Wednesday, November 16, 2005

McKain Street


This is where it all starts. My grandmother's shotgun shack on McKain Street in New Orleans. The reason I had come back into the city, snuck past checkpoints and debris and flooded streets and orange X's marking dead or alive. The touchstone. The knot that ties my family history together. The dark age and the golden age. My roots. This little unmarked dead-end shell gravel street.

It's in a no-man's land in New Orleans, which is a testament to its desperation. Not quite the Ninth Ward. Not quite Gentilly, it's a forgotten industrial nook between two canals, served by no one, cared for by no one. And it's been that way for at least fifty years, since they decided to build I-10 right over it. My mom and my Aunt Susan were little girls then, playing at the back of the house, when the I-10 "high-rise" was going up, blocking the sun at the end of McKain Street forever. They heard the scream and thud, when a worker fell off the bridge to his death in a bloody puddle, just a few feet from where I stood to make this picture, right in front of Old Ma's house. My mom watched him breathe his last.

It's about twelve feet wide, and thirty feet long, Old Ma's shack. It's now just a frail shell of what I remember, and what I remember is from a time when it was just a shell of what my mom remembered. Nine people lived in four rooms in this tiny shack, their laughter and cries and lives and deaths never being heard by the thousands of cars literally driving over them every day. One by one my family trickled out of the shack, moved out, or died, or went to prison, until only Old Ma was left, an ancient little Cajun woman, who had never taught her children her language, except for the occasional "Embrasse mon tcheue!"

Mae Langston, maiden name Dugas. The shack smelled of old linoleum and window fans stirring the humid air. McKain Street outside smelled of spilled motor oil from the junkyard across the street my family had owned in better times. We would dig in the white shell gravel out front and occasionally find ancient sparkplugs for our troubles. It smelled of chicory and baking white bread from nearby food factories. There was always the hum and clanking of cars overhead, the far off deep horns of tugboats on the canals, and the crackly radio playing old Motown and gospel.

Every wall had an old enamel or wood painting of Jesus or Mary, and palms over each door. When we would visit Old Ma would give us pecan candy she had made, and gifts of old doubloons or beads from the Mardi Gras passed before we were born. She smelled of fresh laundry and soap, had a Cajun accent made thicker by her lack of teeth, and one of the friendliest faces I've ever seen. I still miss her hugs. In her early nineties she grew too frail to live alone anymore, and my mom and her sisters moved her out of the city, to live with them across the lake in Slidell. Which is where she died, leaving McKain Street abandoned and deteriorating, taken back by nature and crackhead squatters. The last time my mom paid a visit, a few years ago, one of them walked up to her and gritted through his teeth, "Lady, I could kill you down here and nobody would ever know." And he was right.

I hadn't been back since I was a teenager. Half my life ago. But I felt the pull so strongly, the drive, the call, I risked life to get there, just to see it again. Why? I'm asking myself this. I don't know what's going to come of my hometown, my family's hometown, New Orleans. But I know that the ghettoes are going to be bulldozed. And I don't want to ever forget where I come from. It's how I know where I'm going. This little shack is what made my mom and her sisters who they are, and they're who made me who I am. I take pictures to remember, and to feel, and I needed to always remember Mckain Steet, and to feel it, no matter where I go.

I needed to capture what's left of its soul, because it went into making my soul what it is.

So I walked down this little unmarked dead end, everything smaller than I remember, even the high-rise overpass, now calmly silent in this abandoned, sunken city. And all the stories whispered back in my ear with each step I took closer to Old Ma's shack. The loves, and the beatings, and the laughter, and the drunkenness, and the passion, it all flooded back to me, in the crunch of the shells under my feet. And then the little shack emerged from the weeds and vines, twisted by Katrina, door swollen shut by black floodwater, and with sudden tears blurring my vision I made this photograph. McKain Street.

Update: I was told by mom after I posted this, that it happened to be my grandfather, Old Paw's, birthday. I had no idea that I was writing about his home, his life and family and wife, Old Ma, on the day of his birth. My mom wrote:
James Samuel Langston, Sr. was born on this day in the year 1909 - Happy birthday Old Paw - We miss you and love you and carry your blood thru all of our veins.

Supernatural powers that you would be inspired and so moved to document McKain Street on exactly his day of birth! God is so good! I needed that sooo much - that is a positive confirmation from our Lord that He is using you in a powerful way to impact other lives and your own as well. Regardless of what you and the scientists may think.

I know daddy and mamma and aunt Maude and all our blood are on the other side laughing and having fun seeing McKain Street on the internet! I bet there is a whole lot of Cajun being spoken there right now.

I Love You,
Momma

23 comments:

GoodSheila said...

They say a picture is worth a thousand words... yet your words are just as amazing.

Anonymous said...

I see the soul there of you.I see the foundation of your family a little tilted but still standing.A strong breed of Cajuns,and I AM PROUD TO LOVE ONE OF THEM SO VERY MUCH,MY RACHEL.
CHERYL

The Creative Death said...

Wow, that was beautifully written. I can't believe that they built the I-10 right over it! You can really see the soul of the house in the picture you captured.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I have been reading your blog for about a month now, and your writing's nearly as good as your amazing photographs. I live in Australia, and not only have you taught me more about Katrina than any other source, but you've also taught me more about the US than anybody else except maybe Garry Trudeau. Thank you for showing me what a great means of communication a blog can be.

Kate said...

Beautiful, heartwrenching.

Peace, brother --

Anonymous said...

I have also be reading your blog for about a month or so. It impresses me so much that you are so open with your soul. Your not afraid to say what you see and then to tell the truth about it. I am not sure if you would define yourself as a follower of Jesus or not but I trust that in some way he will shows his loving kindness to you.

...e... said...

clayton, you now the firs thing I thought of when I saw this picture? you know those paintings you see in the quarter, not the blue dog ones, but the other ones with the olorful houses? I'll see if I can find a link. I never had any context for them before, but this gives them some in a way that was never meant. let me go search....

...e... said...

of course i can't find exacatly what I mean, but the artist i mentioned is here:
http://www.michalopoulos.com/7127.html

Anonymous said...

If you ever publish a book, I will be first in line....

mike said...

me too...great stuff!

Schroeder said...

Yes, ditto all the above remarks. Nothing to add, except I hope you continue to post what you see and feel.

Anonymous said...

Even though I only lived in New Orleans less than a year, the city became part of me. From my present residence, 60/90 miles northwest of the city, I eagerly listen to WWL for signs of what's going to happen to NOLA.

I hear terms like 'boutique city', 'racial cleansing', a 'smaller, better NOLA with higher property values', ....all these terms being tossed around. And I think....who are these people talking about a 'trendy' New Orleans, a Savannah-ish style New Orleans??

G-d help us and our beloved New Orleans!

Anonymous said...

New Orleans, the REAL New Orleans, cannot be bottled, packaged, restored or recreated. It lives in the people, it is as individual as them and I mean all of them. It is as much in this tiny forgotten shotgun house as in the grand mansions on St. Charles.
And the tragedy is that few from outside could ever realize this, so their efforts will be doomed when they try to go beyond supplying the basic human needs that the returning refugees need.

sara said...

I'm here in the bywater district now, volunteering a historic preservation group. it breaks my heart as we drive through the rest, though. there is so much more I want to do.

yesterday was a hard one, where I saw a lot of hopelessness, but then we stumbled across the jazz parade through the quarter. as we followed the parade, I realized that the soul of the city is still there, beautifully. I think it will survive.

your writing and photos does a lovely job... keep it up, keep sharing, and thank you.

Steve said...

Wow Clayton,
This is truly one of your best photos yet. I'm speechless, truly I am.

Keturah said...

I have been reading your blog for about a month and am always speechless at the end of your posts. You write and photograph beautifully. This is a testament to the strength of family bonds. Thank you for your gorgeous images and constant reminder to keep my loved ones close.
Keturah

Anonymous said...

So how does it feel to be a pawn of the man? That is, the man upstairs that your Mom believes in so much? Is it possible that your agnostic views might be dwindling?

candice said...

One of the houses my dad grew up in (in Algiers) was demolished for the building of the GNO bridge. They all said that house used to be pretty haunted to start with. For some reason you reminded me of it there.

You're doing a better job taking pictures of it all than I am. I've quit trying, 170 pictures later, as it's just too hard to capture.

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I see you only post the stuff that agrees with you?... so now your a sissy, a whiner, lazy and disrespectful and can't handle any other views but your own pitiful crap. Remember...the government doesn't owe you shit! And niether do we!

Anonymous said...

I just feel the need to say that I wish you and all yours the best. Thank you for sharing.

An Enlightened Fellow said...

It's ironic to me that an anonymous individual who is whiny, a sissy, lazy and disrespectful, and can't handle any other views but his own pitiful crap would accuse clayton of being such a person. If the government doesn't owe us anything Mr. Genius, then why do we pay taxes? Hmm, no answer? Oh well.

Noel N said...

I was just down there, right there, near McKain St, looking for my youth somewhere between Almonaster and Old Gentilly. I never found mine, but am glad to see that you found yours.

Alex said...

You are a very talented photographer.

I know where that is! I used to drive there everyday taking the back way (Almonaster Ave) from my 9th ward house to the Michoud Facility. It always struck me as odd the houses in that area, it's a very industrial area. I always wondered who lived there and what their lives were like before the bridge went up. Now I know, and want to thank you for sharing.