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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 20th, 2007 - 01:00:41

What my son did for Easter week
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Apr 20, 2007, 00:58

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Actually, it was the week before Easter week. My son Michael did have the Monday and Friday of that earlier week off, and took off literally Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday for New Orleans to do service with his Unitarian All-Souls church group, returning Saturday evening. Am I proud? Does spring have buds?

Michael and his group and their religious director Melaney stayed at a Universalist Unitarian Church in New Orleans. There was a water line on the church building 18 feet high -- to mark Katrina�s onerous passing. Damage was sustained within the church as well. But there they made their meals, slept on cots, in sleeping bags, showered and dressed, and talked about their days� events.

From the church they departed to tours of the 7th, 8th and 9th Wards, the three that took the worst hits of Katrina. They also journeyed for an hour and a half by car to Phoenix, Louisiana, where there was a village set up for mostly poor African Americans who had lost their homes.

A year and a half later, the devastation they found on their jaunts hit the young people like the blasts of heat and humidity. As my 18-year old son described it, �The feeling was eerie, totally eerie, all those houses, those streets and neighborhoods, just abandoned, left to rot. How could the government do that?� There was a note of passion in his voice that I had never heard before, even when he spoke about his truest loves, baseball and the New York Yankees.

Before Mike left, he, his mom and I watched Spike Lee�s four-hour documentary about New Orleans, When the Levees Broke. When I asked him how the film stacked up to what he saw, he said, �What I saw was worse. You couldn�t walk in another room. It was always in your face.� As I looked in his face, framed by long sideburns, a bit of chin beard, the ruddiness of sunburned cheeks, the short-cropped hair, it all signaled a boy turning into a man. The many photos of him on the mantle called for one more, this one.

And speaking of photos, Mike took out his digital camera and showed us a series of devastated homes he had shot. Scrawled on several was, �Do not tear down.� Or �I will be back. I�m a New Orleansian.� �Please don�t touch my home.� Some of the pictures indicated there were bodies inside. Others were of flattened homes, a wrecked school, piles of uncollected litter, sections of tattered levees, the repaired Superdome, even a shot or two of the untouched French Quarter.

There were also pictures of several rooms Mike had painted, and other houses he had worked on in the three wards and Phoenix. He was proud of his work and his friends for their journey. Unfortunately, the first night, probably owing to the heat, dehydration or just the shock of entry, Melaney had called to say Mike wasn�t feeling well. He was a bit dizzy and his stomach was messed up. It might have even been a mild case of post-traumatic stress. Yet, the next morning she called to say, they were all feeling fine and ready to get down to business.

The Saturday night he got home, he called his older step-sister and her husband; then his grandparents; then his aunts visiting their parents in Colorado. He wanted to tell them all about what was going on in the Big Easy. His tone, his sense of emergency reminded me of my own, writing some article on corruption or wrong-doing. It followed the axiom that children learn by what you do, not just by what you say.

Along those lines, my wife had gotten Mike a plane ticket for the New Orleans trip. She is a member of the First Universalist Unitarian Church in New York City, which sponsored the jaunt. She also teaches fifth grade Sunday school there. And she�s active in the PTA of Mike�s high school, which is a school for students with learning difficulties. She consistently works to help the school help their students. Sometimes Mike and I kid her about the number of calls coming in from parents to speak with her. But the results in increased fund-raising, participation, and services are worth the effort. And we tell her that, too.

As to Mike, listening to him on the phone in his room, bringing the word from New Orleans, I saw a young activist in the making. I kid him a lot (and sometimes outright grouse) about his room not being too neat (understatement). But then I walk into my office and look at the stacks of downloaded articles on the floor, desk and couch, my own writing piled into bookcases spilling over with books, DVDs, CDs, and magazines, I realize �the apple does not fall far from the tree.�

Next fall Mike will be going off to college, and, like any parent, I hope he�ll be able to manage his studies, playing sports, et al. But then I think this is the kid who befriended a jazz bass player down in New Orleans whose house he helped repair and paint. He didn�t ask to go to a baseball camp or on some frou-frou �vacation.� We did catch the Yankee opener on Monday, April 2, at the stadium and watched the Yankees bomb the Devil Rays (sorry Tampa fans).

Again, like most parents, I have feared at times my son might turn into one of the I-pod People. He wears his phones like his baseball hat -- frequently. Yet the fact is he�s also listening to the world, the news, to what�s going on Iraq, Washington, his own city of New York. He listened as well to what the people he met in New Orleans told him. In fact, he repeats their thanks as well as their pleas to tell people not to forget New Orleans. Despite his short stay, he says it was an experience he will never forget; that he would go back in a minute if the chance arose.

He heard, too, the information from the Spike Lee documentary that the levees were built to withstand a category two storm, not a category three storm, let alone a storm that surged twice to category five. He heard that it was willful human error, mainly the Corps of Army Engineers and the president they work for, who allowed this terrible tragedy to happen by under-funding proper repairs. He remembers seeing Katrina on TV and no president in sight for days, because Bush was on vacation.

He remembers one of his best friends, Oliver, two years older than Mike, who was down at Tulane, a freshman that Katrina season, trying to evacuate after just settling in. Luckily, Ollie got out, driven by the father of another friend to Houston, then flying home solo to New York. And luckily Oliver went back to Tulane after a stint at Columbia that fall, after the university there had gotten it together. Oliver is going to major in government. Mike, as of now, is down for sports management.

In New Orleans, Mike also went down to Bourbon Street with his group and loved the atmosphere, let alone the sounds of jazz he heard floating through the air, some of the same sounds he hears in our family. His 20 years older stepbrother, Peter, is in the Graduate Jazz Program at Julliard. The jazz program director is the saxophonist, arranger, composer Victor Goines, who was brought up in New Orleans, as was Wynton Marsalis, who helped create the Jazz Studies program, as was Terence Blanchard, the outstanding trumpet player, who scored and arranged the music for Spike Lee�s film, and who appears in it along with his mother.

Blanchard, a full and soft spoken man, who lets his virtuoso playing do the talking most times, is caught in one scene in the documentary in which he brings his mother back to their damaged home. It is a scene charged with emotion and poignancy as Mrs. Blanchard sees and realizes the loss. Her tearful reaction says it all, even as tears come to the otherwise stoic Terence�s eyes as he tells his mother all will be well. This ultimately is what it�s all about.

Will this community of black and white folks, of multi-varying ethnicities, of middle class, even wealthy and mostly poor people, one of the most diverse communities in America, ever be able to return to this standing ruin of a city, albeit somewhat cleaner and in crawl-slow state of repair, not nearly what it should be, or what this country is capable of doing. But seeing it for real and knowing the background has changed Mike subtly but profoundly.

He brought home several New Orleans T-shirts that he�s been wearing non-stop to school, telling all his friends about the experience and its circumstances. He also brought home a shot glass with all the street names of the area printed on it, and a double shot glass that simply said Bourbon Street. Fortunately, he doesn�t drink or smoke. And I hope he keeps it that way, to stay strong and clear.

Both before and after his New Orleans trip, Mike followed the recent elections here. He asks what I think about the local winners and national candidates, and I give him an earful, probably more than I should. But he�s making up his mind. I can see his values forming the way once I could see his muscles pop or his frame zoom up and his beard bloom.

But so it goes. Making kids. Making citizens. Making a country. Making a world not just for profit but for love and the common good is the lesson here. This even as Mike�s older step-sister Stephanie, a public school guidance counselor, works in one of the more devastated sections of East New York, Brooklyn. New Orleans, though it is by far the most flagrant scene of government abandonment, is not the only forgotten place in America. There are all too many right around the corner from us all.

It seems to me that believing in and working for our common humanity is largely what the Universalist Unitarian All-Souls community is all about, including Mike�s Sunday school class. Though I�m not a frequent churchgoer, I share those beliefs. Going to church for me is more often a long walk in the woods north of the city. For me, nature in its seasons represents the ongoing miracle of life that inspires me to wake up everyday and get some coffee going, make sure Mike is in the shower, and a cup is out for my wife. A few trees are all it takes for me to see what a good deal all of us have here on earth.

But many people, Mike has learned, need more than those few good trees. The people in New Orleans need schools, homes, nourishment, medical care, and emotional care, from their government and fellow citizens. But the New Orleans people are also incredibly strong. They will respond to whatever opportunity for a good life is offered them. Just as in 1927, after the great devastating flood that created the New Orleans Diaspora, the people there returned. They survived. They rebuilt. They gave us a political philosophy of the common good that Franklin Roosevelt used so successfully in his New Deal administration.

My hope is that Mike has learned too that finally it takes a leader of great heart, soul and intelligence to guide a people forward from the deepest of depressions and social cataclysms. But that person will come this time as well I tell him. We will know that person when we see him or her. Then we need to defend everyone�s right to vote that person into the White House and reinstate America as the nation we expect it to be: free, strong, compassionate, the product of decent people, their Bill of Rights and Constitution. Even a whole country, in Easter week, or in any week, can get a fresh start, if it�s ready to roll back the stone of the past and proceed.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York. Reach him at

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