Sunday, January 07, 2007

It's hard for me to believe that it was just Thursday morning that Helen Hill was killed. Somehow this city feels so different to me now. As if weeks and weeks have gone by.

First, a clarification. I don't know if I mentioned this previously, but the early news reports seemed to imply that Paul Gailiunas (Helen's husband) opened the door that morning. Paul was a doctor known for his devotion to those living in poverty, and somehow I--and many others--began to imagine that Paul and Helen's generosity was taken advantage of. I've read a different account, posted on the Marigny/Bywater forum:

"If you are disturbed about no info on how the crime took place and who was the perpetrator, (like me)- I just ran into a friend of theirs who told me that Helen got up at 5:30a.m. to let the pet pig, Rosie, out of the back door, because she thought she needed to go-- that was when the guy came in and attacked her. She started screaming and he shot her, which roused Paul who came to her rescue-- getting shot 3 times himself. The guy was African-American in his young 20's. But, Paul didn't have his glasses on and couldn't tell much more. The guy fled, and evidently, Paul made it to the front door with Francis to try to get rescued.Paul is apparently back in Canada with Francis, and no thoughts of ever returning here. He is completely devastated."

Obviously, I can't rely on a grapevine account, either, and neither account makes me feel better or able to make sense of the murder (if anything, the account makes me more worried. If Helen was attacked, and if the perp was in the back yard, what was his motive?) For some reason, though, I have been consumed with the details of the murder, with the story of their lives together, and with the way in which the loss of Helen has drawn our community together even as it sends many running from New Orleans for what may, in fact, be safer ground.

Since the murder, the forum has been abuzz with plans for a march against crime that will take place next Thursday. When I read author Ken Foster's first suggestion that we march, I cringed:

"does anyone know if there is a march planned on city hall regarding the lack of response on crime and these recent murders.
Or, would anyone like to help coordinate one? I know too many people who are ready to leave town--and probably still will--yet it seems it is time to demand something in response rather than just the usual sit and wait which seems the status quo for the city's leaders. "

I have attended a few New Orleans protests "in my day," but I quit a while ago because the New Orleans tendency to make everything into a parade made me feel as if we were accomplishing nothing. Maybe I sound fatalistic when I assume that we are taken less-than-seriously when we tote bongo drums, ride wacky bicycles, or "second line" when we protest something as serious as was--I say I'm being a realist.

Anyway, I worried that this "march on city hall" would become another pointless parade. We'd feel good about ourselves, we'd have a grand ol' time, but what would we actually accomplish? I also worried that the group would be nothing but rich, alarmist whiteys--and that rallying together would only further polarize the city on racial lines.

But I've got to give it to Ken Foster and my 'hood. Today a meeting was held to plan the march, and more than 200 people attended. Racial diversity and a broad representation of all New Orleans neighborhoods is a concern for others, too. AND we've all agreed to keep the silly stuff at home. We want to act and look as serious as we want to be taken. So, I will make a proud return to my protesting roots this Thursday. More soon...

Today Simon and I walked to Helen and Paul's house. The walk reminded me just how close, close, close we lived. I am sad that I didn't know them, my neighbors. Jackie told me last night that she remembers introducing me to Paul, and I do seem to remember him (I recognise him in photos), and saying to someone I met, "That's my brother's name!" (yes: brilliant.)

When we arrived at their house, the pile of flowers and letters had gotten soggy from last night's rain. Someone had crafted an angel wing from a piece of gold spray painted cardboard. In Sharpie, they'd written, "It rained so hard last night, it was almost like God was expressing all of our sorrow."

The front door to their home was open, and we didn't know what to do. It was almost as if we were scared to cross the threshold, and I found myself very morbidly looking at the hardwood flooring for traces of blood.

Inside, friends of theirs were boxing up their things, and thankfully, one of them spoke to us. He asked if we knew them, and we said we didn't, but that we were neighbors. The man (named Brad Ott, I think) said something along the lines of oh good, neighbors, and said how much they loved the neighborhood and everyone in it. He told us he'd pass along the card, and asked us to write down our contact info. We walked home. Simon and I hugged. We've hugged a lot in these past four days. I'd like to hug more to make up for all of the crying I've been doing.

Later, I went to the Riverwalk Mall for mindless shopping with one of my girlfriends. There can't possibly be a more beautiful view from a Banana Republic in all the world: steamboats going down the mighty Mississippi. I bought a sweater that was on sale. I came home and made stir fry and watched TV. I felt not at all like Helen Hill.

Maybe that's what has made these past few days seem like forever. It's not just that the neighborhood all of a sudden seems energized--that all of New Orleans now seems energized--it's that I have been reflecting a lot on my own life, and comparing it to that of Helen Hill. Helen Hill, with her thrift store clothes and her community activism, with her creativity and spirit. She was who I would like to be, and I think I have been feeling heavy-hearted because I am realizing that not only did we lose her, but I missed out on getting to meet her, on getting that wonderfulness to rub off on me. Oh, poo.

So tonight I sent an email to the owners of the B&B where the suspect first broke in before attacking Helen. One of the owners said to Adam Nossiter of the NY Times, “You know, there are people in this neighborhood trying to bring it back[...]I’m tired of this. I’m ready to torch the whole neighborhood.”

My email:

"Dear David and Dale,

I am your neighbor. In May, my husband and I were married at Bacchanal. My parents stayed at Sweet Olive (as they had before and will again). Having them just a short walk away and in a place they loved meant a lot to both them and us. Since then, we have continued to spread the word about your wonderful place.

The Sweet Olive is a wonderful place because of you and the love you've filled the house with. I hate to think that an intruder could threaten that.

Still, I can understand how frustrated you must be (Dave, I read of your frustration in the NY Times.) As longtime residents of the Marigny, we can relate to the fear and anger you've expressed. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that this city needs the love and commitment of people like you.

We hope you'll stay. If there's anything we can do for you, please let us know.

Your neighbors,

Sarah and Simon"

So maybe Helen has rubbed off on me. At least I'd like to think so...

Good (peaceful) night, all.

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