Archives for posts with tag: crime

The girl looks like a gangster’s girlfriend—I’m not sure how else to put it. The blonde breathiness, slyness of eyes, the fancy dress (slightly out of fashion)—all these made her seem like a person who people liked to involve in things. So it didn’t surprise anyone the first night she came around and started talking about a murder.

Really, though, she’s just a college kid, moved to the Big Easy to make it big in movies. Sure, she dates a weed dealer who makes her hold product when things get hot, but on a scale of girls I’ve known in over their heads, she rates kids play.

The details are fuzzy, of course. But what happened was essentially somebody tried to rob Chico and Chico left the guy’s burned body in the swamp. I guess this girl was there, or next door. Or her friend was, but the cops told her friend to leave town or she did so out of her own good sense, so now this girl—we’ll call her Kim—has to tell the tale. The guy broke into Chico’s house with a gun while everyone was partying, and Chico caught him, tied him up, and put a bag over his head.

I have no clue what Chico’s deal is—whether he’s a dealer or a fence or a veterinarian—but he was real casual when he showed the girl the guy tied up, sobbing with a bag on his head. He showed her to let her know there wasn’t going to be any more trouble. Like, we can all chill out and finish snorting this cocaine because the guy who came into my house with a gun is now on the floor of my bedroom with a bag over his head sobbing. He won’t disrupt the party anymore.

Unfortunately for Chico, he was not partying with people who are cool snorting lines while a guy is tied up with a bag on his head on the floor next to them (or even in the other room) sobbing. So, actually, the guy did disrupt the party even more, because Kim and her friend left. Then Chico killed the guy and set his body on fire in the swamp.

Now Chico’s gone, to Cuba, or to stay with his daughter in San Francisco, and this girl with a dyed blonde perm is telling us all this on the balcony of a bar across town from where it all happened. It’s a crazy story but I don’t think much of it.

Then last night we were walking on Chartres between Frenchmen and Elysian Fields, and another friend of Kim’s, who had partied with Chico’s, pointed out his house. It had a fumigation rig and an industrial mop bucket on the porch. The mail box was full of mail. We walked around the corner and found this sign on the streetlight. We tore it down and took it home and everyone had nightmares.

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Update (Oct. 21, 2010): An article in today’s Times Picayune reinforces this post’s theory of the dangerousness of Saints fanatics after a loss: Three Saints fans were so enraged over losing to the Dallas Cowboys last season that they drug a calf from a petting zoo and beat it to death. The men currently face animal cruelty charges.

A dark and foreboding storm swirls violently on the horizon. It threatens not the levees of New Orleans, the delicate ecology of the Gulf Coast nor the various industries upon which Louisiana’s economy depends. But after five years of agonizing and fitful rebuilding of a destroyed, abandoned and demoralized city, one scenario could potentially wreak such violent and terrible havoc on the collective psyche of New Orleans that a doomsday, category-five hurricane that finishes what Katrina started might be preferred: a series of humiliating losses by the New Orleans Saints.

(Okay, fine. A Saints loss is better than a hurricane, but the possibility of either one fills me with dread.)

People here say the Saints winning the Super Bowl did more for racial reconciliation in New Orleans than anything since Civil Rights. White and black, rich and poor—we’re all on the same team come game time. There’s also the distinct sense that the rise of the world-champion team corresponded with the rebirth of the city post-Katrina: After 30 years of being losers, the team’s owner nearly moved the Saints to San Antonio when the Superdome became a refugee camp; he acceded to popular outcry and returned the team to New Orleans for the 2006 season, which also marked the New Orleans debut of quarterback Drew Brees, whose rivals for most-loved individual in the region pale beneath his charms and well-toned throwing arm. Brees and the Saints’ rise to heroship paralleled the city’s renewal, and their Super Bowl victory was universally understood as distinct and unquestionable proof that New Orleans had accomplished the unimaginable, and pulled itself up from a watery grave, finally, to its feet. The Christ-ressurection innuendoes run thick, especially in a city of Catholics cheering for a team called the Saints.

Grown men wept with joy and embraced in the streets when the Saints won. Afterward, crime dropped low and spirits ran high. The long off-season felt like afterglow. The Who Dat nation reigned supreme, and as the new season approached Saints fans remained boastful, enthused and optimistic. But the foundation upon which this newfound self-confidence was built is as fickle as the swamp upon which the city sits, and which causes New Orleans’ streets to bulge and crack, the door and window frames of its homes to shift and stand askew. So much of New Orleans’ happiness depends on Saints victories, with little to undergird citywide emotional well-being in the event of heartbreaking defeat.

But it’s not only the potential of severe and widespread unhappiness and depression that worries me. People in New Orleans get crazy. This is a violent town, where anger always simmers (with reason) among the poor. Freaking out in public is a common occurrence, and indiscriminate shootings are far less unheard of than one would like. I’m afraid that if the Saints have a bad season, more than one person will pay with their lives.

I took some visiting friends to my favorite place in New Orleans the night of the Saints’ first regular-season game. It’s a backyard pizza operation that conducts business just one night a week, and purposefully keeps its online presence to a minimum. Pizza night usually features live music—mostly ragtag bands of players from established Frenchmen Street groups testing out new combos—but even my gourmet bohemian paradise was not outside Saints-mania’s reach: Instead of a band they had rigged up a projector to show the game on a sheet on the fence. My friends and I sat at one of the establishment’s signature wobbly tables cobbled together out of plywood and tree branches, paying as little attention to football as possible, despite the animated fan behind me. Casual observation placed him at about 40 years of age, and probably a lifelong resident of the shitty neighborhood in which pizza night takes place. He hooted and hollered and who-datted with gusto, and groaned when the opposing team marched upfield for their only touchdown of the game, which I watched on instant replay. The avid fan turned to me and held out his hand, indicating he expected a high-five. I obliged, somewhat confused. As we mutually gripped each other’s mandibles in the custom of these parts, his grip grew tight.

“For that,” he said, nodding toward the sheet.

“For that?” I said. I saw the enemy’s touchdown replayed.

“Fuck you, man,” he said. “I’m sick of this shit.” He turned around.

Sometimes things happen that are so out of step with your understanding of the world’s social construction that when your brain attempts to locate an appropriate reaction it comes up with the equivalent of an “Error” message, and you have no choice but to move forth in life as if the event had never happened, giving yourself time to consider other worldviews in an effort to make sense of it. Weeks after this particular occasion, the only conclusion I have come back to repeatedly is that, at the prompt of a touchdown against the Saints, this man had gone temporarily insane. I don’t know whether he thought I had been quietly and secretly cheering for the opposing team and his hand-clap trap was a way of outing me, or the “shit” he was “sick of” was my apparent non-anguish at the prospect of enemy gains. Either way, I can imagine his paranoid delusions replicated and intensified in the event of a serious Saints loss to the point of friends turning on each other in rage, drunken mobs destroying sports bars, and Bourbon Street going up in the flames of a riot.

The players of the New Orleans Saints have to know that their performance dramatically influences the welfare of their city, and I suspect that teams across the country know it, too. I can’t imagine anyone besides the same assholes who argued that New Orleans shouldn’t have been rebuilt post-Katrina not being touched by last year’s Cinderella season, and even diehard fans of opposing franchises rooting for the Saints under their breaths, because they knew the team’s undertaking was something much larger than football. But the characteristically short American memory will have forgotten any sympathy it held for the Saints nine months ago, and will view them only as the current champs—a role that our King of the Hill mentality always makes everyone’s favorite target. I’m not a fan of football but I’m a fan of the Saints, because I live in New Orleans and care about her. No city’s quality of life so sways with the whims of the sports gods as New Orleans, so for my sake and the sake of all those around me, I wish the team the best of luck, and hope for a successful season.

Who Dat!

That the mantra “Keep Austin Weird” transitioned from the battle cry of the Texas college town’s fringe elements to the official slogan of the Austin Independent Business Alliance seems a fitting coda to the glory days celebrated in Richard Linklater’s Slacker, as well as an explicit rebuttal of the mantra itself. Perhaps compared to the rest of Texas, Austin is pretty “weird” (I wouldn’t know—I’ve never set foot in the state), but for a person fresh off a month-long stretch of debauchery in New Orleans—a city that maintains its substantial weirdness effortlessly—Austin is about as straight-laced as anywhere else in the Lonestar State.

Mike Abu recently sent me this account of the defining moment during his short stop in Austin, which includes the reasons why he’ll never be caught in that town again:

“If I get used to being treated like an adult, shit could get dangerous.”

I was telling a bartender at the R Bar in New Orleans that getting used to the city’s wonderfully lackadaisical liquor laws was an incredibly bad thing for a person like me.

I wasn’t lying. In New Orleans, I could skate down a dilapidated street with a half-finished bottle of cabernet, walk into some watering hole with said bottle of wine, finish it while discussing Wittgenstein with some scumbag, buy a whiskey on the rocks, potentially bothering to put it in a to-go cup before heading back out on the sidewalk in search of another opportunity to crash my skateboard.

I drove to Austin with some Australian kid who I met on Craigslist rideshare (yo, what up my man Simon), and found myself alone in front of some bar hosting a Japanther show. I was more than a little lonely at that moment, and I started text messaging my ex-girlfriend. We were at a stage somewhere between full and zero communication, and I kept writing and deleting words in a desperate attempt at finding something to say that didn’t expose how ridiculous I felt. I kept doing that for about ten minutes, typing and erasing, before being rudely interrupted.

“Hey guy, what are you doing with that beer out here?”

Two Austin city police officers stood over me. Apparently I had wandered outside of the gates with my beer in hand.

Apparently this was a Big Deal.

As the police shined their flashlights into my eyes, my mind went blank save for the line my former band mate Brian and I had practiced while drinking tallboys in an alley way back in Salt Lake. Without hesitation, I told the cops the unequivocal truth:

“I’m not gonna lie to you Officers—this isn’t my beer. Some guy just handed it to me and ran off that way.”

The cops were less than impressed. I probably fucked up by not saying the guy who had handed it to me was Mexican. They started going on about how Austin laws state that any person holding or in close proximity to a beer is held responsible for it, thus making me the guardian of said alcoholic beverage (Lonestar) and therefore a “law-breaker.”

“We were gonna let you go, but you tried to pull a fast one on us,” said young cop, who probably wasn’t old enough to buy beer to begin with, fresh from a police academy that clearly wasn’t as awesome as the movies would have you believe. “Now you’re in trouble.”

“Okay, it’s my beer,” I said. “I was just joking. I just got back from New Orleans and must have gotten use to standing outside with a beer, plus I was just trying to text message my ex-girlfriend.” I showed Old Cop my phone. Young Cop started rattling off how much crime happened in the neighborhood, how some girl had gotten raped on those steps over there, how hard it was keeping the citizens of Austin in line while all they wanted to do was hang out.

“You wanna talk crime?” I said as I pointed across the street towards a gas station where I had bought a tallboy earlier. “Three dollars for a tallboy is straight robbery!”

The cops were still unimpressed.

“Listen, you seem like a nice kid,” Old Cop said as he shoved a ticket in my face for me to sign, “we’re gonna cut you a break—we’ll make this ticket for Austin only so you don’t have to worry about any warrants in other parts of Texas.”

Suddenly I felt less oppressed.

“Wait a minute, you’re telling me that if I sign this ticket and never pay the fine that I’ll be rewarded by never having to come back here again?”

I said this honestly.

“Well, not exactly, I mean, you’ll still have to—”

“—that’s what you mean, right?”

“Well, not exactly, um, you can still come down and explain yourself in court—”

“I’ll take it!” I said as I signed the ticket. I had already decided that there was absolutely no reason for me to ever go to Texas again, and this glorious ticket gave me a practical reason to ensure I kept my promise to myself. I headed back into the bar, bought a t-shirt from the Japanther merch booth that said “Fuck the Cops,” jumped on stage and filmed the band while a bunch of cute girls danced alongside me. Afterwards I said what up to Japanther and had them sign my open container ticket.

“Whoops”—Japanther

Whoops indeed.

Akasha suggested I take a two-by-four with me when I walked to the liquor store for a bottle of wine last night, and she wasn’t completely unserious. We’ve been meaning to get a baseball bat to keep by the bed in the event of an intruder, but for now a piece of lumber from our neighbor’s dismantled doorframe has sufficed—not that we’ve had to use it, of course; it functions more like a night light than an actual safety precaution, although its nice to know I’d at least have the chance to go down swinging. I told her I couldn’t possibly bring the two-by-four with me to the liquor store, though—not because it’s a bad idea to carry a protective instrument along with you at night around where we live, but what kind of psychopath would I have looked like walking into a liquor store with a two-by-four?

Some friends of ours were somewhat appalled when we told them our decision to move out of the Marigny further away from “civilization” into the Bywater, near the corner of Burgundy and France Streets. They had lived near that very intersection just after Katrina until 2007, and finally moved out because of the crime.

“The thing about France Street is,” my friend said, “It ain’t France.”

The issue our neighborhood faces is not unlike the one Arizona faces: We’re an area with relative wealth that shares a border with an area of relative poverty. Across St. Claude Avenue from the Marigny and Bywater lies St. Roch and some other neighborhoods I don’t even know the names of. Technically, the neighborhood north of the Bywater across St. Claude is apparently called the “Florida Development Neighborhood,” although I’ve sure as shit never heard anyone refer to it as that. Usually, it’s just called the Bywater, but “the other side of St. Claude.” You’ll even see that caveat wryly inserted into Craigslist postings for Bywater apartment rentals that seem underpriced: “And yes, it’s on ‘the other side’ of St. Claude, which explains why rent is so cheap.” Still, unlike Arizona, we’ve yet to pass a neighborhood mandate allowing cops to stop and frisk anyone who might be an illegal immigrant—the people presently moving into the Bywater look nothing like most of the people who commit crimes there, and it would be unfair to legalize the harassment of the poor blacks who are already being displaced.

While he was living with us, Mike Abu hung out a few nights with some punk rock kids he’d met who were squatting in a house somewhere in St. Roch or its neighbor on the upriver side, Treme. His friend with whom he went there had planned on moving into the squat earlier that month, but decided against it when one of its tenants was murdered. The kids talked about the machine gun fire they’d heard the night before with the same nonchalance they intoned to discuss different methods of hoisting their dogs into moving boxcars. They had set up a hotline that people could call who were biking through that part of town and became lost—rather than venture too far in the wrong direction, someone would bike to where you were and escort you out.

It’s not really the crime, per se, that makes living around here tough, but the crime’s residual effects. Our friends who moved out of the Bywater said they were simply sick of talking about it. It was the topic of conversation at every gathering of neighbors—who had been mugged, what had been stolen, who had known someone who was killed. It just became a drag after a while—a bore in the worst way.

They finally decided to move out because of Helen Hill. In the first week of 2007 a spate of killings rocked New Orleans, prompting thousands to march on City Hall. One victim during this time was filmmaker and activist Helen Hill, a Harvard and CalArts grad who along with her doctor husband worked on a variety of community-building projects to help revive the city after Katrina. Early one January morning some assailant who has never been found attempted to rob a bed and breakfast three doors down from Helen’s house, and failing that, ran through two backyards into Helen’s, where she was overseeing a bowel movement of her potbellied pig. The assailant shot and killed Helen, then shot and wounded her husband, barely missing their infant son in his arms. The house in which Helen was murdered is next door to the one in which Akasha and I live. We read about the crime on an old Crimestoppers poster hung on the wall of a party across the street, and then noticed the address. I asked the present tenant of that house if he knew about Helen. He said he’d found out after moving in, but not to fear: He works for the D.A., and owns a gun.

I wouldn’t call the neighborhood where we live a “bad neighborhood”—if I did, what title would I reserve for neighborhoods like St. Roch? It’s better than the parts of Humboldt Park where Akasha and I lived in Chicago—that’s a city that controls the divides between rich and poor, and makes sure they’re nice and gradual. There are acres and acres of far scarier places in Chicago than the ones you’d encounter in New Orleans—but they’re off the map to privileged white people, except when Bob Herbert writes about them.

No, our neighborhood isn’t a bad neighborhood. It—and the whole city—has come a long way since 2007. But it’s one in which your carelessness will be exploited. I locked my bike up outside overnight for a few weeks, and it wasn’t much of a surprise when its back wheel was missing one morning. A neighbor was held at knifepoint while riding her bike home from work, but the shocking news made more sense when I learned she was wearing her waitress uniform, indicating to all that she was carrying a wad of cash tips. More than Chicago, all this reminds me of Buenos Aires, where talking loud drunk American or wearing iPod headphones in desolate streets late at night made targets out of more than one of my friends. If you look like a target around here, you’re likely to become one. But that’s still no excuse to walk into a liquor store brandishing a two-by-four.