Kenny Klein with Stapler

Kenny Klein with Stapler

Friday, August 31, 2012

Driving Into The Hurricane!

What do you do when you are twelve hundred miles away, and your girlfriend is facing a hurricane alone in your house? You drive through the storm!

As Blue Star Owl said in her blog, a hurricane is a very surreal experience; a force so much larger than you, than anything you can conceive (sure, your educated mind knows what a hurricane is, but your emotional self can hardly accept the magnitude), is about to come bearing down on you with all of its force. Many people think of Nature as sweet and beautiful: bunnies hopping through spring grass, bluebirds singing on your back fence. But visit a hurricane sometime and see how pretty Nature can be.

The original predictions for Isaac had him hitting Florida. When we learned that lumbering, fickle Isaac had changed course and was headed for Louisiana, I was finishing my tour at the haunted hotel in Pennsylvania. I spoke to Lauren who was home in NOLA, and we decided I should stay in the hotel in case she needed to evacuate and meet me there. When no evacuation was called, I began packing to drive right into Isaac and get home as fast as I could.

On August 29, 2012, exactly seven years to the day after Katrina hit, I began the twelve hundred mile drive to NOLA.

I drove as far as I could the first day, making it through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and stopping in Alabama at our favorite rest stop: one of the Apollo rockets towers over the rest area. I slept in the shadow of the spaceship. All was sunny and beautiful the entire drive. A clear sky revealed a nearly full moon that night.

But the next morning was very cloudy. Sh*t was about to get real, as they say around here. By the time I got through Alabama and reached Mississippi, I was in Isaac's swirl of clouds, wind and rain. My entire drive through Mississippi was marked by periods of intense rains and high winds, so bad sometimes that I had to pull over and wait for them to pass. Oddly, I would also drive through pockets of sunshine and dryness: that's the nature of a hurricane. 

I-59 through Mississippi, taken from my truck window.

Part of the Interstate was shut down outside of Hattiesburg. I spend about thirty miles driving on winding, partially flooded local roads. When I returned to the I-59 I saw why the road had been closed: trees had fallen across the Interstate, and crews were closing off sections of road to chainsaw away the huge tree trunks.

Caravans of FEMA rescue trucks and utility trucks traveling into Louisiana.

As I drove I encountered several caravans of FEMA trucks headed into the storm. I also saw caravans of Red Cross and Salvation Army teams. I cannot tell you how emotional I felt when I passed a convoy of Red Cross trucks (which sadly I failed to photograph: driving required about three hands at that point). FEMA workers are federal positions, paid to deal with emergencies (or not deal with them). But when I passed the Red Cross, and later this convoy of Salvation Army trucks, I was passing volunteers from all over the U.S. (and in the case of the Red Cross, perhaps all over the world) rushing to help Louisiana. If Katrina taught us anything, besides how completely unprepared the Federal Government is to handle a catastrophe, it's that Louisiana, and NOLA especially, are national treasures that are sadly vulnerable to the elements of wind and water, and people's response now to our needs are gallant and immediate. Thank you Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers!

The worst weather was in southern Mississippi. The hurricane had passed slowly through NOLA at that point, and its fury was unleashed now on northern Louisiana and Mississippi. I saw downed trees and downed highway signs everywhere, and the wind was blowing furiously in some places. In others blinding rain was so intense I had to drive twenty MPH, or pull over completely. Believe me, if I had not had a wonderful, brave girlfriend at home facing this storm alone, I would have found a comfy hotel with power and AC in northern Mississippi that night!

But weary from lack of sleep and alert to the weather, I drove on. At one point mine was the only car on I-59. Then I saw some other cars with Louisana plates. Several waved at me as we passed by each other. By the time we neared the state line, we were a caravan of Louisiana cars all braving the wind and rain to get home. 

After 2 days and 1200 miles of hurricane rain and wind, Louisiana at last! That's my pet possum Lady Gaga helping me navigate, my constant reminder of home while I am on the road.

 Flooding north of New Orleans.

The storm over Lake Pontchartrain, coming over the causeway.

When I finally reached New Orleans, there were no traffic lights: all power to the city was down. Trees had fallen across major roadways, taking power lines with them. There was a city-wide curfew in effect to try to prevent looting. All was as it had been seven years ago to the day on this day.

Lauren walking through flooded streets in our neighborhood.

300-year-old oak trees fallen across Carrollton Avenue.

But New Orleans is a resilient city. By Thursday afternoon, amidst fallen oaks and downed power lines, despite lack of electricity, Internet and other services, children were playing in the playgrounds. Neighbors were cleaning up downed branches. The utility workers were racing to restore power and phone lines. I sit now in Buffa's, the bar where I perform every Saturday; the only bar in the Marigny with power (Buffa's is on the French Quarter power grid, which held in the storm). The place is packed with locals eating hot food (no power = no stove at home), using the Internet, and charging their cell phones. The mood here is light, the bar workers racing to fill orders and laughing at the very limited menu. People are sharing tables in the crowded room, and making friends.  Someone is on the piano playing spirituals. New Orleans is still New Orleans. 

Beyond fallen trees, children play in the local park.

Flooding on the neighborhood (above and below)

 Above, utility workers restoring lines and clearing downed trees in my neighborhood; below, as a neighbor surveys the damage, the sun peaks out for the first time in three days.

From New Orleans, (and risking my life driving through Isaac), this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Trains, Strains and Flames: Kerouac Festival At A Haunted Hotel

Part 1: The Haunted Hotel

In a coal mining town set into the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, along a train track where a million dollars of coal passes daily, a rust colored Victorian Lady stands. Rising beside the tracks, once a landmark, now a relic, she looms: she is the Grand Midway Hotel, an establishment that once housed rail-riders coming into and out of town, a rollicking bar, and women catering to the miners. Now she is a meeting place for the creative, the odd, the literate and the artistic.

The view from the hotel's porch. 

The brain child of writer/film maker Blair Murphy, who bought the hotel about a decade ago, the Grand Midway is not a public hotel. Only those invited may live there, though one night a week the hotel hosts a music and poetry coffeehouse open to the local public. But a few times a year a small crowd of selected guests meet here for festivals such as the one I am here for right now, Kerouac Fest.

The deer that guard my room.

Above: The Poe Room. Below: the ghost lurking there is just l'il old me. 

The hotel itself hides long halls and a labyrinth of rooms that hold rarities and oddities. Each room has its own theme, sometimes congruent and sometimes not. A room of typewriters; a room with a bathtub laying inside; a room of maps; and my room, the Red Room, with a grand Victorian mirror and Chinese wall hangings. Downstairs the cafe/bar holds a library of books and DVDs: there are reading nooks set into every corner, and a screening room that doubles as flop bedding. The dining room continues the library, book shelves surrounding a grand table and high back chairs that each contain the Hebrew name of God. Cryptic messages are inscribed in every wall, on every stair and in every nook; at least, the ones that are not adorned with the multitude of taxidermy animals that were bequeathed to Blair. My room is entered between six deer heads, three on each side. The reading room at the end of the hall is guarded by a masked coyote, and a model I shot in one of the rooms communed with a bobcat. 

Above: model Brook Elyse did a photo session with me in the Red Room, where I am quartered. (Note my dolls in the lower right). Below, the coal train passes through town just outside the hotel door. 

Coal is still the economy of the town, and the tracks run right in front of the hotel porch. I am told that each of the two trains that pass daily carry a million dollars worth of coal. The train, a mile long or more, cuts the town itself in two as it passes, with no one able to cross the tracks during the train's slow, noisy passage (a local told me the best time to rob a bank is as the train ambles through: the police could not cross the tracks to pursue such an endeavor). During hotel events, a “train-watching party” forms each time the conveyance passes, interrupting anything else going on inside the hotel's myriad rooms. 

The bar/cafe/library.

Of course the hotel gets its nickname, the Haunted Hotel, from the fact that spirits are seen often. Television crews and paranormal researchers have all come, and all agree that there is activity here. Ghosts are said to roam both the basement and the back stairs. Ghosts of saloon girls, drunk miners and hobos are said to wander these hardwood halls, passing among the living who dwell here, wondering at the bohemian atmosphere that has been created. At bohemian events like Kerouac Fest!

Part 2: Kerouac Fest

Preparations for the fest happening when I arrived: Above, the library: that's Margaret vacuuming in her pin-up girl apron and heels. Below, Margaret and Kennedy in the hotel kitchen. 

 And bohemian it is, a celebration of Cabaret, Beat culture, the poetic aesthetic, and artistic expression. I arrived here on Monday, which was good. My first time at the Haunted Hotel, I got to know the place and meet a few of the key people before the crowd showed up on Wednesday evening. I bonded right away with Kennedy, the cook who, ironically, lives a few blocks from me in New Orleans; with poet, model and ersatz cleaning woman Margaret Bashaar; and with Blair himself, the owner and event coordinator of the hotel, and his group of film makers and writers.

Above: owner Blair Murphy, surrounded by lingerie girls. Below: Lucien, the hotel dog, likewise surrounded.

Wednesday evening I played a set during the coffeehouse show, open to locals: at midnight Kerouac Fest officially began. Locals left, and the invited arrived. 

The festival is named, of course, for the American beat writer, author of On The Road. The festival is a barrage of workshops, concerts, film screenings and discussions, all punctuated by drinking parties, fire spinning, donut eating and train-watching (at one point the train passed right through a fire spinning session).

A train-watching party. These were happy social gatherings that happened each day of the festival.

There were full blown stage shows Friday and Saturday. Tommy Amoeba played Friday night with a full band. If you've never heard Tommy Amoeba, he is a brilliant absurdist performer. The show was followed by fire spinning (with a train), a set by singer E. May, and a screening of erotic-absurdist films by brilliant Pittsburgh film-maker Rachael Deacon. Saturday night's show featured myself, KabarettVulgare, and singer-performer Phat Man Dee. They were pretty awesome shows. 

Above: film-maker Rachael Deacon in the cafe.

Poet/model/publisher Margaret Bashaar , posing for me (above) and giving a workshop (below) on the subject of Mexican shaman Maria Sabina. It was one of my favorite workshops of the fest.

I was skeptical when I arrived and Blair told me that food would magically appear; but he was right. Each day a feast was magically laid out at each meal. Often it was the amazing Kennedy who was responsible; other times guests had food catered, or arrived with as much food as they could carry. I really ate more this week than I have in the last three months of my tour!

Kennedy cooking. Appreciate her!!

Sign on the bathroom door. It's that kind of place. 

The afternoon before their main stage show, Kabarett Vulgare did a workshop on the science of sideshows. They revealed the secrets of laying on the bed of nails (above and below: those are the real nail marks on Nick Noir's stomach) and walking on ground glass (further below). 

That glass is seriously sharp!!

Kabarett Vulgare on the main stage. Above, MC DeVille; Below: Nick Noir lays on the bed of nails: Macabre Noir stands on him as he does so.

Macabre Noir and Penny De La Poison approach the pile of ground glass. Yes, that's real ground glass, and those are actual dainty girl feet!

...and dainty girl hands!

Macabre Noir is laying on ground glass while being walked upon by the lovely Penny De La Poison.

Myself performing Saturday evening on the Grand Midway stage. No ground glass was involved in my performance. (Photo by Margaret Bashaar).

Macabre Noir is a talented artist as well as a sideshow performer. These are her hand sewn creepy dolls (above): Macabre Noir and Nick Noir after their performance (below). 

Absinthe party in the Poe room (above). Small, intimate gatherings over drinks, like this one, happened throughout the festival. There were also chess games, music jams, films showing constantly, and a general feeling of happy camaraderie.

E. May fire-spinning as the train passes through. E. May and I played a set together Friday evening; she is an amazing singer-songwriter as well as a daring spinner. 

This festival was a dizzying, chaotic, brilliant week for me. I met a lot of very talented people, the small group of Blair's friends and guests who fed off of each others' brilliance and artistic energies. I planned to leave today and head home, but as I write this I am still at the hotel: hurricane Isaac is delaying my travel for a few days. Blair has graciously allowed me to stay on until the storm makes its intentions known. So I will wait here, and see if I feel the ghostly presence as the festival-goers depart.

From the Grand Midway Hotel, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.