The diaries: Refinery coppers
May 27th – Refinery coppers
My love story with law enforcement continues. Today almost got rough.
Felt like it was time to get away from the French Quarter and other districts usually frequented by tourists. Drove out East and South, initially hoping to make it somewhere along the peninsula and get a touch of the ocean, some nice views and restful time, away from people, etc.
Managed to get some way down along the 46 or 39, after failing to find my way to a place named Shell Beach, before realizing there was a good chance I would never make it to any hospitable patch of sea (driving down a two-laner stuck between a polluted Mississippi canal and fields / private driveways.)
As I drive back, I stop on the way by the main entrance (Gate 40) of the refinery in Saint Bernard. Had noticed how close it was to the road and figured it would make for some good pictures. Didn’t know I was asking for it.
(Although part of me knew the security guards wouldn’t like it. They never have. But then again, it’s never been quite a problem.
Or so I thought.)
Park the car, stroll out lackadaisically, snap two shots at the entrance before the security guards (two woman, one African American, one Caucasian with mid-age acne) begin their reprimands. I apologize, uncaring. I got my shots.
The Af-Am guard is writing down my license plate and calling in on her walkie-talkie as I drive out. I think nothing of it, drive a few hundred yards to the nearest gas station and decide on stopping there because it’s the cheapest gas prices I’ve seen as of yet ($3.49/gallon).
Before I’ve had the chance to unbuckle, a Sheriff’s car (nice thing about St. Bernard: I literally must have seen fifty signs advertising the election of whats-his-face on the way, versus one for his single opponent) parks in front of mine, another cop appears at my window, others storm the car from behind.
There we go.
- now I’m aware the following is muddled and won’t pretend this is the truth and nothing but the truth, simply some of my recollections.
I soon realize there are a good four cars and six policemen, in various kinds of uniforms, surrounding my car (at least three cars, less than five). Of course I know what’s going on, I just find it mildly funny – humorous – that such means would be dispatched for the occasion. I know that I haven’t broken any law.
I will not go through the whole encounter, but it starts with them taking my license, me explaining that I’m not a terrorist – without ever uttering the word, which would somehow make it suspiciously more likely – that I’m simply snapping ordinary, undetailed pictures for an art project, no I’m not in school anymore, no, “it’s art, I do it for myself, not any company” (actual quote, although it doesn’t make much sense?). I say I used to be journalist: the only thing that will effectively, though moderately, worry an overly zealous law officer.
As I’m explaining away, one of the officers unexpectedly opens the trunk.
“Does he have any right to do that without asking me?”
They prudently don’t answer. The guy promptly tries latching the trunk back into place but can’t.
“I’ll take care of it,” I say, slightly irritated.
“Will you delete these pictures for me?” says one (passenger window).
I ignore the question and walk to the back of the car.
“I’m gonna have to lock it up myself (note: how did he open the trunk, had it been open the whole time?)
Return to the driver’s seat. Again, “can you delete these pictures.”
I give in. Delete the two pictures of the refinery. Can you delete these pictures too? Pictures of a water reservoir. Now I’m getting a little pissed because this has nothing to do with the refinery. And I’d been meaning to get a close-up picture of one and hadn’t yet come across one.
“It’s a water reservoir. They’re everywhere.”
Tough guy repeats the ‘question.’
I delete the pictures with docility, but feel a bit more confrontational now that I’ve complied. “Do you even have the right to ask me to delete these pictures if I’ve taken them from the public space?”
Love homeland security. Now I have my own fun story about its benefits.
I start looking at their nametags.
“I know what you’re doing,” says one, one of the nice ones.
“Yeah, I’m looking at your names.”
The tough guy picks it right up:
“I have no problem telling you what my name is, I’m major whatshisface.”
“Hi, major. Is there a law that says I can’t take those pictures?”
“I didn’t say there was a law.”
“So it’s illegal?”
“I didn’t say it was illegal. It’s borderline illegal.”
OK. In other words it’s not illegal.
“So you’re saying you had no right to force me to delete those pictures?”
“No, I asked you. I didn’t twist your arm, did I?”
I see how he thinks. Too much arm-twisting.
Truth is, I feel both like a fool and slightly violated by the various forceful methods, whether it be the car opening, the four cars, and so on.
“It is. It’s coercion. It’s a moral threat, when you show up with five law officers and ask me to delete those pictures, or else.”
“I am a law officer.” Flashes his ID. But major whathisface had had it with me. His face becomes red:
“I don’t care whether you’re a journalist or whatever you are, you don’t wanna play with me, son.” He’s not messing around anymore. Small town. Surrounded by cops. He’s the boss.
Be smart. “No sir.”
“Now we’re leaving you to carry on your business today…”
The Head of security promptly leaves. In retrospect, I think he probably did this not for my sake, but his, because he might have felt he was losing it, creating trouble for everybody, for no good reason.
I’m left with two of the officers, who by now have no doubt that this whole setup was wildly exaggerated.
May it be noted that by a fortuitous coincidence – at least I regard it so – I realized afterwards that I had a recorder on at the time, and thus have a full audio memo of the encounter. I am debating whether and how to make it available for others’ own judgment.
Ate what was supposedly a crawfish Po-Boy by the cemetery.
Was looking for 9th ward and asked direction at what I thought was a café. Was pulled in by a talkative Missouri girl who told me plenty things about the 9th, drew me some directions, gave me suggestions for bars, and told me I was at a country club fully equipped with pool, spa, massages, etc. And it’s clothing-optional. A real haven for hippies. Basically sold me into it (at this point I’m plagued by the unwashed stickiness and craving a shower).
And, oh by the way, this club used to be for gays, but now it’s open to all. Hmm.
The homophobes are rolling their eyes. The homo-philes are loving it.
Relax, people. Got to enjoy the pool and especially a good shower. Only people who took the bare option were some wrinkled ladies and aged-pouched gay men. Overall quite comfortable, no awkwardness. So yeah, it was worth it.
“Sexually translucent,” as the girl said.
Jeffrey and the Lower 9th Ward
I don’t think his name was Jeffrey but I’ll refer to him as Jeffrey for now. I drove around the Brad Pitt complex as they call it, watched some volunteers at work building one of the World 3.0 houses, design-ish and environment-friendly, standing atop the weeds of lots where whole neighborhoods once stood before Katrina.
Then drive around the Lower 9th – “you can’t even walk there during the day” said the girl at the club.
After about a minute, I rear into a car driven by a youth. First minor accident. Am terrified that I’ll get mobbed because there’s a nearby crowd. But people don’t seem to have noticed. Fortunately the guy’s cool, I take a look at the damage, cracked the plastic of his front license plate holder (empty), he lets me off the hook (maybe he didn’t have insurance or license, maybe was just cool). Sigh with relief.
I park the car in a deserted street and walk out to take some shots. There’s a gramma on the porch of a house, the only one that seems occupied (a whole side of the street is lined with abandoned houses). Her grandson, Jeffrey, who looks a bit slow, is playing in the yard. I give him one of the last ‘tokens’ I’ve brought along, the model F-15 airplane. Maybe not for him, but at least someone will use it (the gramma had 9 kids, can’t even keep track of how many grand-children). In the back of my head I’m hoping to be able to approach the gramma and record some stories.
As I return from the car with the model airplane, a 250-pound black man is now on the porch – always tend to be paranoid in these situations, especially with nobody around. The guy ‘hustles’ me into giving him a ride into town. Am slightly nervous. By the look of his tattoos, faded green ink, he may have well done some jail time. He’s presumably poor. And he’s seen my camera. I agree to take him across the bridge. He returns in the house before coming, which only makes me more uncomfortable.
As he gets into the passenger seat, I discretely glance to check if there’s anything tucked in the back of his shorts. We talk. He and his family went to Texas as a precaution during the storm. Many didn’t. He lost his brother. I’m ‘hustled’ all the way to his home. Needless to say, even as we talk, I’m a little worried this could be a setup, taking me somewhere outta town. Turns out he lives in the Garden district. The ride goes well, he thanks me a good deal.
Thought I would hook up with the girl form the club but have pitched tent at the Wine Bar, surrounded by some particularly preppy D-bags (apart from Amy the broken camera girl: I try fixing her faulty lens).
Meet a couple from Missouri – math and English teacher. They just retired and are spending a year in New Orleans (Paris their number one city, this might be their second) where their daughter just gave birth to their grand-kid.
Both their children are teachers, son teaching special ed at home.We talk about education, writing, etc. Very nice people.
“What are you doing?” asks one of the preppy D-bags, because the girls he’s failing to entertain are giving me unwarranted attention.
“It looks like it’s half writing half physics.” I laugh.
“Why physics? I wish it were.”
“Cuz of the squares.” (I organize my notes on the page in unorganized squares.)
“Heh. Why, are you into physics?”
“No, but I’ve heard about Newton.”
Took me a few moments to understand. Not particularly interesting.
People in the South seem… semitically-aware. Not the first time I hear about someone’s ‘jewness’ being noted in a conversation.
At the Wine Bar, a Frenchman talking to an American:
“C’est encore un empire colonial. Et ca c’est tragique.”
“C’est tragique parce que c’est un pays de valeurs. Un pays qui a fait tellement d’efforts pour arriver a une place de dignite. Et ca c’est tragique. Parce qu’il perd sa dignite.”
“Un pays sans dignite, c’est un pays qui devient corrompu. Et ca c’est la mort d’un pays.”
The Frenchman switches to English, to mitigate his sentence.
“I have invested a lot in this country. I have developed an absolute love for this country. There are a lot of remarkable values.”
“Some of the most generous people, and willingness towards sacrifice.”
“But they cannot identify themselves.”
“Certainement, il y a cette ignorance de l’histoire.”
The Frenchman’s verdict is harsh, though articulate. His American friend responds, agreeing, nuancing, with the same diplomacy.
The wives are brought into the conversation. They are both American. I wonder what the American wife of the American will think of the Frenchman after tonight.
(I think it all ends well.)
Start day grumpy. Must head out of NOLA but have some unaccomplished photo work, so wait till the night time. Spend morning in coffee house, walk a bit downtown, read, relax. Walk to get a short of the Saints’ golden Superdome.
Serendipity, as always. Was about to ready my way out of NOLA, had been lingering, when I remembered I wanted a picture of a street sign that read Elysian Fields (A Streetcar Named Desire…). Headed there, and who do I see strolling right up to me but Amzie, the holographic snake-eye-glassed artist I missed interviewing on my first day here. Got to talk to this ‘iconic staple’ (self-described), who lives by the Voodoo Alley and has been painting here for 30 years now. Turns out his paintings were on show at the Country Club, too bad I didn’t look in any more detail.
Gives me a nice interview. We walk to the Spotted Cat.
“Where are you headed to next?”