Shrimp in a Coffeepot and Iguanas in Liquor | Chicago Antisocial | Chicago Reader

Shrimp in a Coffeepot and Iguanas in Liquor 

A couple of sometime Chicagoans tried to stick it out in NOLA.

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Two Sundays ago photographer Jayme Kalal and his wife, aerialist Raven Hinojosa, pushed box springs against the windows of their New Orleans hotel room, set a mattress down on the closet floor, plopped down on it, and waited. What would happen when the hotel, packed with a thousand people, had no lights? By evening no elevators worked. They watched TV until the power went out, then they listened to the radio, passing a Walkman back and forth.

The hot plate they'd brought with them was broken, so they cooked shrimp in a coffeepot. "We wanted to make sure we ate well before we went to sleep," says Kalal. "After the hurricane we would have to bust ass out of there."

They could hear stuff crashing down the street outside, a sort of banging, sloshy sucking sound. An awning and part of the roof came off. One bedroom window broke. "When the eye passed the wind shifted," Kalal says, so they moved a mattress to look out one of the remaining windows. The Econo Gas sign across the street suddenly tore off its post. Trees keeled over. A little house across the way looked like it'd been blown up.

By morning the lobby had been looted; a camper shell had crashed through a front window, and the ATM and vending machines had been knocked down and smashed open. The bar was being raided, and "the owner just sat there watching," says Kalal. "People were mad because they had to pay. They said, 'Well, they're not charging for the Superdome.'" That's when Kalal realized they were "trapped in a situation where dog eat dog would happen pretty fast and you had better watch your ass."

Kalal and Hinojosa met in New Orleans 1999. In August 2000 Hinojosa moved to Chicago, and Kalal followed a year later, on 9/11. They lived here till last summer, when, Hinojosa says, "we wanted to settle down and buy a house in New Orleans. I'm a southerner. I can't handle your winters."

They got married in May in a forested part of New Orleans's City Park. It was one of those magical ceremonies you hear about once in a while: Hinojosa and her bridesmaids, who wore burgundy dresses and twigs in their hair, and her cousin, who played the flute, led the guests down a gravelly path into the woodland. In a clearing Kalal was waiting with his groomsmen. Before they exchanged rings, they passed them around. The guests, gathered in a circle, were supposed to infuse the rings with good wishes.

Three months later they packed up their valuables. Hinojosa grabbed her hard drive, her wedding dress, a box of papers and photos, and a deck of tarot cards. Kalal took survival gear, a machete, a box of tools. "I packed as though I were never going back," says Hinojosa. "Jayme packed as though he were going to war." They huddled into the Grand Palace Hotel, a sturdy-looking old building in the Central Business District. They'd decided to stay in the city because they'd heard traffic getting out of there was horrendous--besides, they'd dealt with hurricanes before.

The couple, Hinojosa's sister Sabrina, visiting from Oakland, California, their cat, Chocobean, their friends Jay Poggi (aka MC Trachiotomy) and Daniel, and Jay's and Daniel's dogs checked into a couple rooms on Sunday, August 29. Other guests at the hotel included a lot of old people and a group of Dutch tourists.

The next day the wind died down around one in the afternoon. A news report on the radio told the couple they had a 6 PM curfew, so they started lugging all their stuff--including a dog that was too old to make it on its own--down six flights of stairs.

The street was a little flooded, says Kalal, "but you weren't seeing heartbreaking shit--just a lot of frightened people." Some cops pulled up in front of the hotel and told them they weren't allowed to leave. So they pretended they were heading back in, and as soon as the police were gone they went back to the poor but gentrifying Ninth Ward, where Kalal, Hinojosa, and about 100 of their performer and musician friends lived.

Most of their friends made it out, including local celebrities Quintron and Miss Pussycat, a married couple who perform together. Quintron, another former Chicagoan, plays organ and a light-sensitive percussive device of his own invention called the Drum Buddy; his wife puts on elaborate puppet shows in which the characters play instruments. Quintron had left a couple days before the hurricane made landfall to visit his mother, who was dying of a rare form of blood cancer. So his wife hightailed it out of there in a van full of instruments with a ferret, a cat, a box of puppets, a bottle of wine, a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of perfume, some T-shirts, and her diary.

On a tour of the Ninth Ward Kalal and Hinojosa saw Quintron and Miss Pussycat's house--the bottom floor of which they've made into a sparkly nautical-themed nightclub, the Spellcaster Lodge, and Quintron's electronics lab--filled with about four feet of water. A longtime dream of Miss Pussycat's was to have an underwater dance club, and then she got one. "Unfortunately," Quintron noted in a recent press release, "the only things dancing were dead animals, benzene, E. coli, fire ants, and human feces."

Last Tuesday Quintron and Miss Pussycat snuck back into the city to survey the damage by posing as a "pet rescue squad," he told me over the phone, disguising their van accordingly. They'd heard that the front gable blew off their house, so "if there's any roof leaks or doors pried open by looters it's better to fix it sooner than later, because we don't have any insurance of any kind."

For now the couple is staying with Miss Pussycat's family in Antlers, Oklahoma. They're accepting donations for rebuilding the Spellcaster via their PayPal account: They'll be starting a tour next month.

Kalal and Hinojosa and a bunch of their friends went to stay at Poggi's house, which still had some dry rooms. They waded through crystal clear thigh-high water back to their own house five blocks away, carrying Chocobean in their arms. Kalal estimates that their house, which they were renting, took about a foot of water. When they got there it had receded below the floorboards, leaving a silty residue. Little gray shrimp were swimming on their front steps. They hung clothing, important papers, and Kalal's paintings to dry, then headed back to Poggi's house, where they ate tilapia from the grill and drank quarts of melted ice cream with their coffee. It was right after the new moon and the power was out, so it was almost completely dark, Kalal says. "You could see all the stars and it was really beautiful."

Tuesday morning Kalal and Hinojosa went home again and found that the water had risen. Their neighbors told them the levees had broken and that the neighborhoods were being evacuated. "We decided it was bullshit--they were just trying to scare us out," Kalal says. "No one official told us that."

Just in case, they put most of their belongings as high up as possible, on shelves, bureaus, and desks, and headed back to Poggi's, where their friends agreed that the impending flood was a bluff and said they weren't going anywhere. Even if they wanted to, says Kalal, the radio was telling them that Interstate 10 had been shattered into a bunch of disconnected rectangles and the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway had bald spots. "We didn't know if there were any streets to drive on," says Hinojosa.

One of their friends, Jeff Mattsson--aka Strangebone, creator of the E-Z-Organ, a contraption that looks like a golf cart from one of Tim Burton's movies with an organ on the dashboard--stopped by. He told them he'd heard that FEMA had opened a grocery store down the street, that they should all get over there and take what they could while they could.

At the store Kalal saw an old man teeter in with a cane and come out with just a bottle of wine. Kalal, Poggi, and Mattsson made two trips in total, hauling home bottles of fancy organic juice, cans of beans, tortillas, bread, water, cashews, dog and cat food, charcoal briquettes--anything that seemed like it wouldn't spoil too fast.

"In a way," Kalal says, "it was like, yay! We found the motherlode! But we had the understanding that there was no hospital and no police." They heard that down the street a woman had been caught in a knife fight and was just lying on the sidewalk bleeding to death.

"We understood the significance of how fucked everything was," says Kalal. "We didn't think the government was going to save anyone's ass. I was raised to hate the government and military. My belief system was proper in this situation.

"When I got out here and watched the national news coverage," he says, "I thought they were missing the point. This was class oriented, not race oriented." He says most white people in New Orleans don't live near the Superdome, so they didn't have access to it. "People viewed what was happening without understanding the demographics. I just don't think that Republicans give a fuck about anyone who's poor."

They spent Wednesday using the one working pay phone they knew of in town and handing out food. "There was a sentiment of dying with your city," says Kalal.

After the Hinojosa sisters went to bed, the men decided to toast their own survival skills. Poggi pulled out a couple bottles of some weird booze containing iguanas with their bellies slit open. "We have to drink this now," he told his friends.

They got good and drunk and went out carousing, mooning helicopters and BS'ing with neighbors. While they were gone the sisters woke up frightened and alone, and when the guys got back Raven put her foot down--they were leaving the next day.

On Thursday Kalal and the Hinojosas picked up a couple friends who were holed up in the warehouse where Raven once practiced trapeze and headed out on U.S. Highway 90 in Raven's green Toyota Camry.

Sabrina took a flight from Dallas back to California; Daniel and Poggi went to Daniel's family's home in Baton Rouge. Mattsson's still in New Orleans "living out his Mad Max fantasies," says Quintron. Kalal and Hinojosa are here now, staying with friends in Humboldt Park. Hinojosa will perform on the trapeze with a group of dancers next weekend at Circus Factory.

"I feel a loyalty to New Orleans," she says. She and Kalal want to move back this winter. "She's in trouble. She's dying of cancer. You don't just leave your friends to die."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer, Raven Hinojosa, Sabrina Hinojosa, Jayme Kalal.


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