to Dara that Pedro would fit right into a SF convention's dealers' room, selling action figures and stuffed dragons and the like; he'd be a natural. She said she thought he must've been terribly lonely.

When we got back home, I thought some more about Pedro. I thought, He's probably a real odd bird out there in Morgan City, but he'd fit right in here in New Orleans; he wouldn't seem out of the ordinary at all, and I doubt he'd be lonely. And, boom, there you have it, in a nut shell -- that's what makes New Orleans different, and that's what made it worth living here for twenty years. The town is simply full of Pedros, Pedros from every part of the country and nearly every part of the world. They range from the full-time eccentrics, like Ruthie the Duck Lady (may she rest in peace) traipsing around the French Quarter in her bridal gown and pulling a toy duck behind her, to the professional eccentrics, like Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Al Scramuzza of Seafood City fame, or the much-missed Ernie K-Doe, to the legion of part-timers, guys and gals who hold down day jobs but who do poetry slams or organize noize-music festivals in their spare time.

But I probably need to rephrase that -- I should've written, that's what made New Orleans different. As in the past tense. An essential ingredient of the New Orleans stew was always cheap housing, free entertainment, and a generally low cost of living (particularly for a major city). The housing was cheap because the city's housing stock had been built for a population of six hundred thousand (the city maxxed out near that mark around the 1960 census) but, prior to Katrina, had only had to accomodate about 480,000 souls. It was cheap because New Orleans had remained an economic backwater and was plagued by one of the nation's highest rates of violent crime and tolerated terrible schools and broken streets and reprehensible local politics. So the town was continuously replenished by new characters and eccentrics who couldn't make a living or fit in anywhere else but who were drawn here to New Orleans by the twin lures of a funky apartment they could afford and a community of like-minded individuals, most of whom spent their spare time at cheap public venues like bars, coffee houses, and free festivals.

Well, we're still an economic backwater, and we've still got our crime and lousy schools and busted-up streets and disfunctional politicians. What we don't have anymore is cheap housing. Nearly all our cheap housing got wiped out by Katrina. Apartments located Uptown in the "Sliver by the River" (or "Isle of Denial") which rented for $550/month before the storm are now renting for $900-$1000/month. The cost of utilities has skyrocketed, too. Four years ago, I would've suggested to Pedro that he ditch Morgan City and move on down to New Orleans. Now, unless he's nearly finished with his medical degree or about to pass the Louisiana bar exam, he couldn't afford to come here.

Sure, there are plenty of die-hard eccentrics and characters already living here who so love this place that they'll find a way, any way, to stay here. But as their numbers dwindle, they won't be replaced. And the City of New Orleans will be immeasureably poorer for that fact.

As for me, well. . . what was wonderful and life-affirming to me when I was single and without family isn't enough for me to offer my three kids. As fabulous as it is to be able to take them on the Algiers Ferry across the Mississippi to have beignets at Cafe du Monde, they need a safe neighborhood, a decent school, and a playground where the swing sets actually have swings.

I'm still here. We're still here. But three years from now. . .? I just can't say.

One of our best local writers, Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, shares my sentiments and expresses them in his own inimitable way in his latest column:
http://www.nola.com/rose/t-p/index.ssf?/base/living-0/118042055221740.xml&coll=1 &thispage=1
Check it out.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - 01:03 pm:   

Your post (and the Chris Rose column) makes me so sad.
I hope things get better down there, although I don't see how it can without major changes.
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Andrew Fox
Posted on Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - 02:05 pm:   

Thanks so much for the good wishes, Ellen. We will see, we will see. I can definitely say that much of the local optimism which was so prevalent in late 2005 and early 2006 has dissipated. Yet we keep trudging on. Some people trudge on out of here, and some people decide to keep on hanging on (like Poppy Z. Brite and her husband, two excellent examples of the New Orleans die-hard -- but, and this is an important "but," they don't have kids).
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - 02:14 pm:   

Yes, I read Poppy's blog and I'm sure that makes a huge difference.
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Lori Smith
Posted on Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - 01:24 pm:   

I see New Orleans as being kind of like those injured whales that roamed up the Sacramento river in California recently. New Orleans is injured, and confused, and doesn't know quite which way to go, but there are an awful lot of people out there trying to help. If those folks are persistent, and they keep trying one thing after another, eventually they're going to find something that works. It may take a new mayor, or a new governor, or even a new president before we start to see any real progress, but eventually the city will bounce back. Your youngest may well be graduating from a good high school in Minneapolis by the time it happens, but it will happen. (The latest word on the whales is that they may have returned to the ocean, so there's always hope.)

For the time being, I'm just happy that you found a minute to post a message here. I was starting to get worried that you had already packed up and headed for the hills. :-)
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Andrew Fox
Posted on Thursday, May 31, 2007 - 08:17 am:   

While I'm on the subject of New Orleans and patience and writers and New Orleans writers having to be patient, I might as well share some good news I recently heard from a friend of mine. Laura Joh Rowland is a mystery writer who has lived in New Orleans (primarily the Gentilly neighborhood) since the early 1980s and who got her career rolling with Shinju back in 1994. She's had about a dozen more mysteries published since then, all in the same series and all set in seventeenth century Japan.

Back in 1998, she decided she wanted to branch out from her successful series and write a slightly different kind of book. Her new book was a mystery starring the Bronte sisters and set in 1800s England and the Orient. She shared it with our workshop group, and we were all wildly enthusiastic about it. Her agent began submitting Laura's portion and outline, and early feedback from editors was also enthusiastic. But the book failed to sell. Laura went ahead and finished the whole manuscript and had her agent shop that around. Still no bites. Years went by and the book remained unsold.

Laura's neighborhood, Gentilly, was one of the areas of the city which flooded the worst following Katrina. She was relatively fortunate that her home was in the older part of the neighborhood, Gentilly Terraces, where all the homes had been built in the 1920s-1930s on raised lots. So only the first level of her three level house flooded, as opposed to homes only a few blocks away, which were flooded up to their ceilings.

She and her husband Marty have been facing the typical struggles with insurance companies and contractors and the Road Home Program for over eighteen months now. Throughout, she's continued to work on her series and has had additional volumes come out. Just a few days ago, she shared the news that, after seven fruitless years and thirty-one rejections(!), her Bronte sisters mystery has finally found a publisher (honestly, I didn't realize that, given all the consolidations and buyouts which have occurred in the publishing industry, there were still thirty-two distinct mystery houses out there to consider her book).

So, take this anecdote as a counterbalance to the preponderance of doom and gloom. Good things sometimes do eventually happen, given time and dogged persistence. And luck.
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Andrew Fox
Posted on Thursday, May 31, 2007 - 08:22 am:   

Memo to Self: re-read that last post at least once a week. Repeat until Calorie 3501 and The Bad Luck Spirits' Social Aid and Pleasure Club are sold. Rinse. Reapply as necessary.

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