A short Clowns Without Borders Expedition to Baton Rogue in the wake of Katrina.
Duration :Sept 9th-12th, 2005
Please note that this is based on first hand observations during the very brief time I just spent in Louisiana. It is not meant to describe the whole context of the situation there, and I have absolutely no idea if this reflects what the situation is like in the other affected areas that I did not visit in Louisiana, as well as what may be going on in Alabama or Mississippi.
Staring out at a wall of windows opening onto Houston airport’s tarmac sitting in a very spacious open and relatively empty boarding lounge typing away on my laptop. Despite my surroundings, and an accompanying NY Times, I feel shell shocked as if I had just spent ten days in a dry and dusty desert. Perhaps it is the flying and driving, or perhaps I have just absorbed a taste of the stress, despair and tensions that sometime surrounded me as I visited and performed in three shelters over the weekend. At first I was kicking myself that I hadn’t managed to do more than three shows in the two days I was in Baton Rouge. A brief analysis and recapitulation give rise to the realization that I did more outside of the shows than during the shows. The relating with people, with humor wherever possible was huge. I only used up one of the three bottles of bubbles I brought with me, but that is overshadowed by the number of cigarettes I went through doing cigarette magic, mostly for adults.
There certainly wasn’t anyone questioning the political correctness of including cigarette magic in my performance that mostly kid audiences were watching. I avoided going to the big refugee centers in Houston and Baton Rouge focusing instead on smaller shelters where I thought there would be a better chance for a solo performer to reach an audience. The thought of standing on my suitcase and trying to draw an audience in a sea of cots was not something generating enthusiasm in my heart, or likely to be successful. The task was and remains overwhelming, and parts of my drive back to Houston I spent theorizing how to return, who to send back, what was logistically feasible, and what was likely to offer the refugee kids the most laughter.
With the airport of New Orleans out of operation, the task of getting to Baton Rouge on United or Northwest frequent flyer miles involved a little seat of the pants logistics. I could get to Alexandria which is 90 miles away, but there were no rental cars available. So Houston it was, with a 250 mile drive to Baton Rouge. But all that is of little interest in face of what I encountered once in Baton Rouge. The scope of the task at hand became apparent when I found the Red Cross headquarters located in the former Wal-Mart. Simple foldout tables and chairs were arranged in areas with big black and white signs naming the areas: Feeding, Sheltering, Community Relations, Government, Public Health, Logistics, Security, and numerous others designated by initials that made little sense to an outsider. There is considerable staff walking around the large fluorescent surface, worker bees with a wide variety of red cross disaster relief identifications, red and white vests, t-shirts, and everyone had to have a badge. Somehow I slipped through the cracks, at least until my last visit when they had ratcheted up the security a notch, after a CNN crew had slipped into the River Center and interviewed refugees without the Red Cross’s permission or knowledge.
I spent some time talking with the man, forgive me I have forgotten his name, a volunteer from New York, in charge of trucking logistics.
He said that he had 18 trucks worth of coolers that he didn’t know what to do with. He keyed into the humor release immediately, and shined a humorous light on just about everything as he filled out requisition papers for needed supplies. I was waiting for an opportunity to talk to Micky, 2nd in command at sheltering who took on the task, amongst a million others, of identifying and contacting shelters for me to go perform at. There is a map on the wall next to their big ‘sheltering’ sign with little colored strips identifying all the shelters in Louisiana. Next to it were rows of post-it papers stuck to the wall with vital information about each shelter- address, phone numbers, shelter managers names, capacity numbers as well as actual numbers in the shelters as to the last posted date.
The numbers were constantly changing, mostly diminishing as people found places to move to or were relocated to other areas. The River Center which had housed as many as 7000 people was down to ‘only’ 1800, and the goal was to empty it entirely from what I understood. Those that remained housed in shelters were largely those who had no place to go or no money to go anywhere. As had been widely reported in the press, the vast majority were poor and black. Indeed in the shelters I visited I only saw a few white faces, and a couple of Asian families. The shelters I visited housed around 500 people. The early September heat is considerable but inside the shelters, the air conditioning was working, thank goodness.
There was no lack of goodness, kindness and courteousness most everywhere I went. Of course I missed the worst of it, and there had been considerable problems as widely reported in the media. By the time I got there, ten days after Katrina, many tempers had flared and subsequently fizzled. The lingo mentioned to me was ‘hot spots’. Mostly people were going out of their way to be kind, aware of all the hardship and loss, the sense of which was still very much in the air. There are still families showing up at the red cross headquarters who have the look of the walking wounded. It was immediately clear to me that the situation was way too sensitive to go up and start overtly offering them good cheer, although there was no lack of opportunities to offer up humor, and many adults ready for a little humor relief. The children were mostly ready for playfulness although on many different levels.
My trip to Baton Rouge was very short, 4 days long, two days of traveling and two days in action. It was squeezed in between commitments in San Francisco. Although the time was short, it was totally worthwhile, not only for the two days spent in clown mode, but also for the contact I was able to establish with the Red Cross, and also to establish credibility with them. After my show at the first shelter, the shelter manager told me that headquarters were very nervous about sending me there, and wanted to know how the show went. So that they were able to report in very positive terms opened up the pathway for myself to do more, as well as to send more people down that way. Although I was able to get a bit of an idea of what is going on in Louisiana as far as Red Cross sheltering, I have no idea of what is going on in Mississippi or Alabama, who were also hard hit.
I did shows in three shelters: at the Istrouma Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, at the Plaquemine Convention Center, and at the Port Allen Community Center. The shows were very well received despite being pretty much spur of the moment. The Red Cross volunteers were extremely cooperative and did their utmost to help me set up the shows. I absolutely gave nothing away to any of the kids of a material nature, and would certainly not suggest it, as in most refugee situations, it is most likely to create verbal and possible physical conflict over possession of the items, even if there is enough for everyone. Each shelter was different due to the physical nature of the facility and this definitely had some effect on how smoothly the shelter could function. There was not necessarily room inside the shelter to do a show, and just having a one man suitcase show proved to be a good thing, as I was extremely flexible as to how much space I needed, etc. The show at the Istrouma shelter was quasi normal, like performing inside a large classroom. On the other hand, the show at the Port Allen Community center was squeezed into a tiny corner with the kids squeezed into a small space of at most 100 square feet. Doing a show outside was possible, but it was quite hot out, and the prevailing opinion was that I would be able to gather a larger group inside.
AS mentioned earlier, a considerable amount of my humoring efforts took place outside of the shows, with adults as well as children. Plenty of humoring, and circusing is possible in the near and medium term although those traveling there will need to be capable of extreme flexibility. Experience teaching/performing with the poorer segments of our countries population is certainly helpful. One very positive result of traveling to Baton Rouge is that I have established direct communication with the Red Cross. This will facilitate planning expeditions by CWB and helping others in the circus and clowning communities who have expressed interest in going down there. After discussing what is needed /possible in the shelters with quite a few Red Cross officials and volunteers, I believe that a lot can be done in the months ahead. The kids are starting school, and head start is gearing up to come in and offer after school programs, however I have no doubt that it will be a good thing to offer shows. The shelter manager at Istoura commented that after the show that it was the first event that gathered the children in a positive fun atmosphere and that was huge towards dispelling some tension. There was plenty, tension and territoriality amongst the kids as well as the adults. The shelters will be consolidated as refugees find places to live, or are finally offered some form of housing by FEMA. In the meantime, so many people forced to live in communal situations will probably keep tension in the air. The other activity that will probably be successful will be to offer circus workshops to kids. They were/are very excited by the skills, and no doubt will greatly benefit from practicing and learning various circus activities.
I am sure there is much more however you will have to excuse a lingering state of exhaustion. I hope that you all receive this report in good spirits….
When I first arrived at headquarters, I saw a woman and her two seven or eight year old children go into the chain link compound where red cross volunteers were receiving evacuees who had found their way there (it had been part of the garden center of the Wal-Mart). They sit down with a volunteer, the woman engages in conversation with the Red Cross vested woman, and the girls sit on chairs idly. The other red cross volunteers are quite uncomfortable with my presence as I have no badge to be there. I assure them not to worry and sit down a good distance away from the girls. I pull out my bubbles and launch a few streams of bubbles their way. The girls see the bubbles and watch them drift by for a moment. Their blank expressions do not change in any way. They look at me, and then back at the bubbles. No reaction is noticeable, no eye contact or smiles. They look at each other hesitantly, then one moves her hands to suggest a game of patty cake, the other sister agrees, and they adjust their chairs and launch into the actions of the game, never looking back my way. I’d like to think that my action had given them the thought, or perhaps the permission to go ahead and be kids for a bit. The mother and red cross worker are so fully engaged that they do not even notice the game. I leave to go find my contact inside the headquarters, certain that there was no cheering up to be done in any overt way, at least not there.
It is often that those who are doing the work to help out are as much in need of a smile and a laugh as those they are serving. The people I meet working in the shelters are generally in good humor and immediately respond to the humorous offerings that I make spur of the moment. The Red Cross volunteers running the shelter at the Istrouma Baptist Church are no exception, as they help me to negotiate turning off the video games and clearing the children’s room for the show.
Later, when I am leaving and I mention that I might need a place to sleep tonight, John, who is one of the people working there, says that it would be easy to roll out a cot. The main worship hall which has been converted into the dormitory looks pretty full but after stopping at a few hotels, and being welcomed by no vacancy signs taped to the front doors, it is clear that it is either the shelter or the back seat of my rented Chrysler Sebring.
So I return to the Istrouma, which is a quite large complex of several buildings alongside the interstate. John had assured me that he would be on the night shift, but when I go in looking for him, he is not to be found, and the man in charge tells me that they are chock full. No problem I tell him as long as he doesn’t mind my coming in to use the bathrooms. Not a problem he says, and I repair to prepare the car. The rush of cars and trucks going by is overpowering and I weigh the choices, to sleep in a quiet neighborhood where perhaps the neighbors will call the police on me or stay in the parking lot. I am rather exhausted, and figure that will outweigh the noise with the help of a couple of industrial strength orange ear plugs. After all I chose from between six rental cars back in Houston based on the size and comfort of the back seat. The Alamo man had pointed at a row of cars and told me to choose whichever one I wanted.
It is still quite warm outside, and many of the shelter residents are outside the church. There is a spirited basketball game going on in the parking lot between two portable hoops. The young men playing are excellent players, flying along the pavement, the ball often finding its way with ease into the hoop. Near my car a young black woman is bouncing a basketball and walking up and down the rows of cars with headphones creating her interior world. She is slightly on the short and large side of things, and continues her pursuit oblivious to me or anyone else she passes by. There are plenty of young kids running around playing, their parents somewhere near by. I run into a young man in the bathroom when I am brushing my teeth who looks at me, does a double take and then asks me if I am the clown. I tell him yes, and he tells me how much he likes the show, tells me I am funny, then suggests that I look like Woody Allen. Another man sharing the bathroom, one of the few white evacuees there, says that yes I do look like Woody Allen. The funny thing to me is that during the show, I kept directing some of my energy toward the group of 7 or 8 twenty something’s sitting at the back of the room who were watching with interest but seemed definitely unwilling to laugh. Now he is telling me how funny I was, well it just goes to show that you never know.
The night is long, I get some sleep, but it is pretty hot outside, and inside the car. At four in the morning, somewhat awake, I decide to head for the bathroom, and to take a look around. There are still some folks sitting outside the main entrance, and still a few young kids awake. Walking down the hallway, I glance into the room that has been turned into an eating area, there too are some people sitting around the tables, quietly reading or talking, a few eating. I reflect on the word displaced as I walk back to the car. My morning assignment is the shelter at the United Methodist Church which I find after only a few wrong turns. It is Sunday morning, so I wonder what will be going on. The parking lot is full, and there are plenty of well dressed white folks everywhere. Bibles and prayer books are in evidence. I drive through the church parking lot, which leads into another parking lot, there are at least three large buildings, and there seems to be services either letting out, or starting up in all of them. As opposed to last night’s shelter, I don’t see any black faces anywhere. I park my car behind a shiny white car that has a WO4 sticker, and get out to inquire. No one seems to know about the shelter, then one person tells me that she thinks that there are some red cross volunteers staying in one of the buildings. It seems that there at least two houses of worship, and there is a third building with a big white banner proclaiming special youth services. I am dressed in my red seersucker pants and my green shirt with the large white polka dots. I get a few stares, as I don’t exactly look like them.
Back at RC headquarters, I decide to walk in with my giant five foot orange sunflower over my shoulder. The impulse gesture on my part proves to be a great idea, as I walk by the tables of volunteers, I hear jokes and jibes, and complements. Mickey is surprised by my discovery, as her board says that there are evacuees staying there. She aims to set me up with another shelter however she is interrupted at least two times by urgent matters, hushed conversations in serious tones. We have established a good rapport, constantly seeking for humorous asides to the seriousness and tension that surround. She likes the sunflower. As she scans her list of shelters, I mention one I had noticed on the board. She looks at me straight faced and tells me that I don’t want to go there. It is full of angry displaced firemen and policemen, no one in her staff wants to go there.
We stand up and go over to the board of post-its. She spots a shelter, outside of Baton Rouge, in Plaquemines-it’s not too far away she tells me. She dials the number of the shelter for a few minutes trying to get the shelter manager on her phone, but it is constantly busy. More urgent matters come to her attention, and it takes a good twenty minutes more before she can get through to someone there. I ask her for a second shelter, so that I don’t have to come back, she suggests the Port Allen Community center which is in the same general vicinity. Once again she can’t get through to the shelter manager. This time she just looks at me, and says to go ahead, and to tell them that she sent me, and that if there are any problems, to call and check with her for confirmation.
Later on in the day, when I finally get to the Port Allen community shelter and find the manager Judy, she has no idea who Mickey is, but that doesn’t matter, that it will be quite OK to do a show.
The shelter at Plaquemines is in the local convention center which is quite a step down building wise from the Istrouma church. There are no Choir practice rooms to turn into a children’s play area. It is all just one big convention hall filled to capacity with beds. There is a large screen plasma TV on the front of the stage with the beginnings of the New Orleans Saints football game on and a row of chairs of men watching the game. They are enthusiastically cheering the action. The children’s area is a small corner near the entrance. The area has been defined by two large fold out tables which have been placed to box it in. There are a few computers with video games, and an assortment of toys in the 100 square feet or so of space. Deborah, the volunteer who is in charge of the space says that they were just able to set up the area yesterday.
There really is no good place to do the show, but we improvise, moving a table next to the children’s area that had drink dispensers on it, mopping it up a little. Deborah finds some masking tape to mark off my stage, and some of the kids that I had already been doing magic tricks for are eager to sit down, finding some chairs to sit in. Another volunteer appears with a few mats to place on the floor. I tell her this is great, do they have any more, and a minute later, she and another volunteer reappear with bundles of green sleeping mats, and we place them on the floor. Soon I am doing a show for 50 or so kids, with the volume of the saints game still in the background, although the booming set has been turned down a little by one of the volunteers. The audience thickens a little, a scattering of adults have gathered as well.
There is some good fun, I have abandoned my usual YooWho action plans focusing more on skills (‘that’s tight man’ was a frequent phrase), turning over the show to the kids in a very interactive way, cajoling them with my French accented English, I threw I in an exasperated ‘aie aie aie’ whenever something goes wrong-the kids enjoy mimicking my aie aie aie’s. We have a good time for about twenty five minutes, and then the focus begins to disintegrate a little. We have created some magic in one corner of this big hall but the overall energies of the space start to burst the bubble, so I pull the show to an end, and then I get mobbed by the kids. Which is a pretty usual occurrence in far away refugee camps, so why not here. Unfortunately, the volunteer assigned to me has suddenly disappeared, so I am alone to fend off the highly excited kids whose very inquisitive hands are reaching for my props in my half closed suitcase. I am not surprised by the action, and look for an escape route, a tennis ball, one of mine filled with rice comes flying out of nowhere and hits me hard square in the ear. I am a little shocked but keep my wits about me as a few Red Cross Volunteers reappear to help establish some sense of calm about me. No clue hwy or where the tennis ball came from.
From the moment I arrive at the Plaquemine convention center until I leave, I am ‘on’, playing with every situation I encounter. Disappearing coins, borrowing a cigarette from one of the smokers out front and doing a series of magic tricks, playing with the medical staff who have set up in a little room to the back, off the backstage area, the only area off limits to those being sheltered where I change into costume. The nurses welcome my sleight of hand of a coin and consequent sneeze, a little laughter erupts followed by a few good natured wise cracks. At the same time I am on, I have also tuned my receptivity antenna to hypersensitive mode, taking in every person and situation for appropriateness, openness and willingness to engage. It is very clear that not everyone is in the mood for laughter, sometimes the tension in the air is thick and heavy. Mostly inside the shelter, where hundreds are living in forced community.
There is the moment just after I arrive outside the entrance to the center. There are three men smoking cigarettes sitting on chairs, and there is a look as I pass by asking ‘who are you’, and so with my French accented YooWho English I engage them ‘you want to see something with a cigarette?’. They are agreeable, I do a pass, disappearing the cigarette with a vanish and reappearing it from under my knee. There is a bit of stupefaction combined with surprise, so I follow it with the snort up your nose, sneeze out the cigarette which opens up some good hearted chuckles. Another sleight and they erupt in a short burst of laughter, we share a smile and I move on. The situation in the shelters I visited is certainly no walk in Disneyland, however I did hear plenty of good natured conversations, and saw a good amount of joking around (that had nothing to do with me). It was clear that many people were looking for reasons to break through saw some but it was far out of balance with a more somber atmosphere.