Guest Bloggers

Monday, July 12, 2010

Harvey Pekar: Rest in Splendor

Posted By on Mon, Jul 12, 2010 at 8:48 PM

Harvey Pekar, the cartoonist behind American Splendor, died this morning at his Cleveland home at the age of 70. Memories of Pekar are already flooding the Web, along with official obits (The New York Times, The Washington Post).

In the early 2000s, Pekar was coaxed into being a sometimes-Gambit contributor by former editor Michael Tisserand, who was a huge fan of the man and his work. In 2003, Tisserand even wrote his own American Splendor-type comic about his interactions with Pekar and had it illustrated by Rhett Thiel.

Pekar

Today, in honor of Harvey Pekar, we're running that comic again (download the whole thing here), and presenting Michael Tisserand's remembrance of his cantankerous friend:

Lonnie Johnson, Fats Domino, Dennis McGee, Clifton Chenier, Kid Ory. Thanks to Harvey Pekar, these aren't just Louisiana music legends. They were comic heroes in the pages of Gambit Weekly.

Pekar is known to most people for his American Splendor comic book, his memorable appearances with David Letterman, and the acclaimed movie American Splendor, in which he appeared as himself. For a few years in the early 2000s, he also became an occasional Gambit contributor. His masterful portraits of local musicians managed to convey essential biographical information, Pekar's own opinions, and a dash of wry wit in just a few words and images. It was a great honor to work with him.

Pekar

Shortly after Katrina, I wrote in an essay that I returned to my Gambit office shortly after the waters went down and salvaged my Harvey Pekar bobblehead, a gift from arts editor David Lee Simmons. The essay was picked up by the alt weekly in Harvey's home town of Cleveland, and the next day I received an email from Joyce Brabner, Pekar's wife. "Interesting priorities," she wrote. "Until reading this I believed that I would be the only one thinking to grab and save Harvey Pekar in the event of a catastrophe."

That was the last contact I had with either Harvey or Joyce ... almost. A couple years back, Harvey was appearing in Chicago to promote a comics anthology that he had edited. I was living there at the time and when we met up, I was feeling pretty forlorn about missing New Orleans and the chain of events that had brought me north. Harvey certainly recognized self-pity when he saw it. "You're writing and your wife's got a good job," he said. "What have you got to complain about?"

I started to answer him, but then stopped. What did I expect? A soft shoulder from the man who made timeless art out of a decades-long drudge job as a hospital file clerk? When Pekar scoffed, it was like being serenaded by a master soloist. As he explained in the film American Splendor: "If you’re the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day, guess what? You’ve got the wrong movie."

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Simon and Garfunkel at Jazz Fest Saturday

Posted By on Sun, Apr 25, 2010 at 3:19 PM

Simon and Garfunkel played to a large crowd Saturday at the Fair Grounds. Photo by Gary Loverde.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

New Orleans family loses FEMA trailer suit

Posted By on Fri, Sep 25, 2009 at 1:42 AM

By Matt Robinson

After a two-week trial in federal court in New Orleans, the first manufacturer sued over formaldehyde in FEMA trailers was absolved of responsibility Thursday. An eight-member jury found Gulf Stream Coach, an Indiana company that made 50,000 trailers for FEMA’s emergency housing program after Hurricane Katrina, did not construct an unreasonably dangerous product, and Fluor, the FEMA contractor responsible for hauling and installing the unit, was not negligent in setting up the trailer that housed New Orleanians Alana Alexander and her two children.

After the verdict was read, Alexander and her son Christopher Cooper declined to comment on the proceedings and quietly left the courtroom alone.

Alexander and Cooper claimed the temporary housing unit FEMA provided them in 2006 was contaminated with formaldehyde that worsened Cooper’s asthma. The trailer, one of the ubiquitous Cavalier units built by Gulf Stream, was installed by Fluor in May 2006, and the family lived in the unit until December 2007. During that time, the suit alleged, the family suffered health consequences from the toxic exposure, particularly Cooper, who was 9 years old when they moved into the trailer. Christopher had been diagnosed with asthma at age 3; the suit alleges his condition got worse as a result of living in the trailer for 19 months.

Over the course of the trial, Alexander's attorney, Tony Buzbee, argued the formaldehyde-laden trailers were set up incorrectly, damaging them. The damage led to broken seals, loose ductwork and pressure differentials inside and outside the units, which affected ambient formaldehyde through heat and humidity, then circulated contaminated air inside the living space.

The defense team, headed by attorney Andy Weinstock, argued the trailers met all FEMA specifications when Gulf Stream sold them to the U.S. government. Alexander’s trailer tested 0.050 parts per million (ppm), or 50 parts per billion (ppb), a month after the family vacated the unit.

During the first week of testimony, the jury watched hours of videotaped testimony from Gulf Stream representatives, including Jim and Dan Shea, co-presidents of the company. Their testimony, along with that of Gulf Stream Vice President of Operations Scott Pullen and others, revealed that, although the manufacturer claimed to have a policy of using low-formaldehyde-emitting (LFE) processed wood in its products, up to 15 percent of the wood product purchased around the time Alexander’s trailer was constructed was regular, or “reg,” wood, which emits more formaldehyde than LFE. At the time, no limits or standards existed on the amount of formaldehyde permissible in travel trailers such as the one Alexander’s family inhabited, but the company claims it had an LFE policy its vendors should have followed. The lawsuit alleged Gulf Stream used “reg” wood for FEMA-spec units, and claimed that was the root of Cooper’s health problems.

In the videotaped testimony, Dan Shea admitted under questioning that even more of its wood could have had elevated levels of formaldehyde than the amount his brother and co-president Jim Shea had claimed. Dan Shea said only a third of the wood supplied by Weyerhauser and Samling was compliant with HUD codes for formaldehyde emissions, and he conceded that “probably two-thirds or more” of Gulf Stream’s wood from those two manufacturers violated HUD certification standards.

Other videotaped testimony included Dr. Christopher DeRosa, a researcher for the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), who testified regarding occupants’ potential exposure to formaldehyde. DeRosa was demoted when he challenged a study by the ATSDR, a sister agency of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In his testimony, during which he became emotional at times, DeRosa recalled that “kids were presenting with clinical signs of formaldehyde toxicity,” with symptoms including asthma attacks, in Katrina-affected regions, but were “being returned to the environment which caused [the symptoms],” namely the trailers he suspected of being the source of the toxin.

Before Hurricane Katrina, Cooper’s asthma had been improving, according to the live testimony of Dr. Janet Barnes, the boy’s pediatrician, whose office in eastern New Orleans was inundated with 6 feet of water when the levees failed after the hurricane. Her records were destroyed, but she remembered much about the young man because he had been Barnes’ patient since 2000. She examined Cooper in April 2008, four months after the family moved out of the trailer, and diagnosed him with allergic conjunctivitis. His asthma, however, was improving: “His lung fields were clear,” Barnes testified, “but his eyes were involved. … He had dark circles under his eyes.” She noted that symptom often correlates with chronic exposure to irritants.

Dr. Karen Pacheco, who examined Cooper in 2009, found the young man may have suffered from “suboptimal” treatment of his asthma prior to Hurricane Katrina. Because Cooper’s medical records from before Aug. 29, 2005 were destroyed by flooding, however, her opinion could not be verified. Cooper reported other symptoms related to asthma and allergic responses at the time, and in videotaped testimony Pacheco said, “In my opinion, his symptoms were due to formaldehyde.”

The defense did not challenge whether Cooper had asthma, or that his condition worsened while in the trailer. But defense attorney Andy Weinstock, who represented Gulf Stream, argued the boy’s asthma had been “suboptimally treated” before and after Katrina and as a result, any problems with his health were due to an improper medicine regime, not exposure to formaldehyde.

Defense witnesses challenged opinions expressed by Alexander’s witnesses, who had attested to improper installation of the unit and had testified that the levels of formaldehyde in the family’s trailer were high enough to cause concern. But Weinstock countered that the 0.050 ppm formaldehyde in the trailer was well below levels believed to cause harm. HUD’s standard of 0.4 ppm for manufactured housing is eight times as high as the level measured in Alexander’s trailer; other recommended limits of exposure range from as low as 0.008 ppm to as high as 3.0 ppm.

“Some of [the jurors] live in mobile homes,” Weinstock said after the trial, “and they understood the argument that the level in the Alexander trailer was not unreasonably high.”

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Why I'm Here, pt 3: more music scene comparisons

Posted By on Thu, Jan 8, 2009 at 4:50 AM

Rarely does anyone who’s lived in New Orleans want to move away. But then some have to. After eight years of hardcore participation in New Orleans, I am now here in Austin, jobhunting and deciding whether or not to move here. I’m keeping this personal journal of the experience to stimulate a discourse on the subjects of why we all live in New Orleans, what we risk by leaving (the way so many of us daily threaten to), and what we could do to make New Orleans the type of place that doesn’t force us to make such hella hard choices.

My first days here, I put off looking for a job in favor of soaking-in Austin’s culture -- no quick task with all the driving that necessitates. I know little of Austin except that it’s not a village, like I’m used to. I know I already hate all the driving. The villagers here are (surprisingly since it's Texas) as nice, chill, casual, friendly as New Orleanians, but goddamn is their village too big. Back home I ride my bike, now my 89 Honda is violently rattling at 75mph every single day, multiple times per day. You also can’t have more than two drinks when you go out at night, cause you'll almost always have a long drive home. Definitely something to consider before moving.

This city does throw its full support behind its music scene though, whether or not the majority of the music is work supporting. I’d only visited famous 6th Street once before, for SXSW, the Austin music convention that is gross and retarded like an indy-rock Bourbon Street. This week on 6th is FREE WEEK, wherein dozens of music clubs abut against each other simultaneously feature big handfuls of local bands, often on multiple stages within each club, and no one charges any cover. Though all the shows everywhere were relatively full, the streets were neither packed nor gross. It felt very local, not counting the college kids. It also genuinely felt as if the city was trying to give something to it’s musicians, help them along, rather than just trying to make money off of them, the way New Orleans seems to its artists. And walking around wondering at just the sheer volume of music clubs, I couldn’t help thinking about how, the first thing New Orleans’ law enforcement seemed to really accomplish after Katrina was shutting down all the new, unlicensed music venues that had sprung up in those lawless post-flood days.

Off of 6th, we ended up outside Emo’s where the General Manager, Bill, stood with his hood pulled over cold ears, letting new people into the club only when others wandered out. I pointed at the poster listing all the night’s many bands. “Any of em any good?”

He looked at me funny. “Of course,” he sniffed, like ‘don’t be dumb dude, we don’t book crap.’ I'm more used to my friends who run clubs everywhere in the country freely admitting, if asked, that they don’t like most of what they book.When someone came out, Bill let us in. Full crowds gathered around bands both up front and outside, with 100 people smoking on the big outdoor patio in between (lots of patio clubs here, since you can't bring your drink on the street), still Emo's felt uncramped. The mop-haired indy-rock band with the cute girl bassist on the outside stage had a good keyboard sound, but they lacked any edge, fire, or real originality. The guitarist almost never left the top of the guitar, strumming the same open chords he’d contrived in his room. But one thing I’ve noticed about Austin is that no matter what type of music an Austin band plays, they’re so tight and pro that it takes longer to discern whether or not they suck.

Regardless, happy to be there, I bobbed and vaguely danced -- until some Austin guy pointed at me, “Man you’re the only one having fun! Where are you from?” This actually happened twice in the same night, at different clubs. I was proud both times to tell them I live in New Orleans, and bummed to be considering moving away. Especially to a place where dancing at concerts stands out.

On our way out of Emo’s, some band with rockabilly hair but not rockabilly music were rockin in a real good way. Still we kept going. With so much going on everywhere it was hard to catch the bands' names, which is too bad because somewhere along the road I caught one song by a truly great band with long hair, distorted acoustic guitar, an angry monster drummer. Not sure why we left, and found ourselves at Club DeVille several blocks away. DeVille is an outdoor stage shadowed by a grassy, sandy cliff, like a sort of mini Red Rocks. In this dramatic setting another middling rock band strummed open cords. The singer wore a cowboy hat, and mentioned this fact aloud. They then played a synth-pop song that didn’t fit with their other tunes at all, and their desperation to make music their jobs. I rip on New Orleans bands for playing certain types of music just because they know it will make them money, but any musician who forgoes self-expression in order to have a job is treating music badly.

Every club we popped into was exceedingly nice inside, if soundtracked by these same not-very-rocking indy rockers. We drove a long way home at the end of a night that was very pleasant, though never sublime. It's not Austin’s fault though, just like New Orleans’ crabgrass of museum music isn’t that city’s fault; guns don’t kill people, people kill people.And with that, here is a video of me disloating my sister's shoulder at Emo's on New Year's Eve:

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Guest blog: "Obama and Gustav"

Posted By on Tue, Sep 2, 2008 at 11:42 PM

(Michael Tisserand is the former editor of Gambit Weekly.)

By Michael Tisserand

Among my many old obnoxious Katrina habits that Gustav awakened was this one: offering very little time or patience to people who aren't clearly obsessed with the present and future condition of New Orleans. It got kind of ridiculous -- while living in Chicago for a two-year extended evacuation, I'd give people a little secret test to see if they "got it" before I'd grant them an audience. I'd tell them I came from New Orleans and then listen close, scrutinizing their face in extreme close-up, Larry David-style.

So it was with mixed feelings that, in the middle of my Gustav evacuation back in the Midwest, I learned that Barack Obama was speaking at a Labor Day rally in Milwaukee. I wanted to go, but I didn't really want to hear about anything except storm surges. The news out of New Orleans was still uncertain when we left our news vigil at the television and drove into the city for "Laborfest," an annual celebration that featured bad music, good roasted corn, and bingo.

While I waited in line to get into the speech, I started quizzing people who were bedecked in Obama buttons and various union T-shirts: You think he should be here or should he have canceled and gone straight to the Gulf Coast? After all, isn't McCain getting a free pass to look presidential in Mississippi? Most dismissed the idea as photo-op politics. One woman shrugged off my question and asked me what I'd heard about Sarah Palin's daughter. I was about to fix her in my old Katrina glare when we were interrupted by a burst of applause....

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Excellence in Recovery": the man who got kicked out

Posted By on Wed, Aug 27, 2008 at 2:19 AM

(Guest blogger Ken Foster is a founding member of SilenceIsViolence, an organizer of last year's March for Survival on City Hall, and the author of several books, including Dogs I Have Met: And the People They Found.)

On the street outside the Ritz-Carlton last Friday evening, I stood among a group of about 75 people protesting the award of distinction to Mayor Nagin, which was being bestowed on him by a mysterious Excellence in Recovery committee (headed by the Mayor's official photographer, Bernardo) at a party in developer Stewart Juneau's penthouse. While most of the guests snuck in through a secret entrance, we gave out our own statuettes to people on the street, many of whom were too busy working, rebuilding and raising families to have heard the news of our Mayor's excellence.

"Would you like an award?" I asked a young woman pushing a child in a stroller along with her girlfriend. "It's for excellence in recovery," I explained. "Don't you think you deserve it?" A smile spread across her face as she took the fake Oscar from me. "I do!" she said. "But why are you doing this?" "They're giving an award to the mayor right now, inside." This was the first she'd heard of it. "To him?" she said. "After everything he's done?" She then began to list some of Nagin's most atrocious blunders as she continued down the street with her award in hand.

With one award left, a man in a white, Tom Wolfe-inspired suit asked if he could have one. "I'll trade you," he said, waving the official engraved party invitation in his hand. In fact, the small sample of people I talked to admitted they were only attending for free food and drinks. I called Karen Gadbois over, to see if she wanted to use the invitation. She declined. I offered it to Veda Manuel, who with Musa Eubanks had been holding the largest sign: WE'RE STILL HERE YA' BASTARDS. She declined. I studied the invite: no dress code listed, admit two. It seemed a shame to waste it....

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Guest blog: "Growing pains"

Posted By on Tue, Aug 26, 2008 at 5:07 AM

(The following is by Gambit guest blogger and New Orleans resident Leigh C., who maintains her own blog, Liprap’s Lament: The Line. You can read more of her writing there.)

(Editor's note: This post is in relation to Rising Tide III, a bloggers' conference held last weekend in New Orleans. To learn more about it, go to Rising Tide's Web site.)

Walking out of the bar with Maitri, it hit me.

I have to go get the keynote speaker?

What in hell are these people thinking?????

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guest blog: "Contradiction?"

Posted By on Thu, Aug 21, 2008 at 6:05 PM

(The following is by Gambit guest blogger and New Orleans resident Leigh C., who maintains her own blog, Liprap’s Lament: The Line. You can read more of her writing there.)

The start of Shabbat, back in the day:

This was Friday night in Anniston, Alabama, at the turn of the century: “First, Mama blessed the lights. And then, we always had our favorite Sabbath meal – oyster stew; steak, ham, or fried chicken; Mama’s homemade biscuits and cornbread, too; hoppin’ john [a mixture of black-eyed peas and rice]; and sweet potato pie for dessert.”*

Yes, for those who know me, there’s a good amount wrong with the above picture of a nice Shabbat meal –but there’s also a whole lot of what is right in that account.

There are those who think that if I harp on too many details - like the fact that eating oysters or any kind of shellfish is considered treif, or not kosher, and ham is an absolute kosher no-no - then I ought to perhaps head on back to New York City, where I lived for four years, or make aliyah (literally, a rising up in Hebrew, and a common term for immigrating to Israel) and move overseas to the Middle East. Go on, honey, head to the Holy Land. You’re used to the climate already. Why not?

For starters, I was born in Tennessee and raised in Texas....

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Guest blog: "A modest plea"

Posted By on Sun, Aug 17, 2008 at 1:39 AM

(The following is by Gambit guest blogger and New Orleans resident Leigh C., who maintains her own blog, Liprap’s Lament: The Line. You can read more of her writing there.)

I first had an inkling that something was wrong in grade school. I was too overly sensitive, took others’ slights much too seriously. It came to a head a few times, but the first time I knew deep down that I had to get help was when I was asked to get help by a former boss of mine. I began to be treated for the lack of serotonin in my brain and was able to do much better as a result.

I made a huge mistake, however, when I made the decision to go off the meds and discontinue the therapy when we moved up north. I wasn’t doing so because of my pregnancy – in fact, my doctor in New Orleans said that the particular drug I was taking was fine to continue using throughout the nine months. I was ending the treatment because it seemed like such a hassle, having to find another doctor, another therapist. Plus, telling my grandparents, my aunt, anybody who might be able to help in a new place was too much for me at the time. I had enough meds to continue taking them into my son’s first month, and then I’d be able to handle life without them. Right?

Wrong. Very, very wrong.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Guest blog: "Southern Yiddishe Mama"

Posted By on Tue, Aug 12, 2008 at 8:30 PM

(The following is by Gambit guest blogger and New Orleans resident Leigh C., who maintains her own blog, Liprap's Lament: The Line. You can read more of her writing there.)

What brings a Jewish mother to New Orleans?

In the beginning, I was just a gal looking for a job, and I found one here. The operative word here is one, since, at the time, I was busting my buns in New York City working three jobs, two of which I knew I would be losing unless I found something else to replace them. So I came here, where I found culture shock that gave way to love for my surroundings, many other NYC refugees who shared that same feeling, and my second family, the greater Jewish community here. I met my husband here. We got married here.

And then, we had to leave. Job-wise, we found it difficult to stay. I also found out, shortly after filling up my car’s gas tank at a Magazine Street station and turning many shades of green from the smell of it, that I was pregnant. We moved to the borough of Queens six months after 9-11 and had our son there. We found a synagogue – a blessed expansion of the New Orleans mishpocheh – only a few blocks from our first apartment there, became active members, and settled in as much as we could. We got to know New York, but we kept our house in New Orleans and rented it all out in the hopes that someday, we would return. We got that opportunity to come back much quicker than we could ever have hoped. A merger was going through at my husband’s business in Brooklyn, and he found another job in southeast Louisiana.

Nearly four years to the day from when we moved to NYC, we came into New Orleans just in time for Mardi Gras 2006. I began blogging shortly before then to do my best to let our friends in New York know what was going on with us and with the city. Two encounters in NYC had convinced me that this was necessary – my son’s preschool teacher’s indignance over Mayor Nagin’s “Chocolate City” remarks could not be easily discussed in depth at the dropoff time for preschool. My husband also had to give an hour-long geography lesson to a friend of ours in order to show him that New Orleans was not located right on the edge of the Gulf, although poor levee maintenance and unchecked coastal erosion will most likely have it lapping at our doorsteps in ten years.

So, here we are again, with a five-year-old son, in the city that we love. And I have found, sadly, that it is still hurting after all this time – in some of the same old ways and in excruciating new ones. But it is not going down without a fight.

What keeps a Jewish mother in New Orleans?

I invite you to read on and find out…

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