I was run off the road by one of your trailers! . . . I was behind one of your trailers . . . the driver kept slowin' down in front of me and everybody else . . .I tried to pass, he swerved and hit the brakes! . . . I tried to speed up to pass him _ he sped up! . . . I tried to pass _ he pulled out in front of me! . . . I tried to pass agiin! _ he pulled in front of me agin! . . .'
It was, I surmised, the voice of an older black man, six or seven days after Katrina struck Louisiana and Mississippi in late August of 2005, and it was a phone message.
As it turned out, our business toll free number was just a digit off both the New Orleans FEMA number and also just another digit off the phone number of a major Louisiana truck and trailer rental service, both of which were incredibly busy those weeks following the hurricane.
The caller's voice was deep, beautiful, not unlike the great actor Paul Robeson's; it was also gentle and it registered pain and indignation. It was one of the very few time I've heard the F and MF words used with dignity. His ``reading'' was worthy of Shakespeare, as was, in many ways, his speech, which I will conclude later.
Over the days and weeks that followed we received numerous calls from Louisiana and Mississippi. Some were messages left, others were calls we were there to take. Although our recorded message plainly says we are an art gallery in California, the callers were usually too upset to register on that.
To a message ``that we specialize in early and contemporary California art,'' the recorded response could be, ``My children are sick, the house is flooded, when will you help us?'' Or, ``My cat's stuck on the roof and I think our puppy has drowned! Where are you?'' Or, ``People, thugs, are pushing us around _ we need protection! Please, won't you please please help?''
When people left a number, I called them back, if I could get through, so they wouldn't sit there waiting in vain for a response to a message that FEMA never received (though from what a few callers told me, FEMA didn't respond to many of them they did receive). Once I received a call from a retired colonel in Mississippi. I couldn't believe it _ a retired colonel in Mississippi! It sounded so Faulkner. He was gracious and polite, and he didn't care that I wasn't FEMA, or the trailer company, which ever he was calling, he just wanted to talk.
Another time, a worried farmer in central Louisiana, who was trying to trace family in New Orleans, also disregarded the mistaken call and we talked about his kids and his collection of black folk art and how much it meant to him, especially in these times, and, he asked, did California art mean as much to Californians, and I said it probably did when we had natural disasters, as Louisiana and Mississippi had just had, since it (the art) was a reminder of what you might be losing.
It all seemed so ironic. A day or two after Katrina hit, and a few days before that first phone message, a picker (those who search out art and antiques; an essay one day on pickers), a friend, came into the gallery with a painting he had found in a shop somewhere; it was a casein, circa. 1930, titled ``River New Orleans,'' by Aaron Bohrod. It showed a gaunt white boy, fishing on the river's edge, behind him tenement buildings, a factory, a burning pile of tires. This was not the tourist's New Orleans and the fishing didn't appear recreational; that boy looked like he needed protein badly.
I bought the painting. I asked myself why. Well, it was New Orleans' history, I told myself. Maybe the painting was showing something that had just been wiped out by Katrina. The painting should eventually go to a New Orleans museum, if the city rebuilds, I thought and, if somehow I become wealthy, I'd make a gift of it to such a museum.
Then I looked up the artist, and he was special. A social realist, Bohrod in the 1920s and early `30s had earned Guggenheim fellowships that allowed him to travel and record the inner city life of cities such as New York, Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans. Now, in the case of New Orleans, such work seemed even more important; it became part of a record of what was. Later, during World War II, Bohrod recorded the European scene for Life Magazine.
So that's why I'd bought the painting. Then the phone calls started coming and it became even more clear, more ironic; everything tied together. Each morning I arrived at the gallery I checked the messages for another New Orleans message. When I answered the phone I was not surprised to hear desperation in the voice at the other end _ ``Hello, when are you going to get here?'' ``How much to rent a trailer one way? We're movin' to Baton Rouge and never comin' back.''
I began playing that first message from the highway driver to visitors to the gallery, who would stand there thunderstruck. The anger, the passion were so evident. I aplogized for the F and MF words, but no one seemed to take offense; they could understand this was a man at the end of his tether, one whose heart was good but in pain.
I thought about this with the current approach of Katrina's brother, Edward, in the Gulf. So the man stuck on the highway outside of New Orleans, who had been run off the road, continued into my phone:
`. . . I tried to pass _ he pulled in front of me! . . . I tried to pass agin! _ he pulled in front of me agin! . . . He did this agin and agin! I had people in my car! I had a sick ol' man in my car! _ had a cryin' child in my car! . . . You people have got to do somethin' about your drivers, you have got to teach them to obey the laws of the road . . . This is not the way to be . . . because . . . we're dyin' out here, we're all dyin' and the world seems to be comin' to an end and we don't need . . . we don't need this. . . because, I have a gun somewhere, a gun I put away and hoped I'd never have to use, but if I ever see this guy agin, if I ever see this M _ F _ again, I will blow his F-in' head off!'
But I can never convey his voice, the pain and dignity in his voice, and I'm only hoping the words above are close because, even though I had this plan to keep all these recordings, of this man and others in despair, and do something with them . . . well, one day, in a hurry, someone asking me a question as I erased a redundant question, I accidentally pushed the erase button twice and erased everything, including all those passionate messages from Louisiana and Mississippi, so the above is a kind of reconstruction, but I know I'm not doing it justice.
And every time I think of it, of losing those impassioned speeches with their telling inflections, it about makes me cry. But I still have that New Orleans painting, so that's something.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...