One of New Orleans’ finest

As I start backfilling the amazing trip that was my time in the Big Easy I feel like the most important post is about a woman I met whose impact is so strong her life is a character on the upcoming season of Treme (an HBO show about this neighborhood). Let me tell you about the day we spent with Karen Gadbois.

Some people are so easy to be around it feels like you’ve been doing it for a month of Sundays. Well on my Sunday in New Orleans that’s exactly what happened. I’ve been making lots of friends on twitter in the last six months, and I really encourage it. It’s not like online dating, which I hear ain’t so bad, at least when your twitter community is local.  Heck, most weeks I speak to my twitter friends more than many people I’ve known for years. Plus then you get together and the twitterverse melds with the, well, regularverse and there’s very little difference from hanging around friends you met at work or in a bar or something.

So back to Karen, I was on twitter trying to learn something non-touristy about Nola and I remembered Scott Lewis tweeting something about the Times Picayune stopping daily service and a local news source, The Lens Nola, taking up the slack. That turned out be a misremember  by me as I learned that the paper was still running, but it did get me reading the Lens Nola so it was fine.  I sent a tweet to Karen about a week before my stay and she was happy to show us around. This type of hospitality is pretty typical among my friends and family, but I was thrilled to get it from a stranger. So the day after the Confederacy of Cruisers Bike Tour we hopped in Karens hybrid SUV and had one of the top five days of our adult lives.

We got in her SUV and she started explaining what a Second Line  is all about and the cultural and political nuances. I saw a bit on YouTube from Wendell Pierce  about Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs so I wasn’t completely in the dark. Then she was telling us how these street parades sometimes ran afoul of the law and even had a shooting at one. So this had me thinking twice a little, but if you’re gonna get in a pickle some place, drinking and dancing through the streets of the Big Easy ain’t a bad way to do it.  Nevertheless, since the party was scheduled at 1 she was pretty sure we didn’t have to be there until 1:30-1:45, so we headed out to a new little bakery in Carrolton, a neighborhood we never would’ve seen but for our host. The easy way Karen fell in with shop owners and friends on the street reminded me of life in North Park, where most small business owners treat guests like old friends and its easy to get to know people.

We wrapped up the quick trip to the neighborhood bakery and got to gettin.  Karen pulled us up to a stretch of Central City that was right next to the former Magnolia Projects. Those of you who remember the sad misogyny of the Back that Thang Up video will likely also know this as Juvenile’s early stomping grounds. However, the neatly manicured lawns and new homes from the revitalization looked much less like the projects than a relocated, more ethnically diverse version of Mayberry (yes, that link makes me in awe of what can be found on the Internet).  We made our way out of the SUV and fell in just as the Young Men Olympian Junior Benevolent Association were starting to do their thing. (aside: I spent 25 minutes trying to find a history of this group online, I got nothing. Sending a tweet to Big Red Cotton with fingers crossed hoping for more). I can’t possibly do it justice, so just take a moment and see for yourself.

[I have no skill at embedding, so here’s a link to one of the videos my wife took:

I will note that the dudes pulling ice chests weren’t just giving water to keep everybody hydrated on the dancefest. According to Karen and our bike tour guide, getting one’s hustle on is a time-honored tradition with a long history in New Orleans. Also, you can’t see or hear it, but one of the consumed Heineken bottles became a percussion instrument about 10 minutes into the second line and really just added to the whole program. I ended up having a long conversation with a guy who clearly started celebrating pretty early that day, was sweating like he stole something and who told me he was a Mardi Gras Indian. That was why, despite being kin to the Joseph family that started the “Young Men”, he couldn’t become a member again. Still, that man gave me the type of brief history lesson you just don’t get unless you let it happen, so I was just pleased to be in the moment.

Of course, trying to dance on a sprained ankle, no matter how well lubricated with adult beverages, only lasts so long. So I hobbled past an unmaintained park with a giant Mr. Peanut in it and got back in the hybrid for the third portion of Operation Amazing: an insider’s tour of the impact of Hurricane Katrina.  There is no way to convey what happened, and she didn’t really try. But she did show us what has happened since. And this is my one sincere plug for a celebrity. Brad Pitt, unlike many who showed up while the cameras were rolling, is on his way to building 100 homes through Make it Right.  As if being dreamy to basically every woman (probably quite a few men) of every shade wasn’t enough, it turns out Pitt is also a man of his word who cares about people other than himself. Jerk. Kidding. I will not hate on him for being a decent human being. We need more of them who put their money and time where their publicist is.

He is on pace to build 100 homes, including some by that famous designer who did the Disney museum. Karen cruised us down to the Lower 9th and we drove up and down as she talked until she bumped into…yet another friend!  This one was getting ready to buy a house.  I’m guessing she never meets a stranger. She explained some of the hurdles in building, a nice anecdote about Mayor Negin from the early days, and explained that she’d been in a ton of neighborhoods in the 9th Ward and never had any problems. The city has a ways to go, but it appeared that the tales of its demise were greatly exaggerated.

The thing about Karen, besides being the founder of a real investigative journalism site and one of the most active and respected women around, was that she wasn’t smelling herself. She was real, and decent, and cared. And she was doing something she believed in for and with people she cared about deeply. Every once in awhile life brings you in contact with people who touch you in a way you don’t expect. Karen Gadbois is one of those people. She’s probably just as flawed and human as the rest of us and likely the first to admit it, but a real hero of a woman I am better for having met.

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