Friday, March 17, 2017

Poverty in New Orleans

Poverty in New Orleans
Phil LaMancusa
            We gauge conditions of being financially uncomfortable by something called a poverty rate. The poverty rate is defined as the percentage of the population living below poverty level. Poverty level is defined as that level when a person or family’s income is so low that stress in being able to provide basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter) is felt; at times, acutely. As of 2015, 13.5 percent of Americans (43,100,000) live below poverty level—more children than women, more women than men. The statistics are staggering: blacks, 24.1 percent; Latinos, 24.1 percent; Asians, 11.9 percent; whites, 9.1 percent; and 33.6 percent of these numbers are children—living all around you. Academics Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, authors of the book “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” report that there are nearly 1.5 million American households with practically no cash income at all. New Orleans fits quite comfortably in these parameters.
I was raised in the projects in the 1940s and 50s by a single parent relying on public welfare, healthcare, and education; five kids, the whole nine yards. The projects’ tenants were the elite of the neighborhood: all around us families were poorer. And surrounding us all were people not so poor. The economic checkerboard of neighborhoods was a constant reminder of who the “haves” were and who the “have-nots” weren’t, and if we were the “have-nots,” our neighbors were the “have-nothings.” We’re talking the literal definition of the word ‘poverty’; and like it or not, every society maintains a percentage of their population in poverty. Somebody’s got to perform cheap menial labor.
            We were adequately schooled; any better education and we might have aspired to greater heights. Our heroes were sports and cinema stars, musicians, and criminals, who had made a name for themselves and whose lifestyles we could emulate but never attain. In our later teens, we were pushed from school to enter society. Our choices were: military (or prison) uniforms, or, to follow in our parents’ footsteps and enter the world of the “working stiffs,” whose sweat greases the wheels of this great society. These were our rites of passage into adulthood and the only options when and where I was growing up. Being poor meant staying poor and raising your children to perpetuate this system of poverty—the norm. The advantage my family had was that we were white.
            When I came back to New Orleans in the late 90s, I found that little had changed from the 60s and 70s; there were still, at the close of the 20th century, moral, physical, and economic depression in the city. The Big Easy. Even today, 15 minutes from the mayor’s office, citizens are living in abject poverty. Let’s define that condition as I see it.
We’ll disregard, for the moment, the homeless, those in shelters, squatters, and tenants in our “new” projects; although these segments do round out the picture. State subsidized nursing homes, where tenants receive $38 a month to live on while taking away all of their other monies, is another form of poverty, but not what I’m speaking of here. To define poverty, we’ll begin by pointing out what it is not. Being poor isn’t necessarily living in poverty. Having secure employment and worrying about your financial prospects, your kid’s school choices, your mortgage, credit card debt, the note on your car, seasonal clothing; or choosing a dentist, cleaning woman, or hairdresser are very real concerns. However, while those things might keep you broke, it is NOT poverty. Over 20 % of New Orleans families of four living on a cash income of $10,000 a year or less is poverty (Pew Research).
 Anxiety about whether you’ll be evicted for non-payment of rent because you chose to put food on the table; fear of having your utilities cut off; whether the person who brings home the household’s money can/will have and keep a job; struggling, hustling, and scraping just to get by IS poverty. Having to take advantage of every free service (social security insurance, food stamps, food banks, emergency rooms, supplemental housing assistance) and then some, you live in survival mode.
 To be clear, as a mother, not being able to afford the adequate healthcare for your children that you ‘have access to’, not being able to plan a healthy parenthood, or even worse, the fear of putting the father’s name on your baby’s birth certificate is real poverty, not only financially but emotionally and psychologically. As a father, even if you yourself  live in poverty, when your name appears on a birth certificate, you’re held liable for support or, as a consequence of non-payment, can have your driver’s license revoked, effectively compromising everyone’s earnings and takings; father loses mobility, mother and child lose public assistance. That’s the Catch 22 of living in an America where the ‘have nothings’ are treated as lepers and parasites.
 Having to take jobs at minimum wage (because you lack formal education or training) and then be able to live on that money and support a family ($15,080 yearly); not being able to pay for fundamental living necessities (gas, electricity, water, food) …THAT’S POVERTY. Being poor and living in areas where the lack of necessities is the norm—areas where crime is commonplace, addiction is not regarded as an oddity, the strong oppress the weak, contention is encouraged, and where there is no way out … that’s poverty. 25-30% of all New Orleanians live in poverty; 44% of children under five live in poverty. For a single parent not to live in poverty, he or she has to take in over $46,000 a year (an hourly wage of $22.00). These numbers are verifiable. 
            When I came back, I was informed that the majority of the students that were pushed through our educational system were graduating high school with a fifth grade reading skill level; they are today’s parents and the dishwashers, porters, trash collectors, maids, fast food workers, lawn tenders and minimum wage earners. Our city (and state) leads the country in teen (unwed) pregnancy, crime, obesity, African American incarceration/unemployment, and child hunger. Going to school is an economic family sacrifice at best and rent increases are routine and arbitrary. Poorer families are pushed out when “revitalizers” move into a poor neighborhood.
            Dwell on this: I get home from work at 6:30 p.m., turn on the lights, and go to bed by 11:00 p.m.; I’m up two hours in the morning before leaving for work … and my electric bill is around $100 a month. Add to that the water bill, car insurance and repair, laundry, cable, food, rent, clothing, phone, health and dental insurance, the occasional movie or night out … and if I had to do that on $290 a week before taxes, what would I do? Where would I make my cuts? Adopt out my children? Quit eating nourishing food, abandon coffee outings, shaving, bathing, turn in my cell phone, relinquish my pets, sell my soul, take a second job, rob a bank, take out a loan, get credit cards and max them, curl into a fetal position and beg God for mercy? Forget about holidays, vacations or birthdays; where would that money come from? I’ve been painted into a corner, trapped; me and the other poor schmucks that are your neighbors. And what can be done about it? Poverty sucks. And ironically, poverty fluctuates with the stock market. When the market went into recession in 2008, the poverty rate—over the entire country—rose and kept on rising until 2010 when it fell (slowly) back to 2007 levels.
            There is a bill in the state legislature to raise the minimum wage; opposition, naturally, is split along party lines. State government doesn’t support it because they would have to give their workers a raise and --- the last governor having screwed us, leaving a huge deficit--- it would ,mean that raising minimum wage would put Louisiana even more in the hole. So, once again, the little guy takes it in the shorts and is kicked to the curb and all the authors of the bill want is a mere $0.75-an-hour raise. It would raise the minimum wage to $320 a week before taxes and that’s still poverty in New Orleans.
            We can accept or reject poverty in America. We can give our extra money to build hospitals, feed the starving in other countries and we look at the pictures of abandoned and mistreated puppies and ignore our neighbor’s plight. Or, we can realize that greed is at the root of all of our problems and do something about eliminating that, beginning with ourselves and not accepting it in others, especially the people that we put into public office. We can take part in our own recovery and, to paraphrase the man, declare that: “War (and poverty) is over… if you want it.”


Jazz Fest Gospel Tent 2017

Under the Gospel Tent
Phil LaMancusa
Probably the oldest and very first attraction at The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is the Gospel Tent.  At the first Jazz Fest in 1970 at Congo Square, where the tickets were $3.00, there were four stages and the Gospel Tent; many of the acts did not even have microphones. One of the first performers at that festival in the Gospel Tent was a woman named Mahalia Jackson, possibly the greatest gospel singer of all times and she was, as they said, “returning home to perform”. Forty-seven years later, as you know, the Fest has grown; but one rock that has remained steady is our Gospel Tent, the first you hear as you arrive at the Sauvage Street entrance and the last to sing you on your way when you leave.  This year, the sound of Irma Thomas’ gospel voice will be gracing us from her heart to ours; the tickets, as you guessed, are priced higher.
Anyone with the sense of a sea urchin knows that New Orleans is a spiritual city; scratch the surface of any folk here and they will assure you that they are “blessed to be alive” to which the proper response is: “I know that’s right!”  Why few white people here under the age of forty do not carry this message on their sleeve, lips and in their daily life is a mystery to me; I reckon that once you reach a certain age or if you were brought up singing the praises of the Lord (instead of petitioning the Lord with prayer), you naturally feel blessed every day, faithful and grateful. Consider the names of some of the groups: Shades of Praise, Abundant Praise, New Orleans Spiritalettes, Anointed Voices, The New Orleans Gospel Soul Children and/or The Mount Calvary Voices of Redemption.
Be that as it may, I and my peer group count our days on this mortal coil as gifts from a higher authority, and praise be to whichever power that that may be. It’s really really easy for me to worship the thousand faces of God/Goddess that have granted me my life because I believe in them all; I am a Christian, Jew, Agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, Baptist, Bacchus, beer drinking believer in the benevolence and bedlam of being.  Every Jazz Festival at the Gospel Tent my belief in Lord Jesus is super jump started again, with a charge strong enough to carry me through the year, you might say… sanctified and electrified. Every year when I go to the Fest, I know where to find Jesus and how could I not pay a visit, in fact several visits each day that I attend?
The advantage of being an all believer (from Atheism to Zoroastrian) is that I can wander down any path and find my higher power ready to give my soul the strength that it needs to survive the weakness of my reserve, give me reserves to challenge my temptations, courage to fight my demons and put some gut in my strut; and when I walk into the Gospel tent my soul is filled with the power of the people, performances and pure joy in the Lord. The music, the singing the spirit is infectious and I find myself swaying, singing, clapping and snapping with the holy, yes holy, atmospheric pressure.
Fair to say at this point that by in large were talking about an African American spirituality experience, for while I understand that white folks can have gospel soul, they are (by in large) not as rhythmically inclined to belt out their raised voices in the adoration to one who can and truly does save. The music and songs are spiritual, Rock, Rhythm, blues, gospel and the primitive African call and response audience participation occurrence rolled in to one glorious exhausting heart expanding happening. Praise so palatable that you can taste it in the air, the hairs on your arms begin to rise and your eyes turn heavenward and you just want to turn around to those couple of guys discussing business and yell “shut the hell up--- I’m having an epiphany here!!”
I have been floored by four glorious goldenrod gowned fully grown women; I have witnessed Blind Boys and Zion Harmonizers and by far I am carried away when a choir of fifty or sixty voices, in agreement and five part harmony, lift up their right to be heard unto the Lord. The Saint Leo the Great Choir, The Gospel Inspirations of Boutte or The First Emanuel Church Mass Choir ---all rockin’ my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Can I get a witness?
The rejoicing, reveling, rocking revival goes on from eleven in the morning until close of business at seven in the evening
And then there’s a slight pause when the music slowly fades where Brother Love steps out with the microphone and challenges the audience that he has accepted as parishioners: “have you heard the word of God here today? (YES!) and do you feeeeeel the grace of the Lord (YES!) and do you believe that you have come to a HOLY place, a place of worship, THE HOUSE OF THE LORD?”  (YEEEESSSSS!) “then I want you to look around you and pick up all that trash that you brought in with you because this IS the house of the Lord and we do NOT leave trash on the floor; if you brought it in with you, then take it back out and dispose of it properly. “I WILL NOT HAVE TRASH IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD! Can I get an Amen?” “AMEN!”

New Orleans Greek Fest 2017

The New Orleans Greek Festival
Phil LaMancusa
            The New Orleans Greek Festival is held on the Memorial Day weekend May 26th -28th,  2017  and presented by the Holy Trinity Cathedral located at 1200 Robert E. Lee Blvd and that’s the first thing that you need to know. The second thing that you need to know is the word Efharisto (eff-kaar-EEs-toe!) and you need to be able to say it all in one breath; repeat after me Efharisto!!! The word is Greek and the meaning is “Thank You!” and you’ll want to say it often and with vigor as you attend New Orleans’ equivalent of a painting by Georges Seurat (e.g. ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte’). It’s a family thing, an eating, drinking, dancing, neo-impressionistic, milling about, lounging, laughing, smiling, music thing. In case you’re worried about vehicular congestion; there is free offsite parking about a half a mile down the road, with shuttle buses to and from the event or you can trust your parkma (Parkma: transportive verb: that chance that there will magically be a parking place waiting just for you where and when you need it) for a spot on the roadway to get in closer. The hours of operation are: Friday 5:00-11:00. Saturday 11:00-11:00, Sunday 11:00-9:00. Be there or be tetragono (square).
Greek, you say? All you of limited knowledge will be surprised to know of Greeks arriving here in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In 1760s a wealthy Greek merchant married a local woman of mixed Acadian and Native American lineage; when their daughter married a Greek native in 1799 it became the first Big Fat Greek wedding in North America. The Greek Orthodox Church here is the oldest established in the North AND South America (1867). The areas that I work and live in (6th, 7th ward) was, until 1971, a predominantly Greek neighborhood and the original site of Holy Trinity Church was at 1222 N. Dorgenois St.   Also in this area were Syrians, Russians and Lebanese, their culture a distant memory to all but a few of my neighbors; it is fitting that we should have a festival commemorating that part of our background, culture and language.
For the kids there is an area called The Athenian Playground with a climbing wall, face painting, crafts and one of those bouncy tent things where you allow the little darlings to work off all of the extra steam that they seem to wake up with. Kids twelve years old and under have free admission (the rest of us kids pay $8.00). There are three day passes available and anyone arriving dressed in toga on Sunday gets in gratis.
There is live (Greek) music and dancing in the Hellenic tradition; you can come and show off your stuff, learn the steps or just watch and be amazed by what you see. You can rent canoes for bayou cruising, there are contests, raffles and even a ‘Toga Sunday’ pageant with prizes. There are tours given of the Cathedral that allow you view artifacts of the faith.
And food? Food is everywhere; indoors and out, as well as, wine, beer, ouzo, pomegranate iced tea and the ever popular Metaxas to fill your soul with Hellenic gladness. Greek yogurt and frothy iced Greek coffee at the Loukoumades CafĂ© will be served. Food demonstrations and classes, a full meal of Kieftethes (Greek meatballs), tiropita, spanakopita, pastitsio and Greek salad with dolma from inside the hall or from outside food stands:  Gyros served with tzatziki and grilled onions served on warm pita bread, or booths with calamari, lamb, feta fries, goat burgers, souvlaki and beverages. AND, not to worry, we know how kids are, and there will be some of the non ethnic foods available (hot dogs etc.). Besides vegetarian plates being available, this year, in the grocery section, a small walk-around container featuring four appetizers (Meze) are being offered in a limited number of servings; the first three hundred lucky customers will have the opportunity to purchase them and then the rest of us latecomers will be out of luck. Also in the grocery store will be cheeses and herbs, oils, olives, homemade dips, tee shirts, posters, prints and Hellenic imports.  I always make sure that I pick up their lemon-pepper seasoning blend for my kitchen at home. Also indoors a selection of twenty different pastries, cakes and cookies line tables that, as you pass the length of the gamut with your ‘ticket of transit’, picking one of these and two of these and your personalized selection grows with baklava, kourmabiedes, galaktobourikos and heck, I stop trying to find out all the names and just say yes to everything that looks good to me because I know they will be, and my friends and neighbors will reap the benefit of my eyes being bigger than my stomach.

Here’s another word for you: Philihellenism.  It means the lover of all things Greek; if you’ve been to the festival before, you can feel the meaning of that word in your heart, if this will be your first time to go to this celebration, be prepared to experience a kinder, gentler New Orleans experience and consider while you are there that there is actually a Greek island where the citizens literally forget to die and live on  to be centennials and older, healthily and actively. When I go to the Greek Festival, I myself wonder why anyone who could live the Hellenic lifestyle would ever want to take the chance that heaven would be a better place.