Thursday, December 20, 2007

Assignment NOLA:
Victim now a clever deal maker on Bourbon Street


Larry Jones, 35, spent six days at the Superdome during Katrina. Five days after being transferred to the Convention Center, he was bused to Houston, where he lived until recently when he felt the need to return. He lost all but his three children in the storm, and he now lives in a tent near City Hall. He polishes shoes on Bourbon Street for cash.

Last night, I got mugged.

I didn't mention it in my previous post because it is a story all of its own.

OK. Let's get it straight: I wasn't mugged in the traditional sense or by any definition of "mugging" you would find in the dictionary. A crime was not committed. Yes, I had money taken from me, but the only weapons used were words.

I even consider myself a "word guy," being a copy editor and all. So I guess that means my mugger beat me at my own game.

Walking away from Bourbon Street on Wednesday night, on its western end, a man came up to me and started mumbling something about my shoes. I certainly had been harassed by far worse-looking individuals in the past. This guy was fairly clean-cut, clad in a horizontally striped shirt of navy blue, light blue and white. On his head was a similarly colored Detroit Tigers baseball cap, and on his legs were a pair of unfaded denim three-quarter-length shorts.

He had a pitch: It was something about shoes. He carried a spray bottle and a lightly soiled rag. I figured he wanted to shine my shoes - for a price, of course. I looked down at his feet: clean white socks, covered in leather-looking sneakers with patches of multiple shades of brown and maroon. On the side was the letter "N" ... New Balance.

A man with nice sneakers that don't require polishing seemed odd. It would have been more appropriate if he had offered his shoes to me at a certain price: They were far better than my old Nunn Bush clunkers I bought a few years ago at Macy's.

"Forty dollars," he said. "That's how much I made last time. For you, I have a deal: half-price. Twenty bucks."

It still seemed steep. I wasn't buying. "Gotta do better than that, man," I said.

"OK. If I can guess where you got those shoes - what city, not what store - I'll give you that special deal," he said. "If I guess wrong, I'll give you a free polish."

"Deal," I said, knowing he wasn't going to leave me alone if I gave him a negative answer. Hit me with your best shot.

"Well," he said, pointing toward my feet, "these shoes are right here in New Orleans. The right one is on your right foot. The left one is on your left foot."

I looked at him, puzzled.

"Hey, I never said I'd guess where you bought them," he said.

I conceded that point, but I rebutted, saying that "where you got those shoes" could easily mean "where you bought those shoes." Then I said his grammar would be incorrect to interpret that to mean "where you HAVE got those shoes" at this point in time.

But I wished to argue no further and coughed up a 10-dollar bill. That's all I had. Wouldn't be stupid enough to carry around loads of cash because of all the media reports of violence in New Orleans that I've been reading and hearing about.

He sprayed my worn, brown leather shoes with some kind of soap-and-water mixture, took five seconds to polish each, and that was all. It seemed as though my clunkers had become dirtier.

He was happy. I was not: I had lost 10 big ones.

As we were about to part, he said, "I'm living in a tent near City Hall. This money will help."

Now he really had my attention. I whipped out my notebook.

I, of course, had heard about the Katrina-displaced homeless people living near City Hall in a tent city, mainly because it was one of the few safe places to camp outside. It was a safety tactic and a political statement wrapped into one package.

My shoe-shine mugger had a name and an age and a former residence: Larry Jones, 35, formerly of the Claiborne and Esplanade avenues area of the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the most devastated neighborhoods. He also has three children - two daughters and a boy, all teens who had lived in St. Bernard Parish, which was equally as flooded as the Lower Ninth, but contained more concrete structures and fared only slightly better.


On Sunday, Aug. 28, Jones took his family to the Louisiana Superdome, above, to wait out the storm for six long, grueling, filthy days. He said relief workers gave him hot water and corn bread, but he slept on the floor. He said he watched crews take body after body from the Superdome turf (but I highly doubted that).

"It was all messed up," he said.

Eleven days after the storm, Jones was bused with his family to Houston, then on to Fort Worth, where he would live until recently.

"The rent got too high there, so I came back" to New Orleans, where squatters on the City Hall property have stayed free of charge.

But not for long. City officials are evicting him and his neighbors within the next month, he said. (See update here.)

"They don't want Katrina people there no more," Jones said. "I don't have money for a trailer" from FEMA.

"They treat us like refugees in our own city," he said. "We're not refugees: We're people."

He blamed New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for the lack of quick response, for failing to mobilize city buses to take residents out before the storm hit, for not doing enough to make amends when hard times hit in the storm's wake.

About the media, Jones said, "They talked and talked and talked, but they did nothing for us."

The deluge lifted his old apartment building from the earth and placed it two blocks away.

Katrina left him with only a bottle of soap and water, a dirty rag and slick sales pitch to offer unsuspecting tourists.

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